In Colombia Foreign-Owned Coal Mine Expands, Defenseless People Suffer and Die

Photo by Julián Ortega Martínez | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Julián Ortega Martínez | CC BY 2.0

As it expanded operations, El Cerrejón coal mine in Colombia’s La Guajira department threatened the survival of nearby Wayúu indigenous people. Many now are malnourished and children have died. Imperialism and the way it works bear most of the responsibility.

The stage for humanitarian disaster was already set. The Wayúu, who make up 45 percent of the Guajira population, are vulnerable: in 2012, 87.7% of jobs there were in the informal sector, and 60% of workers received less than the legal minimum wage. Unemployment in La Guajira is 47 percent, and more than half the people there live in poverty; 25 percent, in extreme poverty.  Some 15,000 school – age Wayúu children aren’t attending school this year. Social services are weak, notably health care.

Wayúu people living inland have relied on subsistence farming. Despite an arid climate, water and land were available and food sovereignty was maintained. As the mine grew and land was reserved for future expansion, farmers lost land. London activist Richard Solly reports that in 1960, “104,963 hectares of the department [were] suitable for agriculture; but in 2001 only 30,752 hectares were under cultivation and in 2008 much less.”

There is also the Wayúu people’s hulking neighbor. El Cerrejón, 35 miles long, is the world’s largest open-pit coal mine. Exporting 32 million tons of coal annually, the mining company owns a 93 mile – long railroad and a deep-water seaport. It’s Colombia’s largest privately-owned export company. Three multi – national corporations share ownership.

They are: BHP Billiton (Australia), which, operating in 100 locations in 25 countries, extracts iron ore, oil, coal, and diamonds; Anglo-American (South Africa) which mines coal, iron ore, and copper in South Africa, Australia, and the Western Hemisphere; and Glencore (Switzerland), the tenth largest corporation in the world, producing 90 commodities. Profits of the three in 2016 were: $3.2 billion (July through December), $1.59 billion, and $3.67 billion, respectively.

El Cerrejón has abused nearby Wayúu communities. Beginning in 2001, in the context of Cerrejón’s take-over of new land, bulldozers destroyed Wayúu villages. Cerrejón has ravaged over 30,000 acres of forest.

The company acted to ensure water for mine operations. After 2010, dams appeared across the Ranchería River and some tributaries to divert flow to the mine. These provided most of the people’s water.  Since then – and drought has intervened – twelve rivers have disappeared or almost so, crops are no longer irrigated, farm animals are dying, and only 0.7 liters per capita of untreated water are available each day for drinking.

The diversion allows Cerrejón to remove 17 million liters every day from the river system. Toxins exuding from mine wastage contaminate water remaining in the streams.

According to one report in 2016, “around 27% of children under five are suffering from malnutrition,” According to another that year, “more than 4770 children of this indigenous community have died over eight years due to malnourishment and a lack of drinking water.” In 2016, 36 mothers died of malnutrition.  The data may underestimate the damage; government record keepers overlook the deaths of many Wayúu infants.  The Colombian pediatric society, summarizing, says that, “an indigenous child [in La Guajira] has a 24 times greater risk of dying than children elsewhere in the country.”

The Colombian government stays away. In Bogota, says one observer, “they have no idea of La Guajira, there’s laxity in understanding it, studying it, respecting it.” A socially-conscious physician writes of “abandonment by the state, violent stealing of resources, and institutional and political crisis.”

Even if departmental and national governments were so inclined, funds generated from taxation or royalties from coal mining don’t suffice to bankroll social spending in La Guajira. Formerly 85 percent of the royalties derived from mineral extraction ended up in the department where operations took place; now “only 9.3 percent of the royalties come to the producing department.” Cerrejón benefits from a concession exempting the company from taxation until 2034. Royalties are paid, but since 2009 they’ve barely exceeded the value of government subsidies to the company.

Rampant corruption within the La Guajira government sidelines help from that quarter.  Reportedly, funds sent by the national government to help pay for schooling, health care, water, and food rarely leave the local government’s offices, or are wasted on costs tagged as administrative. Cerrejón allegedly bribes officials. The department’s own development plan for 2016 – 2019 rejected official statistics on grounds of under-reporting, adding that, “you can’t govern anything you know nothing about.”

Departmental governor Wilmer González Brito recently went to prison for buying votes. In 2013 authorities arrested his predecessor, Juan Francisco Gómez Cerchar, while in office. He had been a paramilitary and narco-trafficking operative. Charged with six murders, he is serving a 55 year jail sentence.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has insisted on “precautionary measures.” Its recommendations in late 2015 dealt with malnutrition in babies and children; others a year later, with malnutrition afflicting pregnant women and lactating mothers.

The national government announced it will be managing “health, education, and drinkable water resources” in La Guajira for three years. President Juan Manuel Santos denied that a “state of exception” – or emergency – existed. Colombia’s Constitutional Court recently sent inspectors to La Guajira; they avoided southern regions of the department where suffering is concentrated. The Council of State in December, 2016 stopped the diversion of Bruno Stream, a tributary of the Ranchería River.

Conclusions are in order. First, a powerful company is laying waste to the very weak, with state collusion. Worldwide, there’s a long history: rapacious individuals and commercial entities set forth from centers of wealth and power to plunder distant territories. Hallmarks of imperialism – that’s the name – are: free rein for capitalist imperatives, concentrated wealth, and bias that marginalized peoples don’t matter.

Two, apologists for this system predominate in Colombia’s government and among ruling circles there. They presumably accept Cerrejón’s successful pursuit of imperialist goals and tolerate Wayúu suffering.  Civil war in Colombia between the government and leftist insurgents may be ending, but the kind of war typified by the fate of the Wayúu is not. What happens to powerless, abandoned people like them isn’t on the official agenda for peace in Colombia.

Three, the U.S. government for decades has backed Colombia in its internal war. To suppose a creative response from there to suffering and human – rights violations in Colombia would be wishful thinking. The upper levels of U.S. society readily accept the U.S. role of protector and protagonist of the imperialist project. Their government stays solid with the status quo in Colombia.

Healthcare Workers Proclaim ‘Sanctuary Union’, Push for Medicare for All in California

Photo by Pictures of Money | CC BY 2.0

Photo by Pictures of Money | CC BY 2.0

Thirteen thousand members of the California-based National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) have taken the resistance movement a step further by declaring themselves a “sanctuary union.”

After a series of union-wide meetings, NUHW joined the growing network of sanctuary institutions last month by pledging to do everything within its power to “ensure the safety and security of all members of our community regardless of their immigration status.” This means the union “will not voluntarily cooperate with federal agents to enforce immigration laws.”

Immigrant labor is vital to patient care. American hospitals and nursing homes employ workers from around the globe, and membership reflects that diversity.

“Many of our members and their patients are undocumented immigrants, or have family members who are undocumented,” said NUHW President Sal Rosselli. “We have a responsibility to protect and defend them.”

NUHW adopted the resolution after holding membership meetings and polling members. About nine of ten members support declaring NUHW a sanctuary union.

I talked with Rosselli about the resolution and the challenges facing unions in the months to come.

How did the “Sanctuary Union” resolution come about and how will it be implemented?

Our Executive Board, which consists of elected rank-and-file members, wanted a strong political statement that immigrants are safe in this union and that we will protect and defend them.

We thought the resolution would be controversial among our members. Our membership is diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and political persuasion, and many of our members voted for Trump and are critical of illegal immigration. So we held membership meetings throughout the state to discuss the resolution and get feedback, and we polled our entire membership.

Support for the resolution was very deep. A few members vehemently opposed the resolution, but nine out of ten supported it, so our board formally adopted it.

Now we’re going to do a number of things. First, we’ll educate our members. Staff and stewards will make sure our members understand that one of our union’s primary responsibilities will be to protect and defend those of us who are undocumented immigrants or have family members who are undocumented.

Secondly, our lawyers are partnering with a prominent immigrant rights law firm here in the Bay Area to establish legal and economic support for members who find themselves at risk of deportation.

And finally, we will urge our members’ employers to make sure that these hospitals and clinics and nursing homes are safe places for both healthcare workers and patients — safe places to give and receive care.

I should add that NUHW is doing this as part of Our Revolution. We endorsed Bernie Sanders in the primaries. So, we’re part of that movement, and we’ll organize workers when we can to support other ways to contribute.

Tell me about a second resolution NUHW recently adopted, California version of Medicare for All.

Our union has been leading on this issue since the early 1990s and we reaffirmed our support for universal coverage earlier this year. We define real healthcare reform as Medicare for All — a single-payer system. In the 1990s there were initiatives on the California ballot toward accomplishing Medicare for All and other patient protections. We worked with scores of organizations to craft and advocate for those initiatives, but none became law.

Now, we have a new opportunity — even with all the things that are happening with the federal government and Obamacare. We have an opportunity in California to quickly achieve major healthcare reform for everyone in the state. State Senators Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens) and Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) have introduced legislation that we strongly support. This is the way for California to get ahead of the curve and avoid the catastrophe of millions of people losing access to care. And if we can accomplish this in California, which has about 12 percent of the nation’s population, why not the whole country?

What are you expecting now from the Trump administration? And what is NUHW’s strategy as of now?

We have to prepare to resist. People that we care about — working people, immigrants, poor people — are going to have a much tougher time. So we’re beginning to figure out how, in a very bottom-up kind of way, we can educate our members about the problems with the new federal government and help them to organize others.

Can explain for us your commitment to winning parity for mental health care?

One of our longstanding goals is to ensure that patients have the same access to mental health services as they do to traditional medical care. We represent more than 3,000 California behavioral health clinicians that work for Kaiser Permanente, the nation’s largest healthcare corporation, as well as mental health workers at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland.

Our concern is that under the Trump Administration, it will be much more difficult to achieve mental health parity. The changes he wants to make to the Affordable Care Act will severely limit access to behavioral health care. So, I’m afraid it’s going to get worse, much worse.

We had a five-year battle with Kaiser over mental health parity. It took a long time to get Kaiser leaders to listen to their clinicians about the problems with Kaiser’s psychiatric services. We’re just now beginning to work together toward our common goal of making Kaiser the national leader in mental health care and the employer of choice for caregivers. Kaiser has finally recognized that they need to listen to their clinicians about how to address staffing issues and improve access to care. In Northern California, we recently convened a summit of Kaiser clinicians and managers to establish that relationship and start moving forward.

What about the rest of California’s labor movement, can it do more?

Absolutely. California has 6 million union members but far too many are members in name only. They’re not involved in their unions. Or worse — they’re held captive in unions that don’t have their best interests at heart.

NUHW does things differently. Our view is simple: We believe we have a fundamental responsibility to empower workers. This means our members make the decisions and determine our priorities and how we spend their dues dollars. Our members elect their co-workers to steward councils and to our Executive Board, which, in turn, charts our course.

That’s how we went about this process. Now we need to further educate our members about the importance of these issues and how together we can take action.

China in the Age of Trump and Brexit

Beijing.

The harsh winter has passed, the sky is blue, spring is in the air and the store that sells fake DVDs in Beijing is closed. The two sessions is about to start. Beijing goes political and is being spruced up (stores selling fake goods are shut down) from Friday (March 3) for the next two weeks or so as the delegates and deputies of the CPPPCC and the NPC gather for their annual meetings.

The Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body drawn from delegates representing a cross-section of society, including the arts, medicine, transport, construction, and the National People’s Congress, the top legislative body, gather to discuss and pass legislation for the coming year.

The two sessions, as they are colloquially known in China, gauge the political mood of the country outside Beijing’s “Beltway” the Fourth Ring Road. This is a one-party state and decisions take place behind tightly locked closed doors. But the two sessions is where many of those decisions will be made with about 3,000 provincial administrators, top businessmen and Chinese Communist Party bigwigs set to attend.

For the duration, smartly dressed delegates and deputies from across the country will pose for photographs on Beijing’s streets.  Ultimate political authority, of course, rests with the Chinese Communist Party, whose Politburo Standing Committee, headed by President Xi Jinping, sets policy. So the NPC’s influence is limited but it has an important input into the decision-making process.

While the deputies to the Congress will sit politely, row-upon-row in the Great Hall of the People, their presence in Beijing allows for forthright discussions on the economy, anti-pollution efforts, and international affairs. In public the NPC, with its bowing heads and demure clapping, may make a rubber stamp look energized but in the tea houses, and restaurants around Tiananmen Square, the issues of the day will be debated long into the night.

Premier Li Keqiang’s “work report,” which is delivered on the opening day of the NPC, will be the headline event, especially as it will forecast China economic growth for the year, presumed to be around 6-7 percent.

China’s official economic statistics are generally considered to be less than fully accurate, but the numbers are expected to give a sense of how dramatically officials expect growth to decline from the glory days of double-digit expansion.

At the end of the session, the premier’s closing news conference sometimes reveals insights into the leadership’s thinking, either by what he says or does not say.

The backdrop to this year’s two sessions is intriguing. At the end of the year, many of the seven members of the standing committee of the politburo will be replaced as Xi starts his second five-year term and is able to place his own men (they will be men) into the top positions. The sessions could give an indication as to what the priorities of the new leadership, for the next five years, will be.

On top of this the Trump presidency, with all its uncertainties, may, the feeling in Beijing goes, provide China with opportunities, or at least more leeway. According to this viewpoint the new administration in Washington, will not pay too much heed to human rights and view relations with China in a more pragmatic vein. In other words, it will be good for business.

The same goes for Europe, already dealing with Brexit, and possibly facing a National Front victory in France that would shake it to its foundations. Beijing senses greater opportunities here.

The feeling in Beijing is that anything that weakens its rivals is bound to make China stronger. That old Chinese curse, “may you live in interesting times’’ has a certain resonance these days.

Letter from Tehran: Trump ‘the Bazaari’

The art of the deal, when practiced for 2500 years, does lead to the palace of wisdom. I had hardly set foot in Tehran when a diplomat broke the news: “Trump? We’re not worried. He’s a bazaari”. It’s a Persian language term meaning he is from the merchants class or, more literally, a worker from the bazaar and its use implies that a political accommodation will eventually be reached.

The Iranian government’s response to the Trump administration boils down to a Sun Tzu variant; silence, especially after the Fall of Flynn, who had “put Iran on notice” after it carried out a ballistic missile test, and had pushed the idea of an anti-Iran military alliance comprising Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan. Tehran says the missile test did not infringe the provisions of the Iran nuclear deal and that naval drills from the Strait of Hormuz to the Indian Ocean, which began on Sunday, had been planned well in advance.

I was in Tehran as one of several hundred foreign guests, including a small group of foreign journalists , guests of the Majlis (Parliament) for an annual conference on the Palestine issue.

The art of the deal, when practiced for 2500 years, does lead to the palace of wisdom. I had hardly set foot in Tehran when a diplomat broke the news: “Trump? We’re not worried. He’s a bazaari”. It’s a Persian language term meaning he is from the merchants class or, more literally, a worker from the bazaar and its use implies that a political accommodation will eventually be reached.

The Iranian government’s response to the Trump administration boils down to a Sun Tzu variant; silence, especially after the Fall of Flynn, who had “put Iran on notice” after it carried out a ballistic missile test, and had pushed the idea of an anti-Iran military alliance comprising Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Jordan. Tehran says the missile test did not infringe the provisions of the Iran nuclear deal and that naval drills from the Strait of Hormuz to the Indian Ocean, which began on Sunday, had been planned well in advance.

I was in Tehran as one of several hundred foreign guests, including a small group of foreign journalists , guests of the Majlis (Parliament) for an annual conference on the Palestine issue.

Not surprisingly, no one from Trump’s circle was among the gathering of parliamentarians from over 50 nations who attended the impressive opening ceremony in a crowded, round conference hall where the center of power in Iran was on display; Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, President Hassan Rouhani and Majlis Speaker Ali Larijani.

Khamenei proclaimed that “the existing crises in every part of the region and the Islamic ummah deserve attention”, but insisted that the key issue remains Palestine. The conference, he said, could become “a model for all Muslims and regional nations to gradually harness their differences by relying on their common points”.

Khamenei’s was an important call for Muslim unity. Few in the West know that during the rapid decolonization of the 1940s and 50s, the Muslim world was not torn apart by the vicious Sunni-Shi’ite hatred – later fomented by the Wahhabi/Salafi-jihadi axis. The Wahhabi House of Saud, incidentally, was nowhere to be seen at the conference.

Hefty discussions with Iranian analysts and diplomats revolved on the efficacy of multilateral discussions compared to advancing facts on the ground – ranging from the building of new settlements in the West Bank to the now all but dead and buried Oslo two-state myth.

On Palestine, I asked Naim Qassem, deputy secretary-general of Hezbollah about the Trump administration’s hint of a one-state solution. His answer, in French; “One state means war. Two states means peace under their conditions, which will lead us to war.”

As with most conferences, what matters are the sidelines. Leonid Savin, a Russian geopolitical analyst, claimed that Russian airspace is now all but sealed with multiple deployments of the S-500 missile defense system against anything the US might unleash. Albanian historian Olsi Jazexhi deconstructed the new Balkans powder keg. Muhammad Gul, son of the late, larger-than-life General Hamid Gul, detailed the finer points of Pakistan’s foreign policy and the drive to build the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Pyongyang was also in the house. The North Korean delegate produced an astonishing speech, essentially arguing that Palestine should follow their example, complete with a “credible nuclear deterrent”. Later, in the corridors I saluted the delegation, and they saluted back. No chance of a sideline chat though to go over the unclear points surrounding Kim Jong-nam’s assassination.

Blake Archer Williams, a.k.a. Arash Darya-Bandari, whose pseudonym celebrates the “tyger tyger burning bright” English master, gave me a copy of Creedal Foundations of Waliyic Islam (Lion of Najaf Publishers) – an analysis of how Shi’ite theology led to the theory of velayat-e faqih (the ruling of the jurisprudent) that lies at the heart of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Every time I’m back in Tehran I’m impressed with the surprising number of open avenues for serious intellectual discussion. I was constantly reminded of Jalal Al-e Ahmad, the son of a mullah born in poor south Tehran who later translated Sartre and Camus and wrote the seminal Westoxification (1962).

He spent the summer of 1965 at Harvard seminars organized by Henry Kissinger and “supported” by the CIA. He pivoted to Shi’ism only toward the end of his life. It was his analysis that paved the way for sociologist Ali Shariati to cross-pollinate anti-colonialism with the Shi’ite concept of resistance against injustice and produce a revolutionary ideology capable of politicizing the Iranian middle classes, leading to the Islamic Revolution.

That was the background for serious discussions on how Iran (resistance against injustice), China (remixed Confucianism) and Russia (Eurasianism) are offering post-Enlightenment alternatives that transcend Western liberal democracy.

But in the end it was all inevitably down to the overarching anti-intellectual ghost in the room; Donald Trump (and that was even before he got a letter from Ahmadinejad).

So I did what I usually do before leaving Tehran; I hit the bazaar, via a fabulous attached mosque – to get reacquainted with the art of the deal, the Persian way.

That led me to Mahmoud Asgari, lodged in the Sameyi passage of the Tajrish bazaar and a serious discussion on the finer points of pre-WWI Sistan-Baluchistan tribal rugs from Zahedan. The end result was – what else – a win-win sale, bypassing the US dollar. And then, the clincher: “When you call your friend Trump, tell him to come here and I’ll give him the best deal”.

This piece first appeared at Asia Times.

Iraqi Army Makes Big Gains in Battle for Mosul

Iraqi military forces are advancing towards the main complex of government buildings in the centre of west Mosul, indicating that Isis is losing control of its last big urban stronghold in Iraq.

“The provincial council and the governorate building are within the firing range of the rapid response forces,” said an officer with the elite interior ministry units.

The Iraqi government offensive is evidently making ground faster than had been expected against some 4,000 Isis fighters, besieged along with 750,000 civilians in the half of Mosul city to the west of the Tigris river. The aim of the multiple attack against this enclave is to keep Isis under pressure on all fronts so it will not have enough men to hold back the Iraqi security forces that far outnumber it. Isis is making very effective use of a mix of snipers, suicide bombers, mortars, bombs, booby traps and drones.

Iraqi forces say they have seized both ends of one of the five bridges spanning the Tigris, which have all been broken by US air strikes and Isis demolition teams, but could be made passable again by using pontoon bridging equipment supplied by the US.

People inside the city are running out of food, and there are reports that the old Sarj-Khana market has been burned by Isis. Militants are setting fire to private houses in order to create a smoke screen that will hide its fighters from the US-led air strikes which are clearing the way for ground troops.

The UN humanitarian aid office said on Tuesday that 8,000 people have fled to government-controlled areas south of Mosul since the latest Iraq military offensive began on 19 February and they “are often exhausted and dehydrated”.

The main weight of the attack so far is coming from the south and has captured the airport along with several districts of Mosul. Isis is likely to make its main stand in the close-packed residential housing and narrow alleys of the old part of Mosul. It took Iraqi security forces three months from 17 October last year to capture east Mosul during which they lost 500 dead and 3,000 wounded according to General Joseph Votel of the US Central Command.

Many of the most effective Iraqi units reportedly suffered over 30 per cent losses, though the Iraqi government in Baghdad refuses to disclose military and civilian casualties.

The recapture of Mosul by the Iraqi armed forces, which lost the city to a much smaller number of Isis fighters in June 2014, will be a crushing blow to the Caliphate that was declared at that time and at its height controlled territory the size of Great Britain. Its astonishing victories against superior forces in Iraq and Syria two-an-a-half years ago were portrayed by Isis as proof that it had divine assistance. Its string of defeats and shrinking territory since 2015 have had the contrary effect of persuading many Sunni Arab tribes and communities that the self-declared Caliphate is coming to an end.

The real situation in front line positions in and around west Mosul is unclear because the Iraqi government reports only successes and never mentions setbacks or defeats. They sometimes announce the capture of districts and towns long before government troops have reached them. The blog Musings on Iraq , which has published a detailed daily account of the 132-day campaign to take Mosul, complains that “the Iraqi forces’ (ISF) statements either by officers or even official ones have become so unreliable that they cannot be trusted unless pictures are posted on social media or a western reporter confirms them”.

Nevertheless, Iraqi forces do appear to have improved their tactics since the grinding street-to-street fighting in east Mosul, which they had expected to seize much more quickly. One significant development is that US soldiers advising and calling in air strikes are now positioned closer to the front line than they were last year. Aside from closer involvement of US troops in the fighting, the Trump administration has so far changed very little in operations against Isis initiated under President Obama.

General Stephen Townsend, the commander of the Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, says that since August 2014 the US-led Coalition “has conducted more than 10,000 air strikes against Isis targets in Iraq and trained and equipped more than 70,000 Iraqi forces to support Iraqi operations”.

Isis is under pressure on all fronts, including Syria, where it has lost the town of al-Bab to Turkish forces and Arab auxiliaries under their control. Isis commanders must also prepare for an assault on its de facto Syrian capital of Raqqa by the Syrian Democratic Forces, whose main fighting force is drawn from the Syrian Kurds operating in cooperation with the US air force and US special forces on the ground. Isis is beset on every side but is likely to fight to the end, which may be a long time coming.

Breakfast With Chairman Bobby: Local Panther History Revisited

The once controversial, much criminally prosecuted, and often violently repressed Black Panther Party for Self-Defense has achieved belated respectability fifty-one years after its birth in Oakland, CA.

New books, films, and commemorative conferences have provided its founding generation with a 21st century platform for cross-generational exchanges and burnishing of personal and political legacies (some much contested).

Nobody has been more active on the Panther nostalgia circuit than Bobby Seale, the author of two books about the Party and a popular collection of barbecue recipes. The avuncular 81-year old African-American community elder returned to Richmond, CA, for two Black History Month events, more than five decades after assisting young people in this East Bay city as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. Gone was the black leather jacket and Panther beret of Seale’s militant youth; instead, our garrulous guest sported the brown corduroy jacket, blue oxford shirt, and neatly-knotted tie of a retired college lecturer.

Seale (aka “Chairman Bobby”) co-founded the BPP in 1966, along with his Merritt College classmate Huey P. Newton. The U.S. air force veteran and former aerospace worker became a Sixties’ icon in his own right and one of the era’s most famous political prisoners.

While enduring a four-year jail term for contempt of court, imposed by the infamous Judge Julius Hoffman during the 1969 trial of anti-war protestors known as “the Chicago Eight,” Seale also faced federal prosecution for alleged complicity in the murder of a New Haven, CT. Panther member suspected of being a police informant.

The jury deadlocked in that case and charges against Seale were eventually dropped. Two years after his release from jail, the Panther leader  embraced electoral politics. As chronicled in Stanley Nelson’s 2015 documentary, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, Seale ran a surprisingly strongly race against the incumbent mayor of Oakland, finishing second in a field of nine candidates.

In 1974, Seale left the BPP, after falling-out with the increasingly dictatorial and unhinged Huey Newton. The party was, by then, a shadow of its former self due to state repression, police infiltration, internal factionalism, and a deeply destructive leadership cult. Its explosive growth in the late Sixties, from a handful of Bay Area members to 5,000 in nearly fifty chapters around the country, became an increasingly distant memory. By Seale’s count, in 1969 alone, 28 Panther supporters died and 69 were wounded in police raids and ambushes. He estimates that 12 police officers died during these same confrontations.

Richmond Roots

Chairman Bobby’s Richmond homecoming had a carefully staged symmetry, a bit redolent with historical irony. His first audience of the day was residents of the Pullman Point Apartments, where a Chevron-funded philanthropy called For Richmond, has organized a modern-day children’s breakfast program and other much needed services As mothers, grandmothers, and children (young and older) gathered for an early morning repast, Seale tried to set the record straight about himself and the Panthers.

“A lot of people think I was just some guy out on the street with guns,” he said, recalling a long list of enemies, like California Governor Ronald Reagan and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who denounced him as a thug, hooligan, or national security threat. Rebutting those characterizations, Seale described the Party’s focus on “realistic, practical programs” that fed children before school, provided free medical care, and sought police accountability. Panther organizing in East Bay communities was designed, he said, “to unite the people and get them registered to vote.”

The Party registered hundreds of new voters to insure that African-Americans could sign petitions, vote on ballot measures, and serve on what were then often all-white juries. In four cities—Richmond, Oakland, San Francisco, and Berkeley—the BPP gathered signatures to trigger a citywide vote on “community control of the police.” The Party newspaper also proposed that predominantly black North Richmond become an independent city so its residents could “control their own school system, and have the power to tax businesses in the area, like Standard Oil,” the city’s largest employer (known today as Chevron).

Under the Panthers’ plan for civilian oversight, elected police review boards would investigate officer-involved shootings, reports of unnecessary force, and other allegations of official misconduct. Then and now, such probes tend to be handled by internal affairs units or local prosecutors with close police department ties. Only in Berkeley did this cutting edge scheme make it onto the ballot.

In Richmond, it took another forty-seven years for the city to refashion its under-resourced Police Commission into a more pro-active Citizens Police Review Commission. This appointed body is now required to investigate every officer-involved civilian fatality or serious injury (that results in hospitalization for more than three days), even without a triggering complaint.  It’s currently in the process of hiring a professional investigator, who can subpoena officers and question them under oath. As part of on-going RPD reform, internal affairs probes are now conducted by a civilian-led Office of Professional Accountability. It’s located within city hall rather than the department, a rare arrangement in America today.

Open Carry, Sixties-Style

As Seale recalled last week, the BPP’s first local organizing in Richmond involved policing complaints. Denzil Dowell, a twenty-two-year-old North Richmond construction worker, was fatally shot by a deputy sheriff who believed he was a burglary suspect. In a sequence of events still familiar in major US cities half a century later, Dowell’s death was soon found to be “justifiable homicide.”

Seale knew the victim’s family, from his prior work in the neighborhood. “I believe the police murdered my son,” his mother told him. Seizing the time, the Panthers organized a protest rally attended by four hundred North Richmond residents and signed up many as new members. Fifteen BPP activists stood guard in their signature black berets and leather jackets. They were armed with twelve-gauge shotguns, M1 rifles, and assorted hand guns.

This dramatic display of what today would be called “open carry” got the attention of state legislators in Sacramento. A bill to restrict public

gun-toting (still legal at the time) was hurriedly introduced. During a now-famous lobbying visit to the State Capitol in May, 1967, the Panthers were packing again when they protested this new form of gun control. Seale and his comrades were arrested but made national headlines with the dramatic form of political theater first premiered in the East Bay.

In its Richmond heyday, the BPP fed twenty-five to forty-five kids a day in a lower-budget breakfast program not funded by Big Oil.  Panther volunteers did testing, door-to-door, for sickle cell anemia and hypertension. They gave away hundreds of free shoes to people in need an also started a “liberation school” that held classes on Saturdays, because, as Panther archivist Bill Jennings recalls, “African American history was just not taught in Contra Costa County public schools. Although it emphasized black empowerment, Seale described the BPP as a “populist movement” committed to “crossing all racial, religious, and ethnic lines.”

As a multi-racial progressive movement has gained city hall influence in Richmond, Panther history has won official recognition. In 2009, our visitor noted, the city council expressed its gratitude to “Mr. Seale, his organization, and all the Black Panthers who…emerged from Richmond to activate, unite, organize, educate, mobilize, rally and increase awareness and hope for a better future for all the residents of our city.”

That local appreciation was expressed again in person by the crowd of 350, which gave Seale a standing ovation after his hour-long speech at a second Black History Month event sponsored by For Richmond. Chairman Bobby opened his talk with the observation that it’s “time once again to struggle and stand up for what you believe in.” He concluded, as expected, with the famous Panther salute, “Power to the People!” But, in between, he reminded his listeners that “the methodology of grassroots community organizing” remains the key to gaining political power in Richmond or any other place else where it hasn’t been well shared in the past.

Sessions, Pot and the Democratic Party on Drugs

Why does the political Right hate marijuana? There are two main reasons for the hate and loathing of pot on the Right. First, its use was associated with bohemians, jazz musicians, and rockers. The Beat Generation of writers and poets and their followers were the antithesis of the staid decade of the 1950s and the Republicans would like to put us all squarely back in the 50s. And then there was the issue of race. When jazz, art, and literature flourished during the Harlem Renaissance, the Right had yet another target (“Marijuana Prohibition Was Racist From The Start. Not Much Has Changed,” The Huffington Post, January, 25, 2014).

In the 1960s, Left political movements burst onto the scene and transformed the U.S. in ways in which the political Right is still trying to roll back. Slander and libel against the political Left continue into the present with the threatened attack on recreational pot by the Trump administration (“Spicer: Trump Supports States’ Right to Discriminate Against Trans Kids but Not to Legalize Pot,” Slate, February 23, 2017).

The most famous example of a draconian jail sentence for giving away a small amount of marijuana was highlighted during The Who’s performance at Woodstock in 1969. The late political activist Abbie Hoffman was chased off of the stage when Hoffman seized the microphone from the rock group and launched into an abruptly truncated monologue about John Sinclair’s 10-year sentence for giving two joints to an undercover narcotics agent. Prison sentences in some cases for pot possession and pot distribution were much, much higher with draconian sentencing laws that sent nonviolent drug offenders to prison.

Attorney General Jeffrey Sessions’ famous statement about the Ku Klux Klan may give many pause who believed that the federal government was moving in the right direction in regard to recreational pot use. Sessions said, according to a lawyer who knew Sessions, that he thought that the KKK was “OK until I found out they smoked pot.”  In an April 2016 Senate hearing, then Senator Sessions said that the government needed to send a message that “good people don’t smoke marijuana.” (“Jeff Sessions, Donald Trump’s new attorney general, said the Ku Klux Klan ‘was OK until I found out they smoke pot,’” The Independent, November 18, 2016).

The great train derailment that is the Democratic Party took place on February 25, 2017, in Atlanta, Georgia. Perhaps the Democratic National Committee was either on pot, or needed to be. In a direct rebuke of the entire election cycle of 2016, the Democrats elected establishment figure Thomas Perez as their chairman, while rejecting Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, the favorite of the insurgent Democrats (“Democrats Elect Thomas Perez, Establishment Favorite, as Party Chairman,” New York Times, February 25, 2017).

Once again, the Democrats have proven that they cannot get out of their own way. Soon after the defeat of the insurgency within the party, the spinoff group of the Sanders’ 2016 campaign, Our Revolution, sent out an email to its members, the thrust of which was that the battle within the Democratic Party would never be easy and that we need to keep on working for change… please send along a contribution.

The next day, Sunday, on MSNBC, Bernie Sanders made it clear that his former campaign would not be handing over its email list of donors as quickly as the Democratic National Committee may have wanted. The neoliberal legacy of both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama has had its effect. The disaffected among the general electorate voted to move the government so far to the right that it is unrecognizable as anything close to a republican form of democracy. Staying in the streets may be the only thing separating us from the fanatic extremism of the far Right, and the streets are not a guarantee against complete tyranny.

Trump’s Barnburner

“I’ll happily vote for someone else.  There’s a lot I hate about Trump.  But our lives are basically destroyed, and he was the first person to talk about fixing that.”

— Anonymous Trump supporter

Donald Trump’s speech before a joint session of Congress on Tuesday was a triumph for the president and his supporters. Not only did Trump effect the manner of a strong and reasonable leader, he also fixed in the minds of the American people, that he is the president of the United States. These are the goals that he hoped to achieve and he achieved them.

He looked and sounded presidential and eschewed the off-the-cuff remarks and other outbursts for which he’s become famous. He was formal, serious and dignified throughout.  Also, he laid out a vision for the country which hews closely to his own uber-nationalistic world view. I don’t support his vision, but I think he promoted it in a way that made the ideas seem less controversial than they really are.

A presidential address is more than the sum of its parts,  more than just ideas and policies. It’s about the man who holds the highest office in the country. How does he conduct himself, how does he express himself, what does he believe? Trump’s presentation helped to answer all of these questions. This was not “campaign Trump” or “showboat Trump” or “celebrity Trump” or the thin-skinned, impulsive silver-spoon billionaire real estate mogul who lashes out at Alec Baldwin, Arnold Schwarzenegger or Rosie O’ Donnell. This was President Trump– reserved, focused and determined. It was an astonishing transformation that no one expected and that left his critics thoroughly gob-smacked.

What the media has failed to grasp about the speech is –not the impact the speech is going to have on liberals on both coasts that have already decided that Trump is a fascist. (The speech will change nothing for these people.) But for the people who occupy that vast 2,000 mile expanse in the center of the country– Red State America– the speech is bound to strengthen their opinion of Trump and convince them that their vote was well spent. It will also further convince them that the media has been unfair towards the president and that his criticism of them as “fake news”  is justified.

This is from an article by CNN:

“President Donald Trump’s first address to Congress received largely positive reviews from viewers, with 57% who tuned in saying they had a very positive reaction to the speech, according to a new CNN/ORC poll of speech-watchers.

Nearly 7-in-10 who watched said the President’s proposed policies would move the country in the right direction and almost two-thirds said the president has the right priorities for the country. Overall, about 7-in-10 said the speech made them feel more optimistic about the direction of the country….

On specific issues, Trump scored the highest marks for his proposed policies on the economy, with 72% saying those went in the right direction. Almost as many, 70%, said the same about his terrorism proposals. Slightly fewer, but still a majority, felt his policies on taxes (64%), immigration (62%) or health care (61%) were heading in the right direction.

Ideologically, about two-thirds saw Trump’s speech as about right, while roughly on-quarter (26%) pegged it as too conservative. Just 8% said it wasn’t conservative enough.”

(“7-in-10 speech-watchers say Trump boosted optimism“, CNN)

The numbers in the CNN report are similar to other surveys taken following the speech. A clear majority of Americans set aside the controversies surrounding Trump’s early days in office, and applauded what they heard on Tuesday. Here’s more from CBS:

“A CBS News/YouGov poll found 82% of respondents said Trump came across as very ‘presidential.’

Of those who watched the speech and responded to the poll, 61%  had a ‘very positive’ response.

The President gained support for his policy plans among viewers: Interviewed before and after the address, they came away from it more positive on his ideas for the economy, immigration, terrorism, crime and Obamacare….

Reacting to the president’s description of the economy as he took office, Republicans and independents think he did inherit a bad economy, while three in four Democrats think the president took over an economy that was already improving.” (“President Trump gets high approval ratings for speech to Congress”, News 3)

The speech is a major setback for the “Not My President” crowd who will have to adapt to the changing political landscape. My own feeling from the beginning has been that liberals must abandon the incendiary rhetoric and attack Trump on the issues alone.  The focus needs to be on organization and policy rather than character assassination.

The Democrats’ response to Trump’s speech was predictably pathetic. Lacking any vision for the future, the Dems used the time to defend their vastly unpopular HMO-welfare program, Obamacare, while reiterating their unverified claims that Trump is in bed with Moscow. The calculatingly “folksy” address was delivered by former Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear who gave a convincing performance from a small-town diner surrounded by a mixed race, mixed gender crowd underscoring the Democrats belief that they don’t need to change their platform, just the optics and the messaging.

Beshear’s boilerplate spiel is just more proof that the Democratic party is no longer a viable political institution. It’s a crumbling anachronism that’s become completely irrelevant.

Trump’s support comes from people in mainly distressed parts of the country where trade agreements have had a negative impact on jobs and where standards of living have steadily eroded during Obama’s term in office. These people are not bigots or xenophobes. They voted for Trump because the Democrats gave them no other choice.  Hillary represented another eight years of excruciating economic stagnation, a process that Obama blandly referred to as a “recovery”.  The American people rejected the status quo and voted for Trump.  Journalist Sam Altman interviewed some of these “ordinary blue collar people” in an article titled “What I Heard from Trump Supporters”. Here are just three of the comments:

Comment 1– “I am tired of feeling silenced and demonized.  We have mostly the same goals, and different opinions about how to get there.  Maybe I’m wrong, maybe you’re wrong.  But enough with calling all of us the devil for wanting to try Trump.  I hate Hillary and think she wants to destroy the country of us but I don’t demonize her supporters.” …

Comment 2– “I’d like to also add that the demonization of Trump by calling him and his supporters: Nazis, KKK, white supremacists, fascists, etc. works very well in entrenching Trump supporters on his side.  These attacks are counter-factual and in my opinion very helpful to Trump.”

Comment 3– “I’ll happily vote for someone else.  There’s a lot I hate about Trump.  But our lives are basically destroyed, and he was the first person to talk about fixing that.”

Trump was not buoyed into the White House on a wave of ignorance and racism. That’s a fallacy. He won the election because he addressed the issues that working people care about, mainly the economy and jobs. Unscrupulous Hillary never did that. She promised more of the same, and she lost.

Tuesday’s speech is going to widen Trump’s base of support and boost his credibility. It’s going to make resistance a helluva lot harder.

Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think

Back in Congress following February recess’s raucous town meetings, Republicans are shuddering. Instead of nearly empty auditoriums, where legislators’ staff often outnumber voters in attendance, meetings were packed with citizens determined to block the “take away” agenda of the Trump Republicans.

It takes provocation for people to show up for face-to-face confrontations with their Senators or Representatives. So when out of touch politicians in safe electoral districts are seen attempting to take away people’s health insurance, social security benefits or other protections—watch out! As the New York Times reported: “In the reddest of districts and the smallest of towns, a movement without name has hurtled ahead of expectations.”

Among these smug Republicans, who escaped because they had not scheduled any town meetings, the response is dismissive, alleging the protestors were professional, paid disrupters. This charge only made the people—many of whom were attending their first political town meeting—angrier. In western New York, Susan and Tom Meara, both in their sixties, held a sign up for Republican Congressman Tom Reed to see. It read: “I am not being paid to be here, but you are, Mr. Reed.”

Once again history repeats itself. As I describe in my recent book, Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think, it takes one percent or less of the people to be politically conscious and engaged to change conditions or policies, so long as they represent a majority opinion. My estimate is that, apart from the huge demonstrations on January 21, 2017—the day after Donald Trump’s Inauguration—less than 200,000 people, showing up at Congressional town meetings or demonstrations, have changed the political atmosphere among 535 members of your Congress. It just took one week of a few riled up voters expressing the “enough is enough” fury of many more voters who for now are still a part of the “silent majority”.

Listen to the easily re-elected Republican Senator from Iowa, Charles E. Grassley. After one spirited town-hall-style meeting, he said: “There’s more of a consensus among Republicans now that you got to be more cautious what you’re going to do.” You betcha!

Already the braggadocio about repealing Obamacare is turning to worried caution in the GOP, including President breakingpowernaderTrump. Too many people are coming forward as witnesses to being saved by insurance for health care they could not otherwise have received or afforded. With all its limitations, its deductibles, co-pays, exclusions, big corporate premium hikes and the maddening narrow networks, there are still millions of Americans not ready to give it up.

After passing bills to repeal Obamacare over sixty times in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives during President Obama’s two terms in office, here is Republican Congressman Mo Brooks of Alabama telling a local radio station, “I don’t know if we’re going to be able to repeal Obamacare, because these folks who support Obamacare are very active. They’re putting pressure on congressmen…”

Every action prompts a reaction. Members of Congress, who do not like to face real people in real auditoriums, between elections, are responding by refusing to meet with those they represent or insisting on telephone “town meetings”. Well, the response by the voters should be to announce their own town meetings with their own demands and reforms, at a publically convenient location. This can be done formally with a Summons by the people presented directly to their Senators and Representatives to appear, listen and respond to instructions from their sovereign constituents.

A formal Summons is included in my new book, Breaking Through Power. Voters can fill in the blanks with their own deeply-felt issues and keep adding signatures day after day.

Of course, this resurgence is just at the beginning of its realizable impacts. There are two more Congressional recesses – before the full month of August recess. Citizens need to expand and refine what they want from Congress, keep the focus very personally on each Senator or Representative, and strive to build a left/right alliance on as many contemporary redirections as possible. (See my book Unstoppable: The Emerging Left/Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State, that lists 24 areas of convergence.)

To better inform those politicians sent to Washington, citizens should tap the expertise of blue-collar and white-collar professionals alike in their communities. Remember, there is a vast reservoir of “we the people” who could join the efforts to press for a government of, by and for the people.

We are a country that has far more problems than it deserves and far more solutions than it applies. This is due heavily to the control of the many by the few, which creates a democracy gap filled by a plutocracy.

With President Trump displaying a revealing ignorance toward the role of governing, now is the time for the people to stand up and shape the future of their families and communities. We must demonstrate stamina and hold accountable those in power until they faithfully serve the interests of the people, and not a handful of corporate paymasters.

They must tell our lawmakers they are not going away, and that they will keep coming back with more and more of our fellow citizens, ever more informed and determined to achieve the good life with justice, peace, health and opportunities. It’s in our hands.

Behind the Liberal Embrace of Trump

I can’t say I’m surprised by the liberal turn on Trump. I said a couple of weeks ago that Trump and the establishment media were like George and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” What I meant was that they are a deranged, destructive couple who argue like mad, but ultimately collude to destroy others. So, anger and hate give way to insidious bond and admiration in how they each fulfill their roles in the larger manipulative project.

So, Van Jones is admiring of Trump now really “becoming the President” because of Trump’s emotional manipulation in the person of Carryn Owens. Jones did this because he’s a triangulator himself and because he is very much part of the continuing imperial project.

Some of this rather reminds me of how the media used Jessica Lynch to pretended she was in danger to continue selling the invasion of Iraq at a critical moment in 2003. The actual scandals are pushed aside: The criminal invasion of Iraq then; the US-backed Saudi destruction of Yemen now.

Disinformation and emotional manipulation for the privileged “race” of USians is the order of the day. Feminism and femininity are weaponized as all emotion is focused on one person to the exclusion of the suffering of others. I imagine it’s how The Passion Plays were used to fuel hatred of Jews; it’s how Israel uses the Nazi Holocaust to excuse all its criminality.

The other major such manipulation last night was highlighting African American “victims” of public schools and “illegal immigrants”. This allows Trump to ridiculously pose as an anti-racist xenophobe. As Martin Luther King warned in his final days: “We’re integrating into a burning house.”