“9-11 Truth”—political silver bullet or morass of bullshit?

January 12, 2008

There is a growing undercurrent of dissatisfaction with the official story presented about the events of Sept. 11, 2001. At times, among certain people, it has become a divide, even a hostile divide. Cottage industries, internet “experts,” and swirls of information have created a vortex of speculative websites and taken the genuine need for investigation off into a fantasy realm of competing theories, pronouncements and conjecture often going off the deep end into absurdity.

We know for sure that the full story is not out, that there are questions that need to be investigated. We know the deaths on that day have been breathtakingly used by the Bush administration to launch wars, profiteering, and attacks on our civil liberties and right to organize. Was there foreknowledge of the attacks, and the plot allowed to unfold? This we can believe, because we’ve seen it before with the first World Trade Center attack in the 90’s and with the Oklahoma City bombing, both infiltrated but not stopped. Was it an “inside job” with remote controlled planes, pre-planted explosives, and a vast conspiracy of silence among the conspirators? Unlikely. We already know this government is capable of lying, of planning and executing coups and electoral fraud here and abroad, and funding and facilitating proxy wars. But much of it is by now pretty transparent–from the Republican mob action in Florida to shut down the vote count, to the Downing Street memo, to the retaliation against Valerie Plame to punish her husband for speaking out against the official story on Saddam seeking uranium from Niger.

Much as Cointelpro, the FBI’s counterintelligence program of the ’60’s and 70’s, sought to sow disputes within the left, and in many cases succeeded in their mission, the current and growing “911 Truth” tendency has the progressive movement divided over speculations and competing theories, rather than united around fighting against the concrete things the government has been forced to admit.

We have encountered many people for whom 9-11 conspiracy speculations take priority in their politics. We have been told we are gullible, ‘aren’t really radical,’ or that we’re ‘apologists’ for the regime if we don’t enthusiastically accept the latest assertions about empty planes, a missile hitting the Pentagon, controlled demolition of the towers, or the collapse of the infamous WTC building 7. Indeed, there seems to be an index–the vaster the conspiracy you will accept, the more ‘in the know’ you are, and the less vulnerable you are to the administration’s lies.

For some, the ‘9-11 inside job’ idea has become the silver bullet that will fix the American political scene. If only this 9-11 conspiracy were revealed, the thinking goes, suddenly everyone would understand how rotten our system is and move to undo it. Or, as an ad placed in this issue claims (on this page in the print edition) the silver bullet of 9-11 truth is a necessary precondition to ending the war.

This is a dreamer’s quick fix which evades the work we need to do to convince our fellow citizens about the pretexts used to justify the war and the real reasons for it. These are pretexts and reasons which have already been admitted publicly, or exposed and documented. If half the energy put into ‘9-11 Truth’ websites, email lists and conferences were put into the impeachment of Dick Cheney, he’d be impeached by now–based on what the government has already admitted.

But let’s suppose, for a moment, that the wildest 9-11 speculations and most elaborate conspiracies could be proven with an avalanche of reliable data and testimony. These revelations could just as easily boost cynicism as outrage. Most people now agree that Kennedy wasn’t assassinated by a lone gunman—but that didn’t translate into a robust progressive movement based on the assassination. Indeed, despite a mountain of evidence, the facts are still disputed 45 years later. When Oliver Stone’s movie “JFK” came out, it was attacked for not having evidence on its side–even though the evidence mostly points to the scenario ‘JFK’ presented. Short of a confession, some things will never be neatly established, and they therefore form a flimsy base upon which to organize a movement.

However, unlike the copious documentation and witness accounts painstakingly assembled over many years on the assassination of Kennedy, the bulk of 9-11 scenarios rest on one thinly supported point of data, or rely on abstruse technical explanations that are in dispute. It would be great if there were some easy way to sort the wheat from the chaff, but there seems to be an endless capacity to produce chaff in this case.

Perhaps someone can winnow it. There will be a conference on the weekend of Jan. 25-27 in Santa Cruz, California, “Publicizing Truths with Consequences,” — independent media power and the corporate coup (www.truthemergency.us) which has a broad coalition of groups co-sponsoring and guests including David Ray Griffin, Colleen Rowley, Naomi Klein, Ed Asner, Ray McGovern, and Cynthia McKinney. This should be a pretty important gathering, if it can stay focused and grounded in reality.

The conference organizers say: “We do not lack brilliant voices, great stories, or mounting evidence of illicit forces run wild. What we do lack is a coherent vision of what we face and ways to quickly communicate it to the public with galvanizing power…. Despite our unprecedented array of talents, truths and new tech resources, conditions continue to worsen at a truly surreal rate. Many say our democracy will not survive the decade. Others have trouble recognizing it right now… it’s time for the best & brightest working against this [corporate] coup to come together now and urgently explore what can and must be done.”

This article was written with Iguana co-editor Joe Courter. http://www.afn.org/~Iguana


Police taser audience member at Kerry talk

September 18, 2007

In an outrageous show of excessive force, University Police Department officers twice tasered an audience member who wanted to ask John Kerry a question–but it was at the end of the question period. He was grabbed by UPD officers, who took him to the back of the auditorium and tasered him twice. The scuffle came at the end of Senator John Kerry’s Accent-sponsored talk in the University Auditorium on September 17th, at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

It is unclear why it was not sufficient to simply remove the questioner, who was unarmed and nonthreateningly trying to make his point at the microphone. Tasers were sold to the public as a ‘less-lethal’ weapon that could be used instead of firing a gun at an attacking suspect. Instead, they’ve become the compliance tool of choice anytime officers want to subdue someone who’s a little rowdy, or mouths off, or otherwise isn’t completely compliant.

Amnesty International has called for their use to be severely curtailed because the pain inflicted is a form of torture. But police departments around the country are busily acquiring tasers, including officers in public high schools. In addition to delivering indescribable pain, tasers occasionally kill their victims. Hundreds of people have been killed by police using tasers. Often the deaths involved police using the taser repeatedly on an already-restrained suspect.

Police, including UPD, have proven that they can’t handle the power that being able to inflict absolute pain gives them. Tasers should be banned. They have not been used as a substitute for lethal force, but as a substitute for any kind of reason the police may once have possessed.

We hope that as a result of this incident the man who was attacked, Andrew Meyer, is fully compensated for his pain and further than the University Police Department is at once deprived of its taser guns.

Court upholds ban on D&X abortions, ignoring precedent

June 5, 2007

If you thought the new Supreme Court would be bad for women’s rights, you were right. In an April 18th decision the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a federal ban on a widely-used abortion procedure. The decision was extraordinary in that a similar law came before the court in 2006 and was struck down by the court in a case called Stenberg vs. Carhart.

Feminist groups denounced the new 5 to 4 decision and said the law is designed to restrict women’s ability to get safe abortions. Additionally, the decision itself seemed aimed at providing arguments should the court wish to further restrict abortion in the future. For example, the decision mentions several times that the state has “a legitimate and substantial interest in preserving and promoting fetal life.”

Andrea Costello, lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights and organizer with Redstockings of the Women’s Liberation Movement says, “The Court’s conservative majority leaves women out of the equation and allows the state’s supposed interest in ‘promoting fetal life’ and ‘life of the unborn’ to trump women’s right to equality and to control the direction of our lives. This is outrageous because women are the ones that become pregnant and should be able to make our own decisions about if, and when, to have children. Justice Ginsburg had it right when she forcefully pointed out that this decision attempts to push women into a time where we lacked full and independent legal status under the Constitution.” (www.redstockings.org)
During their confirmation hearings, the new justices appointed by George W. Bush, Samuel Alito and John Roberts, professed great respect for the principle of “stare decisis” (letting previous court decisions stand). But the Gonzales decision basically overturns the Stenberg decision made just a year ago, and contradicts the basis of a whole series of abortion-related cases going back to the early 1970’s.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the only woman on the court, wrote the dissent, which was joined by Justices Souter, Stevens, and Breyer. She blasted the majority opinion, writing:

“Today’s decision is alarming. It refuses to take Casey and Stenberg seriously. It tolerates, indeed applauds, federal intervention to ban nationwide a procedure found necessary and proper in certain cases by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists… for the first time since Roe, the Court blesses a prohibition with no exception safeguarding a woman’s health.”

She characterized the court’s decision as a throwback to when women were not full citizens. “Women, it is now acknowledged, have the talent, capacity, and right ‘to participate equally in the economic and social life of the Nation.’ Their ability to realize their full potential, the Court recognized, is intimately connected to ‘their ability to control their reproductive lives.’ Thus, legal challenges to undue restrictions on abortion procedures do not seek to vindicate some generalized notion of privacy; rather, they center on a woman’s autonomy to determine her life’s course, and thus to enjoy equal citizenship stature.”

Ginsburg concluded, “In candor, the Act, and the Court’s defense of it, cannot be understood as anything other than an effort to chip away at a right declared again and again by this Court,” a right she says the court has affirmed “with increasing comprehension of its centrality to women’s lives.”

The majority’s opinion seemed to be stretching to find reasons to uphold the law. It stated that the law’s “prohibition would be unconstitutional … if it subjected [women] to significant health risks.” Numerous members of the medical establishment testified in various cases before appellate courts that the D&X procedure is often the safest for the woman, while others said D&E was also safe. The court’s majority claimed that since “both sides have medical support for their positions,” the legislature could ban it. This bizarre finding accompanied a wholly new argument in which the court claimed that “Respect for human life finds an ultimate expression in the bond of love the mother has for her child.” But this statement doesn’t lead the opinion anywhere, since the opinion claims (against the testimony of doctors) that D&X abortions are unnecessary and can in all cases be replaced by other abortion procedures. Watch for this bit of unsupported psychobabble to pop up in later opinions.

The court also tries to play doctor, arguing that since the ban applies to fetuses partially delivered while alive, killing the fetus in the womb with an injection might solve a doctor’s dilemma. The court cites doctors who do this. The dissenting opinion points out that medical testimony submitted in the case said this injection procedure is “almost always inappropriate to the preservation of the health of the woman” and “In some circumstances, injections are “absolutely [medically] contraindicated.”

The decision mentions several times that the state has “a legitimate and substantial interest in preserving and promoting fetal life,” and claims that this is “a central premise of Casey.” The problem is, the 1992 Casey decision also said that before fetal viability, “the State’s interests are not strong enough to support a prohibition of abortion or the imposition of a substantial obstacle to the woman’s effective right to elect the procedure.” Casey itself watered down Roe vs. Wade, but not as disastrously as the court is claiming.
As a result of this decision, the federal ban will take effect in May. Doctors may now feel that they are at risk of investigation when doing second trimester abortions (12 weeks or more). Even if they are obeying the law, this will be no guarantee that a grand jury will not be called by a malicious prosecutor, dragging clinic staff before a closed session to testify in detail about helping with this or that abortion.

This can only add to the tension and difficulty of doing abortion procedures in a country in which doctors are threatened and killed and clinics are bombed or driven out of business by legal or IRS targeting. For example, in Florida, in addition to the murders of Drs. David Gunn and John Bayard Britton, the abortion clinic in Ocala was bombed in 1989, Dr. James Pendergraft, an Ocala obstetrician who provided abortions at 3 Florida clinics, was jailed on trumped-up charges in 2001, and the Gainesville Women’s Health Center received frequent IRS scrutiny.

In addition to the pressure it puts on doctors, the decision also looks like an invitation to state legislatures to pass more restrictive laws and see what the court will uphold. The history of abortion rights since the high point of the women’s liberation movement has been to slowly circumscribe rather than to ban outright. As the Casey decision stated, “overruling Roe’s central holding would … seriously weaken the court’s capacity to exercise the judicial power and to function as the Supreme Court of a Nation dedicated to the rule of law.” In other words, not only would the flip-flop seem ludicrous, people wouldn’t stand for an outright ban, and therefore the court couldn’t overrule their previous decision. It will be up to the feminist movement to make sure this court, too, doesn’t become emboldened after this decision and imagine that it can get away with further weakening our rights.

SDS refounds itself in Chicago

September 8, 2006

Chicago–Student organizers representing dozens of chapters around the country gathered here for the first national meeting of Students for a Democratic Society since 1969. The legendary student group was founded in 1960, and by the late 60’s its name became synonymous with the student movement and the New Left. That ‘first iteration SDS,’ as SDS northeast regional organizer Thomas Good called it, split and scattered in 1969. Local chapters continued to be active for a couple more years.

In 2006, 150 students from University of Central Florida in Orlando, Pace University in New York, Howard Community College near Baltimore, Loyola in Chicago, and many others from Washington State, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, Connecticut and elsewhere spent three days, August 4-7, telling each other about their organizing and strategizing about where to go with a national radical student group.

The call for a national SDS meeting came in January from several chapters of student radicals that had formed under the name “SDS” more or less independently. Pat Korte, a high school student, noted in the January 16th announcement that “several fellow activists from across the country and myself decided to form a national SDS movement, only to discover that chapters already exist! Because of this we decided to hold a national conference.”

Why SDS in particular? Many students felt there needed to be a multi-issue radical student group that was about student power, there was a need on their campuses, and there was a need in the country. Korte said, “Although I have been an active participant in the anti-war and student activist movement, I have become frustrated with the groups collective inability to unify enough people under a common goal/vision to address the overall problems in our society. Historically, SDS was able to address many of these issues pertinent at the time through Tom Hayden’s Port Huron Statement.”

Good, who is a tweener—no longer a student but too young to have been involved during the first SDS—explained that initially responses to the call came from first iteration SDSers. But by July, SDS had enrolled over 1,000 members nationally, with 150 chapters declaring themselves SDS. (Non-students can join MDS, Movement for a Democratic Society.) Chapters which had sprung up independently in Santa Ana, California and at Reigs University in Denver also signed up with the national group.

The organization now includes 85 college and university chapters, 24 high school chapters, and 53 community chapters (combined MDS/SDS) as well as several state and regional organizations. Preliminary regional conventions were suggested for Memorial Day weekend, and the Northeast region held a conference at Brown University in Rhode Island.

The electronic infrastructure includes the New Left Cafe listserve (recently afflicted by a flame war) and the second iteration of New Left Notes, called Next Left Notes, edited by Good. The Next Left Notes website features new articles and photos, as well as many archival documents from the 60’s SDS and the Weather Underground. (The websites are www.newsds.org and www.nextleftnotes.net)

The National Convention was held at the otherwise deserted University of Chicago (the space was procured by the University of Chicago Young Democratic Socialists) and students mostly crashed at the First Unitarian Church. The conference was definitely a shoestring operation, with a 1-page photocopied program and lots of dumpster-dived food procured for lunches.

Chapters reported on their work at the opening plenary. Most chapters were working against the war, in particular against military recruitment. Students at Connecticut College reported picketing a recruitment center every Monday. The college is a private school in New London, which has an oppressed urban core where young people are successfully targeted by military recruiters, according to Sarah Trapido and Daniel Meltzer. Recruiters make 200% of their quota in New London, the organizers said. Their chapter is a pre-existing radical student group, CC Left, which became CC Left-SDS after SDS re-formed.

Another SDS chapter came out of the famous battle this summer at the Port of Olympia, Washington, a direct action effort to keep war materiel from being shipped—specifically vehicles for a Striker brigade which was being redeployed to Iraq. Police made forty arrests of people blockading keep the materiel from being loaded onto the ship. The actions spurred the founding of a chapter, according to Brendan Dunn.

A student from Asheville, North Carolina reported that his chapter had surrounded recruiters, leading to a 3-hour standoff, after which the military representatives were escorted off campus. Students also conducted an anti-war walkout, in which 150 students participated.

University of Central Florida SDS in Orlando has been the most active chapter in the South, conducting a 20-person standing protest during a speech by Governor Jeb Bush, a 35-person march to a recruiting office (they tried to deliver 3 cakes, one for each year of the war, but recruiters locked the doors to keep them out). They also held a talk-in about Iran, during which SDSers held signs like “Let’s talk about Iran” and “No Iran War.” The university didn’t appreciate their educational efforts and they became embroiled in a free speech battle, which continues. In addition, Food Not Bombs in Orlando has been experiencing a legal clampdown—the city is attempting to make their activities illegal by banning food sharing in public. SDSers have been fighting the law under which it is legal to starve someone but illegal to share food with them.

SDS chapters were also uncovering lasting effects of earlier student militancy. In Columbus, Ohio, workers demolishing buildings were sickened by the effects of tear gas deployed against protesters 36 years earlier. Adam Sanchez of Portland SDS noted that their university’s student center had been designed with lots of doors to avert student takeovers and blockades. (The Portland students didn’t rule out a takeover, despite the doors.) Another chapter leader noted that one tactic used by universities was to place Women’s Studies and/or Black Studies departments in the same building as the ROTC to keep the ROTC building from getting burned down.

It was impossible to get a full picture of the organizing represented at the conference, since simultaneous workshops on everything from Venezuela to ‘Resisting Empire from Within’ filled the weekend, along with at least 2 small rallies commemorating Hiroshima and one protest march against gentrification, not officially sanctioned by SDS and questioned by some of the Chicago-based organizers since it wasn’t, they warned, coordinated with the local community fighting the gentrification.

A Sunday afternoon discussion of structure bogged down for lack of operating rules, but the content showed that participants had thought hard about what they wanted and didn’t want their national organization to be like—they wanted to defend it from sectarians who might want to use the organization for recruiting or building other groups; they wanted to make sure that those not able to attend this and future conferences could have a say; many did not want to run the organization by consensus, and were skeptical that consensus provided more than superficial, least-common-denominator agreement; they liked the fact that in striving for consensus ideas could be fully discussed rather than shut down by a vote; they thought any staff should be paid decently so as to not limit jobs to rich kids. Debates ahead include the role of leadership—is it just a way to block members power or is it a necessary (and difficult) role someone needs to take up to get things done? Without a publicly accountable leadership, how to you avoid what one person called “volunteerist tyranny”? Shouldn’t the people who do the most work get the most say? What if women are in a minority, and a decision is being made that affects women? Shouldn’t the women’s caucus be able to veto in that case? What constitutes a ‘member’ for purposes of a national structure—a chapter or an individual? A later planning discussion, with provisional operating rules, yielded a little more direction.

Seniors for a Democratic Society
Pat Korte said the goal is to have a youth-led organization while working with the older generation. There was a light sprinkling of first iteration SDSers in attendance, including the founder of SDS, Al Haber, who lives in Ann Arbor. Haber announced that he’d recently had a birthday, so he was finally out of the 60’s. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t talking about “turning tables on the ruling class” and democratic modes of action to deal with their “total fascist disregard for humanity.” He reflected that this is “an endeavor of the long haul.” He also told the plenary to listen to the women in the group. “Women for the most part are not stakeholders in the culture of patriarchy and domination,” Haber said.

Good was asked by a journalist, What qualifies a person or a student group to join SDS? “If they’re down with the Port Huron Statement and they’re willing to be active, they’re SDS.” He also emphasized building a movement instead of primarily an organization.

The words that most closely defined unity at the conference were ‘participatory democracy’ and ‘direct action.’ Participatory Democracy comes via the Port Huron Statement, which was initially drafted in 1962 by Tom Hayden, with help from Dick Flacks and then reworked at an SDS meeting in Port Huron, Michigan. Writing a reflection on the statement 40 years later, Hayden and Flacks said that the idea came to them from a philosophy professor at the University of Michigan, Arnold Kaufman, who extracted it from the ideas of John Dewey. C. Wright Mills was also influential, arguing that what we have in the U.S. is not a competing, balanced ferment of interest groups but a power elite. “Quoting Henry David Thoreau, movement activists said: Vote not with a strip of paper alone, but with your whole life.” (“The Port Huron Statement at 40,” The Nation, August 5, 2002.) Dewey was one of the founders of the League for Industrial Democracy (LID) which hired Al Haber to start a student branch. LID’s anticommunism made them fire him—twice!—scared he might be letting reds into the group, and in general SDS gained its independence mostly through being ejected by LID.

“Direct Action” seems to come from the Industrial Workers of the World, either via SDS or directly, as in the Wobbly slogan “Direct Action Gets the Goods.” Carl Davidson recalled Berkeley Free Speech Movement veteran and SDSer Steve Weissman telling him that that SDS was following the roots of American radicalism. Davidson said, you mean LID? Weissman said, no, not LID: John Brown (the anti-slavery pioneer), and the Industrial Workers of the World.

Mark Rudd was the last National Secretary of SDS, elected in 1969, in Chicago, at the infamous last convention. Reflecting on those days, Rudd wrote in the Heartland Journal that he had not until recently understood what made him, and others, do things that Rudd now thinks were “a huge fuck-up,” letting SDS fly apart and forming the Weather Underground. A recent Weather Underground documentary made him think about them, though, as he’s had to defend his position against those who loved what the WU did. Looking at old footage in the movie, he writes, “I saw shots of myself as a 21 year-old, grief written all over my face. That was what I had forgotten in the intervening 35 years, grief! The grief that came with the knowledge of what our country was doing in our name … the easiest reaction to grief is anger and violence, both justified back then in the theories of armed revolution.”

At an evening event dedicated to first iteration SDSers, Carl Davidson characterized his generation as ‘the last generation that believed in America.’ He said that after he attended an SDS-called demonstration in DC with 25,000 people that he was sure Johnson would end the war. That was 1965.

Lowered expectations of what can be done within the confines of U.S. ‘democracy’ can cause despair and its defense mechanism, cynicism. But cynicism seemed to be in short supply at the convention.

Bernardine Dohrn sent greetings, but did not attend (she spoke at the Northeast regional conference). Dohrn is a first iteration SDSer and lawyer who is perhaps best known for her role in the Weather Underground, her evasion of capture until the 80s when she turned herself in, followed by a relatively brief prison sentence, and a fight to be allowed to practice law again. She wrote:
“Although I cannot be there in Chicago, we have your back. May you stay clear about the challenges of movement-building: strengthening and connecting the widespread organizing work already underway, reaching out to engage new forces, and contending with principle and unity. As the great Chicago poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks said, “Live and have your blooming in the eye of the whirlwind.”

New Orleans’ grassroots struggle and rebuild

December 9, 2005

December 2005—There’s a tiny juke joint out behind the house, “Barbara’s Place,” it says, with musical notes painted on the wall. A portable toilet is overturned next to the door, it floated in from somewhere else. The plants in the yard are yellow and drowned. In front of the house, there’s a pile of trash high as your head and covering the space from the sidewalk to the curb. One out of three houses has such a pile containing refrigerators, furniture, clothing, broken up bits of drywall, toys. It’s a pandemic of eviction-by-flooding.

The piles are made by people coming home, on a weekend or a day here and there, and trying to clear the soaked, moldy, destroyed stuff out of their houses. In other cases, a landlord illegally threw the stuff out on the street. And then what? Sell the property to the highest bidder, while whatever of your possessions weren’t ruined before sit in the rain, while you sit in Houston, or one of hundreds of other far away towns. There is a massive land-grab going on in New Orleans, but the people are fighting back.

“This is basically a neighborhood where people were left to die,” explains Lisa Fithian, one of the coordinators of Common Ground Relief, a radical effort to provide “solidarity, not charity” to the survivors of Katrina.

After the storm blew through and the floodwaters flowed in, it took little time to realize that ‘the cavalry’ was not coming to pick people off their roofs or evacuate them from ‘shelters,’ and people were suffering and dying as a result. Indeed, the powerful seemed more concerned that Black people would escape into white neighborhoods than that people might be dying of exposure. Malik Rahim wasted no time denouncing the racism in public and to the press. A Green Party candidate for city council and a former Black Panther, Rahim lives in Algiers, just across the river from the worst, most sustained flooding, the roof-high water in New Orleans’ African-American heart, the Ninth Ward.

Soon after, armed white men started driving through his solidly Black neighborhood. People heard shootings. There were drive-bys and threats at his house. Rahim’s friends gathered there, white and Black, themselves armed, to ward off violence. His house and yard became a collection point for relief supplies and a gathering point for volunteers from near and far wanting to throw their lives into the struggle to rescue and recover. Indeed, residents say, it was neighbors helping neighbors, grassroots rescue efforts led by residents who found themselves thrust into the role of coordinating relief operations, and the compassion and risk of ordinary people that reduced the casualty rates and provided relief and safety to thousands. The Red Cross and FEMA mostly were missing in action, at least until later, although police and military were in evidence from the early stages.

Among those that gathered at Rahim’s house were a gaggle of street medics. These folks are familiar to those of us who go to anti-globalization protests as the angels who appear to carefully swab off the pepper spray or bandage you up or ice down your bruises after the police decide that you’ve had a little too much free speech. With both formal and informal medical training—and more importantly, radical chutzpah—they opened a free medical clinic. As of this writing it is temporarily housed in a mosque in Algiers and provides primary care for people in the neighborhood with an all-volunteer staff of doctors, nurses, and counselors. The Red Cross centers that followed later are inhospitable armed camps in comparison, according to clinic workers. “We were able to easily rise above the rescue and relief efforts of the government and mainstream agencies because they were incapable of providing health care to a community with the compassion and solidarity the people affected deserved” said Scott Weinstein, a volunteer nurse and coordinator of the clinic who used to live in Gainesville.

Common Ground also negotiated with a daycare center to open up an aid distribution center in the Ninth Ward, at North Robertson and Luisa Streets. It is powered by generators, as the area still has seen no electricity. Another preschool allowed them to use a virtually undamaged building for communications and volunteer housing. There they set up a low-power radio station.

A few weeks after the clinic was up and running, Common Ground Relief launched another audacious project, a “Road Trip for Relief” focusing on the Ninth Ward. Residents and organizers drawn by the urgency of the crisis invited activists from around the country to come to New Orleans to work for Thanksgiving week. That’s how I ended up in New Orleans for a week at the end of November, along with hundreds of other volunteers from as far away as California and Maine.

One thing you notice when you drive around the flooded neighborhoods is rings of scum like bathtub rings that denote the water levels. We first thought that meant the water had risen to that point and stopped. “Oh no,” a resident told us, “that’s where it stopped on its way back down.” Initially the water was much higher, for a couple of days, then it sank and settled in to soak everything for around three weeks. It left marks along walls, doors, gates, windows, cars, forming a distressingly accurate gauge of otherwise imperceptible rises and drops in the terrain. The mysterious “TFW” tag spraypainted on most of the houses was eventually translated for us: “Toxic Flood Water.”

When we arrived, 300 evictions were being processed a day in the Orleans Parish courthouse. If you, a New Orleans renter, were in Houston, or Mississippi, or Arkansas, you’d be unlikely to see the sign posted for five days on your door back in New Orleans before the court could order your stuff out on the street. So most of these court proceedings went uncontested.

On November 22 tenants rights lawyers managed to get the Eastern District federal court to order a halt to this unbelievable eviction procedure. Now landlords are required to mail a notice to your last-known post-Katrina address, and then wait for 45 days before an eviction hearing. (FEMA was also ordered to give the court your address.) Lawyers active with Common Ground bitterly predicted that after the ruling we would see a rise in illegal evictions. Watching landlords to see if they made a move on vulnerable housing was one of many tasks assigned to Common Ground volunteers. “A landlord never has a legal right to put a tenant or property out on his own,” fliers distributed to residents noted, only police can do this with a judge’s order. “Greedy landlords beware. We are watching you,” Common Ground Eviction Defense continued. A New Orleans resident who moved to Gainesville briefly after the storm reports being told his rent would triple and therefore he had to get out of his undamaged apartment packed with years of artwork on extremely short notice. Because of the housing shortage, landlords can demand ridiculous prices, if they can just get rid of their current tenants with their pesky leases.

Common Ground Relief is just one of the organizations fighting for residents’ rights in the devastated areas. There is the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund of Community Labor United, the NAACP, as well as ACORN (which has New Orleans as a home base), the anti-racist group People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, and various coalitions to prevent evictions and foreclosures, and to fight for Black and working class residents to have a voice in the decisions that are currently being made without them. Asked if the disaster had made her community closer, one Desire Street resident replied, “No, we were already pretty tight-knit before.” But the problem is, everyone’s scattered. We could drive for 10 blocks in tightly-spaced residential areas and not see a single person.

Police and military are much in evidence, especially at night. Police cars drive around running their flashing lights as a matter of course, apparently to let us know they are present on streets with few street lights. Walking with a friend at night in the upper Ninth Ward, one small flashlight between us, a passing cop car turned on his loudspeaker to lob a sarcastic “You’re gonna need a better light than that” and kept going. There is a curfew, but it has been moved back to 11 p.m. It is not unusual to see armored personnel carriers and military humvees, giving the area that Baghdad-on-the-Mississippi atmosphere.

Common Ground volunteer materials cautioned volunteers to be wary of the police. The New Orleans Police Department had a deservedly bad reputation even before the storm, and has taken to picking up and jailing pedestrians on the most piddling of charges. Most victims have been Black. Some have been beaten. Many have been unable to get out of jail because phone communications are spotty, the police have been obstructionist, and the courts that should hear their cases quickly have been inoperable. (Oddly, the eviction courts have managed to do a roaring business.) While I was there, Common Ground’s low-power station, Radio Algiers, was looping interviews with people who had been jailed without any access to legal help or communication with the outside world.

Three months after the storm, Alva Wilson was trying to get something going at her house. After the flood she had waded to the Superdome through neck-deep water, and from there had been shuffled from shelter to shelter. Her granddaughter, with baby twins, is still living in a mass shelter in Houston. Ms. Wilson is living Magnolia, Mississippi, with no car. “Magnolia has no public transportation,” she noted. In New Orleans, she could get a bus at the corner. What did a great-grandmother like her need a car for?

She knows her little house needs gutting, but where to start? They say it will cost $5,000. Sam Jackson, a minister and tenant in the C.B. Cooper housing project said, well, that’s what the $4,700 from FEMA is supposed to be for. What $4,700? She hadn’t seen a cent. They talked at a small rally to save the housing project, which the City has declared fit for bulldozing although the buildings show no sign of damage. The City has been trying for years to remove these solid brick buildings, which housed hundreds of families, and now the perfect opportunity has arisen. The buildings are vacant because the residents were all evacuated and scattered across the country, so they aren’t around to raise a complaint, can’t return because they have no way back, and couldn’t stay if they did get back because there is no electricity. It’s the perfect crime.

One of Mr. Jackson’s neighbors was walking up and down the stairs to her apartment, moving out a few things, a coffeemaker, a toaster, a lamp. She was packing them in her car to take back to temporary housing in Mississippi. She had heard that there was a danger the city would demolish the buildings. In the face of an acute housing crisis, the solution is—demolish perfectly good housing because it occupies valuable real estate. Mr. Jackson showed us his apartment, which was undamaged except looters had broken open a balcony back door. They hadn’t taken anything, though.

A woman who lived on N. Derbigny street walked up while we were talking to neighbors sitting on the stone steps that led to the picturesque second story entrance of her former house. She told us that the main part of her house was above the flood waters (the garage and storage areas, and a car she pointed out to us, had been immersed). She held out during the storm (“not so bad”) and the flood, but had to leave when the water started to wash back out of the city, with its foul odors, carcasses, and toxic fumes. “I couldn’t stand it then, the smell was making it hard to breathe.” A few days after she was evacuated, her neighbor told us, he saw “thick black electrical smoke,” coming from the kitchen area in the back. The upper part of the house was then destroyed by fire.

She had not seen it since she had been helicoptered out and there it was, burned from the inside out, leaving only a bit of facade standing.

FEMA will put a notice on your door saying, sorry, we came by but you weren’t here so call us at your earliest convenience so we can meet you to inspect your home and determine the extent of the damage. This is unhelpful since most people can’t get home and if they could, there is no place to stay waiting for a FEMA inspection. The house is full of mold so you can’t really breathe inside without a respirator. The neighborhoods we were in mostly have no electricity. Some areas have running water, but it’s not clear that it’s safe to drink. Others have breached pipes so if the water is turned on, it runs into the street.

If you had a car, you don’t now, it was immersed in water for three weeks and the engine is destroyed, not to mention that the inside is so full of mold it’s a toxic hazard.

Working with residents who have come back, Common Ground volunteers pulled destroyed furniture and moldy wallboard out of houses, tarped damaged roofs FEMA won’t touch because they fall outside some fairly narrow guidelines, distributed food, water and clothing from distribution centers in Algiers, the Ninth Ward and rural Houma, and cleaned the streets and sidewalks which are still generally strewn with debris. Volunteers cleared out and gutted a community center associated with a local church. In return for rehabilitating the offices and meeting rooms, they’ll be able to use the building as a base for reconstruction efforts for six months, and then continue to have a youth project there as the church moves its operations back in.

Along with the chaos and confusion and desolation and trauma, there is also a sense that anything is possible, of traditional barriers of race and culture breaking down, of new alliances forming now that the agenda of the rich is suddenly, undeniably, laid out for everyone to see.

Organizers from a coalition of groups convened a Survivor’s Assembly in Jackson, Mississippi in December, along with a march that drew 1,500 people in New Orleans to demand fair housing, fair reconstruction and the right to return. When, on January 5, the city sent bulldozers into the lower Ninth Ward, jumping the gun on a court order, alert residents and activists prevented them from leveling anything, and the situation is now back in court. Residents argue that even if some houses are beyond repair, the owners should at least have time to come back and see their property before more destruction is wrought.

I found that I could easily imagine, were a disaster of similar proportions to hit my town, much the same results, because the same race and class power imbalance is there under the surface in every U.S. town. The rich and powerful would be ruthlessly pushing the same agenda they’ve been pushing for years, but now assisted by a disaster. The working class, especially African Americans and those with few resources, would be pushed around just as they are being in New Orleans. I can only hope that we would organize as fast and as well as they have there.

Common Ground is inviting volunteers who want to extend solidarity to New Orleans and Gulf Coast residents to come to New Orleans over spring break to learn about the struggles there and contribute their labor to the grassroots reconstruction of the area. More information can be found at http://www.commongroundrelief.org

Nominee Alito opposes abortion, worker’s rights

November 10, 2005

Although George W. Bush’s poll numbers are dropping like dead pigeons, he’s still got the power to do lasting damage. By nominating a man to the Supreme Court who seems to be to the right of everyone on the court with the possible exception of Clarence Thomas, Bush is trying to insure that his unpopular positions are codified in the law, the majority opinion of the country notwithstanding.

From the minute Bush nominated Judge Samuel Alito for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, it was clear that he was a favorite of the far right. His record of right-wing judicial activism and hostility to fundamental rights and liberties were already well documented.

Business Week reported when he was nominated that “one group is breathing a big sigh of relief: Corporate America. Of the dozen or so names on Bush’s rumored short list of high court candidates, Alito ranked near the top for the boardroom set.” Lorraine Woellert wrote November 1 at BusinessWeek.com, “The President’s new Supreme Court nominee has been a staunch proponent of limits on legal liability, employee rights, and federal regulation.”

Then, in mid-November, an application written by Judge Alito, recovered from the Reagan archives revealed his explicit opposition to the right to choose and affirmative action. In his own words, Alito declared “the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion.” In another recently discovered document, Alito declared that protecting citizens’ health, safety, and welfare isn’t the federal government’s job.

Alito wrote in his ‘Personal Qualifications Statement’ when applying to be an Assistant Attorney General under Ronald Reagan that “I am and always have been a conservative” and that “It has been an honor and source of personal satisfaction for me to serve… and to help to advance legal positions in which I personally believe very strongly. I am particularly proud of my contributions in recent cases in which the government has argued in the Supreme Court that racial and ethnic quotas should not be allowed, and that the Constitution does not protect a right to an abortion.”

When Alito was a Justice Department lawyer in the 1980s, he urged President Reagan to veto legislation that would have protected consumers from crooked car dealers by making odometer fraud more difficult. Alito’s rationale for urging a veto of the Truth in Mileage Act is stunning: protecting Americans is not the federal government’s job. “After all,” wrote Alito in his memo recommending a veto, “it is the states, and not the federal government, that are charged with protecting the health, safety, and welfare of their citizens.” President Reagan rejected Alito’s advice and signed the bill.

As research continues into Alito’s extensive record, here are some of his most troubling opinions, compiled by People for the American Way (http://pfaw.org):

1. Privacy: In dissent, Alito would have upheld the strip search of a mother and her ten-year old daughter, even though the warrant allowing the search did not name either of them. Judge Michael Chertoff, now head of the Department of Homeland Security, criticized that position as threatening to turn the constitution’s search warrant requirement into little more than a “rubber stamp.” Doe v. Groody

2. Community safety: Alito, dissenting in the case of United States v. Rybar, said that Congress does not have the power under the Commerce Clause to restrict the transfer and possession of machine guns at gun shows. In response to Alito’s assertion that Congress must make findings or provide empirical evidence of a link between a regulation and its effect on interstate commerce, the majority said, “Nothing in Lopez (an earlier Supreme Court case) requires either Congress or the Executive to play Show and Tell with the federal courts at the peril of invalidation of a Congressional statute.”

3. Family and Medical Leave: Writing for a unanimous court in Chittister v. Dep’t of Community & Economic Development, Judge Alito held that Congress did not have the authority to allow state employees to sue for damages under one section of the Family and Medical Leave Act. By contrast, the Supreme Court in a later case (Nevada Dep’t of Human Resources v. Hibbs) upheld the FMLA against a similar challenge; the Court’s decision was written by Chief Justice Rehnquist and joined by Justice O’Connor.

4. Reproductive Freedom: In dissent, Alito would have upheld a provision of Pennsylvania’s restrictive anti-abortion law requiring a woman in certain circumstances to notify her husband before obtaining an abortion. His colleagues on the Third Circuit and the Supreme Court majority disagreed and overturned the provision. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey

5. Racial Discrimination in the Workplace: In dissent, Alito argued for imposing an evidentiary burden on victims of employment discrimination that, according to the majority, would have “eviscerated” legal protections under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. In particular, the majority said that Alito’s position would protect employers from suit even in situations where the employer’s belief that it had selected the “best” candidate “was the result of conscious racial bias.” Bray v. Marriott Hotels

6. Gender Discrimination in the Workplace: As a lone dissenter in a 10-1 decision of the full Third Circuit, Alito would have made it more difficult for someone alleging discrimination to present sufficient evidence to get his or her case to a jury. In particular, Alito would have prevented a woman claiming gender discrimination from going to trial, even where she had produced evidence showing that her employer’s claim that it had a legitimate reason to deny her a promotion was a pretext for the employer’s allegedly discriminatory actions. Sheridan v. E.I.DuPont de Nemours and Co.

7. Racial Discrimination in Jury Selection: Alito cast the deciding vote and wrote the opinion in a 2-1 ruling rejecting claims by an African American defendant who had been convicted of felony murder by an all white jury from which black jurors had been impermissibly struck because of their race. The full Third Circuit reversed this ruling, and the majority specifically criticized Alito for having compared statistical evidence about the prosecution’s exclusion of blacks from juries in capital cases to an explanation of why a disproportionate number of recent U.S. Presidents have been left-handed. According to the majority, “[t]o suggest any comparability to the striking of jurors based on their race is to minimize the history of discrimination against prospective black jurors and black defendants . . . ” Riley v. Taylor

Social Security crisis? If Bush gets his way

May 9, 2005

What’s wrong with Social Security? If you listen to the Republicans (and some Democrats) you’ll hear that there just won’t be enough workers to support all those baby boom retirees. And now Bush has come out and said, yes, we’ll have to cut benefits. But is any of it true?

In his stump speech to privatize Social Security, Bush says: “In 1950, there were 16 workers to support every one beneficiary of Social Security. Today, there are only 3.3 workers… by the time our youngest workers …. turn 65, there will only be 2 workers supporting each beneficiary …”

He says that since there aren’t enough workers to support the coming retirees and therefore when today’s young workers retire, there “won’t be any money left.”

Sounds like a natural trend we can’t do anything about, right? Wrong.

First, the ratio of workers to Social Security beneficiaries has actually been remarkably stable since 1965. This is partly because of more women entering the workforce. Even by Bush’s predictions, the ratio will fall to 2:1 by 2045. Meanwhile–in this supposedly dire situation of 3:1 ratio–the program has been socking away billions to pay the retirement payments required by the baby boomers.

Second, productivity per worker has more than doubled in the last 50 years. That means that, if no-one is siphoning resources off for something else, each worker can support twice as many people as they could in the 50s. (Juliet Schor in The Overworked American noted in 1991 that productivity had doubled since 1948.)

Third, they are predicting dire shortages of workers at the same time the real unemployment rate–people who would be in the workforce if there were decent jobs–is hovering over 9%. The official rate is 5%, but according to Reuters, the adjusted jobless rate in the middle of last year was 9.7%, which counts those who have given up looking for work and those who have part-time work but would like full-time work. (“U.S. jobless rate misses “hidden” unemployed,” June 14, 2004.)

In Europe, where they are famously a few years ahead of us in the “elderly crisis,” unemployment is generally higher. There they don’t have a desperate shortage of younger workers. Not only that, they have shorter work weeks, longer vacations, and earlier retirements. The crisis of a shrinking workforce hasn’t led them to give up any of that. In a recent debate about raising the workweek in France from 35 hours, they’re complaining that there’s 10% unemployment. Retirement there is at age 60, and earlier in some professions.

Under Reagan the retirement age here was raised to 66 and then to 67 for those of us born after 1959, which amounts to a big cut in our benefits already. The argument was made that people are living longer. But in many other countries people are living longer than we are and the retirement ages are lower there.

Just for comparison some other retirement ages reported in other countries in the New York Times in 1998: France 60, Hungary 60 (55 for women), Russia 60 (55 for women and miners), Portugal 65 (62 for women), Australia 65 (60 for women), Greece 65 (60 for women), Austria 65 (60 for women), Canada 65 (60 for women), and in Japan, Finland, Spain, Germany, Sweden and Britain it’s 65.

Fourth, it’s true that we’re supporting more old people, as a society, but we’re also supporting fewer young people. Economist Marvin Mandell points out that “The number of children is decreasing even more rapidly than the number of elderly Americans is increasing. Thus, the dependency ratio will be lower in 2040 than it was in 1960, and the burden on workers will be less, not more.” (Labor Party Press, May 1999.) “Dependency Ratio” means then number of workers to the number of dependents–retirees, children, and the disabled who can’t work.

When there are more elderly, the working population will pay one way or another–either by individually supporting our own parents or by doing it collectively through Social Security. But if we have fewer children (as a society), we can afford more elderly (as a society).

The combination of increased productivity per worker, and supporting fewer children means that there is not a crisis in the number of workers available to support the dependents in the society–children, retirees and those among the disabled who are unable to work.

So what is really going on? Why are they claiming there’s going to be a labor shortage?

Well, there are two definitions of a labor shortage. One is what we naturally think of, which is that there aren’t enough people in the society to do the work that needs to be done. But the employer’s definition of a labor shortage is when there aren’t enough unemployed workers to institute what they call “labor discipline” which is, roughly translated, that there are so many people out there looking for a job that we will do pretty much anything to hang onto ours, including taking wage cuts, benefit cuts, safety risks and even working off the clock as many retail workers have been forced to do in this recession. Employers want us to be grateful for whatever job we have, no matter how miserable. Our gratefulness increases when there are ‘hundreds of people out there who want your job’.

For example, the employing class experienced 1996 as a labor shortage. Unemployment was low and wages went up, encouraging workers to demand more. (This is when Bill Clinton instituted the destruction of Welfare, which forced a lot of mothers into the paid labor force for sub-minimum wages and acted to depress wages of workers across the board.)

This kind of rise in the cost of our labor is what Bush and Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan are worried about.

In an article called, “Coming Soon: The Vanishing Workforce” the New York Times reports: “As workers age, fewer new bodies are coming up the pipeline to replace them.” … In response, “Alan Greenspan, the Federal Reserve chairman, suggested to economists meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, that Social Security and Medicare benefits should be curtailed to avoid fiscal disaster and keep workers on the job longer.” (Eduardo Porter, August 29, 2004.)

So Greenspan wants us to work till we drop, using cuts in Social Security and Medicare to force us to work long into our anticipated retirement years.

And just what would be the fiscal disaster he worries about? Lower unemployment and higher wages. Good for workers, but bad for those who make money by paying us as little as they can get away with and still have us show up for work the next day.

Greenspan admits that a motivation for cutting benefits is that he wants to “keep workers on the job longer.” This puts him in direct conflict with one goal of Social Security, a Depression-era program created partly to reduce unemployment. Social Security meant that older workers could afford to retire, allowing younger workers to replace them. As economic historian Dora Costa pointed out recently “with 25 percent unemployment and young men riding the rails seen as a potential tinderbox of social unrest … Part of the motivation for Social Security was that it was seen as a good idea to get older people out of the workforce during the Depression” (New York Times, March 6, 2005). In other words, it was a jobs program. Indeed, when Social Security was instituted it had the effect of shoring up wages, according to Vermont historian Dawn Saunders. With lower benefits or a higher retirement age, the number of people seeking jobs will go up and our wages may sink further. At least, that’s what Bush and Greenspan hope will happen.

We would not be experiencing the cuts in Social Security that we already have if our wages were rising to reflect our increased productivity–but our pay has been stagnant since 1970. The benefits of our increased productivity have not been passed onto the workers, they’ve been hoarded by the very rich, whose income is mostly not in wages and salaries and thus not taxed for Social Security. This has meant that “A smaller and smaller portion of our national income is taxed by the Social Security system” putting a larger burden on workers, writes Geoff Price at RationalRevolution.net. “Virtually all of the productivity gains from our economy since the early 1980s have been realized by the top 1%, and thus do not contribute to our ability to sustain retirees through the Social Security program,” Price writes. Even the income the rich do receive in salaries is not taxed for Social Security after the first $90,000 of income.

A raise in the minimum wage would immediately help redistribute wealth downward, but this, of course, is something the Republicans have been chronically opposed to. Many of them would like to do away with the minimum wage altogether. The Labor Party advocates an immediate raise in the minimum wage to $12 an hour, indexed to inflation.

If historian Dora Costa is right, and it was the fear of ‘social unrest’ that led to Social Security’s implementation, it may be time for a little more social unrest to protect it from the cutters and privatizers who want to hoard for themselves the benefits of not just our increased productivity, but even of our increased lifespans.

Health care is the real crisis
It’s ludicrous for these privatizers to suddenly be worried about the long term–how will Social Security look in 30, 40, 70 years because if they were really concerned about the long term, the crisis would be obvious, and it’s health care.

Just once I’d like them to explain how these 10 and 15% rises in healthcare costs can be sustained 30, 40, 70 years from now.

People ask how to be positive–as in, well, if you don’t like what Bush is saying, what’s your proposal, then? In addition to the Labor Party (www.thelaborparty.org) program of increasing the minimum wage and guaranteeing everyone the right to a job, we think the positive program should be national health care, a program the Labor Party calls Just Health Care (www.justhealthcare.org). Social Security wouldn’t be nearly so hard to live on if we could rely on a universal health care system like they have in other countries. It would be like an immediate rise in Social Security benefits.

Social Security payments are increasingly not enough to survive on and the primary reason is the cost of medicine and increasing Medicare premiums. Increasing Medicare premiums amount to a CUT in Social Security benefits. And Medicare pays only half of retiree medical expenses. So no wonder people are desperate to figure out some other way. Bush is playing on that desperation to try to do away with this successful program.

We believe it’s not enough to say there’s not a problem with Social Security. We have to point to a positive direction to fix the problems people are facing–not of the Social Security system, but of a medical insurance system that is bankrupting us. This is how we’ll make gains in retirement security.

Bankruptcy in the trust fund? More lies.
Social Security is a pay as you go system. The money that comes out of my paycheck goes to pay my mom’s Social Security, but rather than us each individually supporting (or not) our retired parents, we all pay in and our parents and grandparents get paid.

But if it’s a pay as you go system, what is this trust fund we keep hearing about? Well, it started accumulating large amounts of money in the late ’80s when the Social Security tax was increased. The idea was that the baby boomers are in their big earning years and now they can pay into a fund that will pay them later when they retire.

Rather than sitting in a pile somewhere, the money is lent to the rest of the government in the form of low-interest bonds. Social Security holds these bonds and will cash them gradually to pay baby boomers Social Security checks.

After all the baby boomers have passed away, the system will have exhausted the trust fund, which was collected exactly for that purpose and is intended to be emptied out. Then we’ll be back to a pay as you go system.

But Bush portrays this as “the system going bankrupt.” It’s doing no such thing. If you saved for college, then went to college, after you graduated you wouldn’t say, oh, no, my college fund is bankrupt!

When people say the federal government has been raiding the trust fund, they mean that the government has been using an accounting trick to make it look like they’re in better shape than they are, because they aren’t counting the money they owe the Social Security system as debt.

But, as Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research pointed out in a New York Times letter to the editor in March, “Social Security is a distinct program financed by its own tax. …Every penny of social security benefits will be paid, regardless of how large the deficit is in the rest of the budget, unless Congress votes to default on the bonds held by the trust fund.”

But then the government would have to argue that its debts to Social Security were less real than its debts to all its other bondholders. Full faith and credit of the U.S. government, indeed.

previous article

[current issue]

next article