Media, politics and culture.
Congressmen Keith Ellison and John Lewis have proposed legislation to protect union organizing as a civil right. “As go unions, so go middle-class jobs,” says Ellison, the Minnesota Democrat who serves as a Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair. “That’s why I’m proud to introduce the Employee Empowerment Act with civil rights icon John Lewis. This ground-breaking legislation will give workers the same legal options for union organizing discrimination as for other forms of discrimination—stopping anti-union forces in their tracks”
Amending the National Labor Relations Act to allow workers who face discrimination for engaging in union organizing to sue for justice in the civil courts—and to collect compensatory and punitive damages—is a sound and necessary initiative.
But it in certainly not a radical initiative—at least by American standards.
Indeed, the best way to understand what Ellison, Lewis and the cosponsors of their legislation are proposing is as a reconnection with a very American idea.
Despite the battering that unions have taken in recent years—in Wisconsin, Michigan and states across the country—Americans once encouraged countries around the world to embrace, extend and respect labor rights.
There was a time, within the living memory of millions of Americans, when this country championed democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the right to organize in the same breath.
When the United States occupied Japan after World War II, General Douglas MacArthur and his aides encouraged the country to adopt a constitution designed to assure that Hideki Tojo’s militarized autocracy would be replaced with democracy. Fully aware that workers and their unions had a role to play in shaping the new Japan, they included language that explicitly recognized that “the right of workers to organize and to bargain and act collectively is guaranteed.”
When the United States occupied Germany after World War II, General Dwight David Eisenhower and his aides urged the Germans to write a constitution that would assure that Adolf Hitler’s fascism was replaced with muscular democracy. Recognizing that workers would need to organize and make their voices heard in the new nation, the Germans included a provision that explicitly declared: “The right to form associations to safeguard and improve working and economic conditions shall be guaranteed to every individual and to every occupation or profession. Agreements that restrict or seek to impair this right shall be null and void; measures directed to this end shall be unlawful.”
When former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt chaired the International Commission on Human Rights, which drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that would in 1948 be adopted by the United Nations as a global covenant, Roosevelt and the drafters included a guarantee that “everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”
For generations, Americans accepted the basic premise that labor rights are human rights. When this country counseled other countries on how to forge civil and democratic societies, Americans explained that the right to organize a trade union—and to have that trade union engage in collective bargaining as an equal partner with corporations and government agencies—had to be protected.
Now, with those rights under assault in America, it is wise, indeed, to recommit to the American ideal that working people must have a right to organize and to make their voices heard in a free and open society. As the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said fifty years ago:
History is a great teacher. Now everyone knows that the labor movement did not diminish the strength of the nation but enlarged it. By raising the living standards of millions, labor miraculously created a market for industry and lifted the whole nation to undreamed of levels of production. Those who attack labor forget these simple truths, but history remembers them.
History remembers, as should we. The formal recognition of labor rights as human rights—and the extension of civil rights protections to prevent discrimination against labor organizing—is long overdue. Keith Ellison and John Lewis are renewing ideals that have historically enlarged America and made real the promise of democracy.
I know this sounds absurd—it is absurd—but for some odd reason Labor Day reminds me of my mother. She was a school teacher, and I think she would have a good laugh to learn that so-called “education reformers” are accusing school teachers of being too powerful and protected. My father, who was himself a long-time member of our local school board, would probably snort at the ignorance of highly educated experts.
Together, they could set the record straight on education from the facts of their own lives. They fell in love when they were young and optimistic and talented. This was the 1920s when women had just won the right to vote, and both were newly graduated from four-year colleges—the very first in my mother’s family. My father completed graduate work in chemistry and was hired as a researcher by a Philadelphia manufacturer where he later invented useful products.
They faced one obstacle in their promising lives. My mother had to sign a teaching contract with a local school district in western Pennsylvania that would prohibit her from getting married. This crude violation of a young woman’s civil rights was commonly enforced around the country. Years later, I learned that my wife’s mother had to do the same thing to get a teaching job in Iowa. Recently, I reread the steamy love letters my parents wrote to one another during that school year of frustrated desire. I blushed for them.
At the Thanksgiving break, they abandoned abstinence and broke the school contract. But secretly. On the long holiday, they eloped to West Virginia and got married there. They told no one. My parents, I should add, were no-nonsense conservative Republicans, not given to reckless adventure or inflammatory political statements. I did think of my mother as an assertive proto-feminist. In retirement, both became Democrats because they thought Goldwater was a dangerous crackpot. In 1972, my dad declared early for George McGovern, while Mom held out for Shirley Chisholm.
Keeping the secret of their marriage may have been done to protect her eligibility for many more years as a teacher. It worked. Toward the end of her long life (she died three days short of 100) my mother got a letter each year from Ohio governors, congratulating her on being the oldest living recipient in Ohio’s teacher retirement system.
I tell this intimate story to make a point that the latter-day reformers do not seem to grasp. They have left out the human dimensions of a harsh labor market where women were regularly punished for not being men. School teachers from the beginnings of America’s public schools have been vulnerable to blatant exploitation—lower wages and harsher terms—and they have been exploited. The jobs could be filled by an abundance of educated single young women in need of incomes. Married women might have babies in the middle of the school year—an inconvenience to school administrators—so married women were banned. Similar gender biases affected nursing and other caring occupations, and to some degree still do.
The fundamental power shift for school teachers did not occur until the 1960s, when frustrated teachers rebelled against traditional school systems run top-down by superintendents and principals. As a young reporter in Louisville, Kentucky, I witnessed one of the early skirmishes in 1962.
One day I got a phone call from an organizer for the American Federation of Teachers who blithely announced that AFT intended to shut down the Louisville schools the following week with a citywide strike. I thought he was joking. AFT was based in East Coast big cities and had no more than fifty members among Louisville’s 2,000 teachers. The National Education Association (NEA) dominated most states those days, and it was run by and for the administrators, not rank-and-file teachers.
The AFT’s strike in Louisville was like a thunderclap—teachers did walk off and virtually shut down the system. Teachers were fed up. They were demanding a stronger voice and power in school affairs and school politics. In rural states like Kentucky, the poorest counties were frequently dominated by matriarchal political machines—women superintendents who controlled more jobs in their county than the men in county offices. The NEA got the message and swiftly adjusted. It became a full-fledged labor union like AFT. Instead of fronting for old-style political bosses, both organizations now try to speak for the interests of teachers and to defend them against political intrusions and other abuses.
These are the relevant facts that self-appointed billionaire reformers skip past. By demonizing the teachers unions and denouncing the tenure laws that protect teachers from arbitrary political reprisals, the do-good foundations have unwittingly cast themselves as a malevolent Daddy Warbucks ready to bury their opposition with tons of money.The Gates Foundation and some others do seem to be belatedly backing away from obvious mistakes, but the reform engine still threatens to undermine the common public school in favor of a deeply fractured system of sectarian and secular private sponsors claiming public money.
Impatient hedge-fund billionaires do not attempt to conceal their contempt for the rest of us. They are used to making money—fast—with no excuses for dawdlers. Witness what they have done to large segments of the overall economy. Education does not thrive in those conditions, because there is no standard of perfection in any schoolhouse that can survive brutal suppression of uniformity imposed by clumsy testing. A successful school not only makes room for dissent. It constantly nourishes it.
Of course, I am biased. But I think that was my mother’s teaching style. She taught first grade in an “inner city” neighborhood of Cincinnati where the students were not not poor black kids but white kids from the mountains of Eastern Kentucky. They shared many of the same handicaps. Mom developed her own theories on how to teach reading to such children. It inovlved hand-eye coordination and other elements I could not follow. I have no proof that she succeeded, but I have a hunch she drove the principal nuts.
Home healthcare workers in Minnesota went to work this week with a spring in their step: they just got a union, opening up a new door for negotiating higher wages and career advancement for some 27,000 healthcare workers statewide.
For the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), winning the union vote—which makes the health aides the state’s largest collective bargaining unit—also sends a national message: at a time when unions are in decline and public sector workers are constantly facing political attacks, workers still recognize the value of a union contract—especially in a precarious, low-wage sector like the home healthcare attendants who provide Medicaid-funded elder and disability care.
The union win might also hint at a new energy that has sprung up in the labor movement after the Supreme Court dealt it a fierce blow in June. In the 5-4 ruling in Harris v. Quinn, the Court struck down a key pillar of union financing—mandatory fees collection from workers covered by a union contract—among homecare workers in Illinois. The ruling, which establishes a national precedent for making “fair share” fees optional for home health aides, affirmed the right’s longstanding legal assault on the infrastructure of organized labor.
While the decision did not impinge directly on public workers’ collective bargaining rights, it threatened their unions’ capacity to sustain their operations, as individual workers could opt out of union fees if they did not wish to support the union. But the Minnesota victory might suggest that Harris v. Quinn did not impede, and may even have emboldened, a countervailing organizing momentum. Some labor advocates hoped the ruling would goad unions to recognize that they could no longer take “closed shop” fees collection for granted. Rather, they needed to revamp organizing efforts to boost membership, showing workers that the union is a community worth joining and supporting.
The new union in Minnesota joins a growing network of organized, state-sponsored home care workforces (following pioneering grassroots organizing campaigns in California, Oregon, Washington and Illinois). And in a way, it’s an unlikely sector to unionize—thousands of individual health aides working in private households. But the linchpin of these unions is the payroll; they represent workers who offer personal care that is financed by public healthcare funds, a single workforce without a shared workplace.
By giving these workers, mostly low-income women, access to collective bargaining, unionization has helped transform low-wage, often grueling service jobs to real careers with living wages, training opportunities and solid benefits. In Illinois, workers went from barely scraping by to raising wages by 65 percent. In California, a grassroots campaign by public home healthcare workers led to breakthrough legislation for dramatic wage gains; one study found that “increasing wages for home care workers reduced San Francisco’s overall poverty rate by about 16%.”
Now Minnesota home care workers get their seat at the bargaining table. Workers have pointed to low wages and benefits as factors driving high turnover, which in turn compromises the quality of services. The advocacy group PHI reports that the typical hourly wage for Minnesota home health aides is about $11, and about 40 percent of direct-service healthcare workers receive public assistance.
The union vote wasn’t an easy win. The final vote gave SEIU a 60 percent majority, indicating that organizers will now have to actively engage the sizable portion of the workforce that might not readily join as dues-paying members.
In the lead-up to the vote, the Minnesota workers overcame a constitutional challenge raised by a group of anti-union workers claiming that public sector unionization violated their First Amendment rights—reflecting the legal argument that drives anti-union campaigns led by the National Right to Work Committee.
After the vote count, it was that their campaign itself had been a clear exercise in collective self-expression. At the press conference, Rosemary Van Vickle, a home care worker from Crosby, said, “Despite the importance of our work caring for Minnesotans in every corner of the state, our work still lacks the respect it deserves…. With our collective voice, we will be strong in our fight for improvements for both workers and the people we serve.”
Following the announcement of the vote, St. Paul home care worker Sumer Spika told The Nation that the union organizers were looking forward to informing workers of their rights, and actively encouraging them to sign union cards.
But in the end, against the backdrop of courtroom drama, roiling political battles surrounding public-sector labor, and activist handwringing about what will save American unions, the unionization push of the Minnesota home care workers just came down to having a voice at work.
“One of the things that really inspired me, and has continued to inspire me, about this campaign is that it’s not about the people who work at SEIU,” Spika says. “It’s not about the governor, it’s not about politicians, it’s about home care workers. And we have been able to make the decisions from the get-go, the entire way through, [over] every obstacle.”
Bringing the same personal touch that their work delivers to the people in their care, Spika adds, “I think that really has made a world of difference in our campaign: it’s about us as home care workers, and about our recipients, and nothing more than that.”
In honor of the Labor Day holiday, I’ve revised a previous attempt at the impossible task of naming the best songs ever written about working people. The list is highly debatable; songs about working and working people cut across musical genres and generations. I know it’s a travesty to not include “Which Side Are You On?” or Johnny Paycheck’s classic “Take This Job and Shove It.” I also feel terrible neglecting Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, Nina Simone and John Mellencamp and giving short shrift to the rich history of punk rock odes to the insanity of wage slavery. Hopefully, these songs will get you thinking about your own favorite musical celebrations of the blood, sweat and tears that exemplify the working condition. Please use the comments field below to let me know what I missed.
1. Pete Seeger, Solidarity Forever
2. Sweet Honey in the Rock, More Than a Paycheck
3. The Clash, Career Opportunities
4. Tennessee Ernie Ford, Sixteen Tons
5. Judy Collins, Bread and Roses
6. Dolly Parton, 9 to 5
7. Woody Guthrie, Union Burying Ground
8. Phil Ochs, The Ballad of Joe Hill
9. Hazel Dickens, Fire in the Hole
10. Gil Scott-Heron, Three Miles Down
Bonus Track: The Kinks, Get Back in Line
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Before we discuss the content of the NFL’s new guidelines relating to domestic violence, let’s be clear: the NFL has about as much of a commitment to do something about violence against women as British Petroleum—or is it Beyond Petroleum—has to cleaning up the environment.
Both are multibillion-dollar corporations with one job and one job only, and that is to maximize their bottom line. Sometimes that project demands acknowledging public relations nightmares, especially when consumers recoil in horror.
Just as British Petroleum invested millions in green technologies and environmental cleanups after the seething outrage that followed the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the NFL found itself embroiled in a public relations disaster after suspending Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for only two games following release of a video that showed him dragging his unconscious then-fiancée Janay Palmer by her hair out of a hotel elevator.
This week, there was a near-universal outcry that the NFL’s moral compass was disturbingly out of whack and the organization was behaving like a proudly belligerent totem of misogyny, as Brandon Meriweather was suspended for two games for an on-field hit, and Josh Gordon received a year’s suspension for allegedly smoking weed.
The din coupled with the PR hit was too much for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to stomach, and he admitted as much in his statement outlining the league’s new policies, saying, “My disciplinary decision [regarding Ray Rice] led the public to question our sincerity, our commitment, and whether we understood the toll that domestic violence inflicts on so many families. I take responsibility both for the decision and for ensuring that our actions in the future properly reflect our values. I didn’t get it right.”
There was no such statement after Kasandra Perkins was killed by Kansas City Chiefs player Jovan Belcher, who then took his life in front of his coach. Instead, the game went on as planned. The outcry from the media after that in-season tragedy was mild. The only person among the NFL’s sports media partners to even speak about it politically was Bob Costas, who turned the focus to gun access and not violence against women. That was brave, as the backlash against him demonstrated. It was also a wasted opportunity.
Now, because there is an uproar about Ray Rice in the dog days of summer, without the distraction of actual games, the league realized it was paying a price, and Goodell is attempting to use his unparalleled public relations machine to reclaim something the Ray Rice decision cost him: a moral high ground as the Great White Father committed to disciplining his unruly charges and armed with ownership over every aspect of their personal lives.
Under the leadership of Goodell, as Aaron Gordon has written brilliantly, the NFL has attempted to market itself not only as a corporation, not only as a sport, but as a moral force: an institution to provide ethical guidance for us all. But taking moral guidance from the NFL is like being lectured about diplomacy by Benjamin Netanyahu. This is a commissioner who talks on and on about his concern for the health and safety of players, while trying to extend the season to eighteen games. This is a commissioner who has pledged to penalize players for using on-field slurs, yet defends the name of one of his billion-dollar brands, a dictionary-defined slur. This is a commissioner who talks about how much the NFL cares about communities, while demanding hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies for billionaires, as meanwhile our schools and hospitals remain in disrepair. This is a commissioner desperate to increase his market share among women football fans and who believes that coming down hard on domestic violence is the way to do it.
As for the plan itself, the best part, as Jessica Luther expressed, is that the NFL has pledged to spend much more time and energy at rookie and player orientations to actually discuss domestic violence. This is important. I’ve been to rookie orientation sessions, and when women are discussed, if discussed at all, they are talked about as people whom players should look at as predators trying to get pregnant or always ready to falsely accuse players of sexual assault. The discussions are how to avoid such situations. Any efforts to discuss women with young players as actual human beings should be welcomed. Luther talks about other initiatives aimed at education and awareness, which hopefully will actually be implemented.
But the section of the new conduct policy that is far more problematic is what we could call the carceral part. Roger Goodell has decided to place the passing of judgment of domestic violence completely under his own power as commissioner without any input from the NFL Players Association. It now resides beneath the umbrella of the NFL’s personal conduct policy. That means Goodell has total control as judge, jury and executioner over punishment on the basis of his assessment of what happened in a family’s personal life.
He has pledged to suspend players on a first offense for six games and then give them as much as a lifetime ban for a second infraction. Under the personal conduct policy, he can do this in advance of any trial or any sort of anything in a court of law.
These kinds of punishments could very well serve to discourage victims of domestic violence from coming forward, because of the price that could potentially be paid by having their partner lose their career. Anything that discourages a process where women can turn to the league in confidentiality for legal help or guidance is simply wrong.
In other words, it is missing any concept of “restorative justice”: the idea that solutions to domestic violence may require approaches that don’t reside in the punitive, or in harming the economic lives of the women and children in danger.
There is also nothing in the plan that addresses one of the uglier parts of the Ray Rice fiasco: the ways the Baltimore Ravens media machine defended and protected Rice with a big “no big deal” as the team response. This is classic Goodell: go after the players, protect the teams.
But perhaps most glaringly, the plan is missing any conversation about what role the combat of the game itself and the ill effects of head injuries may play in bringing the violence home. Why is it missing this? Because, once again, that might make people actually stop watching the sport, and that’s not the purpose this plan is supposed to serve. This is about reaching women and securing their connection to the league as potential consumers for NFL products and merchandise. Goodell’s slogan might as well be “Hate the player, don’t hate the game.”
Roger Goodell and the NFL—like many corporations before and since—were pressured and embarrassed into doing something. Tragically, in the hands of a league that journalist Steve Almond calls “a nihilistic engine of greed,” every move must be put under this kind of scrutiny and subject on principle to skepticism. That is something they have well earned.
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This post was originally published at RepublicReport.org
“Lifestyles of the Rich Environmentalists,” produced by a group called the Institute for Energy Research, is a slick web video campaign designed to lampoon Leonardo DiCaprio and will.i.am as hypocrites for supporting action on climate change. The claim is that wealthy celebrities who oppose industrial-scale pollution supposedly shouldn’t fly in airplanes that use fossil fuels. The group, along with its subsidiary, the American Energy Alliance, churns out a steady stream of related content, from Facebook memes criticizing the Environmental Protection Agency, to commercials demanding approval of new oil projects like the Keystone XL, to a series of television campaign advertisements this year attacking Democratic candidates in West Virginia, Colorado, North Carolina and Alaska. On Capitol Hill, IER aggressively opposes any effort to repeal tax breaks afforded to the oil and gas industry.
Documents obtained by Republic Report reveal for the first time that the group was actually founded by none other than Charles Koch, the petrochemical, manufacturing and oil refining tycoon worth an estimated $52 billion.
IER has no information about its founding members on its website, and only lists a board composed of seemingly independent conservative scholars and businessmen. Earlier reports revealed that IER/AEA has received grants from Koch-funded foundations, and that its leadership includes several individuals who have at times worked for Koch or Koch-related interests. But this is the first time it has been revealed that Charles personally founded the organization.
In October of 1984, Charles, then using a Menlo Park, California, address, founded a nonprofit called the Institute for Humane Studies of Texas. That organization briefly lost its charter in 1989 for failure to pay the Texas state franchise tax. Four years later, incorporation documents reveal, the group rebranded as the Institute for Energy Research, or IER, which later formed a subsidiary called the American Energy Alliance.
IER/AEA’s advocacy contrasts sharply with Charles’s personal brand as a selfless libertarian activist. The industrialist has argued that he is resolutely against special government handouts, such as tax credits or subsidies that benefit one industry over another. “Far from trying to rig the system, I have spent decades opposing cronyism and all political favors, including mandates, subsidies and protective tariffs—even when we benefit from them,” Charles wrote in a column for The Wall Street Journal this year.
But Charles’s group, IER/AEA, has fought to protect special tax breaks that benefit fossil fuel producers. Along with issuing press releases against various federal efforts to eliminate oil and gas industry tax credits, IER/AEA commissioned a study claiming that such tax reforms would have an adverse effect on jobs and on oil production.
Charles and his brother David are personally responsible for founding and funding much of the modern conservative infrastructure. The popular libertarian think tank the Cato Institute was, in fact, first named the Charles Koch Foundation, Inc. before rebranding. The largest political organization in America outside the Democratic and Republican parties is Americans for Prosperity, the Tea Party–organizing foundation also founded by the Kochs.
The latest organs in the Koch political network have carefully guarded the sources of their funding and direction. There is the new youth group Generation Opportunity, along with the new veterans-related campaign organization Concerned Veterans for America. But IER/AEA’s true origin casts new light on its motivations.
Last spring, The Nation launched its biweekly student movement dispatch. As part of the StudentNation blog, each dispatch hosts first-person updates on youth organizing. For recent dispatches, check out July 25 and August 12. For an archive of earlier editions, see the New Year’s dispatch. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org with tips. Edited by James Cersonsky (@cersonsky).
1. Getting Organized
In the wake of Michael Brown’s death, young people in St. Louis have participated in marches, delivered food and supplies to organizers and residents, conducted trainings—and acts—of civil disobedience and pushed demands in coordination with the Hands Up, Don’t Shoot Coalition. The Justice League, a collaboration of Show Me 15, the St. Louis fast food worker union, and Young Activists United St. Louis, which organizes students and youth, is led by people of color with the goal of combating and redressing police violence. As we prepare for Saturday’s appreciation day, whose goal is to elevate the leadership of youth in Ferguson, we are working on curriculum materials with an emphasis on individual rights and the historical threads that made Ferguson happen.
—Rasheen Aldridge and Tito Gardner
2. Walking Out in St. Louis
It is painful to watch someone who so closely resembles your brother, uncle or father lay in a pool of his own blood after departing this world. The black community, especially those of our generation, is in a state of trauma. On August 25, the day of Michael Brown’s funeral, students at Washington University at St. Louis and Saint Louis University organized #HandsUpWalkOut events on our campuses as part of a national walkout. We will continue to work as a united front for justice for Michael Brown and all those taken by forces who don’t believe in the humanity of those who happen to be black.
—Christopher Walter, Jr.
3. Walking Out Everywhere
On August 25, students and faculty at George Mason University, convened by a range of organizations, from the Black Student Alliance to Students Against Israeli Apartheid, came together to protest the murder of Michael Brown. The protest began at North Plaza with a march to the George Mason statue with everyone’s hands up, chanting, “Hands up, don’t shoot!” We continued with a moment of silence followed by a reading of names of others taken too soon by police brutality, including Timothy Stansbury, Oscar Grant and Eric Garner. From there, we broke into smaller groups to develop proposals for how the campus community can help rebuild Ferguson, hold police officers more accountable and help limit and eventually eliminate police brutality.
4. Justice for Reefa Hernandez
On August 14, five days after the murder of Michael Brown, Dream Defenders went to US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Florida to demand a federal investigation into the murder of Israel “Reefa” Hernandez. Israel was a Miami Beach teen and street artist who was chased down, brutally beaten and tasered by police for painting on an abandoned McDonald’s. More than a year later, the officer has not been charged. We called for US Attorney Ferrer to open investigations into State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle’s Office, as well as the Miami Beach, Miami-Dade and Miami Garden Police Departments. Instead of having grievances heard, seven Dream Defenders and a mother from the Miami Workers Center were arrested and released later that evening. As we can’t count on police departments to adequately protect and serve us—or conduct proper investigations when the suspect is one of their own—we are issuing a national call to action.
5. Justice for John Crawford
On August 5, 22-year-old John Crawford was killed by Beavercreek police inside a Walmart after brandishing a toy rifle, which was sold in the store. Since then, young people across Ohio have taken action to demand that Walmart’s security tapes be released to his family, their lawyers and the public. Within twenty-four hours of the Ohio Student Association’s third action in Columbus, the Ohio Attorney General allowed the family and their lawyers to see six minutes of the footage—prompting his father to say that his son was murdered. The AG has called a grand jury hearing in Greene County to determine if these officers will be indicted. On September 22, we are organizing a pilgrimage from the Beavercreek Walmart to the Xenia Courthouse to bring national attention to Greene County and demand justice for John Crawford.
6. Justice for Chicago
On August 26, 100 young Chicagoans marched on Chicago Police Department Headquarters demanding to meet with Superintendent Garry McCarthy to end the unjust arrests of Black people for low-level marijuana possession. As of today, McCarthy has not responded to our request, despite publicly stating that the CPD should focus on ticketing instead of arrests. The Chicago Police Department makes an average of forty-four arrests per day for misdemeanor marijuana possession (fifteen grams or less)—more than all other offenses combined. Despite extensive studies showing that marijuana is used at similar rates across racial groups, Black people are fifteen times more likely to be arrested for minor possession than white folks. Black Chicagoans account for 78 percent of those arrested, 89 percent of those convicted and 92 percent of those jailed for low-level marijuana possession. The Chicago Department wastes nearly $80 million in local taxpayer dollars each year in court fees and thousands of police hours. This work is part of BYP100’s larger campaign to decriminalize blackness in America and end police brutality and abuse.
7. History for Student Rights
On August 19, LA’s Community Rights Campaign won a huge victory by passing the Equal Protection Plan. The plan will restrict the role of police inside LAUSD and provide more serious protection for students, teachers and the community. For seven years, young people have taken direct action and organized around the plan in front of schools administrators, judges, school board members, police and teachers—and taken it to the surrounding community to seek its support. With its passing—fifty years after the original Freedom Summer in Mississippi, where I attended an anniversary conference at Tougaloo College—we see this as our moment to build the world we want and step closer to dismantling the school-to-jail track in Los Angeles and across the country.
8. Student Unionism Rising
On August 18, more than 100 members of the Chicago Students Union, alongside parents, teachers and elected officials, marched on Chicago Public Schools headquarters demanding the fair funding of schools and a democratically elected board of education. The CSU, formed in February 2013, has spent this summer holding meetings to listen to the problems students are having at school. In the upcoming school year, the CSU will register eligible students to vote, push CPS officials to ensure that students’ needs are prioritized in school budgets and escalate the fight for funding and democracy.
9. What Wouldn’t Marco Rubio Do?
On August 25, members of United We Dream, United We Dream–Tampa Bay, El Cambio and the Dream Organizing Network came to South Carolina to confront Florida Senator Marco Rubio on his attacks on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, a program that has benefited more than half a million Dreamers like myself. Instead of standing with Dreamers, Rubio has turned his back on our community and sided with anti-immigrant Congresspeople like Steve King. As a Florida Dreamer, I had one question for Rubio: Does he want to deport me? Dreamers remain committed to fighting for DACA, turning back Republican opposition at every corner and winning similar relief for millions more.
10. Who’s Next?
From August 11 to 14, thirty new members of the AFL-CIO’s Young Worker Advisory Council had a biannual meeting to discuss how the labor movement can empower young workers and better advocate for the largest generation to enter the workforce since the Baby Boomers. The YWAC, created in 2011, consists of young worker representatives from affiliates of the AFL-CIO. YWAC members are working on two major projects: growing local Young Worker Groups that can build community-based campaigns in targeted areas; and preparing for a 2015 Next Up Young Worker Summit that will engage, inspire and organize young workers. Through these projects, we hope to build a movement around our issues, including student debt, sub-living wages and—as the world’s eyes converged on Ferguson as we met—racial justice.
This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
In his novel The Plague, Albert Camus describes how death comes to an ugly French port in Algeria.
Thanks to an infestation of rats and the fleas they carry, the bubonic plague descends upon the city in the spring and intensifies during the hot summer. After a short period of denial, the residents panic, then sink into despondency and alcoholism. The port is put under quarantine. Undeterred by the apathy of the population and the danger of exposure, a small number of courageous individuals mobilize to fight the epidemic and eventually beat back the invader.
Camus took great care to detail the symptoms of the disease. But for all his medical exactitude, the French writer was not primarily interested in epidemiology. His inspiration was a different kind of infection. The novel is set some time in the 1940s. The plague is Nazism, and those who fight the disease stand in for the heroes of the French Resistance. It is a supremely apt allegory, for did not the Nazis claim that their victims were vermin? Camus surely must have enjoyed reincarnating the German fascists as the lowest of the low: bloodsucking fleas and desperate rats.
The twin plagues of Nazism and bubonic plague, except for some isolated cases, are behind us. But now it seems that a different pair of plagues is in our midst.
Today’s headlines are filled with similar stories of the spread of death and destruction in the Middle East and Africa. American commentators worry that these plagues will burst their borders and somehow spread to these shores. And, as in Camus’s novel, these diseases point to something larger, not the imposition of a new malignant system but the breakdown of the existing order.
In West Africa, the plague is Ebola, a terrifying fever that ends in massive hemorrhaging. The mortality rate, if untreated, is as high as bubonic plague. But at least with the modern version of the Black Death, treatment brings the mortality rate down to 15 percent. Ebola, by contrast, resists treatment. There are no vaccines for this hemorrhagic fever—though there’s promising news out of Canada—and the few treatments that have been used remain highly experimental. Doctors and officials establish quarantines and hope the disease will burn itself out. With airlines shutting down service to the infected region, hampering efforts to deliver medical supplies, the disease continues to rage on.
Ebola has so far claimed around 1,500 lives. This is terrible, of course, but it pales in comparison to how many children succumb to diarrhea in Africa. According to a 2010 report, 2,000 African children die every day of a disease that can be prevented through relatively cheap methods: safe water and hygiene. But diarrhea is not a communicable disease in the same sense as the plague or Ebola. And no one in the United States worries that a summit of African leaders or the repatriation of infected patients will spread an epidemic of diarrhea stateside. Ebola monopolizes the headlines because what grabs attention is fear (along with the usual colonial images of Africans as dirty and irresponsible).
The panic is, of course, more acute in the areas hardest hit by Ebola. Consider the case of Kandeh Kamara, a brave 21-year-old who volunteered to help fight the disease in Sierra Leone. He was promptly drafted to become a “burial boy” responsible for dealing with the corpses of the infected. “In doing their jobs, the burial boys have been cast out of their communities because of fear that they will bring the virus home with them,” writes Adam Nossiter and Ben Solomon in a powerful piece in The New York Times. Talk about thankless tasks. Kandeh Kamara initially received no payment for his work and had to beg for food on the street. He now gets $6 a day and hopes to rent an apartment, though landlords often refuse to lease to the burial boys.
Ebola is bad news, but it hasn’t generated the same kind of fury as that other fast-spreading scourge, namely the Islamic State (IS). The recent beheading of US journalist James Foley has ratcheted up the outrage of American observers.
It’s certainly not the first beheading that IS has done. The group specializes in meting out barbarous punishments—decapitations, crucifixions, amputations. But just as Ebola’s impact became real for Americans when it infected people “like us”—two US missionaries in Liberia—the United States was prompted to act against IS when it began killing non-Muslims, first the stranded Yazidis and then the abducted journalist.
IS has spread quickly, and so has the panic that has accompanied its territorial acquisition. There have been the inevitable analogies to Nazism. But even those who don’t invoke Hitler are quick to use Manichean language to describe the IS challenge.
“We can see evil through the eye slits of the ski mask worn by Foley’s killer,” writes David Ignatius in a Washington Post commentary titled “The New Battle Against Evil.” “But stopping that evil is a harder task.”
The IS killers are a nasty piece of work, and their ideology is thoroughly malign. But I hesitate to use the language of good and evil. Such moralistic terminology presumes that they, the beheaders, are a Satanic force that can only be exorcised with whatever version of holy water our angelic forces dispense—air strikes, boots on the ground, military aid to the Kurdish peshmerga, efforts in the community to dissuade angry young men from taking the next flight to Mosul.
We, on the other hand, are good. We would never behead anyone. Those we execute “deserve” their punishment (though the occasional innocent person might inadvertently fall through the cracks). And the civilian casualties from our military offensives, because we are by definition good, are simply mistakes. After all, we don’t publicly celebrate the deaths of Afghan civilians from our drone strikes (forty-five in 2013 alone) or the deaths of over 400 children in Gaza. But our protestations of innocence are little consolation to the families of the victims.
At what point do mistakes aggregate into something evil? At the very least, do they prevent us from claiming the mantle of good? And, of course, it’s not just the mistakes that are problematic but also the deliberate policies that, for instance, align Washington with dictators and other murderous actors. American disgust with IS may already have prompted intelligence sharing with the regime in Damascus, though the Obama administration has denied such deals.
Camus had some choice words for those who are reluctant to call evil by its name. “Our townsfolk were like everybody else, wrapped up in themselves; in other words they were humanists: they disbelieved in pestilences,” he wrote in The Plague. “A pestilence isn’t a thing made to man’s measure; therefore we tell ourselves that pestilence is a mere bogy of the mind, a bad dream that will pass away. But it doesn’t always pass away and, from one bad dream to another, it is men who pass away, and the humanists first of all, because they haven’t taken their precautions.”
Humanists perhaps disbelieve in pestilences. “I used to not believe in evil,” confesses Richard Cohen this week in a Washington Post column declaring a “return of evil” with ISIS. Once a liberal humanist, Cohen long ago remade himself into a liberal hawk.
I still consider myself a humanist. But my brand of humanism sees pestilence everywhere. Indeed, I tend to see pestilence not only in the acts of individuals but in the structures within which the plague takes root and spreads. And this is where the two plagues intersect, Ebola and IS. They both prosper where the immune system is weak.
When it comes to medical infrastructure, Africa definitely has a compromised immune system. The continent has been hit hard by HIV/AIDS (70 percent of those living with HIV are in Africa), cholera (major outbreaks took place recently in Senegal, Zimbabwe and Sierra Leone), and malaria (an African child dies every minute from this disease). Ebola has spread rapidly because of critical shortages in medical staff and supplies.
But the deeper reason is environmental: the clear-cutting of forests that have served as a traditional barrier to pathogens. West Africa has one of the fastest rates of deforestation in the world, losing nearly a million hectares a year. The forests are Africa’s natural defenses, and Ebola is a sign that these defenses have been fatally weakened. What used to stay in remote villages now spreads quickly to urban areas.
The recent victories of IS in Syria and Iraq, meanwhile, suggest not a breakdown in the environmental system but in the political one. IS is not simply a band of serial killers. They have a distinct ideology and set of political motives. Nor does it matter whether they are operating in a formally dictatorial or democratic environment. IS thrives both where Assad rules with an iron fist and where Saddam is long gone.
The common denominator is chaos. IS has ruthlessly expanded in the gray areas beyond the reach of the rule of law. In Syria, it has prospered in regions that already broke loose from the country during the uprising. In Iraq, it took advantage of a paralyzing conflict between Shi’a and Sunni that left the northern reaches of the country tenuously connected to the central government.
Local governance, whether it’s democratic or authoritarian, serves the same function as the forests of West Africa. Such governance holds society together. When it deteriorates, the very cellular structure breaks down. In Ebola, the cell walls fray and the patient bleeds out. With a virus like IS, the fibers of the social fabric fray and large sections of the country bleed out.
There are, of course, many differences between a pestilence like Ebola and a movement like IS. But they are both the result of systemic breakdown. They are opportunistic infections.
In both cases there are no magic pills. Even if we come up with an antidote to this version of Ebola, as long as we continue to cut down the forests of Africa, more potent versions will continue to appear and spread. And if we attempt to obliterate IS only with bombs or boots on the ground, it will simply pop up somewhere else where the conditions favor such desperate efforts to create a totalitarian order. Instead we should focus on the conditions that give rise to these phenomena—and our role in helping to perpetuate these conditions.
Camus recommended vigilance. Pestilence, he concluded, “bides its time in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves and…perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.” The current plagues have certainly been a bane. Whether they also help to enlighten us remains to be seen.
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Immigrants and allies rallied in more than a dozen US cities on Thursday to ask President Obama to use his executive authority broadly to stop deportations of undocumented workers and their families.
Hundreds gathered outside the headquarters of the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, DC, and marched across the National Mall to mark what they called the National Day to Fight for Families. As some 150 protesters prepared to be arrested in front of the White House, they laid red carnations over photos of loved ones who’d been deported.
Ten-year-old Amy hasn’t seen her father since he was sent back to Guatemala three years ago. She’s a US citizen, but neither her mother Sabina nor any of her other adult relatives in the US are authorized. It makes her feel sad, Amy told me, and lonely.
“We want the president to recognize that we’re here,” Sabina said.
Missael Garcia, 24, has been living in the United States since he was 12. His two younger brothers and a sister are protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which President Obama announced in 2012. DACA allows some immigrants who were brought to the US as children to stay in the country temporarily and work, but Garcia isn’t one of the lucky ones who qualifies. He said he came to the rally to fight for himself and his parents, and for all of the 11 million people who are estimated to be living in the US without papers.
‘”The president has sent the message that he’s taking this issue into his own hands,” Garcia said. “We support him and we pressure him because we’re trying to get him to motivate himself to act immediately, and expand the DACA program for our parents.”
Obama is expected to announce changes to immigration enforcement policy sometime after Labor Day. There’s plenty of speculation about what he’ll do—the idea that’s gotten most of the attention is expanding DACA to include new categories of people, like parents of US citizens—and, within the immigrant-rights community, anxiety about whether the impact of his actions will be as big as the hype.
The Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), the coalition of organizations that led Thursday’s events, is calling on the president to use his executive powers broadly to keep families together, and to offer stronger protections to children crossing the US-Mexico border after fleeing violence in Central America. FIRM staff said the group arrest at the White House was the largest act of civil disobedience ever undertaken by immigration rights advocates.
Garcia said he’s been advocating for immigration reform throughout Obama’s time in office. (He’s on the board of Casa de Maryland, one of the groups participating in the Fight for Families.) He credits the activism of young immigrants known as Dreamers for giving the immigrant rights movement political clout. “They came out of the shadows saying, ‘I’m undocumented and unafraid,’ so I think that pushed the rest and motivated the rest of the community to step up and let their voice be heard.” He continued, “fighting for this cause has a risk, but living in the fear of being deported isn’t really going to help you.”
“There’s many other people that do illegal things and they don’t need to be punished all their lives,” said a man in a cowboy hat and an American flag shirt who identified himself only as Stephen. He stood at the edge of the crowd, holding a sign that read, “Immigration reform is obstructed by racism in America.”
“It’s a mix of hate for us,” he said about opposition to immigration reform. “I know what it is to be Latino in the US.”
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On August 22, almost two weeks after Michael Brown was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, The Washington Post published an op-ed by Columbia University professor Fredrick Harris titled “Will Ferguson be a moment or a movement?”
I started working on my piece about the new era of black activism (which you can read here) months ago, and so I read Harris’s op-ed with the same level of irritation that made me want to write that piece in the first place. Not that there isn’t any value in what Harris wrote, because there certainly is. But if you’re asking the question “Where is the movement?” you simply haven’t been paying attention.
“A moment of trauma can oftentimes present you with an opportunity to do something about the situation to prevent that trauma from happening again,” Charlene Carruthers, national coordinator for Black Youth Project 100, told me in an interview for that piece, and the millennial generation has been presented with trauma after trauma. The killing of Sean Bell, the over-prosecution of the Jena Six, the killing of Oscar Grant, the killing of Aiyana Stanley-Jones, the killing of Trayvon Martin and so many more moments that may not have captured the national media attention but those events have defined the late adolescence and early adulthood of black folks of the millennial generation. As part of that demographic, let me say: the trauma has been fucking exhausting.
So, too, has been the haranguing from older generations that we have been too apathetic, that we have been too “post-racial,” that we have not done our part in upholding the legacy of the civil-rights movement. And so I wanted to write a corrective to that narrative, as I’ve seen my generation take up the fight and organize and begin along the hard road to movement building. It’s happening at this very moment. It was happening before Michael Brown was killed.
What may keep Ferguson from becoming a national transformative event is if “justice” is narrowly confined to seeking relief for Brown and his family. If the focus is solely on the need for formal charges against Wilson, a fair trial, a conviction, a wrongful-death lawsuit—rather than seeing those things as part of a broader movement that tackles stand-your-ground laws, the militarization of local police, a requirement that cameras be worn by police on duty and the need for a comprehensive federal racial-profiling law. If justice remains solely personal, rather than universal.
But that work had already begun before Ferguson erupted. The Dream Defenders traveled to the United Nations to present a case against “stand-your-ground” laws, and BYP100 recently organized an action at the Chicago Police Department headquarters to address discrepancies in marijuana arrests. The movement is here. The pictures are not as arresting as what comes from a moment like Ferguson, and therefore aren’t as compelling to media outlets only interested in the sensational. But the criminalization of black youth has emerged as the central focus of organizing efforts for the millennial generation and the work is being done.
On Twitter, filmmaker/writer/activist dream hampton called millennials the “Movement Generation.” It fits.