Category Archives: social 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

Americans Expose Trump’s Quackery, Demand Affordable Health Care

Trump’s increasingly aggressive presidency has created widespread resistance in places not previously reached by American progressives and has enraged the Democratic party’s rank and file who are pushing their own representatives to ensure non-cooperation in Congress and impeachment as soon as possible.

But Trump’s supporters are unmoved and remain convinced he is carrying out his promises to shake up the establishment. They are just not concerned about the particulars of policy and cheer on his dysfunctional press conferences – which are performances especially for their benefit – and his characterization of the media as the “enemy.”

According to the Washington Post: “Those who journeyed to Trump’s Saturday evening event on Florida’s Space Coast said that since the election, they have unfriended some of their liberal relatives or friends on Facebook. They don’t understand why major media outlets don’t see the same successful administration they have been cheering on. … Many acknowledged that the president’s first month could have been smoother, especially with the rollout of the travel ban, but they said the media has overblown those hiccups — and they’re glad to see the president fight back.” Tony Lopez, 28, a car dealer who drove to the rally from Orlando, told the Post: “The media’s problem is that they keep wanting to make up stories so that he looks bad. It doesn’t work. He’s talking right through you guys.”

The danger for the American public in Trump’s presidency is both the empowerment of the security state to suppress immigrants and democratic rights, and his supporters’ unquestioning acceptance of Trump’s authoritarian rule with its alternative take on empirical reality. Trumpistas imagine him as a strongman who will sort out the Washington swamp in a way that will improve their lives. A Trump voter in Pennsylvania, Lee Snover, described him as enforcing “medicine for the American people,” a deeply troubling image evoking Mussolini’s blackshirts. But the Republican drive to cut social programs will hit these voters hard and bring them into opposition to Trump and his quack prescriptions for the body politic. The safety net is especially critical for Trump voters in states like Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio that flipped to Trump in 2016, giving him a small majority from those who believed his promises of restoring jobs.

If there is one issue in particular that will divide moderate Republican voters from diehard Trumpistas it is the affordability of healthcare, not allegations of ties with Russia or Trump’s business interests. Republicans in Congress have made virtually no progress on their election pledges to repeal the Affordable Care Act. They are deeply divided between Tea Party radicals, who want to eliminate the law no matter what, and those who fear the reaction from constituents if Medicaid expansion under the ACA is removed. The Washington Post reported: “Republican senators who represent states that expanded Medicaid — including Bill Cassidy (La.), Rob Portman (Ohio) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) — huddled last week to discuss concerns that a House GOP repeal bill could leave millions of their constituents without insurance. While no consensus emerged, many lawmakers said they could not support an aggressive repeal bill that could harm so many of their constituents.”

Although Trump and his spokesmen dismiss the growing grass-roots protests over ACA repeal as the actions of “paid demonstrators” or “sore losers,” the New York Times points out that Democratic party organizers are struggling to keep up with the groundswell of activism “that has bubbled up from street protests and the small groups that have swelled into crowds outside local congressional offices. …  Some of the most creative activity is coming from people who are new to political activism. In Plymouth, Minn., Kelly Guncheon, a financial planner who described himself as an independent, has organized a ‘With Him or Without Him’ meeting for Representative Erik Paulsen, a Republican who has not scheduled any of his own. … Mr. Guncheon, like other new activists, said he was not looking to traditional political groups for guidance. ‘In this new culture, this new era, we have to figure out new ways to do things,’ he said. ‘There’s certainly no leadership at the head of the Democratic Party, or the state party’.”

Democratic representatives are also feeling the heat. In New Jersey, Josh Gottheimer faced an unexpected crowd of his constituents “concerned that the Democrat would not be an effective bulwark against the president, and others said they had become politically active for the first time since Trump’s election. …  ‘A lot of us are new to this type of activist movement. I’ve never done anything like this before,’ said Jennifer Russo, 44. Her advice to the congressman: ‘My stance is that now is not the time to be conciliatory’.”

Republicans, though, are facing greater opposition from their own voters, who are finding Obamacare more attractive now the possibility of repeal is real. And the growing popularity of single-payer is reaching the Republican base. Pew Research found that the idea that government should be responsible for ensuring health coverage has risen strikingly among lower- and middle-income Republicans since last year, increasing 20 percentage points among those earning under $75,000 per year. Moreover, it is finding justification within the Christian ideology that many of them share. An emotional speech by a constituent of Republican representative Diane Black at a town hall meeting in Murfeesburo, Tennessee, is worth quoting in full:

“My name is Jessi Bohon and I’m in your district. It’s from my understanding the ACA mandate requires everybody to have insurance because the healthy people pull up the sick people, right? And as a Christian, my whole philosophy on life is pull up the unfortunate. So the individual mandate, that’s what it does. The healthy people pull up the sick. If we take those people and put them in high-risk insurance pools, they’re costlier and there’s less coverage for them. That’s the way it’s been in the past, and that’s the way it will be again. So we are effectively punishing our sickest people. And I want to know why not, instead of fix what’s wrong with Obamacare, make companies like Aetna that pulled out and lied to their consumers about why they pulled out, and said they pulled out because Obamacare was too expensive, but they really pulled out because of a merger. Why don’t we expand Medicaid and have everybody have insurance?”

CNN’s video of her speech went viral – but the news agency eliminated the last sentence about expanding Medicaid (see the full video here). The Atlantic magazine saw in it a political possibility: “Were they to take the plunge, Democratic candidates could run as challengers in upcoming elections on a third way of health reform: neither extending unpopular pieces of a program nor rolling back coverage, but giving everyone Medicare. And if the Democratic Party were to support universal health care, that might put pressure on Republicans, who wouldn’t want to lose voters who fear loss of coverage or doctors under a massive repeal.”

The left should not miss the implications of this political shift. While Democrats in Congress can do little against the Republican majority, their angry rank and file are in a position to insist on policies that will unite Americans across party lines and expose Trump as the quack he is.

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Filed under Affordable Care Act, Democratic Party, donald trump, health care, Obamacare, social justice, Uncategorized, white working class

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under African Americans, aggressive policing, Fight for 15, social justice