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Politics,

Are Obama’s Middle East Peace Talks Sincere?

Should we trust Obama to be honest in his peace talks with Iran and Syria? His lightning shift from warmonger to peacemaker surprised everyone, including his closest regional allies — Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey — not to mention the entire U.S. congress, many of whom seem intent on sabotaging the Iran peace talks by imposing more war-provoking sanctions.

Let’s not forget that Obama was minutes away from blasting Syria into the Stone Age, but as he stared into the abyss of war he blinked at the last moment, losing the round to Assad. Obama hid the consequent humiliation behind a hastily agreed upon chemical weapons deal proposed by Russia, which served to buy him time to think about the regional war he damn near started.

And now suddenly Obama is acting uncharacteristically rational. He’s agitating for peace among his anti-Syria coalition of close regional allies, namely Turkey and the Gulf Monarchy Sunni Islam dictatorships (Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, etc.). Obama is pressuring them to stop sending money, arms, and Sunni Islamic extremist fighters into Syria to topple Assad, so that peace can be pursued instead, a 180 degree shift in strategy. This has already seemed to have had an effect with Qatar and Turkey.

It’s crucial to remember that Obama could have pursued a peaceful path for well over a year, when Russia and Syria first proposed peace talks. Obama ignored the proposals and John Kerry publicly ridiculed them, so confident they were that the U.S.-backed rebels would topple Assad. This strategy pushed Syrian civilization into barbarism, and peace talks were again proposed last spring — but Obama’s rebels boycotted the talks, since Obama had a plan to help the rebels topple the regime via a Libyan-style U.S. military bombing campaign.So Syrian blood was allowed to keep flowing. For at least two years Obama oversaw and coordinated — via the CIA — the Syrian “arms trafficking pipeline” — as The New York Times called it — which has helped drive the death count to over 100,000 and made millions more refugees.

Without the massive support from the U.S., its allies, and “private donors” (oil-rich “royalty” from the Gulf state monarchies), this “civil war” would have unquestionably ended long ago.

It was only after Obama decided not to bomb Syria — and shifted towards peace talks — did his prized Syrian rebels agree to go to the negotiating table (keep in mind that Obama’s rebels are mostly talking heads with no real power on the ground; the Islamic extremist rebels dominate the ground and continue to boycott negotiations).

Obama had long insisted that “Assad must go,” but Assad is still in power and stronger than ever, with large sections of the population — though especially the ethnic and religious minorities — choosing him over the Islamic extremist rebels who would come to power in his place — the same rebels who are fighting to transform Syria into a Taliban-era Afghanistan.

The rebels already have a mini-Afghanistan in portions of the “liberated” areas of Syria where Raqqa is considered to be the largest city ever administered by al-Qada-style Islamic extremists. Shockingly, there remain some stubborn holdouts among the political left who consider these extremist-controlled areas to be “liberated” proof of a “revolution” in Syria.

Now, the U.S.-Russia initiated “Geneva II” Syria peace accords appear to be serious negotiations, not only because Obama’s rebels are participating, but also because Obama’s regional allies are furious, Saudi Arabia and especially Israel, who expressed its anger by using fighter jets to yet again bomb Syria, the fourth time this year.

Ultimately, Obama will have to prove via action that he is sincere in peace talks. It’s entirely possible that the peace talks are a mere tactic intended to engage in a more strategic war.

For example, if the Syrian government can be blamed for the possible failure of the Geneva II peace talks, a new war motive will be ready-made for Obama to sell to the American public, more convincing than the prior chemical weapons attack.

How will we know Obama is pursuing peace talks with good intentions? We’ll know he’s serious about peace talks if he puts forth proposals that are universally accepted as reasonable, as opposed to provocative.

If he makes unreasonable demands on the Syrian government, we’ll know he intends to bait Assad into rejecting the proposal in an attempt to prime the U.S. and European public for war. Identifying such a provocative proposal will be easy: the purpose of such peace negotiations would be to copy the conditions on the battlefield and paste them to a peace treaty; the side winning the war wins the peace.

The Syrian government is in the dominant position on the battlefield, and thus has huge leverage in sincerely conducted peace talks. But if Obama demands that a precondition to any talks is the removal of President Assad, this will be an obvious provocation to ruin the talks. Obama has recently implied that he’s backing off of this proposal that’s popular among the rebels, but it’s still possible that he may make a similarly unrealistic proposal with the intention of provoking a rejection, with the intention to wage war.

It’s possible that Obama recently attempted this aggressive negotiating tactic against Iran during the ongoing nuclear talks. The initial peace deal that was offered — that Iran was willing to accept — was a bad deal for Iran, proving that Iran was overeager for peace and sanctions relief.

It is also possible that by offering such a lousy deal Obama meant to provoke Iran — as Peter Lee recently suggested in an excellent article — but the failure of the talks fell on the French, who at the last minute ruined the deal by making additional unreasonable demands which the Iranians did not accept. This suggests that events didn’t go as Obama intended, since he’d prefer that Iran be blamed for any failure rather than the French.

If Obama is acting honestly about completing peace talks with Iran and Syria, the entire Middle East will have to change as a consequence, since U.S. allies in the region went “all in” against Syria at Obama’s request, upsetting their domestic populations via massive war-immigration flows and fighting that spilled over the borders of Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq.

Political and social tension rose throughout the Middle East, infecting several countries with heavy doses of religious sectarianism, the main weapon used against the Syrian Government. Even if peace is secured for the moment, the thousands of foreign fighters in Syria will return home as heroes to many, destabilizing their countries as happened after the Afghanistan Jihad that gave birth to al-Qada and the Taliban — also backed by the U.S. and the Gulf monarchies.

Shifting the entire Middle East back to a peaceful status quo won’t be easy; Obama used U.S. foreign power as a lever that pivoted the entire Middle East against Syria and Iran, and pivoting back isn’t so simple. Close allies have lost faith in the promises of the U.S. and will be less willing in the future to follow Obama into wild adventures that destabilize the Middle East with absolutely nothing to show for it, except blood, corpses, and general misery.

Obama’s peace talks could be easily sabotaged — even if he is acting with sincerity. Several recent events in the region were likely conducted with the intention of undermining the talks. The recent terrorist bombing near the Iranian embassy in Lebanon, the continued Israel airstrikes against Syria, and the possibility of more U.S. sanctions against Iran could undermine any potential peace, while strengthening the right wing of Iran, Israel, and the U.S, which would inevitably lead back to yet another pivot, shifting back to the path of war and a resumption of a U.S. bombing campaign against Syria.

Even if talks are successful, the Middle East will remain a turbulent region, as long as competing world powers — the U.S., EU, China, and Russia — are competing for raw materials, markets, and other profitable business activity. In fact, the shift in strategy is only a different means to accomplish the same end: to push Russian and Chinese influence out of the region all the while maintaining U.S. hegemony.

If Obama is serious about peace talks, he must prove it by pressuring his regional allies publicly and privately to do what’s necessary for peace, as well as condemning Israel in front of the world stage if it continues to act provocatively, while also publicly denouncing the Democrats and Republicans if they try to provoke war with fresh sanctions.

Only this kind of consistency is capable of ensuring a temporary peace with Iran and Syria, and anything less will prove that Obama is implicitly pursuing the path of war by other means.

Politics,

Last Chance for Peace in Syria: Will Obama Sabotage the Geneva II Syria Peace Talks?

The war in Syria grinds on, an endless wreckage of shattered limbs and lives. The blood flows across borders, fueling the religious sectarian killing across the Middle East that is the life-blood of the Syrian conflict.

Hopes rose in Syria after Obama’s last minute decision not to “punish Assad” with a missile attack. Then came the U.S.-Iran nuclear peace deal, and it was hoped that peace in Syria was part of the broader shift in U.S. policy, “pivoting” away from the Middle East towards China.

Syrian peace talks labeled “Geneva II” have been discussed for months, but there always seems to be an endlessly complicated barrier. Contrary to what the media and politicians say, stopping the mass carnage is sadly easy. And it could be done relatively quickly, if the power brokers behind the conflict actually wanted it stopped.

Peace talks are not advanced calculus, but basic addition. You bring together those outside nations who are fueling the conflict — directly or indirectly — you add the groups inside Syria who have power on the ground, and out of negotiations equals a settlement.

If groups on the ground in Syria refuse to negotiate, the outside powers are then expected to exert their leverage on their proxies, with the threat of being cut off politically and financially. Through this process an agreement can be forged.

Of course, an x factor often emerges: whether parties are actually willing to negotiate, and whether or not they do so honestly, with the intention of pursuing peace, rather then using the talks to wage a better-timed war.

Obama seems conflicted about wanting peace in Syria. One of the key actors in the Syrian drama is Iran, and Obama is blocking Iran from participating. The UN understands that Iran’s involvement in the peace talks is crucial, but Obama is exploiting U.S. power to pick and choose who participates, sabotaging the talks in the process.

Why does Obama want Iran out of the picture? Because the U.S. wants to control the outcome of the talks, and Obama insists that Iran agree that the peace talks be conditional, the condition being that the goals of the talks be limited to creating “transitional government,” i.e., the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Obama is essentially attempting to achieve via talks what he couldn’t achieve through a proxy war.

Of course, any pre-condition to peace talks is a great way to abort any chance of peace, though there has been much chatter that Obama is reconsidering his “Assad must go” pre-condition, since it is so obviously destructive to peace talks.

But Obama continues to encourage war in Syria by refusing to muzzle his attack dog, Saudi Arabia, which continues to openly funnel money, weapons, and jihadists into Syria, supporting Islamic extremist rebel groups that refuse to participate in peace talks.

Recently the Saudi ambassador to Britain wrote an op-ed for The New York Times, where he defiantly declared that Saudi Arabia will “go it alone” to continue to fuel the Syrian sociocide.

The article was a masterstroke of hypocrisy; Saudi Arabia remains the motor force of religious extremism in the Middle East and a prime contributor to sectarian atrocities committed in Syria. The ambassador shamelessly writes:

“The way to prevent the rise of extremism in Syria — and elsewhere — is to support the champions of moderation: financially, materially and yes, militarily, if necessary.”

Of course, in Syria there are zero “moderate” rebel forces with any shred of power. This long-known fact was made explicit recently when a large group of rebels — some of them former “moderates” under the Free Syrian Army — realigned themselves under the banner of the Islamic Front, which shares a fundamentalist Sunni Islam ideology similar to al Qaeda — the other dominant power among the Syrian opposition. What was Obama’s response to the implosion of his Free Syrian Army and the rise of the Islamic Front?

Obama’s U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf casually commented:

“We wouldn’t rule out the possibility of meeting with the Islamic Front … We can engage with the Islamic Front, of course, because they’re not designated terrorists … We’re always open to meeting with a wide range of opposition groups.”

There you go. Taliban-style extremists aren’t designated as “terrorists,” so it’s OK to support them. Obama is forced to support these groups because without doing so, the U.S. would have zero influence on the ground in the Syrian conflict. And without power on the ground the U.S. has no influence to steer peace talks in a direction favorable to U.S. interests.

This is why Obama continues to allow Saudi Arabia to fuel the conflict, as it has done — along with the other Gulf states — since the beginning. For example, the highest religious authority of Saudi Arabia gave his support to the widely popular Qatari-based Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, after the Sheikh called for jihad against the Syrian government.

The response to these calls for jihad has been predictable; a recent study estimates that as many as 11,000 foreign fighters have fought in Syria, although no one knows exactly.

In practice, a Sunni fundamentalist call for jihad equals the murder of Shia Muslims, Christians and by implication, the majority of Sunni Muslims who are not of the Saudi fundamentalist variety. These Saudi and Qatari for-profit Sheikh’s are up to their necks in Syrian blood.

Of course, if Obama wanted to address this issue, he would actually discuss it publicly, and then he would use his “bully pulpit” to push Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and others into line towards a peace agreement, since these nations’ national and domestic security is completely dependent on the United States military and weapon industries.

Ultimately, religious sectarianism is just the surface gloss used to divide the Middle East into an orgy of violence. The real motor force of the conflict remains profit: regional domination for raw materials, markets, loans, military sales, client states, etc.

And this is the real x factor that Obama creates in the Syrian conflict: how best to manage a peace deal that leaves in place U.S. power in the region, as well as the power of U.S. allies, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia, etc.

Consequently, the Syrian Kurds who’ve carved out their own autonomous zone — similar to the Kurds in Iraq — have thus far been ignored, since they pose an “existential threat” to Turkey and its large Kurdish population.

The battle for power and profit are the real complications in creating peace in Syria. Obama has had several prior chances to forge peace in Syria and has chosen not to. When Syria and Russia proposed peace last year, John Kerry openly mocked the prospect, so sure he was of his rebels taking power.

When Syria and Russia again asked for peace talks last summer, Obama’s rebels boycotted the talks and Obama’s silence equaled complicity. Obama has sabotaged peace talks for over a year by attaching pre-conditions and demands — such as the removal of Bashar al-Assad– before peace talks could begin.

Now peace talks are again on the table, the situation in Syria is more dire than ever, and the world as a whole demands peace.

Obama’s actions will testify to his intent in Syria; he will either insist on a no conditions peace talk and pressure his allies to stop the bloodshed, or he will do the opposite and remain a driving force for senseless slaughter and the continued butchering of innocents.

history, Politics,

Black Nationalism and the Struggle for Self Determination

A Statement by Workers Action

The Experience of Race

The scourge of racism pervades our society, even as we step into the 21st century, although not in the blatant form of past decades. Vicious racists now feel somewhat compelled to restrain themselves, although with exceptions, and the more mild versions of racism are not so much publicly articulated as unconsciously expressed.

We have a perverse culture when it comes to race. Whites and Blacks experience their designated racial category in diametrically opposite ways, not because of some intrinsic characteristic inherent within each race, but because each race, in part, is defined by the attitudes of the other.

For example, since whites have not as a rule been victimized by racism, when asked what they think about race, they will often respond that they are not aware of it and, with a touch of moral superiority, are puzzled why Blacks seem almost fixated on it. Of course, no one has forced the white population to become aware of its race. For whites, their own race is experienced more like the color of one’s eyes when looking out at the world; it simply isn’t noticed at all.

Blacks find themselves in a rather different situation. Whites have directed their racism towards Blacks on both conscious, intentional levels and subconscious, unintentional levels. And consequently Blacks experience themselves on almost a daily basis as members of a race. Whether because of the elderly white woman who clutches her purse when passing a Black man on the sidewalk, or a white sales clerk especially watching Black customers to guard against shoplifting, or an employer who hires a white applicant over a more qualified Black applicant, Blacks experience themselves as members of a race.

In a Detroit study conducted in 1999 to measure racism in hiring, a Black and white member of the study were sent out to apply for completely unskilled jobs so that any skill level was entirely irrelevant to the position. The white applicant secured a job after an average of 91 hours while the Black applicant required an average of 167 hours. During those additional 76 hours, Blacks experience themselves as belonging to a race.

Because our neighborhoods are to a large degree segregated, whites and Blacks rarely have the opportunity to discuss their conflicting experiences of race. And the mass media almost never reports what it means to be Black in America today.

Consequently two levels of separation are wedged between whites and Blacks. Because whites are not themselves the victims of racism, they are ignorant of the experience of belonging to a race. They know intellectually that they belong to a race, but it is not something they experience and feel. But Blacks have been forced into this experience as a defining moment of their lives. This is why we sometimes speak of “the Black community” but almost never of “the white community” and why Blacks constitute “a people” while whites do not. Racism has established an indelible bond among Blacks and has set them apart.

But in addition to this level of separation, a second level intrudes which doubles the separation. Whites as a rule have little to no knowledge of the abundant racism directed at Blacks. For whites, the racism is invisible. Consequently white liberals, for example, attribute the failure of Blacks to attain the same economic level as whites to poor schools, lack of proper training, or even to the lack of the will to “succeed” because of the legacy of slavery. All the blame is placed on the past; none of it on the present. White liberals consequently want to “help” Blacks through tutoring programs, job training, etc., but they constantly fail to appreciate the current role of racism as an explanatory factor of inequality. This ignorance of the racism Blacks experience therefore constitutes the second level of separation because Blacks note disapprovingly that whites do not bother to see what for them is blatantly obvious.

The Historical Context

During the late 1950s and through much of the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement made giant strides in dismantling many forms of discrimination. But it did not succeed in eradicating racism root and branch, nor could it. In the final analysis racism is generated and nurtured by the system of capitalism that continually worships greed and profit while trampling on human needs. Racism plays a double role in the service of capitalists. First, it allows Blacks and people of other races to be paid less, which directly translates into higher profits for the capitalists. Second, and perhaps more important to capitalists, by treating workers differently, the bosses create divisions and resentments within the working class and therefore undermine class solidarity, which is indispensable in the struggle for higher wages, etc., not to mention socialist revolution.

Because of its failure to eliminate racism, the Civil Rights movement spawned a more militant version of itself, the Black Power movement and Black nationalism, including Malcolm X, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Black Panther Party, all drawing tremendous support from within the Black community, especially youth, and additionally from some whites. With its explosive impact on the general culture, for example, through such songs as “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” it raised the consciousness of both Blacks and whites. Universities were forced to establish Black Studies Programs on their campuses by students who embraced Black nationalism, and these programs proceeded to change the culture of the universities. Emphasizing Black pride, the movement reversed the liberal analysis that Blacks themselves, due to their special history, were somehow deficient. The movement turned on white liberals and accused them of the more subtle forms of racism that took the form of paternalism and condescension. Embracing the notion that Black liberation could only be achieved by Blacks themselves, not well wishing whites, proponents of Black Power organizationally restructured the movement so that Blacks would no longer be led by whites. The goal was now self-liberation.

Here are examples of this sentiment from the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) “Position Paper on Black Power” of 1966:

“The myth that the Negro is somehow incapable of liberating himself, is lazy, etc., came out of the American experience.”

“Negroes in this country have never been allowed to organize themselves because of white interference.”

“What does it mean if black people, once having the right to organize, are not allowed to organize themselves? It means that blacks’ ideas about inferiority are being reinforced… Further (white participation) means in the eyes of the black community that whites are the ‘brains’.”

The National Question and Self-Determination

In order to broach the national question, we must place it in the proper context.

Marxist revolutionaries fight for world revolution, not socialism in one country. We know full well that an entirely isolated socialist country does not by itself have the necessary economic resources to provide its population with a comfortable standard of living, free from the stress of poverty and deprivation. Moreover, isolated socialist countries are inevitably the victims of imperialism’s aggressions, either through direct military intervention or economic embargoes, both of which in turn lower the standard of living of those in the “socialist” country.

Consequently, as revolutionaries we fight to unite the world’s proletariat. Only together can we definitively overthrow capitalism, tear down national borders, and create an economic system that is dedicated to serving the interests of humanity, not profits for the super rich. We condemn going to war against another country in order to defend “our national interests” because, in the final analysis, these interests always turn out to be corporate interests, not our interests. We fight U.S. imperialism, which seeks to dominate other countries for economic gain. And when workers in other countries are attacked by their own ruling class, we protest.

The Marxist approach to nationalism is consequently constructed with the goal of maximizing world working class unity. If national self-determination in the form of separation promotes international working class unity, then we support it; if it undermines this unity, then we oppose it. For this reason, no simple formula can provide us with the correct position. Each situation must be analyzed on its own terms in order to determine which path to follow. However, general considerations can serve as a guide.

Because the nation-state, as a product of capitalism, has historically brought diverse people together within a single border, it has served to unify working people on a much larger scale than the system of feudalism, which was divided into small principalities. In this respect, capitalism has played a progressive role in relation to feudalism. It would be regressive to return to principalities.

But when capitalism reached its highest stage of imperialism, its rapacious greed for profit sent it scurrying around the globe, defeating entirely foreign countries, incorporating them into its empire, and then ruthlessly exploiting them. Here the victims in Africa, Asia, and the Americas felt that they had little in common with their new imperialist masters. And the Marxist analysis of the national question had to assume a correspondingly nuanced version. Given Russian imperialism and the scope of its empire prior to the revolution, the Bolsheviks were compelled to provide an analysis, and Lenin took the lead.

But first, a few comments about terms. When oppressed people have involuntarily been incorporated into an imperialist nation’s empire, the oppressed have generally responded with resentment and resistance, which in turn has translated into a struggle for some form of “self-determination.” This struggle for self-determination has frequently assumed the form of demanding a separate political state. Economic independence here is not an issue since capitalism has woven the world’s economies into a complex web so that none can claim economic self-sufficiency. Moreover, self-determination can assume different forms. At one extreme lie complete political independence and the establishment of a new state or the reestablishment of a former state. At the other extreme, an oppressed nationality may choose to remain within the borders of the existing state within which they are located; if they themselves make the decision whether to go or stay, then they have exercised self-determination.

Here is Lenin’s formulation: “The right of nations to self-determination implies exclusively the right to independence in the political sense, the right to free political separation from the oppressor nation. Specifically, this demand for political democracy implies complete freedom to agitate for secession and for a referendum on secession by the seceding nation. This demand, therefore, is not the equivalent of a demand for separation” [emphasis added] (“The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” 1916).

The point that an oppressed people can exercise self-determination without separating was reiterated by Trotsky in his discussions with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) on Black Nationalism and Self-Determination: “And yet, by achieving self-determination these groups [within the Russian empire] remained with the Soviet Union” (1933).

Furthermore, self-determination can range along a continuum between complete political separation and no separation at all. Lenin, for example, spoke of the possibility of establishing “… autonomous areas, however small, with entirely homogeneous populations, towards which members of the respective nationalities scattered all over the country, or even all over the world, could gravitate…” (“Critical Remarks on the National Question,” 1913).

Most importantly, Lenin argued that the policy of defending the right of oppressed nationalities to self-determination had the potential to maximize unity between the respective working classes of the oppressor and oppressed nations, even when the oppressed opted for separation, because genuine unity, in the final analysis, can only be forged on a voluntary basis and on equality: “… the Social-Democrats of the oppressor nations must demand that the oppressed nations should have the right of secession, for otherwise recognition of equal rights for nations and of international working-class solidarity would in fact be merely empty phrase-mongering, sheer hypocrisy” (“The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination”). And in the same essay he added: “… we want large states and the closer unity and even fusion of nations, only on a truly democratic, truly internationalist basis, which is inconceivable without the freedom to secede.” Were the oppressed nationality forced to remain within the empire, the resentment of the oppressed would only be further fueled towards all members of the oppressor nation. If they separated with the support of the working class of the oppressor nation, then this support could serve as a foundation to strengthen ties between the two working classes.

And this principled approach in fact proved entirely correct. As Trotsky noted during discussions with the SWP in reflecting on the experience of the Soviet Union in comparison with the Austro-Hungarian empire: “The Austrian Social Democrats said that the national minorities were not nations. What do we see today? The separated pieces [of the old Austro-Hungarian empire…] exist, rather bad, but they exist. The Bolsheviks fought for Russia always for the self-determination of the national minorities including the right of complete separation. And yet, by achieving self-determination these groups remained with the Soviet Union… The dialectic of the developments shows that where tight centralism existed the state went to pieces and where the complete self-determination was proposed a real state emerged and remained united.”

Neither Lenin nor Trotsky consequently concluded that secession or separation was inevitably reactionary. For example, Lenin argued: “The petty bourgeois are letting themselves be frightened by the spectre of a frightened bourgeoisie…. They are afraid of secession. The class-conscious proletarians are not afraid of it. Both Norway and Sweden gained from Norway’s free secession from Sweden in 1905, it made for mutual trust between the two nations, it drew them closer together on a voluntary basis, it did away with the stupid friction, it strengthened the economic and political, the cultural and social gravitation of the two nations to each other, and strengthened the fraternal alliance between the workers of the two countries” (“Finland and Russia”). In The Junius Pamphlet Lenin added: “National wars [for self-determination] against the imperialist powers are not only possible and probable; they are inevitable, progressive and revolutionary….” And Trotsky, in the discussion on Black Nationalism with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), asserted: “To fight for the possibility of realizing an independent state (for Blacks) is a sign of great moral and political awakening. It would be a tremendous revolutionary step.”

Black Nationalism and Self-Determination in the U.S.

It is helpful to begin our analysis with a review of the discussions conducted by Trotsky with members of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the 1930s where many of the basic Marxist methodological principles were at play. The question of the proper approach was particularly pressing since Blacks, as the most oppressed, have the potential to be the most revolutionary, but the SWP had not developed any coherent policy statements on this vital subject.

During the discussion, the question was raised whether Blacks constituted a racial minority or an oppressed nationality. If they were simply an oppressed racial minority, then the question of self-determination, in the sense of complete national separation, would not apply because they would lack the potential to become a nation since they would fail to exemplify the necessary cohesiveness to constitute themselves as a distinct people. Hence, the correct approach would proceed in the direction of integration and civil rights, not some form of self-determination. On the other hand, if they were judged to be an oppressed nationality, then the choice of some form of self-determination would become an option. Gradually, the discussion coalesced around the conclusion that Blacks, at that point in history, were an oppressed racial minority, not an oppressed nationality. At that time there seemed little evidence that Blacks wanted to define themselves first and foremost as a distinct people and separate themselves, in one form or another, from the dominant white population. However, Trotsky left open the possibility that they might yet evolve into a nationality sometime in the future. Such a development would above all revolve around the desires of Blacks themselves.

Of particular importance in this discussion are the criteria Trotsky employed to judge whether Blacks constituted an oppressed nationality or an oppressed racial minority. His revolutionary dialectical approach led him to reject abstract, metaphysical considerations, such as whether Blacks constituted a majority in any particular state, or whether a single language was spoken, or people adopted a common religion. He pointed out, for example, that Belgium would have no right to nationhood if a single language were a requirement. Following Lenin, who believed that people could be scattered “all over the country, or even all over the world” and still constitute a nationality, Trotsky at no time stipulated that Blacks must occupy a common territory in order to qualify as a nationality. Instead, he insisted that the consciousness of Blacks themselves is the crucial consideration: “An abstract criterion is not decisive in this question, but much more decisive is the historical consciousness, their feelings and their impulses.” And he kept returning to this theme: “We do, of course, not obligate the Negroes to become a nation; if they are, then that is a question of their consciousness, that is, what they desire and what they strive for.”

In other words, for Trotsky the material basis of the emergence of Black nationalism was not understood in terms of territory but in terms of the experience of racism which cements ties among Blacks and, while invisible to most whites, defines them apart from the remaining population and constitutes them as a separate people. He put it this way: “In any case the suppression of the Negroes pushes them toward a political and national unity.”

The emphasis on how Blacks themselves feel is fundamental to a revolutionary approach. However, we, as Marxists do not base our positions solely on people’s feelings. An additional material component has been provided by capitalism as it has singled out the Black population to victimize with its most vicious excesses. This fact leads to the possibility that Blacks might overwhelmingly become the most dedicated proponents of capitalism’s overthrow. We, as Marxists, would alienate ourselves from a potentially explosive, anti-capitalist movement if we dismissed Black nationalism as irrelevant on the grounds of failing a territorial, linguistic, or religious test. And as a historical fact, the most important of the Black Power movements of the 1960s moved in the direction of socialism without abandoning their nationalism, in part because their right to self-determination was being vigorously defended by Marxist socialists.

Moreover, Trotsky’s approach implies that the question whether Blacks constitute an oppressed nationality or an oppressed racial minority remains open as long as racism exists. If the U.S. spirals into a deep economic crisis, racism might come out of the closet in full force, which in turn could tempt Blacks to move into a more separatist direction, even though this separation might simply take the form of wanting their own political party. And Trotsky felt under no compulsion to venture a prediction regarding which direction events might evolve, especially since the decision to proceed in the direction of nationalism, according to him, could only be resolved by Blacks themselves.

But Trotsky also argued that even if Blacks constituted themselves as a nationality, revolutionary Marxists might nevertheless discourage any impulses towards political separation, while defending their right to do so. At one point he envisioned Black members of the SWP saying, for example, in response to a proposal for Blacks to separate: “Our Negro comrades [of the SWP, which was affiliated with the Fourth International] can say, ‘The Fourth International says that if it is our [Blacks’] wish to be independent, it will help us in every way possible, but the choice is ours. However, I, as negro member of the Fourth, hold a view that we must remain in the same state as the whites,’ and so on.”

At other points in the discussion Trotsky entertained the possibility that impulses in the direction of separation should not only be defended but encouraged. For example, he insisted: “Those American workers who say: ‘The Negroes should separate when they so desire and we will defend them against our American police’ — those are revolutionists, I have confidence in them” [emphasis added]. In other words, Trotsky left open both possibilities of relating to Black nationalism, if it did emerge. One would have to examine the specific conditions of such a movement before adopting a definitive position.

We believe that in today’s historical juncture, Blacks are defining themselves more in the direction of a racial minority. Their sentiment leans more in the direction of integration and equal rights rather than separation. However, as long as racism exists, this is not a closed question. Nor should we regard it as one of EITHER oppressed racial minority OR oppressed nationality. These categories are not static but exist in a dialectical tension where many intermediate positions between the two extremes stand as options. Sometimes, for example, Black movements have called for self-determination in relation to their own communities with no thought of pursuing a complete break with the U.S. This urge corresponds to Lenin’s stipulation that oppressed nationalities have the right to pursue “autonomous areas, however small” [emphasis added]. In such cases they are moving more in the direction of acting as a nationality. We believe, in today’s context, it is important to offer support to these demands for Black control over Black communities.

A Black Political Party

In the course of the discussion among Trotsky and members of the SWP, attention turned to the proper relation to the possible emergence of an exclusively Black organization. What is striking is Trotsky’s sensitivity to the problem of racism, including his awareness that much of it emanated from the white working class. In fact, this is one of the reasons why Black oppression was of paramount importance to confront: not only do capitalists divide the working class through their racist practices, but workers themselves have contributed to these divisions, as Trotsky noted: “The skilled workers who feel set in the capitalist society help the bourgeois class to hold the Negroes and the unskilled workers down to a very low scale.” And earlier he remarked: “99.9 percent of the American workers are chauvinists, in relation to the Negroes they are hangmen and they are so also toward the Chinese.”

With the suffering of Blacks and the need to unite the U.S. working class as his point of departure, Trotsky argued: “…this oppression is so strong that they [Blacks] feel it every moment; that they feel it as Negroes. We must find the possibility of giving this feeling a political organizational expression. You may say that in Germany or in England we do not organize such semi-political, semi-trade-union, or semi-cultural organizations; we reply that we must adapt ourselves to the genuine Negro masses in the United States” [emphasis added].

And he continued: “They [Blacks] were enslaved by the whites. They were liberated by the whites (so-called liberation). They were led and misled by the whites and they did not have their own political independence. They were in need of a pre-political activity, as Negroes. Theoretically it seems to me absolutely clear that a special organization should be created for a special situation. The danger is only that it will become a game for the intellectuals.”

Although Trotsky referred to this Black organization as “semi-political” and “pre-political,” it is clear he is discussing an independent Black political party. The discussion later turns to formulating a recommended political program for the party and the possibility of it running political candidates.

Trotsky’s embracing of the possible need for some form of a separate Black political organization that would be based on the Black working class flows directly from his recognition that racism has not been the exclusive possession of white capitalists, but has infiltrated the white working class as well. And he astutely recognized that well meaning white liberal intellectuals have exhibited racist tendencies as well: “Many of them [white liberal intellectuals] continue to imagine that by the improvement of the mentality [of Blacks], and so on, the discrimination will disappear.” In other words, white liberals viewed racism as a Black problem, not a white problem.

We believe that if at some point a strong sentiment among the Black population, in response to racism, coalesced in the direction of establishing a separate political party, it might deserve both support and encouragement. For example, if a Black party, independent of the Democrats and Republicans, enjoyed widespread support in the Black communities and was leading a progressive liberation struggle during a period where, for lack of a Labor Party, the U.S. working class was not united, then this movement could serve as a catalyst in igniting other sectors of the working class to organize themselves independently and fight for liberation as well. In such circumstances, far from dividing the working class, such a movement could spark its resurgence. Moreover, our willingness to offer support in the form of united front struggles around specific issues or campaigns will in turn provide us the opportunity to reach out to receptive individuals or groups within the movement and introduce our program as a whole in favor of uniting the entire working class in order to overthrow capitalism.

Democratic and Transitional Demands

The struggle for self-determination is what we term a struggle for democratic rights. Capitalism claims to offer equal rights for all, but never delivers on the promise because treating workers differently raises profits and undermines worker solidarity. Ethnic and racial minorities, not to mention women, and undocumented workers, have historically been accorded second-class status when it comes to equal rights in terms of access to owning property, voting, getting a job, etc. These are the types of struggles in which liberals can comfortably join since they do not challenge the fundamental existence of capitalism.

Nevertheless, as Marxist revolutionaries, we do not turn our backs on democratic rights. By winning, or partially winning, democratic demands, we can not only help unify the working class (by diminishing racism and sexism, for example,) but success can infuse the working class with a sense of its own power and inspire it to pursue more ambitious goals. Therefore these struggles have the potential to change the balance of power, to one degree or another, between the exploiting capitalists and the oppressed working class.

However, we do not restrict ourselves to the struggle for democratic rights. As revolutionaries, we are constantly dedicated to maximizing the anti-capitalist thrust of any movement. For this reason, we combine the struggle for democratic rights with the struggle for transitional demands. The latter offer a bridge to socialism. If they are won, then the victory represents a blow at the capitalist functioning of the economy. For example, if we were to win “30 for 40,” meaning 40 hours worth of pay for doing only 30 hours of work, then we would have seized from the capitalists their “right” to arbitrarily dictate our wages and the length of the workweek with only their interests in mind. Nationalizations mean that companies have been removed from the sphere of the private economy and operate more in the direction of a planned economy. Workers’ control means that the capitalists cannot dictate the work process or control hiring and firing. All of these programs make significant strides in the direction of socialism and weaken the capitalist class. When transitional demands have been won, capitalism has suffered debilitating wounds.

We support the right of oppressed nationalities to self-determination, but we do not restrict the struggle to this demand. We combine it with transitional demands. As Lenin argued: “We must combine the revolutionary struggle against capitalism with a revolutionary program and tactics on all democratic demands: a republic, a militia, the popular election of officials, equal rights for women, the self-determination of nations, etc.,” (“The Revolutionary Proletariat and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination”). But this also means that we do not focus exclusively on transitional demands and turn our backs on the special struggles of the most oppressed elements of the working class.

Consequently such an approach implies that if the Black community were engaged in a struggle against a particular racist employer, demanding that the employer end discrimination and hire Blacks on an equal basis, then we would join this movement by creating a united front with the community. The united front is defined by sectors of the working class coming together to fight for specific, limited demands, in this case “End Hiring Discrimination,” or in the antiwar movement, “Bring the Troops Home Now.” Here the participating groups maintain their political independence, meaning that each group has the freedom to introduce its own political perspective by selling its newspaper, etc. In this way, we could introduce, through our publication, transitional demands such as “jobs for all,” “workers control over hiring and firing,” “30 for 40,” etc. By injecting these transitional demands into the struggle, we can show the way for all workers to unite and secure much bigger gains for everyone.

Affirmative Action

Affirmative action refers to programs that were initiated in the 1960s by the U.S. government as a result of intense pressure from the Civil Rights movement to end discrimination, particularly around hiring and promotions, although labor unions and businesses have also implemented affirmative action programs on a voluntary basis. By aiming to achieve equality, particularly in hiring practices where discrimination has had, and continues to have, a virulent legacy, affirmative action addresses a democratic demand. It has taken various forms, from the most mild versions where employers are required to make extra efforts to ensure that all qualified potential applicants know about the job opening, on the one hand, to the more strict versions where employers are required to hire according to racial quotas on the other hand.

No simple formula can provide us with a compass for supporting or rejecting a particular affirmative action proposal in advance. Each case must be judged according to its own merits, always aiming at uniting the working class as our highest consideration.

We believe that affirmative action is often an effective tool for uniting the working class, especially during periods when Blacks are struggling for integration and equal rights. Blacks, Latinos, women, etc. have been victimized by discriminatory hiring practices in the past and continue to be victimized in the present. Consequently, they have fallen behind white workers economically. These practices have particularly benefited capitalists by undermining class unity. Blacks, for example, resent whites who are hired or promoted over them when Blacks themselves are the more qualified, and Blacks resent it when whites seem indifferent to the injustice. Whites resent Blacks when they are used as strike breakers. Many affirmative action programs have the potential to remove racist and sexist barriers so that all members of the working class have equal access to jobs, thereby eliminating major differences among workers and hence helping unify the working class.

We also believe that quotas at times can play a positive role in uniting the working class. Quotas have been a popular demand among the Black population, particularly when racist employers fight tenaciously to maintain their racist hiring practices. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, demanded quotas: “If the proportion of blacks to the total population was 12 percent, then we would ask that 12 percent of the employees be black.” More recently, the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition in New Orleans has called for affirmative action with quotas of 67 percent for all federal jobs involved in reconstruction. Quotas have also been employed successfully to desegregate schools. In San Francisco, for example, as a result of a court case mounted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), a court ruling prohibited more than 45 percent of any single race to attend the same school. While such examples of quotas have enjoyed popularity among the most oppressed, popularity alone is not a sufficient reason to embrace them, although it should be taken into consideration.

People resent quotas when they result in unqualified candidates being hired or promoted at the expense of qualified candidates. We think this resentment is understandable and would not support such a perversion of quotas. However, other situations can arise where recourse to quotas might be entirely appropriate. For example, if a company has engaged in documented intentional discrimination, and if no particular skills are required for the job, then we might very well support and join a united front movement, initiated by those who have been discriminated against, that has coalesced around the demand to hire applicants according to the same percentage as their presence in the surrounding community.

Affirmative action programs have often assuaged people’s basic sense of moral outrage in the face of blatant racist hiring practices, and have accordingly won support from both Blacks and whites for this reason. These programs also have the potential to help diminish divisions within the working class in so far as workers are placed on a more level “playing field” when applying for jobs. However, in and of itself, affirmative action does not advance us in the direction of socialism. We believe that our support for affirmative action programs must be combined with transitional demands, for example, for “30 for 40” or for massive public work projects aimed at employing the unemployed, both of which would increase the number of jobs for everyone. In this way, we can further strengthen working class solidarity so that we can march together towards our historical destiny of overthrowing capitalism and finally replacing it with a system where the good of the entire community replaces the lust for profits of a super rich minority as its guiding principle.

history, Politics,

Obama Snubs Africa, Then African Americans

Many people believed that after Bush had left the White House, rampant arrogance combined with stunning hypocrisy had also gone. Events have proven otherwise. A recent speech delivered in Africa — and one later directed specifically at African Americans — carried with them all the baggage of the Bush years, to the extent that one could safely claim that absolutely nothing had changed. And although Obama is able to give a more compassionate and intelligent speech than was possible with Bush, the essence of their policies is identical. Both Africans and African Americans can expect no help from the U.S. government in addressing their serious and specific grievances, themselves the result of past and current U.S. government policy. Instead, both were given the same solution: if you want help, help yourselves, “no excuses.”
In Africa Obama gave brief mention to the Continent’s tragic past in regards to slavery and colonialism, but prescribed a cure that fell short of inspirational, when he said, “Africa’s future is up to Africans,” which essentially means not to expect too much help from the U.S. The Economist magazine correctly noted that “there was little in the speech that could not have been said by George Bush…” (July 16, 2009).

What Obama failed to mention was the active role the U.S. government played in ensuring that resource-rich Africa remains a continent plundered by foreign powers. This continued ransacking happens not only through U.S. corporations, the IMF and World Bank, but through U.S. sponsored proxy wars, such as the current ones in Somalia and Congo, and the recent conflicts in Kenya, Sudan, Rwanda, etc.

The successful proxy war in Sudan achieved a Bush-led plan to eventually partition the country so that the oil-rich south could be exploited by western corporations. The president of Sudan, Omar el-Bashir, has close links to China, which the U.S. cannot tolerate. Bashir is therefore labeled a war criminal for his actions against the U.S. backed militia that sought to undermine his government.

Obama is continuing the Bush-era campaign of undermining Bashir, demanding that he be tried for war crimes. Obama was clear in his speech: “We will stand behind efforts to hold war criminals accountable.” Obama is hypocritically ignoring the fact that his predecessor is by far the world’s biggest war criminal; and Bush has absolutely no worries about being prosecuted for his crimes. Interestingly, the African Union does not agree with Obama that Bashir is a war criminal, creating the conflict that prompted Obama’s comments.

Also troubling in Obama’s speech was the promise that only countries that achieved “good governance” would receive aid from the U.S. The fact that the most vicious dictatorship on earth — Saudi Arabia — continues under Obama to be a “very close” U.S. ally, puts to question the definition of “good governance.” Especially since otherextremely repressive governments — Israel, Colombia, Egypt, etc. — also receive enormous sums of U.S. financial and military aid. When applied to Africa, “good governance” refers simply to those governments that do exactly as the U.S. wishes.

Most revealing for Obama’s real plans in Africa is his support for Bush’s blueprints for AFRICOM, a planned U.S. military command specifically dedicated to U.S. “conflicts” in Africa. One can assume that such a command was planned with future U.S. military intervention in mind.

Although Obama is correct when he said, “I have the blood of Africa in my veins,” he unfortunately shares the political views of a conservative Republican.

For example, when Obama gave a recent speech in front of the N.A.A.C.P, his main message was “personal responsibility.” Obama is very fond of this catchphrase, which is in fact at the foundation of conservative philosophy.

The reason that “personal responsibility” is such a lynchpin in Conservative thought is its implications: it strongly justifies the status quo, and those who benefit from it. Thus, the rich deserve their place atop society, while those at the bottom are likewise “responsible” for it.

All the factors that create generational poverty and generational wealth are ignored, especially the fact that there exists a tiny class of people who own the banks and other corporations, and another much larger class actually doing the work; assuming they’re lucky enough to have a job.

In making his point, Obama said that, “growing up poor can’t be an excuse to get bad grades.” The many difficulties that come with being poor needn’t be “excuses,” but mere facts of existence, including: demoralization, general instability, anxiety, poor nutrition, inadequate resources, lack of safety, no health insurance, poor public schools, etc.

Obama surely knows that economic opportunities in predominantly black communities are more than scarce, especially given the present state of the economy and the widespread disease of racism. If one wants to have enough money for both food and to pay their rent, resorting to the informal economy is often a very reasonable choice.

When it came to the issues of racism and discrimination, Obama spoke very little: “Make no mistake, the pain of discrimination is still felt in America.” But while recognizing that these evils still exist, his solution was to all but ignore them. “No excuses” was the mantra — the right-wing media publications were all very impressed.

For Africans and African Americans, the especially high expectations that came with Obama’s presidency are destined to become colossal letdowns. Correcting the past and present wrongs to Africa and African-Americans would take great structural changes in U.S. government policy; away from benefiting a tiny privileged elite and working towards policies that benefit the great majority of people.

For African American communities, giant government investment is needed in education, housing, health care, and public works so that living-wage jobs are created that allow an actual route out of poverty. This, combined with an increase in affirmative action programs, is a way to enact real change; much more than Obama’s encouraging words will provide.

Of course, the people who actually control the Democrats and Republicans — the big banks, health care industry, oil companies, weapons producers, etc. — want no such change. They greatly benefit from the cheap labor that racism and discrimination provide them. Organizing outside of the realm of the two-party system is therefore a necessary first step towards change in action, not in words.

Politics,

Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Introduction by Workers Action

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered this speech at a Clergy and Laity Concerned meeting at the Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967. In it he stressed the connection between the U.S. wars abroad and the economic and racial injustice here at home, “I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a `thing-oriented’ society to a `person-oriented’ society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” This was his first formal speech announcing his opposition to the war in Vietnam.

Today the U.S. government has just concluded a long war in Iraq, it is mired indefinitely in the war in Afghanistan, and it has been pushing Iran to the brink of war, all for the sake of oil, profits, and the military domination of the world. Meanwhile struggles are taking place here at home over the underfunding of public education and social services and the threats to Social Security and Medicare. This speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. certainly has lessons for today.

Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, I need not pause to say how very delighted I am to be here tonight, and how very delighted I am to see you expressing your concern about the issues that will be discussed tonight by turning out in such large numbers. I also want to say that I consider it a great honor to share this program with Dr. Bennett, Dr. Commager, and Rabbi Heschel, some of the distinguished leaders and personalities of our nation. And of course it’s always good to come back to Riverside Church. Over the last eight years, I have had the privilege of preaching here almost every year in that period, and it is always a rich and rewarding experience to come to this great church and this great pulpit.

I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join you in this meeting because I am in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together, Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam. The recent statements of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart, and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty. But we must move on.

Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement, and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance. For we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.

Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns, this query has often loomed large and loud: “Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent?” “Peace and civil rights don’t mix,” they say. “Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people?” they ask. And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live. In the light of such tragic misunderstanding, I deem it of signal importance to try to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church — the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate — leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.

I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation. This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia. Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam. Neither is it an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they must play in the successful resolution of the problem. While they both may have justifiable reasons to be suspicious of the good faith of the United States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides. Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the National Liberation Front, but rather to my fellow Americans.

Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I and others have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor, both black and white, through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war. And I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettos of the North over the last three years, especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked, and rightly so, “What about Vietnam?” They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today: my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.

For those who ask the question, “Aren’t you a civil rights leader?” and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957, when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: “To save the soul of America.” We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. In a way we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black bard of Harlem, who had written earlier:

O, yes, I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!

Now it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read “Vietnam.” It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that “America will be” are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.

As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1954.* And I cannot forget that the Nobel Peace Prize was also a commission, a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for the brotherhood of man. This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances.

But even if it were not present, I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me, the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men — for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?

Finally, as I try to explain for you and for myself the road that leads from Montgomery to this place, I would have offered all that was most valid if I simply said that I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood. Because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned, especially for His suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them. This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.

And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the ideologies of the Liberation Front, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them, too, because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.

They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1954 — in 1945 rather — after a combined French and Japanese occupation and before the communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony. Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not ready for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long. With that tragic decision we rejected a revolutionary government seeking self-determination and a government that had been established not by China — for whom the Vietnamese have no great love — but by clearly indigenous forces that included some communists. For the peasants this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs in their lives.

For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Vietnam the right of independence. For nine years we vigorously supported the French in their abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam. Before the end of the war we were meeting eighty percent of the French war costs. Even before the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, they began to despair of their reckless action, but we did not. We encouraged them with our huge financial and military supplies to continue the war even after they had lost the will. Soon we would be paying almost the full costs of this tragic attempt at recolonization.

After the French were defeated, it looked as if independence and land reform would come again through the Geneva Agreement. But instead there came the United States, determined that Ho should not unify the temporarily divided nation, and the peasants watched again as we supported one of the most vicious modern dictators, our chosen man, Premier Diem. The peasants watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly rooted out all opposition, supported their extortionist landlords, and refused even to discuss reunification with the North. The peasants watched as all of this was presided over by United States influence and then by increasing numbers of United States troops who came to help quell the insurgency that Diem’s methods had aroused. When Diem was overthrown they may have been happy, but the long line of military dictators seemed to offer no real change, especially in terms of their need for land and peace.

The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept, and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received the regular promises of peace and democracy and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move on or be destroyed by our bombs.

So they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.

What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?

We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing of the nation’s only noncommunist revolutionary political force, the unified Buddhist Church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men.

Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness. Soon the only solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call “fortified hamlets.” The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such grounds as these. Could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise. These, too, are our brothers.

Perhaps a more difficult but no less necessary task is to speak for those who have been designated as our enemies. What of the National Liberation Front, that strangely anonymous group we call “VC” or “communists”? What must they think of the United States of America when they realize that we permitted the repression and cruelty of Diem, which helped to bring them into being as a resistance group in the South? What do they think of our condoning the violence which led to their own taking up of arms? How can they believe in our integrity when now we speak of “aggression from the North” as if there were nothing more essential to the war? How can they trust us when now we charge them with violence after the murderous reign of Diem and charge them with violence while we pour every new weapon of death into their land? Surely we must understand their feelings, even if we do not condone their actions. Surely we must see that the men we supported pressed them to their violence. Surely we must see that our own computerized plans of destruction simply dwarf their greatest acts.

How do they judge us when our officials know that their membership is less than twenty-five percent communist, and yet insist on giving them the blanket name? What must they be thinking when they know that we are aware of their control of major sections of Vietnam, and yet we appear ready to allow national elections in which this highly organized political parallel government will not have a part? They ask how we can speak of free elections when the Saigon press is censored and controlled by the military junta. And they are surely right to wonder what kind of new government we plan to help form without them, the only party in real touch with the peasants. They question our political goals and they deny the reality of a peace settlement from which they will be excluded. Their questions are frighteningly relevant. Is our nation planning to build on political myth again, and then shore it up upon the power of a new violence?

Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.

So, too, with Hanoi. In the North, where our bombs now pummel the land, and our mines endanger the waterways, we are met by a deep but understandable mistrust. To speak for them is to explain this lack of confidence in Western words, and especially their distrust of American intentions now. In Hanoi are the men who led the nation to independence against the Japanese and the French, the men who sought membership in the French Commonwealth and were betrayed by the weakness of Paris and the willfulness of the colonial armies. It was they who led a second struggle against French domination at tremendous costs, and then were persuaded to give up the land they controlled between the thirteenth and seventeenth parallel as a temporary measure at Geneva. After 1954 they watched us conspire with Diem to prevent elections which could have surely brought Ho Chi Minh to power over a united Vietnam, and they realized they had been betrayed again. When we ask why they do not leap to negotiate, these things must be remembered.

Also, it must be clear that the leaders of Hanoi considered the presence of American troops in support of the Diem regime to have been the initial military breach of the Geneva Agreement concerning foreign troops. They remind us that they did not begin to send troops in large numbers and even supplies into the South until American forces had moved into the tens of thousands.

Hanoi remembers how our leaders refused to tell us the truth about the earlier North Vietnamese overtures for peace, how the president claimed that none existed when they had clearly been made. Ho Chi Minh has watched as America has spoken of peace and built up its forces, and now he has surely heard the increasing international rumors of American plans for an invasion of the North. He knows the bombing and shelling and mining we are doing are part of traditional pre-invasion strategy. Perhaps only his sense of humor and of irony can save him when he hears the most powerful nation of the world speaking of aggression as it drops thousands of bombs on a poor, weak nation more than eight hundred, or rather, eight thousand miles away from its shores.

At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called “enemy,” I am as deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.

Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and dealt death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.

This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam. Recently one of them wrote these words, and I quote:

Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the hearts of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.

Unquote.

If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible, clumsy, and deadly game we have decided to play. The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways. In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war.

I would like to suggest five concrete things that our government should do immediately to begin the long and difficult process of extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict:

Number one: End all bombing in North and South Vietnam.

Number two: Declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hope that such action will create the atmosphere for negotiation.

Three: Take immediate steps to prevent other battlegrounds in Southeast Asia by curtailing our military buildup in Thailand and our interference in Laos.

Four: Realistically accept the fact that the National Liberation Front has substantial support in South Vietnam and must thereby play a role in any meaningful negotiations and any future Vietnam government.

Five: Set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva Agreement. [sustained applause]

Part of our ongoing [applause continues], part of our ongoing commitment might well express itself in an offer to grant asylum to any Vietnamese who fears for his life under a new regime which included the Liberation Front. Then we must make what reparations we can for the damage we have done. We must provide the medical aid that is badly needed, making it available in this country if necessary. Meanwhile [applause], meanwhile, we in the churches and synagogues have a continuing task while we urge our government to disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment. We must continue to raise our voices and our lives if our nation persists in its perverse ways in Vietnam. We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative method of protest possible.

As we counsel young men concerning military service, we must clarify for them our nation’s role in Vietnam and challenge them with the alternative of conscientious objection. [sustained applause] I am pleased to say that this is a path now chosen by more than seventy students at my own alma mater, Morehouse College, and I recommend it to all who find the American course in Vietnam a dishonorable and unjust one. [applause] Moreover, I would encourage all ministers of draft age to give up their ministerial exemptions and seek status as conscientious objectors. [applause] These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.

Now there is something seductively tempting about stopping there and sending us all off on what in some circles has become a popular crusade against the war in Vietnam. I say we must enter that struggle, but I wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing.

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality [applause], and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy. [sustained applause] So such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.

In 1957 a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which has now justified the presence of U.S. military advisors in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counterrevolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Cambodia and why American napalm and Green Beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru.

It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” [applause] Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin [applause], we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. [applause]

A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.

A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death. [sustained applause]

America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.

This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. [applause] War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not engage in a negative anticommunism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy [applause], realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice, which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops.

These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light. We in the West must support these revolutions.

It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch antirevolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has a revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low [Audience:] (Yes); the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”

A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.

This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I’m not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another (Yes), for love is God. (Yes) And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love. . . . If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.” Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.

We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says: “Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word.” Unquote.

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood — it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on.”

We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.

Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message — of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.

As that noble bard of yesterday, James Russell Lowell, eloquently stated:

Once to every man and nation comes a moment to decide,
In the strife of Truth and Falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever `twixt that darkness and that light.
Though the cause of evil prosper, yet `tis truth alone is strong
Though her portions be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.

And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. [sustained applause]

* King says “1954,” but most likely means 1964, the year he received the Nobel Peace Prize.

Politics,

Mass Action Gets Results: The Arrest of George Zimmerman

Mark Vorpahl

Weeks after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Special Prosecutor Angela Corey has announced that his killer, George Zimmerman, will be charged with second degree murder. Though originally allowed to walk scot free without any charges, Zimmerman is now behind bars. It is hard to think of another case that has swung so widely from one extreme to another.

The mass actions that have taken place nationally, protesting how the killing of Trayvon Martin was initially handled, including an April 9th action organized by “Dream Defenders” that peacefully shut down the Sanford Police Department for five hours, have had a measurable impact. Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee was forced to temporarily resign because of the controversy. The Federal Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has opened up an investigation on the matter. And now the rallies and demonstrations have produced the announcement of Special Prosecutor Angela Corey. None of this would have occurred without the collective grass-roots efforts of thousands who were motivated not only by outrage over this particular tragedy, but all that it has come to epitomize.

Continuing Wounds

Painful wounds, when there are no serious attempts to heal the underlying medical condition creating them, are doomed to continually flare up. The tragic killing of Trayvon Martin and the initial release of his killer, George Zimmerman, without consequence, has inflamed one such wound in the U.S. — yet again. That is, we continue to live in a nation that is characterized by institutionalized racism, and this is reflected by the actions of a “justice system” more intent on criminalizing according to race than protecting the innocent.

Hardly more than a year goes by, and sometimes a merely a matter of months, without another killing or beating of a Black person at the hands of the police or vigilante gaining national attention, followed by the perpetrators of these crimes getting off with little or no consequence. Between these national events are countless similar tragedies that continue to prick at the painful truth of racial inequality under the law. In addition, nearly 1 million adult African Americans are behind bars, an eightfold increase from three decades ago. This, combined with sharply worsening statistics for African Americans when compared to whites in everything from unemployment to infant mortality, demonstrate that the U.S. economic/political/justice system has racism built into its foundation.

This was indirectly acknowledged in the popular call to arrest Zimmerman. Behind this is the recognition that, in order for the most elementary legal steps to be taken when matters of race are involved, it is not enough to simply allow the courts and laws work on their own — as though this has been effective. It is necessary to demand these steps through mass action.

Business as Usual

The turn-around with the arrest of George Zimmerman is all the more remarkable because the killing of Trayvon Martin was expected to be swept under the rug. Such an expectation was not unrealistic.

The state sanctioned killing of African Americans by police or vigilantes, without legal consequences for the killers or outrage by the press, is more routine than is generally acknowledged. According to Kali Akuno and Arlene Eisen in http://mxgm.org/trayvon-martin-is-all-of-us/ there were at least 30 such deaths in the first three months of 2012 alone. Of these 30 victims, 20 were definitely unarmed, 12 were innocent of any illegal or threatening behavior and in all but two cases, it appears that any illegal and/or harmful behavior could have been stopped without lethal force.

In addition, George Zimmerman is a white/Hispanic man with important connections. His father is a retired Virginia Supreme Court magistrate, a fact that is likely to be viewed favorably by any police department. He was well known to police as a zealous crime watch volunteer, frequently reporting “a suspicious person” in his gated neighborhood. While one officer wanted to at least charge Zimmerman with manslaughter, this was quickly put to a stop. State Attorney General Wolfinger drove 50 miles out to Sanford to intervene. It is important to know that Wolfinger has a questionable history of selective prosecution. Most pertinently, in 2005, he failed to file charges against two white security guards who shot in the back and killed a Black youth, Travares McGill, as he attempted to drive away after being confronted by them. Wolfinger’s failure to file charges against Zimmerman was his typical response in such cases.

Stand Your Ground

Zimmerman was originally released under the pretext of the “Stand Your Ground” law. This law dismisses the idea that a defender has a “duty to retreat” from a dangerous and escalating situation in order to not be charged in the killing of an assailant. Though Zimmerman was following Martin, was armed, and was nearly 100 pounds larger than the teenager, those that set him free claimed that they could not file charges because Zimmerman alleged that Martin had physically attacked him and, therefore, he acted in accordance to “Stand Your Ground.” As misguided as this law is, however, blaming it on the miscarriage of justice that resulted in Zimmerman’s release doesn’t hold water. The authors of the law insist that it doesn’t apply in this case. Senator Peaden, one of the authors, has told the Miami Herald that Zimmerman lost his claim to Stand Your Ground: “When he said ‘I’m following him’ [to a 911 dispatcher who told Zimmerman not to go after Martin], he lost his defense.” In other words, Stand Your Ground was only a convenient excuse for letting Zimmerman go, not a rope that tied the police department’s hands.

The problems that allowed the police to originally release Zimmerman are not the result of badly conceived laws — though these do not help. They are the result of an economic/political system dominated by the interests of a wealthy few who are better able to enrich themselves by dividing workers along racial lines. The racial inequalities operative in how the legal system is applied, not to mention job opportunities and living standards, make it more difficult for all workers to unite for better wages and political rights. Consequently, the call for justice for Trayvon Martin, and the daily other examples of racially motivated injustice, are not exclusively an issue of Black oppression. They are also working class and human rights issues. It is in the interests of all workers to unite against such examples of racism.

At this point, it is impossible to confidently predict how events will unfold with the case against Zimmerman. What is known is the need to build and expand from the mass work that has been done to create a movement that can wash away the foundations of racism in this country.

Politics,

Police Unions vs. Black Lives

In “progressive” Portland, Oregon the city’s police stand out as political outliers. Whereas most of the city leans left the average cop is, unapologetically, on the far-right of the political spectrum. Portland’s rightwing cops mirror the politics of police across the country, reflected in the early endorsement that the nation’s largest police union gave to Trump at a time when the sleaziest politicians found him too repulsive.

It’s an open secret that Portland’s police have a racism problem, the worst example being the infamous case of officer Mark Kruger, who was caught erecting a Nazi shrine in a public park in 2010. Officer Kruger has since been promoted to Captain, and his discipline for Nazi-praising scrubbed from his personnel record.

Portland’s police problems inspired the city’s multi-millionaire mayor, Ted Wheeler, to campaign to reform and “demilitarize” the police. This pledge was nullified weeks after the new mayor’s term began, when peaceful anti-Trump protests were attacked by Portland’s riot cops and the mayor responded by… doing nothing. Later, when white supremacists came to Portland, the police attacked peaceful counter-protestors while allowing a pro-fascist militia to “assist” police in arresting an anti-fascist counter protester.

Under pressure from the public, the mayor politely asked the police if they could refrain from wearing their scary riot uniforms. The police union president curtly replied that it was their “right,” enshrined in the union contract. And that was the end of the conversation.

The police union contract — and the organization that bargains the contract — the Portland Police Association, is the centerpiece of police power in Portland. Police unions across the country play similar roles, acting as powerful barriers to any substantive reform, ensuring that real police accountability is unachievable. Without organizing against this barrier to reform, police will continue to act with impunity, knowing there’s no real accountability for their actions.

Not all police reform advocates agree that police unions should be an organizing target. Rosa Squillacote recently wrote against the strategy:

“…ultimately, power over police policy is located in liberal ideology, courts, executive offices, and the structure of an institutionally isolated administrative agency. These are the places where power lies; focusing on police unions is a distraction.”

Squillacote argues that police should be treated as individuals, and existing divisions within the police can be nurtured, such as the recent example of police protesting by “taking a knee.”

It’s true that reformers should embrace every opportunity with every individual police officer. But so long as police function mainly as a “union” or “brotherhood,” they need to be organized against as such.

Police unions are not coming closer to embracing reforms, but militantly closing ranks against them. Police unions view the Black Lives Matter movement as an existential threat, heightened by cell phones and social media that are exposing longstanding abusive practices. The well intentioned police officer (and there are certainly many) or sporadic symbolic gesture cannot change this essential dynamic.

And although Squillacote is correct in noting that there is existing power over police in the hands of politicians and institutions, it’s also true that police unions have tremendous “influence” over the city powermap through their militant organizing and threats, as we’ll see below.

Ultimately, most city governments have long ago lost control over their police departments, and are either too afraid to directly challenge their power, or too appreciative of the services the police provide to the local political establishment, such as enforcing pro-business anti homeless laws, and heavily policing newly-gentrified areas to incarcerate those — mainly people of color — who are forced to eek out a living in the informal economy.

Portland is regularly reminded of the lack of control it has over its police whenever riot police brutalize peaceful protestors and unarmed Black men are killed with impunity. There are always minimal — and usually zero — consequences, so that bad behavior is reinforced. Police power will thus continue to expand, unchecked, at the expense of both vulnerable communities and municipal democracy, until police unions are directly confronted and defanged.

Why are police unions so powerful?

Police unions allow cops to collectively organize and function independently, while funneling member’s dues into attorney protection and donations to campaigning politicians. The real power of the police union is two-fold: their role as a vital organization to the daily functioning of society (a strike threat terrifies city officials) and more importantly, the internal solidarity of the police that enables them to act collectively in a way that all unions should be jealous of (meaning that a powerful strike is actually achievable).

A powerful example of police union organizing occurred in New York, in response to the Black Lives Matter movement. Not long after the murder of Eric Garner at the hands an NYPD officer, the New York police union (under increased scrutiny) organized a citywide action using a tactic as old as the labor movement, the “slowdown,” where the workforce agrees to collectively work less, displaying their power by removing a chunk of their labor.

The New York Post called the NYPD’s slowdown a “virtual work stoppage,” resulting in:

“…overall arrests down 66 percent…citations for traffic violations fell by 94 percent.. Summonses for low-level offenses like public drinking and urination also plunged 94 percent…Even parking violations are way down, dropping by 92 percent…”

This kind of work action brings a city government to its knees, not only by starving it of funds but by issuing a credible threat that further conflict may result in a full fledged strike. The NYPD action brought New York City Mayor De Blasio to the negotiating table, and certainly terrified many in the Mayor’s administration.

The police union also came at De Blasio with public protests, at his house and at the gym he worked out in. After the slowdown and protests De Blasio’s appetite for police reform was stymied, his supporters in the reform movement demoralized.

The Guardian said that the NYPD has “… experienced decades of sustained militancy by its police unions – from repeated work slowdowns like the one now taking place, to riotous mass rallies and public denunciations, political campaigns, and well-funded legislative pressure.”

Earlier this year a NYPD police union (there are 5 total) threatened yet another slowdown, in response to a NYPD sergeant being charged with murder for killing an obviously mentally ill person. Having used a slowdown successfully, the mere threat of one is now enough to strike terror in the mayor. Police unions across the country were watching the NYPD conflict, learning strategies that they could impose to protect their members at the expense of the public.

Interestingly, the above-mentioned article by Rosa Squillacote makes mention of the NYPD slowdown, and in order to minimize the power of the police unions Squillacote completely misdiagnoses what happened:

“That [NYPD] slowdown was instigated by the PBA [Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association] and warmly embraced by officers. It was also embraced by police reform advocates at the time, who responded with a resounding ‘yes, please, police us less’”

Huh? It’s one thing to appreciate less aggressive policing, and another to ignore that the police union strong-armed city government to prevent further police reforms. Squillacote ignores the motive behind the police action and thus the political repercussions are lost. By minimizing the action the despotic power of the police union remained hidden, even as it steered the mayor’s actions against further police reform.

Police unions are able to perform amazing feats of organizing because their internal solidarity resembles the wartime solidarity of soldiers: non-police are “civilians” while fellow cops are “comrades” who rely on each other for survival as they fight a daily war against society’s poor. Solidarity is power, and an organization that consists of armed people with little public accountability is powerful indeed.

The solidarity and social power of police is enshrined in legally enforceable union contracts, protected by federal and state labor laws. These union contracts often act as a shield for police. Slate wrote an article on Portland’s Police and remarked how the union contract prevents police accountability:

“The [Portland Police] union’s contract, like those of many police unions, shields officers from investigation, limits oversight, and impedes disciplinary action. Even the power of the city’s Independent Police Review Board, which oversees police investigations, is checked by the union contract, and the bureau retains final say in investigations and discipline matters.”

A broader study of police unions by the ‘Police Union Contract Project’ reviewed union contracts in 81 of America’s largest cities. The study found that most cities had provisions in the contracts that protected police by a variety of the following methods:

Disqualifying misconduct complaints

Preventing police officers from being interrogated immediately after being involved in an incident or otherwise restricting how, when, or where they can be interrogated

Giving officers access to information that civilians do not get prior to being interrogated [such as video of the incident, so they can match their sworn statements with availability evidence]

Requiring cities to pay costs related to police misconduct including by giving officers paid leave while under investigation, paying legal fees, and/or the cost of settlements

Preventing information on past misconduct investigations from being recorded or retained in an officer’s personnel file

Limiting disciplinary consequences for officers or limiting the capacity of civilian oversight structures and/or the media to hold police accountable.

Many of these issues have been at play and have prevented reforms in cities across the country, and in Portland in particular.

Justice Denied: The Victories of Portland’s Police Union

Portland’s police have been involved in several high-profile deaths involving mentally ill people, including James Chassee who died in 2006 while in police custody, and Aaron Campbell and Keaton Otis who were killed in separate incidents in 2010.

Aaron Campbell, a young black man, was shot in the back, unarmed, during a mental health crisis while he surrendered to police. The officer who shot Campbell, Ron Frashour, was initially fired.

To fight this unprecedented discipline, the police union went into action by filing — and winning — a union grievance (a violation of the police union contract). The police union alleged that Frashour’s firing violated the “just cause” provision of the union contract (most union contracts have “just cause” provisions that require employers to prove that a worker was “justly” disciplined).

There was never any doubt about Frashour’s guilt. He murdered an obviously innocent person. Even Police Chief Mike Reese said in a sworn statement: “We didn’t have a right to shoot him [Aaron Campbell]. He never displayed a weapon. He didn’t take any offensive action towards the officer.”

The pro-police arbitrator (a “judge” of union grievances) ordered the city to rehire the fired officer, and initially Mayor Sam Adams refused, in a direct challenge to the police union. But eventually the mayor backtracked, in a major victory of the police union that, seemingly, legalized the shooting of unarmed black men.

The Portland police union also won big after it intervened on behalf of the officers who beat James Chasse to death, shattering his ribs and puncturing his lung. The officers responsible for his death only received two-week suspensions, but any punishment was too severe for the police union, who demanded that the discipline letters be revoked and that they receive full back pay. The result was another total victory for the police union, even though the city ended up paying the family of James Chasse over a million dollars for wrongful death.

One of Chasse’s killers, officer Christopher Humphreys, continued as a cop and was later caught on video using a beanbag gun at point blank range against a 12-year-old African American girl.

The public outrage resulted in yet another temporary suspension for Humphreys, and the police union again sprung into action by quickly organizing a public rally where 650 police officers all wore “I am Chris Humphreys” t-shirts.

Having two-thirds of the police force demonstrate near City Hall had its desired effect, and Humphreys was again cleared of all wrongdoing. Now Humphreys is sheriff of Wheeler County, a region named after Mayor Ted Wheeler’s great grandfather, timber baron Coleman Wheeler.

In addition to union protection, most police officers are protected by police-friendly district attorneys, who share the police’s outlook on mass incarceration while relying on police testimony to get “wins” in court. Thus, a district attorney-led “grand jury” is likely to clear an officer of any wrong doing before any independent inquiry is instigated into a police killing.

Portland’s district attorney is especially cop friendly, as one of its prosecutors is Cody Berne, a former police officer who was directly involved in the shooting death of Keaton Otis. As a district attorney, Berne will likely treat cops as he was treated during his grand jury experience, when he was quickly exonerated of killing Keaton Otis, whose death provoked a monthly vigil for justice that continues to this day, seven years after the shooting.

In March 2017 Portland’s district attorney caused outrage yet again when it cleared officer Andrew Hearst of any wrongdoing for killing 17-year-old Quanice Hayes, who died unarmed, on his knees (as ordered by police), shot in the head. Officer Hearst said he feared for his life and that’s all the district attorney needed to hear.

Days after the murder of Quanice Hayes a Portland police sergeant, Gregg Lewis, made “blatantly racist” and violent comments during roll call in front of other officers, and was placed on paid leave during the investigation. The fact that Lewis felt comfortable enough to make racist comments during roll call is indicative of a deeper racist culture that remains unaddressed.
The Feds vs. Portland’s Police Union

The outlandish killings perpetrated by Portland’s police caught the attention of Obama’s Department of Justice (DOJ), which concluded that Portland’s cops engaged in a “pattern of excessive” force against people with mental illness.

The outcome was a 2014 negotiated settlement where a local Community Oversight Advisory Board was created to help track the progress of DOJ reforms. Similar DOJ-initiated reforms have been meted out to other cities’ police, and have been similarly unsuccessful.

The Obama DOJ negotiated similar agreements with 11 other cities, and as an investigation by “In These Times” uncovered, the agreements were more often than not smashed against the rocks of the local police union.

The In These Times study concluded that, “In at least seven cases, collective bargaining agreements presented a roadblock to achieving key reforms required by the [DOJ] settlements. Police unions watered down measures that contradicted their contracts, or they launched legal challenges that, even when unsuccessful, delayed implementation.”

The report gives special attention to Portland’s police union for ensuring the DOJ process would be stillborn. When the DOJ began discussions with the city the Portland police union sued to get a seat at the table, and they won. Their argument was that “…proposed changes to use-of-force rules, oversight and training encroached on collective bargaining rights [i.e., the union contract].

The early and deep involvement of the police union ensured that Portland’s DOJ process would be tipped in favor of the police, against the reformers. To oversee the progress of the DOJ reforms Portland hired

Criminology Professor Dennis Rosenbaum, who expressed continual exasperation of the police’s obstinacy. Here he’s quoted in the Oregonian:

“…Without the buy-in from the rank and file [police officer], “we’re fighting an uphill battle just to reform the organization [police],”

This says it all. Sometimes the police contract was used as an excuse not to implement the DOJ reforms; others could simply be ignored. A poll of Portland police showed that over 80% disagreed with the DOJ reforms, and by refusing the reforms collectively, as a union, the city council was brought to its knees.

Consequently, dozens of recommendations from the Community Advisory Board were ignored by city council, and after the settlement process had all but failed, Trump came to power and implied that a Trump-led DOJ would not enforce any Obama-era DOJ agreements.

Recognizing the process dead, new Mayor Ted Wheeler decided to adjust himself to the balance of power rather than challenge it: he disbanded the Community Advisory Board and put in its place a smaller and hand picked board that ensured that there would be even less police accountability, reburying the problem.
Should the Labor Movement Support Police Unions?

Since the Black Lives Matter movement emerged, this question has come under scrutiny. Some police unions are part of the AFL-CIO labor federation, though many remain , such as Portland’s police union.

Police unions pose a real contradiction for the labor movement since they are protected by the same federal and state labor laws that protect other public employee unions. Consequently, some unions understandably fear that a successful attack on police unions will provide a legal precedent that can be used to attack other public sector unions. This fear, while valid, cannot be used by the labor movement to support police unions at the expense of social justice and municipal democracy.

Police themselves do not feel any solidarity with the labor movement; they see themselves as an independent social force that opportunistically uses labor law when it benefits them.

The police are independent agents, much more likely to smash a picket line than join it. As the labor movement becomes increasingly militant — using civil disobedience and other tactics — it’s the police who will be called by employers and local governments. The police will “protect and serve” employers against their workers and especially, growing social movements.

If the labor movement believes that Black Lives matter they cannot simultaneously believe that the police are members of their labor family. And if the labor movement continues its trajectory of adopting more militant tactics — and it must to survive — it will increasingly fall into direct combat with the riot police.

Fighting Back

Police reformer Rosa Squillacote is correct when she says that “Abolition [of the police] is not around the corner: we have a long way to go in this battle. Reforms are therefore necessary, and happen as a result of strategic political action, not grandstanding.”

To confront a powerful entity requires organizing a similar level of power. Protest alone cannot achieve meaningful and lasting reforms to the police, unless the energy is funneled into a broad movement that makes the opposition submit.

Different sections of the Black Lives Matter movement have previously targeted their city’s police union by protesting and demanding that excessive funding to police be funneled instead into housing and social services.

These protests raised excellent demands and were certainly successful in raising awareness, but their demands were not met, in part because winning such militant demands requires enormous political leverage. City officials only relent to such demands when they fear the public more than the police, which is rare.

Inspiring demands are important in any movement-building, and a common pitfall for organizers — including police reformers — is demanding overly-technical reforms that the public doesn’t fully understand. The result is less public support. Police reform is intentionally complicated; there are too many people and institutions involved, to the point where justice is always another legal proceeding or committee meeting away, always out of reach.

Any set of demands regarding police reform should include a strategy to directly confront the police union in order to limit its power and influence, and to smash the provisions of the union contract that specifically protect against the reformers’ demands.

Confronting Police Unions with Labor Movement Tactics

Last year in Portland outgoing Mayor Charlie Hales sensed that a police reform attitude was gaining traction in the city, and in response he negotiated, in total secrecy, a new three-year union contract that gave the police fat raises and prevented any serious reform in the meantime. After the news broke city council met to vote on whether to approve the contract, and in front of a packed room of reformers demanding a ‘no’ vote, the council voted ‘yes’ in a major blow to the Black Lives Matter movement. After the vote angry protesters were literally thrown from the doors of City Hall, and the building surrounded by riot police.

A secretly negotiated contract is reason enough to ignore its legitimacy, and it’s up to reform advocates to decide how much they want to respect the contract, or directly challenge the lack of accountability it protects.

Reform advocates across the nation can insist that the police contracts be “re-opened” for negotiating before the contract actually ends. Union contracts are protected by labor law, but often labor issues are settled outside of court, by one side imposing its demands on the other. If a particular issue is protected by the union contract that prevents a reform from being implemented, the city can issue a “demand to bargain” to the police union, just as American Airline pilots demanded their contracts be reopened before they expired.

Even New York’s main police union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, repeatedly demanded that its contract be reopened before its expiration date. Either side of a labor conflict can make such a demand, and in any labor conflict it’s organizing that ultimately trumps labor law: if there’s is a critical public interest — backed by public mobilizations — city government can be pushed into fresh negotiations.

Once new negotiations begin (before or after the contract expires) a long standing demand by reformers is that the union contract negotiations happen in the public view. By making these meetings accessible and by mobilizing the public with specific demands, enormous pressure can be put on the police union — and on city government — to accede to the movement’s demands. Imagine thousands of people attending contract negotiations to demand that any provision that prevents accountability be stricken, or that the city not agree to any continuation of the police contract.

If egregious acts are protected by a police union contract, reform advocates should insist that city council ignore that provision of the contract, or remove it during the bargaining process. A police shooting, for example, needn’t be protected by the “just cause” provision of a union contract, since there is simply too much at stake for the broader community to let a pro-police arbitrator decide, or for that matter a pro-police district attorney. By educating the public about the anti-justice elements of police union contracts, new pressure can be created to directly challenge police power.

But a direct challenge to the police union will create a direct response: a police union that feels threatened will take collective action, such as was done in New York. This level of high-stakes politics will require a well-organized movement to confront, lest the police out-organize and demoralize reform advocates by bringing city government to its knees.

In Portland a fresh opportunity may open up for police reform. Longtime police reformer Jo Ann Hardesty is running for city council. In the past Hardesty has said of Portland’s police union:

“Any time a police chief or commissioner tries to change policing, the union fights back. They file lawsuits, they take out ads, they make life miserable for the people pushing for reform.”

A win for Hardesty would galvanize the reform movement while creating an inevitable confrontation with the police union. Hardesty’s campaign will make use of the momentum and awareness raised by the organizing done by “Don’t Shoot Pdx” and “Portland’s Resistance.” Both have been engaged in militant actions with Portland’s Resistance recently winning an important reform that ended the police “gang database,” which kept records of “suspected” gang members and “associates,” increasing the likelihood that these individuals would find themselves trapped in the legal system.

If Hardesty wins reformers could demand that she be granted the position of police commissioner to exercise direct power over the police. Beyond that, Hardesty would need to work strategically with allies to mobilize the population if she has any hope of deep reforms, lest she become yet another victim of police union organizing.

Another world is possible, but only by confronting power with power, using the broader community as a hammer to the police unions. Long Term “abolition” of the police will depend on a deep revolutionary movement, which can be triggered, in part, by mobilizing the broader community to fight for populist reforms against police power.

Politics,

Capitalism and the Attack on Public Education

During the past several decades, government funding for public education on all levels has declined and in some cases plummeted, leaving students languishing in overcrowded classrooms housed in dilapidated buildings. An examination into why this is happening offers a glimpse into the ugly mechanisms that fuel capitalism in its onward quest to plunge us all into a state of unmitigated barbarism.

We should note at the outset that a well educated citizenry is in everyone’s interests. Those who are more educated are more economically productive, they are less likely to turn to crime (in so far as the entire capitalist system has not yet been formally declared as “criminal”), and they are more likely to enjoy a higher quality life. The American public consistently registers strong support for public education.

With all these abundant benefits and so much public appreciation, a sane person can only wonder why government policy is bent on steering public education over the cliff. As we shall see, one simply must master the perverse logic of capitalist society to appreciate these developments: What is good for the rich is good for everyone, despite the fact that the rest of us are impoverished. Those who can master this principle love capitalism.

Let us review some of the grim statistics that highlight recent trends:

  • States are cutting more from higher education budgets than from any other large programs. In 2004, for example, the cuts in Massachusetts amounted to a staggering 21.5 percent while California lost approximately 9 percent.
  • The share of all public universities’ revenues deriving from state and local taxes declined to 64 percent in 2004 from 74 percent in 1991.
  • State and local tax revenues devoted to public higher education have been declining for several decades.

Given that the federal government only provides 7 percent of money spent on public education, the above statistics signify a startling drop.

While government funding for higher education has been declining, student tuition fees have been surging, thereby shifting the burden from public funds to overwhelmingly working class students and their families, which simply amounts to a backdoor privatization of these institutions.

Why this march to mediocrity and beyond for public education?

While these policies devastate the lives of most of us, corporate America nevertheless benefits, and some sectors benefit tremendously. A cluster of corporate interests converge that want public education defunded. So in the absence of a well organized and orchestrated opposition, corporate interests have prevailed.

For example, one reason why public education has been placed in a state of stress is that corporations have campaigned to reduce their tax burden. In 1960, the share of federal taxes paid by corporations was 23 percent. By 2003 it had dropped to 8 percent. There has been a steady decline on the state level as well.

One might think that corporations are shooting themselves in the foot by undermining institutions that provide them with an educated workforce at public expense. But several factors lead them to believe that they will not be adversely affected. First, they do not need as many highly educated workers as before since computers have been able to replace teachers, accountants, secretaries, technicians, etc. Second, they want educated workers, but they want the workers to pay for their own education, thereby lifting the burden off themselves. Third, if there is a shortage of educated workers, corporations have lobbied to be allowed to import them from other countries, and since these workers are not US citizens, corporations can pay them less than a comparable US worker. In March 2007, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates told Congress that the U.S. “should welcome AN INFINITE number of high-skilled foreign workers to fill engineering, computer programming and other jobs…” [emphasis added]. Fourth, corporations have looked on university budgets as bloated, so budget cuts have forced class size up and salaries down. Moreover, half the faculties at colleges and universities across the country have been converted into part-timers with much lower pay and often no benefits.

But aside from the fact that defunding education allows corporations to lower their tax base, other benefits lurk in the school hallways for the enterprising entrepreneur. In particular, decimated budgets place schools at the mercy of profit-hungry, avaricious corporations. Channel One, which provides free television and cable access to classrooms, includes 2 minutes of advertisements for every 10 minutes of programming. In New York, a company (Noggin) is allowed to enter the public schools one morning a week to run 30-minute focus groups on unsuspecting students in order to perfect the company’s techniques of selling children things they do not need. School districts have felt compelled to sell soft-drink companies the exclusive right to vend their products in schools, despite the fact that soft-drinks contribute significantly to child obesity. Textbooks in California now include advertisements so that corporations can target a captive audience.

But there are other corporate vultures salivating on the sidelines. Michael Milken, the former junk bond king who was convicted and sent to jail, Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, and Lamar Alexander, a former US presidential candidate, have launched a movement to revolutionize public education and transform it into a consolidated, professionally managed, money-making set of businesses. And they will be competing against a rival group of corporate raiders. Ted Forstmann, a billionaire leveraged buyout specialist, John Walton, heir to the Wal-Mart fortune, and John Doerr, a technology venture capitalist who is heavily immersed in for-profit educational ventures and was a campaign adviser for Al Gore, have similar designs. They, too, aim at overhauling the nation’s system of public schools, eliminating what they call the government’s monopoly in education.

All of this is to say that the nation’s educational policy is not crafted by rational principles that attempt to legislate what is in the interests of the majority. Rather, policy is left to the whims of a few powerful corporate elites determined to raise their surging profit margins even higher, despite the fact that in order to succeed they must take from those who are just struggling to get by. But such an undertaking simply reflects the underlying philosophy of capitalism: everyone is supposed to compete against everyone else to maximize their own individual well-being. And those who already have the most are the ones who almost always triumph in this sordid exercise.

Corporations have banded together in order to bring down education. Working people, particularly teachers and students and concerned members of the community, will have to join ranks in order to resurrect it. Isolated teacher unions have been too weak to mount an effective campaign. They demand that school districts fund education properly, but district administrators respond — often honestly –that they simply do not have the money. Teacher unions must unite on a statewide basis in order to insist that the rich in each state be taxed so that money can be made available. Such a campaign would be even more powerful if teachers forged an alliance with health care workers and social workers, demanding money for human needs, not profits. If such a movement succeeded in a single state, it would quickly spread throughout the nation since the vast majority of the American public wants quality education, quality health care, and quality social services for their children and themselves.

In order for this movement to get off the ground, however, the unholy alliance between the unions in general and the teachers’ unions in particular with the Democratic Party must be severed. Democrats are entirely adverse to mobilizing working people and regard mass mobilizations as the political equivalent of wildfires: things to extinguish immediately before they get out of control. Instead, the Democrats are aimed at using public issues of concern to gather more votes for themselves and then are quick to abandon the working people that they have galvanized.

A recent (January, 2007) faculty demonstration organized by the faculty union (California Faculty Association) at San Francisco State University, which is part of the public system of higher education in California, provides an instructive example of the corrosive effects of the Democratic Party. The featured speaker at the demonstration was Democratic Party California Assemblyman, Leland Yee, who highlighted legislation that he recently proposed. The legislation would require that the huge salaries paid to university administrators be negotiated in open-door sessions of the board of trustees as opposed to the current practice behind closed doors. There was no suggestion that their bloated salaries be capped or reduced. But much more importantly, there was no mention of the dwindling portion of taxes paid by corporations that is crippling the education budgets. The surplus pay to administrators amounts to millions of dollars and would make only a minor difference if it were recouped. The taxes being withheld by corporations amount to billions and make all the difference. So the real struggle to save the university was derailed because of Yee’s unwillingness to spotlight corporate tax culpability, and the explanation is simple: The Democratic Party is tied to big corporations just as much as the Republican Party is, and Democrats refuse to bite the hand that feeds them.

So faculty members at San Francisco State were told by the union to attend a rally in support of their own interests. In fact they attended a rally that was manipulated to support Leland Yee. Yee could pretend that he was doing something significant for faculty members, and they in turn were transformed into unwitting props for his campaign.

Working people clearly need their own political party. While both Democrats and Republicans alike depend on corporate money for their existence and are intent on returning the favor, a labor party, exclusively representing the interests of workers and the oppressed in general, could bring teachers, students, the unions, and the community together in order to wage a real battle. The working class wants quality public education. It is simply a matter of organizing those desires and harnessing the energy and together we will triumph.

Politics,

The Fight to Save Public Education

March 4 was historic. It will be remembered as the day that people began to fight back against the destruction of public education. The student and teacher led offensive took place in cities across the country; teachers, students and school workers demonstrated and marched, showcasing the aggressive methods of the struggle. San Francisco led the way with the biggest numbers. As many as 15,000 people, mostly students, teachers and social service workers attended a Civic Center rally organized by the three teachers unions and the San Francisco Labor Council.

This can only be the beginning. The war on public education has been carefully planned for years, orchestrated by corporate interests and implemented by Republicans and Democrats alike.

The first battle tactic against public education was to starve it. Politicians have consistently lowered taxes on corporations and the rich for the past three decades, thereby lowering state revenues that have created the budget crises in nearly every state. Consequently, public education is in a state of shell shock.

After being under nourished for years, public education is now under full attack, and the blue prints for this “shock and awe” campaign have changed only slightly, from Bush’s No Child Left Behind to Obama’s more savage Race to the Top (both plans badly misuse the English language).

Bush’s plan further undermined public education: schools were labeled as “failures” and teachers were targeted as “incompetent.” Obama’s plan knocks down the pins set up by Bush; Race to the Top rewards states for shutting down public schools and opening up charter schools, many of which are private, and by firing teachers en masse. Both these steps are considered “progress” by anti-public education advocates (arch-conservative Newt Gingrich is on a national tour to promote the plan).

Race to the Top is a competition between states to kill public education: the states that massacre schools and teacher unions most efficiently and ruthlessly are given desperately needed federal funding, while the losers are given sadistic examples of how to earn the President’s praise. Obama spoke highly of the recent mass firing of every teacher in a Rhode Island school, an incident that other school districts will be pressured to imitate if they want Race to the Top money. When this happens — and it will — a fundamental question must be answered; do the union contracts of teachers mean anything to the President? And if teachers cannot be protected by their contracts, cannot this be extended to other fields of labor? These questions answer themselves, and have gigantic implications for the U.S. labor movement.

It is no coincidence that the “finalists” for the Race to the Top are states that have the most brutal anti-union records; most of the finalists are from the anti-union South. Louisiana and Illinois are finalists — two states that have made the most “progress” in shutting down public schools and replacing them with private charter schools — while having fired teachers en masse.

Who are replacing these fired teachers in the newly opened charter schools? Not qualified or certified teachers. Companies like Teach for America are springing up to fill the demand of low cost, non-union teachers. Teach for America is a “non-profit” company — with an operating budget of over $73.5 million — that offers only five weeks of training before one becomes a teacher. No background in teaching is necessary.

Although companies like these are touted as “elite” institutions, The New York Times admits that “…so far, both merit-pay efforts and programs that recruit a more-elite teaching corps, like Teach for America, have thin records of reliably improving student learning.” (March 2, 2010).

In Chicago, charter schools need only 50 percent of their teachers to be certified, while no charter school teacher is allowed to belong to the Chicago Teachers Union.

Drill sergeants are also replacing certified teachers. In Chicago, shut down public schools have been re-opened as military recruiting centers; five military high schools and 21 military middle schools are now in operation. This was done under the watchful eye of Obama’s Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan — no doubt achieved in anticipation of the expanding wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan and the need to fulfill recruiters’ quotas.

Oddly, the national discussion over why students are testing poorly has been ridiculously crude, if not outright dumb. Both politicians and the media have focused the blame exclusively on teachers. No attention is given to the fact that so-called failing schools have been bled dry of funding. It is impossible for a teacher to succeed when there is not enough money to buy books for all the students or when classes are overcrowded, especially in schools that have students with special needs.

Poverty, and the countless social ills born from it, are the obvious reasons why students perform poorly (high income schools are never labeled as “failures”). By ignoring this glaring fact, politicians reveal themselves to have ulterior motives. And just like the “war on terror” benefited profit-hungry oil and weapons companies, the war on education has a host of corporations clamoring for an increase in hostilities.

To make clear that the war on education is just beginning, Obama revealed that Race to the Top is only in its first stage: the schools that don’t win — by failing to close enough schools or firing enough teachers — will have more chances in the future. Obama’s Education Secretary explains: “ We want to come back round after round…We’d love to see this four, five, six years out — just keep growing it.” (The New York Times, March 5, 2010). Of course, the more Race to the Top grows, the more that public education shrinks.

Killing public education benefits corporations in two ways:

1) rich investors have new ways to make profitable investments (something incredibly important to them during a recession).

2) Destroying public education allows for more public money to bail out banks and expand war. The deficit created by pursuing these pro-corporate policies is being paid for by cutting education, Social Security, and Medicare.

These are the real reasons behind the attack on public education. All the stupid hype behind “bad teachers” is a cheap ruse to obscure the debate. But to achieve their plan, the corporate elite must remove a long-hated obstacle: teachers’ unions.

This makes the national protest day on March 4th all the more relevant. Teachers’ unions are waking up to the corporate-inspired attack. If organized, teachers are an incredibly powerful social force: they are highly respected by the community, have strong connections to parents, and most importantly, if they do not work, neither do many parents.

Teachers perform a dual role of educating and daycare; their value to society is incredibly high. March 4th was the first time teacher unions organized with students, parents and public service workers to demand more money for education and social services. If they continue to do this, the larger community will support them unfailingly. In San Francisco many of the demonstrators demanded: “Tax the rich to fund public education.” This is indeed a solution that needs to be adopted nationally, before the economic crisis claims more public schools and destroys more social services, eliminating even more jobs.

Politics,

The Way Forward for the Movement in Defense of Public Education

On March 4, students, staff, teachers, faculty and their unions on all levels of public education created history by uniting and pouring out onto the streets to engage in what were overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrations to defend public education. The movement swept through small towns and large cities with demonstrators, including young elementary school students, carrying picket signs while yelling chants expressing their determination to fight back.

A San Francisco Civic Center rally, organized by the California Faculty Association (covering the California State University system), American Federation of Teachers Local 2121 (covering City College of San Francisco) and the United Educators of San Francisco (covering K-12), drew somewhere between 12 to 15,000 participants, far more than many of the organizers anticipated. The rally was also sponsored and built by the San Francisco Labor Council, which called on all its affiliates to support it. The Labor Council’s banner, which was displayed above the stage, set the theme of the rally. It read: “Full funding for Public Education and Social Services. Progressive Taxation Now!”

But as most demonstrators understood, March 4 is just the beginning of the struggle. In fact, public schools in California have been progressively crippled by budget cuts for decades, although the current economic crisis has raised these cuts to disastrous dimensions. The long-term causes of budget shortfalls, however, include the following factors:

  1. In 1978 Proposition 13 was passed, drastically limiting the ability to raise property taxes, except when property is sold. The effect of this proposition has been to shift property taxes on to homeowners and off commercial property since commercial property is sold far less frequently than homes.
  2. The politicians from both political parties have consistently chosen to lower corporate taxes. A 2003 New York Times article reported that, “tax sheltering has cost states more than a third of their revenue from taxes on corporate profits.” In fact, the Los Angeles Times reported that last February, when the state legislators where slashing education and vital social programs, it granted corporations $1 billion in new tax breaks while raising taxes on everyone else in five different ways.
  3. Politicians, for whatever reasons, have simply chosen to direct state funds away from public education. In the 1970s, 18 percent of the California budget was allocated to public higher education. Today, it only receives 11 percent. (Source: Calfac.org.)

Everyone in the movement to defend public education is now raising the question: What next? What steps should the movement take now? We believe that there are certain strategic considerations that must be kept in mind as we debate how to advance.

For example, every level of public education has suffered crippling cuts, not to mention social services on both the city and state levels. But in order to win full funding for any sector, no sector alone is strong enough to prevail. Therefore, we must forge unity, not only on all levels of education, but between education and the social service sectors, in order to build a powerful movement. But in order to ensure that the alliance is strong, the demands of the movement must include solutions for all sectors so that everyone has something to win by participating. And this means that the central demand must focus on taxing the rich and taxing the corporations so that enough revenue can be generated that could cover full funding for public education and for all social services.

This demand must be central for a number of reasons. (1) Workers from one sector will be more eager to support full funding for other working class sectors if they are assured that they themselves will not have to sacrifice in the form of higher taxes. (2) By targeting the rich, the campaign unites the working class by placing its interests in direct opposition to the interests of the rich. (3) Given that working people in fact constitute the majority, this campaign has the potential to win the support of the majority. (4) It makes the goals of the campaign look entirely realistic. The rich are richer than at any other time in history, yet their taxes are at a historic low. They can afford to pay. (5) Multiple polls show that a majority of Americans favor raising taxes on the rich. For example, Bloomberg.com reported (December 10, 2009): “A Bloomberg National Poll conducted Dec. 3-7 shows two-thirds of Americans favor taxing the rich to reduce the deficit.”

And the people of Oregon, by raising taxes on corporations and the rich with a resounding vote, confirmed that this is a popular measure. (6) By going into the streets and raising the demand that taxes on the rich and corporations be raised, the movement will be acting independently of the politicians, rather than relying on them. It is putting public pressure on politicians to do the right thing, not relying on them by quietly writing letters or lobbying, as if the politicians will be swayed by good arguments and ignore all the money that corporations pour into their pockets.

But the movement in defense of public education and social services could still take one more additional step in order to exponentially raise its prospects for success. By linking this movement with the demand for jobs for all, the unions in the private sectors could be drawn into the struggle as well. In fact, in opposition to Obama’s proposal to cut the deficit by cutting entitlements such as Medicare and Social Security, Richard Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO, has already called for the creation of 10 million jobs as a way of solving the federal budget deficit, given that everyone who gets a job will no longer be drawing on unemployment insurance but will be providing income to the government through taxes. And he argued that job-creation programs could be entirely financed by taxing Wall Street.

Again, according to the same Bloomberg poll cited above, Americans support these proposals: “Americans want their government to create jobs through spending on public works, investments in alternative energy or skills training for the jobless. They also want the deficit to come down. And most are ready to hand the bill to the wealthy… [O]nly a little more than one-fourth support an increase in taxes on the middle class. Fewer still back cuts in entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare or a new national consumption tax,” Bloomberg reports.

This strategic orientation is consequently centered on uniting the working class and winning the support of the majority, not on encouraging a small minority to engage in extreme tactics that alienate the rest of the class. Of course, this strategy will be rejected by those who have contempt for working people or who do not want to alienate the rich.

California Democracy Act

Finally, we believe that this movement could immediately take the practical step of supporting the California Democracy Act. Unions could encourage their members to actively petition to get the measure on the ballot. While the Act will certainly not, by itself, solve any of the above-mentioned problems, it would serve to remove a barrier. Currently in the California legislature, a vote of two-thirds is required to pass a budget and raise taxes. This Act would reduce the requirement to a mere majority for both the budget and taxes. Although many Democratic Party clubs in California support this initiative, those who run the party, including John Burton (California Democratic Party Chairman) and Jerry Brown (California Attorney General and now a candidate for governor), do not support it and are promoting a counter proposal that would lower the requirement to pass a budget to a simple majority while maintaining the two-thirds requirement to raise taxes. They, too, have strategic concerns. The Democratic Party gets most of its funding from corporations and the rich. Yet they need working people to vote for them in order to win elections, and for this reason they must speak with a forked tongue. In a recent article discussing the prospects of passing the Employee Free Choice Act, which would greatly facilitate unionizing workers, The New York Times explained how Democrats navigate this dilemma:

“Mr. Miller, Democrat of California, said he had 223 co-sponsors, including three Republicans, meaning the bill had majority support in the House. Mr. Harkin said the bill had 40 co-sponsors in the Senate, down from 46 in the previous Congress. Republican and business strategists said some former co-sponsors [these would be primarily Democrats] felt they had a free pass to back the bill when President Bush appeared likely to veto it. But now that the bill appears to have a real chance of passage, they said, some moderate senators, heavily lobbied by business, are backing off the bill, worried that it might hurt or anger their business constituents.”

In other words, Democrats can pretend that they support measures that would benefit working people as long as they are confident that the measures will not pass. So the two-thirds requirement to raise taxes means that they can vote for raising taxes on corporations and pretend they are the friends of labor even though they do not want the measure to pass.

The California Democracy Act is therefore important, not because it empowers Democrats to pass legislation without compromising with Republicans — in fact, they are eager to compromise — but it removes the veil from their machinations. If this measure passes, the voters will clearly see that Democrats have no interest in raising taxes on the rich or on the corporations. And this in turn will serve to encourage working people not to rely on the Democrats but on themselves and their collective power to change public policy. And in the final analysis, it means that working people will have to think in terms of creating their own political party, a labor party, rather than settling for the few crumbs thrown their way by either corporate party, the Democrats or Republicans.