There is perhaps no modern President whose legacy resonates in the public consciousness as much as John F. Kennedy's. It was, in a sense, the first modern presidency: The first to be televised—from its historic inauguration to those shocking final moments in Dallas fifty years ago today—and the first to truly grapple with the maelstrom of social unrest that would lead eventually to the posthumous passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, just months after his death. In this first of two posts on JFK's legacy, we reach into some of our recent books for look at the Kennedy administration's complex and evolving relationship with race and the Civil Rights Movement, starting with the struggle between the Kennedy's Secretary of the Interior Stewart Lee Udall and Washington Redskins owner George Marshall over the integration of his team, and ending with an on-the-ground accounting of the 1963 March on Washington for Civil Rights, and JFK's meeting with the major civil rights leaders of the time.
Note: This article and its accompanying updates appeared previously on Wen Stephenson's blog at The Nation.
Yeb Sano, lead Filipino delegate to the UN Climate Conference (Creative Commons, courtesy tcktcktck.org)
Hunger allows no choice To the citizen or the police; We must love one another or die.
W.H. Auden wrote that, sitting in a dive on 52nd Street nearly three-quarters of a century ago, as the world plunged into darkness on September 1, 1939. I’ve been thinking of those words a lot lately. Because it feels to me, and many others I know, like we’re poised at the edge of another darkness.
It’s a darkness already visible, right now, in the Philippines, where thousands are dead and many hundreds of thousands made refugees by the force of a storm like none had ever seen.
And it’s a darkness visible in the bright corporate halls of a conference center in Warsaw, where delegates to the nineteenth annual U.N. negotiations on climate change are divided and dithering, even as the window to prevent civilizational catastrophe rapidly closes.
Seven hundred workers have died in factory fires in Bangladesh since 2005, the most recent being the 112 who burned or jumped to their deaths at the Tazreen factory on November 24th. Now hundreds more bodies are being pulled from the rubble of the Rana Plaza building, in an industrial district 18 miles from Dhaka.
At Tazreen the owners didn’t build fire escapes. They’d locked the doors on the upper floors “to prevent theft,” trapping workers in the flames. At Rana Plaza, factory owners refused to evacuate the building after huge cracks appeared in the walls, even after safety engineers told them not to let workers inside.
Workers told IndustriALL union federation representatives they’d be docked three days pay for each day of an absence, and so went inside despite their worries. As a result, the death toll is already over 250 and more are still trapped under debris.
Perhaps the building codes at Rana Plaza were not enforced, and permits never even obtained, because Sohel Rana, the building’s owner, is reportedly active in Bangladesh’s ruling party, the Awami League. At Tazreen the company was cited by fire inspectors, but never forced to install safety equipment.
But Bangladesh’s development policy is based on attracting garment production by keeping costs among the world’s lowest. Safe buildings that don’t collapse or trap workers in fires raise those costs. So do wages that might rise above Bangladesh’s 21¢/hour—not a livable wage there or anywhere else.
The beneficiaries of those costs are the big brands whose clothes are sewn by the women in those factories. They give production contracts to the factories that make the lowest bids. Factories then compete to cut costs any way they can.
Tazreen made clothes for Wal-Mart, among other big brands. The Rana Plaza building held several factories where 2500 women churned out garments. According to the International Labor Rights Forum, “one of the factories in the Rana complex, Ether-Tex, had listed Walmart-Canada as a buyer on their website.” Labor activists found other documents in the rubble listing cutting orders from Benetton and other labels.
Workers have been trying for years to organize militant unions to raise wages and enforce safety codes. If they’d been successful, they would have had the power to make the factories safe. The morning after the Rana collapse, 20,000 poured out of neighboring factories in protest—other factory owners had ordered them to keep working as though nothing had happened.
Meanwhile, the giant companies controlling the industry insulate themselves from responsibility for the conditions they create. And their most important accomplice is the corporate social responsibility industry.
According to a report just released by the AFL-CIO, Responsibility Outsourced, just before a fire at the Ali Enterprises factory in Pakistan killed 262 workers in 2012, clothing manufacturers hired an auditing firm, Social Accountability International, to certify it was safe. SAI then subcontracted inspection to an Italian firm, RINA, which subcontracted it yet again to a local firm RI&CA. Ali Enterprises was certified that August. “Nearly 300 workers died in a fire two weeks after,” the report charges.
Certifying factories that kill workers has become an $80 billion industry that “helped keep wages low and working conditions poor, [while] it provided public relations cover for producers,” Responsibility Outsourced says. “Manufacturing work has left countries in which there were laws, collective bargaining and other systems in place to reduce workplace dangers,” it says, while “jobs instead have gone to countries with inadequate laws, weak enforcement and precarious employment relationships.”
This transfer was enabled by corporate-friendly trade agreements guaranteeing the products of these factories unfettered access to U.S. and European markets. They simultaneously put pressure on developing countries to guarantee the rights of foreign corporate investors and an environment of low wages, lax enforcement of worker protections, and attacks on unions.
In Bangladesh, after the Tazreen fire, a binding agreement was developed by IndustriALL, the ILRC and other labor NGOs, that seeks to prevent fires and increase safety by guaranteeing workers’ right to organize and enforce better conditions. Some companies, including PVH and Tchibo have signed on. Wal-Mart and Sears, however, not only refused, but would not even pay compensation to the Tazreen fire victims.
As Bangladesh workers pull the bodies of their friends from ruin of Rana Plaza, people half a world away wearing the clothes they sew should not turn their faces away. They need real knowledge about how their shirts and blouses are produced, and who produces them. Rather than the image manipulation of Social Accountability International and its competitor, the Fair Labor Association, they should demand the truth, and then use their power as consumers.
They should drive companies guilty of industrial homicide out of the world’s markets.
Today is also the Interfaith Youth Core's Better Together day, a time to wear blue to raise awareness of interfaith cooperation. Read more about it here.
One hundred years ago, the great African-American scholar W.E.B. DuBois famously wrote, "The problem of the 20th century will be the problem of the color line."
History proved DuBois correct. His century saw the struggles against, and ultimately the victory over, systems that separated and subjugated people based on race—from colonialism in India to Jim Crow in the U.S. to apartheid in South Africa.
No American did more than Martin Luther King, Jr., to address the problem of the color line. He spearheaded the marches that revealed the brutality of segregation, made speeches that reminded Americans that the promise of their nation applied to all citizens and expertly pressured the nation's leaders in Washington to pass landmark civil rights legislation.
But to confine King's role in history only to the color line—as giant as that challenge is, and as dramatic as King's contribution was—is to reduce his greatness. In one of his final books, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, King showed that race was one part of his broader concern with human relations at large: "This is the great new problem of mankind. We have inherited ... a great 'world house' in which we have to live together—black and white, Easterner and Westerner, Gentile and Jew, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu ... Because we can never again live apart, we must learn somehow to live with each other in peace."
This ethos, as King's examples make clear, applies not only to the question of race, but to faith as well. In the same way as the headlines of the 20th century read of conflict between races, headlines in our times are full of violence between people of different religions. Indeed, what the color line was to the 20th century, the faith line might be to the 21st.
Faith as a bridge
King's life has as much to say to us on the question of interfaith cooperation as it did on the matter of interracial harmony. A prince of the black church, deeply rooted in his own Baptist tradition, King viewed his faith as a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier of division.
When, as a seminary student, King was introduced to the satyagraha ("love-force") philosophy of the Indian Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi, King did not reject it because it came from a different religion. Instead, he sought to find resonances between Gandhi's Hinduism and his own interpretation of Christianity. Indeed, it was Gandhi's movement in India that provided King with a 20th century version of what Jesus would do. King patterned nearly all the strategy and tactics of the civil rights movement—from boycotts to marches to readily accepting jail time—after Gandhi's leadership in India. King called Gandhi "the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force."
Following Gandhi was King's first step on a long journey of learning about the shared social justice values across the world's religions, and partnering with faith leaders of all backgrounds in the struggle for civil rights. In 1959, more than a decade after the Mahatma's death, King traveled to India to meet with people continuing the work Gandhi had started. He was surprised and inspired to meet Indians of all faith backgrounds working for equality and harmony, discovering in their own traditions the same inspiration for love and peace that King found in Christianity.
King's experience with religious diversity in India shaped the rest of his life. He readily formed a friendship with the Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, finding a common bond in their love of the Hebrew prophets. The two walked arm-in-arm in the famous civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery.
Later, Heschel wrote, "Our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying."
King's friendship with the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh inspired one of his most controversial moves, the decision to publicly oppose the Vietnam War. In his letter nominating Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize, King wrote, "He is a holy man... His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to a world brotherhood, to humanity."
In his famous sermon "A Time to Break Silence," King was unequivocal about his Christian commitment and at the same time summarized his view of the powerful commonality across all faiths: "This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality" is that the force of love is "the supreme unifying principle of life."
We live at a time of religious conflict abroad and religious tension at home. This would no doubt have dismayed King, who viewed faith as an inspiration to serve and connect, not to destroy and divide. During King's time, groups ranging from white supremacists to black militants believed that the races were better apart. Today, the same is said of division along the lines of faith.
King insisted that we are always better together. Indeed, that pluralism is part of divine plan. To paraphrase one of his most enduring statements: The world is not divided between black and white or Christian and Muslim, but between those who would live together as brothers and those who would perish together as fools.
In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King,
Jr., isolated himself from the demands of the civil rights movement, rented a
house in Jamaica with no telephone, and labored over his final manuscript. In
this prophetic work, which has been unavailable for more than ten years, he
lays out his thoughts, plans, and dreams for America's future, including the
need for better jobs, higher wages, decent housing, and quality education. With
a universal message of hope that continues to resonate, King demanded an end to
global suffering, asserting that humankind-for the first time-has the resources
and technology to eradicate poverty.
by Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Lewis V. Baldwin
An unprecedented and timely
collection that captures the global vision of Dr. King—in his own words
Too many people continue to think
of Dr. King only as "a southern civil rights leader" or "an
American Gandhi," thus ignoring his impact on poor and oppressed people
around the world. "In a Single Garment of Destiny"is the
first book to treat King's positions on global liberation struggles through the
prism of his own words and activities.
From the pages of this extraordinary collection, King emerges not only as an
advocate for global human rights but also as a towering figure who collaborated
with Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert J. Luthuli, Thich Nhat Hanh, and other national
and international figures in addressing a multitude of issues we still struggle
with today-from racism, poverty, and war to religious bigotry and intolerance.
Introduced and edited by distinguished King scholar Lewis Baldwin, this volume
breaks new ground in our understanding of King.
Featuring the essay: "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence."
An inspiring call for Americans to defend the values of
inclusiveness and pluralism by one of our best-known American Muslim leaders
There is no better time to stand up for your values than when they are under
In the decade following the attacks of 9/11, suspicion and animosity toward
American Muslims has increased rather than subsided. Alarmist, hateful rhetoric
once relegated to the fringes of political discourse has now become
frighteningly mainstream, with pundits and politicians routinely invoking the
specter of Islam as a menacing, deeply anti-American force.
In Sacred Ground, author and renowned interfaith leader Eboo
Patel says this prejudice is not just a problem for Muslims but a challenge to
the very idea of America. Patel shows us that Americans from George Washington
to Martin Luther King Jr. have been "interfaith leaders,"
illustrating how the forces of pluralism in America have time and again
defeated the forces of prejudice. And now a new generation needs to rise up and
confront the anti-Muslim prejudice of our era. To this end, Patel offers a
primer in the art and science of interfaith work, bringing to life the growing
body of research on how faith can be a bridge of cooperation rather than a barrier
of division and sharing stories from the frontlines of interfaith activism.
Patel asks us to share in his vision of a better America—a robustly pluralistic
country in which our commonalities are more important than our differences, and
in which difference enriches, rather than threatens, our religious traditions.
Pluralism, Patel boldly argues, is at the heart of the American project, and
this visionary book will inspire Americans of all faiths to make this country a
place where diverse traditions can thrive side by side.
A renowned Muslim activist's personal story of building a global interfaith youth movement that might just change the world. Includes a new afterword by the author.
Acts of Faith is a remarkable account of growing up Muslim in America and coming to believe in religious pluralism, from one of the most prominent faith leaders in the United States. Eboo Patel's story is a hopeful and moving testament to the power and passion of young people-and of the world-changing potential of an interfaith youth movement.
by Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt. Foreword by Walter Earl Fluker
The first biographical exploration of one of the most important African American religious thinkers of the twentieth century—Howard Thurman—and of the pivotal trip he took to India that ultimately shaped the course of the civil rights movement.
In 1935, at the height of his powers, Howard Thurman, one of the most influential African American religious thinkers of the twentieth century, took a pivotal trip to India that would forever change him-and that would ultimately shape the course of the civil rights movement in the United States.
After the journey to India, Thurman's distinctly American translation of satyagraha into a Black Christian context became one of the key inspirations for the civil rights movement, fulfilling Gandhi's prescient words that "it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world." Thurman went on to found one of the first explicitly interracial congregations in the United States and to deeply influence an entire generation of black ministers-among them Martin Luther King Jr.
Today is World Water Day. Observed every March 22nd, World Water Day reminds people around the globe about the importance of freshwater and urges them to advocate for the sustainable use of freshwater resources.
This year’s theme is water cooperation, a rallying cry to recognize water as a resource that we are all entitled to and for which management responsibility is shared. On the surface, coming together as a global community for the good of water sustainability seems simple. But freshwater is becoming a scarce resource—one that is not evenly distributed around the world. And, with climate change shifting growing seasons and sea levels, our understanding of water’s boundaries and availabily is becoming even more muddled. To ensure a viable future, water must be a shared, not bought and sold to the highest bidder, not polluted and ignored at the detriment of our communities.
In addition to the small steps towards water conservation that people
can take each day, World Water Day asks us to look toward the future,
understand the realities of the water crisis that we as a planet are
facing, and take steps to change it.
At Beacon Press, we have published a number of books over the last decade that explore water usage and sustainability concerns from a variety of perspectives. Below are six titles that focus on the many ways access to water affects our lives, and uncover how the lack of collaboration by individuals, corporations, and government agencies has put us on a perilous path towards international water shortages.
The first book to call for a national water ethic, Blue Revolution is a powerful meditation on water and community in America. The book combines investigative reporting with solutions from around the globe to show how local communities and entire nations can come together to stretch vanishing water supplies and protect themselves from increasingly devastating floods. Barnett challenges the conventional wisdom that the United States can build its way out of water crisis and argues that no solution would be more powerful than an ethic for water—embraced not only by citizens, but by government and major water users including the energy and agricultural sectors.
Journalist Brad Tyer moved to Montana looking for big skies, clear waters, and change of scenery. But, soon after he arrived he discovered that “the treasure state” had buried secrets. Opportunity, Montana explores how a century of copper mining devastated the Clark Fork River, which runs through the state of Montana, as it took on the bulk of the pollutants and industrial waste. In the 1980s the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) designated the river as a Superfund site in need of environmental clean-up—one of seventeen in the state. It took twenty years for the EPA and the responsible parties to agree on what to do about it, and another ten before any change would be seen. How do you fix a broken river, Tyer asks? The financial implications, estimated to be 1.3 billion dollars, were just the beginning. First, 400 acres of toxic sediment had to be dug up and disposed of, and as Tyer discovered, mining waste doesn’t go away, it just gets moved and covered up. For the second time in Montana’s copper history, that burden would fall on the small town of Opportunity.
In the last decade, the inventory of dams in the United States has been reduced by nearly 500. Though many of those have been small, privately-owned ventures, the positive impact has led to proposals for larger dam removal projects nationally. In Recovering A Lost River, Hawley advocates for the removal of dams and the restoration of the rich and thriving environments that can be found in and around free flowing water. Assessing the current state of freshwater ecosystems nationally, he reports that a third of freshwater species are threatened or endangered, forty percent of freshwater bodies in America are too polluted for swimming or fishing, and half of the nation’s wetlands are gone. This book is a call to action for overcoming corporate and federal obstacles in order to restore free flowing waterways and reinvigorate long suffering wildernesses.
In 2007, When the Rivers Run Dry was a groundbreaking exploration on the state of water sources around the world, and the looming possibility of a world-wide water shortage. It is now considered to be required reading for anyone looking to understand the water crisis.
In 2012, Fred Pearce revisited the issue of water sustainability in The Land Grabbers, exploring how the need for abundant water in industrial agriculture has resulted in wealthy countries and powerful corporations in need of water seeking to obtain it, while impoverished countries with access to water are looking to profit from it. These practices have led to the exploitation of vulnerable land, people, and water, with the potential for devastating consequences.
In 2001, at the age of twenty-two, Rajeev Goyal joined the Peace Corps. Assigned to teach English in Nepal, he found himself in the remote mountain town of Namje where villagers spend most of their day walking to and from a far-off stream to fetch water. Goyal sets out to create a water project that would pump water directly into the town, in hopes of improving every part of village life, from health and prosperity to education. With the support and dedication of the villagers, the mission is successful, but the long-term consequences of development go beyond anything Goyal could have imagined. The Springs of Namje explores how water can hold back or propel a community forward.
Over the last few months, Chura's blog, Kids in the System, has featured a series called "Teachers in Their Own Words." Chura invited "a variety of teachers from different educational settings to share their experiences, to talk about why they teach and who they teach, and to tell the stories that keep them in the classroom." It's made for enlightening, inspirational reading. We asked him a few questions about the series for Beacon Broadside.
David Chura will speak at the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference in Boston this Saturday, as part of Beacon's panel on Literary Nonfiction and Social Activism. See him—along with Courtney Martin, Michael Patrick MacDonald, Marianne Leone, and Beacon Director Helene Atwan—at 9am Saturday in Room 206, level 2. Get more information on AWP panels featuring Beacon authors, and be sure to visit us in the Bookfair at booth 1214 for author signings and a 35% discount on all books.
What inspired you to ask other teachers to write about their
The educational debate is lively, fierce at times, and filled with
voices—of economists, politicians, business executives, unions, academics,
educational experts. The one voice that is under represented, if not silent, is
that of classroom teachers, the folks on the front lines of education. But that
silence hasn’t been my experience. In my many conversations with teachers that
I know, and in my correspondence with those from across the country who have
reached out to me through the internet, teachers have a lot to say. Yes,
they’re concerned about the policies that are being made about curriculum,
about standardized testing, about teacher evaluation. But what they are really
talking about is what matters most to them: the everyday classroom and the kids
that they teach and nurture and care about, and about how they can do their
best for their students. The absence of teachers’ voices in the educational
debate has bothered and saddened me. In order to break that silence I began the
series, “Teachers in Their Own Words,” inviting teachers to write about what is
most on their minds.
Teaching is a demanding job under the best conditions. How do
teachers who have additional challenges—of teaching kids in lockup, overcoming
ESL difficulties, getting through to kids who have been abused—find the
strength to do what they do?
I think all teachers but especially those working
with special needs students ask themselves that question: how—and why—do I keep
doing this? The answer is pretty simple. They’re nourished by the steps—little steps, big steps, leaps and bounds, and sometimes a
mere eighth of an inch forward—that their students make, students for whom any
progress is a struggle of effort against some pretty hefty odds. Teachers
facing the extra challenge of special needs students learn to appreciate not
just the successes of their students (and there are many) but also to value the
effort that these kids put into their work. Why teach in challenging
classrooms? Galway Kinell put it nicely: “everything flowers, from
within, of self-blessing /though sometimes it is
necessary/to reteach a thing its loveliness.” Who wouldn’t show up day after
day for that?
Given that the educational system is always under heavy scrutiny
and budget pressure, do you think that teachers have to, in some way, be
Being a teacher, almost by definition, means being an activist.
And given the present economic and educational climate, teachers as agents of
change seem even more imperative. For a teacher, that change happens daily in
the classroom as he or she is alert to the needs of students: it may be for a
winter coat, a pair of eyeglasses to see the board, or a dental checkup; or it
may be a need for protection from bullies, from abusive treatment at home, from
danger in the streets on the way to school. Any teacher knows that these needs must
be attended to as soon as possible—there’s no time for the bickering of experts—in
order to ensure student safety and wellbeing. In turn, dealing with those needs
on the everyday level often has compelled teachers to become involved in the larger
national debate on such issues as economic disparity, gun control and health
care. The insights teachers bring to these issues comes from their knowledge and
experience of the whole child and their
firsthand awareness of the impact that these and other social issues have on
kids’ development and education. It’s a perspective only teachers can bring to our
national discourse about what is best for our children. It’s a voice we need to
On Wednesday, President Obama and a bipartisan collection of Congressional leaders paid tribute to the legacy of Rosa Parks by unveiling a statue of her at the Capitol. The 9-foot bronze figure of Parks desegregated Statuary Hall; hers is the first statue of a black woman to be installed at the Capitol and currently the only statue of a black person (a statue of Frederick Douglass is set to be moved there shortly).
Yet, the statue of Rosa Parks—seated and clutching her purse—turned her into a meek and redemptive figure. To the end of her life, Parks believed the United States had a long way to go in the struggle for social and racial justice. Yesterday’s ceremony, however, was largely an exercise in national self-congratulation and a demonstration of American pride and pageantry. It invoked the history of racial injustice to put that history in the past.
“The statue speaks for itself,” House Speaker John Boehner began, noting how its placement in the hall embodied “the vision of a more perfect union.” “What a story, what a legacy, what a country,” Senator Mitch McConnell extolled at the close of his remarks.
As these words were spoken, across the Washington Mall, the Supreme Court heard arguments challenging provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v Holder. Only one speaker at the dedication, Representative James Clyburn, made specific reference to the case, which threatens to undermine the gains that Parks helped bring about.
[Read the rest here]
A scene from the million-person march in Los Angeles in 2006. (Photo: David Bacon)
need an immigration policy based on human, civil and labor rights, which looks
at the reasons why people come to the U.S., and how we can end the
criminalization of their status and work. While proposals from Congress and the
administration have started the debate over the need for change in our
immigration policy, they are not only too limited and ignore the global nature
of migration, but they will actually make the problem of criminalization much
worse. We need a better alternative.
alternative should start by looking at the roots of migration - the reasons why
people come to the U.S. in the first place. Movement and migration is a human
right. But we live in a world in which a lot of migration isn’t voluntary, but
is forced by poverty and so-called economic reforms.
Our trade policy, and the economic
measures we impose on countries like Mexico, El Salvador or the Philippines
make poverty worse. When people get poorer and their wages go down, it creates
opportunities for U.S. corporate investment. This is what drives our trade
policy. But the human cost is very high.
In El Salvador today, the U.S. Embassy
is telling the government to sell off its water, hospitals, schools and
highways to give U.S. investors a chance to make money. This policy is enabled
by the Central American Free Trade Agreement, whose purpose was increasing
opportunities in El Salvador for U.S. investors. It was imposed on the people
of that country in the face of fierce popular opposition.
Alex Gomez, a leader of Salvadoran
public sector unions, came to San Francisco in February to explain what the
consequences of this latest free trade initiative will be. He says if these
public resources are privatized, tens of thousands of workers will lose their
jobs, and their unions will be destroyed. They will then have to leave the
country to survive.
According to Gomez, four million have
already left El Salvador. Two million have come to the US, not because they
love it here, but because they can’t survive any longer at home. These migrants
come without papers, because there are no visas for two million people from
this small country.
The North American Free Trade Agreement
did even more damage than CAFTA. It let U.S. corporations dump corn in Mexico,
to take over the market there with imports from the U.S. Today one company,
Smithfield Foods, sells almost a third of all the pork consumed by Mexicans. Because
of this dumping and the market takeover, prices dropped so low that millions of
Mexican farmers couldn’t survive. They too had to leave home.
Mexico used to be self-sufficient in
corn and meat production. Corn cultivation started there in Oaxaca many
centuries ago. Now Mexico is a net corn and meat importer from the U.S.
During the years NAFTA has been in
effect, the number of people in the U.S. born in Mexico went from 4.5 million
to 12.67 million. Today about 11% of all Mexicans live in the U.S. About 5.7
million of those who came were able to get some kind of visa, but another 7
million couldn’t. There just aren’t that many visas. But they came anyway
because they had very little choice, if they wanted to survive or their
families to prosper.
Our immigration laws turn these people
into criminals. They say that if migrants without papers work here it’s a
crime. But how can people survive here if they don’t work? We need a different
kind of immigration policy - that stops putting such pressure on people to
leave, and that doesn’t treat them as criminals if they do.
What would it look like?
First, we should tell the truth, as the
labor-supported TRADE Act would have us do, which was introduced into Congress
by Mike Michaud from Maine. We should hold hearings as the bill says, about the
effects of NAFTA and CAFTA, and collect evidence about the way those agreements
have displaced people in the U.S. and other countries as well.
Then we need to renegotiate those
existing agreements to eliminate the causes of displacement. If we provide
compensation to communities that have suffered the effects of free trade and
corporate economic reforms, that were intended to benefit U.S. investors, it
would be more than simple justice. It might give people more resources and more
of a future at home.
It makes no sense to negotiate new
trade agreements that displace even more people or lower living standards. This
administration has negotiated three so far, with Peru, Panama and South Korea. It
is now negotiating a new one -- the Trans Pacific Partnership. These are all
pro-corporate, people-displacing agreements. We should prohibit these and any
new ones like them. Instead, we need to make sure all future trade treaties
require adequate farm prices and income in farming communities, promote unions
and high wages, and don’t require the privatization of public services.
Increasingly these international
agreements, like Mode 4 of the World Trade Organization, treat displaced
migrants as a cheap and vulnerable labor force. Our trade negotiators call for
regulating their flow with guest worker programs. This is exactly the wrong
direction. We should ban the inclusion of guest workers in any future trade agreement
or treaty instead.
When diplomacy doesn’t work, U.S.
military intervention and aid programs are to support trade agreements,
structural adjustment policies or market economic reforms. This has been U.S.
policy in Honduras and Haiti, for instance. This also must stop. If the U.S.
Embassy is putting pressure on countries like El Salvador to adopt measures
that benefit corporate investors at the expense of workers and farmers, the
Ambassador should be recalled and the interference halted.
Finally, we should ratify the UN
Convention on the Rights of Migrant Workers and Their Families. This
international agreement would give us an alternative framework for recognizing
the rights of displaced migrants, and the responsibility of both sending and receiving
countries for their protection.
The failure of successive U.S.
administrations to even present this agreement to Congress for ratification
highlights the unpleasant truth about the real effect of our immigration
policy. When millions of migrants arrive here, they are criminalized because
they lack immigration status, especially when they go to work.
Labor and civil rights advocates often
fondly remember the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act because of it had
an amnesty, signed by President Ronald Reagan, which gave legal status
relatively quickly to almost four million people. But the law also contained
employer sanctions for the first time, which we often forget. That provision
says that employers will be fined and punished if they hire undocumented
This provision was promoted by those
who said that if work became illegal, then undocumented migration would end. This
clearly failed, since the number increased many-fold in the years that
followed. Compared to the pressure to leave home, criminalizing work was not a
deterrent to those who sought work here so that their families at home would
This provision sounded like a law
against employers, but it was not. It became an anti-worker law. No boss ever
went to jail for violating it. The fines were not great. When the government
agents seek to enforce it, employers who cooperate with them are forgiven. But
over the last four years alone, tens of thousands of workers have been fired
for not having papers. The true objects of punishment under this law have
always been workers, not employers.
Now Congress is talking about a new
reform, and we have to use this opportunity to push to repeal this law. Some
think that since a new legalization will hopefully give many undocumented
workers legal status, sanction won’t really affect anyone anymore.
But even the most positive predictions
about a new legalization still assume that millions of people will not quality
because of stringent qualifications, high fees and decades-long waiting
periods. Those people will still be subject to the sanctions law. And the day
after a new reform passes millions more people will come to the U.S. because of
the same pressures that caused past waves of migration. This is especially true
if a new immigration reform ignores the need to renegotiate trade agreements
and eliminate the huge displacement of people.
These future migrants are not
strangers. They are the husbands and wives, parents, and cousins of people
already here - people who are already part of our communities. They come from
the same towns, and are linked to neighborhoods here in the U.S. by the ties
that have been created by migration, work and family. They will work in our
workplaces, participate in our organizing drives, and belong to our unions. We
need to keep the sanctions law from being applied to them, making it a crime
for them to work. Unfortunately, however, Congress members aren’t talking about
getting rid of sanctions. In fact, they and the administration want to make the
current application even worse.
So let’s do a reality check. Let’s tell
the truth about how has this law been used.
One method for enforcing sanctions
happens when an employer uses it to screen people it is going to hire, using an
error-filled government database called E-verify. Congress and the
administration are calling for making it mandatory for all employers to use
this database, and refuse to hire anyone who it flags as undocumented.
For people who are currently working
now and have no papers, what it means is that if they lose their jobs, it will
be much hard to find others. That will make people fear taking any action that
offends their boss, like joining a union or complaining about illegal
conditions. That’s good for the boss, but bad for the workers.
Employers today not only use this
database to screen new hires - they also use it to reverify the immigration
status of people who are already working. This is a violation of the law. Once
it accepts the form filled out by a job seeker (called the I-9), along with
their ID, the employer can’t reverify it all over again at some point in the
future. But they do. Sometimes it’s convenient to get rid of workers who have
accumulated benefits and raises over years of service, and replace them with
new hires at lower wages.
Reverification just happened, for
instance, to three workers who belong to the International Longshore and
Warehouse Union at Waste Management, Inc. in San Leandro, California. The union
has gone to the Oakland City Council to protest these illegal firings, because
WMI operates under a city garbage contract.
Employers sometimes announce they
intend to begin using the E-Verify database when their workers start to
organize. That’s what managers announced at the Mi Pueblo supermarkets in
northern California. There E-Verify checks are being used to terrorize workers
to keep them from supporting a union, Local 5 of the United Food and Commercial
Another method for enforcing sanctions
against workers is even more widespread. Immigration agents, working for the
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), go into the personnel records of an
employer. They then compare the information given by workers on the I-9 form to
the E-Verify database, looking for workers who don’t have legal immigration
status. ICE then makes a list of those workers and sends it to the company,
telling the employer to fire them.
This is what happened at Pacific Steel
Castings in Berkeley, California, last year. Two hundred and fourteen workers
were fired as a result. Some had worked in the foundry for over 20 years. Many
lost their homes, and their children’s dreams of going to college were
Over last four years, hundreds of
thousands of workers have lost their jobs in these enforcement actions, called
I-9 audits. Almost five hundred janitors in San Francisco, and over a thousand
in Minneapolis. Thousands of workers doing some of the hardest work imaginable
in meatpacking plants around the country. Farm workers. Construction workers. But
the employers all given reduced fines, and many immunity from punishment
entirely, if they cooperated in firing their own workers.
If unions and communities mount a fight
that exposes the terrible human cost of these firings, it is possible to stop
them. The young Dreamers showed that this is possible. These courageous young
people convinced the administration to stop deporting students brought to the
U.S. without papers as children. They forced the administration to change the
way it enforces immigration law. It can be done for workers too, if there’s a
But we must also change the sanctions
law. Otherwise, our experience over the 25 years since it passed shows that
immigration authorities will simply find another method for making working a
crime for people who don’t have papers.
The other unpleasant truth about
sanctions is that they are linked to the growth of guest worker programs. One
of the main purposes of making it a crime to work without papers is to force
people to come to the U.S. with visas that tie them to their employers and
recruiters. These workers are often more vulnerable than the undocumented,
since they get deported if they lose their jobs or get fired. Guest worker
programs have been called Close to Slavery by the Southern Poverty Law Center
and others who have documented their extreme exploitation. The sanctions law
functions as a way to pressure people into choosing that path to come to the
U.S. to work.
When employer sanctions are used to
make workers vulnerable to pressure, to break unions or to force people into
guest worker programs, their real effect is to force people into low wage jobs
with no rights. This is a subsidy for employers, and brings down wages for
everyone. The sanctions law makes it harder for all workers to organize to
improve conditions. This doesn’t just affect the workers who have no papers
themselves. When it becomes harder for one group to organize, other workers
have a harder time organizing too.
Some Washington lobbyists accept as a
fact of life that the sanctions law will continue, or even worse, that E-Verify
will become a mandatory national program for all employers. But for unions and
workers who have had to deal with its effects , it would be much better to
immediately repeal it, and dismantle the E-Verify database.
The use of the sanctions law against
workers and unions is what led the California Labor Federation to call for its
repeal as early as 1994, a position it continued to adopt in successive
conventions. Other unions joined it including the garment unions and service
employees. Finally labor councils in California and then around the country
passed resolutions making the same call, and sent them to the historic AFL-CIO
convention in Los Angeles in 1999. This led to an historic debate and the
adoption of a new, pro-immigrant policy. Delegates at that convention believed
that we have to stop enforcing immigration law in the workplace, because its
real effect is to make workers vulnerable to employers, and to make it harder
for all workers to organize to improve conditions.
In addition to repealing the national
sanctions law, we should also prohibit states from enacting copycat measures. These
laws have passed not just in Arizona or Alabama or Mississippi. California
passed a state employer sanctions law before the federal law took effect in
What would really help workers to raise
wages and improve conditions is much stricter enforcement of worker protection
and anti-discrimination laws, for everyone. Funding used for immigration
enforcement on the job should be given instead to the Department of Labor, the
Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the National Labor Relations
Board and other labor law enforcement agencies. It will be a good day for all
workers when ICE agents instead become wage and hour inspectors.
Threats by employers who use
immigration status to keep workers from organizing unions or protesting illegal
conditions should be a crime. That makes it necessary to overturn two Supreme
Court decisions, Hoffman and Sure-Tan. In these cases the court said that if
workers are fired for union activity and have no papers, the boss doesn’t have
to rehire them or pay them lost wages, because the sanctions law makes it
illegal to employ them to begin with. But when there’s no punishment for
violating labor rights, workers have no rights. This also hurts other workers
in the same workplace who want to organize a union, since it makes the
undocumented so vulnerable. Instead, we should increase workplace rights by
prohibiting immigration enforcement during labor disputes or against workers
who complain about illegal conditions.
To ensure that in the workplace we all
have the same rights we also have to eliminate the way undocumented people get
ripped off by funds like Social Security and unemployment. All workers
contribute to the Social Security fund, but because undocumented people are
working under bad numbers, they pay in but can never collect the benefits. This
will come back to haunt us when those workers need disability payments or get
too old to work - something that happens to us all. This is the reason we set
up the Social Security system to begin with - because we don’t want old people
eating dog food, regardless of where they were born.
Instead today the Social Security
number has become much more a means to check immigration status, harming
workers instead of providing them the benefits that were its original and true
purpose. There is a simple solution to this problem as well. Social Security
numbers should be made available for everyone, regardless of immigration
status. Everyone should pay into the system and everyone has a right to the
benefits those payments create. By the same token all workers should be able to
receive unemployment benefits regardless of status, since they and their
employers pay into the funds.
In the end, we need an immigration
policy that brings people together, instead of pitting workers against each
other, as our current system does. During a time of economic crisis especially
we need to reduce job competition, rather than stoking fears. In 2005
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston made an innovative proposal that
would have set up job creation and training programs for unemployed workers at
the same time that it would have given legal status to workers without papers. This
proposal put unemployed workers and immigrants on the same side, giving them
both something to fight for whether they were out of work, or working without
This proposal, and the others made
here, are part of the Dignity Campaign, a plan for immigration reform based on
human, civil and labor rights. In the last three years, local unions and labor
councils in San Francisco, Silicon Valley and Alameda County adopted
resolutions supporting the Dignity Campaign, arguing that trade policy is
linked to the increasing vulnerability of immigrant workers because of the
sanctions law and guest worker progrsms. The Labor Council for Latin American
Advancement adopted a similar resolution.
An immigration policy that benefits
migrants, their home communities, and working people here in the U.S. has to
have a long term perspective. Instead of just trying to please interest groups
well-represented in Congress, we need to ask, where are we going? What will
actually solve the problems that we experience on our jobs and in our homes
with current laws and policies?
We need a system that produces
security, not insecurity. We need a commitment to equality and equal status -
getting rid of color and national lines instead of making them deeper. We need
to make it easier for workers to organize, by getting rid of what makes people
vulnerable -- to end job competition we need full employment, and to gain
organizing rights we need labor law enforcement together with eliminating
sanctions and firings. It’s not likely that many corporations will support such
a program, so the politicians who represent us have to choose whose side they’re
Working people in Mexico, El Salvador,
the Philippines, the US and other countries need the same things. Secure jobs
at a living wage. Rights in our workplaces and communities. The freedom to
travel and seek a future for our families, and the ability to stay home and
have a decent future there too. The borders between our countries, then, should
be common grounds that unite us, not lines that divide us.
A millennial examines how his generation is profoundly impacting politics, business, media, and activism
They've been called trophy kids, entitled, narcissistic, the worst employees in history, and even the dumbest generation. But, argues David D. Burstein, the Millennial Generation's unique blend of civic idealism and savvy pragmatism, combined with their seamless ability to navigate the fast-paced twenty-first-century world, will enable them to overcome the short-term challenges of a deeply divided nation and begin to address our world's long-term challenges.
With 80 million Millennials (people who are today eighteen to thirty years old) coming of age and emerging as leaders, this is the largest generation in U.S. history, and by 2020, its members will represent one out of every three adults in the country. They are more ethnically and racially diverse than their elders, and they are the first generation to come of age in a truly global world and in the new digital era. Millennials have also begun their careers in the midst of a recession that has seen record youth unemployment levels, yet they remain optimistic about their future. Drawing on extensive interviews with his Millennial peers and on compelling new research, Burstein illustrates how his generation is simultaneously shaping and being shaped by a fast—changing world. Part oral history, part social documentary, Fast Futurereveals the impact and story of the Millennial Generation—in its own words.
About the Author
David D. Burstein is the founder and executive director of Generation18 and director of the documentary 18 in '08. A frequent contributor to Fast Company, Burstein has appeared as a commentator on youth and politics for a range of publications and media outlets, including CNN, ABC, NPR, the New York Times, USA Today, the Boston Globe, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He lives in New York City.
Susie Bright, in addition to being a best-selling author, activist, and podcast host, is editor at large for Audible. Susie's blog, The Bright List, keeps readers and listeners apprised of new audiobooks.
This is the story of Bill Ayers, a survivor of the American New Left who, years later, was pilloried by the Tea Party, who claimed Chicago Bill was Obama's BFF—a "secret socialist plot!"
All that was nonsense, but here's the real deal: Bill Ayer's life and comradeship is far more interesting than banal White House name-dropping.
Ayers came from a suburban upper-middle-class family, a prep school grad. Nothing in his family predicted: "Will Seize State Power Upon Maturity."
The story of how the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement changed Bill's consciousness forever is one that many of us will identify with. Bill became one of the founders of the Weather Underground and spent seven years in its disciplined cadre—the details are excrutiating.
When it all fell apart, after WU bombings went belly-up tragic, Ayers spent ten years as a fugitive, living underground, nameless. Finally, in the third chapter of his life, he became a indefatiguable public education activist.
How did he survive, what does he revere—and what does he regret?
Ayers is an engaging storyteller who doesn't beg for our sympathy but earns your respect. I first read Bill's book when I was preparing to write my own memoir, which also covers violent and passionate years in the trenches of a minuscule-yet-influential American socialist left.
I wanted to read someone who wasn't going to "skip on the embarrassing parts"—nor someone who lost their mind and became a bliss-ninny. Ayers did not disappoint me. Just reading about how his comrades negotiated their love lives, or the communal housework—in the middle of plotting the overthrow of the United States— had me laughing and crying simultaneously. Been there and survived that!
I'm very very proud to bring this historical book to Audible.
Posters providing help at Rockaway Beach, Queens, NY. (From Bigstock)
This year, thousands of families from Long Island, the Rockaways, Staten Island, and the Jersey Shore were not able to celebrate Thanksgiving at home. For these people, whose houses and apartments were damaged or destroyed during Hurricane Sandy, the long recovery journey is just beginning. Rebuilding poses an array of daunting challenges: insurance proceeds rarely cover costs, destruction lays bare the risk of building anew, and doubt lingers over whether neighbors will return. To make matters worse, national attention moves on quickly after a disaster.
Gulf Coast residents can relate. In the more than seven years after Hurricane Katrina washed away the Mississippi Gulf Coast and flooded much of New Orleans, recovery has been a slow and uneven process. Parts of St. Bernard Parish, the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans East, Waveland, Miss., and other Gulf communities remain as empty as the charred blocks of Breezy Point, Queens. Katrina permanently displaced hundreds of thousands of people. For those who have been able to return, restoring life to flooded neighborhoods has been a trying, all-consuming endeavor. Much of their work remains unheralded; the slow work of reconstituting a community rarely makes for snappy evening news stories.
Lessons from the long Gulf Coast recovery can inform the work that lies ahead for Sandy’s displaced survivors. The most important such lesson is that context matters. What works in one place will not necessarily work in another, and local knowledge is vastly more important than outside expertise or prior disaster recovery experience. New Orleans resident Hal Roark, who worked on recovery efforts with hundreds of his neighbors in the Broadmoor neighborhood, puts it best when he says, “We are the world’s leading experts on Broadmoor.”
Because of a vacuum of city, state, and federal government leadership in Katrina’s wake, New Orleans neighborhood-based organizations carried out much of the city’s recovery work. Their diverse recoveries reflect the importance of tailoring efforts to match physical and social context. Hal’s neighborhood of Broadmoor, a racially and socioeconomically diverse community, based its rebuilding effort on the recovery plan drafted by dozens of resident-led committees and democratically ratified by the neighborhood. In Hollygrove, a predominantly poor and black neighborhood, churches and religious nonprofits drove recovery efforts. Lakeview, a white, upper middle class community, drew on a longstanding neighborhood civic tradition to organize its recovery. Village de l’Est, a far-flung Vietnamese-American neighborhood, coordinated recovery efforts through its 6,000-member Catholic parish. The Lower Ninth Ward, which sustained the most damage of any neighborhood in the city, relied on close coordination between resident-led organizations and massive teams of outside volunteers.
Even counting the inevitable missteps, it is clear that the response to Hurricane Sandy from all levels of government has been vastly better than the response to Hurricane Katrina. However, although mid-Atlantic communities will not have to “go it alone” to the same extent as Gulf Coast communities, much of the onus for post-Sandy recovery will nevertheless fall to the most local level. Residents and community leaders bear most of the responsibility for leading recovery. Government agencies, nonprofits, and grassroots organizations can be valuable partners to flooded neighborhoods, but they will not do most of the heavy lifting.
What kinds of partnerships should residents form with outside groups? In New Orleans, the best partnerships augmented neighborhood capacity, providing a hand up instead of a handout. These partnerships emerged when residents had a firm sense of what they needed in order to drive recovery forward and when outside groups had the good sense to listen to residents instead of dictating assistance on their own terms. Strong neighborhood partners emerged across the organizational and political spectrum, from the anarchist-founded Common Ground Collective to the Shell Oil Corporation.
Strong community partners are also appearing in Sandy’s wake. Volunteers for Occupy Sandy, an outgrowth of the Occupy Wall Street movement, noticed that returning residents needed bleach to disinfect their flooded homes. They launched a trick or treating initiative for supplies across New York City, collecting thousands of half-used Clorox jugs to distribute in Queens and on Staten Island. The tech community has also jumped into the fray. Recovers.org, a web platform that allows communities to host recovery websites matching goods and volunteers to resident needs, has created websites serving Hoboken; Staten Island; Red Hook in Brooklyn, and Astoria in Queens. More neighborhoods hoped to use the service, but the organization reached capacity.
For recovers.org co-founder Caitria O’Neill, the biggest lesson to come out of Sandy is the importance of prior organization. Recovers.org works with communities to set up web portals before disasters occur, so that residents can immediately coordinate recovery work and solicit donations in a disaster’s wake. Caitria and her staff spent sleepless weeks after Sandy setting up the four web pages, all the while aware the communities would be far better served if the portals had been created in advance. “A disaster is like an inverse political campaign,” she explained. “Attention peaks right after it happens, and wanes after that.” A short delay in web presence can mean losing out on the bulk of potential public giving.
New Orleans residents also sing the praises of prior organizing. Neighborhoods with strong pre-Katrina organizations—namely churches and residents’ associations—had a much easier time launching coordinated recovery efforts than did comparatively disorganized neighborhoods. To be sure, though, although a number of less-organized communities faced a longer and bumpier road to recovery, many such neighborhoods have since caught up. No matter how long or hard the process, few in New Orleans who were fortunate enough to rebuild regret their decision.
In the days after Sandy, a touching blog popped up featuring photos of New Orleans residents holding hand-written notes to Sandy survivors. “Believe in your N’hood,” begins one message. “Take it day-by-day. Remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint. Keep believing in the rebuild. You & your neighbors are what will bring your n’hood back.... It’s a long haul for those who are committed, but the emotional payoff is huge.”
By now everyone knows there are four same-sex
marriage ballot initiatives coming up next month. Minnesota’s is the
old-fashioned kind—a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage. Maryland
and Washington will vote on whether to keep from going into effect legislation
passed last term allowing same-sex couples to marry. In Maine, voters will
decide whether to enact marriage equality by popular vote; if it passes, it
will be the first state to grant marriage equality this way. Three years ago,
Maine voters rejected a marriage equality law passed by the legislature.
Of course I hope the Maine initiative is
successful (and that the other measures fail). But I am deeply troubled by an
apparent switch in focus by the campaign for marriage equality. According to
Thursday’s Los Angeles Times, the
campaign manager of Mainers United for Marriage, Matt McTighe, reports that
campaign volunteers going door-to-door talking to voters “talk less about gay
rights and more about marriage as a stabilizing force in society.” In other
words, this fight for marriage equality is less about equality and more about
But what does it mean to sell same-sex
marriage because marriage is a stabilizing force? If we denominate
those who marry the virtuous ones, then those who don’t marry must be
de-stabilizing. I have never understood how this can be a pro-gay message, when
up until recently there have been no same-sex marriages but there have been a
whole lot of long-term same-sex relationships, with and without children,
contributing to civic life and their communities. The gay rights message can’t
be that we think those families were a de-stabilizing force on society because
they weren’t married. So the message must be a dig at heterosexuals who don’t
marry, and that’s the same message right wing organizations use when they blame
single mothers for all our social problems, thereby displacing responsibility
from the income inequality, inadequate education system, race and sex
discrimination, and lack of public support for childrearing that really cause
our nation’s problems. (For more on this, read one of my early blog posts here.)
Long-time marriage equality opponent David
Blankenhorn got a lot of attention this past summer for his conversion to
marriage equality supporter. In a recent video opposing
Minnesota’s constitutional amendment, Blankenhorn explains that he dropped
his opposition because opposing gay marriage was not helping achieve his goals
of having “society renew its commitment to the marital institution” and having
more children grow up in stable two parent homes. In his New York Times
piece explaining his conversion, he called
for a coalition of gay and straight people who want to “strengthen marriage.” And
he tells us what that means. His agenda is: people should
marry before having children and should marry rather than “cohabit.” He
also hopes this coalition will agree that children born from assisted
reproduction should have a “right to know and be known by” those who donated
the semen or eggs that resulted in their birth. (He calls those people “their
biological parents,” but I am more critical of using the word “parent” in this
context.) So by his account, same-sex couples should not live together until
they marry; should not have children unless and until they marry; and should
not use anonymous sperm or egg donors to procreate. With friends like that....
I’m not saying that Mainers United for
Marriage believes those things. But consider its name. Not Mainers United
for Marriage Equality, or even Mainers United for the Freedom to Marry. Mainers
United for Marriage. If you didn’t know otherwise, that could be the name of a
group opposing marriage for same-sex couples, because, after
all, those groups say they are for marriage. I, on the other
hand, am for equality. And proud of it.
Carl Elliott is the author of White Coat, Black Hat: Adventures on the Dark Side of Medicine. Elliott is a professor at the Center for Bioethics at the University of Minnesota. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, the Believer, Slate, the London Review of Books, and theAmerican Prospect. His six previous books include Better Than Well, Prozac As a Way of Life, Rules of Insanity, and A Philosophical Disease.
In June, I will be returning to Washington for the annual Pharmed Out conference, a project located at Georgetown University Medical Center. It is one of my favorite events of the year, in part because of the wide array of academics, journalists, and activists who attend, but mainly because of its extraordinarily committed, outspoken director, Dr. Adriane Fugh-Berman, and her merry band of student volunteers. Adriane agreed to an interview by email.
Would it be fair to say that your project was funded by a felony?
Yes, we were funded by the Attorney General Consumer and Prescriber Grant program, a novel and never-to-be-repeated program that resulted from a settlement between Pfizer and all 50 states and the District of Columbia. We promised so much that before we got the grant, the grant administrators asked us to cut down what we promised to do. We refused — and in the end, we exceeded what we promised.
Just by chance, we had begun our project by shooting an interview of Shahram Ahari — a former drug rep for Eli Lilly who is now a medical student — talking about how he had sold Zyprexa. That was just days before the story broke in The New York Times about how Lilly hid data about adverse effects. Jim Ridgeway, the investigative reporter and filmmaker we worked with, realized that what we had was newsworthy and insisted that we release a quickly edited video clip. We didn’t even have a phone line yet, let alone a Web site. So we released the video on YouTube, crediting the not-yet-existing PharmedOut, with Georgetown’s media office as the contact number. It received a lot of media attention. The video “Zyprexa Drug Rep” has been viewed more than 150,000 times.
Since then, we’ve done novel research on, for example, promotional tone in medical journal articles, and how marketing messages are inserted into CME. We created the first educational module that has convinced physicians that they are personally affected by promotion. And we’ve had groundbreaking conferences, the third of which will be held at Georgetown on June 14-15. It’s called “Missing the Target: When Practitioners Harm More Than Heal,” and will cover the potential adverse effects of marketing drugs and medical devices.
How did you get started as an activist?
I came out of women’s health advocacy work, and we were fighting medicalization of childbirth, menopause, and menstruation, so I feel I always had that bent. Being a reformer suits my crabby nature.
I come from a family of utterly fearless women. I’m the most cautious, but apparently still less afraid than most. My parents were both anti-Vietnam war activists. My mother was very active with Women’s Strike for Peace, and met with Vietnamese women in Djakarta. My brother was president of SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] at Rutgers. I think I learned to walk at demonstrations.
I got involved in feminism, women’s health, worked at Planned Parenthood as a teen, then a reproductive health clinic as a counselor and medical assistant. I would sometimes ask docs to treat women who couldn’t afford care. I decided it would be easier to become a doc then beg docs to help people. Anyone who hasn’t been through medical training romanticizes medicine; med school and internship were so tough in unexpected ways.
I know exactly what you mean, but maybe you should explain.
Med school was anti-intellectual and inhumane. First there was the vast quantity of mind-numbing rote memorization of largely irrelevant material in the basic-science years, followed by the clinical years, in which we learned tradition, myth, and ritual. The overwhelming amount of material in the preclinical years makes students pine for shortcuts. No wonder they’re ripe for the simplistic, definitive messaging of drug reps later. Third year was one long hazing ritual; then in fourth year we were accepted into the fold. And in gratitude, we would accept and perpetuate the whole dehumanizing training system.
Questions were punished. Empathy for patients was discouraged. I was horrified that there seemed to be no connection between medicine and public health, and only a tenuous connection between medicine and science. (Whenever docs are caught out doing something nonscientific, they say, medicine is an art, not a science.) And only lip service was paid to the concept of patient autonomy, or making medical decisions in the context of a patient’s own life and values.
So when they removed your soul in medical school, did it hurt? I was under the impression that soul extraction was a pretty simple procedure, but to be honest, I found it excruciatingly painful.
Yeah, they need to work on the informed consent for that procedure.
I think all of us found ourselves doing things or thinking things we would not have imagined being capable of. Being deprived of sleep, food, and the company of loved ones is terrible for the soul. I remember reading an account of a hungry, exhausted intern who wolfed down the dinner of a patient who had just died. No physician would be proud of that, but we would all understand it. We need to change the training system. Physicians-in-training who are treated compassionately will treat their patients with compassion. Medical training is changing, but not fast enough.
Can you think of any particularly bad moments that seem emblematic to you?
The interns discussing how we envied patients because they were lying in bed and eating and watching TV. It’s terrible looking back on how distorted our thinking was. One of my internship mates ended up in a mental institution; another intern attempted suicide. Standing in a supply cabinet looking for a kit to cath someone who hadn’t peed in 18 hours and realizing, “Hey, I haven’t peed in 18 hours either.” On a psych rotation, handing out an account of a patient permanently damaged by electroconvulsive treatment to fellow students and having them hand it back, saying, “I don’t want to hear the other side if it involves more reading.” Being criticized for putting my arm around a pregnant teen on the way to the exam room. Realizing that preference in IV fluids or antibiotics varied by medical specialty as opposed to patient or disease characteristics. The utter exhaustion — falling asleep on a bus to my clinic for four hours, as the bus crisscrossed the Bronx. The guy I lived with didn’t make it home one night because he fell asleep on a dumpster at a subway station.
What about your writing? When did that start, and how?
I always wrote. I come from a family of writers and activists. Words were important. My father was a professor working on his fourth book on American government when he died at age 39. My mother wrote as well — a column for a small newspaper, letters to the editor. She would have written more had she not been left widowed and penniless with a nine-year-old and a 19-year-old. She never finished a cookbook she started, but my brother, a chef, later wrote one. I was made to write letters as a child, and my family wrote letters to each other. I remember coming home once to an eight page screed from my mother unfurling from a kitchen cabinet.
Anyway, my mother went into the restaurant business, which she ran like a social-service agency. She hired a busboy too damaged to speak, poor single mothers, a prostitute from Chinatown. She brought in chefs from China. Our restaurant launched many others in DC. She was so generous to everyone. We never had money, but we had lots of fun and ate like kings. Food, in my family, was the most important thing. My grandmother believed you should be able to recreate any dish you taste. Not that she deigned to make much non-Chinese food. She did make a great apple pie, from sour, quarter-size apples from a tree in her backyard. I didn’t realize that she had learned to make apple pie in some YWCA American acculturation course she took after coming to the U.S.. As a child I thought apple pie was a Chinese dish. The day my grandmother made a bad dish was the day we knew she was dying.
How have you managed to keep Pharmed Out going?
Those of us who started the project came out of nonprofit groups so we knew how to work crazy hours, convince volunteers to work harder for free than they ever worked for pay, and stretch a penny until it screams. We have an incredibly smart, savvy, responsive, creative team.
Our strength has always been the industry insiders who have provided us invaluable information on marketing practice, and the utter dedication of the doctors, scientists, students, artists and all the individual donors — who have kept the project going despite our having no external funding support since 2008. Every single person whom I paid off the initial grant continued to volunteer for the project after the money ran out. Our Web master supported the site for years; every academic stayed on. Even our work-study student continued to work for free after our funds ran out. Our fabulous anonymous team is what makes this project great. Because so many team members — not just industry — must remain anonymous, we made a decision not to name those team members who could be named. Our staff has been phenomenal. Alicia Bell, now a med student at the Medical College of Virginia, was the founding staff-person who became an amazing colleague over our first four years; without her we would not have achieved the impact we did. Beth Johnson and Nicole Dubowitz have also been great. But every one of our projects is a team effort. As director, I get way too much credit. I have a brilliant, efficient team that reminds me often of one of my mother’s favorite quotes: “The difficult with ease, the impossible with time.”
Delivered at the Colgate University Baccalaureate.
In the early days of Islam, when the Muslim community was small and fledgling, and being harassed and hunted by the powerful tribes of Mecca, the Prophet Muhammad -- may the Peace and Blessings of God be upon Him -- sent a delegation of his companions to a land called Abyssinia.
When they arrived, the Kingdom's ruler, a man known as the Negus, summoned them to his court and demanded they explain their purpose. Ja'far, speaking for the Muslims, said they were followers of the Prophet Muhammad, believers in the One God, reciters of the Quran -- a divine scripture which, among other things, had deep reverence for Jesus and his mother Mary.
...'I am but a messenger Come from thy Lord, to give thee A boy most pure.' She said, 'How shall I have a son whom no mortal has touched, neither have I been unchaste?' He said: 'Even so my Lord has said; "Easy is that for Me; and that We May appoint him a sign unto men And a mercy from Us"...
The sources say that the Negus and his assembled advisors wept so hard at this recitation that their beards were wet and their scrolls were soaked through. The Abyssinians were Christians, and the knowledge that an emerging religious community would hold as holy what they held as holy moved them deeply.
When I first read that story, it occurred to me that there were many ways that those Muslims could have explained their faith to the Negus. They could have shaken their fists and marked their disagreement with the Christian belief that Jesus is the Son of God. They could have wagged their fingers, and lectured the Negus and his court on the distinct notion of revelation in the Quran. Instead, they chose to extend their hand, to speak of the shared reverence for Jesus and Mary, the mutual belief in the virgin birth, the joint view that Jesus was sent by God as a messenger and as a mercy. In other words, the Muslims chose to highlight common ground.
Honestly, I hate the term "common ground." It just sounds boring. Every time it escapes my lips or gets tapped onto my keyboard, I imagine the audience preparing for a snooze. Passion, everyone seems to agree, lies with the partisans -- those who stand at either pole and volley verbal assaults. The only way to generate audience electricity, the most direct route to expressing personal authenticity, is to mark the territory of difference and erect a barrier.
God, I know the satisfaction in that. I've shaken and wagged so many times that I'm surprised I've got fists or fingers left. And precisely because I've exercised those muscles so frequently, I know intimately the many prices to be paid for singing the song of division, especially when it's put to the soundtrack of self-righteousness.
One price is fewer converts to my cause. All of my shaking and wagging has only ever succeeded in ending conversations, and sending people running in the opposite direction. In the history of the world, I don't know if anyone has ever been truly convinced of anything when staring into a shaking fist or a wagging finger.
The price I've been more attuned to recently is of the relationship lost -- the cost of what we might have learned from each other, what we could have accomplished together -- if I had just led with my hand. Wherever you stand on whatever divisive issue the headlines are screaming about -- however much we might disagree on that particular matter -- I want to reject the instinct to dig in there. I want to nurture the discipline to look elsewhere, to find common ground. The Quran says that God made us different nations and tribes so that we may come to know one another, that where there are differences, we should engage them in the best and most beautiful of ways. The term common ground might lack a little electricity -- and I'd be happy to entertain synonyms from this well-educated crowd -- but the idea is holy, and finding it is a spiritual practice. Let me give you an example.
People ask me all the time why, as a Muslim who is concerned about the intersection between religion and politics in the world, I don't talk more about the elephant in the room when it comes to interfaith relations: the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It's not that I don't follow it, or that I don't have a point of view. I don't lead with that because, when it comes to the relationship between Muslims and Jews, there are -- stick with me on this metaphor -- other animals in the zoo. I'd much rather talk about those: the similarities between Jewish law and Muslim law, Jewish practices of charity and Muslim practices of charity, Jewish patterns of integration in America and Muslim patterns. To limit the conversation about a 1,400-year-old relationship between two great faiths that has spanned nations and civilizations and been largely mutually enriching to the experience of a few decades on a single patch of land seems to me narrow. When we concentrate only on the elephant, we not only we ignore the other animals, we also distort them. The more we talk and talk and talk about the elephant, the more every animal starts to look like an elephant.
Similarities between the Muslim view of interfaith cooperation and the Jewish view brought me to Ruth Messinger, President of American Jewish World Service, one of the most inspiring NGOs I know. Ruth has been a mentor of mine for the past 15 years, helping nurture me and Interfaith Youth Core along our journey. She came by our offices a few weeks ago and talked about the holiness of common ground. Someone on my staff asked where she got that conviction, and Ruth told this story.
Her first professional experience was in Western Oklahoma in the early 1960s. She was a Jewish woman from New York City with a graduate degree working for the government -- lots there for the locals to be suspicious about. The best place to do her job happened to be at churches. So she went. A lot. She went to formal brick churches on Sunday mornings, she went to Bible studies on porches on Wednesday evenings, she went to backyard praise gatherings on Thursdays.
I imagine Ruth did not agree with everything she heard, was probably offended by some of it. I imagine a few of the people looked at her crosseyed. But Ruth had something a lot more powerful than political and theological disagreement. Ruth had hundreds of children -- abused, neglected, orphaned children. And she needed to find foster families for them. The evangelical ministers in Western Oklahoma considered this God's work. After the sermons and the songs and the altar calls and the amen choruses, they would stand at the pulpits and point at Ruth and say, "This woman has informed me that there are four of God's children in our community who are hurting and need families to take care of them. I need four families to come forth and volunteer to do God's work with her and me and take them in."
"We always got our families, and it never took long," Ruth told my staff.
How many subjects did Ruth Messinger and those Western Oklahoma evangelicals disagree on? Those arguments could have lasted long into the night. But Ruth Messinger chose to extend a hand instead of wag a finger or shake a fist. Hundreds of children in Western Oklahoma grew up in families instead of orphanages because Ruth Messinger stood on common ground.
When I graduated from college, I had this belief that the whole world was going to take notice of my every move. If I was nice to a homeless person, everyone would be nice to homeless people. I would give the signal, and we would end homelessness. There's a Bob Dylan song about that: "Someday, everything is gonna be diff'rent, when I paint my masterpiece." Took me a while to figure out that it was satire.
Will the headlines about Afghanistan or Iraq or the election be different next month if you extend your hand a bit more? Probably not. Will cable news anchors hang it up when you commit to finding common ground? I'd be lying if I said yes. But sometimes you do things because they are important to do, because they are holy.
As William Carlos Williams writes in "Love Song":
Who shall hear of us in the time to come? Let him say there was a burst of fragrance from black branches.
God grant that we wage the struggle with dignity and discipline. May all who suffer oppression in this world reject the self-defeating method of retaliatory violence and choose the method that seeks to redeem.
Martin Luther King, Jr. From "Thou, Dear God": Prayers That Open Hearts and Spirits.
Lewis V. Baldwin is professor of religious studies at Vanderbilt University and an ordained Baptist minister. An expert on black-church traditions, he is author of The Voice of Conscience: The Church in the Mind of Martin Luther King, Jr.; There Is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr.; and Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. He is the editor of "Thou, Dear God": Prayers That Open Hearts and Spirits, the first and only collection of prayers by Martin Luther King, Jr.
Prayer and nonviolence interacted and influenced each other in King's personal life and in the context of the movement he led. In his "Letter from the Birmingham City Jail" (1963), King spoke of "self-purification" as one of the four steps in nonviolent direct action campaigns, the others being the collection of facts to determine if injustice exists, attempts at negotiation, and direct action. Self-purification actually means the practice of the disciplines of prayer, meditation, fasting, and nonviolence. King's prayers in "Thou, Dear God" constitute a vital part of what he understood as the spiritual dimensions of nonviolence. This is most certainly important for social activists who see a connection between spirituality and their quests for social change and social transformation. Socially active individuals and communities of faith can benefit immensely from a sensitive and careful reading of the prayers in "Thou, Dear God."
A Facebook giveaway to inspire and guide activists: twelve chapters of Playbook for Progressives by Eric Mann, free.
In Playbook for Progressives, Eric Mann distills the lessons learned from his forty-five years as an organizer, as well as from other organizers within the civil rights, labor, LGBT, economic justice, and environmental movements.
This is the first book since Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals written for the swelling wave of dedicated activists—those fighting for affordable housing, ending the mass incarceration of Black and Brown youth, expanding LGBTQ rights, protesting economic inequality, and dozens of other issues—which is why we’ll be releasing twelve chapters from Playbook for Progressives exclusively to our fans on Facebook.
Starting February 6, we’ll post one chapter every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday on the different roles of the successful organizer—twelve chapters in all. (Preview those roles on Scribd to learn more.) If you want to get involved, want to accelerate your level of involvement, or are already on the front lines of the battle and want to push yourself to a higher level of effectiveness, be sure to become a fan of Beacon Press on Facebook and read the twelve roles of the successful organizer!
The Occupy movement, which began in September in New York's Liberty Square and has since spread throughout the country, has a vibrant outpost at Dewey Square in Boston. Last week, UU World editor Chris Walton, Beacon Press Associate Publisher Tom Hallock, Beacon Broadside editor Jessie Bennett, and author Dan McKanan visited the protest on a rainy afternoon. We spoke with protestors, visited the library and donated a few Beacon Press books, and filmed this interview while we were there.
Chris Walton: Your book highlights the religious dimensions of the long history of radical movements in America, and it came out just as Occupy Wall Street was going up in New York. Where would you place the Occupy movement in the American radical tradition?
Dan McKanan: When I think of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Boston, I think all the way back to the 1820s when working people gathered at First Universalist Church in Philadelphia. Wealthy people were consolidating economic activity, and they saw this is a betrayal of the American vision of equality and freedom, and they organized what they called the Working Man's Party. People had a common identity as workers and needed to exercise political power in proportion to that. So this same theme of the ninety-nine and the one is something that's deeply rooted in our history and we have many predecessors to draw inspiration from as we do the work today.
Chris Walton: What's different about Occupy? Is there a way inwhich it's unlike previous progressive movements?
Dan McKanan: The kind of blending on the ethos of the 1930s, when many people were out of work, many people were struggling and organized around that, with the ethos of the 1960s, when college students especially were benefiting from the great economic growth of the previous couple of decades, and were saying, "How can we make sure that that economic prosperity is shared widely?" Now we're seeing a period where all those economic gains of the post-war period are being lost, but we still have that legacy of student activism, so we have chance for really exciting alliances between student activists and persons experiencing homelessness or persons experiencing unemployment... really the whole spectrum.
Chris Walton: I want to ask about the two words in your title. The first one is "prophetic." What do you mean by "prophetic" and how is something like Occupy a "prophetic" movement?
Dan McKanan: When I think of the word "prophesy," I think a lot about the ways people are transformed by their encounters with the divine. And I want to suggest that something like that happens here and happened in the Montgomery bus boycott, happened among abolitionists--white and black people standing together to end slavery. When people encounter one another deeply, when they find the power that they have in fighting against oppression, there's something spiritually transformative about that, something like religious conversion, and I want to celebrate that.
Chris Walton: The other word in your title is "encounters." It clearly has religious dimensions in your book, the way that you use it. In your last chapter, you talk about how the anti-globalization movement, which would seem to be a pretty direct forerunner of this, was more focused on resistance than on encounter. What do you mean when you talk about encounter as a religious term in a political movement?
Dan McKanan: There are three kinds of encounters that have occurred in different social justice movements in U.S. history that are really important.
The first is the kind of encounter--I call it the encounter of identity--when people who've been oppressed, who've been marginalized, come together, share their stories, and claim some sort of new identity. When persons who had been enslaved in this country began calling themselves "African" and prizing that identity. When working people said, "We are working men, we're working people and we're proud of that." That's the kind of encounter of identity.
The second kind of encounter happens when persons of relative privilege see the power that's being generated amongst communities of the oppressed and say, "We want to have a piece of that," and they identify with one particular individual who embodies that. So a lot of people had their lives transformed by the individuality of Martin Luther King or Malcolm X during the 1960s.
And then there are also the kinds of encounters that happen when people immerse themselves in communities in struggle: Catholic Worker houses, settlement houses, people going on pilgrimage to base communities in Latin America, all these are more collective sorts of encounter.
One of the things that happened I think among radical movements in the past thirty years is that we saw an upsurge in a conservative movement in this country, of a sort that was almost unprecedented, and radicals put more and more emphasis on resisting or defeating the Right. So you saw a resurgent religious right, and people said the best we can do is to hold them at bay. There was this motif of resistance and maybe something of a loss of utopian thinking, a loss of really imagining what the alternative would look like. And the way I think we get to that positive vision is through encounter. And so what's really exciting for me about the occupy movement is there's space. People are not just coming to one-off demonstration, they're spending deep time together, developing practices of participatory democracy, sharing the wisdom of tradition and the wisdom of right now in a way that I think will help us to imagine what a world beyond the hyper-capitalist reality we have now could be.
On November 6, Beacon Press editor Alexis Rizzuto was part of the Tar Sands Action protest in Washington, DC. She sat down with our blog editor to discuss the protest and its impact.
Beacon Press editor Alexis Rizzuto
What was the protest about?
It was to tell Obama not to approve the Keystone XL pipeline in Alberta, Canada, proposed by TransCanada corporation to run from Canada to Texas. They are cutting down the boreal forest in Alberta and turning it into a toxic wasteland to get at the oil up there. Which is a hugely intensive use of energy—you have to burn a lot of carbon to get the oil out, and you also have to use a lot of water to extract it and then to refine it. Then the heavy oil is sent through these pipelines.
They had a former union pipeline worker there who used to work for Keystone, John Bolenbaugh. He said that the Keystone 1 pipeline—a smaller one that they had already put in—they had promised that it would only have one leak only every ten to twelve years. In the first year, they had twelve leaks. Because the stuff they're putting in there, called bitumen, is like sandpaper inside the pipes, and it just wears through. Of course they haven’t cleaned it up yet, just covered it up, and people are getting sick.
They are proposing to put this pipeline through Nebraska, Montana, South Dakota, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas. Through wilderness, over waterways, and over the Ogallala aquifer, which provides fresh water for millions of people. So it's an energy-intensive extractive process, the pipeline will certainly leak, and then when it gets to Texas, it will be refined and we'll have more toxic waste down there, and it will use up a lot of water that Texas does not have. Maude Barlow said it takes 2-3 barrels of water per unit of tar sand oil. And in the end, it will just be exported, so we can't really say that it's going to help give the US any energy independence.
Most importantly, the message is that we should not be using energy and contaminating the environment to continue our dependence on fossil fuel (as we are with fracking for gas and mountaintop removal mining for coal) when we should instead be putting our federal resources behind developing our alternative energy sector—as we are behind most other industrialized countries in doing.
How many people were there?
Twelve thousand people showed up for this protest. The idea was to have us encircle the White House completely. Bill McKibben, who was the organizer and emcee, said that he was originally thinking that in order to get all the way around the White House, we were going to have to stretch out our arms to try to touch each other. But in fact the circle around the White House was three people deep, and he said this had not been done since Viet Nam.
What types of people did you see there?
There were little kids, college kids, parents, older people, a great diversity of age and of ethnicities. Labor leaders, Nebraskan farmers, Native Americans, even several Army officers in full dress came out to support us. (One of them was Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell activist Lt. Dan Choi.) The group that I was marching with happened to have some people with great voices, so we were singing, "If I Had a Hammer," in harmony. The speakers were powerful. They had Gerald Amos, a leader from the First Nations in Canada, author Maud Barlow, and John Adams, former director of the NRDC, who is our own author. [John Adams HuffPo post on the protest: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-adams/tar-sands-pipeline-protes_b_1079733.html] Reverend Jim Wallis, he really got people fired up! Van Jones sent a statement, calling for us to support the president when he’s right and oppose him when he’s wrong. And calling for us to oppose this with civil disobedience if it goes through. I think most of us would be ready to stand in front of bulldozers.
There were three people dressed up like polar bears. And someone had a huge beach ball that looked like a globe, and a sign that said, "Occupy Earth."
One of our chants was, "Stop the Pipeline. Yes we can!" Because Obama asked us to be the change, so we were like, "Here we are, dude. Can you hear us now?"
Yes, it is a victory in that Obama has sent the project back for further environmental study, which will take over a year. The delay—and a more honest, independent assessment than was done before-- will most likely kill the project. So people are considering this a win in the US. And I am glad that Obama acted as the leader we elected him to be.
However, the tar sands are still being extracted in Alberta, and TransCanada is trying to build a pipeline west to the Pacific, to export the oil to China. Many Canadian tribes (whose land this will go through) are fighting it.
So, we need to support the Canadian efforts against pipelines from the tar sands to the Pacific, however we can. Eva Saulitis sent me a list of organizations working on the issue, including dogwoodinitiative.org and ecojustice.ca.
Photos from the protest by Alexis Rizzuto.
Recent Beacon Press titles edited by Alexis Rizzuto:
Rita Nakashima Brock, PhD is Founding Director of Faith Voices for the Common Good (www.faithvoices.org). Her latest book, Saving Paradise, co-authored with Rebecca Parker, was chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the best books of 2008.
Wednesday, I hopped on a city bus and headed to Frank Ogawa Plaza at Oakland city hall for a liberation Bible Study led by the Seminary of the Street whose motto is "Meet Us at the Corner of Love and Justice!"
I never made it to the Bible study. Instead, I got pulled into a heated conversation with the legal advisor for Mayor Jean Quan, Dan Siegel, who is a labor rights and sex discrimination attorney of 35 years. A young man showed Siegel a huge dark mottled bullseye-shaped bruise that covered his left midsection, caused by a rubber bullet. Siegel had been at the protests Tuesday night, witnessed the unwarranted police violence against demonstrators, and was tear-gassed himself. He did not defend the city's actions and made it clear his advice had been not to conduct the raid. He urged us to come back every evening and grow the movement.
I think the 99% Movement may wind up being Obama's greatest legacy, partly because he has disappointed so many on issues such as health care, financial reform, and the wars. We are going to have to create change we can believe in.
On election day in 2008, I worked in Oakland at a polling place near downtown. An enormous number of determined, hopeful young people cast their ballots that day. I remember thinking at the time that the Obama campaign had trained an entire generation of idealistic young people into a hard-core, boots-on-the-ground, community-organizing style of activism. Then, he had delivered to them the biggest success of their lives. Whatever happened in his presidency, they were never going to forget how it felt to succeed, and they were going to be a trained, effective generation of activists. They were going to understand how much intense work social change requires. They were going to have enough skills to negotiate complex differences, listen respectfully, and work really, really hard for months and months.
The 99% Movement I have been seeing in Oakland has that bedrock of good will, determination, and complexity. Its processes of consensus, its liturgical style of discussion--the people's mic--that requires the crowd to listen carefully to the speaker and repeat their words out loud so they can be heard, and its surprising patience with process and decision-making make it a different kind of movement that is puzzling to pundits. It has no messianic leader but a lot of good thinkers and leaders, no single issue with a list of demands but a lot of things they want done, and no one lead organization but a vast coalition of groups.
Anger there is, for sure, and it erupted Wednesday around a rush to take down the cyclone fence the police had erected around the site of the occupation. The conflict started near where I was standing. A back and forth physical struggle over the fence lasted a half-hour before it was dismantled and the parts were neatly stacked in piles. But the anger about the fence lacked a hard self-righteousness I've seen often among activists. Instead, the anger of those attacking the fence came from sorrow. The first few to attack the fence said they had been camping since the first day. They felt as if their home and neighborhood had been destroyed--it was a real community when I visited it on its fifth day, complete with a children's play tent, Sukkot Booth, and first aid station. Those opposing taking down the fence didn't want to provoke any more police violence. The argument about the fence at Occupy Oakland on Facebook (which doubled its members between Tuesday night and Thursday morning) did not dissolve into polemical posturing, but remained a debate with a lot of points of view and calls for respect.
Ogawa Plaza was filled last night with so many fierce, determined young people. The younger men are not the kind of males I demonstrated with in my generation who tended to ignore or shove the females aside. And the women exhibit confidence--I saw quite a number of courageous women calling for nonviolence and standing up to angry men. At one point, when I wanted to ask Dan Siegel a question, I was too short to be seen and too far back to be heard, so I asked my question to a tall young white man standing next to me thinking he might ask it. Instead, he pressed politely several times saying "this lady has a good question; let her ask it." And I got my chance.
At first the prohibition on amplified sound at Occupy Wall Street was seen as a handicap that led to the "people's mic" in which people have to speak in short phrases and everyone repeats their words. This ancient liturgical method has forced deeper listening and respect for speakers, and it has created a movement comfortable with complexity and patient with process. Without amplified sound, the 99% Movement has used, instead, the largest most effective microphone ever invented, the internet, and it's an international sound system.
At the end of the General Assembly in Oakland last night, someone announced that a message of support and solidarity had come from organizers in Tahrir Square, who were planning a march for Oakland on Friday. A huge roar of joy and jubilation erupted, then people headed to the BART station to join the protesters in San Francisco, where police were gathered in force to evict the occupation. In response, the Oakland police closed all the nearby BART stations. An Occupy Oakland Facebook post Thursday morning said that the eviction was called off because there were too many protesters--including members of the city Board of Supervisors who sat with the protesters.
As I was leaving downtown Oakland to catch a bus home, I saw an older man in a blue suit and tie, carrying a sign, "I am 65 and retired. I have 4 grandchildren and I'm with the 99%." Whatever happens in this election year, the new generation of activists I've seen in Oakland are my reason for hope, and there's room here for all ages. Together, we must create the changes we believe in.
When I was in high school, civil disobedience excited me. I participated in a school walkout in protest of the Iraq War, staged a demonstration outside of a conference for anti-gay "reparative therapy," and regularly got together with friends to make T-shirts boasting our political positions. Though the underlying political motives behind these actions were sincere, I recognize in hindsight that a big part of why I was drawn to such activism was that it hinged on solidarity and cooperation.
I was reminded of these efforts this weekend, when I decided to take my Saturday night off to check out the Occupy America (a national movement born out of Occupy Wall Street in New York City) effort in my city.
I decided to go because I have been tracking it online for some time, and many of my friends and peers have been involved from the beginning. While the participants I encountered on Saturday ranged in ages, Occupy America has frequently been referred to as a "youth-driven" movement, and the statement isn't without merit. Though participation has been and continues to be intergenerational, there seems to be a particularly strong representation from young people.
As a 24-year-old, I'm part of the Millennial Generation -- the generation following Generation Y, born in the 1980s and 1990s. We're a generation that, according to studies by Pew and others, is supposed to be unconcerned and unengaged with the political process. Yet we defied such classification by coming out in droves for the 2008 Presidential election, and I believe that the Occupy America movement is demonstrating once more that we can surprise prognosticators and muster up unanticipated energy and organization to mobilize for social change.
Still, we remain a generation that is, in some ways, defined by apathy. This is perhaps no more obvious than it is in Millennials' relationship with religion.
Some 22 percent of Americans age 18-29 report having no religion. However, only about 2 percent of Americans describe themselves with labels such as atheist, agnostic or Humanist. That suggests that the majority of nonreligious Americans consider themselves either spiritual but not religious, religious but not practicing, or irreligious and apathetic.
This certainly seems to be the case among many people I know. Many people I talk with across the country say that religion doesn't concern them and is unimportant; they claim to not even think much or care much about religion.
But what this irreligious, apathetic stance toward religion and the religious doesn't account for is the fact that we live in a world where many people do think and do care about religion -- a lot. Even in America, religious fundamentalism is experiencing a radical surge. The 2010 Pew study on American Millennials found that not only is "the intensity of [religious Millennials'] religious affiliation... as strong today as among previous generations when they were young," but that "levels of certainty of belief in God have increased" and that religious Millennials are "more inclined than their elders to believe their own religion is the one true path to eternal life." Sociologists once predicted that religion would decline as a result of modernization, but precisely the opposite phenomenon has occurred as religious movements have grown by leaps and bounds in recent decades both in the United States and around the world. Sociologists, as such, have since changed course on those predictions. As Peter Berger recently wrote in The American Interest: "Most sociologists of religion... [have] looked at the world and concluded that secularization theory -- that is, the thesis that modernization necessarily leads to a decline of religion -- does not fit the facts of the matter."
It seems that, for now anyway, religion is unlikely to become irrelevant. And in a world where religious conflict is in the headlines on a daily basis and religious illiteracy is widespread, it actually feels increasingly relevant. The dangers of acting like it isn't are clear: when fraught issues related to religion arise, being unable to contextualize them or understand their implications makes it difficult to know how to respond.
This is why I've committed myself to the cause of encouraging interfaith cooperation. Cultivating positive relationships between people of diverse religious and nonreligious identities not only helps prevent conflict by creating invested relationships -- it also combats ignorance by giving people the opportunity to educate one another about their beliefs and backgrounds.
The night I spent at Occupy Boston was eye opening. Seeing the general assembly meeting and all of the structure on site -- including my friends at the Protest Chaplains tent--was fascinating. Everyone had a role in helping things run, and everyone had a voice.
As an interfaith activist working to mobilize people from diverse religious and nonreligious backgrounds toward cooperation, it was an inspiring sight. The collective commitment to work together and give voice to the disempowered was a testament to the power of uniting people from different backgrounds for a common goal. Like the interfaith coalition that led the American Civil Rights movement, there was a recognition that success will require respecting the many different reasons people come to the table.
Unless we strive to understand people's religious beliefs and practices, efforts that hinge on solidarity will fail. Without knowing and understanding the spectrum of moral and religious beliefs that compel people to act, we will remain siloed. As the Occupy America movement continues to occupy our collective moral imagination, coming together to talk about our convictions, our challenges, and our values seems more important than ever.
We, as Millennials but also as Americans, must reject apathy -- about politics, yes, but also about religion.