Laura Flanders | The Nation

Laura Flanders

Laura Flanders

Budget wars, activism, uprising, dissent and general rabble-rousing.

Leo Gerard Is Rising

On February 14, 2013, 1 billion will rise. No matter where you are in the world, there will probably be a rising near you. With the addition of Laos, Liberia, Monaco and Palestine, the One Billion Rising campaign to stop violence against women and girls is now up to 197 countries and territories taking part in what organizers say will be the largest global day of action the world has ever seen. Starting in Samoa, the sun will rise on February 14, kicking off forty-eight hours worldwide of striking, dancing and rising. To send labor supporters into their final week of preparing for One Billion Rising, United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard recorded this special video message.

Among the reasons Gerard lists for rising are: “To stop the violence… To end the governmental initiatives that restrict women’s rights… Because pregnancy from rape is not something God intended… In opposition to redefining how violence against women is prosecuted.”

“I’m rising to stop workplace discrimination...for gender equality...I'm rising because I will not accept violence against our mothers sisters daughters...I'm rising because it’s a new time and a new way of being.”

Go Leo!

From a Dream to Racial Justice: Seattle's Racial Justice Initiative [VIDEO]

It’s one thing to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and to remember his most oft-quoted speech, “I have a dream.” But to get beyond racial inequity, Americans have to do more than dream.

“In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way,” said Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun.

That is the approach than animates the work of Glenn Harris, the Race And Social Justice Initiative manager for the City of Seattle. Imagining a city where, as Harris and his staff describe it, “every schoolchild, regardless of language and cultural differences, receives a quality education and feels safe and included, where race does not predict how much you earn or your chance of being homeless or going to prison” and where “African-American, Latinos and Native Americans can expect to live as long as white people,” the RSJI has developed a set of benchmarks to evaluate what its city does, and measure change in a concrete way.  

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A first of its kind in the nation, the Race and Social Justice Initiative holds all elected officials in the City of Seattle accountable; from urban planning to garbage collection, the city’s decisions and potential decisions have to be assessed for their impact on racial justice, just as they would be assessed for say, environmental impact. Are the policies your city is pursuing today helpful or hurtful to racial justice? Building on the groundwork done by grassroots organizations and activists, Harris says RSJI works within city government and with community leaders to get to the root cause of racial inequity: institutional racism.

In this conversation, recorded at Facing Race 2012, Harris explains how centering race in discussions about urban planning makes our cities better for everyone and he has advice for those planning New York’s recovery after Storm Sandy.

In the case of school closings, urban policy is a tale of racial injustice. Watch Melissa Harris-Perry’s segment on race and education policy.

How About Gun Control for the Pentagon?

A U.S. Predator drone flies over the moon above Kandahar Air Field, southern Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

“There has to be a national conversation” about gun control, says Nancy Pelosi. The killing of school children and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut and other shootings since have turned up the heat.

If, after Newtown, it’s all talk and no action, the former House Speaker said this week, “it’ll amount to a dereliction of duty on the part of us in public office.”

Too right. Pelosi wants to see action. The president’s demanding it too. So are state leaders. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has his sights set on the presidency (if you’ll excuse the expression), has proposed not only rewriting the state’s existing assault weapons ban but also more expansive mental health checks and background checks of gun buyers, lower limits on how many bullets a single gun magazine can fire and a new requirement that gun buyers be periodically recertified.

At the level of congress and the states, all sights (if you’ll excuse the expression again) are set on gun control. State district attorneys are joining the call for reform and almost 100 lawmakers have signed onto a proposal to limit handgun purchases to just one gun a month. (Apparently one a month is too strict a diet for the other 435.)

There’s just one piece of the picture missing. Now that lawmakers, DAs, governors and the White House have all agreed that gun violence is wrong, when are we going to start talking about troops and bombs and drones? You think American weapons are a problem in the US? Take a look at what American weapons are dong outside the country.

In Newtown, shooter Adam Lanza's weapons killed twenty kids, six teachers and his mom and shocked the nation. As Robert Dreyfuss recently pointed out here, American weapons have killed hundreds, probably thousands of kids in Afghanistan. In that one country alone, all sorts of people have US weapons. (The sales are good for the US economy, even if the weapons are used with some regularity against Americans.) Afghan soldiers carry US guns. So do some of the former Mujahadeen “freedom fighters” the Army’s up against. (The United States sold them guns when the freedom they were fighting for was from Soviet, rather than US occupation.)

US troops carry US guns too, of course. Last March, an army sergeant used his to methodically slaughter sixteen civilians, including at least nine kids in their homes in southern Afghanistan one Sunday morning.

And then there are those drones. Seven drone attacks in the last two weeks have killed an estimated forty people in Pakistan and Yemen so far this year and we're not even half way through January. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that from June 2004 through mid-September 2012, drone strikes killed 474-881 civilians, including 176 children.

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For all the droning on about violence, it would be good to hear someone drone on just a bit about drones.

The good news is surely this. We’re finally taking aim at gun violence (as the headline writers say). The powerful gun lobby the National Rifle Association has taken some hits. Thanks to Lee Fang, we know all about their corporate backers, and NRA President Wayne LaPierre came in for no end of grief when he finally broke his post-Newtwon silence and suggested stationing more shooters in more schools. Arm schools to protect schools? Ridiculous.

Except that's exactly US foreign policy. The NRA works for its corporate partners no harder than the State Department works for theirs. US government-brokered arms sales tripled to a record high in 2011: $66.43 billion dollars, more than three-quarters of the global arms market, driven by major arms deals with Persian Gulf states. For all the talk of background checks stateside, when the US approved a $30 billion deal with the authoritarian state of Saudi Arabia, it wasn’t the background, only the size of the check that got much attention. (President Obama said the sale would be good for jobs and the State Department said that in such an insecure region, the arms deal would be good for sercurity.) And when was the last time we periodically recertified Israel?

The United States last year did its best to keep ammunition out of a new treaty on small arms, and the Land of the Free won’t even sign the international ban on land-mines. If the president really wants action on high-capacity killing, how about a deal: gun owners give up Bushmasters when the US agrees absolutely to ban cluster bombs?

It may be I’m getting ahead of myself. Perhaps we should aim a little lower. One step at a time. Set our sights on just one handgun a month. And how about just one shooting metaphor? At least that would be a start.

For more on America's foreign vigilantism, read this excerpt from Nick Turse's new book, Kill Anything that Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. 

Dangerous Rush to Legislate on Surveillance and Mental Health? Dean Spade [VIDEO]

With cliffs, abysses and deadlines on every front, the New Year’s shaping up to be a dangerous place for justice. Consider the pressure to do “something” on gun violence. Spurred by the horrific slaughter in Newtown, President Barack Obama has tasked his administration to get serious about legislation before the end of next month. “This time, the words need to lead to action,” he said.

But what action? On gun control, a battle royal is shaping up. On mental illness, action may come more easily, but it may be just the wrong sort.

We still don’t know if the gunman in Connecticut suffered from mental illness but the killer of four firefighters in Webster, New York, was clearly disturbed. (In the note he left, he pledged to burn down the neighborhood and “do what I like doing best, killing people.”) The moment invites politicians and pundits who are jockeying for limelight (and scared of the NRA) to call for increased mental health screening and treatment, even of the mandatory sort.

PBS broadcast a piece this week about California’s “Laura’s Law” which provides court-ordered outpatient treatment for the seriously mentally ill. It was passed in 2002 but generally shunned since for civil liberties reasons. Nationwide, forty-three other states have laws permitting some form of involuntary outpatient commitment, and as PBS reported, the recent killings “have raised once again the issue of forcing the mentally ill into treatment.”

Author activist Dean Spade, a professor of law at the University of Seattle, says that incidents like the Virginia Tech and Newtown shootings are often followed by calls for increased surveillance and involuntary treatment of people with mental illness.

“This is not surprising—for decades we have been told that locking more people up and building more walls and metal detectors and installing more cops and cameras will make us safer, so we are used to that response,” said Spade this week.

The problem is, it does not work, and instead the people who are targeted are not those who are actually most dangerous, but those who are already considered “suspicious” in culture that’s racist, xenophobic and anti-immigrant.

“We have a long history in the US of giving people involuntary medical treatment and using mental institutions to lock up people who are “different” or threatening to social norms,” says Spade. What will actually make us all safer is more accessible, voluntary mental health care. About one in four adults suffers from a diagnosable mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, but millions of those who report needing mental health services don’t receive care because of its cost or its negative stigma.

“So many people who could use mental health care do not reach out for it because they are afraid that they will be locked up involuntarily if they reach out to a provider,” says Spade.

At his press conference announcing the task force to reduce gun violence, President Obama said, “We’re gonna need to work on making access to mental health care at least as easy as access to a gun.”

Yet, exactly as the shootings debate is playing out, funding for mental health services are teetering on the fiscal brink. Obama and Speaker John Boehner are considering long-term cuts to Medicaid, which underwrites services for more than 60 percent of people in the public mental health system, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. And that’s on top of state cuts amounting to some $5 billion from public mental health spending in the past four years, even as ten percent more people have sought services.

It takes us back to the same old story: we’d all be healthier under a free national healthcare system not subject to the Congressional football match. Meanwhile, we’re likely to see action for action’s sake, and that’s served us—especially some of us—very poorly.

I had a chance to talk recently with Spade, about “trickle-up, rather than “trickle-down” justice. Trans activist and founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, Spade is the author of Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law. An edited transcript is below. The video is posted in two parts, here and here.

PART ONE: The Most Imprisoning Society in the World: 

Laura Flanders: Let’s start with Sylvia Rivera, The Sylvia Rivera Law Project which you founded ten years ago was named after a very special person, but not someone who is well known. Can you tell us a little bit about Sylvia?

Dean Spade: Yes, Sylvia Rivera was a trans women of color activist who was extremely active in the sixties and seventies. She was one of the people at the Stonewall rebellion. Some people credit her with being the first person to throw something at the cops. So she’s kind of a historical figure of great import for that reason. But for the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, the reason she is so important to us is throughout the course of the mainstreaming of the gay and lesbians rights movement in the seventies, eighties, nineties and today, she was a voice saying that we cannot keep marginalizing people of color and poor people.

She stood up against the way that trans people were kind of kicked out of the movement and the way that the “gay and lesbians rights” frame came to center white people, people with wealth, people who met traditional norms; gay and lesbian identities that look as much as possible just like straight couple identities, and she died in 2002, the year that I started the project. We do our work with her as one of our key inspirations for what it means to build racial and economic justice and our struggle for trans resistance.

And what is a poverty law center? What does that mean?

[A poverty law center] means that one of the main things we do is we provide free legal help to poor people who are facing a bunch of different issues. In the context of our work, trans and gender nonconforming people experience really specific, difficult conditions inside the systems where poor people are concentrated.

Homeless shelters, juvenile facilities (like foster care group homes), jails and prisons: all these places are gender segregated: men’s, women’s, girls and boys. They are places of extreme violence for gender outsiders and also for a lot of trans people there’s a lot of exclusion.

Our clients can’t get placed in drug treatment, can’t get placed into a shelter because they are going to be placed incorrectly and they’re going to face a lot of violence. So, we’re looking at the specific, really intense conditions of violence and poverty that trans communities are facing and we are providing free legal assistance, from things like deportation proceedings to welfare hearings. 

How has the economic crisis of the last few years affected the people you work with?

The economic crisis has had huge impacts on our clients. Already the people we work with are criminalized, highly poor and homeless, but cuts to existing programs and benefit systems (really going back to the nineties) have made a major impact on people’s abilities to get basic needs met; to get housing.… And of course the drastic growth in criminalization and immigration enforcement means that more and more of our clients are locked up in various prisons. 

[For a trans person] what is the trajectory from maybe having a low-wage job to finding themselves criminalized or locked up?

Most trans people can’t even get low-wage jobs because there is just really widespread discrimination. People are like, “We don’t want to hire someone like that to work in our store…”

Most people are pushed into criminalized economies. A lot of trans people are in the sex worker economy because that’s one of the only places where trans people are allowed to work. That, of course, leads to high levels of criminalization. [Also] there’s a stereotype…that trans women of color are all sex workers.

Tons of our clients are people who whether or not they are engaged in anything illegal are being profiled and policed. There are several sort of routes to criminalization. Also, it’s a crime to be a poor person in the United States. In New York City you can see this every day: sleeping outside is a crime that can get you locked up; sitting on the sidewalk if the cops think you’re poor or homeless can be a crime. Just getting by and being poor can mean going to jail. 

Are trans people more likely to be homeless?

Yes. Trans people are more likely to end up homeless. One of the reasons is, it is so unsafe in the existing shelter systems. One of the pieces of work of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project over the last ten years is focused on the treatment of trans women in the department of homeless services here in New York City and this work has kind of ricocheted around the country with a lot of groups concerned with similar issues. In general, in homeless shelters, trans woman are denied access to women’s shelters. So the option is go into the men’s shelter and be the only woman there and face enormous likelihood of sexual assault. Or, stay street homeless because you are trying to figure out what’s the safest thing. If you don’t go into the shelter system in most cities you can’t qualify for other forms of low-income housing.

The problems around job discrimination produce the likelihood of homelessness and poverty, and then there’s the fact that the minimal services we have don’t accommodate trans people. 

What about family care? We hear about a lot of people staying much longer than normal with their families, their birth families or going home when they can’t find a job in this economy.

Unfortunately most trans people experience a lot of family alienation because of our identities. There are always counter stories (there’s a lot of hope in that area and I think that there are some changes happening), but it’s a pretty typical experience not having family support if you’re trans, which can contribute to poverty having a deeper impact because there’s not a safety net there.

So we’ve established that you’re dealing with people who are some of the most vulnerable, the most vilified, the most criminalized in our society. You come out with an analysis that isn’t just about them or even about them, it’s about our society. What have you learned, in broad strokes, from this work that has surprised you? 

I think the biggest takeaway from the work I have done from the Sylvia Rivera Law Project for the last ten years is the significance of different forms of criminalization in the lives of poor people, and the way that that criminalization is highly racialized and highly gendered.

[It’s racialized and gendered] in terms of who gets arrested and what the police think looks unusual [and in terms of] which neighborhoods [police] spend time patrolling…[also] who’s doing the work, or surviving in ways that are going to give them too much contact with the police. And what actually happens in America’s prisons. 

We are the most imprisoning nation in the world. We have 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. And the people in our prisons are primarily people of color and poor people imprisoned for crimes related to poverty.

Inside those prisons there is outrageous racial and gender violence, in all of them: the women’s prisons and men’s prisons.… 
All of that picture, plus the additional picture of how much our immigration system has grown (and especially within the last ten years). We are deporting more people than we’ve ever deported, our immigration prisons have also grown by about four-fold; [they] are privatized and run at a profit. When you look at all of that, [the prison system itself turns out to be] one of the biggest sources of violence in the lives of Americans in my opinion. 

What does it have to do with our model of change? Often our stories of change in this country have been, well, if you could just criminalize certain kinds of behavior—things like discrimination or violence against women or hate crimes—that will improve society. Will it? What do you think about hate crimes and the legislation that has tried to criminalize discrimination?

One of the really interesting contests inside trans communities and more broadly in queer and trans politics is whether or not hate crime laws actually work. Whether or not they are a good way to try to deal with violence against queer and trans people. And a lot of us are saying that this strategy doesn’t really work. It definitely doesn’t prevent violence against us. 

Nobody has ever argued that when people are thinking who to beat up or kill tonight they look through some book and say, “Oh, there’s a higher penalty if I do it for this than that.” That’s not how violence works. There is no argument that it prevents our deaths or beatings, but what it does do is it enhances the punishing power of the system that is actually the main perpetrator of violence against us.

In the lives of SRLP clients the most common perpetrator of violence is the police, corrections officers or immigrations officers. What does it mean to add power to that system?

Part of the way we see it is that the system has been desiring growth very intensely for at least the last forty years and that growth has been motivated by profit (prisons are privatized, etc.). So, the real reason that the system wants to pass hate crimes laws is not because it is going to save our lives, but because the system wants to grow in any direction. We’ve really been looking carefully at whether or not that strategy has any benefit for preventing violence. 

When you look over the ten years of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project—and congratulations on your ten years—what do you see? There is certainly more visibility, there’s more inclusion, there’s more “tolerance” [of trans people.] What else? 

I guess I would say that in the last ten years you see more gay and lesbian organizations put “T” in their mission statements. There’s some more visibility in the media of certain kinds of stories about trans people, yet the actual conditions on the ground for trans people are worsening with the growing criminalization and immigration and the growing wealth divide in the United States, which the Occupy Movement has made very visible. 

That’s one of the questions I am asking in the book: How come certain kinds of visible inclusion practices don’t result in material gains? I think you could ask that more broadly looking at the last forty or fifty years in the United States. There has been so much work to declare us more equal in law, to say that racism and ablism and sexism are illegal, and yet you see the actual conditions of racialized violence and of the growing apparatus of criminalization worsen. You’ve seen the wealth gap worsen, you’ve seen women still experiencing an enormous wage gap; you’ve seen the attacks on reproductive health worsen. You’ve got to ask what is it about legal inclusion or legal equality frameworks that don’t deliver the goods on the ground?

So what is it?

I think part of what I think I’m learning from my own experience in trans resistance and other movements is that those promises of legal equality that allow state apparatuses of violence to grow in our names don’t actually deliver what we need. To actually get what we need [we need to understand] that grassroots struggle has been whatever has won anything material in terms of material change in the US.

I think the question is how can we turn our attention away from just getting our names on hate crimes law or our names on antidiscrimination laws that aren’t going to deliver the goods, and towards actually building meaningful strategies for dismantling criminal and imprisonment regimes, for getting rid of these violent border regimes that we have and for actually addressing poverty. 

PART TWO: “Trickle-Up Social Justice”

How did you get involved in all of this? How did you grow up? 

I grew up in central Virginia with a single mom and then later with some foster parents. I grew up as a poor person. I think that that had a lot of impact on my understanding of the world, and also with a single parent and seeing the sexism my mom experienced as a low-wage worker trying to get by in the welfare system. I think I was heavily politicized by the mid-nineties welfare reform, which really helped me understand the stakes of some important policies that I really cared about. I was also really politicized by feminist and queer movements in that same time period. I think that led me to sort of formulate the politics that said, How can we have racial and economic justice be the center of queer-trans resistance, instead of an afterthought or something that is entirely left behind? 

Do you have success stories you want to share? I know you are involved heavily with fights to stop the building of a new youth prison in Seattle and similarly involved with the stop-and-frisk campaigns in New York.…

I think some of the most exciting strategies I see around the country are strategies to stop the expansion of criminalization and immigration enforcement. That looks like a lot of different things on the ground. It looks like people in local places like what we are doing in Seattle, trying to stop to stop the building of new prisons and jails—that’s huge. The system keeps expanding, it keeps sucking more people into it and hurting them while they’re there and not solving any of our problems.

Also, there’s a major national movement to stop what Obama has called “secure communities,” the framework increasing the participation between immigration enforcement and criminalization.

It’s also seen, obviously, in SB 1070, the famous controversial “show me your papers” law in Arizona. That whole trend towards criminalizing immigration and forcing more and more immigrants to live under worsening conditions is being fought back at so many levels. Also, the campaigns against stop-and-frisk here in New York City that have been very publicized. All of these are efforts to look at what is making this system keep devouring our communities; how do we dismantle brick by brick these really harmful machines that are leading these communities into these prisons, and how do we actually build what we need to be safe?

There are two things that I want to quickly lift up from your book, related to the way you use language. You don’t talk about discrimination; you talk about “life-shortening.” I’d like to ask you about that choice and you talk about an “imprisoning” society and people being “criminalized.” In most texts you read about people engaging in criminal behavior or “criminality” existing in certain communities. Talk about those choices and the thinking behind them.

The reason that I talk about harm and violence facing communities in terms of “life-shortening” (or sometimes I talk about the “distribution of life chances”) is because I am trying to get us to think in a material way on the ground about why some people’s lives are affected by lack of healthcare, lack of adequate nutrition, being exposed to more pollutants.… The kind of material, harmful conditions that face us, which our communities are trying to resist.

I’m trying to talk about that because I want to move away from a conversation that’s solely about whether we can get the law to say good things about us. The government has declared that it’s not okay to beat up trans people; we have the federal Matthew Shepard/James Byrd Hate Crimes Law and people see it as a big stance against violence. [But it won’t prevent the violence that we’re talking about.]

[Instead, I’d like us to be talking about] all the actual, material conditions that are shortening our lives, that are happening all the time and are being exploited and increased by austerity measures—and other moves from that same government that declares that our deaths are a problem. 

I think part of what the book is trying to do is shift us away from asking, What does the law say about us to what are legal structures doing to us and how do we actually resolve those material conditions?

In other words, emphasize the active verbs around criminalizing and imprisoning?

Yes. We live in a country where twenty-four hours a day you can watch Law and Order on TV. There’s a lot of propaganda around criminality that tells us that there are these dangerous bad people, serial killers, serial rapists, who’ve got this criminal behavior problem.

In reality or criminal justice system works very differently. The reality is that all of us break laws all of the time, but that only certain people and certain communities are heavily policed and pushed into prisons (usually for very low-level crimes related to poverty).

When we move away from thinking about individual criminals and bad people (which is the fiction that justifies the system) and look instead at these giant nets that are cast over (primarily) people of color and poor people in communities so as to bring more and more people into these private prison systems, where prison guard unions and prison corporations are seeking to influence politicians to pass more criminalizing laws (that will fill the beds and make more money).…

It’s a very different way of thinking about what criminality is, what crime is and what we would actually do to try and have a safer country. 

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Does it change your perspective on change making? And how social justice increases in society? We are often led to believe that if you let some people forward the rest will follow, but you suggest that it’s the other way around. 

One of the ideas that I care a lot about is an idea that I call “trickle-up social justice” as opposed to “trickle-down.” One of the ways of thinking about social change is, let’s get one of the few most charismatic people, the people that look the most like what society already thinks are good people, and have a few really spectacular cases and maybe some New York Times articles about them and people will think that we are good and like us and perhaps we’ll make an advance for everyone. 

It turns out that doesn’t really work.…

It turns out if you solve the problem for the people who are the least vulnerable of the vulnerable, usually you end up mobilizing ideas that actually further the stigma of those who are considered outside or not good enough.

The idea of trickle-up social justice is that we should ethically start with those who are facing the worst conditions, those who are most losing their lives, those people in prison and immigration facilities and experiencing poverty and homelessness. We should start by figuring out how to solve the problems for them and inevitably that will solve the problems for everyone. It doesn’t work in reverse. That’s part of the idea. It’s a critique of the gay and lesbian rights strategy of choosing a few really charismatic, white couples and having that be the image of what an anti-homophobic framework is. That hasn’t really worked out for people on the bottom. 

Dean Spade, Thank you.

Thank you!

Dean Spade is the co founder of the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and the author of Normal Life: Administrative Violence, Critical Trans Politics and the Limits of Law.

Check out Melissa Harris-Perry’s latest column on the dangers of fear-driven policymaking.


Crime and Crisis: Think 'We' Not 'They'

Two interviews conducted over the past few weeks have been rattling around in my brain since the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. Neither one was conducted with school shootings in mind, but both have a strange new resonance now.

Take research psychiatrist Mindy Fullilove, whose work focuses on community cohesion and the psychic stresses of dislocation. When we spoke a few weeks back, our topic was Sandy Relief, not Sandy Hook, but her comments about “we” and “us” keep coming back to me in light of the shootings. The fetishization of Newtown continues apace. I’ve watched CNN anchors examine what seems like every square inch of the town as if looking for some special quality about the place, some distinguishing characteristic that once diagnosed could permit the rest of us to live at a distance from their tragedy. Fullilove said about disasters:

One of the fundamental principles of collective recovery is that there is no “them” and there is no “there” it’s “we” and it’s “here” we’re all involved. The scale of this is hard for the normal human, small mind like mine to grasp. I think we’re all dealing with dislocation and root shock and we can’t think of it as them over there.

Similarly, Dean Spade and I weren’t talking school shootings when we sat down together last month. We were discussing justice for trans people and his book, Normal Life, which includes a powerful critique of the incarceration system. No one’s saying—and I am not saying now—that a crime wasn’t committed in Newtown. But this conversation with Spade reminds me to think less about criminal people, and more about criminalizing systems. Asked about crime and “criminality” (in a very different context) Spade had this to say:

When we move away from thinking about individual criminals and bad people, which is kind of the fiction that justifies the system, and instead looking at these giant nets that are cast over primarily of people of color and poor people in communities, to bring more and more people into these private prison systems, where prison guard unions and prison corporations are seeking to influence politicians to pass more criminalizing laws that will fill the beds and make more money.… it’s a very different way of thinking about what criminality is, what crime is and what we would actually do to try and have a safer country.”

Below, you’ll find links to both interviews. Spade’s is in two parts. In a separate post, I’ll post the full transcript of our entire conversation. Tell me what you think.

In Drug War, Small Victories Are Not the Revolution. Director Eugene Jarecki [VIDEO]

Eugene Jarecki is an author and a filmmaker, the director of Freakanomics, The Trials of Harry Kissinger, Why We Fight and, most recently, The House I Live In.

The House I Live In, his documentary about the drug war, leaves one thinking that nothing will ever change, but recently something did. On election night voters in Colorado and Washington State voted to legalize recreational marijuana and voters in California passed a ballot initiative to end that state’s controversial mandatory minimum law, “three strikes and you’re out.” Jarecki sees possibility for more change to come but danger in imagining small victories will win the war-against-the-war.

Says Jarecki: “I think these are small victories, and I think we have to be very careful not to let small victories woo us into any sense of false comfort. We need a revolution in the war on drugs. We need to absolutely throw this thing out, relegate it to the ash heap of history and start again with real information about what drugs really do, about how they affect human health and about what to be afraid of and what not and how to treat people.”

See a clip of the movie and watch our conversation in full here. A transcript follows, below:

Laura Flanders: The day after the election what stuck out to you? What did you wake up feeling? Good mood? Bad mood?

Eugene Jarecki: It was with a guarded kind of optimism, but optimism nonetheless. On one level you look at the presidential election: the re-election of Barack Obama is far more significant than his original election…. The American people by a majority are saying we’ve seen this guy on the job in very hard times, we’ve watched him go gray on the job, and frankly seeing his performance we think he would simply do a better job than the other guy, the other white, patrician, wealthy guy, and that’s an important moment in American life in terms of race; there’s no way around that whatever one thinks of Barack Obama (and I have been quite a critic of Barack Obama), that’s a victory and it’s an important victory for our evolution in race, but of course it also revealed another half of the country feels actually not very progressed in terms of race. A lot of the antagonism towards Obama is expressed in rather thinly veiled old notions of how to involve in race speak in American life. So that was a little disorienting, so I will call that bittersweet.

But against that backdrop there were great positives on Election Day that didn’t have to do with the presidential election, and I allude here to the victories in the state of Washington, the state of Colorado and the state of California. In Washington and Colorado we saw legalization of marijuana. As a maker of a movie about the drug war, that’s very important to me, because I think those victories demonstrate a certain frailty in the system and they demonstrate a public appetite for going about this differently, for starting to recognize that the way we’ve dealt with drugs over the past forty years has been a disaster and that we need a course correction. In the state of California the victory was almost more significant because Californians as it turns out voted 68 percent to revise the notorious three-strikes law in California.

Prior to election day the three-strikes law in California could put you in jail for the rest of your life for a third offense that was petty or nonviolent—as trivial as stealing a slice of pizza or stealing dental cream or socks, as one person got a life sentence for. When you see such an absurd law as that finally get addressed by the public who voted to say, henceforth under what was called Prop 36, California law has now been changed. Now the third strike that puts you in jail for life has to be serious or violent. That’s what we should think would put you in jail for life, but that hadn’t been the case for decades and now it is the case. I think that sends a message across the nation, not only in California (which led the nation into draconian sentencing), that they can begin to lead us out toward a more sane place. But for anyone who doesn’t care about the humanity of it, this will save the state over $100 million dollars a year, and I want to send that message to other state governments who are hemorrhaging money and themselves have excessive sentencing policies in the drug war.

How did the US come to spend a trillion dollars on a so-called “war on drugs”?

I can’t underscore just how disastrous the drug war has been. We’ve been at this for forty years, it’s our longest war, we’ve spent a trillion dollars, we’ve had 45 million drug arrests and what do we have to show for it, a record of abject failure. Drugs are cheaper, purer, more available than ever before. We have the world’s largest prison population in real numbers, 2.3 million people behind bars, and of course more of our citizens behind bars than any other nation as well. So we look at the numbers and they speak of such a tragic error and misguided policy that the question is, How long will it take until it dawns on our policy makers what I think the American people increasingly know which is that this is a gigantic waste of money and time, where we can’t afford a waste of money, and it is denigrating a cross section of our population, particularity minorities, particularly poor people, particularly people of color, and has been doing so for decades to the incredible detriment of that community, and the detriment of ourselves and our standing in the world.

In your film you show how we got here; the private interests of corporations and the public interests of politicians were both drivers. Given the popularity of getting “tough on crime” and the self-perpetuating nature of this criminalization of a whole section of a population…. What happened? I mean with that kind of machine pushing in one direction how did voters in California, Colorado, Washington say “stop”?

To sort of put this in five easy pieces we can look at the drug war in the following way, we’ve had drug laws going back in this country to the 1800s. The first drug laws we saw were opium laws that were, lo and behold, targeted towards Chinese immigrant populations coming to America. In a way that we saw that these were thinly veiled laws of racial control. We made opium illegal, but only in California, and only the way Chinese people were taking it, which was to smoke it. Everywhere else in the country it was legal. So we were very selective with our opium laws and we used it to harass and incarcerate Chinese immigrants. That gave way to a new chapter in the Mexicanization of hemp, which was suddenly renamed “marijuana” so that we could use it as what we called “Mexican Opium” to stop and detain Mexicans in new and startling numbers.

Chapter by chapter we’ve seen drug laws in the history of this country really be thinly veiled laws of racial control. It wasn’t until 1971 that this was declared a “war.” Richard Nixon stood in front of the American people and declared a war on drugs. When he did that he unleashed the dogs of war. What had been an ad hoc series of improvised laws over time suddenly got codified into a national policy, and a national policy on a wartime footing. What does a wartime footing imply? It implies all of the horrors of war: the incredible casualties, the mass scale and the entrenched economic and bureaucratic interests that arise that sense of a threat. The moment you could now say this is not just a little group here or there, but this is public enemy number-one, as Richard Nixon called drug abuse. Well, you can’t declare a war on a substance like drugs anymore than you can declare war on terror. The war on terror was a war on people we associate with terrorist activities. The war on drugs was a war on people we associate as being involved with drugs. That ended up being a very specific, a very racially targeted and ultimately economically targeted cross section of our population.

How does this machine gather the critical mass that it has gathered to basically continue in spite of its record of incredible failure? That’s where it really becomes clear that it is an unholy alliance between the corporate sector who prey upon our fellow citizens for profit because they need a flood of bodies coming through the system that they need to feed, house, provide phone service, provide meals for, provide all of that kind of thing. There’s a profiteering engine on the backs of people. Then of course they need the help of those in Congress that make the laws that create the flood of bodies. You have in Congress people who basically work for those corporate interests and they tell the public scary things that are meant to make us vote for “tough-on-crime” laws. Those tough-on-crime laws are really just ways of ensuring that a flood of bodies keeps flowing through the system: we have tougher and tougher laws, and they keep people in for longer and longer, for less and less violent and less and less serious crimes.

So let’s go back to my question of what changed. We have rising competition over living wages and quality jobs; we have increased racial anxiety as the demographics of this country change. Politicians are the same old bunch. What changed that these ballot initiatives got passed?

Well, I think more and more Americans are either drug users or familiar with a drug user. How many of us know somebody who is an addict? Is our natural response when a friend comes to us in a relapse, or “I’m hooked on this substance or that,” is the first thing we do is to call the police? It’s just not common sense. It’s not what any of us would do. We would try to find a soft landing for the person, a medical person, or a help group or an anonymous group or something. We would actually try to find something that helps the person on that path forward. None of us, with what we now know about addiction (which is now more than we knew forty years ago) would see that’s the right way to do it. The trail of failure, the economic disaster from it, and our own sense that we’ve come of age and it doesn’t make sense as public policy, that’s all coming together. The victories in Colorado, Washington and California all demonstrate that the public is shifting in their sense of this as a priority. I hope they are shifting to remember that drug abuse is an always was a health matter, a personal health matter and perhaps a public health matter. It was never a matter for criminal justice. It was never appropriate for someone who has an addiction to send them into the arms of a police officer when they should have been sent into the arms of a doctor, or a healthcare professional.

We should be clear that voters in Colorado and Washington state voted to regulate recreational marijuana in the same way that alcohol is regulated, not to lift all laws entirely. What happens next and what happens next in the struggle of California around mandatory minimums and sentencing?

I think these are small victories, and I think we have to be very careful not to let small victories woo us into any sense of false comfort. We need a revolution in the war on drugs. We need to absolutely throw this thing out, relegate it to the ash heap of history and start again with real information about what drugs really do, about how they affect human health and about what to be afraid of and what not and how to treat people.

We need a revolution, but when you want a revolution it’s sort of like a pot of water on a stove with a cover, it starts to boil. It really needs to boil and at a certain point it needs to blow up in order for the real meaning of change to take hold. A small victory like this doesn’t’ do that, but it does show that the system is vulnerable. The danger of course is each time you have a small victory it’s as if you let a little bit of steam out of the pot and all that means is that you delay the moment of explosion and you delay the moment of a serious overhaul because people tend to think that drug war, didn’t that get fixed in Colorado and Washington? I think that’s fine, we’re on the road to recovery. Americans are busy, we’re overworked already so we’re just looking at a way to put any issue out of our mind. They keep stacking them up. Every time we turn around there’s a new part of our society that’s really calling out for attention as a dire situation. So we want to be able to go back to sleep, but we can’t go back to sleep. This is only the beginning, and people have to recognize that these victories show some vulnerability and indicate how important it is to continue the fight to end the drug war.

Why do you feel so strongly about this, and who in your movie surprised you most?

I grew up in a time in America, in the wake of the civil rights movement where for a lot of young people like me who came out of a Jewish Holocaust past—my parents fled Nazi Germany on one side and the czars of Russia on the other. They came to America and they taught the boys in my family—we’re all boys—they taught us that our lives would only make sense if they were devoted to social justice here in America as we had not enjoyed it in Europe, and that we were supposed to be messengers about the kind of suffering that we and others endured. My life has been really a story of trying to live up to that legacy, and try to be a messenger about the dangers to democracy that can arise in societies, and dangers to human dignity. So I’m driven by something that goes way back in myself.

In terms of the American experience I then grew up in the wake of the civil rights movement where I watched the promise of the movement in many ways not take hold. The young African-Americans all around me when I was growing up , I thought we were all in the same footing; I thought it would turn out the same way for all of us. I found myself very blessed finding opportunities in my life that were terrific and inspiring and a world of possibilities, and I found that they weren’t [having the same experience]. They were finding obstacle after obstacle that included tremendous brushes with the criminal justice system and a very disproportionate set of laws and approaches by law enforcement. And I began to see that in the system of mass incarceration that was overtaking the Black community, what Michelle Alexander recently called in her book the “new Jim Crow.” I saw a new Jim Crow emerging in my own way, and I wanted to do something about it.

I went across the country to about twenty-five states and talked to people at all levels of the system from the drug dealer, to the drug user, from the family member to the community, to the cop, the judge, the warden; everybody up and down the sort of family tree of those involved in the drug war. What I found is that everybody is a victim. I thought I was going to find winners and losers, heroes and villains, that kind of black-and-white stuff that movies are made of. It made it harder to make the movie because any time I found anybody it turned out they had a deep story with the war on drugs, even if they were a jailer, or a warden or a cop. They weren’t immune from the broad brush that this war on drugs has painted. It has hurt their lives, it has degraded what they do for a living. It has often hurt their own family members who are on the other side of—on the receiving end of the law. By and large I found that they were all calling out for reform. Amazingly, inside the system there is this human majesty where people—you know a cop—would tell me from the front seat of his patrol car “I don’t agree with what I am doing, I am arresting the same people day in day out, week in week out, this isn’t working. “ Then I would get inside the courtroom and the judge would tell me from his bench –he would cry out for saner sentencing laws because Congress is passing mandatory minimum laws that take away the discretion of a judge. We think judges make the decision, they don’t. In the majority of cases the judges have a prescribed sentence that he/she has to give that basically is a rubber stamper with his/her hands tied.

Of course then I would go into the prisons themselves and find security chief Mike Carpenter, who is a fellow inside a prison in Oklahoma, an amazingly thoughtful, deep thinking person who I first thought was a caveman, and it took sitting down with him to discover that no, this guy has a deep appreciation of what he’s doing and of what’s wrong with the system that he’s functioning in. All of these voices inspired me enormously because they say to me that if people inside the system can take the tremendously courageous step of coming from the place where their very job and livelihood itself is vulnerable, of speaking out and asking for reform, then for the rest of us it should be our daily work to pursue such reform because that is such an example for us to follow.

If people want to get involved what can they do?

Well, I encourage people to go to our website thehouseilivein.org, where we have tried to put together a kind of a portal that you can enter, you can enter your zip code and by entering your zip code you can learn a great deal about what’s happening where in the country, say, your state New York. Then it will tell you what are all of the issues in the drug war in this state. One of the big ones here is stop and frisk that police are stopping and frisking hundreds of thousands of people each year, an incredible violation of the Fourth Amendment, tremendous scourge on New York. So you can learn about that –who is fighting against it and what you can do. You can write your congressman. There’s a lot of clickables there that let you get involved in that sort of mouse-click revolution that everybody wants. At the end of the day everybody is a voter, at the end of the day you literally have to pursue change with your body, with your mind, with your feet, and with your vote, and there’s no other way. From now on what I would like people to take away most is whatever piece of legislation is coming at them in one election or another, whether local, state or federal they have to develop a tin ear to tough-on-crime rhetoric. Politicians have fed us tough-on-crime rhetoric for decades ever since Richard Nixon coined it. What it does it says vote for me and I will protect you from your neighbor, and it is fear-mongering of the worst kind, and it had led to this $1 trillion disaster. So people need to now, henceforth, when a politician comes to you and tries to work you up about what a danger your neighbor is, understand that they’re advocating something far more dangerous, which is the drug war which has been incredibly terrible example of man’s inhumanity to man. So I would say people demand of their politicians that they come back and when they’re ready to be smart on crime, and until them boo and hiss them until they stop talking that way.

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Finally, Eugene, you have a huge body of work. We’ve talked about a lot of it. A film on Reagan, Freakonomics, Why We Fight, is there a connecting link?

Sure, I am very frightened by the impact of modern capitalism on American democracy. I think that capitalism is destroying democracy in this country because we drank a Kool-Aid under Reagan of a kind of runaway, not mom-and-pop capitalism. We love the idea of entrepreneurs and pioneers who start their little store and make a success of it. Modern capitalism is something else. This is the idea of free market as promoted by people who want anything but a free market, what they want to do is monopolize the free market so mom and pop can’t compete and ultimately go out of business and get replaced by a box store. So that’s the America that I fear because it’s in an America where, you can go into Burger King and you can have it your way and you can design your little burger the way you want to with pickles or mustard, your choice, but Americans don’t realize by entering the Burger King to begin with, a Burger King that’s able to curry incredible favor with your politicians that you can’t. A Burger King that could pollute your water supply and you couldn’t stop them. A Burger King that engage in shady labor practices and you don’t have the power. All of those things that those major corporations are doing, you’ve given away your actual choice already by letting Citizens United and other decisions in this country let loose the dogs of capitalism on the American body politic.

I think that is a theme common to all of my films. I made a film about the military-industrial complex, and how it threw us into war whether we wanted to or not. The majority of the American people are peace seeking and yet we find ourselves in war after war. The American drug war which has [been] perpetuated despite every evidence of its failure by a system of industrialized for-profit incarceration. So many businesses, so many jobs, so many bureaucrats relying upon such an inhumanity as the profiteering on the incarceration of others that that could continue.

I made a film about Reagan who in fact contributed so desperately badly to unleashing these forces and giving them a kind of positive spin that we are still living with and trying to get away from today. So I can’t warn Americans enough about how gravely democracy is imperiled by these forces. When you see New York City under water up to its neck after the storm Sandy, I wonder if we have to wait until the water passes our mouths before we start saying, Do you think the corporations have done something to hurt the environment? It’s almost as if we are not allowed to talk about that which is directly in front of us. My films have been an effort to speak truth to power on this and implore the powerful to recognize they are imperiling the future of life on earth. America carries the hopes of the world with us and as our hopes start to dwindle and fade I think the hopes of the world dwindle and fade. I’m not naïve. I look out there and it’s not that I think something is greatly better than here, I think we might have been as good as it gets, and if we start to fade that’s a terribly heartbreaking and bleak outlook, and so my films are an effort I hope to shed light on the fear that I have of that.

Eugene Jarecki, thank you.

Thank you.

For more on our harshly punitive drug policies, check out Liliana Segura’s “Why Should Medical Marijuana Providers Die in Prison?

After Sandy, Learning From New Orleans: D6 and Beyond

Apparently seeking post-Sandy advice, New York Mayor Bloomberg’s deputies recently paid a visit to New Orleans. According to The New York Times, Deputy Mayors Howard Wolfson, Linda I. Gibbs and Robert K. Steel met with New Orleans officials to discuss recovery and rebuilding. If New York’s development-minded mayor is consulting his equivalents in Louisiana, one can only hope that housing justice activists and especially public housing residents in this city are consulting theirs. When it comes to next steps after Hurricane Sandy, there are lessons to be learned from New Orleans after Katrina. The question is, Which ones will New York learn?

Seven years ago, as Hurricane Katrina was hitting the Gulf Coast, developers and their political allies were already seeing to it that minimum wage laws would be suspended in the name of urgency; they were.  In the weeks following, thousands of public school teachers found themselves out of a job. The city’s free hospital was closed and every public housing development was either partially or totally torn down. Next, came a flood of eyes-on-the prize entrepreneurs with all manner of experiments for new models for housing, healthcare and schools. The results have been mixed, but by all available measures, the Big Easy’s more divided and, all these years on, longtime residents (especially African-Americans), feel more disenfranchised than ever.

Saket Soni, director of the New Orleans Workers Center and a community activist who has worked in that city since the storm, says it’s never too early for residents to start pushing for a place at the decision-making table. Change is going to come for sure, but there’s no guarantee that those who have been directly affected will have any say in shaping that change.

“If we wait for the lights to turn on, then what will happen is, by the time the lights turn on, what will be illuminated is the way public housing was stolen from right under the feet of residents, safety net was taken away," Soni told me in the interview transcribed below.

That’s one reason that December 6's day of coordinated action on housing was so encouraging. Loosely linked under the banner “Occupy Our Homes” grassroots and community groups undertook house occupations and bank protests from Atlanta to San Francisco (you can see pictures and a full account at OccupyOurHomes.org.)

Even more noteworthy, in many ways, is the ongoing work that's been continuing in the Sandy-hit neighborhood of Red Hook in Brooklyn, where residents with the help of Occupy Sandy and the Red Hook Initiative have been responding to immediate needs while simultaneously organizing for political power. Frustrated and angry with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the Red Hook residents recently drew up a list of demands. Among those were an extension of the moratorium on evictions, a suspension of rent, employment for local residents in repair work, and the creation of a community-led board. After their first meeting with residents (and a good amount of pressure from local politicians), NYCHA authorities actually met some of the Red Hook Assembly’s requests last week, but the community-led board and transparency in decision-making are still up for grabs.

The spotlight on housing needs to say firmly fixed. And Katrina survivors might be useful experts to bring to the negotiations. It’s not just jobs that local residents need, Soni says, but jobs with potential for advancement and a say in planning. It’s not just immediate relief but long-term, strategic community organizing that the city needs.

“A story that is very instructive to post-Sandy New Yorkers, I think, is what happened years after public housing was initially brought under the wrecking ball,” says Saket Soni (below.)

“We can’t just have a fight to stay in our communities and get access to work in the context of a recovery. We have to make this recovery an opportunity to imagine what kind of society we want to live in, because that’s exactly what the corporations are doing, that’s exactly what politicians are doing.”

Our conversation was recorded at Facing Race 2012 in Baltimore.

Saket Soni: My name is Saket Soni. I am the director of the National Guestworker Alliance and I am also the director of the New Orleans Worker’s Center, which was founded very shortly after Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of Katrina there was a landscape of severe exploitation and in that context we built a worker center that could organize in African-American and immigrant communities, and build a social movement out of what was happening in the Gulf Coast.

Laura Flanders: How did that happen? Can you remember what it was like in those early weeks and months?

Yes, I got to New Orleans shortly after Katrina in December 2005. Katrina happened in August and three months later there was a small band of volunteers huddled in a small back room of a social service agency that was trying to figure out how to build movement out of what happened. It was a very chaotic time. Now we are used to the phrase “disaster capitalism.” It is one thing to read about it it’s another thing to be there while it’s happening.

The images from that time are still vivid and still haunting. We would wake up in the morning and organizers would get to the day labor corners. Suddenly in New Orleans there were massive spots where day laborers were gathering—African-American and Latino construction workers. One of them was a place in the city called Lee Circle. Imagine an eighteen-foot-tall statue of Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Confederacy—made of granite and marble, looking towards the north to push off the Northern aggression—and there below that statue of Robert E. Lee there are 500 day laborers, African-Americans and immigrants. And buses are coming to pick them up and take them off to the workplace.

There were devastated neighborhoods all over the city; displaced African-Americans primarily; working-class people with their families who wanted to come home. These were neighborhoods without power, neighborhoods devastated, people wanted to come home, build homes and work, but the neighborhoods were barricaded from entry. At the same time, the first places where power was restored and where life was restored was the casinos and the strip clubs and Bourbon Street. Large white vans [would] roll up to the backs of these establishments, doors would open and out would come cleaning crews. Workers would come, clean and then go back into the vans again and leave. The whole city was full of these incredibly intense, vivid images.

There was a hotel on the corner of Bourbon and Canal called the Astral Crowne Plaza. This hotel got millions of dollars in FEMA vouchers to house local people who were displaced from their neighborhoods. These were people who were every day looking for work. They were living by the hundreds in this hotel. I remember arriving at this hotel and right behind the hotel there was this splendid Bourbon Street restored in all its glory: electricity and optimism. Right next door to this hotel were hundreds of local people who couldn’t find work, who were desperate and in the midst of this, this hotel told the Department of Labor under the Bush administration then that they couldn’t find local workers ready or willing to do the work, so the hotel got certified as a guestworker employer and sent recruiters out to Bolivia, to the Dominican Republic and Peru. They brought in guestworkers and wages fell from $14 an hour to $6.09 in the course of a few months. These were the images from post Katrina New Orleans

What happened to public housing?

Of all the stories of heroism after Hurricane Katrina, the stories of the residents of public housing who refused to vacate, who refused to give up their right to remain on their land and in the community in New Orleans and just asserted their right to be who they are, to stay with the people they love is one of the most remarkable stories.

The fight over public housing is not legend; it’s really a fight over the soul of New Orleans. These were buildings, four developments in particular, that are vast and extremely valuable tracks of land. After Katrina, developers and corporations and government officials had the perfect opportunity to take it over. What ensued was a massive debate about the value of public housing and an incredibly cruel corporate campaign to displace thousands of African-Americans.

The displacement of these people was not just an issue of housing. It was also an issue of voting power, and what happened to public housing now is widely known. The residents essentially lost and public housing was destroyed and is still undergoing destruction and redevelopment.

A story that is very instructive to post-Sandy New Yorkers, I think, is what happened years after public housing was initially brought under the wrecking ball. Two years ago in a public housing development called BW Cooper, the last of the big four to undergo construction, residents of public housing started waking up and seeing a chain link fence erected between them and their development. [The residents started] seeing construction start on their development. These are people who, not only is it hard for them to find a job, they are structurally locked out of the economy, these are people who are workers; they are willing and able to work, they would wake up every day and watch the construction happen, and there was no work in the community. They had to start a campaign to embarrass contractors and the housing authority to actually get on the yard.

When they got on the yard we ultimately won forty jobs after a three-month-long public campaign. It turned out that all of those jobs were temp jobs and African-Americans were really mistreated on the yard. So we started a massive career ladder campaign, which is really a campaign led by public housing residents in New Orleans to win careers, not just jobs in the context of reconstruction.

What happened after Katrina was that a city turned into the biggest construction site in the country. I imagine that is largely what is happening in post-Sandy New York. Some of the things that were instructive about New Orleans was that firstly, we all have to know that disaster capitalism is going to happen, but in that context it is also possible to build a kind of disaster collectivism, people working together; people experiencing again what it means to struggle within community, these things are going to very important.

Secondly, we can’t just have a fight to stay in our communities and get access to work in the context of a recovery. We have to make this recovery an opportunity to imagine what kind of society we want to live in, because that’s exactly what the corporations are doing, that’s exactly what politicians are doing. It’s up to communities to imagine what kind of city they want, what kind of state they want. In New Orleans the residents of BW Cooper are not just fighting for the next six months of work. They are trying to figure out how they can have long term training in the construction industry, how they can have careers, how they rebuild a neighborhood around their public housing development and how, ultimately, they can be part of the economy in New Orleans. That’s the kind of creativity and long term thinking, I think, that will be very important.

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You talked about coming to New Orleans in the December after the hurricane. A lot of people came to New Orleans in the wake of what happened. A lot of people are now coming from other parts of the city and parts of the country to New York to try and help with the relief efforts. What do we need to know about that and how to do we help communities build a voice for themselves? What’s the role of those who out of the goodness of their hearts try and offer relief?

I think it’s a lot like post Katrina New Orleans. I remember how people from all walks of life just came, some had tools and some didn’t, and frankly that included me. I was an organizer in Chicago, my tool was a clipboard and a bunch of papers in my backpack and I went to help and to be part of reconstruction. Everyone who is coming is coming because they are driven by purpose. They feel connected to the destiny of New York and they want to help rebuild and it’s important that they be let in and it’s important that they help, but it’s also important that we don’t forget that the State plays an incredibly important role in ultimately robustly rebuilding New York and New Orleans. It can’t just be done by vans of well-intentioned individuals. No matter how far to the right the governors of New Jersey or Louisiana are, in the midst of disaster people are always clear about the roles of government. Bobby Jindal asks for relief do does Chris Christie.

In these kinds of moments when the country is descending on New York, we need to turn New York into something more than just a construction site. We need to turn it into ground zero for demanding a much more robust role of government in making sure people have fair housing, and in making sure people have a safety net; in making sure, for example, that thousands of workers who are part time, contingent, contract workers, workers largely in construction and services who are going to service the recovery, who are going to help get back to a fully recovered New York, all of these people need an expanded safety net. They have to have access to healthcare while they are doing difficult work. They have to have access to some kind of benefits while they’re doing this dangerous work.

When can you start having these conversations? Is it too early when people are still out of their homes?

I read recently that the number of New Yorkers who believe in climate change before this happened was 60 percent and now it’s 90 percent. I’m assuming it’s generally true even if the numbers aren’t scientific. I think the conversation about climate change, about housing access, about the future of public housing and the important of residents remaining in their communities; [the conversation about] the importance of workers having a safety net as they work… it’s never too early to start these conversations. We have to start them now. If we wait for the lights to turn on then what will happen is, by the time the lights turn on, what will be illuminated is the way public housing was stolen from right under the feet of residents, safety net was taken away. By the time the lights turn on, there will be neon signs where there was once public housing about the next corporate building that will be erected there and it will be too late. I think for workers and for families the conversation has to start now and it has to be a national conversation. There’s not a person in the world in some place in their heart or constitution a New Yorker. That’s what we have to use to have this conversation about what kind of community we want to build—What is the city of the next forty years?

For more on the D6 action to Occupy Our Homes, check out our interview with housing activist Yolanda Andrews.

Austerity: A Violation of Human Rights?

Have you ever wished there was a set of standards by which budgets could be assessed that didn’t have to do with deficit hawks and stimulus sparrows pecking each other’s eyes out in the constricted ring of corporate opinion?

A noble little park opened in New York City last month: Four Freedoms Park. In the coverage of the Louis Kahn structure (which seems to rise like a ship out of Manhattan’s East River), remarkably little was made of the title. From Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s address to Congress in 1941, “the Four Freedoms” are core requirements for humane political and economic existence:

“For there is nothing mysterious about the foundations of a healthy and strong democracy,” said Roosevelt. “The basic things expected by our people of their political and economic systems are simple. They are: Equality of opportunity for youth and for others. Jobs for those who can work. Security for those who need it. The ending of special privilege for the few. The preservation of civil liberties for all. The enjoyment of the fruits of scientific progress in a wider and constantly rising standard of living.”

The “four freedoms” FDR named (which would eventually be incorporated into what became the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), were freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. The last of those FDR defined as “a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.”

Watching the carnage in the Middle East and anticipating the arms-bonanza that is sure to follow it’s hard not to wince. CNN’s coverage alone, with its feverish fascination with Israel’s purported missile-defense prowess, is sure to result in yet a new boom for the death merchants in that country and ours.

But human rights standards aren’t only for international actors, says economist Radhika Balakrishnan. We could do with some good human rights lawyers in the budget debate in Washington. Balakrishnan is the director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University. She is also co-editor of Economic Policy and Human Rights: Holding Governments to Account.

“Looking at the election we have just been through, if we had been looking at this from a human rights lens, every candidate would have to have spoken about poverty,” Balakrishnan explained, because governments have obligations to the most vulnerable in the society. The United States hasn’t ratified many international human rights accords, but it has signed some. Under those, humans have rights and governments have duties, among those the duty to use the “maximum available resources” to realize the basic human rights of its people.

“All of these discussions that are taking place as ‘you’re for the rich or you’re for the poor’ can be addressed in a very different way,” reflects Balakrishnan. 

Austerity as a human rights violation? It certainly puts a different spin on things. We spoke as the Center was about to kick off its 16 Days Campaign, a concentrated season of activism on violence against women.

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Click here to learn more about the center. To watch my conversation with Professor Balakrishnan in full and to find out why the Federal Reserve needs human rights observers, watch this.

Luckily, a few in Congress are heeding the human rights approach by championing a budget that protects social services. Check out Katrina vanden Heuvel on “The Budget Deal We Deserve.”

Back From the Brink

Contrary to the views of Missouri Republican Todd Akin, women are not able to “shut down” conception after “legitimate rape” but women were able to shut down some misogynistic assaults, and that’s just what happened last night. The 113th Congress will convene with binders full of women: nineteen, the highest number of women senators ever, including Claire McCaskill who soundly defeated Representative Akin in a state that voted for Mitt Romney.

Four years ago, we were talking about the campaign of a long-shot candidate, Barack Obama for the presidency. President Obama’s re-election came about thanks to long-shot movements that pulled off victories against the odds and against many conventional “wisdoms.” Long-shot victories like Tammy Baldwin’s. A pro-labor, progressive “out” lesbian in Wisconsin defeated four-term former Governor, Tommy Thompson, one of the most powerful politicians in the state. Her victory was won by a fired-up grassroots field team comprised of labor, women, LGBT and immigrant groups who forged their alliance in the fight against governor Scott Walker’s draconian attack on public workers and voting rights. First-time candidate Elizabeth Warren defeated onetime Tea Party darling Senator Scott Brown in Massachusetts. A champion of Wall Street reform, Warren was persuaded and supported to run by activists outraged by the power of the too-big-to-jail banksters. Warren will now join the same Senate that refused to confirm her to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Voters approved ballot initiatives that made history on issues no party would lead on. In Colorado and Washington state voters legalized marijuana for recreational use, becoming the first US states to do so and setting up a potential clash with the federal government. In Montana, voters overwhelmingly approved a measure that would limit corporate spending on elections, while Colorado voters also resoundingly approved a measure backing a constitutional amendment that would call for the same. Maryland, Maine and Washington voters became the first in this country to affirmatively approve marriage equality. Even ten years ago, nobody would have thought marriage equality was a winning issue. Elected leaders, even many movement leaders ran from the topic.

Against an unprecedented assault on voting rights and a tsunami of anonymous insidious Supreme Court–sanctioned campaign cash, people voted in spite of huge challenges. They beat back voter-suppression tactics and stood for hours in long lines in battleground states. In New Jersey and New York, survivors of Hurricane Sandy left their cold, dark homes and went out into the cold, dark streets to cast a ballot on a wing and a prayer that this vote would somehow make a difference.

Americans came back from a brink last night, but those prayers and passions are precious. The waters are still rising, the wealth gap is still gaping and 42 percent of the wealth is still in the hands of 1 percent of us. As far as the world is concerned, there is no comfort or security in Obama’s foreign policy, with its deadly disrespect for international law and lopsided, America-first moral code.

Let us learn from the Dreamers, the young immigrants who made themselves a force to be reckoned with this election. People lead; leaders follow. It could have been worse. People led us back from a brink last night, but it will require the irrepressible force of powerful, passionate social movements that believe in themselves as much as they believe any politician, if we are to force the ship of state off its conventional course, and if f we are to live up to the determination, bravery and smarts that voters showed this election.

For more on the importance of last night's elections, check out The Nation editors on "A Progressive Surge."

Goldman Sachs Building Is Bright, but Occupy Shines

Hi all. Greetings from Lower Manhattan. Without power, access to the Internet or any kind of phone service, my news is nowhere near as interesting or as useful as my cousin’s (below).

In a nutshell, what I’ve learned amounts to this: support and keep alive your local independent radio station. Never, ever, throw away that old bag of camping gear. As soon as you can, purchase a lightweight flashlight/headlamp. Share cowboy coffee with your neighbors if you’re lucky enough to have it (and them). All are invaluable. Also, love any local library that will let you in, anyone with a wireless router who leaves their network open and be glad of a toilet tank which you can access.

I’m fine, this is not about me, but most of the hospitals in lower Manhattan have now been evacuated, except for Beth Israel (which seems to be open). Those who need hospital services are spending hours each day commuting. When downtown New Yorkers come out of this, we need to fight like hell for a full-service hospital in our community.

Finally, one last thing from me:

Goldman Sachs's streetDear Lloyd Blankfein, Chief Executive Officer of Goldman Sachs: The global headquarters of your firm is situated in Battery Park City. The well-to-do community built on landfill west of the World Trade Center, connects, I am told, to a different grid from the rest of lower Manhattan. Still, 200 Water Street seems to have kept every light on every floor illuminated since Sunday. Are you trying to send a message to the rest of us about your power? From our very dark, increasingly quiet and cold apartments we see you through our windows and we get it.

And now to cousin Chloe. She reports from Wiliamsburg:

Thursday, Nov 1. 12.35 am

I am writing this from my dining room table in my well-lit apartment with chips and avocado by my side and a glass of fresh, cold, clean water. My cellphone is charged and my house is warm. Williamsburg came through the storm almost completely unscathed. Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers were not so lucky. If you want to know how you can help, go here.

Today I volunteered from 11am to 9 pm at the Red Hook Initiative, a youth services organization serving the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, whose incredible staff (who live in public housing) opened their doors today to operate as an impromptu center for receiving and distributing supplies, cooking and serving a ton of food for something like 200 people, and giving out information to comfort to the community. They are the only thing going in that area so far (I heard reports of some other places maybe starting up but not sure whether they are really up and running yet). The local community center owned and run by NYCHA (Housing Authority) was closed. People are very stressed, frustrated and scared to be living in the dark. There are robberies happening at night. People can’t see in the stairwell. They are afraid to leave their homes but they have no supplies. There are diabetics who need to refrigerate their medicine. There are elderly people who can’t walk down stairs. There are mothers with small children who can’t get diapers—all the stores are closed. People can’t shower or cook or wash anything. I was told that 70 percent of people living in public housing down there, which someone estimated was 15,000–20,000 people, are without power. Keep in mind that this community is already highly marginalized—far from services, with peeling paint and poor management, where people in at least one building last year went three months without stoves and were told to cook on hot plates instead. Nevertheless, when people came to us today they were calm, polite and grateful. People lined up for batteries, candles, clothing and food, and I didn’t hear any tense words all day.

The woman in charge today was a middle-aged African-American lady named Cheryl with a big voice, a lot of energy, a lot of organizational drive, and anger at city government for constantly turning its back on Red Hook. Also a key presence was Tony, a large, loving, Muslim woman who had a gentle word for everyone in the whole place and who seemed to have every teenager in the projects under her thumb. Cheryl was assisted by a squadron of young women and a few young men who organized people to come charge their phones, printed flyers, entertained children, brought word to the people out in the projects about what was going on, sorted and distributed clothes and a ton of other tasks.

On the volunteer side, there were a half-dozen occupy trained organizers on-site doing kitchen, social networking and media outreach, community outreach (biking around to any local organization or establishment that might have resources or information) and organizational infrastructure. Today I saw Occupy alive, providing much-needed support and coordination of efforts to help the slightly overwhelmed RHI staff serve the population. An incredible woman in a bright pink sweater stepped up to coordinate all the kitchen work—her name is Lisa, but I call her Pink Wonder Woman. A student named Zoltan biked around to all the local community service providers and attempted to figure out who else can come online to help distribute supplies and food. About fifteen to twenty-five other volunteers were on site—maybe Occupy or not, I’m not sure—who chopped and prepared food and processed intake and distribution. People arrived throughout the day to deliver supplies of all kinds, all of which were needed. Paper towels, batteries, flashlights, toilet paper, paper plates, non-perishable ready to eat foods, water (tons of water)—all gratefully received and redistributed.

When I arrived this morning, I was first told to drive people to the grocery store, but that direction got nixed by Cheryl, who deemed that a really inefficient use of resources. This turned out to be a good call as there was tons of food coming in the door. Cheryl early on called for a 4  pm community assembly at a nearby public landmark (“the flagpole”) and asked me to help coordinate messaging to the outside world via social networks, especially seeking media contacts to come report on what was going on at RHI and to spread the word about the meeting. Over the course of the day, I spent several hours e-mailing everyone I could think of and getting linked up to other nodes in the Occupy network. I found out that one old friend of mine has a direct line to FEMA, so was sending information to that person about Red Hook to try to put us on the map. A Village Voice reporter contacted me and I put him on the phone with Tony the neighborhood grandma, who described in exquisite detail the suffering that she was seeing in the neighborhood. Early on in the day volunteers passed out forms for needs assessment, which pretty much all came back saying the same thing (flashlights, batteries, water, food, etc.), so I passed that information on to the networks. I contacted a local representative I met last winter and got him to spread the word about the 4 pm assembly to his contacts. I researched information about timelines and services and worked with the team to put together an agenda for the 4 pm assembly.

At 4 pm, I encouraged Cheryl to tear herself away from RHI to come to the assembly. She left people in charge of letting people in the door to charge their phones. No one was allowed to come take supplies between 4 pm and 6 pm to allow the volunteers to prepare the dinner. We walked three blocks down and saw that there were about 100 people gathered at the flagpole being addressed by Zoltan, who updated them on what resources were being distributed out of RHI and what the wider situation in NYC is. People were very hungry for information about when the power would come back, about FEMA, about the water that had flooded their basements. They wanted to know about food and shelter and why all the services were moving so slowly. Cheryl and the rest of us made announcements to the crowd about what resources and information we have. We asked people to come back at 10am to form working groups and at 4 pm for another community assembly. We will keep having those every day until the power returns. A representative from Congresswoman Velazquez’s office spoke about what is going on throughout the district. There are something like 85,000 public housing residents without power. Coney Island is ravaged. The LES is ravaged. Frustrated residents complained about the slow response—he promised to bring that information back to his boss.

At the meeting, I was approached by a woman from the Cobble Hill parents’ list who said she was coordinating supplies and as many volunteers as we could use. We were joined by two women from Trinity Church who are in charge of two massive semi trucks full of supplies that are being delivered here and in downtown Manhattan tomorrow for distribution. I put them and the other organizers from today on an e-mail chain so we can coordinate our resources and information, which is always challenging in a fast moving situation.

At 6 pm, RHI opened its roll-up side door to a line of hundreds of people who had been patiently waiting for food. Each person received a plate of hot food, a small bag of supplies (water, canned goods, candles), some candy if they wanted it, baby food if necessary, and paper towels and toilet paper if they needed it. People were very grateful for our help and the mood was good. They covered their food with tin foil and carried it away back to dark buildings, where other children and grandmothers and sick people waited for help.

Tomorrow we are going to do it all again, hopefully this time building on the lessons of today (have a volunteer coordinator, for example), and hopefully being able to process the large influx of volunteers and supplies we are going to get.

The upshot for Red Hook is that it is very close to wealthy communities of people who want to donate their time, money, and stuff to help. I must say that Lower Manhattan is not so lucky—there is a massive amount of people there without access to food (stores all closed), power, Internet, etc. I am hoping that there are some major efforts to get relief there working because so far, there is nothing doing.

Love, peace,
Chloë Cockburn.

Whether you're in New York or elsewhere, find out more about how you can help with hurricane relief.

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