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Sharon Jones (1956-2016) – posted 11/29/2016

November 30, 2016 2 comments

In most respects, 2016 has proven to be a wretched year. I think of the John Oliver video “Fuck you 2016”. In the video some of the famous people who died this year are mentioned. Muhammed Ali, Prince, and David Bowie, among others.

One name that now needs to be added to the list is Sharon Jones. She died tragically on November 18. She was only 60.

As a fan, I am having a hard time accepting Sharon’s death. I always looked forward to her albums. She had a powerful way of singing and the lyrics to her songs connected. It seems way too early for her not to be here. She did not start her musical career with the Dap-Kings until she was 40. She only got her first Grammy nomination for “Give The People What They Want” in 2014.

In the 1980’s she had played in wedding bands. She worked for many years as a corrections guard at Riker’s Island and also as an armored car guard for Wells Fargo. She could never break in. She had been told repeatedly there was no market for soul music.

For those who are not familiar with her music, I would recommend her album “Miss Sharon Jones! O.S.T.” This album includes the music from a new documentary of the same name. Barbara Kopple, who has won two Academy Awards, produced and directed the documentary.

The documentary provides a window into Sharon’s last years. Sharon was battling stage two pancreatic cancer. At the same time, she and the Dap-Kings were having their greatest musical success. They had put out the knockout album “I Learned the Hard Way” in 2010. They were finally getting recognized after twenty years of playing together.

The movie shows a very down-to-earth view of Sharon’s medical battles. Going back to 2013, her eyes had turned yellow and she had been losing weight. She got the pancreatic cancer diagnosis which has to be one of the worst diagnoses someone can get. She fought back, desperately trying to regain her strength. After her surgery, she had six months of chemotherapy. The movie shows Sharon slowly regaining her strength and really struggling.

The band was depending on her and she knew it. Like other poor musicians, the Dap-Kings needed to perform. There was a world tour planned for 2014 and Sharon needed to be well enough to do the tour. The movie showed how everything took her longer to do. Watching the movie, you realize how the lyrics for some of the songs flow right out of Sharon’s life.

Her energy on stage was unsurpassed. That was part of the reason she has often been compared to James Brown. In the movie, she tells a nice story about how she met him in Italy. James said, “God bless you, daughter.” Sharon talked about the inspiration she derived from him.

One of her backup singers described Sharon’s voice as “like a train, you better get out of the way”.

The last song on Miss Sharon Jones!, “I’m Still Here”, is autobiographical.

“All the things I’ve been through just to
sing this song
All the people I’ve seen come and go as
I kept pushin on
I had to work as a prison guard telling
men to do what they were told
‘Cos some record label told me I was too
fat, too short, black and old
I had to direct the choir to let my voice
out
That was the only place I could sing and
be proud”

The music on the CD of “Miss Sharon Jones! O.S.T.” includes some of her great songs. I personally like “Tell Me”, “Longer and Stronger”, “100 Days, 100 Nights”, and “Stranger to my Happiness”. I have listened to the album a ridiculous amount and I still enjoy it. Both the movie and the album are well worth it.

According to an article in the Los Angeles Times, Sharon suffered a stroke as she watched the election returns. Gabriel Roth, one of her bandmates, said, in laughing fashion. “She told the people that were there that Trump gave her the stroke.” Roth said Sharon wanted to sing in her last days. The Dap-Kings were with her when she died.

Sharon complained bitterly that the music industry did not honor and recognize soul music. When you think about who wins awards, it is crazy that Sharon did not win a bunch of Grammys.

Categories: Uncategorized

The Black Panthers, Revisited and Reconsidered – posted 11/20/2016

November 20, 2016 Leave a comment

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Black Panther Party. Founded by two college students from Oakland, California, Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, the Panthers went on to become the most famous and controversial radical group that came out of the 1960’s.

I had heard a story on NPR and I had seen a couple news stories about this anniversary but nothing that I believe does the subject justice.

I think the Panthers were probably the most misunderstood 1960’s political group. Widely condemned, the Panthers had horrible press. Images of the Panthers invariably focused on shootouts with the police and on political trials where Panther leaders were defendants. Even though their ideology was expressly anti-racist, they were portrayed by much of the media as a black nationalist hate group.

There is another side to the Panther story that has been little told. That is the story of the Panther rank and file – not the leaders. The Stanford historian Clayborne Carson put it this way:

“The irony of the Black Panthers is that the image is one of a Black man and a gun. But the reality is that the majority of the rank and file at the end of the 60’s were women.”

The Panthers created a number of survival programs that spoke to unaddressed needs in the Black community. The best known of these programs was the Free Breakfast for Children program. Back in the day, Panther chapters across the country served about 20,000 meals a week. The program became the inspiration and blueprint for schools throughout the country to provide free breakfast and lunch.

The Panthers went to churches, small businesses, and grocery stores to seek out food and cash donations to support the program. It was a total volunteer effort. Additionally, some chapters of the Party sponsored grocery giveaways. Hunger and malnutrition remained community concerns.

With access to quality health care a major problem, the Panthers operated People’s Free Medical Clinics that provided basic health care. These neighborhood-based clinics had staffing from volunteer medical professionals. Among the services provided were screening for sickle cell anemia, well-baby exams, pediatric care and gynecological exams. Also, the clinics did first aid, and testing for high blood pressure, lead poisoning, tuberculosis and diabetes.

With so many in jail, the Panthers ran a free busing-to-prison program to enable family members to see their relatives who were incarcerated.

In Oakland California, which was a Panther stronghold, the Panthers started the Oakland Community School which had a powerful positive effect in the broader Oakland community. The school operated from 1973 until 1982 and in 1977 it received an award from the California state legislature for educational excellence.

We now know that the FBI and the FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover targeted the Panthers through a counterintelligence program known as COINTELPRO.  Hoover was on record saying the Panthers were the number one threat to national security. The FBI and local police did everything they could to destroy the Panthers. They used infiltration, dirty tricks, harassment via the legal system and illegal force. Even in the absence of evidence, they repeatedly raided the homes of Panther leaders in an effort to neutralize and put people behind bars. They forged correspondence, sent false anonymous letters, and worked to create tensions and hostility between factions in the black liberation movement.

Those with a pollyanna view might be surprised how far the FBI went. The law became an obstacle for the FBI. Through what amounted to psychological warfare, they successfully worked to create a sense of fear and paranoia among Panther members.

in the 1970’s, the Church Committee of Congress investigated COINTELPRO. Congress ultimately wrote a scathing denunciation of the FBI’s conduct which was completely contrary to constitutional rights and civil liberties.

In this connection, I have to mention the case of Fred Hampton, a charismatic Panther leader from Chicago. In one of the most disgraceful moments in FBI history, the Chicago police, with FBI assistance, engineered the assassination of Hampton and his fellow Panther leader Mark Clark. They were shot and killed in bed. Hampton was 21 years old at the time. A fuller account is presented in Jeffrey Haas’s book, The Assassination of Fred Hampton. The Hampton assassination is a case study for law enforcement in how it can go horribly wrong.

Any honest assessment of the Panthers must acknowledge the illegal and reprehensible conduct of the FBI and Hoover. At the same time, the Panthers also had a dark side. The best account I have seen is in Hugh Pearson’s little known book The Shadow of the Panther.

Pearson shows how the Panthers in the Bay Area degenerated into thuggery. The obsession with guns and violence was ultimately self-destructive. Huey Newton, who had initially been an inspirational leader, got lost in substance abuse.

The Panthers had many self-inflicted wounds. Pearson tells some shocking stories. He, with justification, concluded that the Panthers became more about defiant symbolism than about concrete achievements. It was not all repression that killed them. Like other radical groups of the era, the Panthers actively contributed to their own demise.

Like so many things about the 1960’s, fairness requires full disclosure. In my opinion, the positives about the Panthers have never been adequately recognized.

Admittedly, I do not write in a disinterested academic way. When I was a college student living in Hartford Connecticut, on Saturdays, I used to sell The Other Voice, an underground newspaper of that period. Over a period of time, I met and got to know some Panther members who were selling the Black Panther newspaper downtown. I never personally saw the alleged anti-white attitude of which Panthers were accused. The Panthers and I bonded over good places to sell papers on the street. We often talked politics. This was long before social media.

People who are serious about progressive change in the 21st century should study and learn from the experience of the Black Panthers. That learning should include both the positive and negative lessons. I do think the Panthers’ focus on guns scared away many people who might have otherwise been sympathetic. At the same time, the Panthers’ defiance, their speaking truth to power, attracted masses of young people. Many former members still talk about the purpose and meaning they derived from their commitment. The Panther ten-point platform still resonates.

The Panthers inspired a generation to stand up and fight racial oppression, poverty, and inequality at the local level. Long before Black Lives Matter, and in a much more hostile environment, the Panthers audaciously motivated and organized people to fight for their human rights. .

Neil deGrasse Tyson from election night… – posted 11/11/2016

November 11, 2016 2 comments

“No jokes tonight. Do not laugh and look away. Watch this, stay here. Burn this into memory. Wake up tomorrow: the fight will await you.

This is the end of nothing. This is the beginning of something new and solemn and so important. You must be a part of what comes next.

The future is never gone, never hopeless. No one has ever lived in the best possible world. There has always been a fight to fight.”

Categories: Uncategorized

Tom Hayden: An Exceptional Life – posted 11/6/2016 and published in the Concord Monitor 11/20/2016

November 6, 2016 1 comment

There are few people from the 1960’s generation whom I would describe as genuine generational giants. Tom Hayden is one person I would categorize that way. He died on October 23.

Surveying a life is like looking at a rorschach test. People can see what they want, including very different contradictory things. That is particularly true with Hayden who evolved through seemingly conflicting stages.

Hayden was probably most famous for being a 1960’s radical and for being Jane Fonda’s husband for a time. He challenged the system from both the outside and the inside. He struggled with the eternal activist question: how to be an effective social change maker and rebel.

Superficially you might think this was the simple story of the transformation of a street activist to a mainstream politician. Hayden became a California assemblyman and a state senator. But Hayden never lost his sense of outrage at injustice. He kept that until the end. He showed how one passionate committed man can dramatically affect a generation and the times he lived through.

Hayden’s activism started young. In the early 1960’s he worked on voter registration in the Deep South. He was beaten and arrested at a civil rights march in McComb, Mississippi. He also got arrested in Albany, Georgia. He was a Freedom Rider, one of a group of black and white students who set out to desegregate interstate bus travel in the southern states. He and the other students were chased and viciously attacked by murderous white supremacist mobs.

Freedom riding in the Deep South in 1962 was not for the faint of heart. The local police were allowing beatings to go on uninterrupted. The mobs beat Freedom Riders with baseball bats and iron pipes.

From prison, Hayden drafted the Port Huron Statement of 1962 which became, in effect, the agenda for a generation. The Port Huron Statement was a founding document of Students for a Democratic Society or SDS as it was called, the leading radical student organization of the 1960’s.

The Port Huron Statement began with these words:

“We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”

Expressing the voice of peaceful dissent, the Port Huron Statement argued for a far more participatory democracy. Looking back, it is hard not to be impressed by its idealism and sweep. Hayden attacked poverty, racism, the threat of nuclear war and the dangers of an apathetic citizenry. He also spoke against the depersonalization, loneliness, and alienation of modern life.

With the war in Vietnam expanding, opposition to the war soon took center stage in Hayden’s life. He became a well known opponent of the war through teach-ins, demonstrations and writing. The FBI and J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI Director, took notice. Later in his life there is a picture of Hayden with his 22,000 page FBI file.

Hayden spent years organizing against the Vietnam War. These efforts culminated in 1968 when President Nixon’s Justice Department prosecuted Hayden and others in the famous Chicago 7 trial. The trial came in the aftermath of violent clashes with the police at the 1968 Democratic National Convention where he was beaten, gassed and arrested twice.

After five years of trials and appeals, Hayden was acquitted of all charges.

In May 1971, Hayden was part of the audacious Mayday Tribe that organized a huge demonstration in Washington DC against the war in Vietnam. The idea was that if the government did not stop the war, demonstrators would try and stop the government. Many thousands of people descended on Washington. Demonstrators intended to nonviolently block key bridges and traffic circles. Over 13,500 people were arrested.

I remember a book Hayden wrote in the early 1970’s about the Vietnam War. The book was titled The Love of Possession is a Disease WithThem. The quote comes from Chief Sitting Bull of the Lakota Nation.

“The love of possessions is a disease with them. They take tithes from the poor and weak to support the rich who rule. They claim this mother of ours, the Earth, for their own and fence their neighbors away. If America had been twice the size it is, there still would not have been enough; the Indians would still have been dispossessed.”

Hayden compared the Vietnam War to the war against Native Americans. Anti-war consciousness challenged our national myths of conquest.

After the Vietnam War ended, Hayden moved in different directions. He and Fonda founded the Campaign for Economic Democracy which focused on running candidates for local office throughout California. Hayden served in the California state assembly from 1982-1992 and then in the state senate from 1992-2000.

Although this is little known and this part of his life is sometimes derided, Hayden was an effective politician. A reporter friend of Hayden’s, Bill Boyarsky, described his legislative accomplishments.

“He got millions of dollars for his district to improve the quality of Santa Monica Bay and rebuild the Santa Monica and Malibu piers. He helped delay University of California and Cal State University tuition increases. He led efforts that extended laws against sexual harassment. Also included in a long list of legislation was his Hayden Act, which extended the time shelters keep abandoned animals alive, giving volunteers more time to find them homes.”

Hayden’s life was hardly a linear, consistent progression. Although he had strong convictions, he did evolve in unexpected ways. In looking at online commentary since he died, I was struck by how many people seemed to see Hayden as some kind of sellout because he became a politician. I find that reaction juvenile. Consistency may not be such a virtue if it leads to deadends. Hayden reinvented himself politically and he had tangible accomplishments to show for it. I think such creative re-invention is a strength, not a weakness.

Hayden had the ability to look self-critically and to reassess. He did not stay stuck in the 1960’s. That capability often seems lacking among those who see maintaining ideological purity as more important than getting anything done.

I see Hayden’s biggest contribution as being a truth teller about Vietnam. To quote Hayden:

“Our national forgetting is basically pathological. Our systems – politics, media, culture – are totally out of balance because of our collective refusal to admit that the Vietnam War was wrong and that the peace movement was right.”

As a nation we have never faced that squarely. Since then, our delusions have led us to pursue other imperialist adventures.

Until the end of his life Hayden remained concerned that the legacy of the Vietnam peace movement was being forgotten. He actually has a book coming out in January 2017 about that forgetting.

For his actions, his courage and his writing, I would judge Tom Hayden an American hero. He will be missed.