Saturday, November 16, 2019

Exorcising the Ghost of Roy Cohn

Not for the first time, I am proud of my congressional Representative, Bobby Scott. Last May he introduced the “Protecting the Right to Organize Act” to do away with the stultifying “Right to Work” laws which smother our rights to organize on the job. Like many laws, the name implies the opposite of the reality. It has more accurately been called the “right to work for less.” Virginia has long been a “right to work” state along with the added indignity of “At Will” laws. This is why pay is lower in our state and in other, mostly southern and rural states. “At will” means you can be fired anytime for any reason or none, with no right to challenge the decision, rendering the workplace a dictatorship of fear and mistrust. This is made worse in our state because our rules for unemployment compensation require being let go for no reason of your own. Companies pay into that compensation and thus have an incentive to fire rather than to lay off workers.

Laws like “Right to Work” are the same, word for word, in many states because they are written by corporate consortia like the National Chamber of Commerce and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) who also fund political campaigns. The purpose is to keep the costs of the most variable business expense down – and that expense is you. The lower the cost and the greater the disposability of workers, the greater the take at the top. Dumping workers raises the value of stocks rewarding investors which makes the business climate look great. Thus “business is booming” when more of us are struggling to make ends meet. This is nothing new and goes back to the rise of industry in the 17th century. It is essential to understanding the founding of our own country.

Let us not forget that our nation was established by a wealthy merchant and slave holding class to free itself from British dominance and to protect and maintain its wealth. In order to get the support of the population, most of whom were poor farmers and former indentured slaves who mistrusted the landed gentry as much as they did the British, they ensconced the new Constitution with the Bill of Rights. Though initially only men with land or wealth were citizens able to vote, the promise of equality and guaranteed rights were there. As Madison noted in the first decades of the 19th century, the door to popular democracy had been opened. He feared that the rabble would eventually demand entry and real equality. The entire history of our country since that time has been a struggle for inclusion and basic rights for the rest of us. This includes the struggles for emancipation, for women's equality, and for civil rights which continues to this day.

The struggle against institutional bigotry and fair wages, workplace safety and basic economic security is inseparable from the history of our country. I would advise anyone interested in this history, our history, to read “Labors' Untold Story” written, not by cloistered academics but by working class historians Richard Boyer and Herbert Morais. There has always been lucrative work for those defending business interests in keeping us poor and powerless. Trump's appointees and partners, from Wlliam Barr and Rudi Giuliani to Bret Kavanaugh and Trump's newest judicial appointee Steven J. Menashi are a prime examples. As a continuation of his agenda to demolish every public protection in sight and cozy up to corporations, Trump has chosen Eugene Scalia, son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, to run the Department of Labor. He is a longtime corporate lawyer whose client roster has included Goldman Sachs, Facebook and Walmart. Scalia now leads the federal agency tasked with overseeing employee rights and labor laws.

Though Trump is more extreme, the direction is nothing new. An example of this dating back to the 1950's was Roy Cohn, a vicious opportunist and aggressive agent of corporate interests who joined with Senator Joseph McCarthy in a successful effort to cripple and break the considerable power of the labor movement at that time. Cohn partnered with the infamous Sen. McCarthy in his campaign to tar progressives, destroy lives and most importantly, break the labor movement. Notably, like many closeted Gays in politics, Cohn publicly railed against and targeted Gays in the army and those employed in federal jobs. This is how he and those like him cover and distance themselves from their own homosexuality. Cohn eventually died of complications from AIDS. Even today, you can count on the most viciously outspoken anti-Gay clergy and politicians likely being closeted Gays. A truth-telling documentary by filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer on Roy Cohn will be showing at the Naro Cinema on Wednesday, Dec 4 with discussion to follow. This documentary is titled “Where’s My Roy Cohn?” because Trump reportedly shouted this line in frustration when his attorney general Jeff Sessions dared to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. He had to settle for the addlepated and deeply conflicted Rudi Giulliani for legal council even as he threatens armed insurrection should he be impeached. Ironically, the ghost he wished to summon built his career prosecuting many on the false charges of threatening to overthrow our democracy by force and violence and for promoting sedition.

As Peter Travers writes in a Rolling Stone review of the film, “Tyrnauer’s flashes of compassion for this self-hating Jew and homosexual — taught from childhood to feel ashamed of what he was and who he was — remind us that his subject’s toxic, insidious amorality did not go to the grave with him. It’s all around us, among opportunists still looking for their own Roy Cohn — just one of several reasons why Tyrnauer’s doc hits you like a punch in the gut.“

The “Red Scare” that McCarthy, Cohn and Richard Nixon made their names with was never about Russians or even about communists. It was about dis-empowering organize labor. The strongest labor leaders have always been socialists like John L. Lewis, William Z. Foster and Harry Bridges. This resulted in the highest standard of living working Americans ever had. As union leadership was replaced by corporate players and shady opportunists our wages and conditions diminished. They continue to do so as we are pitted against low-wage foreign sweatshop workers in a race to the bottom. The lasting legacy of that period include laws designed to cripple our ability as employees to organize in our own defense; laws like the Smith Act, Taft-Hartley and that ole' “Right to Work” which still plague us today.

As for Trump and the ghost of Cohn, a famous political thinker once noted that everything in history happens twice; the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce. This is not the 1930's or the 1950s no matter how strongly some wish for their return. We are not the same society nor are most of us willing to return to the dark days of political and gender repression, lynching or segregation. We are not helpless nor can we afford to be passive players. As I wrote in the editorial of the recent issue of the Blue Collar Review: we often feel helpless and afraid for our own futures. We struggle to survive, to hold on to our jobs and to what little security we have from day to day. But that isn't enough. We must continue to struggle together against an ecocidal corporate dictatorship. Fortunately we are not alone in doing so.

In our area and state there are experienced citizen groups working to defend and expand our hard-won legislative gains in the halls of power and to curb and resist the efforts of corporate fronts to limit our rights, exploit the desperate, and undermine our public safety. One such grassroots group with a strong record of success is Virginia Organizing. The local chapter has won protections for residents of a mobile home park, passed zoning restrictions on predatory lenders, lobbied for lower prescription drug prices and organized monthly vigils for immigration reform. They are currently working to address the problem of flooding caused by climate change in Norfolk, immigration reform, voting rights, problems in local public schools, and statewide and national issues of health care including expanding medicaid access. If you are interested in joining with them or learning more, you can contact local organizer Megan McNamara at meghan@virginia-organizing.org, or you can go to their website. As the season of gift giving is upon us, donations to support these important efforts on our behalf can be sent to Virginia Organizing, 703 Concord Avenue, Charlottesville, VA 22903.

It is vital to remember that we are all in this together, that we must have each other's backs and that we are not alone in standing up to ugly hatreds and the venal, self-serving power of corporate greed.

Greta and Us

I was recently heartened and impressed by the massive protests against government inaction on climate which occurred around the world. This included a local protest organized by Mothers Out Front in Virginia Beach. This massive event was inspired by Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager who began a weekly strike from her school classes to protest the disregarding and sacrifice of her future. These strikes have caught on, grown and spread culminating in global action. There has also been a growing movement of radicalized youth demanding real climate action in Europe, and now in our own country, calling itself "Extinction Rebellion.” Though their actions involving civil disobedience by shutting down business as usual are important, young Greta Thunberg has become the catalyst of a larger generational uprising.

While there has been a range of coverage on Ms. Thunberg in the corporate media, from respect to vicious slurs and condemnation, her words to the leaders at the United Nations speak for themselves:
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words. And yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. . . For more than 30 years, the science has been crystal clear. How dare you continue to look away and come here saying that you’re doing enough when the politics and solutions needed are still nowhere in sight. The popular idea of cutting our emissions in half in 10 years only gives us a 50% chance of staying below 1.5° Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit), and the risk of setting off irreversible chain reactions beyond human control. Fifty percent may be acceptable to you. But those numbers do not include tipping points, most feedback loops, additional warming hidden by toxic air pollution or the aspects of equity and climate justice. They also rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist. So a 50% risk is simply not acceptable to us – we who have to live with the consequences.”

Ms. Thunberg makes a strong point regarding what we have known for decades. As reported in Scientific American, “Exxon was aware of climate change, as early as 1977. In the 1970s and 1980s it employed top scientists to look into the issue and launched its own ambitious research program which empirically sampled carbon dioxide and built rigorous climate models. Exxon's senior scientist James Black stated that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels. A year later he warned Exxon that doubling CO2 gases in the atmosphere would increase average global temperatures by two or three degrees – a number that is consistent with the scientific consensus today. He continued to warn that “present thinking holds that mankind has a time window of five to 10 years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical." That was nearly 40 years ago, but what Exxon did in response was to lie to Congress and to spend tens of millions funding climate denial.

We in Tidewater are among the most threatened. We have the second highest rate of sea level rise after New Orleans, and as some are experiencing, increased sunny-day flooding in some areas at high tide.

I asked local scientist, Anna Jeng, Sc.D., member of the Virginia Board of Health and a professor in the School of Community and Environmental Health at O.D.U. about the health impacts of climate change in our area. She was kind enough to respond, stating, “Current data on heat waves and extreme heat show that climate change has posed increased health risks for Virginia residents and that we have already felt climate-related health impacts. Recent Virginia Department of Health data shows that the number of days in Virginia with temperatures above 90° Fahrenheit has doubled over the last 10 years.”

“Heat and humidity already pose a range of threats to Virginia residents, from minor illnesses like heat cramps to deadly conditions like heatstroke or heat-related heart attacks. From 1975 to 2010, the Virginia Beach metropolitan area experienced an average of approximately 20 excess deaths per year on dangerously hot summer days. “Excess deaths” are the number of deaths above the daily standardized summertime average for a given area. Increased emergency room and hospital visits coincide with the zip codes of communities with higher temperatures, low-incomes and few shade trees. Anyone faces the risks of getting sick from extreme heat, but impoverished disadvantaged populations with pre-existing respiratory and/or cardiovascular conditions, diabetes, young children, and older adults are particularly vulnerable.”

Dr. Jeng also emphasized that, “The Trump administration has imposed an immense threat to the existing U.S. environmental health policy. It launched an overt attack on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, undermined science-based policy and launched a policy of deregulating hazardous pollutants. Recent examples include that the EPA defies climate warnings and has rolled back emissions requirements and standards for coal-fired plants to revitalize America’s sagging coal industry. More specifically, a proposal has been made to roll back mercury emission regulations put in place during the Obama administration.”

Temperature rise is not the only factor affecting our local health, though as temperatures rise, tropical insects and diseases move north as well. We still host the largest coal export facility and are daily exposed to toxic coal dust. Other ubiquitous industrial pollutants in our environs affect our health as well. Results of testing by the Virginia Department of Health – Office of Drinking Water, as well as information from the U.S. EPA Enforcement and Compliance History database, show nine carcinogenic and thyroid contaminants detected above health guidelines in Norfolk tap water. These include: Bromodichloromethane, Chlorate, Chloroform, Chromium (hexavalent), Dibromochloromethane, Dichloroacetic acid, Trichloroacetic acid, trihalomethanes and Radium 226 & 228. These are carcinogenic contaminants that permeate us locally. As in the past, it may be that beer is safer than water – depending on the water used to make it.

It is easy to feel hopeless, angry and depressed about the overwhelming extent of pollution we are exposed to and the looming existential threat of the growing climate catastrophe. The best way to counter this is to be active on the issue or at least to support those who are.

In our area, the Sierra Club is active on important issues like supporting a state climate plan with a target of reducing carbon pollution 40% by 2030. This includes creating the charging infrastructure for electric vehicles. Our local chapter's focus is on encouraging solar panel use on homes and businesses, adaptation and mitigation to flooding, opposing offshore drilling and methane (natural gas) pipeline projects, limiting coal dust and moving to clean energy. You can support, or join them, online.

Other local groups active on climate issues are Mothers Out Front and The Chesapeake Climate Action Network which actively works to promote good climate policy.

How we live has an impact on our environment but we have to live with the real options we have where things like transportation and work are concerned. The greatest impact on climate comes from polluting industries limited or not, by public policy and by those who make it. Thus, our taxes fund fossil fuel industry efforts from fracking and oil drilling to gas pipelines as well as efforts to expand wind energy off of our coast. Beyond how we live day to day, getting involved with or supporting climate activism is vital to countering corporate influence on our elected representatives. Voting for candidates not underwritten by polluting industries who will stand up to corporations and, as Greta says, “listen to the scientists” is vital as well. It is past time for us to take responsibility for our actions, to understand that a system based on endless growth in a finite reality is an untenable recipe for disaster. It is past time for us to live responsibly within our actual, physical means rather than borrowing from the future.

A new generation is rising up to defend itself and we must join with them to insure a livable future. As Greta Thunberg stated to world leaders at the UN,“We will not let you get away with this. Right here, right now is where we draw the line. The world is waking up and change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Whose Country?

Interview
Man-on-the-street TV reporter
puts a microphone in a man's face.

What do you think
of the current Administration
and the job it's doing?

This isn't an Administration.
This isn't a government.

It's a Congregation of Bubbas,
who have to make phone calls to cartels
to ask what they ought to do.

This isn't a democracy
anymore than you are a reporter.

How's that for a sexy sound byte?
-- Robert Edwards


Like many of us, I am used to thinking of our country as a democracy or at least as a democratic Republic. As the Constitution says, a government established by and for “We the People.” As Abraham Lincoln described it, a government of by and for the People. Over the last few decades since the 1980s, I have witnessed with trepidation the erosion of citizen representation, and especially since 2001, civil liberties. Much of this is due to the increase of corporate influence. Historically, some of our nations founders and leaders were wary of corporate influence over public policy. Thomas Jefferson stated that he “hoped to crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations, which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country." Andrew Jackson expressed concern in his 1833 address to Congress asking whether the American people are to govern through their elected representatives or "whether the money and power of a great corporation are to be secretly exerted to influence their judgment and control their decisions." Abe Lincoln, in response to the rise of Robber Barons wrote “As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands, and the Republic is destroyed. I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war.”

And here we are, living in a time when nearly every politician is funded by and beholden to corporate interests. Where lobbyists outnumber elected representatives who themselves often become lobbyists after leaving office. Where powerful business consortia like The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), corporate “think tanks” and fossil fuel, pharmaceutical, insurance and agribusiness giants write legislation and monopolize representation. Where 6 corporation own 90% of our media. Our own once-local paper is a victim of this. We the People are left without representation or legitimate journalism.

The history of rising corporate influence goes back to the rise of the Robber Barons after the Civil War with the convenient misinterpretation of a supreme court ruling in 1881 (Santa Clara County vs southern Pacific Railroad) regarding the 14th Amendment guarantee of the rights of freed slaves. The railroad Company argued that it was a person too, reasoning that just as the Constitution prohibited discrimination on the basis of racial identity, so did it bar discrimination against Southern Pacific on the basis of its corporate identity. The court actually ruled against them but it was misreported setting a dangerous precedent based on a lie. Over the last few decades, especially since the “Citizens United” ruling allowed corporate personhood and money being considered speech, we have seen the expansion of corporate dominance and the growth of secretive superpacs poisoning the electoral process.

Our two major parties are controlled by big business. Prior to the 1980s the GOP was pro-corporate with the Democrats being somewhat more citizen focused, thanks to FDR and the New Deal. With the rise of the present DNC this changed. Writer and political analyst Thomas Frank points to a decision by Democratic Party elites in the 1970s to jettison the New Deal, marginalize labor unions and transform the party to one representing the professional, managerial class rather than blue collar workers. In so doing, the Democratic Party radically changed the way it understood and dealt with social problems. Today, both parties are guided by economic “neoliberalism” marked by undoing public protections that affect corporate profits, privatizing and slashing public programs, increasing wealth disparity with fortunes accruing to a few at the expense of the majority and an overall prioritizing of business interests over the public health and safety. Lincoln's fears have been made manifest.

I recall when the biggest fear voiced by conservatives, usually aimed at distrust of the U.N. and international law, was that our country might be taken over by or become subservient to foreign governments. The reality today is that we have been taken over by unelected and unaccountable corporations which operate globally dictating our laws and foreign policies. Today, 69 of the richest 100 entities on the planet are corporations, not governments, and they exert great influence which affect us all. As sidelined citizens we often feel helpless and afraid for our own futures as we struggle to survive, hold on to our jobs and to what little security we have from day to day. But that isn't enough. Without governments independent of private corporate influence and without the leash of laws which protect public interests and which separate private money influence from public policy, corporate rule doesn't just impoverish. In its constant growth and endless drive for profits at any expense it is consuming our future and literally destroying the world.

We the People have options. Though our electoral system is corrupted and broken our votes can still make a difference. As I've said before, the only things that matter about any candidate are their actual record and who is funding their campaign. If you vote for a candidate backed by Dominion Power, McDonnell Douglas, the NRA, Exxon-Mobil or Aetna, that is who they will represent. If you vote for a crowd-funded candidate who rejects corporate backing, they will most likely represent you. But voting is not enough. We have to be active on the issues that affect us. Each issue has organizations focused on it which we can join or at least support. We can and should write, call or visit our representatives. We can still take our country back from private interests and restore a representative Republic. There are ongoing efforts to do this and you can count on entrenched corrupt politicians and the corporate media to vilify them, as they continue to do in defending corporate power and agendas. That vilification is evidence that a legislative effort, candidate or leader is prioritizing public interests over private agendas. Ultimately, it is up to us to defend our democratic ideals, our freedoms and our future.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Remembering that “Blue Marble” Moment

I have been enjoying the anniversary of the moon landing recently, captivated again by the film footage. I remember watching it happen on TV. What struck me then was the consciousness shift as the moon changed from being a thing to a place. More than the surface antics of people on the moon, I think we were all changed – at least for the moment – by seeing that earthrise from the moon. Even before that, we had seen that fist “selfie” of our small world, a “blue marble” in the endless void of space. For a short time humanity was united in realizing that our small world is all we have.

Sure, we were in Vietnam, we were having serious civil rights struggles with cities ablaze. There were partisan disputes both between parties and within the Democratic party -- remember the bloody 1968 convention? Even so, our politicians were more likely to work together on issues than they are today. Looking back on that time, that moment, and looking at our divided nation today I can only say; Houston, we have a problem.

My father was a veteran of the Korean war. I remember having his military booklet warning of the perceived fear growing from cold war paranoia, that Communists in that conflict would “brainwash” captured soldiers. Whatever brainwashing was perceived as then, it sounded truly frightening. And yet, here we are in a country where as many as a third of us may be brainwashed. How many reading this have lost a friend or family member to the nonsense and divisive hatred pushed by talk radio or FOX TV? How many reading this have seen decent people transformed into raving and increasingly angry, bigoted, paranoid, hyper-nationalist fanatics? I certainly know a few. It didn't start with Trump, though his rise is a product of it and he continues to make it far worse. Over the last month I have increasingly heard libelous threats of violence against perceived “liberals” and even threats of armed insurrection. We should keep in mind that a small percentage of Americans actually own guns but those who do own a lot of them. We also need to be aware that every holocaust in recent history began with scapegoating and libelous attacks in media. These are increasingly dangerous times in our country. This isn't happening in a vacuum.

I've written before about the rise of Roger Ailes and the effort by corporate interests to misinform, to cultivate division, and to tribalize our politics. This continuing reality is destroying not only lives and families but is also rending the social and political fabric of our country. Though the problem has metastasized exponentially over the last decade or so, it didn't happen overnight. In the past there were limits not on what you or I could say, but on what could be said on the air. Our airwaves are public property and there were rules which had to be obeyed for the privilege of using them. Back in the 1930s Father Coughlin was pulled off the air for anti-Semitic incitements. We had a Fairness Doctrine that, while limited and limiting, insured a semblance of balanced views. I know it makes me seem a fossil but, Watching Walter Cronkite on the moon landing anniversary, I remember when we had three channels that we all watched. Much was left out and it was a stilted version of the news but truth got through. The press was not yet embedded. We watched the Vietnam war in all its horrific reality on TV. We heard differing views on all three channels. We witnessed heated discussions but not shouting heads cutting each other off. What was reported had to have some basis in reality and libel was still banned along with those seven vulgar words. Maybe, more importantly, news was not entertainment. It was sacrosanct and not dependent on competitive ratings.

It isn't just TV and radio but computers that increasingly divide us from each other via the internet which serves in many ways to reinforce our chosen views and our social bubbles. Reliance on computers affects everything including our ability to function as a society and to have legitimate elections. It seems obvious that the preponderance of hate, division and outright nonsense passed off as “news” comes from FOX and Sinclair media. This is reflected to a lesser degree by CNN and MSNBC.

So yes, we have a serious problem. This is made more difficult to address because we are bound by a constitution written on animal skin by candlelight in a time before technology. This has left us is incapable of dealing with technological advances in media, or for that matter fire-arms technology, especially given the make up of our courts in the present. There are no easy answers in this essay. I remember back in the 1970s and '80s we had, for better or worse, cult deprogramming aimed at those who were pulled into the Hare Krishna sect and a few others. Can this be done with our seemingly lost friends, neighbors or relatives? Who decides when an intervention is needed? How do we turn off the tap of irresponsible, libelous and misinforming media without infringing on the all-important rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press? How can we get news which is more balanced and informative and less divisive?

I can offer a few suggestions. We can return to the Fairness Doctrine, requiring opposing views to be fairly heard and fact-checked. We can return actual news to a non-partisan, ratings-free category. We can again ban outright libel and hate speech based on race, religion, gender or national culture from the public airwaves. I think it is vital that we break up the media giants which control the slants of what is reported and the narratives that pass for news. Words have power. Democracy does not benefit from corporate media consolidation. Even public radio needs a degree of regional independence. Of course this presupposes leadership not tied to corporate interests which we do not presently have.

Maintenance of a free society is dependent on informed citizens. The corporate media giants are not only feeding us contradictory narratives that keep us divided, they are also losing legitimacy, without which, crippling cynicism grows and anarchy or dictatorship are real possibilities. We owe it to each other and to our country to inform ourselves outside of our comfort zone. Though the internet can be divisive and insulating, it also offers us the opportunity to read different views, to see authentic journalism in places like The Reveal, Intercept, the Guardian, Project Censored, FAIR and The Institute for Public Accuracy. We can read or hear other views and even interact in discussing them. I personally like to read American Conservative as well as TruthOut. We need to be able to listen to each other and rationally discuss issues on which we disagree. Sadly, this is not possible with those addicted to and in thrall to particular sources of information – the brainwashed who, like those with paranoid thought-disorders, see conspiracies everywhere and are unable to disagree without seeing others as an enemy. Again, these people, victimized by a cultivated thought disorder as threatening as any contagion, need our help.

Returning to those Apollo, moonshot images, I was glad to see them not only to reminisce but because I feel we need that now. We will always disagree and that is healthy but disagreements should also remain civil. We need to keep in mind that small blue marble that we are, as tempers and temperatures rise to dangerous levels. We need to remember that we are all we have.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Telling Our Story

I have dedicated much of the last twenty years to reclaiming and publishing the literature of working people. As a poet, the emphasis of my publishing efforts have been through the Blue Collar Review, Journal of Progressive Working Class Literature.” The reason I do this is because, by sharing our life experiences we recognize the value, commonality and legitimacy of those experiences. This is a literature that unites us based on what we share in times of cultivated division. It is also the shaping and reclaiming of culture, not in an attempt to manipulative it but to undo the damage of those who have done so. Culture defines how we see ourselves and the world and more importantly, how we relate to each other. Historically, prior to the last 60 or so years, our culture was more one of community and social responsibility than of hyper-individual materialism and militarism. I believe we need to return to that healthier culture.

Through most of our national history many were left out, ignored or denigrated. Particularly women and Black people. I was recently fascinated to read, in the Virginian Pilot, of the discovery of a hand written register from the 1820s naming the slaves who actually built Ft. Monroe. In some cases, not only were their names recorded, but their fates, such as Amos Henley who worked from sunrise to sunset on a barge crew and died in 1821 during an accident while hauling stone. It is rare to have records of the names of those who were trapped in the cruelty of lifetimes of slavery. This history is an invaluable treasure. These records are the subject of a recently published paper, “Humanizing the Enslaved of Fort Monroe’s Arc of Freedom,” written by Casemate Museum historian W. Robert Kelly. We do not know the names of the slaves who built our city's original City Hall – now the McArthur memorial – or of some of the period houses in the Freemason area.

Aside from the building of our country, the greatest contribution of African Americans has been to our national culture. I have long felt that Black culture, from language to music, is the essence and best of American culture and our finest contribution to humanity as a nation. It is also more appreciated around the world than it is at home. It isn't just our our constant threat, with nothing ever off the table, that people know us for but Jazz, Hip-hop, the richness of Black gospel and the profundity of Americans like Dr, King, Paul Robeson James Baldwin, Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.

A stunning documentary on the life and work of Toni Morrison called The Pieces I Am will be showing at the Naro Cinema on Tuesday July 9th. Morisson's powerful novels, centering on Black characters and stories, broke ground because she did not write them to explain anything to white readers but, as stories in themselves – and powerful stories rich in the history, experience and cultural psychology of Black people living in the stifling social reality of our racist nation. What is important here, aside from what we can all feel and experience in reading her work, is that the often overlooked lives and experiences of regular people are rich, vital and legitimate subjects for literature. For many, reading of people like themselves as protagonists is empowering. We come to understand that we are not alone in our experiences and pain and that we matter. For the oppressed, shunned and devalued by larger society, this is an especially empowering revelation. Though Morrison's characters are Black and often women, it is also vital for the many of us who are not Black or female to read and understand the experiences of others in our society, to see through their eyes. In doing so, we come to a deeper understanding. Morrison and her readers kicked open the door of literary canon for more of us – more than just white men, to enter -- when she won the Nobel prize. This documentary includes commentary from Oprah Winfrey, Sonya Sanchez, Angela Davis, and others but is most profoundly Toni Morrison recounting her own story with depth and humor.

Morrison recounts the kind of stories that are especially rich in our own area and its history. Getting back to Ft. Monroe, it is a place of unique significance in our nation's story and especially in African-American history. As local writer Sheri Bailey reminds us, that in “August 1619 a group of African men and women arrived on the shores of what is today Hampton, where Fort Monroe is located. They were taken to Jamestown where many of them worked as indentured servants. 242 years later, in May 1861, about one month after the war started at Fort Sumter, three enslaved men, James Townsend, Frank Baker and Shepard Mallory, based in Norfolk, escaped in a rowboat, made their way to the Union camp and petitioned for their freedom. When the men's owner came to claim his property, Lincoln's general Benjamin Banneker cited a federal policy known as "contraband of war" that allowed confiscation of enemy property. Butler put Baker, Mallory and Townsend on the federal payroll in support of the war effort. This put the men on the path to citizenship.” So this location not only saw the arrival of Africans to our shores, was not only built with slave labor, but was place where the abolition of slavery began.

There are continuing efforts, against the plans of developers, to establish a unified national monument along the bayfront area of Ft. Monroe. As local activist on this issue, Steven T. Corneliussen states, “No one envisions a Fort Monroe with no new development at all. That will not happen, and in my view should not happen. The actual issue is the fake, limited, split national monument, a form of national park along the bayfront there. Fort Monroe is absolutely a leading historic landscape in Black history, the reasons for that make it a leading historic landscape for history in general – not just black history set off to the side in a token way. It is the preeminent historic landscape for national civic memory of the self-emancipation movement that transformed the Civil War into a freedom struggle. Historians today recognize that it was Black people, not white politicians, who forced the advent of emancipation once the fighting started.” More on this effort, including op-eds Mr. Corneliussen has had published in The Richmond Times-Dispatch are available on the website:www.fortmonroenationalpark.org. An upcoming event related to this history includes the Juneteenth Festival celebrating emancipation. This annual event has been the work of Sheri Bailey who has been bringing live, interactive, historical theater to our area in an effort to heal the still festering wounds of slavery and oppression without shame or blame. On June 19th this year, the Juneteenth Festival will be presenting “Junie Awards” for recognition of outstanding public service at the Ft. Monroe theater on 42 Tidball Rd. from 6pm to 9pm. Admission is free.

Returning to Toni Morrison, summer is reading season and her books, including “The Bluest Eye,” “Song of Solomon” and “Beloved” are literary soul food at the heart of our authentic American culture; a culture in desperate need of reclaiming from the poisons of commercialization and the corporate/state manipulation that promotes division, empty materialism and war. Culture is not a commodity for the elite, it is something that belongs to and includes all of us, not divided by identity but the totality of our shared story and perspective. It is our treasure.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Mothers Out Front!

The Original Mother's Day Proclamation of 1870:

Arise, then, women of this day! Arise all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be that of water or of fears!

Say firmly: "We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.

We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says "Disarm, Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."

Blood does not wipe our dishonor nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.

Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each bearing after their own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.

-- Julia Ward Howe

Most of us should certainly appreciate the sacrifice and efforts our mothers made to raise us. Motherhood is the most essential and unrecognized work there is and it's good that we have one day set aside to show appreciation. Mothers' Day however, was not founded on the idea of buying cards and flowers for our mothers. In fact, it was started by mothers in 1870, as our nation was still mourning the losses of the civil war, and was called Mother's Peace Day. This was an anti-war action by mothers who demanded an end to the sacrifice of sons and husbands to the maw of needless war. Like many such holidays born of political movements and demands, Mothers' Day has been commercialized and stripped of its original meaning. Though flowers and well-earned sentiment mark this holiday, mothers are still at it, continuing to care for us, to fight for our welfare and our future. One such effort is an activist group called Mothers Out Front. Kim Williams of the local Catholic Worker is a member of this group who was in the news last year in the effort to stop the dangerous gas transmission pipeline which threatens our community. She was shown sitting atop a digging machine with a banner against the project. She was kind enough to agree to an interview to tell us about it.

What is Mothers Out Front, how and when did it come together and what is it about?

Mothers Out Front is a movement of mothers, grandmothers and others who are caretakers of children. Our mission is to build our power to ensure a livable climate for all children. We are a member-led movement, helping each other to realize our individual and collective power through trainings, networking, and developing campaigns. We value inclusiveness, and the moral voice of mothers so that the lives of all children will be put front and center to influence the decision makers that we elect. We also value climate justice, and focus resources to build power in those communities who suffer the injustices of climate change and fossil fuel use today and who have been historically marginalized. Mothers Out Front started in 2013 with two moms in Massachusetts who realized they shared a deep despair over scientific projections of a dismal climate future if we don’t begin to rapidly reduce our global dependence on fossil fuels. They started with House Parties, talking about climate change and ways to build people power. Teams formed and spread across MA, and then into NY state. Thanks to a suggestion of a local chapter of Virginia Organizing, a grassroots organization building people power around concerns for sea level rise in Hampton Roads, MOF moved to this area in 2016.

How and why did you got involved in this effort?

I was invited by Virginia Organizing friends to attend the very first MOF House Party in Norfolk. I went to that party mainly to be supportive of the friends holding it. I told myself I was too busy to get involved, and that climate change was still far off and far away. Plus, I recycle and compost to do my bit for the earth, right? However, at that meeting a young woman asked me “so how has your life been impacted by sea level rise in Hampton Roads?” That question in that setting caused a light bulb go off in my mind. I realized my family had damaged 3 automobiles in recent years, driving in floods that occurred in rapidly developing ordinary (ie, non-hurricane, non-nor'easter) storms. I was so busy getting cars fixed or replaced, plus taking care of job and family responsibilities requiring the incapacitated cars, that I never took the time to connect the dots...that the floods we experience more and more frequently today in Hampton Roads happen because of melting polar ice caps and increasing temperatures due to rising greenhouse gases, which cause bigger, more intense storms! I started to feel “Katrina” breathing down my neck. I began to realize, that as a “sandwich generation” person, with my kids and non-driving elders dependent upon me, I'd better face the fact that climate change is right here, right now!

Mothers Out Front has given me a way to do something about this problem. Enough people have gotten interested that we now have at least 4 teams in VA, and nationally we are now in about 14 states. It won’t be too long until we are in all 50. In Hampton Roads we have helped shine the spotlight on new pipeline infrastructure that will carry gas from fracking fields in West Virginia. The local pipeline is under construction in neighborhoods that have been historically marginalized. We have tried to spotlight that injustice, plus build awareness that the fossil fuel monopolies that we pay bills to every month give big bucks to candidates and elected officials at every government level. This makes it very hard for the decision makers to put our children first. They won’t put transitioning our energy grid to clean energy first unless we make them. We have to organize together to help them understand that the time is now to de-carbonize and to stop fracking. On the hyper-local scale, we have an ongoing energy efficiency campaign. We can bring a one-hour workshop to interested civic groups or houses of worship sharing tips and supplies for DIY home energy efficiency improvements.

How can others get involved or support this work?

I would encourage everybody to get involved. We are the last generation that can do anything about the rising global average temperature caused by that blanket of greenhouse gases holding in the heat. Global food supply is already affected by this – Nebraska cornfields were devastated last month by floods. The migrant caravans are walking to our border to some extent, because of climate change impacts on growing food in Central America. Our children are sent to kill and be killed in wars begin because of climate change impacts on agriculture and water supplies. Our own citizens on the west coast are internally displaced by fires. And the water is rising around our feet, right here, right now. The situation is urgent, but we can do something about this! To inspire in this effort, MOF Team Norfolk will host a free screening of “Paris to Pittsburgh” on Saturday, June 1, 10 am at Naro Cinema. The movie details how people-power groups across the country are organizing to deal with this huge problem. Join us for conversation on how we can be part of the solution. There is a role for each one of us!

Friday, February 15, 2019

Confronting the Crisis of our Times

We are living in a time of crises. Many of them are self-made and a few are based on conspiracy theories with inadequate evidence reflecting ulterior agendas. Examples include the “border crisis” of illegal immigration. In reality, crossings of our southern border are lower than they have been in 18 years. Even then, those risking their lives to come here are refugees of the more verifiable crises that our policies have fostered in their home countries. Another crisis of our making and based in lies, is our escalating aggression toward Venezuela. It didn't start with Nicol├ís Maduro but with the election of President Hugo Chavez and his initiation of Bolivarian socialism which broke from US corporate dominance with the radical notion that funds from nationalized oil should be shared by all Venezuelans. President Bush attempted a coup to remove Chavez, which failed. Since then our government has worked to undermine their economy in a successful attempt to create desperation.

This is in no way a new tactic. The history of the U.S. in Latin America is a long and brutal one of orchestrated upheavals against popular governments which dared to defy US corporate hegemony followed by the installing of unelected brutal regimes to serve as reliable pawns. Victims of our aggression include Cuba, Chile, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama, and El Salvador to name only a few – and always with the support of our corporate press.

The “Russiagate” crisis is also a questionable one on weak ground. In reality, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel meddled far more than Russia in the last election. They continue to dictate Trump's foreign policy, especially where Iran, Syria and Venezuela are concerned. The hypocrisy of our furor over the possibility that another country dared to influence our elections is all the more laughable with Trump deciding who the unelected president of Venezuela should be, as he strengthens and expands the embargo on that country, seizes assets and threatens military intervention.

Real crises that affect us include the disaster of neo-liberal economics pushed by Wall Street which results in record economic disparity and poverty, the mounting student debt that cripples futures, and the lack of access to medical coverage affecting about 44 million of us. A more complete list here.

The most important actual crisis of our making is the growing climate catastrophe. Even as oceans warm with glaciers and polar icecaps melting faster than predicted, recent peer-reviewed global measurements show that 2018 saw record increases of carbon emitted into our atmosphere. Researchers based in Potsdam, Germany report in the journal Nature Communications that they and colleagues in the Global Terrestrial Network for Permafrost monitored and measured soil temperatures in boreholes at 154 locations. The most dramatic warming was in the Arctic where soils that were more than 90% permafrost increased in temperature by 0.3°C or to just above freezing. In Siberia, temperatures rose by 0.9°C or more. Climate scientists have repeatedly warned that permafrost stores vast amounts of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, which is released as the soil thaws. Alaskan permafrost melt is now emitting more greenhouse gases than the entire state is storing in tundra and forest ecosystems, according to findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This wasn’t supposed to happen before the end of the century.

In the last year we witnessed firestorms in the west and catastrophic deluges and flooding on the Gulf and East Coasts. Record hurricanes and heat happened in the Pacific and elsewhere. As the climate disaster unfolds, our corporate leadership, under the misguidance of a stubborn climate denier, continues to erase even inadequate fossil-fuel regulations like the burning off of methane released via fracking. Trump has cynically nominated coal industry lobbyist Andrew Wheeler to head the EPA and oil lobbyist David Bernhardt to head the Interior Department.

I know some are thinking that this has been an especially cold winter. As the atmosphere and oceans warm, the effect is climate destabilization. The polar vortex, a large expanse of swirling, cold air, is usually limited to the polar regions. Now, more frequently due to human-caused climate disruption, the vortex expands and moves southward bringing arctic temperatures with it. The jet stream and oceanic currents that have driven and defined our weather for most of the last 10,000 years are being altered by the carbon our fossil fuel burning continues to emit.

Though politicians and parties beholden to fossil-fuel corporate interests do everything possible to sow confusion, cynicism and doubt about the peer-reviewed evidence and science regarding the growing climate catastrophe, the effects continue to mount. Military leaders understand the real costs of climate change in expanded wars, refugee migrations based on food and water shortages and temperature extremes, as well as the direct effects on military bases around the world. A Department of Defense report dated January 2019 “provides an assessment of the significant vulnerabilities from climate-related events in order to identify high risks to mission effectiveness on installations and to operations.” According to the report, “about two thirds of the 79 installations addressed are vulnerable to current or recurrent flooding and more than half are vulnerable to current or future drought. About half are vulnerable to wildfires and may then experience mudslides or erosion when rains follow fires.”

Of course the Norfolk Naval facilities are on that list. The report states, “The greater Hampton Roads area is very vulnerable to flooding caused by rising sea levels and land subsidence. Navy Region Mid-Atlantic is working with several academic, local community non-profit organizations, and state and federal agencies to increase understanding of current and future risks to inform discussions on possible adaptation strategies for communities and military bases. In addition, the cities of Norfolk and Virginia Beach are currently engaged in a Joint Land Use Study to identify specific conditions, including recurrent flooding, coastal storms, and erosion, outside of the military footprint that have the potential to impact Navy operations in the Hampton Roads area.” Our area is one of the most vulnerable to rising seas and extreme hurricanes. Studies by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science predict that water levels in our area will increase by more than a foot in the next 30 years. Some areas already experience regular flooding even when it doesn't rain.

The fossil record demonstrates the longevity of the geological time scale. The sinking of our region called “land subsidence” is due to the effect of the northern parts of our geological plate rising in recovery from being weighed down by glaciers during the Ice Age which ended 10,000 years ago. During that time, coastlines were miles out to what is now sea. The carbon we've put into the air, the poisons we are pumping into deep aquifers and the plastics and toxins we are leaving behind will be here for many thousands of years. We are already locked in, assuming we do nothing different, for a 3 to 7 degree rise in temperature averages in this century. But it doesn't stop there. This may not sound like much, but even 1.5 degrees have resulted in the disastrous effects of more deadly storms and climate disruption. These models, while accurate so far, fail in assuming a steady gradual temperature rise. The geological record demonstrates that this is not accurate and doesn't account for the added feedback accumulation coming from deforestation, methane release and die-offs. In fact, climate change is exponential which accounts for the more rapid than predicted increase in changes we are witnessing.

On the positive side, it isn't just the climate that is heating up. We are seeing massive protests around the world demanding policy changes to address the problem. These include non-violent direct action from a growing group called “Extinction Rebellion” and lawsuits by younger people like “Julia vs US,” a major lawsuit filed by young people against the US government for failing to limit the effects of climate change. This suit is headed for the Supreme Court. With the ascendance of younger social-democrats to Congress we are also seeing calls for a “Green New Deal.” This idea, originally pushed by the Green Party and picked up by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, would boost the economy by converting power grids to sustainable energy, funding de-carbonized sustainable agriculture, and creating jobs through needed infrastructure adaptation. Younger people have much more at stake than older folks like myself. Committed as I am to the issue, I won't live long enough to experience the worst. Younger people will. Along with Medicare for All, a commitment to the Green New Deal will have to be a defining qualification for any democratic candidate running in the next election.

The frustrating part is that we are facing an actual threat greater than any we've ever confronted and more damaging than anything any other country can inflict short of nuclear war. We know what needs to be done to minimize the damage already locked in and prevent worse and yet we are crippled from doing what we know needs to be done. Only one thing is holding us back. It isn't the misinformation and denial or even partisan politics. Even the Green New Deal is being stymied by corporate Democrats. The crippling obstacle that threatens our survival as a nation and as a species is the rule of money -- the undue corporate influence on public policy which includes both our official political parties.

What can we do? Getting involved is a good cure for hopeless depression and cynicism. You can make a difference! Organizations working to address climate policy in the Tidewater, Virginia area include: The Sierra Club. The local branch can be found at the Sierra Club There is also CCAN, or the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, the Climate Hope Action Network and the Green Party of Virginia with a Facebook presence. If we are to survive this dangerous time, we need to focus on the real, dual crises of money in politics and the unfolding climate disaster.