January 27, 2012

Charles McKenzie & Jeremy Fire up Crowd Before Voter Suppression Senate Subcommittee Hearing

On November 5, 2008, Republicans didn't spend much time agonizing over their loss of the Presidential election the night before. They realized that minorities and people of color had voted in much larger numbers than usual. So they set to work passing voter suppression laws in many states to make it harder for targeted voters to cast a ballot. I'm sure many Republicans would not agree with this assessment in public, but I'm hoping the courts will agree with me, and eventually strike down these laws. About 50 percent of African American voters voted early in the 2008 election. Many were bused from their churches on the Sunday before the election. Based on these statistics, the 2011 voter suppression laws passed in Florida eliminated early voting on the Sunday before the election, among many other provisions. Such a law, that further excludes people from the electorate are unacceptable; every eligible citizen must be afforded an easy opportunity to vote in order for us to achieve a true democracy.

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) pressed this issue by requesting that the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights hold an investigative hearing, the first field hearing of its kind, in Tampa last Friday. The hearing itself highlighted the important questions, but the press conference held just prior highlighted people's more emotional responses. Given the history of voter suppression against African Americans, and the hard-won gains of the 1960's, this issue remains near and dear to the hearts of many. My favorite authorized speaker was Reverend Charles McKenzie from the Rainbow/Push Coalition. For example, "The power of the people is stronger than the people in power.”

My favorite unauthorized speaker was Jeremy from Occupy Tampa. Before the press conference, Jeremy got up and chastised Democrats for not holding their elected officials accountable. It wasn't enough just to smear politicians from the other party. Jeremy's approach was confrontational and he certainly got the crowd's attention. Those standing by responded with indignation. I had a chance to speak with Jeremy after the Press Conference. He believes in democracy, but is at a loss as to whom to vote for. For the record, he did applaud the efforts of those in attendance to repeal the Voter Suppression Law.

So, what about the hearing? None of the invited Republicans attended; although one of their witnesses testified. Governor Rick Scott who signed the Voter Suppression Bill into law last Spring declined to attend. Some excellent data was presented. And there was quite a crowd. The hearing room was filled an hour before the hearing got started. The overflow area overflowed with over 200 people. Unlike Jeremy, I do think that this is an attempt to hold our elected officials accountable, partisan though it may be. Those officials just didn't show up.

See an earlier post concerning civil rights impediments legislated in Florida, here, and a nationwide review in Rolling Stone, here. If you want to take action against voter suppression laws, you can sign this petition to Attorney General Eric Holder.

January 26, 2012

Spike, Her Ten Foot Puppet, & Political Street Theater in Gainesville

Having met folks from Occupy Gainesville at the People's Convention of Florida, I had the sense that it was a relatively cohesive group. Their processes were well-defined and they were using 100% consensus to make decisions. My sense is that most Occupations have settled on 85% or 90% super-majority voting rather than consensus. This provides a way out, if troublemakers intentionlly try to bring gridlock to a General Assembly. And decisions can be reached more quickly. But Occupy Gainesville has put a priority on satisfying all participants and trusting that everybody comes to the table in good faith. And they donned stylish, matching, Occupy t-shirts. I looked forward to seeing their process in action.

However, when I arrived in Gainesville the night prior to the planned events for Occupy The Courts Day, I found that many folks were otherwise busy. They were preparing and practicing for the next day's original street theatre. They had built a ten foot tall "Corporate Person" puppet and were planning to use it to reenact the history of how corporations became people. By the time I tracked them down behind the soccer field behind the tennis courts at a neighborhood park, it was well past dark. Amidst a general feeling of anticipation and jubiliation, they were getting ready to retire the Corporate Person for the evening. Spike, the puppet designer, agreed to talk about her part in the preparations.

The media team from Occupy Gainesville captured the final performance on January 20th, where the novice thespians charmed the large gathering at Bo Diddley Plaza.

January 25, 2012

Civil Debate Wall, University of Florida

On January 20, I had the opportunity to listen to Cornel West twice. First he addressed Occupy Gainesville. As it turns out, he had come to town for a second speech, this time at the University of Florida with Tavis Smiley as part of their Poverty Tour: A Call To Conscience. It was an overflow crowd. After this second presentation, I wandered around the lobby of Pugh Hall and stumbled upon the Civil Debate Wall. It was a panel of interconnected touch-screens. The audience, or anyone passing by for that matter, could engage in community discourse on the hot topics of the day. And the topic on January 20 was “Do you think that Occupy is the Civil Rights Movement of our time?” The screens were jammed with folks who wanted to debate this question. Large photos of those participating displayed next to those responding. And you could take the debate home with you via cell phone, the website, and Facebook.

Occupiers chant "This is what democracy looks like!" I would add that the Civil Debate Wall is what democracy might look like in a virtual space. Kudos to the University of Florida for creating this visionary virtual space. I interviewed A'yen Tran, the project manager with Local Projects, the company who developed this embodiment of community discourse. She provided insight into how the Civil Debate Wall can help embody direct democracy. (Beware of background noise)

January 23, 2012

Kenzie from Occupy Gainesville

I did another Occupy roadtrip - this time up to Gainesville for Occupy The Courts Day on January 20. A rally was held at Bo Diddley Community Plaza, followed by a march to the Federal Courthouse. Kenzie, a young woman from Occupy Gainesville captured the spirit of the Occupy Movement so very eloquently. She was brimming with quotable quotes. Just a few of many -

... We are all connected and all of our problems are connected. This is the first time that the public has come out and named the source and the root of oppression and injustice - and that's the concentration of power and wealth in this country ... Occupy is about building a sustainable foundation for the future ... Occupy is this fire that has inspired me to jump on these already moving trains ...

January 22, 2012

Occupy New Haven in Winter

Guest Post by Rosemary Robinson, A Sarasotan Visits Occupy New Haven (Connecticut)

Rosemary Robinson taught knitting to those from Occupy Sarasota who wanted to help knit hats and scarves for Occupiers in northern climates. Last week, she delivered the articles of warm clothing. She reports ...

When a foot of snow fell the day before we were due to attend the General Assembly of Occupy New Haven this weekend, I thought that no one would show up and that for sure the camp would have been abandoned till the weather improved. However, I had not allowed for the courage and dedication of the core group of occupiers in this Connecticut city, where the Occupy encampment has been going strong for 99 days and is a highly visible and active presence on the green. By the time the GA got underway, there were at least 30 people in the basement of the nearby church that supports their efforts and provides meeting facilities when they are needed. We were impressed with how well the meeting was organized and how the many issues raised by the participants were dealt with in a short space of time. These varied from snow clearance, to a forthcoming presentation on the Occupy movement by a visiting professor, to a request for help refilling the camp’s water containers. A homeless participant appealed for help in making sure the local shelter complied with the law by not sending the homeless out onto the street when the temperature fell below freezing.

A donation of hand-knitted hats and scarves from Knitters for Occupy New Haven in Sarasota, FL was gratefully acknowledged and the items, together with a donated warm jacket, were swiftly distributed to people who really needed them. The camp itself, despite being half buried under the snow, was orderly and several residents were keen to show us round and inside their tents, which were surprisingly warm. They really appreciate moral support especially at this time of the year. It’s easy for Floridians to miss the work of Occupiers elsewhere,but in many frigid northern cities there’s still a dedicated group of people keeping the focus of the community on inequality and unemployment.

January 20, 2012

Occupy The Courts, Gainesville

My last Occupy roadtrip took me to Gainesville, Florida, where I had the opportunity to listen to Cornel West speak to Occupy Gainesville. Prior to his appearance, activists, singers, storytellers, poets,and lecturers all took their turn on the stage at Bo Diddley Plaza. There was no shortage of highly charged and vocal community leaders. Here is a video quilt of snippets from these performances.

Cornel West was dynamic. There was a lot to digest from his thirteen minutes at the microphone. Some of his criticisms were harsh, but his love and extreme desire for inclusiveness also shone through. "Justice is what love looks like in public" is just one of many great quips.
Many of the folks who had gathered in the plaza headed over to the Federal Courthouse steps. The street artists carrying the "Corporate Person" embodied in a ten foot puppet joined the rest of the group, where folks were engaged in political chanting and general merriment.

To watch Kenzie, impromptu and on fire about the Occupy Movement, click here. There was also some fun and fabulous, locally-grown street theatre. I interviewed one of the creators here.

January 16, 2012

The Racial Opportunity Gap

It is Martin Luther King Day, a day to ponder the gains from the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's. Front and center is the first black president of the United States, Barak Obama. There has been a racial backlash against this in some quarters, but nonetheless Obama's election was truly a how-far-we've-come moment. Oprah Winfrey owns her own TV network. African American millionaires abound. Yet, there is also a civil rights gap. Across age, gender, and education level, unemployment rates for blacks are twice that of whites. African American boys are consistently ranked at the bottom, when it comes to most education measures.

I would like to put this racial achievement gap under the same microscope that the Occupy Movement has used to examine the income gap in our country. It is easy to see how buying political power to remove business regulation, reducing taxes on the rich, and slashing social services for the poor has generated an ever widening wealth and income gap. The Occupy Movement has done a brilliant job exposing this. Let's look further to see that the same mix of corporate and political interests has contributed to a racial opportunity gap.

Significant analysis exists concerning the racial achievement gap. Some say that overt racism simply went underground after the great successes of the Civil Rights Movement. Others say that humans have a tendency to rely on stereotypes when making decisions, regardless of their conscious intentions. And historians would add that the historical roots of inequality are not so easily overcome.

So why do we need to analyze this further? Because there is more at play. After the Civil War, when slavery was officially abolished, why didn't African Americans in the South achieve any kind of economic parity? A couple of years ago, I read the book, Slavery by Another Name: the Re-enslavement of Black people in America from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas Blackmon and was blown away by some history that I knew nothing about. Essentially, the legal system sold convicts to large commercial and industrial interests. What was even more egregious about the practice was that the crimes usually consisted of vagrancy or being without employment, and enforcement was targeted almost exclusively against African American men. The result was forced labor under abhorrent conditions in iron and coal mines or on large and small plantations.

The same question needs to be asked again today. Since the Civil Rights Movement, why has the racial achievement gap persisted? In a January 13 Democracy Now! interview, Amy Goodman, Randall Robinson, and Michelle Alexander discuss the disproportional imprisonment of African Americans as well as the idea that the War on Drugs was really a political counterrevolution against the Civil Rights Movement. Four out of five people who are in prison today are there as a result of the War on Drugs and the "Get Tough" movement starting in the 1980's. And the racial component of these statistics are more than eyebrow raising. Today, a million people are employed within the criminal justice system, so this is Big Business. NPR highlighted the corporate interests involved in the for-profit prison system back in November. Remember Arizona's tough immigation law, requiring police to lock up anyone they stopped who couldn't show they were there legally? For-profit prison companies foresaw millions of dollars in profit with this change in the law.

Unfortunately, this is not the end of the story. ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, is a corporate sponsored group that lets large corporations help write legislation that is then provided to state legislators across the country. ALEC has drafted model prison laws as well as immigration laws. The Nation exposes ALEC's role in the use of prison labor by the private sector, privatizing the parole process, and privatizing prisons themselves. Private prison corporations that fund ALEC helped write model laws that have led to a massive increase in the U.S. prison population. Harsher laws, tougher sentences, and private prisons have resulted in great profit for for-profit prisons. Yesterday, The Raw Story reported that here in Florida, the Senate is pushing a bill to privatize prisons in 18 counties. This story is still unfolding.

Today, on Martin Luther King Day, consider this statistic. According to Michelle Alexander, in large urban areas, half or more than half of working-age African-American men now have criminal records. That's a staggering number. Their future is likely one of second-class citizenship, with a reduction in just those civil rights won by the Civil Rights Movement - an equal opportunity to vote, to gain employment, to find housing, and to obtain an education. Statistics tell us that the racial opportunity gap is widening. Although there may be a variety of reasons for this, corporate influence in our policital process is part of the problem.

Sources: January 13 Democracy Now! interview, NPR: Who Benefits When A Private Prison Comes To Town?, NPR: Prison Economics Help Drive Ariz. Immigration Law, The Nation: The Hidden History of ALEC and Prison Labor, The Raw Story: Florida Senate pushes to privatize prisons in 18 counties

January 12, 2012

Camping Out With Occupy Tallahasse

Although I have been covering the Occupy Movement for over three months, I hadn't visited an encampment, until January 8, when I drove up to Tallahasse. As the interstate receded and skyscrapers came into view, we found the Occupy Tallahassee camp located just three blocks from the State Capitol, smack dab in the middle of downtown. We arrived just as a meeting of the Tactical Working Group was commencing. They were discussing the logistics of a group making their presence heard and seen at the capitol on opening day.

At the entrance to the camp, we were met with a large school bus, covered with artwork. I was disappointed at the small turnout to help with preparations for the upcoming day of action. But those who were there were genuinely welcoming. George came forward, introduced himself, and provided a warm reception. Jason helped us pick out a spot for our tent. He warned us of one peril of urban camping. A corner of the encampment was near an intersection with audible crossing aids that beeped pleasantly as pedestrians crossed the street. And the beeping could be set off any time - day, night, and during the wee hours. We chose the opposite corner of the camp to pitch our tent. Jason went well above the call of duty with his knack for figuring out which pole went through which loop. He stuck with us, until the tent was rain and cold ready. The Occupy Tallahassee encampment changed the city landscape and could even be seen from the observation floor of the State Capitol.

We met John in the neighboring tent. Although many of the Occupy Tallahasse folks are working, John was not so lucky. After graduating high school, he had been unable to find a job. He felt that his life prospects were bleak. Rather than bum around living off his family, he decided to strike out on his own and go walking through our glorious country. His first longer-term stop was Occupy Tallahassee, after walking for 500 miles! He had been there for about two weeks helping around the camp. He had met the woman in the tent with him, while at the camp. Neither of them knew how long they would stay or where the next leg of their journey would take them, but they both projected a sense of optimism, exploration, and intention to improve their world.

Occupy Tallahassee's shared kitchen was well stocked with staples, condiments, a refrigerator, cooking gear, a dish-washing area, and more. Electricity made lighting and computer use possible. Brit from Occupy Tallahassee had set up wifi access there as well.

The night before we arrived, the Mickee Faust Academy for the Really Dramatic Arts, performed Hypocrisy in Democracy, at the camp. They describe themselves as "Tallahassee Florida’s tongue-in-cheek answer to a certain unctuous rodent living in Orlando ... Although it bills itself as 'community theater for the weird community,' World Media Domination has truly been Faust’s goal." The Faust Manifesto is quite amusing, if you can handle a little profanity.

But that was the night before. The night we arrived, George was overseeing the construction of a dome. His vision includes a meeting space for General Assemblies, a greenhouse, a media center, and more. After the tactical meeting finished, a group assembled to put together the agenda for tomorrow's General Assembly. All of this activity has occurred legally with a permit. However, this permit expires at the end of January. What will happen after that is anybody's guess.

January 10, 2012

Occupy the Florida Legislature: First Day of Session

I spent a couple of days last Christmas backpacking with my sweetie and our most wonderful offspring in Myakka River State Park. I love the complexity of the texture of the live oaks draped with Spanish moss. It is always a treat to spend a little time in the wilderness. But for the last two days, for the first time in my life, I camped in the heart of a city. Hosted by Occupy Tallahassee and joined by Occupiers from all over Florida, I pitched my tent in Tallahassee not three blocks from the State Capitol Building. Occupy Florida was planning an action to coincide with the opening day of the 2012 legislative session.

Today, January 10, Occupiers from Key West to Pensacola and everywhere in between occupied the Capitol. Occupy Florida first marched up Gaines Street chanting and drumming. Chants of "People Over Profits", "Banks Got Bailed Out, We Got Sold Out", "Pink Slip, Rick Scott", and "Whose Capitol? Our Capitol" rang out through the streets and outside the State House in Tallahassee. We went through metal detectors as we entered the Capitol Building. The personnel in charge were efficient and cordial and had no trouble with our entourage, which included many signs, a service dog, and a service bicycle. We were denied access to the viewing galleries of the House and Senate Chambers. Despite this, we toured the rest of the Capitol en masse. We were a presence that could not be ignored.

Inside, our chants included calls for "Money For Books and Education, Not for Bombs and Devastation, Not for Banks and Corporations", "Solidarity", and of course the constant refrain of "Mic Check" to get everybody's attention. Perhaps this is why we were not allowed in the viewing galleries, even as others were allowed entry. This is the first day of session, and if the Florida Legislature was bound by the same sunshine laws that apply to other Florida officials, they would not be able to bar citizens from their meetings. In contrast, Occupy General Assemblies and actions are transparent, very much in the public view. And today we wanted to be heard.

As we first arrived inside the Capitol Building, we gathered in the lobby rotunda and soon entered into a heart-felt version of "Solidarity Forever".

While waiting for Representatives, Senators, and the Governor to leave and arrive, Occupy Florida lined the entryway to the House Chambers. Knowing that our representatives would be walking by, we took turns reading the proclamation that the People's Convention had approved for presentation today. The people's microphone carried the message at high volume. Video version here. Text version here.

Most of our representatives did not pay much attention as they passed through the crowd. But one treated the Occupiers as a receiving line, going down the line shaking each person's hand. Representative Mark Pafford (D-West Palm Beach) came out and encouraged Florida Occupiers to speak loudly enough that they could be heard in chambers.

Immediately following the request for sufficient volume to be heard in chambers, security personnel made it clear that the whole group would be kicked out of the building if they were loud enough to be heard in chambers. The people's microphone was turned down to a lower volume setting. After Governor Scott made his entry, Occupy Florida participated in the Awake the State rally in front of the capitol. There were community groups from around the state in attendance. Occupiers from Florida State University and FAMU arrived in time to rally. The speakers addressed the issues of the Occupy Movement and many of them addressed the Occupiers as well. Representative Alan Williams (D-Tallahassee) was one of two representatives to tell the crowd that the Florida Occupiers could be heard in chambers and that Governor Scott had indeed heard them.

January 7, 2012

Montana Supreme Court Rejects Citizens United

As usual, court decisions may not be as clear as they first appear. Lawyers split hairs so that court rulings change incrementally over time. The 2010 Supreme Court's Citizens United decision at first seemed to protect unlimited corporate campaign donations as the final word on the subject. But two lower courts have now taken aim at narrower slices of the issue.

Toward the end of December, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals validated a 2006 New York City law against certain political contributions. This tough law limits the amount of money a person with business before the City is allowed to donate to candidates for City office. A lawsuit was brought against the law based on the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling. The court dismissed the case. Why? Because they claim that the Citizens United decision applies only to independent corporate expenditures. They argue that the unique characteristics of the New York law places it squarely outside the scope of the Citizens United decision.

At the very end of December, the Montana Supreme Court ruled in favor of the state's Corrupt Practices Act. This Act was originally passed by a citizen's ballot initiative, in 1912 when the copper industry routinely bribed Montana politicians. Does the Citizen's United decision sanction bribery, when it occurs as part of state campaign donations? Perhaps the distinction between bribery and campaign donations has not been totally fleshed out. In Montana, it was also argued that the Citizens United decision only dealt with federal laws and elections. The Montana Supreme Court case dealt with state laws and elections and based its decision on compelling state interest.

It is clear that the vast majority of people do not want a high level of corporate influence and dominance over their government. Non-binding citizen ballot initiatives have passed in Madison, Wisconsin and Boulder, Colorado. A wave of cities have passed various resolutions calling for a Constitutional amendment to ban corporate personhood and to state that money is not speech. These include Richmond and Ft. Bragg, California in March; Jamestown, Colorado in September; Los Angeles, California in December; recently Duluth, Minnesota and New York City this past week. And now two courts have added their voice to this growing chorus.

Surely there are those who would claim that such lower court actions show contempt for the overriding law of the land as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court. But just as surely, there are those who see that Citizens United fundamentally destroys the notion of free and fair elections, and, therefore, its resolution may need to reside outside of usual democratic processes. Two days ago, the American Tradition Partnership announced that it would appeal the Montana decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. So perhaps these lower court decisions will pave the way for the high court to hear arguments and revisit the Citizen's United decision.

Sources: John Caher writes for the New York Law Journal about the New York City ruling, Steven Rosenfeld writes for AlterNet concerning the Montana ruling, MoveToAmend's list of local resolutions to abolish corporate personhood,

January 5, 2012

OWS Generates A Ray of Hope

Guest Post by Philip Lightstone, Reminiscences from the First Days

I was at Occupy Wall Street the first week it opened in September, 2011. I just happened to be in New York at the time and it caught my eye in the alternative press. I went down days after its official start and was not much impressed: some drum beaters and a loosey, goosey feel to everything. Even the cops looked bored. A week or so later I talked my friend into coming with me to again have a look-see and this time it was very different: the kitchen had been set up; there was a clean-up crew; a library had been started and posters were set out as messages from the activists. True hope was in the air.

What I remember most was that there seemed to be enough food for everyone. There were no lines at the kitchen and when people were hungry they went over for whatever was being dished out. What truly amazed me was when I found out that much of the food those first few weeks was being delivered as take-out orders from around the country. People would simply pick up their phone and call to the nearest pizza joint to the occupy site and ask that 5 or 6 or 10 pizzas be delivered and charged to their credit card. But here’s the thing: the calls were from Kansas and Oklahoma and places like that. We forget too easily that though those places are solidly in the republican camp that doesn’t change the fact that there are thousands and thousands of people there that have been without hope for so long that when it materialized they were ready to pony up. Perhaps they weren’t ready to drop their lives and join an OWS site near to them but they weren’t willing to let it go by without doing something to support it. I realized that like me they had been waiting for too long with less hope each day that anything would happen that they could take heart in. And if you think it’s hard to be in the Northeast corridor of this country and feel betrayed by insanity in politics, try living in the heartland. Who do you turn to for hope? Well, these people saw the beginnings of a movement that brought something to them that opened their minds are pockets. And soon, when warmer weather sweeps the nation, perhaps they will be ready to physically join the movement. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were getting ready as I write this.