Fair Housing Assessment Should be an Organizing Handle – Is it?

fhNew Orleans   The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is trying to do something about the continuing polarization of our communities by race, class, and ethnicity, so let’s give them some credit for that. In a new rule last year they tried to put some teeth in the Fair Housing Act of 1968, by requiring all cities that get federal housing money to submit detailed plans on how they are actually going about reducing neighborhood segregation and increasing “access to opportunities” for everyone. No Congressional action was required or I wouldn’t even be writing this. HUD as part of the Obama Administration was simply promulgating rules to try to add some teeth to the original act.

The requirement coming into full force now is the 2016 Assessment of Fair Housing. All cities in the United States receiving federal housing funds are mandated to do the assessment. This includes not only cities with public housing authorities, but also cities getting HOME monies for housing development and Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds among others. “Access to opportunities” is not just rhetoric either, because this language includes jobs, transportation, and even access to quality schools. Frankly, this is anti-apartheid language.

Reading old local newspapers from a stack accumulated during my two weeks of meetings in Europe, while jet-lagged at 3 AM in the morning, an item had caught my eye from the rough draft of the New Orleans report comparing a working / middle income neighborhood in New Orleans called Gentilly, that is majority African-American with an upper-middle class, largely white neighborhood called Lakeview. In the majority-black neighborhood, the life expectancy found by the assessment was a little more than 54 years old, while in the overwhelmingly white area the life expectancy was 80, a quarter of a century more. Is that an eye opener or what?

Almost everyone this side of Donald Trump buttressed by scores of research studies understands that if we had full residential integration the gap in education and job networks would be drastically reduced. When we talk about equality and narrowing the every widening gap in America today, forcing cities to have real 5-year plans with annual updates on how they are actually going achieving real diversity across the board would seem to be a huge organizing handle. Real plans that force city and housing authority to justify any reduction of affordable and low income housing should be huge win. And, wow, a real plan that stopped CDBG funds that are supposed to be spent only in ways that upgrade lower income families and their communities rather than being used as a slush fund for local developers and mayoral cronies would be almost a revolutionary reform.

Public hearings are now being held on such assessments in cities all over the country. This would have been ACORN’s moment for local groups in all 600 organized communities to make their demands in more than 100 cities about what really needed to be done. These assessments should be a big handle for a major campaign wherever there is the capacity to launch one.

Yet, talking to some organizers here and there, they were skeptical. The early experience in recent years with this planning process before the new rule has been disappointing. How sharp are the teeth being implanted in the Fair Housing Act? Is a Democratic administration really going to withhold CDBG funds from urban mayors who are overwhelmingly Democratic as well to prod them to do better at achieving diversity in their cities or is this just window dressing?

A real campaign to make this tool a hammer rather than a paintbrush would let us see what might be possible.


Republicans Dilemma: Can Fear and Hate Alone Win an Election?

Immigrant rights activists hold up a fabric wall to protest against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, Wednesday, July 20, 2016, in Cleveland, during the third day of the Republican convention.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Fabric wall to protest against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, Wednesday, July 20, 2016, in Cleveland, during the third day of the Republican convention.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

New Orleans   Having just returned from euro-world, I have to admit that I was surprised I wasn’t asked more questions about Donald Trump. During George W’s time, the questions were endless and strident. War does that to people. Folks brought up Trump for sure, but mostly with a smile on their face, not taking him seriously, though that would be a mistake, and in some ways not so much frightened by him as they were by Bush, but more amused at what they saw as America’s embarrassment at the hands of the crazy uncle coming out of the closet after the dignity, regardless of any disappointments, of Obama.

Now that I’m back and parsing the recent Republican National Convention, I have to ask myself, “can fear and hate alone win an election?” The answer is of course, yes, but we’ve never seen ourselves as pre-war Germany or Bosnia or Rwanda or modern Poland or Turkey after the recent coup, so it’s a stretch. Even jaded observers like myself, keep repeating a mantra to ourselves that “it can’t happen here.” But, in some ways that’s channeling our inner-Pollyanna, because it is happening here at the state level in places like Arizona, Kansas, and way too much of Texas. There’s also something that has been in the water in Wisconsin in recent years that makes you wonder what happened to that bastion of liberalism and labor strength?

Hillary Clinton to her credit is still holding the line against hate trying to position her candidacy and the Democratic Party as a more inclusive alternative for a wider demographic in the United States. There is certainly polarity. I can’t remember reading a poll like the recent one by the Wall Street Journal where a presidential candidate – in this case, Trump – literally polled zero among African-Americans. Needless to say all of his talk about building an even bigger wall between the US and Mexico has not helped his numbers get higher among Latinos either.

Talking to Randy Cunningham, a veteran community and tenant organizer and longtime activist in Cleveland, on Wade’s World was inspiring to hear about the success of peoples’ nonviolent attempts to have their voices heard by the Republicans in Cleveland over the last week. The “Wall Off Trump” action put together by unions and progressive organizations from the Working Families’ Party to Chicago’s La Gente and our old friends at the Ruckus Society, he described as very effective and lots of fun. The opening action on Monday that he and a large coalition put together pulled more between 1500 and 2000 and despite the fear mongering by the Trump team that there would be “blood in the streets.” He described the event as the largest action in Cleveland since the late 1970s and early 1980s. More positively, he believed that there may be an unexpected legacy of the RNC hate and fear mongering in Cleveland this week, and that is a resurgence of organizing and action in Cleveland.

Let’s hope that might be the result nationally of this fear-and-hate campaign. Trump thus far has no program other than “vote for me.” Clinton is matching the fear factor reportedly with a vice-presidential partner who will have some credibility there. She is still lacking a bit in what Sarah Palin famously called the “hope-y” thing that for all of the derision actually has been winning recent presidential elections.

The one thing that is certain: this is going to be a frightening several months until November!

abc_mk_rnc_01_jc_160718_31x13_1600 group-of-RNC-protesters-marching-in-Cleveland-jpg protest 1_1468803616833_42589481_ver1.0_640_480 trump_protest_759 Trump protest RNC

Please enjoy Regina Spector’s Bleeding Heart. Thank you KABF!


Sorting Out French Labor Law – What a Country!

Plaza in Grenoble

Plaza in Grenoble

Paris   Finishing up my hella-Euro-road trip as the heat hit the 90’s in Grenoble and Paris, I felt like I was catching the last train out of town before the whole country – and in fairness, most of Europe – shut down for the rest of the summer. You notice the small signs when almost every follow-up email is greeted with an auto-return saying, I’ll be back in mid-August or more likely August 29th. Meeting with the Alliance and ReAct staff before leaving Grenoble, my bags were packed, but so, seemingly were many of theirs. Hitting Paris in the attic loft where I stay I had four pages of instructions on how to make sure the house was closed tighter than a drum because they would be out for weeks. Every meeting, ended as we’ll follow up in September. Fascinating! After years of experience with the summer months as primetime for organizing, the notion that I had woken up somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s except it was hotter here! But, hey, viva la difference!

church in Brussels plaza

church in Brussels plaza

I used to write some “notes for my father” on things that he would have found fascinating from my trips abroad, but this time I felt I needed to write a note to myself after the head organizer of ACORN’s French affiliate gave me a short course of French labor law and how it caged organizing and field programs. All staff has a contract. The contracts can be short term for 6 or 12 months, but after several of these short stints, the law requires employees be made permanent or released. Or of course the Holy Grail for workers occurs when you might finally receive an open ended permanent contract. Annually, the head organizer has to do a formal evaluation with the staff members as part of the renegotiation of these contracts. Describing the process, it is definitely a negotiation. Where previously she might have negotiated full time hours from 35 which is the standard work week in France to 39 by paying the premium for those extra hours, staff can propose to go back to 35 and can even make proposals on the content of the work, which for organizers might even mean having to discuss nonnegotiable issues like time on the doors or the number of groups maintained by an organizer. It just takes your breath away! But, as I overheard an organizer in Paris say about the government’s attempts to modify some of these labor laws, “we can’t give away what our grandfathers fought for and won.” Well, you put it like that…

On the other hand, managers may have contracts but in exchange for the discretion and professionalism of their jobs, there is no restriction on their hours, and different than in the United States, this is regardless of the amount they are paid. At the ACORN affiliate everyone is on a minimum contract whether short term or open ended at this point, meaning they are paid a minimum wage as set by French law. The minimum wage in France is set at the after tax rate which is a good thing and is indexed to inflation and/or legislative action so goes up annually, which is also a good thing. Once you sort it all out it was about equivalent to what ACORN’s starting wage was for all staff about a decade ago, so not bad at all really in terms of a living wage.

church in Budapest

Danube in Dusseldorf

This minimum contract is not unusual and sometimes even includes a period where a new employee is paid by social benefits the first year and then in direct wages the second. I happened to meet the head of the ATD-Fourth World in France, which is their largest operation for the social services and organizing operation for the poor. All one-hundred of their fulltime staff, who they call volunteers, are paid on a minimum contract, which is interesting when we think about what it takes to build community organizations and unions of lower income and lower waged workers.

The package, as we call it in collective bargaining, is great in France as the country shuts down for the season over the coming weeks, but once you add it all up, backwards and forwards, it may be a maze to navigate, but there’s still a way to get there from here.

Country roads, take me home!

Danube in Dusseldorf

Church in Budapest


Grassroots Democracy is Scary, but Essential as Grenoble Paves the Way

Grenoble ACORN Alliance Citoyenne city board convenes outside

Grenoble ACORN Alliance Citoyenne city board convenes outside

Grenoble   The highlight of my last full day in Grenoble before beginning the multi-city trek back home was getting to sit in and observe the city board meeting of ACORN’s affiliate the Alliance Citoyenne Grenoble. The board is still new and in transition from the “old” Alliance governance structure composed of various people in the larger community and the emerging governance structure composed of elected representatives of the membership coming from each of the five existing local groups. In some ways, the leaders have been invested with the responsibility of writing on a blank slate how they will work in the future, and given the fact that Grenoble is the largest of the emerging organizations in France, there will likely be precedents set by almost every single decision these new leaders make. This is grassroots democracy at its best and to build a strong and powerful organization, it is essential, but that doesn’t mean it’s not also scary at times watching leaders navigate the future.

Grenoble is a lovely town in the valley dominated by the Chartreuse Mountains. The evenings are pleasant, but the days heat up considerably and fans and air conditioners are not common. Not embracing the heat, the board was meeting on tables and chairs outside of the cooperative office complex where they share space, mixing the seriousness of the meeting with some of the atmosphere of a picnic, as people sat around drinking juice and eating chips as they held their agendas.

 a leader makes a report on a recent victory

a leader makes a report on a recent victory

The reports from the local groups were a litany of victories in the wave of success the members are having in winning improvements from local housing authorities. This group had gotten a commitment for more than 30 doors and locks to be replaced. Another was winning a timetable for replacing windows, long in disrepair. Everyone had a good story to tell of actions and negotiations. One group was fresh from an exhilarating meeting where the Mayor had attended to formally sign the agreement was, according to her report, credited the Alliance with their work over and over again. Big smiles all around!

There were some thorns on the roses that inspired more debate. Transitions are hard, and one board member had resigned in a bit of passion at the last meeting and then several days later retracted her resignation, so the board had to puzzle out how to deal with that situation at several junctures in the meeting. Should it go back to the local group to sort out? Should there be a “grace” period for reconsideration? Conflict isn’t easy and the leaders searched for common ground to work out relationships that could make hard decisions in the future without much concern for the precedents it might create or experience with principles and practice they could rely on for guidance.

board breaks into 2 groups to brainstorm

board breaks into 2 groups to brainstorm

The most critical decision they faced was on whether or not to continue to expand and organize new groups. There is no issue like the continual tension in a membership organization between maintenance of the existing membership and expanding to add more groups and membership among the unorganized. If an organization doesn’t decide to grow, it dies. Without growth, the organization would be unable to empower the membership sufficiently to achieve their aspirations. At the same time nothing is ever perfect, there are never enough staff and resources, more can always be done, so there’s always a temptation to slow down, wait, and take a more cautious route. I watched nervously, realizing the proposition they were debating was way more serious than they likely reckoned. Without knowing French, I was relying on body language and words here and there and the passion that pushed them along with an occasional aside in English from the organizers, listening just as I was. They decided unanimously to expand, which was exciting – and a relief — and also moved affirmatively on investing responsibility and accountability in the staff for evaluating which areas should be next and how to add the next organizer.

 decisions on expansion and staffing require debate before voting

decisions on expansion and staffing require debate before voting

At the end I couldn’t help feeling, as we all shook hands and expressed good wishes for the work done, that the board had come out of a thick forest and it was in the clearing now. There would be many hard decisions to come, but having made these tough calls tonight, they had a new confidence and solidarity with each other, an emerging trust and confidence in the staff, and were ready to face the future.

Democracy works, but it’s a constant struggle.

 decisions on expansion and staffing require debate before voting

decisions on expansion and staffing require debate before voting


Kansas’ Kris Kobach is Evil and Nothing is Stopping Him

April 25, 2012 - Washington, District of Columbia, U.S. - Kansas Secretary of State KRIS W. KOBACH speaks to the media outside of the Supreme Court on Wednesday after the Court heard arguments on Arizona's controversial immigration law. Kobach played a significant role in the drafting of the law known as Arizona Senate Bill 1070 which seeks to crack down on illegal immigration. (Credit Image: © Pete Marovich/ZUMAPRESS.com)

– Kansas Secretary of State KRIS W. KOBACH

Grenoble   There’s a civil war happening in Kansas and the people are losing. Even worse it continues to also be a cancer spreading virally wherever it is not blocked in other states and nationally. The main carrier of this plague against democracy is Kris Kobach, the elected Secretary of State of Kansas, which gives him a small platform for his real work as the primary architect and author of hate speech couched as legislative acts around immigration, voting, marriage and other hard right issues. The truth is that Kris Kobach is evil, and my fear is that nothing is stopping him.

I’ve been on the Kobach Watch for years back to his early political races some years ago. He caught my attention when he was making speeches around the state of Kansas in his successful 2010 election calling for the people of Kansas to vote for him in order to prevent “ACORN from stealing elections” in the state. All’s fair in love, war, and I guess in Kobach’s view, politics, but I knew, as surely as Kobach knew at the time, that ACORN had no offices, staff or – to my knowledge – members in Kansas at the time, so Kobach’s campaign was constructed on a complete fabrication and was little more than an exercise in total demagoguery. Call me old fashioned now in the Age of Trump, but I see that as wrong.

I take some pleasure in the fact that the New York Times has noted that his zealotry has interfered with the federal administration of elections where a Kansan has tried to subvert the elections board in order to suppress votes at Kobach’s bidding. They didn’t name him out though, although they have now in editorials about his recalcitrance in blocking 17,000 voters based on extreme voter ID requirements. These voters can be counted in federal elections, but as Secretary of State despite losing all lower and higher court decisions, Kobach has ordered election officials not to count their local and state ballots to simply steal votes away. The Kansas City Star has called for him to lose the unique prosecutorial power he wrested from the state legislature as the only secretary of state in the country that can go to court over so-called voting fraud. In their words: “But now Kobach has been exposed as a big fraud on the issue of voter fraud, which studies have found to be almost nonexistent in America.” In another story, the Star wrote that Kobach’s voter cases had “exposed the incompetence of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach at home and his standing as a national embarrassment as a public official.” The Star couldn’t help but note that the Daily Kos had found that on the Secretary of State’s website, he gave different instructions in English than Spanish and gave incorrect information in Spanish to misdirect their votes.

And, believe it or not, this almost pales compared to his work opposing immigration where he serves as general counsel for a national hater group. Who wrote the notorious and unconstitutional Arizona immigrant profiling act? Kris Kobach that’s who. Who wrote the even worse anti-immigrant act in Alabama? Kris Kobach that’s who! Who was involved in dirty tricks in the effort to re-elect the Republican Senator from Kansas? Yes, of course Kris Kobach as well as fines for mishandling money as party chair in Kansas and contributions problems in all of this campaigns.

You don’t want to check Wikipedia on this dude. Under immigration it’s one hateful lawsuit after another targeting immigrants.

Kobach has also litigated several lawsuits defending cities and states that adopt laws to discourage illegal immigration. He served as lead lawyer defending the city of Valley Park, Missouri in a federal case concerning an ordinance that sanctioned employers who hire unauthorized aliens. The ordinance was upheld by Missouri federal judge E. Richard Webber on January 31, 2008 (Gray v. Valley Park, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 7238).[3][9] The ACLU, representing the plaintiff, appealed the case to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. Kobach prevailed in the appeal, and the Court allowed the Valley Park ordinance to stand (Gray v. Valley Park, 567 F.3d 976 (8th Cir. 2009)).

Kobach is also the lead attorney defending the city of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, whose anti-illegal immigration ordinances had been struck down by a federal judge in Pennsylvania and again before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.[10] In June 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the Third Circuit’s decision and remanded the case back to the Third Circuit for reconsideration. Sup. Ct. No 10-722. In July 2013, the Third Circuit concluded again that both the employment and housing provisions of the Hazleton ordinances are pre-empted by federal immigration law.

He is currently involved with another lawsuit, involving a Farmers Branch, Texas ordinance that prevents landlords from renting to illegal immigrants.[3] That case is on appeal before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. It was originally heard by a three judge panel, then the Fifth Circuit granted rehearing en banc before the entire Court. Case No. 10-10751.

Read ‘em, and weep.

So of course he was out early for Trump and calling for military across the border. And, not surprisingly, he has infected the national Republican platform and pushed it even farther right.

The court system is just a blunt weapon for attacks by Kobach, and he has no interest in the rule of law that underpins the court, only whether or not he can weaponized the system. Kobach is such an ideologue that he believes he is above the law and the people. He’s a shining example of what’s wrong with Kansas, but now he’s a national scourge and the enemy of democracy everywhere. He plays by no rules other than the ones he makes, and he tries to twist all the rules that matter.

What does it take to stop Kobach?


Please enjoy Bonnie Raitt’s Need You Tonight. Thanks to KABF. 


Best to Remember the South is a Violent Place

Police in Baton Rouge after blocking protestors

Police in Baton Rouge after blocking protestors

Grenoble   As I mark the calendar closer to the finish on my euro-hella-road-trip, reading the news and seeing the videos on-line first from Dallas, where of course we have an office and members, and then over and over again from Baton Rouge last weekend and now more recently, where we also have a union hall and lot of union members, I have to admit, it’s unsettling. It was also unnerving to be in Brussels the night of the truck massacre in Nice, France, but Texas and Louisiana are home, so I understand the fear and fury there much better.

The killing of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge is tragic, chilling, inexcusable, and insane. The fact that the law-and-order message is likely to finally give the Republican Convention in Cleveland some coherence is both unsurprising and scary in its own right. If the public is angry, confused, uncertain and scared, that sets the table for authoritarian platforms and candidates. I’m currently reading a book about Germany and five generations by a lake near Berlin and reliving the rise of Hitler against this backdrop and just finished the Nobel Prize winning book of interviews ten years after the Chernobyl disaster in Belarus, so the impacts and aftermaths of such tendencies are perhaps too much on my mind, and I apologize for that.

The killings by the police of African-Americans and Latinos is also tragic, chilling, inexcusable, and insane though. Last weekend, my daughter shared several videos with us of the police riot and sweep up of demonstrators in Baton Rouge protesting the killing there. I’m a veteran organizer and have been on the other side of police lined up in a phalanx, marching forward on crowds. I’ve steered marches away from mounted police and the power of their horses. Nonetheless, I can hardly ever remember a more foreboding and intimidating situation than watching the videos of the police forming up in line in Baton Rouge and then advancing on the protestors there, while police runners moved from the main body of the formation to chase down the slow footed, beat them down and arrest them over fences and behind trees and bushes. This was not police work, but armed and dangerous mayhem. Two hundred were arrested, including friends of my daughters and other well-intentioned people exercising their right to protest. Many ended up stranded and staying with friends of friends and their families. Charges against one hundred of them have now been dropped. If reports have touted the Dallas police chief and its force as clamming and effective in that city’s recovery, the same cannot be said in Baton Rouge.

Peaceful protests, even ones that are a bit sparky, and police killings are apples and oranges and completely unrelated. Most public figures have been on message both defending the police against death by public service as well as the fundamental right to protest, but wisely spokespeople for Black Lives Matter and others are saying that no matter they are afraid to protest right now given the events that this is all triggering.

“Rap” Brown was from Baton Rouge and famously said decades ago that “violence was as American as apple pie.” For all of the gun happy crowd that refuses to countenance any restraint in purchase or use, it’s worth remembering Brown’s words and adding the fact that if there is any area of the country more violent than another, as Dallas and Baton Rouge are proving again, it’s the South. When global observers wonder in the words of a Times’ headline how to sort out the difference between a “terrorist and the deranged,” they are talking about France, but they could as easily be talking about Baton Rouge and Dallas.

We’re playing with fire if we don’t move to fix these problems on all sides of the debate and do so immediately.