Republican Presidential Candidates Houses: Bad Taste Past the Boundaries

            New Orleans               Republicans, Democrats, or whatever, when something is way, way over the line, it should be roundly understood as out of bounds.  A piece in the New York Times Home and Garden section this week by Kate Zernike called “The Houses of the Hopefuls” was appalling on any number of levels.

Having Glen Beck and other haters give people my home address and phone number is, admittedly, part of why I am fairly easily offended that there are simply no standards at the Times or anywhere else it would seem over about the privacy of public figures, and the Times would at least like to pretend that it is a place that sets such standards.  Past privacy though, was there no editorial or journalistic judgment that would restrain them from publishing pictures and descriptions of the candidates houses in the interest of public safety and some sense of a basic human right to safety, even if they are so bold, arrogant, or principled to put themselves forward for public office.

On those grounds alone the piece was offensive from its first premise that somehow we (citizens and voyeurs?) have a “right” to peek through the windows of their houses and stalk them on the blocks where they live in order to “get to know them better.”  God, how ridiculous is all of that?

But, then if readers tried to get through the piece, you would quickly be able to discover why Republican candidates of all stripes and persuasions have no problems with the “call and response” from their base about the smug elitism and sensibilities of what former Vice President Spiro Agnew once famously called the “nattering nabobs” of the East Coast corridor.  The article without apology seems to see its mission as making fun of the candidates and their families, parading forward one rock throwing, self-promoting designer after another willing to take a crack at the taste and sensibilities of these candidates and their private spaces.  The article was snide and “bitchy.”  In this case bad taste was truly in the eyes of the beholder, because virtually the entire article reeked of bad taste compounded by terrible judgment.

The reporter and the Times think they are in a position to take potshots at the taste of the candidates because they are so old-fashioned, traditional, and tend towards the “colonial” in housing styles.  Duh?  Quelle shock!   When George McGovern ran for President as a peace candidate against the sitting Democratic President Lyndon Johnson over the issue of the Vietnam War, he clearly stated a universal political law when he said, “those that would be most radical, must remember to appear most conservative,” as he explained his on wardrobe and lifestyle in the post-sixties environment.

Here’s the perfect example from the article.  I’m no friend of Michelle Bachmann, but once one gets past that and wraps one’s mind around the fact that a large family overflowing with adopted and other children that makes its money through public and social services can possibly afford a house with a $750,000 price tag, why is it not in fact admirable that she and her husband bought a house that was part of a charity construction design and build project?   To me it seems commendable in fact, though it rates no comment from the Times other than earning her a couple of body shots from a so-called professional whining about the design and line of the roof, as if Michelle and her gang were the architects and up there hammering away on the beams and shingles.

It never gets better after that, expect that the reporter and her buddies do seem to believe that you get more if you are richer so they had some faint praise for Romney and Huntsman as the zillionaires of the crew.

The Times Public Editor and anyone with an iota of routine manners and slight common sense should recoil and protest this unseemly and unsafe invasion of privacy and ad hominem attack (and that goes for Michelle Bachman , too!).

As always, let’s hope for a better new year!

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Celebrating Wage Increases and Asking Santa for More in the Future

            New Orleans               ACORN was a great organization and some of the gifts from its membership to their neighbors and co-workers keep on giving, despite the fact that the organization shut its doors 13 months ago in the United States.

No better example can be found in the automatic increases in a number of state minimum wage programs that are triggered by automatic inflation escalators at the beginning of each year.  The New York Times noted that this was coming in another week in eight states:  Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.  In the largest of these states Ohio and Florida, ACORN was the driving force in organizing the ballot initiatives that won the change.  ACORN members did the same in Arizona and Colorado.  Of the more than 1.4 million workers that will directly or indirectly receive wage increases, probably more than 1 million of these come from the ACORN initiatives.

The National Employment Law Project (a great outfit!) estimated the increases would range between $0.28 and $0.37 per hour which for a full-time worker (if there are any still out there?) would mean a boost from $582 to $770 per year.  Let’s low ball it and say that the increases for the ACORN-million will only be $400 per year.  This is simple math but that adds up to $400,000,000 in additional wages that lower wage workers would get from ACORN’s work this year alone.  But, let’s not quibble, whether it’s a quarter of a billion dollars or half a billion, it’s a whole lot of money that employers (not the government!) will pay hard working, lower wage workers in one of the few ongoing programs increasing citizen wealth for the 99%.

NELP told the Times that labor was planning on doing this again in some other states in 2012.  That’s welcome news that I had not heard, and, truthfully, I don’t want to Grinch it, but I’m almost doubtful that it’s true.  These are big efforts and much needed, but they take deep commitments, huge organization, and not insubstantial resources.  Without ACORN around to put some of these pieces together, organizers may find this is an even more difficult task this time around.  Furthermore, employers in a weak economy will be crying “foul!” every chance they get and high unemployment may confuse some workers who otherwise might go to the polls to “vote themselves a raise” as the employers used to argue in our campaigns.   Add to that the strenuous efforts of the Republicans to restrict access to the voting booth with new identification procedures and other voter suppression methods that ACORN used to fight, but few others have stepped up to stop, and the road could be tough.

Speaking for lower wage workers, such efforts in many other states would be a Christmas present that would keep on giving just has it has in these states!

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Winter Warriors: Tents and Sleeping Bags for Occupy

Winter-ProtestNew Orleans Every once in a while there’s something close to serendipity in this work.  Yesterday, I was pulling my hair out trying to think through the Occupy problem with winter coming on.  I had opened my blog yesterday, saying:  “the easiest opinion I can offer right now as an organizer is that the Occupy movement needs to prepare to meet the resistance.  Well, maybe it would be even easier to mention my concerns about the fact that winter is approaching in many areas, but later for that.”

As I left a bargaining session in Lafayette after Local 100 had settled an agreement with LARC, I looked at my email and had a message from Jane Hamsher, the founder and life force behind the huge internet site, Firedoglake.com, that she had tried to call me and, essentially, why the heck hadn’t I picked up the phone!  I sent her my cell number and had hardly gotten the truck pointed east towards New Orleans on the I-10 than she was on the phone.

And, this is the “beauty part,” she was calling looking for help because Firedoglake had put out an appeal for funds to raise money to “winterize” Occupy and get tents and sleeping bags that could handle the cold.   Turned out that Firedoglake.com had raised $40,000 already through what I now know is the #OccupySupply Fund, trying to support Occupy sites preparing to hunker down with winter coming.  Jane and I were on exactly the same page with this analysis that there would be a push out in the south and warmer climes, and we have seen this now in Atlanta, Oakland, and Melbourne, and for the colder areas, authorities were clearly hoping that winter would do the work for them, as I had feared from my recent visit to Canada.

kolahdooz20111027095542217The small bit of help that Jane and Firedoglake wanted was how to connect with union-made products and suppliers so that they could source the winter goods through union member, labor supporting operations and not the local Wal-Mart or whatever.  They were having trouble getting their calls returned, which I’m sure was just a temporary snafu, though surprisingly she told me of one company that actually refused to sell to them because the gear was for Occupy.  Ownership of that outfit is no doubt in the 1%!

These kinds of efforts are worth a few bucks in order to keep this going.  I’ve reached out to friends in Canada and throughout the USA, suggesting that they mount similar efforts to help keep Occupy alive and in place or to support the Firedoglake campaign.  Either way, this could make a difference!

In another bit of convergence, having been in Egypt I thought, hey, it’s time for a “We are all Scott Olsen” Facebook page to stand with the young, ex-Marine Iraq veteran who was taken down by Oakland police, just like the 1.5 million strong, catalytic effort in Egypt when the “We are all Khaled Said” page was posted after the police killing in Alexandria.  Almost as soon as I whipped the email through the internet, I said, whoa, let’s check and there was fortunately already a “We Are All Scott Olsen” page.  That is definitely worth joining!

http://www.firedoglake.com

http://www.facebook.com/firedoglake

http://www.facebook.com/weareallscottolsen

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Resistance, Solidarity and ACORN at Occupy

Mail AttachmentNew Orleans Perhaps the easiest organizing I can make right now as an organizer is that the Occupy movement needs to prepare to meet the resistance.  Well, maybe it would be even easier to mention my concerns about the fact that winter is approaching in many areas, but later for that.

In the last week 400 riot cops swept through the site in Melbourne, Australia and obliterated the encampment.  The reports and pictures from Oakland were somewhat horrific with their own body count.  Atlanta saw more than 50 arrests in another political turn of the wheel that literally pulled the ground out from underneath the Occupiers.  In both of the American cities the excuses were prompted by reports of crimes in the encampments.  Having survived Katrina, I’m still skeptical until I hear more about these alleged incidents to know whether they were real or rationalizations.

Staff PhotojournalistOakland is the right battleground for Occupy, so let the fight be engaged there on this issue where the support base is potentially among the largest one can imagine for this movement.  3000 people gathered during the night to retake the park and the conversation circles about next steps that were photographed and sent out by David Bacon were telling.  It was also gladdening to see that Occupy Wall Street in New York City undertook a solidarity march in support of the Oakland Occupiers.  Good politics and good organizing!

No doubt general assembly’s in all Occupy cities are having planning discussions on how to respond to political and police attack.  This will be hard ground to hold, and we can’t allow the right tactical response to distract from the main thrust of the movement.

Mail Attachment-1Meanwhile we have the feel good moments and ridiculous asides that one can find alongside any movement.  The Times had a story with pictures of families taking their children to “experience” something of how a movement feels.  Ok, I believe in that, too!  I hate to think how many meetings, marches, and similar events our children plowed through before they were teenagers!

For ridiculous asides it is hard to beat the fake Fox fury that my old friend, Megyn Kelley, and others are trying to summon by trying to find ACORN lurking somehow behind and underneath the Occupy Movement.  A denial by the spokespeople at Occupy Wall Street was not enough of course, but it was nice to see a blogger for the Washington Monthly do such a good job debunking this madness and putting a needle in their balloon in the piece called “When in Doubt, Blame ACORN!”

http://www.google.com/url?sa=X&q=http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/political-animal/2011_10/when_in_doubt_blame_acorn033101.php&ct=ga&cad=CAcQAhgAIAEoBDAOOABAztSk9QRIAVgAYgJlbg&cd=b3qDDk3EvPc&usg=AFQjCNEGLYU8yxoiWp9vbpyl-MaEiZATAA

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Myles Horton and Occupy Decision Making Structure

Occupy CanadaToronto It is interesting to be reading Myles Horton’s autobiography, Long Haul, with its firmly held views on popular education, starting with where people are, supporting social movements, student-run and student-led educational experience, and “circles” of learning that are leaderless in pursuit of knowledge and at the same time hear and think about the Occupy “assembly” structure of consensus decision making.  Horton describes vividly the comeuppance of learned experts and overly theoretical union education directors and what could happen to them, sometimes embarrassingly, as they tried to lecture Highlander Center students rather than listening and trying to connect successfully with them.  Many were brought low in his telling from a popular education model that allowed the “students” to vote with their feet and simply interrupt or walk away when the presentation was didactic or didn’t connect to their experience and interest.

ACORN Canada organizers who had spent time in the general assembly process at Occupy Ottawa, Occupy Toronto, and Occupy Vancouver shared similarly maddening and difficult experiences with the painstaking and time consuming consensus decision making process.  Clearly each place is a little different and here in Canada we are several steps removed from Wall Street, which has set the model for this process, but the basic elements seem standard and replicable.  The solidarity system of repeating what is being said to neighbors without a sound system has been picked up and repeated.  The elaborate systems of hand signals indicating agreement, disagreement, withholding consensus, and so forth has also spread throughout North America and likely the globe.  In fact the Canadian newspaper, the National Post ran a story indicating that there are now Occupy locations in 154 countries and based on monitoring Twitter traffic they believed that Canada was now the second most active Occupy movement after the United States itself.

I had a long chat with one of our young Ottawa ACORN organizers, Alex MacDonnell, who had spent quite a bit of time with Occupy Ottawa including participation in general assembly meetings and several committee meetings.  His argument to me was both fascinating and important, and we’ll see over time if it is also true.  As time consuming and difficult as the process was, he believed that the one thing that might survive in our work from the Occupy movement might be the assembly process.

Andy Kroll writing in Mother Jones makes the same case in a piece about the origins and organizers of the Occupy movement (http://motherjones.com/politics/2011/10/occupy-wall-street-international-origins).  Like all movements, no one can take credit for a movement, but whether on Wall Street or in Tahrir Square there are always “organizers” and others who kept pushing forward until something happen.

The assembly decision making structure seems to come directly from spring protests in Spain and one can read a widely translated and fascinating “manual” of sorts on “How to Cook a Pacific Revolution” on the www.takethesquare.net site, which Kroll referenced as well.  A thumbnail of the process was included in the highlights of their manifesto of sorts:

“We’re organizing around assemblies, reaching decisions openly, democratically and horizontally. We have no leaders or hierarchy.
Since there’s plenty of work, all sorts of work, to be done, we’ve organized the task at hand around three types of bodies: commissions, working groups and general assemblies.

The commissions and working groups operate independently. The commissions are structural and organizational and serve as tools for the movement (the Legal and IT Commissions are two examples). The working groups are platforms for collective thought, debate and research on specific subjects (we have working groups on subjects such as politics, the economy and the environment, for instance).

These commissions and working groups are open to anyone who wants to participate. They hold their meetings in public spaces, announced in advance, and all their decisions are recorded in minutes that are published on line. They all organize around horizontal assemblies, but each group collectively establishes it own modus operandi, which is permanently open to change and optimization.

All-important decisions made by these commissions and working groups are subsequently raised to the General Assembly for assessment and ratification by the movement as a whole. Hence, while our work gets done efficiently and independently, it is coordinated horizontally by our assemblies.”

The assemblies are run not by “leaders” or “organizers” but by facilitators.  I’m betting that a lot of their “training” is based on the translation from the Spanish of the “Quick Guide on Group Dynamics in Peoples’ Assemblies” (Quick guide on group dynamics in people’s assemblies). For all of the handwringing and make believe of the Tea-people, my friend Glenn Beck, and others, there is an important and fascinating infrastructure underneath this movement which is absolutely worth organizers studying thoroughly and coming to understand.

Here are some starting points, so let’s see how far we all get as we wrap our minds around this process and this emerging movement and its methodology.

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Rent Reduction Campaign in Rome and Occupy Octopus

IMG_1346Rome With hustle and grit, David Tozzo, our intrepid volunteer organizer in Rome, had secured a free office for ACORN Italy in a community center of sorts called Case de la Quartier…the House of the Quarter.  Most of our beginning work is in the 4th Quarter, the largest of the 19 quarters or districts with 350,000 residents.  We finally kicked off our meeting in the basement of the office with the first 20 people and gradually as the meeting went on the number rose to 30 or so.  Not only were we introducing ACORN International and ACORN Italy to some new people, but we were also moving forward on our campaign to win rent reductions for tenants with unregistered contracts where a new national law is a tool in breaking down the black market.

IMG_1344In the cutthroat “jungle” of housing shortages, landlord tax evasions, and a tight market  in apartments for students, the poor, and many others, frequently landlords are renting simple rooms on the black market for 500 euros.  The new law allows tenants to turn in their landlords if they have an unregistered “leases” and win huge reductions of up to 90% of their rent and have that amount frozen for 8 years on the lease and options.  Furthermore, since the state designed this law to catch tax evasion, it also forbids the landlords escaping the penalty by selling the aprtment, since in effect they are paying back the tenants they exploited, rather than the government they cheated.  Amazing!

Yet real life is more complex than simple self-interest.  At the meeting in Rome and earlier in Palermo, questions were raised, particularly by young women tenants, about the uncomfortable interpersonal situation created in turning in a landlord where they were essentially also living in the same house.  There were also concerns about intimidation, harassment, and threats.  These were not easy conversations, partially because we need to reach some critical mass in this effort.   Most bizarrely in Rome two journalists, playing the devil’s advocate, felt sorry for the landlords, but when I pointed out it was the first time that I had ever been chastised for organizing people to follow the law, since usually we are accused of advocating that people ignore the law, they answered simply, “Welcome to Italy!”  What a country!

IMG_1341Earlier I found myself meeting with a mayor of a small suburban town on the outskirts of Rome and several young and coming political figures at the grassroots basis at a superb lunch with excellent conversation thanks to Lucio D’Ubaldo, an elected Senator and publisher of a monthly political magazine, who also happened to be the co-author of a book on the correspondence between the French philosopher Maritain and Saul Alinsky.  He and our firecracker, David Tozzo, have a volume coming out next year discussing Alinsky and community organizing, and no doubt I owe Saul thanks after 40 years for this connection – a gift that keeps giving!

Not surprisingly they ALL wanted to talk about Obama, the USA, and now, the stirring of a possible Occupy movement in America.  It was easy to be positive, because the reach of the activity is so wide, even if not yet deep.  There is clearly a stirring of the forces on the ground who have been desperate for a banner.  I can IMG_1347partially judge this as I see so many veterans of our work in community organizing joining the lists.  There was Helene O’Brien, ACORN’s former field director, in the bottom left hand corner of the New York Times picture from Occupy New Orleans yesterday.  My offer of meeting space at Fair Grinds is being welcomed.  All of our folks in New Orleans were in the march.  Dewey Armstrong from ACORN in the late 70’s and 80’s sent me his thoughts on having attended the organizing meetings of Occupy Miami.  Ex-ACORN state operations are widely reported as involved in New York, California, and Massachusetts.  Craig Robbins from Citizens United in Philadelphia reached out to say how interesting it looked in his state and how close he was following the activity.  John Anderson in Vancouver couldn’t control his frustration at the disorganization of Occupy there, but was definitely in the room during the planning.

Rome or the USA, there is pent up frustration at the inability of the progressive forces to unite and move effectively to actually win change.  This is an opportunity that we should not squander, but should advance at every turn.  It may not be perfect or exactly what we might have put together, but we have to go with what is moving, and right now Occupy has a new heartbeat and a quick step, and that’s worth our investigation and effort.

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