April 28, 2012

Women Unite, St. Petersburg, Florida

One angry woman backed by thousands of angry women. That's what it took to make a massive stand against the huge amount of legislation aimed at women this past year. Karen Teegarden, that one angry woman, wrote about her experience starting just two months ago -

I must begin this post by thanking Desiree Jordan. During a venting session on the phone late last Saturday night, we both could not believe that someone hadn’t organized a march for our voices to be heard. The legislation and rhetoric against women’s rights was multiplying at such a fast rate and we were angry. Saying goodbye, Desi said we should just do it. Of course, how many times have we said things like that only to go on with our daily tasks?

Something changed in me that night. I hung up the phone and for the first time ever, created a Facebook group. Organizing Against The War On Women was intended to share with my friends in hopes that we might be able to get some kind of event going.

One week later, we have over 10,000 passionate members, some with amazing experience and some complete novices, united in a common cause to regain our voices and fight the forces trying to take us back decades.

I now realize we have tapped into something much larger than our events on April 28th.

As if preparing ammunition for these rallies, Florida Governor Rick Scott used a line-item veto to cut funds for Florida's rape crisis centers. Not only did his veto occur during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but it came just a week and a half prior to the rallies.
The power of social media cannot be overstated. From the seed of a Facebook group sprouted a protest march in every state capitol in the nation (except Delaware ??). Some states had more than one, so that women wouldn't have to travel so far. I found a rally in St. Petersburg, Florida put on by Awake Pinellas. Women and men came with signs supporting the Equal Rights Amendment, decrying attacks on reproductive health, the ever-resilient Pink Slip Rick, and more. Some here said the War-on-Women is a distraction to move the media discourse away from economic issues, away from Wall Street, away from the wars we are fighting overseas. Another felt that corporate America opposes the Equal Rights Amendment, because paying employees more would hurt their bottom line. And most couldn't believe that anyone would try to reopen the settled issues of women's rights. Everyone had something to say - some with more colorful language than others!
Today, thousands of people across the US rallied to express outrage at recent attacks on women's rights. Even if you didn't get to go, you can still sign this petition.
Sources: Unite Against The War on Women, Governor Rick Scott Vetoes Funds For Rape Crisis Centers During Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Ratify ERA Florida, Vote NO on Initialive 6

April 22, 2012

Modern-Day Slavery in Florida

There are more people living in slavery now than at any time in human history. I learned this breathtaking statistic, while preparing for a Passover Seder about five years ago. For me, the release of Jews from their bondage in ancient Egypt is at the heart of Passover. Passover is, for me, a celebration of freedom. When I reported to my fellow Seder attendees that there are more slaves here in Florida than anywhere else in the country, I was met with utter disbelief.

The Museum of Modern-Day Slavery came to the Unitarian Universalist Church in Sarasota to increase awareness about the working conditions of farm workers in Florida. The Museum is a replica of a produce truck in which farm workers were kept locked. Inside, newspaper clippings tell the story of six federally prosecuted slavery cases involving over 1,000 Florida agricultural workers. Over the years, I remember reading about court victories over citrus grove owners who "hired" hundreds of workers and threatened them with death if they tried to leave. I read about those forced into sex work and farm labor. I did not have a sense of whether these instances were merely the tip of the iceberg or whether the authorities had stopped the bulk of the atrocities. More recently, I read about the Evans family, who recruited homeless citizens from shelters in the United States, assuring them jobs and housing. Instead, they were brought to labor camps, where exorbitant charges for food, rent, alcohol, and basic expenses outstripped what they earned, thus plunging them into perpetual debt. This last case earned a conviction in 2007.

What struck me as I toured the Museum was that agricultural slavery never ended in Florida. I made a mental timeline. Chattel slavery was legal until 1865. After the Civil War, the courts engaged in a convict-lease system, in which primarily African American men were arrested on vagrancy charges in order to lease them out to farms and mines under horrendous working conditions. In Sarasota and many areas of Florida, there was a turpentine industry until around 1950, which was only possible due to the almost-free labor provided by debt bondage. With the advent of the railroad and refrigeration in the 1920s, Florida growers expanded citrus, sugarcane, and winter vegetable production in Florida. These large-scale operations required a migrant workforce at labor-intensive harvest time. The growers relied on the poorest of the poor and kept them working via debt bondage. I was educated to believe that we had outlawed slavery in the United States in 1865. Then I learned that forms of forced labor continued in the South, until World War II. But, I believe that in Florida, slavery has persisted for nigh on 400 years.

So that's the bad news. But there is good news. Jordan Buckley, from the Interfaith Action Center of Southwest Florida, informed me of the impressive progress made by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. As a result of its fifteen year fight against terrible working conditions, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange, which accounts for 90 percent of the state's tomato farms, adopted a new Code of Conduct in 2010. This Code ensures that workers will be treated fairly. In addition to paying workers an extra penny-per-pound, farm employers must use time clocks, provide shade, and resolve worker complaints.
To put this in perspective, a group of very poor and disenfranchised Immokalee farm workers have brought about concessions from large multi-million dollar corporations! These include McDonalds, Whole Foods Market, Trader Joe's, Burger King, and Taco Bell. Jordan Buckley describes this situation in more detail below.
Unfortunately, Publix, the largest private employer in Florida, has refused to pledge to purchase produce only from growers who are committed to the Fair Food Code of Conduct. In the afternoon, a large crowd marched from one Sarasota Publix to another. Many local religious leaders participated.

News coverage March on Publix - Sarasota, Florida, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Making Tomato Farming Less Brutal, Sarasota Herald Tribune

April 13, 2012

Banking in the Public Interest

The state of North Dakota owns a bank, and it is doing very well. The state derives revenue from the bank. They use their bank to help drive growth for small businesses. The state lends to local governments at reduced rates in order to support infrastructure projects. According to a study by the Center for State Innovation, over a 15-year period the Bank of North Dakota has contributed more to the state budget than oil taxes have. So, why haven't other states gotten in on this action?

In fact, according to the Public Banking Institute, seventeen states are taking introductory steps toward the creation of public banks. They have introduced legislation for publicly owned banks or derivations, or for studies or task forces to determine how a publicly owned bank would operate in their jurisdiction. Three of these states have bills that were submitted in 2012, and eleven states had bills submitted in 2011.

Although Florida doesn't have any pending legislation, I came to know about public banks during the last gubernatorial campaign. Fred Khavari ran on a platform that hinged on the creation of a Florida State Bank. As candidate Khavari, an economist, pointed out, When the house is on fire, you don’t call in the plumber, you call the firefighter. When the economy is tanking, you don’t call in a politician, you call in an economist. I might beg to differ on that point, but this economist did sway me with his platform. Unfortunately for the State of Florida, he did not win election. However, the economic ideas he espoused have found another outlet in the Public Banking Institute. This Institute formed in order to further the understanding, explore the possibilities, and facilitate the implementation of public banking at all levels -- local, regional, state, and national.

I was in Washington DC for NOW DC's Social Forum and heard Marc Anderson, the Executive Director of the Public Banking Institute. I also met Ruth Caplan and Steve Seuser, some very articulate folks working on the formation of a Washington DC Partnership Bank. These are well thought out responses to public demand for banking reform. Marc and Ruth explain some of the benfits/issues surrounding public banks in the following video.

On the final day of the Social Forum, there was a two hour Great Public Banking Debate between representatives of the Public Banking Institute and the CATO Institute. Of interest was that both sides oppose Wall Street's role in the banking industry. Watch here.

Currently, the profits that private banks earn are funnelled to corporate executives and shareholders. This seemed a workable model, until 2009, when taxpayers found themselves bailing out the big banks. Privatized profits and socialized losses did not sit well with many folks. The Move Your Money Movement concentrates on individuals moving their savings and their loans into community banks and credit unions. Public Banks are an additional avenue for reform.

Sources: Public Banking Institute, Fred Khavari's proposal for a Florida State Bank, NOW DC Social Forum, Bank of North Dakota, Center for State Innovation: State Banks Initiative.

April 5, 2012

Pink Slip Rick, Sarasota, Florida

Florida's Governor Rick Scott came into office in 2011 with the wave of Tea Party politicians. He spent $73 million of his own money to get elected. At the time, even with that amount of personal campaign cash, I was amazed that he got elected. Back in 1997, he had been forced out of his own company, Columbia/HCA, by his own board of directors during a huge health care fraud scandal, a scandal that resulted in a $1.7 billion settlement. He ran on an austerity platform - large budget cuts, government workforce reductions, and corporate tax cuts. Within several months of being elected, afer doing just what he said he would, his approval rating took a dizzying plunge downward.

Again, this leaves me puzzled. For example, did people really believe that huge cuts in the state's non-profit workforce would lead to more jobs? Given this backdrop, I am just as amazed about the public outcry in opposition to the Governor. Florida Watch Action has taken it upon themselves to confront Governor Scott, wherever he goes. They launched the "Pink Slip Rick" campaign that took off around the state. Today, their message resonated with Sarasotans, who came out to the Bayfront to protest Governor Scott's fundraising dinner. Amy Ritter speaks on behalf of Florida Watch Action with a spirited response.

Awake Sarasota supporters came with signs speaking out against Governor Scott's assault on Florida's middle class. Sarasota teachers, who are feeling their jobs and pay on the chopping block, came out in force. Occupy Sarasota participants made a strong showing. And you know you are making a splash when there are counter-protesters. A group of Scott supporters were waving signs down by the Unconditional Surrender Statue. I approached the counter-protesters to see if any of them would like to share their opinions. I had been surprised a couple of weeks ago, when a counter-protester shared her analysis of the foreclosure crisis - and it wasn't so different from my own. But today, none of the counter-protesters consented to an interview. After seven rejections, I headed over to the main action, where plenty of folks had something to say!

April 1, 2012

The 99% Spring

Is the Occupy Movement at risk of being co-opted by MoveOn, the unions, the Democratic Party, name-your-villain? About a month ago, MoveOn sent me an email requesting that I sign up to host a Sarasota training for the 99% Spring. This wasn't a personal message, mind you; I'm sure it was sent out to thousands of people in Sarasota.

... millions of jobs have been destroyed, millions of homes foreclosed on, and an unconscionable number of children live in poverty. We have to do more to fix America, and we all know it. That's why people from across the 99% movement are preparing to take action this spring in bigger numbers than ever before to fight for change.

To prepare for the 99% Spring, groups from every corner of our movement are joining forces to do something that's never been tried before. During the week of April 9-15, across America, we will bring 100,000 people together for an unprecedented national movement-wide training on what happened to our economy, on the history of peaceful direct action, and how—following in the footsteps of Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.—we can take direct action this spring to challenge corporate power, end tax giveaways to the 1%, fight the influence of money in politics, and more ...

MoveOn and the 99% Spring is using the exact rhetoric of the Occupy Movement. And yet, I don't feel co-opted at all. I see no evidence of trying to influence elections or telling people what actions to engage in. MoveOn with its massive mailing lists and its ability to help people find each other locally and take action together is trying to give more people more education and tools to do direct action in exactly the same vein as the Occupy Movement. In other words, they are being helpful. Massively helpful in fact. Their goal is to train 100,000 people during the week of April 9-15.

The last segment of the training is to move into action on campaigns to win change. As far as I can tell, no single campaign is being promoted. Is this effort linked to the Democratic party? I don't have any inside information and cannot answer this question with authority. Certainly, since Occupy has now inspired imitators, things are more complicated. But take a look at the organizations that have signed on. Since the 99% Spring derives from a cross-section of organizations, this is a wonderful opportunity for coalition building. I would encourage Occupiers to take part in these trainings. And to network there. Where will you find more like-minded folks who are ready and willing to volunteer their time and energy for the same causes? Many Occupations have experienced a dwindling of active participants who show up at their actions. Many feel stretched thin, up against the backdrop of an insurmountable system. In many locations, there is a core of dedicated activists still hard at work, imagining, organizing, and publicizing. But, the more, the merrier - and the more powerful.

Click here to find a training near you.