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Gentrification and the Urban Future

[ 63 ] December 6, 2015 |


Growing up in the 1980s, when cities were SCARY and FILLED WITH VIOLENT BLACK PEOPLE JUST WATCH TV IF YOU QUESTION THIS WATCH OUT HUNTER DON’T GO DOWN THAT DARK ALLEY!!!!, the idea that cities would become so expensive that they not only were not livable for people of color but for middle-class whites would have been impossible to contemplate. Even as the beginnings of the modern urban boom began in the 1990s and neighborhoods like Park Slope in Brooklyn started becoming kind of rich, it was just a few places. But today in Brooklyn, people of color are simply being pushed out and going to homeless shelters, farther out to urban edges, to the South, or even back to their home nations. And of course Brooklyn is just perhaps the most famous example of something happening nationwide. In New York, the century-old jazz scene is starting to collapse because the artists simply cannot live there anymore. It’s not all that much better for the white working class. Even the middle class can’t live in much of Brooklyn, while Manhattan has of course become a refuge to the world’s billionaires. Thanks Bloomberg. It’s entirely possible that the endless suburban sprawl of the South might pick up a bunch of this, since in places like Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee, the developers rule, land is cheap and preserving green space largely not valued. But in New York, the people who work there have to be able to access it from somewhere. Increasingly, the question is where. Already, cities up the Hudson Valley like Newburgh are gentrifying as people realize the Metro-North from that far away puts you no farther from Manhattan in real time as much of Brooklyn.

Surely there must be a point where we either decide than a largely unregulated housing market is a real problem and we step in, that this is in fact a big ol’ housing bubble and the rapidly accelerating prices in the cities suffer a sharp decline, or I guess Schenectady and Scranton become the next hipster outposts by 2025. But right now, the current urban landscape seems utterly unsustainable to me.


Cheap American Labor

[ 20 ] December 5, 2015 |
Dothan Mayor Mike Schmitz (left) and Lian Ning (center) gesture with Schmitz's signature go-go-go sign after announcing that his company, Nanjing Zijin-Lead Electronics, would open a small 3D printer manufacturing facility in Dothan during the U.S.-China Symposium inside the Dothan Civic Center on Friday.

Dothan Mayor Mike Schmitz (left) and Lian Ning (center) gesture with Schmitz’s signature go-go-go sign after announcing that his company, Nanjing Zijin-Lead Electronics, would open a small 3D printer manufacturing facility in Dothan during the U.S.-China Symposium inside the Dothan Civic Center on Friday.

It’s hardly surprising that if American companies are scouring the globe looking for the cheapest and most easily exploitable labor possible that Chinese companies would do the same within the United States when it is in their interests to do so. This story of how Alabama gave a ridiculous package of tax breaks and benefits to a Chinese company in order to draw low-wage work with no chance of advancement is quite depressing.

To help push the deal, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) dined with Li. Company executives visiting the region were greeted with imported Chinese tea and Mandarin video messages. Alabama’s state workforce team explained how, if chosen for the job, they would visit Golden Dragon’s Chinese headquarters, study the process, and make videos and training courses for the new U.S. employees. In Alabama, Golden Dragon wouldn’t pay taxes for 20 years; it would get free roads and land.

Alabama also did something no other state was willing to try: Its legislature passed the “Made in Alabama” act, a tailored law that allowed the state to reimburse Golden Dragon for several prior years of tariffs. A version of the law had first been drafted by Cheng and a lawyer, according to Cheng and a lawmaker who sponsored the bill.

Ultimately, the company was given the choice of the reimbursements or an extra $20 million in cash. Golden Dragon chose the cash.

All told, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The Washington Post, Golden Dragon received subsidies worth some $200 million — the bulk of it in local and state tax abatements, plus the cash, $5 million in land and road costs, and nearly $2 million in worker training. County leaders say they had little choice: They had spent years trying to lure companies, reaching out unsuccessfully to more than 100. Even Golden Dragon only settled on Wilcox after a site in a neighboring county proved too small.

The problems here are multiple. First, if the poorest counties in the country are giving these tax breaks, that means that there are no taxes to improve the reasons why the counties are so poor to begin with–poor education, underdeveloped infrastructure, under-trained workforce, etc. Second, the workers, as this article explains in good detail, simply cannot live middle-class lives with these jobs. They barely make enough money to survive. The promises of the Asian companies that this will benefit the states and the workers aren’t proving out. These jobs are better than unemployment–but they aren’t that much better. These jobs don’t build hope and they don’t build a future. The county is no better off than before.

Given that it’s Alabama, I’m amazed that the workers voted to form a union–but it passed by a single vote, giving the company little reason to take it seriously and it has naturally dragged its feet. Good luck to them. But as a whole, this is no way for Alabama to build up its economy.

It’s also worth noting that today is the anniversary of Alabama repealing its child labor law in 1894 in order to attract New England textile factories fleeing worker agitation and state restrictions on how it treated labor. That really built the Alabama economy too.

Dam Removal

[ 23 ] December 5, 2015 |


I realize that most LGM readers don’t spend a lot of time thinking about western natural resource politics. But these issues are central to understanding the politics of the West, particularly within the Republican Party. Western Republicans carry most of the greed, fear-mongering, and racism of the national Republican Party. But these Republicans also have an ideological passion for hypocrisy of decrying federal intervention while demanding massive federal intervention in natural resource policy to help conservative interests. This makes big federal projects like dams extremely important symbols in what the West has and will become. There’s a lot of dams that were built in the mid-20th century race between the Army Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation to see who could capture the most water that never made any sense. As western water supplies become more tenuous and western riparian ecosystems more stressed, a lot of these dams need to come down. After a great fight, the dams of the Elwha River in Washington were finally removed and the salmon almost immediately came back. But that success doesn’t mean that conservatives aren’t going to defend every pointless dam to the bitter end.

One of the more contentious river systems in the U.S. is the Klamath River that runs from southern Oregon into northern California. Issues of irrigation and salmon have especially been in conflict over the years, including the famed 2002 salmon dieoff on the Klamath. Over the years, through careful negiotations, the various stakeholders on the river came together and created the Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement in 2010. But that’s about to expire. It needs to be renewed by the end of the year. Greg Walden, the powerful House Republican from eastern Oregon, wrote the renewal legislation. At issue is the removal of four unnecessary dams. Walden himself had said just two months ago that there was no alternative to dam removal.

But now Walden released the draft bill that not only does not remove the dams but also transfers U.S. Forest Service land to counties so that logging can increase. In other words, it’s just another Republican commitment to the federal government subsidizing western land exploitation. This may well mean the bill cannot pass, which could lead to more dead fish, more farmers losing irrigation rights during droughts like the one the region faces now, and more lawsuits. But god forbid someone touch an unnecessary dam. That would be an attack on a holy site for western Republicans.

Church and State

[ 58 ] December 5, 2015 |


Above: The U.S. Army marching on Utah, 1858

I know that modern Mormonism is in no small part an exercise in trying to fit into the broad spectrum of mainstream Christianity, but you’d think a Mormon like Orrin Hatch would know enough about the American state attacking his own church to call for the elimination of the separation of church and state.

Placing Bangladeshi Sweatshop Workers in Sight

[ 28 ] December 4, 2015 |

In the Progressive Era, the photographs of Lewis Hine brought the horrible conditions of child laborers in the United States into the sight of the middle class, helping to bring about the end of most child labor in this country. It was part of the larger Progressive effort to mobilize middle class opinion to create fair and decent conditions for the poor in this country, even if they weren’t particularly interested in empowering those workers.


Part of the advantage for sourcing apparel production overseas is so that department stores can once again demand just-in-time clothing made for cheap by easily exploitable women and children. Most of us don’t know this–the clothing magically appears on the hangers at The Gap! But in fact, kids are working to make this clothing instead of going to school. Child labor also lowers the pay standards for adult labor in these countries, as it did in the U.S. a century ago, providing additional advantages to corporations.

So who will be our Lewis Hine today? Can placing the conditions of work for these children back in our sight make us do anything to stop the exploitation of these workers? One would like to see a lot more of these Claudio Montesano Casillas photographs of Bangladeshi child laborers, but at least there are a few featured here that might make you interested in putting a stop to this system.


Seattle’s Office of Labor Standards

[ 8 ] December 4, 2015 |


Jake Blumgart has an interesting piece on how Seattle has created its own labor office with more inspectors per capita than the Department of Labor or the state of Washington. Of course, that’s still 7 employees for the entire city, which says a lot more about how poorly staffed and budgeted the DOL is. But still, for a city to take the initiative to work toward meaningful labor enforcement has its positive side:

OLS has a $1.3 million budget and employs seven people to cover a workforce of 500,000: four investigators, an analyst, a community liaison and a director, Dylan Orr, appointed in May. Orr has more than five years of experience in the Obama administration’s Department of Labor. While one inspector for every 125,000 workers may not seem like enough, it’s an improvement on the federal Department of Labor’s capacity in metro Seattle—one investigator for every 171,744 workers—and Washington state’s one investigator for every 157,337 workers.

Still, “we are really focusing on highimpact enforcement,” says Karina Bull, senior policy analyst at OLS. For example, the agency often launches companywide investigations. “We want to make sure that we are using those four investigators as efficiently as possible,” explains Bull. “If we get a complaint from one person in a business with 500 employees, there are likely violations across that entire workforce.”

Currently, OLS has 81 open labor standards cases. The office has so far assessed a total of $213,000 in back pay and $1,350 in penalties from employers.

OLS also expands its reach by enlisting community groups to alert inspectors of workplace abuses. The groups are supported by a community fund, provided by the city, of $700,000 through August 2016. The money is shared by 10 organizations, including the NAACP, Chinese Information and Service Center, Casa Latina, Eritrean Association and the newly created Fair Work Center.

“For some folks there might not be as much trust [in a government agency], especially if they don’t have their papers,” says Nicole Vallestero Keenan, executive director of the Fair Work Center, which began taking cases in July. “We help people … so when they reach the investigators they have their information ready and accessible.”

Workers who approach OLS have the option to remain anonymous in their complaint, and most say yes. Investigators ask workers a comprehensive set of questions to identify any potential violations of Seattle’s labor ordinances. If OLS decides to investigate, the employer is given 10 days to provide payroll records and an employee roster, among other information.

The only downside, and it isn’t really a downside related to Seattle per se, is that we are developing an even more fractured set of labor laws in this nation than we had before, with cities and states developing large inequities over wages and other standards. When Andrew Cuomo announced his support for a higher minimum wage specifically for fast food workers, my internal poison pill alarm was immediately set off because if we start differentiating by industry as well as by city and state, overarching victories for workers are going to become even harder. So while for the workers of Seattle, the OLS is a great thing, I sure wish it was Washington (state or DC) taking the lead here so it would cover more workers.

This Day in Labor History: December 4, 1907

[ 12 ] December 4, 2015 |

On December 4, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt ordered federal troops to the gold mining town of Goldfield, Nevada to bust a strike of workers affiliated with the Industrial Workers of the World and Western Federation of Miners. This event shows both the potential of the IWW to win actions and the extent to which the government would participate in crushing what it saw as a radical threat to American institutions.

The Industrial Workers of the World formed in 1905 to organize all the nation’s and even the world’s workers into One Big Union that would bring an end to the oppression of workers. But in its first years, it effectively did nothing at all, riven by internal dissent. It wasn’t until around 1912 that it began engaging in large-scale actions, in no small part because Big Bill Haywood had ousted a lot of the rivals to his leadership like Daniel De Leon and their divisive ideas. But the idea of the IWW appealed to at least some workers pretty much immediately, especially in the American West. The first major IWW action took place in Goldfield, Nevada. The town itself wasn’t founded until 1902, when gold was discovered in the area south of Tonopah. In 1903 and 1904, the Western Federation of Miners had engaged in bitter strikes in Colorado. In its early days, the IWW and WFM were joined. Many of those Colorado workers migrated to Goldfield where they took over the labor movement there. By 1906, even as the IWW and WFM were drifting apart nationally, the two unions officially joined in Goldfield, creating WFM-IWW Local 220. On December 20, 1906, they went on strike and within three weeks raised wages, shortened hours, and won several fringe benefits. This was probably the first strike victory for the IWW.


By March 1907, the IWW had 3000 dues-paying members in Goldfield and it demanded that all the town’s businesses agree to the 8-hour day. Fearing the growing power of the union, they acceded to the demand. The union then went after the town’s United Brotherhood of Carpenters local, demanding that the UBC members join the IWW or be denied employment. This convinced American Federation of Labor head Samuel Gompers to send organizers into Goldfield to attack the IWW-WFM miners. At the same time, the tensions between the two unions nationally were beginning to drive a wedge into their coalition. Moreover, the Panic of 1907 began moving conditions back in owners’ favor and they counterattacked with the support from the AFL. By March 1907, with AFL support, every business in Goldfield closed, reopening 3 days later with all IWW members fired. On April 22, the miners and employers came to a new agreement that would stop the labor war and guarantee the current wages while the workers agreed that labor disputes in the town would not bleed over into the mines. This was supposed to last 2 years, but in November, with the town businesses continuing to crush the IWW, the owners broke the April agreement, announcing they would stop paying cash to the workers.

The IWW went on strike. That’s where Theodore Roosevelt intervened. Like much about Roosevelt, his own long-lasting and effective self-publicity machine has allowed his actions for fairness in parts of his presidency to overshadow his equally unfair acts in the same arena. His policies regarding race are one example. Another is his position toward labor. Roosevelt to his credit played a major role in the 1902 anthracite coal strike, forcing J.P. Morgan and the coal companies to come to terms with the workers in what was the first time in U.S. history that the federal government intervened in a labor dispute to moderate rather than to bust it. That’s a big deal but it primarily reflected his concern that a prolonged strike would limit coal supplies in eastern cities. His actions in Goldfield showed his contempt for radicalism and for workers’ interests in nonessential industries where crushing the union would produce no backlash. The mine owners worked it out ahead of time with Nevada governor John Sparks that they would call to him asking for for troops that he would then forward to Roosevelt, without the knowledge of even the town’s other business owners. The message talked of the violence in the town, threat to law and order, etc. This was all lies.

Roosevelt complied, sending 300 troops under General Frederick Funston on December 4. They arrived December 6 to a peaceful community. Funston quickly discovered these lies. But when he reported it to Roosevelt, the president didn’t care. He believed the IWW was a real threat to the nation and wanted the union destroyed. He left the troops in Goldfield while the mine owners fired both IWW and WFM miners, ensuring union-free workplaces. The federal troops remained in Goldfield until March 1908, after the Nevada legislature had created a special police force to replace them.

Thus, the IWW would walk out of Goldfield completely defeated, once again showing how government action or inaction usually determines the outcome of a strike in American history. There’s lots talk in the labor movement today and in the past that unions should not play the political game and instead spent all their resources organizing. But it’s very hard to get away from the facts that workers have pretty much only won strikes in American history when the state either sided with the unions or played a moderating force. Unions need the state to win. That was true in the Gilded Age and of course it was true in the New Deal and after. When the government has decided it didn’t want a strike, it has been able to eliminate it. That might be Cleveland sending troops in to crush Pullman, Roosevelt in Goldfield, or Reagan firing the air traffic controllers.

This is the 163rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

Mass Murderer Gets Off With Hand Slap

[ 54 ] December 3, 2015 |


Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, who murdered 29 workers at his Upper Big Branch Mine in 2010, has been convicted of only a misdemeanor conspiracy charge and will serve at most a single year in prison. Let us remember what he has done:

Two government and two independent investigations blamed the Upper Big Branch deaths on a pattern by Massey of violating federal standards concerning mine ventilation and the control of highly explosive coal dust, both of which set the stage for a small methane ignition to turn into a huge coal-dust-fueled explosion.

Those investigations all generally agreed that the explosion erupted when the mine’s longwall-machine shearer cut into a piece of sandstone. The resulting spark, investigators said, ignited a pocket of methane gas. Investigators concluded that worn-out bits on the cutting shearer contributed to the explosion, while missing water sprays allowed the ignition to spread. Illegal levels of coal dust had not been cleaned up, providing fuel that sent the blast ricocheting in multiple directions throughout more than two miles of underground tunnels, investigators said.

The 43-page indictment outlines a long list of repeated and serious violations at Upper Big Branch of rules that require proper ventilation of underground mines and mandate that operators prevent the accumulation of highly explosive coal dust.

In one instance cited in the indictment, a federal inspector in June 2009 discovered fresh airflow of 147 cubic feet per minute in an area of the mine where flow of 9,000 cubic feet was required. In another example, the indictment notes that in January 2010 a federal inspector found coal dust accumulated along the entire length of the conveyor belt used to carry coal out of Upper Big Branch.

The indictment alleged that the mine’s own regular safety examinations revealed “near-constant” violations of dust-control rules that were seldom corrected by the company.

Blankenship pressured Upper Big Branch management to violate safety standards in favor of maximizing production and profits, the indictment alleges. One mine manager received a handwritten note from Blankenship in March 2009 “chastising him” for “insufficient attention to cost-cutting,” telling the manager, “You have a kid to feed. Do your job,” the indictment alleged. That same mine manager at Upper Big Branch was told, when he wasn’t producing as much coal as Blankenship demanded, “I could Khrushchev you. Do you understand?”

The indictment alleges that, after the Upper Big Branch explosion, with Massey stock prices — and thus Blankenship’s personal worth — dropping, Blankenship made false statements to both the SEC and to the investing public about the company’s safety practices.

The people who attack workplaces and Planned Parenthood and black churches with high-powered guns are horrible human beings. They are rightfully seen as pariahs (although not always by conservatives but I digress). But Don Blankenship is no better than these people. Yesterday, 14 people died in San Bernandino. The surviving member of the murderous party will no doubt receive life in prison. But I fail to see how that person is any more a monster than Don Blankenship, who also should have received life in prison. But if you are a capitalist, you can kill as many workers as you like with very little chance of prosecution at all. The only reason Blankenship received even this slap on the wrist was because of his personal involvement with daily conditions inside the mine and the huge paper trail he left. Other, somewhat less involved CEOs, can kill far more workers and never see the inside of a courtroom. It’s a disgrace.

Is Trump Fascist?

[ 189 ] December 3, 2015 |


David Neiwert, perhaps our nation’s most respected writer on white supremacy and right-wing extremism, says Donald Trump is probably not actually a fascist because he lacks the white supremacist bona fides and because he is a lazy narcissist rather than a coherent thinker. But he’s certainly moving us along the fascist road. It’s both scary and sad. If you haven’t read the whole thing yet (it came out a few days ago), it is well worth your time. You may however want to wait until later this evening when you can more easily justify the drinking it will force onto you.

All of which underscores the central fact: Donald Trump may not be a fascist, but his vicious brand of right-wing populism is not just empowering the latent fascist elements in America, he is leading a whole nation of followers merrily down a path that leads directly to fascism.

Consider, if you will, what did occur in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s remarks about “roughing up” Black Lives Matter protesters: Two nights later, a trio of white supremacists in Minneapolis invaded a Black Lives Matter protest there and shot five people, in an act that had been carefully planned and networked through the Internet.

What this powerfully implies is that Trump has achieved that kind of twilight-zone level of influence where he can simply demonize a target with rhetoric suggestive of violent retribution and his admirers will act out that very suggestion. It’s only a step removed from the fascist leader who calls out his paramilitary thugs to engage in violence.

America, thanks to Trump, has now reached that fork in the road where it must choose down which path its future lies – with democracy and its often fumbling ministrations, or with the appealing rule of plutocratic authoritarianism, ushered in on a tide of fascistic populism. For myself, I remain confident that Americans will choose the former and demolish the latter – that Trump’s candidacy will founder, and the tide of right-wing populism will reach its high-water mark under him and then recede with him.

What is most troubling, though, is the momentum that Trump’s candidacy has given that tide. He may not himself lack any real ideological footing, but he has laid the groundwork for a fascist groundswell that could someday be ridden to power by a similarly charismatic successor who is himself more in the mold of an ideological fascist. And it doesn’t take a very long look down the roll of 2016 Republican candidates to find a couple of candidates who might fit that mold.

Trump may not be fascist, but he is empowering their existing elements in American society; even more dangerously, his Tea Party brand of right-wing populism is helping them grow their ranks, along with their potential to recruit, by leaps and bounds. Not only that, he is making all this thuggery and ugliness seem normal. And that IS a serious problem.

For some time, my internal response to the rise of the Tea Party, the incredible spike in mass shootings, the love of so many in this nation for killing brown people, and the rise in obvious racism, has been that I just hope we as a nation can hold on until the older generation of whites passes on from the political scene and a more diverse nation with a younger generation of more tolerant whites can hopefully turn some of this back. But at the same time, I also know how naive that view is, in no small part because it really takes so little and so few people to seriously derail a democratic state through the use of violence and because I know that there is always another cohort of white people holding onto whiteness as a zero sum game. When you add long-term unemployment and underemployment into that mix, the potential for violence just grows, which is something that the defenders of the globalized economy outsourcing most industrial jobs simply do not consider in their analysis. Am I unduly disturbed right now? Perhaps. But this is indeed a scary time.

Whiteness as Zero Sum Game

[ 33 ] December 3, 2015 |


Kali Holloway considers the recent poll showing whites thinking they suffer from racial discrimination and the recent study of growing death rates for middle-aged whites to explore whiteness as a zero-sum game:

That is, they perceived racism, and the limitations it sets on African Americans in every sphere of American life, as beneficial to whites. Equality, by white Americans’ curious logic, doesn’t serve us all: The more equal some of us become, the less equal others of us get. For blue-collar white Americans, who are more vulnerable than their more affluent and better educated peers, this fear is particularly pronounced. The terror of slipping down a rung on an already precarious ladder is transformed into a sort of paranoia.

Deaton and Case write that white working-class disillusionment is driven by slow “growth in real median earnings” and the dismay of finding “they will not be better off than their parents.” But what lurks beneath this deserves even greater historical context, because this is far bigger than a single-generation status change. If you believe, consciously or not, that not just your parents, but every generation of white people before you not only benefited from the systematic disenfranchisement of black folks and other people of color, and that the (painstakingly slow) dismantling of that system will necessarily hinder your own chances for success, you are not likely to support that kind of social change. If you believe you were promised a level of success that, at the very least, is beyond those who are “less American,” or somehow inherently “less than,” you will be angry when you feel that those people, however few they number, are passing you by. If you could derive no pride from class but only from race, believing a place at the bottom of the dominant culture hierarchy is still at the top of any other in this country, when the order of things changes you may place your blame and shame on those who do not deserve it. If you believe these things are your birthright—one passed down over time and deserved by virtue of the longevity of its existence—you’re likely to be resentful about what you perceive as the sudden end of everything you believe you’re entitled to.

By this warped and fear-driven logic, every black success necessarily means a white failure; every Hispanic employee costs a white career. Diversity, a milquetoast word that generally means the least effort at inclusiveness to achieve a presentable level of tokenism, can only seem threatening in this context. “Multiculturalism” is transformed into a sinister plan for white cultural erasure. Immigration, the changing face of the country, the looming specter of America as a “minority-majority” country in 2042, all of these, seen through the lens of racism and xenophobia, are interpreted as threats to white power and agency. And don’t even get me started on the election of a black president.

The dashed hopes of white Americans in general, and working-class white Americans in particular, were built on a crumbling foundation of white privilege and supremacy. Despite the fact that it remains a pretty solidly built structure with reinforcements throughout, here is evidence of real fear of its collapse. Politicians know this, they’ve capitalized on it forever, and today’s political aspirants make the architects of the Southern Strategy look like ardent communists. The PRRI study found that Tea Party identification has dropped by nearly half since 2010, falling from 11 percent to 6 percent. But who needs the Tea Party when extremism has gone so mainstream? Racist and xenophobic dog whistles from the right in the 2008 election seem almost polite judged by the yardstick of today’s conservative rhetoric. The Tea Party has nothing on Donald Trump.

I do think this gets at the fundamentals of the entire right-wing revolt of recent years, including the embrace of gun culture no matter how many Americans die and support for killing brown people abroad. Whites, and especially working class whites, long felt that any rights for black Americans or other racial minorities were direct attacks upon them. We can see that at least as far back as the New Deal era with the Detroit Hate Strike as well as Detroit workers voting Republican even in the 30s when early public housing projects attempted to integrate. We can see it through the civil rights movement of course and the anti-busing movements throughout the nation in the 60s and 70s which reflected racism through the individual right to keep your children near their homes while in school, erasing the residential segregation that helped create these inequalities. It may not seem to many of us that African-Americans have won that many rights in recent years. Certainly the need for the Black Lives Matter movement shows that they have not. But reality is not what’s most important here, it’s perception. The sheer existence of Barack Hussein Obama as president is an affront to the values of whiteness so many whites hold dear. And every advance by racial minorities, every non-white face on TV, the supposed threat of Ebola infecting the U.S, everything is part of the broader attack on what it means to be American for working-class whites, which is in fact to be white.

Saint-Denis, Solidarity, and Security

[ 16 ] December 3, 2015 |

police paris saint denis

This is the second guest post by Melissa K. Byrnes, who is Associate Professor of History at Southwestern University. Her research focuses on issues of migration, French Muslims, empire, activism, and human rights. She is finishing a book on post-1945 community activism for North African rights and welfare in the suburbs of Paris and Lyon.

In my previous guest post I suggested that the long tradition of solidarity in the city of Saint-Denis, a northern suburb of Paris, was a model for how to respond to terrorist attacks like those suffered in the Paris region last Friday. In particular, I lauded the mayor of Saint-Denis for his demand that such attacks—which included suicide bombings at the Stade de France in his city—not be used as an excuse to indulge in racism or hatred.

Just hours after submitting that piece, Saint-Denis was the site of a massive police operation targeting the supposed mastermind of the Paris attacks (now confirmed dead). The raid on 48 rue de la République took place just 400 meters from the city’s town hall (in which the other inhabitants of the neighborhood were temporarily housed). French President Hollande expressed his gratitude that Mayor Didier Paillard would allow his city to be disrupted so soon after an attack on its soil. Paillard cooperated fully with the police running the raid, demonstrating his willingness to aid and support a targeted action against a known threat, even as he warned against broadly discriminatory policies and blunt racial profiling.

The distinction between targeted operations and broad-based security measures is a crucial one. The Saint-Denis I know best is the Saint-Denis of the 1950s and 60s—in other words, the Saint-Denis of the Algerian War. At that time, Mayor Auguste Gillot launched many complaints against repressive and discriminatory police and security measures, claiming that he feared for the safety of the city’s population—especially local Algerian migrants. Gillot, who had been an active member of the French Resistance during WWII, repeatedly warned against treading too far down the path towards fascism. His criticism of state policies in the Algerian War repeatedly linked the oppression of Algerian migrants to that of French citizens (particularly in the political opposition), as well as to deteriorating social and economic welfare across France.

Gillot and his supporters were particularly vocal about racial profiling tactics. Early one morning, in July 1959, police shot and killed a young man who, they claimed, “resembled an Algerian.” The local newspaper (which had strong political ties to city hall) lambasted this defense:

Let us admire the argument, ‘We thought he was an Algerian.’ French or Algerian, he was a man whose life should have been respected. Does it suffice to have lightly tanned skin and curly hair to risk being the target of a police officer…?

After the violence of 17 October 1961—when a peaceful Algerian protest was met with police beatings, mass detainment, and murder some of the local police themselves denounced the “odious acts” that targeted and assaulted Algerian residents.

Algerians were not the only ones subjected to state violence during the Algerian War. In 1961, Gillot and a few of his colleagues landed in the hospital with minor injuries inflicted by some officers during a protest against police violence. In February 1962, police killed nine French protestors in an attempt to curtail a non-violent demonstration against domestic extremism and in support of peace in Algeria. This attack on activists, mostly from unions and left-leaning (opposition) political parties, occurred at the Charonne metro station—which is just around the corner from the restaurant La Belle Équipe, where nineteen people were killed by gunmen during the attacks in Paris this November. The coincidence of geography highlights how easily anti-terrorism measures can be turned against citizens—particularly politically active ones.

Now more than ever, we should heed Gillot’s warnings about police violence, discrimination, and the ease with which a state’s harsh security measures can be turned on its own citizens. The French government has prolonged its state of emergency for an additional three months. Certainly, a measure of caution is wise in the aftermath of atrocity. Indeed, the raid in Saint-Denis days after the attacks likely ran smoother given the extraordinary measures in place. A prolongation of three months, however, starts to seem less extraordinary and more like a new normal—a terrifying proposition.

Already, the regulations have been invoked to quell protests wholly unrelated to the terrorist attacks. For the next two weeks, Paris is playing host to the UN Climate Change Conference. Conveniently, the enhanced security measures include a blanket ban on public protest. So far, state-of-emergency regulations have been invoked to place a number of climate activists under house arrest and justify the use of tear gas against an anti-global warming protest. Diffuse racial profiling also seems to be on the increase around the French capital. For example, a large and well-armed police force burst into a restaurant in the suburb of Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône, but found no evidence of terrorist connections or activities.

Above all, there are important questions to raise about the effectiveness of such broad-based security measures. The city of Brussels was shut down for nearly a week. While no Paris-style attack played out, as feared, there were no key arrests made, nor was one of the remaining fugitives—a target of the Brussels operations—actually caught. In other words, an enormous lock-down, with severe restrictions on citizens’ personal liberties, did not bear meaningful results.

Likewise, structural racism and discriminatory policies can too easily backfire in matters of security. In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris in January, the Kouachi brothers’ neighbors testified that they had known for months that the men were stockpiling weapons, but that they had been too afraid to contact the police. A legacy of poor community relations impeded information sharing that might have stopped that tragedy before it began. In contrast, neighbors and inhabitants of the building raided in Saint-Denis complied with police requirements and allowed access. Meanwhile, the individuals targeted by the police were not locals or residents, having just arrived in the neighborhood the previous night. Police had been able to track their suspects’ movements since one of them was already being surveilled in connection with a drug investigation.

Following the 18 November raid, Mayor Paillard reaffirmed the city’s commitment to tolerance and openness. He emphasized that what the attackers actually targeted was “young people who are passionate about liberties, diverse and tolerant.”

We must now unite around the democratic values that are our most precious resource.

It is our task, together, to combat division and obscurantism, to refuse hatred of the other and radicalism, to reject racism and fanaticism.

It is our task, together, to aim for more tolerance and humanity, to consolidate a fraternal and united society, to affirm the values of the Republic.

In Saint-Denis, in Paris, our best weapon in the face of atrocity is to affirm—to acclaim—liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Our only response, our only weapon, is to raise ever higher the values that unite Dionysiens and unite the French.

In Saint-Denis, in Paris, our best response to barbarity is to face up to it together.

The city of Saint-Denis is no utopia—and tolerance is not, on its own, a panacea. But it seems prudent to take the advice of two local leaders whose legacy has been a community that routinely manages such crises better than the rest of France. Isolate and subdue known threats, by all means. But let us not turn so easily against our own personal liberties in the name of safeguarding the values from which they derive.

The Positives and Problems with International Labor Monitoring

[ 4 ] December 2, 2015 |


The Diplomat has a good piece on the benefits and the problems with international labor monitoring systems. In short, Uzbekistan is a major cotton exporter, the world’s 5th largest. It also used a lot of forced child labor. Companies began boycotting Uzbek cotton until it eliminated child labor and asked the International Labour Organization to monitor. It was successful. But it also seems that the cotton growers and Uzbek government have instead rounded up gangs of forced adult labor to pick the cotton. That’s a lot harder for international monitors to see and given the harsh punishments given to those who tell the truth, the workers aren’t saying a word.

This is a good case to examine both the benefits and problems with international monitoring. First, this puts the lie to the idea that companies can’t do anything about their supply chains. It’s real simple here. The companies said we aren’t buying cotton from Uzbekistan if they use children. And the Uzbeks stopped using children. In other words, companies can enact almost whatever they want on their supply chains. If the companies wanted to ensure that factories didn’t collapse on workers, they could do so. In the aftermath of Rana Plaza, European companies are working toward this. American companies are almost all resisting because the fear of lawsuits and liability is more important than workers staying alive. So if the companies wanted to ensure that Uzbek cotton was in fact not only child-free but also forced-labor free, there are ways to do this. They could continue not buying Uzbek cotton unless it wasn’t just certified that they were child free, but it was positively certified that everyone was getting paid. If the onus was on the Uzbeks, and it very well could be, then you solve that problem. And companies and governments can solve all sorts of problems in their supply chains this way if they choose to. The fact that they occasionally choose to do so on child labor or slave labor shows put a lie to the claim that they can’t really do anything. They largely just choose not to.

But real reform so that workers live with dignity takes more than just a vague monitoring program. If the real goal is eliminating forced labor, replacing children with adults is a good way to get around a weak monitoring system that relies primarily on visuals rather than paperwork or meaningful inspections. As these things are constructed in the present, they are often too weak to make a difference. It’s still relatively easy for suppliers to get around whatever constrictions they face. That’s because the system ultimately does not really challenge the corporate buyers in any meaningful way. Make them legally liable for their purchases and you will see it change fast. That children have been largely forced from the Uzbek cotton fields is evidence that it can be done.

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