Category Archives: poverty

Labour defectors and Watson challenge Corbyn’s leadership


On the BBC’s Andrew Marr show this Sunday, Tom Watson, the deputy leader of the Labour party, threw down a challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. He described the defection of nine Labour MPs as a “crisis for the soul of the party” that requires the shadow cabinet to adopt social democratic policies as “the only way to keep the Labour party united.” He himself was prepared to convene a group of MPs that believe in the “social democratic tradition” so that their ideas could be given greater weight in the parliamentary party. Watson repeated the defectors’ rhetoric of “bullying” and “intolerance” to describe attempts by party members to hold MPs accountable for their votes in parliament and statements to the press.

In reality, Watson is advocating a resuscitation of the failed politics of New Labour, not a return to the social democratic tradition of the membership. New Labour broke from this tradition in many ways, including its pro-business and anti-union stance, making benefits conditional on US-style “workfare”, and introducing market relations into social welfare provision. Its limited increases in spending on welfare were perfectly compatible with its “light touch” avoidance of regulation of financial markets that ended in the banking crash of 2008.

Watson and the defectors’ blanket accusations of “antisemitism” are intended to shut down rank and file criticism of the MPs’ differences with Corbyn: their reluctance to raise taxes on the rich, their support for neoliberal austerity policies and opposition to re-nationalisation of public utilities. The “independent” group’s policy platform, such as it is, hankers for the days of the Blairite ascendancy, reviving the “third way” argument of encouraging business so as to fund social welfare. They know there is no political future for this platform, so will continue to occupy the seats in parliament won for them by the efforts of Labour members campaigning on the manifesto produced by the party leadership.

The not entirely unexpected defection of Ian Austin MP makes it clear that the earlier resignations were not primarily about Labour’s Brexit policy. Austin is aggressively pro-Brexit and voted with the Tory government for Theresa May’s deal, while the other eight MPs demand a second referendum to overturn the result of the first one. Austin’s professed reasons for leaving mirror those of the other quitters with his denunciation of a “culture of extremism, antisemitism and intolerance.” But why should party members tolerate behaviour like Austin’s attack on Jeremy Corbyn when the Chilcot report on the run-up to the Iraq war was being discussed in parliament? In very unparliamentary language he told the leader of his own party to “sit down and shut up” and shouted “you’re a disgrace” as Corbyn criticised the Iraq war.

The defecting MPs are especially hostile to Corbyn because his election as party leader has enhanced the influence and assertiveness of the party rank and file, which has brought them into conflict with the privileges of the parliamentary party. This is why the defectors describe the party as “broken.” What truly unites them is their belief in their right to debate how the country should be run while ignoring the opinions and needs of their own members and constituents.

Even the organizational methods of the group reflect corporate financial techniques – incorporating themselves as a company rather than as a political party, which means they do not have to disclose their funders. The “shared values” that the group claims to possess appear to be those of a sense of entitlement to ignore the views of the electorate. They all claim to be working in the “national interest” – that is, the interests of the bankers, landlords, and offshore industrialists who make up the establishment – and cynically demand “leadership” from Jeremy Corbyn. HIs strategy of respecting the referendum result while exposing Theresa May’s dependence on the Tory ultra-right is not regarded by the splinter group as leadership, even though his demand that May should take a no-deal Brexit off the table would have circumscribed her manoeuvring. They want a demagogue who would denounce the referendum and align the Labour party with Tory remainers who represent the affluent beneficiaries of a global economy. Doing so, however, would only strengthen the appeal of the extreme Tommy Robinson right. Labour needs to speak for leavers as well as remainers, making itself a party of all the dispossessed.

Corbyn fired back at the quitters at a rally in former Tory Anna Soubry’s constituency of Broxtowe. He restated the party’s policies such as raising corporation tax to fund free education, and to use the power of government purchasing to end the gender pay gap. “I’m disappointed that a small number of Labour MPs have decided to leave our party and join forces with disaffected Tories, who say they have no problem with austerity that has plunged thousands into desperate poverty and insecurity,” he said. The party’s 2017 manifesto promised an end to austerity, it offered “hope, instead of the same old establishment demand for cuts, privatisation and austerity. That’s why we now back public ownership of the utilities and railways, why we now oppose tuition fees and corporate giveaways, and why we’re no longer afraid to ask the rich to pay their fair share of tax.”

“What’s different now about Labour is that the members are much more involved in their communities, and it’s those members that will write the manifesto for the future,” he told the rally. He had reached out to fellow socialist parties in Europe at their conference in Madrid to outline plans for cooperation after Brexit, and explained to them how anger in left-behind communities was behind the referendum result. “What’s happened in deindustrialized parts of Britain is exactly the same as what’s happened in deindustrialized parts of Germany, France, Spain, and many other countries across Europe,” he said. “The real problem is an economic system that discards industrial workers and allows whole communities to collapse and die and good jobs to be replaced by employers like Sports Direct.”

He warned about the growth of the far right across Europe when populist politicians would blame the nearest group of migrant workers for factory closures instead of the multinational companies who moved industries to the next low-wage economy, and called for closer relations with people in Europe. Climate change is a class issue, he said, and he backed the schoolchildren who had organized to protest climate change, adding that green energy would create jobs and protect the environment.

Unlike Watson, who was only concerned with the opinions of other MPs, Corbyn addressed the issues of homelessness, poverty and growing hospital waiting lists in his speech. His calm and successful leadership of the Labour party must be supported against the frantic efforts of the right wing and the corporate media to railroad through a desperate capitulation to Theresa May’s dogmatic plans.

UPDATE: The left-wing blog Counterfire responded to Watson’s challenge by calling for the party leadership to ditch Labour’s “broad church” model and recast the Corbyn project as a “left reformist socialist party. … A clear declaration that Labour wants to build a new socialist party would enthuse hundreds of thousands of activists, recapture the dynamism of the early Corbyn leadership campaigns, re-engage the party with the most disaffected sections of the working class, and open up the path to election victory.”

What a left reformist socialist party would mean in practice is unclear, but ditching the party’s centrists and making a declaration of socialism from above, so to speak, is not going to solve Labour’s problems and will not necessarily re-engage the party with the most disaffected sections of the working class. What is needed most of all is for Labour to strengthen its connections with the resistance to austerity in the communities and give it political expression. Moreover, the author’s contention that Corbynism is in danger of being killed off if the present regime continues assumes the right has much more power than it does. Counterfire is arguing from the particular standpoint of left activists rather than examining the actual movements of public opinion.

1 Comment

Filed under Brexit, Britain, British Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party, political economy, poverty, Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

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

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.

Leave a comment

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

“Justice For All” – Ferguson Community Demands End to Police Repression


Ferguson council members listen uncomfortably to the anger of residents

Ferguson council members listen uncomfortably to residents’ anger

The determined street protests against the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri have diminished, but the anger of the community has not. Demonstrators are still demanding the arrest of Darren Wilson, the officer who fired the fatal shots, but it seems unlikely this will happen. The county prosecutor has declined to recommend any charges to the grand jury, and public calls for the prosecutor’s removal have been ignored by the Missouri political establishment.

While the protests and the militarized police reaction brought the profiling of African American youth to national attention, they also uncovered the systemic nature of the constant police harassment and ticketing of African American motorists in the St Louis area. Some journalists attribute the problem to the multiple underfunded towns in the county, but the economic imperative for local authorities to raise revenue through disproportionate penalties for minor offences is a national issue. As local budgets are cut due to the economic recession, the police are squeezing the poor to support their own activities.

At a tumultuous Ferguson council meeting last week, its members were besieged by citizens who denounced racism, police harassment and the council itself. They demanded to know why Wilson had not yet been taken into custody, why young African Americans were so frequently arrested, and when there would be an overhaul of the police department. Above all they demanded an amnesty on outstanding court fees and warrants: “You make your money off our backs,” shouted one resident. But the mayor, James Knowles III, announced that the council would not answer any questions and would only listen to public comments. At this point, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “He was met with shouts of protests and the sight of attendees rising to their feet, pumping their fists in the air. ‘Shut it down,’ they yelled. During the constant barrage, council members looked out over the audience and remained mostly expressionless. They had arrived with police escorts more than an hour before the meeting. And when it ended around 10 p.m., they left through an exit off the stage without interacting with the crowd. … ‘What I see up there for me, is taxation without representation,’ said Louis Willis, a former mayoral candidate.”

Even before Brown’s killing, there had been simmering anger over the way the city had been financing itself from court fees and fines generated by aggressive policing, in particular intensive traffic enforcement which raised court revenues by 44 percent over the last three years. In an attempt to defuse this anger, the council introduced a new rule that limited the contribution of fines to the town’s budget, but this is merely window-dressing. As The Guardian pointed out: “under the new rule, Ferguson could collect 15% of the $20.2m total revenue that the city is expecting for 2015. This is more than $3m, an increase of $943,800 on the total taken in 2014 under the existing system.”

The  rich (and white middle class) have separated themselves off from the urban centers into more affluent enclaves, and refuse to pay their share of taxes that would allow opportunities for minorities and youth. An investigation by the Washington Post found that poorer towns in St. Louis County derived up to 40 percent of their annual revenue from fines and fees collected by their municipal courts from low-income residents. “Sales taxes are the primary source of revenue in most St. Louis County municipalities. Wealthier areas naturally see more retail sales, so the more affluent towns tend to be less reliant on municipal courts to generate revenue. In recent years a state pool was established to distribute sales taxes more evenly, but existing towns were permitted to opt out. Most did, of course. Perversely, this means that the collection of poorer towns stacked up along the east-west byways are far more reliant on municipal court revenues. That means they face much stronger incentives to squeeze their residents with fines …”

However, it is not only the St. Louis region where aggressive policing is used to extract funds from citizens. Detroit is a much more significant example of how so-called “broken windows” policing of minor infractions is used to impose a higher tax burden on poorer residents. The mostly African-American residents of the city “face an added cost of living as the city police pile on nuisance fines to crack down on smaller crimes,” reports The Guardian. Yet just a few miles from the center of Detroit is Oakland County, the fourth wealthiest county in the U.S. Robert Reich points out: “Forty years ago, Detroit had a mixture of wealthy, middle class, and poor. But then its middle class and white residents began fleeing to the suburbs … By the time it declared bankruptcy, Detroit was almost entirely poor. Its median household income was $26,000. More than half of its children were impoverished.” If the metropolitan boundary had included the surrounding suburbs, he writes, “Oakland’s more affluent citizens would have some responsibility to address Detroit’s problems, and Detroit would likely have enough money to pay all its bills … But because Detroit’s boundary surrounds only the poor inner city, those inside it have to deal with their compounded problems themselves. The whiter and more affluent suburbs (and the banks that serve them) are off the hook.”

A prominent law enforcement official writes: “Many law enforcement agencies are facing the reality of severe budget cuts, reduced workforce, and the elimination or reduction of many law enforcement programs. Today, police chiefs are being asked to look for ways of economizing, increasing efficiency, eliminating redundancies, and finding revenue sources. … cities will begin to see successes at nearby agencies and look to new revenue streams as a panacea to forestall reduced services or even bankruptcy … there is a clear presumption of need for law enforcement to generate new income streams.”

For some police departments, seizure of cash from motorists who the police claim are connected with drugs has become a major new income stream – even though they are never charged with a crime. A three-part series by the Washington Post described how hundreds of state and local police agencies were relying on seized cash to fund their budgets, despite a federal ban on using the money this way. “There have been 61,998 cash seizures made on highways and elsewhere since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments through the Equitable Sharing Program, totaling more than $2.5 billion. State and local authorities kept more than $1.7 billion of that while Justice, Homeland Security and other federal agencies received $800 million.” Steven Peterson, a former DEA agent, told reporters that agency leaders saw cash seizures “as a way to provide equipment and training for their guys. If you seized large amounts of cash, that’s the gift that keeps on giving.” Of course, minorities are disproportionately targeted for cash seizures.

The problem for the ruling elite is that the structural pressure for sharply-increased extraction of funds from minority communities is undermining the popular acceptance of the system of authority, the consent of the governed. When the poor refuse to be sacrificed on the altar of neoliberalism, that poses a real threat to the legitimacy of the state. That’s why federal authorities had to step in quickly to defuse the protests in Ferguson when war-zone-like images from the clashes got national attention. But the anger of the community at last Tuesday’s meeting shows the conflict is far from being resolved. Residents challenged police harassment by counterposing to it the founding principles of the US constitution, demanding that political equality entitles them to equality under the law. At the very start of the meeting, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports, “Shouting erupted during the Pledge of Allegiance, during the phrase ‘and justice for all.’ ‘For all!’ many cried.”

Leave a comment

Filed under African Americans, aggressive policing, broken windows, Ferguson, police presence, political analysis, poverty

Whatever It Takes in the Fight For 15: Workers Mobilize Against Poverty Level Wages in America



Fast food workers in Raleigh, N.C march along South Wilmington Street to protest outside a Burger King. Photo: MSNBC

The “Fight for 15” campaign has spread rapidly from its beginnings in New York City two years ago. Last Thursday’s civil disobedience strikes affected 150 cities throughout the U.S. – significantly, many of them were in the South, historically hostile to unions. As well as broadening their support, strikers faced jail as a way of showing their determination to achieve a $15 an hour minimum wage.

Obama referred to the movement at a speech on Labor Day in Milwaukee. He said: “There’s a national movement going on made up of fast food workers organizing to lift wages so they can provide for their families with pride and dignity. … If I were busting my butt in the service industry and wanted an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work, I’d join a union.”

As well all the major cities in the North, protesters were arrested in St. Louis, Missouri; Little Rock, Arkansas; Durham, North Carolina; Phoenix, Arizona; New Orleans, Louisiana; Nashville, Tennessee; Atlanta, Georgia; Miami and Tampa, Florida; and Charleston, South Carolina. In Nashville, McDonald’s worker Jamar Black was at a protest outside of a Sonic restaurant. He told In These Times “We’ll do whatever it takes to get to $15. If we have to go to jail, we’re doing that.”

The Huffington Post reported that in Charleston around two dozen fast food workers blocked traffic at the entrance to a freeway, backing up traffic for miles. Police arrested 18 in what were deemed “non-custodial” arrests – but “the fact that it was happening at all in South Carolina took onlookers by surprise … Dave Crossley, a local who came out in support of the protest, marveled at the line of workers bottling up traffic for blocks on Spring Street, chanting for ‘$15 and a union.’ ‘This sort of thing doesn’t happen in Charleston,’ he said.”

Reports indicate that the police were much more careful in their treatment of protesters than in previous strikes, which reflects both public support for the movement and the condemnation of police over-reaction to the protests in Ferguson. For example, Durham police in union-unfriendly North Carolina “followed the city’s protest for upwards of three hours while making no arrests, even as workers sat in a series of increasingly busy intersections. Eventually, the protesters advanced to the corner of West Main Street and Great Jones Street, one of the busier intersections in downtown, where 23 workers wearing red armbands sat down in the middle of the street. The police blocked off traffic around the intersection but did not advance on the protesters for about an hour and a half.”

The LA Times reported that in New York City, “Hours after the morning protest in Manhattan, marchers gathered again on the busy corner of 8th Avenue and 56th Street, where several were swiftly arrested and taken away in a police van after they lay down on the pavement and blocked traffic. … Lunchtime diners at a nearby open-air bar watched the protest and arrests, which lasted no more than half an hour. ‘Good for them,’ one man in a business suit said who was weaving his way through protesters as they chanted and disrupted traffic. ‘Everyone deserves to make a living’.”

Ashona Osborne, who works at Wendy’s in Pittsburgh, told Democracy Now: “We volunteered that we were going to take a nonviolent civil disobedience and sit down, just to make the point to these CEOs and corporates that ‘We’re not playing.’ … This strike that we had, as opposed to our last strike, we had way more people walk off the job and way more people from the public and workers come and join us as we were striking. We started out with about 10 people at 5:00 in the morning. By the time they came about noon, we had over 200 people all striking together as one.”

There is a fusion between the fight for a living wage and other campaigns for social justice, such as the “Moral Mondays” movement in North Carolina and the struggle for immigrant workers’ rights. The larger movement includes activists from Ferguson, Missouri, who decided to travel to New York City on Thursday to join the protests there. Jeanina Jenkins, a McDonald’s employee in Ferguson, said she believes their fight against Michael Brown’s shooting will be on the minds of many striking fast food workers. “We’re fighting for the same thing, basically,” she said. Co-worker Carlos Robinson told the New York Times: “In Ferguson we needed to stand up for what’s right. Here we have to stand up for what’s right. It’s all about rights. … Ferguson gave us a boost because it helped us realize some people really don’t care about you. If you don’t care about yourself and take a stand for yourself you’ll always be at the bottom.”

The change in tactics to civil disobedience was combined with the addition of home healthcare workers to the campaign. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) has been a major backer of the fast-food strikes; its president Mary Kay Henry said: “Homecare workers … decided to join with fast-food workers yesterday in building the broadest, most powerful movement possible … We looked at [Obama’s speech] at 5:45 yesterday morning in Oakland. And workers who hadn’t had a chance [to see it], because they were working on Labor Day, were incredibly thrilled that the president of the United States is saying that what they’re doing makes complete sense.” She added: “There’s an incredible intersection of the immigrant rights movement and the fast-food workers’ movement. I saw it in Oakland yesterday. Many of the workers were Latino and had immigrated from Central America and Mexico. We’ve seen it across this country as the city organizations get built in local coalition with the immigrant justice movement.”

The strikes are not directed at obtaining concessions from one particular company or store, but are aimed at changing the political climate so as to make it unacceptable for corporations earning billions of dollars to keep wages at poverty levels. This includes challenging the legal strategies used by corporations to avoid liability for labor conditions. The movement achieved an important success in this respect by winning a decision by the National Labor Relations Board that McDonald’s could be treated as a joint employer with its franchise holders in labor complaints, opening the way for major pressure on the corporation’s practices.

Most new jobs created in the U.S. today are low-waged, but workers in these jobs are becoming more militant and political in their fight against multi-billion dollar corporations. Washington Post correspondent Harold Meyerson pointed out that: “even though the campaign has yet to win a union contract for a single worker, it already has to be judged a signal success. By highlighting the abysmal incomes of millions of hardworking Americans, it has prodded governments to phase in minimum wage increases in a growing number of cities and states. … The fast-food workers’ campaign, then, may be viewed … as the second act of a broader workers’ movement kicked off by the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations of 2011. Occupy never developed a strategic focus that went beyond occupying, but it nonetheless focused the nation’s attention on the widening chasm separating the 1 percent from everybody else. The fast-food campaign … has staged enough high-profile actions, with a compelling economic and moral message, to win real gains for workers, whether those workers stand to ever become union members or not.”

The gains that have already been made have built workers’ confidence in their own ability to fight and their strength as a class. Alliances with community activists to build an inclusive movement are creating a new form of labor struggle, in the teeth of antagonistic courts and Republican-dominated state legislatures. Much greater conflicts are in store as the movement challenges the basis of corporate profits and their political and legal influence.

Ferguson McDonald’s worker Jeanina Jenkins said that Michael Brown’s shooting had made her think about the reasons why it had happened. “These corporations make billions of dollars each year,” she said, “and if it wasn’t for the workers they wouldn’t have a company to run. … I want to make a history that’s going to change not only us but change the world.”

Leave a comment

Filed under African Americans, fast-food workers, Ferguson, Fight for 15, immigration, low-waged, Obama, poverty, strikes, We are the 99 percent

Ferguson Protests Are Not the Revolution but Herald a Challenge to Plutocratic Supremacy


The protests in Ferguson, Missouri over the shooting death of Michael Brown exposed for all to see how local police have been militarized and deployed to suppress social unrest and dissent. As the super-rich increasingly accumulate all society’s wealth and refuse to pay more taxes, thus defunding social services and benefits, their solution for poverty is to herd the poor into ghettoes patrolled by armored vehicles.

Aggressive policing of minority communities to segregate them from comparatively affluent middle-class communities is the strategy that has long been adopted by the U.S. state to absorb social and economic tensions exacerbated by globalization. As an African American in Ferguson succinctly explained: “It’s not a racial thing. It’s a police thing. It’s America against the police.”

The protests drew national attention to the way exaggerated “threats” to public order have been used to justify the use of extreme force against citizens exercising their First Amendment rights. The war zone-like images from an American city forced federal and state authorities to step in to defuse the situation in Ferguson and prevent the clashes from escalating.

Although Michael Brown’s funeral last Monday marked a pause in the protests, as a judicial investigation got under way, African American youth have shown they refuse to internalize the white power structure’s evaluation of their lives as worthless. Their defiance of police in riot gear, backed by snipers and armored trucks, brought Michael Brown’s death into the political spotlight.

Parallels with TV news portrayals of the Middle East became another subtext of the confrontations: the head of the St. Louis NAACP, Adolphus Pruitt, compared the militarized police response to Israeli treatment of Palestinians, for example, and a young girl held a sign at the protests that read “Negro Spring.” She told reporters: “The same as the Arabs fought for their rights, for their civil rights, to oust their corrupt government, we’re fighting for our civil rights, our human rights.”

The Guardian’s Gary Younge recounts an incident that shows how the aftermath of the clashes subverted fear of the police. “Just outside a mall in Ferguson, Missouri, shortly after 10 o’clock on Wednesday, a black man in his 30s was stopped and frisked by around eight white policemen. As he gingerly emptied his pockets, careful not to move too quickly, he yelled at them. … ‘Yes I’m angry,’ he shouted. ‘Four hundred years we been here. We built this place for free and y’all still hate us.’ A man filming the incident was told to move on but did not budge. When the police let the pedestrian go (whatever they were looking for he didn’t have), the man recording went too. ‘I’ve done my job,’ he said.”

This is a remarkable change, given the history and extent of police intimidation of the Ferguson community. The culture of militarism in the local police force is combined with a vicious racism encouraged by the town’s political structure, which finances itself by the extraction of fees and fines from the mostly African-American population.

The overwhelmingly white Ferguson police department attracts individuals seeking to perpetuate the inferior status of African Americans. Their supporters (including Fox News) channel a revival of segregationist fervor as some in the white communities fear the influence of a multi-racial majority on the political power structure. St. Louis Republicans were outraged when activists set up a voter-registration booth near Michael Brown’s memorial: the executive director of the state Republican Party was quoted as saying “I think it’s not only disgusting but completely inappropriate.” He described it as “injecting race” into the tragedy of Brown’s death.

As well as the shooter of Michael Brown, at least five other officers in the town’s 53-member department have been named in civil rights lawsuits alleging the use of excessive force. A 5-year veteran of the force, Dan Page, was suspended after video surfaced of him saying “I’m into diversity. I kill everybody, I don’t care” and describing Obama as “that illegal alien who claims to be our president.” Another officer posted on social media that he thought the Ferguson protesters should be “put down like rabid dogs.”

North of Delmar Boulevard, running east-west through St. Louis, the population is overwhelmingly black

North of Delmar Boulevard, running east-west through St. Louis, the population is overwhelmingly black

St. Louis itself is probably the most segregated city in the U.S. today. The Washington Post comments: “the break between races — and privilege — is particularly drastic, so defined that those on both sides speak often about a precise boundary. … St. Louis’s geographic divide stems from a legacy of segregation — legal and illegal — and more recent economic stratification that has had the effect of reinforcing racial separation. … Look at a map of St. Louis, color-coded by race, and majority-African American communities sit almost exclusively to the north — that is, above Delmar [Boulevard].”

Ferguson lies just outside the city’s boundary, in St. Louis county. When deindustrialization impoverished communities in the region, they lost their revenue base. The county’s infrastructure and police are now financed by court fines and fees imposed on the mainly African-American population for minor nonviolent offenses like traffic violations; if they can’t pay, they are arrested.

Despite having a population of just over 21,000, Ferguson issued 32,975 warrants for non-violent offenses – most of them driving violations – in 2013. African-Americans make up 67 percent of the town’s population, but 86 percent of drivers stopped by police are black. Jeff Smith, an assistant professor at the New School and a former Missouri state senator from St. Louis, says Ferguson “facilitates a debtors prison” because of the high number of arrest warrants that get issued when people don’t pay.

Bradley Rayford, an executive of student government at a local community college, told the Washington Post that youth feel “they are caught in a vise, with police harassment on one side and little economic opportunity on the other. ‘It’s a socioeconomic thing,’ he said. ‘It begins with getting a traffic ticket. You get pulled over and get this huge ticket. In some parts of the city, tickets actually double.’ Get a couple of those and soon ‘most people can’t afford their bills.’ … ‘If you don’t pay the ticket,’ Rayford said, ‘you get a court date. But you can’t go to court because you’re working two jobs. Now, warrants are out for your arrest. You can get arrested, then you can’t get a job. So many people are made criminals from traffic tickets’.”

While the Ferguson protests are not the revolution, the recognition of a common political enemy in the one percent has the potential to unite diverse communities in the fight against globalization. Bradley Harmon, local head of the Communication Workers of America, told The Nation labor is “probably the most racially integrated social force in St Louis. … I think if we’re going to reverse the decline of organized labor, we’re going to [have to] take on the systemic poverty and exclusion and withdrawal of public services that made Ferguson happen.” Lara Granich, director of the Missouri branch of Jobs with Justice, points out that “Getting rid of the idea that there has to be poverty jobs is a very important step. Economic inequality and racism are mutually reinforcing forces.”

The confluence of struggles against police intimidation and corporate exploitation is evidenced by the fact that members of the fast food workers group “Show Me $15” participated in the Ferguson demonstrations from the beginning. According to Labor Notes, “Shermale Humphrey used to work at the McDonald’s in Ferguson that sits right across from the scene of Brown’s shooting. ‘This [protesting] is something I had to do,’ she said. ‘I’m African American, and this could be anyone I know. I just can’t let it go on any longer.’ … Humphrey and her fellow Show Me $15 member Jeanina Jenkins were both arrested for trespassing when they protested at McDonald’s shareholders meeting in Oak Brook, Illinois, this May. Jenkins works at that same Ferguson McDonald’s but hasn’t been to work since the August 9 shooting, spending her days and nights at rallies instead.”

More and more Americans of every ethnicity will be drawn into political struggles against poverty wages and the apartheid-like policies that aim and often succeed in separating Americans. As Michael Brown’s tragic death shows, Americans of color in the United States continue to pay their most lethal costs. Yet these policies also blind those who benefit from white privilege to the costs they themselves will have to bear should they seriously try to assert their rights against the plutocratic order that now controls the state through laws like the Patriot Act, which has given us a militarized police, and decisions like Citizens United, which allows plutocrats and corporations to essentially buy Democratic and Republican candidates and unlimited legislative and political power.

The Ferguson protests and inclusive movements like the campaign for a $15 minimum wage, OUR Walmart, and activist groups fighting evictions to protect communities, fighting for We the People, herald the challenge that’s coming to plutocratic supremacy.

1 Comment

Filed under African Americans, fast-food workers, Ferguson, low-waged, Obama, OUR Walmart, police presence, political analysis, poverty, Republicans

Revive the spirit of Occupy to defeat re-segregation


Gary Younge raises the awkward truth that, on the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court decision that struck down school segregation in the U.S., the country is far from showing progress toward racial equality in education and is in fact going backwards.

As white suburban dwellers secede from the problems of inner city school districts, setting up charter schools or carving out their own academic enclaves, race and class disadvantages are concentrated in systems with dwindling resources. Younge writes in the Nation: “Schools are re-segregating, legislation is being gutted, it’s getting harder to vote, large numbers are being deprived of their basic rights through incarceration, and the economic disparities between black and white are growing. In many areas, America is becoming more separate and less equal.”

Essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates, arguing the case for reparations for slavery in the Atlantic magazine, has described how the physical fact of inner city racial segregation was a result of government policy. He told Democracy Now: “In the 1930’s and the 1940’s, we set up the FHA [Federal Housing Administration], we set up the Home Owners Loan Corporation. We set up specific bureaus to make our communities look the way they look. In 1995, I took a trip to Chicago, my first time as an adult and I was writing down the Dan Ryan Expressway, and at that time there was the longest row of projects, public housing I think in North America along that corridor. And it struck me as a moral disaster. What I did not understand at that time was that this was actually planned, that African-Americans had been cut out of any sort of legitimate housing program during the 1930’s, 1940’s, 1950’s. Instead we got was public housing built on a segregated basis at that point — in that particular case, on the Southside of Chicago. There’s no way to understand housing as it exists today without federal policy. Black people, as was the thinking at the time, could not be responsible home-loaners.”

Coates gives more detail of how African Americans were excluded from the suburbs in his Atlantic article. “It was the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation,” he says, “not a private trade association, that pioneered the practice of redlining, selectively granting loans and insisting that any property it insured be covered by a restrictive covenant—a clause in the deed forbidding the sale of the property to anyone other than whites.” He concludes: “The traditional terminology, white flight, implies a kind of natural expression of preference. In fact, white flight was a triumph of social engineering, orchestrated by the shared racist presumptions of America’s public and private sectors.”

The political consequences of these racist presumptions is spelled out by Paul Kantor of Fordham University: “By the 1970s … the population movement to the suburbs and Sunbelt, together with national partisan electoral realignments, diminished the importance of central city electorates in national party coalitions. This triggered almost continuous political marginalization of the cities during succeeding years. Fueled by a powerful conservative tide and a new Republican political majority, the last decades of the century witnessed almost continuous withdrawal of the federal government from the cities and the elimination or diminution of national urban programs.”

One of the most politically divided states is Wisconsin, where there is an extreme concentration of Democratic voters in urban Milwaukee, and conservative Republican voters in the outer suburbs. White flight has made the city of Milwaukee majority nonwhite, while the surrounding suburbs of Waukesha, Washington and Ozaukee are less than 2% African-American and less than 5% Hispanic. A recent in-depth article in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel notes that distance from urban centers, rather than income or education, is the best barometer of a community’s political orientation: whites in less densely populated outer suburbs are more Republican than whites closer in. In metro areas with concentrated urban poverty and crime, racial and political polarization is high. According to Wisconsin state legislator Mandela Barnes, concentration of poverty in Milwaukee feeds “this perception (outside Milwaukee) that there’s a ‘culture of takers.’ And that can become political fodder.”

Social divisions – between urban and rural, urban and suburban, even different parts of the same city – underlie today’s political polarization, but do not completely explain it. While the Sentinel article argues that racial segregation is driving political segregation, the antagonism is the result of the creation of an ideological myth that state welfare benefits a dependent urban (black) class at the expense of tax-paying suburbanites. White flight gave the myth a social basis, but ideological work had to be done to create the imaginary of the “welfare queen.”

Republicans from the time of Nixon and Reagan have leveraged this social estrangement to justify cutting social spending and to conceal business-subsidizing legislation behind “cultural” diversions. The super-rich have succeeded in pushing the Republican party even further to the right by sharpening the same ideological differences to an extreme through a barrage of propaganda and skewed cable news.

Although partisan polarization has created a political impasse in Congress, the American public is in remarkable agreement on class issues despite their partisan allegiances: preserving the remaining social safety net and the need for a living wage for the low-paid. Seattle city council has already passed a bill mandating a $15 an hour minimum wage, the California Senate passed a bill pushing the state’s minimum wage to $13 by 2017, and in Chicago, nearly half of the city council has signed on to a $15 minimum wage law.

It also was public pressure that took cuts to social security off the table, forced the government to make at least token reforms to the NSA, and forestalled military intervention in Syria.

There needs to be an ideological struggle against neoliberal tea-party ideas that the poor and socially deprived are the “takers” in society. It was because the Occupy movement so effectively dramatized the inequality that gives the top tenth of the top one percent all the increase in social wealth that it was so determinedly stamped out by the Obama administration. The left should change its focus from party political differences to campaign on issues that unite the American public.

Leave a comment

Filed under African Americans, low-waged, Neoliberalism, Obama, occupy wall street, poverty, public schools, Republicans