Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Coming Together to Prevent Disaster

Our city council has dealt with many issues in the past, but few present more danger to us than the “Southside Connecter” gas pipeline project. For months this project has been publicly promoted as a distribution line supplying needed natural gas to our area with the promise of added jobs. Neither claim is true. This is a high-pressure transmission pipeline carrying methane, produced by geologically destructive and polluting fracking, through highly populated neighborhoods in Chesapeake and Norfolk. This gas is for export rather than for local use.

I learned a great deal about this project from experts at a public forum hosted by a large citizen's group calling itself the 757 Pipeline Safety Coalition. Participating groups in this coalition are Collana's Shipyard and groups including, the Sunrise Hill Civic League, Mothers Out Front, Southside Taskforce, Chesapeake Pipeline Resistance and the Hampton Roads Green Party. I was particularly impressed by the detailed information provided by pipeline expert, Richard B. Kuprewicz. Mr. Kuprewicz's resume includes being an engineer with decades of experience on pipelines. He has worked for ARCO (Atlantic Richfield Co.), the Four Corners Pipeline Company, and has served on an executive committee advising Congress on a report culminating in new rules concerning pipeline safety. As President of Accufacts, Inc. he is a pipeline regulatory adviser, incident investigator, and expert witness on all matters related to gas and liquid pipeline design, operation, maintenance, risk analysis, and management. Given his expertise, I thought he was in a good position to clarify the issue for us. I asked him the following questions which he generously answered.

How did you hear about and become involved with the 757 Pipeline Safety Coalition?
An attorney for Colonna Shipyard called me around mid-October of this year seeking specialized pipeline technical experience and expertise. I believe he got my name from the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nationally recognized pipeline safety organization, headquartered in Bellingham, WA. I usually am contacted via word of mouth as I don’t advertise and don’t need additional business, given the many pipeline failure investigations and other matters I have been involved with. I’m not part of the Pipeline Safety Trust but I have much respect for that organization. I take my obligations to remain neutral and objective in pipeline matters very seriously.

The Southside Connector Project is being sold to the public as a distribution pipeline which will augment local gas supplies, create jobs, and boost our local economy. What is the reality and what issues most concern you about this project?
The Southside Connector is being sold as a distribution pipeline and it wasn’t until representatives for VNG (Virginia Natural Gas) under oath testified to the real nature of the operation. It will be a high pressure natural gas transmission pipeline. The VNG presentations as a distribution pipeline are very deceiving and in all probability violate federal pipeline safety regulations in this important area. Transmission pipelines, unlike distribution pipelines, are easily capable of rupture resulting in large multi-explosion fireballs that can affect a very large area, especially in a high occupancy area like Norfolk. The continued deceptions, PR spin and failure to be straight and completely truthful on specific technical pipeline safety matters concerning the Southside Connector Project by VNG and its representatives raises serious red flags about this company and the project if rupture is to be avoided. Based on my extensive experience with gas transmission pipelines across the country, the need for this pipeline to meet consumer gas demands within Norfolk and Chesapeake are being gravely misrepresented and overstated. When I see such technical misstatements and inability to tell the truth and nothing but the truth about a transmission pipeline, it does not speak well about the future safe operation of this pipeline, and significantly raises the risk. I don’t make this statement lightly!

What are the dangers posed by this pipeline and its planned route through heavily populated areas of Chesapeake and Norfolk?
Transmission pipelines unlike lower pressure distribution pipelines can rupture with very large blast and heat impact zones. First Responders will not be able to enter such large rupture impact zones for quite some time. The impact of rupture in these highly populated cities will result in many billions of dollars of loss as well as much loss of life. The spin I keep hearing from VNG does not instill confidence with me that they really know what they are doing. The rush to finish a project should not justify doing such an effort recklessly.

What actions do you, and the 757 Pipeline Safety Coalition, feel local city leaders should take to protect public safety?
Have a properly scheduled technical meeting of all parties with no lawyers or PR folks, and with people who can answer specific technical questions about this Project. Commit to possible technical changes that may be warranted to assure proper routing, placement, and operator control of this system if it goes into operation as a transmission pipeline. Otherwise, drop the proposed Project to distribution pipeline pressures (something well below 500 psi) though that needs to be confirmed with VNG given all the misleading information they have been putting out on this Project.

I'm thankful to Mr. Kuprewicz for helping us understand the facts. He is not the only expert wary of this dangerous pipeline. Jim Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board with nearly 20 years experience as a safety consultant stated recently in the Virginian Pilot, “In the case of the Southside Connector, the high-pressure pipeline that Virginia Natural Gas wants to build right through the middle of the city of Norfolk, it's unusual that the pipeline and all its risks, will be introduced into a community that already exists. In fact, I have never seen a similar case. If allowed to be completed, the pipeline will transmit up to 1,250 pounds of pressure per square inch of natural gas right down Norfolk streets. I have driven the route of the pipeline, and I can see that it passes just a few feet in front of churches and schools.”

And pipelines like this do explode. Examples include Moundsville, W. Virginia, Heston, KS, San Bruno, CA, Madison WI, Paradis, LA, Midland County, TX and many, many others – just in the last year. And we are talking about major, devastating fireball explosions with multiple casualties.

The Southside Connector leaves much of our city and downtown within the blast zone. It runs close to schools, churches and homes. It is planned to run through Collana's shipyard at only 3 feet below ground, endangering Navy ships being worked on and presenting us with an imminent danger. It is no surprise that, like other dangerous and polluting projects, it runs primarily through Black and poor areas.

I was glad to see an overflow crowd at the City Council meeting on November 20th and to see so many concerned citizens coming together. Many Berkeley residents spoke of having been misinformed, having water and power cut off without warning and being concerned about the danger of inadvertent explosive pipeline breaches from sewer repairs or roadwork. At one point, former NTSP chairman Jim Hall stated that he did not believe the city council would have made the decision to proceed if they had the needed information. Councilman Riddick proposed that the project be put on hold before being cut off by City Attorney Bernard Pishko who stated that they had sought the advice of experts assuring the safety of the pipeline. Apparently, he was referring to the “independent expert” he personally hired who, as it turned out, had done work for Virginia Natural Gas. Mayor Alexander has since stated that “It’s clear he should not have done that. He wasn’t neutral and detached as he should have been so the council could get an unbiased opinion.”

As I said to our city leaders that evening, the presence of this pipeline and the imminent danger it presents will have a negative impact on the property values upon which city revenue depend and will harm efforts to attract business to our area. Responsible leadership requires that they put public safety first. In spite of denials, they have the power, as spelled out in the easement agreement they signed, to put a stop to this project for public safety reasons. What the 757 Pipeline Safety Coalition is asking for is a 1 year stoppage pending independent studies on technical safety, routing issues and public safety. Given the concerns voiced by experts and the level of danger this pipeline presents, it would be gross irresponsibility to do less.

At the end of that council meeting, Mayor Alexander chastised VNG, stating that they need to be more forthcoming and honest about the nature of this pipeline. On November 27, the Pilot reported that due to the conflict of interests of the “independent expert” City Attorney Pishko hired, they will seek further analysis and advice. One hopes they listen to the actual, independent experts I've quoted.

You too can get involved by going to the 757 Pipeline Safety Coalition website and signing the petition. You can also call Mayor Alexander at (757) 664-4679. Together, we can stop this dangerous, unneeded pipeline and protect ourselves and our city.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Divided and Conquered? Roger and Us

Beyond the midterms, we have reached a dangerous divide in our country. People live in fear of voicing opinions in public. Family ties are damaged by political differences and, as recent events demonstrate, violence and hate-based terror are on the rise. We are headed down a dangerous path that can devolve into the deadly chaos we've witnessed in places like Sarajevo or Syria. Much blame can be laid on the racist opportunism and hyper-nationalism of the Trump administration but the reality is that Trump is the product more than the cause.

So how did we, a nation whose citizens share common ground on many issues that effect us, get to this point? Much of this can be laid at the feet of a very few individuals. Individuals who understood the power of culture to shape our identity and our perceptions. Individuals who understand media. Individuals with an agenda. One such individual – and no doubt, the person most responsible for the divide rending our social fabric and national politics – is Roger Ailes. I've said many times, to the chagrin of like-minded friends, that Ailes, the most successful propagandist in our history, was a genius. Admittedly, as a writer who does my best to inspire critical thought, and, through my publishing efforts with the Blue Collar Review and my Veer column to influence our cultural perspective, I admire the talent, insight and success of Roger Ailes. At the same time, I realize what an evil monster he was and tremble at the damage he has wrought.

Roger Ailes was a master of propaganda who advised and helped elect, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, both Bushes, Donald Trump and many Congressional Republicans. He was central in reshaping the GOP, moving it to the extreme right. But his biggest and most influential role came in linking up with Rupert Murdoch to found and expand FOX “news.” FOX is directly connected with corporate think tanks and lobbying groups like “The Franklin Center” funded by the Koch brothers and the influential American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). In consistently dispensing divisive partisan misinformation, Ailes managed to warp the minds of a significant number of Americans. His biggest triumph was the tribalization of politics beyond issues, based on fear, xenophobia and hate, echoing the racist, paranoiac John Birch Society of a previous era, (founded not coincidentally by Charles Koch, father of the Koch brothers). The steady stream of propaganda emanating from right-wing media diverts real resentments based in failed neoliberal economic policy, twisting righteous anger from solutions to the nurturing of xenophobic scapegoating and misplaced, self-defeating rage. The right-wing linkage with TV Evangelists and the partisan distortinng of fundamentalist Christianity have been central to the building of an extremist base as well. This hearkens back to the church-state unity of the old world which fostered bloody pogroms and internecine oppression and is inseparable from the anti-Semitism that is endemic to our country. This is an old ruse with a bloody historic trail which leads to sociopathic, often violent behavior, massive human rights abuses and eventually, genocide. We are witness to the growing results in recent events.

Trump, with the help of FOX, which had preened his rise, and the backing of a global billionaire cabal including the Saudis, the UAE, Israel, Russia and domestic extremists, tapped into the misinformed tribal base cultivated by Roger Ailes’ FOX project and related talk-radio. Trump is the inevitable product of this project to empower a neo-fascist, corporate-dominant autocracy. Long after he is gone from the political scene, the ugly division Ailes has empowered will still be with us and will have to be dealt with unless the broadcasting of blatant misinformation and the rise in violent racist terror isn't confronted soon.

The resulting rise in the popularity of FOX and the right-wing disinformation machine shaped mainstream corporate media as well. In response to partisan attacks, NPR moved to the center-right. CNN and especially MSNBC, while closer than FOX to facts, are the Democratic party equivalents, pushing neo-liberal policy and neo-con aggressions as well as attacks on Trump in a similar divisive and tribalizing manor. They too have fallen under the influence of Roger Ailes in technique. Even the hit ads in the recent midterm elections – from both parties – echo Ailes. For example, when Mitch McConnell was first running for office, Roger Ailes made a commercial for him in which he was fishing which helped get him elected. In the recent midterms a commercial showed Elaine Luria fishing in a remake of this Ailes piece. Though Democrats have somewhat better social priorities, both corporate parties serve big business interests. Keeping us divided disempowers us as citizens, protecting moneyed interests that would otherwise be challenged for doing things that would not be popular to an informed and more united majority.

A documentary on Roger Ailes called “Divide and Conquer" has recently come out. I find this film problematic in that it tries too hard to be fair and balanced, focusing on Ailes's paranoia and sexual bullying rather than examining the damage wrought on the country by his tribalizing of politics. It is still worth seeing to get some insight into Ailes and the FOX phenomenon.

Beyond the growing, essentially phony partisan divide cultivated at our mutual expense, there are the rest of us. As I have written before, we as citizens have far more common ground than we have disagreement. We all want basic security, economic opportunity, good schools, safe food and water, freedom and real representation. We all oppose corruption and public thievery at our expense. Beyond promoted fears, we need to accept that there is no “them,” just us. We are all dependent on each other, on a livable environment and a functional civilization. Those who seek to divide us do so for their own agendas which are never in our mutual interest.

Ultimately, responsible citizenship requires our being informed, not just about our country but about the world around us. It means not getting our news from Facebook memes, or partisan sources that confirm our beliefs. We have to accept that there are facts and that solutions to problems can be argued about rationally. It means being willing to talk with and listen to people we disagree with about issues and events without seeing them as our enemies. Civilization, freedom, and the survival of a representative Republic depend on it.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

What's Happening?

The news, and what passes for news is an increasingly contentious subject in our divided country. Cries of “fake news” fly regularly from the white house and its sycophants like parrots in a panic. Though Obama had increased suppression of news and prosecuted whistle-blowers, he did so in support of a murderous global neocon agenda that has continued unabated across many administrations. Trump's attempts, including threats against major media companies, are more about defending his own megalomaniacal ego, his dictatorial fantasies, his never-ending campaign and his well-founded fears of the Mueller investigations.

It isn't just Trump that is attempting to limit and control what we see or to define what is authentic news. There are also attempts at censorship by big media because of the Russia-gate frenzy as we're seeing on Facebook and Google in their attempts to identify and shut down "fake news" and memes feared to be of Russian origin. Though the goal seems worthy, censorship is never unbiased and anything beyond the officially designated narrative is subject to being repressed. Beyond the outright libelous incitement of bigoted public hate-speech or graphic pornography, censorship of any kind is dangerous and an anathema to our freedom. Meanwhile, FOX and talk radio continue unabated in spreading blatant misinformation, often the opposite of truth. This continues the desired effect of tribalizing information and what is accepted as actual fact. As Hanna Arendt observed, when a fact cannot be denied outright, it can be converted to a mere opinion through the creation of false, ulterior “facts.” As she further wrote, “What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer.” Uncompromising tribal division and the crippling passivity of citizen cynicism leave power unchecked, undermining any chance of a truly representative, much less functional democratic republic.

This is not to agree that our corporate mainstream media steadily lies to us or creates “fake news” though the CIA has been known to plant lies via news wire services and the “expert sources” they provide are hardly trustworthy. In the case of the corporate media, the problem is more of omission – the news we do not hear or read. Samples of things you probably haven't read about or seen on TV include the toll of civilians, including children, killed in Yemen or Gaza with US weaponry, the real numbers of those killed by our drones, the behind the scenes stacking of our courts with right-wing ideologues, the ongoing strike against slave labor in our prisons, our growing military presence in Africa, the massive violent repression happening in India or the torture and narrow escape to our own country for medical help of Ugandan politician and musician Bobbi Wine. As a group of scientists recently complained, the true extent and speed of our growing climate disaster is under-reported. I'll bet you haven't heard of the "U.N. Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. This is a treaty to ban the use, possession or development of nuclear weapons. As of last July, 122 counties have voted to adopt the Treaty. Since then, 60 have signed it and 15 ratified it. When 50 ratify, it officially goes into effect. California recently approved it by resolution as well. Nuclear weapons can never be used without setting off a chain reaction that destroys life on earth. They are ridiculously expensive to maintain. Our government has begun a 30 year, $1.7 trillion overhaul of its entire nuclear weapons complex. Having and maintaining, much less upgrading such an arsenal only encourages proliferation by others in self defense, yet this gets no coverage in our mainstream media.

I recently attended a meeting with a representative from Tim Kaine's office, organized by the local Catholic Worker, at St. Andrews Episcopal Church in Ghent, to encourage his support of the UN treaty and to his working toward nuclear disarmament. While his representative was friendly and seemed interested, she admitted that Sen. Kaine was more concerned with “deterrence” and in an election year may not be voicing support for such a treaty. At present I am reading The Doomsday Machine by Daniel Ellsberg, one-time RAND employee involved in the inner circles of nuclear planning. Later, in partnership with Suffolk resident Tony Russo, he released the Pentagon Papers which exposed and helped end the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon's Presidency. The book describes how “deterrence” was a hoax. The plan was to strike first. It details an insane, insecure system and the many flaws and close calls with annihilation we have already had with nuclear weapons. We are closer to a nuclear exchange today, due to short-sighted, dangerous and unnecessary tensions including regional NATO expansion, poor back-channel communication, an unstable leadership, nuclear proliferation and threats of hacking, than any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis. You won't read about that in the New York Times or hear it on CNN.

So do we have a free press? Yes, we do – not the embedded corporate mainstream media but the reality that we have alternatives and institutions that monitor, fact check and correct them. Those of us who want to be informed know that it takes a little digging but, because we have a free press, the truth is available to us. The shrinking of coverage and news is evident to us locally in the withering away of our local paper. A good article explaining the Tronc effect (they bought the Pilot) can be found at one of the better media monitoring sites called the Columbia Journalism Review. That article is called A Tale of Two Companies.

Other places to find news, and I like to look at differing opinions in the search for what is true, are: The Intercept, The Guardian, The American Conservative, Mint News, Reveal, Duetche Welle, Al Jezeera, Common Dreams, Truth Out, The Real News, DemocracyNow!, Project Censored, FAIR, Consortium News and The Institute for Public Accuracy, among others, including this humble local culture magazine.

Ultimately, responsible citizenship requires being informed, not just about our country but about the world around us. This means not getting our news from Facebook memes or relying on a few sources that confirm our beliefs. It means questioning and double checking everything rather than censoring opinion or news foreign or domestic. It means being willing to talk with and listen to people we disagree with about issues and events. A free society and the survival of a representative Republic depend on this. A poem by Cliff Fyman, recently published in the Blue Collar Review, regarding a partisan gathering reads, If your name isn't on the table, you're probably on the menu. Whatever “side” you think you are on, it is vital that we explore all legitimate perspectives in our search for what is true. Competing partisan narratives, feel-good cathartic memes and news limited to diversion and twisted to absurdity only deepens our crisis and feeds the worst possibilities. In the search for what actually is, beyond ideology and illusory partisan loyalties, we cannot help but find common ground.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Finding Hope in Hard Times

This has been a tough time for me. News of Anthony Bourdain's suicide hit me particularly hard. Here was a man I could relate to, both as a cook who loved to create and to taste great food, and as someone who understood that there is no “them.” Bourdain allowed us to know him and to better understand people and cultures around the world. He personalized issues in a way rarely seen. But Bourdain's suicide was just a tipping point in my own recent spiral of depression.

It's what is happening to our country; the cultivated anger and division, the attacks on public protections and rights, the anti-climate insanity, the blatant racism and sexism at the top and its support by so many. Most painful is the brutal savaging of immigrants and their families. These are subjects I've written about and warned of for years in this space. Articles, some still on the Veer website as well as posted her detail the history and rise of our ugly side, of right-wing extremism, of fascism and the rise of Trump. You can honestly say you read it here first, not because I'm any kind of genius or seer. I have no crystal ball but I do a lot of reading and research including history and comparative news sources not limited to our country or to corporate media. Like Bourdain, I like to look below the surface in hope of understanding.

Veer magazine has been generous and patient enough to publish deeper social and political analysis amid the lighter articles – though I have been asked to keep it local and to give the immigrant issue a rest, as there was little interest. But the immigration issue has continued to become more alarming with Trump's so-called Zero Tolerance policy and the forced separation of children from parents – even infants and toddlers – and the incarceration of immigrants, Dreamers and refugees in brutal private gulags where forced work, rape and cruelty proliferate. Americans are now showing an interest.

Hopefully I'm not grasping at straws but maybe this is has sparked an awakening, a turning point that can snap us out of our feelings of national despair amid the constant mudslide of federal deconstruction, attacks on civil liberties and the alienation of our country from the world stage.

I was proud to join with other locals, and with decent Americans all across our nation on June 30th to stand with immigrants, against the barbarism of Trump's policies and of Immigration and Customs Enforcement or, ICE. Even as thousands of us demand the abolition of this increasingly fearsome militarized goon-squad with people camping out and occupying ICE facilities around the country, some officers within the agency have now added their voices to the growing call to dissolve it. As reported in the New York Times, in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, ICE agents proposed replacing ICE with a stand-alone investigations unit and another agency to handle immigration detention and deportation. The request was sent as a growing number of Democrats and immigration-rights advocates have called for eliminating ICE. They wrote, “local law enforcement officials have questioned the independence of their agency, given the Trump administration’s aggressive policies against illegal immigration — including arresting undocumented workers for minor offenses, such as driving without a license.”

Simply shifting agency names is insufficient. In the past, I have written several articles on racist police violence as well as interviews with immigrants in an attempt to counter racist scape-goating and to humanize refugees – to show that most, if not all refugee immigrants are the direct result of our own national policies, from “regime change” to support for brutal dictatorships and forced economic austerity around the world. Yet immigrants in our country, like minorities, continue to be scapegoated for the failed economic and foreign polices that exacerbate poverty and export torture, mass murder and war.

In our own country, we have a long history of ripping children from the families of Native Americans, sent to government-run boarding schools designed to “Americanize” them. Our racist courts regularly rip parents from the children of poor and Black families, from public assistance rules to the filling of our prisons with largely non-violent offenders. The terror of police violence, ICE roundups, persecution, and shameful human rights abuses are a continuation of past racist pogroms leading ultimately to genocides. But as shamefully present as the past and support for such monstrosity is, recent massive protests demonstrate that this is not who most of us are. What has been awakened by the disgraceful reality of children in cages is empathy and the realization, as Bourdain reminded us, that there is no “them,” only us. We are all humans trying to survive on this small, increasingly interdependent world.

As immense, nation-wide protests make clear, we too have zero tolerance. We cannot and will not tolerate systemic bigotry and the nightmare theft of children. We should not accept a foreign policy that exports human rights abuses and that creates refugees – the foreign policy that has been consistent across administrations since the 1950s and, following the corporate coup that installed Trump, is being applied to us as well.

To better understand the global forces behind Trump's ascension, you can find an excellent piece of investigative journalism online by Adam Entous, a Pulitzer winning journalist covering intelligence, national security, and foreign affairs, entitled, Donald Trump's New World Order. This article, published in the New Yorker magazine is a long a read detailing the new axis of power in the alliance of the US, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Arab Emirates. It also exposes the undue influence of American billionaires, most notably Sheldon Adelson, on our elections and on our body politic.

And money is, as Frank Zappa would put it, the crux of the biscuit. When the curtain is drawn back on all the nationalist rhetoric prominent on the extreme-right, what is revealed are the inseparably knotted tentacles of insatiable global corporate power.

Our only hope – and what helps me rise above my own feelings of hopeless depression – are the many good people who take citizenship, beyond partisan loyalties, national borders and mypoic nationalism, seriously. The people willing to take personal responsibility to struggle for authentic civilization and a livable future. People who understand that there is no “them” and no enemy but the ecocidal, warmongering rule of money. It is this we must resist. It is this we must ultimately abolish if we are to survive this century. Understanding our common-ground, our class interests and the forces that divide us can bring us together. And together, we are an unstoppable force. Thanks again to the many who care. You give me hope.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Labor and Democracy – An Inseparable Struggle

“All that harms labor is treason to America. If any man
tells you he loves America, yet hates labor, he is a liar.”

--Abraham Lincoln

Most, if not all of us spend much of our lives working for businesses. Most of us are all too familiar with the experience of working by the hour for wages, believing it has always been this way. Few are familiar with how we arrived at this way of living or of past struggles for things we take for granted at work like eight hour shifts, weekends or sick days. Our labor history as been erased from common knowledge. It has been censored from our schoolbooks and, like working class culture, all but banned from major media except for insulting caricatures.

How many reading this ever heard of William H. Sarvis, founder of the National Labor Union starting in the 1840s? Who remembers labor leaders like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Big Bill Haywood or William Z. Foster? How many are familiar with the literary contributions of the Lowell Mill Girls or Ira Stewart who began the long and bloody struggle for the eight-hour day? Who remembers the National Railroad Strike of the 1877 which gave birth to the National Guard? Few remember the steel strikes, the bloody repressions and fightbacks in the coal fields of Appalachia, the St. Louis Commune, the Ludlow Massacre, the Flint sit-down strikes or the Longshoreman organizing battles on the 1930s.

The history of labor in our republic cannot be separated from the struggle for civil rights. From the first decades of our country, labor was intimately connected to the abolitionist struggle against chattel slavery. Working people understood that they could not compete with slave labor and that the fates of all who toil are bound together. This remains true today as American workers find ourselves competing for lower wages with workers in poor and oppressed countries and increasingly with prison labor. At the onset of the Civil War, early unions all but ceased to exist as members enlisted en masse in the Union Army. In the 20th century, labor unions and socialist political parties played a leading role in civil rights struggles.

Labor struggles continue today, like the long overdue teacher strikes around the country and as, ever, the forces of big money and corporate power are a formidable obstacle. The Supreme Court recently demonstrated this in ruling that employers can bar their employees from organizing to challenge workplace abuses including wage theft, abuse and harassment. In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote, “When workers charge their employers with unlawful conduct, in this case, violations of laws governing wages earned and hours worked, there is strength in numbers. As a result of the ruling, there will be huge under-enforcement of federal and state statutes designed to advance the well-being of vulnerable workers." This is a continuation of our common history of struggling against corporate power and its paid representatives for basic justice, dignity, livable wages and working conditions.

We are fortunate to have local writer, journalist and Hampton University professor Lynn Waltz preserving our local history of workplace organizing. Her newest book, Hog Wild: The Battle for Workers’ Rights at the World’s Largest Slaughterhouse published by University of Iowa Press is now available at Prince Books or online. As Wilson J. Warren, author of Tied to the Great Packing Machine: The Midwest and Meatpacking writes, “Lynn Waltz’s examination of Smithfield Foods’s campaigns against unionism in the modern meat industry is vivid and haunting. Her book offers compelling insight into the fate of the modern American labor movement and, crucially, evidence for why the United States is increasingly divided between rich and poor.” Lynn Waltz has agreed to be interviewed on her efforts in writing this book:
What drew you to the subject of this effort to organize the Tar Heel Smithfield plant?

LW. I was working on a profile of Smithfield Foods for Virginia Business magazine and found out they had been found guilty of repeatedly breaking federal labor law since they opened the world’s largest slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, N.C.. I wrote about that for Portfolio Weekly. The case was on appeal at the time, so I followed it and continued to write about it as a graduate student at Old Dominion University. After graduation, I pitched the story idea and University of Iowa Press picked it up right away. Initially my story was about the key whistleblower, a high-ranking manager who agreed to testify for the government against Smithfield. My editor encouraged me to tell the whole story of the unionization, which spanned 16 years.

Why did you feel this union effort was worthy of a book?

LW. Initially it was the disparity between how Smithfield Foods, a Fortune 500 company, publicly presents itself and its private illegal behavior in both labor and the environment. Then, it was the ironic narrative of a manager who did not support the union, but wound up being the catalyst for the unionization of the world’s largest slaughterhouse. Finally, it was the realization that this union fight is a microcosm for all that is wrong with labor law today, which has disintegrated from what was intended during the New Deal. The National Labor Relations Act was intended to even the playing field between powerful corporations and the worker, but today - between powerful union-busters - hired by companies every time there is a union fight - the long drawn-out appeals system, and the growing right-to-work movement, workers have very little power.

What is the relevance of this and what lessons can we, as working class Americans take from this labor struggle?

LW. What it seems few people understand is the link between the strength of unions and the strength of the middle class. Since 1971, the percentage of the population that is middle class has steadily declined from 61 percent to 50 percent in 2015. Meanwhile, the percentage of upper middle and upper classes has risen from 14 to 21 percent. At the same time, union membership in the private sector dropped from 21 percent in 1980 to 6.7 percent in 2013. In North Carolina, where the slaughterhouse is, just 1.9 percent of workers were members of unions in 2015, down from 3 percent in 2013. North Carolina regularly is listed as having the lowest union membership in the country. Of states with lower than 5 percent membership, seven of the eleven are in the South, the most difficult place for unions to win. So, that is part of why this case stands out. First, it is remarkable that the union won. Second, the book provides a window into the enormous effort and cost it takes for a union win in today’s world.

I am thankful for Lynn Waltz's efforts in supporting the struggle and the consciousness needed for working people to organize for our mutual benefit and security. In the past, working people have had our own, independent political parties, from the 19th century Knights of Labor to the once popular American Socialist Party and later Socialist and Communist Parties – vilified in the “Red Scares” of the 1950's. The real purpose and effect of the McCarthy period was to break the power and influence of the American labor movement and to dis-empower working people. If you want to know more about the history of our American working class and of the inseparable struggle for a democracy which includes us, I strongly recommend reading Labor's Untold Story: The Adventure Story of the Battles, Betrayals and Victories of American Working Men and Women available via Amazon. This invaluable tome is an easy and gripping read which puts our American history and present in a clear perspective.

You have another great opportunity to learn some real American history. On Wednesday June 20th a truly great documentary called American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs will be showing at the Naro Cinema. Eugene V. Debs was an enormously popular leader who ran for president several times as a socialist – long before Bernie Sanders -- the last time from prison where he was incarcerated for opposing our entry into WWI. If you come to this documentary, you will also have an opportunity to meet and hear Lynn Waltz and to purchase her book, Hog Wild: The Battle for Workers’ Rights at the World’s Largest Slaughterhouse.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Film, 1945 -- The Importance of Confronting History


Refugees, fear, guilt and mistrust, heavily colored by bigotry and nationalism. This is what I see when I read about Hungary today, lead by virulent nationalist Victor Orban and the ugly blocking of refugees fleeing Syria. It's a story with deep roots that I can relate to personally. My grandparents, Aladár and Regina Reich fled Hungary in 1920 with the ascendance of Miklós Horthy and the rise of ultranationalist anti-Semitism. Horthy was an early fascist and allied with Germany in 1938. The few of my relatives that migrated here, though they were labeled “enemy aliens,” survived. Most of the rest of my family died in the Auschwitz death camp, with the exception of three individuals.

When the war ended and the Soviets liberated the camps, two of my relatives, a great aunt and a cousin, walked back from Auschwitz to their village in Hungary. There they were met with hatred and could find no refuge or home to return to. They subsequently married to preserve the lineage and migrated to Palestine.

I was reminded of this recently in watching a movie called 1945. This film by director Ferenc Török, shot in black and white, takes place in s rural Hungarian town in the summer of 1945. The war as ended and we see the presence of occupying Soviet soldiers, though not in a threatening way. Villagers seem to accept the inevitable and look forward to a different kind of less hierarchical life in a socialist system, “as long as you are Hungarian” says the towns dominant and bullying citizen, István (Péter Rudolf) upon the arrival of two orthodox Jews. These two, a father and son arrive at the local train station with a mysterious cargo. Their arrival sets off a chain of events rooted in guilt, fear of reprisal and anger.

As the film continues we see people living in a nice home, still decorated with Jewish décor including a menorah (candelabra) but angrily declaring that this now, along with a connected pharmacy business, legally belongs to them. We come to learn that the bullying “Istvan” pushed another of the townsfolk into publicly denouncing and turning over a local Jewish family to the nazis. We further learn of a web of complicity which includes much of the village, including the local priest. Only one character has any remorse – too much for him to bear even as his wife hides stolen valuables just in case her ownership is challenged by returning victims.

This is not a story about Jews and only incidentally about Hungary. It is a story about the psychology of living with complicity in crimes against humanity. It is a story of displacement. An irony is that the holocaust victims who, like my relatives, resettled in Palestine repeated the same crime of theft and displacement. Some have recalled feeling a sick deja vu entering the newly taken homes of Palestinians chased out, finding food still on the tables just as in the homes of displaced Jews in Europe. War is a big driver of brutal displacement and theft but not the only one. Corrupt economics like the housing bubble pre-2008 with “underwater” mortgages displaced many from their homes, in some cases to the streets while other claimed that property.

Nationalism is a virulent social mental disorder purposely driven by self-serving corrupt leaders. They use scapegoating, fear and hyper-patriotism to distract the public from their own crimes and to build their own power. This inevitably leads to sociopathic, often violent behavior, massive human rights abuses and genocide. We've seen this repeatedly in Europe, African countries like Rwanda and Sudan and in Asian countries like India, Indonesia and Burma. We are seeing the rise of this toxic phenomenon in our own country with the roundups and displacement of immigrants, the rise of hateful tribalized politics, racism, and the corrupt extremism embodied by Trump and his cabal of corporate thieves. As in other places where fascism has taken root, we have partisan media driving a bigoted, war-worshipping nationalist perspective with libelous hate speech and dangerous, paranoiac misinformation.

One thing that struck me in the film was that very few in the town ever felt any remorse for their participation in the horror of genocide. This remains true in places like Hungary, Croatia and elsewhere where such crimes are not confronted. Germany is a better society today for having faced and examined its history and for having brought some of the worst perpetrators to justice. Hungary is not. And then there is our own country. We Americans have failed to adequately confront and learn from our own history of massive violence, displacement and genocide of Native Americans. We have yet to adequately confront the history of slavery and continuing institutional racism toward African Americans. Few Americans even know about the brutal military coups, dictatorships, genocides and crimes our country has inflicted -- and continues to inflict on countries around the world. We cannot begin to change our behavior or the sick psychology of empire unless we face up our our crimes and our complicity. Like the Hungarian villagers, too few of us feel any remorse. Thus history repeats itself.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Stopping the Madness


The old question again settles like ash: how did it happen? The madness, that is.

Gradually, day by day, a tint, a taint, a delicious poison that seems perfect. Always, after the fact, historically, when the mass graves have become paperwork, scholars search for that place where the nightmare began to ride the dreamer. – Robert Edwards

Times in our country are moving from bleak to terrifying, especially if you are Black, Hispanic or a refugee immigrant. As I read the paper this morning, I see Trump announcing a cancellation of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. The Imbecile-in-Chief demonstrates again that he doesn't even have the capacity to retain the knowledge that this program was limited in scope to people already here who arrived as children. It is not an ongoing or expanding program and does not cover new arrivals.

Meanwhile, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or “ICE” goons continue to round up decent, hard working, contributing people, tearing families and communities apart. We continue to build camps where violent abuse, racism, torture and forced labor are common. We continue to send refugees, some here legally, having been granted asylum, back to certain death in war-torn and crime-ridden countries. Some like Guled Muhumed who arrived as a child of refugees fleeing war in Somalia, don't have any knowledge of the countries they may be deported to. As reported in The Intercept, as a high school administrator and youth counselor, Muhumed spearheaded a program in his community to turn refugee children, particularly young Somalis, away from drugs, crime, and radicalism. He has spoken out publicly against the terrorist groups that wield considerable power in Somalia. That the U.S. government has treated him like a national security threat while working hard to deport him to the country where those groups operate is all the more ironic and terrifying.

Laila Jama, Muhumed’s wife, who also came to the U.S. as a refugee child from Somalia but eventually became a citizen, is pregnant with twins and due to give birth in the next two weeks. She described how, over the last six months, she has made herself an expert on immigration law. That education, she said, has led her to conclude that the U.S. system of detention and deportation, when applied without discretion, is unfathomably harsh, especially if you come from an African country like Somalia. The Muhumeds are not alone, nor is their plight unique.

Texas-based legal advocacy groups report that about 80 immigrant men from Somalia, Kenya, and Sudan were sent to a remote, for-profit detention center in West Texas to await deportation. In the week that followed, the men were pepper-sprayed, beaten, threatened, taunted with racial slurs, and subjected to sexual abuse. The treatment they endured amounted to multiple violations of federal law and grave human rights abuses. This is not an aberration. It is in fact increasingly the norm.

We are also seeing a continuation of racist police violence as oppressed minorities continue to be slaughtered by police with impunity. It remains “justifiable” in our country for police to shoot unarmed Black people.

In the past few years I have written several articles on racist police violence as well as interviews with immigrants in an attempt to counter racist scape-goating and to humanize refugees – to show that most, if not all refugee immigrants are the direct result of our own national policies around the world. Yet immigrants in our country, like minorities, continue to be scapegoated for failed economic and foreign polices that exacerbate poverty and export the mass murder of war. There are attempts to pit minorities against immigrants, but all oppressed people share the brunt of the crimes of racism and exploitation and all of our fates are interconnected and shared. The terror of police violence, ICE roundups, persecution, and shameful human rights abuses are a continuation of past racist pogroms leading ultimately to genocides. This is the reality our embedded corporate press chooses to not to cover.

Days of remembrance are upon us: Yom Ha Shoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day, as well as Israel’s Independence Day followed by Palestinian Nakba Day – remembering the terror of ethnic cleansing and a continuing violent persecution and apartheid suffered by Palestinian refugees. I write this a day after Israeli soldiers opened fire on peaceful protesters in Gaza killing 18 and wounding and around 1700. What we need to remember is not so much the details of abuse, torment and murder that mark holocausts and racist oppressions but how they happen – the step by step advance from civilization to barbarism and mass murder.

These days of remembrance are not days of mourning so much as they are a prescient warning. From the rise of racist “alt right” fascists to Trump's offensive rants and deadly roundups, we must be awake to the obvious. We as a nation are on an all too familiar path. These tracks lead to death camps – camps we already have and are building which can very easily cross that permeable line from abuse and “work makes you free” to a “final solution.” Many of us are alive now because decent people took much greater risks than you or I face to protect the persecuted. We do not have to let it go that far. We can and must stand against the hatred and the growth of barbarism, before it is too late.