Some Late Justice for Victor Jara – posted 7/8/2016

July 8, 2016 2 comments

Throughout history, accountability for political torture and murder has been exceedingly rare. The world is full of unpunished crimes. Horrible things happen and, more often than not, perpetrators act with impunity.

It is typically impossible to get foreign war criminals into an American courtroom. And we generally do not look too hard at our own war crimes.

So it was a total shock when I saw that on June 27 a Florida jury returned a guilty verdict in a civil trial against the murderer of Victor Jara. No one symbolizes the struggle for human rights in Latin America better than Victor Jara.

Jara was a leading Chilean folksinger, songwriter, theater director, activist and supporter of the socialist government of Salvador Allende. I have heard him described as a Chilean version of a cross between Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. Jara was executed in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 1973 military coup that overthrew the Allende government.

The coup led by General Augusto Pinochet initiated a very dark chapter in Chilean history. It is estimated that 3,100 victims were either killed or disappeared by Pinochet’s dictatorship. An estimated 29,000 people were tortured by Pinochet’s forces in the years following the coup.

The day of the coup, Jara went to work at the Santiago Technical University where he was a professor and researcher. He had a date to sing at an event with Allende later that day. Jara did not come home.

His wife Joan waited for a week not knowing what had happened to him. A young man came to the Jara home on September 18 and told Joan that Victor’s body had been recognized in the city morgue. Victor had been very well known. He was very popular in Chile.

Joan Jara accompanied the young man to the morgue where she saw hundreds of bodies piled up in a parking area. She was able to identify Victor’s body and save him from disposal in a mass grave.

It took years for Joan Jara to find out what happened to her husband. On the day of the coup, the military arrested him. The military detained him, along with thousands of others, in Chile Stadium. He was beaten badly at the university and then later tortured for three days at the stadium.

While there are many stories about his torture, the amputation of his fingers by the military, and his singing to the other prisoners before his death, a forensic pathologist found he sustained a single bullet wound through the back of his head. When Joan Jara and other family members claimed his corpse, they found he had been shot 44 times, his wrists were broken and his face was disfigured from beatings.

On the 40th anniversary of Jara’s death, Joan Jara filed a civil lawsuit in Florida against a former military officer Pedro Barrientos, a lieutenant under Pinochet who had command responsibility at Chile Stadium. Joan Jara filed her lawsuit under the Torture Victims Protection Act, a federal civil statute that allows American courts to hear about human rights abuses committed outside the United States.

The trial presented a wealth of information about what happened at Chile Stadium. Several witnesses who had been Chilean military conscripts identified Barrientos as Jara’s murderer. Other witnesses testified that Barrientos had repeatedly bragged that he was the one who shot and killed Victor Jara.

The jury found Barrientos liable for Jara’s torture and murder and awarded his wife and daughters $28 million in punitive and compensatory damages.

Barrientos had fled Chile in 1989 and he became a U.S.citizen through marriage. According to Peter Kornbluh, a reporter for the Nation Magazine, Barrientos misrepresented his involvement in the 1973 coup when he filed his naturalization application. Barrientos has lived in Deltona, Florida.

In 2012, he was one of eight retired officers indicted for Jara’s murder in Chile. In 2013, the Chilean government formally requested Barrientos’ extradition back to Chile. For whatever reason, the U.S. Department of Justice has not yet responded to Chile’s request.

Complicating the pursuit of justice is a blanket amnesty passed in Chile in 1980, when Pinochet was still in power, which absolves all government officials of any wrongdoing. Pinochet died in 2006 but the remnants of his old regime have tried and are still trying to throw a veil over their human rights atrocities.

Why should Americans care about Victor Jara and these sad events that happened more than 40 years ago?

I would say that Jara’s murder is fundamentally a matter of justice that transcends national boundaries. As a symbol of the struggle for human rights in Latin America, his example and accountability for his torture and murder matter. If torturers and murderers can act with impunity, the likelihood of future torture atrocities increases everywhere in the world. Making torturers pay for their crimes has some disincentive value.

We also need to recognize the American role in these events. While it is disputed, there is substantial evidence that our government bears a degree of responsibility both for the 1973 Chilean military coup and for the gross violations of human rights that occurred in Chile and more generally in Latin America in the 1970’s. We trained the Latin American military dictatorships in how to torture.

There are many layers to this story. The writer, Isabel Allende,a relative of Salvador Allende, explained it this way:

“On September 11, 1973, a military coup ended a century of democratic tradition in Chile and started the long reign of General Augusto Pinochet. Similar coups followed in other countries, and soon half the continent’s population was living in terror. This was a strategy designed in Washington and imposed upon the Latin American people by the economic and political forces of the right. In every instance the military acted as mercenaries to the privileged groups in power. Repression was organized on a large scale; torture, concentration camps, censorship, imprisonment without trial, and summary execution became common practices. Thousands of people “disappeared”, masses of exiles and refugees left their countries running for their lives.”

I personally cared about these events because the Chilean revolution was a thunderbolt that rocked my political world. Conventional wisdom had previously dictated that no socialist government could ever be democratically elected. The 1970 election of the Popular Unity government led by Allende and his 1973 reelection showed that was not true.

Chile symbolized the electoral viability of democratic socialism. The coup, on the other hand, was a devastating rejoinder.

I recall Henry Kissinger’s oft-quoted, reprehensible quote from the time: “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”

The Jara trial revealed a tremendous need to fill in gaps in the public record about what happened in Chile and more generally in Latin America in the years from 1973-1980. Much effort has gone into concealing the history.

The best American political tradition is committed to transparency and intellectual honesty. The public deserves to know the truth. There is a seamy underside to the American role in supporting Pinochet and the other torturing Latin American regimes that included Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay. The full extent of the American role in the Chilean coup has not been revealed. Nor do we know the American role in Operation Condor, Pinochet’s plan, in conjunction with other Latin American militaries, to eliminate his perceived enemies all over the world.

The verdict in Jara’s trial is a long-overdue victory for his family and brings a measure of accountability for the egregious human rights violations of the Pinochet regime . Life can be so surprising. I never expected to see justice for Victor Jara, and finally, it has come.

Lore Krüger’s Life of Exile – posted 6/25/2016

June 25, 2016 3 comments

Immigration is so much in the news these days and there has been no shortage of demagoguery. Now the hating against immigrants is directed at Mexicans and Muslims. I wanted to tell a different kind of immigration story. Because it is little known, I wanted to tell the story of Lore Heinemann Krüger, a Jewish woman who survived the Nazis.

When I was in Paris in May, I went to the Jewish Museum of Art and History. The museum currently has a photography exhibit featuring Krüger’s work. The photos were shot between 1934-1944. Krüger was a pioneer among avant-garde female photographers. Her work was eclectic: she photographed street scenes, workers, gypsies, young Parisians as well as classic still life shots like bowls of cherries. She experimented with highly original and creative techniques that were ahead of her time.

The photos only became public in 2015 when they were displayed at the Gallery C/O Berlin in Germany. Krüger, who died in 2009, did not live to see the exhibition. She had managed to safeguard some of her photos in big folders she kept under her sofa. While much of her work did not survive, about 250 photos remain, of which about 100 are displayed.

Lore Krüger was born in 1914 in the central German city of Magdeburg. On her 10th birthday, her father gave her a camera. She was passionate about photography and she immediately started taking shots.

Krüger’s family was Jewish. With the rise of Hitler and anti-semitism, peril increased. As the Jews achieved pariah status, few friends remained loyal. Most acquaintances kept a wary distance from the family. Lore Krüger had worked as a typist at a savings bank.

On April 1, 1933, after Hitler came to power, Krüger witnessed a “Jew Boycott” and attacks on Jewish stores, offices and medical practices. Krüger later wrote:

“Never in my life will I forget this day. All over town, members of the SA in their brown uniforms with swastika armbands were standing guard in front of buildings in which Jewish doctors or lawyers practiced, or in front of Jewish stores. On the shop windows and nameplates they had smeared the word ‘Jew’ or ‘don’t buy from the Jews – the Jews are our enemies!’ in huge letters.

In 1933, at age 19, Krüger decided to leave Germany. With help from a rabbi friend, she was able to obtain work as an au pair in England. Her parents and sister also fled Germany, moving to Mallorca, a Mediterranean island off Spain.

Krüger ended up joining the rest of her family in 1934 after failing to get an extension of her visa in England. She apprenticed with a photographer in Barcelona. She was also able to study with Florence Henri, a renowned photographer who lived in Paris. Paris was a refuge for exiled European artists and intellectuals escaping fascism. She became friendly with the philosopher Walter Benjamin and the author Arthur Koestler. Both lived in the building where she was staying.

While in Paris, Krüger became more interested in politics. She studied at the Paris-based German Free University, an anti-fascist and communist-oriented evening school. She wrote a dissertation on Nazi ideology. There is a quote in her art exhibition that reflects the change in her life:

“Art was my principal preoccupation, everything revolved around it but politics was increasingly taking over my life.”

As a German anti-fascist, Krüger realized that the world was insufficiently aware of the barbarism Hitler represented. In that time, only the left wing press wrote about the danger the fascists represented. Krüger wrote that the Nazis owned much of the right wing press in France.

In 1936, when the Spanish Civil War broke out, Krüger supported the Republican side. Her husband-to-be, Ernst Krüger, a German union leader and communist, had fought in Spain. Lore Krüger worked to promote secret distribution of books with anti-Nazi content into the Reich.

Krüger travelled to Mallorca to visit her parents. Things were sticky because the Falangists, the Spanish fascists allied with Hitler, controlled the island. A Republican regiment landed on Mallorca and contested control of the island. After a battle lasting several days, the Republican forces lost. Krüger’s parents knew an officer who allowed Lore entry into the war zone. She went there with her camera. She wrote:

“I will never forget the stench of the corpses filling that completely deserted place. The inhabitants had left suddenly, all the doors were open. Corpses of young people littered the streets. Franco’s troops had poured petrol over them and set them alight. I will never forget that sight. My heart bled but I said to myself, “You must take photographs, you musn’t think about anything else!”

Krüger had a very difficult time returning to Paris. The Spanish police confiscated most of her photos when she left Mallorca. In April 1939, Franco’s fascist forces, with huge help from Hitler, won the Spanish Civil War and they tightened the noose on Jews. The authorities told Krüger’s parents to leave Mallorca within 10 days. Unable to get a visa to a safe country and afraid of falling into the hands of the Spanish police or the Germans, Krüger’s parents committed suicide together. They had a realistic fear of torture at the hands of the fascists or removal to a concentration camp.

Lore Krüger did not find out about her parents’ suicide until years later. Both parents wrote their children absolutely heart-rending letters explaining their decision. Those letters are displayed in the photo exhibition.

After the Germans invaded France in May 1940, Lore and her sister Gisela were imprisoned in an internment camp in southern France. They were considered “hostile foreigners”. Both were freed months later. Since they lacked a residence permit, the only route of escape they saw was to leave Europe by ship from Marseille. They hoped to get to Mexico, a country that took in anti-fascists, Spanish Republicans and their families.

Lore, her future husband, and her sister were all able to get to Marseille with forged papers. Both the journey to Marseille and the next six months in Marseille where they hid out were fraught with great danger. They knew that if they were caught they could be handed over to the Gestapo. With help from the French Vichy government, the Germans were combing through lists of people who had been in camps and they were hunting down opponents.

Lore lived in constant fear of raids. She and her little band moved constantly, staying in cinemas and hotels that charged by the hour. In May 1941 they finally were able to get a collective visa that allowed all three to leave for Mexico on a cargo ship, the Winnipeg.

En route to Mexico a Dutch gunboat captured the Winnipeg. The gunboat forced the passengers to go to the island of Trinidad. From there, Krüger appealed to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, an organization of Americans who had fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. The Lincoln Brigade raised the money and helped with the transit visa to get to New York. The Krügers settled into a small apartment in Long Island City. Because of a law change, they were never able to get to Mexico.

Once in New York, the Krügers helped to found an anti-fascist newspaper, the German American. Krüger worked on the paper from May 1942 until 1944. Writers for the paper included Bertolt Brecht, Heinrich Mann, and Lion Feuchtwanger. Krüger wanted to demonstrate that not all Germans were Nazis. In the photo exhibition, Krüger is quoted saying that she believed there were many Nazi sympathizers in the United States at the time, especially in the press.

Krüger was especially concerned about the lack of an anti-fascist press. She wrote:

“The first number of The German American came out in May 1942. The editorial entitled “What we want” stated that out of the more than two hundred newspapers and reviews published in the United States, including more than a dozen dailies, there was not a single anti-fascist paper, not even during the war.”

After the war, in 1946, the Krügers returned to Germany to live. Krüger wrote, “who should bring about a change in Germany… if not German anti-fascists everywhere in the world, if they didn’t return.”

In 1947, Lore became ill. She came down with a case of diptheria and she sustained heart damage. She did not continue with photography after that. She became an English to German translator in the later part of her career. Among other books, she translated “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, “Robinson Crusoe” and books by Doris Lessing, Joseph Conrad and Henry James.

Krüger died on March 3, 2009.

In a very dark time, she lived an honorable life of principle and artistic self-expression. As we face the growth of extreme right wing and fascist parties around the world, Krüger’s example shines bright.

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The Opportunistic Use of Impeachment to Undermine Democracy in Brazil – posted 6/12/2016

June 12, 2016 1 comment

I think it is fair to say that any news of Brazil is scarce in the United States. We generally pay little attention to news outside our country, unless it is about terrorism.

When I was recently in France, I was surprised how much TV news coverage there was about the impeachment of the Brazilian president, Dilma Rousseff. It was the lead news story everyday I was there in early May.

Rousseff is currently suspended from office for 180 days, pending a full impeachment trial in Brazil’s Senate.

To the extent Americans are paying attention to Brazil, focus turns to the Zika virus and the upcoming Olympic games this summer, The Olympics will be held in Rio in August.

Much of the discussion about Brazil on French TV looked at the question of whether the impeachment of President Rousseff was, in fact, a coup d’etat by the right wing opposition. The reasons for President Rousseff’s removal seem murky at best. She has not been charged with stealing money or any crime.

Brazil’s legislature voted to suspend President Rousseff from office over accusations that she had tampered with government accounts to hide a budget shortfall. On its face, this hardly seems like any basis for impeachment. Governments of the political left or right routinely do misleading things to try and look better. I would say the Brazilian impeachment effort is on a par with the effort to impeach President Clinton for his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

The common thread is the bogus use of impeachment to try and reverse an electoral verdict. The party that cannot win an election resorts to a shortcut replacement strategy. In politically polarized countries, especially those with a weaker democratic tradition than our own, impeachment then becomes an undemocratic substitute for legitimate election.

Out of frustration, Brazil’s political right has now embarked on the shortcut method because it has not been able to win an election in the last four election cycles.

Noam Chomsky, the famous scholar/activist, called the Brazil impeachment ” a kind of soft coup”. He said Rousseff is “being impeached by a gang of thieves”. Chomsky is alluding to the fact that many of the figures behind the impeachment effort are themselves being investigated for corruption.

Folha de Sao Paulo, a Brazilian daily paper, ran a widely-read story which suggested the aim of the impeachment process was an effort to stifle a massive corruption inquiry known in Brazil as the “Car Wash” probe. Many of the figures in Brazil promoting impeachment against Rousseff are themselves being investigated.

Leaked recordings show the planning minister in the new government, Romero Juca, discussing the impeachment process as a way of stopping the Car Wash inquiry into corruption at Petrobus, the state oil company. Petrobus is Brazil’s largest corporation and it is one of the world’s largest oil companies. There are actually seven ministers in the new government implicated in the investigation.

The leaked conversations also revealed that some of the politicians under investigation were secretly conspiring with members of the Brazilian Supreme Court and the military. So we have a situation where the right wing interim president and some of his allies face actual corruption charges while they engineer the ouster of a president charged with no crime.

To appreciate this black comedy, it helps to place Brazil’s current political situation in a historical context. The writer Eduardo Galeano described Brazil this way:

“There is no country in the world as unequal as Brazil. Some analysts even speak of the Brazilianization of the planet in sketching a portrait of the world to come. By “Brazilianization”, they certainly don’t mean the spread of irrepressible soccer, spectacular carnivals or music that awakens the dead, marvels that make Brazil shine brightest; rather they’re describing the imposition of a model of progress based on social injustice and racial discrimination, where economic growth only increases poverty and exclusion.”

Galeano’s words were written in the late 1990’s before the election of Lula and the center-left Workers’ Party, Since the early 2000’s, the Workers’ Party has won four consecutive national elections. Luis Ignacio da Silva or as he is known in Brazil, Lula, has been the leader of the Workers’ Party and he is probably the most popular president in Brazil’s history. He left office in 2010 and Dilma Rousseff replaced him. Rousseff was first elected in 2010 by a 56-44 per cent margin and she was reelected in 2014 with a reduced margin of 52-48 per cent.

During Lula’s presidency, Brazil’s economy boomed. He also presided over a very significant redistribution of wealth. The real minimum wage rose 70%. The government created 21 million new jobs and it also created the Bolsa Familia, a federal assistance program which provided financial aid to poor Brazilian families.

Lula has been widely credited with dramatically reducing poverty and hunger. Lula called his program Zero Hunger. He also promoted an expansion of higher education. Professor Alfredo Saad-Filho of the University of London described the Brazilian change:

“For the first time, the poor could access education as well as income and bank loans. They proceeded to study, earn and borrow, and to occupy spaces, literally, previously the preserve of the upper-middle class: airports, shopping malls, banks, private health facilities, and roads, with the latter clogged up by cheap cars purchased on seventy-two easy payments. The government enjoyed a comfortable majority in a highly fragmented Congress, and Lula’s legendary political skills managed to keep most of the political elite on his side.”

But then, on President Rousseff’s watch, things deteriorated. The present crisis is very much the product of a declining economy, a strengthened right wing opposition, corruption, including in the Workers” Party, and powerful right wing media controlled by the Brazilian oligarchs. Imagine Fox News as every network. That is close to the Brazilian reality. The confluence of these factors created the political power grab opportunity.

Democracy remains fragile although Brazil has made enormous strides toward the construction of a more inclusive and just social system. It is not that long ago in 1964 when the Brazilian military staged a coup and overthrew the democratically elected government of then-President Joao Goulart, a mild social democratic reformer.

For 21 years until 1985, the Brazilian military imposed a brutal dictatorship on the people. The military became infamous and hated for, among other things, the use of extreme torture techniques applied against dissidents. Torture victims included President Rousseff herself. During the military dictatorship in the late 60’s until 1970, Rousseff was an underground guerrilla, fighting the regime. Rousseff was captured by the military in 1970 and she was detained for three years without trial.

Her interrogations started with punching, electric shock and then there were sessions of “pau de arara” (suspension from a rod by the hands and feet). She was often beaten and her torturers threatened to disfigure her. They dislocated her jaw and that problem still causes her difficulty. In court proceedings later, Rousseff denounced her own torture and named names of those who tortured her.

A Truth Commission found 434 people were killed or disappeared during the dictatorship. Thousands more experienced beatings, electric shock, sexual violations and psychological torture. The report named 377 people it said were involved in human rights abuses, of whom 196 are still alive. The torturers have so far escaped criminal prosecution. There is a 1979 amnesty law which prevents those who committed abuses from being tried or punished.

Since the military coup in 1964, a body of evidence has appeared showing the role of the United States in assisting the Brazilian military in its coup efforts. The extent of the U.S. role remains in dispute. There is also strong evidence showing the American and British role in training the Brazilian military in torture techniques.

To appreciate the gravity of the present crisis, the history of the military dictatorship must be mentioned. It remains a tricky challenge how Brazil will be able to constructively move forward without reverting to increased economic injustice and authoritarianism. The impeachment of President Rousseff is a step in the wrong direction.

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Fashioning a Bold Progressive Vision for the 21st Century – posted 5/29/2016

May 29, 2016 3 comments

It is common to hear that our upcoming national election is a change election. Sometimes the success of the candidacies of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are explained by saying that they are change candidates running against the status quo. The appeal is that both are not “more of the same”.

The problem with that characterization is the meaninglessness of the word “change”. It is just a cloudy vagueness with multiple possible interpretations.

On the Democratic side, we have the debate between the incrementalist change represented by Hillary Clinton and the big change represented by Bernie Sanders. I think we have a pretty good idea what incrementalist change is about but what would big change mean now for the United States?

You rarely see a fleshed-out vision of that so I will offer my own take. In offering this vision, I have not reviewed the platform of any candidate, including Sanders, nor have I consulted with any campaign.

Before outlining my ideas, I would add that both progressives and conservatives can be legitimately criticized for the staleness of their ideas. Neither major party has kept up with the magnitude of the changes we actually do need. I should also say that I offer this vision with a keen awareness of the obstacles in the path of its realization.

First and foremost, big change in 2016 requires an assault on income inequality. I think that is central. We need to be increasing the power and income of ordinary working people. Things have been way skewed in America toward the accumulation of extreme wealth for the 1%. Now it should be everybody else’s turn.

People in more equal societies live longer, healthier, and happier lives. Although not widely recognized, equality benefits everyone.

It is not just raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. We need a moratorium on all layoffs and wage cuts. We should be reducing the interest rates on all credit cards and mortgage debt. Predatory lending needs to be more closely scrutinized and prohibited.

We need a massive rebuilding of our infrastructure, especially mass transit. Such a publicly subsidized program could offer good job opportunities to millions of people who are on the margins. This would be a modern day new New Deal.

We have a genuine career crisis in America. Good-paying, stable jobs with benefits and pensions have become an endangered species. Instead of long-term career jobs rewarded by greater income commensurate with lengthy service, more jobs have become temporary, contingent or part-time. We need better quality jobs that offer a future – not just a chance to be exploited.

Our brand of capitalism has failed to address so many crises. Young people, if they are fortunate enough to go to college, are paying ridiculous sums to emerge into an economy with not enough opportunity. Public college should be free or way less cost than it is now. The cost of college is a scandal. Young people should not be coming out of college buried in debt.

Those not going to college also need career paths that offer vocational opportunity at a liveable wage. Jobs like caring for children, older people and the sick deserve greater pay based on the principle that such jobs are a public good.

We need to totally rethink the role of senior citizens who will be becoming a larger part of our population. There is a wealth of knowledge and experience there. Seniors need to be treated as a valuable resource. Instead of putting people out to pasture early, we need to integrate seniors and use them more as mentors. Too many seniors are shunted aside when they could be contributing and could be a part of community life. Seniors deserve so much better than lives of loneliness, isolation, and financial privation.

We should consider a 30 hour work week for 40 hours pay. People could have six hour shifts and be paid for eight hours. I believe people would come to work with more energy and focus. It has been roughly 80 years since we moved to the 40 hour week. I think it is time for a shorter work week. A shorter work week would allow more people employment while allowing workers time for other pursuits outside work.

I also like the idea of five week mandatory paid vacation for all Americans. People in America are working too much for too little. Everybody needs a break.

We should have free, publicly provided quality childcare as well as paid family and medical leave. France has very successfully created such a national childcare system so that families pay far less out of pocket than we do.

We should move in the direction of publicly financed, affordable multiple-dwelling rental housing. Along with a universal right to health care, we should create a right to housing. There are way too many evictions and foreclosures. We need a major program to finance high quality, affordable housing. Homelessness is not acceptable in the 21st century.

I know many will say we cannot afford all of these ideas. My answer would be a stronger, progressive tax code. Progressive taxation is an absolutely honorable and time-tested principle. The current tax system grossly favors the rich and they can easily afford to pay much more. Creative tax lawyers should not be able to give the rich a free ride by stashing money in tax shelters , Swiss banks and the Cayman Islands.

Nor should the rich be able to buy elections. Citizens United and its ilk must be overturned. It is utterly undemocratic for billionaires to purchase election results like they are just another commodity for sale.

For a country of such extraordinary wealth and natural resources, the Unites States has devolved into a country with shocking levels of poverty. These places of poverty are what the journalist Chris Hedges has called “sacrifice zones”.

I grew up in the Philadelphia area so I will cite the familiar example of Camden, New Jersey. I think that city is typical of how a city dramatically declines. I will mention some features of such places: environmental degradation, job flight followed by joblessness, poor schools, too much violence and drugs, bad housing, and lower life expectancy. These places are largely ignored and written off by the powers-that-be.

Big change would mean we do not ignore such places. Progressives must stand for abolition of poverty. Places like Camden or Flint, Michigan might be the worst examples but hopelessly poor neighborhoods exist in many parts of this country and they are not limited to any racial group. Such poor neighborhoods should become a thing of the past.

In the United States, we need to regain a sense of the collective mission and purpose of our country. The country needs to be for the people – not for a handful of billionaires. We need to be asking: what do the masses of people in the United States need?

It is not more wars and militarism. Over the last generation, we have been led astray on imperialist adventures. We should be done with stupid wars. Between Vietnam and Iraq, we have more than had our fill. While there are real threats out there, we must be much more circumspect about what constitutes a genuine threat to our national security. Our military-industrial complex is too large and its appetites will promote much more needless loss of life.

We do need to recognize climate change and we must stop ignoring the overwhelming consensus of scientists who warn us about it. The climate change deniers are an absurdity and have had too much sway. Moving beyond fossil fuels and toward environmentally sustainable energy is a no-brainer. The environmental challenges cut far deeper than is being acknowledged. We need to fight the ongoing mass extinction of biodiversity and we need to protect wilderness and prevent habitat destruction. Human life is integrally intertwined with our fellow species. We are failing to recognize that exterminating other species threatens humanity.

I would be remiss if I did not mention our original sins – racism against Native Americans and African-Americans. It is not like that has been adequately addressed. Denial still reigns. It is past time to own up and figure out an agenda that is intellectually honest and just. At the very least we need to stop allowing suppression of the vote. Such a low percentage of people vote in America. We should be doing everything to increase popular vote. I agree with Senator Sanders’ idea that we have a Democracy Day national holiday so that everyone has the time and opportunity to vote. We also may want to allow weekend voting.

I also feel compelled to mention defense of women’s reproductive rights. The anti-choice movement has chipped away for years now at the rights established by Roe v Wade. The extremism of that movement has created an environment where fanatics feel justified targeting and murdering doctors. Progressives must defend choice. It is sad that in an article about progressive vision, I am advocating an undeniably defensive action but there is a clear and present danger to women across the country and these rights must be protected.

Also we need to stop blaming undocumented immigrants. They did not bring the economy to its knees or move jobs to China. They are being scapegoated. Ideas like building a wall or banning Muslims from entry in the United States do not constitute change; such ideas are know-nothing reaction.

I know plenty of people will read these ideas and they will attack them as socialist. In this, they will be wrong. Socialism is about control over the means of production by working class people. The big changes I have outlined are only about fairness and fit more in the social democratic tradition.

The range of ideas allowed for serious discussion by Republicans and Democrats is far too narrow. I offer these ideas as a basis for further discussion and debate. Capitalism is consigning masses of working people, including in New Hampshire, to a permanent underclass. Maybe it is time to think big.

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Letter from Paris – posted 5/10/2016 and published in the Concord Monitor on 5/15/2016

May 10, 2016 1 comment

May 10, 2016.

Dear Readers:

I just had a chance to visit Paris for two weeks. What an awesome, friendly city! If there is a more beautiful, majestic city anywhere, I have not seen it. As has been written, Paris is a moveable feast. The art, the architecture, the history, the people, the food – so vital and alive.

Do not believe the hype scaring people into staying home and not travelling. Even in early May, the city is packed with tourists from everywhere. While security is heightened, Paris has quickly moved on from the terrorist attacks of last year.

I arrived in Paris right before May Day, international workers’ day. It is one of the biggest holidays of the year in France. There was a huge demonstration turnout of the French labor movement and all left wing political parties.

The left political tradition remains very vibrant in France. It appears to me that workers in France are more aware of their rights as well as being more class conscious than their American counterparts. The labor movement in France is certainly stronger than it is in the United States.

Interestingly, May Day actually originated in America. In the late 19th century American workers were fighting for an 8 hour work day. It was quite common for workers in America to be working 10 to 16 hours a day in unsafe conditions. May Day started as a commemoration of the Haymarket affair in Chicago which was part of the effort for legal establishment of the 8 hour day.

This year, France is bitterly divided over a new proposed labor law reform. Much of the focus of the May Day demonstration was on the law, dubbed “El Khomri’s law”, after Myriam El Khomri, France’s Labor Minister. The Socialist government of President Francois Hollande initiated the reform, ostensibly to address high unemployment which stands at over 10%.

The reform has been met by furious opposition from the left. Much of the right wing and business community response seems favorably disposed to the law changes.

France’s labor code applies to all workers in the country so the labor law reform is hugely consequential.

The reform has multiple components. Among other provisions, it could lengthen the prescribed work week to 48 hours or even more. The French work week is currently 35 hours. As someone said to me this week, the French do not live to work – they work to live. The legislation considerably reduces the bonus paid to employees who work more than 35 hours in a week.

It also would allow employers greater flexibility in hiring and firing employees. In France, workers who lose their jobs without “just cause” are eligible to seek compensation. So if you are laid off, you can seek legal damages for unfair dismissal. Employers typically have to make a settlement based on your length of employment.

The new proposed law would lower the limit on money damages. Under the reform, workers would get less compensation.

The reform would also permit firms to negotiate “offensive agreements” at the company level. Such agreements could undercut existing standards on pay rates, working hours and other aspects of the labor contract. Previously, employers have not had the ability to do this as such changes were a violation of labor law.

The changes would be highly beneficial to business. French business has long complained that workers in France have too many rights. They believe French law is full of too rigid labor law restrictions and too many regulations.

The struggle over the labor law reform has prompted the creation of a new movement, Nuit Debout, which has been compared to our Occupy Wall Street. Nuit Debout means “arise at night”. For several months now, Nuit Debout activists have occupied Place de la Republique, a part of Paris, much like how Occupy activists camped out in New York City, Manchester and other cities.

Nuit Debout reflects an anger French young people feel at the French system as well as disillusionment with the dominant political parties. Nuit Debout demonstrations have popped up all over France. It remains unclear where Nuit Debout is heading but every night activists have been gathering in public assemblies at Place de la Republique and venting. Nuit Debout does want the bill on the labor law withdrawn.

I have been struck by historical parallels and convergences with things American in France. Our revolutions happened only 13 years apart, in 1776 and 1789. Thomas Jefferson helped Lafayette to write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, passed by France’s National Constituent Assembly in August 1789, which was a founding French revolutionary document. That Declaration recognized rights to liberty, property, safety and resistance to repression. The document asserted that all citizens were equal.

Jefferson was actually in Paris in 1789. He was the United States Minister to France, succeeding Benjamin Franklin. When the Bastille fell in 1789, Lafayette sent the key of that prison to Washington to express his sense of indebtedness to the Americans. Jefferson felt the French Revolution would act to confirm the American Revolution.

Although it is not well known, in February 1794, the French government voted to abolish slavery. This was 69 years before President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. France was the first government in history to abolish slavery.

France has had and still continues to have profound issues with racism. Napoleon reversed many of the racial gains made by the French revolutionaries. He reinstated racially discriminatory laws. Napoleon was supported by slavers and plantation owners.

The history of the struggle against slavery in France is quite fascinating. Going all the way back to the 1750’s, French lawyers fought the powerful colonial sugar lobby to establish rights for people of color. One hundred years before the infamous Dred Scott decision issued by the U.S. Supreme Court, French lawyers represented slaves taken to France from colonies. Through lawsuits, these slaves won freedom from their masters.

While people in the United States tend to associate the French Revolution with the Terror period, the French Revolution did open doors of emancipation for millions of enslaved people.

There are so many things to like about France. In closing, I will offer my personal list: public displays of affection, the Metro, Bordeaux red wine, universal health care coverage, love of dogs, Shakespeare and Company Bookstore, apricot flan pie and bakeries to die for, the Eiffel Tower at night, TV that covers politics seriously, including international news, the photography of Lore Kruger as displayed at the Jewish Museum of History and Arts, escargot and sidewalk cafes.

Au revoir, Jon

Categories: Uncategorized

Class and the Democrats – posted 4/23/2016 and published in the Concord Monitor on 4/29/2016

April 24, 2016 3 comments

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on April 29, 2016 under the title “The party that lost its way”.

When historians of the future assess what happened to the Democratic Party in 2016, they will need to look at the issue of class. Americans do not typically talk about it. Class is a dirty secret in American politics. We all pretend that everyone in America is middle class, even when it is so obviously not true.

That buzzword phrase “income inequality” has shattered the myth that everyone in America is middle class. The divide between the top 1% and everyone else has become an enormous chasm. As Bernie Sanders has articulated, over the last 40 years or so, the economic gains have not been equally distributed. The 1% has, in extraordinarily greedy fashion, hogged a hugely disproportionate share of wealth.

Some seem to think it is class warfare just to state the obvious and acknowledge these facts. But there are so many millions of Americans who have been left behind and left out. These folks are everywhere around the country. I do think there has been massive denial about the extent of the dysfunction.

Here is my short list: lousy education and too expensive colleges, exploding college tuition debt, low paying jobs with not enough hours and benefits, high rent and too many evictions, mass incarceration of the poor and minorities and millions still without health care coverage. And that is just for starters.

Historically, at least since the time of FDR, the Democratic party has liked to think of itself as the political party that defended the interests of working class Americans. The legacy of FDR has been powerful. For a long time Democrats were able to ride on FDR’s great accomplishments and prestige.

However, that time is now gone. Many Democrats profess shock at the emergence of Donald Trump and worry about his white working class base. How, they wonder, can these voters support someone like Trump who is a billionaire and hardly a person who can be mistaken as a supporter of worker causes? I think these mystified Democrats are missing the point about why Trump has the followers he has. It has much to do with the failure of the Democrats to offer these left-behind voters anything or to care about them.

Although phony and demagogic, Trump is speaking to real needs. He has been talking to the reality that working class people, including white working class people, are being consigned to being a permanent underclass. Since the 1970’s, the American dream has been wrenched away from these workers. Or to quote George Carlin: “It’s called the American dream because to believe it, you have to be ASLEEP.”

I think the problem for the Democrats is that party leaders have lost their way. They gave up on being the party of the working class, a class that has massively suffered over the last 30 years. Instead they decided to become the party of young professionals, the upper 10%, and they adjusted their message that way. So unlike the Republicans who support the upper 1%, the Democrats support a broader strata of high income people who are comfortably ensconced in capitalism.

The Democrats just assumed the working class would hang around and support them because they had nowhere else to go politically.

Of course, many Democrats have not been reconciled to this shift away from concern about the working class. The struggle between the Sanders and Clinton forces reflects this tension and it is, in fact, a struggle for the future direction of the party.

Many progressives in the party, whether supporting Sanders or Clinton, do want an aggressive attack on income inequality. And when I say aggressive attack, I mean an FDR-style agenda with major job programs, serious infrastructure repair, support for the labor movement, and a new offensive against poverty. The progressives are dead set against more Middle Eastern wars and the interventionism that has characterized American foreign policy for a generation. Serious progressives want a 21st century New Deal.

Part of the concern about Democrats taking large campaign contributions is a recognition that a party beholden to powerful interests is unlikely to do more than window dressing on income inequality. The party has a credibility gap around whether the talk about tackling income inequality is real or meaningless gestures.

Since the 2012 election, the media has featured many stories about Republican autopsy reports. You don’t hear about a Democratic autopsy report. While Democrats have retained the White House for the last two presidential elections, the Republicans have cleaned their clock in state legislatures, governorships, and Congress.

If the Democrats are so successful, how come they keep losing as much as they have all over the country?

I would cite two authors who have most clearly described the class issues inside the Democratic coalition. They are the late Joe Bageant and Thomas Frank, the author of Listen, Liberal or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People?

Bageant, the author in 2007 of the very entertaining, humorous and astute book, Deer Hunting With Jesus, returned home to Winchester Virginia, a solidly working class town, after a 30 year absence. He zeroed in on the class issues and the general decline in the quality of life of his neighbors.

Bageant sympathetically shows how many of his Red State neighbors became Republican by default. He says many of his neighbors have never even met anyone who would self-describe as a liberal. The world Bageant described isn’t politically competitive. It’s Rush Limbaugh or Michael Savage on the radio, or contemporary Christian stations. Ultraconservatism is a given.

Bageant did not see liberals or leftists seriously engaging and trying to counter Republican fallacies.He complained yuppie professionals tended to stereotype and look down their noses at blue collar people. He thought the attitude was snobbery but what he described was primarily an absence of effort on the part of progressives to reach his community.

Thomas Frank comes at these issues in quite a different way. He shows how the Democrats instead of being a left party confronting an epic economic breakdown became a party of professionals talking about entrepreneurship. The Democrats have been the party of liberal plutocracy, supporting terrible trade deals and ideas like bank deregulation.

Frank depicts how professional class liberalism is a progressive mirage bathed in its own sense of high self-regard. Listen, Liberal brilliantly unpacks the liberal class ideology: the cult of expertise, the reliance on Big Money, the obsession with meritocracy, passivity toward the destruction of unions and love for techno-innovation.

Like Frank, I would argue that, to date, the Democratic Party has failed to seriously grapple with income inequality. It remains to be seen what kind of Democratic Party we will get. Recent history shows it is not enough simply to assume the Republicans will be so horrible that voters will have no choice but to vote Democratic.

Losing interest in working people is a recipe for Democratic disaster.

Categories: Uncategorized

Where is the Outrage for Jeffrey Pendleton? – posted 4/10/2016 and published in the Concord Monitor on 4/15/2015

April 10, 2016 5 comments

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on April 15, 2016 under the title “Why did Jeffrey Pendleton die in jail?

Over the last couple years, these names have come into our collective lives: Sandra Bland, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice, There are quite a few others who experienced the same fate I am not naming, All were African-American and all died in police custody or at the hands of the police in circumstances that could best be described as questionable.

The deaths contributed to the creation of the national movement known as Black Lives Matter. The people who died lived in places all over the United States. None, however, were from New Hampshire – until now.

Now we have the little known, terrible story of a New Hampshire man, Jeffrey Pendleton, which has received scant local media attention. Pendleton’s story is New Hampshire’s version of Sandra Bland, the Black woman who was pulled over by a policeman in Texas for a lane change and who inexplicably died in jail a few days later. Like Bland, Pendleton was wrongly jailed and he died mysteriously alone in his jail cell.

The question has to be asked: where is the outrage? Why so little reaction to Pendleton’s death?

On March 13, Pendleton, a 26 year old, homeless, African-American man from Nashua was found dead in a jail cell at Valley Street Jail in Manchester. Pendleton had been in jail for five days when he died. He had been arrested on March 8 on a misdemeanor charge of marijuana possession. The Nashua District Court had set Pendleton’s bail at $100 cash, an amount he could not afford to pay. As a result, he went to jail.

No one seems to have any explanation for why he died. State and prison officials have had precious little to say. A Union Leader article quotes a Nashua police captain who says the Nashua police did everything correctly in the case.

Dr. Jenny Duval, deputy chief medical examiner for New Hampshire, performed an autopsy and said from her examination there was no evidence of any natural disease or physical trauma. The exam found no needle marks. Dr. Duval looked into Pendleton’s medical history and she said that he had appeared to be in good health.

Dr. Duval ordered additional tests and hoped that test results will determine the cause and manner of death.

While for me the Pendleton case prompts many reactions, I would begin by asking: why was he in jail? And why would an apparently healthy young man just die?

The jailing of Pendleton for failing to pay $100 bail on the pot charge is all too typical of the callous and uncaring way poor people are treated in New Hampshire. No way would most people be going to jail for that. They would come up with $100. Pendleton was jailed for being too poor to pay $100. Why is the state using such a harsh penalty, jail time, for such a minimal charge? The cost of incarceration, housing and feeding, so exceeds the charged offense.

When people talk about the criminalization of poverty, this is a good example. Pendleton was not a danger or a flight risk. Those are the reasons typically invoked for bail. I would also point out that pot is now legal in multiple states and when our state decides to enter the 21st century, it will be legal here. Everyone who is honest knows it is only a matter of time until pot will be legal in New Hampshire. New Hampshire remains the only state in New England that has not decriminalized marijuana possession.

It is both sad and wrong that Pendleton was jailed for a non-violent activity that would not have been punished at all in multiple jurisdictions.

One prominent New Hampshire defense attorney told me that he thought if Pendleton had not died he would have served 30 days. Then, when he appeared in court, he would have been released on time served and the case would have gone away.

Poor people so don’t count. Money-based bail regularly means that poor defendants are punished before they get their day in court. Probably poor people end up doing more time than if they had a court hearing and were convicted immediately.

The day after Jeffrey Pendleton died, the U.S. Justice Department released a letter to state chief justices and court administrators around the country suggesting they change their practices on fees and fines. The letter explicitly stated:

“Courts must not employ bail or bond practices that cause indigent defendants to remain incarcerated solely because they cannot afford to pay for their release.”

The letter came a day too late for Jeffrey Pendleton. How does the state plan to make amends to a dead man? I don’t see anybody jumping up to take responsibility.

Ever since the events in Ferguson Missouri, awareness has increased about the broader problem that many courts in America have been imposing exorbitant fees and fines on people who have committed relatively petty offenses. It is and remains modern-day debtors’ prison.

Too many cities and towns are relying on court fines and fees to pay down municipal debt. In a report released by the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors on Fees, Fines, and Bail, the authors note the increasing municipal reliance on these fines in America. The report states that in 1986, 12% of those incarcerated nationally were also fined. In 2004, the number had climbed to 37%.

Prior to his death, Jeffrey Pendleton was not some marginal, unknown homeless person. He had been a plaintiff in two lawsuits brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Hampshire. In the first case in March 2015 the court forced the town of Hudson to pay damages for the unconstitutional and illegal way they treated people who were peaceful panhandlers. In the second case, Pendleton spent 33 days in jail for walking in a park adjacent to the Nashua Public Library. The police charged him with criminal trespassing for walking through the park after he allegedly violated a verbal “no trespass” order. Nashua had to pay Pendleton and his attorneys for violation of his constitutional rights.

At this point, it is impossible to know if Pendleton’s activism played any role in what happened to him. I would hope that a thorough and fair investigation will get to the bottom of Pendleton’s tragic death. It is hard to fathom how and why a 26 year old spontaneously dies if that is what happened..

The New York Times reported that Pendleton had arrived in Nashua in 2009. He had worked low wage jobs in fast food restaurants. After a divorce in 2013, he became homeless and he started sleeping in the woods. He spent the winter of 2013-14 outside in a tent.

Pendleton worked at a Burger King in Nashua. In the press, a co-worker was quoted saying he made $8.50 an hour at most. That money is a little above New Hampshire’s paltry minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, far and away the lowest in New England. The money Pendleton made was not enough for any kind of apartment and it was apparently not enough to pay bail.

In February, Pendleton had participated in the Fight for $15 campaign which advocates for a higher minimum wage. He had demonstrated outside the Burger King where he worked. Maybe if Pendleton had been making a higher wage none of these events would have happened.

In an article that appeared in the Huffington Post, Attorney Gilles Bissonnette, the legal director of the ACLU of New Hampshire and Pendleton’s lawyer, described Pendleton as a “really sweet” and “kind” person whose troubles with the law were primarily a result of his poverty. Attorney Bissonnette also said the following:

“He got involved in these cases not because he thought he would obtain some sort of financial windfall but because he believed these cases could bring relief to other poor people who were struggling to get by and who were having interactions with law enforcement. He cared about how the cases that we were handling could potentially change police practices in the future.”

I must say I remain puzzled by how little coverage Pendleton’s death has received in New Hampshire media since March 13. Most of the stories that have been done come from outside news outlets like the New York Times and the Guardian. I did hear one story on New Hampshire Public Radio. When I have asked friends and acquaintances about Pendleton’s death, they have invariably not heard about it.

There have been a lot of stories about bobcats and also about the St. Paul’s preppy and the tragedy of his temporary detour from Harvard but almost nothing about a dead young black man. Based on the coverage, maybe black lives don’t matter.

Categories: Uncategorized
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