It's changing the conversation:
The wealth gap and the Occupy Movement
By Ted McLaughlin / The Rag Blog / October 31, 2011
The image above brings home a very disturbing fact about the United States -- the vast inequality of wealth and income in the country. This inequality, which grows worse with each passing week -- since Congress has done nothing about it -- was the primary cause of this Great Recession (just like a previous and very similar gap caused the Great Depression).
But there is a big difference between the previous gap causing the Great Depression, and the current gap causing the Great Recession. The previous gap was caused by the Republican Party favoring the rich and the corporations. But when the Democrats got into power they changed the economic policies, put people back to work (using WPA and CCC), created the Social Security system, and gave the country new hope.
But things were different this time. After the Republicans went back to their old ways of favoring the rich and the corporations, causing the current economic mess and the loss of millions of jobs, the people again put the Democrats back in power in 2008. But this time nothing happened.
It turns out that the rich and corporations had gotten smarter -- instead of just buying the Republican politicians, they also bought a passel of Democratic politicians (the blue dogs). And the Republicans combined with the blue dogs were powerful enough to prevent any economic changes or job creation.
After watching the Congress muddle around for nearly three years without changing the failed "trickle-down" Republican policy or doing anything to create a substantial amount of jobs, it became obvious that too many members of Congress (of both parties) were controlled by the corporations and the rich and nothing was going to be done to help ordinary and hurting Americans.
In fact, the situation was being made worse by cuts to education and social programs while the rich continued to get unnecessary tax cuts and the corporations received unnecessary subsidies.
If any needed change was going to occur, it would have to start with the American people -- not the corporate-owned politicians in Congress. When this became obvious, it resulted in the birth of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
It may have started small with only a few hundred protesters in New York City, but it struck a chord with the American people and spread quickly to many other American cities -- first the large cities, and then in the smaller cities, and finally to cities around the world. It has now grown so large that it can no longer be ignored.
But can the movement cause real economic change in the United States? Probably not until and unless it grows even larger, but it has caused a couple of minor changes already -- and one of those could lead to much bigger changes down the road.
The first change is that it is starting to scare the big banks on Wall Street. At about the same time that the Occupy Wall Street movement started, one of the biggest banks (Bank of America) announced they would start charging their depositors a $5 a month fee for using their debit cards (accessing their own money). Several other of the giant Wall Street banks indicated they would do the same.
But the American public, led by the Occupy Wall Street protesters, gave voice to their anger over this latest insult from the greed-mongers of Wall Street (whose illegal actions triggered the recession).
Many people threatened to pull their money out of the giant banks and put it into local banks and credit unions. There was even a day set aside, November 5, to do this en masse. Now the big banks are backing down. J.P. MorganChase, U.S. Bancorp, Citigroup, PNC Financial, KeyCorp, and other banks are now saying they will NOT follow Bank of America's lead in charging for use of a debit card. And frankly, it would not surprise me if Bank of America didn't reverse their decision soon.
But the Occupy Wall Street movement has caused an even more important change -- one that could lead to needed economic changes down the road. They have altered the national dialogue, especially on the nation's news media outlets. Last summer all the media wanted to talk about was the national debt, an issue that is far less important than job creation and income inequality. A review of the 24-hour news sources (MSNBC, CNN, Fox) in the last week of July showed the following mentions:
But after a month of the Occupy Wall Street movement that has changed. A review of the same news sources during the week of October 10-16 showed the most popular word references had changed to:
This is good change. A problem cannot be solved until the public is discussing it as an important issue, and that is unlikely to happen until the issue is being covered by the media. The movement still needs to grow to be the catalyst for a real change in economic policy, and that can happen now because the nation is now paying attention and starting to discuss the real issues.
[Ted McLaughlin also posts at jobsanger. Read more articles by Ted McLaughlin on The Rag Blog.]
The Rag Blog
31 October 2011
It's changing the conversation:
All trick no treat:
Austin police take down
food table in midnight raid
By Greg Moses / The Rag Blog / October 31, 2011
Police in Austin, Texas, made 39 arrests early Sunday as they moved to enforce a new rule banning food tables in the City Hall plaza where protesters have camped out. Some protesters surrounded the tables with arms linked. Most were charged with criminal trespass, Police Chief Art Acevedo said. No injuries were reported.If last Friday you could pull yourself from the temptation of ordering a $17 risotto among jam-packed downtown luncheoneers, then you could walk a little further to the west side of Austin City Hall and catch a free viewing of the noon sun as it stopped to warm a heap of oversized sleeping bags right outside the picture window of city council chambers.
Protesters had been advised of the food table ban on Friday, Assistant City Manager Michael McDonald told the Austin American-Statesman.“We want to facilitate their activities,” he said, “but we can’t allow this to be a permanent campsite.”
Some protesters found the ban arbitrary. “On a night where there are hundreds of drunks driving around town, they have all these resources here to take down three food tables,” protester Dave Cortez told the newspaper. -- Salon / AP
Probably the architect who west-walled the council room in glass was suggesting something about democracy, so you wondered for a minute how that impromptu pile of cozy bedding looked from inside and how long the sight would be tolerated. Out on the west plaza meanwhile a well-bred dog concentrated on the art of warming, stretching its front legs out in such a way as to flatten its tummy across the sun-stained stone, stretching, and coughing just a little bit.
Of course it sounds too perfect that the only other thing you heard was the quiet melody of guitar strings being finger-picked by a youngish man whose presence, style, and musicality seemed to account for the dog’s single-minded attention to relaxation.
Now at what point exactly on this fourth weekend of Occupy Austin did the Austin Police swoop down to scoop up all these sleeping bags and dump them at some pre-authorized location? By Sunday afternoon a shoeless young woman will be trying to explain it all, pointing to her feet and saying yes, that’s why she has no shoes, because they were lost in the sleeping bag raid.
And sure enough on Sunday afternoon when you walk back around to check out the view near “democracy window” there is nothing but bare stone.
Rounding the corner to the south plaza on Friday, you saw a dozen folks sitting in various places upon the amphitheater to your upper left and another dozen people gathered in the plaza before you. Beyond the plaza, and around the sidewalks, perhaps another dozen sat, walked, or stood. Three dozen in all, up, down, and around.
A shirtless man with a bicycle mocked you on Friday for gaping at the scene, then turned his attention to two middle aged men with really cool bikes who were also just looking at things.
Where the east steps of the amphitheater met the plaza was an empty metal bookshelf labeled “Free Library,” not too far from a line-up of books sunning themselves on a warm block of stone. Sitting also on the stone was a young woman deep into the art of making a sign from poster-board and magic marker.
“The police took the bookshelf, too,” explains the barefoot woman on Sunday. “I think they called it a permanent fixture.”
On Friday also you recall making notes about the food table that was serving free lunch on the lower deck of the amphitheater. “Mom’s Work” said a sign behind the table as food was being served by a healthy looking blonde.
“They didn’t come for the food table until midnight Saturday,” the barefoot woman explains on Sunday. “There was a new rule about no food from 10 pm to 6 am, so we were kinda giddy about it when they didn’t come for the table at 10. But the rule didn’t go into effect until Sunday, so that’s why they waited.”
Although the food-table arrests were not the first arrests for Occupy Austin, they were the first to be met with a unified and organized response. As the barefoot woman was informing me on Sunday about the overnight arrests, she wondered how she was going to march barefooted from city hall to the county jail.
Thinking back on Friday, you got the impression that the occupation camp was mostly glowing on the question of police relations. The Austin Police Chief had come to Thursday night’s General Assembly with some encouraging words and promises. Folks were chatting Friday about how Austin was an exception to the police attacks that had rocked other occupations.
Not that police had been exactly kindly up to the fourth weekend of Occupy Austin. For example, the “flag man” of the movement who wore a Veteran’s Administration tag around his neck and who camped out near the front sidewalk with an American flag said the cops warned him once that if he put his head down to sleep they would arrest him. After 36 hours of sleepless occupation he walked several miles to the VA facility before he felt safe enough to close his eyes.
After the food-table take-down, the police came back.
“Oh I don’t remember exactly what time it was, maybe between two and four in the morning,” says a trusted witness.
“One group of cops lined up at the top of the amphitheater.”
“No, there were two lines of cops at the top of the amphitheater,” says a friend.
“And they had another line of cops over there,” says the trusted witness, pointing to the sidewalk along the east side of the city hall plaza.
The cops swept southward down the amphitheater and westward across the plaza.
“It was ridiculous, because we have been moving to that side two or three times a week so that they could power-wash the plaza and amphitheater,” chimes in the friend. “Then last night they also changed the order of the power washing. Usually they wash the amphitheater first so that it has a chance to dry first and we can go back to sleep. But last night they washed the amphitheater last and we had the feeling they did it on purpose so that we would have wet spaces to sleep on.”
By the time the police intimidations were over with, nearly 40 people had been arrested. They were being bailed out all day Sunday, and at 4 pm it was time to redouble the support group that was assembled at the door of the county jail.
After a brief double-check via an iPhone map, organizers led 60 marchers north, up Guadalupe, from city hall to the county jail. Our barefooted marcher carried a sign taller than her that read: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better, it’s not.” Signed by, “The Lorax.” Next time I will see her, she will be educating a television reporter who doesn’t appear shoeless to me.
“Shame on APD, Occupiers must go free!” chant some 60 marchers as they step past prime retailers and polished tour buses. “It’s the War Economy,” declares one protest sign as marchers pass a couple of banks. Small cars honk friendly notes as they pass us going south. Then as the last stragglers of the march finish crossing Fifth Street a big white gas-guzzling combo SUV pickup monstrosity lays on its horn and gas at the same time, nearly threatening to run ‘em down.
After marchers pass the John Henry Faulk city library and take a turn around Wooldridge Park, they are greeted with cheers from the branch occupation at the county jail. The merged rally is easily 150 strong. In this hour of triumph, the arrests themselves have energized the movement to a new plateau of solidarity and determination.
“Free Speech Dies, [The Police Chief] Lies,” chant the occupiers. They recite the First Amendment in unison.
The Bail and Jail Magnet for the occupation announces that $400 has just been posted for two more releases, a third release is pending after that, and a supporter has donated pizza! Boxes of pizza are stacked five high on a bench.
“This is what Democracy looks like,” chants the crowd as a lead organizer points to them. “This is what Hypocrisy looks like,” they chant as he points to the jail house door. All this is going out via live stream on the occupation’s trusty laptop, which has been marched up here, too.
“What happens when people violate your constitutional rights?” asks an organizer. “Do they get arrested?”
“They get elected!” answers a backbencher, cackling.
At that point the door to the county jail opens up and out come three jail trustees in blue scrubs, walking a dog, supervised by a uniformed deputy. The four of them take the dog to a grassy patch where he knows just what to do.
Two television crews break down and return home. A third crew arrives with a satellite truck. The air is swooning with the smell of hand-rolled tobacco.
Then we see our first liberation. Out from the glass doors of the jail strides a young man of stocky build, green t-shirt, desert camo pants, black bandana tied around his neck, and topped with a broad, flat Mohawk. He looks good to us, and you can tell we look good to him. He saunters toward the back benches where the jail veterans are sharing stories. Someone passes him a Coke.
Another stocky young man about this time is talking to the live stream about getting in and out of jail. Inside, they told him there were too many people in jail. He said he told them that’s an easy problem to fix. Just let the folks who didn’t do anything out.
When organizers report three more arrests back at city hall, I walk south to check it out. At Wooldridge Park, three women have set up a table to give food, socks, undershorts, and t-shirts to a line that is already 60 men long. A man is asking for extra socks that he can give to his girlfriend. Down 9th St. near the Hirshfeld-Moore House I catch the back end of a Zombie march. Then it’s past the Texas Observer on 7th, under the porch at Betsy’s Bar, and down a stretch of Lavaca that stinks like puke and grease. At an upscale hotel, valets are lining up a Prius, an Audi, and a BMW.
“Yes, two guys got arrested here about ten minutes ago,” is what I hear from several people back at city hall. “They were fighting. Then while they were being arrested, another guy kept talking to the cops and wouldn’t shut up, so they arrested him too.”
It’s close to 6 pm Sunday and the fourth weekend of Occupy Austin is coming to a close. The last jail release won’t be live streamed until 9:22 pm. Meanwhile Bob Jensen is leading a few folks to the West side of city hall for a teach-in on toxic economics.
Occupiers on the plaza are already debating the meaning of today’s arrests and planning further actions to seek divestment of the city from Bank of America. Everybody is thinking about the next move.
[Greg Moses is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more articles by Greg Moses on The Rag Blog.]
- Read more Rag Blog coverage of Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Austin.
28 October 2011
Viva la Vida...
and remember the dead
By Susan Van Haitsma / The Rag Blog / October 28, 2011
AUSTIN -- One of Austin’s most colorful events of the year is the Dia de los Muertos festival organized by the good folks at Austin’s Mexic-Arte Museum. For 28 years, the museum has hosted events to mark this indigenous occasion.
See gallery of photos by Susan Van Haitsma, Below.
The Viva la Vida festival was held on Saturday, October 22, and included a beautiful and very lively procession from Saltillo Plaza in East Austin to the downtown museum at 5th and Congress. All ages were invited to paint and costume ourselves in skeleton regalia or in whatever ways we wished to commemorate our departed friends and ancestors while celebrating life in the moment.
Music, dance, art, food -- the gifts of life -- were shared between the living and the dead, lifting the thin veil, helping us to remember.
For the past few years, several of us CodePink Austin folks have participated in the procession and have created altars for the museum’s community altars exhibit. This year, because October marks the tenth anniversary of the beginning of the U.S. assault and occupation of Afghanistan, we dedicated our altar to the women and children in Afghanistan who have died as a consequence of the war.
For the procession, we also costumed ourselves with a peace/anti-war theme. As the procession made its way down Sixth Street toward the museum, crowds lined the route. Jim and Heidi Turpin, walking together as a dead U.S. soldier and dead Afghan woman, were an especially poignant sight, drawing much applause, a few frowns, and many photographs.
Mexic-Arte’s community altars exhibit, along with a concurrent show about the history of Dia de los Muertos, runs through November 13 at 419 Congress Avenue, Austin, Texas.
[Susan Van Haitsma is active in Austin with Sustainable Options for Youth and CodePink. She also blogs at makingpeace. Find more articles by Susan Van Haitsma on The Rag Blog.]
The Rag Blog
27 October 2011
Military zone in Oakland:
Riot cops use 'non-lethal projectiles'
to attack occupiers' encampment
Scott Olsen, who served two tours of duty in Iraq, was struck in the head with what the City of Oakland glibly referred to as a 'projectile,' fracturing his skull.By David Van Os / The Rag Blog / October 27, 2011
On Tuesday, October 25, in Oakland, California, a member of Veterans for Peace who was peacefully standing with Occupy Oakland demonstrators was shot in the head by Oakland police and is in a hospital in serious condition with a fractured skull.
UPDATE: See Oakland Mayor Jean Quan's remarkable conciliatory statement about Wednesday's police action, Below.
The nationwide organizations Veterans for Peace and Iraq Veterans Against the War support the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. In several of the Occupy locations members of VFP and IVAW have stationed themselves at the front of demonstrations to defuse potential conflicts with local police. The VFP and IVAW members urge calm on all sides and talk to the police about how the police officers are part of the 99%, while entreating the demonstrators to conduct themselves peacefully.
The veterans were doing that in Oakland Tuesday in an effort to calm the tense situation as armed Oakland police, dressed in riot gear, were preparing to attack the peaceful Occupy Oakland encampment while the demonstrators were refusing to leave.
The police opened fire with so-called “non-lethal ordnance." Scott Olsen, who served two tours of duty in Iraq, was struck in the head with what the City of Oakland glibly referred to as a 'projectile." The “non-lethal projectile” fractured Olsen’s skull. He is reportedly in serious but stable condition.. Olsen was wearing a shirt conspicuously identifying him as a Veteran for Peace.
[The Huffington Post reported Thursday night that Scott Olsen's condition had been updated to fair and that he is now breathing on his own. His roommate, Keith Shannon, reported that Olsen "needs surgery to relieve the pressure on his brain and it will happen in a day or two." Olsen remains sedated.]
This event is reminiscent of the incident that galvanized resistance to the Vietnam War in 1970 when the Ohio National Guard opened fire on students demonstrating against the war at Kent State University and killed four young Americans who wanted a peaceful world.
In the aftermath of the Kent State massacre, college and university students all over America poured out in massive demonstrations that occupied and shut down college and university campuses everywhere. I was one of those student demonstrators at the University of Texas in Austin, where 10,000 of us packed the Main Mall and South Mall shoulder to shoulder the next morning after the news of the Kent State shootings raced quickly throughout the community -- before the age of cell phones, text messages, desktop computers, or the Internet.
It is also reminiscent of the U.S. government’s brutal attack in 1932 on the “Bonus Army” of 10,000 World War I veterans who were peacefully encamped in Washington, D.C., seeking payment of the bonuses they were promised for their faithful service in the Great War, which they needed to help them survive the desperate economic situation of the Great Depression.
Veterans for Peace and the Iraq Veterans Against the War plan to conduct a mass demonstration outside the Oakland Police Department today. The radio news story I heard this morning stated that Veterans for Peace is asking people to go to the Occupy locations in their own cities today and stand in solidarity with Scott Olsen and his fellow veterans.
These courageous veterans are standing in solidarity with all of us in the 99% against the greed and abuse we suffer at the hands of the immoral, anti-democratic economic-political system symbolized by its nerve center on Wall Street.
Whether or not your economic and family responsibilities permit you to attend the Occupy demonstration in your city, please join me in saluting Veterans for Peace and Iraqi Veterans Against the War for their leadership in our national community. If you can’t physically attend your city’s demonstration, at least drive by and give the Occupy demonstration some loud honks of support.
Please spread this message. Quickly, the time is now.
[David Van Os is a populist Texas democrat and a civil rights attorney now living in Austin. He is a former candidate for Attorney General of Texas and for the Texas Supreme Court. To receive his Notes of a Texas Patriot -- circulated whenever he gets the urge (and published on The Rag Blog whenever we get the urge) -- contact him at email@example.com. Read more articles by David Van Os on The Rag Blog.]
UPDATE: Statement by Oakland Mayor Jean Quan on Tuesday night's police action against Occupy Oakland protesters:The Rag Blog
[Oakland Mayor Jean Quan's rather remarkable statement below marks a watershed for the burgeoning American Occupy movements. Cast against the backdrop of Wednesday's fully-militarized Oakland City Center, Quan's effusively conciliatory remarks can only be interpreted as an admission that turning downtown Oakland into a war zone to roll up a tent-city encampment did not work.
It should be noted that adherence to nonviolent discipline on the part of the Occupy Oakland organizers and all the protesters that participated throughout the day was a critically important factor in forcing the City of Oakland's hand. Brute-force police oppression of the Occupy movement has taken its best shot. It is possible that nonviolent resistance has prevailed. -- Marc Ash / Reader Supported News.]
We support the goals of the Occupy Wall Street movement: we have high levels of unemployment and we have high levels of foreclosure that makes Oakland part of the 99% too. We are a progressive city and tolerant of many opinions. We may not always agree, but we all have a right to be heard.
I want to thank everyone for the peaceful demonstration at Frank Ogawa Park tonight, and thank the city employees who worked hard to clean up the plaza so that all activities can continue including Occupy Wall Street. We have decided to have a minimal police presence at the plaza for the short term and build a community effort to improve communications and dialogue with the demonstrators.
99% of our officers stayed professional during difficult and dangerous circumstances as did some of the demonstrators who dissuaded other protestors from vandalizing downtown and for helping to keep the demonstrations peaceful. For the most part, demonstrations over the past two weeks have been peaceful. We hope they continue to be so.
I want to express our deepest concern for all of those who were injured last night, and we are committed to ensuring this does not happen again. Investigations of certain incidents are underway and I will personally monitor them.
We understand and recognize the impact this event has had on the community and acknowledge what has happened. We cannot change the past, but we are committed to doing better.
Most of us are part of the 99%, and understand the spirit of the Occupy Wall Street Movement. We are committed to honoring their free speech right.
Finally, we understand the demonstrators want to meet with me and Chief Jordan. We welcome open dialogue with representatives of Occupy Wall Street members, and we are willing to meet with them as soon as possible.
-- Mayor Jean Quan, Oakland, California
Injury to one is injury to all:
Austin labor demonstrates
solidarity with Occupy movement
By William Rogers / The Rag Blog / October 27, 2011
AUSTIN -- Five hundred union members marched through downtown Austin, Sunday, October 23, chanting, “What do we want? Union jobs,” and “They got bailed out, we got sold out,” during the Occupy Austin Labor Solidarity March. Ironworkers, sheet metal workers, electricians, telecom workers, and transit workers marched alongside teachers, state and local government workers, and EMS technicians.
Postal workers carried signs reading, “Save Our Postal Service, Save Saturday Deliveries” in reference to the United States Postal Service’s proposal to cut mail delivery services and lay off thousands of postal workers. Teamsters carried signs reading “Stop the War on Workers.”
Phil Bunker, vice president of Teamsters Local 657 explained to me how the war on workers is affecting local Teamsters who work for Yellow Freight, a regional trucking company. Recently, the company threatened to file bankruptcy unless the union agreed to reopen and renegotiate the contract. When the union reluctantly agreed, the company reduced wages by 15 percent, stopped making contributions to the workers’ pension fund, and reduced their health care benefit. “The members are very demoralized now,” Bunker said.
But on Sunday, those in the march were anything but demoralized as the spirited group marched past City Hall, where members of the Occupy Austin movement have set up camp to protest national and local economic and political policies that serve the interests of the richest 1 percent and ignore the interests of the rest of us.
The march ended up at a skyscraper on Congress Avenue that houses Wells Fargo Bank, a bank that received a $43.7 billion bailout from the U.S. government, and since then has recorded $24.6 billion in profits and paid bonuses and compensation totaling $27 billion, including a $14.3 million bonus to CEO John Stumpf. At the same time, the bank has denied 175,336 homeowners facing foreclosure a mortgage modification that would enable them to keep their homes and it pays its bank tellers an average of $22,000 a year.
Pointing to the building where Wells Fargo and other financial companies have their offices, a young electrician belonging to IBEW Local 520 told the crowd, “Labor built this building, but those who own it don’t want to treat labor fairly. When we fight to protect our wages and health care benefits, they call us greedy.”
Occupy Austin labor coordinator Snehal Shingavi, an assistant professor at the University of Texas, said that the most important idea that the labor movement has contributed to the Occupy movement and to the long struggle for social and economic justice is the idea of solidarity. “'An injury to one is an injury to all' has been the cornerstone of the labor movement; that’s where our power lies and that’s how we can win this fight.”
Other speakers at the rally talked about how workers are paying the price for the economic recession caused by the reckless speculation of banks like Wells Fargo. “The Austin Independent School District eliminated 1,100 jobs of teachers and other education workers,” said Ken Zarifis, co-president of Education Austin, the union representing Austin’s public school employees. The job cuts were caused by cuts to state education funding, the result of declining revenue due to the recession.
“The state has severely reduced services to the people most affected by the recession,” said Jim Branson, lead organizer for the Texas State Employees Union, CWA Local 6186. “It could have raised taxes on the state’s wealthiest to help those in need, but instead chose to cut these services. The wealthy are wealthy because of the wealth created by workers. When those workers fall on hard times, it’s only fair for the rich to share the wealth with those who created it.”
The mood of the marchers was exuberant and angry. They were angry about the economic mess created by a system that puts profit ahead of people’s needs, but they were also happy about the opportunity that the Occupy movement has given them to express their anger and frustration and to build a movement for real change, equality, and social justice. “Thank you for this,” said a middle-aged IBEW member as he waved to the young people at the Occupy Austin encampment outside City Hall.
[William Rogers is a member of the Texas State Employees Union/CWA Local 6186. He blogs at Left Labor Reporter where this article also appears.]
The Rag Blog
Underground, on Rag Radio with Thorne Dreyer. Listen to it here:
Thorne Dreyer's guest on Rag Radio this Friday, October 28, 2011, 2-3 p.m. (Central) on KOOP 91-7-FM in Austin, will be singer/songwriter and community activist Charlie Faye. Stream it live here.
Bernardine Dohrn, activist, academic, and child advocate, was Thorne Dreyer's guest on Rag Radio Friday, October 21.
Dohrn is Clinical Associate Professor of the Northwestern University School of Law, and founding director of the Children and Family Justice Center. Bernardine was a national leader of SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and the Weather Underground, and was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List for over a decade.
Dohrn writes and lectures on war and peace, racism and justice, reconciliation and restorative justice, children in conflict with the law, human rights, torture, and family violence. Bernardine Dohrn is also a contributor to The Rag Blog.
On the show we discuss the historical importance of SDS and Bernardine looks back on the Weather Underground and her role in the controversial group; she discusses the declining status of the American empire and the differences between the Sixties and today; and she offers a critique of the criminal justice system and the effect of incarceration on our young people, especially those of color. She is upbeat about today's youth, the possibilities for social change in America, and the mushrooming Occupy Wall Street movement.
Rag Radio -- hosted and produced by Rag Blog editor Thorne Dreyer -- is broadcast every Friday from 2-3 p.m. (CDT) on KOOP 91.7-FM in Austin, and streamed live on the web. KOOP is a cooperatively-run community radio station in Austin, Texas.
Rag Radio, which has been aired since September 2009, features hour-long in-depth interviews and discussion about issues of progressive politics, culture, and history. After broadcast, all episodes are posted as podcasts and can be downloaded at the Internet Archive. Tracey Schulz is the show's engineer and co-producer.
Rag Radio is also rebroadcast on Sundays at 10 a.m. (Eastern) on WFTE, 90.3-FM in Mt. Cobb, PA, and 105.7-FM in Scranton, PA. Rag Radio is produced in the KOOP studios, in association with The Rag Blog, a progressive internet newsmagazine, and the New Journalism Project, a Texas 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation.
- Jonah Raskin's interview with Bernardine Dohrn on The Rag Blog.
- Articles by and about Bernardine Dohrn on The Rag Blog.
Thanks to Kerry Awn and the Uranium Savages for naming Rag Radio's Thorne Dreyer the 2011 Eddy Award Winner for "Radio Personality of the Year." Our congratulations to the other winners, including Jim Franklin, Bubble Puppy, and the South Austin Popular Culture Center. Photo by James Retherford / The Rag Blog.The Rag Blog
26 October 2011
Let the spirits dance
By Kate Braun / The Rag Blog / October 26, 2011
Under the Full Moonlight We Dance/Monday, October 31, 2011, with Lady Moon in her first quarter, we celebrate Samhain, Halloween, All Hallow’s Eve, Third Harvest. Mondays are Moon-days, meaning that Lady Moon’s influence will be stronger than usual. Honor her with songs and dancing; let your feet feel the earth beneath them; raise your voice in songs of praise and exultation. Paying attention to dreams received this night could prove enlightening.
Spirits dance we dance/
Joining hands we dance/
Joining souls rejoice.
Decorate your surroundings and yourself using the colors orange, black, gold; invite your guests to do likewise. Let cornucopias spill across the table. Enjoy Mother Earth’s bounty one last time before the dark descends, moving us into the “time that is no time” when we, like Mother Earth, lie fallow as we await the coming of the next cycle of giving and receiving.
Samhain means “End of Summer." On the Wheel of Life calendar, it marks the end of the year and the beginning of Mother Earth’s rest and renewal for the coming year. All Hallow’s Eve is the night before All Soul’s Day, November 1, Dia de los Muertos in Hispanic tradition. It is not unusual to blend the celebrations, with sugar skulls sitting on the table in company with carved jack-o-lanterns and celebrants costumed as film favorites dancing with celebrants costumed as skeletons.
In a healthy contrast to the focus on sugary “treats," you may choose to create a “dumb supper” in honor of friends and relatives who have crossed over. Place lights in the windows to guide these spirits to you, prepare their favorite foods, set a place for them at your dinner table. Eat this supper in silence, paying close attention to whatever vibrations or spiritual signals may present themselves. If they choose, your invisible guests will find a way to communicate.
Apples are another important feature of this celebration. When we bury apples beside the roadside, we are leaving an offering to those spirits who are lost or who have no descendants to provide for them.
When we capture a bobbing apple in our teeth, that apple becomes a tool for divination: before the stroke of midnight, sit in front of a mirror in a room lit by only a candle or the moon, taking care that neither candlelight nor moonlight reflects in the mirror. Silently ask a question. Then cut the apple into nine pieces. With your back to the mirror, eat eight of the pieces, then throw the ninth over your left shoulder.
Turn your head to look over the same (left) shoulder, and you may see an image or symbol in the mirror that will answer your question.
[Kate Braun's website is www.tarotbykatebraun.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Kate Braun's writing on The Rag Blog.]
The Rag Blog
The hidden history of Texas
Part VI: The Confederate State of Texas, 1860-1865By Bob Feldman / The Rag Blog / October 26, 2011
[This is Part 6 of Bob Feldman's Rag Blog series on the hidden history of Texas.]
In 1861, the slave-owning Anglo political leaders of Texas decided that the state should secede from the United States and join the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War.
According to Alwyn Barr's Black Texans, “as their declaration of causes repeatedly proclaimed, white Texans seceded in 1861, primarily to defend `the servitude of the African to the white race.’” And “as Union armies pushed into Arkansas and Louisiana,” the “slaveholders from each state became refugees to Texas” and “they brought their slaves,” according to Barr's “Black Texans During the Civil War," an essay that appeared in Donald Willett and Stephen Curley’s Invisible Texans.
As a result, “by 1864, the slave population” in Texas “probably grew to 250,000.” In 1862, in Texas’s Smith County, authorities “arrested over 40 slaves and hanged one after hearing rumors of a plot to revolt,” according to the same essay.
White opponents of Texas seceding from the United States to join the Confederacy who lived in Texas were also repressed between 1861 and 1865. As Randolph Campbell’s Gone To Texas recalled, “some of the more vocal Unionists had to leave Texas” and “James P. Newcomb, editor of the San Antonio Alamo-Express, fled to New Mexico after a mob attacked his press.”
Although most white Texans “continued throughout the war to support the Confederacy as they had supported secession in the first place,” according to Gone To Texas, some organized support for the U.S. government’s Lincoln Administration and the cause of the Union Army did develop inside Texas during the Civil War. As the same book recalled:
Small groups of Unionists living in regions that voted against secession organized internal opposition to the Confederacy... Germans in the Hill County northwest of San Antonio formed a Union Loyal League with its own military companies... In the Spring of 1862 Confederate officials sent Texas troops into the region to disband the military companies and enforce the conscription law, whereupon 61 of the Unionists, mostly Germans led by Frederick "Fritz" Tegener, decided to go to Mexico and from there join the United States Army.Armed Anglo supporters of the Confederacy in Texas also repressed supporters of the North and the Union in Cooke County between 1861 and 1865. As Gone To Texas notes:
They… were overtaken by a detachment of 91 Texas Partisan Rangers... while camped on the Nueces River. Attacking before dawn on Aug. 10, 1862, the Confederates killed 19 of the Germans and captured nine who were badly wounded. The remaining Unionists escaped... After the battle, state troops executed the nine wounded Germans, and nine of those who escaped were caught and killed before they reached Mexico...
In Cooke County... the passage of conscription led to the formation of a secret Peace Party that opposed the draft and supported the Union. Rumors that the Peace Party planned to... foment a general uprising led to the arrest on October  of more than 150 suspected insurrectionists by state troops...The military conscription law that provoked more organized internal opposition in Hill County and Cooke County, Texas, to the South’s Confederate Government had been passed in April 1862 by the Confederate Congress. As a result, all white males in Texas who were between 13 and 46 in 1860 -- except for any white males whose work involved them in supervising 20 or more slaves -- were now in danger of being drafted into the Confederate Army for as long as the U.S. Civil War continued.
An extralegal "Citizen’s Court"… found seven leading Unionists guilty of treason and sentenced them to death. At this point, a mob... lynched 14 more of the prisoners and killed two who tried to escape...When unknown assassins killed Col. Young [of the Eleventh Texas Cavalry]…the jury then sentenced another 19 men to hang, bringing the total number of victims to 42. Texas authorities condoned this "Great Hanging at Gainesville"...
So, not surprisingly, “nearly 5,000 Texans deserted from Confederate and state service, and an unknown number avoided conscription” by hiding “in isolated areas throughout the state -- for example, the Big Thicket in Hardin County and the swamp bottoms of northeast Texas” or “in the northwestern frontier counties,” according to Gone To Texas. And, according to David Humphrey’s Austin: An Illustrated History, “draft-dodging was especially common among Austin’s unionists.”
But slightly more than 50 percent of the white males in Texas who were subject to the Confederate government’s draft during the Civil War were unable to avoid being drafted, and between 1861 and 1865 between 60,000 to 70,000 white men in Texas served in either the Confederate Army or in Texas state military units. And thousands of these military conscripts from Texas died during the U.S. Civil War. As Gone To Texas observes:
Approximately 20 to 25 percent of Texas soldiers died while in the army. More than half of these deaths resulted from a variety of illnesses... Deaths in battle and Union prisoner-of-war camps accounted for the other lives lost. The final death toll can be estimated at between 12,000 and 15,000 men, most of them in their twenties and thirties.According to Austin: An Illustrated History, Texas’s “loss `in bone and blood’” during the Civil War was “proportionately higher than that of any northern state.”
While between 12,000 and 15,000 people in Texas lost their lives as a result of the Civil War, some other Texans apparently made good money between 1861 and 1865. As W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction 1860-1880 recalls:
Texas was one of the Southern states that had considerable prosperity during the war. She was outside the area of conflict; excellent crops were raised and slave labor was plentiful. Many slaves were deported to Texas for protection... so that Texas could furnish food and raw material for the Confederate States; and on the other hand, when the blockade was strengthened, Texas became the highway for sending cotton and other goods to Europe by way of Mexico.[Bob Feldman is an East Coast-based writer-activist and a former member of the Columbia SDS Steering Committee of the late 1960s. Read more articles by Bob Feldman on The Rag Blog.]
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U.S. foreign policy and
the respect for human life
By Harry Targ / The Rag Blog / October 26, 2011
"The Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner...We value life and human dignity. They don't care about life and human dignity." -- Gen. William Westmoreland interviewed in Hearts and Minds (1974), a documentary about the Vietnam War.This past week American politics took a peculiar turn. A new narrative about the Obama administration began to be systematically presented to the liberal media audience. Reviewing his three-year-old administration, the new construction is that on the national security front Obama is markedly more tough and effective than Republicans claim.
The brutal murder of Muammar Qaddafi by rebellious opponents on global television, followed by celebratory remarks by the president, his secretary of state, and other members of the administration, capped three years of U.S. violence on people of the Global South.
Many critics of Obama’s less than forceful advocacy of economic justice have shifted their focus to a frame of the president as resolute in protecting American national security in the face of a challenging world. They even have implied that Obama is more of a tough guy than his predecessor ever was.
What is the evidence for this? Frankly, President Obama has unleashed new variants of the U.S. killing machine. Violence against Asian, Middle Eastern, and African people has been visibly celebrated in public view. The numbers of victims killed may not be greater than that of prior administrations but the celebration of public murders seem to have increased.
Early in the Obama administration, the president made a decision to assassinate Somali pirates, pirates who had kidnapped westerners off the Horn of Africa. Last May, with the president’s diplomatic team staring at a television screen during a nail-biting meeting, Navy Seals invaded the compound housing Osama Bin Laden who was unceremoniously killed and dumped in the sea. The media highlighted Americans who celebrated this killing.
Four months after the successful murder of Bin Laden, Obama’s crack team assassinated Anwar al-Awlaki, American citizen and alleged leader of Islamic terrorists, who threatened the United States. Abdul Rahman al-Awlaki, his teenage son, and others were summarily executed for crimes for which they had not been accused or tried.
In addition, President Obama agreed to work with allies, Great Britain and France, who held colonial empires in the Middle East and North Africa in the twentieth century. They mobilized a campaign in the United Nations to gain public legitimacy for military intervention in Libya to overthrow the long-time idiosyncratic leader, Qaddafi, whose tiny nation from time to time supported dissidents in the Arab and African worlds.
The initial claim was that the force, a NATO operation, would be humanitarian, saving the lives of those who were rebelling against the Libyan dictatorship.
The rebels, unlike the nonviolent activists in Tunisia and Egypt where western support was minimal, were armed, probably by the West, and launched a civil war against the regime. Then NATO air power was used for seven months to pound Libya until the Qaddafi military collapsed.
The “humanitarian” intervention took between 30,000 and 50,000 lives, dissidents as well as Qaddafi loyalists. Shortly after the war ended with the death and mutilation of the dictator’s body on a street in Sirte, President Obama declared victory for the Libyan people -- although who the rebels are remains unclear -- and pronounced what he referred to as a new measured and wise U.S. foreign policy.
The new foreign policy, what might be called the “Obama Doctrine,” has four parts. First, the United States, as the last remaining superpower, and as the defender of the global moral standard, could once again assume the right and responsibility to intervene militarily to preserve and enhance human rights around the world. As the president put it, reflecting on the recent killings in a press conference after the death of Qaddafi was announced, U.S. actions have demonstrated “…the strength of American leadership across the world.”
Second, U.S. humanitarian interventions will be carried out in conjunction with military operations with our friends, presumably equally committed to high moral standards. In Obama’s words; “We’ve demonstrated what collective action can achieve in the 21st century.” NATO, an alliance established in 1949 to protect Western Europe and North America from security threats from “international communism,” now will police the world.
Third, new technologies make it possible for the United States to police the world without “boots on the ground.” Given the new technology, the free world can intervene virtually anywhere, anytime, through the use of incredibly sophisticated drone warfare. In the Libyan case, as the president said, “without putting a single service member on the ground, we achieved our objectives, and our NATO mission will soon come to an end.”
U.S./NATO warriors can target enemies without personal danger to themselves while working in antiseptic offices in the United States or Europe, or on small bases in the Indian Ocean, the Middle East, or Africa. Nick Turse, author of The Complex (2008) estimates that at least 60 drone bases are operational around the world, ready to hit enemy targets virtually anywhere.
Fourth, the Obama Doctrine makes it clear that human life is not sacred and that due process, the hallmark of western legal traditions, is now superseded by the unilateral right of key decision-makers to kill potential, as well as actual, enemies of the United States. To paraphrase the old definition of the state as that institution that holds the monopoly of the legitimate use of force, the state now holds the monopoly of legitimate use of murder.
In the end, the oft-quoted remark by General William Westmoreland about the Vietnamese enemy in the 1960s may more accurately be restated: “The United States government does not put the same high price on human life as other countries.”
Fortunately for progressives, mass movements exist that show the world that many Americans do not stand with their government’s use of violence. Progressives oppose mass murder, targeted executions, the death penalty anywhere, and despicable drone warfare. Progressives also respect the right and responsibilities of others to choose their own political destinies.
[Harry Targ is a professor of political science at Purdue University who lives in West Lafayette, Indiana. He blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical -- and that's also the name of his new book which can be found at Lulu.com. Read more of Harry Targ's articles on The Rag Blog.]
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As Iraq troops come home:
Peace granny is 'cautiously optimistic'
By Joan Wile / The Rag Blog / October 26, 2011
NEW YORK -- The news hit me like an electric shock. Was this for real? I stared at the words on the TV screen in disbelief: "President Obama says all U.S. troops in Iraq will be home by the end of the year." That meant that 41,000 troops will be leaving Iraq.
This welcome announcement was somewhat tempered when further news reports produced the information that on January 1, 2012, the State Department will command a hired army of about 5,500 security contractors, all to protect the largest U.S. diplomatic presence anywhere overseas. There will also apparently be a "significant C.I.A. presence," according to The New York Times.
What was I to make of that?
Since the fall of 2003, my anti-war grandmother friends and I had been struggling, demonstrating, petitioning, organizing, yelling, marching, traveling, with one singular objective -- to end the illegal, immoral war and occupation in Iraq causing so much death and destruction. We later added ending the war in Afghanistan to our agenda.
When we first hit the streets, we were a small minority and met with anger. Most Americans backed the war. CNN promoted it like it was the latest blockbuster action movie, and the public cheered as the news channel repeatedly showed the fires ignited by our bombs lighting up the Baghdad sky.
I began Grandmothers Against the War with a vigil in front of Rockefeller Center with just two of us nervous, shivering old ladies on Jan. 14, 2004. Gradually, more and more people joined us -- mostly grannies, but also Veterans for Peace and other lone individuals sick about the war. We endured hecklers who would shout such things as "Traitors" at us. One of our Vets for Peace almost got into a fist fight with a particularly obnoxious and persistent passerby.
But, we kept on, heartened that more and more of the crowd gave us thumbs up and yelled "Thank you" as the public began to realize what a debacle our occupation was. Foreigners, in particular, applauded us -- an Italian man came over to us one day and kissed all 24 grannies standing there on the cheek.
We decided to ramp up our opposition when we became aware that the Bush administration was impervious to the growing public outcry to end the war. Eighteen grandmothers, me included, tried to enlist at the Times Square recruiting station on Oct. 17, 2005, in order to replace young people in harm's way for a lie.
Actually, none of us had grandkids in the military. We did it as a matter of principle on behalf of America's grandchildren. We figured they were entitled to long lives like we had all enjoyed and should not be forced to endanger their lives and limbs for an unjust cause.
When we were denied entrance into the recruiting station, we sat down on the ground and refused to move. The police arrested us and took us to jail. We knew we were entitled to peaceably dissent, but the cops apparently didn't! After a six-day trial in criminal court, defended by eminent civil liberties attorney Norman Siegel and his co-counsel Earl Ward, we were acquitted. The resultant world-wide publicity put the peace grannies on the map, and I like to think that our action was perhaps the first significant anti-war protest with legs.
And, that was just the beginning. We launched a mind-boggling series of actions and never paused -- even only three days ago, the Granny Peace Brigade, an outgrowth of Grandmothers Against the War, held a silent vigil at Lincoln Center which received wide attention from the media.
Over the years, we went on a 10-day trek to Washington, D.C., traveled abroad to speak before peace groups, sent 100 grannies to lobby 100 U.S. senators, orchestrated colorful marches across Brooklyn Bridge, performed a whole show written and performed by us, and did numerous other creative actions (it's all chronicled in my book, Grandmothers Against the War: Getting Off Our Fannies and Standing Up for Peace.
I must say, painfully, that though I enthusiastically supported President Obama during his election campaign, I became disillusioned and disappointed at his failure to bring our troops home from both Iraq and Afghanistan. At times as I stood in front of Rockefeller Center, often in heavy rain or blazing heat, I would wonder if there was any point in putting myself through such discomfort. I began to feel discouraged and doubted these wars would ever end in my lifetime. I fully expected to be out there standing on Fifth Avenue until the day I died.
But, now, with this hopeful and unexpected news, I feel that perhaps it's all been worthwhile. I like to think our granny efforts have been part of the pressure that contributed to Obama's decision. I don't know the political maneuvers behind his move -- maybe it has to do with tangled foreign policy machinations I can't begin to understand. Maybe it's designed to help him get reelected. Or maybe -- just maybe -- he did it out of sheer moral principle. I like to think that is his main reason, anyway.
Of course, the more urgent matter is Afghanistan. He says he will bring them home soon. My long immersion in the anti-war struggle, however, has taught me that we can't count on his doing so unless we keep the pressure on him to end that occupation as well. It will inevitably end some day, but more quickly if we stay mobilized. We can't clap our hands with joy, unfortunately, until it does.
For now, I will be cautiously optimistic. Dare I say "Mission Accomplished" in Iraq, with reservations, as far as the peace grannies are concerned?
[Joan Wile is the author of Grandmothers Against the War: Getting Off Our Fannies and Standing Up for Peace (Citadel Press, May 2008) This article was originally published at Waging Nonviolence. Read more articles by Joan Wile on The Rag Blog.]
The Rag Blog
Merge and win:
Occupy Wall Street and
the 'No Nukes' movement
By Harvey Wasserman / The Rag Blog / October 25, 2011
The global upheaval that is the Occupy Movement is hopefully in the process of changing -- and saving -- the world. Through the astonishing power of creative nonviolence, it has the magic and moxie to defeat the failing forces of corporate greed.
A long-term agenda seems to be emerging: social justice, racial and gender equality, ecological survival, true democracy, an end to war, and so much more. "When the power of love overcomes the love of power," said Jimi Hendrix, "the world will know peace."
Such a moment must come now in the nick of time, as the corporate ways of greed and violence pitch us to the precipice of self-extinction. At that edge sits a sinister technology, a poisoned cancerous power that continues to harm us all even as three of its cores melt and spew at Fukushima. Atomic energy, the so-called "Peaceful Atom," has failed on all fronts.
Once sold as "too cheap to meter," it's now the world's most expensive electric generator. Once embraced as a corporate bonanza, it cannot obtain private liability insurance. Once hyped as the world's energy savior, it cannot attract private investment.
Once worshiped as a technology of genius, it cannot clean up its own radioactive messes. Once described as the "magic bullet" that could power the Earth, it's now the lethal technology threatening to destroy it.
The nonviolent campaign against this agent of the apocalypse has helped raise the use of peaceful mass action to an entirely new level.
In the wake of the movements for labor unions, nuclear disarmament, civil rights -- including minorities, women, and gays -- peace in Southeast Asia, and more, the messages of Eugene V. Debs, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, and so many great apostles of nonviolence have become part of an emerging new culture.
For decades, the No Nukes campaign has conducted hundreds of demonstrations involving thousands of arrests in dozens of countries. Violence has been renounced and almost entirely avoided. Injuries have been present but minimal. There's been at least one murder, that of the anti-nuclear activist Karen Silkwood. But overall, given the magnitude of the movement over more than 40 years of confrontation, individual casualties have been slight.
And the accomplishments have been historic. Whereas Richard Nixon once promised 1,000 U.S. reactors by the year 2000, there are now 104. These dangerous relics are now under attack, especially at Vermont Yankee and Indian Point, New York.
Worldwide we have seen Germany renounce atomic energy and commit to renewables. Siemens, once a corporate nuclear flagship, has turned instead toward Solartopian technologies. Like Japan, now horribly contaminated by Fukushima, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, and others are following suit.
But the final fight remains to be won. While pouring billions into cornering the global solar market, China is still poised to build some 30 reactors. India, Britain, Korea, and a few others are also toying with more. But especially in the wake of Fukushima, they are not a done deal.
In the United States, the key is to deny the nuclear industry the federal funding without which it can't build new reactors.
And here is where the Occupy and No Nukes movements intersect. Wall Street has actually retreated, and will not finance new commercial reactors.
So the industry has gone straight to the White House and Congress to force taxpayers to underwrite new construction loans. In the past decade reactor backers have spent more than $60 million per year lobbying Congress and the White House to get this money. With no such budget, the national No Nukes movement has been defeating these give-aways.
Now comes the turning point. In 2011, for the first time, solar and wind are being recognized by mainstream economists as cheaper than new nukes. And renewables overall in the United States generate more usable power than operating reactors.
If we can hold off these loan guarantees for another year or two, and shut some older reactors like Vermont Yankee and Indian Point, the dam will break, and the corporate impetus to build new reactors may finally go away.
Atomic energy is, after all, a means of centralizing power in corporate hands. But there is only so far the one-percenters can ride a dead horse, especially if it's radioactive.
Our struggle then comes with fighting to keep the Solartopian conversion in the people's hands. We will love defeating fossil and nuclear fuels. But we want to guarantee our energy supply -- even if it's driven by the wind and sun -- is controlled by the community, not the corporations.
And here is where Occupy/No Nukes can jump the power of democracy to a whole new level.
Human society is on the brink of its most significant technological conversion ever. Green power will be a multi-trillion-dollar industry, outstripping even computers and the internet.
But who will own the sun? Will the corporations again monopolize a nascent revolution? Or can the Occupy and No Nukes movements keep this technology decentralized, with the power Mother Earth gives us resting in the hands of the people?
In this struggle, longevity is the key. The grassroots No Nukes campaign is some four decades young and going strong. Every few years the corporate media runs features about how it has died and gone away, and they have always been wrong. We will not disappear until the nukes do.
The same must be the case for Occupy. Any day now the Foxists will proclaim the movement dead and failed. It will be nonsense. But in the long term, it's up to us to prove them wrong. All the bright futures above come true only if we stay with it as long as it takes.
At the intersection of No Nukes and Occupy, we know that true democracy can only come when our energy supply is owned by the people. A grassroots-based energy supply is at the core of a sustainable Solartopian future.
In the 1970s a grassroots movement led by the Clamshell Alliance nonviolently occupied a reactor site at Seabrook, New Hampshire, and sparked a global green powered revolution whose completion may be in sight.
This year the Occupy movement took to Wall Street, and has exploded into a global democratic revolution with unbound potential.
There are innumerable hurdles along the way.
But as these two movements flow together like a mighty stream, let them wash away forever the corporate plague of atomic energy, and free at last the path to a democratized, green-powered Earth.
[Harvey Wasserman's Solartopia! Our Green-Powered Earth is at www.harveywasserman.com. His “Solartopia! Green-Power Hour” is podcast from www.talktainmentradio.com. Read more of Harvey Wasserman's writing on The Rag Blog.]
The Rag Blog
25 October 2011
Texas Confederate Battle Flag:
License plates, racism, and free speech
By Lamar W. Hankins / The Rag Blog / October 25, 2011
At first glance, the effort by the Sons of Confederate Veterans to have a Confederate Battle Flag license plate approved by the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles may seem like a conflict between offensive speech and free speech, but the matter is more complicated than that simple contrast suggests.
By way of disclosure, I am a descendant of Confederate soldiers, but I have never considered participating in a group that sought in any way to promote that war as a brave, noble, and just venture. To me, the Confederacy engaged in treason against the United States. A founder of Texas, Sam Houston, opposed secession, but was overridden by those concerned with the economics of slavery, a practice that permeated at least half of what is now the State of Texas.
As recently as 30 years ago, I knew where old slave quarters were located in Georgetown, Texas. The artifacts of slavery can be found all over the eastern half of the state, along with Confederate relics. These reminders of a tragic past are not a part of history in which I take any pride.
The Confederate Battle Flag has been to me a symbol less of the Confederacy than of the Ku Klux Klan. Rightly or wrongly, whenever I see that symbol, I assume the person displaying it is racist. I avoid such people if I can.
But even if that flag had never been used by those opposed to civil rights, I would not see it as something to revere. Why would I revere a symbol of treason that is inextricably tied to the maintenance and promotion of slavery unless I favored those positions? I don’t want to honor my progenitors for their willingness to go to war against the United States of America to preserve a system that permitted the owning of other human beings.
Bravery and courage on behalf of folly are nothing to be proud of. Confederate Texans weren’t defending Texas, as Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson asserts in support of the Confederate Battle Flag license plate. They were trying to destroy the Union. They set in place animosities that linger to this day.
Their insurrection was a terrible mistake, and I’d like to keep that mistake in perspective, not celebrate it. But that is a personal choice, deeply rooted in the right of all Americans to engage in speech of their own choosing, no matter how offensive it is to others. But the Texas organizational vanity license plate system creates a problem even broader than whether the Confederate Battle Flag should appear on a Texas license plate.
The way the Texas Legislature chose to establish organizational vanity plates is at least foolish, if not unconstitutional, but it was another way to raise some money for the state without raising taxes, an approach dear to the heart of almost all legislators. If a tax-exempt, nonprofit organization wants to have its own organizational vanity plate, it must find a state agency to sponsor the vanity plate or get the Department of Motor Vehicles to sponsor it. Once a cooperative state agency is found, the application is presented to the Department for approval.
The Sons of Confederate Veterans secured the sponsorship of Patterson’s Texas General Land Office for its application for their vanity license plate. The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles license board reached a tie vote (4-4) when the matter came up for consideration this past summer, so for now the application has not been approved. But Gov. Rick Perry has appointed a ninth person to the board, so if it comes up for another vote, the matter could remain the same if the new appointee abstains, or be decided one way or the other.
The problem with this system is that an organization is required to get a governmental agency to support its application. This requirement is deeply offensive because it will usually, if not always, assure that organizations promoting controversial views will not be able to have organizational vanity plates.
If a group favoring a woman’s right to choose an abortion wants an organizational vanity plate that has a logo that says “Support a woman’s right to choose,” which governmental agency will be its sponsor? I can’t imagine that any state agency would do so. What if an atheist group wants a vanity plate that says “You can be good without God”? Is there any state agency that would ever sponsor that message?
What about a socialist group that wants to promote its message “Jesus was a Socialist”? No state agency would touch that one. If the Texas Medical Association wanted a special license plate that read “Support Medical Marijuana,” I doubt that any state agency would be the sponsor. And what about a plate that honors the service of conscientious objectors who have done alternate service in lieu of serving in the military? About a dozen specialty plates honor veterans of various sorts, but none honor conscientious objectors.
A few other ideas that would not likely find support from any Texas government agency are “Jews for Jesus,” “Ban all abortions,” “Keep the races pure,” “Republicans for interposition and nullification,” “Wives should obey their husbands,” “Government prayer pleases God,” “The Bible is infallible,” “Gays violate God’s law,” “Evolution is a lie,” and dozens of other bumper-sticker thoughts supported by one group or another, but not popular with everyone.
The Texas organizational vanity license plate scheme discriminates against unpopular viewpoints, just as it may discriminate against the views of the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans. It’s a tossup right now just how unpopular their viewpoint is, about the only content standard the Department has to follow.
The law provides in part: “The department may refuse to create a new specialty license plate if the design might be offensive to any member of the public, ... or for any other reason established by rule.” The Department could not point me to any such rules it has adopted regarding content (though there are rules about size and legibility), and I could find no content rules in the Texas Administrative Code, where such rules would be published.
Many specialty plates are offensive to me, and I’m a member of the public. There is one for the Boy Scouts, for instance. I find the Boy Scouts license plate offensive because the Boy Scouts discriminate against atheists, agnostics, and gays. I don’t like the ones with religious messages: “God Bless America,” “God Bless Texas,” “Knights of Columbus,” and “Texas Masons.” But apparently the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles didn’t take my offense into consideration, in spite of the law.
With such an amorphous, broad, non-specific standard, discrimination on the basis of the message proposed by some organizations is inevitable. In fact, I don’t see any way to avoid content discrimination on proposed speech under this scheme.
It is never permissible for the government or an agency of government to censor the views of its citizens. To arbitrate the views we can express on license plates is an improper role for government to play. But short of eliminating organizational vanity license plates, there may be a solution to this constitutional dilemma.
The Texas Department of Motor Vehicles could produce a generic design that leaves a small block of an appropriate size into which anyone with such a plate could paste whatever message the person chooses. In this way, all Texans -- including the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans -- would be free to let everyone know their position on any issue, no matter how offensive or how popular. With this arrangement, the government can make some extra money and the Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans should be as pleased as a hog in mud.
[Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, city attorney, is also a columnist for the San Marcos Mercury. This article © Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins. Read more articles by Lamar W. Hankins on The Rag Blog.]
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