Thursday, November 8, 2012

Is it really possible for addicts to change?

There have been occasions (maybe on my other blog?) where I have presented the idea that Americans- you, me, WE are addicts. We are addicted to oil. We are addicted to stuff and we're addicted to ourselves- we love to think of ourselves as the best in the world. But to move forward, to where we have a future, we all have to admit that our addictions are killing us. We need to change. No need to analyze why we haven't done that in the past, it's just time to make that change. Now. Before climate change wipes us out and we have none of the things we love, let alone the things we addicted to. But if we are to change then I think we need to give Amy Goodman from "Democracy Now!" a good listen. I think she's right. What do you think?

Now the Work of Movements Begins

The election is over, and President Barack Obama will continue as the 44th president of the United States. There will be much attention paid by the pundit class to the mechanics of the campaigns, to the techniques of microtargeting potential voters, the effectiveness of get-out-the-vote efforts. The media analysts will fill the hours on the cable news networks, proffering post-election chestnuts about the accuracy of polls, or about either candidate’s success with one demographic or another. Missed by the mainstream media, but churning at the heart of our democracy, are social movements, movements without which President Obama would not have been re-elected.
Casey Fox (CC-BY-ND)
President Obama is a former community organizer himself. What happens when the community organizer in chief becomes the commander in chief? Who does the community organizing then? Interestingly, he offered a suggestion when speaking at a small New Jersey campaign event when he was first running for president. Someone asked him what he would do about the Middle East. He answered with a story about the legendary 20th-century organizer A. Philip Randolph meeting with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Randolph described to FDR the condition of black people in America, the condition of working people. Reportedly, FDR listened intently, then replied: “I agree with everything you have said. Now, make me do it.” That was the message Obama repeated.
There you have it. Make him do it. You’ve got an invitation from the president himself.
For years during the Bush administration, people felt they were hitting their heads against a brick wall. With the first election of President Obama, the wall had become a door, but it was only open a crack. The question was, Would it be kicked open or slammed shut? That is not up to that one person in the White House, no matter how powerful. That is the work of movements.
Ben Jealous is a serious organizer with a long list of accomplishments, and a longer list of things to get done, as the president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. 2013, he notes, is a year of significant anniversaries, among them the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, as well as the 50th anniversaries of the assassination of Medgar Evers and the Birmingham, Ala., church bombing that killed four young African-American girls. President Obama’s 2013 Inauguration will occur on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Jealous told me on election night, as Mitt Romney was about to give his concession speech, “We have to stay in movement mode."
Young immigrants are doing just that.  Undocumented students, getting arrested in sit-ins in politicians’ offices, are the modern-day civil-rights movement.  There are other vibrant movements as well, like Occupy Wall Street, like the fight for marriage equality, which won four out of four statewide initiatives on Election Day. In the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, and despite the enormous resources expended by the fossil-fuel industry to cloud the issue, climate change and what to do about it is now a topic that President Obama hints he will address, saying, in his victory address in election night, “Democracy in a nation of 300 million can be noisy and messy and complicated. ... We want our children to live in an America that isn’t burdened by debt, that isn’t weakened by inequality, that isn’t threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet.”
It was pressure from grass-roots activists protesting in front of the White House that pushed Obama to delay a decision on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, proposed to run from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. More than 1,200 people were arrested at a series of protests at the White House one year ago. Now a group is blocking the construction of the southern leg of that pipeline, risking arrest and even injury, with direct-action blockades in tree-sits and tripods in Winnsboro, Texas, two hours east of Dallas.
When those who are used to having the president’s ear whisper their demands to him in the Oval Office, if he can’t point out the window and say, “If I do as you ask, they will storm the Bastille,” if there is no one out there, then he is in big trouble. That’s when he agrees with you.  What about when he doesn’t?
The president of the United States is the most powerful person on Earth. But there is a force more powerful: People organized around this country, fighting for a more just, sustainable world. Now the real work begins.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Disaster capitalism rolls on

Guest Post: Seven Year After Katrina, A Divided City

Published by The Louisiana Justice Institute

A version of this article originally appeared on

Seven years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has become a national laboratory for government reforms. But the process through which those experiments have been carried out rarely has been transparent or democratic. The results have been divisive, pitting new residents against those who grew up here, rich against poor, and white against Black.

Education, housing, criminal justice, health care, urban planning, even our media; systemic changes have touched every aspect life in New Orleans, often creating a template used in other cities. A few examples:

- In the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, more than 7,500 employees in city’s public school system were fired, despite the protection of union membership and a contract. Thousands of young teachers, many affiliated with programs like Teach For America, filled the empty slots. As charters took over from traditional public schools, the city became what then-superintendent Paul Vallas called the first 100% free market public school system in the US. A judge recently found that the mass firings were illegal, but any resolution will likely be tied up in appeals for years.

- Every public housing development has either been partially or entirely torn down. The housing authority now administers more than 17,000 vouchers – nearly double the pre-Katrina amount –a massive privatization of a formerly public system. During this period, rents have risen dramatically across the city.

- The US Department of Justice has spent three years in negotiations with city government over reform of the police department. The historic consent decree that came out of these negotiations mandates vast changes in nearly every aspect of the NOPD and some aspects could serve as a model for departments across the US. But organizations that deal with police violence, as well as the city’s independent police monitor, have filed legal challenges to the agreement, stating that they were left out of the negotiations and that as a result, the final document lacks community oversight.

- As the city loses its daily paper, an influx of funding has arrived to support various online media projects – including $880,000 from George Soros to one website. In a city that is still majority African-American, the staff of these new media ventures is almost entirely white, and often politically conservative. These funders – many of whom consider themselves progressive - have mostly ignored the city’s Black media, which have a proud history of centuries of local resistance to the dominant narrative. Publications like Louisiana Weekly covered police violence and institutional racism when the daily paper was not interested. Wealthy liberals are apparently still not interested.

There is wide agreement that most of our government services have long deep, systemic problems. But in rebuilding New Orleans, the key question is not only how much change is needed, but more crucially, who should dictate that change.

New Orleans has become a destination for a new class of residents drawn by the allure of being able to conduct these experiments. For a while, they self-identified as YURPs (Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals). Now they are frequently known as “social entrepreneurs,” and they have wealthy and powerful allies. Warren Buffet has invested in the redevelopment of public housing. Oprah Winfrey and the Walton family have donated to the charter schools. Attorney General Holder came to town to announce police department reforms. President Obama has visited several times, despite the fact that this state is not remotely in play for Democrats.

Many residents – especially in the Black community – have felt disenfranchised in the new New Orleans. They see the influx of college graduates who have come to start nonprofits and run our schools and redesign our neighborhoods as disaster profiteers, not saviors. You can hear it every day on WBOK, the city’s only Black-owned talk radio station, and read about it in the Louisiana Weekly, Data News, and New Orleans Tribune, the city’s Black newspapers. This new rebuilding class is seen as working in alliance with white elites to disenfranchise a shrinking Black majority. Callers and guests on WBOK point to the rapid change in political representation: Among the political offices that have shifted to white after a generation in Black hands are the mayor, police chief, district attorney, and majorities on the school board and city council.

In a recent cover story in the Tribune, journalist Lovell Beaulieu compares the new rebuilding class to the genocide of Native Americans. “520 years after the Indians discovered Columbus, a similar story is unfolding,” writes Beaulieu. “New arrivals from around the United States and the world are landing here to get a piece of the action that is lucrative post-Katrina New Orleans…Black people are merely pawns in a game with little clout and few voices. Their primary role is to be the ones who get pushed out, disregarded and forgotten.”

People hear the term “blank slate,” a term often used to describe post-Katrina New Orleans – as a way of erasing the city’s long history of Black-led resistance to white supremacy. As New Orleans poet and educator Kalamu Ya Salaam has said, “it wasn’t a blank slate, it was a cemetery.” Where some new arrivals see opportunity, many residents see grave robbers. In response, those who find anything to praise in the old ways are often accused of being stuck in the past or embracing corruption.

Hurricane Isaac has demonstrated that New Orleans is still at risk from storms – although the flood protection system around the city seems to be more reliable than it was before the levees failed and eighty percent of New Orleans was underwater. But have the systemic problems that were displayed to the world seven years ago been fixed by the radical changes the city has seen? Is reform possible without the consent of those most affected by those changes? These are polarizing questions in the new New Orleans.

Jordan Flaherty is a New Orleans-based journalist and author of Floodlines: Community and Resistance From Katrina to the Jena Six.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

It's the environment, stupid! (and it's still Fukushima)

Fukushima Daiichi: It May Be Too Late Unless the Military Steps In

By Akio Matsumura, Finding the Missing Link

he highly radioactive spent fuel assemblies at the Fukushima-Daiichi power plants present a clear threat to the people of Japan and the world. Reactor 4 and the nearby common spent fuel pool contain over 11,000 highly radioactive spent fuel assemblies, many of which are exposed to the open air. The cesium-137, the radioactive component contained in these assemblies, present at the site is 85 times larger than the amount released during the Chernobyl accident. Another magnitude 7.0 earthquake would jar them from their pool or stop the cooling water, which would lead to a nuclear fire and meltdown. The nuclear disaster that would result is beyond anything science has ever seen. Calling it a global catastrophe is no exaggeration.
If political leaders understand the situation and the potential catastrophe, I find it difficult to understand why they remain silent.
The following leaves little to question:
  1. Many scientists believe that it will be impossible to remove the 1,535 fuel assemblies in the pool of Reactor 4 within two or three years.
  2. Japanese scientists give a greater than 90 percent probability that an earthquake of at least 7.0 magnitude will occur in the next three years in the close vicinity of Fukushia-Daiichi.
  3. The crippled building of Reactor 4 will not stand through another strong earthquake.
  4. Japan and the TEPCO do not have adequate nuclear technology and experience to handle a disaster of such proportions alone.
Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon wrote a letter to Japan’s Ambassador to the United States, Mr. Ichiro Fujisaki, on April 16, 2012, discussing his fact-finding trip to the Fukushima Daiichi site.
Senator Wyden, senior member of the United States Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, mentioned that “the scope of damage to the plants and to the surrounding area was far beyond what [he] expected and the scope of the challenge to the utility owner, the government of Japan, and to the people of the region are daunting.” He also mentioned that “TEPCO’s December 21, 2011 remediation roadmap proposes to take up to ten years to complete spent fuel removal from all of the pools on the site. Given the compromised nature of these structures due to the events of March 11, their schedule carries extraordinary and continuing risk if further severe seismic events were to occur.”
Many of us echo Senator Wyden’s concerns.
Has the government of Japan and other world leaders considered the facts above that would lead to a global catastrophe, and do they have a clear strategy to prevent this worst case scenario? Are there any means to shorten the period for the completion of removal spent fuel from all of the pools, in particular of Reactor 4, within two years or so? Are we able to trust such extraordinary tasks to TEPCO and the private sector?
I believe that the government of Japan should lead the way and embrace all means at its disposal in order to prevent a disaster that would affect our dozens of generations of our descendants. In this context, I cannot help but consider the role of the military in addition to the international technical support team. They possess the technological and logistical capacity that a company such as TEPCO does not.
Deploying the Japanese self defense force (military) inside the country’s borders would be an incredibly controversial political decision, but the political fallout for the government from this step would pale in comparison to having such an immense global catastrophe occur on its watch.
For this reason, I flew to Japan from New York in April to convey my concerns to Japanese political leaders. Ambassador Mitsuhei Murata and I met with Mr. Fujimura, Chief Cabinet Secretary, who assured us he would convey our message to Prime Minister Noda before his departure for Washington to meet with President Obama on April 30. Both leaders might have discussed the Fukushima nuclear accident issue at their private meeting, but the idea for an independent assessment team and international help for the disaster were not mentioned publicly. I am old enough to understand the politics of the matter, but I cannot accept them. It will be an irreversible mistake that affects our population for thousands of years if they do not take action now.
If this catastrophe occurred, regardless of policy and politics, all 440 nuclear power plants throughout the world would be forced to shut down, yet our descendants no matter what will have to carry the risk of radioactive materials in the nuclear waste repository for 100,000 to 200,000 years.
This is a long amount of time to conceive of, so let me put it in context. It is said that our anscestors might have made their journey to the rest of the world from South Africa about 100,000 years ago, and crafted our first tools of the Stone Age about 20,000 years ago. We will need the same amount of time that our human species has existed for in order to safely deposit radioactive material! How come do we envision the poison to be transferred on to our descendants for so long and how will we find a way to indicate the location of the radioactive repository? Are we sure that the hundred radioactive repositories throughout the world be protected from severe seismic events for this incredible period of the time?
If this global catastrophe occurs, the best we can hope is that the memory of our disaster might be passed on to our future generations in the hope that they might invent the new technology to prevent them from another such catastrophe.
Akio Matsumura is a renowned diplomat who has dedicated his life to building bridges between government, business, and spiritual leaders in the cause of world peace. He is the founder and Secretary General of the Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders on Human Survival with conferences held in Oxford, Moscow, Rio de Janeiro, Kyoto, and Konya. Akio has proven time again that these barriers can be transcended, even in the most unlikely circumstances. Both the power of his ideas and his tremendous organizational ability were first on display in the Global Forum of Spiritual and Parliamentary Leaders on Human Survival, which he founded with support from the MacArthur Foundation after several decades of work within the United Nations.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Occupy this spring!

Organizers propped up a chalk board at the base of a grassy slope and wrote out a detailed schedule of the day’s events. Meetings and teach-ins were marked with letters of the alphabet and groups gathered around flags branded with their respective letters.

Occupy Unveils 'Spring Awakening'

During the long winter months, Occupy protesters kept reassuring those of us in the media still covering their actions that the spring would prove to be a time of resurgence for Occupy Wall Street. If the “Spring Awakening” meet-up at Central Park this past weekend is any indication of future turnouts, OWS organizers may be correct in their predictions.

Hundreds of protesters gathered at New York City’s most famous park, an inspired location that placed Occupy in the heart of tourist alley, guaranteeing the group’s activities attracted the attention of curious passersby.

Two women walking by the “People’s Assembly” that took place during the tail end of the day’s festivities were heard remarking, “That’s the group that occupies shit”—a not entirely inaccurate statement.
“Today is about coming together in a space that’s going to allow us to be less confrontational than we often are downtown and kind of bond, and also engage the Saturday, Central Park–going public,” said Scott, an OWS protester.

That “confrontational” nature, some might argue, is what makes Occupy a unique protest movement, but Scott isn’t concerned about the group becoming too passive.

“Occupy is more confrontational than ever,” he said, citing the “sleepful protests” currently taking place in the financial district. “Zuccotti was great, but it was a little bit off the beaten path. Being on Nassau Street all day, what happens there is Occupiers talking to bankers and tourists witnessing those conversations, and that’s what needs to happen.”

Occupy’s Spring Awakening was used as a space to allow protesters to plan for the future and to “come together to unite organizations, activists, and others to create a transformative, citywide, mass movement,” according to the event pamphlet.

Organizers propped up a chalk board at the base of a grassy slope and wrote out a detailed schedule of the day’s events. Meetings and teach-ins were marked with letters of the alphabet and groups gathered around flags branded with their respective letters.

I attended the healthcare talk where individuals shared their tales of insurance (or lack of insurance) woes.
Jennifer, 44, a freelancer, said she never had health insurance. One morning, she woke up in extraordinary pain, but fearful of being buried in debt should she venture to the hospital, she remained curled up on the floor of her boyfriend’s apartment for three days, unable to move.

Finally, realizing the pain was not going to subside on its own, she managed to get into a taxi and get to the hospital. Final diagnosis: a herniated disk, a completely treatable ailment that shouldn’t have ended up costing as much as it ultimately did, but because Jennifer waited so long to get to the hospital, the treatment ended up being much more complicated.

Emergency surgery cost her $50,000.

David, 48, said he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in third grade, but was never able to get insurance before the Affordable Care Act because his Crohn’s is considered a pre-existing condition.

A young medical student shared a story about treating an 11-year-old having an asthma attack because her father couldn’t afford her inhaler.

But commiserating and bonding over the reality of crushing debt and an insane privatized health care industry that provides neither health nor care were only a sliver of the day’s events. Serious planning for Occupy’s future occurred later in the evening after the People’s Assembly (Occupiers were very careful not to call it a “General Assembly,” as no voting took place).

Upcoming foreclosure auction blockades are planned in several New York City boroughs, including this afternoon in the Bronx, Brooklyn on April 19, and Queens on April 20, which is also #A20, or “the Great Meeting,” at Union Square Park, when organizers hope “the outdoor public assembly” will make a return.
The single-payer movement continues to have a huge presence at Occupy events and Health Care Now NYC advertised “petitioner training” scheduled for April 21.

ACT UP and Occupy are partnering for a day of action April 25 to commemorate the direct action advocacy group’s twenty-fifth anniversary.

And of course, there were constant reminders about May 1, the so-called “General Strike” nationwide actions that Occupiers are anticipating will steal headlines as the movement first did back in the fall.

Friday, March 23, 2012

A letter everyone needs to read and I wish I'd written

'A Test You Need to Fail': A Teacher's Open Letter to Her 8th Grade Students

Dear 8th Graders,

(llustration: David McLiman)I’m sorry.

I didn’t know.

I spent last night perusing the 150-plus pages of grading materials provided by the state in anticipation of reading and evaluating your English Language Arts Exams this morning. I knew the test was pointless—that it has never fulfilled its stated purpose as a predictor of who would succeed and who would fail the English Regents in 11th grade. Any thinking person would’ve ditched it years ago. Instead, rather than simply give a test in 8th grade that doesn’t get kids ready for the test in 11th grade, the state opted to also give a test in 7th grade to get you ready for your 8th-grade test.

But we already knew all of that.

What I learned is that the test is also criminal.

Because what I hadn’t known—this is my first time grading this exam—was that it doesn’t matter how well you write, or what you think. Here we spent the year reading books and emulating great writers, constructing leads that would make everyone want to read our work, developing a voice that would engage our readers, using our imaginations to make our work unique and important, and, most of all, being honest. And none of that matters. All that matters, it turns out, is that you cite two facts from the reading material in every answer. That gives you full credit. You can compose a “Gettysburg Address” for the 21st century on the apportioned lines in your test booklet, but if you’ve provided only one fact from the text you read in preparation, then you will earn only half credit. In your constructed response—no matter how well written, correct, intelligent, noble, beautiful, and meaningful it is—if you’ve not collected any specific facts from the provided readings (even if you happen to know more information about the chosen topic than the readings provide), then you will get a zero.

And here’s the really scary part, kids: The questions you were asked were written to elicit a personal response, which, if provided, earn you no credit. You were tricked; we were tricked. I wish I could believe that this paradox (you know what that literary term means because we have spent the year noting these kinds of tightropings of language) was simply the stupidity of the test-makers, that it was not some more insidious and deliberate machination. I wish I could believe that. But I don’t.

I told you, didn’t I, about hearing Noam Chomsky speak recently? When the great man was asked about the chaos in public education, he responded quickly, decisively, and to the point: “Public education in this country is under attack.” The words, though chilling, comforted me in a weird way. I’d been feeling, the past few years of my 30-plus-year tenure in public education, that there was something or somebody out there, a power of a sort, that doesn’t really want you kids to be educated. I felt a force that wants you ignorant and pliable, and that needs you able to fill in the boxes and follow instructions. Now I’m sure.

It’s not that I oppose rigorous testing. I don’t. I understand the purpose of evaluation. A good test can measure achievement and even inspire. But this English Language Arts Exam I so unknowingly inflicted on you does neither. It represents exactly what I am opposed to, the perpetual and petty testing that has become a fungus on the foot of public education. You understand that metaphor, I know, because we have spent the year learning to appreciate the differences between figurative and literal language. The test-makers have not.

So what should you do, my beautiful, my bright, my intelligent, my talented? Continue. Continue to question. I applaud you, sample writer: When asked the either/or question, you began your response, “Honestly, I think it is both.” You were right, and you were brave, and the test you were taking was neither. And I applaud you, wildest 8th grader of my own, who—when asked how a quote applied to the two characters from the two passages provided—wrote, “I don’t think it applies to either one of them.” Wear your zeroes proudly, kids. This is a test you need to fail.

I wondered whether giving more than 10 minutes of every class period to reading books of our own choosing was a good idea or not. But you loved it so. You asked for more time. Ask again; I will give you whatever you need. I will also give you the best advice I can, advice from the Nobel Prize-winning writer, Juan Ramón Jiménez. Ray Bradbury thought this was so important, he used it as the epigraph at the beginning of Fahrenheit 451: “When they give you lined paper, write the other way.”

It is the best I have to offer, beyond my apologies for having taken part in an exercise that hurt you, and of which I am mightily ashamed.