Saturday, July 30, 2011

(Jesus Christ) Tim DeChristopher, Who Are You, What Have You Sacrificed?

Supporters at Tim DeChristopher's sentencing
Tim DeChristopher seems to have grown up a lot in the last two years.  That’s what you would expect, from a 29-year-old who spent his last years since college facing the possibility of a long prison term.
Days after foiling a government auction of oil and gas drilling rights in the closing days of the Bush administration, DeChristopher told Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman:

“I’ve seen the need for more serious action by the environmental movement and to protect a livable future for all of us. And frankly, I’ve been hoping that someone would step up and someone would come out and be the leader and someone would put themselves on the line and make the sacrifices necessary to get us on a path to a more livable future. And I guess I just couldn’t wait any longer for that someone to come out there and had to accept the fact that that someone might be me.”

At that time, I thought, Hey, hold on a minute.  A lot of people have been doing a lot of environmental activism for a long time.  You might not know about them, and obviously they weren’t there in the auction hall that day, but one bold action doesn’t make you the leader of the movement.  I thought he was being awfully dismissive of people with good reasons not to risk spending years in prison, and was also ignoring the importance of collective action.

In his sentencing speech, he spoke more carefully, saying he was willing to go to prison if it inspires others to act.  In a video made shortly before his last court date, he said others who have gone to prison for acts of conscience have told him that knowing you are there for what you believe in makes it easier to do the time.  In that he is certainly right.  During the month I spent in jail in Israel, I felt what a privilege it was to be in jail for doing something I wanted to do, that I was proud of doing.

DeChristopher has a lot to be proud of.  He made a concrete difference, protecting at least 22,000 acres of land from drilling, much of it permanently.  He has certainly motivated others to take actions they would not have taken otherwise – like the 26 people arrested outside the courthouse on Tuesday.

He also has a lot to think about.  There is almost never a direct correlation between one person’s major sacrifice and the growth of a larger movement.  I talked about that a few weeks ago, in my rundown of hunger strikes, some successful and others spectacularly not.  Tim DeChristopher is going to jail for an impulsive act of courage.  He did not plan it ahead of time; it’s not even clear he knew how big a risk he was taking. 

For me there’s a deep irony in the timing of DeChristopher’s two-year sentence.  Josh Fattal and Shane Bauer have been in prison in Iran for exactly two years this week.  Josh and Shane too, are imprisoned for an impulsive act – the decision to go hiking on a certain trail in Iraqi Kurdistan, on a certain day, when they happened to be spotted by Iranian border guards who decided to make them political pawns.  But unlike DeChristopher, they did not get to choose their battle.  They are imprisoned for the crimes of the U.S. government, crimes they have spent their adult lives opposing.

Sarah Shourd, who was arrested with Shane and Josh, was released last September.  I worked with Sarah on an action protesting five years of the Iraq War in 2008.  Because I knew her slightly, I have been haunted by the plight of the hikers for two years.  As I did when Lori Berenson was arrested in Peru, I constantly reflect that their fate could have been mine, if I’d been less lucky in a few situations.  And I often think about how sad it is that three young lives have been interrupted for no good reason, that they do not have the comfort of knowing they are standing up for what’s right.  They, like so many others in prisons all over the world, were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I hope DeChristopher will be able to use his time in prison well and will come out convinced that what he did was right for him.  To a great extent, whether he accomplishes what he wanted to – to spark a more militant movement, is now very much out of his hands.  That’s one of the problems of acting on your own; you might find out that you were too far ahead of the people you wanted to lead.  Certainly the prosecutors and the judge in his case intended, by imposing such a harsh sentence, to make sure that others don’t follow his example.  The Daily Utah Chronicle reported

“Inside the courtroom, prosecutors said DeChristopher’s sentence would act as a deterrence to others from conducting similar acts of civil disobedience.
‘Significant acts lead to significant consequences,’ prosecutors said.”
A spokeswoman for Peaceful Uprising, a group that DeChristopher helped to found, made this “official statement” as she left the courthouse:

“Consider this your call to action. Consider this the spark that will ignite this movement. Our hearts are broken today, because we see a charismatic, bright, concerned man who cares for the future of the next generation, be incarcerated in federal prison and treated like a criminal. If there was ever a day, if there was ever a moment in history for us to stand for climate justice, this is that moment. And we will not stop, we will not be intimidated…” 
A thoughtful writer on the blog wonders whether people are really ready to take up the challenge DeChristopher threw down .

“Activists around the world, and DeChristopher especially, are saying that won’t silence us and will only trigger more and stronger action. The overall message and hope is that his 2-year sacrifice (which you really have to honor him for being willing to take) is going to stimulate more change and more success than would have occurred otherwise. My question is: will it, really?
“It’s easy for people to get up in arms at the news and say it will, but it’s going to be pretty darn hard to get people off their asses and doing anything comparable to what DeChristopher was willing to do.”
But one thing people should realize, and which hopefully DeChristopher now realizes, is that successful movements are composed of people willing and able to take different levels of risk.  Not everyone who was inspired by the Freedom Riders became one.  Some did, but others gave their Saturdays to picket at Woolworths, or traveled South for Wednesdays in Mississippi.

The other day, I heard Bay Area activist Brian Willson talking about his book, Blood on the Tracks.  The title refers to an action he took in 1987, when he sat in front of a train carrying weapons from the Concord Naval Weapons Station to be shipped to Central America and elsewhere.  The religious witness known as the Nuremberg Action Group had been blocking weapons trains for weeks, and every time, the train would stop and police would come and drag the people off the tracks.  But this time the Naval Command decided to teach the protesters a lesson.  They ordered the train crew not to stop.  The other blockaders scrambled away, but Brian could not.  He lost both legs.

I knew the story well – I was out of town when it happened but I had been very involved in organizing the campaign to stop weapons shipments from CNWS.  I well remembered the action the next day, when thousands dismantled a section of the tracks, an action for which only one person was prosecuted.  What he said that I didn’t remember was that it was only after he was injured that activists began a 24-hour-a-day peace camp there, escalating from blocking some of the trains to blocking every single one for months.

This week, Tim DeChristopher starts his prison term knowing he inspired several hundred people to come to court to support him, and 26 of them to get arrested for blocking the entrance to the courthouse.  Hopefully when he is released, whether it’s in two years or sooner (he is planning to appeal), he will feel good about what came from his sacrifice.

Hopefully Josh and Shane will be released tomorrow or very soon thereafter – they are supposed to be brought to “trial,” and their lawyer thinks that even if convicted of being spies – which they definitely are not, they might be sentenced to time served.  When they get home, hopefully they will be able to turn their ordeal into something they can be proud of.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Song of Norway

U.S. Americans on the left love to romanticize Europe in general, and the Scandinavian countries most of all. They have such a nice social safety net, high taxes, gay marriage, sex-change operations. They abjure violence, are neutral in World Wars, give out the Nobel Peace Prize. Plus they’re the source of those great Dragon Tattoo books we’re all reading, and the Wallander mysteries we love to watch on PBS.

Thanks to Anders Behring Breivik, we’re seeing another side of Scandinavia. It’s a side that closer observers have been talking about for a while. Between September and November of 2010, nearly every news outlet had a story hailing the arrival of far-right politics in Sweden, after the Swedish Democrats won ten seats in Parliament. By that time, Norway’s Progress Party held nearly 23% of the seats, making it the nation’s second largest party.

How could this be happening in the countries we so admire, and how could something nearly as terrible as the Oklahoma City bombing occur in a country so humane that its prisoners get to go horseback riding and use the internet?

In May of this year, the MiRA Resource Centre for Black, Immigrant and Refugee Women in Norway published an article entitled, “Welfare state and immigration: Non European nationals as second class citizens?” They were responding to a government report on Welfare and Migration.

“The Norwegian welfare model is, in the Welfare and Migration report, defined as dependent on high level of participation in employment and a relatively equal distribution of income in order to keep a generous and universal supply of welfare to all citizens. Immigration, according to the rapport, can contribute to the labour market with proficiency, labour and innovation, and can therefore be strengthening the welfare state. However, if the immigrants are not gainfully employed, they will become a double loss for the Norwegian state with increased welfare expenses and reduced tax incomes. As a result, migration would not be profitable for the Norwegian economy. Therefore, the Welfare and Migration Committee recommends active integration of migrants within the workplaces in order to rescue the welfare state. The committee also proposes that the various economic benefits such as child welfare allowance to the immigrant communities could be converted into the provision of employment or qualification programmes which can result in creating job participation. It means in practice that if the immigrant women are unemployed, they would not be qualified for welfare allowances like their ethnic Norwegian sisters.

“We are … sceptical to some of the recommendations which portray immigrants who become unemployed due to various factors among them discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion and the colour of skin, as a burden to the welfare state.”
In 2000, newspapers and scholarly journals of Europe were filled with articles on “demographic change.” What this referred to was the anticipated arrival of the baby boomers at retirement age, without leaving enough replacement workers because of the declining birth rates. The fear was that this would result in both a labor shortage and the depletion of the pension funds. One of the major remedies for this coming catastrophe was to encourage immigration from less wealthy areas.

“Today, there is a growing awareness in the EU that there are at least two major policy issues in relation to population ageing. These are the ageing of the workforce and the risk of growing imbalances in the financing of the social protection. … There is a growing awareness that restrictive immigration policies of the past 25 years are no longer relevant to the economic and demographic situation in which the Union now finds itself.”
EXPERT GROUP MEETING ON POLICY RESPONSES TO POPULATION AGEING AND POPULATION DECLINE, Department of Economic and Social Affairs United Nations Secretariat, New York, 16-18 October 2000

The strategy worked brilliantly. War, climate change and global economic instability were boons for the European population crisis. Between 1995 and 2010, the immigrant population of Norway rose by nearly 250%. Over half of the 234,000 new immigrants were from other European countries, with Poland, Bosnia-Hercogovina, Kosova and Russia accounting for just over 85,000. Asia accounted for over 147,000 and Africa more than 50,000, so these “undesirable” and heavily Muslim immigrants combined to represent almost twice as many of the new Norwegians as people coming from other Western European countries.

In 2004, Italian Prime Minister Sergio Berlusconi offered a “baby bonus” to counter the declining birth rate caused by a majority of (Christian) Italian women choosing not to have children. When he learned that Muslim families had claimed the bonus, he tried to get them to return it.

In 2006, a number of European online papers published a screed against Muslim immigrant youth entitled “Swedish Welfare State Collapses as Immigrants Wage War.”  The "article" claimed that Muslim "gangs" were robbing Swedes as a form of warfare against "the Swedish model."

Flash forward to late 2009, when even the prosperous European nanny states were feeling the ripple effects of the U.S. financial debacle. European scholarly journals are full of articles with titles like, “Migration and welfare state solidarity in Western Europe”:

“In recent decades Western Europe has had to face increasing migration levels resulting in a more diverse population. As a direct consequence, the question of adequate inclusion of immigrants into the welfare state has arisen. At the same time it has been asked whether the inclusion of non-nationals or migrants into the welfare state may undermine the solidaristic basis and legitimacy of welfare state redistribution. Citizens who are in general positive about the welfare state may adopt a critical view if migrants are granted equal access.” (Steffen Mau, University of Bremen, Germany, July 2009)

“We find (1) that people who hold both negative views about immigrants generally tend to be less supportive of income redistribution, and (2) that they become even less supportive if they perceive a high share of immigrants in the population.” (C. Senik, H. Stichnoth, K. Van der Straeten, 2008)

It’s easy for us to believe that the U.S. has a monopoly on racism and immigrant-bashing. But it helps to remember that the Anglo-Saxon population of this country came from the Northern European countries in the first place, many of them escaping persecution for fairly minor differences. These societies have been notoriously homogeneous. As increasing migration into and across Europe brings waves of economic and political refugees, many of them darker skinned and/or practicing Islam, those countries start to look a lot more like this one.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Keep your gay marriage, give me my Social Security

I don’t have a partner. Maybe that’s why I’m not excited about President Obama’s endorsement of the Respect for Marriage Act, introduced by Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Or maybe it’s because I know that close to half of all marriages end in divorce, a majority of U.S. households are headed by unmarried people, and about a quarter of the adult population has never been married. In some communities, and notably the African American community, those numbers are much higher.

So increasingly, the campaign for same-sex marriage is not about extending the rights of the majority to a minority, but about further enshrining the privileges of a shrinking minority.

But in fact, the benefits marriage activists seek are waning by the day. By the time gay elders can claim each other’s Social Security and Medicare benefits, those benefits will have been eviscerated. Social Security, as we all know, is probably at this moment being sacrificed on the altar of deficit reduction (which, of course, it has nothing to do with). While same-sex-marriage advocates insist that marriage rights will guarantee the right of immigrant couples to live together, immigrant families all over the U.S. are fighting to stay together and out of jail. The Obama administration has deported and detained far more immigrants – including legal immigrants - than the Bush administration did.

I expected Wednesday's headline to be, “Obama caves in on budget deal.” Instead, the headline was “Obama backs same-sex marriage.” Coincidence? I don’t think so. Gay marriage is being used as a distraction to appease liberals.

Gavin Newsom, who was elected mayor of San Francisco on a pro-corporate, anti-homeless platform, used same-sex marriage to liberalize his image. In 2003, Newsom fairly narrowly defeated Green Party candidate Matt Gonzalez, winning 53% of the vote after polls a day earlier showed a virtual tie. In 2007, fresh out of alcohol treatment and having being caught having an affair with a (female) employee who was married to one of his top aides, Newsom was reelected with 73% of the vote. The difference? Gay marriage.

Here’s how his own website (he’s currently Lt. Governor, after precipitously pulling out of the governor’s race without explanation), describes his mayoral career:
“In 2003, after a fiercely-contested race, Newsom was elected the youngest Mayor in San Francisco in more than a century.
“After only 36 days as mayor, Newsom gained worldwide attention when he granted marriage licenses to same-sex couples. This bold move set the tone for Newsom’s first term.…
In 2007, Newsom was re-elected with more than 73% of the vote.”
Same-sex marriage is an easy fix. It doesn’t cost anything, and a majority of the public, including a slim majority of Republicans, supports it.

I do too. Of course, I do. I’m a lesbian and I’m in favor of equal rights for everyone in all spheres. But it’s basically worthless to most people, including most gay people. I won’t even go into the ways in which it reinforces inequality. (I and plenty of others have gone into that at length over the years.  My point here is that the LGBQ community must not allow our fight for civil equality to be used to distract from the fight to the death, or really against death, that everyone in this country is in right now – a fight for our very survival.

Consider the moment. The latest poll shows Obama in a dead heat with GOP presidential front-runner Mitt Romney. 19 different polls show that a vast majority of Americans, somewhere between 62% and 80%, favor raising taxes on the wealthy to fund services and balance the budget. Obama refuses to do that. His one big legislative victory since taking office has been the health care reform bill. Who created the program that was based on? Hint: Romney’s Republican opponents have taken to referring to the Massachusetts health care plan as “Obamney Care.” So Obama needs something to separate himself from the Mormon Romney, and even just not being against gay marriage wouldn’t do it, because Romney has refused to take the “anti-gay marriage pledge” and offends "family values" voters by defending the separation of church and state.

Queer communities have been hit as hard in the recession as other communities - necessarily so, because we are part of every community. San Francisco’s cutting edge network of services for LGBT people and HIV-affected people, built through decades of community activism, agitation and organizing, has been largely decimated in the last two years. New Leaf, a 35-year-old San Francisco center serving the LGBT community with mental health, substance abuse, and HIV/AIDS services closed in October of last year. Lyon-Martin Clinic, the first lesbian- and trans-focused clinic in the country, nearly closed last year and is still on shaky ground. Just hours before the New York legislature passed the marriage equality bill, activists gathered in front of the Stonewall Inn, where the modern LGBT movement was born, to demand funding for programs for homeless LGBT youth.  Roughly 1,000 queer youth go without shelter every night in New York City, and Governor Cuomo recently cut the funding for youth shelters in half.

This is far from the first instance of minority groups winning rights as those rights, only to find their victories virtually hollow.

The standard of living for most Black South Africans has worsened considerably since apartheid was toppled. In the U.S., nearly fifty years after the Civil Rights Act was enacted, Black families with children have median incomes roughly half those of white families. Black children are three times as likely as white children to live in extreme poverty; 40% of Black children under 5 are living in poverty.

I’m not suggesting that the fight for same-sex marriage is the same as the fight for African American civil rights or the liberation of South Africa. But we should be aware of those histories, as well as many more. The unemployed youth of Egypt and Tunisia are now realizing that it’s easier to bring down a dictator than it is to break the stranglehold of neoliberal economic policies.

LGBTQ people need to keep our eyes on the real prize and not be fooled by the shiny decoy. If we don’t, the couples making their way to New York to take those marriage vows will soon be selling their wedding rings to keep each other in cat food.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

10 Things I Don’t Understand About the Debt Ceiling Debate

Bay of Rage protest against
budget cuts in Oakland
1. Why the Republicans can get away with claiming that the entire debt is the fault of a president who has been in office for two years.

2. Why there are so many different polls on raising the debt ceiling, when no one cares what the people think anyway. See, for example, , ,

3. Why people (including the Obama administration) are not demanding that Congress cut its own salaries to be equivalent to the average Social Security payments (without cost of living increases).

4. Why the mainstream media never seem to ask people like Boehner, Kyl and deMint why they voted for debt increases seven times under Bush, while grilling Obama about why he voted against it once.

5. What the people who are pushing for huge spending cuts, no tax increases and a balanced budget really really think is going to happen if they win.

6. Why there don’t seem to be any women economists writing about it.

7. Why if the Progressives Caucus is the biggest caucus in Congress (83 members, compared to 26 Blue Dogs and 53 Tea Party Republicans), it has the least power.

8. What ever happened to those polls showing that Americans like socialism better than capitalism?

9. Why a political ruse like the McConnell plan can work when everyone knows about it.

10. Why #debt or #budget deal are not among the top trending subjects on Twitter right now.

Best thing I heard in the last week (or maybe in the last year):

It turns out that “Gilligan’s Island” was really anti-colonialist social commentary. Sherwood Schwartz, who created the show along with “The Brady Bunch,” said so. “‘I knew that by assembling seven different people and forcing them to live together, the show would have great philosophical implications,’ he told Time magazine in 1995. ‘On a much larger scale this happens all the time. Eventually, the Israelis are going to have to learn to live with the Arabs. We have one world, and “Gilligan’s Island” was my way of saying that.’” Honest. That was in his obituary last week.

Schwartz must have been right, though, because the show only lasted three seasons and probably has the best-known theme song in history.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The uses and abuses of hunger strikes

Hundreds of California prisoners are entering their third week of a hunger strike to win five eminently reasonable demands related to conditions in the Secure Housing Units (SHUs). 
According to solidarity committee members, many of the men (and possibly some women) are in serious medical danger.  On Democracy Now! on Friday, solidarity committee spokespeople Dorsey Nunn and Molly Porzig said that some of the strikers are near death.
I’m really upset to hear that, because it’s very clear that as of now, there is nowhere near the type of mobilization outside the prisons that will be needed to win significant concessions from the California Department of Corrections.  The reason there’s a federal receiver for health care in California prisons is because, according to the judge, “on average, an inmate in one of California's prisons needlessly dies every six to seven days due to constitutional deficiencies in the CDCR's medical delivery system.”    Now the spokesperson for the receiver told the San Francisco Chronicle that “They have the right to choose to die of starvation if they wish.”  So clearly, prison officials are not highly motivated to make sure that prisoners do not die in their custody.
A friend of mine said on Thursday that he had called Senator Mark Leno’s office to ask them to pressure CDCR to negotiate seriously with the inmates.  He was told that Leno, who introduced the California Single Payer health care bill and is one of the more progressive members of the Senate, has no position on the strike yet.
The hunger strikers frequently invoke the example of Bobby Sands and the other Irish political prisoners.  I think they may not know, however, as much of that history as it would benefit them to know.  For instance, the 1981 strike was the second hunger strike by those prisoners. The first, in 1980, ended with a tentative agreement that the British then reneged on.  In contrast to the 1980 strike, when all the prisoners refused food simultaneously, in 1981, the prisoners struck one by one, so as to build on each subsequent death.  Another thing they should know is that that protest was the culmination of five years of increasingly militant protests by the hunger strikers, all of which were supported by tens of thousands of demonstrators on the outside – and that was only in Ireland.  Bobby Sandsbecame a household name all over the world by the time of his death, and had been elected to the British Parliament.  100,000 people attended his funeral.    But even his death did not get it done.  Nine more prisoners died of starvation before the others ended their strike in response to pleas from their families.  It was only after the strike ended that most of the demands were met.
In November 2009, in preparation for the Copenhagen climate talks, eight international activists began a fast that lasted 53 days, through the end of the failed summit.  They were supported by dozens of people around the world who fasted for shorter periods of time.  The Climate Justice Fast website says, “Hunger striking is a form of protest unparalleled in its ability to capture attention and catalyse social movements. Throughout history, it has been successfully used to create awareness and mobilize the public behind social causes, and as the most powerful statement against injustice that an individual can make.  
With all respect and admiration for the dedication and sacrifice of the climate fasters and others who use this tactic (which I never have), I think they misstate the evidence.  Hunger striking is certainly a powerful tool of nonviolent action.  But it is neither “unparalleled in its ability to … catalyze social movements,” nor is it “the most powerful statement … an individual can make.”  In fact, as the Irish example and the ones that will follow illustrate, a successful hunger strike is never an individual action.  It always takes a powerful movement to support and amplify its impact, and it should generally be the culmination of a series of actions and organizing, not the beginning.  Gandhi's Salt March catalyzed at least as many people as did his hunger strikes.  So did the Freedom Rides, the occupations of nuclear power plants, and numerous other types of protest.
This is not a criticism of the prisoner strikers.  They have few options for serious protest, and they have already accomplished a lot – more words have been written and spoken about the SHUs in the last three weeks than in the last ten years, I am sure.  But I hope that their supporters will encourage them to think very carefully about their next steps.  It’s very difficult, nearly impossible, in fact, for prisoners to know how much attention their strikes are or are not getting on the outside.  I have had the frustrating experience of supporting people who decide to go on hunger strike in jail, believing it will help them get their demands met, while we are scrambling to get even their hometown newspapers to write one sentence about them.  It’s demoralizing for everyone.
In this case, I pointed out to one of the solidarity committee members today that I, who am very concerned and somewhat involved already, don’t know the name of one prisoner involved in the strike.  That’s not good, especially when you remember that even Gandhi, an international hero of epic proportion, seldom achieved his (stated) objectives through hunger striking.
Senator Ted Kennedy speaking at the Veterans' fast
for life press conference.
photo by Bill Becker
Here are a few more examples of hunger strikes you may or may not know about:
Veterans Fast For LifeOn September 1st, 1986, four veterans began a water-only “fast for life” on the Capitol steps in Washington, D.C. They wanted to to draw attention to, and to protest, President Reagan's illegal and extraordinarily vicious wars against the poor of Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.  They ended the fast on October 18, having gotten a meeting with House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who strengthened his support for hearings on the Iran-Contra scandal.
Troops Home Fast:  On July 4, 2006, CODEPINK and Gold Star Families launched a hunger strike called TROOPS HOME FAST, calling for the U.S. government to bring our troops home from Iraq--FAST. A core group of long-term fasters fasted in front of the White House, in Washington DC. After 28 days of fasting, the group agreed to end their strike when they received an invitation from leading members of the Iraqi Parliament to meet with them in Jordan to discuss their plans for peace in Iraq.  (Again without minimizing the power of this action, you may have noticed that five years later, we still have many troops in Iraq.)
Third World Liberation Front strike, U.C. Berkeley 1999Six students began a hunger strike on the lawn of the University of California’s administration building for over a week. They were demanding increased funding and respect for the embattled Ethnic Studies program, which had been won by the original Third World Liberation Front in the late 1960s.  After a week of spirited demonstrations involving thousands of students and community supporters, and over 120 arrests, the students won nearly all of their demands, including 8 more full-time faculty to be hired over the next few years, a promise to help fund a Center for the Study of Race and Gender; a temporary place for a multicultural student center, space for a mural commemorating Ethnic Studies, student representation in the task force that makes important decisions in the department, and amnesty for the students who were arrested.
Anti-nuclear Fast For LifeBeginning on Hiroshima Day, August 6, 2003, 13 international activists fasted for 40 days, hoping to catalyze a stronger international movement to end the nuclear arms race.  
Diane Wilson vs. Formosa Plastics:  Shrimp-boat captain Diane Wilson went on hunger strike four times during her multi-year campaign to get a zero emissions agreement from Formosa Plastics.  But it took more drastic action still to convince the company.  In response to the question, “What was the turning point with Formosa Plastics to stop dumping toxins?” she says, “I think it was when I took my shrimp boat out to sink it on top of their discharge point. Up until that point, it was hard to motivate the fisherman, because they were so depressed and they did not believe you could fight city hall. They believed their days were numbered, but when I took my boat out to sink it, I touched them in a place that wasn't in their head; it was in their heart. I got all of those shrimpers to go out in their boats in the middle of a storm, and it was unheard of. I think when Formosa saw that, they realized I had the people behind me and that's when they gave up.” More info
Mitch Snyder and Community for Creative Nonviolence vs. Reagan:  In 1984, homeless activist Mitch Snyder fasted twice to force the Reagan administration to renovate a shelter in Washington, D.C. which CCNV had created by occupying an abandoned federal building. The first fast ended on the eve of Reagan's second election when Reagan promised to execute necessary repairs. Reagan failed to follow through on this promise, and CCNV sued to get the repairs made.
Cuban political prisoners:  On April 3, 1972, Pedro Luis Boitel, an imprisoned poet and dissident, declared himself on hunger strike. After 53 days on hunger strike, receiving only liquids, he died of starvation on May 25, 1972. Guillermo Fariñas did a seven-month hunger strike to protest against the extensive Internet censorship in Cuba. He ended it in Autumn 2006, with severe health problems although still conscious. Reporters Without Borders awarded its cyber-freedom prize to Guillermo Fariñas in 2006.  On February 23, 2010, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a dissident arrested in 2003 as part of a crackdown on opposition groups, died in a hospital while undertaking a hunger strike that had been ongoing for 83 days, in Cuba's "Kilo 8" prison. He had declared the hunger strike in protest of the poor conditions of the prison in which he was held.
Iranian dissidents:  On June 12 of this year, Iranian journalist and nationalist activist Reza Hoda Saber died of a heart attack following a 10-day hunger strike at Evin Prison.  Saber stopped eating food and later stopped drinking water in protest at the death of his fellow dissident Haleh Sahabi, who died during scuffles with security forces at the funeral of her father.
Tamil hunger striker suspends London protest to attend UN talks:  “Sunday 12 April 2009, Thousands of Tamil protesters converged on central London yesterday as one of two hunger strikers protesting at the continuing military assault on Tamil separatists announced that he was suspending his fast. … Sivatharsan Sivakumaraval, 20, and Prarameswaran Subramaniam, 28, who have set up camp in Parliament Square, have been on hunger strike since 6am on Tuesday. They agreed to take liquids for the first time early on Friday. Sivakumaraval said he had agreed to drink water after being promised he would be able to take part in talks on the plight of Sri Lankan Tamils.” 

Now you can certainly make your own determinations, but it seems to me that the keys to successful hunger strikes are:
  • a target that cares (or has to appear to care) whether the strikers live or die
  • concrete demands that are fairly easy for the target to meet, or at least do not demand an existential change (Diane Wilson was not trying to get Formosa to stop making plastic, for instance)
  • mass mobilization of supporters
  • ability to generate a lot of sympathetic media
  • a campaign that incorporates other tactics leading up to the strike
  • a way to escalate when their demands are not met
I believe the prisoners’ hunger strike has a lot of these elements, but what it does not have yet is mass mobilization, which is probably what it will take to make the CDCR care whether the prisoners live or die.  I’m also not sure the prisoners have thought about how they can escalate if they do not win quickly.
They have demonstrated an impressive ability to organize across racial lines and among different prisons.  Now they may need to slow down, regain their strength and give those of us outside a chance to catch up with them so that their sacrifice will not be in vain.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

5 Good Things to Watch While Cooking

Okay, I don't have a future as a food photog.
 Here’s the great lesson I’ve learned about blogging this week:

What used to be called “wasting time” can now be referred to as “doing research.”

Last night I had two tasks when I got home from work at 8:00 pm:

(1) Make dinner
(2) Figure out what to blog about today. Wednesday seems like a good day to feature diversions to get you through the week: books, movies, etc. My revelation last night was that if I make television part of the “etc.”, I could accomplish both tasks at once.

See I like to watch TV while I’m cooking. That obviously puts some limitations on what I can watch. It needs to be something that doesn’t require all that much actual watching. It might in fact be better referred to as “listening to television” with occasional forays into the living room to see what’s going on. Subtitles, obviously, are out. On Demand or on tape is best so if I miss something really important, I can rewind. Another criterion is that it’s under an hour, since I like to think that’s how long I’m going to spend cooking on a week night. Though somehow, I always end up eating around 10:30, which means it doesn’t quite work out that way.

So, for those of you who might also like to cook with television, here are my recommendations (for full disclosure, I did not watch all of these last night, but I did watch all of them while cooking this week):

1.  “Friday Night Lights” (48 mins On Demand; series finale is this Friday on NBC). I’m really sad that this series is ending. I’ve always loved teen series – I admit that I even used to sneak peeks at 90210, but this one is above and beyond, in my opinion. Why? I considered this question carefully last night, while checking out the episode where Tami goes to Philadelphia. Because the dialogue sounds real, and the actors have great timing. It doesn’t sound like, “Listen up, here’s the moral.” It doesn’t use cheesy music to let you know something big is going to happen. The story lines don’t all get tied up neatly in a bow at the end of each episode. The kids might be a little perfect, there’s a little too much symmetry between Matt and Vince in the quarterback-with-abandonment-issues-who-has-to-take-care-of-his-parent role, but at least it deals with real issues in a real way and the teachers aren’t always right. If you never watched the show because you don’t like football, be assured, it’s got very little to do with football.

2.  “No Contract No Cookies: the Stella D’oro Strike” (34 mins, HBO On Demand). A moving, though heart-breaking, portrait of striking workers at the Stella D’Oro cookie plant in the Bronx. In 2009 – yeah, just two years ago – a judge ruled in favor of the workers saying the company was bargaining in bad faith. Which seems kind of obvious, since their goal was to bust the union. What I wondered what, why can’t every group of striking workers go to court and win like that? Why can’t the Castlewood Country Club workers, who never even went on strike but have been locked-out for sixteen months sue and win? And then, as soon as the court made the company bring the workers back to work, the company “exercised its legal right” to move out of state and hire nonunion labor. So why do they have that right, but not, apparently, the right to “bargain in bad faith”? Something’s wrong with our labor law, obviously, which I knew (though, according to my friend the labor lawyer, a rare bright spot in Obama’s record is some of his appointments to the NLRB). The film could have delved into that more, but it’s worth watching. Another thing I found interesting is that everyone’s making pro-union movies (Triangle Fire, Made in Dagenheim, ) while unions are being run out of the country. Don’t know if you can get this one if you don’t have HBO; if you do, it’s available on demand until July 31.

3.  “Rookie Blue” (48 mins On Demand; you can also watch it online for free). I kind of hate myself for starting to watch this series, because I had sworn off any new cop shows. But you know, it’s summer and that means re-runs and really really bad reality shows. So I checked it out and I have to say, it’s good. Like, “NYPD Blue” good, sometimes. Maybe it’s because it’s Canadian (Oh, Canada!). Or maybe because two of the three writers are women. The head writer is Tassie Cameron, who adapted Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride into a miniseries. Putting that one in my Netflix queue (but the DVD is not out yet).

4.  Rachel Maddow Show (roughly an hour, 9:00 pm on MSNBC). Okay, sometimes she is really annoying. Like two nights ago, the “Best Thing in the World Today” was this ultra-nationalistic portrayal of the U.S. women’s victory over Brazil in the World Cup (soccer, for anyone who is less sports-knowledgeable even than me).  Apparently she thinks it says something good that U.S. men love to watch scantily-clad women running around a field. But the best thing about TRMS, besides that she sometimes has interesting people on, is that she repeats everything three times, which makes it perfect for cooking because if I happened to be washing the mushrooms or something and missed something, I can pick it up the next time.

5.  “Check Please Bay Area” (30 mins., available On Demand for a week, you can also watch back episodes online). I like to hear about new restaurants, even went to one of them for onion cakes (Red Jade on Church Street) but the best thing is that the people never agree. Well, actually, all three did say they would return to Saha, an Arabic fusion place in the hotel district, which sounds fantastic but pricey ($40 per person without drinks). More fun to listen to/watch than a cooking show, in my opinion, because you don’t really need to see the food.

What didn’t make the list:

From Spain with Love” Cooking meets travel, but not enough of either. You don’t get enough of the country or the people, most of it takes place in the kitchen, but you don’t actually learn to make anything either.

Republic of Cannabis”. Pros and cons on the regulation of marijuana production in Mendocino County. Too many talking heads saying nothing you didn’t expect. Boring.

What was on the menu:
Spaghetti with spinach, broccoli, carmelized onions and shitake mushrooms in a creamy pesto sauce, a glass of organic merlot, garlic bread, fruit salad of nectarines and strawberries (love summer!).

Monday, July 11, 2011

What Issues Get You Hot? (Help Me Blog Better!)

On Saturday I took a workshop on blogging at the Writing Salon. The teacher was the very talented Britt Bravo, whose blog is have fun do good.

Thanks to
for this great graphic.

The majority of the women in the class were food bloggers, like my niece. They all already have followings – even the ones that don’t have their blogs up yet. One woman is launching a book blog, which would be a great idea even if she were not in publishing. One created, which is a fabulous name, and Buddhism is huge, so of course she also has lots of admirers, publication offers, etc. I felt at a distinct disadvantage.

Everyone was really nice, and they laughed at the name Democracy Sometimes, but I could tell that an activism blog wasn’t anyone’s idea of a fun way to spend their leisure time. Predictably, when we broke into small groups, a delightful young woman in my group said, “Honestly, I try not to think about politics.” I doubt anyone ever says, “I try not to think about food.” Well, maybe the odd dieter does, but they don’t mean it.

I have to admit, I was a little tempted to fold up my computer and spend the day doing something productive, like playing internet Scrabble.

But then I thought, come on. I don’t have to rival the foodies or the knitters. Surely there are a few thousand people out there who are as turned on by radical social change as I am. I just need to figure out where they are and get them to let me into their blogging community.

So, here’s what I’ve decided to do. I’m going to make a commitment to this blogging thing for a year. I’m gonna post a lot more often – going for three times a week, and one of those will be a book or movie review, so feel free to suggest ones I might like (no horror flix, please). That’s my part. But I need you those who at least occasionally read my blog and like it to help me.

See, one of the things I learned in this class, though perhaps it shouldn’t have taken a $150 class to get it, is that blogging is conversation. And the thing about conversations, at least conversations we want to have, is that they’re not one-way. So I’m also going to try to write about what people want to read, rather than strictly what tickles my own fancy, and you need to let me know if I’m hitting it or not.

So please, no more saying, “I’m going to comment on your blog one of these days.” Do it for the Gipper, or Tiny Tim, or whoever.

In the class I made a list of topics I might want to write about. Which of these, if any, would make you want to comment, tweet, post to your facebook page, email it to your friends?

I know I'm anti-voting but please, take a minute to vote for your favorites, or suggest ones that are not on the list. (You’ll note that among them are “Invite friends to post,” and “interviews with …”, so if you want that to be you, you know where to find me.)

Vote Early, Vote Often (choose as many as you like):
1. Welcome to Palestine Flytilla/Free Gaza Flotilla
2. The Dominique Strauss-Kahn Affair
3. What’s going on with the Israel BDS movement
4. What’s the story with those crazy Stand With Us people? (maybe even an interview with one of them?)
5. Who's doing what to save Social Security, and does any of it have a chance?
6. Is this the worst time ever in the world, or do we just know more?
7. Interviews with other lefty bloggers
8. Interviews with older feminist and queer activists
9. Why do left-wing groups have so much trouble living our ideals?
10. What makes activism fun? What makes it a drag?
11. Who’s doing what, when, where and how? How to plug in?
12. Step-by-step guides to organizing campaigns (there are a lot, but how to choose among them?)
13. Van Jones’ new “Rebuild the Dream” campaign
14. The real true story of the 1989 Golden Gate Bridge Blockade (with video)
15. Why did we just learn that Bradley Manning is gay? And now that we know, does it matter?
16. Invite guest bloggers to share strategies for movement building
17. How campaigns work and don’t work
18. The anti-vegan critique of Lierre Keith and why smart people are so divided over it
19. Why is the Tea Party so effective, or is it?
20. How to find media sources you can trust?
21. What will it take to save Social Security?
22. Is internet organizing a fad or here to stay?
23. A deeper look at gender inclusivity in the left media
24. Twitter: Can you say anything worth saying in 140 characters?

Friday, July 1, 2011

A Very Busy Week

Last week brought 5 (count'em five!) demonstrations. So busy I didn't even have time to blog about them. Need to rest now.

#1: Queers Tell Frameline: Say no to Israeli pinkwashing

#2: Solstice in the Streets

#3: Lockout the Lockers Out - Showdown at Castlewood Country Club

#4: The Dyke March

#5: Free Bradley Manning Contingent at SF LGBT Freedom Day Parade
Check out photos and video