Category Archives: public schools

Parkland Students Tell Politicians: Represent the People or Get Out!

Last Saturday, upwards of 300,000 school students and supporters packed Washington DC for a rally to demand politicians enact gun control. “Vote them out!” was the most common chant on the “March for Our Lives,” as the protestors pointed to the inaction of Congress after each tragic mass killing. A consciously diverse platform of school age speakers displayed the range of the movement’s support, which was replicated at hundreds of sibling rallies throughout the country. Reportedly, nearly a million people joined the protests worldwide.

The speakers, aged between 11 and 18, spoke with a passion and fearlessness that expressed a defiance of their own vulnerability, and demanded the government take responsibility for their safety by taking common-sense gun control measures, such as banning access to assault rifles. The active shooter drills that they are subjected to in schools across America have made even the youngest children sensitive to gun violence and the threat to their lives. They are responding to the public’s disaffection with the political system by taking things into their own hands.

Elena González, who survived the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school in Parkland, Florida, named all seventeen victims to humanize them and underline each individual tragedy. She then held the entire crowd for over four minutes of silence – not even requesting the audience to observe it – ending only when she had been on stage for six minutes and twenty seconds, the time it took for the gunman to shoot 17 people dead. Through her own mute stillness on stage, she was able to exert a moral authority unavailable to politicians of any political party. As the Guardian pointed out, “That a teenager unknown to the country until a little over a month ago could command such quiet respect and deep introspection among a rally of this size illustrates just how powerful the student-led movement to rise from the Parkland massacre has become.”

A key theme for all the speakers was to name shooting victims who went unrecognized by the authorities to celebrate their memory, and by extension assert the importance of their own lives. Many said they were there to represent their community and those who had died: they refuse to allow members of their generation to be treated as a statistic. Sam Fuentes, who was injured in the attack and still has shrapnel in her face, led the crowd in a rendition of Happy Birthday in honor of Nicholas Dworet, who was killed in the shooting and would have turned 18 on the day of the rally.

Edna Lizbeth Chávez, a high school senior from South Los Angeles, said that gun violence had become so normal in her community she learned to duck bullets before she could read. She spoke movingly about her brother, who was shot dead while she was a young child. “Ricardo was his name. Can you all say it with me?” she asked. And she ended by saying: “Remember my name. Remember these faces. Remember us and how we’re making change.”

The Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne commented: “The unmistakably political character of this movement is another change. No phony bipartisanship. No pretending that everyone approaches this issue with goodwill. Thus the importance of ‘Vote them out.’ Thus the imperative of casting the NRA as the adversary and all who welcome its money and support as complicit … this march established the gun safety alliance as multiracial and intersectional, reaching far beyond its traditional base among suburban white liberals. Few voices echoing from the platform were more powerful than 11-year-old Naomi Wadler’s. She declared that young African American women who were victims of gun violence would no longer be seen as ‘simply statistics instead of vibrant, beautiful girls full of potential’.”

She also said: “People have said that I am too young to have these thoughts on my own. People have said that I am a tool of some nameless adult. It’s not true. My friends and I might still be 11, and we might still be in elementary school, but we know. We know that life isn’t equal for everyone and we know what is right and wrong.” She added, “And we know that we have seven short years until we, too, have the right to vote.”

Another survivor of the Parkland massacre, David Hogg, declared that they would make gun control a major voting issue. “We are going to take this to every election, to every state and every city. We’re going to make sure the best people get in our elections to run, not as politicians, but as Americans, because this—this is not cutting it. … Now is the time to come together, not as Democrats, not as Republicans, but as Americans, Americans of the same flesh and blood, that care about one thing and one thing only, and that’s the future of this country and the children that are going to lead it.”

He was evoking a different America from the right-wing fantasies of Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association; he was evoking the memory of John and Bobby Kennedy and of Martin Luther King, symbolically underlined by the appearance of King’s granddaughter Yolanda Renee King on the platform. She told the crowd: “I have a dream that enough is enough. And that this should be a gun-free world, period.”

The students have succeeded in shifting the political dialogue in a way that had previously seemed impossible. Republican politicians, especially in suburban districts, are coming under increasing pressure to act on gun control. At a town hall in Denver, Colorado, Republican Congressman Mike Coffman faced a barrage of questions — his district includes the town of Aurora, the site of a deadly 2012 shooting at a movie theater. “We’re done with thoughts and prayers!” shouted out one constituent during a moment’s silence for the Parkland victims.  Other attendees held signs that noted the National Rifle Association’s contributions to Coffman’s campaign. One woman identified herself as the wife of a first responder who was at the scene of the Columbine high school shooting, also in Colorado. Her son had planned to see a midnight showing of the new Batman movie the night that the gunman attacked the audience in Aurora. Yet, she told Coffman, she hadn’t spoken out until watching students from Parkland campaign for new gun laws. “An avalanche is coming to Washington, sir, and it is going to be led by our children.”

Republicans have made gun ownership an ideological point of purity as part of a culture war against Democrats, championing primarily rural and white constituencies that want fewer immigrants and more access to guns. As a result, the NRA has a political influence out of all proportion to its real support in the country. But the message of Saturday’s rally is that the organization’s time has ended. The protestors’ practical focus is to “vote them out” in November’s elections. As Cameron Kasky, another Parkland student survivor, told the rally: “To the leaders, skeptics and cynics who told us to sit down, stay silent and wait your turn: Welcome to the revolution. Either represent the people or get out. Stand for us or beware. The voters are coming.”


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Filed under donald trump, gun control, political analysis, public schools, racial justice, Republicans, social justice, Uncategorized

Teachers Prepare to Fight for Public Schools and Students Against Plutocratic De-funders

A Los Angeles judge has declared California’s teacher tenure laws to be unconstitutional because, he alleged, they harm low-income students by allowing incompetent instructors to remain in the classroom. In the case of Vergara vs. California, purportedly brought by a group of minority students but in fact initiated by a billionaire-funded organization called “Students First,” Judge Rolf Treu ruled that the laws “impose a real and appreciable impact on students’ fundamental right to equality of education.”

It was a well-aimed blow against teachers’ unions, and in his summation the judge made it clear he was perfectly aware of its political implications. Within an hour of the verdict, Michelle Rhee, head of the StudentsFirst lobbying group, had announced a new website to put pressure on lawmakers in other states to abolish or weaken tenure and other teacher job protections.

Education is a multi-billion dollar public enterprise, and the plutocracy are anxious to privatize it by creating charter schools that will siphon off more affluent students, leaving low-income students to rot in defunded school systems, and to monetize the testing process. The rich intend to run education more “efficiently” by applying corporate methods of social control, such as the “value-added” metric, to teachers; tenure – which means teachers cannot be fired without due process – and union strength are primary obstacles to their strategy.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Treu’s ruling consistently echoed the arguments of the corporate legal team hired to bring the suit, crucially accepting that teachers can be evaluated fairly through a statistical analysis based on student test scores, despite testimony that empirical research shows little correlation between teachers’ effectiveness in class and students’ scores.

Even opponents of tenure found the judge’s opinion to be flawed. Law professor Orin Kerr commented in the Washington Post that it “would seem to require evidence of a causal connection between the laws challenged and the quality of teachers. But we don’t hear about that evidence. Instead, the judge notes that there are a lot of bad teachers in California. He then says that ‘on the evidence presented at trial’ the laws led to the bad teachers and therefore trigger strict scrutiny. But the judge doesn’t say what that evidence is. … I would think that a constitutional challenge here requires evidence, not ideology.”

Although he had scant evidence to support his opinion, the judge threw his legal authority behind the corporate narrative blaming teachers for failing schools, conspicuously comparing his ruling to the seminal desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education. Politico noted: “In adopting the language and legal framework of the civil rights movement, Treu gave a major boost to school reformers from both parties who have long argued that the current system dooms poor and minority students to inferior educations.”

There is an ideological campaign going on here to cloak attacks on public sector unions in the language of liberalism, appropriating terms like “social justice,” “civil rights,” and “equality” to convince the public that the interests of teachers and students are opposed. Educator Adam Bessie points out: “In much the same way that vouchers and charters have been sold via civil rights language, so too was Vergara v. California argued in court and marketed to the public as a moral imperative, with a solidly social justice lexicon, composing a compelling narrative which is attractive to liberals, while at the same time, appealing to economic conservatives who have long worked to abolish teacher tenure. …

“Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has hailed the verdict a victory, employing the same civil rights framing he has used in selling President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top. In other words, Vergara doesn’t just represent the point of view of billionaire businessmen, conservative scholars, nor an isolated, ‘activist judge’ – it now reflects the perspective of my Department of Education, and the President himself, who now believe that ‘bad teachers’ are the root of our educational challenges, rather than the wide-spread poverty and systemic racism which the original civil rights leaders fought against, and which still exist today.”

The significance of Vergara is that Silicon Valley billionaires have now successfully used litigation to push through political changes they could not achieve through the democratic process. Cal Poly history professor Ralph Shaffer explains that it is the culmination of a sustained campaign against California’s teacher tenure law. He writes: “In 2005 the anti-public education forces unsuccessfully attacked tenure with Proposition 74 under the slogan ‘Put the Kids First.’ This year the lawsuit masqueraded under the banner ‘Students Matter.’ If students really matter, the ‘reformers’ would attack genuine problems. But their real goal is to purge teachers whom they consider a threat to their reactionary view of American education. Prop. 74 was defeated by a sizable margin in 2005. This time the so-called reformers have achieved an even greater goal, wiping out entirely the tenure law. They didn’t have to face the possibility of voter rejection, they won their victory by the decision of a single judge.”

In 2008 the $16 billion budget shortfall California experienced as a result of the banking crisis led to thousands of teachers being laid off, many of them in low-income school districts. But plutocrats who want to reform education do not propose getting more resources into the schools. As teacher David Cohen notes, despite the huge sums spent on legal action, “Students Matter has done nothing that will put a needed book or computer in a school. Not one wifi hotspot. Not one more librarian, nurse, or counselor.”

The founder of “Students Matter” is David F. Welch, who in 2013 made $2.39 million in the fiber optics communications industry and lives in one of Silicon Valley’s most exclusive areas. But he is not the only billionaire to take an interest in the California education system. A heterogeneous group of rich individuals – including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, L.A. philanthropist Eli Broad, Netflix founder Reed Hastings, pomegranate juice titan Lynda Resnick, anti-Obama mega-donor A. Jerrold Perenchio, and the widow of Steve Jobs – broke all records for spending by outside groups last year in the Los Angeles Board of Education elections.

The LA Times reported that “this group united in Los Angeles behind education issues that have become national in scope, including the growth of publicly funded charter schools and the use of student test scores in teacher performance evaluations. Most want to reduce job protections for teachers and support the education agenda of the Obama administration. Some even want to limit collective bargaining rights for teachers. They believed that a successful stand in the L.A. Unified School District, the nation’s second-largest school system and a hotbed of unionism, would have a sweeping effect.”

Teacher’s resistance to these corporate strategies is growing in school districts across America: in Portland, Oregon, teachers came within days of a strike before reaching an agreement that includes the hiring of 150 new teachers and cutting back the extent that teacher evaluations depend on test scores; in Chicago teachers in some schools refused to administrate the Illinois Standard Achievement Test, preferring to teach instead; and in Massachusetts teachers elected a new union president pledged to roll back high-stakes testing, field testing, and teacher evaluations.

In California, teachers are preparing for a struggle modeled after the successful Chicago Teachers Union’s campaign for community support. Adam Bessie reaches this conclusion: “The Vergara verdict must push teachers to make stars of themselves, by reclaiming their role as public servants working on behalf of social justice, working on behalf of students, working on behalf of communities and the country for the public good, working towards civil rights, and better opportunities for all students – or, it will signal the concluding act in public education, and a shot at the American Dream for all students.”

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Filed under chicago teachers, low-waged, Michelle Rhee, Neoliberalism, public higher education, public schools, state unions

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.

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

Occupy Squared: With Progressive Victories, Voters Oppose the Republican and Democrat Transfer of Wealth to the 1%

Last Tuesday’s election results confirm a significant divergence between the American public and the political establishment. Voters voiced their resounding opposition to austerity politics and the corporatist policies followed by both the Republican right and the Obama administration. They gave enthusiastic support to social programs paid for by higher taxes on the rich, a higher minimum wage, and a defense of public schools from privatization.

Obama’s “Grand Bargain” to rationalize healthcare, foreign policy, and the US deficit is foundering on the groundswell of resistance to neoliberal policies on one side, and a Republican party on the other determined to prevent any meaningful attempt to extend welfare benefits to those most in poverty.

E.J. Dionne comments: “To say that this election nudged the nation leftward is not to claim a sudden mandate for liberalism. But it is to insist that the center ground in American politics is a long way from where it was three years ago — and that if there is a new populism in the country, it is now speaking with a decidedly progressive accent.”

The most significant feature of Bill de Blasio’s crushing victory in the New York mayoral election was his support across demographic lines, from the working poor and middle class to much more affluent voters in Manhattan. What enabled him to overcome the opposition of the media, Wall Street, and a number of city union leaders was the receptiveness of New Yorkers to the growing plight of the low-waged and minorities in the world’s most income-segregated city. His call to tax the rich in order to provide much-needed services for the working poor resonated strongly with the public, as well as his pledge to end police stop-and-frisk policies directed against young people of color.

It was not an isolated success: the most progressive city council in many years was installed in New York, and across the country electoral victories for anti-austerity candidates in Boston, Virginia, and Washington state demonstrated the change in the public mood.

The New York Times reported that the political makeup of the City Council has been drastically changed. “The elected public advocate, Letitia James, a forceful liberal, has spoken emphatically for people seen as marginalized. … For decades, the City Council formed a culturally and fiscally conservative bulwark against the effusions of liberal mayors. It too has grown markedly liberal. This is because of assiduous organizing by the Working Families Party and to the reality of New York: From the hills of the central Bronx to the immigrant-rich flats of Queens and the lower middle-class neighborhoods of Staten Island, the incomes are static and the benefits few.”

The Working Families Party’s executive director Danny Cantor explained on Democracy Now that “the lesson of the de Blasio and the council victories, is that people actually like what we’re talking about when we say, wages ought to be higher, people’s lives ought to be a bit more secure, transportation ought to be a massive investment, so on and so forth. … We are living … in the world Occupy made, for sure … we are the beneficiaries of what they did in terms of making this inequality … the core issue of our time.” The party is based on community activists and labor leaders, he said. “It’s a party of labor, but not a labor party; a party of blacks, not a black party; party of greens, not a green party. You can’t do any of those things in America. It’s too complicated of a country to just be one constituency.”

He referred to the success of another initiative in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where an anti-privatization slate took over the school board: “parents and working families and teachers sort of rebelled against the, you know, ‘no child left untested’ crowd that really wanted to privatize, and they won. … I think it’s going to reverberate in … the school reform wars around the country.”

In Boston, too, former union leader Marty Walsh was elected mayor, despite strong attacks from the media. John Nichols pointed out: “They created a video up there that showed him at a rally protesting Scott Walker’s policies in Wisconsin, and said, ‘Do you want this kind of person as your mayor?’ Well, Boston decided they did want that kind of person as their mayor.”

In SeaTac, a suburb of Seattle, voters supported a mandate for a $15 an hour minimum wage for airport, hotel, and restaurant workers. The local economy is based on the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and was hard hit by outsourcing. Union leader David Rolf explained: “These airport jobs, like baggage handlers, ramp workers, jet fuelers, concessionaires, these are jobs that paid $16, $18 an hour back in the 1970s and the 1980s. They used to be living-wage jobs. … That’s all changed. The major airlines outsourced those jobs and turned them into minimum-wage jobs, which impoverished a whole community. So SeaTac saw its grocery store become a Goodwill and its video store become a pawnshop because the impoverishment of those jobs hurt the whole community.” Voters took the opportunity “to say to CEOs and to Congress that they’re impatient with waiting for them to do the right thing for American workers and it’s time we took matters into our own hands.”

The close result in the Virginia governor’s election was a referendum on the hold of the Tea Party on Republican legislators. Political commentator Ronald Brownstein writes: “[Democratic candidate] McAuliffe essentially replicated the ‘coalition of the ascendant’ that allowed President Obama to carry the state twice. Like Obama, McAuliffe triumphed by combining just enough socially liberal college-educated whites with an overwhelming margin among minorities to overcome a cavernous deficit among blue-collar whites. … According to the exit poll, [Tea Party Republican] Cuccinelli carried Virginia’s white voters without a college degree by 69 percent to 25 … McAuliffe captured nearly four-fifths of nonwhite Virginia voters.”

The Southern white working class does not figure in official Democratic party strategy, but this is challenged by progressives who aim to articulate the frustrations of the working poor. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has campaigned in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina to win over workers who currently vote against their class interests. He believes they will respond to an uncompromising socialist message; speaking to an In These Times reporter, he said: “These are people who are struggling to keep their heads above water economically, these are people who want Social Security defended, they want to raise the minimum wage, they want changes in our trade policy. And to basically concede significant parts of America, including the South, to the right-wing is to me not only stupid politics, but even worse than that—you just do not turn your backs on millions and millions of working people.”

The escalating campaigns for a higher minimum wage and recognition of worker rights at companies like Walmart are also showing signs of impatience with the stranglehold of corporate Democrats on the Obama administration. The public is demanding more fundamental change than the government can deliver. It’s time for a rebirth of the socialist tradition in America.

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Filed under health care, low-waged, Neoliberalism, Obama, occupy wall street, political analysis, poverty, public schools, Republicans, Walmart

Not In My House: Americans Put the Brakes on the Corporate Politics of The Military-Industrial Complex.

Obama’s speech to the nation Tuesday attempted to justify plans for a missile strike on Syria, while at the same time accepting the face-saving compromise brokered by Russia. The contradictory message was intended to counter public opposition to military involvement in order to shore up his executive role.

The real story is that he has become increasingly estranged from the American public, and confronts an overwhelming sentiment not to get entangled in another Middle Eastern quagmire on the basis of hyped-up “intelligence.” He has no international support, and Congress, reflecting US opinion, would likely have voted against authorization for military action. A reassertion of popular sovereignty is coming into conflict with the expansion of executive power.

The public opposition to war emerged from a growing disenchantment with the administration’s record in dealing with domestic problems. Unemployment and poverty are on the rise, and even Americans with jobs are dealing with rising prices, stagnant wages, and intensified workloads. The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan are associated in the public mind with the financial collapse of 2008 and reduced living standards.

Obama constructed a narrative where the US is “the anchor of global security.” This formulation is aimed at persuading people to back him by projecting the ideal of stability at home, secured by the state, onto the executive’s international role. He framed a military strike with the imagery of “men, women, children, lying in rows killed by poison gas.” The US, he said, had an exceptional role and a moral duty to intervene. However, intervening would be limited and risk-free, involving “no American boots on the ground,” and thus entailed no permanent commitment. His appeal was met by scepticism from a public burned by the broken promises of hope.

The fact that he went to Congress for authorization and had to argue for executive support in this contradictory way signals the difference between the present historical moment and 2003, when Bush was able to count on the legislature to give him a free hand and the public to be saturated with media propaganda for war.

A New York Times poll “underscores a steady shift in public opinion about the proper American role in the world, as fatigue from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has made people less open to intervening in the world’s trouble spots and more preoccupied with economic travails at home. … Sixty-two percent of the people polled said the United States should not take a leading role in trying to solve foreign conflicts, while only 34 percent said it should. In April 2003, a month after American troops marched into Iraq, 48 percent favored a leading role, while 43 percent opposed it.”

It’s hard therefore to accept veteran journalist John Pilger’s view that “a military coup has taken place in Washington.”  He writes: “As the constitution is replaced by an emerging police state, those who destroyed Iraq with shock and awe, piled up the rubble in Afghanistan and reduced Libya to a Hobbesian nightmare, are ascendant across the US administration.”  What this argument fails to consider is that people still have a strong sense of their rights as Americans; military ascendancy cannot be achieved without coming into conflict with popular sovereignty.

This is the fault line in US politics today. While the government has protected billionaire bankers and is close to low-wage corporations like Walmart, low-waged workers are campaigning for a $15 minimum wage – which would require statutory action at the state level. Fast-food workers walked off the job in nearly 60 cities last month, spreading industrial action to towns like Tampa and Raleigh in the south, Los Angeles and San Francisco in the west. “I know I’m risking my job, but it’s my right to fight for what I deserve,” said Julio Wilson, as he picketed a Little Caesars restaurant in North Carolina.

Unions in the AFL-CIO are having to adapt to a changed work environment, organizing in collaboration with immigrant rights activists and turning to community-based rather than industry-based organizing. Last week the federation decided to launch a major campaign to organize immigrants and low-wage workers who have traditionally not been recruited by unions.

In These Times writer Micah Uetricht commented that the fast-food workers’ strikes “seem to have legitimated walking off the job as a tactic for workers, even those without a union … And as anyone who attends these strikes and speaks with a striker can attest, the Fight for 15 campaign has tapped into a seething anger among low-wage workers over their precarious position in American society.”

Labor journalist Mike Elk noticed the same thing: the campaign “helped focus the conversation on the problems of the low minimum wage in this country and the conditions for low-wage workers. And two, this idea of non-union workers going out on strike in order to demand fair organizing conditions, organizing without fear of retaliation, I do think could spread to other industries and help unions in tough situations.”

It has also begun to affect politics at the local level. Voters in Long Beach, California, overwhelmingly enacted a measure to increase the hourly pay of the city’s hotel employees to $13. And in New York City, the difficulties of living on a low income and facing daily police harassment are finding a political expression as Bill de Blasio won a decisive victory in the Democratic primary for mayoral candidate. Democracy Now anchor Juan Gonzalez reported that de Blasio “really ran a very progressive race, focusing in on income inequality in New York City, the 47 percent of New Yorkers are at or near the poverty level, and talking about the need to rein in the—all the tax breaks to developers and the business community, and increase taxes on the wealthy to pay for better public education and expanded preschool. … his campaign really resonated with the reality that many New Yorkers are facing …”

At the same time, the government-encouraged corporatization of K-12 education is meeting resistance from teachers, and this in turn is reaching into Democratic party politics. After the Chicago Teachers Union failed to prevent school closures in the city, its president Karen Lewis declared: “If the mayor and his hand-picked corporate school board will not listen to us, we must find those who will.” In These Times reports that the CTU is working to intervene in the Democratic primaries next year to replace state legislators who voted for the closures and to stand their own candidates. Lewis told volunteers, “We must change the political landscape in Chicago.”

The executive is steadily losing its credibility with the American people as they rediscover their agency and become independent of the institutions that kept them tied to the corporate system of pumping out rents from their wages. Americans are saying “Enough” to the era of corporatist politics – Obama ran as a restorer of popular sovereignty, and the people want to ensure he keeps his word.


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Filed under chicago teachers, low-waged, Obama, poverty, public schools, strikes, Syria, US policy

Keep America a beacon of hope on Independence Day: Fight for the Fourth Amendment

Just days after Obama (“I’m not going to scramble jets”) and incoming National Security Advisor Susan Rice downplayed the significance of Edward Snowden’s revelations, a desperate behind-the-scenes manhunt to apprehend the whistleblower has led to a major crisis in relations with Latin America.

The forced diversion of Bolivian president Evo Morales’ plane on suspicion that Snowden was aboard has rekindled resentment against the legacy of European and US colonialism, and an emergency meeting of the Union of South American Nations convenes today to discuss what diplomatic action can be taken. This is much more serious than the posturing of European leaders like Merkel.

The issue for Obama’s administration is not just the embarrassment Snowden might cause if he is able to reach Bolivia or Venezuela, whose people are sick and tired of US bullying and would no doubt give him a hero’s welcome, but that it needs to intimidate other potential whistleblowers by visibly extreme government sanctions.

There have been serious misgivings in Congress about the information Snowden released. 26 senators signed a letter to intelligence chiefs complaining that the administration is relying on secret interpretations of law to collect massive amounts of data on US citizens. “This and misleading statements by intelligence officials have prevented our constituents from evaluating the decisions that their government was making,” they wrote, demanding that director of intelligence James Clapper answer a series of specific questions on the scale of domestic surveillance.

Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall also challenged the administration’s claim that internet surveillance was ended in 2011 as a result of “interagency review.” According to the New York Times, they said the program was abandoned “only after they repeatedly questioned its usefulness and criticized its impact on the privacy of American citizens.” Coming as close as possible to calling senior intelligence officials liars, they described the administration’s public statements about the scope of surveillance as “not always accurate.” “It is up to Congress, the courts and the public to ask the tough questions and press even experienced intelligence officials to back their assertions up with actual evidence,” they said.

Legal scholars Jennifer Granick and Christopher Sprigman commented on the government’s “criminal” evasion of statutory protections in a New York Times op-ed: “The Fourth Amendment obliges the government to demonstrate probable cause before conducting invasive surveillance. … The government has made a mockery of that protection by relying on select Supreme Court cases, decided before the era of the public Internet and cellphones, to argue that citizens have no expectation of privacy in either phone metadata or in e-mails or other private electronic messages that it stores with third parties. This hairsplitting is inimical to privacy and contrary to what at least five justices ruled just last year …”

The authors speculate that Snowden’s revelations have not enraged most Americans because they have been lulled by “the Obama administration’s claims that these ‘modest encroachments on privacy’ were approved by Congress and by federal judges,” and because Congressional leaders like Dianne Feinstein and liberal commentators have called the surveillance “legal.”

So far, there have not been widespread protests against the spying, although Obama’s approval has dropped, especially among the young, and a “Restore the Fourth” campaign in defense of the Fourth Amendment staged demonstrations in 100 cities throughout the US today. Mainstream media have focused on denouncing Snowden rather than on the substance of his leaks.

However, an article written in defense of the NSA by union organizer Louis Nayman throws some light on the thinking behind public acceptance of these claims. He writes: “From what we know, the National Security Agency’s collection of metadata on telephone and Internet records has been effective in keeping us safe. … the lack of attacks during the long stretch between 9/11 and the Boston Marathon bombings speaks for itself.” This kind of unconscious magical reasoning – “If I vote Republican, it will keep tigers away from my neighborhood.  There have been no tigers sighted recently, so voting Republican must be effective” – does give some insight as to why many Americans are not exercised about being spied on.

He has a more important argument when he goes on: “As people who believe in government, we cannot simply assume that officials are abusing their lawfully granted responsibility and authority to defend our people from violence and harm. … But the more the Left aids and abets the reactionary Right’s cynical critique of government, the more both sides make the case to replace collective mission and accountability with the free hand of the market.”

The problem here is that Nayman portrays government as an abstract principle, as an opposite to the principle of privatization. This is imposing a false binary on a complex situation.

Yes, we do need state institutions to enforce labor laws, health and safety laws, keep our lives and property safe from criminals, regulate traffic and dispense social security checks. We would like them to keep us safe from gun shooting deaths and offer universal health care, as well, but this is not happening. All of these functions, especially the courts, are arenas of political struggle, as any union organizer knows well. And that includes struggles over privatization.

The role of the military is another story. The executive branch is not using its power to keep Americans safe, but endangering them with a covert drone strike program which is creating thousands of potential suicide bombers daily. Author Fred Branfman told the Real News Network: “What we’ve got to understand is that the United States government is today failing to protect America and endangering national security because of its assassination strikes, both from the air with drones and on the ground with the first unit of American assassins in American history, called the Joint Special Operations Command … Let me just quote to you General McChrystal, our previous commander in Afghanistan. He says: ‘What scares me about drone strikes is how they are perceived around the world.’ ‘The resentment created by American use of unmanned strikes … is much greater than the average American appreciates. They are hated on a visceral level, even by people who’ve never seen one or seen the effects of one’.”

The US public has historically ignored foreign policy as long as they could improve their social situation and live the American dream. The executive branch has therefore been able to keep foreign wars as its fiefdom. But the Boston bombings demonstrated forcefully how the domestic and international functions of US policy intersect.

NSA spying is a technology that can – and has – been used against domestic dissent and against investigative journalists, intended to intimidate questioning of the dominant neoliberal ideology. And Obama is only telling half-truths when he says that your calls are not being overheard: they can be gathered digitally and listened to at some future date. So even if you are apolitical today, if tomorrow you decide to oppose government policies, the authorities can trawl through all your old phone calls and emails until they find something they can silence you with.

This is also the technology used to assess and judge assassination targets through signature strikes abroad. In These Times writer David Sirota points out: “That was the key discovery in NBC News correspondent Richard Engel’s report finding that ‘the CIA did not always know who it was targeting and killing in drone strikes’ approved by the president. Employing so-called ‘signature strikes,’ the president has been authorizing the assassination of people ‘based on their patterns of behavior’ according to Engel—that is, based simply on where a person ‘meets individuals, makes phone calls and sends emails’.”

Obama has continued and expanded the framework of a potential totalitarian government. But we are not today living in a police state. Investigative journalists going about their work and people fighting for their constitutional rights (no thanks to the supreme court) keep America a beacon of hope on Independence Day.

UPDATE: Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia have all offered Snowden asylum following the forced downing of Bolivian president Evo Morales’ plane. Juan Cole, as ever, sums it up pithily: “Morales implied that the Europeans disrespected him because he is an indigenous Bolivian, and said they sought to humiliate his country after 500 years of looting it. They cannot, he said, because its people have gained a sense of sovereignty and dignity….  The US intelligence bright idea of telling Western European allies that Snowden was on the Bolivian jet has therefore backfired. France has hinted that the CIA misled Paris by not telling them it was Morales’s plane they wanted searched.”

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Filed under Edward Snowden, Homeland Security, National Security Agency, Neoliberalism, Obama, political analysis, public schools, Supreme Court, US policy

Even if Obama Wins, There’s Homework: The Teachers Remind Us That Only the Public Education of the People Can Preserve Liberty

Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne asks if November’s election will decide anything? He frames his question in terms of a continued Congressional stalemate if Obama regains the presidency. However, Republican legislative obstructionism and Romney’s disastrous candidacy is losing the party support among independent voters and some sections of the corporate and financial elites. It seems that now even Wall Street bankers are abandoning Romney.

What the billionaires who support Obama share with him is a sense that change must be initiated and controlled from above, rhetorically to alleviate the plight of the working poor but without disturbing the relations of power that made them poor in the first place. As Paul Street points out: “The problem has not been that ‘the economy’ has been broken by the supposed ‘invisible hand of the market’ or other forces allegedly beyond human control. The real difficulty is that the ‘human-made’ U.S. economic system has been working precisely as designed to distribute wealth and power upward.”

If the relations of power are unchanged, does this mean that the election results are unimportant? No. An Obama electoral victory, even with no change in the House or Senate, will confirm the social fact of a multiracial America, where women have a major voice. It will also call into question the effectiveness of the Republican strategy of splitting the working class on racist grounds.  And most crucially, it will give more time for ordinary Americans to organize resistance against the transfer of wealth from the middle class to the rich independently of the two-party political straitjacket.

Education is one of the battlegrounds where the power of community in solidarity has reasserted the principles of popular sovereignty—government of the people by the people—and significantly checked the power and seemingly unstoppable influence of the American plutocracy.  Corporate billionaires like Bill Gates, the Walton family, and Wall Street hedge fund managers have decided that schools should be remodeled on corporate lines and that teachers’ unions are obstructing their plans. Steve Jobs reportedly told Obama that the American education system was “crippled” by teachers’ unions that had to be broken.The objectives of this oligarchy are facilitated by Obama’s Race to the Top program which, like Bush’s No Child Left Behind, is a top-down, technocratic solution to the problems of education, to be imposed on state education systems over the voices of the teachers and parents who deal with the problems daily.

The key elements of the program, summarized by NYU professor Diane Ravitch, were drawn from the strategy of the Chicago school board:  “Teachers will be evaluated in relation to their students’ test scores. Schools that continue to get low test scores will be closed or turned into charter schools or handed over to private management. In low-performing schools, principals will be fired, and all or half of the staff will be fired. States are encouraged to create many more privately managed charter schools.”

The consequences of school closings in practice were pointed out by Chicago teachers’ leader Karen Lewis. “[When they closed a school] children were not going to other schools, especially in high school.  They were choosing not to go to school…. [The school board] had never thought about the ramifications of what a school closing means. So if I close a school here, now this means that my children have to walk through gang territory…. There was just no understanding of community.”

The seven appointed members of Chicago’s Board of Education have little knowledge of the school system.  The Occupied Chicago Tribune reported: “As anyone who has ever witnessed a board hearing knows, members like Hyatt heiress Penny Pritzker and former Northwestern President Henry Bienen, when they bother to show up at all, nod indifferently to public testimony, toy with their smart phones, and reliably vote in the interests of their boss. This past winter, after the board voted unanimously to close or turnaround 17 schools, frustrated parents burst into tears, and community members chanted ‘Rubber Stamp’ until CPS security escorted them out of the room.”

The board is responsible only to mayor Rahm Emanuel, not to the public. But the solidarity of Chicago teachers and their supporters in the communities succeeded in establishing limits on its plans for privatization. The strike also challenged ideological supporters of the system, who created a narrative that the conflict between teachers and the board was disrupting the welfare of the students. In the guise of impartiality, they implicitly blame teachers for putting their own interests above that of the children.

Writing in The Nation, Obama apologist Melissa Harris-Perry relates the story of Rolisa, whose younger children attend a small public school on the South Side. “Her kids are pretty happy there. Or at least they were, until the standoff between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Rahm Emanuel transformed them into students of Rolisa’s makeshift kitchen table school. …This generation of children may become hard-working, courageous adults who nonetheless are relegated to life sentences of poverty and underachievement. They are stuck because they were born in a time of war—not just the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, not just the heavily armed wars in their own streets, but the wars between the leaders and teachers who are supposed to have their best interests at heart but who seem willing to allow this generation to be lost.”

Evoking the images of war, in which innocents suffer more than armies, she misreads the strike as a selfish act by teachers willing to make victims of children, when in reality it was a struggle of the whole community against high-handed school closings in working-class areas and for better conditions for pupils to learn in the classroom.

Michelle Rhee, the former head of D.C.’s schools and now advocate for charter schools through her misnamed StudentsFirst organization, adopts the same argument in order to attack teachers’ unions. The Washington Post published an opinion piece in which she writes: “Chicago’s children lost roughly  18 million collective hours of learning time; moms and dads across the city lost wages, and possibly risked jobs, so they could care for their kids; and some children went without the hot meals they reliably get at school. It was frustrating to hear Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis say toward the end of the dispute that the strike would continue to see whether there is ‘anything else they can get.’ But at least that was clear evidence that, for union leaders, this strike was never about what was best for kids….”

Rhee claims the support of corporate Democrats when she characterizes the teachers’ union as a self-serving group not interested in improving children’s education. But what was it that teachers wanted more of? A broader, well-rounded curriculum – and, above all, to be given the support they needed as professionals in the field and not be dictated to by someone in an air-conditioned office working off a spreadsheet, while their students wilted in the Chicago heat. The union mobilized teachers, custodians, parents, and pupils themselves in defense of their right to a proper education, which in fact continued an ongoing struggle by communities against school closings and so-called “turnarounds,” in which teachers and principals are completely replaced.

The Occupied Chicago Tribune reports on some of these earlier battles: two years ago parents occupied an elementary school building that officials decided would be demolished in order to build a soccer field for a neighboring private school. The sit-in lasted for more than a month before it was agreed to keep the building open as a community space. And when, this year, the school board designated Piccolo Elementary for turnaround, “parents and students decided to draw from the lessons of the Occupy movement. Surrounded by police, Occupy Chicago demonstrators complete with tents, and other allies, about a dozen parents and supporters stayed in the building overnight and won a meeting with Chicago Public Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard. But in the end, the board voted to close the school anyway.”

The relations of power are not fixed and immutable, but are fought out daily on the organizational level and the ideological. The Chicago teachers have achieved a victory that has encouraged low-waged workers throughout the city – from car wash workers who are organizing against wage abuses, to the musicians of the Chicago Symphony. The teachers’ strike gave the best lesson of all: solidarity in struggle will push back the billionaires and trillionaires who want to overturn democracy in America.

If Obama wins the election, let’s use the time gained to spread this lesson around. And there are many willing to learn.

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Filed under 2012 Election, chicago teachers, financiers, Hedge Fund managers, Michelle Rhee, Neoliberalism, Obama, occupy wall street, poverty, public schools, strikes