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Apr08

The Violence of Gentrification

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On March 21st a small group of black teenage girls embarked on a series of violent attacks against white Temple University students. Two fifteen year old’s and a sixteen year old have subsequently been charged as adults with Aggravated Assault, Conspiracy, Possession of an Instrument of a Crime and Terroristic Threats. Those are just a few of the charges they face as they are held on bail ranging from $75,000 to $100,000. The attacks were denounced by the media and city officials as “despicable,” and “shocking,” yet the only thing truly shocking about these attacks is the fact that they do not happen more often considering the class war being waged against poor and working class blacks in this city.

On March 3rd, just a few blocks from where these attacks would later take place, an emergency town hall was held at The Church of the Advocate to discuss the “crisis facing black Philadelphia: the demise of our neighborhoods.” The majority black crowd took turns decrying the effects of gentrification. They spoke about how their churches, recreational centers and schools are being demolished to make way for condominiums and student dorms, and they also traded horror stories regarding their interactions with their new “neighbors”. It was revealed that not only are long term residents suddenly finding themselves unable to afford rising rents and property taxes, they are also being forced out by way of eminent domain.

The same government forces working hand in hand with private businesses and universities to “revitalize” neighborhoods are the same ones continuing to slash funding for social welfare programs. Meanwhile, Philadelphia government officials are closing public schools, recreational centers and after-school program even as they hold lavish galas for the grand opening of fancy art galleries and other private businesses.

The poor and working class people who make up the majority of the residents in neighborhoods being gentrified now find themselves living in a sort of Twilight Zone. All around them they see signs of wealth and prosperity that are just beyond their reach; indeed, for many who must go to bed hungry within sight of the glittering lights and revelry of some sprawling mega-campus, it must be not unlike the Torment of Tantalus. Living so close to such blatant inequality must indeed feel like some sort of punishment, and who can honestly say what the long term psychological impacts are? Well, The Centers for Disease Control have actually looked into this and they have stated that gentrification and displacement can have “negative consequences” on the health of marginalized populations due to stress and the loss of social networks.

Not only are the recent attacks near Temple’s campus a sign of the growing frustration and rage of the black underclass, they are also a harbinger of things to come if we allow our communities to continue to be destroyed in the name of so-called progress. Let’s return to the emergency town hall to address gentrification for some more clarity on this issue:

Denise Ripley, who spoke Saturday, lives on Uber Street near Jefferson in North Philadelphia. She said she is the only person from her old block still in the area after new townhouses were built in 2005.

Ripley said one neighbor, “Miss Ethel,” a retired hospital technician, used to mentor teenage girls she took on trips to New York.

“She just wanted to show them another part of the world outside of North Philly, to let them know it was a big world out here, and that you can accomplish your dreams,” Ripley said in an interview yesterday.

Ripley told the group of 50 to 60 people at the Advocate, at 18th and Diamond, that Miss Ethel moved to West Philadelphia.

“About six months later, she passed away.”

Ripley, 56, said she believed Miss Ethel, then in her late 70s, died of a broken heart:

“I think it grieved her to have to move from the community she had known all her life. I was grieving myself. It tore the community apart. People I had known for 40 or 50 years were gone. I felt like we were being pushed out of our community.”

What if Miss Ethel had been able to stay in her home? Would she have ended up mentoring some of those young girls who are now facing decades in prison? We will never know for sure, but what we should acknowledge is that the people living on the front lines of gentrification are being subjected to economic violence and social violence on a daily basis. The city government bureaucrats and mega-university officials may not be marauding the streets bashing people in the face with bricks, yet they’ve done more than their fair share of a much more pernicious type of violence. The three teenage girls now facing adult charges and prison time clearly became disturbed over time and lashed out against the symbols of the economic violence and micro-aggressions they faced every single day of their lives. Instead of being sent to prison they should be sent to a rehabilitation center where they can get the help they need.

Mar22

March Viewing List

New! A monthly viewing list in the interest of promoting material that will add to our understanding of both the environmental crisis and the systems of oppression that created and sustain it.

Feb21

Reparations: A Moral Obligation

During his 2004 Senate run and again during the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama stood firm in his opposition to reparations for the descendants of enslaved Africans here in the United States. “I have said in the past – and I’ll repeat again – that the best reparations we can provide are good schools in the inner city and jobs for people who are unemployed,” he said in 2008 right before his historic election.

The radical solutions required to address the needs and long-festering wounds of the African American community of course had to be purged from public discourse. Yet before we explore the repercussions of the failure of the first black president to adequately address this issue, let’s take a look at the reparations movement as it currently exists outside of the United States. For the purposes of this article we will focus on reparations as they relate to Africa and the African diaspora, though there are other useful examples – the reparations paid by Germany to Israel being one of them. Despite the fact that the reparations movement never quite got off the ground here in the U.S., globally it’s a different story.

In Kenya, the birthplace of President Obama’s father, tens of thousands of Kenyans were beaten, sexually assaulted, raped and otherwise tortured by the British colonial government and its supporters during the 1950′s and 60′s Mau Mau rebellion. In a landmark case, some of the victims have managed to successfully sue the British government for (a rather paltry) 31.5 million in reparations, including court fees. I consider this amount to be paltry because each of the 5,200 Kenyans who could prove their torture claims will be receiving a mere $4,100. When we consider that a woman who spilled hot coffee on her lap was awarded nearly $3 million, and the vast sums others have received for far less egregious crimes committed against them, the $4,100 figure is indeed nothing more than a symbolic gesture. Yet it sets an interesting precedent.

Represented by the same law firm that successfully sued on behalf of the Kenyans, a coalition of fourteen Caribbean nations (CARICOM) has begun the process of seeking reparations from Britain, France, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Spain, Portugal and Holland for their role in the Atlantic slave trade. According to some estimates, about four trillion British pounds in unpaid labor was extracted from those held in captivity in the West Indies over nearly a century. The sale of sugar, cotton, tobacco, indigo, rum and other products produced on West India’s very lucrative slave plantations jump-started the Industrial Revolution and precipitated Britain, France, Spain and Holland’s elevation to the level of global superpowers. Meanwhile, today, most CARICOM countries are relatively impoverished and dependent on tourism to meet the needs of their people. In February, 2014 CARICOM will officially reveal a list of ten demands for the former colonial and slave owning powers; their demands will include an apology and the recuperation of funds that could total in the billions of dollars.

Both of the above examples are important, but the Kenya example is especially relevant for us here in the United States. While most discussions of reparations have so far focused on the period of chattel slavery leading up to 1865, the Kenya lawsuit against Great Britain compels us to expand the time frame to include the Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras. One century after the official end of slavery African-Americans, like the Kenyans under colonial retribution, continued to endure and struggle against disenfranchisement, exploitation and widespread psychological and physical torture despite being nominally free in their movements. After chattel slavery officially came to an end both private citizens and agents of the state were free to harass, abuse, discriminate against, deny services to, and even murder African Americans with near impunity until relatively recently (although this last point is debatable). The cumulative and lingering effects of virulent anti-black racism cannot be understated when examining the disparities that exist between African Americans and other ethnic groups.

in his book, ‘When Affirmative Action Was White: The Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth Century America’, Ira Katznelson explores how Congress and other agents of the federal government were complicit in economic disenfranchisement and social discrimination during the Jim Crow era. This fascinating book explores the hidden history of how African-Americans were sacrificed by northern liberal lawmakers in exchange for southern cooperation on progressive legislation like the New Deal and the GI Bill. The exclusion of African Americans from the economic and social uplift provided by progressive legislation was systematic and deliberate, and effectively blocked most from entry into the middle class. The effects of this discrimination can still be seen today; the federal government must be held to account for its role in the hobbling of the prospects and aspirations of a significant portion of its citizens.

The situation for many African Americans living in the United States today is dire. Homelessness, health disparities, mass incarceration, food insecurity, joblessness; the cumulative effects of these ills are taking an enormous toll. At the core of these problems lay a lack of resources and a lack of access to resources. Despite the fact that we live in the richest and most powerful country in the world, many African Americans face near third-world conditions and health outcomes, consistently falling behind all other ethnic groups except for Native Americans. As mentioned earlier, in 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama rejected any talk of reparations, instead offering up a mythical robust jobs programs for all Americans. Proponents of reparations were rightfully dismayed considering the widely available data. Consider the following statistics and studies as prime examples of why Mr. Obama’s attitude towards reparations is at best extremely misguided.

A 2003 University of Chicago study by Devah Pager found that whites with felony criminal records were preferred by employers over blacks with no criminal record whatsoever. Additionally, Janelle Ross’ article, ‘Black Unemployment Driven By White America’s Favors For Friends’, describes the repercussions for black job seekers of favoritism in a white-dominated and white supremacist society. According to her analysis, some of the discrimination taking place today in the job market is subconscious or unintentional; but regardless of intentions, discrimination and exclusion have serious economic and social consequences.

According to a 2013 article by Matt Bruening entitled, ‘The Racial Wealth Gap’, blacks collectively hold 2.7 percent of the nation’s wealth with whites gobbling up a whopping 88.4 percent. Black wealth would have to increase by at least five-fold to be in proportion to our share of the population. A Brandeis University study published last year revealed that white median net worth in 2009 was $265,000 while black median net worth was $28,500. A Pew Hispanic Center study found the 2009 median black net worth to be much lower at $5,677.

The NAACP’s Economic Department and the Dēmos think tank recently released the results of a study finding that, despite having relatively similar levels of credit card debt, blacks are 20 percent more likely to be targeted by bill collectors. This is due in part to the fact that, according to the study, “…only 42 percent of African American households reported having “good” or “excellent” credit, compared to 74 percent of white households.” Disparities also exist in the world of student loan debt with 27 percent of black bachelor’s degree holders struggling with more than $30,000 in debt versus 16 percent of white bachelor’s degree holders, according to a study by Campus Progress and the Center for American Progress.

In a capitalist society, disparities in wealth mean disparities in well being; if you cannot afford “the good life” you will most likely not experience one. The health disparities born of socio-economic inequality are particularly troubling considering the fact that they are totally unnecessary and avoidable. Lack of health insurance and access to preventive care is literally killing people. Breast cancer is the leading cause of death among black women aged 45-64 with the death rate being 60% higher than the death rate of white women; diabetes and obesity are at high levels in African American communities with diabetes related mortality rates 20 percent higher for black men and 40 percent higher for black women compared to their white counterparts; the HIV/AIDS rate in some black communities is on par with impoverished African countries – in fact, Washington D.C.’s HIV/AIDS infection rate is actually higher than Ethiopia, Nigeria and Rwanda’s.

In his 2009 article, ‘Racism’s Hidden Toll‘, Ryan Blitstein asks, “Does the stress of living in a white-dominated society make African Americans get sick and die younger than their white counterparts? Apparently, yes.” While examining Arline Geronimus’ excellent research on this subject, he goes on to say:

American minorities face a bevy of chronic obstacles that whites and the socioeconomically advantaged cope with far less often: environmental pollution, high crime, poor health care, overt racism, concentrated poverty. Over the course of a person’s life, the psychological and physiological response to this kind of stress leads to dire health problems, advanced aging and early death.

This, unfortunately, sums up the experience of many African Americans quite well. Lack of access to health insurance, preventive screenings, venues for exercise and stress management, organic food, mental health support and safe communities has severely degraded the quality of life and life expectancy of many African Americans.

The economic and health disparities outlined so far require an urgent response in and of themselves, yet when the issues of mass incarceration, disparities in education, gentrification and homelessness/housing insecurity are added to the picture, we can say with confidence that the measures taken so far to address racial inequality have been a disastrous failure. Adding insult to injury, ongoing widespread police brutality and harassment, racist vigilante attacks and modern day lynchings continue to expose the fraud that is our so-called color blind and post-racial society.

The economic and social stresses African Americans face under white supremacy seem to be increasing rather than decreasing. Something must be done, and it must be done soon before the powder keg explodes, or worse, before people resign themselves to their hobbled status. Yet many vehemently criticize the reparations movement, saying it victimizes African Americans and could lead to people avoiding taking responsibility for their own poor choices. Some question where the money and resources would come from; others denounce the movement altogether for being utopian and for having too broad a scope, or for being too complicated to practically implement. Many of the critiques of the reparations movement amount to victim blaming and an attempt to suppress and conceal the centuries long cumulative effects of white supremacy in this country. As far as the logistics are concerned, if people can send robots to Mars and put a man on the moon we should be able to figure this out, though it will of course require many long hours of debate and discussion.

Before we can explore what reparations and true reconciliation could look like for the African diaspora here in the United States, we must take a moment to address some misconceptions about reparations. Reparations are not:

1. Freedom from chattel slavery
2. Desegregated public spaces, schools and work places
3. The election of African American politicians
4. Legal protections from racist terrorism
5. The right to apply for and receive social services and benefits
6. Black History Month
7. Legal protection from housing discrimination
8. Affirmative Action
9. free money for the lazy and unmotivated

Most of the above are basic human rights; they are, or should be, the bare minimum for people living in a human community and must not be conflated with reparations for past and ongoing injustices and crimes against humanity. Some aspects of the above list could however play a role in the construction of a future reparations program.

Reparations and true reconciliation, though desperately needed, will most likely not occur under the current capitalist regime for several different reasons. One reason is illuminated by Frantz Fanon in his book, ‘Wretched of the Earth’, and directly relates to the Kenya and CARICOM examples explored above. Fanon writes:

Not long ago Nazism transformed the whole of Europe into a veritable colony. The governments of the various European nations called for reparations and demanded the restitution in kind and money of the wealth which had been stolen from them… There was only one slogan in the mouths of Europeans on the morrow of the 1945 V-Day: “Germany must pay.”

Fanon was both exposing the hypocrisy of European powers and making a rhetorical point concerning reparations for African countries suffering from the effects of colonization and colonialism. Unfortunately, African Americans are not in a position comparable to the Kenyans or the members of the CARICOM countries. We have been absorbed, albeit grudgingly, into the American body politic and cannot be considered a separate political entity – at least not at this present moment.

Under the current system African Americans are, in general, treated as the flotsam and jetsam of history who happen to make up a reliable voting bloc for the Democratic party. A relative few are allowed some measure of privilege and media visibility; in exchange they keep silent about the increasingly desperate plight of poor and working class blacks who will ultimately be left to rot in the ghettos and in the prisons as a source of cheap labor very much the same way Natives have been relegated to their distant and mostly forgotten reservations. This is the trajectory we are currently on, but things do not necessarily have to turn out this way.

Given the current political climate where even the first black president could care less about adequately addressing the concerns of poor blacks and blacks in general, the best strategy for moving forward would be to align the reparations movement with other movements for marginalized people. It should be obvious that some of the social and economic ills outlined above also plague other communities, including poor and disenfranchised whites. Native Americans are themselves long overdue for their own form of reparations in the form of the return of stolen lands. Central and south American immigrants, driven from their homelands by NAFTA and other pernicious forces, and who make up a substantial percentage of the population, also have legitimate grievances that need to be addressed. Organized and united agitation for the righting of historical wrongs has the potential to coalesce historically antagonistic and disconnected groups into a powerful political force. The socialist revolution in Venezuela, though incomplete and problematic on some levels, gives us a clear glimpse into what the future could be once marginalized people and their allies manage to leverage power against the bourgeoisie and the money drenched elites.

A broad, determined and united coalition of African Americans, Native Americans, so-called illegal immigrants and working class and poor people of all stripes coming together to demand what is owed to them could ignite a radical transformation of this society away from exploitative capitalism. Over $21 trillion is being hidden offshore by the super rich and global elites. We know that the resources needed to fix society’s problems are there; they are simply, for the moment, out of reach, though hopefully not for long. The traditionally marginalized and dispossessed along with their allies could be a powerful force if united, replacing the “pay to play” society we have now with one that respects the inherent dignity and value of all human beings, offering hope and opportunity to all people instead of to a select and privileged few.

 

Feb05

Beyoncé and the 1%’s Normalization of Violence

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Pied Piper of Hamelin, er, I mean, Beyoncé poses with fans on the set of ‘Drunk In Love’ 

Today I’m taking a little detour into the realm of pop culture because I feel it’s important to have our finger on the pulse of the mainstream culture, warped and twisted as it may be. If we don’t understand the forces blocking revolutionary consciousness, how will we be able to combat them?

Much has been made of Beyoncé and her latest hit song ‘Drunk In Love’ during which her husband Jay-Z invokes the spirit of Ike Turner while making a crude sexual metaphor. What makes this especially problematic is Beyoncé’s recent forays into the world of feminism. Despite saying last year that she hesitates to call herself a feminist, she recently penned an article entitled, ‘Gender Equality is a Myth!’ where she mostly focuses on the wage gap between men and women. Her status as an idol and role model for girls and young women all over the world makes one wonder why she would permit Jay-Z’s lyrics alluding to domestic violence and even mouth along to these shameful words during performances. The messages being sent by these pop stars may not seem very important in the grand scheme of things, but they matter because millions upon millions of people take their cues from these media figures.

Shame. Sex. Violence. Pleasure; the intertwining of these is packaged as normal, as ‘just the way things are’. A woman roughed up during the act of intense love making becomes synonymous with images of Angela Basset’s face smeared with cake in a crowded diner full of horrified onlookers. Humiliation, but why? Here is where we can perhaps find a redeeming glimmer, perhaps the protoplasm of Beyoncé’s yet-to-fully-evolve feminist analysis, flawed and mutated though as it may be. She does seem to grasp the fact that, especially in the entertainment world, no successful woman in today’s society goes unpunished; humiliation, scorn, isolation, verbal attacks, insults and a host of other ills rain down upon women who are perceived as powerful and intimidating. The trophy Beyoncé holds at the beginning of the ‘Drunk In Love’ video hints at something interesting. She is obviously the trophy wife, but such an elevated position does not come without pitfalls and it does not shield her from Jay-Z’s humiliating objectification later on. The truly disturbing thing is that from her facial expressions and reactions in the video, she seems to crave this humiliation; she is in thrall to it. ‘Drunk In Love’; ‘Dangerously In Love’; ‘Crazy In Love’ – I’m sensing a pattern here. There may be more going on underneath the surface of this seemingly vacuous music than we realize.

Perhaps though I’m being too generous. Perhaps my own biases as a kid who grew up in the 90′s are showing through. Everyone who came of age during the TRL (Total Request Live) era is familiar with Beyoncé and her publcity stunts, as well as those of all the other members of the bubble gum pop era pantheon. I’m still a huge Christina Aguilera fan and occasionally enjoy some of Beyoncé’s songs, I must admit. I don’t want to hate Beyoncé even though i Know she’s a total tool; I would like to give her the benefit of the doubt, especially considering the fact that she’s friends with Tina Turner and cannot be unaware of how the lyrics in her song are perceived.

Until she directly addresses this topic we will never know exactly what was in her mind at the time she recorded the song with Jay-Z, but one thing that can give us a glimpse into her thought processes is this video in which she tearfully asks god why he blessed her with so much talent:

Narcissism is not a strong enough word. What she should have asked is, “Why did you make me so marketable” since as of this month her and Jay-Z’s total net worth is over eight hundred and fifty-five million dollars. Despite any claimed pretenses to artistic license, what we are dealing with is most likely just another case of the out of touch and totally self-absorbed 1%. If instead of Tina Turner’s abuse Jay-Z had alluded to blowing someone’s head off with a pistol (a common theme of his music) I fear no one would have raised an eyebrow. This state of affairs is indeed an indictment of our celebrity and violence obsessed society. What matters more to these people than the content of their “art” is how much money they can make doing it. When you can rake in two million dollars a night doing what you love onstage we can understand what Beyoncé means when she says she is living the dream. All of that money, prestige and the huge ego that must naturally accompany such a lifestyle has obviously disconnected Mrs. Carter from the world most women live in, the world where domestic violence is a real and sometimes deadly problem and not merely a metaphor for having great sex.


Jan30

National Lawyers Guild Convention: Pipelines & Environmental Destruction Workshop

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Part 1.

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Part 2.

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Thanks to Jordan Winquist for supplying the audio and description.

At National Lawyers Guild Convention (10/25/13)

The workshop dealt with the struggle against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, and aimed to draw lessons from the successful attempt by Puerto Rican activists to block the $800 million Via Verde Gasoducto in 2012. Pipelines are already being built as we await Obama’s indecisiveness on KXL, and activists with NLG representation have been arrested all over the country. Also, KXL is extremely important, but it is just one of many critical climate and environmental justice issues. Our colleagues from the front lines gave us a report on how the NLG can help fight extractive industries and support a burgeoning global Green Movement.

Moderator
Emily J. Yozell is a U.S. attorney who has been based in Costa Rica since 1988. She was active in Central American human rights investigations and litigation throughout the 1980s. She served as local counsel for Latin American banana farm workers suing U.S. based multinational fruit and chemical companies in the U.S. for toxic tort injuries from pesticide abuse during the 1990s. She continues to assist communities affected by agrochemical toxic contaminations and has been active in the successful campaign to declare Costa Rica free from oil development and Carbon Neutral by 2021.

Speakers (in order)
Pedro Saadé is founder and head of Environmental Law clinic at University of Puerto Rico. He is a long term activist and environmental lawyer who represented those opposing the Gasoducto Via Verde. He is also involved in the current fight against the incinerator in Arecibo, a still pending matter.

Since 1983, Joe Heath has been the General Counsel for the Onondaga Nation, the Central Fire of the Haudenosaunee [Iroquois] Confederacy. Joe’s work for them is primarily environmental, focusing on the Clean Water Act, Land Rights Action, protection of sacred sites, repatriation of cultural patrimony, and Indigenous
rights in the United Nations. Joe Heath has been a National Lawyers Guild member since 1971, when, in law school, he began to help resist the state’s cover up of the Attica Prison rebellion. Joe has worked extensively in the massive grass roots resistance to fracking in New York.

Dean Hubbard is Labor Director of the Sierra Club and was one of the leads in organizing Power Shift. He is familiar with the labor split on environmental issues from his experience getting unions to oppose KXL and dealing with the costs of solidarity between those unions and the people involved. He addressed job loss/
disruption from the transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy. His focus is on the question of how we build a broader coalition FOR a transition to a sustainable economy for the planet and its people.

Mariel Nanasi is the Executive Director of New Energy Economy and worked on a recent effort in Boulder, CO to create a public power utility. She will talk about how they just got the utility to agree to close half of the coal plant (900 megawatts) by 2017. Her next legal/political fight is about replacement power and stranded costs: this issue will be faced by all communities that are closing coal. She also works on a “SOL not coal” initiative that spreads energy democracy and installs solar with strategic partners (Native communities, government, and underserved Latino communities).

Jan20

#SandyGate Interview

Nathan Kleinman joins me to talk about why Occupy has recently set up camp in the state capital and taken aim at New Jersey governor Chris Christie. As someone who has been fighting for those affected by super storm Sandy since right after the storm hit in October of 2012, he has a unique perspective on the crisis facing those who have gone without proper assistance for over a year.

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Click here to find out how you can support those still suffering from the effects of super storm Sandy

Christie Documents Show African Americans and Latinos Rejected at Higher Rates for Sandy Relief

Hoboken Blackmail Charge Is Worse Than Bridgegate: Moran

New Jersey Mayor Dawn Zimmer Meets With Federal Investigators Over Claim Against Chris Christie

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Nov11

Anti-colonialism Packet

This handout was originally created for the Power Shift 2013 Anti-colonialism and Decolonization workshop. Feel free to download the PDF and share it with others or use it in your own presentations

Anti-colonialism & Decolonization Handout PDF

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