Sunday, December 18, 2011

Campus workers and the global street

In response to "Art (Phillip Glass’s Satyagraha) and nonviolence" here, Saskia Sassen sent me the her piece from the Social Science Research Council website on "the global street" – a fine word for democratic internationalism – "versus Wall Street" here. It makes the point that this is not just a phenomenon of unemployed, endebted and hungry young people – the young people including women workers, who led waves of strikes – who drove Arab spring in Egypt somehow sparked by Facebook (not that Facebook has not played an important role).

It is rather the diverse experience of all of us of what capitalism now is as a predatory phonemenon that has made for this surprising movement of the "global street." It is a capitalism unbound by the threat of socialism. It is a capitalism which in United States has weakened unions more fatally than at any time since the expulsion of 11 unions from the CIO under Truman-McCarthyism: only some 9% of the private work force is now organized and there is a tremendous attack, state by state, on public employees (more unionized, some 30% with a heavy percentage of black workers – see the very good editorial in the Times here). This capitalism has engendered the diverse movement of the global street and in such surprising places as the Met or the Durban conference here, providing increasing depth to the claim: “We are the 99%.”

And even many of the 1% are disgusted and discouraged by the sheer predatoriness of the “new” capitalism.

As a result, protest is inspired diversely by the imagination of the many. The martyr Moammed Bouazizi, a young college grad, selling flowers, deprived of a license in his small town by authoritarian police officials who strutted while his hopes slipped away, burned himself. Tunisia exploded.

It is but 12 months later (Saturday was the anniversary of his sacrifice), and Arab spring has won major battles in Egypt (vanquished the US-funded Mubarak, and challenged the military – no longer seen as a single hand with the people but rightly as its oppressor). Ordinary soldiers need to come to life, to see that the future is with the 99%, to respond to nonviolence with something other than American-armed violence and murder.

In reponse, gigantic protests have emerged against the bankers strangling the livelihood of the people in Greece, in Spain, the indignados, and now a strike of 2 million, the largest since 1926, in Britain, and the entire Occupy movement in the US and internationally…

As Saskia points out, this movement, challenging the 1% in many ways, goes far beyond facebook. There is a common, many sided capitalist predation, a predation down to the smallest things (breathing in a bank) on which the meter is ticking; the banks and many other aspects of the elite have their hands in our pockets, Occupy has now had a successful movement to get people to transfer funds from banks to credit unions (some 640,000). Citi and Chase and Wells Fargo and Goldman Sachs begin to feel it (it is a fragment of the hypothetical funds they now bet with on collateral debt obligations and so on).

The Fed staved off a depression by secretly giving away money to the banks – $7.7 trillion at .001% interest. Jon Stewart did a lovely take on this breathtaking act of stealing from tax payers: the federal government is the dumbest loan shark ever. Or: the state serves the 1% (the lesser evil party a little less so). See here.

Too bad, Barack, one might say, that doesn’t work for the foreclosed, the unemployed, the homeless (Obama at least now notices that the crisis of “middle class” – he means the 99% - is the crisis of our times).

One result of this is concomitant struggles blossoming in the most diverse places. No medium alone, as Sassen suggests, could do this. Two weeks ago, Phillip Glass’s Satyagraha, an opera about Gandhi, joined at the Met with the Occupy movement. See here

At the same time, my friend Randall Conrad sent me a notice about Occupy Harvard supporting Marvin Bird, a disabled worker who works in the Harvard mail room (below). Bird comes in from Lynn everyday and is a solid worker. But they passed him over, an internal candidate, for a promotion. Then alone among all workers, they cut his hours.

This is crude (good supervisors often know something about the people who work for them, Harvard is supposedly involved in higher education and - supposedly - has some concern for the community…).

But one might think this was just a mistake at Harvard. It isn’t. As a graduate student, I was part of a campaign to get black painter’s helpers, often of 20 years experience like Sonny Gordon, the same pay as white painters. Blacks were paid $3,000 per year less than whites. In turn, whites made $2,000 less than union scale in Boston,

John Carroll, a white painter with great insight and a pixie-ish sense of humor, once spoke to a gathering of 700 in Sanders Theater tracing the ins and outs of Harvard predation.

My daughter Claire later worked at Harvard, and supported the nonviolent student sit-in for a living wage. It cost some $15/per hour to have a living wage in Cambridge (what the City Council mandated) and Harvard paid less than $10. Not being able to afford an apartment, some workers slept in their cars.

Larry Sommers, though a profound racist and sexist, did some good things at Harvard as President (supported diversification of the student body, put real money into making Harvard a multiracial environment). But his oppression of campus workers was not among them.

In coordination with the campus unions, Harvard Occupy also pushed the University to negotiate with custodians (Harvard had been stonewalling). (h/t Dan Nicolai).

I went to Harvard yard this week. Tents were up near University Hall. Campus guards wouldn't let people into the yard without Harvard identification. Harvard closes itself off so that people will not join the Occupy movement...

That Occupy on many campuses might focus on those who work there – that it might unite with campus workers, among other central matters – is a great thing.

Saskia also traces the role of urban space and thinks about police brutality (often murderous, as in Egypt or in crippling to 2 iraq vets in Oakland). The police are out in force in American cities. Police forces have now been militarized (Israel plays a role in this, extending from its predation in Palestine – see Sidney Blumenthal here – and the US war complex has swarmed around ordinary policing even on campuses – consider the tear gas at Davis – to provide accoutrements and supplies. Justin Jeffers, one of my students at Metro, described how he took pictures of a young man in a tree at an Occupy Denver march – also using a camera to photograph Denver police depredations. Justin has a picture of the cops rushing him, the camera going dark. The other young man was shot by paint ball bullets, falling out of the tree, holes in his body (but not dead) – all for taking pictures.

Freedom of assembly and the freedom to photograph the police – something that needs doing even more intensely in this age of police militarization – are not honored in that slipping center of world capitalism, the United States. Perhaps citizens can still appeal the denial of these basic rights in the also slipping Court system.

But Saskia’s point is that as a response to nonviolent protest in urban settings, militarism fails. The police can hulk up, drive people out of democratic encampments (the tents in front of the state house, stripped early in the morning by police with many arrests). But no one looking at or hearing about this sympathizes with the police. Armed thugs do not do well in daylight (a tape of the police referring to dirty hippies and other epithets in Denver embarrassed even Mayor Hancock’s office who said last week; the Mayor said last week that he did not agree…)

This is the ju jitsu of nonviolence.

And there are spaces to occupy. As the demonstration at the Met, and the facets of Occupy Harvard and the thousands of demonstrations from Oakland to Santa Rosa to Youngstown to Cairo, Madrid, Athens , London, Berlin, Tunis…indicate, the 99% are rising up. Occupy Homes has begun resettling the dispossessed into abandoned homes in New York (see below). Displaced from camping, the Occupy movement creatively helps the dispossessed. Talk about a political boomerang…

We are all “dirty hippies” in the ignorance of the paid flacks of the 1%. But even many of them are becoming disgusted with the unreconstructed Scrooginess – it is after all December – of the elite. And as Occupy Harvard and the Phillip Glass-Occupy movement at the Met and the courage of Abigail Borah at the climate conference in Durban show, there is no escape for the harmful elite, no place where we may not surface,

May they (and we) be so lucky as to follow Dickens tale to its conclusion. Whether they do or not, however, Truth and Reconciliation only works when a mass movement stops the predation. See Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness and here.

“We are the 99%” people chant at the marches. This is an amazing, vastly creative and diverse movement, which has even found its way, with Saskia’s article, onto the website of the Social Science Research Council.

Solidarity Rally with Harvard Employee Marvin Byrd

Occupy Harvard stands in solidarity with all Harvard workers in their fight to be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace.

Today, Thursday 12/1, we will join members of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW) in a rally outside the Holyoke Center at 5PM and ask Harvard not to discriminate against disabled employees. Facebook event here–and no Harvard ID required!

Geoff Carens of HUCTW sent us this information:

Marvin Byrd has worked in Harvard’s Science Center mail room since 1995. He was hired first as a “casual” worker, and then into a union position in 2008. Partially-disabled, Marvin wears foot orthotics and custom-made shoes; he has always been reliable, responsible and dependable in his job. When he applied for a better-paid position in 2007 he was passed over, despite being an internal candidate. He has lived on an income derived from 29 hours a week, since being hired into a Mail Clerk I position in the lowest salary grade in the union.

This year management made Marvin pick from three harsh choices: a cut to 25 hours spread over six work days, an even-worse cut to 20 hours over a 5-day week, or losing his job completely. Feeling he had little choice, Marvin picked the 25-hour schedule, which meant diminished pay and getting just one day off from work. Marvin has a grueling commute on public transportation, which management knew about before cutting his hours and income. No one else in his unit faced any change to their scheduled hours, and no one else had to accept a regular schedule of six days per week.

Marvin now has to get on the bus in Lynn at 7:30 a.m. to get to work at Harvard by 10. He typically gets just 4-5 hours of work and then has to get back on the T for his journey home. He can’t get another part-time job to make up for the cut in his income, because he only has one day off from Harvard. Marvin has less money to live on; the cut in pay was immediate with no transition, and immediately affected Marvin’s ability to meet his obligations in leading his daily life. Campus workers believe Harvard managers are trying to push Marvin out of his job.

This Thursday, December 1, union members, students, and concerned members of the community will hold a demonstration of our support for Marvin. We’ll meet starting at 5 p.m. in front of Holyoke Center, 1350 Mass. Ave., Cambridge (right next to Au Bon Pain). Click here for a map. Please join us if you can! Riot-Folk artist Evan Greer will perform at the action.

In Solidarity,

Geoff Carens, Union Rep, Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers/HUCTW

Occupy Our Homes

by: J.A. Myerson, Truthout | News Analysis

Occupy Wall Street's national day of foreclosure resistance kicks off with the first family members occupying their home. (Photo: Matt Renner)

Yesterday, no one had lived in 702 Vermont Street for three years. Vermont Street sits in East New York, the Brooklyn neighborhood where foreclosures are five times more frequent than in the rest of the state. Today, Alfredo and Tasha and their son and daughter moved in, with the help of a number of friends whom they'd never met. Some were from the advocacy groups Picture the Homeless and Vocal New York, others were clergy or members of the city council. They had been organized and brought together by Occupy Wall Street for a national day of action to promote foreclosure resistance, an event kicking off a project they call Occupy Our Homes.

Alfredo, Tasha and the kids, way back yesterday, were homeless, having been foreclosed upon by a bank and hundreds upon hundreds of people who had never heard of them came to East New York today to get them a home. Occupy Wall Street is itself somewhat homeless these days, having been evicted from Zuccotti Park on the orders of the 12th-richest man in the United States. A few weeks ago, the media tycoon in question deployed what he openly calls his "army" to dispossess the occupation, including, naturally, everyone who called it their home. Much wondering has been going on in the press about what Occupy Wall Street would do now that it was homeless. Today's answer seems to have been: get other people homes.

(Photo: J.A. Myerson)

The few hundred activists marched through the streets of East New York and took a tour of the foreclosed properties in the area, which is very easy to do, since they are everywhere. "On every block, we have one or two homes either for sale or in foreclosure," Lorraine, who lives in the neighborhood, told me. "I think we have three houses for sale on my block alone."

On the Upper West Side, there are always street fairs. There are museums and libraries and there are parks and concert venues. And on the Upper West Side, there are places for kids to go after school and there are places for people who want to get healthier to exercise. On the Upper West Side, there are churches made of stone. In East New York, there is a church called Hope Christian Center, which looks like an abandoned office building, the paint on the façade stripping away to reveal the brick beneath.

(Photo: Matt Renner)

"There's nothing to do here," said longtime East New Yorker Corinne Gonzales, who attributes the many people who watched the march from their windows to this. Revealingly, it was at their windows where people found themselves on a chance Tuesday afternoon in this neighborhood and not, perhaps, at work. Many of them joined the march, which, at its peak, swelled to what was widely estimated to include 1,000 participants - on a Tuesday afternoon in the rain.

Corrine had never seen anything like it. News cameras and satellite vans don't come here, except, occasionally, in the case of a shooting. Now, they'd come here to document the difficulty of a life of poverty and the attempt to change that dynamic. If Occupy Wall Street had chosen to do something else today, another day would have gone by in which no one in the media or politics paid any attention to East New York.

(Photo: Matt Renner)

"It's not fair to us low income families," Corrine told me. "Everybody's talking about middle class. Middle class? What about us? We got children. It's not fair to us. And I thank God that you guys came out today to represent us low income families. And I appreciate it very much."

Some activists brought housewarming gifts for the new residents of 702 Vermont Street. Yates McKee, 32, marched carrying a large houseplant. "A plant is important because it's something that helps make it a nice environment," he told me. "It's also a metaphor for sustaining life."

Lorraine had brought brownies. She started a "part-time cooking thing" to make extra money before she lost her job. "They're free," she said, offering me one. "It might energize you, with a little sugar. I have a sweet tooth." These brownies were to welcome the activists who had come to help, though the baker herself faces foreclosure. "Any person at this point is one step away from being jobless and homeless," she remarked. "It's a reality. This is the life that we're living right now. It's like this is what we worked for, all those other years. This is the point that we've come to."

(Photo: Matt Renner)

If anybody wanted demands, they were clear today. As Brian Gibbs of Picture the Homeless said by way of the people's microphone, "What we need is real, affordable housing now. It has to change." Gibbs was once homeless on the street and spoke of the police harassment routinely visited upon him and others in his situation. "The problem with homelessness is that people get so desperate, they are willing to risk arrest in order to get off the streets," he told the crowd.

At one stop along the tour, a young man named Quincy, who works as a part time plumber, took the people's mike. "I was tricked into signing over my deed," he confessed. "Now I'm getting evicted. I have a loan of $475,000."

(Photo: Matt Renner)

Standing beside him, his city council member, one-time Black Panther Charles Barron, announced, "We will not let this young man lose his home. We've stopped other foreclosures and we're going to stop this one." Thereupon, Quincy began to weep, the friends and comrades he never knew he had gathering around him to place their calming hands upon his shoulders and his arms and his head. He didn't know they were out there, but 1,000 people ready to protect his home happened to be around the corner the day upon which he was getting foreclosed.

As Quincy wrapped up his remarks, a cry from the crowd drew everyone's attention to another longtime resident of the neighborhood, who told the story of having bought her house in 1997, putting $80,000 down. She'd been working two jobs all of her life and had paid her mortgage responsibly, putting down months in advance when she went on vacation. Her son did four years in Kuwait and four years in Iraq and now he's dead. The Pentagon, the woman said, doesn't know whether he died by enemy bullets or friendly fire. Since then, she's become sick and the bills for her medical treatment have ruined her hopes for paying off the rest of her mortgage. Crying to the sky, she asked again and again, "How am I going to do it?"

At the march's destination, balloons announced the block party to be thrown for the incoming neighbors. A tent appeared on the roof, on which was scrawled, "You cannot evict an idea whose time has come." Remarks were shared by, among others, Alfredo, a 27-year-old community organizer around stop and frisk, and Tasha, whose shyness in the face of the people's microphone moved her to nervous giggles and a swift conclusion to her brief thanks.

I went into 702 Vermont Street with the Occupy Wall Street Sanitation Working Group, who entered before anyone else to get the house ready to be, so to speak, occupied. This was a formidable charge. It very much seemed to one as though the people who left 702 Vermont Street did so in a big hurry. Crumbled dry wall, copious mold, piles of refuse - the house might as easily have been Sarajevo in 1996 than in the same city as Wall Street in 2011.

The sun set over Vermont Street behind the clouds, steadily drizzling on the block party. Eventually, Bloomberg's army, consisting of quite a smaller number of people when there wasn't rich people's property to protect, asked the block party to stick to the sidewalk, and the event drew to a close, teams of occupiers agreeing to stay with Alfredo and Tasha and with Quincy for the night, vowing to put their bodies between the residents and anyone attempting to turn them into something else.

The police's boss has $19.5 billion. He's got places to stay all over the world, luxury townhouses in the swankiest neighborhoods in the finest cities in the world and sprawling mansions in lush paradises in the tropics. And no one ever threatens to kick him out of any of them. For the time being, anyway.

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