April 24, 2011

A Seed Catalog Must-Read on Food, Farming and Socialism

It's early spring planting time up at Dody's in the Northwest corner of Connecticut and we've been putting in lettuces, radishes, peas, carrots and on and on, and piling some lovely aged manure from Jay's cows around the garlic which went in last October and is now about 8" tall. It's work, serious work, and it demands serious experience and skills (which I am do not, unfortunately, yet possess).

Late winter/early spring is also time for seed catalogs, which farmers and gardeners flip through until they are dogeared. They are written to appeal to the senses. Johnny's Selected Seeds of Winslow, ME, has lovingly photographed vegetables that literally make the mouth water.

Fedco, also Maine-based, prints theirs, all 138 pages of it, on newsprint and eschews photographs ("We assume, however, that you will want to spend your money for high quality seeds rather than high quality pictures..."). However, their verbal descriptions are equally sensuous: delicious, firm, luscious, young, tender, deep, yielding, juicy, thick, hard, long, sweet, wild, musky, slender, creamy, &c.

But I digress. Never mind the appeal to the senses. These catalogs have some crucial lessons for revolutionaries and socialists. Our small forces are concentrated in urban areas, our organizing efforts in workplaces, on campuses, inside communities of color, among immigrants in cities and the denser 'burbs, and, alas, within a too-often inward facing left. As Dody often and forcefully reminds me, we are dangerously blind to--or worse, dismissive of--a critical component of any serious effort to create revolutionary change in this country, the folks in rural communities across the US.

Let's take the two companies mentioned above. For starters, Johnny's proudly bills itself as a employee-owned enterprise. Fedco is equally emphatic about being a cooperative. Both are relentless opponents of the soil-depleting, petroleum-dependent, antibiotic-reliant, gene-patenting monster that is capitalist agribusiness and both are part of the burgeoning, yeasty movement toward organic, sustainable, locally-based farming and eating.

Organic Growers Supply is a part of the Fedco enterprise focused on providing farmers and gardeners with non-cropseed inputs--ground cover seed, tools, irrigation systems, fertilizer, books. David Shipman, OGS coordinator, opens their section of this spring's Fedco catalog with a five paragraph introduction that I wish I could make required reading for 2011.

Life is a communal activity. Mycorrhizae in the soil entwine with the roots of plants bringing water and minerals to the plants and being fed in return. The insects and worms in the soil break matter down, releasing nutrients for all to use. Bacteria and fungi colonize the roots and leaves of plants and protect them from disease, all the while feeding themselves and thriving. Far from being a competition where every winner means that someone else has lost, the world of the soil embodies the ideal of a mutual-benefit society. But perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into how nature works when trying to understand people. It often leads to some pretty far-fetched theories. However, I can’t resist comparing the “nature red in tooth and claw” outlook of social Darwinism, which seems to be making a resurgence, with the advances in discoveries about soil-web ecology and the role that cooperation plays in biology and botany.

A list of the 400 richest people in America was released recently showing that those few people controlled 1.4 trillion dollars. In a time of 10% unemployment and rising poverty, their wealth grew by 8% last year. These same people are fighting to retain the outrageous tax breaks they got during the Bush years, using their surrogates and lackeys on Fox News and in the Tea Party movement to vilify and smear President Obama. The furor over the Islamic Cultural Center in lower Manhattan, the ravings that global warming is a hoax, that marriage is under assault, phony issue after phony issue, all trotted out to distract us from the reality that our lives and prosperity are being sacrificed to increase the already obscene and pointless wealth of the few.

It’s time to take our country back. Our roots are planted in our communities and to be nourished we must provide nourishment to others, not junk food and junk politics. People are angry because they are frustrated and hungry. When we are frustrated we often act irrationally (see Tea Party, above). We use junk ideas and junk food to try to make ourselves feel better. People need real nourishment, both mental and physical. Our communities and farms can provide it.

So what do we do? Provide food: food for thought. When people want to send all the undocumented workers back say, “OK, but you’d better start a garden, because nobody will be picking vegetables in California.” Point out that when the processing plants that hire undocumented workers get closed down, people better start producing more local meat and poultry because there won’t be any meat in the grocery stores. Provide real food as well. Expand your garden, start that farm you’ve dreamed about, plant another community garden, organize a farmers market. Don’t sling mud, hand out heirloom tomatoes. Instead of Twinkies and Kool-Aid, cider and whole grain bread.

Socialism has become a dirty word, but Marx’s “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” seems like common sense to me. Building the soil and building a just and sustainable society take time, patience and a willingness to work together for the benefit of all. We took a long time to dig the hole we’re in, but let’s fill it with the compost of good ideas and right living even if it takes a while to get back to level ground.
A few points on this piece. First, let me just stipulate that I find Shipman's concessions to anti-immigrant sentiment pretty dicey, to put it politely. That said, he takes a broad argument to a sharp conclusion in a very short space, and does so in language far clearer and more accessible than that found in too many left publications.

Another reason for the editors of the Monthly Proletarian Vanguard or whatever to eat their hearts out: Fedco mails out many tens of thousands of copies of their catalog, and sharing (at least four people have perused Dody's copy) plus visits to their website push their readership well into the six figures.

Finally, dear FotM reader, while this is likely news to you, it has not escaped the attention of the forces of darkness and ignorance. Several right wing blogs have comment threads with titles like "Fedco seed company promotes Marxism" full of foam-flecked denunciations and calls for boycott.

Think maybe we should be spreading this useful message ourselves?

Read more!

April 19, 2011

A Bit of Nautical History & The Battle of Wisconsin

Duke Besozzi is a guy Dody and me were in first grade with. He’s a Thoreauvian and a logger in NW Connecticut where we grew up and, like Dody’s son Jay, he’s survived the ongoing building crash just fine. A lot of loggers in the Northwest Corner have had to sell their skidders and hang up their saws.

Duke wasn’t hurt much because he has a fascinating specialty business, New England Naval Timbers. He cuts wood to order for the boatyards that turn out new yachts or rehabilitate old ones for the capital-R Rich and sometimes for historical renovations. (Urban treehuggers—kindly check this video prior to getting all up in my grill about logging.)

These days Duke’s been walking the woods looking for good big old white oaks to cut and saw for spars for the team working on the restoration of the Charles W. Morgan, the last remaining wooden whaling ship in the world.

And that’s what triggered this article. After talking to Duke, I did some reading on the Morgan, which was launched in 1841, during the heyday of the whaling industry.

What I learned turned my mind to the current onslaught against unions in Wisconsin and across the US and to the kind of country the Koch Brothers and Gov. Scott Walker and their ilk would have us to return to.

Let’s look first at what a sailor’s life on one of these vessels was like. On the Morgan’s eleventh trip, which took her to the South Atlantic from 1868 to 1871, the ship’s cook was a guy named John Harding. He signed on for a 1/145th lay--a share of the profits when the voyage was over.

One of the perks of being the cook was keeping half of the slush fund. This term, still used today, referred to money made saving the leftover grease from boiling salt beef or pork and selling this slush as lubricant whenever the ship made harbor. That earned Harding $18. His lay, when the Charles W. Morgan returned to New Bedford, MA after 1028 days at sea, amounted to $328.19.

Unfortunately, that was before money was taken out to repay his advance and for expenses on shipboard. Like clothing, which tends to wear out during three years at sea. At the end of the voyage and 147 weeks of grueling labor, Harding owed the shipowners $432.91!

There, in a nutshell, is the world the capitalists dream of returning us to.

But their dream also has an answer in the history of the Charles W. Morgan. Back in 1841, when the vessel was being built at the Hillman Brothers shipyard in New Bedford, the Morgan family who commissioned it were pressing for a quick launch.

That was when the shipwrights downed tools. Rejecting Hillman Brothers’ dawn-to-dusk work schedule, the workers struck for the 10 hour day. The strike pushed back the scheduled launch by a week, then two weeks. The shipyard bosses caved and a deal was struck that the workday thenceforth would be 10 hours and a half long.

And that’s the capitalists’ nightmare—the united power of the people who actually do the work.

Read more!

April 9, 2011

April 4th, Part II: Workers Rights are Human Rights

"Workers rights are human rights!
Union rights are civil rights!"

At it's height, the march stretched all the way from the corner of Broad & Market Streets to City Hall at Green St
Reflecting on Monday's successful march and rally for Jobs, Peace, Equality & Justice (see Black NJ: POP remembers King by Uniting Labor & Community Forces) Lawrence Hamm, NJ state chairman of the People's Organization for Progress, noted, "this march was clearly smaller than the massive 2007 Peace & Justice Coalition event, but it certainly felt bigger, more significant…"
Larry went on to observe that the coalition of forces supporting and participating in the April 4th March & Rally for Jobs, Peace, Equality & Justice included a broader range of unions than came out in 2007.
Communication Workers of America-District 1 and CWA Local 1037 attended in significant numbers
The AFL-CIO together the National NAACP issued a call for "We Are One" rallies across the country for April 4, 2011 to show solidarity with the state workers under attack in Wisconsin. In Newark, NJ, Raleigh, NC and around the country labor and union leaders wisely united with existing events. This included POP's April 4th  rally, events of our sister organization, Black Workers for Justice, in Raleigh-Durham and many many other gatherings (click here to see photos from Raleigh).

This important development represents an acknowledgement of the intersection of labor struggle and community struggle, or as Larry Hamm put it, "Our unions fight for us while we're on the job. We get home in the evening and we are the community! We need community-based organizations to continue the struggle. These are natural allies, we must unite the two fronts of battle." 
Hundreds upon hundreds fill the plaza at North Carolina's Capital Building

We must build on this new unity. Community groups like POP are on the front lines every day. National organizations like the NAACP have lobbying clout and pull media response, and the labor movement can mobilize quickly. The struggle of public workers in Wisconsin (and New Jersey, North Carolina, and many other places in the US) is basically a conflict over simple democracy, but the campaign against right-wing forces is, in fact, a people's battle that we can't afford to lose…
Thanks to Ajamu of BWfJ in North Carolina, Jon of POP and Tom Dinges at the Star Ledger for photos (Click here to view more photos from the POP March & Rally in Newark).

Read more!

April 5, 2011

Demographic Inversion: White City Center / Black and Brown 'Burbs

I live in Harlem.

That is to say, I live in what was fairly recently Harlem. Now the real estateniks, eager to sell or rent all the new "luxury apartments" that have sprung up like multi-story toadstools around here, are striving mightily to rename this patch SoHa (short for South Harlem, geddit?).

I thought the arrival a couple years back of a Starbucks within a couple blocks of my house signaled the victory of gentrification, but my 'rade Daniel points out that at least they hire young folk from the 'hood. The three-week-old $4-per-cookie bakery, an outpost of the Upper West Side shop Levain, is even closer to me--and staffed mainly by white hipster kids. Adding offense to injury, it's in the space occupied just a couple years back by an under-capitalized coffee bar cum African art gallery called Tribal Spears.

At any rate I am able to watch, up close and personal, the tide of young educated folks with professions or well paid jobs, mainly white, that is surging back into many city centers. This article, by my friend Dr. Mark Naison, of the African and African American Studies Department at Fordham takes a deeper look at the other side of the phenomenon, the increasing concentration of people of color into the ring of the oldest and most densely populated suburbs built around the cities. (It is crossposted from his blog, With a Brooklyn Accent.)

One political lesson from all this, by the by, is that revolutionary socialists or other activists working to develop a base among the folks in poor and oppressed communities should keep a weather eye out. You can see that whole base that you've worked so hard to build up dispersed in half a decade.

Jeffrey’s Story: A Tale of Demographic Inversion

Dr. Mark Naison
Fordham University
March 25, 2011

During the 15 years I spent coaching and running sports leagues in Brooklyn, one of my favorite players was Jeffrey A. Jeffery was a tall, muscular, incredibly sweet Puerto Rican kid who was one of the best rebounders his age I ever saw. During the four years he spent on the CYO basketball team my friend Ed McDonald and I coached, our team always came in somewhere between 2nd and 4th in Brooklyn, in large part because Jeffrey so dominated the backboards. He also left a trail of bruises and broken limbs on opposing players, not because he was mean, but because he was so strong and hyperactive that he sent bodies flying whenever he hit the boards

But the reason I am writing this is not primarily to laud Jeffrey’s basketball skills, though he did go on to play high school and college ball, but to talk about the bittersweet residential odyssey of Jeffrey’s family, which epitomizes a phenomenon now taking place in Urban America which scholars call "demographic inversion"-- the displacement of poor people and working class people from the inner city to the suburbs. This pattern, quite common in Europe, especially Paris, is now become the norm in the US as wealthy people migrate from the suburbs to the inner city and take over many communities which were once working class and minority.

Jeffery’s family turned out to be an exemplar of this trend. When we recruited Jeffrey for our team in the mid-'90s, his family lived above his grandfather’s liquor store on Smith Street near Bergen in the Boerum Hill section of Brooklyn. During those days, Smith Street was a pretty rough place. Only four or five blocks from the Gowanus Houses, it was a tough gritty shopping strip that was an occasional gathering place for crack dealers and stick-up kids who made life tough for the working class Puerto Rican and Dominican families who made up the majority of the neighborhood’s residents.

Jeffrey’s father, an electrician for the city who was a member of Local Three of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, wanted to get his family out of the neighborhood, fearful that his children would be victims of violence, or drawn into negative activity, so he saved all his money and bought a beautiful home in a suburban community, Brentwood, on Long Island. The family moved while Jeffrey in 10th grade and still on our team, and he actually commuted in from Brentwood twice a week so he helped lead our team to another 2nd Place finish in the Brooklyn CYO Championships.

This should have been a happy ending for this hardworking Puerto Rican family, but no sooner did Jeffrey’s family leave Smith Street that it began making a transition into Brooklyn’s hottest restaurant district, filled with chic cafes which served French, Spanish, Italian and Caribbean cuisine to a population of mostly white brownstone owners and apartment dwellers which swelled the population of adjoining blocks. And as for Brentwood, the arrival of Jeffrey’s family coincided with a wave of white and middle class flight which turned Brentwood into a majority Black and Latino town plagued with violence and gang problems which Jeffrey’s father thought he had left behind in Brooklyn.

This transition did not take place overnight. It took a full ten years for Smith Street to evolve into a place where wealthy young white people live, shop and eat, and it also took that amount of time for Brentwood to deteriorate to the point where it was a place upwardly mobile minority families wanted to avoid, rather than migrate to.

But this transition was not idiosyncratic. It mirrors a trend that can be found not only in neighborhoods like Harlem, Williamsburg and the Lower East Side, but in Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and other post industrial cities where the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate) and health care sectors create high paying jobs in the Center City that attract wealthy people back while causing rents to rise in ways that drive working class people out.

More and more, American cities are going to resemble Paris, where the wealthy people live close to the center, and poor people live in the suburbs. Social policy, and urban policy, had better adjust to this transition.

Read more!

April 4, 2011

Black NJ: POP Remembers King By Uniting Labor and Community Forces

"This is, no doubt, the biggest march and rally Newark's seen since the People's Organization for Progress pulled together the Peace & Justice Coalition for the massive August 2007 protest," one long-time activist told me. That march had well over 1,ooo participants. Today's numbers, after a much briefer period of organizing, tapped right into a new current of struggle in the labor movement.

Only after the notorious attack on organized labor by Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin (who has tried to style himself after our own Krispy Creme Christie of NJ), did the national AFL-CIO, many local and state feds, and local unions of government workers began calling for "We Are One" days of action for April 4.

This new spirit of labor struggle brought many union locals to the streets of Newark, and not just the public workers who are under attack by Walker, Christie, and other Koch-sponsored politicos around the country. While the largest union contingent was Communication Workers of America Local 1037, who organize state workers in New Jersey, and many other public-sector unions turned out members, IBEW 827, and three International Longshoremen's Association locals (ILA Local 1233 from Newark; ILA Local 1588 from Bayonne; and ILA Local 333, United Marine Division) were also represented. Both the Essex & Union County Chapters of the A. Philip Randolph Association had contingents present.

Honoring the April 4th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been a tradition for the People's Organization for Progress as well as sister-organizations like Black Workers for Justice for years (a follow-up Fire on the Mountain will feature photos and information from the BWfJ supported April 4 "We are One" march in the Raleigh-Durham area). The significant turnout from the labor movement shows promise of being the foundation of an important coalition to be concretized and built on. As POP chairman Lawrence Hamm observed, "Our unions fight for us while we're on the job. We get home in the evening and we are the community! We need community-based organizations to continue the struggle. These are natural allies, we must unite the two fronts of battle."

The actual number of participants was difficult to judge. One experienced community activist suggested that there were "well over 1,000 demonstrators" while another long-time organizer counted the march at 650. Because several union locals joined at different points along the line of march from Broad & Market to City Hall, and then on to Essex County College, while some participants left the march when they reached where they'd parked their cars, my judgment is that while the crowd may not have ever exceeded 700 at any given time, as many as a thousand demonstrators probably participated in the course of the afternoon and evening…

Read more!

April 1, 2011

POP Unites with Labor, Community Groups to Honor Dr. King's Real Legacy

The New Jersey-based People's Organization for Progress will this year once again observe the April 4th anniversary of the death of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. together with the New Jersey (and national) labor movement and dozens of other community-based and progressive organizations.

When an assassin's bullet felled Dr. King forty-three years ago this coming Monday, the murderous intent of the rulers of this country went far beyond eliminating a single troublesome leader.

They aimed to murder a movement.

During the previous year, Dr. King had spoken out against the War in Vietnam, begun developing plans for the Poor People's Campaign (a multi-ethnic, multi-national march that would place one-million homeless and poor people on the Mall in Washington DC), preached that "every bomb dropped over Vietnam explodes on a poor community in the US" (developing the war-at-home/war-abroad analysis), and marched with striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee demanding both dignity and a living wage.

During his last year, Dr. King was helping hundreds of thousands of activists grasp the imperialist character of the racists who rule this country, and the movement he was building was becoming implicitly and throughly revolutionary.

This is why they wanted to kill the movement, even more than see Martin himself dead.

Honoring Dr. King's legacy while remembering his assassination has become the banner of numerous events in early April. For nearly 30 years, POP's friends in Black Workers for Justice in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina have held an annual "Martin Luther King Salute to Labor Banquet" and it's happening again this weekend.

This year, the People's Organization for Progress is again joining this tradition while uniting with the AFL-CIO's call for April 4th labor support actions.

On Monday, April 4, 2011 POP will join with Communication Workers of America - District 1, CWA Local 1037, the NJ State N.A.A.C.P., the International Longshoremen's Association Local 1233, New Jersey Black Issues Convention, NJ Immigration and Workers Rights Coalition, the New Black Panther Party, Veterans for Peace-Chapter 21, Essex County Women of Color and Allies NOW Chapter, Newark Anti-Violence Coalition, Black Telephone Workers for Justice, Postal Workers Against the War, Sierra Club, CODEPINK, New Jersey Tenants Association, the Enough is Enough Coalition, the NJ Industrial Union Council, and the Union County A. Philip Randolph Institute (among many, many others)…

Assemble at the corners of Broad & Market Streets in Newark, New Jersey at 5:30 P.M.

Read more!