Monday, May 23, 2011

John Lewis in Boulder: a note from Debbie Main

Debbie Main is a student and friend, who before the April 4th demonstration, arranged a meeting with a woman in SEIU whose shoulder had gone out from intense cleaning of 16 floors a night in 6 hours for 14 years. A supervisor recently required to stretch up with her hand to get some dirt high above a mirror...I mentioned her in my talk here.

Debbie had the good fortune to hear and meet John Lewis at a talk in Boulder about the American Experience show on the Freedom Riders (two months before the PBS broadcast last Monday), and shared with him my syllabi for nonviolence. See the previous posts here and here. What she says to other students in the course below reveals that my inspiration for doing it is, among other things, the heroism of John Lewis.

Debbie encloses a 15 minute powerful, enormously worth watching video of his interview and questions in Boulder here. Lewis is a great figure in our current mainstream politics, an elected representative from Georgia who really stood for something before being elected and who understands deeply the trends that are good in American political life and the dangers of militarism (he is against the wars since an initial approval of the attack on Afghanistan; Barbara Lee was the lone Congresswoman who courageously and insightfully stood up for the truth then, amidst a howling wind of vengeance without clear direction). One might say, however, of John Lewis that no one, in mainstream American politics, has ever stood up more or paid a greater physical price.

Jared Polis, the representative from Boulder and also a serious activist, rightly introduces Lewis as someone from whom everyone can learn. Lewis speaks of how he questioned segregation from an early age, but was told by his parents and grandparents, discouragingly: "that’s the way it is; don’t make a fuss; you’ll get into trouble." It is sometimes early understandings, even in the face of incomprehension by adults, which set one on a path toward justice (Noam Chomsky stood by at 6 while a little fat boy was beaten by bullies, but would never stand by again. See here. I, too, got some family advice not to do principled, dangerous acts...)See here.

When Lewis decided to participate in the sit-ins at lunch counters in Nashville, he, at first, did not tell his mother. When she wrote, warning that he would be arrested or hurt, he invoked Martin Luther that he could do no other. In the clip, he says amusedly, perhaps given the way he was speaking to her, she didn’t know what he was talking about (it was clearly wrenching more wrenching at the time). As a true follower of Thoreau confronting segregation, Lewis says, he experienced happiness and freedom being in jail. Lewis has a shining courage like Diane Nash – see here - in which he came forward again and again from the freedom rides to Selma to do what is right and clear and simple, though so far from where we are. Asked about immigrants today, he said with great force: “there is no such thing as an illegal person.”

Physical risk combined with political struggle. At the great civil rights march in Washington in 1963, he intended to speak for SNCC about how the Kennedys did not protect SNCC organizers from being beaten in the South. The organizers pressured Lewis and two SNCC leaders (James Foreman, Charles Cobb) to take out the criticism. When A. Phillip Randolph at 75 years old, the leader of the black sleeping car porters union trying to organize a march on Washington for 30 years, appealed to them, they did mute it.

I agree with their initial position, though honoring Randolph’s request is something I also sympathize with. As a young SNCC leader, Lewis here, speaking out against the Democrats for failure to act against murderous beatings of civil rights organizers, was in a position similar to King when he gave his famous speech at the Riverside Church. The Democratic Party is often vicious (on segregation, allowing killings of protestors against racism, fomenting the war in Vietnam, supporting more recent aggressions, and the like); its occasional siding with decency, for example eventually on civil rights, needs to be pushed from below, often at great price…

In this film clip, Lewis says that some consider nonviolence "obsolete," but it is not. There is a fight against this necessary means – mass militant nonviolence. In the Democratic Party, he is a lonely voice - though the 14 Democratic state senators who honored the Madison demonstrations to preserve collective bargaining are with him as well - but there is forgetfulness outside it as well. In Denver, for instance, there have been a series of racist police murders in recent years, one by an officer who shot Paul Childs, a black teenager with epilepsy, in his home. Paul looked to the police for help. The police had been summoned by his mother (in an epileptic attack, Paul was holding a knife); everyone else had left the house. All the officer had to do was not open the door (or back out). Instead, within 90 seconds of his arrival on the scene, he went in and murdered Childs, his second killing of a black teenager. He received a brief suspension….

There was intense popular revulsion against this in Five Points (and throughout Denver).

But the Black Ministerial Alliance, citing the new influence of blacks in city politics, argued fiercely against extra-legal protest (they headed off a rebellion). Yet they also made no effort to organize civil disobedience against police brutality – perhaps thinking it “obsolete.” With Obama as President, this danger of suppressing movements from below, among minorities and many whites (since I like Obama, though detesting many of his policies, I know well enough what the problem is), is even greater. Lewis says amusingly and rightly that Obama's election is only a "down-payment" on King's dream, but that we really need a renewed poor people's movement.

Is civil disobedience still necessary? I will just underline one issue where it could be a central means of struggle. In today’s America, the black teenage surplus population is siphoned off into prison. These young people cannot be employed, are part of what Marx spoke of as the “reserve army of the unemployed.” or government economists/statisticians, illustrating Marx’s point, call “full employment.” By this, these economists mean, 4% unemployed. That is several million people who can't find work. And this figure only includes those who are, right now, actively looking for work. The figure expands to 7 or 8% when one includes those who have become discouraged and do not go any longer to government offices and register as looking for work, and those who have part-time jobs but would gladly take full time jobs if offered. If the workforce is 100 million, that would be 8 million living human beings, often young, who would still be unemployed when the economy ostensibly reaches “full employment.”

According to the Justice Department, one in three black male babies born in 2001 will go to prison sometime in their life. The figure among Chicanoes is 1 in 6, among whites, 1 in 17 (a higher ratio among poor whites)…A result of mandatory sentences for drug "crimes," this is the revenge of the segregationists – now become the Republican leaders of the South and some of the “Blue Dogs” – for the civil rights movement.

Due to draconian drug laws that mostly punish victimless crimes, the US went from 300,000 in prison in the 1970s – an enormously high number, as least as much as any other nation - to 2 and ½ million today (see Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow here). That is 8 times as much as in the 1970s, and 25% - one-quarter - of the world’s prisoners. Today, America is for blacks, Chicanos and poor whites a police state and a prison-industrial complex, unpalleled in the world, despite its leaders’ lofty talk of human rights and democracy (all the tyrannies in the Middle East of just yesterday and China do not have as large a prison population combined as the United States...).

Prisons are a lucrative source of money for companies – i.e. through privatization - and of jobs for rural communities which have few alternatives (join the army or staff a prison…). Even timid attempts to cut the prisons in mainstream politics, given the massive budget deficits occasioned by American militarism and Republican tax cuts for the rich, often run aground, as in Colorado earlier this year, because of lobbying to preserve jobs.

Yet the scale of tax cuts for the rich over the last half century, sucking the life out of America as a civilized society, is worth taking in:

“47.4: Percent of profits corporations paid in taxes in 1961.

11.1: Percent of profits corporations paid in taxes in 2011.” (Institute of Policy Studies here).

This 36.3% of corporate profits that is now untaxed – more than a third - let alone the whole amount over the last half century, could contribute to schools, health care and other common good-sustaining government programs…

These statistics are emblematic of how the rich have increasingly bought both parties over the last half century, and changed America from a place of hope (and with the civil rights movements, for blacks and chicanoes as well) into an increasingly caste society with a large, augmenting impoverished class and a tiny rich elite.

The Koch brothers have even spawned a wave of attacks on collective bargaining by the 2010 Republican governors in some 20 states. Madison is a great nonviolent answer to them, which must be echoed throughout the country. So is Egypt. John Lewis says he thought of marching there. Use your feet, Lewis says.

John Lewis is right.

Here is Debbie’s note:

“Alan,

I am hoping that you might be able to send this to everyone in our class.

When attending the Boulder film festival earlier this year, by happenstance Representative John Lewis and I walked out at the same time. We had the chance to talk about Alan's non-violent methods classes.

Representative Lewis' post-showing discussion could have come straight out of our class. Please take a listen. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSg47kCIMIQ.

Debbie”


In addition, the FBI was no friend of the civil rights movement, and as the Freedom Riders film showed, acted, under J. Edgar Hoover, against Robert Kennedy, the attorney general, to attack the freedom riders. Here is a letter from yesterday’s New York Times which underlines the FBI's criminal responsibility for the brutal beatings of Walter Bergman in Anniston and Birmingham:

"F.B.I. and Freedom Riders
May 21, 2011

To the Editor:

Thank you for commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides (“Remembering the Freedom Riders,” editorial, May 16), which were indeed the story of courageous college students and others whose willingness to risk their personal safety helped change America. But let’s not ignore the ugly story of our F.B.I.’s knowledge of impending violence and failure to stop it.

Some 16 years after the first two buses of Freedom Riders arrived in Alabama, the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (of which I was then executive director) brought suit against the F.B.I. on behalf of Walter and Frances Bergman of Detroit, two of the original 13 Freedom Riders. Walter Bergman was severely beaten when a mob of Ku Klux Klansmen attacked the Freedom Riders, first in Anniston, Ala., then again in Birmingham. He suffered a stroke and spent the remaining years of his life partially paralyzed and in a wheelchair.

The case was based on revelations about the role of F.B.I. paid informants in the Klan, one of whom took part in the brutal attack on the Freedom Riders.

In 1983, a United States District Court judge issued an eloquent opinion holding the F.B.I. responsible for the attack. The F.B.I. had advance knowledge of the planned attack and allowed it to happen. That part of the story should not be lost to history.

HOWARD L. SIMON
Executive Director, American
Civil Liberties Union of Florida
Miami, May 16, 2011"

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