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Archive for the ‘Civil disobedience’ Category

(Where’s the) Rage against the Machine?

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The University of Alabama’s student government may have flip-flopped its way into the 21st century. In mid-April, UA’s senate voted to adopt a resolution supporting the racial integration of the school’s nearly all-white fraternities and sororities after killing a similar measure just a few weeks earlier.

On its face, this is a historic move. To alumna Jessica Patrick, it may very well be “a step in the right direction” toward greater diversity. Patrick—Jessica Thomas while at UA and now a an attorney in Nashville—was the subject of Bama Girl, a documentary that chronicled her 2005 campaign to become UA’s first African American homecoming queen. (Along with other candidates of color, she lost.)

History, however, gives us ample reason for skepticism. Former governor George Wallace made his notorious stand in 1963 on the steps of the school’s auditorium for the “southern way of life,” known nowadays as “state-sanctioned racial discrimination,” and against the enrollment of Vivian Malone and James Hood. More recently, UA has made national news for eruptions of old-school Dixie racism in the social sphere. The Crimson White, the school newspaper, ran an exposé in 2013 of the systematic exclusion of African Americans from prominent and powerful white fraternities and sororities.)

The recent resolution is a symbolic statement by students, not a plan of action that commits anyone to do anything, including the school’s administration. But it is something, one might say. “It’s only a step forward, but it is a step forward, and it should be encouraged,” University of Alabama law professor Paul Horwitz said in an email.

The Root requested comment from the University President’s office about the measure but received only a general statement asserting the university’s commitment “to a welcoming and inclusive campus.” University President Judy Bonner did speak out against the segregation of and discrimination by white Greeks last year after the Crimson White’s 2013 investigation, which revealed that two high-achieving African American women had been rejected by 16 sororities. (The U.S. Justice Department found that situation so serious it assigned a U.S. Attorney to monitor the situation.)

Nathan James, a Crimson White columnist, sees the yes vote as a straight-up PR move. “It’s clear from the previous vote where our senators’ loyalties lie, and that hasn’t changed because media pressure forced them to backpedal,” he wrote in an email to The Root. The “pressure” James describes built up after national and international news media hammered student government’s March 2014 decision to kill the first “diversity resolution.”

Terence Lonam, a progressive activist on campus from the class of 2017, is similarly skeptical. “When the last SGA senate voted to kill the original integration resolution, which I think honestly represented the state of race relations in Greek life at Alabama, I was horrified but not shocked – the powers that control a large segment of my campus, namely the Machine, are stuck to traditions that have kept them in power with relative ease.”

The Machine? Yes, “the Machine,” a secret society with deep roots in the muck of Jim Crow whose members are chosen from 28 of the school’s white Greek societies. The Machine has fought the move to integrate the Greeks through the immense—and stealthy—political power it wields in student government. A chapter of Theta Nu Epsilon, an umbrella organization of historically white Greeks founded in 1870, the Machine has operated and schemed at UA for a century. No surprise that it’s kissing cousin to Yale’s Skull & Bones.

So how does the Machine run? “UA’s Greeks vote in a bloc,” explains James, “they always elect representatives from a specific set of Greek organizations; these representatives, once elected, fight to preserve a segregated Greek system; students who run against Machine-backed candidates are frequently the targets of harassment and death threats; and elections featuring Greek candidates are frequently affected by voter fraud.”

“Death threats” leaps off the page. So we asked James to substantiate that charge. He provided links to news stories, including one from CNN, in which students made credible claims of such threats and other forms of nefarious Machination. Some, like the CNN.com piece, are more than a decade old. Others are quite recent.

“The Machine shouldn’t be overestimated, but the simple fact of its continued secretive status should be recognized as an obstacle to everything else the University of Alabama, its students and administration, want to achieve,” said Horwitz.

He writes with some authority. His wife, Kelly, was defeated in a Tuscaloosa city—not UA campus—election for Board of Education by Cason Kirby, a 26-year-old recent UA law school grad and former SGA president, under dodgy circumstances. AL.com ’s reporter on the UA beat, Melissa Brown, and others reported on emails sent to voting-age students by Machine-connected Greeks, pledging free booze and limo rides to the polls. (Kirby, a former member of Kappa Sigma, a frat identified in the Crimson White investigation as Machine-connected, did not return a phone call from The Root.)

Horwitz notes that grassroots opposition to Machine politics cannot be ignored. “Some of the most important moments on campus this year—complaints and marches about continued segregation, resistance against adults who were involved, disgust with corrupt voting-bloc tactics that spilled off campus this year and into the local school board elections—came about because of undergraduates, mostly in the sororities, who were disturbed by what they saw and heard and willing to put themselves on the line to do something about it.”

So where does that leave us? With a student organization that has Alabama influence and national ties and clings tenaciously to inherited privilege and power. It may not be able intimidate and machinate with impunity as it did when it still had Jim Crow muscle, but it remains an influential and clandestine political bloc —members do not acknowledge the group’s existence—at a public university with a long history of racial discrimination.

The Machine’s power endures in large part because the UA’s leaders, the adults in the administration, have chosen to remain silent about the group for decades upon decades. Their silence equals tacit approval. That tacit approval amounts to active support for a secret clan of hyperempowered and historically privileged youth to discriminate.

“The Machine is not all-powerful or all-important,” Professor Horwitz wrote in a recent Crimson White op-ed. “But as long as it’s around, every other problem will be that much more intractable. It needs to become a public, accountable group. Or it must be killed, forcefully and publicly.”

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Shouting Truth to Power at NDU

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I immediately recognized the top of Medea Benjamin’s blond head on my computer screen as she was being dragged out of President Barack Obama’s May 23rd address at the National Defense University. Benjamin is well known on Capitol Hill for her activism with Code Pink, specifically their antiwar protests and pickets that disrupt hearings and other official goings-on.

I had interviewed Benjamin in the late 1990s for a Fortune magazine piece about corporate social responsibility. Then, she was working with another social justice group she helped create, Global Exchange. The day after the president’s NDU speech, though, Benjamin was “The Heckler.”

Let’s be clear about our terms. Heckling is spewing insults at a stand-up comic under cover of darkness after six scotch and sodas too many. Benjamin, a veteran human rights campaigner and an antiwar activist—and the author of Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control—was protesting. (USA Today called her a “protester” who “heckles.”) She was practicing the venerable and always controversial art of nonviolent civil disobedience to bring attention to—and intervene in—an issue of great importance to society. Such actions are, by definition, disruptive of business as usual—in this case a presidential address to the American public about national security to which the American public had not been invited.

Before making an appearance on Arise News to talk about the president’s speech, I called Benjamin to find out why she did what she did. [Here’s the link to the Arise segment, and to the entire show.]

“I was waiting until the very end,” Benjamin told me. She was waiting for him to say something “significant,” for specifics, not just the “standard blaming of Congress.” But she didn’t hear that.

So Benjamin interrupted our president: “There are 102 people on a hunger strike, these desperate people. Eighty-six are cleared for release. You are commander in chief. You can close Guantánamo today, and you can release those 86 prisoners!”

Who are the 86 Benjamin refers to? Ask Air Force Col. Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor for the Pentagon’s Office of Military Commissions, as the Voice of America did. “Of the 166 [prisoners] that are still there, there are 86 that have been cleared for transfer, which means that a joint task force made up of the CIA, Department of Justice, FBI and Department of Defense unanimously agreed that these 86 men didn’t commit a crime, we don’t intend to charge them, they don’t pose an imminent threat and we don’t want to keep them,” Davis told VOA.

The president doesn’t need to wait for Congress, nor does he need to issue an executive order to transfer the remaining prisoners from Guantánamo, where more than 100 prisoners are on a hunger strike. Thirty are being force-fed. Obama could issue a national security waiver to override restrictions Congress has placed on transfers,  Benjamin said. That’s what former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the president—in a confidential memo leaked to the press, described in a Daily Beast article by Daniel Klaidman.

“Can you tell the Muslims that their lives are as precious as our lives?” Benjamin shouted at Obama. “Can you take the drones out of the hands of the CIA? Can you stop the signature strikes that are killing people on the basis of suspicious activity? Will you compensate the families of innocent victims you have killed?”

These are questions of life and death, particularly for those on the business end of U.S. foreign policy in Pakistan, Yemen, and anywhere the administration chooses to exercise its still-classified policy of targeted killing. Questions to which the president provided no definitive answers.

Invasion of Iraq, +10 years, Part 1

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I’m traveling through Virginia working on Make the Ground Talk, my second doc. I’m pausing with Erin at our favorite Hampton coffee shop, Blend, to note the anniversary of the beginning of the Iraq War.

Marine with 24th MEU, hours before crossing the  border into Iraq from Kuwait, July 2004

Marine with 24 MEU, hours before crossing the border into Iraq from Kuwait, July 2004

Demonstration, Union Square, New York City

Demonstration, Union Square, New York City

U.S. forces crossed the border from Kuwait into Iraq ten years ago today. The invasion toppled a dictator—and unleashed a sectarian war that continues. Our focus—the American focus—has been on the cost to us, particularly the service members killed and injured.

But the cost has been far greater for Iraqis. More to follow…

ACT-UP’s 25th Anniversary in NYC

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The group may be a shadow of its 1980s, in-your-face self, but the march and demonstration marking the 25th anniversary of the first major action by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power in Lower Manhattan today had some of the energy of the early days of the movement.

NYPD officers cut chains locking an activist from Housing Works to a chair during a direct action in front of NYC's City Hall, April 25, 2012

Hundreds of people gathered in front of City Hall to recognize one of the most powerful and effective activist/advocacy/education organizations of the late 20th century. Stalwarts from the early days like Jim Eigo, Bill Dobbs, and Larry Kramer were there, but younger folks from groups like VOCAL and Housing Works actually ran the show.

VOCAL’s Jaron Benjamin led the march downtown, negotiating all the way with a coolheaded African American NYPD Deputy Inspector and his boss, Assistant Chief Thomas Purtell. Housing Works spearheaded a direct action in front of City Hall Park. Members erected a mock apartment in the middle of Broadway to dramatize what Housing Works says are policies and practices of HASA, New York City’s HIV/AIDS Services Administration, that turn people living with AIDS into homeless people living with AIDS.

VOCAL NY organizer Miguel Adams chants at demonstration marking the 25th anniversary of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, April 25, 2012

There was solidarity and tumult—the usual push and pull between marchers who want to take the street and the cops who want to keep it clear—but there was something lacking that ACT-UP had in spades: focus.

Last month Democracy Now ran a long piece on the AIDS activism documentary How to Survive a Plague with clips of heavy-duty actions against the likes of the Federal Drug Administration and multinational pharma giant Merck (a target of VOCAL not too long ago). In it, ACTers UP like the late Bob Rafsky and Garance Franke-Ruta speak with passion, a sense of urgency, and an absolute command of the issues. They knew what they needed—speeded up trials for specific drugs and lower cost meds—and they communicated it clearly, succinctly, forcefully. They were eloquent. And they fought like their lives and those of their friends depended on their actions, because they did.

Larry Kramer, author/playwright/pioneering AIDS and LGBT activist, before the march and protest, April 25, 2012

Today’s demo reminded me first, how much the original ACT-UP accomplished—its work and that of other AIDS, queer, and lesbian groups made powerful people accountable and saved people’s lives—and second, that today’s activists, Occupiers, and citizens need to learn that history, in all brilliance and messiness.

99 Percent Spring in East Harlem

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VOCAL and Community Voices Heard held a training for the 99 Percent Spring at the Children’s Aid Society on 101st Street. By my count, 100+ people gathered in CAS’s auditorium. Many were members of established groups. Others found out through MoveOn.org.

A VOCAL member speaks at the 99 Percent Spring training at the Children's Aid Society, April 14, 2012

Spring kicked off with a letter released in February, signed by a who’s who of prominent progressives, union leaders, and community organizers. Its goals:

  1. Tell the story of our economy: how we got here, who’s responsible, what a different future could look like, and what we can do about it
  2. Learn the history of nonviolent direct action, and
  3. Get into action on our own campaigns to win change.

And that’s what I saw and heard: HIV/AIDS campaigners, advocates for domestic workers, immigrants, and low-income folks (many of whom ARE low-income folks), plus the unaffiliated of all races, ages, and orientations gathered to take the next Occupy Wall Street–inspired step.

Charles Young at Counterpunch, a left publication, calls 99 Percent Spring a “front group” for MoveOn and a Trojan horse for the Democratic Party. He claims that both aim to coopt and neuter the movement, suck all the radicalism of out it.

Young slams the effort based on an event he attended at the Goddard Riverside Community Center on the “Upper Left Side” of Manhattan.

“Inside the hall, it looked like an alumni reunion for the 1966 Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade. Almost all the 150 or so people were 55–80 years old. The ones I talked to expressed curiosity about Occupy Wall Street and enthusiasm about ‘nonviolent direct action’ but didn’t have the knees or the ears for full participation in OWS activities in the financial district,” he writes. Just a few weeks ago I attended a reading by author Fred Jerome at Goddard Riverside attended by several dozen people. At 47 years old, I was probably the youngest person in the room. Journalist Young might have considered that Goddard serves a heck of a lot of seniors, and they turn out, regardless of the event.

Will genuine direct action for social and economic justice grow out of the 99 Percent Spring? The proof will be on the streets. My bet is, after a year spent following VOCAL with camera and pen—witnessing arrests of its members at OWS demonstrations and its in-your-face protests against drug company execs—at least some of these Spring trainees will deliver.

Members of Adhikaar hold up a sketch of a model community @ 99 Percent Spring Training, April, 14, 2012

Organized labor demonstration for jobs and fairness, Union Square, December 1, 2011

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Union members—teachers, electricians, building cleaners, and many others—plus supporters, and hangers-on marched from Herald Square at 34th Street down Broadway to Union Square. The New York City Central Labor Council, an umbrella group, called for the Occupy Wall Street-inspired rally, “The March for Jobs and Economic Fairness.” The objective: “Fill the street from curb to curb so government and big business get our message: enough is enough,” said the press release. “It’s time to end the unfair economic policies in this country that benefit too few, and leave everyone else behind.”

And fill the streets they did, blocking traffic at one point. From what I saw at Union Square, though, it was a supremely orderly and low-key affair. After marchers flowed into the area around Union Square Park, some waving placards and banners, things kind of went coffee-klatchy, at least from my vantage points. Folks gathered in clusters and chatted. Sporadic, low-volume chanting emanated from the odd clump of people. The ubiquitous drum circle—sigh—did its percussive thing in one corner of the square. I did observe one less-than-low-key moment: a gentleman with unruly gray hair harangued a Fox News TV camera for the network’s anti-union bias. “They’re the worst!” he shouted, among other unkind things. Problem: there was no one behind or in front of the camera, only the lonely high technology device sitting atop a tripod. I assume the man was rehearsing for the arrival of the Foxians.

The rally also offered a boost to members of 32BJ SEIU, which voted today to give a bargaining committee strike authority. The union represents 22,000 office cleaners and commercial building workers who are resisting property owners’ conditions for a new contract. The union is negotiating with the Real Estate Advisory Board on Labor Relations, which represents commercial building owners and big cleaning companies, says 32BJ is asking for unrealistic wage hikes. Follow the links to read both sides of the conflict.

Union members march on Union Square

James, a retired union worker, at the end of the march. Tired.

"Rough on Rats"

Traffic, pedestrians, and union bagpipers

Written by bxpnyc

2011/12/01 at 21:35

Civilly disobedient citizens, their friends, minders, and arresters, November 17, 2011

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Arrest of Felix Rivera-Pitre, VOCAL activist punched by senior NYPD officer on October 4