April 30, 2006

Si Se Puede

Si Se Puede (Yes We Can) brings back memories of my summer working for the United Farm Workers as a volunteer on the Lettuce Boycott. I was excited to be able to participate in an historic moment. Poor working people were organizing for decent wages and working conditions with pride in who they were, where they came from and where they were going. Si Se Puede meant Yes we can have a union. Yes we can earn a living wage. Yes we can have safe working conditions. Yes we can be Mexican, or Filipino, or whoever we are and proud of it!

When immigrants and their supporters march again on May 1st, it will be the continuation of quite an extraordinary movement. Organizing in opposition to HR 4437, immigrants turned out in record numbers. The Sensenbrenner Bill would have cracked down on illegal immigrants, increasing penalties for them and for anybody who helped them and threatening mass deportations, Over 100,000 marched on March 10 in Chicago, according to police estimates. The official estimate for the March 25 march in Los Angeles was 500,000 but organizers say well over a million people were there. Meanwhile students were staging walkouts from schools across the country. On April 10th, thousands of people demonstrated in each of dozens of cities. 50,000 people rallied in Salt Lake City, 150,000 in San Diego, 500,000 in Dallas. The breadth of the movement across the country was unprecedented in their ability to turn out huge crowds in so many different places at once. In many places it was the largest demonstration to be held there at any time, for any cause. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now (www.democracynow.org) is fond of saying that together these “constitute the largest demonstrations in the history of this country, not just on immigration but on any issue”.

One of the purposes of the marches is to make immigrants visible. All too often they blend into the background doing the hard, dirty work that America depends on them to do. When they marched in such numbers, they were noticed and when they missed work or school their absence was felt. Their point is that immigrants are a vital part of this country, as they always have been.

After some of the earlier marches, participants were criticized for carrying Mexican flags. This kind of criticism strikes me as being willful misinterpretation by people more interested in finding a reason to denigrate the movement than to understand it. I see the use of Mexican symbols and flags as an indication of pride in who they are. Nobody says that the Irish should forgo the wearing of the green on St. Patrick's Day in favor of red, white and blue. Mexicans in the US are often discriminated against. Why not counter that with strong positive images of proud Mexicans? Remember this is an immigrants movement. They can contribute not only their labor but their culture to the American melting pot. This is no different from anybody else who has come before. Nonetheless, US flags were all over the place April 10.

The marches were largely organized in the Latino community, using Spanish language broadcasters and person to person organizing to get people to turn out. After the first few marches, other immigrant groups increased their participation as well. Students played an important role with their school walkouts and youth rallies. Now an attempt is being made to bring in other sympathetic people to march with immigrants on May 1, including some labor unions. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

May 1st is being billed as “A day without immigrants”. Some organizers are calling for people to not work, not go to school, not shop, not watch TV or use the internet. The idea is to create a gap in the economic fabric of this country that will demonstrate just how many immigrants there are and how much they contribute to the economy. Others are a little more cautious. People shouldn’t lose there jobs, they point out. They also are afraid that people will take offense at a boycott, just as some did with the flags. The media has been playing up the split but it seems to me that it is more a matter of emphasis and language than any real difference in policy.

The immediate goal is to stop the Sensenbrenner Bill and to pass an amnesty law. The Senate was ready to pass an amnesty bill after the LA march but mysterious procedural disagreements stopped it, perhaps in order to allow the enthusiasm to die down a little. The worst parts of Sensenbrenner appear to be dead but there will doubtless be attempts by its supporters to bring as much of it into the compromise package as possible. It will be interesting to see how much amnesty and how much crackdown end up in the package.

In the long term, this is a civil rights movement that looks to end the pervasive prejudice and discrimination against immigrants, especially in the post 9/11 world. These are people that believe in the American dream and want to be a part of it. When they say Si Se Puede, they mean Yes we can contribute to this country. Yes we can have pride in this country and Yes we can be proud of our own heritage as well.

April 23, 2006

Can A Person by Illegal?

"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

A selection from The New Colossus by Emma Lazarus, which is is graven on a tablet within the pedestal on which the Statue of Liberty stands.

We are, after all, all immigrants or descended from immigrants. Even Native Americans, who have been here 10-15,000 years came to America only after their ancestors had lived millions of years in Africa and Asia. There is a kind of hierarchy of immigrants, with more recent arrivals disdained by those who came before and people of color discriminated against by whites. After the Indians came the English, less than 400 years ago. Africans started arriving soon after that, albeit unwillingly. The slave trade ended in 1808, so most African Americans can claim over 200 years working to build this country. There were several waves of immigration from different parts of Europe during the 19th Century. Chinese workers were brought over starting in the last half of the 1800s to build the railroads and pick our crops. Irish and other Europeans did the same work in the East. They were joined in the 20th Century by other Asians, Latinos and more.

These are the people that built this country. Mostly they came because they thought that they would be better off here than wherever they came from. Many came because they had friends or family here. Sometimes they were recruited to come here with promises of plentiful work and high wages. What they ended up with were the worst jobs, backbreaking work that barely paid enough for survival.

Todays immigrants come for the same reasons and they are encouraged to come for the same reasons. Official policy is to limit immigration but too many people profit from this source of cheap labor to effectively stop it. The so-called "illegals" attract most of the attention but they are basically in the same situation as other groups. The difference, of course, is that they are vulnerable in a way that others aren't. Last week's detention of 1200 undocumented workers, who are now slated for deportation, demonstrates this point very clearly. For once, some of the company managers who hired them will face charges but usually employers profit from a cheap labor force too scared to complain, with very few penalties.

The United States has always been of two minds about immigration. On the on hand there is an understanding that this is a country of immigrants. We talk about the melting pot, where people start out with distinct ethnicities but after a generation or two melt together into a distinctly American culture. Some people prefer to think of a stewpot in which people keep their ethnic identity while assimilating into American culture but the basic idea is the same. On the other hand there has always been a resistance to immigrants. People worry that cheap labor will lower wages but there is also resistance to differences in language and culture. This is not a little thing. Over most of human history, ethnic groups did not mix much and when they did, all too often it has been at the point of a sword. We form national bonds based on a common history and a common culture. We have learned to trust our neighbors and distrust strangers.

Restrictions on immigration grew out of anti-immigrant movements like the "Know Nothings" of the 19th Century but they didn't really take hold until we started seeing significant non-white immigration. Laws were passed beginning in the 1920s to attempt to maintain the ethnic identity of the US by establishing quotas for immigration pegged to the proportion of each nationality already here, favoring Europeans heavily. In fact, since quotas were based on the 1890 census, they also worked to exclude Italians and other southern European and Eastern Europeans, who mostly arrived after that date. It should be noted that today's undesirable immigrant may be favored tomorrow. There were also restrictive laws against Chinese and other Asians.

Actually, class proves to be a much more accurate measure of who is welcomed and who is not. Poor people are usually scorned but it is the poor people who provide that low wage labor pool that is so useful for employers. Public policy is weighted against poor people but this is precisely the group that has the most to gain by coming here and that is most in demand. This is where "illegal" immigration comes from. People have shown infinite ingenuity in overcoming obstacles to get across the border. Once here, they fill an important economic niche. However, since they are by necessity in hiding from the authorities, they are vulnerable to exploitation and do not receive the wages and safety conditions that are supposed to be standard here. Complaints can result in a call to the INS and deportation. This creates a labor force that cannot help but undermine worker safety and minimum wage laws for everybody. A case could be made for eliminating these status violations, legalize everybody, enforce the labor laws and eliminate this kind of exploitation.

The other solution is to stop illegal immigration by fortifying the borders and crack down on employers who hire illegals. This has actually been the official policy but it has not been effectively enforced. Groups like the Minutemen say that if we stepped up enforcement we could achieve those goals and protect American culture and jobs from these invaders. They say we could also prevent drugs and terrorists from coming into the country. Perhaps we could, with a Berlin Wall thousands of miles long and a huge military presence patrolling it. We would have to ask if the benefits outweighed the cost.

Nonetheless, this approach has a lot of support and the Sensenbrenner Bill, HR 4437, which embodies this approach passed the House of Representatives. The current wave of protest was in reaction to this legislation coming to the Senate. The bill would make undocumented workers and anybody helping them felons.

Another way to look at it would be to ask what is going on in Mexico, for example, that drives people to make the long arduous journey to the US and put up with the poor pay, bad conditions, discrimination, often separation from their families and the constant threat of deportation. Everybody's story is different but many simply have no better options at home. NAFTA was supposed to help the Mexican economy and encourage companies to create jobs there. Indeed many factories sprang up just across the border, with low wages, often unsafe conditions and poor environmental records. However, now many of those jobs have moved to China where the atmosphere is even more "business friendly". Meanwhile US agribusiness is now exporting food to Mexico cheaper than small farmers there can grow it, causing them to lose their livelihoods and look for opportunities in the north.

The world is shrinking in the modern age. You can travel to any part of the globe in just a few hours. Radio, television and the internet can bring pictures and stories instantly around the world. In this climate, national distinctions are bound to break down. "Free Trade" Movements such as NAFTA and the WTO recognize this but they only give freedom to money. At the same time they restrict the freedom of people to make regulations that regulate business for the common good. and to look for work wherever the jobs may be.

We should be moving towards a world in which people can move freely around the world in a community of nations. It should be a world in which people can live a good life and have good jobs, not just in a few rich countries but everywhere. In a world in which everybody enjoys economic as well as political freedom and justice, we will all be happier and more secure. It may not be easy to get there but at the least, we should head in that direction.

April 16, 2006

From Bangor to Iran - The Threat of Nuclear Weapons

Last August I was one of 19 protesters arrested at the gates of the Trident Submarine Base in Bangor, Washington. The protest, sponsored by Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Action, was intended to call attention to the nuclear weapons based here on the scenic Hood Canal. The Cold War may be over but these Cold War weapons still set sail from here to cruise the world's oceans, ready to inflict unimaginable destruction on the world. Each one of the 9 nuclear armed submarines based here carries 24 missiles. Each missile carries 6-8 nuclear warheads. Another group of 5 Tridents is based on the East Coast. A Seattle Times article says, "scientists believe a single Trident submarine could destroy all life on Earth".

For the past 30 years, the Ground Zero Center has maintained their protest against this horror with a peace park on property they own just down the street from the main gate. On Martin Luther King's birthday, Mother's Day and the anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, people can be counted on to block the entrance to the base and risk arrest. In the late 90s three successive groups of protesters were acquitted in Kitsap County courts and prosecutors had declined to press charges since February 2000.

We chose to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings by calling attention to these all too real weapons of mass destruction in our own backyard. This time 4 of the 19 arrested were brought to trial on charges of Failure to Disperse. This charge requires that the action creates a "substantial risk" of injury to persons or to property. The trial on April 10-12, ended in a mistrial when the jury of 6 found itself split 3-3. Those voting to acquit were apparently convinced by testimony showing the great concern for safety that went into the planning for this action and all the Ground Zero actions. The government had tried to exclude all mention of why we were there, the destructive power of nuclear weapons and international law but the 4 on trial were able to speak about their deeply held beliefs about the threat of nuclear weapons and the Trident submarines. After failing to convict protesters for the fourth time in a row, county prosecutors have to decide whether to retry these four, select another group from the 15 still uncharged in the August 2005 protest or the 17 arrested January 16, 2006, or save their time and money for more important things.

The Bush administration has informed us that Iran is trying to acquire nuclear weapons, which could threaten us, or Israel. There isn't actually any evidence that this is so, just repeated assertions. Of course we have heard this story before with Iraq's supposed weapons of mass destruction. There was nothing that Saddam Hussein could say to deny it, since any denial was just taken as proof that he was lying. Iran finds itself in a similar situation today when they assert that they want nuclear power but not weapons. They can hardly be blamed for resisting intrusive inspections when they have heard Scott Ritter and others explain how inspections, even under UN auspices, in Iraq were used as cover for US spies to plan bombing campaigns and even back a coup attempt. Bush denies leaks from his administration that he is contemplating an attack on suspected nuclear sites with the statement that he is pursuing diplomatic solutions so he won't have to use force. This can hardly be reassuring to a regime that Bush wants to change. On the other hand, the Iranian government seems to delight in defying the US and probably finds these threats useful as they rally Iranians to defend their country. Internal opposition appears to have quieted down recently. Who knows, maybe they are coming to the conclusion that they should have a secret nuclear program because an actual bomb is apparently the only thing that will stop the US administration from "preemptive" attacks any time they think they will get some political advantage out of it.

Perhaps the leaks about attacks on Iran are no accident but are intended to plant the idea of an attack in the American public's mind. Just as with Iraq, repeated assertions are intended to convince people of its inevitability, and to cement the idea of Iranian nuclear weapons into the American mind. They may have leaked and quickly denied the nuclear plan just to make a "conventional" attack more palatable.

The United States is in a very weak position when it comes to opposing nuclear proliferation. They have by far the largest nuclear arsenal in the world, any one bomb being capable of destruction on a scale almost beyond imagining. They have never given up the option of being the first to use nuclear weapons. They are the only country that has ever used them. They tacitly support Israel's nuclear weapons, despite its destabilizing effect on the Middle East. They support the wide use of nuclear power, which can be a stepping stone to acquire weapons, if a country decides to go that route. They are developing a new generation of "smaller" weapons that will be more likely to actually be used. And they have done nothing to live up to their obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. While the treaty prohibits non-nuclear countries from developing them, it also requires countries that already have them to move towards abolition.

The Ground Zero Actions call attention to the necessity for all countries to renounce the use of nuclear weapons, including the United States. It is discouraging that political leaders of both of the major political parties refuse to even discuss this issue but public opinion is firmly against the first use of nuclear weapons and would like to see fewer of them. Perhaps that is why juries won't convict Ground Zero protesters.

The Union of Concerned Scientists discuss many of these issues in their back grounder U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy: Dangerous and Counterproductive.

April 09, 2006

Aaron Dixon and the Green Party Promote True Democracy

"I believe that American combat troops should come home from Iraq in 2006 - not the distant future as President Bush does. Furthermore, I believe we must set a May 15th deadline for the Iraqis to form an effective unity government. And, if the Iraqi politicians choose to ignore that deadline, then I believe things will only get worse and we will have no choice but to withdraw immediately."
-John Kerry April 7, 2006

Yesterday morning I logged on to my computer to find an email from John Kerry calling for withdrawal from Iraq and asking me to support him. My first thought was that the statement, as far as it goes, is pretty good. He should get some credit for coming around to this position, finally. After all, Kerry supported the war in the beginning. He voted for it, even though tens of thousands of his constituents were begging him not to. In the three and a half years since then, he has always taken the course that he thought was politically expedient. He refused to make Iraq an issue during his presidential campaign, accusing Bush of mismanaging the war but never questioning whether we should be there and never advocating for withdrawal. He accepted the support of thousands of anti-war volunteers who donated unprecedented amounts of time and money in the hope of defeating Bush but he wouldn't take their advice. Along with most of the Democratic Party, he made a disastrous miscalculation. They thought that they could have it both ways. They took the anti-war vote for granted, figuring that progressives had no where else to turn. Then they tried to attract Republican voters by taking positions only slightly different from the Republican party line. The Flip Flop attack worked because there is some truth to it. The result has been loss after loss for the Democrats, who are seen as not standing for anything.
Kerry has finally decided that he should support withdrawal from Iraq. He must have read the polls that show plummeting support for an obviously failed policy. You can hardly blame people for reacting skeptically.

Yesterday evening I attended Aaron Dixon's Green Party campaign kickoff event . Dixon is running for the seat currently occupied by one term Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell. Cantwell recently said that she does not regret her vote to authorize the war and would vote for it again, even knowing what she knows today. She sees no need for an exit strategy. At a recent anti-war demonstration I saw a sign calling on her to have some backbone but that is not her problem. She is standing up for what she believes. She is just wrong. I am focusing on the war here but there are a host of issues ranging from the WTO to her refusal to filibuster Samuel Alito, tax cuts for the rich... the list goes on. Once again Democrats are taking the progressive vote for granted but this time they may not get it. The Green Party and Dixon's campaign are based on the premise that we should vote for what we really believe. As long as we settle for a lesser evil, we will have no chance to make the kind of changes that this country so desperately needs. As Aram Falsafi, a Seattle Green Party leader, says on the Dixon campaign site, " Even if your ultimate goal is to convert the Democratic Party into a genuine alternative to the current ruling cabal, we urge you to stick to your principles and refuse to support a candidate with as horrible a track record as Maria Cantwell -- whatever the polls show on election day. A large-scale abandonment of Cantwell -- not to mention the other seven pro-war Democratic senators up for reelection this year -- will send a clear message for 2008: the antiwar movement will not be taken for granted."

What I saw at the Dixon event was a crowd that was desperate for some real democracy. With all the rhetoric that has been flying around about freedom and democracy in Iraq, it is especially depressing to see what passes for political debate in this country. Most people's concerns are simply not addressed. At the very least the Green Party offers a platform to discuss alternatives to the policies of what some of the speakers at last night's event called our present one party system. To quote Aaron Dixon on his website, " The majority of Republicans and high-ranking Democratic politicians, including the incumbent, have again and again ignored the desires and the best interests of the American people. We need and should have more than just a two-party system. We need diverse voices that will truly work for the interests and well-being of Americans, as well as the world community. We need 3, 4, 5 ... 9 viable national parties that all have an equal chance to win any public office. That will be the indication that we have a true democracy."

This is a strategy to look to the long term. Too often we have sacrificed what we really want, what this country really needs, in the hope of staving off the next outrage. All too often, we have failed on both counts. The Green Party says that it is more important to build a party that can speak out now and eventually be strong enough to have a real effect on policy. Now we have been down the third party path before and it has never come to anything yet but the Green Party has shown some staying power across the country, although success has been scattered and actual influence small. Unlike previous third party efforts, however, the Green Party's positions resonate with a large number of Americans who are increasingly disillusioned with the two big parties. They can also draw inspiration from the European Greens, who have been able to gain some power.

The Aaron Dixon campaign looks like a smart move to expand the Green Party's environmental base to include a strong stand against the war and in support of poor people. Dixon has made opposition to the war a central plank in his campaign. He proudly talks about his efforts to help and empower people through his work with the Black Panther Party and other community programs. The Black Panthers' Free Breakfast Program that gave thousands children a healthy start to their day, their Free Medical Clinics and other programs filled some of the gaps in our society's safety nets. Today's safety net is badly frayed and voices of ordinary Americans are heard even less today than they were back then. The poor are getting poorer even as the rich are getting richer. There is a huge movement for a humane immigration policy with a million people marching in Los Angeles and thousands in many other cities around the country. The war in Iraq is killing our young, destroying Iraq, hurting our reputation and damaging our security. Sustainable energy is a necessity if we are to avoid a Global Warming disaster. If the Green Party can actually pull together people concerned with all of these issues into a lasting coalition they may just have something.