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.

Life on the Road: Munich Airport Chapter

IMG_2550Munich       In the curious way that the regional government of Puglia, Italy was reimbursing the Scuola di Bollenti Spiriti for my ticket, the rigid, sometimes almost irrational, rules meant to stop corruption that if the traveler, that would be me, left before Saturday, which was both the earliest time allowable and the latest possible departure time possible, or after Wednesday, which was the latest possible departure, and the only one available given the new daily nonstop flight from Munich to Houston, this lucky traveler ended up in the Munich Airport for about 13 hours or would only be reimbursed for 50% of the cost of the ticket.  The hot spirited students and David Tozzo of ACORN Italy all believed that my best course was jumping the metro from the airport to town, but more travel without an intended purpose had no appeal, so to me the airport itself seemed a better alternative.  The one cardinal rule in my home is never, and I mean never, miss a flight home!

And, it could have been much worse.  I had landed and would depart from the new Munich Terminal 2 Satellite, as it was called.  Believe me, I had more than enough time to inspect the model along the concourse.  Landing at 830 PM, my first lucky break was charming my way into the Lufthansa business lounge, though in all truth it was less charm than the charity of the attendant for my hopeless situation, who nodded me in.  The scene was sort of what one might expect of German rathskeller, except very well lit and almost all men, but that may be how German rathskeller’s work.  Free wi-fi, beer, and pretzels?  How bad could that be?  A too short hour later, and I looked around and I was one of less than 10 people.  Ten minutes later there was one woman and myself there.  By 10 pm, they had rolled up the sidewalks in this airport to my surprise, and we were in for a long night.

Drifting down the concourse trying to look nonchalant as the pair of police walked by, I saw a German sign for a McDonalds that perhaps in German was saying it might be open for 24 hours and was 5 minutes away.  Who knows?  I never found it.  It might be an urban airport myth or sly German humor.  I did find something better perhaps.  The Munich airport had allowed a furniture design company to turn a space into a haven for the lost and damned of sorts with hard lounge chairs, some desks, and what not.  These were my people it seemed.  At the high point there were 7 of us and at the low point only 5.  One couple for a while, but then they disappeared.  Two floor sleepers.  A young man with jogging pants that read “NYATHLETE” in capital letters.  And, then two light sleepers, myself and an in-transit passenger from Africa.  Later,  I found there were even sleeping “cabins” for 10 euros an hour not far away past the giant Camel Smoking Lounge, which seemed strangely inappropriate in the modern, clean setting, and totally unused.


An airport official came by once seemingly to count heads.  No police problems.  At 1AM a skateboarder made the entire concourse, and I wonder if he had planned the escapade forever.  I nodded to the occasional cleaners with their sturdy 8-wheel carts.  At 5 AM a worker in a Segway turned on coffee machines.   I couldn’t help but remember flying regularly on the last available night flight in my brief collegiate career from New Orleans to New York City’s Kennedy Airport and catching Carey Transportation to New York Port Authority in order to wait overnight for the first bus to western Massachusetts in the morning.  I would often wander around 42nd Avenue, maybe watch a movie to kill time in the smoking balcony available in that century, and then later sleep on the benches at the terminal in between thumps from the police batons as they ordered me to move until the bus rolled out.  I can’t imagine ever allowing my own children to have done that knowingly, and I wonder at how different the times were then in the mid-1960s where my parents would have booked the flight simply assuming this was part of my life’s experience, as it certainly was.

I’m not recommending this as the preferred way to travel, but as life on the road goes, it could have been worse, and I’ve been there and done that, and though I’m many hours short of sleep waiting for my plane from Germany to Texas to New Orleans, this was actually OK in its own way.




No Al Carbone

LOGOVELENIBari, Italy      Everywhere we look these days the discussion and activity is heating up around the impact of coal and climate change. One of the students at the Scuola di Bollenti Spiriti was Daniele Pomes, who is a key organizer in No Al Carbone, the No Coal campaign in Brindisi, Italy in the Puglia region. Visiting at some length with Daniel over several days, it was clear that he had a tiger by the tail.

With the help of a United Kingdom based nonprofit, Environmental Resistance , they had published a powerful booklet for the campaign which featured impressive photography developed from UK working with Daniele in Brindisi. Daniele couldn’t help pointing out to me that it involved the photographer and him going out at 5 AM every morning for over a week in order to be able to collect the photos.

According to the AssocCarboni,

Italy imports via sea about 90% of its coal demand, on a fleet composed by 60 ships with a carrying capacity of 4,6 million of tons. Import countries are different: the main ones are the USA, South Africa, Australia, Indonesia and Colombia, but there are also Canada, Cina, Russia and Venezuela.

Daniele believes that most of the coal coming into Brindisi is coming from China. There are two power plants, ENEL Brindisi South and EDIPower Brindisi North that are largely coal-powered. They stand out among a collection of plastic, petrochemical, and other plants that have made Brindisi, a city of over 200,000, an area classified “at High Risk of Environmental Crisis.” Within a mile of the petrochemical plant cancer rates are double the normal levels.

No Al Carbon is small but sustainable. 50 supportors pay10 euros per month in donations, dues, or whatever you might call it to support the campaign. They sell t-shirts, black of course, and other paraphernalia as you might imagine to help out as well. They are in a tough campaign because they believe that 30,000 workers in Brindisi are employed by the coal fired plants and coal dependent industries representing a sizable portion of the local population, so they are trying to build awareness and desperately searching for allies.

The booklet should help, though right now the first edition was only 50 copies, so they have to plant each one of those seeds very carefully.

A bigger breakthrough for them might be the coming “Poison Tour,” as they call it. They have rented a bus and are filling it with supporters, media, and others and planning to hit five “hot” spots, where the impact of the coal and the environmental damage is most obvious. Poignantly, they will be stopping as well near two protected wildlife areas in the northern and southern borders of the city where the impact of pollution is also extreme.

Daniele told me that one of the things he had learned from the organizing workshops I ran at the School of Hot Spirits was how to better research leverage points by looking at both the sources of the coal and the customers for the surplus energy produced by the plants. He’s going to need some help, but fortunately he’s putting together the tools, base, and allies that might help them win this fight in the future.

The Search for Community and the Hope for Organization in Southern Italy

the class today

the class today

Taranto       My second day as a “professor” at La Scuola di Bollenti Spirit, the School of Hot Spirits, we were set to dive into how to look at campaigns.  Roberto Covolo, the school’s director started with an exposition of some of the differences in the Italian understanding of “state” responsibility and reflections that he and some of the students had come to as they rehashed some of our first day of discussions of community organizing.  From the discussion his helpful chart illustrated, we were able to look more seriously at some of the changing focus on public and private targets by community organizations that had arisen in the cross currents of neoliberalism and devolution.  We were off to a powerful start!

Next thing you know we were planning a jobs campaign on ILVA, the giant Taranto, Italy steel mill with 11,000 workers.  The bigger they come, the harder they fall.  We actually found a lot of handles and a bounty of leverage points fairly quickly in the conversation, which got the hot spirits thinking just maybe this was all possible.

Next, they wanted to tackle a problem almost literally under their feet, the abandoned properties in “old town” Taranto.  Where once there had been a community of 20,000 people, perhaps now 500 families lived in this section of the city.  Houses had fallen down, been condemned as unsafe, and ended up in the hands of the municipality which lacked anywhere near the resources needed to rehabilitate the units.  The students told me that anyone could buy a unit for as little as 2000 euros, but it might take 70 to 100,000 euros to rehabilitate the properties, though no one seemed to know for certain.  I broke them into small groups to see what they might come up with, and they harnessed themselves to the task with interesting results.  They were getting this organizing thing, finally it seemed.

small groups

small groups



Later in the afternoon, we visited a partner organization of sorts where I later learned some of them were likely to be assigned.  This huge building had also reverted to city control in the new town area of Taranto.  In a former life, it had been a workers’ center of sorts, located cheek to jowl with the naval facilities.  This had also been the site of the Occupy encampment in the city, and continued to operate as an informal youth center of sorts with the tacit consent of the city but no resources including electricity and so forth.

Talking to the various groups in the afternoon that had come to visit with us in the space we could all easily hear the same refrain we had heard earlier in the workshops from the students themselves.  There were many lost communities.  One woman, when asked what she expected from the meeting, essentially said that she hoped to find “allies.”  She lived in an abutting neighborhood and had not been in the space since she was a small child with her father picking up presents being given for Christmas by the workers.  The young people in the group still occupying the site were searching for the same thing without much sense of how to find people and with some estrangement from organization even though they were also looking for the “tools” to build organization. 

students milling around the cocina, being opened for the area as a social enterprise

students milling around the cocina, being opened for the area as a
social enterprise


The school and many of its projects were experiments and innovations.  The students were exciting and excitable, talented seekers hoping to make contributions and create real change for themselves.  Over and over though it was impossible not to hear the search for community where people now felt a void and to hear and see the hope for organization expressed in so many ways.  The students have another exciting 6-7 weeks to go in the school.  For my part, I’m going to have to figure out how to act on what I’ve heard in southern Italy and see if there isn’t a way to deliver something in real demand:  community organization!



the meeting with other groups in the officine tarantine space

the meeting with other groups in the officine tarantine space


welcome to the port of taranto

welcome to the port of taranto