May 25, 2009

The People's Organization for Progress Demands Justice for Basire Farrell

"What is this? Mississippi, 1955? Black people can't even get to the precinct?"
Lawrence Hamm, state chairman of the New Jersey-based People's Organization for Progress, was  angered nearly to tears in front of Newark's 5th Precinct. Well-liked neighborhood resident Basire Farrell had been stopped by police near at the intersection of Clinton Place and Tillinghast Street. According to eyewitnesses, the police had Farrell in handcuffs, yet continued to hit and kick him, apparently beating the 30 year-old young man to death (see the Newark Star Ledger report here).

This was not POP's first march to this particular Precinct House, the home base of at least two similar cases in the past year. As POP chairman Larry Hamm noted, "I don't care whether people do it in white sheets or a blue uniform, it sounds like a lynching to me."

This question about Mississippi-style white "justice" in Newark becomes especially significant with Newark's young "post-racial" mayor Cory Booker in office. The instances and incidences of police violence against the citizenry has increased since Mayor Booker took office. 

In fact, it is not that long ago that Mayor Booker proudly proclaimed to  TV-networks and print media alike that the kind of police "over-reaction" that led the street rebellion that he describes as the "1967 Riot" are behind us. Attacks like the murder of Basire Farrell, not more than a few blocks from the mayor's residence, put the lie to that claim.

Justice for Basire Farrell, and all victims of police brutality!

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May 4, 2009

Racism and Railroads--The US Experience and Israel's

It's difficult to track the crimes of the Israeli state and Zionism against the Palestinian people. I don't mean hard to keep count of, true though that may be, but painful. It hurts to keep focusing on them, because they are so unrelenting--another olive grove bulldozed, another protester shot in the head with a tear gas canister, another bombing raid on Gaza, another house demolished.

Sometimes, though, a small outrage jumps out at me and I feel I have to do something, even if it's just share my anger.

The trigger for this piece is a new policy initiated by Israel Railways. In March, 2009, management moved to lay off 150 Israeli Arabs who worked as guards, monitoring and maintaining railroad crossings. A new policy was put in place--only those with permits to carry weapons could hold the job.

And only veterans of the Israeli Defense Forces, in which few Arabs serve. get these permits. In fact, management stated explicitly that the program is designed to give employment to young veterans in Israel's shaky economy. The workers have a case before the Labor Board there, but Israel Railways has already started hiring for their positions.

I realized immediately why I grew so angry. This is a direct parallel to what happened to Black railroad workers again and again in the years from the civil war to the victory of the modern civil rights movement.

The issue was the fireman's job, the backbreaking and filthy job of shoveling coal into the engines of old steam locomotives. Think of Blind Willie McTell, “Statesboro Blues”:

Big Eighty left Savannah, Lord, and did not stop
You ought to saw that colored fireman when he got that boiler hot.
Or the old country tune "Wreck of the Old 97”:
So he turned and he said to his Black greasy fireman
"Shovel on a little more coal..."
But when the economy got real bad, suddenly the “Black man's jobs” started looking pretty good to Southern whites. In 1911, for instance, 10 Black railroad workers were shot on the New Orleans & Texas Pacific line because the railroad gave them equal seniority with whites. Climbing on the locomotives to pull the spout down from the water tower and position it to refill the boiler, they were sitting ducks for snipers.

In the Great Depression of the '30s, the same thing happened again. A deadly one-sided war took place, with the all-white unions of the Railroad Brotherhoods complicit in the terror when they weren't actually organizing it. On the Mississippi division of the Illinois Central from 1932 to 1933, Frank Kincaid, Ed Cole, Aaron Williams, Wilburn Anderson, Frank Johnson and Will Harvey were shotgunned to death. Elsewhere, mob action by “concerned citizens” living along the railroad lines stopped trains and savaged Black firemen and the few white railroad workers who took their backs. The companies filled these sudden “vacancies” with white workers.

Israel's crimes draw a lot of comparisons. We talk about the “apartheid wall.” David Rovics, in an essay reprinted here at FotM, drew a very careful but pointed set of connections with the Nazi regime in Germany. Well, by me, these folks are today's segregationists, white supremacists, KKK, and they should be understood and dealt with as such.

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May 3, 2009

Mo' May Day

[After Saturday's post about May Day 2009, I'm still thinking about the lessons, and plan to post on it again. In the meantime, I am turning the floor over to my friend Michael Leonardi, a child of Toledo, Ohio, who is now making his home, his living and his family in the Calabrian town of Tortora. Understandably, as the photo of the May Day banner and red flags flying over Tortora (above) indicate.]

May Day Reflections from Tortora, Calabria, Italy...

On May Day we reflected on the American Imperial Crusades, starting from the genocide of the first inhabitants or indigenous peoples of North America (holocausts denied and forgotten) and continuing through world wars 1 and 2 (Hiroshima and Nagasaki), Vietnam, Korea, Yugoslavia, Mesopotamia, Gaza, the war on the poor, the exploitation of Central and South America, Africa, and Asia. The continuing scapegoating and exploitation of the workers of the world, as the capitalist class continues to wreak havoc on our global ecosystems and spread its cancerous poisons.

Toledo, my home town, is one of the most cancerous cities in the western world thanks to the legacy of the automotive industry, Chrysler et. al., thanks also to corrupt city governments and profit-making enterprises like the Envirosafe hazardous waste dump and the Davis-Besse and Fermi 2 Nuclear plants that have contaminated the land, air and water of the Lake Erie Basin and the Great Black Swamp for decades. Today these stories were shared in Italy where similar stories transpire.On May Day we pondered how Chrysler will come out of bankruptcy through a merger with Italy's Fiat, but only if labor costs are slashed and the UAW agrees to pay cuts reducing their workers' salaries to those of their Asian and German domestic counterparts. Of course healthcare costs for workers are too much of a burden for Chrysler and Fiat, whose multi-millionaire bosses can't remain competitive with a workforce that has so many entitlements. Reducing labor costs to those of the German and Asian automakers is only fair, we are told. At least they aren't expecting the UAW workers to work for wages equivalent to those of Mexican, Chinese, or Italian workers, slave wages indeed!

Twenty-seven acres of wetlands on Toledo's highly toxic Ottawa River and a residential neighborhood were destroyed for the promise of over 4,000 great-paying jobs at the Chrysler (and then Daimler/Chrysler and then Chrysler again) Jeep assembly plant that opened in 2001, where gas-guzzling SUV's called Liberty (parts made in China) were put together. The four thousand jobs became less than 2,500 within a year and great-paying seems to always become less and less. The Jeep plant, along with all of Chrysler's plants, is now closed until the UAW caves into their new Italian boss. When Chrysler became Daimler/Chrysler it was heralded as the largest trans-Atlantic corporate merger in history. It should be remembered that Chrysler Chairman Robert Eaton alone took in $3.7 million in cash, $66.2 million in stock and a severance payment of $24.4 million, as American tax dollars are now offered by President Obama to help the ailing Chrysler/Fiat merger come to fruition.

On May Day we thought about the tens and tens of millions killed off by a mafia run global economic system that continues to dupe the masses with smiling faces talking of prosperity for all and democracy? This, when democracy and an absurd sadomasochistic idea of freedom, exist only for those that wield the reins of power and not for the masses struggling ever more vigorously to survive on our once livable planet. In Calabria we live in the home of l'ndrangheta, the world's most powerful mafia that motors the filth that spews from Wall Street, the global drug trade, and manipulates the friendly faces of fascism in the White House and Capitol Hill, whether black, white or brown -- all bought and sold on the capitalist block.

May Day was eliminated in the USA to sever its ties from the international celebration of workers and movement for a better future for us all. Today in Italy we protested and reflected on a global economic system run amok, on our local mafias that have their tentacles reaching around the globe and on our toxic rivers and seas. We contemplated and refuted, with millions around the world, the renewal of fascism here and the world over.

We thought about the immigrants dying in the waters as they attempt to reach Europe's shores by way of the Italian island of Lampedusa. They flock here from the dire situations in their countries where the USA, Europe and Israel profit from the expropriation of their resources and labor. They come here in hopes of finding larger crumbs falling from the G8's plates. We remembered the workers killed on their jobs as they worked in unsafe conditions due to corporate cutbacks or for criminal bosses cutting costs for profit. We lamented the blind ignorance of the bloodied masses who eagerly follow their media masters, but celebrated our international solidarity with people around the world who hope of weaving the Green and the Red for a livable future for our children and children's children.

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Happy Birthday Pete!

In a few hours I'm going to the Pete Seeger 90th birthday concert, courtesy Lee and Alice (pbut). In my early teens, some who know me now will be surprised to learn, I was a folky. These days, not so much.

But I am proud to say, I have never once stopped defending Pete Seeger from criticisms aesthetic and political. His instrument is not and never was his voice, nor even his banjo. It was his audience. And he played his audience so brilliantly because he genuinely loved them and trusted them to help make his music, their music.

His politics? About the worst you could say about him is that he was a mush-minded humanist, but dammit, he was our mush-minded humanist. And that would a half-truth at best. It was from him that I first heard the song "I Hate The Capitalist System" by Sarah Ogan, who was active in the Harlan County coal-mining struggles in the '30s (the strike in which Florence Reece wrote "Which Side Are You On?" the song in the video above). And possibly his best instrumental composition for banjo, save only the incomparable "Goofing Off Suite," is his arrangement of the Chinese People's Liberation Army's "Three Rules of Discipline and the Eight Rules of Attention."

Here is a video that brings all these points together. It's one of his greatest compositions, a hymn to optimism of the will and the continuity of the struggle called "Quite Early Morning." It was recorded within the last couple of years in Beacon, NY, and Pete's voice, as he's been telling us for years, is shot. It's freezing cold in the venue where they are taping this. Besides whoever's behind the camera, there are two people in front of him, bundled up on metal folding chairs, and damned if he doesn't get them to chime in on the chorus.

Many happy returns, Pete...

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May 2, 2009

May Day’s New Roots

I had a thought-provoking May Day.

It started on teh Intertubes. The social networking space called Facebook, or at least the small self-created corner of it where I rattle around, was awash in May Day greetings, forwardings and comments. I clicked the li’l thumbs-up button to register my approval of every one that came my way. Literally dozens of my Facebook friends chipped in on the theme.

Some included snatches of poetry, verses to The Internationale, embedded YouTube videos or links to articles on the holiday, like this and others at Kasama and some Rowland Keshena Robinson posted at By Any Means Necessary.

Meanwhile, on Leftist Trainspotters, an oddball internet group for people whose hobby is following left organizations around the world (especially small and peculiar ones), the estimable David Walters, of the Marxist Internet Archives, encouraged everyone to report in on their local International Workers Day activities.

Thus prodded, I headed out to check out two rival May Day rallies called in downtown Manhattan yesterday afternoon. I can’t claim that it was altogether a heartening or uplifting trip.

Two Rallies

The first rally, at Union Square, was sponsored by the May 1st Coalition, an outfit in which—how shall I put this delicately?—members of the Workers World Party seemed to play quite the central role. The theme was very much about immigration—the largest visible contingent was day laborers from NJ, Los Jornaleros de Freehold and a big sign at the front read:

Dear President Obama,
100 Days have passed.
We need fair and humane immigration reform now.
[signed] May 1 Coalition
There were maybe 200 people there at 2:00, two hours into the event, spread across a largish plaza. At least four self-styled socialist groups had tables and were attempting to distribute their press to each other’s cadres. A friend reports that the crowd grew somewhat larger and developed a clear immigrant majority by the time a short late afternoon march took place in the rain.

The second rally was at the same time, maybe seven or eight blocks to the north at Madison Square. With around 600 people present when I was there, it was overwhelmingly made up of immigrant workers, mainly Latina/o, mostly from non-union, CBO-type organizations, the largest contingents those of Make the Road by Walking and La Union.

There were a score of staffers and members of SEIU Local 32 BJ, some teachers and other public sector workers, and I spotted Ed Ott from the NYC Central Labor Council. To be fair, early afternoon on a Friday isn’t the easiest time to draw out the employed. A clump of strikers from the nearly seven months old picket line at the Stella D’Oro Bakery were also there. Not much identifiably socialist presence.

All of this has prompted a few thoughts on where May Day is at today and how we got here.

The Revival of May Day

We are in the second distinct stage in the revival of May Day. May Day was once the central holiday of working class revolutionaries in this country, before it was broken by McCarthyism and the subsequent all-but-total collapse of the Communist Party during the ‘50s and ‘60s.

The first stage came in the 1970s, and drew on the huge layers of advanced fighters thrown forward by the decade of upheaval we call The Sixties. The main organized forms this revival first took were marches and rallies sponsored by left groups, especially those of the New Communist Movement. These tended to be very militant and Red in flavor, and were almost invariably held by a single organization and its supporters. With the collapse of the NCM by the early ‘80s it seemed likely that May Day would vanish again.

But veterans of those organizations and other radical and labor activists kept it alive. In some places May Day became an annual event observed with rallies and concerts, if not parades. The radical press invariably carried articles on the history. In a few areas, unions and other people’s organizations which had come under left leadership since the start of this first stage started taking part in or holding May 1 observances.

The Revival Leaps Ahead

The second stage in the revival of May Day came with the great levantamiento that shook this country so profoundly during the Spring of 2006, when millions of immigrant workers struck to protest anti-immigrant attacks and demand justice. May 1, 2006, was the largest single day of protest during the whole upsurge.

As the Freedom Road/El Camino De La Libertad statement this May Day correctly highlighted, the result is that the essential character of May Day is now that of an immigrant holiday. More particularly, it is an immigrant workers' holiday. This is hardly surprising. Immigrants to the US, especially the undocumented ones, are workers, and they know that they are workers. Further, they come from countries (pretty much anyplace else in the world) where May Day is the working class holiday, whether the tame equivalent of our Labor Day or the occasion for launching or escalating campaigns against the employers and the government.

At the same time, the native-born base for May Day has grown as well. Its history as a proletarian holiday, a socialist holiday, a holiday born in the class struggle right here in the US, has been spotlighted by the likes of Howard Zinn—and by the thousands of teachers and professors who have drawn on that understanding in their work with young people over the last 30-plus years.

New Roots As Change Unfolds

This renewed revival has left May Day more deeply rooted than it has been in well over half a century. I don’t want to get ahead of myself here. It’s still on the radar of a very small section of the population in this country. On the other hand, it is no longer the property of what Marta Harnecker calls the “party left,” but is more broadly recognized and embraced as an intrinsic part of radical culture in the US.

And, by me, that’s a very hopeful thing at a time when, as a Rasmussen poll recently reported:
Only 53% of American adults believe capitalism is better than socialism. The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 20% disagree and say socialism is better. Twenty-seven percent (27%) are not sure which is better.
This pro-socialist tide (strongest among the young, incidentally) has little to do with anything we’ve done and everything with the palpable failures of capitalism and with the yahoos who are out there denouncing anything faintly progressive or egalitarian as “socialism.”

May Day in many ways embodies our broad vision and our hopes for humanity and can surely be one door that the folks polled by Rasmussen walk through toward revolutionary socialism.

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