A shot from inside La Ruta. (Credit: Lia Chang)
I got lost outside of New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine this past weekend, eager to attend The Working Theater’s La Ruta—a play created in collaboration with the Magnum Foundation that dramatizes the plight of border crossers and their smugglers on a cargo truck headed from Mexico to the United States. Laminated signs outside the church pointed to a dimly lit driveway, where a woman pointed a flashlight on me, making it impossible for me to see ahead. Audience members were crammed into a tent where Raula, a smuggler played by Sheila Tapia, quickly unsettles whatever comfort you might find. Raula previews some of the potential dangers as the audience learns that we, too, are migrants on this road—but reminds us that everything on this trip happens on a need to know basis.
The audience is then rushed over to a large white truck, boarding through a side door while Raula barks orders. Any hesitation is corrected—while taking seats on cardboard boxes, I switched with someone while Raula immediately shouted, “What is this? Musical chairs? Figure it out already!” If it wasn’t already clear a few minutes into the performance, feeling disoriented and ill-at-ease about what’s happening is exactly the point.
As lawmakers prepare to mark up the massive comprehensive immigration bill in a little less than two weeks, everyone seems to be talking about immigration, or at least have an opinion about it. While some have been thoughtful in their approach, others have indicated how little they know about what it might mean to cross the border.
At last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Arizona’s Jeff Flake joked about a woman he saw being apprehended as she attempted to cross the southern border during a recent trip with some of the Gang of Eight lawmakers authoring the comprehensive immigration bill. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano laughed—but the bad joke didn’t end there. New York’s Chuck Schumer revived it during a breakfast conference about the bill, recalling that “The lady that we saw at the border heard my New York accent, thought she was already in New York.” If the bill’s leading Democrat can trivialize something as harrowing as crossing the border, and demean a migrant’s ability to distinguish a place like the desert from a skyscraper city into a crude joke, it might mean that the public has a long way to go in understanding how and why people cross.
La Ruta has created a space in which to do that. Thirty audience members pack into the truck, while three more—who we soon learn are actors—enter through the back, to find another migrant who’s already asleep on board. For the next hour or so, we learn a little about them and their motivations. They’re not all immediately the most sympathetic characters. We find out, for instance, that Francisco, played by Gerardo Rodriguez, is technically a gang member from El Salvador—the kind of person that the current immigration bill would make immediately deportable. But La Ruta illustrates that Francisco has a story that also needs to be heard. Like everyone else on board, he’s a human being first and foremost. And this is the story about everyone on a truck trying to get to the United States by the Fourth of July.
As time progresses, so does the audience’s sense of anxiety. Some try to prop themselves up and stretch their arms and legs. Others remove scarves and jackets as the temperature heats up in the back of the truck. Others still stand up at some points, trying to relieve a sense of desperation, coupled with claustrophobia. La Ruta works because of its creative staging and superb acting—and it succeeds because it makes the audience physically uncomfortable and mentally estranged from a topic we all think we know something about. It reminds the audience that their silence around immigration might make them complicit in an unjust system. Even as we quickly learn to despise the smugglers and their co-conspirators, we remember that there are policies behind these stories that often mark the difference between life and death.
Those of us who are lucky enough to make it out of the cargo truck alive are somberly given blue passports that explain the ins and outs of the immigration debate, which include campaigns and resources to plug into. Audience members, many visibly shaken from the play, wander out to an interactive exhibit. Schumer’s disposable “lady at the border” becomes a person with a story on La Ruta—and the audience might walk away knowing a little more about the basic humanity of migrants than the senators who sometimes make a living belittling them.
La Ruta is showing in two more New York boroughs through May 12. Tickets are $23, $25.
Immigrant rights advocates are leading this year’s May Day charge—under the FBI’s watch. Read Allison Kilkenny’s analysis.
Jason Collins on the cover of Sports Illustrated. (Credit: SI.com)
Hearing the news made me feel like I’d accidentally walked into a wind tunnel. For as long as I had written about this issue and as many times as I had said in recent years that “this will happen in a matter of months if not weeks,” it still hit me like a triple-shot of espresso cut with a teaspoon of Adderall. Thanks to the courage of 34-year-old NBA veteran Jason Collins, we can no longer repeat endlessly that no active male athlete in North America has ever come out of the closet. Instead we’re now able to say that we were there when our most influential cultural citadel of homophobia—the men’s locker room—was forever breached and finally received a rainbow makeover on its unforgiving grey walls. But we didn’t only get the act of coming out. We also got, courtesy of Mr. Collins and Sports Illustrated writer Franz Lidz, about as beautiful a coming-out statement as has ever been put to paper.
As Collins wrote, “No one wants to live in fear. I’ve always been scared of saying the wrong thing. I don’t sleep well. I never have. But each time I tell another person, I feel stronger and sleep a little more soundly. It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret. I’ve endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie. I was certain that my world would fall apart if anyone knew. And yet when I acknowledged my sexuality I felt whole for the first time.”
The significance of this moment cannot be overstated. Homophobia becomes eroded when straight people actually have a family member or friend come out of the closet and then have to confront their own prejudice. Now in the NBA we have Jason Collins saying, “Pro basketball is a family. And pretty much every family I know has a brother, sister or cousin who’s gay. In the brotherhood of the NBA, I just happen to be the one who’s out.”
The piece also demonstrates that Jason Collins gets the impact he could have on the way sports both defines and polices our conceptions of masculinity. The 7-foot, 255-pound bruiser writes wryly, “I go against the gay stereotype, which is why I think a lot of players will be shocked: That guy is gay? But I’ve always been an aggressive player, even in high school. Am I so physical to prove that being gay doesn’t make you soft? Who knows? That’s something for a psychologist to unravel.”
Before we sing more hymns to Jason Collins, let’s also be clear about a few facts. First, this did not take place in a vacuum. A rising tide of LGBT advocacy, demonstrations and public demonstrations of power in the face of bigotry laid the groundwork. Collins understands this and writes that he was motivated not only by the movement but by those seeking to perpetuate second-class citizenship for LGBT people. “The strain of hiding my sexuality became almost unbearable in March, when the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments for and against same-sex marriage,” he writes, “Less then three miles from my apartment, nine jurists argued about my happiness and my future. Here was my chance to be heard, and I couldn’t say a thing.”
Collins felt compelled to speak out and in the sports world he has considerable company. In the NFL, players like Brendon Ayanbadejo, Chris Kluwe and Scott Fujita have become active and public participants in the movement for full marriage equality and equal rights. We’ve also seen former George Washington University basketball player Kye Allums become the first trans athlete to be public and proud. In just the last two weeks, the National Hockey League adopted an entire program in conjunction with the You Can Play organization aimed at making the locker room a “safe space” for players thinking about coming out of the closet. Then Brittney Griner, arguably the greatest women’s hoops player to ever put on high tops, came out so casually, and it made us all wonder if she was ever actually in.
Now we have Jason Collins and in our compressed, fevered media environment, we’ve already gotten a crash course in the probable highs and lows for anyone who wants to follow his path. The highs were seen in an outpouring of support from the sports world. It started immediately with former All-Star Baron Davis who tweeted, “I am so proud of my bro @jasoncollins34 for being real. #FTheHaters”. That opened the floodgates, as numerous players from my boyhood hero Bernard King to the great Kobe Bryant pledged their solidarity and support. Even the Boston Red Sox got into it, inviting Collins to throw out the first pitch at a game.
The day also saw that Baron Davis was prescient that “haters” would need to be told to “eff off.” ESPN, perhaps feeling shut out of the biggest story in eons, took the day to give a platform on their crown jewel program Outside the Lines to NBA reporter Chris Broussard so he could opine that Collins was “a sinner” engaged in “an open rebellion to God.” His words were ugly. The fact that he was provided a forum by ESPN to deliver them on this celebratory day was perhaps even worse. But if it was a crude effort by a flatfooted ESPN to make the story about them, then it was a success as social media was then flooded with first anger and then support for Broussard’s “free speech.” Beyond Broussard, fortunately, the backlash was comprised of the typical barrage of twitter trollage.
There was a great deal of hate and an even greater amount of love. But to read Jason Collins’s own words about why he was coming out, you get the feeling that he could not care less what the Chris Broussards of the world may think. As he writes in my favorite passage, “Imagine you’re in the oven, baking. Some of us know and accept our sexuality right away and some need more time to cook. I should know—I baked for 33 years.”
As comprehensive immigration reform saunters forward, advocates across the country are pushing for full LGBT inclusion. Read more at StudentNation.
Despite sexism in the ranks of the Steubenville, Ohio, football team—and the rape committed by two of its players—the school signed Coach Reno Saccoccia to a new two-year contract. “What we know in terms of what players said about, oh, Coach Sac thinks it’s a big joke…. the fact that he was caught on camera threatening a female reporter,” Nation sports editor Dave Zirin says, “Things like that make you think, this is the person who’s going to mold the minds of young children?” Zirin joins a panel on The Melissa Harris-Perry Show to discuss the aftermath of Steubenville and the crisis young women face in schools across the country.
Read more about how you can support the national “Know Your IX” campaign at StudentNation.
Early voting in Ohio, November 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Mark Duncan)
As the 2012 election approached, Republican governors and legislators in battleground states across the country rushed to enact restrictive Voter ID laws, to eliminate election-day registration and to limit early voting. Those were just some of the initiatives that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People identified as “an onslaught of restrictive measures across the country designed to stem electoral strength among communities of color.”
Why did so much energy go into the effort?
John Payton, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, explained, “These block the vote efforts are a carefully targeted response to the remarkable growth of the minority electorate, and threaten to disproportionally diminish the voting strength of African-Americans and Latinos.”
Civil rights groups pushed back, working with the League of Women Voters, Common Cause and other organizations to mount legal and legislative challenges. But the most dramatic pushback may well have been the determined voter registration and mobilization drives organized on the ground in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and other battleground states.
A key supporter of the Ohio voter registration and turnout drive, State Senator Nina Turner says, “Republicans thought that they could suppress the vote, but these efforts actually motivated people to get registered and cast a ballot. It’s no surprise that the communities targeted by these policies came out to the polls in a big way—they saw this not just as an affront to their rights, but as a call to action.”
Turner’s point turns out to be highly significant.
According to a new study produced by Brookings Institution demographer William Frey for the Associated Press, 2012 turnout was down overall from 2004 and 2008. But African-American turnout does not appear to have declined at the same rate as white turnout.
Headlines suggested that African-American turnout levels may actually have exceeded white turnout levels, which would be a historic first. Frey tells MSNBC that he'll need to analyze more census data -- some of which is not yet available -- to confirm whether this was the case.
But the data that is available points to the critical conclusion: While overall turnout dropped from 2008 to 2012, African-American turnout remained steady at 13 percent.
That 13 percent figure is a big deal, as African Americans make up only 12 percent of eligible voters. In other words -- according to numbers reviewed by Brookings, the Pew Research Center and others -- the actual African-American vote in 2012 “outperformed” the group's percentage of the potential electorate.
Turnout among non-Hispanic white voters has traditionally outperformed that group's percentage of eligible voters. This was still the case in 2012. But, according to AP, the margin was down, and overall the white turnout nationwide was off by millions of votes.
The turnout patterns appear to have aided President Obama’s reelection run. Polling data tells us that the president always retained a good measure of popularity in the African-American community, as he did among young people. There was plenty of talk before the 2012 election, however, about an “enthusiasm gap” that would undermine turnout among voters who were most likely to be supportive of the president.
But the Reverend Al Sharpton, the president of the National Action Network and the host of MSNBC’s Politics Nation, says anger over voter suppression did much to alter the dynamic.
“From the tours we did in 22 states, it became clear to us that many blacks that were apathetic and indifferent became outraged and energized when they realized that [Republicans] were changing the rules in the middle of the game, in terms of voter ID laws, ending ‘souls to the polls,’” Sharpton told theGrio.” So what was just another election, even though it dealt with the re-election of the first black president, took on a new dimension when they realized that they were implementing the disenfranchisement of black voters.”
This was a big deal for Obama and the Democrats.
Indeed, the emerging research on voter turnout suggests, it might well have been definitional.
Romney would have erased Obama’s nearly 5 million-vote victory margin and narrowly won the popular vote if voters had turned out as they did in 2004, according to Frey’s analysis. Then, white turnout was slightly higher and black voting lower.
More significantly, the battleground states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Florida and Colorado would have tipped in favor of Romney, handing him the presidency if the outcome of other states remained the same.
If the African-American voting patterns seen in 2012 continue—in combination with rising Latino and Asian turnout and support for Democratic candidates—Frey says, “By 2024, the [minority] vote will be essential to victory. Democrats will be looking at a landslide going into 2028 if the new Hispanic voters continue to favor Democrats.”
But that’s a prediction that does not take into account the prospect that political parties can and do change.
By and large, the recent focus with regard to the future of the Republican Party has been on speculation about how the Republicans might change their fortunes by nominating a candidate with broader appeal: Florida Senator Marco Rubio or, perhaps, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez.
But the significance of rising African-American turnout—in combination with other turnout and voting patterns—suggests that the extent to which the Republican Party changes its approach on voting issues could matter as much or more than the ethnicity of candidates.
The Republican National Committee’s remarkable “autopsy report” on the GOP’s 2012 election debacle concluded that “many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country.”
“The pervasive mentality of writing off blocks of states or demographic votes for the Republican Party must be completely forgotten,” wrote the authors of the report. “The Republican Party must compete on every playing field.”
The Republicans who penned that statement provided indications of their sincerity. The autopsy report was strong in its general recognition of the challenges the GOP faces in attracting African-American, Asian-American and Latino voters, as well as women and young people. But it was soft with regard to the voting-rights debate.
But it is hard to imagine that Republicans can make the inroads they seek with minority voters if the party is identified with what civil rights, voting rights and good-government groups identify as voter suppression.
If that identification remains, the party’s candidate recruitment and messaging strategies are unlikely to be sufficient to renew its fortunes.
If the GOP becomes more clearly and seriously supportive of voting rights, on the other hand, the party’s options expand.
This is something Republicans—and, frankly, Democrats who imagine a simple strategy of benefitting from Republican missteps—ought to recognize: There should not be a partisan divide when it comes to voting rights.
The message for Republicans is clear enough: The backlash against what were broadly perceived as assaults on voting rights appears to have been a significant factor in the 2012 election results.
If Republicans are serious about reaching out to African-American voters, and to voters in other minority groups, they have to address voting-rights concerns.
Republicans have a tremendous story to tell. Theirs is not just the “Party of Lincoln,” it is the party of former Congressman William Moore McCulloch, the Ohioan who served as the ranking Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee in the critical days when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were being forged.
No one who knows the history of that time doubts the vital role that McCulloch, a very conservative Republican who was a steady critic of federal spending, played in securing essential support for measures that outlawed segregation and racial discrimination. Lyndon Johnson would hail the Ohio Congressman as “the most important and powerful political force” in advancing civil rights legislation in the period.
McCulloch did so because, he said, “To do less would be to shirk our responsibility as national legislators, and as human beings who honor the principles of liberty and justice.”
The contemporary Republican Party has lost four of the last six presidential elections. It has won a plurality of the popular vote just once since 1988. A recognition of the challenges the party faces has led to a measure of soul searching, and that in turn has inspired public and private wrangling over electoral strategies. It may be the case that some Republicans still want to play the voter-suppression card, but they do their party no favors.
The smarter strategy is to recognize that voters are wary of those who seek to restrict voting. In Maine, in 2011, a referendum vote overturned an attempt by the Republican governor and legislator to eliminate election-day registration. In Minnesota, in 2012, voters rejected a Republican-backed constitutional amendment to impose a strict Voter ID law.
Republicans need to engage in a rethink when it comes to voting issues.
It is often said that the emerging demographics of the United States are not on the side of the GOP. However, demographics are not necessarily the stuff of electoral fate.
The new studies of voter turnout offer sobering indicators for party strategists. But they also suggests a way forward.
If Republicans desire to stop “writing off blocks of states or demographic votes,” the party must send affirmative signals about its commitment to voting rights. Republicans can and should do so in the spirit of William Moore McCulloch, and the many Republicans—some of them quite conservative—who recognized that his party should be in the forefront of supporting voting rights.
But it’s not just Republicans who need to get more serious, and more focused, on taking practical steps to advance voting rights. Both parties need to work dramatically harder to establish a uniform commitment to defend the right to vote and to assure that every vote is counted. In short order, Congressmen Keith Ellison, D-Minnesota, and Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, will introduce legislation calling for a “Right-to-Vote” amendment to the US Constitution. It’s being proposed with an eye toward ending the lingering uncertainty about voting rights in the United States. Ellison and Pocan are interested in appealing to Republicans as potential co-sponsors. They should make this a high priority, not merely for the practical reason that broad support is needed for their initiative but because the American commitment to expand and sustain voting rights can and should be embraced by all parties.
Immigrant rights activists, unions and others are gearing up for May Day—under the FBI’s watch. Read Allison Kilkenny’s analysis.
Volunteers fill bags for a school lunch program at the Cleveland Foodbank. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta.)
Lost in the shuffle of last year’s big fiscal cliff deal was the deal that didn’t happen on a new farm bill.
One of the major points of contention was funding for food stamps through the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, run by the US Department of Agriculture. Republicans in the House proposed steep cuts: $16.5 billion over the next decade, which would eliminate food assistance to as many as 3 million low-income Americans. The Senate countered with a farm bill cutting $4.5 billion from SNAP over the same time period.
There was simply no deal to be had on the farm bill, and so Congress passed a simple extension until September 30. Now Congress has to start over—all prior versions of the farm are dead, since there’s a new Congress.
And this time around Republicans are only going to increase, not moderate, their demands for steep food stamp cuts. Representative Frank Lucas, the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, told the Capital Press this weekend that the new House farm bill will mandate $20 billion in SNAP cuts over the next ten years.
Democratic leadership in the House is already blasting Lucas’s proposal. “SNAP doesn’t just offer much-needed support to vulnerable Americans, it provides a significant boost to the economy, nearly doubling the return of every dollar we put into it,” Drew Hammill, communications director for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, told The Nation. “Just when you think you’ve seen the extent of [the House GOP’s] misguided priorities, they strike at the ability of millions of low-income children, the elderly and American families to put food on the table.”
There’s going to be a lot of blowback to Lucas’s proposal—not only from Democrats, particularly in urban areas, but from some Republicans, particularly in the Midwest, who know that cutting food stamps depresses food sales, which in turn hurts farmers.
Some other Republicans, like Senator Thad Cochran of Mississippi, oppose the cuts because so many people in their state rely on nutrition assistance. “I come from a state where we have higher-percentage participation [than the national average],” Cochran said last year. “I have never had to apologize in Mississippi for supporting it,” he said, referring to food stamps.
But, as is so often the case in recent years, it’s a hardcore group of conservatives in the House that are roiling debate over an issue that used to be mainly non-controversial, and pulling it to the right. The backdrop here is that Representative Paul Ryan’s most recent budget, like the ones before it, demanded food stamp cuts that make Lucas’s plan look as if it was crafted by Mother Teresa.
Ryan’s 2013 budget blueprint calls for $135 billion in food stamp cuts over the next ten years, with $125 billion coming in the first five years. That would toss up to 13 million people from the program.
Boehner has openly acknowledged that hardcore conservatives who found Lucas’s cuts too timid were a primary reason the House couldn’t pass a farm bill last year.
“The current situation that we face is we’ve got people who believe there’s not enough reform in the farm bill that came out of (the House Agriculture) committee,” Boehner said last September, when he announced the House wouldn’t try to pass a final farm bill. “We’ve got others who believe that there’s too much reform in the bill that came out of the committee.” (Read “reform” as “cuts” here, a good rule of thumb for most Washington budget debates.)
But to be clear—Washington should, if anything, be debating an expansion of food stamp benefits. Research shows that for every federal dollar spent on food assistance programs, there is $1.84 in economic benefit.
And the conservative rationale for cutting the program is based on faulty assumptions. Ever since 2009, conservatives have been railing against the rapid expansion of the SNAP program as if it was a policy choice by Obama. (Recall Newt Gingrich’s endless invocations of the “food stamp president” during the 2012 GOP primary.)
But food stamp usage increased as a natural function of the steep recession, which created a lot more people who were eligible for the program. (In fact, Republican counties are responsible for most of the food stamp growth.) Republican demands to enact deep SNAP cuts, while crudely punitive to the millions of low-income Americans who depend on food stamps, are also unnecessary. Spending on SNAP will decrease significantly over the next ten years all by itself as the economy recovers, as this chart from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows:
But Lucas’s proposal makes clear the Republicans will still use the current peak to try to enact deep cuts. There’s no doubt that a ferocious battle is looming.
Read George Zornick on Congress's gun control reform failure and where we go from here.
Bob Edgar died suddenly from a heart attack last week at age 69. In Congress from 1975–87, as general secretary of the National Council of Churches and as the CEO of Common Cause, Edgar worked to hold those in power accountable to the public.
Whether it’.s for requesting that the Justice Department investigate Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas for a conflict of interest in the Citizens United ruling, or for bringing aid to the Palestinian town of Jenin after the 2002 Israeli bombardment, Edgar is remembered for his lifelong commitment to social justice and his opposition to the insidious influence of money in politics. As New Yorkers, among others, push forward on bills to change campaign financing across the country, it’s worth remembering his words: “We the people have to stand up, take ownership of our government, reduce the impact of money, reduce the impact of corporate interests. People have to recognize that they are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.”
I had the luck to talk with Edgar for the Free Speech for People project in the spring of 2011. What follows is a part of that conversation. Watch a longer interview with Edgar about democracy, myths and realities, here.
Bob Edgar: When I served in Congress, special interests groups brought their talking points first. They watched how you voted and the people who didn’t like the way you voted, they didn’t bother you very much, they weren’t out trying to get you defeated. In those days it used to be talking points first, now it’s money first.
We used to have smoked-filled rooms, now we have money-filled rooms. Over the last few years, particularly with the Citizens United decision where the Supreme Court voted five to four to give corporations and labor unions the ability to dip into their corporate treasury, there’s just been an exponential, a huge increase in the amount of money, and I believe that money is corroding our system.
The Koch brothers, for ten years they have been having semi-secret meetings with the Glenn Becks and the O’Reillys of this world, and we discovered they have also been bringing Supreme Court Justices twice a year to their events to think about changing the way people perceive global warming. They have actually set up organizations to put false science together to get reports out that counter basic science on what’s happening to the environment. They can do it because the two brothers have a combined wealth of more than $40 billion.
We don’t have the opportunity to have all of that false information playing itself out there; we have got to make some tough decisions on global warming and the environment. I think we are living in a very dangerous moment. My hope is that we recognize that we live on a fragile planet.
When I was born in 1943 there were about 2 billion people on planet earth, this year we will pass 7 billion people on planet Earth. More than half of all the people who ever lived on planet Earth are alive today, so I would hope that we could lessen the impact of our spending on military and focus that on peacemaking, that we would be stewards of a fragile planet and work on environmental cleanup and that we would not just talk about the upper class or the middle class but that we would recognize that the working class, the working poor also need to be helped.
We are working hard to spread a good virus across the country called public financing. We installed it in Arizona, in Connecticut and in Maine. In Connecticut in 2008, 74 percent of the candidates running for the state legislature used our voluntary public financing system, took no special interest money. Eighty-one percent of them got elected, and for the last two years we’ve had probably the best legislature in Connecticut than they’ve had in the past. Special interests could still lobby, but they had to lobby with their talking points and not with their checkbooks. We the people have to stand up, take ownership of our government, reduce the impact of money, reduce the impact of corporate interests. People have to recognize that they are the leaders we’ve been waiting for.
In a massive, covert experiment, corporate interests are destroying your health. Read David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz’s take.
For the past month, in a change of direction, I’ve written mainly weekly, media-related “columns” here, as opposed to the daily, shorter, “blog” posts that I produced for the three years previous. Going forward, starting this week, I’ll be mixing it up, with both full-length pieces and shorter takes. The following falls in the latter category.
It’s a flawed film, but I’m surprised that not a single writer here has explored The Company You Keep, directed by (and starring) Robert Redford. It portrays several Weather Underground members who became fugitives after a bank guard was killed in one of their robbery attempts. I saw it a couple of days ago and was glad I did.
Of course, I am a veteran of political activism in the late-’60s and early-’70s, but beyond that, the story has a local angle for me. I happen to presently live about a mile from where the incident that inspired the movie (via a novel) took place: the infamous “Brinks Holdup” near Nyack, New York. that resulted in the death of a Brinks guard and two local police officers. I drive by the memorial to them almost every day. The local post office is named after the two slain cops.
Then there’s this topical angle: Kathy Boudin, who was involved in that episode, and paroled after serving a long prison term, is back in the news, amid protests of her appointment to teach at New York University Law School. Just last year, a David Mamet play, also inspired by the Brinks case, starring Debra Winger, appeared on Broadway.
Since this is one of my shorter “blog posts,” so I won’t go into the Redford movie much, but basically: He plays a fellow charged with taking part in that fictional fatal bank robbery, who has carved out a career as a liberal lawyer in upstate New York under a new name, before he is outed after three decades (by reporter Shia “Sleepy” LaBeouf). It’s all tied to another still-radical fugitive (a riveting Susan Sarandon, see clip) finally getting caught.
And then there’s a third former/current radical, Julie Christie, also on the run (and, like Sarandon, neither apologetic nor demonized). Plus old friends, antiwar liberals who may or may not want to help Redford, though he may be innocent, because he hurt their cause back in the day with the Weather Underground’s violent rhetoric, which allegedly turned folks against the progressive cause.
Like I said, it’s not a great film (for one thing, Sarandon disappears), but it’s refreshing to see a serious, well-acted, mainstream “political” movie that may slip, but does not sell out, in the end—and the heart of it is that discussion of taking illegal steps to halt greater evil vs. a work-within-the-system approach. Yes, it could and should be better, but it's kind of amazing that this is being viewed by at least a few people in malls across the land. And it's useful to be reminded that despite the huge, peaceful protest marches of 1968-1970, the Vietnam war dragged on, and on.
Here’s the trailer. For a look at controversy around a quite different political movie, see my new book Hollywood Bomb.
Eleven students from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) are holding a sit-in today in college President John Maeda’s office. The activists are demanding that President Maeda and Board of Trustees Chair Michael Spalter endorse divestment from the coal, gas, and oil industries and commit to presenting the case for divestment to the Board of Trustees at the board’s May 17 meeting.
This sit-in is the first of its kind in the nationwide divestment movement, through which students at more than 300 colleges and universities are demanding that their schools stand against climate change and divest their endowments from fossil fuel companies.
“I want to have kids. I want to show them this planet,” said Phoebe Wahl, a RISD senior. “As artists and designers, we are innovators with the ability to shape our own future. The way that our generation deals with this issue will define the future of civilization.”
The students kicked off their campaign in January, when they began conversations with members of RISD’s board and administration and circulated a petition in support of divestment which was quickly signed by more than a quarter of the undergraduate student body. Despite initially positive conversations, the students met with resistance. In response, RISD students are engaging in peaceful direct action to demonstrate the necessity of fossil fuel divestment and push RISD to become a leader in sustainability. “Our demands could not be more reasonable or more feasible. We want the college immediately to stop making new investments in fossil fuel companies, and then to sell off their holdings over five years,” said Emma Beede, a RISD senior.
“We need to shift our perspective and act. This is the largest human rights issue of our generation,” said John Jennings, a RISD freshman involved in the sit-in. “We believe that the RISD community can be leaders in fighting climate change and building positive solutions. Divestment is a necessary place to start if anything is going to be done about global warming.”
“To own stock in a company whose business model is to destroy the planet is a bad decision, both morally and financially,” said Erica Pernice, a RISD junior. “We may be art students, but we can do the math.”
The Go Fossil Free campaign was invigorated by 350.org founder Bill McKibben’s July 2012 article in Rolling Stone. The article highlighted world leaders’ consensus that two degrees Celsius is the safe upper limit of global warming and noted that the reserves of multinational fossil fuel companies contain more than five times the carbon needed to reach this limit.
“Bill McKibben is getting an honorary degree from RISD this year, but the college does not plan to invite him to speak and continues to invest in the fossil fuel industry that he is devoting his life to fighting against,” said Noelle Antignano, a RISD sophomore. “As members of the RISD community and as human beings on this planet, we refuse to be silenced.”
In true RISD fashion, the students are using their time in the President’s office to create sustainability themed artwork. They also hung banners and orange flags across campus this morning to raise awareness about climate change and the divestment campaign. A rally held at RISD Beach drew a crowd for music, art making and speeches in solidarity with the sit-in.
A student activist in Chile, frustrated with the lack of education reform, has decided to run for national office.
Protest groups across the country are gearing up for May Day protests on Wednesday. In New York, Occupy Wall Street has posted a schedule for the day, kicking off with young workers marching from Bryant Park in solidarity with the Transport Workers Union. Occupy says it plans to visit the offices of union busters and companies with whom the TWU members have contract disputes.
At around noon, protesters will then go on an “immigrant worker justice tour,” in order to highlight the daily struggles facing immigrants and workers in New York City. Activists will visit several workplaces in midtown to “demand an end to exploitation of immigrant workers” with the march ending at Senator Schumer’s office for a speak-out on what real immigration reform looks like.
Occupy has also scheduled an event to “Save The People’s Post Office” where protesters will meet at the Peter Stuyvesant Post Office at 14th Street and First Avenue. I previously have written about the fake USPS budget crisis and how our pro-privatization Congress refuses to allow the Post Office to save itself.
The evening will culminate with a rally for labor and citizens’ rights at City Hall, a May Day People’s Assembly at Foley Square and a memorial for Kimani Gray, the Brooklyn teenager slain by the NYPD, at Zuccotti Park. Protesters plan on addressing racial profiling under stop-and-frisk, full legalization for immigrants, an immediate end to deportations, the injustices of the 1 percent and the devastating consequences of austerity.
Nationally, May Day protests have already attracted the attention of authorities. FBI agents in Seattle and Olympia have reportedly been showing up at people’s houses, schools, workplaces and even favorite jogging routes to question individuals about their May Day plans.
The agents were mostly chummy with the people they contacted. As one woman talked to agents, another housemate described their manner as “jokey and flirty—I almost thought they were gonna ask her out!”
Flirty or not, they identified themselves as members of the FBI’s domestic terrorism unit. Apparently, the vandalism of May Day 2012, and the potential demonstrations on May Day 2013, are terrorism investigations. (Which, frankly, seems to me like a grave insult to anyone from Boston to NYC to Kandahar who’s been a victim of, or lost a family member to, actual terrorism.)
In one case yesterday, the agents reportedly turned up at a public park to intercept two joggers. The joggers said “no, thanks” and went home. About 20 minutes later, the agents reportedly showed up at their house.
This highly invasive behavior by authorities isn’t unusual. In 2012, the NYPD raided activists’ homes before the annual protests. At the time, the National Lawyer’s Guild said it was aware of at least five instances of the NYPD’s paying activists visits, including one where the FBI was involved in questioning.
Ayn Dietrich, a spokesperson for the FBI, would neither confirm nor deny anything about the visits to the Seattle Stranger. However, she did say, “We do all kinds of routine activities throughout the state on any given day. If we have people out there, it could be community outreach, emergency response, or investigative work…. We sometimes knock on doors when there’s an issue of a missing child. We’re around the community, especially with ethnic minority groups, to let them know they can come to us to report hate crimes.”
It’s ironic Dietrich specifically mentioned ethnic minority groups, given that they’re doing some of the most serious planning around May Day, specifically in fighting for immigrant rights, legalization and an end to deportations. In California, large protests are expected because some undocumented immigrants and their supporters view this as their best chance in many years for immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.
Reporter David Olson writes that many grassroots immigration activists are unhappy with key elements of the Senate immigration bill, such as the thirteen-year wait for potential citizenship for undocumented immigrants, which Olson says many view as “excessive,” and a trigger mechanism in the bill that makes a path to citizenship dependent on the implementation of stringent border security measures.
Though there is considerably less press coverage of this year’s May Day in comparison to last year’s events—when activists were still coming down from the frenzied energy of the Occupy movement’s apex—now is actually the time when the most exciting grassroots workers’ actions are taking place. Fast food workers in New York City and Chicago have shown innovative ways non-unionized workers can fight for living wages and demonstrated for workers everywhere that labor rights aren’t just for a select sect, but rather for everyone who has ever worked for a day’s wages.
I will be live-tweeting from May Day 2013. Follow me at @allisonkilkenny and check back here for a full report.