Old Habits Die Hard: Neo-Liberal Colonialism and Worsening Debt Peonage in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico’s governor Alejandro García Padilla met with 350 representatives of the island’s creditors on Monday, after he announced that it could no longer pay its debts. In an interview with The New York Times, he admitted: “The debt is not payable. There is no other option. I would love to have an easier option. This is not politics, this is math.”

Puerto Rico’s non-voting member of the US Congress, Pedro Pierluisi of the pro-statehood New Progressive Party, is sponsoring a bill to grant Puerto Rico bankruptcy protection along the lines of Detroit’s while it negotiates with its creditors, but the bill has been sidelined by Republicans on the Judiciary Committee. The Puerto Rican administration has already cut pension payments, raised property and small business taxes, increased water and gas prices, and laid off government workers. Now unemployment is more than twice the U.S. national rate, and its poverty level is nearly double that of the poorest U.S. state, leading to high rates of crime.

Over half of Puerto Rico’s $73 billion debt is owed to hedge fund investors like the politically-connected Andrew Feldstein of BlueMountain Capital, Mark Gallogly of Centerbridge Partners, Paul Tudor Jones, closely involved in the conspiracy to oust the president of the University of Virginia, and John Paulson, principal investor in the Banco Popular and better known for making a killing by shorting subprime mortgages in 2008. Like Greece’s, Puerto Rico’s future lies in the hands of its creditors: Feldstein successfully sued in federal court last year to overturn a Puerto Rican law that would have allowed the electric authority to file for bankruptcy.

From 2006 to 2013, Wall Street financial firms and lawyers raked in around $1.4 billion in fees from selling $61 billion worth of Puerto Rico’s bonds, according to the Wall Street Journal, giving the island more debt per person than any state in the US. The bonds were highly popular with wealthy investors since they are free of federal, state and local taxes. John Paulson, for example, is investing $1 billion in Puerto Rican real estate to build high-end resorts and luxury homes for members of the one percent aiming to use island residency to avoid federal taxes. Puerto Ricans will see no benefits, and will be paying the taxes that Paulson’s buyers are legally avoiding: their sales tax has just been hiked from 7% to 11.5%. It is a monstrous version of the tienda de raya in the old sugar cane plantations, where workers had to buy groceries on the credit that the patrón granted in his store because their wages were so low, thus living perpetually in debt. [José Manuel García Leduc, Apuntes para una historia breve de Puerto Rico, San Juan: Editorial Isla Negra, 2003:202]

2006 is a key date in the growth of Puerto Rico’s debt load. The US Congress allowed tax breaks for manufacturers based on the island to expire, who promptly exited together with the jobs they supported. This encouraged more emigration to the mainland in search of work, shrinking the tax base and leading the government to borrow more funds to cover its budget. Because of Puerto Rican bonds’ tax advantages, there was a high level of demand for government debt, irrespective of Puerto Rico’s economic situation. Austerity measures only shrank the economy and led to more emigration: between 2005 and 2013, Puerto Rico lost 5.5 percent of its population.

After Governor Luis Muñoz Marin’s creation of the Commonwealth Status for the island in the 1950s (the paradoxical “Estado Libre Asociado”), in the latter half of the twentieth century, Puerto Rico benefited from post-war prosperity, but to a much smaller extent than the US, and the persistent economic downturns since the collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement in the 1970s hit the island harder and longer. Adding to its economic problems are the under-capitalization of agriculture and the need to import most of its food: according to Puerto Rico’s business authority, “even though the island faces an unemployment rate of about 15%, half of its coffee crop hasn’t been harvested in recent years due to a shortage of laborers, representing a loss of about $17 million a year. Yet in the metropolitan areas, there are tens of thousands of people unemployed and willing to work.” Manufacturing, which is still the largest sector of the economy, was hit by the US’s push for free trade agreements  – exports to Latin American and Caribbean countries covered by the agreements fell by 15 percent, further contracting the economy.

Puerto Rico’s ambiguous status as a commonwealth means there is no provision for bankruptcy protections for its public utilities. But even bankruptcy, which governor Padilla is trying to persuade Congress to allow, would mean further cuts and privatization of public assets. Although the process would prioritize payments to Wall Street creditors ahead of expenditures on social programs and pensions, it would also impose losses on the hedge funds. For that reason, they are likely to use a barrage of court challenges and their political leverage with Congress to prevent it happening.

Former IMF officials recently produced a report recommending the restructuring of Puerto Rico’s debt by eliminating public school teachers, raising property taxes and suspending minimum wage laws. It also demands the creation of a “fiscal oversight board,” an unelected authority that will remove the government’s already limited sovereignty. While Padilla is attempting to mobilize the Puerto Rican diaspora to pressure US politicians to allow bankruptcy, his administration has hired one of the report’s authors – Anne Krueger, the IMF’s former first deputy managing director – as a consultant.

Some US presidential candidates are floating the idea of statehood as a solution for the island’s problems, which would automatically allow the same bankruptcy provisions as other states. However, this is also likely to be opposed by the hedge fund billionaires and by Puerto Rico’s own oligarchs, who prefer the current status because it allows them to avoid taxes and federal regulations. So the future of Puerto Rico is to be decided by Wall Street and the US courts, leaving its people powerless – with the connivance of its own government – a new form of colonial exploitation enforced through debt peonage.

Juan Gonzalez pointed out on Democracy Now that since the US invaded in 1898, its corporations have taken huge amounts of profit out of the island, but now Puerto Ricans are being told that they have to pay for the debt themselves. “For the first 50 years, it was the sugar barons with their plantations in Puerto Rico. Then, the next 50 years, it was the pharmaceutical and the textile companies using Puerto Rico as a tax haven, made it the biggest source of profit to American companies in the world. And now you have the hedge funds and the banks that have been peddling all this debt to Puerto Rico for the last few decades and now are demanding payment before anything else.”

Although Puerto Ricans don’t face a collapse of their banks, they have in common with Greeks the fact that people of both countries face starvation austerity being enforced through treaties and legal shackles in order to extract the last ounce of exchange value from them. Elected governments are expected to discipline the population to accept this onslaught from the banks, whatever the public may vote for.

Many Puerto Ricans find their economic dependence on the US problematic. At the same time, however, there are multiple ties between the island and the mainland. The diaspora is the key to asserting political leverage: today, there are more Puerto Ricans in the US than on the island. While within Puerto Rico citizens are disenfranchised, in the US they are increasingly integrated across all classes and constitute an influential minority among Latinos, with Supreme Court Judge Sonia Sotomayor the most visible example of their growing political clout.

There can be no resolution of the perennial question of statehood unless the US itself abandons its racist treatment of Spanish speaking people and accepts a relation of equality, one of respect for Puerto Ricans as a people and a nation. For more than a century, Puerto Rico has been treated like a colony, and the latest round of austerity reiterates the view held by US and Puerto Rican elites of the island. Puerto Ricans in the US can unite with the struggle of other Americans for an end to the rule of the one percent to assert the rights of persons in Puerto Rico and the United States to a livelihood, dignity, and cultural patrimony against the predations of the plutocrats. Time to close down the tienda de raya.

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After the General Election, What Next for British Labour?

The shock result of Britain’s general election last week, with Cameron’s Conservatives achieving a parliamentary majority against all expectations, masked the fact that, in England, the public could only choose between a blatantly bankers’ party and one that proposed minor restrictions on the activities of the super-rich. Even though Scottish voters decisively rejected austerity policies, the banking class won Westminster overall – attested to by the surge in the stock market after the Tory win. The UK is now headed for massive cuts in the welfare state and privatization of the National Health Service in order to force through more tax cuts for the rich.

The Guardian reported: “It couldn’t have been clearer who were the real winners from Thursday’s poll. Buy-to-let investors have dodged the threat of long-term, rent-controlled tenancies; City bankers have avoided a new bonus tax; utilities will not be forced to submit to tougher market intervention. As one Financial Times headline had it, ‘Wealthy breathe a sigh of relief at Tory victory’.”

The Conservatives didn’t so much win the election as Labour spectacularly lost it. The Tories were able to manipulate the first-past-the-post electoral system, targeting marginal seats in middle England with a fear campaign about Labour’s management of the economy, immigration, and how the SNP might dominate a minority Labour government, while Labour retained the hardcore loyalty of cities like Newcastle and Liverpool.

John Lanchester blogged: “Labour’s share of the vote in England went up by 3.6 per cent. That’s more than the Tories: their share of the English vote only went up by 1.4 per cent. … The Tories smashed it in the marginals. In the battleground constituencies Labour were down on their 2010 performance by 0.7 per cent. Labour’s overall improvement in England was driven by success on their own turf: 3.5 per cent increase in the North East, 6 per cent in the North West. Where there was a genuine contest with the Tories, the Tories did better. … The Tories out-campaigned Labour in the places where they needed to.”

Miliband was unable to answer the Tories’ fear campaign because his party is internally divided between Blairite neo-liberals and union-backed social democrats, with Miliband performing a delicate balancing act between the two. Labour therefore never challenged the Conservative narrative, endlessly repeated by the media, that Gordon Brown’s Labour government was responsible for the 2008 recession, bank bailouts and the size of the public debt, and so had made spending cuts inevitable.

Cameron had slowed down austerity after 2012, leading to a slight improvement in the economy that was mainly confined to the prosperous south-east, but Labour candidates in some declining northern towns whose constituents had been hammered by the coalition government’s austerity measures had to struggle to convince them to vote at all – and if they did, it was likely for Ukip.

According to the Guardian, “The more a seat looked like London – young, ethnically diverse, highly educated, socially liberal, large public sector – the better Labour did, on the whole. … Labour fell short with voters outside this ‘London core’, leaking support in multiple directions. The aspirational voters of suburban England – middle-class seats with falling unemployment and rising incomes – swung behind the Cameron-Osborne ‘long-term economic plan’, while Ukip surged in seats with large concentrations of poorer, white working-class English nationalists, many of whom sympathised with Labour’s economic message but not the people delivering it.”

What next for Labour? A special correspondent writes:

I am a Labour voter and, were I living in Scotland, I would be an SNP voter. I am very depressed at the outcome of a Tory government. The surprise defeat of Labour was a shock. The extent of the defeat is exaggerated by the voting system and the sudden resignations of three main party leaders, Ed Miliband for Labour, Nick Clegg for the LibDems and Nigel Farage of UKIP. All is not as it seems: Ed Miliband has not been a strong leader and Labour wanted rid of him before the election, although he ran a good campaign; Nick Clegg has been his party’s lightning conductor for their unpopularity when he campaigned on free university education and then participated in a 300% increase in university fees from £3000 to £9000 per year; Nigel Farage’s resignation is more Mirage than Farage as he proposes to stand for the leadership of UKIP again – he is just (temporarily) resigning to carry out a promise he made for the eventuality that he would lose his own personal election bid.

Labour were caught between two nationalisms: Scottish and English. They lost support in Scotland attempting to keep the Union together and campaigning with the Tories against Scottish independence and the Tories left them to it. The Tories’ reward for Labour was to accuse them of planning a coalition with seditious Scots whose main goal is to break the Union of England and Scotland. The Tories changed their election focus from their stewardship of the economy to attacking Labour for ‘siding with the enemy’ and from the outset of the Independence outcome, fuelling English nationalism.  The arguments on their ‘successful’ handling of the economy was founded on blaming Labour for the banking crash in 2008 when George Osborne opposed every attempt to regulate the banks at that time. As a global phenomenon emerging from dodgy US bank loans fuelling their housing boom, it is a transparent lie, but they have been successful with it.

The situation now faced by the new government is that they have stirred up a hornets’ nest of antagonisms between England and Scotland that can only lead to division of the union and with knock-on effects on Ireland, if not also in Wales and the Labour north of England. Statesmanship by the Tory party was noticeable only by its complete absence after the Scottish referendum campaign for independence. Short term party political interests were the only explanation for the stirring of English Nationalism by the “English Votes for English issues (?)” campaign that followed immediately after the referendum result.

We have divided parties: the Tories are split between its extreme anti-Europe right wing and its centrist ‘one nation’ Tories (an ever diminishing group); Labour is split between its Blairist centrist pro-business group that was able to work with Murdoch’s press and its more left-wing working class base; the LibDems are so shattered at all levels, local and national that its strong base of local activists in well-defined parts of the country is broken completely. The Scottish Nationalists are not split and have an inspirational leader: immediately on succeeding Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon produced an anti-austerity policy and an inclusive policy that I only wish Labour had had the strength to follow, instead of opposing.

The collapse of the Lib Dems also explains a lot that is unique to this election. Their 23% share of the vote fell to below 8% and it fell everywhere including all their regional strongholds. 5 years of taking the blame for the coalition’s unpopular policies had broken the base of thousands of local councillors and activists. The last coalition government, as a group, lost 22 seats plus the remaining 8 LibDems are no longer part of government, so the coalition lost 30 seats overall. This is not much of a victory, even despite the election arithmetic. The government majority has fallen from over 70 to 12. Six by-election defeats over a government lifetime is to be expected and in the last parliament, the coalition lost 8 seats and the Conservative won zero seats. Should that happen again this government will lose its majority, which is likely as the Conservative austerity programme is more severe than before as they were held back in their ideologically-driven cutting of benefits by their LibDem partners.

We have two winners of this election, both elected on opposing manifestos: The SNP were overwhelmingly elected on an anti-austerity, socially fair ticket, and the Conservatives in England were underwhelming elected on an anti-Scottish, anti-Europe, anti-benefits, anti-immigrants but pro-big business ticket. The SNP is united with strong leadership. The Conservative are split and despite all his bluster, David Cameron is weak, as his unconvincing clashes with the EU and indeed by his fear of UKIP reveal. The coming clashes between these two winners starts now, over the federalisation of the UK. It moves over 2 years of uncertainty onto the EU referendum, which Cameron is very likely to lose. The Tories big business backers oppose withdrawal from Europe but the English nationalism set lose by Cameron in his attempt to win back UKIP supporters is virulently against the EU as is the greater part of his party. Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the SNP, has already posed the question that UK withdrawal from the EU requires all nations within the EU to agree to it. If the UK is a serious Union and not dictated to by its large English establishment, it must agree to this or accept the legitimacy of another referendum on Scottish independence should the UK take Scotland out of the EU against its wishes. The Scots overwhelmingly rejected austerity that England voted for and are very likely to vote for the EU when England doesn’t, as will the Irish too where the EU is also popular.

Where does Labour go now? It already has Tony Blair intervening saying it should abandon its left wing policies for a return to the middle ground. It certainly needs a more charismatic leadership, and not just the leader but all those who surround the new leader. I think the policies of Labour in 2015 were not its weakness but the failure to combat the Tory rewriting of history around the 2008 banking failures, the pincer movement of twin nationalism, so ably exploited by the Tories. The role of the press and the media including the BBC needs to be combatted by some means or other. Murdoch completely backed the Tory party as did the others, but Murdoch went further by promoting the SNP victory by the Scottish Sun while demonising them, on the same day, in their English Sun, the largest of the English gutter press. The model the Labour party needs to follow is already given to us by the one absolute success story, the SNP. For God’s sake, get an anti-inequality alliance and basic policies of gender and social equality and hence tax rises to pay for a rebuilding of the welfare state and decent jobs worth having. Form alliances with the SNP and the Greens on a platform of well-defined issues such as the environment and on federalism that is genuine. They can also support Scottish Nationalism and allow Scottish Labour to do its thing and be successful again in an independent Scotland. A successful social democratic state as our neighbour can only encourage English Labour to grow and fight harder. London and the North believe in more social justice, so there is a basis for change, even in the heart of England and those Tory shires. The problems of inequality, housing costs, soup kitchens and poverty are not suddenly going to go away.

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Baltimore: A Turning Point for Police Accountability

Protesters in Baltimore celebrated a victory last week after Friday’s dramatic announcement of indictments against six police involved in the death of Freddie Gray. State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby, acknowledging public demands for justice, stated that officers illegally arrested Gray without probable cause, and then ignored his pleas for medical help.

Paul Jay of Baltimore-based The Real News commented that the false imprisonment charges she announced have major implications for legally-acceptable probable cause: “They’re saying that that’s illegal to just grab somebody because they run and throw them into a van … in the context of Baltimore it’s quite a remarkable step. … It’s the beginning of some accountability, and that’s a big step compared to impunity.”

As well as the Baltimore protests, national attention on police shootings of unarmed young black men has changed the political landscape. Video footage of police violence has subverted the ideological narrative portraying African Americans as criminals, a narrative that shored up white support for police. The political elite now fears the erosion of state legitimacy, not only in African American communities, but among whites as well.

Tensions continue despite the indictments because citizens don’t trust the justice system to convict the officers, and have little confidence their political leaders can address the community’s larger problems. A massive multiracial celebratory march filled Baltimore’s streets after the announcement, but the Washington Post reported: “Residents also expressed concern over whether, in the long run, conditions would improve in the impoverished Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, where about half of working-age adults are unemployed.” The New York Times noted: “Amid the celebration, there was an undercurrent of anger, not only over police treatment of black men, but over the lack of jobs and recreation centers, as well as dilapidated housing for Baltimore’s poor.”

The huge class divisions in Baltimore have come forcibly to national attention. The city, which once supported a million people working in shipyards and the steel industry, suffered industrial devastation and massive depopulation after the relocation of manufacturing industries beginning in the 1970s. This led to grinding poverty, unemployment and drugs concentrated in African American communities on the east and west sides. Successive politicians have attempted to put the lid on social problems with aggressive broken windows/zero-tolerance policing of black communities, building up intense hostility to the militarized police. More recently, money has been poured in to revitalize the downtown Inner Harbor area for tourism and affluent whites, adding to resentment of black political leaders for not addressing the problems of unemployment and housing.

Paul Jay pointed out that the city’s elite has ignored chronic poverty and boarded-up housing in African American communities because “they want poor black people to get the hell out of the city. It’s a form of ethnic cleansing. … The driving factor is real estate speculation. There are thousands of houses that people are sitting on. The city’s sitting on them, [Johns] Hopkins is sitting on them, and the only thing that’s really stopping gentrification right now … is the school system is so bad you can’t get people to move into the city.” They want instead people “who will then come and pay a lot of money for renovated housing.”

The course of events shows clearly how these antagonisms were sparked into riots. Overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations all the previous week calling for justice for Freddie Gray – with little or no coverage in the media – ended in fighting on Saturday April 25 after drunken baseball fans’ racist provocations enraged a group of protesters outside Camden Yards, where they had gathered ahead of a game between the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox. A phalanx of police swept down to clear the street, leading to clashes with the remaining demonstrators, some of whom used a metal barrier to smash the windows of police cruisers.

The following Monday, the day of Gray’s funeral, police claimed there were threats of gang members targeting police and cancelled school buses, leaving students no way to get home. Eddie Conway, a former Black Panther leader in Baltimore, explained: “They [the police] closed the [Mondawmin] shopping center down, then … they let a high school out, then they closed down public transportation. So the students were released from school but they could not get on the metro system to go home or to leave the area. So they were stuck in that area and then massive police presence pushed them down to another area.” That is when the CVS got looted and burned – because of the intense anger of the youth being coralled by riot police and armored vehicles. “People are getting revenge, and they are just getting started,” Quatiarra Bonaparte, a 14-year-old schoolmate of some of those involved, told the Guardian.

It was in response to the chaotic violence on Monday night that gang members from the rival Crips and Bloods decided to join forces to defend the community, using their authority with the youth to protect them from police and keep others from rioting. According to the Guardian, as protesters prepared to defy the curfew on Tuesday, a confrontation was averted “only thanks to members of the notorious Bloods and Crips gangs, who teamed with community activists to push hundreds more protesters, who had demonstrated late into the evening, back to their homes as the curfew loomed. ‘It ain’t about me being a Crip,’ said Sin, 15, who wore lipstick and hair braids in the gang’s distinctive blue. ‘It’s about us coming together and making our community better’.” Another gang member told the Real News: “This is about people in poverty and people that are oppressed, regardless of what color you are. We have white Bloods. We have white Crips. It’s not about color. It’s not about race.”

This awareness of the need to come together to safeguard local communities is part of a national shift in consciousness: black lives matter, and protesters are asserting they need their own resources, not state forces, to safeguard them. DeRay McKesson, a leader in the movement for police accountability in Ferguson, told the Baltimore City Paper: “It’s this idea that protest is disruption, that protest is confrontation, but it’s also community. What happens is that you see people come together who never would have come together otherwise.”

Washington Post commentator Eugene Robinson looks to the state and federal government to fund the bulldozing of decayed housing to help inner-city Baltimore escape its poverty, social despair and dysfunction. But rather than top-down state intervention, the reconstruction of Baltimore neighborhoods must be the work of the community itself. The danger is that simply demolishing the run-down housing will lead to the black community being forced out and dispersed, as happened in New Orleans after Katrina, for the benefit of real estate interests who will construct high-rent luxury apartments.

That’s why the initiative by the One Baltimore United coalition should be supported. Spokesperson Todd Cherkis explained the project to In These Times: “We estimate that there are 40,000 vacant housing units in the city,” he said, pointing out that many of them are abandoned buildings now controlled by municipal agencies. Using local labor to rehabilitate these buildings could make a big dent in unemployment and the shortage of affordable housing. Neighborhoods need to be rebuilt by members of their own community, so as to raise their self-confidence and defeat the sense of hopelessness.

What the protests have achieved, above all, is to make Baltimore a beacon in the fight for police accountability, making the use of police to suppress social problems an issue for all Americans and not just the African American community. The court cases, however they go, will be held before a jury and everyone will see and hear the evidence. This gives the public transparency and marks a turning point in the struggle.

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Filed under African Americans, Baltimore, Baltimore protests, deindustrialization, militarized police, poverty, riots in Baltimore, street gangs in Baltimore

Fight for 15: For Economic Justice and Social Justice, Restoring Dignity and Humanity

The Fight for 15’s one-day strike on April 15 – tax day in the US – provides a welcome alternate perspective to the myopic media coverage of presidential hopefuls. It underlines the gulf between Republican rhetoric and the realities for most Americans, and creates an awkward challenge for Democratic leaders.

Not only did the strike involve more workers than ever before, it spread to wider and unexpected sections of the low-paid, such as 50 Brinks security guards in Chicago who spontaneously stopped work. In all, 60,000 workers joined the strike in over 230 cities. Fast-food workers, carwash workers, homecare aides, childcare providers, student and college campus workers, adjunct professors, airport workers and others were represented in the protests.

The campaign coincides with a sea-change in attitudes to growing inequality and the minimum wage: Seattle and Sea-Tac in Washington and San Francisco have raised their minimum to $15 an hour, and it will soon be on the ballot in both Los Angeles and the District of Columbia. The New York Times reported that one protestor in Seattle, who makes more than minimum wage, came out because “the disparity of wealth has reached alarming proportions and the salaries of business owners and executives are way out of proportion.”

Most Americans now place responsibility for low wages at the door of highly-profitable corporations, not on their underpaid workers. According to the same Times article, Leslie McCall, a sociology professor who closely analyzed opinion data on the topic, said: “People know Walmart and McDonald’s are doing pretty well … We’re into the recovery, the unemployment rate is going down. But most people aren’t doing well.” McCall found that even Republican voters believe the problem is caused by major corporations. “When asked to choose who should be most responsible for reducing inequality — the poor, the rich, the government, major companies, or that it did not need to be reduced — a plurality of Republican respondents, about 37 percent, chose ‘major companies’.”

Early morning rallies at McDonald’s franchises in Atlanta, Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Raleigh N.C., and other towns kicked off the day. In Chicago, at least 3,000 people marched to a McDonald’s in the downtown Loop area demanding “Stop Fooling Around, $15 and a union.”

The largest protests took place in New York City where the Fight for 15 strikers were joined by racial justice activists and union members. At 6:00 a.m. around a thousand people rallied outside a McDonald’s in Brooklyn and at noon crowds of protesters carried signs that read “Why Poverty?” and “We See Greed” to a McDonald’s in Manhattan. Shouts of “We can’t breathe on $7.25” preceded a four-minute “die-in” to protest police shootings of unarmed people of color.

Activist Karl Komodzi told the crowd: “Black people are subject to police violence in their neighborhoods and economic violence in their workplaces. Fight for $15 and Black Lives Matter are about more than raising the minimum wage, about more than retraining some police not to kill us. This is a movement to chip away at the things that take away our dignity and our humanity.”

Meanwhile, an estimated 10,000 building workers rallied at the site in Manhattan where a major construction corporation is using only non-union workers to build one of the tallest residential buildings in the world. The union president, Gary LaBarbera, told the rally: “We know that the workers who are working on this project are only receiving twelve, thirteen dollars an hour. We believe that whether you work at McDonald’s or you work in a car wash, there’s really no difference between a low wage there and a low wage here.” The construction workers were able to overcome police barricades to block traffic for a short time, amid thunderous cheers, before joining other protesters at Columbus Circle for a march to Times Square.

New York Times journalist Steven Greenhouse told Democracy Now: “In this protest yesterday, what was new is [organizers] started working very closely with civil rights groups around the country, with Black Lives Matter. And labor unions, in general, are very involved … I went to Atlanta a few weeks ago to do a story for the Times about how they were very deliberately trying to combine this movement of the fast-food workers, the Fight for $15 movement, with the civil rights movement to show that it’s not just … trying to raise pay a few dollars an hour, but it’s an economic justice and social justice movement. … a lot of the language they’re using or rhetoric they’re using really comes out of the civil rights movement … ‘I am a man,’ ‘We want dignity,’ ‘$7.25 isn’t enough to support our families.’ … You know, now when I go interview a lot of these workers, they’re happy to give me their names. And usually when you interview workers, they’re very scared to.”

But the movement is not without its critics. Indypendent co-founder Arun Gupta claims it is not a “working-class struggle,” pointing out that the SEIU, which has largely staffed and bankrolled the Fight for 15, organizes in a top-down manner that excludes fast-food workers themselves from decision-making. The one-day strikes, he says, are mere spectacles aimed at the media and public opinion rather than building organization and militancy; it is “more of a legal and public relations campaign … than an organizing campaign.” The linkages with the Black Lives Matter movement, argues Gupta, “remain underdeveloped because of the top-down nature of Fight for 15.” The missing ingredient is the organized left: “It’s anarchists who made Occupy Wall Street happen, socialists who have revitalized many teachers unions, and socialists and the left that have turned $15 an hour into reality.”

While it is true that the left played a large role in the legislative victories in Seattle and San Francisco, it can’t take advantage of the space opened by the Fight for 15 without a clear perspective on the class forces involved. Gupta’s article is too one-sided to be helpful: he assumes that the political effect of the mobilization of the low-paid must be limited by the union’s goal of achieving a contract with McDonald’s, when it has already had an impact far greater than the organizers expected, and he devalues their efforts to combine economic and social justice issues. Moreover, Gupta doesn’t address the role of the Democratic party, which most workers still look to for political leadership. According to the New York Times, “Within the next several days, Senator Patty Murray, the top Democrat on the Senate committee that deals with labor issues, plans to introduce a bill to increase the minimum wage, in steps, from its current level of $7.25 to $12 by 2020. … The party is determined to elevate the issue in next year’s congressional and presidential elections.” This poses complications for Obama, who has not taken a position on the Murray plan, and for Hillary Clinton’s electoral bid.

Republicans, of course, are attempting to defuse the issue by asserting that job losses would follow any increase in the minimum wage. Their argument is reminiscent of nineteenth-century economists who claimed that profits were only made in the last hour of a twelve-hour day. But juxtaposed to their support for tax cuts for the rich, Republican politicians’ opposition to minimum wage increases isolates them from even their own voters as the low-wage economy continues to grow.

While they have found it electorally expedient to coopt the low-paid movement, Democratic leaders are not only reluctant to jail corrupt financiers but also to prosecute police who have killed unarmed black men. In Baltimore, for example, where both the Democratic mayor and police commissioner are black, residents expressed outrage not only at the six officers who chased down 27-year-old Freddie Gray before he died from a severe injury to his spine, but also at their political representatives for withholding key facts about the case. Video shot by a bystander shows Gray screaming in apparent agony as police drag him to a van.

What is driving politics in America today is the corrupting effect of the exponential growth of the wealth of the one percent and the social effects of the imposition of a low-wage economy on the other 99. But the resistance to low pay and the courage of individuals who video acts of police violence, like the shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina, signifies a change in the political climate that is not reflected in the campaign rhetoric. At the same time, it is a continuation of the change in consciousness begun with the Occupy movement. Even though dispersed, its impact continues to reverberate throughout America.

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Fifty Years after Selma: The Rebirth of the Radical Martin Luther King

This year, on Martin Luther King day, young activists challenged the political establishment’s sanitization and beatification of the Civil Rights leader so that they could recover the radical side of his heritage, using the hashtag #ReclaimMLK to coordinate protests across America.

Fifty years after the struggle King led, the black upper middle class has been integrated into the corporate world and the political establishment. But deindustrialization has created endemic poverty in many African American and Latino communities, and has led to the demonization and racial identification of minority youth with poverty and criminality. Civil Rights legislation has not prevented Black and Latino youth from facing police violence as a fact of everyday life.

At the same time, continuous reduction in the taxes paid by the wealthy has left state bureaucracies largely unfunded. Besides other social ills, racial profiling conceals an economic imperative to raise funds from fines generated by zealous policing of minor infractions – large numbers of citations represent a way to impose extra taxes on the poor while avoiding political fallout.

The new young leadership of the protests against police violence has undergone a rapid political development, coming into conflict with older activists who focus on organizing peaceful marches rather than the more confrontational civil disobedience actions favored by the youth. These new leaders have turned to King’s more radical speeches as justification for their tactics and to deconstruct the ideological narrative of a “post-racial” America.

The group Ferguson Action said in a statement: “We resist efforts to reduce a long history marred with the blood of countless members of our community into iconic images of men in suits behind pulpits.” Dante Berry, director of the New York-based Million Hoodies Movement, told the Washington Post: “MLK was a radical, very strategic and uncompromising in his strive for justice. It’s reclaiming our own history in a way that is truthful.”

The New York Times reported on Martin Luther King day protests in Atlanta, St. Louis, New York City, Philadelphia and Boston: “The [Atlanta] protesters argued that the holiday had become corrupted by corporate involvement, diluting Dr. King’s ideas about economics as well as race. With signs, slogans and shouts, they inserted themselves into the annual parade as it made its way down Peachtree Street, Atlanta’s downtown thoroughfare. … ‘We’re going to reclaim M.L.K.’s holiday!’ Aurielle Marie, 20, an activist and author, yelled at the Atlanta protest. … Similar events unfolded in St. Louis, where several thousand people marched from the city’s Old Courthouse, where enslaved blacks were once sold as property, to Harris-Stowe State University, where the marchers joined a packed auditorium for an interfaith service.”

About two dozen protesters disrupted the St. Louis service, taking the stage and seizing the microphone, chanting “No justice, no peace.” Harris-Stowe student Tory Russell told St. Louis Today: “This program is more of the same,” and accused the university of representing “the politics of respectability.”

The protesters identify with the radical nature of Martin Luther King’s struggle, firstly because he recognized that desegregation in itself would not settle the question of social and economic equality for African Americans; and secondly because he saw behind the imposition of Jim Crow segregation the workings of an imperialist state he called “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” King’s genius lay not only in his profound understanding of the political moment, but also in his articulation of the way institutional racism was connected to poverty, corporate exploitation, and imperialist war.

Even though there are many more nonwhite police officers than in King’s time, the structural role of police in suppressing the poor has not changed. While the most publicized shootings of young unarmed black men generally involve white officers, the racial dynamic is more complex. After a major corruption scandal and subsequent reform of the Los Angeles police department in the 1990s, it is today majority nonwhite. But the victims of police killings still tend to be overwhelmingly black or brown. Connie Rice, an attorney who heads a national criminal justice reform organization and was a leader in the LAPD reform, said she found that police officers are more apt to shoot in poor and violent areas. “The biggest common denominator [in police shootings] is [neighborhood] income and class,” she said. “It is compounded by race.”

Matt Taibbi comments that the recent police slowdown in New York that led to a 94 percent drop in arrests for minor offenses unwittingly revealed the economic underside of the de Blasio administration’s “broken windows” policing. “First, it shines a light on the use of police officers to make up for tax shortfalls using ticket and citation revenue. Then there’s the related (and significantly more important) issue of forcing police to make thousands of arrests and issue hundreds of thousands of summonses when they don’t ‘have to.’… Both policies make people pissed off at police for the most basic and understandable of reasons: if you’re running into one, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to end up opening your wallet. Your average summons for a [quality of life] offense costs more than an ordinary working person makes in a day driving a bus, waiting tables, or sweeping floors.”

Politico reports: “‘The primary premise [of broken windows], whether spoken or unspoken, is about policing the poor,’ said Delores Jones-Brown, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. ‘The people who live in a neighborhood with a broken window and can’t afford to fix that window.’ In other words, if the NYPD is policing crimes that might have more to do with circumstance than malintent – selling weed because it’s a way to make money in an unfair economy, squeegeeing windows to afford a meal – then the agency is essentially criminalizing the behavior of New York’s most marginalized and disadvantaged communities.”

The visibility of the militarized police after Ferguson has created a crisis of legitimacy for the police and state forces. Frank Serpico, who was almost killed for exposing police corruption in the 1970s, commented: “citizens across the country are losing faith in our justice system, with brazen acts of police brutality frequently captured on cellphone videos; the militarization of police forces through the acquisition of war-machine surplus; continuing racial tensions coupled with a lack of initiative for community policing; and the sentencing of minor offenders to long terms in for-profit prisons, where they essentially become indentured servants.”

The reforms proposed by liberals after Ferguson are unlikely to change this situation. It’s structurally created by unemployment and the legacy of past discrimination. Institutionalized racism, as Martin Luther King perceived, is bound up with the economic and social oppression of the working class and poor in America. Even though there is now an African American president and attorney-general, police who kill unarmed black youth are still not prosecuted.

The continuing struggle against police violence and for a higher minimum wage is King’s true legacy, and the new, younger, leadership of Black Lives Matter is rapidly developing a political perspective that conflicts with that of the old guard of civil rights leaders. Obama cannot coopt the rhetoric of this new leadership in the way he did the Occupy critique of the plutocracy because the criminalization of poor African Americans and Latinos is at the heart of U.S. domestic rule. Whether the state adopts suppression or liberalization, the protests are not going to stop until minority youth stop getting shot.

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Filed under African Americans, aggressive policing, broken windows, De Blasio, Ferguson protests, Martin Luther King, Mike Brown, New York City protests, Obama, police violence, poverty

Turning Their Back on Americans: Police Unions Disrespect the Citizens They Serve and Protect

Leaders of the protests against the lack of justice and accountability for the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner face a highly-charged political situation after the close-range shooting of two patrolmen in Brooklyn by a deranged and suicidal individual, who had no connection with the protest movement.

Saturday’s funeral of one of the patrolmen, Rafael Ramos, became a police “counterprotest” to the movement, as over 20,000 policemen from around the U.S. converged on the Christ Tabernacle Church in Brooklyn. The solemn event was turned into a different kind of spectacle as dozens of officers turned their backs on New York mayor Bill de Blasio when he gave his eulogy of the slain policeman. This piece of political theater was the latest attempt by the police union and its supporters to stir up hostility to de Blasio’s administration and pressure it into withdrawing support for the demonstrators’ exercise of their constitutional rights.

While the funeral of the two policemen received headline treatment in the media, very little attention was paid to a march of 200 people on the same afternoon in the same New York borough to protest the death of Akai Gurley, an unarmed young black man and father who was fatally shot last month by a police officer in a public-housing project stairwell, or to the ongoing protests in St. Louis against the police killing of another black teenager on Christmas Eve, who allegedly pointed a gun at an officer before he was shot. There is nothing new about the police killings of young black men. But the protests manifest a social change in the African American community, a movement that began with the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman. The community will not tolerate more of these shootings, and all Americans are now sensitized to the issue because of the protests that began in Ferguson.

The contrast in the reception of these events corresponds to a political divide among Americans that relates in a complex way to racial tensions. The Washington Post reported that “many black and Latino New Yorkers remained hostile to the police despite the shootings [of Liu and Ramos] … At the same time, though, many New Yorkers embraced the police, rushing to the defense of a department they view as doing the difficult and often thankless job of maintaining order in the nation’s largest city.” The polarization of opinion was displayed at a pro-police rally at New York’s City Hall the Friday before the patrolmen’s deaths: Guardian correspondent Steven Thrasher noted, “There were not many people on the pro-police side, but they were extremely vitriolic, invoking a lot of military imagery and 9/11 imagery and talking about the people who are protesting police brutality as if they were enemy combatants.”

Police supporters are vociferous and inflammatory in their attempts to influence public opinion. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani blamed both de Blasio and Obama for fomenting anti-police sentiment: “We’ve had four months of propaganda starting with the president that everybody should hate the police,” he said. “I don’t care how you want to describe it: That’s what those protests are all about.” But it was left to disgraced former New York police commissioner and convicted felon Bernard Kerik to spell out the full implications of this narrative: “NYPD Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were assassinated over the weekend because their assassin believed the lies perpetrated by de Blasio, Sharpton and others.”

The Washington Post reported that Patrick Lynch, president of the largest police union, said: “There’s blood on many hands tonight … Those that incited violence on the street in the guise of protest, that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did every day. … That blood on the hands starts at the steps of City Hall in the office of the mayor. When these funerals are over, those responsible will be called on the carpet and held accountable.” Lynch had already made thinly-veiled threats of police insubordination to mayoral control, telling officers to slow-roll their work because of a lack of political support and that the department was on a “wartime” footing.

The police spokesmen are demanding the unconditional backing of the political establishment for aggressive policing in minority communities. They perceive their legitimacy as threatened by even the mildest criticism. So despite de Blasio’s numerous statements of support for the police, when in a television interview he described warning his mixed-race son, Dante, not to make sudden movements or reach for his cellphone in an encounter with an officer, it was interpreted as “throwing the police under the bus.”

Josh Marshall comments: “the leadership of the city’s police unions operates on the assumption that the Mayor or the city’s political leaders in general need to show reflexive support and defense of the police department or else they go to war with them. … The protestors who swelled around the city weren’t some kind of alien army. They’re New Yorkers. And the feeling that something deeply wrong happened in the death of Eric Garner was widespread in the city. … As a political reality, no Mayor can ignore that kind of public sentiment. But … these are the people who employ the NYPD, the people the NYPD is sworn to serve and protect.” When de Blasio ran for election on a platform of reforming the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” strategy, he achieved a 72% majority, and Marshall adds that hostility to de Blasio comes from a demographic (whites, Staten Islanders and Republicans) that makes up only a minority of New Yorkers.

However, Corey Robin points out: “The entire New York City establishment—not just De Blasio, but political, cultural, and economic elites—is terrified (or in support) of the cops. … not one of these figures has spoken out against the Freikorps-ish rhetoric emanating from the NYPD. … They’re politically frightened… because they have no sense of an alternative base or source of power.”

There is an alternative source of power in the determination of the African American community to end acceptance of the daily killings of its young men, that insists black lives do matter, and that has gained support among most young Americans of all ethnicities. The group Ferguson Action pushed back immediately against what it described as “cheap political punditry,” and #BlackLivesMatter added: “we are rooted in the belief that Black people in the U.S. must reassert our right to live be well in a country where our lives have been deemed valueless.” The day before Christmas Eve, about 700 demonstrators defied de Blasio’s call to pause protests until after the funerals of the two officers and converged on Fifth Avenue, blocking traffic. Protester Argenys Tavaras told the Gothamist: “Mayor de Blasio didn’t start the protest, and he doesn’t tell us when to finish.” Joo-Hyun Kang, of Communities United for Police Reform, said “Silencing the countless voices of New Yorkers who are seeking justice, dignity and respect for all, is a mistake.”

It remains to be seen whether de Blasio will turn to this social reality for support against the voices calling for the suppression of protests, but the resistance to police killings is going to intensify and the protest leadership will not back down.

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Filed under African Americans, aggressive policing, De Blasio, Eric Garner, Ferguson protests, George Zimmerman, Mike Brown, militarized police, New York City protests, police violence

Out of the ‘Minority Issues Box’: Americans Defend Rights of All Citizens against Police Violence

Across the US on Saturday, tens of thousands of protesters marched against the legal sanctioning of police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other unarmed young black men. In New York, Washington DC, Boston, Chicago and Oakland people of all races and ages marched under the slogan “Black Lives Matter.”

The ongoing protests have drawn in wide layers of society – especially youth from the millennial generation, together with privileged Yale law students and high school student groups. They have been protesting as citizens, not just in defense of the rights of African-Americans, but against the unjustified use of lethal force by increasingly militarized local police.

The Guardian’s Steven Thrasher described the scene in Manhattan as some 40,000 protesters flooded the streets: “The march was supposed to end at One Police Plaza but Foley Square, in front of it, was jam-packed – far more so than it was at the protest the night after the Garner non-indictment was announced. … Noticeable in the march was the presence of young people, from many infants to young white boys chanting, to young teenagers singing. … Noticeable too was a protest contingent as diverse as the city itself, with Muslim, Christian, Jewish, black, white, Hispanic, Native American and Asian New Yorkers out in large numbers. This, too, was very different from Occupy Wall Street.

At the 10,000-strong “Justice for All” march in Washington, led by Al Sharpton and civil rights organizations in the National Action Network, “before the procession left its gathering place at Freedom Plaza … a group of young demonstrators mostly from Ferguson seized the stage. Opposed to Sharpton, who they view as a celebrity activist seeking to take over a movement they started, they said young advocates who did the heavy lifting should be at the forefront of the march.” However, they were excluded from the platform, where relatives of African-Americans killed by police called on Congress to reform the criminal justice system.

UPDATE: Alternet reports that when organizers at the Washington march tried to get the Ferguson protesters offstage, they were met with loud chants of “Let them speak!”  “Ultimately, they allowed Johnetta Elzie of St. Louis to speak. Elzie, who protested in Ferguson for more than 100 days, explained that young people started the movement and it needs to continue that way. She later told the press: ‘I thought there was going to be actions, not a show. This is a show’.”

The protests have created new leadership groups who have quickly developed tactics to control demonstrations. The day after the announcement that there would be no charges against the officer who killed Eric Garner with a choke-hold, protesters “had seemed to roam the streets, intermittently splitting apart and converging to shut down traffic on several important highways and bridges around the traffic-heavy island of Manhattan,” reported the Guardian. But the following night, December 4, brought out many younger protesters who were far more organized: “a coalition of groups led demonstrators. On the Brooklyn Bridge some organizers wore headsets and stopped marchers for photographers.”

They have developed the moral authority to challenge “black bloc” groups trying to hijack demonstrations in Berkeley and in New York. According to the Gothamist, as the December 4 march wound into Tribeca, “some black-clad protesters turned over trash cans and dragged bags of garbage into the street, before protester Steve Saporito chased them away. … ‘I don’t want upper-middle class white kids coming down here and causing mischief so their rich parents can come bail them out, and fuck up what’s going on here,’ Saporito explained.”

But leaders of left groups in California are reluctant to criticize the smashing of windows and looting of stores during marches in Berkeley over last weekend. Alternet reports: “On Saturday [December 6], Berkeley police rioted first, viciously attacking protesters. Some protesters, young men, then vandalized chain stores. A day later, hours after a protest began where hundreds of people marched peacefully, a dozen or so young white men led a second vandalism spree. Before the next night’s march, organizer Yvette Felarca [of the group ‘By Any Means Necessary’] defended their reactions as a legitimate expression of rage. ‘You can never replace the life of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, but windows can always be replaced,’ she said, using a megaphone to address a campus plaza filled with marchers.”

However, “moments later, a young African-American woman [a student at U.C. Berkeley] took the megaphone to made the opposite point. ‘I want to say that this is a nonviolent protest. It is a peaceful protest,’ she said, also prompting cheers. ‘I was beaten on Saturday night and please respect that… If you see any agitators, if you see any anarchists wearing black masks, please pay attention to them and call them out. Because they will try to incite a riot’.”

Long-time Berkeley resident and activist Cynthia Morse, who is white, described the vandals as “skinny white kids … coming from all over the country; homeless; need something to do. They start to show up. And then there’s homegrown people who want to attack capitalism this way,” Morse said. “There’s also the very valid point that without the cops behaving the way they do, there probably would be very little of that. Nobody would come here to fight the cops if the cops weren’t attacking.”

Felarca appeared to equate vandalism in Berkeley with the riots in Ferguson. But there is a difference: in Ferguson rioting was a spontaneous outpouring of rage within the community, while in Berkeley it was planned destruction under the cover of other nonviolent demonstrators which attempted to substitute personal anger for the movement of the community. Black bloc tactics in effect only provide the police with a convenient cover for military-style suppression of protests, stifling the perception that they are attacking citizens exercising First Amendment rights.

Obama’s tepid response to the grand jury decisions has frustrated protest leaders, particularly the claim he made that he’s “never seen a civil-rights law or a healthcare bill or an immigration bill result because a car got burned.” At a town hall meeting in Washington, activist and hip-hop artist Jasiri X said: “Guess what, President Obama? It was over 100 days of peaceful protest, but we didn’t get a meeting with you then. But now, when Ferguson burns, when protests are happening all over the country, now all of a sudden we can get your attention. Now when it burns down you want to have a conversation about putting cameras on police. Well, guess what—it was a video camera that showed Eric Garner being choked by NYPD.”

While Obama was able to co-opt some of the populist rhetoric of OWS, he can only make anodyne statements about police violence because, as an “earnest moderate,” in the words of Ta-Nehisi Coates, he is unable to defy state forces that maintain order, any more than he can prosecute CIA torturers. “Barack Obama is the president of a congenitally racist country, erected upon the plunder of life, liberty, labor, and land,” Coates argues. There are things that cannot be said in public discourse, he explains, such as: “America does not really believe in nonviolence … so much as it believes in order. What cannot be said is that there are very convincing reasons for black people in Ferguson to be nonviolent. But those reasons emanate from an intelligent fear of the law, not a benevolent respect for the law. … the death of all of our Michael Browns at the hands of people who are supposed to protect them originates in a force more powerful than any president: American society itself.”

While there is a lot of truth in what he says, particularly in relation to institutional racism, the protests this weekend are a sign of how American society is changing. As the population becomes increasingly nonwhite and more white people acquire minority relatives through marriage, they become aware of how racism affects people they care about. A commentator in Talking Points Memo, who is white, writes about how his Latino cousin was killed by police. He says that the way the Ferguson community mobilized and the video of Eric Garner’s death “are searing these facts of injustice into the minds of a broad swath of people for the first time, much like my cousin’s murder did for me. These issues have broken out of the ‘minority issues’ box.”

There is a perceptible difference between these protests and Occupy Wall Street. While OWS was equally pluralistic and imaginative in its tactics, it was a more abstract campaign against the power of the financial oligarchy, and could only mobilize those who could afford to camp out and get arrested (thus excluding many people of color who couldn’t take such a risk). Today’s movement is more diverse, inclusive and is defending the rights of all citizens against uncontrolled state violence.

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Filed under African Americans, aggressive policing, black bloc, Eric Garner, Ferguson, Mike Brown, New York City protests, Obama, police violence