Playgrounds as a civil rights struggle

There’s a nice three-minute video released today by Al Jazeera America, part of a much wider collection of material on the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). It’s about playground accessibility, which is a struggle that has emerged largely in the aftermath of the ADA. Indeed, in the year I spent on a county disabilities commission, the ADA compliance committee (its most important part, since they decide how to spend limited grants from the state and federal governments) spent a huge chunk of time on playgrounds. Basically no playgrounds created prior to the ADA met code. Like all other structures, they have to evolve with the many amendments to the Act, which have made many new areas in violation.

Disability accommodation and accessibility are civil rights struggles. The failure of conservative lawmakers to pass the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities due to a series of vague, conspiratorial concerns is not the exception, but rather part of an ongoing undermining of a large, diverse group of oppressed people that was in no way ended when the ADA was signed.

How tax money is spent is a reflection of a society’s commitment to their ideals. The United States prioritizes defense spending above programs that would help implement what the Constitution and American idealism espouse. Indeed, how much time and attention is paid to playgrounds can tell us much about the larger social justice struggles of the 21st century.

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Sandra Bland: No need to defend the well-defended

I was wondering yesterday how I would articulate the system oppressing black Americans, were I given a chance on the open mic at a protest rally. It distilled down to a single sentence:

The names change, but the system stays the same.

Sandra Bland is just the latest of an ever-growing roster of unarmed black people killed due to the actions of law enforcement. What happened in that jail is something I don’t know. But the talk of murder vs. suicide cannot overshadow the fact that both are different variations of the same injustice. Bland should never have been pulled over, never been arrested, restrained, booked, jailed. Her death is the result of how little we as Americans restrict the acceptable behavior of the police. She joins four centuries of victims of structural racism.

What keeps coming up in all these interrelated struggles- against the murder of trans* individuals, against corporate actions that attack working class people and pollute the environment, and against US-NATO imperialism all over the world- is that there is a group or institution that is well-defended and there is another who are open to interrogation. Why did that transgender person make those men angry? Why should burger-flippers make a living wage? If they don’t want to get bombed, why don’t the Palestinians commit to the peace process?

These are all questions borne of a certain unjust system, which put the vulnerable on trial for the misdeeds of the secure.

I have no need to defend the police. They don’t need me even if I wanted to. They have their own lawyers, union reps, and politicians to defend them. They have a vast majority of the media who rely on the police for stories and tend to accept their side of the story as more valid and official. The justice system simply does not prosecute police officers, and even when charges are brought they are usually watered down to something far less than what they actually did. The whole world tilts towards them in this fight.

What the world needs are people willing to defend the undefended.

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The good fight: a farewell to Olbermann

There is no media journeyman like Keith Olbermann. Over the past three decades he has left or been fired from shows, both sports (including an almost uncountable number of stints at ESPN). His Countdown show enjoyed popularity on MSNBC, before being exiled to Current TV- the Siberian gulag where journalists went and were never heard from again.

After a two-year contract, he’s been let go from Olbermann, an obscure ESPN2 program that generally competed with marquee live sports on the other ESPN channels. I’m not surprised it’s ending, as nobody watched it live and the YouTube content (which was most of my exposure) had pretty dire viewing numbers.

Plenty of people are sick of Keith and his shtick, and while he’s never been able to pick his battles, some of his battles were important and I’m glad he gave them due coverage. It had excellent coverage of the NFL’s negligence on domestic violence, the griminess of the Angels’ treatment of recently-relapsed drug user Josh Hamilton, and how many sports teams took money from the military in order to showcase seemingly-altruistic ceremonies to honor veterans. These are important things, and Olbermann was a merger of the pundit-heavy cable news style of sports show, and the more serious and provocative Outside the Lines. However, Outside the Lines never compared bizarre player statements and press releases by teams to the church scene in Blazing Saddles, where the minister thanks a crotchety old sourdough for his “authentic frontier gibberish”.

So maybe that’s why I liked the show and many people did not. It had that strange mix of culture callbacks and jokes that I find funny, material that was intentionally dated and different from most sports shows, that tend to stay near to the present.

Thanks for letting this show run for two years. While his material on MSNBC was pretty forgettable once Rachel Maddow became a better alternative for liberal pundit shows (if you were into that sort of thing), this was the best in its field, mostly because it made its own niche that nothing else quite fits into.

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The crushing consensus on austerity

The news of a third bailout deal for Greece has been a dagger in the heart of many on the left- not only in the country itself but all over, including in America. Facing an incredibly powerful, entrenched economic system, success against banking interests elsewhere are an important morale booster. The joy of SYRIZA winning the January election has been completely wiped clean. Its campaign promise of ending “blackmail” and “humiliation of the Greek people” are proven hollow. The only successful response to the financial crisis in Europe was the decisions of Iceland to nationalize banks, forgive debt, and strict capital controls. Other countries in Europe recovered quickly, yes, but creditor countries like Germany with strong control of the financial institutions that dictate monetary and fiscal policy are different from countries like Spain and Greece drowning in debt.

The path of Iceland seems similar to what has been proposed by SYRIZA’s Left Platform. What will become of the Left Platform? It seems that they are likely on the way out- many were rebelling at a previous, less harsh austerity package put before Parliament. For the past few years I have been impressed at the degree of left-wing unity within the party, with social democrats existing in the same structure as hard-left Maoists and eco-socialists. However, the last few months have shown that the largest component, the Prime Minister’s more moderate group, has carried the day and negotiated something similar to what center-left Pasok has. It serves as a warning to all attempts to construct a popular front- socialist unity is key to creating legitimate political alternatives, but if the party itself has a very fundamental divide, the radicals may end up providing political support for something they would never have tolerated if it has come from the usual sources.

Shining like ten thousand suns is the truth about SYRIZA: it is unable to have a coherent, substantively different alternative about austerity. In a country like Greece where austerity is the driving force of all social and economic issues- from poverty to the rise of far-right politics- there is no policy position more important.

Beyond Greece, radical politics in other countries like Spain are dealt a terrible blow. The Podemos party along with the socialist left were looking to be the “Spanish Syriza“. It is jarring to see that phrase turn toxic so quickly. Seven years into the debt crisis and there has still not been a major country in Europe that has developed a plan for liberation. The technocrats in the European Central Bank and the IMF carry the day, having never truly been challenged.

There will be more chances, of course, because austerity will drag this crisis out for many, many years to come. These zombie banks in debtor countries that are being eternally propped up with borrowed money, allowing finance to be valued above people.

Neoliberalism has been one of the most destructive ideologies in the past century. While the club is mostly just fascism and Stalinism, neoliberal policies by the IMF completely destroyed countries in Africa and Latin America. Note that when Greece missed its payment to the IMF a few weeks ago, the phrase was that Greece was the first developed country to default. Developing countries have default dozens of times, some like Argentina have do so often that it becomes predictable. The sun rises in the east, the Pope is still Catholic, and Argentina is underwater financially again. What has been different about neoliberalism from fascism is a sense that fascism could be (and has) been defeated- both in war and through regular politics. Because of the sorta-factual, academic veil that exists with neoliberalism, the narrative has always been it is an inevitable progression of human civilization. Phrased that way it is a capitalist clone of the Marxist theory of history, which is similarly rigid and presented as science.

A reason I joined a socialist organization is that there are now real attempts to go on the offensive and dispute the seeming inevitability of globalization, a race to the bottom, and stark inequality. The move for a $15/hr minimum wage all over the United States is a very rare thing indeed: business interests, large corporations, conservative politicians and everyone else who made a huge fuss about it didn’t win. They won some caveats, but they lost the biggest battle. It was an offensive campaign by workers and regular people.

SYRIZA did not find their own offensive campaign against austerity. A group within their own party had a plan, but the economics of the banks and their political allies won out over resistance.

It is a sad day for Greece, but it is not the end. If the people do not end austerity, austerity will end them.

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The pride parade: a new part of the corporate agenda

This pie chart of the groups listed on the website of Chicago Pride, which was held last month. The actual portion of a modern major-city pride parade that is specifically about LGBT+ communities and their struggle is tiny. As was seen with the legalization of same-sex marriage, a portion of the least radical sections, whose demands avoid issues of class and race, are now a market for the same regular capitalist crap as everyone else. This pie-chart shows an event about the queer community, but dominated by corporations, politicians, and institutions that are still in the hands of white, heterosexual men. Being “gay-friendly” and marching in the parade has gone from being a political and moral statement to something to put in the annual report brochure.

Never mind that millions of queer individuals, who don’t fit into the gender binary or the heterosexual institutions like marriage that form the narrow bounds of acceptability. The renaissance of alternative pride events attests to the contradictions of the mainstream ones. Simply put, the forces of capital cannot share a stage with radical, anti-oppression, anti-capitalist groups. Any event with fancy multinational conglomerate sponsors has to be swept clean of ideas and ideologies that challenge the basis of racism, homophobia and transphobia. To the newly gay-friendly corporation, things are also best done without a serious conversation about intersectionality, an issue that is often ignored even in non-corporate settings (for instance, a long-running conflict in the feminist movement about who sets the tone, and how oppression is not uniform among all female-identified people). The new capitalist LGBT+ construction is simple (not really interested in most gender identities and sexual orientations), uniform, and commoditized.

But this is the battle that all civil rights movements have to eventually deal with. Martin Luther King is often used in commercials these days, after all.

Posted in bisexual, capitalism, Chicago Pride, corporations, gay, lesbian, LGBT, LGBT+, marriage equality, pride parade, Project Queer, radical queer, same-sex marriage, transgender | Tagged , | Leave a comment

#WhoIsBurningBlackChurches? Cultural erasure in America

The black church has been a nexus of power and hope for centuries. Urban congregations were the basis of the Civil Rights Movement; in 1963 in Birmingham, no matter how violent and chaotic it got, the 16th Street Baptist Church was home base where nonviolent protestors marched, were scattered and arrested, and came back to again and again. Shortly after the Campaign, the whole church was dynamited by KKK members, killing four girls. The symbol of black resistance was destroyed, part of a campaign of white supremacist terror.

The rubble of 16th Street Baptist. September, 1963

The rubble of 16th Street Baptist. September, 1963

Not only was the sanctuary of the church desecrated by the massacre of nine people in Charleston, this open wound has been salted by a string of church fires. As of writing, the number of fires is eight, with three confirmed arsons and four without a cause yet.

The lack of interest by many media outlets in the story spawned the hashtag #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches. The answer is both “we have no idea” and “we have a very good idea”. Who specifically? Investigations are ongoing. Who generally? White domestic terrorists, the sort that have dominated the history of terrorism in America. While Islamic extremism has been the dominant focus in America for the past two decades, outside of September 11th, 2001, domestic terrorism by racist and “patriot” extremists has always been a more relevant threat- since 9/11 almost twice as many people in the US have died from right-wing attacks than by Islamic radicals. The 1990s had the Oklahoma City Bombing, which was the deadliest action before 9/11. Going back far into the past, America was defined by lynch mobs, church bombings, slave patrols, etc. Beware media stories that call this some kind of anomaly. Given the past, and American society’s lack of interest in confronting systemic racism, we should not be surprised that black institutions are defiled and destroyed.

The question “who is burning black churches?” reveals that the War on Terror has never directed resources into confronting the dark heart of domestic terror. The Obama administration and Congress seems to be more interested in bombing peasants in Yemen than in churches being destroyed in several Southern states. No big effort has emerged to systematically protect churches and the black communities that they reside in. As with many social problems, the oppressed groups are told to deal with it on their own.

At the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly last week, Dr. Cornel West stated that if all this violence was matched in the way that white establishments do, there would be no peace. Violence against black America happens so often that it would be a continuous civil war. What makes church burnings like this series strange is that few, if any comparable actions are taken against white-led churches or other institutions. When property is destroyed in racial conflict, like the CVS in Baltimore, there is a media obsession with it. Several historic churches, with great cultural and social importance, get nowhere near the same coverage- simply because the group that committed the crime and group who suffered it were different than they were in Baltimore.

I was born in 1990, about a full generation after the end of the capitalized Civil Rights Movement. Church attacks were taught to me as historical, emblematic of a hostile, racist society that no longer exists. But there is no separate, post-racial era. This is just a modified version of Jim Crow. Same inequality, same terrorism.

Posted in National security, Race | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

General Assembly: Why wasn’t there a second banner?

This will be the first of several posts written in the aftermath of Unitarian Universalist General Assembly 2015, held in Portland, OR from June 24-28.

A workshop I wandered into on Friday was “Class Diversity: Exploring Our Past, Building Our Theologies”, which was an interesting take on why class-diverse Unitarian congregations are rare exceptions- the socioeconomic strata of membership being very similar to what it was in the 19th century.

This was on the day that the Supreme Court announced same-sex marriage was a right under the 14th Amendment. Right outside the room this workshop was being held in, a massive rainbow banner had been constructed and signed by hundreds upon hundreds of people.

[Credit: Wong/Getty Images]

[Credit: Wong/Getty Images]

A woman came up during question-answer and gave an emotional statement that I think really dug at the heart of how Unitarian Universalism can have clear biases with regards to class. I don’t know how many people ever thought of the day as an exercise in classism, but her remark made it clear to me that there was a double-standard in play at Assembly.

Her question is this post’s title. While the court ruling about marriage equality is landmark and an important victory in the 21st century civil rights movement, it was not the only important ruling that week. The day before, the court upheld a key portion of the Affordable Care Act, which threw a lifeline to millions of poor Americans:

The latest filings show that about 10.2 million people had signed up and paid their insurance premiums through the exchanges as of March, and 6.4 million were receiving subsidies to help afford coverage in the 34 states that had not set up their own marketplaces.

Those consumers stood to lose their subsidies, worth about $1.7 billion a month, if the justices had agreed with the challenge.

These two rulings affected several million people directly. Being unable to marry who you love and being unable to pay for live-saving medical care are both serious social problems which were addressed to some degree this week. But there wasn’t a banner out in the convention center hall celebrating that 6.4 million people could keep their health insurance.

Detroit's racial segregation. Blue is black, pink is white. [http://www.radicalcartography.net/]

Detroit’s racial segregation. Blue is black, pink is white.
[http://www.radicalcartography.net/]

And I think if a banner was appropriate to celebrate a civil rights victory, a third banner should have sat there as well. The same day as the ACA ruling (Thursday afternoon), and the day before the marriage equality ruling, the Supreme Court enacted a significant change in how the law deals with discrimination cases. It allowed for a new type of argument in cases of housing discrimination. Previously you had to prove intent in a very strong standard- basically a smoking gun saying “I’m denying housing to this community based on race”. Obviously it was hard for those affected to successfully sue; now something called disparate-impact theory can be used- if evidence shows that a law statistically promotes housing segregation, that can be enough. If this is to spread to other places- disparate-impact is used for hiring in some circumstances, but not many other places with potential for discrimination, it will be just as important as the marriage equality and ACA cases.

So why only one banner? The housing case is also a discrimination issue, and both are part of the modern civil rights movement. The ACA ruling in terms of dollars is a big win for the working class. I don’t know why there was only one banner, though I’ll offer this potential theory:

What makes marriage equality different from healthcare subsidies and housing discrimination is that marriage equality is a civil rights issue that affects everyone regardless of race or class. In a faith that skews white and upper-middle class, the presence of one banner (and one banner for that particular case) is evidence of implicit bias. I agree with the woman who spoke up, she added a concrete sense of what classism is that the workshop really needed to be worthwhile.

The next post will tackle how the Black Lives Matter movement caused tension and strife, both across racial lines but also generational ones. Certainly if Black Lives Matter, a step towards ending racial discrimination in housing (with its ties to the ghetto and redlining) should be celebrated. How does Unitarian Universalism grapple with its own diversity questions, the balance between support and paternalism, and being a leading force for change versus being earnest and strong followers?

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