The (Second) Battle of Blair Mountain

In 1921, Blair Mountain, West Virginia became a flash point for the class struggle that raged in the southern coalfields. John Sayles’ 1987 movie Matewan was partly based on the working class insurrection, which involved over 10,000 miners. Now the coal interests are trying to erase the memory of this important site of working-class and labor history. Please do what you can to support the re-listing of the Battle of Blair Mountain on the National Register. History is one battleground on which we fight for the future!

This post was taken from the H-Labor listserv and comes via Brian Nida and Dr. Harvard Ayres who are involved in the effort to save this important site of U.S. Labor’s legacy:

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Some of you may have heard that the site of the Battle of Blair Mountain was recently slated to be REMOVED from the National Register of Historic Places, and is under imminent threat of destruction. The delisting was heavily supported by the Massey Coal Co., and the site will be subjected to mountain-top removal mining if an ONGOING APPEAL of the delisting decision is unsuccessful.

For background see attachment and also check Jeff Biggers’ great piece in the Huffington Post. And go to http://friendsofblairmountain.org/takeaction.html to find out what you can do.

A campaign to send letters supporting the appeal (to return the site to protected status) is underway, and letters from labor activist and academics would be of great help in these legal proceedings. The web
site will help you direct letters to the agencies involved in the case.

The appeal will move forward very soon, so don’t wait to take this easy step!

A Story of Bureaucratic Fraud aka Big Coal Wins Again

This delisting was the culmination of a six-month process after Chief Keeper Paul Loether announced his decision to de-list the site based on an initial procedural error made by the West Virginia State
Historical Preservation Officer, Mr. Randall Reid-Smith. Mr. Reid-Smith had initially turned in a list of property owners and objection letters, and stated the number of objectors and non-objectors. However, that initial count of owners and objectors had 57 total owners, including 22 objectors and 35 owners who did not object. Since the objecting landowners were less than a majority, the site was listed. But immediately after the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, April 6, 2009, Mr. Reid-Smith discovered eight objector letters which had been “unintentionally not counted, which changed the count to 30 objectors and 27 non-objectors, disqualifying the listing on the register.

On July 22, Mr. Loether announced his intention to de-list the battlefield, which automatically retained the category of “eligible” for the National Register. He said that one of the objection letters, that of Loretta White, was not an objector due to her right to her property being based on a Life Estate, a category which does not confer fee simple title to the property. So the count was changed to 29 objectors and 27 non-objectors.

Over the next several months, the record was open to comments on the intent to de-list the Blair Mountain Battlefield. A number of comments were made, pro and con de-listing, many of which touted the qualifications of this important site. One comment letter was submitted by battlefield archeologist Dr.
Harvard Ayers. His comments dealt with the records of ownership of battlefield properties and included a legal opinion on 2 title holders by John Kennedy Bailey, real estate attorney of Charleston. After extensive review of the tax, deed, and death records at the Logan County, West Virginia, courthouse, he concluded that five of the objectors of record submitted by Mr. Reid-Smith were not legitimate owners. Two were dead, two were Life Estates, and one had sold their property. Of the 10 of 57 properties that he researched in depth, he also discovered 13 additional owners not found by the cursory search of the West Virginia Attorney General’s office. The upshot of this research was that the count shifted to 25 objectors and 37 non-objectors, which would overturn any attempt to de-list the battlesite.

When this evidence was presented to Paul Loether of the Keepers office, he sent the Ayers/Bailey comments to Mr. Reid-Smith for a re-evaluation of the count. The SHPO refused to re-evaluate, citing a section of 36 CFR 60 which he felt supported his point. Mr. Loether maintained that he was not allowed to review and evaluate the comments because it was the duty of the West Virginia SHPO, disagreeing with Mr. Reid-Smith’s regulatory interpretation.

In December, journalist Jeff Biggers, book author (The United States of Appalachia) and contributor to the Huffington Post, spoke with Mr. Loether on the phone, explaining that there were dead people on the SHPO’s list of objectors as well as not one but two Life Estates and many other irregularities. As a result, Loether sent a pointed letter in November to the SHPO saying among other things the following. “Although we did not receive many comments, we want to ensure that your office is aware of all materials the NPS received in this regard (on Blair de-listing), and strongly recommend that that they receive your office’s full consideration. You may be particularly interested in the enclosed letter and materials we received from Harvard Ayers, who is challenging the accuracy of your office’s determination of property owners and, thus, the validity of the nomination’s owner objection count. As you know, Federal Regulations specify that ‘it is the responsibility of the State Historic Preservation Officer to ascertain whether a majority of owners of private property have
objected (36 CFR 60.6(g)).’”

The December 8, 2009, SHPO reply included the following. “In closing, we believe that we have fulfilled our obligation under 36 CFR 60.6(g). We acknowledge the commitment that individuals have made toward the listing of Blair Mountain. However, the State Historic Preservation Officer cannot make a re-determination as to the count for the following reasons: the re-calculation would occur outside the timeframe; Mr. Bailey’s work does not provide enough information to provide an accurate assessment; and it is not our office’s role in the de-listing process as outlined in the federal regulations.” In other words, NO, Keeper! We will not comply with your strong recommendation.

On December 30, without further reply, Mr. Loether de-listed the site. On January 6, 2010, Mr. Loether wrote a letter to the SHPO and others including Dr. Ayers saying in part the following:

“The removal of the battlefield from the National Register was made on the motion of the Keeper based on the procedural error you explained in your letter of April 6, 2009. The error concerned a miscalculation of the percentage of owners of private property objecting to the National Record nomination. The corrected count yielded more than 50% objecting, which precludes listing on the National Register, but results in a determination of eligibility (36 CFR 60.6(s)). In a letter of December, 2009, Susan Pierce (Deputy SHPO) declined to ‘make a re-determination as to the count based on public comments received in response to the announcement of the intent to de-list the battlefield.’ According to 36 CFR 60.6(g), it is the ‘responsibility of the State Historic Preservation Officer to ascertain whether a majority of owners of private property have objected.’ You have confirmed that the count of owners and objections yields an objection rate of more than 50%. We accept that determination and, therefore, the Battle of Blair Mountain has been removed from the National Register and it has been determined eligible.

Thank you for alerting us to the procedural error regarding the percentage of private property owners who objected to the National Register nomination of the Blair Mountain Battlefield. Although we regret its removal from the National Register, we are satisfied that the Federal regulations have been accurately followed and the determination of eligibility offers protection from federally funded or licensed adverse actions.”

In other words, SHPO, it doesn’t matter that you declined to make a re-determination as to the count based on public comments received in response to the announcement of the intent to de-list the battlefield,” and thus did not meet the “responsibility of the State Historic Preservation Officer to ascertain whether a majority of owners of private property have objected,” we accept that “You have confirmed that the count of owners and objectors yields an objection rate of more than 50%…. So thank you for alerting us to the procedural error…

Listed vs Eligible

An interesting addendum to the above seeming incongruities is the discussion that arises around the concept of the relative importance of listing vs merely “determined eligible.” Some would hold that there is not a significant difference. The piece below was a reply of Dr, Harvard Ayers to a related email query.

This is a very seductive argument which has some truth at its base. With all due respect to the rest of the folks on this email, none of whom I know, I will argue that there is a huge difference between
being eligible and being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. I will also argue that it should be listed not just because of its importance, but also because there is no legal reason not to list it, the opinions of the National Park Service and the West Virginia State Historic Preservation Officer notwithstanding. But here’s the simple answer to listed vs eligible.

Both do afford the same regulatory protection by the state and federal bureaucrats in the 106 process. Except in the minds of those bureaucrats, that is only one part of the picture. When push comes to
shove, and the coal companies apply to blow the place up, the public perception of what is happening is crucial. Which would be more important in the public eye? A site that is technically “eligible” to
be on the Register, or one that is so important that despite it being in the coal fields, certainly a hostile environment toward historical preservation, it IS on the National Register of Historic Places?
While there are legitimate reasons to de-list a site, see 36 CFR 60.15(k), one is certainly NOT the present case where the bureaucrats, both federal and state, are corrupt.

I am Dr. Harvard Ayers, Professor Emeritus of Archeology and Anthropology at Appalachian State University. I conducted archeological investigations at the Blair Mountain Battlefield in the summer of 2006 and found the 10-mile-long battlefield to contain amazingly in-tact archeological remains, which have the capability to inform us in a major way about this huge and important battle. Based on these facts and the excellent written history of the battle, the entire battlefront should be a National Monument. Why are we arguing about whether it can be listed on the Register? Easy answer; the coal industry owns the WV government and they have cut a deal with the National Park Service to reduce the historical importance of the Battlefield so the coal industry can blow it up through the process of Mountaintop Removal. All politics is local as most of us probably believe. Logan County, where the battle was fought, is coal country. Yet despite the grip that the industry has on Logan County, a demonstrable majority of the property owners within the boundaries of the battlesite did not oppose the listing. So there is no legal reason why the battlesite cannot be listed. Only the reason described in the above paragraphs explain why its been de-listed. The second Battle of Blair Mountain, the one to get the site its well-deserved recognition as at least a National Register site, is not over. Multiple wrongs have been committed. There will be appeals.

The bosses have two parties. We need one of our own!

Howie HawkinsHowie Hawkins, a longtime Socialist Party member, Green Party leader and friend of Solidarity recently got a 41% showing in the Syracuse, New York city council race.

Howie’s latest results indicate that hard campaigning, developing and refining strategy, and the ability to engage in movement activity and direct action simultaneously with electoral action is a recipe for building a movement for independent political action:

A Little Disappointed, Not Discouraged At All by Howie Hawkins

Thank you to all the volunteers and contributors to my campaign. You are Greens, Socialists, independents, some die-hard progressive Republicans, and a growing “Democratic Underground” in the district supporting the Green policy agenda.

41 percent is a higher vote than a Green candidate has ever received in Syracuse. We’ve never done the kind of doorstep and phone canvassing, voter ID, and GOTV that we did this time. Our street presence on Election Day surpassed every other campaign in the city.

From what I’ve seen of the Campaign Finance Reports posted at the state Board of Election, our broad base of small individual contributors far surpassed that of any other campaign in the city. We raised more money that way than any other district council candidate, unless they spent a lot more in the last 10 days that has not yet been reported.

The major party candidates relied on a small number of big contributions from wealthy individuals and the PACs of landlords, developers, and other business interests, and, unfortunately, the unions. About the only evidence my opponent had a campaign was two mailers to voters sent on his behalf from 1199 SEIU in the last five days.

The unions continue to naively believe they can buy friends for workers in the parties of big business, whose campaign contributions dwarf labor’s. Memo to the unions from a rank-and-file Teamster: The bosses have two parties. We need one of our own.

I am only a little disappointed that we did not win the office this time. We needed to bring about 10 percent more of the voters off the Democratic line at the top and down to the bottom line to vote Green. In the end we were beaten by the “Zombie Democrats” who vote their brand loyalty without knowing who the candidates are. They would vote for George W. Bush and Dick Cheney if they were on the Democratic line as they automatically click every lever across the Democratic row on the machines.

But I am encouraged about the future. The platform on which we campaigned—living wages, community hiring hall, public power, municipal broadband, municipal development bank, sustainability plan, progressive tax reform, full funding for schools and youth programs—is popular with the voters we were able to reach. The 41 percent vote gives us a stronger voice to push for these reforms between now and the next election, when the Greens will be back to challenge the corporate rulers’ two-party duopoly again.

Read more at http://www.howiehawkins.com/

Who dat goin' to da Super Bowl?!

Sinners and Saints… New Orleans Redemption Found?

Almost everyone in Louisiana- including myself- is excited about the Saints making it to the Super Bowl. No. Excited is an understatement. Associated Press writer Cain Burdeau wrote “Saints euphoria sweeps New Orleans past Katriana; Roar of hurricane now replaced by roar of fans” (ABC News, WSJ, others).

Pierre Thomas of the New Orleans Saints

The season’s victory is being celebrated across racial divisions both inside the city and region. It has also to some extent obscured class divisions within the city. It is a collective point of reference that unifies the people of New Orleans, Louisiana, and Gulf South. Burdeau has part of it right: the excitement of the city’s underdog football team reaching the final game has released collective endorphins, and acting as a group therapy for a city still rebuilding and state plagued with budget crisis. I was watching the Saints-Vikings game with friends in north Louisiana. It was a nail biter. In the end, people jumped up and down, screamed, cried. In New Orleans my friends and comrades flooded into the streets with everyone else in a spontaneous all-night Sunday party. But Burdeau writes as if Katrina was merely a natural disaster, a single event: a day, a week, perhaps two. But Katrina was more of a man-made catastrophe. Government neglect and neoliberal “shock doctrine” have privatized transportation, destroyed unions, and kept Charity Hospital shuttered.

I am hoping for a Saints victory on February 7. But everyone should know that a Saints victory doesn’t let the country off the hook for the tragedy of not prioritizing rebuilding the region- and peoples’ lives- after Hurricane Katrina.

TaNaKh (The Old Testament)

The Saints were established in 1967 as a modest expansion team. They played at Tulane Stadium through 1974. After forty-three years they have finally made it to the Superbowl.

The Saints were established near the population peak- and after the beginning of economic decline of New Orleans. The team’s colors, black, old gold, and white (unchanged to date), symbolize the initial owner (Texan John W. Mecom, Jr) as well as the city’s strong ties to “black gold” (oil and gas industry) as much as the city’s legacy as the shipping and finance capital of the old gold amassed from King cotton cultivated by Black slaves. The fleur de lis, of course, is the heraldic symbol of the divine right of (French) kings, stretching back to Clovis.

In 1980 the Saints lost fourteen consecutive games, after which Buddy D Diliberto called on fans to wear paper bags over their heads at Saints home games. It took 33 years before the team won their first playoff game in 2000. The Saints were showing themselves to be a decent performing team on the verge of Hurricane Katrina, but owner Tom Benson threatened to move the team if Governor Blanco refused a new stadium or annual cash payments from the state.

Flood & New Beginnings

The Superdome was the shelter of last resort in Hurricane Katrina. It was by far the most solid and stable large structure in the city. It became a symbol of human suffering and government ineptitude. But before many hospitals were online or schools were reopened, rebuilding of the dome commenced.

At the time of the city’s (and its displaced residents’) greatest vulnerability, Tom Benson began maneuvering to move the team to San Antonio. The 2005 home games were split between the Alamodome in San Antonio and Tiger Stadium at LSU (Baton Rouge, LA). The team offices and practices were domiciled in San Antonio, and Texas politicians were busy helping to facilitate that relocation, while simultaneously demonizing the internally displaced persons taking refuge in their state. The Cowboys’ Jerry Jones even joined the other buzzards circling our wounded.

Trashed Refrigerator reads DO NOT OPEN, BENSON'S INSIDE!The people of New Orleans were incensed. Rotting refrigerators placed on the curbs carried many social messages aimed at George Bush, but almost as many lamented Tom Benson’s greed during the city’s time of need. I read one marked “stinks almost as bad as Tom Benson.” The city’s anger was boiling over. At the time I used every Benson kvetch as an opportunity to talk municipal/ state ownership, or to contrast the Saints with Green Bay. The anger toward Benson was often expressed in raw class terms, and has lasted-albeit in residual and diminished form- until this NFL season.

The pushback from the people of New Orleans- and NFL and commissioner Paul Tagliabue- forced Benson to keep the Saints in New Orleans at least for the time being. By September 2006, Benson announced a sold out season, a franchise first. The Saints won their first home game in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, beating the Atlanta Falcons 23-3 and went on to a commendable 2006 season. “A Bush we can all agree on,” a witty slogan by the socially liberal Dirty Coast promotions referring to 2006 draft pick Reggie Bush. No doubt was Reggie New Orleans’ (“our”) Bush; a Black superhero that happened to have the same surname as the villain President. But the “we can ALL agree on” foreshadows a certain détente between New Orleanians with the forces of government and capital.

Jericho Road?

The 2007 season was the second sold out season, with all 77,000 plus seats and luxury boxes sold- and made it to the NFC championship for the second time- making it a more popular team than ever, despite New Orleans’ post-Katrina population only 60% of its former self. The 2008 season was a comparative disappointment, with the team losing its last two games, finishing 7-9. This year the team struggled mid-season after faltering to the Dallas Cowboys at home, but ultimately made it to the Super Bowl. A Super Bowl victory will be good for the spirit, even if it doesn’t begin to address the deep scars of the city and its people.

The Saints’ season wasn’t simply a product of luck, or Voodoo for that matter. Sean Payton and the Drew Brees have spent years honing their and organization alongside a team of increasingly talented individuals. The team has perfected a rushing game, kept the ball longer than their opponents, and , despite 20% less yards gained overall, they manage to catch a number of receptions. Likewise, the working class folks of New Orleans will need strong much stronger organization to counter the neoliberal offensive.

We can’t win the “big game” of the class if we can’t win a single game (a set of reforms or concessions). To build power, we must build a strategy : we can’t win anything if we’re not as organized as the other team (the ruling class). When developing this analogy, a comrade (Krisna B. from Gathering Forces) paraphrased C.L.R. James: “we’re facing a crisis of the self-mobilization of the working class.” All too often we wait around for a Reggie Bush, Marques Colston, Drew Brees or Sean Payton or some other leader, because of our tendency to consider history as a hall of fame of great personalities (Malcolm, W.E.B. Dubois, Angela Davis), so do we have a similar tendency to think of team sports merely as the great athletes who were a part of them. But when a good team comes together, it is MORE than the sum of its parts. Of course, football and working class and popular organization aren’t the same thing. But what parallels can we draw???

When the Saints come marching in?

On this Sunday, February 7, I hope the world is rooting for the New Orleans Saints. More importantly, I hope the world is rooting for the people of Haiti suffering through the aftermath of the earthquakes, the people of Iraq and Afghanistan struggling against continued wars and occupation, and the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast still struggling to put their lives together after Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans needs better public transportation, affordable housing, and healthcare. The race and class inequalities initially exposed by Hurricane Katrina have not gone away with the ascension of the sports team. They are symptomatic of the capitalist system and continue to be found in New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, throughout the United States and world. This is not a scrimmage. It’s time to the working classes of the world to play to win!

Read More:

On the Saints from RightHandThief

More on sports from Edge of Sports by Dave Zirin

IRS Auctions Sioux Land

This past Thursday the IRS auctioned off a large land parcel owned by the Crow River Sioux to pay off more than $3 million in back payroll taxes, penalties and interest — a sale the tribe says is illegal.

The tribe has failed to win a temporary restraining order last week, so the land has been auctioned. The tribe now has 180 days to purchase the land back, with interest. The tribe continues to fight the sale through court appeals. Mario Gonzalez, the tribe’s lawyer said “this is the only instance that I know of where the IRS has levied on tribally owned land on an Indian reservation.

Many residents of Crow Creek and of other tribes of North America are now holding a spiritual vigil on the land. This “Hemblaca” (Fast and Pray) is to make the statement that “Sioux land is not for sale!” The chief is reportedly young but “very traditional” leader, dedicated to prolonged fasting and prayer despite the bitter cold of north-central South Dakota. The encampment was planned to start as I am writing this: today, December 7 at Noon. The tribe is calling for public support. Supporters can send their solidarity messages via KingmanWapato@rushmore.com A Wells Fargo account is being set up for donations (information forthcoming).

The land in question was part of the tribe’s original reservation established in an 1868 treaty, and was held by the federal government in a trust for the tribe. But in the era of the Dawes Act was allotted to individual tribal members, who then sold it to non-Indians. The allotment system under the Dawes Act is widely known to have been manipulated to deprive the Native Americans of their lands and resources. The tribe purchased the land back, but the Bureau of Indian Affairs failed to put the land back into trust, which would have afforded legal protection against the seizure.

Hunger - Art and Politics come together [movie review]

In our times, it is rare that art and politics come together well. Too often what we classify as “art” is either aesthetic rich and content poor, or some sort of insider joke, something made valuable mostly by its inability to be understood by anyone but the members of selective, small cultural and intellectual circles.

Likewise, in our era political statements are too often crude and artless, lacking not only aesthetic sensibility but also immediacy and emotional power.

“Hunger,” by filmmaker Steve McQueen and playwright Enda Walsh, is art at its finest, a moment where form and content are woven together. The film is an account of the prison struggles in the late 1970’s-early 1980’s waged by imprisoned IRA members to demand status as political prisoners and enact prison reform. At its center is the figure of IRA leader and martyr Bobby Sands, who died in 1981 after 66 days on hunger strike.

Hunger, while being unapologetically political, avoids the common failings of much political art. It neither waters down the realities of the political struggle nor lapses into preaching. It is both personal and political. The struggles of the prisoners, who at different points refused prison clothes for blankets and refused to bathe or have their hair cut (the so-called “dirty protest”) are anything but glorified. The filmmaking is brutal in its accounts of the boredom, the filth and the violence of the prison protests. What does emerge is a powerful account of the personal sacrifice IRA members underwent to achieve their aims, the unshakable discipline of the IRA, and the raging inhumanity of the official response by authorities.

IRA violence is not glossed over. In one memorable scene, a prison official, visiting his elderly and senile mother, is shot point-blank by an IRA assassin, covering the mother with blood. In all of these moments the filmmaking ultimately honest, particularly in its portrayal of violence; instead of the victor, the camera shot is on the dead and those who have been physically and emotionally brutalized.

Neither is Sands’ death glorified. The easy answer of a martyr’s story is missed, instead the moments of Sands slipping into death are both brutal and intensely personal. The final shots are not of Irish flags, or marches, or even of other human beings. Instead they are memories from Sand’s youth, alone in the forest, stressing if anything the intensely individual experience of death, even while Sand’s mother watches.

This film has won a number of awards, including the prestigious Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. It is a pity that Hunger is not screened more widely in the United States, the nation with the world’s largest and greatest per-capita prison population, where we so recently have created our own Caribbean Gulag. Perhaps the discipline and intensity it portrays would be out of place in a nation lulled to sleep on the intellectual junk-food diet of reality TV. Perhaps for this reason, if no other, Hunger should be seen by Americans.

[Christian Roselund, a friend of Solidarity’s New Orleans branch, wrote this review]

Victory in El Salvador: an inspirational sign along the path

Late Sunday March 15, I listened to an English language radio broadcast from San Salvador, hopeful. The radio host provided up to the minute reporting of voting irregularities and when the polls closed at 5 PM (6 central time, here in New Orleans) reported ongoing street parties and delivered ballot box by ballot box updates––all increasingly tilted to the FMLN.

The FMLN, or Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front), formed in 1980 as El Savador entered a civil war that besieged the country for twelve years. Begun as a coalition of five leftist political parties and armed resistance movements, the FMLN has continued to represent the legacy of the tenacious left-wing resistance during the protracted civil war. It has endured as one of the two major political parties in El Salvador, the other being the right-wing (ARENA, or Nationalist Republican Alliance).

The FMLN has faced electoral disappointment and its activists have met with repression under successive post-war governments led by the hard right. But it has also played a key role in El Savador’s resolute social movements, as they have stood against privatization and US imperialism. And now, this party––a party that has transformed significantly since it was born in the white heat of civil war, akin to the the FSLN in Nicaragua––has at last won the presidency.

The FMLN has regional strongholds where it has won mayoral contests and legislative seats consistently since the conclusion of the war, and engaged in a parliamentary push-pull with ARENA on the national level. Naturally, a bedrock of its platform is opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and the dollarization of the country’s economy. It has also participated in movements against ARENA’s privatization of healthcare, water and electricity.

The fortunes of struggles around these flashpoints have been uneven. However, a hard-fought and pivotal victory came when healthcare workers and doctors––in league with the FMLN––defeated privatization of healthcare. It was the conclusion of a battle that consumed the early years of this decade, culminating in an all-out nine month long strike in 2003. Even as ARENA has tried to claw back what it had lost and deepen cuts and economic liberalization across the board, it was after this struggle that the right-wing bastion began to stagger, and a shift in the political cycle began to take place.

Unlike in previous elections, the FMLN was able to overcome fear wrought by the US government and its rightist allies, and instill hope. El Salvador is dependent upon remittances for near 20% of its GDP. ARENA and Republican legislators in the US have repeatedly threatened to cut off this infusion of cash to families of those already forced to migrate due to threats from death squads––or, more recently, the policies implemented under the regime of “free trade” agreements like CAFTA.

Four days before the election, Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES, www.cispes.org) reported that five Republican Congressmen threatened Salvadorans living in the U.S. with the loss of their immigration status and a ban on remittances to their families if the FMLN proved successful on Sunday. Luckily, supporters in the US flooded the State Department with complaints, and these threats were rebuffed, and 33 members of US Congress came out publicly against past intervention. More importantly, this threat was not enough to sway voters in El Salvador, as they headed to the ballot box.

Now, the rubber meets the road, where we will see a decisive moment in the FMLN’s epochal political trajectory. How will the FMLN use its plurality in the legislature (35 of 84 seats) and the presidency? This raises questions that have confronted and tested the left when faced with the obligations inherent in managing the affairs of the capitalist state.

The newly elected president, Mauricio Funes, did not come out of the FMLN’s armed period, but is a career journalist and only recently joined the party. Many people––independent journalists, the left, and the tribunes of capital––question where Funes will take the country. A few right-wing pundits say that he is akin to Fidel Castro, or Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, though others think that he will be more like Lula, the leader of Brazil’s Workers Party, who cut his teeth as a leading trade union militant but introduced neoliberal reforms once in power. Funes has stated that he has no intentions of repealing CAFTA or dollarization, and has taken pains to assuage the fears of both the national bourgeoisie and the US ruling class that he will not make any moves that jeopardize foreign investment. In this, his actions echo Lula’s.

Funes now heads a party named for Farabundo Martí, a founder of the El Salvador’s Communist Party. The FMLN has long boasted party platforms and candidates that reflect its Marxist origins. Their 2004 presidential candidate Schafik Handal was a long-time communist leader, and a leading figure of the party’s Coriente Revolucionario y Socialista (CRS, or Revolutionary Socialist Current), which successfully fended off a sizeable current within the party accused of being friendly with led by Facundo Guardado, the party’s presidential candidate in 1999.

The FMLN has a socialist vision for society. Funes has lauded “change,” “dialogue” and “reconciliation.” Once president, he will have to contend with a number of serious challenges in ruling the smallest Central American country, including the worldwide economic re/depression (including shrinking remittances into the local economy 1), violent crime, and despite the very repressive “Mano Supo Dura” legislation, in 2004, the persistence of some of the Americas’ most notorious gangs 2. Internationally, he has said he will forge an independent foreign policy, and it seems as though he hopes to strike a balance between a continued relationship with the US (likely allying himself to the Democrats, since ARENA was very close to the Republicans).

The election represents a continuation of the “red and pink tide” that is sweeping Latin America. But will it continue to give inspiration for years to come or ultimately disappoint?

The answer depends on the power of the social movements against neoliberal policies, and continued pressure from below, led by grassroots organizations and the ranks of FLMN membership.

News and analysis hub from CISPES:
http://cispes.org/09electionsblog/

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1. Émigrées sent $2.7 Billion to El Salvador in 2007, which amounts to 7 times the direct foreign investment.
2. An estimated 40% of the prison population of El Salvador is made up of gang members.

Reflections on Malik Rahim's bid for Congress in Louisiana

Malik Rahim, the Green Party Candidate for the 2nd Louisiana Congressional District, did not win in the election held December 6, 2008. In fact, Malik finished a distant third of four, behind the Republican and Democratic Party candidates. I was the campaign manager.

Although the results were disappointing, we learned many things. The most important lesson was that nothing replaces the hard work of relationship-building and organizing. Although Malik’s votes were low in the district as a whole, the campaign finished second in 32 precincts (beating Jefferson in some and Cao in others), and he received more than eight percent of the votes in 45 precincts (with a few precincts higher than 20%). It is no coincidence that the precincts we did well in were precincts where active Green Party members organized their friends and neighbors.

Below, I’m presenting my thoughts on the outcome: political context on the race, campaign results (including what we did well and what we did not do well), and the lessons I extrapolate from this experience.

After reading my analysis, I hope supporters– whether in the District or out-of-state– will take seriously the old adage: “Don’t mourn, organize!”
Building a political party can help us to redouble our efforts and share our challenges and victories. We can build a challenge to the two-party duopoly based on war and profit and build a party that truly represents our values– the values that Malik’s campaign represented.

If you are not already a member of the Green Party, please join!

To find out more see www.lagreens.org, or, if you are not in Louisiana, please visit www.gp-us.org to find the website of your state Green Party.

Nationally, the Green Party needs resources to help us continue to organize between electoral cycles. Your donation will help the Green Party maintain it office and staff so that our organizing can continue to be supported and so that we can be better prepared next time, when YOU decide to demand fundamental change and run for office.

Robert Caldwell
Campaign Manager, Committee to Elect Malik Rahim

POLITICAL CONTEXT

Saturday’s election was a mix of low turnout and a very high level of polarization along race and class lines around the question of reelecting Bill Jefferson or replacing him. Our volunteers were told by Jefferson supporters that Malik’s campaign would help elect a Republican. Joseph Cao’s supporters screamed that we were going to help re-elect a criminal (Bill Jefferson is under indictment for bribery). Those that voted felt like the stakes were high. Our candidacy was ignored by the local media—including our only local newspaper, the Times Picayune, who had previously sang praises of Malik and Commong Ground– deemed marginal. The Times Picayune heavily supported Joseph Cao.

The numbers show that working class and poor African-American voters were loyal to Bill Jefferson, in an expression of determination to preserve a concrete symbol of Black political power in the city. Whites (even white “liberal” Democrats), Vietnamese, and middle-class black voters, mobilized to cast a vote against corruption by selecting former independent, Joseph Cao. Desire to unseat Jefferson was so high in white and middle-class areas that signs that simply said “Anyone but Jefferson” even appeared in the neutral ground.

The underlying story of this election- and that of the 4th Congressional District in Northwest Louisiana– is that the Republican Governor and Secretary of State moved the election date to a time favoring Republican candidates. In both cases, there was low voter turnout, and in both cases Republicans won. In the New Orleans area, a low voter turnout (less than 70,000 voters) gave Joseph Cao (a newly minted Republican who took thousands of dollars in Republican contributions but downplayed his new party affiliation, including in his literature) a decisive advantage over Jefferson. Now the 2nd Congressional District- a “majority-minority” district- has the first Vietnamese-American Congressman, and perhaps the only Republican of any “majority-minority” district in the United States.

MALIK’S RESULTS:

The results were undoubtedly disappointing: 1880 people cast their ballots for Malik- just under 3% of voters. Although low in the district as a whole, the campaign finished second in 32 precincts (beating Jefferson in some and Cao in others), and received more than eight percent of the votes in 45 precincts. With focused outreach (mailers, door knocking, follow up phone calls and emails to supporters in those areas), it is possible that Greens could turn the top ten “hot” precincts solidly Green in future elections. Malik favored much better in Orleans Parish than Jefferson Parish, and somewhat better on the East Bank of New Orleans than in Algiers. This was a surprise to most of us, since many of Malik’s family and some key volunteers were from Algiers and the West Bank of Jefferson Parish.

WHAT WORKED

Canvassing worked. The campaign door knocked 1600 households primarily in the Bywater, Marigny, St. Claude, 7th Ward/St. Bernard and parts of Mid City. We dropped literature at least 6,000 additional households in the Bywater, Marigny, St. Claude, St. Roch, 7th Ward/ St. Bernard, Mid City, and various Uptown neighborhoods.

Door knocking and real conversations with voters happened in every precinct where Malik got over 15% of the vote. Social relationships were present- and leveraged (people made concreted asks of their friends and neighbors)- in those precincts as well. Six of the top eight reporting precincts had local resident supporters that canvassed and/or encouraged their neighbors to get active with the campaign. Neighborhood infrastructure worked well where there was both a committed neighborhood captain and a critical mass of volunteers or supporters.

The treasurer kept our filings on time, the media coordinator did excellent advertising work, and our electronic communications coordinator built an excellent web site and online presence. Sign builders did an enormous amount of work affixing signs to reclaimed wood and wire stakes. Social events worked well. The two larger campaign parties were organized with less than a week notice and had 75 and 45 motivated attendees, respectively. Volunteers also enjoyed the sign making party where they were able to hand paint large reused signs and silkscreen additional lawn signs.

Green veteran campaigners mobilized to help us on the ground in New Orleans. Special thanks to Pat LaMarche of Maine and Pete Karas of Wisconsin. Over 100 others participated in the remote phone banking system, calling district voters. Thanks to Marnie Glickman of Green Change, Hugh Esco of the Georgia Green Party, and the dedicated phone banking volunteers.

Lastly, the national fundraising strategy leveraged over $20,000 in national support, mostly in small donations, to meet the campaigns’ overall fundraising goal of $30,000.

WHAT DIDN’T WORK

Voter confusion worked against us. Some thought that after two elections Bill Jefferson had won reelection. In the week leading up to December 6, 25% of the voters we spoke to didn’t know Dec. 6 was an election day. Moreover, the campaign’s focus was interrupted by Hurricanes Ike and Gustav with most of September and part of October lost. The on-again, off again hurt us. When people didn’t see signs out in late October and voters didn’t see Malik on the November ballot, rumors flew that Malik dropped out of the race. It was difficult to communicate amidst the presidential contest, but we could have done better to communicate to voters.

Our early planning was backward. We planned based on what resources we had or anticipated at the first few campaign meetings, while we should have planned from our desired results on election day backward. This would have cued us in on the need for poll watchers in every precinct we thought we could win, sign holders at major intersections near polling places with heavy driving, and election day voting card (“ballot”) distribution in precincts with those who tend to walk to the polls. Perhaps we would have worked more systematically to provide or refer voter transportation to polling places.

We were unable to recruit key positions to fill out the basic campaign infrastructure, including a local volunteer coordinator, canvassing coordinator (the campaign manager took on this work) area coordinators for most of Uptown and the Jefferson Parish precincts (most of this work was left undone), and a scheduler for Malik (he scheduled himself with consultation with the Media Coordinator and Campaign Manger).
Recorded “robocalls” helped us identify out of service phone numbers for our phone bankers but we could have spent more time refining the messaging for our target audience and improving the sound quality of the recordings.

The campaign over-relied on Malik’s name recognition with Common Ground and conflated the positive feedback we were getting from potential voters with turn-out to the polls and votes on election day. For example, we overestimated the enthusiasm in the Bywater (a diverse section of the Upper Ninth Ward), where nearly 30% of the doors knocked and 2 of 3 calls placed were saying they would vote for Malik on election day. While we did get 3 of the 4 highest percentage precincts and some of the highest absolute votes in the Bywater, some voters never made it to the polls and we failed to win those precincts.
Perhaps most importantly, we grossly overestimated Malik’s organic base in Algiers and the Lower 9th Ward, assuming positive name recognition in those areas would translate to levers pulled on election day. While we did implement a ratings system for voter identification, we lacked comparables for Algiers and the Lower 9th Ward because the campaign was highly decentralized, with those in charge of Algiers and the Lower 9th Ward dismissing the importance of door-to-door canvassing.

CONCLUSION

We should have organized for six months to a year in advance of this election. The candidate and campaign waited far too long to begin serious campaigning. Once we did, we could have had clearer priorities for the campaign and better time management of the candidate. Once financial resources flooded in during the second half of November, it was too late to hire field organizers so we put most of those resources into advertising.

The campaign could have done much more- and much earlier- to recruit volunteers and to secure endorsements of prominent local supporters. Endorsements of real people-if leveraged- could have translated to votes on election day. More volunteers would have meant more canvassing and outreach capacity. By contrast, the media blitz- radio, electronic billboards, tv, and newspaper ads- helped moralize the base but didn’t seem to translate to votes.

The Green Party has a long way to grow in New Orleans and Louisiana. In hindsight, we lacked enough critical infrastructure or boots on the ground win this election. We needed a lot more to overcome the popular “horse race” mentality of the media and voting public that has odds on the Republican or Democrat. Joseph Cao’s candidacy was a perfect storm that rained on our parade. Our volunteer base was 50 people at its broadest, and should have been ten times that. We also needed a much larger core campaign staff working on the election. There is no quick fix to our mistakes: the answer is patient party-building, relationship-building, and support of the social movements between electoral cycles.

Precincts 20% and over:

9-14 (Bywater): 25.6%
5-6 (Back of Treme): 25.0%
4-6 (Mid City): 23.6%
9-12 (Bywater): 20.3%

Precincts with percentages between 15 and 19.9%: (4)

5-11 (Mid City)
8-1 (Marigny rectangle)
8-4 (St. Roch)
9-15 (Bywater)

Notes

1 The AFL-CIO and some nonprofit leaders also supported Jefferson in an attempt to hold onto a Democratic Party district.

2 Cao ran a sophisticated campaign that relied heavily upon Helena Moreno (Jefferson’s opponent in the Democratic primary) supporters and other Democratic Party factions hostile to Jefferson, and downplayed his Republican Party affiliation—his party was not included on his literature.

3 New Orleans has a functional illiteracy rate of over 30% and many people depend on voting cards and/or candidates’ ballot numbers to assist their voting.

4 The campaign received over 10 phone calls asking for transportation on election day.

5 Everyone hates robocalls, but they seem to be effective. I received 7 robocalls from Cao supporters, none from Jefferson. I received one human phone call from the Cao campaign.

Mid-Summer Voting in New Orleans: Legacy of failed Reconstruction

Three years after the floodwaters of the Hurricane Katrina subsided, the people of New Orleans voters are plagued by barriers to voting, misinformation and disenfranchisement .

In late July, I received a call from a United Teachers of New Orleans phone banker. Before Katrina, UTNO was the largest union in the state, and they have often promoted property tax renewals as a revenue stream for public schools. These millages go to general upkeep of the schools, air conditioning, textbooks, educational materials and teacher salaries. I figured this was an important vote and committed to going to the polls. It turned out that actually figuring out where to vote was a more difficult task.

My attempt to vote began with a morning reminder call. They told me that my polling place is Drew Elementary in the 9th Ward. However, I can’t actually vote at Drew; my updated voter registration reflects a new address.

After shuffling through stacks of papers, I finally located my new (two month old) voter registration card to verify that my polling place had changed. The voter card said that my polling place was Jesuit High School. I showered and dressed.

An hour after the call, I’d arrived at Jesuit. High school kids played basketball in the gymnasium. No sign of a polling place. I walked around the block searching for the polling place. Finally I saw signs for a different ward laying on the lawn in front of a nearby building, but the doorI was locked. Around the block, I found a different door with something taped on it – at last, it was a polling station!

Through the door, the poll was set up for two precincts only. After I presented my voter card and ID, I learned that neither of them were mine. In fact, I am not even sure of my ward or precinct, as they are not noted on my voter registration card. One poll worker insisted that she knew my precinct and told me to head to “Sheriff Foti’s Jail” to vote. (Foti was replaced by Marlin N. Gusman as sheriff five years ago, and I know that Orleans Parish Prison is nowhere close to my precinct). One sympathetic poll worker strained to look at my card two or three times then called her supervisor. Eventually she determines that I am in Ward 5, Precinct 8. Sure enough, in the corner of the card with no other designation is 05/08. I – and the poll workers – had earlier assumed those numbers simply noted the date of issue. Finally we determine my polling place: Albert Wicker Elementary, some 20 blocks away. Luckily, I drive a car.

In the early afternoon, I arrived at Wicker. Friendly precinct workers verified my voter eligibility. I pulled back the curtain to go into the voting booth. Four ballot propositions make up the millage. I quickly pulled the lever and leave.

My voting precinct has changed only once since Hurricane Katrina. But my polling place has changed four times! All of the trouble was worth it. Everyone predicted that this election would have low turnout, and some guesses ran as low as 15%. With those numbers, rich white uptowners (who send their kids to private schools) had a real chance to vote down the millages.

Fifteen percent ended up being optimistic. The nightly news reported the voter turnout at just over 7%! Of those 7%, some 85% of Orleans Parish voters approved the property tax renewal dedicated to improving the public school system. Since the measure was not a tax increase and was supported by local government, charter schools, and most good government groups, the news reported that it was not a controversial election, and therefore didn’t attract voters. Further, due to abysmal voter turnout, this would be the last time that New Orleans will have summer voting.

The side I critically supported in this vote won. But the lesson I take away from the ordeal is not that “civic participation counts,” that UTNO won because they mobilized their too thin base, or that “voter turnout was low because of summer heat and the millage was not controversial.” The main impression was that three years after Katrina people have to fight to be able to vote.

Blue Vinyl (2002) Movie Review

Blue Vinyl (2002) http://www.bluevinyl.org/ , by Judith Helfand and Daniel B. Gold begins and is centered around the blue vinyl residing of the exterior of Judith’s parents’ modest suburban house. I watched the film at my New Orleans home on the Sundance channel in summer 2007.

The film tells a story about the production of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) from the plant to the consumer. It focuses on workers and surrounding communities’ exposure to toxic chemicals from plants during the production phase. Judy travels from home to Lake Charles and Baton Rouge Louisiana, to Italy and back searching out the truth that corporate executives knew all along…. PVC makes workers sick, but petrochemical companies hide that so they can rake in the money. By the time the public knows, the corporations are awash in profit (and capitalists can reinvest that profit into other industries).


Blue Vinyl is a fun documentary. It makes use of animated sequences, has good cinematography, and employs the best comedic techniques of a skilled muckraker. It delivers on the information. I knew Louisiana’s chemical corridor was vast, but had no idea that almost half of PVC plants in the US are in Louisiana. The documentary also finds hard targets: the petrochemical industry, corporate managers, the Vinyl Institute (industry trade association), and even Habitat for Humanity. As a result of the film’s stand, in March 2004, builders broke ground on the first PVC free Habitat for Humanity house in New Orleans. Oh, and the film has one of my favorite lawyers, Monique Hardin of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights.

The political weakness is the film’ consumer-oriented approach. Hefland admits that affordability is a key selling point of vinyl, and that the alternative to vinyl siding she used at her parents house was not affordable. Despite this, she reverts to the consumer choice mantra. The organizers of “My House is your House” http://www.myhouseisyourhouse.org/, a non-profit set up at behest of the filmmakers- engage in corporate campaigns, but their main focus- and the focus of the film- is primarily on making the information available. Increasing the information available to consumers is useful, but consumer protection under capitalist “choice” has obvious limits.

Judy highlights some innovative alternatives by visiting a green building materials conference in California. Unless and until these “alternative” building methods become the new standard (through legislation and building codes) they will remain obscured in a certain California niche of those who can afford it.

In the film Helfand shows us that chemical workers are often the most at risk. First the workers get sick, then though collective action (union and/or class action lawsuits) they raise the profile and hopefully enact contract and policy changes. In parallel, the adjacent (often low income) community engages in calls for reduced emissions, careful monitoring, and maybe even plant closures. But even this is not enough. A very small percentage of the population works in a PVC plant or lives in the adjoining communities. And the petrochemical industry is tough. Collective approaches need to be more explicit: stronger workplace protections, tougher regulations (OSHA enforcement and stronger EPA), and an outright ban on PVC.

Background information/ research A-
Entertainment Value B+
Political Conclusions D

For more information:
http://www.bluevinyl.org/
http://www.pvcinformation.org/

Thoughts on Aid to the People of Burma

The recent Solidarity front page on the cyclone in Southeast Asia (borrowed from International Viewpoint) is in line with my own reflections on the politics of aid in the wake of ‘natural’ disasters.

Disasters like Hurricane Katrina, like Jean and Georges in Haiti, the Tsunami, and the most recent earthquake in China get everyone’s attention. By putting a spotlight on parts of the world that sometimes seem distant to most in the US, they open a space for dialogue with friends and family on international issues and politics. The always insufficient relief efforts following disasters – whether they are “natural” or “manmade” – offer an opportunity to discuss the conflict between human need and the profit motive. As Marxists, these tragedies provide us a chance to educate ourselves, as revolutionaries, the occasions motivate us to demand a fundamental shift in social relationships, and as activists and humanists they call on us to organize material relief, even when modest.

After going through the social, political, and ecological devastation of Hurricane Katrina firsthand a few years back, water and wind disasters like the recent cyclone in Burma are more personal for me. My experience was that most material assistance for the people of New Orleans came from grassroots sources, with many offers of international assistance (such as offers from Cuba and Venezuela that were turned down.) I feel compelled to offer what material support I can for the people affected by the cyclone, but getting material aid to Burma is very difficult. Western relief agencies are very limited, and access is heavily restricted.

Belonging to an international revolutionary current sometimes provides some pointers in providing aid that will both help affected people, avoid corruption and raise the profile of political comrades in the area. For supporters of the Fourth International, when the Tsunami hit Sri Lanka, we could give to comrades in the Nava Saja Samana Party, Sri Lanka’s New Socialist Party. When the earthquake hit Pakistan, we could support the work of comrades in the Labor Party of Pakistan. Unfortunately, the activists who would have been our most likely fraternal comrades in Burma were brutally suppressed or killed off in the late 1940s and executed or exiled from China 1947-52.

Since I know very little about the current or historical situation in China, I will leave that to other comrades and speculate on Burma. The Communist Party of Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD, and the remnants of the Democratic Party for New Society all have some interesting features – but none are fully supportable as political vehicles. I think it’s important to look at the recent social motion in the
country.

In a “former life” I was a Theravada Buddhist monk, ordained at a Burmese monastery in Austin, TX. It might be difficult for some secular activists to think about giving to a religious or even a secular but monastic-led organization, but the Buddhist monks in Burma- as in Sri Lanka-are ubiquitous and represent different class viewpoints. Some sections of the Sangha have a long history of social struggle.

Buddhist monks will undoubtedly be on the front lines of relief efforts. But for those of you who wouldn’t feel right giving directly to a Buddhist temple, the following best group I’ve found funneling relief to front line workers- including leading “Saffron rebellion” leaders- is The Foundation for the People of Burma. (But don’t take my word for it, they are also recommended by New Orleans anarcho-eco-socialist professor John Clark!)