DHL Layoffs Begin in Wilmington, OH

“60 Minutes” special on Wilmington – A town in Crisis

I moved to Ohio in August to begin a teaching job at Wilmington College in August—a small, Quaker liberal arts school located in Wilmington, Ohio. Even before I moved in, I had heard the preliminary rumors that would soon put Wilmington into the national news: DHL, the international shipping company with its US hub in Wilmington, would be closing its doors in 2009. In a town like Wilmington, with only about 12,000 people, the news that up to 7,000 jobs will be eliminated from the local economy is devastating. Today, with layoffs already underway, I can see the fallout appearing just in my drive home from work in an array of “for sale” signs on local houses and the loss of several local retail businesses—a donut shop and a record store. And in a town this small, located nearly an hour from Cincinnati, every local business is precious.

The airport that had attracted DHL has been both a major source of Wilmington’s economy and a source of its vulnerability for decades. Originally part of Clinton County Air Force Base from the 1950s through the early ‘70s, the site was abandoned by the government in 1971, leaving the local economy in recession. It wasn’t until 1980 that the small shipping company Airborne Express purchased the airport for commercial use, and in 2003 DHL acquired Airborne and vastly expanded the project. Now, the city will once again be left with a potentially valuable airport and no means of realizing that value.

As a newcomer to the area, I don’t feel that I can speak adequately to the community response to this crisis. I observed last year’s protests and petitions organized by DHL workers and their supporters that aimed to prevent DHL from leaving. The local bookstore sold shirts in support of the workers, and many of them found an audience with political visitors to town who were concerned with the economic situation, including Ralph Nader, John McCain, and Sarah Palin. The protests and petitions did not convince DHL to stay, however, and the current thrust of protest is aimed at forcing DHL to donate the airpark to the city on its departure. If Wilmington can lure another employer to the airport, the thinking goes, perhaps we can re-employ some of the workers who have been laid off.

For others in the community, there is a sense that we need to focus our attention elsewhere in terms of economic development. In November, there was a proposal on the Ohio ballot to build a casino in Wilmington as a way to staunch the economic bleeding. While the town was split on this possibility, the state-wide voters soundly defeated it. Others are ready to jump ship from Wilmington in search of jobs, and this group faces the added difficulty of putting their homes on the market in a town where houses have been languishing on the market for many months.

Wilmington, like so many towns in the Midwest, is heavily dependent on one industry. The loss of that industry threatens to put Wilmington, which is already somewhat depressed, into the ranks of Flint, Michigan, where the loss of local industry creates a permanent rather than a temporary state of economic crisis. For local residents in places like this, community action like the protests that emerged against DHL feels hopeless—the company doesn’t even bat an eye at local protest. I continue to believe that this kind of collective action is the only way that we’ll be able to fix things, but I don’t know exactly what kind of community work would be most beneficial in this immediate crisis. At Wilmington College, we’re trying to remain optimistic in the midst of all the trauma, contemplating how we might not only survive but also how we might be able to contribute to the rebuilding of the community in both economic and social ways. And although I don’t think the College knows exactly how to go about that yet, either, I do appreciate the Quaker values of community activism and consensus that it is attempting to bring to the table. Because the school attracts mostly local applicants, the crisis at DHL affects us all—staff members and faculty have spouses who work at DHL, students have parents being laid off, and all of us feel the changes in our small local community. I can only hope that these connections will help Wilmington do more than simply survive the crisis. For now, we’re just hanging on.

Combating Activist Burnout: Our Stories of Radicalization

When I joined Solidarity, the first thing everyone asked was “what brought you here?” “How did you become a radical?” This question is crucial for activists because it’s part of the overall puzzle of how to mobilize more people.

I love my own story of “radicalization,” though it came so early that I can hardly attribute it to my conscious self. My dad has always been committed to leftist ideals, and he participated in the civil rights movement and worked for the UAW when he was young. When my brother and I were young, bedtime songs and stories were his opportunity to express these ideas to us. He sang union songs and told us stories about holding sit-ins for restaurant integration with SNCC or getting beaten up by a police officer at an antiwar rally. We sang “Joe Hill” and “We Shall Overcome” and asked questions about what it meant to be a scab. Through these childhood memories, my dad gave me and my brother a sense of how important it was to take action on personal beliefs — even if those actions carried consequences. Radicalism was always part of our personal narratives, and we felt that activism would be a natural part of our adult lives. We wanted stories to tell our own children.

By joining in the ritual of telling my personal narrative of radicalization, I’m perpetuating the belief that these stories somehow give us a key to future recruitment. If we learn what brought each of us to radicalism, maybe we can replicate it in others. The answer, of course, is never this simple. Most people, no matter what their histories, choose not to participate in political action. Those of us who join radical organizations – especially when they lack mass public support – are anomalies. Who says that what worked for us will work for others?

Although they may not be the keys to organizational growth, there is something satisfying about personal narratives of radicalization. As activists, we often work for years with little or nothing to show for our labors. We hold events that are poorly attended, we lead spectacular actions that seem to make no dent in corporate or government action, and we put so much of ourselves into our activism that we frequently face burnout.

At the moment, I’m dealing with this burnout myself. I’m involved in an anti-sweatshop group and a graduate student unionization effort that are struggling just to survive. Graduate students at my university just won a huge victory when the school agreed to give us dental insurance after a five-year battle led by the union movement. Nonetheless, student interest in unionizing seems to be at a low point. Our call-out meetings rarely attract more than one or two students, and the steering committee is overwhelmed at the task of simply keeping the organization afloat. Similarly, the anti-sweatshop group, which definitely generates more enthusiasm on campus, is mired in a seemingly endless campaign to end the university’s Coca-Cola contract. Years of repetitive actions and little progress have left me feeling demoralized, dragging my feet on attending meetings and participating in the campaign.

I wonder, then, whether the personal narratives that we often request of others are at their most useful when they attempt to combat burnout. While day-to-day activism can feel stagnant and frustrating, personal narratives of radicalization are stories that help us remember the emotions behind our activism. Because when activist work goes well, it’s exhilarating and addictive. They are also stories about progress—we move from a point of lesser understanding to a point of greater understanding. In these narratives, we see our ideal activist selves, and we gain some hope that this progress will continue.

Boos for Bush

At opening day for baseball’s Washington Nationals, George W. Bush was booed as he took the field to deliver the first pitch. For the President, who usually keeps his public appearances carefully regulated to prevent hecklers, this interruption during a usually celebratory moment of baseball ceremony might have been a surprise, especially because sports is usually a venue for obligatory displays of patriotism. The ritual playing of the national anthem, with all fans and players standing at attention, has been supplemented in the post-9/11 era with a seventh-inning stretch singing of “God Bless America.” During the build-up to the Iraq war, sports crowds would often spontaneously erupt in a chant of “U-S-A, U-S-A.”

In these cases, nationalism is built into the very structure of the game and the crowd’s response. And this is usually interpreted by fans and sportscasters as “apolitical.” When college basketball player Toni Smith protested the Iraq War in 2003 by refusing to face the American flag during the national anthem, she sparked a nationwide controversy about the role of politics in sports. Many fans and sportswriters argued against Smith by insisting that sports rhetoric should be free of politics. They did not take into account the political implications of “God Bless America” or chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A” with a war looming on the horizon. Only resistance, according to this rhetoric, classifies as an intrusion of “politics” into the sports arena.

This blindness to nationalism in sports is why the crowd’s spontaneous behavior of booing Bush is so significant. Despite the fact that he was performing an ostensibly “non-political” act by simply throwing out the first pitch, Bush sparked a political reaction from the crowd. The persistence of the boos suggests that the crowd felt justified in its anti-Bush expression. They were not shamed by the rest of the crowd into expressing traditional nationalist sentiments of respect for the President. The crowd suggested that, if baseball is America’s “national” pastime, then the baseball field is a political arena to express dissent. Stuck in a visible public space performing a ceremonial task, Bush was caught in a position that allowed the public to speak and prevented him from responding.

The Mainstream Media and Race Politics

When I broach the subject of race with my college freshmen in their introduction to composition class, I often do so through the medium of sports. What does it mean, I ask, that NBA players are now required to wear suits and ties when they sit on the bench? And why is it that, when African-American youth Genarlow Wilson was released from prison after serving two years for having consensual oral sex with another teenager, it was ESPN that offered the most extensive, in-depth article in the mainstream press?

Organized sports is one of the few venues in our country where the public can see both visible expressions of racism and public critiques of it. In particular, ESPN’s commentators, opinion writers, and sports analysts have become crucial in building public debate around issues of institutional racism. This is not to say that all such discussion is politically savvy. A recent study about racial disparities in the number of fouls called on NBA players, for instance, elicited widespread anger among sportscasters, many of whom refused to deal with the details of the study. Nonetheless, even in this case the topic earned extensive airplay and debate, which is more than we can say about discussions of race in the mainstream news media. On the nightly news, even specials that do focus on racial issues, such as recent pieces on the Jena Six, offer no room for discussion, and cable news networks tend to privilege brash figures who align themselves with one of the two parties and specialize in sound bytes rather than discussion or analysis.

Sports journalist Howard Bryant

By contrast, ESPN features a fairly diverse cast of writers and sportscasters on its website and its television network, and these journalists are willing to tackle politically charged racial issues in frank discussions or opinion pieces. Several years ago, the institution of a rule preventing NBA teams from drafting players directly from high school elicited a torrent of discussion on ESPN about whether or not this was a decision that would disproportionately harm poorer prospects, most of whom were people of color. Similarly, the recent arrest of Michael Vick for his role in dog-fighting prompted columnist Howard Bryant to write a piece for the ESPN website that positioned the racial divide over Vick’s case in the complicated context of institutional racism and class privilege. Bryant both censured Vick for his behavior and highlighted the racist responses of many white viewers and readers to the case. Although his piece might not have changed the minds of these white readers, Bryant certainly sparked discussion. Six weeks after the piece’s publication, it has received nearly 2,800 comments on the ESPN website.

ESPN, then, appears to be bringing race politics successfully into a mainstream venue devoted to entertainment. Although its readers and viewers may be predominantly male, they come from a variety of race and class backgrounds, and their commentaries range from racist rants to sophisticated political analyses. This is an important development for several reasons. It makes the presence of racism visible to those white readers who believe they live in a “post-racist” era, it encourages fans to see organized sports as a business with political implications, and it asks readers to discuss and defend their own views on race politics. Discussions on race and politics, especially in ostensibly “entertainment” venues, can prepare participants for further political analyses. They can begin to see politics as less intimidating and more interesting if they begin examining it in comfortable and entertaining ways.

In part, I think ESPN writers and sportscasters have been able to introduce race (and, to a lesser extent) class analyses into their work because sports is often seen as an apolitical venue. On CNN or MSNBC, talk show hosts are expected to present and defend partisan political opinions, while ESPN journalists are expected simply to provide entertaining and engaging discussions of sports news. They don’t present their ideas as political opinions but as educated positions on the state of the NBA, the NFL or Major League baseball. What looks like entertainment slips quietly into race politics.

Clearly, ESPN is not simply a haven for anti-racist politics. Nonetheless, I think it is useful to pay attention to and support such discussions in mainstream entertainment venues. Many people feel frustrated, bored, or confused by discussions of international politics or domestic policy, and organized sports is an accessible way to understand and see the concrete effects of institutional racism. Understanding the problems of requiring black players to comply with white norms of dress might not lead white viewers to change their overall political behavior, but it is a start. As not only the field of play but the sports news room become increasingly diverse, organized sports can offer fresh discussions of race in American culture that begin in the sports world and extend outward. Genarlow Wilson and the Jena Six, for instance, initially drew sports commentators because both Wilson and the Jena Six’s Mychal Bell were standout athletes. But by covering these cases with in-depth personal stories, ESPN extended its brand of participatory, analytical coverage into a political public forum.