April 30, 2010

May ’70: 2. Nixon Kicks It Off!

I want to continue this review of May, 1970 with a deeper look at Richard Nixon’s speech, broadcast 40 years ago tonight. It was that speech, announcing that US troops were invading Cambodia, which triggered the eruption of protest that was May 1970. Actually, you could say Tricky Dick predicted it:

My fellow Americans, we live in an age of anarchy, both abroad and at home. We see mindless attacks on all the great institutions which have been created by free civilizations in the last 500 years. Even here in the United States, great universities are being systematically destroyed.
The US High Command had known since 1967 that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, as the leaked Pentagon Papers later showed. Nixon had been elected in 1968 with the promise that "new leadership will end the war" and giving wink-and-nod no-comment replies to reports he had a "secret plan” to do so.

What he gave us in the first year of his administration was Vietnamization, the idea that troops of the puppet Republic of Viet Nam (South Vietnam) could be quickly drafted (all males between 17 and 43 were subject to call-up), trained and armed to “defend their country” and large scale withdrawals of US troops would begin. [Stop me if any of this reminds you of US policies of, shall we say, more recent vintage.]

Meanwhile, in secret, US B-52s were carrying out insanely massive high-altitude bombing raids on neighboring Laos and Cambodia in an effort to disrupt supply lines from North Vietnam to the South. Early in 1970, a US-backed coup deposed Cambodia’s neutralist monarch, Prince Sihanouk and replaced him with a sketchy pro-US general, Lon Nol. This was followed by an even more intensive and deadly secret Air Force carpet bombing of large sections of the Cambodian countryside.

Nixon on April 20, 1970 had announced that he would be withdrawing 150,000 US troops in the next year, around 40% of the force then “in country,” a necessary sop to public opinion which was turning against the war. Ten days later came this attack in violation of international law and borders. It was, Nixon claimed, a limited incursion intended to disrupt or destroy a secret Vietnamese command base just over the border.

Nixon explained to a skeptical public that he was expanding the war to end it:
A majority of the American people, a majority of you listening to me, are for the withdrawal of our forces from Vietnam. The action I have taken tonight is indispensable for the continuing success of that withdrawal program.

A majority of the American people want to end this war rather than to have it drag on interminably. The action I have taken tonight will serve that purpose.

A majority of the American people want to keep the casualties of our brave men in Vietnam at an absolute minimum. The action I take tonight is essential if we are to accomplish that goal.
Well, we certainly wanted the war ended and the troops home. But after years of having been lied to about lights at the end of the tunnel, about crucial campaigns that would change everything, about the improved combat capacity of the puppet ARVN troops, about the evil "North Vietnamese" (fighting to liberate and unite their country) we sure as hell didn’t believe a word of this.

And when Nixon raised the specter of global anarchy and the destruction of 500 years of Western Civilization, it was us as much as the Vietnamese liberation forces he was talking about.

Because May 1970 didn’t erupt from a vacuum. For two years, reading the New York Times had been a positive treat. It seemed like every day there was a report on a student protest somewhere. “Hey, the kids at the University of East Dakota at Pumpkin Squat just took over the administration building! I didn’t even know they existed.”

One immediate example: In the week before Nixon’s speech, my friend Steve reminds me, the student affairs building, a center for student activism at the Lawrence campus of the University of Kansas, was mysteriously burned to the ground. This was the culmination of a month that saw a campus strike, a call by the Black Student Union for members to arm themselves against racist threats, a lot of arson, and ongoing small scale clashes in the streets between freaks and right wing locals. The days that followed the fire featured a 7 PM curfew, ordered by the governor, and repeated skirmishes between students and cops, including street barricades and sniping. (Later that summer Lawrence cops would kill Black activist Tiger Dowdell and an unarmed 18-year-old white student, Nick Rice, shooting both in the back of the head.)

And Lawrence wasn’t even a notably radical campus.

[Next time, it’s personal: Bobby Seale and May Day in New Haven]

Click here for the start of the series.

Click here for the next segment.

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April 29, 2010

May '70: 1. Finally On Our Own...

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own…

Forty years ago today, on Thursday, April 30, 1970, Richard Milhouse Nixon, the president of the United States, appeared on television for a special announcement about the Vietnam War. He told us that US troops, tens of thousands of them, had moved into Cambodia, expanding an already prolonged and costly war into another country. He claimed it was a necessary step toward ending the war, and toward insuring that the US would not be perceived in the world as "a pitiful helpless giant."

Nixon's announcement kicked off the most intense wave of campus struggle this country has ever seen, a month of bitter and exhilarating clashes which triggered huge changes that echo to this day. May, 1970 also changed forever the lives of some significant number of the hundreds of thousands, probably millions, of students and others who took part.

Today that incredible upsurge, which pretty much shut down the 1969-70 school year throughout much of the American higher education system, is remembered mainly through one of its most dramatic events--the killing of four students at Kent State University by a sustained fusillade of gunfire from Ohio National Guard troops occupying their campus.

For forty years, the veterans of those days and younger activists have struggled to keep alive the memories of Kent State and of the subsequent police murders of two more students, this time at a traditionally Black college in Mississippi, Jackson State. We have succeeded in this, helped in part by that amazing mnemonic, Neil Young’s heartbreaking song, "Ohio," which opens with the couplet at the start of this piece.

But we have, in significant ways, lost the memory of the vast eruption which Kent State and Jackson State were a part of, and whose flames the killings provided so much fuel for.

Over the course of next month, I hope to recall--in a series of posts under the heading May '70--some of that legacy, for OGs like myself who were there and for younger folk who may never have learned much at all about the events in question. I will draw on my own memories and those of friends, along with some Internet surfing, especially in the early posts. Ideally, others whose lives were shaped during that heady month will come forward to weigh in with their own thoughts and memories.

There is one final thing I’ll spell out in this first post. You can consider it a reminder for the veterans of those days. Or call it context for young folks who may find it hard to believe that, for instance, in the first week of May 1970, more than 30 ROTC buildings around the country burned or were bombed. 30. More than four a day.

The Vietnam War had created a deep, deep fissure in the American body politic, deeper than anything since the Civil War. And this time the divide was not sectional. It ran through every part of the country, divided communities, split classes, sundered families. If anything, it was generational (though that itself is a big overgeneralization). As we sang along with Phil Ochs:

It’s always the old to lead us to the war
It’s always the young to fall

And it was that split--between the young and the America we had grown up in--that made us sense, in May of 1970, that we were finally on our own…

Click here for the next installment.

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Good News Out Of Arizona!

You’ve got to hand it to the white supremacists running Arizona. As May 1 demonstrations are upon us coast to coast, with immigrants’ rights as a central demand, they’ve provided a crystal-clear example of what we are up against. They are also showing just why May Day, the international working class holiday, has taken on new layers of meaning here and deepened its roots in sections of the US working class since El Levantamiento, the huge immigrant uprising of 2006.

The issue is, of course, the new mandatory racial profiling bill just passed by both houses of the legislature and signed by Governor Jan Brewer. It will likely be declared unconstitutional by the courts, but is meanwhile serving to promote anti-immigrant sentiment and police state practices in Arizona and elsewhere.

While there has been heartening coverage of high school walk-outs and other protest inside Arizona itself, there are other aspects to the resistance which merit some attention. Thus, the first–hand report and the hip hop video I am posting here.

I asked a long-time ‘rade of mine, Ajagbe Adewole, a Brooklyn boy who has been working as an educator in the Phoenix suburbs for the last several years (poor fish) what he’s been seeing and hearing. His comments, slightly edited, follow:

The general mood out here is outrage. Those supporting the bill are silent. You just don't hear folks defend this in public. Even local rightwing radio is questioning the bill, an unheard-of development.

The Dems are split along political/ethnic lines. Some are calling for military at the border ("If we could stop them at the border that would solve the problem"), others, like Democratic Congressman Raul Grijalva, are calling for a boycott of their own state and repeal of the law.

The anger among Chicana/os is palpable. This issue has really woken people up. I've never seen these folks react this way. This was a REALLY stupid move on the part of the Republicans. It has the potential to mobilize folks for May 1, and for the upcoming elections, including young Chicana/os.
Chicana/os out here are organizationally weak. Remember, this is a “right to work” state, so unions are not really a factor. I'm curious to see how the community is going to organize, but I don't see this issue going away. Folks I know, generally apolitical, are discussing and debating this. There's a lot of passion.

Now here’s another cut on things in AZ. Let’s start with Black rapper, Swindoe. A couple of years back he released a new cut called “Phony People” with a dramatic video. Based in his native Arizona, it features Swindoe and his posse helping undocumented immigrants deal with the deadly desert and the Border Patrol and it's moving as hell...

Okay, his persona is straight-up gangsta, his syzzurp-flavored, chopped and screwed chorus is druggy by definition, and he thinks rather highly of himself. Get past it, people. His production company is called BLK Boyz, standing for Black-Latino Konnection. The whole package is, to my way of thinking, a real-world example of the kind of Black/Brown alliance that revolutionary-minded folks have been advocating for years as the answer to ruling class efforts to pit the Black Nation and immigrants against each other.

And so is this comment, which is from the interesting and contentious Youtube comment thread when Swindoe’s “Phony People” video was retitled to mention SB 1070 ,the Arizona police state law:
i think its funny how yall argue over youtube.. lol Flash Virus is a fuckin dumbass.. I'm from eastside tuc town an we down wit grips_ of latinos. All me an my niggas date are latina girls.. it aint shit to us! we speak spanish! a REAL tuc town nigga who whats good wit tha 520 and tha black/latino connection.. if he wanna start shit, let him. cuz he'z dumb. bring his ass to irvington n park an let dem niggas get at him.. bet he wont eva diss a latino eva again!! Haha
Let’s see what the May Day marches this Saturday and the coming months bring. All this makes me optimistic.

And in that spirit, I think I’ll close with Tom Russell’s magnificent tune, “Who’s Gonna Build Your Wall?” which raises the musical question:
Now the government wants to build a barrier
Like ol' Berlin, 8 feet tall,
But if Uncle Sam sends the illegals home,
Who's gonna build the wall?

Who's gonna build your wall, boys,
Who's gonna mow your lawn,
Who's gonna cook your Mexican food
When your Mexican maid is gone,

Who's gonna wax the floors tonight
Down at the local mall,
Who's gonna wash your baby's face,
Who's gonna build your wall?

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April 28, 2010

Spring 1970 Student Upsurge — Spring 2010 High School Walkouts … Not so different

Kids shut-down high schools all around New Jersey…
My friend Jimmy Higgins recently wrote on this page about the student upsurge of Spring 1970 (the topic was about the lessons of the first Earth Day that same spring). Those nationwide demonstrations opposing the invasion of Cambodia began on campus and were also prompted the police and National Guard murders of students at Kent & Jackson State Universities. Jimmy reached out to other FotM correspondents to collect our memories of this important period in US history and I spoke extensively with a friend about a walk-out at our high school that spring.
In the midst of this, as we are about to get nostalgic about 1970 campus activism, the young people of today once again demonstrate that we old-timers have far more to learn than we have to teach. Student walked-out and shut-down high schools throughout New Jersey yesterday in reaction to Gov. Krispy Kreme Christy's budget attack on education and human-services (see the New York Times and the Star Ledger reports).
The largest demonstration against Gov. Christy's budget cut to education was in Newark
The news media wants to turn this into a process story, "The Role of Facebook", or some-such thing that downplays both the activism of young people and relocates the public image of these socially-responsible youths to the suburbs.While the papers tell readers that the largest action was in Newark, they also prefer to report on Montclair and other non-urban activism.
I first heard about these planned walk-out a week or more ago from the Teachers as Leaders in Newark (see TaLiN and "Protest NJ Education Cuts") but unfortunately missed the massive student street demonstration yesterday. This is the real upsurge that we must report on, while still drawing lessons from our own experience forty years ago…

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April 22, 2010

Earth Day At 40!

(This post is a gift--an odd one, granted--to my sweetheart, Dody. Her birthday falls on April 22.)

The immediate trigger that got me writing this was a Facebook post by Koba Sounds, in which he waxed irritable about Earth Day: “Happy corporate-sponsored congratulatory self-back-patting removed from its contentious political roots on this Earth Day.” Initial comments, including mine, echoed or outdid his initial sarcasm.

Rereading the thread, though, I found myself slipping on my cranky, old, I-was-there-kiddies persona to lay out a little background.

Today is, of course, the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. The first one came just eight days before the campuses of the US erupted into the May, 1970 storm of anti-war, anti-racist protest which virtually shut down higher education in the US, even before the murder of four students at Kent State University on May 4 turned up the heat.

In 1970, Earth Day was regarded with extreme suspicion by the large cohort of revolutionary-minded young people coming forward out of the struggles of the ‘60s. Its main advocate was a politican, Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI). (I recommend Bill Christofferson’s excellent biography of Nelson, The Man From Clear Lake, for a deeper understanding of the importance and the limits of electoral politics in this country.)

Earth Day was pushed by national and local politicians, media pundits and school administrators alike. Many of them made no secret of the fact they saw it as a nice--and I use the word advisedly--alternative to all the political activism running like an underground fire through the country, erupting into open flames again and again.

And that first Earth Day seemed to prove our critique. In New York City alone, the mayor closed Fifth Avenue and opened Central Park to a crowd estimated at a million people for an event that was one part consciousness raising to two parts be-in to about zero percent actual protest.

We, the young revolutionaries and budding commies, saw Earth Day, and by association, the whole environmental movement which Earth Day helped unite and jell into a single force, as a diversion from the growing anti-imperialist struggle. We were right about what the ruling class was trying to do, but we missed some very important things (not the only things we missed in those heady days.)

We missed the fact that for all the establishment bucks and approval, this was a huge spontaneous movement far broader than its sponsors ever dreamed; hundreds, thousands, of Earth Day events took place across the country. We failed to acknowledge the varied threads of struggle that flowed into it, many of them sharply anti-corporate. We forgot that concern about the environment was an inherent part of the ‘60s upsurge, as captured in the very first verse of the Quicksilver Messenger Service’s 1970 indictment of the system, “What About Me?”

And because we missed all this, we couldn’t see what was about to happen. Among other things, thousands and thousands of those college and high school kids--not the street fighters--the nice ones who took part in Earth Day in 1970 and in the years that followed, became schoolteachers. And a new generation grew up hearing in class about clearcutting and toxic wastes and rainforests and endangered species and recycling and how indigenous peoples lived in harmony with land.

By the late ‘80s, the result was hard to miss: their elementary school students had themselves reached college age and the Student Environmental Action Coalition burst onto the scene to become, for several years, the largest radical student group since SDS in the ‘60s. Among other contributions, SEAC trained a cadre of young folks in organizing and struggle, a body of activists who helped create Seattle and the No Global movement, and who today people the environmental justice movement, the trade union movement, and a dozen others.

And a bunch of them became teachers! Right now, a whole new cohort of K-12 kids is learning about climate change and mountaintop removal and species interdependence and the dangers of factory farming and the huge sea of plastic in the Pacific.

Thus, the effort by the ruling class to divert the anti-war movement and other struggles of the ‘60s into the “safer” arena of Earth Day proved to be a case of what the great revolutionary thinker and fighter Mao Zedong called, “lifting a rock only to drop it on one’s own feet.”

Like the Martin Luther King holiday, Earth Day was born of people’s struggles. Sure, the powers that be will try and denature and co-opt it. That’s what they always do, and in times when the struggle is at a low ebb, it may even seem like they have succeeded. Screw that! It’s up to us to claim and to reinforce and to build on the ineradicable kernel of revolutionary sentiment at the heart of the day--capitalism and a living planet are incompatible. One must die!

Or, as Koba Sounds put it later in the thread he started:

of course rather than just a bout of cynicism, celebrate Earth Day, every day, in every way that matters.

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April 21, 2010

Is Central Falls The New PATCO?

Consumer Warning: This article draws a parallel between Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. Obama fans, please read the caveats and qualifications included herein carefully before braining out.

The article on budget cutbacks to education in NJ and young teachers’ resistance in Newark posted here at FotM just days ago by Rahim on the Docks, and updated just yesterday, has brought to the surface a deep concern I have about a little-noticed statement President Obama made last month, a statement that reminded me of an action taken by Ronald Reagan at the beginning of his first term.

First, the Reagan analogy. In his first year in office, 1981, Ronald Reagan broke a strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO)--one of only two national unions to support him in the previous year’s election. These federal employees hit the bricks for demands mainly concerning passenger safety--shorter hours, more modern equipment, etc.

First, Reagan fired all the strikers. Then he brought in scabs and military personnel to keep air traffic running. Finally he had PATCO decertified, breaking it entirely.

This one act was the main direct government intervention in labor relations during his whole administration. (Of course, the usual anti-union corporate types were appointed to run the National Labor Relations Board, OSHA, etc, but that is standard Republican practice.)

What breaking PATCO did was to send a signal to big corporations, flailing in the quicksand of the severe late ‘70s-early’80s economic crisis which was eroding their profits severely, that it was open season on unions. And they fired away--literally--laying off thousands upon thousands of workers, closing plants in the so-called Rust Belt of the Midwest, breaking union contracts, forcing givebacks, shifting production to low-wage, low-regulation areas in the Third World.

This is not a just a whiny complaint by labor unions and lefties. Reactionary economist and Federal Reserve Bank chairman Alan Greenspan declared proudly in 2003, that Reagan’s “action gave weight to the legal right of private employers, previously not fully exercised, to use their own discretion to both hire and discharge workers.”

One act, mere months after Reagan’s inauguration, and the working class in this country is still paying for it almost thirty years later.

So what step could Obama have taken that could conceivably parallel this crime against working people? True, he hasn’t done much to push through card-check legislation that would eliminate some of the many legal obstacles to union organizing, but he has, after all, already muscled through a health insurance reform law that may, arguably, wind up benefiting millions of working people. His appointees to the NRLB, OSHA and other government regulatory bodies certainly draw from the some of the best and brightest folks the labor movement has to offer. He stepped up to denounce Massey Energy after their murder of 29 coal miners.

Okay, let’s turn our attention to the small city of Central Falls in the state of Rhode Island. At the end of February, the superintendent of the school district fired every single person at Central Falls High School, 93 people-4 administrators, 74 union teachers, and a bunch of other staffers. The school board got to do this under federal law because the students were performing poorly on standardized tests and had a low graduation rate. The fact that the town is the poorest in the state, that a majority of the students don’t speak English as a first language, that population turnover in Central Falls itself is extremely high, that the school had improved its reading scores 21% over the last three years--none of this meant a thing.

And President Obama went out of his way to hail the action. He could even been content to let his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, make the shameful declaration that Central Falls officials were “showing courage and doing the right thing for kids." But no. On March 1, Obama himself praised the wholesale firings--to the US Chamber of Commerce, of all audiences! He justified the firings: “If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn’t show any sign of improvement, then there’s got to be a sense of accountability,”

Now, I personally tend to hold a cranky and unsympathetic position on the social role played by teachers in capitalist society, which is to condition future generations of workers to live lives subordinate to the needs of capital. And I find that teacher unions too often uphold the immediate interests of their members over and against the needs of the children they are teaching. But Obama’s rap is bullshit, pure and simple, collective punishment based on artificial criteria without taking objective circumstances into account.

And this brings me to the kernal of my concern about what he did. The economic meltdown is increasingly concentrated these days, in the US at least, in state and local budget crises. These are very real, extraordinarily severe and seemingly intractable. There has already been plenty of noise about how brutal budget deficits are the fault of greedy, overpaid civil servants and retirees. Why wouldn’t local governments, desperate for any way out of this mess, use Obama’s words and his general stance to justify directing their fire at all civil service workers and their unions, teachers included, for “failure to perform adequately” and “lack of accountability” ?

In the depths of the Great Depression under Roosevelt, the CIO unionized millions, proclaiming “The President wants you to join the union.” Will state and local governments in the coming decade rally to save their hides under the banner “The President wants you to break the union”?

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April 16, 2010

Young Teachers Lead The Way In Newark (part two)

The United Front to Defend Public Education has announced state-wide on-campus demonstrations for Tuesday, April 27 (FotM readers on Facebook see this link). The organizers write:

"As many have heard, the new governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie has recently made mass cuts in state education. In fact, he has already cut 475 million dollars from the budget, and plans to cut more...the cuts will total just about 1 Billion dollars. Many After-school programs are going to cease to exist from now on. That means sports teams, clubs, arts and musics programs are going to no longer exist in NJ Schools…"

This is a very important call to action, please read it and sign on to participate. The Facebook page linked above has additional links to many supporting documents…
Readers will remember that March 4th this year saw an impressive campaign of demonstrations for education across the entire country. Teachers as Leaders in Newark (TaLiN), a group of young NJ teachers, brought together the United Front to Defend Public Education for those actions locally. This coalition of community residents, teachers, students and others consists of The Abbott Leadership Institute, Community Unity LLC, the Eastside High School Debate Team, One Newark Education Coalition, People's Organization for Progress, Teachers as Leaders in Newark and an ever growing blend of concerned community residents and leaders (see "March 4: Young teachers lead the fight in Newark, NJ…" for info on the Newark March 4th march and rally.)
Faced with the unprecedented attacks from the new Christy Administration in Trenton, TaLiN has proven that the United Front to Defend Public Education was no flash-in-the-pan, no one-time coalition for the national day of action on March 4th. TaLiN and the United Front to Defend Public Education has held multiple demonstrations since the big day of protest, including rallies and marches to Newark Board of Ed meeting and other county and city education-related meetings. This past Wednesday, TaLiN and allies demonstrated at Springfield Avenue and Irvine Turner Blvd during rush hour and then marched to Central High School for the meeting there on School Improvement Grants.
In the words of Leah Z. Owens, Chief Organizer of TaLiN, "Wednesday evening’s meeting at Central High School concerning the School Improvement Grants was yet another example of the executive administration ignoring the demands, wants, needs, and questions of the community… If the District is not going to address the questions and concerns of the community, [our next line of defense is] the principals… We need you to advocate for our students!"
These attacks on education are not going to stop! Krispy Kreme Christy is not going to end his assault against public education unless we unite and force its end. Public education is the last vestige of the victories of Reconstruction. Public education in fact would not exist in the U.S. if the Freedmen's Bureau hadn't enforced it a an early reparations plan for the children of former slaves after the Civil War. This bombastic attack on our children's future has nothing to do with "budget shortfalls" and is entirely about one more outburst against African Americans achievement.
Once again the young people of Newark lead the way! For additional photos from this impressive rally and march, where TaLiN brought together nearly 100 young teachers and students, please view this link.

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April 9, 2010

(UPDATE) Honoring Rev. King…

N.J.'s People's Organization for Progress rallies to remember the Actual Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
UPDATE: An interesting reality check arrived via email, it seems that the title of honoring Dr. King must have flipped an automated-switch on the computers at the Build the Dream site. They are raising money for the proposed Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in DC. Now while I have nothing against a National Memorial to Dr. King, the promotional video on their site inadvertently illustrates the very point we made about the comic-book fantasy of "King-the-Dreamer" as opposed the actual historic activist Martin King…
Check out their King-the-Dreamer video and their site here.
Lawrence Hamm, People's Organization for Progress chairman, and POP Financial Secretary Angenetta Robinson place wreath at the largest memorial to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the State of New Jersey.

Although it might seem a bit late to post photos from the People's Organization for Progress' annual memorial on the anniversary of King's April 4 assassination, today is the 42nd anniversary of Dr. King's funeral, attended by hundreds of thousands filling block after block near the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

For a number of years, POP has held a wreath-laying at the Martin Luther King. Jr. monument at the MLK Plaza Hudson-Bergen Light Rail station in Jersey City. Last Sunday was a beautiful day and POP was well received by neighborhood residents, many walking home from church after Easter Sunday services.

POP members and neighborhood residents at Hudson-Bergen MLK Light Rail station

Every January 15th since the Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Holiday was signed into law in 1983, Dr. King's legacy becomes the stuff of government-sponsored hallucination. No one is supposed to remember the opposition that even the idea of this holiday faced in Congress. In fact, many of the same politicians (and news media talking-heads) who nowadays candy-coat his legacy into a fantasy of "dreams" and "non-violence," were violent opponents of the national King holiday for nearly twenty years.

But for the past eight years since the present US adventure in Afghanistan and Iraq began, thoughtful commentators (some even in the mainstream media) have taken the April 4th anniversary of Rev. King's murder to remind us that the date of Dr. King's murder falls on the one-year anniversary of his "Time to Break Silence" sermon at Riverside Church where he publicly proclaimed his opposition to the War in Vietnam.

Larry Hamm, Chairman of the People's Organization for Progress, "drops a little history"

But to truly understand the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. we must take a deeper, more nuanced view of history. As speakers at the rally pointed out, King's 1968 opposition to US imperialism in Vietnam and his view that the cost of the war kept necessary funds from reaching poor communities, was the end of "universal support" from Black clergy. But as People's Organization for Progress chairman Lawrence Hamm pointed out, the history was even more complicated than that! In fact, the famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail" in 1963 was not a philosophic essay expounding the tactic of non-violence. Though some observers may allege that today, at the time it was an appeal to clergy of Birmingham (including African-American preachers) who had opposed the Birmingham campaign altogether. "Many Black clergy had asked Dr. King to stay home, not to cause trouble," Larry Hamm told the crowd, "Many who today claim to have 'marched with Martin' were the same preachers who called him a 'trouble-maker' or a 'communist' and asked King to stay out of Birmingham."

POP Vice Chair Larry Adams, a Jersey City resident, speaks

As one speaker pointed out, "Historically the most significant aspect of Dr. King's assassination was the character assassination carried out by supposed friends and supporters after Martin's death, people who turned Rev. King into 'a man with a dream' instead of the people's fighter that he was!"
To view additional photos from last Saturday's memorial click here.

Old billboard in Tennessee purporting to show Martin Luther King at "Communist Training School" (it is actually the Highlander Center for Labor Education, and Mrs. Rosa Parks is there as well).

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April 6, 2010

Mine Blast--Workers Pay Again! [Updated]

Two days ago, Benny Willingham was 62, and five weeks shy of retirement from the Upper Big Branch-South coal mine near Whitesville, WV. He planned to celebrate by taking his wife Edith on a cruise to the Virgin Islands. Yesterday, the mine blew up.

Benny and at least 24 co-workers were killed in the blast. Four are missing. They were killed by an economic system built on profit and “cheap” energy.

The moment I heard the news, I heard in my mind’s ear a couple lines from the old IWW poem “We Have Fed You All For A Thousand Years”:

There is never a mine blown skyward now,
But we’re buried alive for you.
There’s never a wreck drifts shoreward now,
But we are its ghastly crew.

The poem explains in simple, bitter language that the wealth of the high and mighty is purchased with the blood of working people. It is as true today as it was the day it was written by An Unknown Proletarian, over 100 years ago (and as it was when my friend Mat Callahan set it to music almost forty years ago).

Now come the predictable investigations and hearings. Don’t expect
to learn much. Benny Willingham worked for Performance Coal Company, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Massey Energy. Massey is notorious for its anti-union stance, its hatred of safety standards and its contempt for the environment.

Massey was cited for safety violations by federal regulators 57 times in March alone--including for failure to develop and follow a ventilation plan. For Massey, such citations and the pitiful fines that accompany them are just a cost of doing business--amounting to a couple hundred thousand bucks a year (for a company that cleared $29 million just in the last quarter of 2009, a recession year). Of course, if a fine--or more likely a court judgment--is large enough, Massey Energy will lawyer up, or just refuse to pay.

This is typical for an industry with executives in a revolving door with lobbyists and government regulators. Bush’s first head of the US Mining Safety & Health Administration had earlier in his career been the safety executive at a mine in Utah when 27 workers died in a fire! Massey CEO Don Blankenship buys and sells West Virginia politicians. The US Supreme Court recently ordered a WV state supreme court judge to recuse himself from rehearing a case against Massey. Why? Massey had financed his $3.5 million election campaign in 2004!

I’d love to see Massey shut down. I’d love to see Don Blankenship spend the rest of his un-natural life in a federal pen for murdering Benny Willingham and his fellow miners. I’m not holding my breath. Blankenship was running Massey in 2000 when it perpetrated the Martin County Sludge Spill--one of the worst environmental disasters in US history. It didn’t slow him or Massey up a bit. Don’t count on this being much different.

So what can we do? In the short term, do our level best to ensure that the name Massey Energy stinks in the nostrils of every decent person and to encourage regulators and elected officials to grind them into the dirt. And point out that had Benny Willingham and the others at Upper Big Branch-South been working at a union mine, the standard United Mine Workers contract mandates union safety officers--and gives miners the right to walk the job when faced by unsafe conditions.

In the long term, dig deep and work just a little bit harder to overthrow the capitalist system and its profit drive and to see that the working class goes on to build a world that we have bought and paid for, as the poem says, with our very blood.


April 8, 2009

I wanted to include the names of the other victims of this--let's call it a crime, shall we, and not "a tragedy"--along with those of Benny Willingham, whose story was in some of the earliest reports. Many have not been released yet, and four miners are still unaccounted for. (For more personal information on our working class brothers, the human beings whose lives, whose stories, whose nets of human relations were so brutally severed by greedy coal bosses, click here).

Deward Scott, 58
Gary Quarles, 33
Howard "Boone" Payne, 50s
William Roosevelt Lynch, 59
Steve Harrah, 40
Timmy Davis, Sr., 51
Cory Davis, 20
Josh Napper, 25
Robert E. Clark, 41
Jason Atkins, 25
Carl "Peewee" Acord, 52

Read more!