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The Nurses’ Union That Made Medicine Sick

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How the Oligarchs Hypnotized Labor Leaders to Betray Working Class Communities of Color.

Opened in 1889, O’Connor Hospital was the first in the city of San Jose, and the second in California to be chartered and managed by the Daughters of Charity, a 400-year-old Catholic mission founded by St. Vincent de Paul. Its benefactor, Judge Myles P. O’Connor, made his fortune in mining and he and his wife, Amanda, were two of Silicon Valley’s first philanthropists. They had originally planned to open an old-age home and an orphanage, but the local Archbishop convinced the couple that the needs of what would grow to become the state’s third most populous city were far too prolific to address only that which vexed the very young, and the very old.

For the next 125 years, the Daughters of Charity faithfully served San Jose’s sick, pregnant, and poor, the hospital’s fortunes rising and falling in tandem with that of Santa Clara County’s laboring classes. With paychecks buoyed by postwar productivity and assertive trade unions, the order built a new, state-of-the art campus on the city’s east side in 1953, just as Americans were bursting at the seams with hope, and babies.

Similar to the protagonist in Ernest Hemingway’s novel, The Sun Also Rises, however, O’Connor went broke, gradually at first, and then suddenly, as good-paying jobs dried up, culminating in the ruinous 2008 recession that left millions of Californians unable to pay their hospital tab. Forced to borrow heavily just to stay afloat, the Daughters of Charity Health System announced in 2014 what would’ve once been unthinkable: a sale of its network of six hospitals.

More jarring still was the colorful streetscape that greeted morning commuters on Forest Avenue as they approached O’Connor’s main gate in the first days of 2015. As the low-watt January sun doused the Santa Cruz mountains in a champagne-colored dew, motorists were visibly puzzled, some even scratching their heads as they passed by.

On the campus’ north lawn, nearly 100 protesters clad in robin’s-breast red, chanted, cheered and hoisted placards that read: “Nurses and nuns agree: Approve the Sale.”

To the south, maybe 20 yards away, stood another 100 or so demonstrators clad entirely in blue, brandishing signs that read: “Save our Hospital; Reject the Sale.”

The dueling rallies prefaced a public hearing by California’s State Attorney General Kamala Harris, who is legally required to approve the sale of nonprofit hospitals, and pitted one powerful labor union — the California Nurses Association in red — against another — the Service Employees’ International Union, in blue.

Dubbed by the Nation Magazine as the country’s most progressive trade union, the CNA and its umbrella organization, National Nurses United, endorsed a proposal by Daughters of Charity executives to sell the chain to Prime, a southern California-based healthcare provider with a reputation for ripping off Medicaid, its patients, and its workforce. A 2014 federal audit of Prime hospitals, for instance, found 217 cases of improperly diagnosed kwashiorkor, a form of malnutrition that is seldom seen in the US, and typically found only in the global South. Unsurprisingly, Medicaid reimbursement rate for the the disease is quite high when compared with other maladies.

The SEIU, on the other hand, favored a sale to a Wall Street hedge fund named Blue Wolf with no management experience in the healthcare industry, but a demonstrated proficiency for dismantling businesses and auctioning its parts off to the highest bidders.

But here’s the thing: San Jose’s working-class communities — a Benetton-blend of Latinos, south Asians, Blacks and Whites — wanted neither, Prime least of all.

But here’s the thing: San Jose’s working-class communities — a Benetton-blend of Latinos, south Asians, Blacks and Whites — wanted neither, Prime least of all.

Had they bothered to show up for any of the dozen or so community stakeholder meetings held in 2014, the CNA’s leadership might have known this. But Bob Brownstein, the executive director of the civic organization, Working Partners USA, could only remember seeing a CNA labor representative at a single meeting, and if he chimed in on the discussion, Brownstein couldn’t recall.

Labor representatives for the SEIU, on the other hand, and Blue Wolf executives were fixtures at the stakeholders’ meetings.

“I don’t think either union did much of anything,” Brownstein recalled more than a year later, “but SEIU was clearly more comfortable in dealing with the community. As I recall, there was someone from Blue Wolf and the SEIU at every meeting and they answered every question that everyone put to them. They were clearly trying to generate answers and they even made some changes to the original proposal” to win the community’s approval.

“Their offer was more opaque but they did a much better job than Prime did in acknowledging community concerns. We never trusted Blue Mountain but the community was much more worried about Prime.”

So much so that a coalition of 15 civic groups wrote a joint letter to Harris urging her to veto the sale to Prime. The stakeholders’ clear preference was Santa Clara County which had bid on O’Connor, and whose health care network had a regional reputation for providing quality care to the uninsured that was second only to O’Connor’s.

But Daughters of Charity executives did not want to break up the set, so-to-speak, and preferred selling all six hospitals to a single bidder.

“I don’t know why the California Nurses Association didn’t help us push the county’s bid,” said Grace-Sonia E. Melanio, Communications Director for Community Health Partnership, which was one of the authors of the letter to the attorney general’s office.

“I assume it was because they don’t represent county nurses but I don’t know that for a fact.”

By January of 2015, Brownstein, Melanio and others knew that shifting the conversation from the two labor-backed bidders to the county’s bid was a longshot, at best.

Still, Melanio recalls her astonishment at seeing the the tsunami of red and blue as she pulled into the O’Connor parking lot ahead of that January public hearing.

“I was shocked,” she said, “to see that the unions had the community outnumbered by roughly 100 to 1.”

“You Got to Dance with Them That Brung You”

The question of who killed organized labor in the US has always been something of a whodunit for me, until I went to work as a communications specialist for the California Nurses Association in January of 2015.

The action at O’Connor was my first week on the job and the hospital’s ultimate sale to a Wall Street hedge fund was tantamount to an exhumation. After examining the cadaver close up, I can report that all evidence identifies the killer beyond a shadow of a doubt:

It was a suicide.

What proved the undoing of the labor movement was not the bloodlessness of conservatives, but the faithlessness of liberals; not the 1 percent’s dearth of compassion, but the 99 percent’s failure of imagination; not the corruption of the managerial class but trade union leaders’ desertion of the very communities that made the American labor movement a force to be reckoned with in the first place.

“You got to dance,” the immortal Molly Ivins once wrote, “ with them what brung you.” After collaborating with workers of all races to create a middle-class that stands as the singular achievement of the Industrial era, unions switched dance partners mid-song.

In championing Prime Health Care, the nurses’ union, and its Executive Director, RoseAnn DeMoro, carried water for a venal corporate class in much the same fashion that the Democratic Party, and its titular leader, Hillary Clinton, runs interference for Wall Street, leaving the people of San Jose to choose from the lesser of two evils, just as voters in next week’s presidential ballot have no good options.

This is no coincidence. Beginning in earnest with Wall Street’s 1975 takeover of New York City’s budget, corporate executives have wooed both Democrats and labor union leaders with increasing assertiveness, in a concerted effort to thwart the interracial labor movement that is the only fighting force to ever battle the plutocrats’ to a draw.

To put only slightly too fine a point on it, financiers’ courtship of labor in the postwar era mirrors Napoleon’s recruitment of Haiti’s mulattoes to help put down the island’s slave mutiny. Both counter- revolutions drove a wedge through the opposition with a psych-ops campaign that can be reduced to a question of identity:

Are you a worker, or are you white?

No More Beautiful Sight

The Bay Area can make a credible claim to being the birthplace of the modern labor movement. When West Coast longshoremen went on strike at the height of the Great Depression, Blacks who had consistently been rebuffed in their efforts to integrate the docks, jumped at the chance to work, albeit for smaller paychecks than their white peers.

The Bay Area can make a credible claim to being the birthplace of the modern labor movement. When West Coast longshoremen went on strike at the height of the Great Depression, Blacks who had consistently been rebuffed in their efforts to integrate the docks, jumped at the chance to work, albeit for smaller paychecks than their white peers.

Confronted with a failing strike, the head of the longshoremen’s union, an Australian émigré named Harry Bridges, toured African American churches on both sides of the Bay bridge, according to the late journalist Thomas Fleming.

From the pulpit, Bridges acknowledged the union’s historical mistreatment of Blacks, but promised skeptical parishioners that if they respected the pickets, they would work the ports up and down the West Coast, earning the same wage as white dockworkers.

They did, and the strike’s subsequent success triggered a wave of labor militancy that not only imbued the economy with buying power, but connected workers’ discontent with broader political struggles for affordable housing, free public education, infrastructure improvements, and civil rights.

“Negro-white unity has proved to be the most effective weapon against the shipowners,” the historian Philip S. Foner quoted a dockworker saying in his book, Organized Labor and the Black Worker, “against the raiders and all our enemies.”

 

Black and White Workers at 1937 strike meeting on Maryland’s Eastern Shore

When Oakland’s two chic department stores, Kahns and Hastings, denied pay raises to their mostly women employees in 1946, nearly 100,000 union members — mostly men — walked off the job in solidarity.

But they didn’t stop there, shutting down the whole of Alameda County for the better part of two days, ordering businesses to close, and turning back deliveries of everything other than essential medical supplies and beer, which they commandeered to hold a bi-racial bacchanal in the streets of Oakland, dancing, singing, and exulting in the power of the many.

It was the last general strike in US history; within months, Congress overrode President Truman’s veto of the Taft-Hartley Act which, among other things, outlawed so-called sympathy strikes, and mandated trade unions to expel Communists from their ranks.

Still, the working class maintained its swagger for another generation.

Invoking eminent domain, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency razed thousands of structures in the city’s “blighted” Fillmore neighborhood, forcing nearly 10,000, mostly Black households to relocate, and transforming Geary Street into an eight-lane monstrosity which sealed off the Fillmore from the whiter and wealthier Pacific Heights.

In a 1963 interview with the Boston television station WGBH, about his iconic documentary, Take This Hammer, James Baldwin said this:

“A boy last week — he was 16, in San Francisco — told me on television….He said, “I’ve got no country. I’ve got no flag.” Now, he’s only 16 years old, and I couldn’t say, “You do.” I don’t have any evidence to prove that he does. They were tearing down his house because San Francisco is engaging — as most Northern cities now are engaged — in something called urban renewal, which means moving the Negroes out.”

Among those who took notice of the Fillmore’s gentrification was Lou Goldblatt, who was, at the time, the second-in-command of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the very same union that had integrated the West Coast’s docks.

“There was no reason why the pension funds should just be laying around being invested in high-grade securities, Goldblatt later recalled. I thought there was no reason why that money shouldn’t be used to build some low-cost housing.”

The ILWU created the Longshore Redevelopment Corporation to pounce on the three city blocks–out of a total of 60– that the city had set aside for affordable housing.

In her 1964 letter to the San Francisco Chronicle, Josephine Solomon described her new digs: “I’ve just moved into my new home in St. Francis Square…and living here is quite clearly going to be exhilarating and, more important, the best possible place in which I can raise my children. About 100 families have already moved in…and we have representatives of all races and colors living together as neighbors. There is no more beautiful sight in this town than our marvelous, mixed-up collection of white, brown, and yellow children playing together in the sunny community square every afternoon.”

Who’s The Boss?

“C’mon people, what are some more nurses values?”

I was nearly four months into my stint at the CNA when I found myself in a half-lit, mildewed, second-floor conference room in the union’s downtown Oakland office, seated among a clutch of maybe 7 or 8 other communications staffers, all but two of us–an Asian woman and myself–who are non-white.

The task this late April afternoon was to identify “nurses values,” which I had assumed meant that I would help pore over the results of a nurses’ questionnaire to produce a coherent ad campaign.

Instead, the communications manager, Sarah Cecile, stood astride an easel that leaned like a sprinter at the finish line, her magic marker poised to add to the wan list of nouns that glared accusingly at me, reducing Hegelian dialectical inquiry to a game of fucking charades.

“Wait,” I said, “we’re telling the nurses what their values should be? Shouldn’t we be asking the nurses what their values are, you know, like in a survey, or a poll?”

“That’s a bad word for us,” said a graphic artist who’d worked for the CNA for several years. “Polling is frowned upon here.”

“Maybe they know something I don’t,” I said sarcastically, “but if we’re telling the rank and file what to do, doesn’t that make the union just another boss that the nurses have to answer to?

Should communications organize a coup of sorts?” I asked provocatively.

When I returned to my office 30 minutes later, I had an email from De Moro’s secretary, summoning me to a meeting with the executive director the following morning.

This was extraordinary for a couple of reasons, not the least of which was that despite sharing the same floor as the executive staff, it was an unwritten rule that communications was to have no contact with top management. This directive went so far as to prohibit communications from either emailing executives directly, or from entering or exiting through the executives’ north wing.

Moreover, I was told that both the executive staff, and the board, were almost all lily-white, save for one Latino and one African-American on each.

What I remember most about the next day’s meeting is the mirthless half-smile that DeMoro wore like a mask for nearly the entire 45-minutes, reminding me of Sir Richard Burton’s description of Lucille Ball as “a monster of staggering charmlessness.”

She began by asking me if I had any ideas for trying to improve the union’s communications effort, which was odd, since she’d blown off an email with my suggestions for doing exactly that only weeks earlier.

“Anything we could do to make this more of a bottom-up effort would be to the union’s benefit,” I recall saying. “It seems we spend an awful lot of time trying to talk to people who really aren’t interested in what we have to say, and not enough rallying and organizing the community to put pressure on decision makers.”

By this time, California’s Secretary-of-State, Harris had already, effectively vetoed the sale to Prime by attaching such stringent conditions to the transaction that she knew no corporation would accept the terms. I had publicly predicted as much months earlier; knowing that Harris would rely heavily on Wall Street to finance her US Senate campaign, I’d proposed, unsuccessfully, writing articles interrogating the investment firm’s mishandling of other businesses it had acquired.

But DeMoro’s communications’ director, a walking mediocrity named Chuck Idelson, had all of the imagination of a lamp post, and only half the personality. His idea of media relations was sending out at least one anemic press release per day, then marshaling the entire communication staff for two days to badger journalists we had no relationship with to cover news conferences that were wholly absent any news. A North Carolina rally for the Robin Hood tax on Wall Street transactions was attended by two people, the parents of Cecile, the communications manager.

As presidential hopefuls began campaigning in Iowa ahead of that state’s all important caucus, the nurses’ union planned to launch an ad campaign against Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker.

“Why in the world would you do that?” I asked Idelson one day in early 2015 just as the primary season was beginning to take shape.

“Well, Walker is really bad on labor,” Idelson said.

All the Republicans are bad on labor,” I said. “All the Democrats too. You’re gonna tell the rank-and-file that you spent a quarter-of-a-million dollars to help send union-busting Hillary Clinton to the White House? Why don’t they spend that money on organizing, or on an ad campaign to support Black Lives Matter. Police violence against people of color is a public health crisis,” I said. “Who is more credible on that issue than nurses?”

Moreover, I said, a California-based trade union buying ads in Iowa with union dues will surely be used as a cudgel with which to beat organized labor upside the head.

I repeated my concerns to DeMoro, but with that awkward smile on her face, she made it clear that she shared neither my faith in the rank-and-file, or the community.

“The nurses have some issues,” she said at our meeting. “We need for more of them to support the Democrats and to work the phone banks and things like that,” she said. “And frankly,” she said, abandoning all pretense now, her smile dissolving into a contemptuous frown, “they need to be more progressive, more radical and to take more chances.”

“The nurses have some issues,” she said at our meeting. “We need for more of them to support the Democrats and to work the phone banks and things like that,” she said. “And frankly,” she said, abandoning all pretense now, her smile dissolving into a contemptuous frown, “they need to be more progressive, more radical and to take more chances.”

DeMoro’s annual salary at the time was $359,000, more than triple the average nurse’s yearly pay.

U Ain’t White

Portraying Leftists as subversives, the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act required trade unions to weed out suspected communists, according to the historian Foner, by asking Black workers questions like:

“Have you ever had dinner with a mixed group?”

And this: Have you ever danced with a white girl?”

Whites were asked if they had ever entertained Blacks in their homes, and witnesses, Foner wrote, were asked “Have you ever had any conversations that would lead you to believe (the accused) is rather advanced in his thinking on racial matters?”

Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, would later acknowledge that this purge of communists from trade unions was akin to severing the umbilical cord while the baby was still in the womb, starving the most democratizing social movements of a vital fuel-source.

Dorothy Height, president of the National Council of Negro Women, would later acknowledge that this purge of communists from trade unions was akin to severing the umbilical cord while the baby was still in the womb, starving the most democratizing social movements of a vital fuel-source.

Much of the labor movement’s bandwidth however, could not be measured in muscle, or union-dues, but in imagination, as demonstrated by the ILWU’s Goldblatt’s vision of a Beloved Community, fashioned from the stevedores’ pension fund.

“So let’s all be careful,” United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther once said, “that we don’t play the bosses game by falling for the Red Scare.”

And then Reuther went on to play the bosses game, expertly, chasing Marxists from the union, isolating Black workers, and reverting to the anodyne reforms that characterized the ineffective, segregated unions before the 1934 San Francisco General Strike. So disillusioned were Black autoworkers with Reuther’s tripartite alliance with Detroit’s industrialists and the Democrats that by the late 1960s, many had begun to joke that the acronym UAW stood for “U Ain’t White.”

The tipping point, however, occurred in the midst of the 1975 fiscal crisis, when New York bankers hatched a scheme to recoup their losses on bad real estate investments from the wages, pensions, and subsidies shelled out to city employees and the working class. The facts were not on their side, and so the financiers played the only hand they knew to play: race.

Doubling down on the Birth-of-a-Nation narrative, the city’s oligarchs, and their friends in the media, portrayed Blacks as a menace to the civic project, exploiting racial resentment of a Black polity that had found its voice mostly through labor unions.

In a 1976 episode of the NBC television series, McCloud, titled “The Day New York Turned Blue,” the stetson-wearing New Mexico sheriff– an avatar for white, male supremacy– almost single-handedly rescues Gotham from ruin, largely by convincing an Italian cop named Rizzo to cross a picket line, and help repel an attack by the mafia, who ambush police headquarters to kill a mob attorney-turned state’s witness.

Aside from the mafia, the villains in this urban morality tale are the police union–led by the Bad Nigger that 1970s America loved to hate, Carl Weathers–which refuses to call off a labor walkout in the city’s time-of-need, and a prostitute who is drugging her clients–one an accountant visiting New York to audit federal bailout money–with a fatal, suffocating blue paint.

Playing the role of Rizzo in real-life was the head of the city’s largest municipal union, Victor Gotbaum. In his book, Working Class New York, the historian Joshua B. Freeman wrote of Gotbaum and his partner, Joe Bigel:

“Having seen the power of the financial community,the hostility of the federal government, and the divisions within the union movement, they shied away from a militant, independent labor strategy which might have led to them being blamed for a city bankruptcy. Instead, they preferred to make concessions and invest their members’ pension money in city debt in return for a place at or near the table, where discussions about the city’s future were being made by financiers, businessmen, and state and federal officials. Gotbaum became so entranced by the power elite . . .that within a few years he and (investment banker Felix) Rohatyin were calling each other best friends, even holding a joint birthday party in Southampton.”

DeMoro is an heir to Gotbaum, not Goldblatt. If she or any of her lieutenants had an ounce of imagination I never saw it. Consider that at no time during the Daughter’s of Charity sale, did I ever once hear anyone mention the possibility of pushing for legislation to convert O’Connor to a worker, or community-managed health co-op, similar to the ILWU’s response to the Fillmore’s housing crisis.

Shortly after Harris nixed the Prime deal, DeMoro called an emergency all-staff meeting in March of 2015, in which she bluntly asked the 65 or so staff members for their suggestions.

“If we don’t do something different now, we’re going to die,” she said.

A young Latina labor organizer raised her hand, and said: “Why don’t we start to build partnerships with the immigrant rights community that’s politically active and organizing across California,” I recall her saying. “We could really strengthen our own organizing capacity and deepen our roots in a community that is looking to join forces with institutional allies.”

You could’ve heard a gnat piss on cotton in Georgia.

Later, the young organizer would tell me privately me that had she been a white, male labor organizer, and replaced immigrant rights community with some off-brand faction of Silicon Valley white liberals, say Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, DeMoro would’ve been over the moon.

“Everybody knows that RoseAnn loves her white boys,” she said.

As for me, I was fired a week after proposing a coup because “you don’t seem happy here.”

It was May 1, or May Day.

Toothless

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They appeared at daybreak, dressed in white from head to toe—masks, smocks, gloves, the whole nine—bearing their bourgeois tools, their instruments of Empire and extraction: drills, wrenches, forceps, chisels, even a mirror, so they could admire their handiwork, I suppose.

Perhaps in some Orwellian nod to Fanon, or maybe Obama, or shit, maybe Hil, they were all Latinas, women of color, and pretty at that. The Colombian spoke first. She said she was a dentist, and the other two were her assistants.

“We’re here to help,” she said.

But I knew better.

For all their denials and Charlie’s Indigenous Angels appeal, these (bag)women standing before me were, sure as shit, the Empire’s muscle, Pharaoh’s paramilitaries, the Godfather’s gendarme.

And they were out for blood

They showed their hand early on. My molar was infected and needed to come out, the Colombian said. They would extract it. . . .for a fee.

“Well, won’t my insurance pay for it?” I asked naively.

“Afraid not,” the Colombian said. “That’s a different outfit; they’ve got their own racket. Got nothing to do with us.”

“What about Obama’s Affordable Care Act?” I pleaded.“What about it?” she taunted me mercilessly.

From her confidence, her swagger, I could tell this was not her first rodeo. Accumulation by dispossession was her game. I was the target.

“Better do as she says,” I thought to myself. Emulating a traffic stop, I seamlessly reached for my wallet and opened wide.

But then something surprising happened. Like some revolutionary splinter group that refused to compromise or betray the proletariat, my mouth broke from my sorry-ass neoliberal heart, and refused to surrender that tooth.

They drilled, heaved, pried, and cursed me.

Nothing took.

From my mouth had emerged a bona fide resistance movement, my molar its unquestioned guerilla leader.

“Give us that tooth!” they demanded.

“Never!” I said.

“Communist!” they spat.

“Capitalist lackey!” I spat back.

“Terrorist!” they snarled.

“It doesn’t matter what you call me,” I said as the pain shot through me, “history will ABSOLVE me!”

On and on it went for more than 90 minutes, an epic firefight, sure to transform my mouth into a battlefield as hallowed as Cuito Carnavale.I was contemplating my martyrdom—or at least that of my dissident tooth—with all three attacking me in Guantanamo-like fashion. One held my jaw open, another water boarded my mouth, while the last pulled as though Trujillio or Batista had threatened HER with torture if she failed in this mission.

And then, in a single, transformative moment it was over. As I battled valiantly, I inhaled and thought—“boy, they smell good!”—and just like that, BAM!!– this coven of counterrevolutionaries snatched victory from my dissident jaw.

My tooth joined the ranks of the disappeared, and I exhaled in grief, betrayed by my bourgeois reflexes just as surely as the ANC has betrayed the people of South Africa.
“Don’t take it so hard,” the Colombian said, her voice filled with equal parts pity and contempt. “You gave it a good go. Next time, take the Novocain. It will be a lot easier on you.”

And with that, I was off, into the sharp light of midday, like a wounded animal, bleeding, desperate to survive, and in a great deal of pain.

The Afro Pessimists’ Paradox

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Forty years ago this fall, the late Richard Pryor took the stage at the Hollywood Bowl for a gay rights fundraiser and delivered what was perhaps the most incendiary monologue of a career that was both famously–and literally–combustible.

What the audience of 17,000 mostly gay, white men anticipated was to be regaled by the virtuoso in his prime. What they in fact got was a conflagration, as Pryor lit into the LGBT community for what he characterized as their indifference to African-Americans’ struggle.

What the audience of 17,000 mostly gay, white men anticipated was to be regaled by the virtuoso in his prime. What they in fact got was a conflagration, as Pryor lit into the LGBT community for what he characterized as their indifference to African-Americans’ struggle.

Amazingly enough, it didn’t begin that way. As Scott Saul wrote in his 2015 book, Becoming Richard Pryor, the headliner ambled onto centerstage late on the evening of September 18th 1977,  and after prowling the stage for a few moments like a caged big cat, he spoke, finally:

“I came here for human rights and I found out what it was really about was not getting caught with a dick in your mouth.” The crowd roared with laughter.

“You don’t want the police to kick your ass if you’re sucking the dick, and that’s fair,” Pryor continued. “You’ve got the right to suck anything you want! I sucked one dick. Back in 1952. Sucked Wilbur Harp’s dick. It was beautiful, but I couldn’t deal with it. Had to leave it alone. It was beautiful because Wilbur has the best booty in the world. Now I’m saying booty to be nice. I’m talking about ass-hole. Wilbur had some good ass-hole. And Wilbur would give it up so good and put his thighs against your waist. That would make you come quick.”

The crowd erupted, half in delight, half-in-disbelief. “I was the only motherfucker that took Wilbur roses. Everybody else was bullshitting. I took Wilbur [the roses] and said, ‘Here, dear.’”

At this point, as Saul described the scene, Pryor paused, and the monologue took a sharp detour into some dark recess of the comedian’s mind. While waiting to go on backstage, Pryor had noticed how the white stagehands had ignored an all-Black dance troupe known as the Lockers when the dancers asked for help adjusting the stage lights. And when they returned after what Pryor thought a spectacular performance–one dancer jumped over six chairs–the comedian watched incredulously as the show’s promoters did nothing to defend the Lockers who were dressed-down by a fire-marshal for detonating a small explosive as a special effect. And then, an hour later, just before Pryor was scheduled to go on, the stagehands who earlier couldn’t be bothered by the Lockers’ appeal for assistance, suddenly leapt into action when two white ballet dancers asked for help with the very same light fixture.

By the time he reached the stage, Pryor–who it’s safe to assume had snorted, smoked or imbibed something of a chemical nature before going on that night–was fuming. As the crowd laughed at his recollections of Wilbur Harp, Pryor mumbled softly into the microphone, surveilling the sea of white faces, as though in a catatonic trance.

“How can faggots be racists?” he asked. “How can faggots be racists?”

And then,  he exploded.

“I hope the police catch you motherfuckers and shoot your ass accidentally, because you motherfuckers ain’t helpin’ niggers at all.” The audience howled, but was clearly puzzled, Saul wrote. “When the niggers were burning down Watts, you motherfuckers were doing what you wanted on Hollywood Boulevard, didn’t give a shit about it.” By this point, some clarity had begun to wash over the audience and the laughter was beginning to turn to hissing, and boos.

Pryor continued, addressing a feminist movement defined largely by the concerns of white, suburban women. “Motherfuck women’s rights. The bitches don’t need no rights. What they need to do is pay the people on welfare.” Again, the crowd roared its disapproval. Pryor shot back with his own rage.

“Yeah, get mad. ’Cause you’re going to be madder than that when (police chief) Ed Davis catches you motherfuckers coming out of here in the lot.” By this point, all confusion on the part of the crowd had dissipated, with hecklers not just taunting Pryor but openly threatening to do him bodily-harm. Nonplussed, Pryor pivoted on his heels, exhorted the enemy combatants to “kiss my happy, rich, Black ass,” and walked off the stage.

In the days that followed, the Los Angeles Times, Vanity Fair magazine and the Hollywood media mostly excoriated the comedian as “rude,” deranged and even homophobic.

In the days that followed, the Los Angeles Times, Vanity Fair magazine and the Hollywood media mostly excoriated the comedian as “rude,” deranged and even homophobic.
The first allegation is most certainly true, the second arguable, but the last, given his stunning public admission of his own same-sex experience with a lifelong friend, was way wide of the mark.

However crude, Pryor’s reproach of Southern California’s gay community prophesied the tallest hurdle confronting progressives as they regroup to challenge a White House openly flirting with despotism.

If class solidarity has historically been the greatest strength of American liberalism, the tendency for progressive social movements to splinter along racial lines has been its most glaring weakness. Never has this cleavage been more evident than now, as a de-industrializing economy conspires with isolating technology and a quisling media to unplug Americans from each other, and our own humanity, like never before.

Consider, as one visible example, the pronounced fissures that resurfaced in January when millions of dissidents, mostly women, marched on Washington DC and cities across the country to to protest the Trump administration.

“I didn’t want to be a part of the march if it was going to be a white woman’s kumbaya march,” Jo Ann Hardesty, the president of the Portland NAACP chapter told a reporter for the Willamette Week. “Don’t forget,” read a sign held by an African-American woman, Angelas People, as she nonchalantly sucked on a lollipop at the women’s rally at the nation’s capitol “white women voted for Trump.”

The tension has come to be known in recent years as Afro Pessimism, and indeed it has gained a certain cachet both in academic circles and among the Black Lives Matter generation, reared on a steady diet of videotaped police terror, shrinking job and educational opportunities, and a duopolistic political system that is, on its best day, wholly indifferent to black suffering. Afro Pessimism is the understanding, as the late, great historian John Henrik-Clarke posited, that the descendants of Africa have “no friends nowhere,” a  precept that is hardly new, and in fact, was learned tragically, and to great dramatic effect, by Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s 1940 novel Native Son.

Wright aimed his pen at the Communists who had joined with African-Americans to energize the transformative labor movements of the New Deal era, only to retreat to the comfortable confines of white privilege when blacks tried to expand the battleground from the factory floor to the voting booth. By putting the LGBT community on notice, Pryor’s Hollywood Bowl monologue bookends Wright’s foreshadowing of the fly-in-the-ointment just as the formula for modern liberalism was being finalized.

Alternately, Pryor’s critique was a petition for divorce,  citing the irreconcilable differences that resulted from the 1 percent’s 40-year counteroffensive to drive a wedge between liberal allies. That campaign escalated sharply beginning in 1969 with the Nixon Administration’s Southern Strategy, J. Edgar Hoover’s pogrom against dissidents, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell’s infamous blueprint for combating progressive orthodoxy, and the media’s constant drumbeat depicting black savagery, as exemplified by Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry franchise, or the Washington Post’s fictional profile of a black 8-year-old heroin addict. By the time Pryor took the stage at the Hollywood bowl, the liberal body politic in the U.S lay mortally wounded on the operating table, its most vital arteries irrevocably severed and bleeding out.

The contradictions have only deepened in the years since, with blacks losing virtually all of the economic ground we’d gained in the postwar years, and then some. Born the same year that Wright published Native Son, Pryor came of age in a country that was, however tentatively, finding its Blues, be it the Beat Poets discovering their artistic voice in the music of Charlie Parker, or poor white Chicagoans from the foothills of Appalachia identifying common ground with the Black Panthers. Pryor himself was known for his collaborations and close friendships with Gene Wilder, Lily Tomlin and Robin Williams, and proposed marriage to his white girlfriend only days after the Hollywood debacle.

But while the comedic genius was spot-on in his critique of the gay community’s abandonment of the very allies who taught them how to stand up for themselves, righteous indignation does not a social movement make. It’s a numbers game, if nothing else. Afro pessimism may make perfect sense as a strategy for the nearly one billion Africans who live south of the Saharan desert, but blacks in Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, the United States and elsewhere have no choice but to coalesce with working class allies whose struggles are similar to our own.

In other words, there is no Afro pessimistic strategy for coping with the health care crisis that ails the country, or rebuilding a hollowed-out, speculative economy that produces nothing of material value, or demolishing a dysfunctional, regressive tax system.

“The mass movement is the key to everything,” the intellectual CLR James once said, “thus it has always been and thus it shall always be.”

“The mass movement is the key to everything,” the intellectual CLR James once said, “thus it has always been and thus it shall always be.”

That said, it would be unwise for Africans in the Americas to dismiss the inevitable defection of allies from broad-based political and social movements. For myriad reasons I’ve never cottoned to the idea of reparations in the form of a cash payment, but maybe we can spark the fire this time with an eye on creating a network of African villages–Beloved Communities, utopian Bantustans, urban quilombos, however you want to think of it– within the American metropolis, a cityscape of transformative institutions–schools, media, workers’ collectives, credit unions, cooperatives, law-enforcement agencies and so on–that are deeded to the people and mandated to remain so for time immemorial.

Five hundred years after the African first stepped foot in the Americas, we are no better than guest workers, or sojourners, in the country of our birth. We need to carve out space solely for ourselves–maybe through tax-increment financing or empowerment zones– but we need help to do it. We’ve toiled in these fields for far too long without recompense.

And perhaps this is the best use of Afro pessimism in building a resistance movement. It can be a conversation starter, the tallying of a historical balance sheet in which Americans debts are so far in arrears, that blacks can no longer be made whole in a strictly material sense.

A spiritual reckoning is due.

Midway through Pryor’s stemwinder at the Hollywood Bowl, he digressed from any pretense of comedy for a moment, and made clear the true intent of his appearance that night. With a pained expression on his face, he momentarily transformed the auditorium into a church, the stage into a pulpit, and, as though pleading the blood, he testified.

“I wanted to test you,’ he said, his face disfigured in some amalgam of sorrow and rage,  “to your motherfuckin’ soul.”

The Shape of Things to Come

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The Shape of Things to Come Jon Jeter

The Chinese woman was getting increasingly annoyed at the failure of the Ecuadorian bakery worker’s inability to understand English.

“How big?” she asked pointing at a slab of chocolate cake that she had her eye on.

The young Ecuadorian woman gave her a puzzled look.

“How big?” she asked, the exasperation in her voice registering increasingly higher levels. “The slice.”

After another minute or two of pointing and negotiations, the two were able to come to some understanding. With the exchange finally made, the Chinese woman stormed angrily out the storefront’s door.

The Ecuadorian woman behind the counter winked at me and smiled.

“Why would you go to someone else’s country and get mad at the people because you can’t speak their language?” she asked me rhetorically, in Spanish. I shrugged my shoulders and responded in my broken Spanish: “The Chinese are too much like us Yankees.”

“Worse,” said the young woman.

I’ve been coming to this unremarkable Quito sandwich shop every other day for the past 6 months after discovering that they make the most spectacular turkey sandwich–hold the mayo–in the history of the turkey sandwich.  While still not good, my Spanish has improved dramatically over those six months. But never have I articulated anything approaching frustration at the store employees for failing to understand me.

And yet this quotidian confrontation at a sandwich shop in a remote corner in the center of the world represents the shape of things to come. China’s fingerprints are everywhere in Ecuador and across the global South as a whole, as the American Empire fades into our collective rearview mirror. But if this episode of microaggression is any guide, Chinese neo-colonialism, while marginally superior to Western colonialism, will sooner-or-later suffer the same exact fate.

Capitalism is irredeemably broken no matter who wields it because it is a corruption of human relationships, an implicit assumption that capital shall forever be superior to the laborer.

And that is an idea that is simply not long for this world.,

Church Music: Assessing Hip-Hop’s Golden Era in a Gilded Age

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To hear what South Africans call ‘praise-singing is to recognize immediately two things: first, that hip-hop’s musical roots lie quite a bit farther east than the Bronx, and secondly, to quote Jay-Z, “you are who you are before you’re born, playa.”

That the only art forms to spring from North American soil–jazz and hip-hop–are actually African emigres should surprise no one with a sense of history. What is surprising, however–indeed almost jarring–is hip-hop’s enduring and expansive influence, and it’s evolution from simple entertainment to something more transcendent, almost ethereal. 

That the only art forms to spring from North American soil–jazz and hip-hop–are actually African emigres should surprise no one with a sense of history. What is surprising, however–indeed almost jarring–is hip-hop’s enduring and expansive influence, and it’s evolution from simple entertainment to something more transcendent, almost ethereal.

Twenty years ago this month I was sitting down to Sunday brunch in Washington DC when a friend asked: “Did you hear about Biggie?” I had not, and quickly lost my appetite for food when I was told of his murder only six months after 2Pac’s. I also lost my appetite for hip-hop thinking the genre could never survive the loss of its two greatest auteurs.

From time-to-time, I was reminded of its possibilities–the African villagers who bickered, loudly, over 2pac and Biggie, the evangelical zeal the music generated from Romania to Reykjavik, Gaza to Guam, or any of a dozen Common lyrics before he went Hollywood.

I start thinking how many souls hip-hop has affected
How many dead folks this art resurrected
How many nations this culture connected

But I mostly tuned it out for the decade that followed Biggie’s death, like the music playing in the dentist’s office.

I started to drift back gradually at first, then picking up intensity about a decade ago when I moved to Brooklyn and discovered that I couldn’t have been more wrong; Hip-hop could not replace 2Pac or Biggie, but it has flourished artistically at the grassroots level even as the industry’s commercial overseers have shorn it of its tallest branches, like an exotic parasite that rots a treetop while oddly strengthening its trunk.

Hip-hop music, overall, has never been so gorgeous as it is now. And perhaps the reason is simple: we have never needed to reconnect with our humanity so much as we do now, with the American Empire in freefall.

As part of my re-immersion into hip-hop I stumbled upon the young woman below just a week ago, and while I like her, that’s not really the point: what I truly love is the idea of her, a young Latina finding her voice–asserting her velocity – in a music that was born in Africa, crossed the Atlantic Ocean, and washed ashore, like a message in a bottle, to tell us a story, and guide us home.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJRFCgL1wcE&list=PLhy0lyb26g-WacgxNG0ENNSqxwh5fSZMc&index=235

The Fire Last Time: Barack Obama and the Politics of Counter Revolution

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Not one to suffer fools gladly, the blunt-spoken Lutrelle “Lu” Palmer was not exactly a consensus-builder in his day. But if there was one thing that both his friends and foes could agree on, it was that the veteran journalist and political gadfly was a race man of the first order. Born in Newport News Virginia in 1922, the son of a prominent–and ultimately humiliated–Black educator, Palmer came within a thesis of earning his Ph.d from the University of Iowa, and was known to regularly, and publicly, scold peers who self-identified as “journalists” first, and “Black” second.

When a White editor at the Chicago Daily News refused to publish a story on a capo in the Blackstone Rangers, Palmer summoned the street gang’s infamous leader, Jeff Fort, to the newspaper’s downtown office, to convince the editor that it would be in his best interest to run the story.

Palmer would characterize that particular episode as a rare victory in his losing battle  against  racism in the newsroom, and when he inevitably quit, he worried that the newspaper’s executives might try to stop him from removing the volumes of notebooks he’d accumulated over the years. So he called an old friend, Bobby Rush, who was the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the the Black Panther Party at the time, and asked him to send over a few men to conspicuously help retrieve the boxes of files from the Daily News office.

His association with the Panthers was integral to his political identity. After Chicago police fatally shot Rush’s predecessor, Fred Hampton, in a predawn raid on December 4th, 1969, Palmer was one of the first journalists to assert publicly that the slaying was, in fact, a state-sponsored assassination. Subsequent revelations proved him correct, and, earned him the nom de guerre, “Panther with a pen.”    

Hampton’s murder, followed by the death 7 years later of Chicago’s Pharaoh-like Mayor, Richard J. “Boss” Daley, were the main flashpoints for the Black community’s political uprising against the ensconced Democratic machine, culminating in the election of the city’s first Black Mayor, Harold Washington, in 1983. After Daley’s successor failed to even plow the streets of Black neighborhoods entombed in nearly 2-feet of snow in early 1979, it occurred to Palmer and others, that if they did nothing, Black Chicagoans might very well be buried alive by the avalanche of racial animus emanating from City Hall.

After Daley’s successor failed to even plow the streets of Black neighborhoods entombed in nearly 2-feet of snow in early 1979, it occurred to Palmer and others, that if they did nothing, Black Chicagoans might very well be buried alive by the avalanche of racial animus emanating from City Hall.

The principal problem was that in the Chicago Democratic machine’s monopolization of the political process, it was profoundly anti-democratic. Its old boys’ club of aldermen, precinct captains, ward heelers and central committee men infantilized the electorate by requiring voters to do nothing more than show up at the polls every four years to cast a ballot. Under this arrangement, the best Black Chicagoans could ever hope for  was ousting from office an egregiously bad machine pol like the State’s Attorney, Edward Hanrahan, who approved the hit on Hampton in 1969. But if they ever wanted to move beyond choosing the lesser evil to represent them at City Hall, they’d need a new strategy.

They decided to flip the script, recruit the candidate who best represented the Black community’s interests, and then do whatever it took to elect him (there were really no women to consider at that juncture) in a city that was almost a demographic impossibility: roughly a third white, a third Black, and a third Latino.

With his Motown baritone, the soaring cadence of a Baptist preacher, and a striking resemblance to Ossie Davis, Washington had them at hello. The attorney had been part of the Daley machine that dutifully complied with orders to shun Martin Luther King Jr’s 1966 visit to Chicago. But that experience, combined with Hampton’s death, and Daley’s bid to topple Washington’s mentor, a Black Congressman who’d dared challenge the mayor on the issue of police brutality, had caused Washington to defect from the party machine, for all intents and purposes.

Still, when Palmer and his cadre approached Washington about running for mayor, he played it coy, agreeing to the mayoral bid but only if the group registered at least 100,000 new voters and raised $200,000 by the fall of 1982. Washington was nothing if not a pragmatist, and while he was intrigued by the possibilities, mounting a mayoral bid struck him as a tad quixotic. What’s more, he already had a good job, representing Illinois’ 1st District in the U.S. House of Representatives. He had hoped to dissuade supporters by setting the bar high.

No one so much as flinched, least of all Palmer, and his wife, Jorja, who began teaching political education classes– modeled on the Panthers’ efforts under Hampton–at the nonprofit organization the couple had founded and funded, Chicago Black United Communities, on the city’s South Side.

“After every four week period we would have a graduation,” Palmer recalled in a 1992 interview, “and every graduation speaker was Harold Washington. He’d come by, make a nice little speech, give out the citations. The first graduation we had was on the coldest day in Chicago history when the wind chill factor went down to 80 something below zero. We were so poor we had no heat in the building and so the people kept their scarves on, and I mean you could see the breath coming out of their mouths.

But nobody left. I turned to Jorja and said ‘these brothas and sistas are ready’ because you know how our people are about the cold.”

By the fall of 1982, Chicago’s Black radio station, WVON, crackled with Palmer’s clever taunt, “We shall see in 83,” the CBUC had unleashed 2,000 trained organizers on the streets of Chicago, and with their zeal and expertise, they not only met Washington’s initial demands but eclipsed them, adding 180,000 new voters to the city’s registration rolls, and delivering a war chest of nearly half-a-million dollars.

With the incumbent, Jane Byrne and Daley’s son, Richard M. Daley, dividing White Democrats, Washington emerged triumphant in a bitter primary, then squeezed just enough White votes from his Rainbow Coalition to win the general election against a bipartisan White electorate that was unified in its contempt for Washington. For Black Chicago,  said Robert Starks, a political scientist professor at Northeastern University and a key political strategist for Washington, the campaign “took on almost a religious or gospel character . . “It became almost a civic religion.”

Despite stiff opposition from white aldermen and state lawmakers, Washington’s administration began to deliver the spoils to his constituents almost immediately, as he worked assiduously to cut everyone in on a sweet deal that had previously been reserved for a privileged few. He rescinded a municipal ordinance prohibiting street musicians from panhandling, issued an executive order forbidding municipal employees from enforcing immigration laws, computerized city departments, extended collective bargaining rights for public trade unions whose rank-and-file members were often kept in the dark about the labor contracts struck between their corrupt leadership and the Daley machine.

He opened up the city’s budget process by holding public hearings around the city, increased the number of women and Blacks at City Hall, capped campaign contributions for contractors doing business with the city at $1,500, and professionalized the city’s workforce by banning patronage hiring and firing, all of which would’ve been unimaginable under the old machine. He even mothballed the city’s limousine, for an Oldsmobile 98.

“We had built Chicago to a peak of Black solidarity by the time it came to elect Harold,” Palmer said in 1992. “You’d better not even think about not voting for Harold Washington. I mean it better not even come in your mind, or somebody would go upside your head.”

Short-lived as it was, Washington’s City Hall was the crowning achievement of a nationwide revolution, that had begun 50-years earlier at the height of the Great Depression, when organized labor integrated its ranks and its leadership, and workers of all races banded together to transform bad jobs into good ones.  The sine qua non of that rebellion were the descendants of chattel slaves, who not only helped imbue the economy with unprecedented buying power, but articulated a coherent, shimmering vision of what a racial democracy– a Beloved Community–  might look like in practice.

Short-lived as it was, Washington’s City Hall was the crowning achievement of a nationwide revolution, that had begun 50-years earlier at the height of the Great Depression, when organized labor integrated its ranks and its leadership, and workers of all races banded together to transform bad jobs into good ones.  The sine qua non of that rebellion were the descendants of chattel slaves, who not only helped imbue the economy with unprecedented buying power, but articulated a coherent, shimmering vision of what a racial democracy– a Beloved Community–  might look like in practice.

As another Chicago son, Barack Obama, prepares to vacate the White House, his enigmatic legacy can only be understood as a response to this insurrection, and the radical Black polity that was its engine. Any serious interrogation of his record makes it painfully clear that Obama was the titular head of a counterrevolution, intended to undo the democratizing efforts of a generation of Americans who found their voice in the transformative post war years.  

You cannot, in other words, even begin to make sense of the Republic’s first Black president without understanding Chicago’s first black mayor, can’t get your arms around what has transpired over the last 8 years without examining the 80 that preceded it, and cannot appreciate the arc of America’s political universe without some clarity on both the top-down movement that catapulted Obama into the catbird’s seat and the bottom-up populist movement which produced Washington.

Washington was everything that Obama was not. Washington reversed public policies steeped in White supremacy, Obama deepened them. Washington weakened the influence of money in politics, Obama strengthened it. Washington accommodated immigrants and helped transform Chicago into a sanctuary, while Obama deported more than any president in history. Washington rewarded organized labor for its efforts to elect him, Obama gave labor unions the cold shoulder, when he wasn’t trying to bust them altogether. Washington opened space for women, people of color, and even workers in the informal sector trying to make a living any way they could in an enervated economy; on Obama’s watch, the nation witnessed an unemployed Black man lynched on a Staten Island street corner merely for selling loose cigarettes.

Washington invoked Fanon, exalted the messianic quality of the African’s experience in the Americas, and exhorted people of color to never give up the fight against injustice and oppression; Obama invoked Reagan, trafficked in folklore, and scolded Black men for feeding their children cold Popeye’s chicken for breakfast. Washington embodied Bessie Smith’s Blues, Obama the mediocre hip-hop of Drake.

Washington invoked Fanon, exalted the messianic quality of the African’s experience in the Americas, and exhorted people of color to never give up the fight against injustice and oppression; Obama invoked Reagan, trafficked in folklore, and scolded Black men for feeding their children cold Popeye’s chicken for breakfast. Washington embodied Bessie Smith’s Blues, Obama the mediocre hip-hop of Drake.

None of this was by chance. If Washington’s election is viewed in its most irreducible form– namely, the pinnacle of what the Rev. William Barber characterizes as the nation’s second Reconstruction– then Obama can only be contextualized as the plutocrats’ man in the White House, installed for the singular purpose of preventing a third.

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

The assassination of Martin Luther King, coupled with the twilight of American industry’s global dominance, ratcheted up both working class militancy, and the elites’ crackdown on it. Mineworkers in Appalachia and autoworkers in Detroit were fighting to reclaim their trade unions from a reactionary leadership that was in bed with management; communists were on the march in North Carolina, Black Panthers in Oakland, militant white college students protested the war in Berkeley, and Black parents and teachers fought for community control of their school curriculums in Brooklyn. Fred Hampton was organizing Black street gangs and Black professionals, Latinos, poor alienated whites youths, and college students and blue-collar workers of all races into a Rainbow Coalition intent on socialist revolution. Black voters capitalized on white flight following the season of unrest that began with the Watts riots to elect Black mayors in Detroit, Newark, Cleveland, Gary, Washington DC and Atlanta, and Puerto Ricans joined with Blacks and Italians to force the City University of New York to guarantee admission and free tuition for every New York city public high school graduate.

It took all of three months.

With Blacks accounting for a third of the country’s unionized workforce and taking on leadership responsibilities to boot, organized labor’s demands for a bigger share of the pie was causing wage inflation to spike, and combined with the Arab world’s demands that the West pay more for its oil, slicing into the oligarch’s profit margins.  

Something had to be done.

Gradually, and then suddenly, the Empire began fighting back. Nixon’s southern strategy, the FBI’s counterintelligence program, and an infamous memo to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce by Lewis Powell, who Nixon would later appoint to the Supreme Court, got the ball rolling,  isolating the radical Black polity from polite society. New York City’s bankers and corporate executives doubled down on polarizing racial narratives in executing a takeover of New York City’s finances in 1975, scapegoating the pensions, wages and subsidies won by public sector unions for a financial crisis triggered by an overheated real estate market.

By the time an overworked and overweight Washington keeled over dead from a fatal heart attack while working at his desk on Thanksgiving eve of 1987, the sun was setting on the Reagan administration, and Chicago’s white political establishment was plotting a strategy for reclaiming lost ground.

By the time an overworked and overweight Washington keeled over dead from a fatal heart attack while working at his desk on Thanksgiving eve of 1987, the sun was setting on the Reagan administration, and Chicago’s white political establishment was plotting a strategy for reclaiming lost ground.

The year after Washington’s death, a Harvard-educated Black Rhodes scholar named Mel Reynolds challenged a Black militant activist and Washington ally, Gus Savage, for the Illinois 2nd Congressional District, which included a swath of Chicago’s south side lakefront. It would take Reynolds three tries to finally unseat Savage but as Frederick Harris wrote in his 2014 book, The Price of the Ticket: Barack Obama and the Rise and Decline of Black Politics, the city’s two major daily newspapers, the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times endorsed Reynolds, as did conservative Washington Post columnist George Will. The main business daily, Crain’s, did not endorse him, but went out of its way to praise him for his tendency to “downplay race as a factor in politics.”

Feted by foundations, bankrolled by wealthy campaign contributors and championed widely by the media and the affluent Hyde Park neighborhood that is home to the University of Chicago, Reynolds’ meteoric rise led one political rival to wonder aloud how an unknown who’d never held public office could amass such campaign cash and notoriety.

“White politicians have bought and paid for a novice who wasn’t even a block captain, or community leader, or even a member of a recognized church. There’s something wrong. His whole staff comes from City Hall, which tells you they’re being supplied to get rid of Gus Savage.”

Reynold’s career would ultimately be derailed by a sex scandal involving a teenage girl, but in his three years on Capitol Hill he amassed a voting record that was solidly neoliberal, voting for the Clinton Administration’s North American Free Trade Agreement, and the omnibus crime bill, both of which were catastrophic for Chicago’s working class and communities of color.

The same year that Reynolds won his Congressional seat, a young, 31-year old community organizer named Barack Obama approached Lu Palmer asking for his support for a voter registration effort. As Palmer told the story, he thought the Harvard-trained lawyer both arrogant and unoriginal, and sent him on his way. But three years later, he would encounter Obama again. An old ally in the Washington campaign, Alice Palmer (no relation) had finished third in the special election to succeed the now-disgraced Reynolds, and she wanted to return to Springfield. Palmer asked Obama to withdraw his name out of respect for the widely-respected Alice Palmer, but Obama refused. Palmer couldn’t recall Obama’s exact words but something about the way he spoke sounded oddly familiar. That’s when it clicked.

“Man, you sound like Mel Reynolds.”Palmer told Obama.

The political scientist Adolph Reed met Obama shortly after his election to the Illinois Senate and he was no more impressed than was Lu Palmer. He wrote in a 1996 article:

“In Chicago, for instance, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program — the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics, as in Haiti and wherever else the International Monetary Fund has sway. So far the black activist response hasn’t been up to the challenge. We have to do better.”

 

Three years later later, Obama challenged Bobby Rush for his Congressional seat, and the battle lines were sharply drawn much as they were in Reynolds’ Congressional campaigns.

“A dozen years after the death of Harold Washington, there is a generational shift in the leadership of the Black community,”Chicago Sun-Times columnist Steve Neal wrote in late 1999 as the campaign season was just gearing up in Chicago.

Chicago’s Black community was less impressed, however.

“Barack is viewed in part to be the white man in Black face in our community,” said Donne Trotter, an Illinois state legislator who was also challenging Rush for the 1st Congressional District. “Who pushed him to get where he is so fast? It’s these individuals in Hyde Park who don’t always have the best interests of our community in mind.”

And while Washington auditioned for his job with Palmer and a ragtag group of grassroots organizers in a southside Chicago community center, Obama’s close-up moment was at a 2003 fundraiser at the home of Democratic fixer and Bill Clinton BFF Vernon Jordan, getting face-time with such Democratic establishment fixtures as former White House Counsel Greg Craig, Mike Williams, a lobbyist for a Bondholders’ Association, and law partners at one of DC’s most connected firms, Tom Quinn, and Robert Harmala.

In a 2006 article for Harper’s Magazine, Ken Silverstein noted that Craig “liked the fact that Obama was not a racial polarizer on the model of Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton,” and Williams was “soothed by Obama’s reassurances that he was not anti-business.”

“There’s a reasonableness about him,”Harmala told Silverstein, “I don’t see him being on the liberal fringe.”

In a 1992 interview, 12 years before his death at the age of 82,  Palmer spoke of how he purchased most of his clothes on consignment. ”I can buy a suit for $10” rather than $200 and “see, the way I look at it that leaves me with $190 I can put back into the struggle.”

He recounted how his father was fired from his job as an administrator at an all-Black high school in Virginia, for no other reason than he protested the vastly different pay scales for Black and White teachers.

“I have given my life, as did my father, to this movement and that’s why it hurts so much to see our people give this city back to white folks,” he said. “Bad enough to give it to white folks but to give it to a Daley.”

“I’m actually depressed now because everything we fought for between 1981 and 1989 has been wiped away, destroyed, stepped on, stomped on.” Palmer said. He sighed heavily, and said almost prophetically:

“I don’t know what’ it’s going to take to bring our people back together.”

A Christmas Story: With No Room at the Inn, a Family Follows their Star

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From his post at the edge of the bus shelter bench, James Anderson spotted the two police patrol cars heading slowly towards him and snapped to attention, or at least, as briskly as humanly possible for a 53-year-old man with a bad back. He reached for his cane and struggled unsteadily to his feet, shielding his eyes from the vehicle’s blinding head beams.

Hauling everything they owned in two grocery carts, Anderson and his three teenage children had put in a good 12 hours in their arduous trek from Silicon Valley’s northern edge en route to the Promised Land, Berkeley, which was still another 14 miles away as the crow flies. Fueled only by a 20-piece chicken McNugget divided unevenly between the four of them, they were bone-tired by nightfall, and had decided to settle down for the evening in the Bay Area suburb of San Leandro.

It was two days before Christmas, 2014.

The sleeping arrangements were strategic, almost militaristic. James and his oldest child, 18-year-old Khalid, would man the perimeter–bus benches were preferable to park benches since they’re typically canopied and located at well-lit intersections–flanking  the youngest, 13-year old Malik, and his big sister, Malika, who’d just celebrated her 15th birthday a few weeks before.  “My baby girl sleeps next to me,” James insisted, “always by me.”

Both would acknowledge later that they were a bit apprehensive in that moment. For months, cable and network television newscasts back at the motel had been preoccupied with the protests that followed the fatal police shooting of an unarmed Black teenager named Michael Brown, in a St. Louis suburb, and the videotaped strangulation of a Staten Island man, Eric Garner, by a lynch mob of New York City cops, simply for selling loose cigarettes.

Uneasy since they’d been evicted from their Union City motel earlier that day, James viewed the wee hours of the morning as a sentinel might regard the graveyard shift at a watchtower, getting only a few winks here and there to keep an eye out for trouble–”I’ll sleep when we get where we need to be; if I was gonna drop, I was gonna drop,” he would say later to describe his approach –and he and Malika were still awake when the two patrol cars materialized from the blue-black of a winter’s night, as though a hallucination.   

Both would acknowledge later that they were a bit apprehensive  in that moment. For months, cable and network television newscasts back at the motel had been preoccupied with the protests that followed the fatal police shooting of an unarmed Black teenager named Michael Brown, in a St. Louis suburb, and the videotaped strangulation of a Staten Island man, Eric Garner, by a lynch mob of New York City cops, simply for selling loose cigarettes. Concerned that police might accuse him and the kids of stealing the two grocery carts they’d found abandoned on the streets, James had earlier in the day tried, unsuccessfully, to pry the nameplate from one of the shopping carts. The cold night air seemed pregnant with menace as the San Leandro police officers unfurled from separate patrol cars and deliberately approached the bus bench.

“Good evening, officers,” James said, as disarmingly as he could, before proceeding to explain to the patrolmen  that the family was homeless and just resting for a spell. Come daybreak, he promised, they would be on their way.

But before he could finish, one of the officers held his hand up to interrupt.

“We’re not here to hassle you, sir, “ he said. “Someone saw you here and called it in because they were worried about you. We just wanted to know if you needed anything?”

Poor but proud, James thanked the officers but told them that they were fine; they just needed a little rest.  

The officers, however, would have none of it. “Wait here,” said one. “We’ll be right back.” Climbing back into their police cars, they sped off, returning a few minutes later with a coffee and three hot chocolates from Starbucks, and a 12-pack of tacos from Taco Bell. It was an unusually cold winter in Northern California, and the officers asked James to take the kids to the nearby Starbucks to eat and wait for the officers to return. Again, they raced off, and returned an hour later with four sleeping bags. Discreetly slipping $100 into James’ hand, one officer hugged James, followed by the other, and as they returned to their patrol vehicles, they both wished him and the kids a happy holiday.

The Anderson family Christmas two years ago was both banal and Biblical, the product of a global financial meltdown that was the worst since the Great Depression, and simultaneously  reminiscent of Joseph and Mary’s pilgrimage to Nazareth.

But to retrace the steps of one family’s obscure nomadic odyssey is to gaze upon a map of the known world and see clearly, as if for the first time, its most glaring contradictions: how a faith nearly as old as mankind can sustain us when the most modern technology cannot; the dialectical relationship between a season of charity in an age of austerity; and the thunderclap of clarity, that attends the realization that for all intents and purposes, Africans in the Americas, by-and-large, have no greater material stake in the New World today than when we arrived four centuries ago.

“If hard work is all it takes to get ahead in America, Black folks would own this country lock, stock, and barrel.”

—Stokely Carmichael

First the war, then the deluge:

As the United States geared up for World War 2 following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Blacks fled the hardscrabble hamlets of Texas and Louisiana for Northern California in droves, searching for work in the shipyards and munitions plants. Nearly a quarter found cheap housing, such as it was, in San Francisco’s dilapidated Fillmore neighborhood that had been evacuated of Japanese residents at the war’s onset,  herded, like criminals, into internment camps.

James’ birth also coincided with an effort by the San Francisco’s Redevelopment Authority to raze thousands of “blighted” homes in the neighborhood, forcing nearly 10,000, mostly Black households to relocate just as they had the Japanese a generation before, and transforming Geary Street into an eight-lane monstrosity which sealed off the Fillmore from whiter and wealthier Pacific Heights.

By the time James Anderson was born two decades later, the Fillmore was known as the “Harlem of the West” a showcase for entertainers and public figures as diverse as Etta James and Malcolm X. James’ birth also coincided with an effort by the San Francisco’s Redevelopment Authority to raze thousands of “blighted” homes in the neighborhood, forcing nearly 10,000, mostly Black households to relocate just as they had the Japanese a generation before, and transforming Geary Street into an eight-lane monstrosity which sealed off the Fillmore from  whiter and wealthier Pacific Heights.

In a 1963 interview with the Boston television station WGBH, about his iconic documentary, Take This Hammer, James Baldwin said this:

“A boy last week—he was 16, in San Francisco—told me on television….He said, “I’ve got no country. I’ve got no flag.” Now, he’s only 16 years old, and I couldn’t say, “You do.” I don’t have any evidence to prove that he does. They were tearing down his house because San Francisco is engaging—as most Northern cities now are engaged—in something called urban renewal, which means moving the Negroes out.”

Said James Anderson: They told us they were just going to make some improvements and we could come back when everything was ready. We never got the call to come back. “

Bused to a public school in a mostly-white neighborhood, he and a cadre of fifth-graders banded together one day to repel an attack from a gang of white, high-schoolers. When police arrived, they made clear their intention to arrest only the Black youths, and would’ve done so were it not for the intervention from  an adult bystander who had witnessed the entire ordeal,

When a football scholarship was yanked,  James dropped out of the University of California at Santa Barbara to earn some money, and eventually found work driving a municipal bus. In 1996, a few months after Khalid’s birth, James drove over some railroad tracks, and  a searing pain thundered through his entire body from the base of his skull to the heel of his feet. He tried surgery and rehab to repair the three ruptured discs but nothing took.

Perhaps even more painful than the injury, however, was his inability to collect either disability or a pension from his employer. The loosening of New Deal-era labor laws began, in earnest, under the Reagan administration, were relaxed even further by Clinton’s White House, and have, over time, casualized and redefined the very notion of work as Americans had come to know it, reducing the most prosperous and stable working class in  history to a precariat of Uber drivers, temps, and  independent contractors, sans any benefits worth mentioning.

Medically retired and unable to work, James had only a monthly SSI check to support a wife and three children in the most expensive metropolitan area in the country.

Medically retired and unable to work, James had only a  monthly SSI check  to support a wife and three children in the most expensive metropolitan area in the country. With the Federal Reserve replenishing bankers’ coffers following the Great Recession, asset bubbles that popped in 2008 were beginning to re-inflate by 2011 and by 2014, real estate prices in the Bay Area were more expensive than ever.  The Andersons were evicted from their suburban Oakland apartment in October of 2014 when their landlord raised the rent. Estranged from his wife, James moved the kids to a Union City motel near her job, where the four of them squeezed into a single room that cost $400-per-week.

That endured for two months. James’ wife had been helping pay for the motel but decided, abruptly, to stop just days before Christmas unless he relinquished  custody of their children. Believing that her lifestyle had grown increasingly volatile,  James told her, essentially,  that if she wanted to kill her fool self, she could go right ahead, but the kids stayed with him.

That meant no more room at the inn, or more accurately the Islander Motel on the border of Union City and Hayward, with only two days left before Christmas. Checkout was at 11 am, and so in the morning, James had the kids stuff everything that would fit– crock pot, an electric skillet, shoes, clothes, everything– into two suitcases and a green duffel bag for the journey to Berkeley, a college town that James remembered from his youth as the hub of Bay Area liberalism, and relatively hospitable to the homeless. Already thinking ahead, Malika days earlier had spotted a discarded  shopping cart lying on its side in a shallow ditch along a nearby frontage road and made a mental note that it might come in handy should they need to relocate; she and Malik ran to retrieve it, and wiped it down with some of their clothes that they couldn’t manage to squeeze  in the luggage.

And then, sometime before noon,  the Anderson family headed north.

James had $20 in his pocket.

This Far By Faith

“Can I buy you a coffee?”

James was a bit startled by the middle-aged white woman who approached him– in broad daylight no less–as the family trudged up a major thoroughfare, Hesperian Boulevard, in Hayward.  They had only left their hotel hours earlier.

“Uh, no, I’m okay, thank you,” James said. But much like the two police officers in San Leandro later that day, the woman simply wouldn’t entertain the notion. With her well-coiffed hair and natty attire, Malika sized her up as a professional, perhaps in the growing tech sector that was again firing on all cylinders by late 2014. The woman  returned minutes later with a steaming cup of coffee, and clasped James’ hand in both of hers as she handed him the Starbucks cup, discreetly slipping him a $20 bills

“Can I hug you?” she asked and no sooner had James gotten the word out of his mouth, she had  pulled his towering 6-foot-3 inch frame close to hers for an embrace so deep and sincere that the kids started to wonder if they wouldn’t need a crowbar to extricate their father.

As they continued on, a pickup truck approached not three minutes later.

“Can I help you?” the man asked.

Unsure of his meaning, James politely replied that they were okay. Undeterred, the man stepped from the car, handed James two $20 bills, and wished them well.

If most big-city homeless shelters in the United States tend to resemble a slaveship, or an immigration roundup, the Good Samaritans who doled out money, tacos and hugs to James and the kids seemed emissaries from a United Nations delegation. White, Black, Latino, Asian, men and women, all contributed to the Anderson’s 2014 Christmas..

“We never asked anybody for anything,” James said. “Some of it was people saying ‘we’re so glad to see a father with his kids doing this’” and some people just wanted a hug or to wish us well. But we got a lot of help. I hadn’t counted on that.”

“We never asked anybody for anything,” James said. “Some of it was people saying ‘we’re so glad to see a father with his kids doing this’” and some people just wanted a hug or to wish us well. But we got a lot of help. I hadn’t counted on that.”

They needed every bit though. Among their myriad challenges was simply figuring out which way to go. James had never walked from Union City to Berkeley before and the most obvious route was along Interstate 580. Obviously, that wasn’t an option for the Andersons. And leaving San Leandro they encountered a roadblock that did not signal any obvious detour for pedestrians.  

The map indicates the distance between Union City and Berkeley is 26 miles but James estimates that they likely walked in excess of 30.

But if their sense of direction failed them at times, neither the Anderson’s faith, or love for each  other  wavered.  Of all his children, James says that Malika’s antenna is the most sensitive; she knows almost immediately when her father’s mood darkened, and she would just encourage her father, reassure him that they would be okay as long as they stuck together, or engage him in banalities such as the odd green flash of light that flickered in the night sky and wondering aloud if it was a flare, or a UFO.

And James would return the favor when he felt the kids’ energy ebb. One night, with the family hunkered down on a bus bench, an Asian man walked by and James pretended to greet him in Chinese with a nonsensical “phong chow yong fat” that cracked the kids up with raucous laughter.

By midday on Christmas Eve, the Andersons had reached Emeryville and were closing in on Oakland just south of Berkeley. The only food available was the chips and sodas they managed to round up from an off-brand convenience store. As if on cue, food began to just appear out of thin air:  motorists dropped off sandwiches, and drinks, and homeowners who lived within view of Telegraph Avenue began pouring out of their homes to deliver big platters of food. One woman even delivered a plate of her jambalaya.

Berkeley was no longer the accommodating college town that James remembered. Indeed the police harassed the Andersons almost daily and it would be more than two months before the family could get into a shelter.

The family arrived at Wall Peace Park in downtown Berkeley Christmas day with nearly $300 in donations.

Berkeley was no longer the accommodating college town that James remembered. Indeed the police harassed the Andersons almost daily and it would be more than two months before the family could get into a shelter.

A study published earlier this year by the Institute for Policy Studies  and the Corporation For Economic Development found that an almost Biblical plague has been visited upon Blacks in the United States, the most prosperous country in the history of the world. Looking at trends in household wealth between 1983 and 2013–a period that closely mirrors James’ working life and the shift from Keynesian macroeconomic policies to the neoliberal monetarist policies espoused by Milton Friedman– the average Black household in the country will need 228 years to accumulate as much wealth as their white counterparts hold today.

Barring either a tectonic shift by policymakers, or an act of God, Blacks will never close that gap.  

Which is to say this: from the cradle to the grave, from the slave trade to foreclosures, the Fillmore to the Islander Motel, what defines James Anderson’s life and that of the vast majority of Blacks in the US and across the Americas, is  dispossession.

What he has managed to keep–and really, the only thing he has managed to keep–is faith, this conviction, for which no earthly evidence exists, that if he continues to do the right things, if he loves his children, obeys the law, treats others as he would like to be treated, that things might well turn out for the best in the end.

It is simply an extraordinary pact, a bargain struck with an invisible dealer, by gamblers with almost no chips to play.

Which is to say this: from the cradle to the grave, from the slave trade to foreclosures, the Fillmore to the Islander Motel, what defines James Anderson’s life and that of the vast majority of Blacks in the US and across the Americas, is dispossession.

Africans have always had a complicated relationship with Christianity. There is, of course, the indictment often attributed to Kenya’s independence hero  Jomo Kenyatta that when the missionaries first arrived on the continent they had the Bible and Africans had the land, but it wasn’t long before Africans had the Bible and the missionaries the land. And indeed, it is documented that the benediction by the priests for enslaved Africans as they piled into a ship headed for the New World appealed to God for their “obedience.”

But many of the most well-known African revolutionaries–Mandela, Mugabe, Nkrumah, and others–matriculated from Christian missionary schools, and religious devotion inspired some of the most radical acts of resistance in US history, from Nat Turner to John Brown, Harriet Tubman to Martin Luther King Jr.

Moreover, there is the Bible itself, which is, in essence, a manual for how to escape from oppression, first, from the Roman Empire in the Old Testament, followed by the Egyptian pharaohs in the New Testament. Specifically, the book of Exodus has played a central role in the African Diasporic experience for two centuries, featuring in slave spirituals and Bob Marley’s most iconic album.  

But James Anderson’s pilgrimage to Berkeley of all places, on a Christmas day not long ago, provides a clue, perhaps, of what inspires our fealty. Despite all the roadblocks, literal and otherwise, that his children have had to hurdle, they have done remarkably well. Both Malik and Malika are honor roll students at one of the better high schools in Berkeley, and Khalid has enrolled in college courses. At the homeless shelter, Malika will often wake her brother for school by playing tunes from The Sound of Music, one of her favorite movies.

“I tell them all the time,”James Anderson said 18 months after their ordeal, “that we’re going to get through this, that we’re going to be okay. And we will. I really and truly believe that. The only thing I need them to do is believe it as well.

Because when you get right down to it, what choice do we have?”

Fight or Flight: Black in Trump’s America

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By LeRon Barton

To Fight or Flight—Being Black in America Non-white stories need to be shared, now, more than ever. In this age of our new administration, one man refuses to fall silent.

I love karaoke. I have no problem getting up on the stage and singing, if you want to call it that. Some people get nervous thinking, “What if I am terrible?” Well, I know I am bad. My voice is off-key, flat, and I sometimes sound like an animal howling at the moon. Matter of fact, I am so terrible, I have to jump around, spin, and move in a frantic fashion to distract everyone from the fact that I have no business singing into the mic. While some take the chance to sing a Marvin Gaye or Lauryn Hill song as if they are auditioning for “The Voice,” I destroy Prince or Bob Marley because I find the absurdity of karaoke absolutely fun.

On a Monday night, I decided to meet my partner Michelle at her company’s holiday party in a bar/nightclub in the Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco. After food was eaten, trivia was lost, ridiculous music was played, and said music was danced to, she and I decided to head upstairs to the bar area where karaoke was being sung. Michelle sung a fantastic rendition of Carrie Underwood’s “Flat on the Floor” and I “followed” it up with a cover of Marley’s “This Is Love.” Feeling great about myself, I decided to sing Sublime’s “Love Is What I Got.” Being a Sublime fan and hearing this song 80,000 times, I thought I could do it justice. While struggling through the track, an older white male, maybe 45 to 50 walked past me and yelled near my face, “I moved here to get away from people like you!”

Feeling great about myself, I decided to sing Sublime’s “Love Is What I Got.” Being a Sublime fan and hearing this song 80,000 times, I thought I could do it justice. While struggling through the track, an older white male, maybe 45 to 50 walked past me and yelled near my face, “I moved here to get away from people like you!”
Confused and shocked, I thought to myself, “Is this guy kidding? Is he serious?” I instantly yelled, “Fuck you!”, and turned my attention to Michelle as she began to charge towards the guy. I pulled her away as she began to yell every obscenity at him, we both asked him, “What do you mean by “People like us?”

This guys was scared and had been called on his shit, he backtracked: “The noisy people.”

As if being in a karaoke bar was going to be quiet and there wouldn’t be a white guy who had gone before me, who had screamed like a dying cat during his performance of Pearl Jam.

The guy then waved his tripod in our face, so I knocked it away and pushed him toward the door. More expletives were exchanged and then he hurriedly left the bar. Michelle was fuming, and wanted to run after him, but I held her as I tried to finish the song in an attempt of levity. It was over. Everyone, including all the white people in the bar were quiet and staring at us as I became another victim of a racist attack. They were glaring at us as if we’d done something wrong.

The next day, I replayed the incident over and over in my head.

I was a bit depressed about it. Again, I am not surprised because Black people have been terrorized for centuries. It is something we live with and sadly you get used to. I have experienced upfront racism plenty of times. On that day however, I felt a form of fatigue. My partner Michelle wanted to talk about it, asking me if I was okay. I thought about my actions: Should I have just ignored the guy? Hit him? Run after him? I shook my head; I’d had enough. I wanted to check out. I wasn’t shaken up about the racist white man; I was just tired of Black folks having to go through this all the time. I then said to myself, damn, sometimes I am just tired of being Black.

I am pretty sure that every Black person has felt this way at one point or another. We become battle weary of fighting racist white people every-day of our lives. There is always something. A comment, a picture, a movie, a song, a murder…… just something that reminds you that you are not white and that your life is a 24/7 fight against white supremacy. When I said that, I thought about locking myself in my house. Turning off the television, shutting down the PC, and putting away my phone. No MSNBC or CNN reporting on the latest white nationalist selection of now President-Elect Trump, no reading of the latest attack of white aggression on Latinos in San Francisco, today’s killing of an unarmed Black man by a police officer, no news of white children yelling n*gger to their African American classmates, and of course, no reading any social media posts from a young liberal Caucasian wanting to hold hands in a weak attempt of solidarity in the face of Trump. I have had enough! I just don’t want to deal with it. But, I then I realize, this is just a fantasy. There will be no reprieve. This is every non-white person’s life. This is my life.

What surprised me is that the man verbally attacked me. I am not saying I am this tough guy that no one messes with, that ain’t the case. However, as a Black man who is somewhat muscular and dark complected, or as the rapper Mos Def said, “I’m Blacker than midnight on Broadway and Myrtle,” white people usually either step out of my way or cross the street when I am coming. White women clutch their purses in fear, stand in the opposite corner from me in elevators, and give me the side eye of death. I am used to being looked at as the scary Black man. That is the price I pay for being a melanated person.

This incident, however felt different as it could be a harbinger for the way society will act.

The election of Donald J. Trump as the forty-fifth president of the United States, has signaled white people to become less refined and more overt about their racist views. The new head of state ran an extremely racist and bigoted campaign, calling Latinos drug dealers, Muslim’s “possible members of Al Qaeda,” and the anti-police terrorism group Black Lives Matter, “terrorists.” Trump drudged up many ugly stereotypes that he knew would connect with white voters and they took the bait: hook, line, and sinker. By winning the most powerful position in politics, Trump validated what many whites wanted and felt—a return to treating non-white people however they felt. The politically-correct shackles were off. Now, I am not saying racism has returned because of the election of Trump; I am not that naïve. Racism is as American as apple pie and baseball. However, within 10 days of the 2016 election, there has been nearly 900 racist attacks in America. I believe there is connection and a possible connection to my run-in on Monday.

At first I had reservations about writing about the incident. Black people face this everyday; I am not special.

My partner, however, urged me to reconsider and I did. I am what they would call in the 50’s and 60’s “a race man.” Writing about the experience of Black and other non-white people is my activism, and in the age of “President Trump” stories like these need to be told now more than ever. It is especially important that people are made aware that incidents like these happen in cities like San Francisco, CA. Many believe that racism happens only in the south, or in states that overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump. However, that is not an accurate understanding of the problem. Racism/white supremacy is a worldwide issue. It is everywhere.

Maybe the people at the bar believe this is how Black people are supposed to be treated? White men being white men? I thought perhaps I should have walked away?

While writing this piece at a restaurant, I had a conversation with a Mexican woman about it. I told her what happened and she was horrified, but said that, “We should have ignored it and moved on.” “If you give them ammunition, they will continue to use it,” the woman suggested. While I disagree with her suggestions, I understand that she is a non-white person and we all have our ways of dealing with racism. That got me thinking: Should I have ignored the man and moved on? As I said earlier, this happens all the time. Maybe that is the reason the crowd was speechless? White men being white men?  Maybe this is acceptable behavior to them? Maybe the people at the bar believe this is how Black people are supposed to be treated? White men being white men? I thought perhaps I should have walked away? I then quickly shook that off. Hell no, I am a fighter. Black people have been way too forgiving to racists and have looked away too many times. I am not built like that. I sometimes think about what my hero Malcolm X would do, and I would like to believe that he would agree with my partner and my actions that night.

Since that night, I have chalked it up to another day in America being Black. I will continue to torch ears when doing karaoke.

I am also thinking of trying out a new song: James Brown’s, “I’m Black and I am Proud.”

Woke: A Bitterly Divided Nation Turns to Trump, and Sees Itself for the First Time

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The revelers began pouring into Brian Nocioni’s* 2nd-floor Brooklyn walk- up at half past 7 on election night, clutching bottles of cabernet and artisanal ales, expecting to exult in a Democrat–however flawed–occupying the White House for at least another four years. Born and bred in New York City, Nocioni–known to practically everyone as “Noch”–and his fiancee, Maria, greeted their guests with a spread that included tequila, tabbouleh, and burritos representing cuisine from countries that Donald Trump insulted during the campaign. As the early results appeared on the television screen, the mood was light, airy, buoyant: glasses clinked, high-fives exchanged, confidence rising like blue-chip stocks in a bull market.

“Florida is looking good,” said one guest. “My friend at the White House says we’re up in there,” said another.

By 9 pm, however,  worry had set in as it became increasingly clear that Hillary Clinton was in trouble. Equal parts bon vivant and organic intellectual, the 30-year-old Noch tried to diffuse the darkening mood by morphing into a partisan hype man–sort of a hybrid Italian Flava Flav and Democratic central committeeman –playing Kendrick Lamar’s hip-hop anthem “Alright,” imploring the nearly 5 dozen people shoehorned like parishioners in his apartment to keep the faith, and warning that no matter who won, people of conscience would have their work cut out for them, organizing for change.

But by midnight, it was all over but the shouting. “I’m gonna get out of here,” said the last guest despairingly, finishing his beer with a kind of theatrical flourish and leaving Noch staring in disbelief at the unthinkable horror unspooling across his television screen while Maria cleaned furiously, as though possessed.  Having to go to work the next morning, Noch crawled into bed shortly after 1 am, followed by Maria a few minutes later. The silence, big and wide like a river, estranged the couple for what seemed like an eternity, when suddenly, Maria began to cry, softly at first, and then louder, until finally she was heaving, her wails punctuating the stillness of the room like an aria of grief and pain. “They’ll never let a woman be president” she wept, clutching Noch’s shirt.

As he wiped the sleep from his eyes the following morning, his phone rang. It was his Dad, a lawyer and lifelong Republican, but from the party’s more moderate wing. He had refused to vote for Donald Trump. “The people have spoken,” his father said, “and now they will suffer.”

This election was not Noch’s first rodeo; he spent his 20s teaching in inner-city schools, mentoring the child of undocumented immigrants, working on Capitol Hill and in Africa, and forming a solar system of friends that seemed to span the breadth and width of the known world, from Cairo to Kampala, Watts to Westchester County.

But like the country itself, Noch woke up November 9 a changed man, almost like some comic-book superhero who had been at once disfigured and energized by some freakish, traumatic accident. And so when he returned to his apartment after a day on the job at a liberal Midtown think-tank, Noch, a devoted Catholic, sat down to his laptop, and began typing out a letter, to New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, beseeching the cardinal to unite the church against the rising tide of racism and xenophobia.

“I’ve never felt this way before in my life, “ Noch wrote me on Facebook the day following the election, “simultaneously distraught and empowered.  The part of the scripture that keeps coming back to my mind right now is that the time has come to set aside childish things. My country is in grave peril. I have the intelligence and the network to fight back.”

“I’ve never felt this way before in my life, “ Noch wrote me on Facebook the day following the election, “simultaneously distraught and empowered.  The part of the scripture that keeps coming back to my mind right now is that the time has come to set aside childish things. My country is in grave peril. I have the intelligence and the network to fight back.”

What is happening to the body politic in the United States is similar to what happens to a human body when it’s been infected with the virus that causes AIDS. The medical professionals who treat and study HIV say that most people will, immediately upon infection, come down with the worst flu of their life, lasting for a period of two weeks. The term for this is seroconversion, meaning that the good blood coursing through your veins is turning bad, and the body becomes weak, sick, feverish during this interregnum.

Trump’s election represents the potentially-fatal infection that the U.S. body politic’s weakened immune system cannot fight off. It’s difficult to say exactly when the country was infected;it’s been engaging in politically risky behavior at least since the late 1960s when the Golden Industrial Age ended, and Richard Nixon codified George Wallace’s tribalism as a coherent political strategy. But certainly, by the early 80s, when HIV was first beginning to spread, the U.S. was sickened, its once robust democratic impulses emaciated and atrophied.

The result is November 8, and a dystopian state, that is unable to respond to its most urgent threats. The people want peace, they get war; the people want jobs, they get lectures; they want an affordable, single-payer health care system and receive instead an insurance cartel with hardly any investment in their patient’s physical well-being.

“If the Republican party had been healthy it could’ve stopped someone like Trump from getting the nomination,” Noch said. “For my generation this is going to be the hardest fight of our lives and it is going to take all of us, all of civil society, working together to repel this infection.”

Whether Trump turns out to be Hitler or Wallace or Huey Long, two things are clear, if either history or math is any indication: the United States is on the verge of a catastrophic collapse, both politically and economically; and secondly, the U.S, has been asleep for so long, that it is perhaps less equipped than any Empire in history to cope with its fatal illness.

This is the beginning of an occasional series in which The Valley will bring you up to speed on the state of an Empire in its twilight, explain what has brought the most formidable economic and military superpower in history to a tragic end, how much darker the days ahead might be, and just how a nation of immigrants can rally, reinvent itself, and redeem its betrayal of a world which it was entrusted to lead.

For now, the most vexing problem that confronts the U.S. is not, with all apologies to Franklin D. Roosevelt, fear, precisely, but rather the ignorance and anger produced by it.

To carry the HIV metaphor to its logical conclusion, friends of the late dancer Rudolf Nureyev  say the celebrated Russian dancer lived in denial after he was diagnosed with the virus, carrying on with business as usual.

He suffered horribly in his last days.

 

 

*Name changed at request of interviewee.

History, and Africans Everywhere, Will Absolve Him: Fidel Castro’s Singular Example of Racial Solidarity

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My late father was born nine days before New Year’s’ Day of 1932, at the height of the Great Depression, to the son of a slave, who fled the Jim Crow South for the Midwestern job market near the turn of the last century. The old man worked so much when I was young–by day making engine blocks at the Chrysler factory on Indianapolis west side, then as a night janitor cleaning up at a Nabisco cookie factory—that I seldom saw him during the week, and got to know him, really, by lazing with him on weekend afternoons in the tiny bedroom I shared with my older brother, watching him watch our small black-and-white television with a misshapen clothes hanger for an antenna.

What I remember, vividly is how bone-tired he typically was, and while he seldom seemed to actually sleep, he laid there, on my brother’s twin bed, still as a stone. But no matter how weary he appeared, he would sit up, with a start, whenever either of two people materialized on the miniature screen,  scramble to his feet, and approach the chest-high, unfinished pine dresser upon which the tv was perched. Then,  leaning in close as though he was either half-blind or hard of hearing, he he would cheer them on, mumbling unintelligibly and laughing, almost maniacally,  in that guttural, baritone  howl of his that seemed to rumble through his body and the ground below.

One was a funny, fast-talking boxer I later came to know as Muhammad Ali, and the other was a bearded, cigar-chomping soldier who spoke with an accent named Fidel Castro. He seemed so happy to see both men that I remember wondering if my father knew both men personally.

His affection for Castro and Ali endured until he died nearly six years ago. When I was a teenager in the early 1980s during the Reagan era, I remember asking my father once why he liked Castro so much. At once the coarsest and gentlest man I have ever known, my father smiled slyly, raised the middle finger of his right hand to me, and said: “Because Casto has been doing this to the white man for 20 years.”

Like most African-Americans of his generation who were radicalized by post war independence movements at home and abroad, my father was politically astute if formally uneducated. And having endured practically every humiliation a man could suffer at the hands of other men, he found some measure of redemption in Castro’s triumph.

Like most African-Americans of his generation who were radicalized by post war independence movements at home and abroad, my father was politically astute if formally uneducated. And having endured practically every humiliation a man could suffer at the hands of other men, he found some measure of redemption in Castro’s triumph.

“Cuba,’ says the narrator of the splendid 2007 documentary Cuba: An African Odyssey, “ was living proof that David could beat Goliath.”

Thumb through the photo album of Africans’ global struggle for dignity and self-determination over the past half-century, and you are bound to see the avuncular smile, the unkempt beard, the military fatigues, the half-bitten cigar hovering somewhere in the frame: from Angola to Zimbabwe, Maurice Bishop to Amilcar Cabral, the Black Power Movement to the Bolivarian Revolution, Castro’s Cuba has been the sun around which Black revolution orbits.   

To be sure, a big part of my father’s fondness for Castro lay in the aesthetics, and the almost casual symbolic gestures that conferred upon Blacks a humanity that white settler states typically reserved for their own: the ease with which he checked into Harlem’s Hotel Theresa Hotel when none of the midtown hotels would have him; the warmth with which he would embrace Mandela, or the ferocity with which he vowed to protect Assata Shakur, or how comfortable he appeared in the company of Malcolm X, as though the two were childhood friends who’d bumped into one another unexpectedly at the neighborhood barber shop.

And then there was his fearlessness; Castro didn’t just confront the villainous rogues gallery of white settler villainy, he taunted them, like schoolyard bullies put on blast: Reagan, Rhodesia’s Ian Smith, South Africa’s P.W. Botha.

“The history of Africa is at a turning point,” he said in 1987 after famously sending more than 3,000 Cuban soldiers to defend a key Angolan stronghold from an onslaught by U.S.-supported rebels and apartheid South African Defense Forces. “They will write about ‘before Cuito Cuanavale’ and ‘after Cuito Cuanavale’ because the power of South Africa, the whites, the ‘superior race’ has come unstuck in a little parcel of land defended by blacks and mulattoes . . .I believe we are witnessing the beginning of the end of the apartheid.”

He was right. Not even three years later, South Africa’s white minority government freed Nelson Mandela from prison and rescinded its ban on the African National Congress, and three years after that, it was a wrap, when voters of all races went to the polls for the first time.

Years later, Mandela and others would point to the battle of Cuito Cuanavale as a turning point–and perhaps the turning point after the 1976 Soweto riots which revived a moribund struggle–because it demonstrated that the apartheid military was not invincible, and that the dragon, could indeed be slain.

As the South African writer, Sean Jacobs wrote in Wednesday’s Guardian newspaper:

The cold war ended a long time ago, but Cuba continues its involvement on the African continent, including training Africans in Cuban universities. During the Ebola outbreak in three west African countries, even Cuba’s US critics had to acknowledge the Cuban contribution to alleviating the crisis. At one point during the Ebola crisis, Cuba – a country with only 11 million people – had supplied the largest contingent of foreign medical personnel by any single nation working alongside African medics.

Despite its profanity, the hip-hop classic, One Mic, by the rapper Nas, has always reminded me of Fidel’s legacy:

I let this shit slide for too many years, too many times

Now I’m strapped with a couple of MACs, too many 9’s

If y’all niggas really with me, get busy, load up the semis

Do more than just hold it, explode the clip until you’re empty

There’s nothing in our way,

They bust, we bust, they rush, we rush

Lead flying, feel it, I feel it in my gut

That we take these bitches to war, lie ‘em down

Cause we stronger now, my nigga, the time is now

This was Castro’s essence. In the context of a global revolutionary struggle between the oppressor and the oppressed, it was Castro’s deeds, not his words, that explain his towering, iconography, and imbues it with meaning; that explains why the very thought of Castro animated my weary father with a pride, and a joy that I seldom saw, and why across the world today, the people of African descent, as much as anyone, are mourning his death.

Seven years ago, I attended a panel discussion in Harlem with a delegation of Cuban women who were in New York City for a United Nations conference. The mostly-Black crowd was welcoming for the most part–there was one father who reported that his daughter had just graduated from a Havana medical school without buying so much as a single textbook– but there was one middle-aged Black man who angrily demanded the panelists explain why racism still existed in Castro’s Cuba.

After a rant about his personal experiences during a trip to Cuba, one of the women took the microphone, and as best I can remember, politely said: “It is true that there is still racism in Cuba. We have not quite managed to eliminate in 50 years what has existed for 500 years previously. But having said that, I would say that with all its flaws, Cuba has created the most socially advanced society in the world today, for women, and for all people of color.”

The room fell so silent that you could’ve heard the proverbial gnat piss on cotton in Georgia. A few weeks later, I had lunch uptown with a Black woman friend of mine who had attended the event, and we were discussing Castro, and how one of the things that most endeared him to Blacks was his acknowledgment of his failures, and his adherence to Amilcar Cabral’s dictum, Claim No Easy Victories.

At one point, she said this:

“You know, going back to the (Brazilian) quilombos and the abolitionists, there have always been whites who have articulated a kind of class solidarity with Blacks. Here in the U.S. we’ve got John Brown, and people like Marlon Brando back in the day. Black South Africans had Joe Slovo, and Caribbean Blacks had Simon Bolivar. And (assassinated Swedish Prime Minister) Olof Palme was a great man.

But to my knowledge, the African Diaspora has never, ever, since the first white man stepped foot on the continent 500 years ago, seen a white man quite like Fidel Castro.”