Friday, March 31, 2006

Extra! Extra!: society still racist!

A recent report by the Urban League has been in the headlines and highlights the ongoing discrimination in our society against blacks. A few excerpts from the New Standard article on the report:
Unemployment remains twice as high for blacks, and median "net worth" of African-American households is just one-tenth that of their white counterparts. That is, half the families in black America have less than $6,166 when their debts are subtracted from their assets, while among whites, half could cash in for more than $67,000. The federal government’s own figures from 2000 indicate the same disparity, but with higher medians: $79,400 for white families compared to $7,500 for blacks and $9,750 for Latinos.
Lance Freeman, professor of urban planning at Columbia University, said that an increase in home ownership for blacks does not mean comparable increases in home equity, which would begin to address the staggering disparity in "net worth." In the report, Freeman states that a high level of residential segregation between blacks and whites continues a dual housing market in which many blacks are limited to buying homes in neighborhoods with higher poverty rates, fewer or poorer amenities and services, and consequently lower property values.
According to 2001 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, the death rate from heart disease for black Americans was 30 percent higher than that for whites, and the death rate for cancer was just over 25 percent higher. Additionally, blacks are twice as likely to have diabetes and accounted for more than 50 percent of new HIV/AIDS cases, though they make up about 13 percent of the US population.
The group also found that, while African-Americans constitute only 13 percent of drug users, they represent 35 percent of drug possession arrests, 55 percent of convictions and 74 percent of prison sentences.
["Blacks Losing Ground in Economic Race," The New Standard, March 30, 2006

Unfortunately, the solutions suggested in the report seem to be rather inadequate, despite the assertion of the report's authors that "'more than simply describing the problems, the report offers concrete solutions for moving Americans from poverty to self-sufficiency to prosperity' through a 'five-point empowerment agenda.'"

Take the astounding racism in the criminal justice system suggested by the above figures. The Standard reports that "To reduce this disparity, the Sentence Project suggests reforming drug laws to focus more on treatment and less on incarceration, and to eliminate harsh sentencing rules that by extension have a disproportionate affect on minorities." Undoubtedly these measures are extremely necessary - but they seem somewhat tangential in relation to the specific problem of racist police, courts, (juries?), and so forth.

The Standard does get in a good dig, reminding you that you're definitely not reading the New York Times:
The Urban League did not express its findings or recommendations to the people most affected. Rather, the authors address public officials, scholars and policymakers, who the group asks to use the annual State of Black America report as ammunition to "attack" persistent racial and class inequities. A full copy of the report is available for $29.95.

American misperceptions of Iraqis

A recent comparison of opinion polls in the US and Iraq found that:
Americans... underestimate the extent to which the Iraqi public soundly rejects terrorism as they define it. In the January poll—a virtually unanimous 99 percent of Iraqis said it was a good idea for Iraqi leaders to have agreed in a statement at an Arab League conference late last year that terrorism should be rejected. However, only 14 percent of Americans correctly identified a "large majority" as the proportion of the Iraqi public that approved of the statement. Another 35 percent estimated that it would be a majority. Forty-six percent of Americans thought that half or less of the Iraqi public approved of the statement rejecting terrorism.

Naturally some may be perplexed by the overwhelming rejection of terrorism coupled with support among nearly half of Iraqis for attacks on US-led forces. It is clear that many Iraqis do not define attacks on US-led forces as terrorism. According to most expert definitions of terrorism, this is valid—terrorism is generally defined as attacks on civilians, not an occupying military force.
["Comparing Americans and Iraqis," World Public Opinion, March 24, 2006]

Indeed, quoting from the first news article I found in a Google search, the statement made at the Arab League conference,
condemned terrorism, but was a clear acknowledgment of the Sunni position that insurgents should not be labeled as terrorists if their operations do not target innocent civilians or institutions designed to provide for the welfare of Iraqi citizens.
["State Department denies Iraqis back terrorism," Associate Press, Nov. 22, 2005]

It's not hard to see how the distorted understanding of terrorism and resistance in the American mind (shaped in large part by the media of course) could influence attitudes towards the occupation and US foreign policy in general. It's not clear to what extent the results are due to a belief that attacking the occupying forces is terrorism versus a belief that large numbers of Iraqis sympathize with genuine terrorism.

Another finding of the poll comparison was that:
Americans underestimate the extent to which Iraqis believe the overthrow of Saddam Hussein was worthwhile. Three-fourths of Iraqis (77%) said in January that ousting Saddam was worth it despite any hardships they may have suffered since the 2003 invasion, while 22 percent said it was not worth it. Fifty-five percent of Americans underestimated this support, assuming that most Iraqis feel it was not worth it (22%) or that Iraqis are evenly split on the question (33%). Forty-four percent of Americans correctly assumed that most Iraqis say it was worth it. (It should be noted, though, that among Iraqi Arab Sunnis, large majorities regret the overthrow of Saddam, and that some Americans may have been influenced by that when they opted for the position that views are evenly split.)

Such results seem to be fairly consistent with earlier polls of Iraqi attitudes. Iraqi opinion seems to be, basically, widely shared dislike and distrust of the US government coinciding with a feeling that the US invasion (though undertaken for imperial reasons) had net positive side-effects. The exception is the Sunnis, who were less oppressed under Saddam than most Iraqis and are now bearing the brunt of the violence of the occupation.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Puerto Rico reacts to FBI

After I recently blogged about the systematic disenfranchisement of Puerto Ricans both in Puerto Rico and in the mainland U.S., another aspect of the general story of the utter lack of Puerto Rican sovereignty presented itself through the killing of a Puerto Rico independence activist.
Filiberto Ojeda Rios, the 72-year-old founder of Puerto Rico's radical Boricua Popular Army, also known as the Macheteros or machete-wielders, was fatally wounded in a shootout with FBI agents in western Puerto Rico in September.

He had been a fugitive from justice for 15 years and was found shot in the neck and shoulder with a single bullet, the FBI said at the time. Local authorities quickly questioned whether his life could have been spared if he had been given speedy medical attention.

Puerto Rico responded by suing several U.S. law enforcement officials - amongst them, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and FBI Director Robert Mueller - for "allegedly failing to cooperate with a probe into the killing" and operating within a "mantra of absolute immunity."

On a further note:
In a separate lawsuit filed on Thursday, [head of Puerto Rico's Justice Department Roberto] Sanchez Ramos accused Gonzales, Mueller and [head of San Juan's division of the FBI Luis] Fraticelli of refusing to hand over information about the FBI's alleged use of pepper spray on journalists during the raids.

[Puerto Rico sues U.S. over killing of militant, Reuters, 24 March 2006]

This, along with the allegation that the FBI agents involved deliberately "let him bleed to death", has rightfully sparked protests on the island.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Immigration Debate

Lost in the chilling rhetoric about building walls between Mexico and the U.S. (or, better said, between Mexico and land that the U.S. stole from Mexico) and forbidding social service agencies from assisting "illegal aliens" is the fact that if there is indeed a "crisis" of undocumented immigrants, then much of the blame can be squarely placed at the feet of the U.S. government.

As a recent op-ed in the Washington Post seeks an explanation for their increasing numbers:
Why? It's not because we've let down our guard at the border; to the contrary, the border is more militarized now than it's ever been. The answer is actually simpler than that. In large part, it's NAFTA.

The North American Free Trade Agreement was sold, of course, as a boon to the citizens of the United States, Canada and Mexico -- guaranteed both to raise incomes and lower prices, however improbably, throughout the continent. Bipartisan elites promised that it would stanch the flow of illegal immigrants, too. "There will be less illegal immigration because more Mexicans will be able to support their children by staying home," said President Bill Clinton as he was building support for the measure in the spring of 1993.

But NAFTA, which took effect in 1994, could not have been more precisely crafted to increase immigration -- chiefly because of its devastating effect on Mexican agriculture. As liberal economist Jeff Faux points out in "The Global Class War," his just-published indictment of the actual workings of the new economy, Mexico had been home to a poor agrarian sector for generations, which the government helped sustain through price supports on corn and beans. NAFTA, though, put those farmers in direct competition with incomparably more efficient U.S. agribusinesses. It proved to be no contest: From 1993 through 2002, at least 2 million Mexican farmers were driven off their land.

The experience of Mexican industrial workers under NAFTA hasn't been a whole lot better. With the passage of NAFTA, the maquiladoras on the border boomed. But the raison d'etre for these factories was to produce exports at the lowest wages possible, and with the Mexican government determined to keep its workers from unionizing, the NAFTA boom for Mexican workers never materialized. In the pre-NAFTA days of 1975, Faux documents, Mexican wages came to 23 percent of U.S. wages; in 1993-94, just before NAFTA, they amounted to 15 percent; and by 2002 they had sunk to a mere 12 percent.

The official Mexican poverty rate rose from 45.6 percent in 1994 to 50.3 percent in 2000.

[Meyerson, Harold. NAFTA and Nativism." Washington Post, 8 February 2006]

Also lost in media commentary (commentary, in this instance, being used in a generous sense) is the notion that Mexicans don't inherently deserve to live in poverty. As human beings, alongside their mighty gringo neighbors to the north, they are the same, and deserve the same rights, standards of living, and opportunities. Those who argue that immigration to the U.S. should be reduced because it lowers living standards are in effect saying the opposite: that for being born on the wrong side of a border that is the product of imperialist aggression, Mexicans - and all the other backwards, brown-skinned peoples - are to be caged into what's left of their homeland, trapped into eternal poverty so that the "developed" countries may continue in their enlightened development.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Argentina bows out of SOA/WHISC

The School of the Americas Watch (or is it WHISC, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation?...rolls right off the tongue) has reported that a third South American country, Argentina, is joining Uruguay and Venezuela in not sending troops to receive training at the Fort Benning, Georgia facility.

While the move is largely symbolic - SOA Watch notes there is currently only one Argentine enrolled at the institution - it is nevertheless an important step for a country that recently marked the 30th anniversary of a military coup whose protagonists initiated a campaign of terror that "disappeared" an estimated 30,000 Argentines.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Immigrant's rights rally

I attended the rally for the rights of immigrants today in Boston that attracted perhaps 1500 people (I have no confidence in my crowd estimating abilities). The best sign read (from memory): "Treat an alien in your land as you would treat a native born son"--God, Leviticus. Now, really, who can argue with God?

Saturday, March 25, 2006

The Limitations of UFPJ: On Liberal Leninism

Almost all activists I encounter agree that ANSWER is an undemocratic group with bad politics. However, the nature of UFPJ (the other national antiwar group that regularly organizes major demonstrations) is more interesting. Criticism is fairly common but often not specific enough to be productive. Charges of liberalism (as opposed to radicalism) and bureaucratism are frequent enough to have made me suspicious. The activist Brian Dominick (whose writings lead me to respect his opinion) wrote back in 2004 that "UFPJ has proven itself a massive waste of energy and resources."
["Mediocrity on the Left," Brian Dominick, 8/26/2004] My own frustrations are born out of the lack of transparency in UFPJ. How is one to evaluate an organization when meeting notes and discussion listservs are not publicly available online? What follows is an attempt to asses the problems in UFPJ based on what I was able to find on the internet.

A Tendency to be Overly Cautious and Deferential to the Authorities in Planning Protests
Dominick writes:
When NYC turned down the group's march permit for the February 15, 2003 antiwar demonstrations in NYC, and offered a protest pen in exchange, UFPJ rolled over and took it like good collaborators -- with an obedient grin. The group's leadership discouraged wildcat actions and basically relegated the 400,000-strong crowd -- the largest to assemble at a peace demonstration in the US since the Vietnam War, and the largest ever assembled in a pre-war action -- to filing up and down the avenues of the Manhattan's East Side like a bunch of mice (I was one of them -- I vividly recall the feeling). ["Mediocrity on the Left," Brian Dominick, 8/26/2004]

See also:
[Michelle Goldberg, "New York Lockdown," The Guardian, August 12, 2004]

A recent article in Left Turn by Ak Gupta is also of interest in this regard:
Max Uhlenbeck, a former organizer with UFPJ, points to a fear of "strategic militancy" within UFPJ as part of the problem. He argues that on two critical occasions UFPJ had "support for mass direct action and blinked," referring to Feb. 15, 2003 and the massive Republican National Convention protest on Aug. 29, 2004. Both times "UFPJ took the legal route" by letting lawyers negotiate with the city over march routes and plans, and both times the city strung UFPJ along and quashed their desired protest plans.

While it was clear that UFPJ had the widespread support of its base, it chose not to employ a call for mass direct action or rely on a more "people powered strategy," instead haggling with various city bureaucracies. Uhlenbeck adds that on the evening before the historic Feb 15th, 2003 rally a UFPJ staffer told him privately that "they did not want to see a front-page story about how thousands of young people were arrested in the paper the next morning."

Laursen adds that, "at best" direct action proponents "get friendly toleration from UFPJ. It’s an attitude of ‘Please don’t do anything embarrassing.’" He also says that in some ways, having such dominant anti-war groups can be a hindrance. "The Vietnam-era movement had less centralized leadership than now, which was a good thing because it led to more creativity. There was no UFPJ or even ANSWER." [Ak Gupta, "Moving Forward: UFPJ and the Anti-war Movement," Left Turn Magazine #19, Feb/March 2006]

The Left Turn article also notes that:
Since the start of the war, the creative street actions that came out of the global justice movement have been largely absent from the anti-war movement. In the Bay Area, Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW) mobilized an impressive 20,000 people and shut down San Francisco in March 2003. While this showed the possibilities of applying affinity group and direct action strategy to the more traditional protest-oriented anti-war movement, DASW was not able to maintain the infrastructure that it had built up after war began, and eventually disintegrated.

Once it was clear that the war was becoming a prolonged occupation, it became much harder to organize a specific mass action against it. While various pockets of the former "Direct Action Network" have stayed involved, there have been more critiques leveled at the "liberal anti-war movement" than attempts to actually self-organize and build alternatives on the national level.

Here's an account of the February 2005 national assembly where UFPJ's plans for the next 18 months were decided:
Throughout the weekend, no one addressed the elephant in the living room--the decision of leading members and forces in UFPJ to campaign for John Kerry, a pro-war presidential candidate. For most of last year, the antiwar movement was at a standstill--even as the potential audience for antiwar opposition increased, and the U.S. occupation was shaken by the Abu Ghraib torture scandal and a growing Iraqi resistance.
*** the narrowest of margins, a proposal for a UFPJ legislative and lobbying strategy passed, garnering 68 percent (a “super-majority” vote of two-thirds was required to adopt a proposal). And a proposal for UFPJ to mobilize demonstrations and direct action against corporate war profiteers, the pro-war mainstream media and the military--dubbed “People Power” by its sponsors--was narrowly defeated, winning only 61 percent support. ["Debating UFPJ’s direction," ERIC RUDER, February 25, 2005]

Gupta writes:
...UFPJ seems to argue privately for political "concessions" to prevent isolating the left in a "corner"—namely its abandonment of anti-imperialist politics. If discussed publicly, this would cause tremendous controversy on the left. Stanley Aronowitz, a labor historian, says precisely the reason such issues are not discussed openly is because if UFPJ leaders had to defend their positions they might very well lose. So, he argues, UFPJ takes a political position of not debating politics.

One longtime volunteer with UFPJ present in Washington in September disagrees with the notion that the group doesn’t grapple with politics. He contends the leadership wrestles with and agonizes over political decisions all the time, but he admits that the group’s decision-making process is not transparent to the broader anti-war movement.

One group that has been noticeably less prominent within the anti-war movement is the global justice movement. Eric Laursen, a veteran direct action activist, says, "I think there was a lot of annoyance and discouragement among anti-authoritarians that UFPJ and ANSWER emerged so quickly and were so conservative in their style of organizing as opposed to the Direct Action Network." DAN, as it was known, gained considerable prominence and support after its role in 1999 Seattle protests, but collapsed after the Sept. 11th attacks.

Hierarchical Organizational Methods
The Mobilization for Global Justice, which worked closely with UFPJ, issued an open letter after the September 2005 demonstration in Washington D.C. making a number of complaints. Among other things, the letter stated that,
We believe there is a connection between the failures of political analysis on the part of UFPJ, and their logistical failures. The connection lies in an elitist mode of organizing that treats the grassroots as a resource to exploit rather than as a source of leadership. The grassroots has no role in determining the political vision of the coalition; the vision and message are driven by the needs of getting on CNN and the New York Times. Yet, the grassroots is expected to do the “grunt work” of arranging for housing, medical support, and legal support, without any help from the so-called "leadership." ["An Open Letter to United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) From the Mobilization for Global Justice," February 9, 2006]

The reply from UFPJ ["United For Peace and Justice letter of response to Mobilization for Global Justice," February 10, 2006] does not address this particular allegation.

Thomas Good spent a year as a national delegate to UFPJ, first for the Socialist Party and then for the War Resisters League. He wrote an article ["UFPJ Diary: The Case For Participatory Democracy,"] in the Fall of 2005 that provides the most substantive critique of UFPJ that I'm aware of and is worth reading in full. I'll excerpt some of the most telling passages:
The WRL, ...partly to point out that no matter who is in the White House the Iraq War would not stop, staged a civil disobedience at the New York Stock Exchange on November 3rd. By this time I had been to several New York City Coordinating Committee meetings at the UFPJ offices on 38th Street and knew Leslie Cagan [head of UFPJ] slightly...I called her and asked if UFPJ would consider supporting our action. I was told that UFPJ's primary concern was the election and that if it was stolen (was there any other possible outcome?) they would need to act quickly and therefore could not support us. We held our CD as scheduled, the day after the election... Although irregularities plagued the election UFPJ did not organize a mass protest. This left some of us in the WRL wondering what it would have cost UFPJ to promote our action - via simple endorsement and perhaps email outreach.
We traveled together to St. Louis in February, 2005. At the assembly we listened to speeches by Movement stalwarts Angela Davis and Tom Hayden and voted on a wide variety of proposals. But our primary reason for being in St. Louis was to push the proposal for the creation of a Nonviolent Direct Action Working Group - an idea put forward by the Iraq Pledge of Resistance, the Brandywine Peace Community and the War Resisters League national office. Things went well initially and our proposal made it out of subcommittee...but on the day of the actual vote we were badly burned by a combination of rigid bureaucratic process and the actions of a steering committee member named Lisa Fithian who, in the opinion of many, misused her position to block our initiative by speaking against it as an officer of UFPJ (it is my view that she was responding to a perceived territorial threat as the proposal's primary author was someone with whom she had personal issues). After the vote, Sam and I sat down with a delegate from Madison and drafted a motion of reconsideration citing the irregularities that resulted in our proposal going down to defeat. At the next day's plenary we presented the motion to the appropriate committee, expecting to be tossed aside with a recitation of some arcane procedural rule. This did not happen - to our astonishment an administrative committee member named Judith LeBlanc asked me to meet with Cagan in the hall...this was my first exposure to the extraordinary administrative processes in UFPJ. I quickly found two of the other proposal endorsers and we met with with Leslie outside the plenary. She apologized for the actions of the steering committee member who spoke against our proposal and asked me to withdraw our motion as, at best, it would lengthen the assembly considerably, and at worst, might invalidate the entire affair due to some of the voting irregularities cited in it. She offered us a deal: Fithian would apologize from the podium and we would be guaranteed the working group we had asked for. We took the deal and only later did it occur to me that this sort of thing might be a symptom of a serious problem within UFPJ. {2} I fully believe that Leslie felt she was doing the right thing by all concerned and probably she did - but what troubles me is that she was ABLE to do this, without any process whatsoever. After the Assembly the NVDA proposal was brought to the Steering Committee where there was a vote on it. This provided a post hoc veneer of democratic process. It was a pretty thin veneer. Leslie had made a backroom deal that essentially circumvented the assembly altogether. I think, in retrospect, it was a Faustian bargain for all concerned. Had I been a delegate who voted against the NVDA I would have been very surprised to see it created - despite the proposal being defeated on the floor of the assembly by what was supposed to be a democratic process. The fact that the national coordinator was able to reintroduce a defeated proposal to the steering committee is problematic in terms of process but the fact that she negotiated with me using this as a bargaining chip, guaranteeing its passage, would seem to be an even larger issue. (The fact that this deal was struck in order to prevent public scrutiny of alleged voting irregularities is also an issue worthy of further examination).
Even though UFPJ-NYC is not a national body (UFPJ has a Steering Committee which meets monthly via teleconference and presently has 42 members) it is very influential. It meets in the UFPJ national office and 2 members of the Administrative Committee (a subset of the Steering Committee which meets biweekly and is UFPJ's most powerful body) rotate facilitation of the meetings. In addition to this, Leslie Cagan, the national coordinator, frequently sat in on the UFPJ-NYC meetings I attended...

The Communist Party is a major player in UFPJ New York. This is a mixed blessing - on the one hand the administrative expertise and resources are very valuable. On the other hand, the legacy of Gus Hall and the years of democratic centralism being abused by CP leadership (which came to a head in 1991 at the 25th National Convention where 1/3 of the Party was expelled by Gus Hall - the expelled becoming the nucleus of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism) has produced something that those of us who were once in the CPUSA call "CP Style". For the uninitiated, this is an organizational style that is not particularly subtle about being top down. It is my understanding that Sam Webb, the CP's current chair, is invested in making the CP a more democratic organization (and perhaps he has succeeded, I wouldn't know) but they have yet to jettison democratic centralism, i.e., Leninism. Judith LeBlanc, in her capacity as UFPJ admin committee member, once remarked in a UFPJ-NYC meeting that the role of the CP was critical in UFPJ as "when you say Communist Party" people know what you mean - "it has name recognition." Setting aside the issue of whether or not this name recognition is always positive, this is an interesting point as UFPJ is big on name recognition and sucks in a fair number of celebrities which it then husbands as a resource. Brian Flanagan once remarked that the Democratic Party is like "a black hole with an event horizon surrounding it" that sucks in peace activists who are "never to be seen again" {3} - this could well describe UFPJ as it is presently constituted. Indeed, it is my view that organizers as well as celebrities are sucked into UFPJ and become "resources" (in the case of skilled organizers they are all too often treated as go-fers - Jim Crutchfield, a member of the IWW General Executive Board, attended a UFPJ NYC meeting in 2003 where "everybody sat in a big circle and talked for hours, and then four people made all the decisions after the meeting." This is very similar to my experience). Whether or not this approach was influenced by the CP is anyone's guess but there is a striking similarity in terms of the management of human resources between UFPJ today and the CP of the 1980s. It is significant that two of the most influential officers in UFPJ: Judith LeBlanc and Leslie Cagan, are vice-chair of the Communist Party and co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism, respectively.

It became clear to Sam and I, as we attended UFPJ NYC CC meetings, that they bore the hallmarks of top down organizational model. In the course of struggling for acceptance of direct action we began to notice that agendas appeared to be preset and that agenda changes were not encouraged due to the ever present urgency of some upcoming meeting or event. We also noticed that no minutes were ever distributed to attendees. There was a weekly email but it did not contain the previous week's minutes - it focused on announcements. Sam and I began to joke that, even though we had not signed enlistment papers, we were becoming foot soldiers in "CP-UFPJ". This was all sort of acceptable until the CC began having "Citywide Mobilization" meetings. These were held at 23rd Street, in the Communist Party's building which once housed the Daily World and the storefront Unity Book Store, now an artists' supply shop. Sam and I attended the meeting but it became obvious that there was little planning happening...this was really an opportunity for UFPJ to pass the hat - my first exposure to just how relentless UFPJ fundraising can be. It is my contention now that they differ little from any capitalist charity in that over one third of the annual revenue ($288,000 of $800,000 in 2004 {4}) goes to payroll. This is an astounding sum for most Leftists used to running their organizations with volunteer staff and a shoestring budget. Why is the budget so large? Clearly, maintaining the budget dictates the need for constant fundraising - but where is the public accounting of where the money goes? The balance sheet available on the UFPJ website is somewhat lacking in terms of specifics.
The M19 civil disobedience went well for the War Resisters League. A couple dozen of us were arrested at Times Square. Both Reverend Sekou and Leslie Cagan of UFPJ showed up at Times Square - to urge us on, not to risk arrest. I was pleased to see them, especially Sekou as, although he is a cleric and I have a secular orientation, he is a rank and file organizer, a straight shooter and a very likeable and committed activist. As I was loaded into the police van with my fellow arrestees I saw Leslie being interviewed by a TV crew. The media frenzy at Times Square was in part orchestrated by Bill Dobbs, UFPJ's masterful media person (Bill has an acerbic wit and is as likeable for his candor as he is valuable for his skill). Sitting at the Seventh Precinct I had time to reflect on my being in a dingy little cell with 3 other comrades and Leslie being on TV, speaking about OUR action - which got almost no support from UFPJ other than from Bill. Despite my gratitude for Leslie coming to our CD I was simultaneously angered that UFPJ would, perhaps unintentionally, co-opt it...while doing little to help build it. I had tried several times to post our call to action on the UFPJ NYC listserv and although no posts were bounced, none appeared on the list - this sort of thing is common in UFPJ as the centralization and hoarding of all resources, including information, is clearly a serious issue for anti-authoritarians concerned with democratic process. UFPJ's co-optation of the action was, in my view, very similar to what they often accuse ANSWER of doing. (UFPJ's criticisms of ANSWER, which we took at face value in CC meetings, was that they are impossible to work with as they argue over everything from major issues down to font size on fliers - and that they take credit for the actions of others).
Our WRL April Action was a Tax Day vigil outside the Internal Revenue Service. It was another successful action, again with no visible UFPJ presence...despite my agitating for assistance in the context of our weekly NYC CC meetings. Again, no listserv announcements made it through, no announcements at the citywide pass the hat meeting reached our friends in the Movement and yet the action was a success. I began to wonder what I was doing suffering through the UFPJ meetings at which I had little input and was simply there to be assigned a task for an upcoming UFPJ meeting or event...on some occasions the meetings were indeed hard to sit through. One of the issues confronting UFPJ is the lack of diversity, in terms of racial composition, in its officers and constituents. Obviously, UFPJ appeals to middle America with its focus on legislative action and attempts to find a lowest common denominator in terms of positions. This has an impact on diversity. Yet this fact seems to elude UFPJ officers...

During one of the last UFPJ NYC CC meetings I attended, Judith was center stage complaining about the lack of diversity in the assembled activists. She pointed out more than once that she was the "only person of color in the room" and that this had to change, we had to reach out to communities of color. Unfortunately, she did not indicate that UFPJ was going to take political positions (e.g. on Palestine) that would allow us to attract a more diverse group. Judith was again stating she was "the only person of color here" when Sam Morales spoke, reminding Judith that he was Puerto Rican and knew all about discrimination from firsthand experience. Judith didn't miss a beat, continuing on to her next point. I was left wondering if her idea of outreach to communities of color consisted solely of getting big names like Danny Glover to speak at UFPJ fundraisers (Danny spoke eloquently at the National Assembly but UFPJ's celeb envy is highly problematic). What struck me was that Sam, the rank and file organizer, was almost invisible to Judith. I was dismayed by this as I believe that the myopic view she espoused is not an isolated phenomenon: there is an authoritarian hierarchy within UFPJ wherein steering committee members alone have the right to lecture the faithful on the evils of white supremacy (which none of the rank and file dispute and in fact address in our political work) even when their own political positions reinforce it.
Steve and I posted our Unity Proposal to the NVDA working group email listserv feeling cautiously optimistic. To my dismay, Leslie Cagan immediately wrote in essentially saying that UFPJ had agreed to direct action, this was a big step and why did we have to have an autonomous component? {5} My response to her note was to indicate that I did not feel it appropriate that the national coordinator of a very hierarchical organization should use her position to kill off a democratic initiative that was an attempt to find common ground. (Shades of St. Louis...) Leslie replied, arguing that her power had been overstated in my note. {6} I had some difficulty accepting this assertion, however, it did not surprise me. UFPJ has never been big on self criticism. And all of this was occurring at a time when: UFPJ was under fire for refusing to include support of the (Palestinian) right of return in their Mobilization slogans (from Mahdi Brae and others) and from some of its conservative members for even considering this; ANSWER and UFPJ were both organizing separate marches on the same day in DC; CALC had a minor controversy (Sekou had invited the Dalai Lama to speak at the Mobe without consulting the CALC rank and file), and; anti-authoritarian members of the coalition were decrying the lack of democracy within UFPJ (rumblings in DAWN and other concerned parties were getting louder).
After the Mobilization, many of us in September Action, the NVDA caucus turned autonomous collective, struggled with the issue of whether to work with United for Peace and Justice. I have come to accept the position of Jim Macdonald, a DAWN organizer and fellow founding member of September Action. Jim has argued that we must work with UFPJ, continuing to speak truth to power even though this promises to be a very difficult task. {10} Believing that Jim's analysis is correct, I have resigned myself to the fact that, just as the IWW seeks to build a new society in the shell of the old {11}, we must seek to democratize the Old Left by building the Next Left in its corridors. And so, grumbling all the way, I will continue to agitate for reform within UFPJ, this time from the outside, while simultaneously looking to build a new organizational model external to UFPJ wherein participatory democracy and direct action inform our approach. Each member of September Action will have to decide this question individually, as a matter of conscience. The collective has no stated position on this issue. It is my personal conviction that the struggle to define a new organizing model and the struggle for democratization of the organization that claims to speak for the mainstream anti-war movement are both essential components of a dialectic whose synthesis holds out the promise of a stronger movement for peace and progress.

Anti-authoritarians who have spent long hours building the UFPJ coalition and its actions now feel trapped in what has become an entrenched system. In private conversation with other activists on the libertarian Left I have called this system Social Democratic Centralism. This treacherous pun encapsulates the following alleged attributes of UFPJ: a corporate liberal agenda; an anti-democratic (Leninist) organizational model, and; the careerist impulse of an upper echelon preoccupied with self preservation and self promotion. It is my belief that United for Peace and Justice must perform a serious self examination prior to the next National Assembly if it is to survive peace in Iraq. The American war in Viet Nam also seemed never ending to those resisting it but 30 years ago it did come to a close and the peace movement stumbled badly - this mistake should not be repeated. The intensely bureaucratic organizational model of UFPJ stifles creativity, simultaneously hoards and squanders resources, and alienates anti-authoritarian activists and people of color. UFPJ needs to look at why this is so and to explore possible corrective action in order to redefine itself as an organization that embraces participatory democracy and has an agenda that ensures the struggle for justice will continue after the Iraq War is ended.
*** is my view that UFPJ and ANSWER share a common, bureaucratic, organizational model, albeit each with its own unique features. Both organizations are administered by what I would term Peace Bureaucrats: for all of their assertions to the contrary, in its internal functioning UFPJ is not that dissimilar from ANSWER - it is top down and the administrative committee can overrule decisions made at the level of the steering committee. The national coordinator wields influence not unlike a Leninist general secretary or chair and, armed with "name recognition" (the net result of celebrity envy), is certainly equipped to use the cult of personality as necessary to influence decisions. {12}
{12}The CPUSA (where Judith LeBlanc is Vice Chair) and CCDS (where Leslie Cagan is Co-Chair) are both Leninist organizations, one with a self described democratic centralist model (CP) and one with a de facto democratic centralist structure (CCDS). This should surprise no one familiar with the history of the US Left as CCDS was formed via a split (the CP members who signed Angela Davis' letter - the "Initiative" - were expelled from the CP in 1991 and went on to found CCDS).

(Whether or not this occurs is arguable. I witnessed what seemed to be unilateral administrative decisions overruling plenary votes in St. Louis and an attempt to quash a motion on the NVDA listserv. It is my opinion this sort of thing does go on and the office of national coordinator should be abolished or its power curtailed by some rudimentary sanity checks).

In speaking with various steering committee members, and based on my experiences working within UFPJ, it has become clear that, contrary to UFPJ's Structure and Functioning document, which defines the Steering Committee as the highest decision making body, the real power resides in the Administrative Committee. Within the Administrative Committee, the national coordinator and co-chairs make the lion's share of decisions. Thus what I've experienced at the level of the NYC CC appears to be true of the steering committee as well: power is concentrated in a very small number of hands; decisions arrived at by democratic process (voted on at the National Assembly) appear to be discarded or overturned; no minutes from Steering or Admin Committees are published on the UFPJ website or distributed to member groups. There is precious little transparency or accountability to member groups. The fact that the national coordinator and a co-chair are officers of organizations with Leninist organizational models is possibly a factor...

The democratization of UFPJ is an interesting puzzle because, although UFPJ is run in what appears to be a highly bureaucratic, centralized manner, its constituents would be appalled to be called either "communist" or "democratic centralist". What's more, despite the fact that many affiliates willingly submit to an arguably anti-democratic organizational model, they voice objections to many of its decisions if not its overall direction (or lack thereof). This is not unlike the American electoral system which UFPJ is, superficially at least, wedded to: many Americans appear to regard democratizing "democracy" as impossible and decline to challenge the apparently immovable bureaucracy. And so it is in UFPJ as well: the members rarely challenge the bureaucracy which clings to a corporate liberal agenda which in turn fails to challenge the war machine head on.

...There is some, at least stated, anxiety within UFPJ over alienating the base which is presumed to be centrist. There is a feeling among the libertarian Left wing of UFPJ that the organization's desire to be a one size fits all coalition is at the root of the diversity issue identified by ANSWER. UFPJ's hesitation to take a principled stand out of concern that it might anger centrists (and their corporate liberal friends in Congress) doubtless alienates marginalized groups that will not join a coalition that refuses to even pay lip service to their concerns.

When looking at the UFPJ/ANSWER duality it is interesting to read the memorandum of understanding between UFPJ and ANSWER issued prior to the joint rally and march that occurred on September 24, 2005. In the document, specific slogans to be borne on banners in the march's lead contingent are described in detail. ANSWER announced its intent to use "anti-imperialist" slogans on their banners while UFPJ planned to use slogans that "address the war in Iraq and issues connected to that war". {14} ANSWER throws out the usual revolutionary slogans and other stirring rhetoric but is hampered in terms of PR by its symbiotic relationship with the Workers World Party which continues to defend the Soviet model. Meanwhile, UFPJ offers a familiar corporate liberalism, with demands that won't frighten its corporate apologist friends in Congress. Hence the lack of any slogans that go beyond "bring the troops home". It is my view that ANSWER will not be reformed. While there are doubtless many members of the coalition that are not Workers World cadre the organization is routinely referred to as a front group by independent leftists and I believe this is an accurate description although I will surely be called sectarian for saying publicly what many believe privately. That leaves one large coalition left to speak for the peace community that is not willing to be identified with vanguardist front groups. Unfortunately, this coalition speaks the language of corporate liberalism which many, myself included, regard as a dead end.

A Lack of Racial Diversity
Gupta writes:
[Barbara] Epstein points out that, "The problems of the anti-war movement are in many respects very much like the problems of the left as a whole." One of those problems is that the left has virtually no national presence at the moment other than UFPJ, so the anti-war coalition gets saddled with the responsibility of fixing many of the left's shortcomings. And perhaps the most persistent shortcoming is racial representation, which is all too evident within the anti-war movement.

According to a Gallup Poll taken in mid-November an astonishing 95 percent of blacks say the war as a mistake, yet one finds relatively few African Americans in attendance at the major demonstrations. Kamau Karl Franklin of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement argues that "Black people as a racial group are against the war more than any other group, but they’re not out there marching. Their priorities is issues in their community —housing, jobs." Franklin says, "Unless anti-war organizers can connect those issues to the war you’ll never get Black people out there in a meaningful way."

Epstein, somewhat unintentionally, highlights a key contradiction over race within the anti-war movement. She says one of the things "going very well" within UFPJ is that "the role of both women and people of color is improving dramatically. There are now a lot of people of color in the leadership of the organization." But then she admits that "the number of people of color involved" is lacking.

One former steering committee member with UFPJ contends the group tends toward tokenization. The member, who wished to remain anonymous, says there are a fair number of people of color on the steering committee, but "not many of them have ties to actual communities." With quotas for various categories—people of color, women, LGBT—there’s also a tendency in UFPJ to engage in "counting," seeing whether people fit diversity categories rather than if they are really rooted in the communities and the struggles they’re supposed to represent.

I would add that, while it is quite commonly argued among antiwar activists that we must link war abroad with domestic problems, it is far from obvious that opposing the Iraq War should take primacy over struggle against the injustices present within the U.S. It seems to me that strengthening our movement and attracting more lower income folks and people of color requires giving priority to an array of issues confronting U.S. citizens alongside the Iraq War.

Ultimately, however, the best way to demonstrate the flaws of UFPJ and the hierarchical organization models used by so much by the left is through the creation of large organizations that embody participatory democracy. I hope the above analysis of some of the flaws of UFPJ will assist in an understanding of what must be avoided if such groups are to be formed.
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Friday, March 24, 2006

Protests Target Draconian Immigration Measures

It's not France, but several areas of the U.S. have seen impressive numbers involved in protests regarding recent Congressional efforts to criminalize "illegal" immigration and build a wall along sections of the U.S.- Mexican border. High school students walked out in Los Angeles, workers stayed home in Georgia, and some 300,000 marched in Chicago. Such signs of hope in a heavily depoliticized society are regrettably few and far between.

Haitian children face greatest challenges to life in Western Hemisphere

"Haitian children face greatest challenges to life in Western Hemisphere" announced a United Nations press release on Wednesday.
More children are likely to die during early childhood in Haiti than in any other country in the Western Hemisphere, with one in eight likely to succumb before the age of five, according to a United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) report released today.

The UNICEF Country Representative for Haiti, Adriano Gonzalez-Regueral, said that,
While Haiti accounts for only two per cent of births in Latin America and the Caribbean, it accounts for 19 per cent of deaths for children under five. It has by far the highest death rates for children under five, with 117 children dying for every 1,000 births.
He praised the "public commitment" of the incoming president, Rene Preval (whom the U.S. opposed), "to improving the lives of Haiti's children." The comment implicitly contrasts Preval with the U.S. steward, in power since Aristide was compelled to leave by Western powers in February 2004.


Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Denying the Vote to Puerto Rico

The BBC reports on a challenge lodged by residents of Puerto Rico seeking to vote in U.S. presidential elections:
The US Supreme Court has rejected an attempt to give residents of the territory of Puerto Rico the right to vote in US presidential elections.
Attorney Gregorio Igartua, who filed the appeal, said the citizens of Puerto Rico "have been unfairly treated" for more than a century.
He complained that residents have "an inferior type of American citizenship."

While the article goes on to mention low support in Puerto Rico for independence from the U.S. - there are some fringe economic (and migration) benefits to being on the periphery of the empire, after all - the U.S. itself clearly has a long way to go in recognizing the implications of its annexation-happy past. Puerto Ricans living in the mainland U.S. are routinely denied the opportunity to vote with Spanish-language ballots, despite being U.S. citizens - a clear violation of voting rights as supposedly protected in the Constitution. And just as Puerto Ricans themselves are often excluded from the world-renowned U.S. democratic process, the island finds itself with nothing but a token voice in Washington. Such is the fate of a people annexed to be canon fodder for further U.S. military adventures.

[Court denies Puerto Rico US vote, BBC, 21 March 2006]

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Selective Attention to Narcotrafficking

The BBC reports that:
The Colombian authorities have seized a shipment of cocaine with a street value of $540m (£300m) on board a ship in the Caribbean port of Cartagena.
The cocaine was thought to belong to the main right-wing paramilitary group, the AUC.
Important to remember is that U.S. intervention in Colombia is largely predicated on the basis of the ever-successful "War on Drugs." Yet while the AUC is known for its involvement in narcotrafficking and is rightfully on the U.S. State Department's lists of terrorist organizations for its widespread human rights abuses, it's also widely believed by human rights groups to be linked to elements of the right-wing Colombian government itself - the same Uribe administration that receives more foreign aid from the U.S. than any government in the world, outside of Israel and Egypt. Not surprisingly, a close correlation between U.S. aid and human rights abuses is readily evident.

Now if only the FARC had done it, it would be of propaganda value to Washington.

[Colombia makes $540m cocaine haul, BBC, 19 March 2006]

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Crash: A Liberal Wreckage

With the recent Best Picture award at the Oscars going to Crash, I feel the need to review a movie I found boring and rather annoying. This might seem an unusual departure from the normal subjects of this blog but I think the acclaim Crash has received indicates something about the limited understanding of race in this country.

The film fails on both an artistic and a political level. Artistically, Crash is "crudely manipulative," as A.O. Scott wrote for the New York Times. The director,
Mr. Haggis[,] is eager to show the complexities of his many characters, which means that each one will show exactly two sides. A racist white police officer will turn out to be physically courageous and devoted to his ailing father; his sensitive white partner will engage in some deadly racial profiling; a young black man who sees racial profiling everywhere will turn out to be a carjacker; a wealthy, mild-mannered black man will pull out a gun and start screaming. No one is innocent. There's good and bad in everyone.
[May 6, 2005]

The characters feel inauthentic and the plot is implausible and contrived. It might be possible to overlook all of this if the message was actually compelling but unfortunately, it's not.

Politically, Crash suffers from portraying racism as predominantly a problem of individual prejudice. There is little indication that it has any systemic roots. In actuality of course both factors are integral, which is what makes it so enduring.

I can't say I'm surprised the Academy missed these subtleties. Hollywood may be famously liberal - but it's the liberalism of the elite. Roger Ebert was so impressed with the film he called it the year's best film and even implied it has the possibility of making its audiences better people.
["In defense of the year's 'worst movie'," January 8, 2006]

Thandie Newton, just one of the film's many famous actors, said of the script of Crash that it showed:
that racism was just a tool to deal with frustration and pain. That we were in denial about the way we feel and desperately trying to control their environment the way their lives are. And, ultimately, their scapegoats aren't going to make them feel better. It's just going to increase hatred and the problem gets worse and worse. That's what's so wonderful about the film is that it allows you to see their motivation and to see that behind the aggressive cop is a man in pain. Behind the frustrated housewife is a woman who feels betrayed. You see the motivation, which is so much more valuable than the stereotypes that we usually see in the movies. Racism is just one piece to the whole puzzle that the film offers.
["Matt Dillon and Thandie Newton Discuss 'Crash'," Rebecca Murray, Your Guide to Hollywood Movies]

All of this is well and good and might be the basis for a fine movie if it wasn't so poorly executed.

As film critic Scott Foundas harshly writes:
...Crash is an Important Film About the Times in Which We Live, which is another way of saying that it's one of those self-congratulatory liberal jerk-off movies that rolls around every once in a while to remind us of how white people suffer too, how nobody is without his prejudices, and how, when the going gets tough, even the white supremacist cop who gets his kicks from sexually harassing innocent black motorists is capable of rising to the occasion. How touching. Haggis is trafficking in much the same territory here as Michael Haneke is in Cache, only he lacks the guts to pull out his paring knife and fillet his bourgeois characters with the mercilessness they deserve.
["The Movie Club 2005,", Dec. 29, 2005]

The movie is ultimately, as Scott observes, "profoundly complacent in spite of its intention to unsettle and disturb."

Jeff Chang and Sylvia Chan, cultural critics for Alternet, make some very insightful comments which I'll excerpt at length:
JC: ...we have to go back to the 80s. After the blaxploitation era, a particular kind of race movie really took off: stories that were essentially about blacks or people of color redeeming whites. Start with Spielberg and "The Color Purple" and move on to "Mississippi Burning," "Cry Freedom," "Driving Miss Daisy." "Grand Canyon" is the crowning point of this genre.
SC: It continues to now with "Monster's Ball."
JC: And let's please ignore most of Queen Latifah's recent work. At the end of the 80s, Spike Lee says that he wrote "Do The Right Thing" to confront exactly this kind of movie. In turn, "Do The Right Thing" opened up the door to Black films being financed by the major studios, a trend that accelerated after the Los Angeles riots in 1992.
SC: Ludacris' character Anthony is the most ridiculous kind of black nationalist. He looks like a fool most of the time. Then it turns out he's a criminal, too. Radical thought has to be associated with petty criminality. It parallels how radical thought was criminalized in the American justice system during the Reagan era.
JC: During the 60s, Tom Wolfe portrayed black and Samoan activists in San Francisco and New York City as race hustlers and poverty pimps in "[Radical Chic and] Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers." Anthony is just an update of a kind of 60s white liberal take on radicals of color.
He is redeemed at the end of the movie, after taking a lesson from the Terence Howard's bourgeoisie, white-identifying black director Cameron, who sheds his Oreo aspirations by confronting the police harder than Anthony ever would. Anthony then goes on to free the Thai slave workers.
JC: The main reversal of the movie is when Officer Ryan, who humiliates Cameron's light-skinned wife Christine (Thandie Newton), is forced to save her from a burning car. He learns that he can't blame his problems on blacks, or take it out on them. He needs them to save his father and himself.
SC: Bringing it back to this post 9/11 moment, "Crash" is coming out during a time of war. Our nation is in "crisis," we have a "deeply divided nation," as the media keeps telling us. When "Grand Canyon," and one of the first white liberal Hollywood movies, "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner," were released, the nation was at war. Times of crisis and war are when whites have the strongest desire for reconciliation with blacks, when blackness is most desired as part of a triumphant narrative of nation.
Don Cheadle's character is a type of black male protagonist who's very common these days: a proxy for the state, working against all the unruly elements of internal diversity and external threat. Think Denzel Washington in "The Siege," Will Smith in "Men In Black" and "Independence Day," Samuel L. Jackson in "Rules of Engagement," Morgan Freeman as the president in "Deep Impact." This is the type of narrative Hollywood needs to keep putting out there right now--the black man as the symbol for our nation, the guy who's going to provide order for not only the U.S., but for the world. And let's be real: this isn't happening in real life.
In the end, the film paints racism as a postmodern malaise where conflict happens because we don't touch each other except when we crash. That's bullshit. Racism is structural and institutional more than it is personal and sentimental.
JC: The pitch is go to see "Crash," then go home and ponder your prejudices. For some people it may do that. For a lot of people, though, it won't. It's the feel-good race hit movie of the summer.
["Can White Hollywood Get Race Right?," AlterNet, July 19, 2005]

So to amplify on Chan and Chang, the climactic dramatic moments of the film feature a racist white cop finding redemption in heroism and a "bourgeoisie, white-identifying black director" finding redemption in heroically opposing racism - and doing so more boldly than the poor black character (who only manages to follow his lead with some lesser heroics after a tongue lashing from his wealthier social better).

Why would a movie made by such a talented group of people that sincerely wishes to address racism fail so badly? Well, there are the obvious filters that tend to strain out anything too critical of the system: the movie is financed by huge corporations and many of those involved in making the film are themselves part of the elite. To this list one might also add a belief that audiences will prefer to be pandered to rather than challenged. Thus, to this way of thinking, the predominance of whites in this country means it is good business to always have white characters in leading roles (a strikingly consistent phenomenon; movies targeting specific niche markets like blacks are a separate category), often also male. In a liberal movie, the white character starts out flawed and a central element of the movie revolves around the growth of that character. Crash merely adds an additional element by letting the black middle-class get in on the fun too. There's always a danger of reading too much into fiction but I think these observations are at least plausible.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

On the 2006 Social Forum of the Americas

Lydia Sargent's report-back from the Americas World Social Forum mentions that:
On the morning of the fourth day, word of mouth indicated that Hugo Chavez was going to speak that evening, even though the program listed him as apearing (sic) two days later. We were hustled onto a bus of "important guests" for a 30-minute ride to an indoor stadium. There we were split into more "important guests" who were taken to a room to wait for a quick meeting with Chavez and the "less important guests" (us) who were taken to a special section on the stadium floor.

This sort of tendency within the organizing of the forum is troubling as it belies an anti-democratic, elitist streak. Organizing a massive event such as this is no doubt a major challenge and I don't want to impugn the intentions of the organizers. Often when faced with the need to accomplish something quickly (Chavez wants to meet with luminaries at the Social Forum - how do we decide who gets to sit down with him? It's far easier to simply pick some of the best known individuals than to consider other, less obvious options such as a lottery.) It is easiest to fall back on established practices that we're all familiar with from being immersed in hierarchical societies. Even consciously anti-Leninist activists can make these mistakes. What is needed is more conscious awareness and acceptance of the importance of non-hierarchical organizing.

Incidentally, I agree with Sargent that "organizing a movement and continuing a forum structure" can and should be done simultaneously. No forced unity on how to build a movement is necessary. It is to be expected that differing factions will arise over how best to build movements. What is important is that they continue to work together in the large areas where they are in agreement and maintain fraternal discussions in those areas of disagreement. All of this is far easier said than done of course.
[The Social Forum of the Americas, ZMag, March 2006]