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Black Power Revisionism

[ 70 ] March 27, 2015 |

Black-Power-Gossip

Randall Kennedy has an interesting long book review of new biographies of Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, and Huey Newton. I haven’t read any of them, not even Manning Marable’s acclaimed Malcolm book, but there are a couple of points worth discussing here anyway. First, Kennedy accuses each author of engaging in hagiography over proper historical analysis. I can’t judge the claim, but that does seem to be the case with the Newton book, which just seems bad from multiple reviews. As for the other two, both Marable and Peniel Joseph (who is speaking at URI next week so come out if you are around) are both outstanding historians, but it is often a problem with biography that authors start apologizing for their subject. And as Kennedy points out, there is plenty that is distasteful about both. I find that more convincing with Carmichael, whose leadership of SNCC was disastrous and who seemed somewhat less serious about what he was doing after he achieved fame (although he did largely avoid the spotlight after he went to Africa). But with Malcolm, Kennedy’s problem is the Nation of Islam. I don’t think too many people are really going to defend NOI at this point. Its murders of its own members and the rank hypocrisy of Elijah Muhammad are well known now. But while Kennedy admits that Malcolm shows significant room for personal growth, he also wants to make sure that he is held accountable for his actions before his expulsion from the organization in 1964.

Well, OK, but this gets to my second point, which is about context and the passage of time. In other words, it is very easy to write in 2015 about how the Nation of Islam was horrible, how the Black Panthers were violent and cruel, and how Carmichael ran SNCC into the ground. It’s not that Kennedy forgets the context in which these people were working, but it’s also worth reiterating it. Malcolm and Newton were operating in urban centers where African-Americans had moved for the promise of a better life, but that promise had been a lie. In 1960s Oakland, Los Angeles, Newark, Chicago, Detroit, etc., police brutality was a way of life. There were no jobs. Most people could not afford a car. Public transportation was almost nonexistent. The only economic outlet for many was drugs. The Civil Rights Movement could win concrete victories in the South because it battled legal segregation, but the de facto segregation of northern and western cities made victories much, much harder to win, as Martin Luther King and the SCLC found out in the failed Chicago housing campaign of 1966. It’s hardly surprising that black pride and black power organizations, whether Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association, the Nation of Islam, or the Black Panthers, would rise out of this. It’s equally unsurprising that those organizations would be problematic and violent, as violence ruled the communities from which they arose and organized.

As for Carmichael, while his leadership of SNCC didn’t work out, the overall move away from racial inclusion to black power within the student led side of the Civil Rights Movement also makes sense in context, even if it was a bad idea strategically and organizationally. Let’s not underestimate the bitterness that led SNCC to design Freedom Summer because its organizers knew that only when white kids were killed would the media pay attention to anything happening in rural Mississippi. This analysis was of course exactly right when the three SNCC workers, two white, were murdered by the KKK. Ten years of struggle, suffering, and death in the face of overwhelming violence is a bravery I can barely imagine. If people burn out and snap or turn to black power and racial exclusion, it’s not surprising at all. It says much for John Lewis’ character that he never went down this road, but it is an understandable response to the horrifying experiences of these people’s lives.

Finally, I thought this was unfair to Malcolm X:

While Malcolm X and other followers of Elijah Muhammed put on cathartic performances in safe surroundings, however, King, Carmichael, Medgar Evers, John Lewis, Fannie Lou Hamer, James Farmer, Julian Bond, Bob Moses, Diane Nash, James Lawson, and others risked their lives repeatedly in face-to-face confrontations with heavily armed, trigger-happy white supremacists. While Malcolm X was taunting King and company for rejecting violence, the tribunes of the Civil Rights movement were successfully pressuring the federal government to bring its immense weight to bear against the segregationists through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. While Malcolm X talked tough—“if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery”—he and the NOI refrained seeking revenge when racist police brutalized Black Muslims. While Malcolm X spoke with apparent knowingness about racial uplift, at no point did he communicate a cogent, realistic strategy for elevating black America.

But Marable is not denigrating any of those other civil rights activists. No one is saying those people did not do amazing things or put their lives at risk. They were also, outside of Hamer, college-educated. This movement Kennedy lauds in comparison to Malcolm was a decidedly middle-class movement. They came out of a different African-American tradition than Malcolm. Second, one could basically say the same thing about the relationship between W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, with the former safely ensconced in Cambridge and the latter risking his life in rural Alabama. Yet in this case, even most historians today sympathize with DuBois instead of Washington (in part because the Civil Rights Movement proved DuBois’ “talented tenth” idea correct and Washington’s rejection of political gains wrong). But mostly I don’t think this is a useful comparison to make at either time. There were many paths to African-American freedom. Some were more effective and some more problematic, but I don’t think basically calling Malcolm a poseur compared to SNCC activists is useful.

It’s an interesting and challenging review, but I think if anything Kennedy is moving toward hagiography toward the mainstream CRM (after all, he might well call Malcolm sexist and socially conservative, but MLK could certainly be accused of the same) and therefore overcompensates in his analysis of these people. He occasionally makes pretty easy judgements about which group was right or wrong in 1965 when in reality everyone working for black freedom in the 1960s faced overwhelming white violence and police brutality. That certainly doesn’t mean that we should take Huey Newton at his word or not question the self-mythologizing all three of these men could engage in, but, as always, everything should be contextualized and our own positions questioned.

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TPP

[ 21 ] March 27, 2015 |

Greg Sargent has what I think is a pretty solid run-down of where progressive Democrats are with the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In short, it’s not a strong hand. In this era where many congressional Democrats basically ignore labor and neoliberalism rules the day, we are stuck relying on a combination of Democrats who care more about the American working class than U.S. foreign policy advantages and Republicans who won’t vote for anything Obama supports. And I think most of the latter will fall by the wayside. The AFL-CIO is working the best angle, which is trying to create conditions for its passage rather than full rejection. First and foremost is the ability for Congress to come back after the deal is finalized and vote it up or down. This just makes sense. Given how much of the TPP has been negotiated in total secret, it’s ridiculous to give any president the ability to fast track without Congress having say later. If Obama says that it could torpedo the whole deal down the road, well good. Make the deal palatable to organized labor.

As for the arguments Obama and TPP supporters make, I have a very hard time buying any of them. Obama says it will have strong labor and environmental protections. Without labor and environmentalists’ input in this process, will said provisions be strong? Almost certainly not. If Clinton didn’t need labor and environmentalists’ support to pass NAFTA, Obama certainly doesn’t need it for the TPP and I suspect the agreement’s final language will reflect that. If it actually has enforceable provisions that put power in the hands of the world’s workers, then that’s great. I’m not holding my breath. As for the position that we need to support the TPP so that China doesn’t impose its own trade agreement, I just don’t think Cold War-esque fears of a communist rival are reason to pass an agreement that will send even more American jobs out of the country. It’s not like we are forming NATO here and that Vietnam can’t also sign a trade agreement with China. But this kind of foreign policy argument will always appeal to moderate Democrats who aren’t too close to unions anyway.

As you may have heard, Wikileaks was able to leak some of the TPP proposed language. And it’s as much a document about international corporate rackets as you fear.

According to an analysis of the leaked chapter by Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, tens of thousands of foreign and US owned companies would be able to access ISDS courts under the TPP to challenge signatories’ rules and regulations.

The tribunals, which fall under the jurisdiction of the World Bank and the United Nations, would operate without transparency, and be staffed by private sector attorneys who would rotate between advocate and judge.

Although the purpose of ISDS courts is to provide safeguards for companies against improper property seizure and to guarantee that they aren’t discriminated against by host countries, they’ve increasingly been used to challenge public interest laws.

In 2012 alone, there were sixty cases brought to ISDS by private companies against sovereign governments—the majority came from US businesses looking to skirt regulations in developing countries.

Under previous trade agreements, corporations have used these international courts to attack environmental, public health, and financial regulations and laws. Companies have been awarded more than $440 million from taxpayers under previous investor-state settlements associated with US free trade agreements.

They appear designed to have a chilling effect on regulation—particularly in countries that can ill-afford to lose expensive court battles.

In other words, corporations are creating the type of international legal framework to oppress workers and support their own interests against national regulatory structures that I want for workers to force corporations to abide by international labor and environmental laws. The TPP is going to be a great deal for multinational corporations. Whether it’s anything less than a horrible deal for the world’s workers, well, I guess we are going to find out.

Superfly

[ 35 ] March 26, 2015 |

This week in my film class, I made the students watch Birth of a Nation out of class and Superfly in class to get at depictions of African-Americans in film over the 20th century. The great Gordon Parks directed the latter and while it is a cheaply made blaxploitation flick, it also has some truly great scenes. Like the cocaine montage, which we should all watch tonight.

Why Doesn’t the Republican Party Fight Climate Change?

[ 63 ] March 26, 2015 |

Film Title: An Inconvenient Truth.

Above: History’s greatest monster oppressing Republicans by talking about climate change

Al Gore of course, at least according to VERY SERIOUS presidential candidate Lindsey Graham.

Slave Labor and Fishing

[ 33 ] March 26, 2015 |

Kay Chernush, Slave Labor,2_0 ©_0

Above: the slaves who catch and process your dinner

One of the issues I talk about in Out of Sight is getting more publicity.

The Burmese slaves sat on the floor and stared through the rusty bars of their locked cage, hidden on a tiny tropical island thousands of miles from home.

Just a few yards away, other workers loaded cargo ships with slave-caught seafood that clouds the supply networks of major supermarkets, restaurants and even pet stores in the United States.

Here, in the Indonesian island village of Benjina and the surrounding waters, hundreds of trapped men represent one of the most desperate links criss-crossing between companies and countries in the seafood industry. This intricate web of connections separates the fish we eat from the men who catch it, and obscures a brutal truth: Your seafood may come from slaves.

The men the Associated Press spoke to on Benjina were mostly from Myanmar, also known as Burma, one of the poorest countries in the world. They were brought to Indonesia through Thailand and forced to fish. Their catch was shipped back to Thailand, and then entered the global commerce stream.

Tainted fish can wind up in the supply chains of some of America’s major grocery stores, such as Kroger, Albertsons and Safeway; the nation’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart; and the biggest food distributor, Sysco. It can find its way into the supply chains of some of the most popular brands of canned pet food, including Fancy Feast, Meow Mix and Iams. It can turn up as calamari at fine dining restaurants, as imitation crab in a California sushi roll or as packages of frozen snapper relabeled with store brands that land on our dinner tables.

Basically, if you are eating commercial seafood, you are probably inadvertently supporting extremely exploitative labor if not outright slavery. Whether it is Walmart contracting with Louisiana fish suppliers who bring guestworkers in from other countries and then lock them into the factory or big American and European companies buying southeast Asian seafood off the open market, horrific labor is what propels cheap seafood.

This is why in order to fight these conditions, we must be able to hold contracting corporations legally responsible for the actions of their suppliers. It is Walmart, Kroger, etc. that are demanding the fish at a very low price. Just like with apparel, this puts downward pressure on wages, to the point of using slave labor wherever possible. Right now, there is no way to hold these corporations accountable. At best, one local operation gets busted but then it just gets replaced by something else almost or just as bad. That’s not acceptable.

Details Pending

[ 72 ] March 26, 2015 |

Ted-Cruz-for-Dummies-300x232

For a guy who is supposed to be just oh so much smarter than everyone else, you’d think Ted Cruz would actually have a real idea someday. But no.

Forbes

[ 73 ] March 26, 2015 |

Steve_Forbes_at_FreedomFest,_Las_Vagas,_Navada,_USA-12July2013

Who could have guessed in 1996 that the most influential Republican politician of the 1990s 20 years later would be the unblinking one himself, Steve Forbes?

The Complexities of Revitalizing Neighborhoods

[ 88 ] March 26, 2015 |

Ohio_City_West25th

I know Cleveland fairly well, though I haven’t spent much time there in the last few years. Much of the city is obviously a mess. I love the place more than pretty much any other city east of the Mississippi and there is so much potential for cool things to happen there. One of the highlights of the city is the neighborhood Ohio City, which has a bunch of cool bars and breweries and restaurants and markets. It’s growing and this is positive. The problem is, as these things tend to be, is that the people who are spurring it are enormously egotistical yuppie neoliberals who make me want to puke. I guess this shouldn’t matter. But as this profile of some of the movers and shakers in Ohio City suggests, when they start thinking of themselves as Congressional material, it moves beyond the personally repulsive into the really problematic.

There are signs Veysey is serious about the “doing good” part: After the Obama campaign, Veysey tried his hand at being a candidate. In 2012 he ran for Congress against Rep. Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kucinich. Veysey’s politics during that campaign were those of a generation growing up in the age of neoliberalism: He was left to the two more established candidates on social issues like gay marriage and abortion, and more to the right on economic ones. Veysey is okay with things like NAFTA, a liberal bogeyman; he thinks America’s debt is one of the country’s biggest issues; he thinks underperforming schools should be starved of money.

Veysey only captured 4 percent of the vote, but the run nonetheless whetted his appetite for more do-goodery.

“I thought that I could have brought value when I ran for office,” Veysey said. “But you don’t have to be in office to bring value to a community.”

Still, there are major differences between being the King of Hingetown and a congressman. Political leaders are, at least in theory, meant to represent everyone, not just the well-off. And Hingetown is definitely not meant for everyone.

This guy is gross enough without running for Congress as a neoliberal who thinks Marcy Kaptur and Dennis Kuchinch are too far to the left on economics. I mean, if there’s one thing that Cleveland needs, it’s a pro-NAFTA congressman who wants to see more Ohio jobs shipped overseas and more poor schools closed and replaced with capitalist schools! And if his goal is to make Ohio City a haven for the rich, which seems likely regardless of the positive things happening there now, that’s also a bad thing.

On the other hand, doing something with the many struggling neighborhoods of Cleveland is really important. So I’m torn.

Happy Triangle Day

[ 38 ] March 25, 2015 |

Triangle-Fire-gs

104 years ago today, 146 American workers died at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York. Combined with the Centralia mine disaster I profiled earlier today, March 25 should be known as American Workplace Disaster Day. Keith Mestrich has a few thoughts on the anniversary and its meaning in the present:

Many will remember in April 2013 when a fertilizer factory in West, Texas, which improperly stored chemicals, exploded. Fourteen men were killed and more than 300 people were injured. The facility was non-union. Stronger workplace protections perhaps could have saved those men’s lives. But since then, Rick Perry and the state of Texas have continued to beat their anti-union drum and have not managed to pass a single new law or regulation to make workplaces safer in their state.

The images of that factory in Texas exploding quickly went viral, ricocheting throughout social media. The tragic photographs from the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire should capture our attention just as much. They may look like distant history but they show a society that did nothing to protect its workers. One hundred and five years later, we cannot make the mistake of thinking the battle is won. The richest country on Earth can afford to protect its workers. And the people of this country deserve to be led by men and women who care whether Americans can get home safely to their families at the end of their shift. The young women who died on that fateful day deserve at least that much.

American Clothing Suppliers Use Gangs to Bust Unions

[ 12 ] March 25, 2015 |

Lindintracuay

This is precisely the reason why we need to be able to hold American corporations legally accountable for the actions of the suppliers:

Textile companies that make clothing for transnational brands in El Salvador are accused of forging alliances with gang members to make death threats against workers and break up their unions, according to employees who talked to IPS and to international organisations.

Workers at maquila or maquiladora plants – which import materials and equipment duty-free for assembly or manufacturing for re-export – speaking on condition of anonymity said that since 2012 the threats have escalated, as part of the generalised climate of violence in this Central American country.

“They would call me on the phone and tell me to quit the union, to stop being a trouble-maker,” one worker at the LD El Salvador company in the San Marcos free trade zone, a complex of factories to the south of the Salvadoran capital, told IPS.

She has worked as a sewing machine operator since 2004 and belongs to the Sindicato de la Industria Textil Salvadoreña (SITS) textile industry union. Some 780 people work for LD El Salvador, a Korean company that produces garments for the firms Náutica and Walmart.

“They told me they were homeboys (gang members) and that if I didn’t quit the union my body would show up hanging from one of the trees outside the company,” she said.
She added that LD executives hired gang members to make sure the threats directly reached the workers who belong to SITS, on the factory premises.

The warnings have had a chilling effect, because only 60 of the 155 workers affiliated with the union are still members, she said. Many quit, scared of falling victim to the young gangs, organised crime groups known in Central America as “maras”, which are responsible for a large part of the murders every day in this impoverished country.

This is all implicitly approved of by American trade policy and of course by Walmart and the other developed world corporations contracting in El Salvador. Obama’s cherished Trans-Pacific Partnership would double down on this global race to the bottom. Today is the 104th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. That fire happened in part because the Uprising of the 20,000, 2 years earlier, failed to force sweatshop owners to improve working conditions. One reason for that was that those sweatshops hired prostitutes to start fights with striking workers, giving the police an excuse to bust the heads of the strikers. Very little has changed except that American companies have shifted the nation of production away from the U.S. None of this will change until we create a global legal system that holds these corporations accountable for the actions of their suppliers, giving workers in El Salvador and other nations legal recourse in the national home of corporate origin to fight against these horrible things. Right now, unlike in 1909 and 1911, it’s all out of our sight. That has to change if we don’t want Walmart suppliers employing murderous gangs to keep wages low.

This Day in Labor History: March 25, 1947

[ 10 ] March 25, 2015 |

On March 25, 1947, the Centralia Coal Company’s No. 5 mine in Centralia, Illinois exploded, killing 111 workers. This disaster, caused by extremely unsafe working conditions from employers utterly indifferent to the lives of their workers, helped move forward, however slowly, the nation’s push toward safer working conditions in coal mines.

In the Centralia No. 5 mine, workers labored up to 3 miles underground. In the late afternoon of March 25, coal dust exploded. Fire flashed through the tunnels. Poison gas that builds up after a mine explosion, known as afterdamp, began accumulating in the mine, severely threatening the lives of those not killed in the explosion and fire. 142 men were in the mine. 65 died from burns and 45 by afterdamp. An additional individual died of afterdamp in the hospital. Only 31 miners survived. As the surviving workers began succumbing to the gas, they scratched final goodbyes to loved ones on the mine walls. One scribbled “”Dear wife, Goodbye. Forgive me. Take care of all the children.” Sad stuff.

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Bringing out the dead in Centralia

In the six months prior to the explosion, the Centralia mine had undergone two inspections by federal mine inspectors and both had found serious violations of the Federal Mine Safety Code. The second investigation took place a mere five days before the explosion. But the enforcement power of the government was weak and nothing was done. Centralia did have to pay small fines, but the company decided it was a good value to just pay the fines rather than fix the safety in the mines. A year before the explosion, UMWA Local 52 recording secretary William Rowenkampf wrote to Illinois governor Dwight Green, asking him to get involved in the unsafe conditions at the Centralia mine. He wrote:

This is a plea to you, to please save our lives, to please make the department of mines and minerals enforce the laws at the No. 5 of the Centralia Coal Co. before we have a dust explosion at this mine like just happened in Kentucky and West Virginia.

Green ignored the request.

United Mine Workers of America president John Lewis made workplace health and safety a major issue for his union as World War II concluded. In 1946, Lewis led over 300,000 workers on strike in demand for an employer-paid health plan. President Harry Truman responded by seizing the mines and Lewis began negotiating with Secretary of the Interior Julius Krug (Interior has regulatory responsibility for most mines) instead of the employers. The Krug-Lewis Accord was signed in May 1946 and established a jointly operated health plan between the UMWA and the government funded by a five cent tax per ton of coal. However, the operators resented both federal intervention and the entire agreement and Krug did little to enforce it either. The miners continued to seethe over the lack of safety and health on the job.

Lewis announced a six-day national walkout after the mine disaster, using the union’s right to call memorial days to remember dead comrades. Lewis was furious. He attacked Krug for failing to enforce existing mine safety legislation. He stated, “The killing must stop. Coal is heavily saturated with the blood of too many brave men and the tears of too many widows and orphans.” Lewis demanded that President Truman fire Krug. Truman refused (and it’s not like Lewis had that many friends in the highest reaches of the Democratic Party in 1947 anyway). Rather, Truman and his advisers believed that Lewis called the walkout as a way around an injunction against a previously planned strike to begin April 1. However, this did elicit a response from the Truman administration. Krug ordered 518 mines to remain closed for federal inspection even after the UMWA walkout ended.

Unlike the many mine disasters of the past, this one got the attention of Congress. Both the House and Senate conducted hearings on mine safety. Lewis furiously attacked Krug for failing to enforce the heath plan of the previous year. He testified:

If we must grind up human flesh and bone in the industrial machine we call modern America, then before God I assert that those who consume coal and you and I who benefit from that service because we live in comfort, we owe protection to those men first, and we owe security to their families if they die.

john lewis

John L. Lewis testifying before Congress, 1947

Congress began to move toward a more permanent regime of federal mine inspection, which was extremely weak in 1947. The House and Senate passed a joint resolution urging the Bureau of Mines to continue inspecting mines for safety and passing along any found violations to the respective state regulatory agencies. But of course state regulations are almost always extremely pro-business and the reporting to the states provision demonstrates just how weak the federal presence was in workplace safety as late as 1947. Congress also passed Public Law 328, which asked the states to comply with federal mining regulations. Yes, asked them. There was no enforcement. Of the 26 coal mining states, 17 reported fully, 2 partially, and 7 not at all. Even Congress wasn’t really that serious here; the Senate’s appropriation for the investigation of the disaster was all of $5000. Finally, the U.S. Bureau of Mine Safety admitted that only 2 mines in the entire nation actually were safe for workers.

Eventually, in 1952, the Federal Coal Mine Safety Act passed which for the first time gave federal mine inspectors the ability to shut down mines in extremely dangerous conditions. Yet this still remained a relatively weak law and it would not be until 1969 and miners’ own activism against the indifference of their union leadership at that time before a strong act would pass to protect them on the job. Even today, the health and safety of coal miners is treated with contempt by companies and indifference by the regulatory agencies of the government.

To remember the Centralia mine victims, Woody Guthrie wrote “The Dying Miner.”

Some of this material is borrowed from James Whiteside, Regulating Danger: The Struggle for Mine Safety in the Rocky Mountain Coal Industry. See also Daniel Curran, Dead Laws for Dead Men: The Politics of Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Legislation. The letter from the UMWA to the Illinois governor is found in Joe Allen, People Wasn’t Made to Burn: A True Story of Race, Murder, and Justice in Chicago.

This is the 139th post in this series. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

Racial Thursdays

[ 36 ] March 24, 2015 |

blackface_3910

Look, the Army boys just need a little time to blow off some stress by indulging in open racism….

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