Got to Root for the Pope, because He’s Rooting for Us!

pope-francis-povertyNew Orleans    I don’t know if Pope Francis sees himself as a community organizer or not, but if he doesn’t, I’m pretty sure he’s vying for a position as head cheerleader, and I swear I can see him waving an ACORN banner in the stands.   John Russo, professor emeritus from Youngstown State and co-director of a center on workers there, sent me a link and a suggestion to check out a speech the Pope made in the Vatican in October to participants in a World Meeting of Popular Movements.   My respect for John is towards the top of my list, but in all honesty, reading a speech by the Pope is about at the bottom of my list.

I was wrong for that.  Reading about the Pope saddling up and riding in to address the European Parliament and essentially kicking their butt from here to tomorrow got me thinking that if he’s willing to stand that tall to the big whoops of Europe, what might he have really said when he was talking to people committed to building movements of change.  The short answer:  a mouthful!  Sit back, because here it comes right at you.

There’s no sugar coating either.  First he takes a well-deserved shot at NGO’s, saying,

Neither are they [the poor] waiting with folded arms for the aid of NGOs, welfare plans or solutions that never come or, if they do come, they arrive in such a way that they go in one direction, either to anesthetize or to domesticate.

Then he’s clear about the role of what he calls the “empire of money” and the role of solidarity:

…destructive effects of the empire of money: forced displacements, painful emigrations, the traffic of persons, drugs, war, violence and all those realities that many of you suffer and that we are all called to transform. Solidarity, understood in its deepest sense, is a way of making history, and this is what the Popular Movements do.

As an organizer, if you ever need a pick-me-up, rather than another cup of coffee, you might want to take some props from the Pope, as he names us out for praise,

…you have your feet in the mud and your hands in the flesh. You have the odor of neighborhood, of people, of struggle! We want your voice to be heard that, in general, is little heard. Perhaps because it annoys, perhaps because your cry bothers, perhaps because there is fear of the change you call for…

All of that is just Pope Francis’ warm-up, then he lets rip with the fire…

The scandal of poverty cannot be addressed promoting strategies of containment that only tranquilize and convert the poor into domesticated and inoffensive beings. How sad it is to see that, behind alleged altruistic works, the other is reduced to passivity, is denied. Or, worse still, businesses and personal ambitions are hiding: Jesus would call them hypocrites. How lovely is a change when we see peoples in movement, especially their poorest members and young people. Then the wind of promise is felt that revives the hope of a better world. My desire is that this wind be transformed into a whirlwind of hope.

Bam!  Then here comes his one-two-three punch:

The other dimension of the now global process is hunger. When financial speculation conditions the price of foods, treating them like any merchandise, millions of people suffer and die of hunger. On the other hand, tons of food are thrown away. This is a real scandal.  Hunger is criminal; nourishment is an inalienable right.

Second, roof. I said it and I repeat it: a house for every family. We must never forget that Jesus was born in a stable, because there was no room in the place; that his family had to leave their home and flee to Egypt, persecuted by Herod. Today there are so many homeless families, either because they have never had a home or because they have lost it for different reasons. Family and dwelling go in hand. But, moreover, to be a home a roof must have a community dimension, and it is in fact in the neighborhood where the great family of humanity begins to be built, from the most immediate, from coexistence with one’s neighbors. Today we live in huge cities that are modern, proud, and even vain. Cities that offer innumerable pleasures and wellbeing for a happy minority. However, a roof is denied to thousands of our neighbors and brothers, including children, and they are called, elegantly, “persons in a street situation.” It is curious how in the world of injustices, euphemisms abound. A person, a segregated person, a person put aside, a person suffering poverty, hunger, is a person in a street situation: an elegant word, no? You must always look – though I might be mistaken in regard to some — but in general, behind a euphemism there is a crime.

Third, work. There is no worse material poverty – I must stress it – there is no worse material poverty than one that does not allow for earning one’s bread and deprives one of the dignity of work. Youth unemployment, informality, and the lack of labor rights are not inevitable; they are the result of a previous social option, of an economic system that puts profit above man; if the profit is economic, to put it above humanity or above man, is the effect of a disposable culture that considers the human being in himself as a consumer good, which can be used and then discarded.

And, then in closing he pretty clearly tells all of us working with organizations and movements to build power for change and justice to get on the job!

The Popular Movements express the urgent need to revitalize our democracies, so often kidnapped by innumerable factors. It is impossible to imagine a future for society without the active participation of the great majorities and that protagonism exceeds the logical proceedings of formal democracy. The prospect of a world of lasting peace and justice calls us to overcome paternalistic welfarism; it calls us to create new ways of participation that include the Popular Movements and animate local, national and international government structures with that torrent of moral energy that arises from the incorporation of the excluded in the building of a common destiny.


Counting Calories

caloricountNew Orleans     The Food and Drug Administration, FDA, is finally laying out the rules required by the Affordable Care Act for various kinds of food delivery and preparation establishments to reveal the number of calories on various items. When it comes to restaurants, this is mainly for the big guys with twenty of more locations. It also includes things like movie theater popcorn which you already knew was bad for you and now you’ll know exactly how bad, and same-same for some alcohol products.

The National Restaurant Association claims they helped out in the process, so it wouldn’t be worst or, as some might have hoped, any better. Some grocery stores, like Krogers, are bent out of shape. Krogers claims the requirements may cost some jobs, though it is unclear how that might happen, and might raise grocery prices, though they didn’t say more. Their lobbying outfit claims this will cost the industry $1 billion bucks and hundreds of millions annually.

This is old news for some places. Starbucks and Panera chains have already begun posting, and frankly it is interesting reading. New York and Seattle have had these rules for several years.

I remember changing planes in New York’s Kennedy airport when these rules first took effect. I walked from outlet to outlet reading the numbers from item to item. A hamburger place along the lines of Five Guys that I had always liked, was a disaster with one item outstripping the next in a competitive contest of horror and gluttony. Walking back after looking at the pizza place, the Chinese place, the chicken place, and the Dunkin Donuts place, the unsurprising thing was how bad all of the choices were. All of these concessionaires may have owed their place in this space to the public authorities that manage New York’s airports, but it was all about what worked for the cash register, not the chest ticker in the customer. There were no healthy alternatives.

Stuck in the Houston airport for 3 hours the other day in route from Tulsa I ended up with a small bowl of chicken soup, but I would never pretend the calorie count was great. I was just hoping at least it was fresh. Disclosure without alternatives won’t lead to better health, just more depression about bad decisions on limited choices.

I’m all for the disclosures, but am skeptical of the health impact, since all of this nastiness in the food bins and over the counter will still drive our too limited choices. Affixing a calorie counter is not the same as former Mayor Bloomberg’s attempted ban of big gulp sodas. We can hope one path will lead to the other, but in the world of corporate controlled food and rapidly expanding and encroaching food deserts, it’s more likely to lead to bad comparisons around ridiculous choices for a long time until healthy alternatives drive the market and give us a way to eat better at affordable prices, buying both enjoyment and better health.

Oil Prices, Small Diners, and my Uncle Barton Wade Ratliff

wellTulsa        With the price of gas moving towards $2.50 per gallon in the oil and gas states of Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma, consumers are ecstatic, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is happy. State budgets and countless oil company deals are all built on the assumptions of what a barrel of sweet crude sells for in the market, and where recently the price was $130 per barrel and some are saying it may hit as low as $70 per barrel, that means big time trouble for thousands of finance people re-calculating their numbers. Halliburton, the huge oil services company that used to be headquartered in Duncan, Oklahoma about 90 miles outside of Oklahoma City, almost immediately started trying to see if it could work out a merger with the #3 services outfit to see if they could both survive the price collapse.

I find myself following all of this closely for lots of reasons. I live in a part of the country where we will see the aftershocks in terms of public services. I’m also in Tulsa with members of my family to celebrate the life of one of my uncles on my mother’s side of the family, Barton Wade Ratliff, who had been a petroleum engineer based in places like Duncan and many other spots around oil country. He had recently passed away at 88. We shared our middle name and probably a lot more than that. After working for big companies,  he had bought and consolidated drilling companies into Ratliff Drilling in the 1970s and was publicly listed on the stock exchange for a while. He had drilling rigs in Texas, Oklahoma, the Dakotas, and Canada, but when the price of oil dropped precipitously during the early 1980’s oil glut to as low as $10 per barrel, which would be about $60 per barrel in today’s prices, he lost his shirt and everything else fairly quickly.

It didn’t matter how good you were at finding oil in the ground, the world was out of your control. States, countries, and big companies will talk big now about how they can still be productive as low as $68 per barrel, which is what Halliburton, now headquartered in Houston claims these days, but smaller fish, like my uncle Barton Wade’s outfit 30 odd years ago won’t make it.

My memories of my uncle are most vivid from the summer of 1966 when I worked as a roustabout or oil field jack-of-all-trades for Hooper Construction providing contract labor on the Skelly Oil properties outside of Velma, Oklahoma. My uncle was superintendent for the Velma fields then and put the word in for me to get the job, so I could raise money for college expenses. I would work from 7am to 3pm and then go into the office and do bookkeeping for extra hours and dollars. There wasn’t much else to do but work in a small oil field town, and my family had known many of them before ending up in New Orleans, so that’s what I did. Incidentally don’t ever think that fracking is a new thing. I was processing invoices for fracking in the mid-1960s in Velma. In a lot of older fields in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Texas injecting water and whatnot was used to juice up some wells to increase production and yield. I was staying with my aunt and uncle and their blended family of cousins, so it was quite a tribe and a great experience.

Uncle Barton Wade was a character, known as Bart around the fields. He drove big cars and he drove them fast. He was loud and garrulous, and filled up a room with a cigar in his mouth and a giant laugh and lightning quick, firm opinions about everything. A couple of Saturdays during that summer, I went with him at dawn to a small café where he stopped for the same breakfast six days a week filled with oil hands, local businessmen, anyone and everyone because this was the small town social and information network in Velma, and we strode in like he owned the place, which given how important the oil industry was there, my uncle almost did. My daughter and I found a similar place for breakfast in Tulsa today. She looked through the plate glass window before we walked in and turned to me and said, “I wonder if they allow women in here,” which of course they did, but she would be the only one and this was decidedly part of the men’s world culture of the west still alive and kicking in cowboy country filled with mounds of hash browns and country patty sausage unknown elsewhere.

My uncle was to the right of conservative. He used to give me pamphlets to read from Garner Ted Armstrong and various rightwing political groups that saw oil men as their own sweet crude ready to be pumped. But that was politics and I was family, and that made politics a distant second to him. It didn’t matter whether in a normal conversation ACORN and everything I did and worked for might be seen as the antichrist and wreck and ruin for everything he held sacred, I was family, and family was first, and he was proud as a peacock of everything I ever did with ACORN.

It didn’t matter if he was high rolling or flat broke, he worshiped my brother and me. When he passed away, I asked my son, if he remember my Uncle Barton Wade, and he said, “Sure, he used to call Uncle Dale and ask for the answers while he was watching Jeopardy sometimes.” As he got older he used to call and talk to my companera for hours sometimes about psychic, spiritual things he felt, that would have been unimaginable to me when I was working for him in Velma at 17. He would call me trying to figure out how to connect to someone in Chad or India, because he was convinced he could find water or oil there. My daughter remembered those calls and thought of my uncle as “eccentric,” and he was in his own way, but with total conviction I can assure you that he was one of a kind.

And, come hell or high water, there were two things he taught me that I’ll never forget. One is how to read while driving so every minute mattered, which many might not think was the best lesson in the world, but is a skill nonetheless that I mastered after a fashion. I once read hundreds of pages of T. Harry Williams’ great biography of Huey Long driving back and forth from Little Rock to New Orleans in the early 1970s. The other thing he taught me, undoubtedly more valuable, is that the importance of family is foremost, good times or bad, and that’s a lesson I’ll never forget.

We Need a New Universal Salute or Sign

Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the National Anthem. An iconic, wondrous moment of protest during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico when the superstars won the gold and bronze medal in the 200-metre race.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos during the National Anthem. An iconic, wondrous moment of protest during the 1968 Olympics in Mexico when the superstars won the gold and bronze medal in the 200-metre race.

New Orleans     This may be a little be low on your list of important needs for the progressive forces, but regardless of your reservations, work with me on this, please! Our salutes and signals to friendly forces are getting tired and so widely appropriated that many have lost meaning and “critical content,” as the political philosopher Herbert Marcuse used to say.

Take the well-established and time tested power salute, originally a signifier for black power, but over the years used widely by movements of all stripes and colors to great effect. Reading that Bill Cosby raised his fist in that salute to a recent audience in Florida to express his silent response to his numerous accusers currently coming forward with charges of being raped by the comedian speaks to the commodification of movement symbols. It didn’t make me happy.

Protestors of the military regime in Thailand were recently arrested for making the lip kiss and three fingered salute popularized by the Hunger Games books and movies as a sign of resistance against authoritarian governments. The arm may be pointed straight ahead rather than crooked at the elbow, but at least in the United States, it would be hard not to confuse this as a call to the troops, meaning the Boy Scout troops who have used the 3-fingers for over a century.

The signals from the Occupy movement were interesting, but are not going to be confused with a symbol for power, since too many of them come off as nervous conditions. The Star Trek thing is too hard for many of us who are less flexible, little fingers up along with the thumb will always mean “surfs up,” pointing finger and small finger is “hook ‘em, horns,” and few are unclear about the meaning or unpracticed in flipping the bird. Thumbs-up has been so completely squatted by Facebook, that I almost feel foolish when I find my thumb going that way, just as the symbol for OK, will always mean OK regardless of the language, and one finger held high means “we’re number one,” whether we are or not.

What can we do?

How about we start thinking past the glad one-hand, and start putting both of our hands together? We might have a future there just as we have found with various handshakes. Clasping two hands together over our chests or with our arms extended above our heads might work. There’s power there. Putting both hands together lends itself to some real symbolism for the strength of our forces and pulling the pieces closer collectively.

I’m open to any and all ideas, but I’m crystal clear, we need to step up our game. The flesh-eating machine of media and appropriation is in full-flower. We need something new and now.

Let’s put our heads together or put our hands together

Why Won’t Senator Mary Landrieu Lose with Pride and Dignity?


Senator Mary Landrieu at Tailgate Party before LSU Game

Senator Mary Landrieu at LSU Game

New Orleans       The last race of the USA’s mid-term elections is winding to a close in Louisiana.  Mary Landrieu has been a US Senator for three terms totaling 18 years.  We have a sign for her in our front yard as do several of our neighbors.  Sometime during Thanksgiving week, I will go vote for her, as I have in all of her previous elections, on an absentee ballot because I’ll be working in Birmingham, England on Election Day.  When I push the button to seal the vote into the machine, I’ll walk away with a heavy step, not because I know she’s losing, but because I will be embarrassed by my vote and by my Senator.

There’s really no doubt that she will lose.  In the primary, she led by a hair with 42% and her two Republican opponents, one more rightwing than the other, polled 58%.  She’s toast.  There’s no way she doesn’t know it.

Flip a few pages of the newspaper any day from the front pages with politics, war, and whatnot past the metro pages with traffic, killings, and you will end up on the sports pages where most of the stories revolve around winning and losing.  There is a world of advice on how to win, but for regular readers there are also always lessons taught and lessons to be learned about losing and how to do so with some grace, some pride, and some dignity.  The coach from the University of Florida was fired, and rather than blaming anyone, refreshingly thanked everyone for the opportunity and said simply, “we just didn’t win enough games.”   The seasons inevitably end for all athletes no matter how great and the celebration for leaving well, like a Mariano Rivera or a Derek Jeter, rather than limping out or cashing one last check are as heralded and legendary as these athletic icons themselves.

I sure wish Mary Landrieu read the sports pages.

Over the last week in a humiliating move, she went to Washington to join with the Republicans to force a vote on the controversial Keystone XL pipeline even knowing that it would be vetoed and probably suspecting how awful the consequences of the line might be.  Not surprisingly she lost in the Senate by one vote, displaying not only her bad judgment, but her powerlessness.  Meanwhile her opponent in Congress put forward a similar bill that passed the Republican-dominated House of Representatives.  Was Senator Landrieu trying to win a Louisiana-election or lobbying for a job with the oil, gas, and energy companies that have pretty much owned her for the last 18 years anyway?  Regardless, it was sad and pathetic to watch.

In today’s paper, she professed to disagree with the President on his executive order on immigration.  A moment ago one of my neighbors a well-known businessman in the city stopped walking his dog when he saw me, nodded at our “Vote for Mary” sign, which he also displays at his place, and said, “Why is she just running her campaign for white Republicans?”  Good question!  He claimed to have written the campaign and told the Senator that since she was losing why didn’t she go out swinging, invite President Obama down to hit the trail with her in Shreveport, Lake Charles, and Baton Rouge?  He didn’t get a reply.

At the end of her career as an elected official, Senator Landrieu, like many politicians, seems to have learned little about character, loyalty, convictions, and other things like that from the process.  One of the highlights of her campaign had been her ability to hang with the tailgaters in front of LSU Tiger Stadium to the horror of her opponent, proving that she was still a Louisiana-girl deep down, not a Washington DC piece of statuary.  I wish she had actually learned more about what happens on the field inside the stadium, where despite the fact that winning is often claimed to be everything, the best coaches and the best players, also teach life lessons worth learning about the fact that no matter how much winning may matter, losing is also a fundamental part of the game, and losing with pride and dignity is essential to the process.

Obama Immigration Action is a Band-Aid, Not a Cure


(Photo: Drew Angerer Getty Images)

New Orleans   Make no mistake, President Obama’s immigration news is good news for everyone but rightwing ideologues. They are winning the air war perhaps for a hot minute by framing the action in a lie, and once again the administration is not doing well at explaining itself, but once the first wave of reaction settles, the wisdom of this action will be clearer.

Here are some important things to understand.

This is not amnesty. Far from it! This is a maximum three year Band-Aid being applied on a gaping national wound with no cure still in sight. All some immigrants are getting from this executive order is a chance to apply, after paying any owed taxes and new fees and proving they do not have criminal records, for a three-year work permit and a social security number. These workers are not even going to be allowed to qualify for benefits like those offered with subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. Frankly, some may not chance this opportunity because it is temporary, but hopefully many will.

Remember as well that the only immigrants being given this opportunity are those that are the parents of American citizens or permanent residents born here. This program unites families. How bad could that possibly be? The order also added another 250,000 DREAMers to the list of those who can walk in public without fear by extending the protection from 2007 in his earlier order to 2010 in this new action.

President Obama is also right. If Republicans and the far right don’t like this, they can finally join in the process of taking the heat from folks they are stirring up now, and pass a bill making something permanent. Or, they can win the Presidency by a democratic vote of the people, and make a different judgment.

And, the talk about filing suit either at the state or national level to stop this is not going to work in court either. Using the concept of “prosecutorial discretion,” the President is prioritizing going after criminals rather than families, and that’s the right thing to do. There will be injustice in that push still. There will be deportations of immigrants arrested for minor slip-ups but still seen as criminals, but this is still better than the ridiculous situation currently. Thankfully, there will be fewer of these kinds of minor abuses because very importantly, the President is also terminating the Secure Communities program that has made junior immigration agents out of local police departments giving rise to the abuses of Maricopa County’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio and many others who have accurately been accused of creating a new apartheid and arresting people for the crime of “being brown,” and criminalizing the fact that they are in the country illegally.

Once the temperature cools on some of the political mischief, it is also clear who is really worried about some of Obama’s action, and that’s low wage employers practicing wage theft on undocumented immigrants and farmers depending on such labor for the same reason. The Wall Street Journal was crystal clear in their report that a big part of the burn is all about the money:

By giving work papers to millions of illegal workers, Mr. Obama’s plan could affect businesses in unexpected ways, enabling workers to seek new jobs and higher wages to the benefit of some business sectors more than others. Some in agriculture, for example, worried that affected workers would leave for other sectors.

Finally, in this executive order no one is really happy. The techsters didn’t get unlimited visas for big brains they wanted. Reformers didn’t get the real solutions advocated during this administration and the last. Heck, on the progressive left we even bear the burden of having gone for comprehensive reform over the last six years when we always knew we had the best chance of winning a piecemeal package that united families right from Obama’s inauguration day, if we had been willing to settle for it. Six year later we have only won a temporary solution on something that might have been a slam dunk in the first 100-days.

There will be time for cold facts evaluation, but right now it’s all about looking forward and Obama’s action, and his inspiring framing of his order, presents a new challenge and opportunity for us to make the best of this moment.


Please enjoy Earthquake Driver by Counting Crows, Thanks to KABF.