February 21, 2010

Thoughts On John Brown And Women

"After my father had selected his place, he found out, like men usually do, whenever they attempt to do anything, that he would be obliged to have some woman to help him..."

Anne Brown, remembering the preparations for the 1859 Harpers Ferry raid.

Yes, the 150th anniversary of Harpers Ferry is behind us, but I am pleased to see that it has stirred up a growing interest in Old Osawatomie. (Anyone who expected Fire on the Mountain to lessen coverage of Brown's contributions to the struggle simply hasn't been paying attention here).

I recently went with John Kaye to a Brown exhibit at the New-York Historical Society featuring a feast of contemporary material, mainly documents, on Brown. Those in the environs or visiting NYC before March 25 are urged to check it out.

Two documents in particular got me thinking about Brown and women. John Brown is, in legend and appearance, so much the Old Testament patriarch that it is easy to think of him as your standard-issue, unenlightened, pre-women's-movement radical.

I was struck therefore by the document Brown prepared in 1858 at Frederick Douglass's Rochester home and later had printed, The Provisional Constitution And Ordinances For The People Of The United States. This document, which was to serve for the territories liberated from slavery by the planned uprising, starts its very first article, "Qualifications For Membership," with the words "All persons of mature age..." NOT, you will note, "All men...." And the same language is used to describe the qualifications for holding elected office.

This was 10 years before the Wyoming Territory granted women the right to vote and a full 61 years before the US managed to ratify the Nineteenth Amendment.

John Brown's advanced stand was clear at a policy level. Another facet appears in the quote cited at the beginning of the article. Brown's daughter Anne, 15 at the time and known as Annie, went with Oliver Brown's wife Martha, 16, in response to a request from John Brown to join the band at the Kennedy Farm in Maryland where the raid was being staged.

The women were not needed to cook and clean, as the cynical might think. The sentence in Anne's moving letter of reminiscence, written in 1887, reads in full:
After my father had selected his place, he found out, like men usually do, whenever they attempt to do anything, that he would be obliged to have some woman to help him, to stand between him and the curiosity of outsiders, a sort of "outside guard" to conceal his movements, and ward off suspicion.
Still, the start of Anne's statement shows that she was aware that her father shared the tendency of his male contemporaries (and our own) to give short shrift to the role and contributions of women. Just as his advanced thinking for the time should be recognized, so too should his shortcomings remind us that the work we have to do in the long struggle to end oppression and exploitation will go better if we keep trying to root out some of that old bullshit in our thinking.

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February 14, 2010

Black NJ: People's Organization for Progress Transforms Victims into Fighters

Updated: Sunday afternoon, February 14
The People's Organization for Progress has a proud history of battling oppression in Northern NJ, for well over a quarter-of-a-century. We've organized around the needs of the people: education, jobs, healthcare, racism, war, reparations, imperialism, and more for over 26 years. But POP "made its bones", has made some of it's greatest contributions, in the struggle against police violence in the African-American community.
The conviction and imprisonment of five Orange, NJ police officers for the death of Earl Faison, the settlement in the police murder of Stanton Crew, the financial fine imposed on East Orange, NJ for the police attack on senior-citizen Esmé Parchment in her own house, these are proud moments in POP's history of struggle.
But perhaps the most exciting achievement we get to experience as POP members is when a victim, through their pain, trauma and experiences, is transformed into not just a fighter, but a leader in the people's battles. Our recently elected Vice-Chair for Internal Affairs, Mary Weaver is one such leader. After losing her son to a police bullet, Mary joined POP to get justice. Over time however Mary became Recording-Secretary and then Secretary General as she helped build and transform POP as one of our leading members.
This past Saturday, February 13, Sharonda Smalls, aunt of Basire Farrell (who was beaten to death by Newark police on May 15 of last year), called for a demonstration at the site of her nephew's murder. But Sharonda, in the spirit of Mary Weaver and other victims whose experiences have transformed them into soldiers in the people's struggle, called for a demonstration for all victims. As she herself formulated the demand "to Protest the Vicious and Senseless Beating Death of Basire Farrell & All Victims of Police Brutality by Newark Police Officers."
Sharonda explains this transformation, "we are all family. At last Thursday's POP meeting, when I met the family of Darnell (murdered by a so-called law enforcement officer) I realized I'd gone to school with his mother." Local Democratic Party District Leader Lynda Lloyd became a member of Sharonda's POP family as well. Lloyd attended the rally to find out more about police brutality in the Clinton Hills neighborhood, because she herself had been beaten and arrested on January 27 by Booker's lawless storm troopers.
And even in the frigid cold weather, victim's families answered Sharonda's call. The families and friends of Jahqui Graham, Darnell McNeil, Basire Farrell, Amar McClean, and many many others came to Tillinghast St. at the corner of Clinton Place and Homestead Park in Newark in the spirit of linking these struggles. The family of one recent victim, Darnell McNeil, a slight young college tutor shot to death by an Essex County Sheriff's Deputy moonlighting as "muscle" at a club, announced that his funeral on Monday, February 15, would follow the South African model with a march afterward. Younger community residents also called for building a People's Organization for Progress youth-wing.
As People's Organization for Progress Chairman, Lawrence Hamm pointed out, "Grieving is necessary, we all need to mourn after tragedy. But the spirit of activists like our own Vice-Chair Mary Weaver and new POP member as well as developing new neighborhood leader Sharonda Smalls teaches us that our salvation is tied-up to the safety, health and vigor of the community. In fact, only by linking the battles to include ALL injustice can we achieve any real victories at alll!"

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February 10, 2010

Showdown Looms In Iran!

What’s this? “Will the real Incredible Hulk please stand up?”

Not exactly. This faintly amusing (to Western eyes) snapshot is actually a portrait of breathtaking courage. It’s a recent body-building contest in Iran where the Ahmedinejad regime has started hanging opponents after perfunctory trials. Rashid Ghaleh Shahini took the stage with his body painted green in unmistakable solidarity with the massive dissident movement.

Tomorrow is the 22nd of Bahman (February 11) and it is shaping up to be the latest and quite possibly the largest showdown between the vast and growing dissident movement in Iran on one side and the Ahmedinijad regime, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the leaders of the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution (the militia usually called the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the Western media) on the other. The day could easily end with violent clashes or even a massacre of protesters.

Continuing to position itself as the true voice of the Iranian people, the Green movement has chosen the country's main secular holiday, the anniversary of the 1979 Revolution which overthrew the Shah, to mobilize protests. The call is national and has been strongly endorsed (unlike the huge demonstrations around the Shi'ite holiday of Ashura as last year ended) by the two main opposition candidates in last year’s election, Mir-Hossain Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi. Both contend that that election was fixed, a sentiment shared by millions of Iranians who first took to the streets in the election aftermath last spring.

For their part, the authorities are doing everything they can to block the protest. They’ve been working to whip up nationalist sentiment by launching Iran’s first space rocket and claiming to uphold Iran’s peaceful nuclear program against US and European pressure. More directly, they’ve already undertaken a wave of arrests of activists, thousands of them. They’ve clamped down on the press--65 reporters, many from mainstream media outlets there, are now in prison. They’ve openly discussed what is being called "the Chinese solution" (a reference to "the Tienanmen incident"--the government-ordered massacre of thousands of Chinese students and workers in 1989). Now, they are reported to be blocking off the square where the Tehran marches are supposed to converge and packing it in advance with basiji, the Revolutionary Guard-backed thugs responsible for so much violence in December.

So what’s going to happen? That’s almost impossible to say, beyond the obvious--more people will turn out for the protest demonstrations than whatever "official" observances the government cobbles together. By at least an order of magnitude. The great danger, of course, is that savage repression will be visited upon the demonstrators with many killed, injured or jailed.

One reason things are hard to predict is that there are serious splits in the Iranian ruling class and in the Shi’ite clergy with some revered figures openly part of the Green opposition, others pushing for compromise solutions, and hardliners who fear to give an inch lest they go the way of the Shah (only minus the free flight to the US). The debates and shifting alliances among these forces are extremely difficult to track.

Another reason things remain unclear is that the movement itself is chaotic and de-centralized. It erupted suddenly and spontaneously, and in the eight months since last June has far outstripped the original demand for a fair vote count or revote. The cry now is for democracy, meaning an end to the Islamic State with its effective clerical veto over everything that happens in government and society. Beyond that? Who knows?

The decentralization of the dissident movement, aided by Web 2.0 and cell phones, has made it very hard for the regime to repress, despite the clear cyber-war raging since the election, with hacking, spoofing, and blocking the airwaves and cable and phone lines common government tactics. This has also made it hard for the movement to develop through summation of experience and debate over strategy and tactics.

Iran only breaks into public consciousness once in a while here in the US. This is likely to be one of those times. Progressives and revolutionaries here should be prepared to respond. If repression does strike or civil combat break out, there will be demonstrations worldwide, organized by the large Iranian diaspora, whose members have, unlike most of us, been tracking events there very closely. Find one near you and take part, if at all possible.

In less than 24 hours millions of Iranians will take to the streets demanding democracy, in the face of great danger. They deserve the full support of everyday working people here and they will welcome it. Shame on us if we fail them!

[Recommended reading for those who haven’t been following Iran is the statement from Freedom Road last year analyzing the sudden eruption of the protest movement and its prospects.]

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February 8, 2010

Classified Report on the Oceans: Zero Progress

This is a picture of the corpse of an albatross chick, found on the remote Midway atoll in the Pacific. As it died and rotted, the contents of its digestive tract showed why it was fated never to mature.

Three days ago, Betsy Reznicek, office sparkplug at Veterans For Peace, posted another picture from Midway on her Facebook page and I have been unable to get it out of my mind. I backtracked to the website of photographer Chris Jordan. He has shot and posted about 30 of these images, and looking at one or two does not make the next couple dozen easier to take, believe me.
Jordan’s very brief text just deepens the horror. It reads, in part:

The nesting babies are fed bellies-full of plastic by their parents, who soar out over the vast polluted ocean collecting what looks to them like food to bring back to their young. On this diet of human trash, every year tens of thousands of albatross chicks die on Midway from starvation, toxicity, and choking.
This got me thinking back to a post I had intended to write a couple of years ago (one of many that never got off the Road To Hell Paving Company truck). I had been struck by a contradiction highlighted in two media stories that caught a sudden gout of ink (or pixels) at around the same time.

The first brief spate of media attention hailed the success of the Irish Republic in driving plastic bags out of the country, and the anti-plastic attitudes the campaign had instilled or reinforced among the people. The other was about the Pacific Trash Vortex, a concentration in the ocean of suspended particles of human debris, mainly plastic, roughly twice the size of Texas--and growing.

Even so splendid an effort as Eire’s, I was going to say, pales before the damage rapacious capitalism continues to wreak in the name of consumption and convenience--and in the pursuit of profit.

Well, the intervening years haven’t exactly invalidated my point. The German newsmagazine Der Spiegel’s online edition recently excerpted a classified German government report on the state of the oceans:
Still, according to a classified German government strategy paper...if you add up all the good such measures have done, you still end up with zero. In fact, according to the confidential paper, international efforts aimed at protecting the oceans have failed across the board. Our oceans have devolved into vast garbage dumps.
And so far none of the talk, in the US or globally, of Green capitalism, Green jobs, Green recovery has done Thing One to change this.

One more piece of evidence that the crisis we face is three-fold--economic political and environmental--and that revolutionary solutions are needed, most ricky-tick. Just look at those damn birds...

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February 5, 2010

The People Won One Today! (Dja Miss It?)

Today marked a major victory in a six-year-long struggle by small farmers in the US. I’m betting, dear reader, that you don’t have any idea what I’m talking about.

The Department of Agriculture decided today to drop NAIS (the National Animal Identification System). This was a voluntary program to identify and track meat and dairy animals wherever they went in the country.NAIS was started in 2004 by the Bush Administration after a cow with mad cow disease was discovered in Washington State. To non-farmers, this may seem like a sensible measure, but remind yourself, you don’t know a lot of detail about how the meat you buy winds up in that plastic-wrapped Styrofoam container at the supermarket--or on the shish-kebab stick on that whole wheat pita at the Arab takeout place.

1. Agribusiness and factory farms in particular were the big advocates of NAIS. Why? They are the big exporters of US-raised meat and poultry, and having the certified tracking process in place would help overcome legal barriers to US-raised meat being sold to, say, safety conscious European countries and Japan. The law was written so that huge herds of chickens and pigs (though not cows) raised to be processed at the same facility only needed one identification number between them. (On the other hand, agribusiness and the Bush administration also waged a fierce campaign to ban individual farmers from testing all their cows for the disease, because then the big packers might have to do it, or risk losing market share.)

2. Meanwhile, NAIS was hugely expensive for small farmers at a time when the economic crunch on many is near unbearable. (Read, for instance, this harrowing recent story of a NY State farmer’s suicide). A small farmer, who slaughtered some hogs, sold some at auction, and kept some as breeding stock would have to tag each one individually. Consider someone like my partner Dody--she and her five kids among them raise in any given year meat chickens, laying hens,meat cows, milk cows, meat goats, milk goats, sheep and pigs, all for family consumption and some small-scale local sale, mostly to acquaintances. They would have to permanently tag each animal and to fill out extensive paperwork when, say, Jay in Connecticut gives one milker to his sister Kate, who recently moved to Maine.

3. Farmers were convinced, with good reason that a “voluntary” NAIS today was likely to become government-mandated tomorrow, which was the plan when it was first proposed. Further, they knew that if any disease did show up at big slaughterhouses, blame would quickly be kicked back upstream to the party least able to defend him or herself, the small farmer, never mind that the big commercial feedlots where animals are prepared for butchering are vast breeding grounds for all sorts of pathogens.

So how did NAIS get knocked out? A combination of--let’s call it civil refusal--and old-fashioned protest. When Obama’s Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsak, took office, he knew that NAIS was failing badly. The Department had been bombarded by petitions and letters. Congresscritters from rural districts were passing on the earful they had got from constituents. The government had dropped $142 million setting up, promoting and running the program, and only got a 40% buy-in from farmers and ranchers. And most of that was on paper rather than a working system.

Vilsak traveled around country to meetings and heard from agribusiness mouthpieces—and from hundreds of ripshit angry farmers and ranchers. Kentucky farmer and farm activist Adam Barr told one listening session:

NAIS needs to be scrapped and we need to start over. The new program should look at industrial food production, which is the source of animal disease and food-borne illness. A clear distinction should be made between factory farms and those pasture-based family farms. Industrial ag may need this program. We should let them have it. Small-scale producers for a local market do not need this program, and if it moves forward, we would like full exemption for these producers.
Vilsak announced today that a new identification program will be developed and the USDA website has an FAQ about it which proclaims:
Animals not moved out of state, as well as small producers who raise animals to feed themselves, their families and their neighbors, are not a part of the framework's scope and focus.
See, a victory for mass resistance to big capital! And under the radar of the traditional and urban left in this country. And not for the first time. Keep them peepers open, folks!

[This piece owes a great deal to the reporting of Jill Richardson at the excellent La Vida Locavore website.]

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February 4, 2010

Another Lesson From the Greenboro Sit-Ins

This week marks 50 years since the Greensboro, NC, sit-ins, the historic protest which launched the Black Freedom Struggle in this country onto a new trajectory. We are seeing a lot of celebration of the courage of the four students who first sat down at the Woolworth's lunch counter and of the chain reaction it set off.

I posted such a tribute myself, yesterday. In the course of refreshing my fading memory, via Google, to complete the task, I found another facet of the Greensboro story. It's one I had never come across, and one that will, I think, resonate with anyone who has spent much time in the activist trenches.
Many of us know the story of how four students on February 1 became dozens and by February 4, hundreds, as students across North Carolina and the South girded to emulate them and launch the wave of struggles that finally killed Jim Crow.

The other side of the story has to do with the five months it took to crack the management at Woolworth's and S.H. Kress and the rest of the Greensboro power structure.

The multiplication of protesters in that first week is now at the heart of the legend. But that level of activity was hard to sustain, especially as the students' demands remained unmet and white hostility grew more intense.

Franklin McCain and Joseph McNeil remained part of the organizing core from Day One. McCain recalls:

What people won't talk (about), what people don't like to remember is that the success of that movement in Greensboro is probably attributed to no more than eight or 10 people. I can say this: when the television cameras stopped rolling and we didn't have eight or 10 reporters left, the folk left. I mean, there were just a very faithful few. McNeil and I can't count the nights and evenings that we literally cried because we couldn't get people to help us staff a picket line.

I don't know about you, but I can recall lulls in more than one campaign for justice when fatigue, frustration, setbacks and doubt had me in tears. When it happens again, and it will, I hope I remember to draw on this part of the lesson of Greensboro, not the audacity and the courage of the students, but the dogged persistence of the core they built.

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February 2, 2010

The '60s, Our '60s, Began 50 Years Ago Today

Nothing to do with rock & roll. Nothing to do with JFK.

It has to do with what happened in Greensboro, NC, the day before, February 1, 1960. Four young men, Ezell A. Blair Jr., David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain, went to the lunch counter at the Woolworth's department store near the school where they were underclassmen, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.

The four sat down and awaited service. They ignored Woolworth's policy of serving food only to African-Americans who remained standing or took it elsewhere. They defied North Carolina law and the Jim Crow culture which pervaded, indeed defined, the South of the United States. The four sat, unserved, from 4:30 in the afternoon until management closed the store, early, at 5:00.

You can find much written that dates the decade of upsurge, promise and change we call the Sixties from that day.

I'll argue for the next day, February 2, 1960, 50 years ago today.

That's the day that really counts, because that morning David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, Ezell A. Blair Jr., and Franklin McCain went back to the lunch counter at the Greensboro Woolworth's and sat down again. So did 21 other young men and four young women from traditionally Black schools in the area.

The next day, February 3, 63 of the 65 seats at the Woolworth's counter were occupied and on February 4 a sit-in began at S.H. Kress, another department store, and the protesters had been joined by three white students from Woman's College. At the same time racist whites in increasing numbers gathered to heckle and harass the disciplined and determined protesters.

On February 7, Black students in Winston-Salem and Durham, NC held sit-ins at lunch counters. On February 8, Charlotte, NC. On February 9, Raleigh, NC.

It took five long months before the Greensboro establishment caved in and ended segregation in dining facilities. Once the original burst of enthusiasm and defiance passed, it was a long hard slog for the ones who started it and the small core that had formed in the struggle. McCain recalls:

McNeil and I can't count the nights and evenings that we literally cried because we couldn't get people to help us staff a picket line.
But even as they undertook the long painful battle to bring the victory home, their example had spread the tactic of sit-ins to hundreds of localities, including solidarity protests at chain stores in the North and West. Even more important, their action in sitting down at that counter, and returning the next day had spread the determination to smash Jim Crow and fight for justice to the hearts of millions.

And the Sixties, our Sixties, were underway.

[A version of this was posted here, attached to a longer piece, last year.]

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