September 21, 2017

A Field Trip to Washington DC: People's Congress of Resistance

Currently, the United States Congress does not represent the people who live and work in their districts. To compensate, many people journeyed from around the country, gathering at Howard University in Washington DC, to do the job that the U.S. Congress is not doing. Congress takes $1.1 trillion in tax dollars and hands over half of it to the largest military-industrial complex in the world, while health, education, housing and jobs receive less than a quarter. Since January 20, people have been fighting back in huge numbers. Immigrants, women, scientists, students, and many others have rallied and marched. The People’s Congress of Resistance formed to help support and coordinate this ongoing and growing resistance. Representatives from 37 states and 159 cities participated.

On September 16, 2017, I arrived at the People's Congress of Resistance and sat down at a table with six people I did not know.  They readily welcomed me, and I slid into easy conversation with a math teacher from Baltimore. I wondered what type of organizing this teacher was doing back home. His response was unexpected - the Algebra Project. The Algebra Project was founded by Civil Rights leader, Dr. Robert Moses. It uses mathematics as an organizing tool to ensure quality public school education for every child in America. Who knew that math could be an organizing tool?

The introductory comments concerning principles and strategy for the People's Congress were eminently quotable. The clarion call was to "Turn our society for the few into a society for the many".
How about this one -
"When people consider themselves the protagonists of change, they are unstoppable." That came from Jang Jinsook who traveled halfway around the globe to be at the People's Congress. She represents the New People's Party of South Korea - a new political party seeking to eliminate inequality, create peace, and reunify the Korean peninsula. Rosa Clemente, a community organizer and 2008 Green Party Vice-Presidential candidate, got the crowd going with a takeoff on the school-to-prison pipeline, "How do we build a youth-to-movement pipeline?" By the end of the introductions, the participants were all charged up and ready to create some solid solidarity during the workshops.

I attended the media workshop, whose goal was to develop an independent, centralized media hub - one where we could control the narrative. Without such a hub, all of us are subject to the censoring and bias that operates in the corporate media. Such bias shuts out widespread exposure to the resistance that has erupted in every corner of the United States, since the Trump administration came to power. When Jared Ball, a professor of communication studies at Morgan State University, asked the packed assemblage how many considered themselves journalists, almost all hands shot up. Abby Martin, creator of The Empire Files, provided some great background statistics. Here are a couple. Over the last seven years, the number of journalists of color shrank by over 50%. Women write only 40% of stories about reproductive rights. I seemed to be the only one there who had never heard of The Empire Files, but Abby generated reverence and awe from the crowd. And like the previous presenters, she too was strikingly quotable. "Cops are more scared of cameras than guns." Then the attendees lined up to talk about what they are doing in their communities and what they could use from a centralized media hub. Jared Ball felt that if we want a society that places political and economic power in the hands of we-the-people, we need emancipatory journalism to disseminate the news. And he promised to follow up with those of us in attendance.

After a second workshop session and lunch, an emotionally wrenching group came to the podium to speak. They were mothers whose children had been senselessly murdered by police officers. The audience was spellbound. Several made the unthinkable, yet obvious, observation that their child was murdered due to the color of their skin. "Every 28 hours a person of color is being murdered. And the officers are not being held accountable." These women are dealing with the tragedy of their loss, an intimidating legal system, and the stone face of law enforcement. They have gotten no justice. The People's Congress of Resistance passed its first resolution defending victims of police terror. There was thundering affirmation.

There was too much going on to keep up with it all. I was tempted by the antiwar workshop with Joe Lombardo of the United National Antiwar Coalition. "They called it the War on Terror, which means it never ends. That's what they want - ongoing war." There was a foreign policy plenary and discussion. "Why is the narrative telling us that Puerto Rico, my homeland, is in crisis? No, the crisis is in colonialism and imperialism." There was an immigration/deportation discussion. "We demand FULL human rights for immigrants, period." There were breakout sessions about healthcare, freeing political prisoners, community organizing, the fight for housing, mutual aid, building community centers of struggle, and rural/small-town organizing.

I attended a fascinating workshop led by Laura Hanna and Anne Larson of the Debt Collective. They had run out of meeting rooms, so we met outside and introduced ourselves. One man had $270,000 of student debt. Another had decided many years ago to stop paying off his student debt. Right now, a record number of people aren’t paying back their student loans. About 8 million borrowers have given up paying on more than $137 billion in education debts. This is an opportunity to engage in a debt strike and obtain debt relief, especially against the for-profit college loan industry. The Debt Collective has a successful record of doing this against Corinthian College. It is wrong that payday lenders earn high profits from poverty. And it is wrong that local court systems target poor people, disproportionately black and brown, and load them up with debt. A number of attendees were radicalized, when they worked in the debt collection industry. One participant suggested getting a public bank to buy up debt at pennies on the dollar and then forgive the debt. According to Laura Hanna, 98% of creditors don't have a clear chain of title showing that they own a debt, including most credit card debt. This presents yet another opportunity. Rather than leaving debtors to fend for themselves, the Debt Collective is creating an online platform for those with debt to leverage collective power, organize, and take direct action.

At the end of Day 2 of the People's Congress of Resistance, participants put forward many action-oriented resolutions. There was no time set aside for discussion of these proposals, but they all passed. To name just a few, there was a resolution to make health care a human right, a resolution to end the war on black people and stand against criminalization and incarceration, a resolution to end all deportations and stand in solidarity with immigrants, a resolution to fight human trafficking, and a resolution to divest from war. After all the sessions were done, People's Congress participants marched from Howard University to the White House, to make a stand against imperialism.

Activists from around the nation were drawn to the People's Congress of Resistance by its vision of a more just, equal, and sustainable society. The Trump regime is moving in the opposite direction, threatening to destroy decades of reform in the areas of civil rights, environmental care, public education, and labor rights. These reforms were achieved through enormous grassroots struggles. The People’s Congress of Resistance is a continuation of these struggles, advocating for radical change and building up the movement to realize its vision of a more equal and just society.

January 28, 2017

Sarasota Women's March - The Signs!

Last weekend I had the opportunity to go for a walk with a few friends. Largest walk ever as it turns out. The Women's March on Washington and the Solidarity Marches around the country aroused an offended public. By far, the majority of mass produced signs in Sarasota supported Planned Parenthood. But many, many more rallied with signs they had prepared at home just for the occasion. Each of these signs answered the question, If you only had one or two things to say right now, what would they be?

As expected at such a march, many signs were angry. But some were witty, some were hysterically funny, and some were just full of love. Many were a unique combination -

  • We Are the Majority. Chin up. Fangs out!
  • Don't Grope My Healthcare
  • Walls are 4 Legos, Not People
  • Dear Earth, We Are Sorry. Love, Half of the USA.

I could analyze each of these signs - and in fact I started to do just that - but these signs did a more concise and humorous job than I could.

A handful of signs were anti-Trump, for example Hey Twitter in Chief! Release Your Taxes, TrumpleThinSkin. But most signs addressed a particular issue or set of issues. If you just woke up from a coma and missed the recent presidential election, the diversity of issues would seem unfocused. There was a lot of support for reproductive choice; animosity toward building a border wall; love for our planet and the environment; a desire for election reform; a call for women's rights as human rights; shout-outs to Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, science, and public schools; and rejection of racism, homophobia, sexism, religious persecution, and xenophobia. Although these may seem like disjointed issues, I am happy to distill it all down. These marchers aspire to liberty and justice for all. Not for just a few of us. But for everybody, including Mother Earth. And when I say liberty, I mean the liberty to go about our business without being persecuted. I do not mean the liberty to persecute. Of course, society is not there yet, but there has been some progress. And these women, making up the largest march in history, have no intention of going backwards.

November 30, 2016

Amendment 1: The Big Utility Showdown

The largest utilities in Florida bankrolled Consumers for Smart Solar and Amendment 1. They want to maintain their monopoly control over energy in the State. Amendment 1 was looking to suppress competition from rooftop solar via constitutional ballot amendment. Thankfully, those in Sarasota and Manatee Counties as well as the rest of Florida saw through the ruse and voted it down on Election Day 2016. However, the story of Amendment 1 is a bit more complicated and Machiavellian, pitting the corporate and financial power of Big Utilities against the Power of the People.

As it stands now in Florida, only utilities can sell power to retail customers. Due to this restriction, landlords cannot sell power from solar panels to their tenants. It also effectively shuts down solar leasing. With leases, an outside company pays the high upfront cost of solar panels, and their customers sign long-term contracts to buy the power. Such leasing has made residential solar the fastest-growing part of the U.S. solar market. But it is simply not legal in Florida. Each utility has monopoly control of the sales and distribution of electricity. 

November 22, 2016

Let Me Count the Ways We Count the Votes

Photo Credit: Corey Taratuta 
Some of us are idealists and still cling to the notion that we live in a democracy where we-the-people elect representatives to govern on our behalf. At the national level, this notion was debunked a couple of years ago. A study by Martin Gilen and Benjamin Page found that
"economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence." 
And yet I am still left with the feeling that if I don't vote, I give away my power. So I educate myself and I vote each and every election. In so doing, I fully expect that my vote will be counted and counted correctly.

We learn to count at an early age. Having taken part in the process with my own children, I don't even think we need to be taught. The idea of one versus two versus three seems intuitive. And yet counting large numbers of votes is problematic. So far we've counted over 125 million votes for President, and we're still counting. It takes a lot of time to count that many votes. And when we use any kind of mechanical and/or electronic devices, there is the potential for mechanical and/or electronic glitches. Even if there is no cheating involved, problems crop up.

How is one to distinguish between straightforward problems, counting errors, and outright fraud? Alas this is no mere rhetorical question. I will share with you a report of what happened on November 8, 2016 in Sarasota, Florida, where I voted.

November 3, 2016

Battle of the Sexes, Campaign Style

Since presidential candidates and their surrogates tend to swing through the swing state of Florida, I have the opportunity to attend them on a regular basis. Once was enough for me. It felt like a cheerleading rally before a football game. Since then I have been struck by the similarities between presidential campaigns and sporting events. Last week as I listened to yet another bizarre interaction between the two presidential hopefuls, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, I had a flashback to 1973. The Battle of the Sexes was the epic exhibition tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. The parallels to the 2016 presidential campaign are eerie.

October 26, 2016

"No Wall of Words"

I recently came across a quote attributed to George Washington, in one of the drafts for his first inaugural address in 1789. It elegantly captures the essence of my own recent internal grumblings. George Washington said

[N]o wall of words, [and] no mound of parchm[en]t can be so formed as to stand against the sweeping torrent of boundless ambition on the one side, aided by the sapping current of corrupted morals on the other.
To put this in more concrete terms, whatever protections are afforded by the U.S. Constitution, it will never be enough. In order to safeguard people from sweeping torrents of boundless ambition, individuals must speak out, the media must investigate and report, Congress might need to amend the Constitution occasionally, and the Supreme Court must continually interpret and reinterpret the Constitution.

Constitutional interpretation has become such a messy business that it has burst onto the 2016 election scene as a hot-button issue. Republican Senators are vowing to reject all Supreme Court nominations from Democratic Presidents - sight unseen. More recently, Republican Party members are taking the stance that they will not even hold Senate hearings for these prospective nominees. Either strategy will effectively block the appointment of new members to the Supreme Court, even as aging justices retire. As it turns out, the Constitution is quiet on both of these fronts. It neither requires senators to take a vote on a nominee, nor does it stipulate that they must come to a hearing with an open mind. Historical expertise is unlikely to resolve this scenario should it come to pass. And if it does, both Democrats and Republicans will undoubtedly be bad actors in the ensuing drama.

Washington's quote resounds even more loudly when applied to our election processes.

September 25, 2016

Can a Different Voting System Improve our Democracy?

After watching the Presidential nominating process over the last year, I find it puzzling that this system ever worked. Going in, I had some vague notion that primaries and caucuses were a mechanism to make the nominating process more democratic. They were to give the party’s rank and file more control over who ends up on the ballot in November.

Given the outcome of the 2016 nomination process, this perspective is in tatters. More than anything, media attention seemed to drive the results. The Democratic Party leadership actively colluded with the media to disparage Sanders. Quite the opposite in the Republican Party. The Party had no mechanism to counter Trump and his showmanship, even though many of his positions ran counter to many positions held by most Republicans. And other Parties were rarely covered by the media at all.

So, if not media attention, what are the values that should drive the design of the nominating process? Off the top of my head I would say -
  • make the process more democratic and more inclusive
  • find out exactly where candidates stand on the issues (and ditch all the negative campaigning)
  • craft a ballot with candidates who each represent different points of view, and 
  • (based on my personal pet peeve) spend a month or less making the nomination decisions

It seems to me that the first item is achievable, but the rest are more pie in the sky. So how might we improve the current voting system so as to foster more inclusivity and democracy? In the not too distant past, I had naively thought that the way I vote was how all voting takes place. Each citizen gets one vote and the candidate with the most votes wins. It turns out that there are many ways to run an election. They all have their pitfalls and their strengths. Thankfully, I didn't have to wade through volumes of scholarly political science journals to get to the bottom of it. I found some entertaining YouTube videos that explain some of these systems.

Call me a spoon-fed learner, but it was fun to think about the first election in the Animal Kingdom, in which the race was between a turtle, a gorilla, a snake, a tiger, a monkey, an owl, and a leopard. 

August 23, 2016

A Sign in My Yard

I might vote for Hillary Clinton, but I probably won't. At the moment, many progressives are up in arms about this. For those that feel that Donald Trump is the greatest threat to human life in modern history, a vote for anybody but Clinton is unconscionable. In contrast, many Sanders supporters continue to attribute Clinton's primary win to foul play and refuse to vote for her. Between superdelegates, closed primaries, and the DNC, there is plenty of reason to be suspicious. But neither of these things are weighing heavily on me. I am concerned with a very large threat to our democracy. It seems to me that corporate power and spending has the potential to overthrow our government. It won't look like a coup d'etat. It probably won't include blowing up any buildings or factories. But in reality, the coup has already begun - slowly overwhelming our electoral processes, subduing our regulatory foundations, seeping into our educational institutions, and extinguishing our ability to fend off avoidable crises.

Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton has been an agent of corporate power. In recent years, she helped negotiate the TPP (Trans Pacific Partnership), which would be a tremendous gift to Big Business and a major setback for the working class and our environment. It was negotiated in secret between Pacific countries and hundreds of advisers from some of the world’s most powerful corporations, while the U.S. Congress and U.S. citizens were excluded. I'm sure the corporate war profiteers love her, since she rarely missed an opportunity to back more and bigger military interventions when she was Secretary of State. And now that their armaments have made it into the hands of the Islamic State, the resulting global instability will undoubtedly result in more military contracts. Hillary Clinton supported the deregulation of the telecommunication and financial industries, and now those folks are some of her largest campaign contributors. And they have been steadfast in their support. Need I go further? It is hard for me to champion someone who champions the very corporations, whose success threatens our democracy and the very livability of our planet.

On the other hand, I will certainly vote for someone other than Donald Trump.

April 27, 2016

Democracy Awakening Solidarity Rally - Sarasota

In April 2016, hundreds of thousands of people from a diverse array of movements came together in Washington DC to demand a democracy that works for all – a nation where our votes are not denied and money doesn’t buy access and power.

In Sarasota we had a much smaller assemblage, but we focused on the same legislative activities:

  • The Democracy For All Amendment (H.J.Res. 22, S.J.Res. 5), a constitutional amendment that would overturn U.S. Supreme Court decisions like Citizens United and allow elected representatives to set commonsense limits on money in elections.

  • The Voting Rights Advancement Act (H.R. 2867, S. 1659), legislation that would restore the protections against voting discrimination.

  • The Government By the People Act/Fair Elections Now Act (H.R. 20 and S. 1538), a small donor empowerment measure that would encourage and amplify small contributions from everyday Americans.

  • Fair consideration of the nominee to fill the Supreme Court vacancy, including timely hearings and a vote by the full Senate.

April 24, 2016

Political Blaming and Bigotry

Demonizing groups of people seems to be part and parcel of our political process. In our two party dominated system, Republicans make Democrats out to be the villains, and Democrats make Republicans out to be the villains. This demonizing generally emerges in the form of one group blaming the other for the current, dreadful state of affairs. During most political races, this behavior devolves into mudslinging. Without being a student of political history, my guess is that it has always been so. I just read about the presidential campaign of 1828, during which Andrew Jackson and John Quincy Adams lashed out at each other mercilessly.

Presidents, as leading representatives of their party, are often the recipients of boatloads of blame. President Obama seems to have suffered a full-on attack of such blame-mongering, significantly more than any president in recent memory. Did you hear that the success of ISIS is totally President Obama's fault? How about the inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina. That was President Obama's fault as well. Never mind that he wasn't president then. And, apparently, Obamacare is destroying the U.S. health care system. If not, why has the House of Representatives tried to repeal it more than 60 times? And don't forget the ebola virus. Many critics attributed the 2014 ebola outbreak in West Africa to President Obama. A recent New York Times op-ed opined that the rising popularity of Donald Trump is part of President Obama's legacy. Thank you for a good guffaw. For some reason, politicians expect this kind of hogwash and seem to have such thick skin that all the blame slides off without causing damage. From where I sit, they look a bit super-human.

But the blaming and demonizing are all too human. As I watch the 2016 presidential election unfold, I am noticing that stereotyping, demonizing, and scapegoating are overlapping threads. These threads are woven into the very fabric of society. Until this election, I had thought that campaigns merely took advantage of the electorate's prejudices. For example, I remember in 2004,