when the dust clears

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Archive for the ‘Community organizing’ Category

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.


Facing Race 2012 Photos, 2

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Facing Race 2012, Baltimore MD

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Facing Race, the Applied Research Center‘s biannual conference on racial justice, culture, politics, and so many other things, wrapped Saturday night.

I struggled to keep my ears peeled as I photographed—so much knowledge, heart and soul filled the venue, the lovely Baltimore Hilton.

Folks talked honestly and intelligently about race and its intersections with gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, immigration status. Attendees discussed the massive obstacles to dragging these issues into the mainstream but mostly explored how to make progress toward social and racial justice both on that level and among ourselves.

Check out: #facingrace. ARC will be posting some of the sessions online.

Now: photos…

Keynote speaker Junot Diaz, November 16, 2012

Amirah Sackett, Khadijah Sifterlah-Griffin and her sister Iman perform “We’re Muslim, Don’t Panic,” November 17, 2012

Preconference session, November 15, 2012

Hosts comedian W. Kamau Bell and media technologist Deanna Zandt, November 16, 2012

Closing performance by kids in the conference’s childcare program, November 17, 2012


“Whatever Happened to Occupy?”

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The Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew Episcopal in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn, has turned over the entire building, spaces sacred and less so, to Interoccupy, the network of Occupy groups coordinating an astoundingly big Sandy relief effort.

It’s a hub for training, donations, and distribution. Vans and cars pull up, drivers check in and get their assignments, vehicles get loaded with donated supplies—from water and warm clothing to tools and cleaning supplies—and volunteers roll out.

The question “whatever happened to Occupy” passed more than a few lips around the first anniversary of the original Occupy Wall Street at Zuccotti Park. This, it seems to me, is at least one answer. Its grassroots have been growing, enabling it to execute something truly remarkable and desperately needed.


Class War, not Nuclear [Power] War!

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Last week I attended what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission calls a “public meeting, open house” about its annual assessment of the Indian Point nuclear power plant—Indian Point Energy Center to its owner, Entergy.

Entergy supporter wearing the company colors before NRC “public meeting” on Indian Point, May 17, 2012

The NRC, which concluded in its report (pdf) that Indian Point operated safely during 2011, is not required to take any action based on feedback from citizens at these meetings. All that the six inspectors and administrators behind a table at the front of the packed ballroom had to do was weather two-plus hours of withering invective, quirky performance, and, straight, often impassioned, comment—some of it quite surprising. One gentleman who said he worked at the plant offered highly technical and damning testimony, complete with photos, about what he said was an ongoing “operating leak” at Indian Point. (He refused to tell me his name.) “We did write a violation,” an NRCer responded meekly. Apparently, writing violations doesn’t fix (alleged) leaks.

Man speaks about ongoing safety problems at Indian Point, May 17, 2012

I went because I smelled the potential for a second installment of my Colorlines story on Entergy’s astroturfing, the practice by major corporations of creating, funding, and controlling “community organizations” to push an agenda while hiding their parentage. A young antinuclear activist had contacted me to tell me she had met a group of people of color affiliated with an Entergy front group called SHARE at a hearing a few months before. The woman leading the SHARE entourage told members not to speak to her, the activist told me.

Marilyn Elie, cofounder of Westchester Citizens Awareness Network, hammers NRC administrators for granting excessive safety exemptions to Entergy—and for not doing business transparently, May 17, 2012

No such luck this time. There were very few folks of color assembled at the DoubleTree in Tarrytown, NY, for the May 17 meeting. One African American labor union member spoke in support of Indian Point, touching on the core argument of all pro-planters: Indian Point equals jobs. An African American antiplanter spoke in the cadences of a Baptist preacher to stress the dire safety issues associated with Indian Point. Yuko Tonohira, dressed in a white Tyvek hazmat suit with the Japanese character for death pinned to it, spoke of Fukushima, as did others, like Yuki Endo, who stepped up to the mic.

NRC’s Bill Dean responds to a question/accusation, May 17, 2012

Immediately, nakedly apparent was the class divide. Supporters of Indian Point, similarly clad in neat polo or t-shirts, some with labor union logos, and slacks or jeans, filled a pocket of seats on the left side of the hotel ballroom. The more diversely, even wackily, attired antiplanters sat to the right—and everywhere else. (There were also contingents of business suit-wearing local government officials and legislators who fell on both sides of the divide.) There was ample heckling, with the antis winning out because of their numbers and vehemence. But there was also listening, particularly to the sober presentations delivered by folks like Clearwater’s Manna Jo Green and New York state assemblyman Tom Abinanti (both anti) and many of the union workers.

WestCAN member and Clearwater board member Susan Shapiro addresses the meeting, May 17, 2012

Entergy’s spirit was invoked, to praise and damn, but Entergy as a corporate entity did not present itself. Odd, given that Jerry Nappi, Manager of Communications at Entergy/Indian Point Energy Center, attended the meeting. Instead, Entergy let their working-class proxies duke out with the lefties in what amounted to a largely pointless, in terms of impact, though cathartic event. Who needs to worry about astroturf when you aren’t even compelled to step onto the field?


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