Brain Transplant for Blairites: The Labour Party Conference and Jeremy Corbyn

The British Labour party conference, held in Brighton this week, demonstrated the close affinity of newly elected leader Jeremy Corbyn with the party’s rank and file. The Guardian’s Seumas Milne remarked: “Corbyn brought delegates to their feet with his appeal to popular decency and solidarity, his rejection of illegal warmaking and Trident renewal, and his unqualified opposition to the new benefit and tax credit cuts about to be imposed on millions across Britain.”

His popular support meant that anti-Corbyn MPs could not challenge him on austerity and the economy. But his opponents, including some in the shadow cabinet, loudly voiced their hostility to Corbyn’s aim of scrapping the Trident nuclear weapons system, whose usefulness is a myth furiously propagated by the Tories, the military high command, the armaments industry, and some rightwing union leaders.

As Milne noted: “the gap between the party’s leader, elected by hundreds of thousands, and the majority of its MPs, who didn’t vote for him, is stark.” British politics is highly ideological, and so is all about using and manipulating symbols of state legitimacy. For example, the press and BBC have attacked Corbyn on whether he would authorize a nuclear strike, his willingness to sing the national anthem, and possibly not wearing a red poppy on Armistice Day.

Corbyn’s conference speech, which so resonated with the party membership, countered these attacks with an alternative symbol, the unifying ideal of “shared majority British values” such as “fair play for all,” defined against the selfish individualism of hedge fund-backed Tory leaders. He said he was elected on the idea of “a kinder politics and a more caring society. … We are going to put these values back into the heart of politics in this country,” the subtext being that these values had been abandoned by the Blairite leadership in its quest for electability.

Gary Younge commented: “The speech was clear. It had purpose. It anchored a party that has for too long been adrift by reminding it of its core principles and core mission. Corbyn spoke in unequivocal terms about his support for the weak against the strong and fairness against inequality. He voiced support for refugees, trade unions, council housing, peace, international law and human rights. Amazingly, for a Labour party leader, this already made it an exception.”

Corbyn does not stand so much for a new politics as for rolling back the tide of neoliberalism. Despite the descriptions of him as having a far left agenda, he didn’t call for a change in society’s structure, but only for an end to the diversion of resources to financiers that has defunded social services for the working and middle class, and the privatization of public assets. Through his rhetoric of common values, he gave direction to party members to reground the party’s policies.

His speech implied that building a movement was more important than electoral success, troubling Labour MPs and their house journal, the New Statesman, which noted “how little he had to say about the importance of winning elections and of returning to government.” This is what his opponents call realism. But the reality for most people in Britain is that they are experiencing decline in just about every aspect of life: housing, jobs, wages, health, benefits, road and railway commutes, issues which are driving the movement against austerity, and which the Blairites failed to challenge.

This poses a conceptual problem for the British left. Socialist Workers Party supporters object that, since the Labour party is aligned to achieving a parliamentary majority, “How would Corbyn actually implement his moderate programme of social reform and end austerity?” Like the New Statesman they are asking how he would achieve change through parliament. This indicates they see the movement that elected him as being incorporated into the traditional Labour left, and not changing anything in the political climate. But they are missing how the Labour party is being transformed by an anti-austerity movement that has grown both inside and outside of it.

The real struggle now is between Labour’s newly-enlarged membership and the party establishment. While Corbyn proposed that its values would drive party policy, Rafael Behr commented: “the question of what policy is adopted is really a subset of the battle for control of the party machine. That tussle, well under way, is conducted mostly behind closed doors. It focuses on appointments, nominations and votes for positions on the key committees … what we used to call the ‘old Labour right’ (tribal centrists who mostly backed Yvette Cooper for the leadership) is doing its best to defend the machine from infiltration and control by the hard left.”

But Corbyn’s values have in fact reverberated within Labour’s membership and a significant slice of British society. So the stage is set for a clash in the constituencies as the membership begin to assert their sovereignty over policy. Labour activists want democracy within the party as a precondition of achieving democratic support in the country.

Public opinion in Britain is constructed with a monolithic barrage of propaganda from the press and media. So far, Corbyn has succeeded in neutralizing much of it by giving a voice to ordinary people. In doing this, he becomes part of a European-wide trend to reassert the politics of the local against the interests of the globalized banking system, the “enemies of democracy” in Thomas Piketty’s words. When the New Statesman argues that Corbyn wants to live in a “perfect world” and is reluctant to deal with real problems like intervening in Syria or hard choices about public spending, it is tone-deaf to these new political forces, manifested in Scotland, Greece and Catalonia.

It contrasted the “admirable idealist” Abraham Lincoln’s “cold-eyed realism” in hedging and compromising his way towards abolition with what it sees as Corbyn’s reluctance to deal with real issues of government. But Lincoln’s adoption of abolition depended on the campaigning of radical abolitionists to change the discourse of the country before the Civil War. As Lincoln’s foremost biographer, Eric Foner, explains: “They pioneered the use of the media of that time — the steam press, the telegraph, the petitions, the traveling speakers — to change public discourse. If you want to learn something from the abolitionists, that’s what you learn.”

Corbyn’s anti-austerity campaigners have a great opportunity now to change the political discourse in Britain – not in parliament or the media, but on the doorsteps of the country. But first they have to deal with the supporters of the status quo within the Labour party itself.

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Filed under British Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, Neoliberalism, tony blair

Britain’s Anti-Austerity Revolt: Labour Gives Overwhelming Victory to Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn’s stunning victory in the election for Labour party leader in Britain represented a spontaneous upsurge from both inside and outside the party, despite the open hostility of most Labour MPs. It restored political agency to Labour supporters who had been disenfranchised by the Blairite leadership and who fused with an anti-austerity movement that had been building outside the party for some years.

The party’s membership soared to over 400,000 as enthusiasm for the leadership election grew, making it the largest political party in Britain. Significantly, the members include a huge influx of a new generation of activists, alienated up until now from the political system and radicalized by the gutting of British society by a Tory government attuned only to the needs of the City. Many ex-party members and left activists rejoined in order to support Corbyn’s campaign.

For example, Rebecca Prentice, a doctor from Crouch End in North London, told reporters she joined the Labour party immediately after this year’s general election “because she was so angry at the result and because she was seeing every day what Tory policy was doing to the NHS.” When Corbyn was nominated, for the first time in her life “someone was up there saying what I believed in.” Laura Parker, who leads a children’s charity, said she had “lost faith” in Labour years ago, but was inspired by Corbyn to rejoin. “This is a man who is absolutely principled, who is interested in debate about ideas and who doesn’t care what color tie you wear,” she said.

A groundswell of enthusiasm built from Corbyn’s last-minute nomination, as people began to volunteer for his campaign. According to The Guardian, he attracted over 16,000 volunteers in three months. Seumas Milne commented: “By any reckoning, Corbyn’s election and the movement that delivered it represent a political eruption of historic proportions. Whatever now happens, such a fundamental shift cannot simply be reversed. Eight years after economic crisis took hold of the western world, the anti-austerity revolt has found its voice in Britain in an entirely unexpected way.”

Corbyn has given this revolt a focus and direction, challenging Tory austerity ideology when Labour’s official response was to abstain on welfare cuts. Gary Younge pointed out: “For the past couple of decades the Labour leadership has looked upon the various nascent social movements that have emerged – against war, austerity, tuition fees, racism and inequality – with at best indifference and at times contempt. They saw its participants, many of whom were or had been committed Labour voters, not as potential allies but constant irritants.” These movements included a massive anti-austerity protest earlier this year that mobilized tens of thousands in major cities.

Corbyn’s opposition to the dominant political narrative appears to reiterate ideas from the 1970s. But in today’s context, where the political class has shifted to the far right, his commitment to public investment has a popular appeal. Renationalization of the railways has overwhelming public support from rail passengers who now pay the highest fares in Europe to travel on services that are all too often unreliable and overcrowded. Scrapping tuition fees, resetting rent controls on landlords, increasing the top tax rate and a mandatory living wage all have general support; even scrapping the Trident nuclear system is favored by 64 percent of the public.

The newly-elected leader also pledged to end cuts and privatization of the cash strapped National Health Service. Its dire situation is reflected by an organization representing doctors in general practice which recently reported that, despite their efforts to meet rising demand, “unprecedented rises in patient demand” means that “the saturation point has been hit even by the most competently working practices in London” as doctors attempt to deal with the knock-on effect from cuts to hospital services.

Corbyn’s rhetoric in his victory speech mixed biblical imagery with a collectivist sentiment that resonates with the ethical sensibility of Labour voters: “I want us, as a movement, to be proud, strong and able to stand up and say, ‘We want to live in a society where we don’t pass by on the other side of those people rejected by an unfair welfare system; instead, we reach out to end the scourge of homelessness and desperation that so many people face in our society’.”

At his first opportunity to question Tory Prime Minister David Cameron, Corbyn noted that many people he had spoken to wanted above all for their voices to be heard in parliament. So he began with a question from Marie in Putney, who asked about the UK’s housing crisis after Corbyn had appealed for ideas from the public. According to the Independent, she joined the Labour party after his campaign caught her eye. “All around where I live we are surrounded by buildings going up … completely surrounded by massive new flat developments … those are flats for rich people. No ordinary working person on an average wage could even begin to contemplate buying one of those, and social housing itself is being completely demolished by this completely stupid policy of selling off the housing stock.”

But Corbyn’s performance in parliament is hardly crucial, notwithstanding the parliamentary fetishism of many journalists. The rejection of his leadership campaign by so many Blairite MPs has exposed their hand and his overwhelming majority weakens their ability to undermine his authority. Gary Younge pointed to “an elemental clash between MPs, many of whom made it to Westminster courtesy of a centralised vetting operation, and a vastly expanded membership who want to take control of their own party.”

Corbyn has encouraged a movement that continues to grow, transforming the Labour party in the process. Left commentator Richard Seymour argues: “Corbyn has said that his campaign is about turning the Labour Party into a social movement. That’s the only chance he and his supporters have.” But this is something that has already happened. A grassroots movement against austerity has flooded into the Labour party. As these members assert sovereignty over their constituencies, they will clash with the centralized party bureaucracy in Transport House over policy and selection (or possibly deselection) of parliamentary candidates.

The Guardian, interviewing Labour voters about their reaction to Corbyn’s win, noted their sense of relief that the parliamentary party can no longer ignore the views of its membership. “Finally I feel I have a choice,” said Sam Brazier. “We, the people, have given the party a very clear mandate. They are there to represent us, not dictate how we should think, feel or vote.”

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Filed under Anti-austerity, British Labour party, british parliament, Jeremy Corbyn, tony blair

Fire in the Belly: The Hunger Strike in Chicago’s Bronzeville Revitalizes Struggle for Social and Economic Justice

Despite a last-minute decision by the Emanuel administration in Chicago to reopen a neighborhood high school as a privately run arts-themed school, a community based group of public school parents, grandmothers and education activists are continuing a hunger strike to have it reopen as a public global leadership and green technology school.

Members of the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett have been fighting for five years to keep the Dyett High School open and for a comprehensive plan for education in the historically black Bronzeville neighborhood. However, the group was rebuffed by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials who closed the school last year, intending to close it permanently as a public school. The group began their hunger strike when the CPS asked for privatization proposals without considering the community’s plan, then changed the date of a hearing in order to exclude local activists.

School closings rubberstamped by the CPS board, whose members are not elected but appointed by mayor Rahm Emanuel, have disproportionately affected African American and Latino American neighborhoods. In Bronzeville alone, 19 public schools were closed between 2001 and 2012, often replaced by charter and selective-enrollment schools that admit students from anywhere in the city, further displacing neighborhood students.

According to Jitu Brown, one of the coalition’s leaders, after extensive community consultation the group is calling for the high school to become “the hub for what we call a sustainable community school village. And that means we want feeder schools vertically aligned with Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School. We want the curriculum to be vertically aligned. We want parents and Local School Council members to train together. We want to create a network of schools, so that we have not only relevance and we have rigor, but we have relationships. This is a visionary plan. The president of the American Educational Research Association, Jeannie Oakes, said it was a wonderful plan. The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, said it was the best academic plan she’s seen in 30 years of teaching.”

But, according to the Chicago Tribune, “By directing CPS to announce a plan for Dyett on Thursday, Emanuel tried to alter the narrative of what’s been a weeks-long pressure point … the proposal allows Emanuel to point to a specific solution in the face of what had become a relentless stream of criticism from protesters. … Twice this week, the activists disrupted Emanuel at public budget hearings, on Wednesday forcing the mayor to leave the stage and end a session prematurely. On Thursday, the organizers staged yet another City Hall sit-in that led to 16 people being ticketed for blocking elevators.”

The campaigners immediately rejected the CPS compromise, which hands the school over to a private operator. However, African American politicians sided with the administration in attempting to defuse the community’s struggle, showing their support for the mayor at a press conference on Thursday. The Chicago Sun-Times reported Congressman Bobby Rush said: “ ‘Eighty percent of that — which I am aware of — they were seeking, they have won’ … Pointing to his own history of activism, Rush said activists sometimes are blinded by their enthusiasm, and ‘we don’t really realize when we have won’.” Bronzeville alderman William Burns, who has routinely rubber-stamped Emanuel’s privatization schemes and school closings, called the compromise “a great day for Bronzeville,” as did state representative Christian Mitchell, who voted for the mayor’s plan to cut state workers’ pensions.

Jitu Brown responded: “Just because it’s a neighborhood school doesn’t mean a lot of people who were on that stage won’t get rich off our children. Why should black people always have to accept less? When do the voices of the people directly impacted matter?”

He told Democracy Now: “At the press conference yesterday with the mayor, there were people—they locked out the people who fought, so they negotiated the deal with them. And there were these African-American individuals, posing as leaders, who stood there and said that they will work on Dyett High School. Now, one of the people was also one of the ministers who led paid protesters into the Dyett hearings in 2012 to close the school, where he went in front of the liquor store and the halfway house and got those of us that were most vulnerable, gave them $25 apiece and told them to—and they held up prefabricated signs saying, ‘You can’t support failure. Close Dyett High School’.”

As Cornel West has pointed out, these leaders are trading on the achievements of the Civil Rights movement that today has been incorporated into the corporately-dominated political system. Their ethnicity enables them to play a particular role in assuaging liberal-political groups and the black working class, while at the same time segregation and racism is reproduced by state policy, economic disintegration, ignorance and disparity of wealth.

In Chicago, African American legislators have been coopted into the Democratic patronage monolith headed by Emanuel. However, following the successful teachers’ strike, new leaderships are emerging from the grassroots to challenge his dominance. Latino Americans, traditionally politically conservative and, according to Latino studies professor Jaime Dominguez, in Chicago more focused on delivering services than political organizing, are being drawn into the same struggle for quality public education and to stop the school board’s push for privatized charter schools. Latino Americans are the fastest-growing ethnic group in Chicago, and many voted for progressive Jesús “Chuy” Garcia’s in this year’s mayoral contest, forcing an unprecedented run-off election with Emanuel.

Although the complex intersections between race and class make appeals for working class unity in America problematic, there is a convergence between community struggles on housing and school closures, the struggle for immigrant rights, against police violence, and for the $15 minimum wage. This is contributing to a growing opposition to the corporatist Wall Street wing in the Democratic party establishment – like former Obama chief of staff and now Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel.

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Filed under African Americans, charter schools, chicago schools, chicago teachers, latino americans, privatization

Basta, Trump! Ramos Exposes the Ugly Side of The Donald’s Dangerous Words


Jorge Ramos, the immensely respected Mexican-American journalist, has single-handedly taken on Donald Trump’s outlandish attacks on immigrants. Ramos is the most trusted source of information for millions of Latinos who make up a large part of US society, hosting the most-viewed Spanish-language news program “Noticiero Univision” and the English-language program “America with Jorge Ramos.”

Trump evicted Ramos from his press conference for attempting to ask specifics about his proposals to deport 11 million people from the country, build a 1,900-mile border wall, and deny citizenship to children born in the US. Trump told Ramos to “go back to Univision,” echoing anti-immigrant threats, and branding the journalist a foreigner (he is actually a US citizen). Afterward, Ramos said: “This is personal, and that’s the big difference between Spanish-language and mainstream media, because he’s talking about our parents, our friends, our kids and our babies.”

He later told Megyn Kelly: “the problem is that he’s not used to being questioned, he doesn’t like uncomfortable questions … I think as journalists we have to take a stand when it comes to racism, discrimination, corruption, public lies, dictatorship, and human rights. And when he’s expressing those really dangerous words, we have to confront him.”

In this, however, Trump mirrors the political establishment that discourages and criminalizes challenges to authority – Bush and Cheney’s war on terrorism codified arbitrary abuses of power and the demonization of opposition. Even under Obama, prosecution of whistleblowers has reached an all-time high.

Ramos pointed out that to do what Trump actually promises, “he would need to use the army, use stadiums, public places. The only way to do that would be to use trains and buses and airports to deport millions of people. It’s in a scale never seen before in the world.”

Since the US economy cannot function without immigrant labor, Trump’s proposals are not intended to be realistic. They are part of a demagogic rhetoric that incites attacks on immigrants. When a homeless Latino man was beaten up in Boston, Trump took days to repudiate it; his initial response was to say that his supporters were “passionate.” Ramos told Anderson Cooper on CNN that Trump’s rhetoric is dangerous: “What many Americans say in their homes, with their friends, in their kitchens, now many of them feel that it is OK to say that to minorities, to Latinos and this is really creating a terrible backlash.”

[WATCH: A white woman tells another woman speaking Spanish to learn English or get out of the country. ]

Not a single Republican politician has challenged Trump’s agenda, because he voices the resentful anger of their base better than they can. Josh Marshall commented: “Not caring about those contradictions, not caring about racist provocations is rooted in the nature of Trump’s campaign. … He’s dominating the field … by owning the part of the GOP base (the lion’s share of it) who feel aggrieved and threatened and crave and respect dominance. … Tossing Jorge Ramos isn’t a problem with these folks, it’s a fantasy.”

English-language journalists did little to support him, some in fact criticizing him for speaking up without being called. Glenn Greenwald showed his disgust with their subservient opinions, defending Ramos as being part of the tradition of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite in speaking truth to power: “What is more noble for a journalist to do: confront a dangerous, powerful billionaire-demagogue spouting hatemongering nonsense about mass deportation, or sit by quietly and pretend to have no opinions on any of it and that ‘both sides’ are equally deserving of respect and have equal claims to validity?”

But the Spanish-language press has been forthright in condemning Trump, echoing Ramos’ earlier description of him as “the loudest voice of intolerance, hatred and division in the United States.” The Latin pop star Ricky Martin published an op-ed in Univision News last week, saying the fact that Trump “has the guts to continue to gratuitously harass the Latino community makes my blood boil. … What surprises me is that as Hispanics we continue to accept the aggressions and accusations of individuals like him who attack our dignity. Enough is enough!”

“Xenophobia as a political strategy is the lowest level you can sink to in search of power,” Martin continued. “This is an issue that unites us and we need to fight together, not only for ourselves but for the evolution of humanity and those who come later.”

Brittney Cooper writes in Salon: “The explanations that suggest that Trump’s ‘refreshing honesty’ and ‘lack of political corruption’ make him popular are surface-level truths that point to a deeper set of lies. Trump legitimizes the most irrational and base impulses of those on the right. He makes it seem OK to have views that are politically retrograde and fundamentally at odds with a democratic project. He makes white discomfort with progressive discourse and policy feel like a legitimate anxiety.”

The English-language press has become neutered by its corporate connections to the political system and is mesmerized by Trump’s apparent support to the exclusion of opposing voices. So we have to thank Spanish-speaking Americans for exposing this would-be emperor’s lack of clothing. The traditionally conservative Latino community is being motivated to get involved in US politics by Trump’s appeals to a dwindling base of right-wing bigots.

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Filed under Dictatorship, Jorge Ramos, Megyn Kelly, Trump, Xenophobia

Bernie Sanders and Black Lives Matter Trump the Billionaires

The Vermont socialist Bernie Sanders has been drawing huge crowds wherever he goes – more than 100,000 people in recent weeks – and is tapping into Democrats’ frustration with the Obama presidency and the corporate control of government. Sanders is campaigning on issues that actually affect most Americans, such as defending social security, ending student debt, and restoring regulations on bankers.

This is a much more important phenomenon than Donald Trump’s standing in the Republican primaries, something that obsesses the mainstream media. Trump’s success is due entirely to the fact that he knows how to speak directly to the Republican base that is cheering on his unabashedly xenophobic billionaire egotism. His open contempt for the broken political system resonates with their feelings of resentment.

What is more important than the personal attributes of either man is the social movements they are energizing. Sanders’ supporters are in the main white liberals, and his presidential campaign has collided on a number of occasions with Black Lives Matter activists demanding recognition of the issue of police violence. After his speech at Networks Nation was interrupted, another speech of his was shut down at a rally in Seattle. While Sanders himself, to his credit, has taken on board many of the activists’ criticisms, his Seattle audience was not as receptive to their message. They attempted to drown out the activists with chants of “All lives matter,” “We stand together” and “Which side are you on?” As well as their discomfort at Sanders’ speech being curtailed, their rejection embodies a long-held social-democratic view that economic issues are more essential than the fight against racism.

According to the Seattle Times: “Some in the largely white audience booed and chanted for protesters to let the senator talk. A few yelled for police to make arrests. Marissa Johnson, one of the protesters, shot back, ‘I was going to tell Bernie how racist this city is, filled with its progressives, but you did it for me,’ accusing the audience of ‘white supremacist liberalism’.” The Stranger blog continued the story: “More vocal members of the crowd began booing in response to Johnson. Johnson spoke through the heckling, welcoming Bernie to the town of Seattle, where ‘white supremacist liberalism’ prevails. She called for four-and-a-half minutes of silence in honor of Michael Brown. … After some more booing, the crowd again silenced itself. During the silence, people screamed ‘Bernie matters,’ and ‘all lives matter’.”

Gerald Hankerson, president of the Seattle NAACP, said he was surprised at how hostile some in the liberal crowd were to the protesters. “I know they were there to hear Bernie, but what was missed was the message of these two women,” he said. “I would have loved to have seen Bernie respond to what they wanted.”

After the event, Sanders said he was “disappointed” at the disruption, but at a later rally that day announced the hiring of a new press secretary, Symone Sanders, a Black Lives Matter supporter. She said they had discussed the issue of racial inequality and she suggested to him “racial inequality and economic inequality are parallel issues,” a theme he took up in later press statements and a racial justice manifesto.

Brooklyn-based writer Syreeta McFadden commented in the Guardian: “Arguably, Sanders was less of the target of the message from the Netroots and Seattle Black Lives Matter protesters than were his supporters and their professed allyship. Those Seattle supporters, for instance, proceeded to prove the protesters’ point when they produced a counter chant to drown out the message from possible and probable future BLM protests at Sanders rallies.”

Jennifer Roesch, an activist with the International Socialist Organization, has made a serious attempt at a Marxist analysis of the way race and class intersect. She writes that the idea that racial inequality is a symptom of economic equality “fails to capture the dynamics by which capitalism was established in the United States and by which it is sustained. … Racism and capitalism grew up together in America [on the foundation of slavery] and cannot be separated from one another. Racism is not merely a product of economic inequality, but also part of how that inequality is produced and maintained.”

“Fighting economic inequality is insufficient — any challenge to capital has to be coupled with race-specific demands for reform,” she continues. “Mass incarceration, police violence, and resegregation have devastated black communities, and have to be understood as a corollary to a ruling-class program of austerity designed to permanently lower the standard of living in this country. But to analyze this relationship merely as cause (austerity) and symptom (racism and police violence) is to miss the ways in which racism and repression are indispensable parts of the ruling-class project.”

White leftists have a clear responsibility to engage with the issues that black activists raise, rather than rejecting them as disrupters. At the same time, there is a danger of making the campaign for social and economic justice a black-white issue. Angelo Falcón, president of the National Institute for Latino Policy, told Al-Jazeera: “No matter how much people talk about how multicultural things are and how diverse they are, it seems to revert to black and white … How the hell do you break through that black-white way of looking at policy issues?”

The extension of police powers after 9/11 has empowered local forces to follow militaristic strategies of containing protest, encouraged by the open perversions of the rule of law perpetrated by the Bush administration. This is something that imperils all citizens. The Latino community in California, for example, also faces militarized policing. In Anaheim, “there were at least seven killings (by police) between 2011 and 2012,” said Gabriel San Roman, a writer for OC Weekly. Five were Latinos. On the three-year anniversary of the riots following the police shootings of two young Latino men in the town, unlike the large protests in Ferguson on the anniversary of Michael Brown’s death, politicians and protest groups have ignored the community.

Roesch argues: “For socialists, the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement is one of the most important developments in recent years. It has exposed the depths of racism in this country, has brought tens of thousands of people — mainly black, but also white — into the streets, and has politicized millions more.”

She points out the challenges this poses for activists, stressing the need to find ways “to bring these struggles together with the social power of the working class.” However, the working class’s social power has been reduced considerably with the decline of the organized labor movement. What is needed today is the building of a pluralist and inclusive movement that confronts the reality of the racial hierarchy underpinning corporatized state power, while recognizing the right of minority groups to organize in their own way.

As I maintained in a previous post, “there is a connection between the fight for a living wage, the Black Lives Matter movement and the struggle for immigrant workers’ rights: new coalitions of people and new forms of resistance are possible at their intersection.”

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Filed under African Americans, anaheim protests, Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter, death of sandra bland, Fight for 15, militarized police

The Death of Sandra Bland: Her Life Matters

A historic conference of Black Lives Matter activists took place last weekend in the midst of daily police killings of unarmed people of color. Over 1,000 activists from groups including Ferguson Action, Black Youth Project 100, and Baltimore United for Change traveled to Cleveland, Ohio to raise national attention to police brutality, immigration rights, economic justice and LGBTQ rights. The conference ended, almost symbolically, in a videoed confrontation between activists and transit police who had arrested a black 14-year-old.

According to the Washington Post, “a transit police officer in the city turned a can of pepper spray on a mostly African American crowd that had gathered as authorities were placing an intoxicated teen into a patrol car.” Conference participant Destinee Hinton said: “They begin to form a barricade around the car urging the police to let the young man go but they wouldn’t and when they were linking arms and doing chants one of the police officers began pepper spraying the whole line.”

Ever since 9/11, police departments have been showered with military hardware and trained to use lethal force as a first resort, leading to more and more cases of unjustified killings of unarmed people, most visibly African Americans. The resistance to these killings has begun to undermine the legitimacy of state violence and has also exposed the extent to which state power is founded on racial terror: for example, The Intercept revealed that the Department of Homeland Security was monitoring gatherings of people in mainly black neighborhoods, confirming the fear of state forces that black militancy will subvert the foundation of their authority. The growth of a multiracial society and erosion of white privilege is a tectonic shift that has created tremors at the base of the US state, fracturing the racial hierarchy that underpinned social relations.

The conference followed a week of protests across the country, beginning with the anniversary of Eric Garner’s death, followed by demonstrations calling for justice for Sandra Bland, who died in a Texas jail after being arrested at a traffic stop, as well as other black women including Kindra Chapman, an 18-year-old found dead in her jail cell in Alabama a day after Sandra Bland died, Joyce Curnell in Charleston and Ralkina Jones in Ohio, both found dead in their cells in the same week. Sam Dubose was shot down in Cincinnati during a routine traffic stop by a university police officer, who has been charged with his murder.

What happened to Sandra Bland is a microcosm of the social dynamic between police and African Americans. She was close to arriving at a new job at the historically black university Prairie View A&M in Texas, from where she graduated, and driving along University Drive. State trooper Brian Encinia was traveling in the opposite direction. When he saw her, he made a U-turn and sped up behind her vehicle.

She moved to the right lane to let him pass, but did so without signaling. Encinia turned on his lights – automatically triggering audio recording – and approached her car. At this point the interaction was strained, but civil. He checked out her license in his vehicle, and returning with a warning ticket written out, he saw something in her demeanor that told him she was not passively compliant. He asks why she seemed irritated. “I am, I really am,” she replied, “because I feel like it’s crap is what I’m getting a ticket for, I was getting out of your way, you were speeding up, tailing me so I moved over and you stopped me so yeah, I am a little irritated but that doesn’t stop you from giving me a ticket, so.”

At this point, Encinia dismisses her statement with a curt “Are you done?” He deliberately escalates the confrontation by instructing her to put out her cigarette and she challenges his right to do this. He then ordered her out of her car, threatens to use his taser, shouting “I will light you up,” and arrested her after throwing her onto the ground.

The root cause of the confrontation was the clash between her consciousness of her constitutional rights and Encinia’s need to establish his authority by claiming physical dominance through intimidation.

Whatever happened in Sandra’s cell, she was transformed from an empowered young black woman and social activist to a victim of a Kafkaesque legal nightmare, needing $500 to make bail and possibly facing the loss of her job opportunity due to her arrest.

Her life should be respected in a way the authorities did not; Black Lives Matter activists were therefore justified in challenging Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley at the Netroots Nation conference to address the crisis of police violence. Protesters took over Sanders’ Q&A session, shouting “black lives matter,” and “say her name,” until he grew visibly frustrated.

The Washington Post reported: “Sanders threatened to leave the stage as demonstrators demanded that he repeat the name of Sandra Bland, a black woman who died in a Texas jail cell this month. Then he canceled a series of meetings he had scheduled with some of the activists following his appearance.” In a later appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Sanders continued to cast the challenges minorities faced as primarily economic, again pointing to his lifelong support for the civil rights movement. According to CNN, “He pointed to soaring unemployment figures for young African-Americans, and blamed an ‘unsustainable level of income and wealth inequality’.”

Activist Patrisse Cullors told Democracy Now: “[The intervention] was about challenging the notion that there’s only the lens of the economic justice agenda … They were unable to really listen to the needs of the Black Lives Matter protesters.” Alicia Garza added: “There is nothing separate about wages from black life and the survival of black people than police violence and police terrorism … Police violence is the tip of the iceberg when it relates to the conditions overall of black people across the globe.”

While Sanders was slow to recognize the new dimension of the struggle against police brutality – although in his video-streamed house party on Wednesday he was upfront in attacking the institutional racism that led to Sandra Bland’s death and called for police reform – the intervention of the activists succeeded in changing the political dialog, to the fury of right-wing Fox TV pundits like Bill O’Reilly.

The protests in Ferguson showed all too well that the militarization of increasingly trigger-happy police forces across the country is a danger not only to African Americans, who are the most visibly targeted, but to Americans of all ethnicities. Police abuse of power affects everyone – and video of these abuses has affected all sections of society. As a Ferguson demonstrator said last year: “It’s not a racial thing. It’s a police thing. It’s America against the police.”

In the US, class and ethnicity are fused in a complex set of social markers. For example, well-heeled Cuban-Americans in Miami are much less likely to be stopped and shot than working-class Latinos in Anaheim, California, where unarmed Manuel Diaz was shot dead in 2012 while running away from police. The forces of law and order function to keep the rich safe from the poor – and brownness and blackness are perceived as markers of poverty and criminality. The huge transfer of wealth from the poor to super-wealthy billionaires has only exacerbated this tension.

Economic struggle, like the union-backed Fight for 15, doesn’t supersede the political struggle for racial equality and social justice. However, there is a connection between the fight for a living wage, the Black Lives Matter movement and the struggle for immigrant workers’ rights: new coalitions of people and new forms of resistance are possible at their intersection. That’s why Sandra Bland’s life matters.

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Filed under African Americans, aggressive policing, anaheim protests, death of sandra bland, Ferguson, Fight for 15

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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Filed under debt peonage, Hedge Fund managers, latinos, Puerto Rico, unemployment