Category Archives: racial justice

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

People Who Have Captured the Imagination of the Country: The Victory of Americans Standing Together at Standing Rock


The victory of Standing Rock protesters over the Dakota Access pipeline displays a microcosm of the social forces realigning themselves in the struggle against the rapacity of corporate America. The US Army Corps of Engineers finally denied permission for the section of the pipeline that would run under the Missouri river near the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, saying there was “a need to explore alternate routes.”

The media has minimized the significance of the victory, like the Washington Post which editorialized that “these pipelines, at their core, are nothing more than routine infrastructure projects, thousands of which underpin the U.S. economy.” But like the blocking of the Keystone XL project, the protests have come to symbolize social resistance to corporate hegemony and have brought together many strands of struggle against state oppression.

The protesters had resisted not only the fossil fuel industry’s drive for the pipeline’s construction, but also the militarized local police and private security contractors who had unleashed attack dogs, water cannons (in subfreezing temperatures), rubber bullets, pepper spray and tear gas grenades in unsuccessful efforts to clear the “water protectors” off the land, resulting in the hospitalization of a number of people and the permanent maiming of Sophia Wilansky and Vanessa Dundon. Police use of military-grade equipment, including landmine-resistant trucks and armored personnel carriers, prompted Standing Rock Sioux tribal chairman Dave Archambault II to appeal to the Justice Department to investigate civil rights abuses.

According to one eyewitness, “I watched as grandmothers with red feathers in their hair, Oglala elders in ceremonial regalia, and teens astride horses were teargassed, tased, and arrested. Cops fired rubber bullets at protesters and blasted them with earsplitting whines from Long Range Acoustic Devices. As the police marched down the highway, the crowd, echoing Black Lives Matter protesters, held their arms in the air and shouted, ‘Hands up, don’t shoot!’ ”

The optics of these attacks, recalling nineteenth-century slave patrols and military massacres of native peoples, galvanized a large contingent of US veterans to travel to North Dakota to defend the protesters against an expected intervention by the authorities on Monday December 5, the deadline set by the army corps for the protesters to vacate the site. They joined with representatives from over 200 native American nations, indigenous peoples from Norway to New Zealand, and environmental activists.

[UPDATE:] Wesley Clark Jr., the veterans’ contingent organizer, writes that upwards of 4,000 veterans arrived at Standing Rock to fight the pipeline, twice the number expected.

The announcement of the pipeline permit’s denial was a vindication of the nonviolent strategy advocated by tribal chairman Dave Archambault, who had used all his moral authority to prevent a confrontation between more militant native Americans and the police, insisting that the camp was a place of prayer. However, not all protesters believe that the path through official channels will result in their favor – citing years of bad experiences with the authorities.

The pipeline is being built to carry 470,000 barrels per day from the Bakken shale oil fields in North Dakota to a refinery in Illinois. It was originally set to cross the Missouri ten miles north of the state’s capital, Bismarck, but local fears of water pollution led the construction company to move the path south to a point less than a mile from the Sioux reservation.

Some media accounts emphasize that the Army Corps’ decision could be overturned by president-elect Donald Trump after his inauguration on January 20. But this is not as certain as might be assumed from his general support for fossil fuels. In the first place, the economic justification for the pipeline is fast eroding. It was started when oil prices were high as $100 a barrel, and shale oil production in North Dakota was projected to expand considerably. However, oil prices are now down to $50 a barrel and producers are likely to use the opportunity to shed their financial commitments to the pipeline.

The Economist reports: “The developers are rushing to finish the construction of the controversial pipeline because they are under financial pressure, not because of a need for increased local pipeline capacity, argues Clark Williams-Derry of the Sightline Institute, an environmental-research institution. According to court documents oil drillers have the right to void their contracts with ETP if the pipeline is not finished by January 1st, which could result in steep losses for the developers. … Mr Williams-Derry argues that the pipeline is a superfluous project being built to preserve the favourable contract terms negotiated by its developers before the oil price tanked.”

Secondly, if Trump were to send in state forces to push through a pipeline in which he himself has a financial interest, overriding the legal process set in motion by the Army Corps, that would establish his administration from the get-go as so corrupt as to warrant his impeachment. And thirdly, this would set him up against the federal bureaucracy, and given that his appointments to office have been selected from the wildly incompetent to the spectacularly inexperienced, he needs its cooperation. He will find it difficult to reverse years of federal law by executive fiat.

As climate change activist Bill McKibben wrote in the Guardian: “Trump, of course, can try and figure out a way to approve the pipeline right away, though the Obama administration has done its best to make that difficult. (That’s why, instead of an outright denial, they simply refused to grant the permit, thus allowing for the start of the environmental impact statement process). But if Trump decides to do that, he’s up against people who have captured the imagination of the country. Simply spitting on them to aid his friends in the oil industry would clarify a lot about him from the start, which is one reason he may hesitate.”

The company building the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, now says it doesn’t need the permit from the Army Corps and they will continue to build, anticipating support from the future Trump administration. However, the lawyer representing the Standing Rock Sioux, Jan Hasselman, pledged continued court battles in that event. “If an agency decides that a full environmental review is necessary, it can’t just change its mind with a stroke of a pen a few weeks later. That would be violation of the law, and it’s the kind of thing that a court would be called upon to review. It doesn’t mean they’re not going to try.”

On Monday a hugely symbolic forgiveness ceremony connected the veterans with the Sioux nation. Wesley Clark Jr., son of the retired Army general, apologized to an assembly of tribal elders for actions of the US military against Native Americans, kneeling and begging forgiveness. “We took your land,” he said, “We signed treaties that we broke. We stole minerals from your sacred hills.” While the veterans who joined him there had little interest in electoral politics, the reasons they gave for being there “demonstrate a commitment to fundamental American rights: to defend the Constitution, to protect innocent civilians, to protect water. They may have lost their faith in our politics, but their actions are still plenty patriotic,” commented Slate magazine.

Arthur Woodson, a Marine veteran from Flint, Michigan, told ABC News that he views the purpose of the growing veterans’ protest movement as being able to “stand up to the elites and the 1 percent.” The next destination for the group is going to be Flint, he said, where people still have to drink bottled water because of the high lead levels in the municipal system. “We don’t know when we are going to be there but we will be heading to Flint,” Wesley Clark Jr. said. “This problem is all over the country. It’s got to be more than veterans. People have been treated wrong in this country for a long time.” A surplus of bottled water that was donated to Standing Rock protesters could not be used, and will be rerouted to the Michigan city.

The multiracial alliance that has taken form at Standing Rock projects the future of resistance to right-wing corporate rule, uniting veterans with African, Latino and Native Americans. Trump is adept at seizing the headlines of the gullible media, but he is not going to win over Americans who remember his false promises and attacks on union officials. What is needed is clear opposition from leading Democrats to Republican efforts to dismantle Medicare and the remaining social safety net. They were notably missing from support for Standing Rock protesters, apart from Bernie Sanders and Hawaiian representative Tulsi Gabbard – although local Democratic party branches gave moral and material support – but nothing was heard from Hillary Clinton or even Elizabeth Warren, despite her claims to native heritage.

Opposition to the Trump agenda is going to come from within all layers of society, including the federal bureaucracy itself. Sanders’ supporters should get over their shock from the presidential election result, and make sure this opposition is expressed within the Democratic party as well as outside it, building multiracial alliances to defend the American public against the Trump administration’s expected onslaught on the $15 minimum wage, unions, civil rights, working class rights and environmental justice.

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Filed under aggressive policing, donald trump, Hillary Clinton, racial justice, standing rock, Uncategorized, US Veterans

Build “Bernie Clubs” in the Democratic Party and make it a Party of the People


Hillary Clinton won the New York state primary elections on Tuesday by a margin of 58 to 42 percent over Bernie Sanders. Undoubtedly many potential Sanders voters were disenfranchised by the state’s draconian election rules which meant that voters had to declare their party affiliation back in October 2015 – before the candidates had even begun campaigning. Sanders is favored by independents and younger voters who often become motivated only in the few weeks before the election, so the vote in the closed primary reflects the choice of party loyalists rather than the people who joined the 27,000-strong rallies he held last week.

The Washington Post reported: “According to the exit polls, Sanders won 67 percent of voters age 18 to 29. Clinton won all the others. … Clinton won 75 percent of the African American vote and 63 percent of the Hispanic vote. 79 percent of Black women supported Clinton. … Although Sanders did win 57 percent of the vote from those who said ‘income inequality’ was the ‘most important issue’, Clinton won 59 percent of the vote of those who said the economy and jobs were their ‘most important issue’.”

According to Alternet: “Media exit polls found that 80 percent of Democratic voters self-identified themselves as very loyal party members, even as they said economic issues were their top concern. That reinforced the party insider’s iron grip on its presidential nominating process.”

While it now looks like Clinton will be the Democratic party’s presidential nominee, it is worth taking stock of what Sanders has achieved through his challenge in the primaries. Thanks to his appeal to younger voters, he has inserted a wedge in the liberal-labor coalition that regularly returns Wall Street-friendly candidates to the leadership of the Democratic party, and opened a political space for the rejection of neoliberalism.

He has won the support of less affluent white liberals, African-American youth, rank-and-filers in the labor movement, and working class minorities like Latino and Arab Americans. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is supported by richer white liberals, African-American middle-aged and older people, the trade union bureaucracy, hedge fund principals and venture capitalists.

The divisions within the Democratic coalition are shown graphically in the protests outside the $33,400 per seat Clinton fundraiser held last Friday at the home of a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley. According to the Guardian, about 200 young Sanders supporters from the technology industry created a commotion with pots and pans at the star-studded fundraiser. “They sell you a dream at startups – the ping-pong, the perks – so they can pull 80 hours out of you,” said Quirk, a 26-year-old software engineer. “But in reality the venture capitalists control all the capital, all the labor, and all the decisions.”

Underlying this political division is a significant social change in the country, dividing younger millennial voters who face joblessness and student debt from their elders. In particular, young African Americans motivated by the fight against police killings have protested the Clintons’ legacy on crime, while older African Americans who remember more vividly the civil rights movement are more sympathetic to 1990s measures taken to reduce crime in black communities rather than today’s concerns about police mistreatment and mass incarceration. Hillary Clinton’s positioning herself as continuing Obama’s legacy also resonates with this demographic, which sees her as the best bet to keep out the Republicans.

The New York Times comments: “The parents and grandparents of today’s young black protesters largely waged the battle for civil rights in courtrooms and churches. They carefully chose people who were viewed as upstanding citizens, like Rosa Parks, to be the face of their movement, and dressed in their Sunday best as they sought to gain broader acceptance. Mr. Clinton endeared himself to these generations by campaigning in black churches and appointing more blacks to the cabinet than any previous president had. But many of today’s activists — whose political consciousness has been shaped by the high-profile killings of black people by the police — do not believe that acting respectfully will protect them from being harassed or shot. They aspire not to become a part of the political system, but to upend it.”

Separate from the Democratic campaign, hundreds of protesters gathered at a Republican rally in Manhattan last Thursday to demand racial justice and “shut down Trump.” According to the Intercept, “protesters called for ‘bridges over walls’ and ‘love over hatred’ but also got more specific, demanding to ‘hold all cops accountable’ and chanting Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright,’ the unofficial anthem of the Black Lives Matter movement. … Regardless of who wins, they insisted, their anti-racism work will continue, as will their demand that elected officials be held accountable.”

Sanders attracted the votes of a much higher proportion of black youth in the North and Midwest, which enabled him to win the Wisconsin primary and come close to Clinton in Michigan, compared to the South where Clinton retains overwhelming support in the black community. Many black political leaders have close ties to the Clintons and look to the Democratic party establishment for patronage appointments in government.

The hostility of the establishment to Sanders is evident in the many negative articles in the corporate media about his campaign, such as Paul Krugman’s attacks on his economic plans in the New York Times. The news agencies give him little coverage compared to the attention paid to Donald Trump, and when they do it is to disparage him – like the interview with the New York Daily News where he was sandbagged by the editorial board on how he would break up the “too big to fail” banks, enabling Clinton to “grossly distort” what he had to say.

If he doesn’t win the nomination, Sanders has indicated he will drive as hard a bargain as he can to give his support to the elected nominee. This could have a major impact; he has also stated that the campaign should not end after the election (unlike Obama, who dismantled the social coalition that elected him). Sanders told The Young Turks: “if I can’t make it, and we’re going to try as hard as we can until the last vote is cast, we want to completely revitalize the Democratic Party and make it a party of the people, rather than just one of large campaign contributors.” This egalitarian sentiment is significant and pits Sanders against the party leadership.

In These Times notes: “Part of what excites progressives about Sanders’ campaign is the possibility that it will build infrastructure that can be channeled into state and local races, as well as politics beyond the ballot box. While every candidate depends on volunteers, Sanders’ operation is unusual in the degree to which supporters are encouraged to organize independently. … ‘I couldn’t find any events when I was available, so I just started making my own,’ says Nicole Press, a freelance stage manager and teacher who has organized five voter registration drives in Harlem. … In the course of this organizing, Press met so many other Harlem supporters of Sanders that she co-founded a volunteer group, Harlem for Bernie, that now has dozens of members.”

The grassroots movement that has emerged in Sanders’ campaign needs to be given organizational form in order to challenge the Democratic party establishment. “Bernie Clubs” should be created within the party to continue to press for egalitarian policies and to elect “Bernie Democrats” in contested primaries for state and local offices. That way corporate Democrats can be defeated from below and the party revitalized.

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Filed under 2016 Election, Bernie Sanders, Black Lives Matter, Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton, racial justice, Uncategorized