¡Maricopa Ilegal!

Manu Chao visits Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s (Ar-payaso) concentration camp in Maricopa County, Arizona.

I’ve not been active on this blog for quite awhile, but I hope to start up again. The past few years have been filled with both blessings and sadness. One thing that has remained constant, however, has been a continued struggle to plant the seeds for a better world and a steadfast solidarity with those who will inherit it.

With the recent passage of SB1070 and HB2281 in Arizona, it’s imperative that we confront head-on this cancer that eats away at our communities and imperils any possibility of true freedom in this country. Arizona is not an aberration anymore than Mississippi was forty years ago. They only stand out in their naked honesty. It’s as the master teacher Gil Scott Heron put it in his classic “Paint It Black”:

So we travel to Arizona. Yet, we don’t travel to save anyone there. We go because perhaps in joining with the heartbeat of Arizona…that is, our gente living and working in places like South Tucson or–most significantly–the original inhabitants of the land, the Tohono O’odham, we might actually learn something, we might tap into a wisdom that will enable us to save ourselves. And we can connect both those indignities imposed by this border (physically, psychologically, culturally, economically, and–yes–spiritually) and the powerful insight of those forced to confront them on a daily basis with those that afflict us here in the Bay and across the country. In a twist, Arizona might save this society from itself.

So my work with the Eyes on Arizona Collective is vitally important to me. It connects Arizona with the Bay. It connects campus to community. It develops leadership amongst those who are our future. More than a mere exposure program, it’s a model to build power. It might not be as dramatic as a big demonstration or an occupation (which seems to be the most popular tactic today) but instead, like the symbol of the hormiga that adorns the buttons and shirts of TYLO, it slowly and subversively builds power so that it might effectively confront power. This departs from the instant gratification approach that posits if you confront power, and make a big media splash along the way, that collective power follows in its wake. By slowly building relationships and trust between faculty and students, between campus (SFSU) and community (local immigrant rights work), between the Bay and Arizona (No More Deaths and TYLO), we’re creating something new. Something for the long-haul.

And that is clear to me now more than ever. The need for a long view. Walking those trails in the Sonoran Desert this past summer, you come to learn that many of these trails were traversed by people for multiple generations before there ever was such a thing as a US-Mexico border. Before there was ever such as thing as a United States or a Mexico. These trails were part of a network of people and goods moving between diverse communities. In fact, the border–with its high fences, aerial drones, hyper-militarized Border Patrol, and Israeli-manufactured “virtual fences,” violently splits the Tohono O’odham Nation in half. But Brown men and women continue to use them. Today, however, these ancient paths are viewed differently. They’re a 21st century Underground Railroad for some. For others, to the State, they’re framed as threats to the sanctity of nationhood and national identity. My point, however, is that a long view tells us that we walk on paths (sometimes literally) of those blazed by unknown ancestors before us. And for those to come, we’ll continue on those ancient paths. Not just for a better present. But for the long haul.

Finally, on a personal tip, the passing of my brother, Eric, this year underscored to me how precious little time we have on this planet. And in the face of this mortality, two questions echo again and again in my head. The first is one I hear Eric imploring me: are you appreciating and making the most out of every single moment you have today? (And believe me, I’m tryin’, brother, I’m tryin’.) But at the same time, there is another: what are you concretely leaving for the coming generations (plural)? I guess there comes a moment when ego, when the present, morphs into a concern for something beyond oneself, beyond this specific moment. That’s what I also mean by the long haul. Critique and confrontation today is but a mere tip of the iceberg; it only can get us so far. Media attention is illusory (as well as dangerous) Instead, I’m interested in building upon dreams and imagination, undoubtedly making mistakes in the process but then learning from them, all with the goal of building community and power. Building, again, like those invisible but tenacious hormigas of TYLO. It’s not enough to know what you’re against (anti-racism, anti-capitalism, anti-sexism, etc.): what are you for? How are you building the revolution? Is it based on love and humility, or something else? When does the future cease being an abstract concept that you are fighting for and become a matter of life-and-death that you commit to building day-in and day-out.

Eric understood this, I believe. It’s a fundamental quality of a revolutionary. It is that which separates the activist (or even the radical) from the revolutionary. And we so desperately need that Revolution today.

“The dreamer is the designer of tomorrow. Practical men… can laugh at him; they do not know that he is the true dynamic force that pushes the world forward. Suppress him, and the world will deteriorate towards barbarism. Despised, impoverished, he leads the way… sowing, sowing, sowing, the seeds that will be harvested, not by him, but by the practical men of tomorrow, who will at the same time laugh at another indefatigable dreamer busy seeding, seeding, seeding.” — Ricardo Flores Magon (June 28, 1921)

Miss you, brother.

Mike Davis on Bill Moyers Journal

March 20, 2009

BILL MOYERS: For all the talk on the cable channels and in the blogosphere, you would think Washington has been invaded and conquered. Remember that scary movie from the 1950’s, INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS?

MALE VOICE: Everyone! They’re here already! You’re next! You’re next!

BILL MOYERS: Many film scholars believe the movie is a paranoid parable, warning of a Communist takeover of America. But today, the body snatchers are you ready for this? Socialists! That’s right. Socialists, reportedly swarming over the city and making off with the means of production, namely the Federal budget.

I’m not making this up. Newsweek was the first to spot the aliens a month ago and it was us. Here’s the headline of a recent article on Salon.com. Newt Gingrich, reincarnated once again as himself, sounds as if Obama ate his Contract with America for lunch and coughed it up as “European Socialism.”

NEWT GINGRICH: I think it is the boldest effort to create a European Socialism model that we have seen.

BILL MOYERS: But the ghosts being conjured in the corridors of power aren’t those great American radicals Eugene V. Debs or Norman Thomas. No, Stalin, Marx and Lenin have risen from the grave, stalking our highest officials. Just listen to CNBC’s Jim Cramer:

JIM CRAMER: We’re in real trouble. We’re in real trouble between what is happening in the world economy and our president, who seems to be taking his cues from. Guess who he is taking his cues from? No, not Mao! Not Pancho Villa, although I had lunch with him today. No he’s taking cues from Lenin! And I don’t mean the all we need is love Lenin. I talking about we will take every last dime you have Cramericans Lenin!

BILL MOYERS: And others followed suit:

RUSH LIMBAUGH: Liberal democrats and the drive-by media are speeding down the highway, implementing Socialism as fast as they can.

FOX & FRIENDS: Some economists say the stimulus plan that President Obama just put into law moves us closer to Socialism.

FOX COMMENTATOR: One small step for fixing the economy or one giant leap towards Socialism in the United States?

PAT BUCHANAN: That is Socialism pure and simple.

BILL MOYERS: So what does a real live Socialist think about all this? We consulted the Endangered Species Act and actually found one, way out to the People’s Republic of Southern California. That state’s economy has tanked with one of the country’s highest number foreclosures and unemployment above 10% and climbing. California is a financial earthquake off the Richter scale.

All of this is grist for the socialist writer and historian who is sitting with me now. Once a meat cutter and a long haul truck driver, nowadays, Mike Davis teaches creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. This recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” has written so many books we can barely get them on the screen for you. Two of his histories of Los Angeles and Southern California, CITY OF QUARTZ and ECOLOGY OF FEAR were best-sellers. His latest: IN PRAISE OF BARBARIANS: ESSAYS AGAINST EMPIRE.

Mike Davis, welcome to the JOURNAL.

MIKE DAVIS: My pleasure, Bill.

BILL MOYERS: Did you ever in your life imagine that America’s financial system would become insolvent or that our way of life would be in such a sudden freefall?

MIKE DAVIS: No. And I found myself in the position of, say, a Jehovah’s Witness, who, of course, believes the end is nigh but then one morning wakes up, looks out the window, and the stars are falling from heaven. It’s actually happened. Of course, people a lot like myself are famous for I think the phrase is we predicted eleven out of the last three depressions. So, no.

BILL MOYERS: But I do think this time most everyone would agree with what you how you’ve described what we’re going through as the mother of all fiscal crisis. Do you have a sense of the people you know being frightened right now?

MIKE DAVIS: Oh, people are terrified, particularly where I teach in Riverside County. People have no idea you know, where to turn. UC Riverside is the largest percentage of working-class students in the UC system. And their families have scrimped and saved. And they’ve worked hard to get into courses that pointed toward stable careers and jobs. And now those futures are incinerated. What kind of choice do you make? You know, what do you study?

BILL MOYERS: You wrote an essay on one of my favorite websites, TomDispatch.com, in which you asked this question. “Can Obama see the Grand Canyon?” Now, help us understand the use of that metaphor.

MIKE DAVIS: Well, the first explorers to visit the Grand Canyon, simply were overwhelmed. They couldn’t visualize the Grand Canyon because they had no concept for it. That is, there was no analogue in their cultural experience, no comparable landscape that would allow them to make sense of what they were seeing. It actually took ten years of heroic scientific effort by John Wesley Powell and these great geologists, Clarence Sutton, before he was truly able to see the Grand Canyon in the sense that we see it now as a deep slice in Earth history. Before you just had confused images and, you know, feelings of vertigo.

And so the reason I raised this is that do we really have an analogy? Do we have the concepts to understand the nature of the current crisis other than to step back shaking from the brink and say this is profound? Because, you know, we’re in this situation where not only do we seem to be having a second depression, but this is occurring in the context of epochal climate change. It’s occurring at a time when the two major benchmarks that survived for global social progress, the United Nations millennial goals for relieving poverty and child mortality, on one hand, and the Kyoto goals for reducing greenhouse admissions, both of those sets of goals are clearly not going to be achieved. They slowly failed. This would be a time of fierce urgency in any sense. And now we face a meltdown of a world economy in a way that no one anticipated, truly anticipated the possibility of another recession, even a financial crisis, but no one counted on the ability of this to happen in such a synchronized, almost simultaneous way across the world.

BILL MOYERS: You wrote in that essay and we’ll link that essay to our own site. “We are looking into an unprecedented abyss of economic and social turmoil that confounds our previous perceptions of historical risk. Our vertigo is intensified by our ignorance of the depth of the crisis or any sense of how far we might ultimately fall.” That was five or six months ago. Do you have a sense now of how far we might ultimately fall?

MIKE DAVIS: No. And the consensus is that no one does. You can read the financial press. And almost nobody believes that the financial bailout is going to work. Nobody’s seen the bottom here. And we’re working largely on the basis of hope and faith and crossing our fingers. We’ve invested in one person, an almost messianic responsibility.

BILL MOYERS: And how’s he doing? What’s Obama done right so far, in your judgment?

MIKE DAVIS: Well, I think what he’s done most right is to push through the stimulus package, which I argue is primarily a relief bill, because obviously you can’t talk about stopping the decline if you’re going to allow the public sector, the local public sector, schools and public services on a state and local level to collapse as they are. You have to shore that up. Not that the stimulus is sufficient to address the totality of the fiscal crisis across the span of local governments. But it puts a Band-Aid over it. It slows the results of that. It extends unemployment. It pays.

BILL MOYERS: Unemployment compensation for…

MIKE DAVIS: Unemployment compensation.

BILL MOYERS: Gives a little more money to people who are out of work.

MIKE DAVIS: Yeah. Of course, there’s a big difference. When my father was on WPA in 1935…

BILL MOYERS: Works Progress Administration, I remember it well.

MIKE DAVIS: Every dollar he was paid by the federal government, 98, 99 cents of it went on products that were made in the United States or grown in the United States. One of my nephews who’s unemployed today, just lost his job in Seattle, he takes his unemployment money down to Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club. And probably 40, 45 cents of that money is stimulus to the Chinese or the Korean economies. So it the stimulus in this country, Keynesian stimulus, doesn’t necessarily have the multiplier effect. That is, it doesn’t create as much jobs or circulate in the extent that it did before. And this is, of course, the huge difference between the situation today and the 1930s, which is that in the 1930s the United States had the largest, most productive industrial machine in the world. It could make almost anything. The question was how to put the workers and machines back at work.

Today, so much of our national wealth, so much of our employment is dependent on services linked to the financial role of the U.S. But unlike Roosevelt, who could undertake institutional reforms that would reduce the control of banks over industry, now we’re part of an integrated, interlocked system where what we can do on a national scale is ultimately limited by our creditors and by the dollar. And internationally, where every part has become so interdependent that it’s hard to think about a general recovery without some kind of simultaneous and coordinated effort. And that seems to be utterly utopian at this moment.


BILL MOYERS: In that same essay back in October, you asked the question is Obama FDR? Well?

MIKE DAVIS: Well, I’m prepared to concede that in terms of his character, his moral beliefs, his empathy and compassion for Americans, but above all in his understanding of the urgency and the unparalleled nature of this situation, yes, I mean, he could be Roosevelt. He could be Lincoln. But, I mean, Bill, the obviously the real heroes of the New Deal were the millions of rank-and-file Americans who sat down in their auto plants or walked on freezing picket lines in front of their factories. They made the New Deal possible. They provided the impetus to turn Washington to the left. We talk very differently about the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, if it hadn’t been for the incredible insurgency of labor and other ordinary Americans in the 1930s.

BILL MOYERS: The garment workers, for example, when they left the Socialist Party, so to speak, and went into the Democratic Party, Roosevelt had a real infusion of blood.

MIKE DAVIS: Well, a lot of them joined the American Labor Party in New York, because they could not in good conscience ever pull that lever that said Tammany Hall Democrats. But they wanted to support Roosevelt without supporting the Democrats. In the 1930s, of course, you had vigorous third parties often in power on state levels. Farmer Labor Party. The Commonwealth Federation in Washington, the Non-partisan League.

BILL MOYERS: The Progressive Party out in Wisconsin and in the Midwest.

MIKE DAVIS: Yes. And you had these progressive Republicans, you know, in the tradition of La Follette or, before that, of William Jennings Bryant, who, if they were seated in the Senate today, would be seated to the left of Bernie Sanders and the most progressive Democrat. They were the real hammers on the issue, the concentration of economic power. They were the ones who were exploring military spending in the in the scandals of the First World War. They’re the ones who led the investigations on who really owned corporate America? On the role of the banks and the houses of Morgan. And this was of incalculable importance that they opened the books on the American economy for about the first and only time. And one of the things that’s hasn’t happened yet, is to do that right now on Wall Street.

The most fundamental straightforward questions about who are the counterparties who own the credit default swaps? You know, who are the main creditors of these banks? In the midst of bailing them out with tens of billons of dollars of tax money, the public doesn’t have any idea who’s actually benefiting, who the parties are involved.

BILL MOYERS: What’s your explanation for why we don’t have that pressing inquiry and that demand for accountability that we had in the 1930s?

MIKE DAVIS: Well, in the 1930s we had an interesting coalition between a progressive middle class, including at that point still a lot of farmers; a very dynamic labor movement, even though it was divided; and a journalistic culture, literary, you know, culture that was in constant pressure and debate with the Left. The Left was all-important in the ’30s. And I’m talking about not just the Communist Party but social Democrats of all kinds, not because they were that significant a force politically. But they were significant intellectually. And they were asking deep and profound questions about the nature of economic power, economic institutions. And in turn, this was leading, if not to sweeping reforms, it leads to an exploration for the first time in American history really looking at who holds power, how does economic power influence political decisions in Washington all the things that most Democrats and most Republicans are probably most afraid to explore. I mean…

BILL MOYERS: Why are they afraid?

MIKE DAVIS: Because they’re the beneficiaries of the system. In some cases I think with the President has come to accept that there’s only really one way he can operate. And that’s through, you know, accommodating himself to the forces that exist and cutting compromises he sees as inevitable. The fact that they may talk about bank nationalization, but it’s nothing more than salvaging the banks for the private sector rather than talking about the possibility of public ownership. But there have to be times in history when it’s the necessary, not the possible, that has to come first in public dialogue. I mean, we’ve lost so much of the reform conscious, this sense of possibility in this country. We treat political positions as they’re entirely relative. I mean, we let Rush Limbaugh define what a Liberal or a Socialist is. I believe that Liberalism, New Deal Liberalism has a relatively precise historical benchmark definition. And that…

BILL MOYERS: Which is?

MIKE DAVIS: FDR’s fourth-term election, when he ran on the idea of an economic Bill of Rights for Americans, something that Lyndon Johnson believed in and tried to renew. And if you were to advance any agenda right now for how to get us out of this crisis, it would be to renew this concept of the real social citizenship, an economic Bill of Rights, and also the enormous need to strengthen the power of labor in the economy. The post-war golden age of the ’50s and ’60s was a period when unions were powerful enough to be major parts of the macro economy, when wages were tied to productivity. And they played a dynamic and incredibly central role in the American economy, which, of course, they lost in the late ’70s and under Reagan. It was the strengthening of labor, that is the power of ordinary people in the unions, that made the accomplishments of the New Deal possible. People who almost doubled the size of the American economy during the Second World War.

BILL MOYERS: And yet, Obama’s only been in office two months now. And there’s this chorus of voices, the “Wall Street Journal” editorial page, conservative talk radio, Fox News, Lou Dobbs, CNBC’s Cramer and Kudlow, all blaming Obama for the bad economy. Are those attacks sticking out where you live in California?

MIKE DAVIS: Well, I mean you know, what could be more absurd than the, you know, the people who brought this country to its knees now being the chorus of dissenters, now representing themselves as the populist? The fact that they’re the ones who have erected the antenna, the lightning rod for popular anger is worrisome because if these bailouts and stimulus fail, if the country sinks deeper into what could be a very long period of stagnation if popular anger is monopolized by the demagogues on the Right, I think you could see a real resurgence of the Republican Party or at least of its most anti-immigrant economic nationalist wing.

This is something maybe not very visible on the national screen. But when you live near the boarder like I do in Southern California, the southern cities, areas of the Midwest, this has really invigorated what you once would have refereed to as the John Birch Society wing of the Republican Party. The vacuum left by the fall of the Soviet Union has been filled by, you know, good old-fashioned Nativism immigrant bashing.

No group is so vulnerable right now as the immigrants whose labor has sustained the California economy for the last generation, legal or un-legal. They have the fewest entitlements. They have the least safety net. And their jobs are the ones that are being impacted most directly because they work in construction services or industries that are highly sensitive to the business cycle. Some have gone back to Mexico. Mexican statistics show that. But it doesn’t make sense for most people to go back. The border economy has really collapsed. The tourist economy along the border is dead. The maquiladoras, the border assembly plants are laying off. So having made huge investments to get to the United States, doesn’t make a lot of sense to go back to a country where there are even fewer jobs and fewer hopes. How are people surviving? Well, in some cases, they cram five into a room. They’re standing in front of Home Depots hoping they won’t get picked up by the police or the immigration service. And, of course, this exists in a situation where it’s very likely that our southern border and that Mexico are going to become very, very destabilized, further destabilized than they are. And this provides lots of ammunition to construct the whole, like, Versailles myth of the economic crisis. You know, to blame immigrants, to blame liberal, to blame the imaginary socialism of bank rescue plans that are fully endorsed by THE ECONOMIST or the FINANCIAL TIMES.

BILL MOYERS: You know, Mike, there’s so much talk from that side of the spectrum raising the specter of Socialism. And I thought I might as well talk to a real Socialist about what the term means. I mean, I cannot find anyone in this country advocating the abolition of private markets and the wage systems or nationalizing all the major industries, I mean, no one’s arguing for supplanting capitalism, are they?



MIKE DAVIS: No, I mean, I must admit I’m a kind of old-school socialist in the way that Billy Graham’s an old-school Baptist. I do genuinely believe in the democratic social ownership of the means to production. But that’s religion. That’s the religious principle. The role…

BILL MOYERS: And in practice?

MIKE DAVIS: Well, I mean, the role of the Left or the Left that needs to exist in this country is not to be to come up with a utopian blueprints and how we’re going to run an entirely alternative society, much less to express nostalgia about authoritative bureaucratic societies, you know, like the Soviet Union or China. It’s really to try and articulate the common sense of the labor movement and social struggles on the ground. So, for instance, you know, where you have the complete collapse of the financial system and where the remedies proposed are above all privileged the creditors and the very people responsible for that, it’s a straightforward enough proposition to say, “Hey, you know, if we’re going to own the banking system, why not make the decisions and make them in alliance with social policy that ensures that housing’s affordable, that school loans are affordable, that small business gets credit?” You know, why not turn the banking system into a public utility? Now, that doesn’t have to be in any sense an anti-capitalist demand. But it’s a radical demand that asks fundamental question about the institution and who holds the economic power. You know, why isn’t the federal government taking a more direct role in decision making? I mean, I believe, for instance, during the Savings and Loan Crisis there was a period when the.

BILL MOYERS: 1980s, late.


BILL MOYERS: Late ’80s, right.

MIKE DAVIS: Yeah, I mean, the Resolution Trust Corporation was set up to you know, buy up the abandoned apartments and homes and then sold them at fire sale to private interests. For a year or two it had the means of resolving much of the housing crisis, you know, in the United States. Why shouldn’t the federal government basically turn that housing stock, into a solution for people’s housing needs? Sell them directly to homeowners at discounts you know, rent them out? In other words, the role of the Left is the ask the deeper questions about who has power, how institutions work, and propose alternatives that seem more common sensical in terms of the direct interest of, you know, of satisfying human needs and equality in this society. I think President Obama and the liberal Democrats that still exist should actually welcome a revival of the Left. It only strengthens them in a way. It’s like being Martin Luther King without having Malcolm X. The problem with the Democrats is they fold. The Democrats tend to concede to the Republicans a power and to give them a veto ability that is has shaped legislation that they needn’t to. We need something of the spirit of Roosevelt in 1937, 1938 when he tried to take on you know, the right wing of his own party, the Supreme Court, the right wing of the Republican Party.

BILL MOYERS: He was accused of being a socialist. And they tried to paint him with that. He was accused of conducting class war as, in fact, now Obama is being accused by conservative forces of launching a class war because he wants to return the tax rate to 39.9 percent, which is where it was in the Clinton era. But how do you deal with this charge of class war coming from the “Wall Street Journal” and the Heritage Foundation and others?

MIKE DAVIS: Well, I think you deal with it by saying, yeah, we want class war, too. And here’s what class war means, that the only possibility of getting this country out of the crisis, the only possibility that really deep set reforms can occur, including the protection and renewal of the productive base of the economy is labor has to become more powerful. We need more protests. We need more noise in the street. At the end of the day, political parties and political leaderships tend to legislate what social movements and social voices have already achieved in the factories or the streets or, you know, in the Civil Rights demonstration. And the problem is that so many progressives, so many liberals now treat the new President as if he were, you know, El Commandante. And we line up, follow, you know, follow his leadership. But he’s maneuvering in a relationship of forces where people on the Left, progressives, even the Black Caucus doesn’t account for that much. He’s appeasing Blue Dogs. He’s having to deal with Republicans.

BILL MOYERS: Conservative…

MIKE DAVIS: And to an absolutely unnecessary extent, I think he’s following the template of the Clinton years. And, of course, the Clinton years were years of the closest collaboration between financial industry and the White House that produced financial deregulation. I think the best thing the President has done is the stimulus. The worst thing has been to continue the bailout along the same lines that it was initiated by Treasury Secretary Paulson, a bailout that’s truly rejected by the majority of the American people and seen as a reward you know, to the very people who, you know, ignited this crisis in the first place. But the deep questions about, how do you rebuild the productive economy? The necessary role of the public sector in providing employment, whether fair trade is impossible. But what extent de-globalization.

BILL MOYERS: De-global.

MIKE DAVIS: De-globalization as people call it. You know.

BILL MOYERS: Reversing history?

MIKE DAVIS: Well, history, as we learned as you know, can be reversed. I mean, the saddest thing in, to remember with my own dad, who was a meat and potatoes, ’30s straight unionist, loved Roosevelt. And he’s a guy who grew up in the early 20th century believing in American history. Every time the American people struggled and won a new right, okay, that became then a foundation for the other struggle. And that was irreversible. And he saw in the, you know, in the Reagan years history going in reverse. His union pension fund went bankrupt. The particular industry he worked in basically became defunct. And it was harrowing to me to see my father, who was the most patriotic guy I ever knew, as it struck him that we’re always continually fighting for principles and rights.

And they can be taken away. History, you know, you know, can go in reverse. But by the same token you know, where does it say in the Bible that we should live in a in a globalized economy where the world’s, you know, run by, Wall Street or the authoritarian leaders of China? I haven’t seen that.

BILL MOYERS: People with ideas like yours in the last 30 years have been marginalized. No coverage in the press. No participation in the public debates. Why did you become a Radical? What made you what made you so radical?

MIKE DAVIS: Well, in my case, there really was a burning bush. And that was the Civil Rights movement in San Diego where I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s. And at 16 years old my father had a heart attack. And I had to leave school for a while to work. And the black side of my family by marriage, they got me to come to a demonstration of the Congress of Racial Equality in front of the Bank of America in downtown San Diego. And I mean, it literally transformed my life, just the sheer beauty of it and the sheer righteousness of it. And I won’t claim that every decision or political stance or political group I joined as a result of the Civil Rights movement was the right one. But it permanently shaped my life. And then I think it was a friend of yours, this great Texas populist newspaper editor, Archer Fullingham. I was in Texas in ’67. And most of my friends were becoming Marxists. And I didn’t want become a Marxist. And I heard him give a great speech. So I made a pilgrimage. He’s sitting on his porch, carving a gourd out of Koontz, Texas, Hardin County. And I said, “Archer, can we revive the Populist Party? You know, can you be the leader of the Populist Party?” And he looked at me. And he said, “Son,” he says, “you’re one of the dumbest piss-ants I’ve ever met.” He says, “The Populist Party is history. Corporations run this country. And they run the Democratic Party. And you better figure out this stuff for yourself.” And it’s what I’ve been you know, trying to do since.

I mean, to be a Socialist in the United States is not to be an orphan, okay? It is really it’s to stand in the shadow and a you know, immense history of American radicalism and labor, but with the responsibility to ensure its regeneration. And I actually think the American Left is about to receive a huge blood transfusion in the next year or two. It has to because the existence of the Left, the existence of radical social economic critiques, the existence of imagination that goes beyond selfishness and principles of competition is necessary to have any kind of serious debate in this country.

BILL MOYERS: I pulled something off the Web that you wrote recently. You said, “I believe great opportunities lie ahead for the rebels of the world to swell our ranks and take the fight forward. A new generation of young people is discovering that their political engagement counts.” Now, where are you seeing that?

MIKE DAVIS: Well, I have no difficulty finding hope. Hope kind of seeks me out. I’ve seen things in my life that I couldn’t really believed had happened, black working people in the South, antiwar, you know, GIs. And when you’ve seen that happen in your life, you can never be pessimistic. But there’s an enormous legacy of the American Left and of American radicalism in general that has to be nurtured and continued and passed down and let new generations shape it in, you know, the ways it needs to be shaped.

BILL MOYERS: Mike Davis, thank you very much for being with me on the Journal.

MIKE DAVIS: Thank you.

“I Felt Like I Was a Slave”: Immigration, ICE Raids, and Child Labor

After Iowa Raid, Immigrants Fuel Labor Inquiries

Published: July 27, 2008 in New York Times

Gilda O., left, says she worked the night shift at the Agriprocessors plant, even though she is only 16.

Elmer L., right, and an older brother were arrested in a May raid at the plant, in Postville, Iowa.

POSTVILLE, Iowa — When federal immigration agents raided the kosher meatpacking plant here in May and rounded up 389 illegal immigrants, they found more than 20 under-age workers, some as young as 13.

Now those young immigrants have begun to tell investigators about their jobs. Some said they worked shifts of 12 hours or more, wielding razor-edged knives and saws to slice freshly killed beef. Some worked through the night, sometimes six nights a week.

One, a Guatemalan named Elmer L. who said he was 16 when he started working on the plant’s killing floors, said he worked 17-hour shifts, six days a week. In an affidavit, he said he was constantly tired and did not have time to do anything but work and sleep. “I was very sad,” he said, “and I felt like I was a slave.”

At first, labor officials said the raid had disrupted federal and state investigations already under way at Agriprocessors Inc., the nation’s largest kosher plant. The raid has drawn criticism for what some see as harsh tactics against the immigrants, with little action taken against their employers.

But in the aftermath of the arrests, labor investigators have reaped a bounty of new evidence from the testimony of illegal immigrants, teenagers and adults, who were caught in the raid. In formal declarations, immigrants have described pervasive labor violations at the plant, testimony that could result in criminal charges for Agriprocessors executives, labor law experts said.

Out of work and facing deportation proceedings, many of the immigrants say they now have nothing to lose in speaking up about the conditions in the plant. They have told investigators that they were routinely put to work without safety training and were forced to work long shifts without overtime or rest time. Under-age workers said their bosses knew how young they were.

Because of the dangers of the work, it is illegal in Iowa for a company to employ anyone under 18 on the floor of a meatpacking plant.

In a statement, Agriprocessors said it did not employ workers under 18, and would fire any under-age worker found to have presented false documents to obtain work.

To investigate the child labor accusations, the federal Labor Department has joined with the Iowa Division of Labor Services in cooperation with the state attorney general’s office, officials for the three agencies said.

Sonia Parras Konrad, an immigration lawyer in private practice in Des Moines, is representing many of the young workers. She said she had so far identified 27 workers under 18 who were employed in the packing areas of the plant, most of them illegal immigrants from Guatemala, including some who were not arrested in the raid.

“Some of these boys don’t even shave,” Ms. Parras Konrad said. “They’re goofy. They’re teenagers.”

At a meeting here Saturday, three members of the House Hispanic Caucus — including its chairman, Representative Luis V. Gutierrez, Democrat of Illinois — heard seven immigrant minors describe working in the Agriprocessors plant.

Iowa labor officials said they rarely encounter child labor cases even though the state has many meatpacking plants.

“We don’t normally have many under-age folks working in our state,” said Gail Sheridan-Lucht, a lawyer for the state labor department, who said she could not comment specifically on the Agriprocessors investigation.

Other investigations are also under way. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is examining accusations of sexual harassment of women at the plant. Lawyers for the immigrants are preparing a suit under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act for wage and hour violations.

Federal justice and immigration officials, speaking on Thursday at a hearing in Washington of the House Judiciary immigration subcommittee, said their investigations were continuing. A federal grand jury in Cedar Rapids is hearing evidence.

While federal prosecutors are primarily focusing on immigration charges, they may also be looking into labor violations. Search warrant documents filed in court before the raid, which was May 12, cited a report by an anonymous immigrant who was sent to work in the plant by immigration authorities as an undercover informant. The immigrant saw “a rabbi who was calling employees derogatory names and throwing meat at employees.” Jewish managers oversee the slaughtering and processing of meat at Agriprocessors to ensure kosher standards.

In another episode, the informant said a floor supervisor had blindfolded an immigrant with duct tape. “The floor supervisor then took one of the meat hooks and hit the Guatemalan with it,” the informant said, adding that the blow did not cause “serious injuries.”

So far, 297 illegal immigrants from the May raid have been convicted of document fraud and other criminal charges, and most were sentenced to five months in prison, after which they will be deported.

A spokesman for Agriprocessors, Menachem Lubinsky, said the company could not comment on an active investigation.

“The company has two objectives in mind: to restore its production to meet the demands of the kosher food market and to be in full compliance with all local, state and federal laws,” Mr. Lubinsky said. Reports of labor violations at the plant “remain allegations only, that no agency has charged the company with,” he said.

The Agriprocessors kosher plant here has been owned and operated since 1987 by Aaron Rubashkin and his family. His son Sholom was the plant’s top manager until he was removed by his father in May after the raid. The plant’s products are distributed across the country under brands including Aaron’s Best and Aaron’s Choice.

Most of the young immigrants were hired at Agriprocessors after they presented false Social Security cards or other documents saying they were older than they were.

But in an interview here, Elmer L. said he had told floor supervisors that he was under 18. He asked that his last name not be published on advice of his lawyer, Ms. Parras Konrad, because he is a minor in deportation proceedings.

“They asked me how old I was,” Elmer L. said. “They could see that sometimes I could not keep up with the work.”

Elmer L. said that he regularly worked 17 hours a day at the plant and was paid $7.25 an hour. He said he was not paid overtime consistently.

“My work was very hard, because they didn’t give me my breaks, and I wasn’t getting very much sleep,” he said. “They told us they were going to call immigration if we complained.”

Elmer L. said that he was clearing cow innards from the slaughter floor last Aug. 26 when a supervisor he described as a rabbi began yelling at him, then kicked him from behind. The blow caused a freshly-sharpened knife to fly up and cut his elbow.

He was sent to a hospital where doctors closed the laceration with eight stitches. But he said that when he returned, his elbow still stinging, to ask for some time off, his supervisor ordered him back to work.

The next day, as he was lifting a cow’s tongue, the stitches ruptured, Elmer L. said, and the wound bled again. He said he was given a bandage at the plant and sent back to work. The incident is confirmed in a worker’s injury report filed on Aug. 31, 2007, by Agriprocessors with the Iowa labor department.

Gilda O., a Guatemalan who said she was 16, said she worked the night shift plucking chickens. She said she was working to help her parents pay off debts.

Another Guatemalan, Joel R., who gave his age as 15, said he dropped out of school in Postville after the eighth grade and took a job at Agriprocessors because his mother became ill. He said he worked from 5.30 p.m. to 6.30 a.m. in a section called “quality control,” a job he described as relatively easy that he got because he speaks English.

But he said he and other workers were under constant pressure from supervisors. “They yell at us when we don’t hurry up, when we don’t work fast enough for them,” said Joel R. He and Gilda O. did not want their last names published because they are illegal immigrants and they were not arrested in the raid.

Most of the young immigrants have been released from detention but remain in deportation proceedings. Ms. Parras Konrad said she will ask immigration authorities to grant them special four-year temporary visas, known as U visas, which are offered to immigrants who assist in law enforcement investigations. Iowa labor officials are considering supporting some of those requests, Ms. Sheridan-Lucht said.

Agriprocessors executives said they had begun an overhaul of hiring and labor practices, starting with hiring a compliance officer, James G. Martin, a former United States attorney in Missouri. In an interview, Mr. Martin said the company had contracted with an outside firm, the Jacobson Staffing Company, to handle its hiring, and new safety officers, including one former federal work safety inspector.

Mark Lauritsen, a vice president for the International Food and Commercial Workers Union, which has tried to organize the plant, said he remained skeptical. “They are the poster child for how a rogue company can exploit a broken immigration system,” Mr. Lauritsen said.

Tags: ,

¡La Luta Continua!

Farmworkers Beat Burger King, But Face Resistance From Growers

— Tiffany Ten Eyck (this post is taken from the latest issue of Labor Notes)


Photo: Isaac Silver

In the David and Goliath match-up between the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the fast food industry, the little guy has tripped up the giant again. Bowing to an intense corporate campaign, Burger King signed an agreement in late May that conceded all of the farmworker organization’s demands. But a backlash from the growers that supply Burger King has at least temporarily halted the deal’s implementation.

It’s the third time in three years the CIW could claim victory against a behemoth corporation. After a four-year boycott of Taco Bell and pressure on its parent company, Yum! Brands, the CIW convinced the company in 2005 to meet all of its demands: a penny more per pound paid to Immokalee workers who pick tomatoes bought by the company, an enforceable code of conduct for growers and the industry, and an assurance that the CIW would have the ability to monitor and audit the penny pass-down.

According to the CIW, the extra penny would spike the rate paid for each 32-pound bucket picked, from an average of 45 cents to 77 cents. At the current rate, workers have to pick two-and-a-half tons of tomatoes each day to earn minimum wage.

Last April, just a year into their campaign against McDonald’s, CIW announced that it had also yielded to the farmworkers’ demands. Soon after, the rest of Yum!’s brands—A&W, Long John Silvers, KFC, and Pizza Hut—followed suit.

Burger King took just more than a year to crack. One of the toughest opponents the farmworkers have faced, BK fell after a tumultuous campaign that included a surveillance scandal and continued pressure from consumers. Burger King agreed to the same conditions as McDonald’s and Taco Bell, and more. The agreement includes an extra half-cent going directly to growers to cover the payroll and administrative costs that enacting the agreement would entail.


Even with the good news, CIW activists say there’s still much work to be done. Recent moves by the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE), which represents most Florida growers, have made it harder to transfer the corporations’ commitments—and pennies—down to the fields in Florida.

In the early years of the CIW’s history, farmworkers would target growers in the fields of south and central Florida, where wages were essentially unchanged since 1978. Growers said they simply could not afford to do anything about farmworker wages or conditions—they were being squeezed by purchasing conglomerates run by corporate buyers. The organization’s strategy of targeting the top of the supply chain, the mega-purchasers themselves, was born of these experiences.

Now, even with an ever-larger group of corporate buyers exerting pressure, the growers are still dragging their feet. After the April 2007 agreement with McDonald’s—which was to be put in place at the start of the growing season that fall—the growers took measures to prevent the money from reaching farmworkers’ pockets.

The FTGE told its members that if they passed down the corporations’ pennies, it would charge them a $100,000 fine per worker, per paycheck. FTGE Vice President Reggie Brown called the CIW’s agreements “illegal and un-American.”

Growers conceded, and the FTGE succeeded in stopping the penny pass-through that had been in place since the CIW won the Taco Bell boycott in 2005.

According to CIW staffer Julia Perkins, all three corporate entities have agreed to funnel the pennies into an escrow account until growers get back on board, an outcome the CIW says companies have committed to helping bring about.

“As the news of the agreement [with Burger King] came out, Brown said that the FTGE was not going to be implementing the fine,” said Perkins.

Brown’s reason for the change of heart? The media had been paying too much attention to his extreme fines, in the light of the CIW’s campaigns.

“We need to reach a tipping point,” said Perkins. “The more buyers that we have that are telling their growers: ‘lock in this agreement and work with us to improve the conditions for workers in your supply chain and you’ll have our business’…the more growers will want to participate.”


The CIW is used to pushback from their corporate targets, but when they began investigating mysterious phone calls and erroneous and threatening postings online, they were surprised when all leads pointed directly to Burger King headquarters (see Labor Notes May 2008).

Burger King was implicated in the hiring of a surveillance firm which posed as students to infiltrate an ally, the Student/Farmworker Alliance (SFA). Then, the CIW began to trace the origin of threatening posts that appeared whenever an article or video about the coalition was posted online.

Organizers and journalists eventually found the source—Burger King Vice President Steve Grover, the executive targeted by the CIW. The company fired both Grover and media spokesperson Keva Silversmith, who was implicated in leaking an internal memo to the growers’ association.

Under mounting pressure from the media and CIW supporters as a result of the scandal, Burger King gave in to the CIW’s demands just weeks later.

“It was a question of using all of Burger King’s missteps and outrageous behavior against them,” said Marc Rodrigues, an SFA organizer.


The now-frequent question faced by CIW and its allies is, “How do you do it?”

“Having a strong network of allies that are committed and diverse and go at your target at different angles has helped the CIW win,” explained Rodrigues. “We’ve had students protesting at restaurants, faith communities organizing churches to send letters to the company, and we’ve been targeting private equity owners.”

Rodrigues and Perkins agree that the research they do to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their targets has been important. When organizers realized that Burger King is partially owned by private equity firms like Goldman Sachs and Texas Pacific Group—which has a history of making deals with pressure groups to stem bad press—organizers began linking their targets.

CIW corresponded with board members from the owning firms, and in 2007 started a march at the Miami offices of Goldman Sachs that ended at Burger King.

CIW organizers also say that their high-profile media presence has been crucial. It was a key element in bringing support from several U.S. senators in this campaign.

Organizers say they don’t need a big PR firm to make a splash. “We’ve succeeded in focusing on the strong point this campaign has: the daily work of a farmworker and what that entails,” Rodrigues said.

What has also helped the CIW succeed is a long-term vision for industry-wide changes in agriculture. As early as 2005, CIW reached out to all the major buyers of Florida tomatoes, a rogues gallery of corporate titans that includes Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Subway, and Chipotle, informing them of the poor wages and working conditions of tomato pickers in their supply chains.

“We’re spending the summer figuring out what the next steps of the campaign are going to be,” Perkins said. “All the retail buyers of Florida tomatoes have been made aware of the situation. No one can feign ignorance.”

“I Charge the White Man” … Immigrant’s Death Exposes Tensions

That powerful video clip should indicate to ya what I’ve been feeling lately. A good friend of mine recently made an entry in his blog about the criminalization of immigrants in this “land of the free, home of the brave.” Sparking his thoughts was a recent story in the New York Times of Juana Villegas, an undocumented Mexicana in Nashville, who was 9-months pregnant and who had been arrested in Nashville and subsequently forced to give birth chained to her hospital bed. The story is outrageous, but what interests me most is not so much the specifics of the case (in my view, the injustice of Villegas’ situation is self-evident), but instead a comment posted to his entry. Here is a portion of this knuckle-head’s response:

“It’s no wonder Americans are beginning to associate the word “Latino” with illegal invader! It’s people like you that are turning American citizens against all Latinos and causing the so called hatred of Latinos, no matter whether they are legal, ilegal…. Your defence of this criminal illegal alien is doing nothing but adding to the anger of more Americans against all Latinos.”

So-called hatred? Criminal illegal alien?

Okay, aside from his ignorance of the actual law (i.e. that violation of immigration law is not equivalent to a felony crime warranting restraint), it is frightening just how mainstream racist, anti-immigrant sentiment has become. The sanctity of our nation’s laws is only a pretext, a cover, in which people can now spout their racist venom in this so-called post-civil rights era (I’m sure some of his/her best friends are non-white, right?)

But laws are only man-made creations. They do not drop from the heavens, nor are they like the laws of science. Laws are inherently social, and in this country, they have historically reinforced white supremacy…sometimes dealing with race explicitly (the Greaser Act, the Chinese Exclusion Act, Plessy v. Ferguson, etc.) and at other times implicitly (like, say, Bill Clinton’s recent “end-welfare-as-we-know-it” disaster called the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act). The real question, therefore, is not merely the matter of a violation of laws, but instead what values underlie our society and are expressed in our law? After all, when one thinks about it, if it was only about respecting the sanctity of laws, the Civil Rights Movement in the Deep South would have been much different.

So its not about law; its about race, about power. Its about how this country is changing. They often use the highly-charged term “invasion” to describe these dynamics. They even believe that mainstream, reform-oriented organizations like the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) are somehow separatist organizations seeking to reclaim Aztlan (the US Southwest). In response, many Latina/o politicians and pundits make an effort to dispel such notions. And, indeed, NCLR is nothing of the sort. But, ya know what, we are taking over, and I welcome it. These changes, no matter how much they attempt to stop it, are going to continue. Their lily-white ideas about who or what this country is are dead. And it goes well-beyond salsa outselling ketchup.

So it isn’t about the facts (any junior high student, with access to the web, could have told you the NCLR wasn’t radical or separatist), or…as I mentioned above, about the law. It is straight-up about white supremacy and real hatred of Brown folk. [well, hatred for them/us as human beings, that is, not as the nameless, “things” that are there to pick their fruit, serve as nannies for their children, etc.]

Is it a democracy when a woman is chained for what amounts to a civil offense? Is it a democracy when, as reported recently in the Fresno Bee, a Mexican truck-driver can be arbitrarily pulled over, and when his English just doesn’t seem good enough to the Alabama police officer (well-known as they are for their racial progressiveness), he can be fined upwards of $500? As Chicano historian Rudy Acuna wrote a number of years ago in relation to Los Angeles: it increasingly seems like its better to be “anything but Mexican.”

And now this following story from Pennsylvania:

Immigrant’s death exposes tensions

Mexican Worker Beaten By Teen

Michael Rubinkam, ASSOCIATED PRESS

SHENANDOAH, Pa. | Luis Ramirez came to the United States from Mexico six years ago to look for work, landing in this town in Pennsylvania’s coal region. Here, he found steady employment, fathered two children and, his fiancee said, occasionally endured harassment by white residents.

Now he is headed back to Mexico in a coffin.

The 25-year-old illegal immigrant was beaten over the weekend after an argument with a group of youths, including at least some players on the town’s beloved high school football team, police said. And despite witness reports that the attackers yelled ethnic slurs, authorities say the beating wasn’t racially motivated.

Hate crime or not, the killing has exposed long-simmering tensions in Shenandoah, a blue-collar town of 5,000 about 80 miles northwest of Philadelphia that has a growing number of Hispanic residents drawn by jobs in factories and farm fields.

An investigation continues, and no charges have yet been filed, but police say as many as six teens were involved in the fight, which ended with Mr. Ramirez in convulsions and foaming at the mouth. He died early Monday of head injuries.

Crystal Dillman, the victim’s 24-year-old fiancee, who is white and grew up here, said Mr. Ramirez was often called derogatory names, including “dirty Mexican,” and told to return to his homeland.

“People in this town are very racist toward Hispanic people. They think right away if you’re Mexican, you’re illegal, and you’re no good,” said Ms. Dillman, who has two young children by Mr. Ramirez and a 3-year-old who thought of him as her father.

On Ms. Dillman’s fireplace mantel hangs a medallion of Jesus that Mr. Ramirez was wearing the night he was beaten. Mr. Ramirez had an imprint of the medallion on his chest, marking where an assailant stomped on him, she said.

Police Chief Matthew Nestor acknowledged there have been problems as the community – the birthplace of big band musicians Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and home of Mrs. T’s Pierogies – has tried to adjust to an influx of Hispanics, who now comprise as much as 10 percent of the population.

Teenagers have sprayed racially tinged graffiti and yelled racial slurs at the newcomers, he said.

“Things are definitely not the way they used to be even 10 years ago. Things have changed here radically,” Chief Nestor said. “Some people could adapt to the changes and some just have a difficult time doing it. … Yeah, there is tension at times. You can’t deny that.”

Police are interviewing suspects and witnesses. Preliminarily, though, they have determined that Mr. Ramirez, who worked in a factory and picked strawberries and cherries, got into an argument with a group of youths that escalated into a fight in which he was badly outnumbered.

“From what we understand right now, it wasn’t racially motivated,” Chief Nestor said. “This looks like a street fight that went wrong.”

Retired Philadelphia Police Officer Eileen Burke, who lives on the street where the fight occurred, told the Associated Press she heard a youth scream at one of Mr. Ramirez’s friends after the beating to tell his Mexican friends to get out of Shenandoah, “or you’re going to be laying next to him.”

Shenandoah Valley High School Principal Phillip Andras said he knew little about the purported involvement of any football players. A call by the AP to the athletic director was referred back to the principal.

But the players’ possible involvement has added to interest in the case. Football, along with the town’s many block parties and festivals, is a major attraction. Home games typically draw thousands of fans.

Arielle Garcia and her husband, who were with Mr. Ramirez when he was beaten late Saturday, said they had dropped their friend off at a park but returned when he called to say he had gotten into a fight.

She saw someone kick Mr. Ramirez in the head, she said, and “that’s when he started shaking and foaming out of the mouth.”

Despite the witness statements, Borough Manager Joseph Palubinsky said he doesn’t believe Mr. Ramirez’s ethnicity was what prompted the fight: “I have reason to know the kids who were involved, the families who were involved, and I’ve never known them to harbor this type of feeling.”

So let me get this straight: the guy is actually saying that there is no way these boys could have been involved in such an atrocity because, hey, after all, I know them and they come from “good” families?!! [for an interview describing more] As a historian of sixties social movements, I can’t help but cringe at the parallel to the many arguments that authorities in the segregationist South gave to dismiss crimes against African Americans. Many of those involved in those horrific lynchings were, indeed, church-going folk that supported the local high school football team.

So what do we do? For starters, its well past time to be upset, its time to be outraged and organized. And, coming full circle, in light of all these recent developments, I believe its time we took another serious listen to this man:

…and to the powerful ideas he articulates below: part of the lesson being that we not allow the struggle of immigrants and Latinos/as in this country to be defined narrowly within a domestic framework, or as only a matter of civil/legal rights, but as Malcolm indicates here, the burning issue of race in “America” is much larger and deeper, it is global and a fundamental matter of human rights. And lastly, oppressed groups need to develop a real  and meaningful and lasting solidarity.


French Immigrants On Strike … The Global South Strikes Back

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It’s often easy to forget that the struggles right before our face are not quite as local as we think they are.  The situation confronting immigrants here in Califas, for instance, while having its own unique form, exists in many other places across the globe.

Earlier this summer, the European Union (EU) passed a set of draconian, anti-immigrant laws, prompting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to comment to gathered members of the South American trade bloc, Mercosur, that the EU was seemingly choosing the same “barbaric” immigration policies as the US…and in a show of solidarity, even suggested that perhaps economic retaliation, of some sort, might even be necessary.  ¡Chingao! … sitting on such a vast supply of oil, and with the US economy spiraling deeper into crisis as it is, I can’t but help to imagine (or is that daydream) if Chavez’s threat was also extended to the US.  In short, respect the dignity of Latina/o immigrants, cease the degradation of immigrant labor, or face the consequences!  Forget about issues of morality or any other such thing (after all, as Malcolm X argued, this country has proven itself fundamentally immoral from the very beginning), do you think this country would finally then realize its historic dependence on not only foreign oil but also immigrant labor?!?!

Sadly, the truth is more than likely not; it would probably only push this country towards some form of fascism all that much quicker…on the foreign policy front, that is, an expansion of imperialist policies toward Venezuela (more than likely, heightened armed aggression in the name of national security) and, on the domestic front, ever-more militarization of immigration policy.

Fascism?!  I can hear it already…isn’t that just more of that over-heated, conspiratorial-laced, leftist rhetoric?  I actually don’t think so; in fact, when you really begin to consider the current mix of our military interventions abroad, the expanding prison-industrial complex here at home, the evisceration of civil liberties under the pretext of a War on Terror, the “immigrant-as-enemy” discourse permeating both policy makers and the popular culture, the destruction of social democratic programs from another era that had served as a safety net (which, it should be said, arose as a direct response to the Great Depression and the two general ideological directions in which the world was turning to address the crisis: that is, to the Left or, like Germany and Italy, to the Right), one can’t help but believe we have to seriously consider the possibilities….especially as the economic crisis deepens.

Recently, the Italian government of right-wing Silvio Berlusconi proposed the fingerprinting of the entire Roma (Gypsy) population, echoing policies of Europe during World World II.  In fact, I gotta mention here that the Porrajmos, as the Holocaust is known in the Romani language,claimed roughly 1 million Gypsy lives in a pre-war population that had been somewhere around 2 million.  That’s right, one-half! of the entire European Gypsy population exterminated during the war, yet when one reads about the genocide of World War II, this Holocaust is made all but invisible.   Perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised; after all, just this past weekend outside Naples, two young Roma girls drowned, and with their bodies in full view, Italian sun-bathers continued their business of enjoying the afternoon and sunbathing.  Is not this story but an extreme reflection of the same dynamics underneath the story in my last post: that is, some lives are just simply not considered valuable. 

But while there are tremendous forces arrayed to keep those outside the formal body politic silenced, to maintain their invisible status, and thereby to preserve the status quo, they continue…as they always have…to refuse and resist.  The following is a recent story I came across regarding the immigrant rights movement in France (who, under right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy, has spearheaded the wave of xenophobia inside the EU) and what strategies they, as largely migrants from Africa, have employed to assert their dignity.

We would do well to listen, to learn from them, to take leadership from those that are most often neglected, and to recognize…as I believe Chavez did in his statement…that whether we are in San Pancho or Fresno, Chichicastenango  or Caracas, Naples or in the banlieues of Paris, we’re all connected.  And that no matter what language we speak…Spanish or Vietnamese (a la Montoya’s art above), Spanglish or Romani, English or French, a deep knowledge of one another, and a profound solidarity with one another in the face of racial capitalism is absolutely necessary.  It might just save us from a very, very dark future.

“They work here, they live here, they stay here!”  French immigrants strike for the right to work—and win.

By Marie Kennedy and Chris Tilly

France has an estimated half-million undocumented immigrants (8% of
the population, compared to 4% in the United States), including many
from France’s former colonies in Africa. The sans-papiers
(literally, “without papers”), as the French call them, lead a shadowy
existence, much like their U.S. counterparts. And as U.S. immigrants
did in 2006 with rousing mass demonstrations, the French undocumented
have recently taken a dramatic step out of the shadows. But the sans-papiers did it in a particularly French way: hundreds of them occupied their workplaces.

image of French undocumented immigrants on strike

Bakay, Omar, and Issac, three cleaners for the Quick restaurant
chain who are sitting in to demand working papers. Photo credit: Marie

Snowballing strike

The snowflake that led to this snowball of sit-in strikes was a
November immigration law, sponsored by the arch-conservative government
of President Nicolas Sarkozy, that cracked down on family reunification
and ramped up expulsions of unauthorized immigrants. The law also added
a pro-business provision permitting migration, and even
“regularization” of undocumented workers, in occupations facing labor
shortages. The French government followed up with a January notice to
businesses in labor-starved sectors, opening the door for employers to
apply to local authorities for work permits for workers with false
papers whom they had “in good faith.” hired. However, for low-level
jobs, this provision was limited to migrants from new European Union
member countries. Africans could only qualify if they were working in
highly skilled occupations such as science or engineering—but not
surprisingly, most Africans in France are concentrated in low-wage
service sector jobs.

At that point, African sans-papiers took matters into
their own hands. On February 13, Fodie Konté of Mali and eight
co-workers at the Grande Armée restaurant in Paris occupied their
workplace to demand papers. All nine were members of the Confédération
Générale du Travail (CGT), France’s largest union federation, and the
CGT backed them up. In less than a week, Parisian officials agreed to
regularize seven of the nine, with Konté the first to get his papers.

The CGT and Droits Devant!! (Rights Ahead!!), an immigrant
rights advocacy group, saw an opportunity and gave the snowball a push.
They escorted Konté and his co-workers to meetings and rallies with
other undocumented CGT workers, where they declared, “We’ve started it,
it’s up to you to follow.” Small groups began to do just that. Then on
April 15, fifteen new workplaces in Paris and the surrounding region
sprouted red CGT flags as several hundred “irregular” workers held
sit-ins. At France’s Labor Day parade on May 1st, a contingent of
several thousand undocumented, most from West African countries such as
Mali, Senegal, and Ivory Coast, were the stars.

But local governments were slow to move on their demands, so with only
70 workers regularized one month into the sit-ins, another 200 sans-papiers
upped the ante on May 20 by taking over twenty more job sites. Still
others have joined the strike since. As of early July, 400 former
strikers have received papers (typically one-year permits), and the CGT
estimates that 600 are still sitting tight at 41 workplaces.

Restaurants, with their visible locations on main boulevards,
are the highest profile strike sites. But strikers are also camping out
at businesses in construction, cleaning, security, personal services,
and landscaping. Though the movement reportedly includes North
Africans, Eastern Europeans, and even Filipinos, its public presence
has consisted almost entirely of sub-Saharan Africans, a stunning
indication of the degree of racial segregation in immigrant jobs.
Strikers are overwhelmingly men, though the female employees of a
contract cleaning business, Ma Net, made a splash when they joined the
strike on May 26, and groups representing domestics and other women
workers began to demonstrate around the same time.

image of French undocumented immigrants demonstrating

Organization of sans-papiers at a May 22 general strike march organized by the CGT. Banner calls for “regularization for all.” Photo credit: Marie Kennedy

“To go around freely…”

The sans-papiers came to France by different means. Some
overstayed student or tourist visas. Others paid as much as 7,500 euros
($12,000) to a trafficker to travel to the North African coast,
clandestinely cross by boat to Spain, and then find their way to
France. Strike leader Konté arrived in Paris, his target, two long
years after leaving Mali. A set of false papers for 200 euros, and he
was ready to look for work.

But opportunities for the undocumented are, for the most part, limited
to jobs with the worst pay and working conditions. The French minimum
wage is 8.71 euros an hour (almost $13), but strikers tell of working
for 3 euros or even less. “With papers, I would get 1,000 euros a
month,” Issac, a Malian cleaner for the Quick restaurant chain who has
been in France eleven years, told Dollars & Sense.
“Without papers, I get 300.” Even so, he and many others send half
their pay home to families who depend on them. Through paycheck
withholding, the sans-papiers pay taxes and contribute to the
French health care and retirement funds. But “if I get sick, I don’t
have any right to reimbursement,” said Camara, a dishwasher from Mali.
He told L’Humanité, the French Communist Party newspaper, how
much he wished “to go around freely.” “In the evening I don’t go out,”
he said. “When I leave home in the morning, I don’t even know if I will
get home that night. I avoid some subway stations” that are closely
monitored by the police.

When asked how he would reply to the claim that the undocumented are
taking jobs from French workers, Issac replied simply, “We are French
workers—just without any rights. Yes, we’re citizens, because France
owned all of black Africa!”

image of strike poster of French undocumented immigrants

“They work here, they live here, they stay here!” Strike poster in
the window of the occupied Bistro Romain restaurant on the Champs
Élysées in Paris. Photo credit: Marie Kennedy.

Business allies

The surprise allies in this guerrilla struggle for the right to work
are many of the employers. When workers seized the Samsic contract
cleaning agency in the Paris suburb of Massy, owner Mehdi Daïri first
called the police. When they told him there was nothing they could do,
he pragmatically decided to apply for permits for his 300-plus
employees. “It’s in everybody’s best interest,” he told Le Monde,
the French daily newspaper. “Their action is legitimate. They’ve been
here for years, working, contributing to the social security system,
paying taxes, and we’re satisfied with their work.” He even has his
office staff make coffee for the strikers every morning.

Though some businesses have taken a harder line against the strikers,
the major business associations have called for massive regularization
of their workforces. According to L’Humanité,
André Dauguin, president of the hotel operators association, is
demanding that 50,000 to100,000 undocumented workers be given papers.
Didier Chenet, president of another association of restaurant and hotel
enterprises, declared that with 20,000 jobs going unfilled in these
sectors, the sans-papiers “are not taking jobs away from other workers.”

For the CGT, busy with defensive battles against labor “reforms” such
as cutbacks in public employees’ pensions, the strike wave represents a
step in a new direction. The core of the CGT remains white, native-born
French workers. As recently as the 1980s, the Communist Party, to which
the CGT was then closely linked, took some controversial anti-immigrant
stands. Raymond Chauveau, the general secretary of the CGT’s Massy
local, acknowledged to Le Monde that some union members still have trouble understanding why the
organization has taken up this issue. But he added, “Today, these
people are recognized for what they are: workers. They are developing
class consciousness. Our role as a union is to show that these people
are not outside the world of work.” While some immigrant rights groups
are critical of the CGT for suddenly stepping into the leadership of a
fight other groups had been pursuing for years, it is hard to deny the
importance of the labor organization’s clout.

Half empty or half full?

With only 400 of 1,400 applications for work permits granted
four months into the struggle, the CGT is publicly voicing its
impatience at the national government’s insistence that local
authorities make each decision on a case-by-case basis rather than
offering broader guidelines. But Chauveau said he is proud that they
have compelled the government to accept regularization of Africans in
low-end jobs, broadening the opening beyond the intent of the 2007 law.
And on its website, the CGT boasted that the sans-papiers
“have compelled the government to take its first steps back, when that
had seemed impossible since the [May 2007] election of Nicolas
Sarkozy.” Perhaps even more important for the long term is that class
consciousness Chauveau mentioned. This is “a struggle that has changed
my life,” stated Mamadou Dembia Thiam of Senegal, a security guard who
won his work authorization in June. “Before the struggle, I was really
very timid. I’ve changed!” Changes like that seem likely to bring a new
burst of energy to the struggling French labor movement.

Marie Kennedy is professor emerita of Community
Planning at the University of Massachusetts Boston and visiting
professor of Urban Planning at UCLA. Chris Tilly is director of the
Institute for Research on Labor and Employment and professor of Urban
Planning at UCLA . In addition, Kennedy is a board member of Grassroots
International, and Tilly is a Dollars & Sense Associate.


Vivan Los Mojados!!

Okay, so this is my first blog entry and I’m truthfully still trying to figure out how to utilize this technology effectively.

How better to introduce “El Grito” though than with some musica from Los Tigres del Norte ?!? Ajua!!

Over the past few months here in Califas there have been a rash of heat-related deaths, underscoring the continuing struggle of farmworkers that is largely, and criminally, beneath the radar for most people in this country. While many complain about the rising cost of produce in their local supermarket, they remain unaware (perhaps willingly?) of another, deeper, human cost.

And I suppose, by way of introduction, that would really speak to what I see as the spirit of “El Grito”: that is, just as their is another way to think about that produce sitting in your fridge … that there’s more there than mere commodities or that we are somehow just consumers … there are a whole series of relationships and stories and injustices and struggles just beneath the surface, “El Grito” is gonna seek to share these realities and strive to look and think about them in new and radical ways.

Pero don’t be expectin’ any objectivity! I mean, I ain’t telling no lies or claimin’ easy victories (a la Brother Cabral), but I am unabashedly on the side of the gente!! So like folk used to say back in the day: All Power to the People!!

Check out this website below… and stay thirsty, my friend:

Stories on the Border

h/t Immigration Prof

A group of filmmakers recently took a trip along the U.S/Mexico border collecting stories to create a series of short films documenting life on both sides of the border.

The videos are available borderstories.org

The stories are geographically organized (from Brownsville to Tijuana). We crisscrossed the border the entire way. We went into people’s backyards and asked them how the border is affecting them. We wanted to humanize the issue. Our notion is that by traversing the entire border and sharing voices and then presenting them in one place, people can begin to see how dynamic and complex the region is. The mainstream media is driven by pundit analysis. This is an opportunity to see where there’s some common ground or empathy for the other side.They all have resonance, and each story is different. I do think what we did in Arizona was incredibly fascinating. In Arizona, we did five stories: two on the Mexico side, and three on the U.S. side. We talked to the founder of (Humane Borders). The organization was able to solicit funding from (Pima County) based on a cost-benefit analysis; they found that it was cheaper to provide water (for immigrants) than to remove their dead bodies. We juxtaposed that with a story about the Border Patrol. They were both American viewpoints about the same subject, and yet they’re totally different. The Arizona stories capture how politicized the border is. [Tucson Weekly]