December 31, 2008

A Tale of Two City Kids (Part I)

Two young, African-American men---both neglected by birth parents, both labeled “learning disabled’--attend a supportive small high school in New York City. JB graduates and, after two years, seems to be doing okay. Solo doesn’t graduate, and, at the time when he should have, seems like he’s lost, with his possibilities narrowing to the streets.

Why? Did we, as teachers and counselors, do something right in one case and wrong in the other? And in the face of bigger factors, things beyond our control, how much difference can our efforts really make?

As a high school social worker, I think about these questions a lot. On the one hand, I don’t really believe that the majority of human beings will be secure and fulfilled without deep social upheaval that overthrows structural oppressions (white domination, the rule of big corporations, patriarchy etc). On the other hand, I think it’s important if I/we/schools/social welfare institutions can help some young human beings at society’s bottom to grow up and “make it,” even in this messed up capitalist system. My definition of “make it” is a modest one. I just mean holding some kind of job that channels and recognizes some of their skills or talents and is therefore subjectively bearable if not thrilling (instead of dying on the streets in their twenties or rotting in jail), and sustaining some rewarding human relationships. “Making it” usually requires, but is definitely not guaranteed by, a high school diploma or GED.

So here’s my attempts to understand the stories of JB and Solo (not real names of course), two kids who I counseled for four years (due to their IEP requirements) and like very much.

Following federal and state law, schools must write up and carry out an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) for each student who is determined by a psychologist’s evaluation to have a disability (often a learning, emotional or sensory difficulty, broadly speaking). The IEP might mandate that the student receive a certain number of hours of instruction in a smaller class, get extra time on tests, or receive services like speech therapy or counseling. That’s how they get to me, and often see me at least once a week for their four years of high school. I also counsel kids who don’t have IEPs but are emotionally upset about something, though that contact tends to be less regular.

JB's Story

JB was my first mandated counseling student at this new high school. At 14, he was a sociable, attractive kid who demanded a lot of attention in a peer group or a classroom. He liked to talk with peers, move around a lot, and argue with or challenge adults, but not in a hostile or mean way. Unlike many teenage guys, he didn’t resist mandated counseling and said he had become used to getting counseling from his foster care agency over the years. Nor was he embarrassed about other kids finding out that he got counseling.

While JB was not into recounting a coherent story about the past (more like details and fragments when he felt like it), I pieced together a picture from our conversations and his file. He was the second oldest of five kids of drug-abusing parents. All were removed from a filthy, chaotic home when he was about 6 or 7, and then placed in foster homes or staffed houses, sometimes all together or in pairs or trios, sometimes singly. He seemed to be the least damaged of the children, and worried a lot about a sister who had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and was often hospitalized, and a younger brother who was acting out aggressively. There was no contact with the birth parents, and he never wanted to talk about them much.

Throughout the four years of high school, there was a fair amount of drama about JB’s living situation. He knew how to work the system and had manipulated to get himself and two siblings out of a staffed house (I’m forgetting the exact technical term) and placed as foster children with one of the staff whom he liked. However, once in her home, they clashed and he moved to two homes after that. This pattern of growing close to an adult figure and then becoming very angry when that figure doesn’t live up to unrealistically high expectations is an idealization/devaluation syndrome common to kids whose early caretakers didn’t provide consistent nurturing. (Not to mention that the adult’s behavior also changes, and must change to some extent, when you’re the one in charge of a kid 24-7, versus being the worker they like to confide in.) JB would say, “She’s on me all the time” and complained that he was being blamed for everything that went wrong in the home.

JB: Best Not Too Close or Too Far

But JB did much better with relationships that were structurally more distant and secondary and not so potentially engulfing. He got to our school because the psychologist at his elementary school was very concerned about him finding a supportive high school, and accompanied him to the high school fairs. They were still in touch occasionally.

JB was labeled as “learning disabled,” a cover-all term in IEPs which always needs to be broken down and concretized, and balanced by an assessment of strengths. On the weakness side, what the teachers and I noticed was that he was somewhat disorganized, had trouble sitting still and finishing work, and would say, especially of math problems, “I really can do it—I know how to do it--I just get bored.” Many will recognize this pattern as typical of young people with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, which is often not mentioned in New York City IEPs because it’s not included as a handicapping condition in New York State regulations.

When we raised it with him, JB resisted the idea that this new label might apply to him—especially since, if his foster care agency were to explore it, it might end up with him taking medication. But when I framed it as not a stigma or barrier but a way of understanding some weaknesses for which he could work to compensate, and then loaned him a memoir by an academically successfully teen with ADHD, he did acknowledge the resemblance and look at some of the tips for success. (I think he kept the book too, kinda forgetting to bring it back--which always happens with my best books.) This was a crucial acknowledgement, since without it he would probably fall into blaming teachers when he didn’t do well, or complaining that they were picking on him or didn’t like him. And a key part of my job was helping him to build and preserve the alliances with teachers that he needed to graduate—rather than withdrawing, devaluing, antagonizing etc.

JB’s Intelligence and Ability to Bond

JB had several key strengths. One was a keen interpersonal intelligence that allowed him to understand where people where coming from, got him a lot of (mostly female) friends and girlfriends, and made him an excellent peer mediator. Not to say that he didn’t have his own fairly intense conflicts with peers, but he usually kept them to a verbal level, and we spent a lot of counseling time processing his feelings about these relationships. His desire to understand himself and other people, and his openness to new insights, made JB a stimulating counseling client and student. Several teachers enjoyed conversing with and took him under their wing. JB also was what I like to call a “natural intellectual”—a working class kid who grasped, seized on and dug abstract concepts. This got him through Social Studies when the name/date/place details were not always engraved in his memory.

JB reinforced my sense that, when a kid who’s been through a lot is able to bond with me and benefit from counseling, it’s not primarily because I’m a brilliant social worker, but because the young person has developed this capacity to form relationships as a key survival mechanism. JB had an openness, curiosity, humor and spirit that over the years, drew many adults in his agency and his schools to want to help him. This quality is recognized as a key aspect of resilience, and I think it’s a large part of why he was able to graduate. It also didn’t hurt that he only had to take the RCTs (New York State’s minimum competency exams required in the major subjects) rather than the more difficult Regents exams, which were just being phased in.

JB Graduates and Flounders

JB graduated without a very clear plan for college and it was hard for me to track him. I try to balance between the therapeutic ethos/protocol of ‘terminating” and encouraging the client to move on, and the pedagogical ethos/protocol of wanting to know the progress of a young person, and welcome them back for a visit and check in. JB came back to visit the school once (his girlfriend, two years younger, was still a student) and told me something vague about looking for a job and applying for college. I was not too surprised that he was floundering a little because, unfortunately, few graduates from my school are really ready to succeed in college with its demands of independent reading and writing—despite our best efforts.

There were two hopeful signs, however. First, JB was still living with a foster parent, maybe the fourth one since I’d known him, with whom he got along better. Many kids in foster care hate the system so much that they bolt when they reach 18, refusing the considerable college or vocational tuition aid and other benefits available until age 22 to those who maintain a relationship with an agency. And secondly, he had maintained the relationship with his girlfriend Ramona, a pretty and kindhearted girl who was not into too many head games, from what I could tell.

A couple of times, I asked Ramona how JB was doing, and she would say, “He’s okay…” From her tone and vagueness, I sensed that things might not be going so well. But it wasn’t appropriate to pry or make her feel pressed or awkward —because now my obljgation was to be available to her, a current student, if she needed me. (I see both regular and special education students).

JB Re-Appears

This past June, Ramona graduated, and there at graduation was JB, whom I hadn’t seen in over a year. He grabbed me in a big hug and said how happy he was to see me. I said the same and that I had been wondering how he was doing and asking after him. “You asked about me?” he said, with a quick aside to Ramona, who was preoccupied with congratulations. “You didn’t tell me she asked about me!” He told me to me that he had been “really messed up” for a while but now had a job working with retarded adults and was taking classes for certification as a nursing assistant—through his foster care agency. “The science isn’t really hard,” he said, ”just sometimes the words are hard.”

JB said he felt good and could imagine himself studying for other licenses or degrees. I said I thought it was great that he could turn all the struggles he’d been through into compassion for other people who had big problems and needs. “I deal with really low-functioning people, I mean I have to change their diapers and stuff like that. Maybe I should be ashamed of what I do but I don’t really feel ashamed,” he said. I could only reply that he should be proud because he was actually helping people, even though our sick society doesn’t value that work enough.

JB’s putting himself on a good path after so many struggles, and I must admit, his happiness in seeing me and his expression of appreciation for my work with him—made my day.

JB: Saved by Fragments of the Welfare System

One key lesson I draw from this last part of the story is the importance of JB’s foster care agency, and the other shattered fragments of a welfare system that still remain in this country. For a kid who had neglectful and inattentive parents over the first six years of life, it’s not easy to establish an ongoing bond with a parent figure in later childhood or adolescence, no matter how supportive and caring that person is. But the consistent presence of the agency and the availability of programs that could take him from age six through career training has been a crucial constant in his life. He’s now at the point where he can name, and is determined to take advantage of, every benefit it offers.

Yes, his primary agency worker was usually an under-paid or un-paid social work intern who left after a year, and their supervisors stayed bit longer but also came and went. But these more “loosely coupled” relationships with a succession of good-enough advocates/confidants provided the right combination of consistency with a bit of distance, where no dyad became too intense or threatening for him. Similarly, his relationships with the elementary school psychologist and me, though longer-lasting (JB once said to me, ”The agency has a new worker every year but you’re always here for me”), were productive and tolerable for JB because they were limited in scope.

Somehow, the messed up special ed/school system, and the messed up social welfare system, combined with his own resilience, have sorta worked for JB. I think, cross fingers.

[Part II, Solo's story and some conclusions, coming shortly.]

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December 30, 2008

Straws In The Wind #2: Philadelphia Library Revolt

[In April, I started posting sporadic economic bits called "Bite Size Bad News." The idea was to highlight the unfolding economic meltdown by examining one or another particularity from the economic news. I stopped because no one likely to read FotM really needs my help to understand that we are in the early stages of something mighty like a depression.

Hence, this new feature. "Straws In The Wind" posts will focus on how the burden of the crisis is being placed on ordinary working folks and on their developing consciousness and resistance. I am taking the liberty of renaming my most recent post Straws In The Wind #1. That makes this #2.]

As 2008 draws to an end, and with it the tax year, we are seeing what will rapidly become a tsunami of cuts in public services starting to gather force around the country. Every state and municipality will be hit in different ways, but no place is gonna stay high and dry.

Want an example? The estimable Suzy Subways (one-time literary voice of Brooklyn's bike delivery folk) has done my homework for me. Mayor Michael Nutter of Philadelphia announced just last month that 11 of the city's 54 libraries will be shuttered, effective New Year's Day. This has produced a riptide of anger in neighborhoods all over the city, and several City Council members have gone to court to block the closings.

But I recommend a look at this cable broadcast of one of the neighborhood meetings Nutter and Library Director Siobhan Reardon held to try and quell opposition to library and other cuts.

It's a long meeting--folks in predominantly Black Southwest Philly are steamed--but Suzy has put in the time to transcribe the highlights, and included time checks so you can slide straight to the exchanges she typed up below.

Do these folks seem like they are gonna sit quietly and watch their communities stripped of libraries? Not to me. I'm gonna be checking the news from Philadelphia over the next few days.

TRANSCRIPT (courtesy Suzy Subways)

Minute 25:50
Crowd chanting, “Tax the rich!”

Minute 58:26
April Turner – “You said once our libraries close, our children can go to their schools or they can walk to the library…. Can you tell me how many schools do not have libraries in our area? I need this answer from you!” Nutter scrambles but has to admit he doesn’t know.

Turner -- “Wilson Alexander School is the only elementary school right here that has a library – that will be only operating 2 times a week.”

At Minute 59:51, she asks about Kingsessing Library getting sold. Nutter actually says, “I never said anything about selling the libraries, ma’am.” You can hear people yelling, “Liar!”

Minute 60:20

Lucille Walker -- “Being a schoolteacher, I know what it’s like to lug books from this library to Mitchell school. I know what it’s like to bring my students to the basement of this library to listen to storytime, because we didn’t have a library at Mitchell School! And not only did I work at Mitchell School, I worked at Huey School which does not have a library! …I know a lot of parents that have volunteered in the libraries. They have volunteered because there’s no librarians!”

Minute 94:38
A woman with her elementary school age daughter – “I’m a single mother of four…. When they say, ‘Mom, we need to look up something on the internet,’ we don’t have internet. Where do I say go?” [passing the mic to her daughter]

Child – “The library.”

Mother – “The library. When there’s things I don’t understand, and I need to educate myself, I go to the library…. My children’s schools don’t have Apple computers. They don’t have laptops they get to carry around. You say they can go to the schools, but there are no books in the school….
[she continues speaking at Minute 97:44] Thank God I drive, because I have to take my children to the high-class neighborhoods just to get a good book. We can’t get DVDs. [To daughter] Where do you get your DVDs?”

Child – “The library.”

Mother – “At the library!”

Minute 125:20

Young Man -- “I spoke to you at the first town hall meeting, and it seems like you’re still getting a lot of heat, and there’s a lot of confrontation that’s still going on. And the reason is these people are tired, massa. We’re tired, boss. We’re tired of the oppression, we’re tired of the abuse, we’re tired of the neglect…. I don’t think that you really understand the effect of what you’re doing right now as in taking away these libraries and taking away these pools….

You’re not going to feel that effect. Every last person up there is content, y’all are comfortable with the positions that y’all are in…. It don’t harm y’all, because you have power…. I just want to know, how do your wife and kids feel about the decision that you have made?”

Nutter – “It’s the toughest decisions that I’ve ever made….” He asks community members to do more volunteering, etc….

Young Man – “The financial crisis that we’re going through right now, are all of you being affected by that financial crisis?”

Nutter – “well, I’m personally affected by the decisions I have to make, I’m personally affected by reducing my pay.”

Audience -- “How do you sleep at night?”

Young Man to audience – “We need to come together!”

Minute 138:55

Carolyn Morgan – “[Library Director Siobhan] Reardon, I find you to be an enemy to the Southwest Philadelphia area, to the libraries throughout the city, because it stands to reason and you show it, you have no intention of even wanting the libraries to survive.…

[to Nutter] Your children don’t suffer….Talking about our children walking 2 miles [to the nearest library], that’s 4 miles a day. Is your daughter going to walk 4 miles a day? That’s putting our children in danger…. Don’t you tell me, buddy, because I was born in this neighborhood 66 years ago! And I’ve lived 66 years in this neighborhood! So don’t tell me! You and Reardon come up with your asinine idiosyncrasies, and we’re not going to tolerate them! We are not dumb. We are not stupid… We are tired of y’all smudging our faces and our children’s faces, our grandchildren’s faces. We are not going to tolerate it. Now is the time for you to piss or get off the pot, both of you. And I’m tired of you trying to cut our throats!”

Minute 146:50

Young Man – “From the beginning, your administration has really demonstrated a pretty base abuse of power. From your campaign, like the proposal of “Stop and Frisk” policy…. Taking the libraries away, and then this recent announcement of allowing cops to carry bigger guns, up to .45 caliber. This is actually for you, Mr. Ramsey -- and hopefully you’re better at lying and dodging questions than the mayor, but -- are you a sociopath?”

Police commissioner Ramsey, rising from his chair, leaning over the table and pointing his finger – “I don’t need that from you! You got a problem with me, we’ll talk about it, you understand what I’m saying?”

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December 20, 2008

Straws in the Wind #1: A Word From The Woods

My friend Jay is a logger, a good one--self-employed, honest, insanely hardworking, ecologically savvy. He cuts in the tri-state area: NW Connecticut, Western Mass and Eastern NY State.

As in scores of other often-overlooked sections of the economy, the economic meltdown is starting to bite into logging, hard. It figures, right? Housing starts way down--there goes the market for hardwood and veneer. Advertising pages down and newspapers and magazines going belly-up everywhere--forget pulpwood. Hell, the collapse of oil prices is about to pull the rug out from under the recently growing heat-by-firewood trend.

Well, Jay has a message for the ones who landed us in this mess and he's not shy about letting the world know:

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December 10, 2008

Scarface Drops Science about the Economy

Scarface is a rapper. He made his bones with Houston's legendary Geto Boys in the late 1980s and into the '90s, along with Willie D. and Bushwick Bill.

No superstar, he still makes a living from hiphop. And Scarface has a few things to say about the economic meltdown:

This game ain't about flossing no more, man. Ain't nobody got no money...

When Merrill Lynch merged with Bank of America, it was just the beginning of some frightening shit. I remember when Bank of America was Nation's Bank and Merrill Lynch had all the money. Now it's definitely real in the field. Dope money is even funny right now. Niggas better hold on for dear life, man. Really.

It boils down to class. It's the rich, and then there's the poor. If someone gets rich, just know that somewhere, somehow, somebody is suffering from [that person] getting rich. Y'all can sit in your big houses on however many acres you got and however many billions are in the bank, but looking down at the have-nots--no bank account, no meal, living government check to check--is an insult and needs to be corrected.

Everybody's suffering. Some mu'fuckas got money, but they got cats standing next to 'em that ain't got no money at all. [But] if America got enough money to go to war, then America should have enough to keep the economy going."

{From XXL magazine, courtesy of the folks at Rock & Rap Confidential.]

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December 3, 2008

Losing Odetta (and Miriam Makeba)

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Damn! Odetta's gone. And only three weeks before her, Miriam Makeba.

Two strong Black women, each an inherent part of the tide of liberation that swept Africa and America in the 1960s. More than that, each a gravitational force in her own right, helping pull that tide higher and further. It is hard for those not around in those long gone days to understand how much it meant to have Black women in the public eye standing up for themselves--simply by doing that, they were standing up for all Black women, and for a better world.

And neither stopped there. Both were actively political, in the best sense of the word. They lent their voices to the Black freedom struggle in the US and to the battle to smash apartheid and settler rule in South Africa. They sang songs of the oppressed and they sang songs of freedom.

And they did it for their whole lives, their whole lives. The threat they posed to the high and mighty meant they had to face redbaiting, blacklisting and exile. It never stopped them.

Nor did age. When Miriam Makeba suffered her fatal heart attack last month, she was on stage, performing in Italy at a benefit to support anti-mob journalist Roberto Saviano! Odetta's last big concert, sung from a wheelchair, was at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in the Bay Area in October.

There's plenty of Odetta and plenty of Miriam Makeba available at YouTube, to help you meet or remember these two remarkable women. I have chosen to close with another video, a trance-y instrumental by a new Cali duo, Rabid Kangaroo. They first saw her, I understand, at that Bay Area festival and were inspired to compose this and crank out the video in three weeks.

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December 2, 2008

There Is Such A Fact As Death

149 years ago today, at 11:15 in the morning John Brown was hanged by the neck until dead in Charles Town, Virginia, for the crime of trying to start a slave insurrection.

Henry David Thoreau said in his breathtaking A Plea for Captain John Brown:

This event advertises to me that there is such a fact as death; the possibility of a man's dying. It seems as if no man had ever died in America before; for in order to die you must first have lived.
I read Thoreau’s piece this morning. Rather than quote it at length, or editorialize about John Brown, I encourage you to take a little time today and read it yourself.

Today, as in 1859, there are great crimes being committed on our soil and around the world by the rulers of these United States, committed in our name, with our taxes.

Let John Brown’s example encourage us to try and stand, like him, "with the oppressed and the wronged, that are as good as you."

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October 23, 2008

Blooomberg's Power Grab Proves Him Unfit to Rule

Today the City Council of NYC voted to give billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg (and incidentally themselves) a free shot at a third term in spite of the fact that New York City law limits him (and them) to two terms.

This raises sharply a question I’ll frame as fitness to rule. Bloomberg’s power grab has been rationalized with the assertion that he is uniquely competent to steer the ship of city through the troubled waters of the ongoing economic meltdown.

That’s a big fat lie, and one that is readily refuted.

First, Bloomberg’s backers cite his expertise in practical economics. Well, this bozo heads the world’s premier economic news service. He has easy access to information that the average citizen of NYC will never get to see, and he was blindsided by the crisis as surely as George W. Bush and the financial establishment. In fact, the ballyhooed letter signed by 30 prominent “municipal leaders” to tout his third term bid included the names of the CEOs of Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley. Oh, well, if they want him around for another four years, it must be okay…

Second, while he deserves some credit for keeping the city bureaucracy running smoothly, Bloomberg also spent the last seven years pushing policies that have made NYC more vulnerable to the crisis which is engulfing us. He promoted financial and real estate speculation; he gentrified the entire island of Manhattan and chunks of the other boroughs with luxury condos and rentals; he continued the erosion of manufacturing, costing New York a broader economic base and many unskilled and semi-skilled jobs; he hammered upper level unionized workers, like teachers, transit workers, firemen, who comprise the social and economic backbone of NYC; he worked to turn the city into a tourist destination for an global elite who aren’t going to be able to afford luxury stays in the Big Apple in the middle of a worldwide smashup either.

Third, with this move Michael Bloomberg shows his deep contempt for democracy and the right of New Yorkers to choose our leaders. You can argue the merits and problems of the two-term limit for elected officials all day and all night, but it was passed by New York City voters—twice—in referendums in the 1990s. Now Bloomberg has made an end run around that decision. Worse, his accomplices in the City Council voted down a resolution which would have put the question before the electorate again in a special referendum and instead arrogated to themselves the right to kick New Yorkers' decisions to the curb. This is a guy who switched from Democrat to Republican to find a ballot line the first time he ran and now calls himself an “independent,” a guy who used his fortune to buy his way into office in two straight campaigns. spending $85 million on his 2005 re-election alone. That’s a million more than John McCain has collected in public funding for his whole campaign since the Republican National Convention!

We’d better lose the idea that anybody’s going to ride in on a white horse to save working people in this growing mess, let alone some billionaire who thinks that following the rules is for peons like us. We've got to organize ourselves to stop the rich from sticking us with the whole tab, to support and defend each other, to develop new methods of survival and solidarity, to start to design a NYC that serves our interests and betters our lives, not those of the high and mighty. They are not fit to rule.

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Meltdown Message for City Folk: Get Green Or Go Hungry

I just got back from an early morning harvesting trek in Harlem and Morningside Heights, bringing home a couple of pounds of ginkgo seeds, or ginkgo kernels to be more exact.

I was turned on to these little pistachio-looking treats years ago by my friend Iz, who recommends toasting and eating four or five of the innermost nutmeats a day—far better than the health food store ginkgo preparations which are made from the leaves of the gingko tree, says she. Better for what? Memory, it seems, though it’s kinda hard to tell how well they work since most years I forget to go collect some before the late autumn season is over.

Another friend, Chip, provides a different reason to lay in a stash. When his wife Kim’s mother visits the States—the family is Malaysian of Chinese origin—she can’t believe that people just leave this delicacy lying around on the lawns and sidewalks. She collects bagsful and uses them as the base for tasty soups.

One reason you may never have considered a ginkgo seed-based dish is that the soft outer part of the seed (often called the fruit although that’s not botanically correct), stanks! In fact, gentrification is making the ginkgo scarcer in Manhattan even though their dense foliage, long leaf season, longevity and general hardiness makes them a splendid street tree. But the yupwardly mobile object to the occasional autumnal whiff of ginkgo seeds and demand that the city cut them down and replace them with cloned male ginkgos, which don’t bear seeds, or something “nicer.”

Well, gingko seeds don’t stink half as bad as the economy these days, and I felt a little rush of righteousness as I was out harvesting. The fact is that in a depression, the reliance of US cities on food supplies from far across the country and around the world is going to become a real pinch point.

We have to start thinking more seriously about urban agriculture (and about building real human to human ties between city consumers and family farmers) as this crisis deepens.

It comes as no surprise to me that Robert Biel, whose prescient 2000 book The New Imperialism (summary review here) exposed some of the contradictions in global capitalism before they started ripping the world asunder, is ahead of the curve on this front too. The following video introduces an organized effort to create a model of permaculture, intensive agriculture, in a block of flats (projects, we call ‘em here) in the South London neighborhood Brixton.

It is clear even to some bourgeois economists that any hope the capitalist system has of recovery from the growing depression we are in will require a newer, “greener” system of accumulation, different from both post-Great Depression Keynesianism and the last three decades of neo-liberal market worship. This is an early look at one first step from the side of the working class, not the think tanks of capital.

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October 20, 2008

When the chickens get privatized,

it's vultures that come home to roost.

The subprime mortgage crisis isn't over. Neither is the global credit freeze it sparked. The stock market crash that followed hasn't hit bottom yet either. But the main thing to worry about now, and for a long time to come, is the depression we are rolling and tumbling into.

The media has started reporting on one increasingly visible aspect of the depression: the budget crunch facing states and municipalities, and the resulting cutbacks in public services. News stories have detailed the end of the shuttle program Phoenix, AZ ran to take seniors grocery shopping, Mayor Daley's elimination of 2250 Chicago city jobs--900 by layoffs, warnings of unsalted roads in rural Wisconsin this winter, and on and on. And it's early days yet.

The service cuts I want to highlight today are a little different. Let me direct your attention briefly to the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which serves 1.5 million rail and bus passengers every day. Yep, even in auto-centric L.A., a lot of folks, especially poor folks, can't make it without public transportation.

Terry Matsamuto, the MTA's chief financial officer is predicting massive service cuts soon. It seems that like many local governments around the country, L.A. County went for the okey-doke. They sold much of their system to private investors in "lease-back" deals. Companies like Wells Fargo and Philip Morris bought the rail system, 1000 buses and parking and maintenance facilities. The Tranist Authority gets a one shot injection of needed cash, the financiers get a steady annual cash flow bled out of the system.

The rail cars and locomotives of the Metrolink commuter rail system were also sold, and guess who financed and insured these deals?

American International Group.

Yep, AIG. And when AIG started going into cardiac arrest, their credit ratings were revised downwards before the Fed even applied the paddles.

The lower credit ratings triggered a clause in the lease-back agreements that require the MTA to either find a new firm to guarantee the deals or reimburse investors for their down payments and lost tax benefits, a scenario that could cost the transit agency between $100 million and $300 million.
For one thing, forget about finding a replacement lender--credit is still frozen, static. Second, once other clauses in the deal kick in, the MTA could be on the hook for $1.8 billion this year, more than half its total annual budget.

All those investors have to be made good somehow. So the service cuts commence.

I can't wait to see what L.A.'s Bus Riders Union does about this...

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October 16, 2008

As The Economic Meltdown Deepens...

The ongoing economic meltdown is terrifying, but at the same time many of us have no real idea of what’s rolling down the pike at us.

There are many aspects of the crisis and the coming recession which are impossible to predict. One impact though, will be unavoidable: crippling budget crises at the state and municipal levels, driven by falling real estate values, layoffs, business closings, increased borrowing costs and recession.

What Happens When the Banks Don’t Lend

To get a sense of what this could look like, it is instructive to look at what happened to New York City starting in 1975, when bank credit dried up and a fiscal crisis that lasted more than a decade kicked in. Remember that this was a budget crisis isolated to one city, rather than the generalized collapse of the banking system we are seeing now.

The immediate background is that by the early ‘70s, the City’s budget was deep in the red, kept going with fiscal jiggery-pokery especially in Mayor Lindsay’s second administration and under his successor, Mayor Beame. The back story is more complex of course, having much to do with federal policy since the Eisenhower administration which directed resources to suburbanization at the expense of city and country—money for interstates, not mass transit and railroads, subsidizing vast auto-dependent tracts of single houses on what had been farmland—you know the deal.

What plunged the City into crisis was the large banks refusing, collectively, in March, 1975 to extend credit to New York any longer, declining to roll over loans and boycotting the City’s bond auctions. The Beame administration moved to lay off 25,000 city workers and defer contractual raises for others, cut services, increase the transit fare and institute tuition in the City College of New York system.

For months there was a political war over how things would get resolved,, with highway workers, cops and other city employees staging militant demonstrations and threatening an October general strike. The NY State government stepped in with aid but the federal government refused until massive pressure from the financial industry was brought to bear.

With everyone staring into the abyss of bankruptcy (and the possibility of a judge writing off the bonds the banks still held or canceling union contracts), the municipal unions made a devil’s pact with the banks, the details of which I leave for another post.

"The Bronx Is Burning"

What I want to remind people of is what happened to NYC once the austerity, service cuts, layoffs, tighter credit, tax hikes and the rest of the bank-sponsored “rescue package” kicked in.

Garbage piled up in the streets, and law enforcement abandoned whole neighborhoods. The public education system, already jolted by the refusal in the ‘60s of Blacks and Latina/os to accept a two-tier, heavily segregated system, now faced serious cuts. Class sizes ballooned. “Non-essential” programs like art and music education and vocational training disappeared.

The Transit Authority adopted a policy of “deferred maintenance”—only fixing things when they broke down completely. One leader of the militant opposition within Transport Workers Union, Local 100 at the time, Arnold Cherry, pointed out whenever he spoke that every housewife knows that if you don’t empty the crumbs out of the toaster, eventually it stops working. Not TA management, though—the system veered toward total collapse in the early ‘80s.

Meanwhile, landlords in “bad neighborhoods” emulated the Transit Authority, milking their aging apartment buildings for every dime in rent they could collect while "deferring” maintenance, laying off supers, ignoring heating oil bills, and finally abandoning the buildings themselves rather than pay city taxes. Or, given a chance, burning them down to collect the insurance.

This was seared into the national consciousness in the famous blimp shot of a five alarm fire in the South Bronx during the 1977 World Series while Howard Cosell intoned, "There it is, ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning." As much as 40% of the housing stock in the borough was destroyed during these years, increasing an impossible-to-ignore homeless population and pumping up rents for vacant apartments in surviving buildings. (The City, meanwhile, was closing firehouses as a money-saving measure.)

Huge cuts in the NYC medical system on top of deteriorating social conditions laid the ground work for what Nick Freudenberg and his co-authors identify as a deadly “syndemic”: the three interlinked epidemics of TB, murder and HIV infection.

Even after the emergency financial aid was paid back, and the City’s budget was balanced and the banks decided they would once again buy long term bonds issued by the city (1981) , the Emergency Financial Control Board kept austerity policies in place and the damage they did to millions of people reverberated through the decade and up to the present. To cite only one example, the City College system which had boasted free tuition for NYC residents before the crisis, now costs upwards of $2000 a semester.

What It Means

I could go on. There are a lot of particular lessons to learn from the New York City fiscal crisis, and how various social forces responded and what kinds of popular resistance developed and worked.

But lesson number one is that this kind of crisis is on the agenda right now, in cities around the country, and once it erupts, there is no quick bounceback. Start trying to size up the situation where you live and figure out who your allies are going to be in the coming years.

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October 9, 2008

Capitalism Can’t Help Showing Its Ass These Days

I hadn’t been to an AIDS demonstration so far this year (my bad) but the prerecorded announcement from the ACT-UP phone tree last night haunted my sleep and got me out of bed and headed for midtown this morning. The demo here in NYC was part of an international week of actions (including Arizona, Thailand, France, Switzerland and more) targetting pharmaceutical giant Roche. The demand was simple: Roche must negotiate with the South Korean government to lower prices on bulk orders of lifesaving AIDS drug Fuzeon for its national healthcare system.

What got me going was hearing the quote from Urs Fluekiger, marketing director for Roche Korea, who explained the company’s refusal to budge on their $22,000 price tag for one patient/year of this vital medication:

We do not do business for saving lives but for making money. Saving lives is none of our business.

I thought to myself, okay, that tears it. It’s getting harder and harder to find anyone saying a kind word about good old freemarket capitalism, what with the mounting wreckage that is the global economy these days and the hurt that will be put on everyday working people here in the US and around the world in order to rescue the bloodsuckers who have benefited from this system.

There’s every reason we should make a point of kicking ‘em while they’re down.

So I did my little bit today, leafleting at a characteristically lively and imaginative action by ACT-UP’s New York and Philly locals and other AIDS groups. Scores of people grabbed fliers as they rushed to work in the skyscraper housing LifeBrands, Inc., the ad agency that Roche employs to promote Fuzeon.

There’s plenty more detail to deepen your rage at Roche--how they bought out the company that was given the rights to this drug by the government, which sponsored the original research, how their executives have shut down all AIDS and HIV research, how their profits last year exceeded 30%. But that one quote tells the story, about Roche and about the whole system they have made themselves such a success in.

We do not do business for saving lives but for making money. Saving lives is none of our business.

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September 28, 2008

Black NJ: Bail Out Homeowners, Not Bankers!

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Saturday was a day for summing up Presidential Debate number one. It was also the day that members of New Jersey's People's Organization for Progress (POP) delivered a summation of their own. They had watched two presidential candidates stand in front of a huge national television audience, hemming and hawing about bailing the US financial system out of economic catastrophe and not saying a whole lot about how the country got in this mess.

So Saturday at one, a couple of dozen POP members wearing their trademark yellow t-shirts rolled out at Broad & Market, the historic and commercial center of Newark, to say "Save Our Houses, Don't Bail Out Billionaires."

Folks clambering off NJ Transit buses took in the scene and stopped for a bit to hold a sign, join the line, chant for a time, before heading off to do their weekend shopping. A television crew showed up to film it and the Newark Star Ledger featured it in a story on their website.

The plan for the protest was settled only two days earlier at the weekly Thursday night General Assembly of POP, as members expressed outrage at the bailout. After watching--and protesting--as hospital after hospital in north Jersey closed for lack of funds in recent years, they were already mad. Now, just let the big banks and finance companies get in trouble and the government ponies up $700 billion in a few days. Members also highlighted the additional hundreds of billions pumped into the war since 2002.
To see more pictures from this important event, check out this photopage.

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September 5, 2008

Take Five--"Stack-O-Lee" Videos!

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[From time to time Fire on the Mountain features, on Fridays, Take Five--a list of five cool things in some semi-random category. It's not supposed to be the only five, best five, top five or anything, just five items worthy of attention. The idea is you can chip in your own suggestions for the list in the comments sections below.]

This edition of Take 5 is for Hank Williams.

This song, this legend, looms large in African American culture and literature, Hank's stomping ground. I've slipped him a bunch of recorded versions of "Stack-O-Lee" (or "Stack O'Lee" or "Stackerlee" or "Staggerlee" or "Stagger Lee" or "Stagolee"--ya pays yer money and ya takes your pick) over the last few years, and there are some mighty cool ones out there. There's Julius Lester's long version from the Civil Rights days, and the Michael Hill Blues Mob take, Black Rock Coalition-stylee. There's David Bromberg's comic "Mrs. Delion's Lament" and Robert Hunter's feminist revenge tale "Delia DeLyon And Staggerlee." Some are disquieting--the casual lynching imagery in the 45 rpm single that Tennessee Ernie Ford and Joe "Fingers" Carr cut in the '50s is scarier than the casual sadism in many versions, though Ike & Tina Turner somehow manage to make Stack-O-Lee the victim of it in theirs.

There's an extensive literature on the Stack-O-Lee question, including a whole scholarly book which I've not had a chance to read. I recommend the Sly Stone section of Greil Marcus's Mystery Train for a nice taste, and I should direct attention to Tom Morgan's extensive listing of recorded versions here.

Meanwhile here are some videos, following my usual standard--live footage if at all possible (5 for 5) and short (3 are pretty tight). As a result, what I consider the four standard variants all appear as covers. Pretty fucking sweet covers, though.

Wilson Pickett

What the Wicked Mr. Pickett gives us here is based on the one Lloyd Price took to number one on the rock and roll charts
for four weeks straight in early 1959. This is the rock and roll standard and most of the variants you're likely to hear are, like this, based on Price's. Few can challenge the energy of the original. Pickett does.

Professor Arturo

This is a poem, read by a New Orleans-based elder who cut his cultural teeth with the Broadside poets in the '60s. This is in a sense a cover version, too. The second "standard" version of Stack-O-Lee and possibly the oldest isn't even a song. It's a toast, a pre-poetry-slam form of epic Black spoken word. Rudy Ray Moore--Dolomite, for those who remember Blaxpoitation flicks--recorded a fairly straightforward version of the traditional toast, but this retains that spirit and adds additional depth.

Piedmont Project

Some consider the canonical version to be the one cut by Mississippi John Hurt in 1928. I couldn't find a video of him doing it during his early 1960s "rediscovery" though they must exist. There are a bunch of versions on YouTube highlighting his finger-picking style on the guitar, but I picked this bunch of Swedes to showcase that tradition because they are having fun and displaying respect, not reverence.

Collins Kids

Man, I love this. It's a contemporary cover of Lloyd Price's gold standard by the Collins Kids, a wonderful rockabilly brother/sister act from the '50s. Again, energy that can stand up to Lloyd Price with ease.

Dave Van Ronk

And finally to take us out, the fourth and final standard version in my personal typology, the one Memphis bluesman and songster Furry Lewis recorded as "Billy Lyons And Stack O'Lee" a year before the John Hurt version. His emphasizes the gambling aspect, with its memorable refrain, "If you lose your money, learn to lose." I apologize for the length of this Dave Van Ronk video; the song itself starts about 2:30 in, and you can just push the little slider there and start to listen, but he does have a few interesting things to say in his opening tribute to Furry Lewis. And some of us miss him.

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August 26, 2008

Before There Was Hip Hop...

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My brother Steve recently laid a copy of a book on me that I hadn't seen in almost 40 years, A Panther Is A Black Cat by Reginald Majors. Thumbing through it, I found a description of a "Free Huey" rally where Baby D read a poem by Alprentice "Bunchy" Carter (gunned down by members of the US organization in L.A., January 17, 1969). Struck by the excerpt Majors included, I dug up the whole thing here, as printed in the Black Panther newspaper, January 3, 1970.


In Nigger Town
In Nigger Town
The streets are made of mud
Infested with rats and bats and bugs

In Nigger Town
In Nigger Town
The streets are made of brick
Ask any swinging dick that happens past
Why won't he get off his big, fat, black, funky ass

A grumbling snitch
A shot of shit for a dope fiend bitch
Hid behind the cemetery in the fog
A leg, a hog, a short dog of Elderberry
Misery spreads and brothers dead
Cause Charlie's runnin' in the reds

In Nigger Town one day
Four little children kneeled to pray
in Jesus name
Four little children gone
And Jesus never came

Now you say, you're tired of all this shit
You suck-a-pawed son-of-a-bitch
If you was, you'd ball you mitt
DO SOMETHING nigger! if you only spit

Tell the truth snaggle-tooth
I know you're scared you mother goose
With niggers in Nigger Town
I'm fed up to my neck
About a drunk, a thief, a punk
I wouldn't give a husky heck
In Nigger Town.


Check the language, the attitude, the rhymes. If this ain't hip hop, I'm Barry Manilow.

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