Video Activism

video-aktivisam-385x250Douala, Cameroon   Being in central, west Africa for the latest edition of the Organizers’ Forum and, even more excitingly, the first-ever meeting of all ACORN-affiliated organizers in Africa, my eyes immediately caught a piece in the on-line Times touting that “Inspired by the US, West Africans Wield Smartphone to Fight Police Abuse.” For several reasons I thought, well that’s something.

But having just arrived in Douala, Cameroon after a grueling 3-stop flight across the time zones, my real reaction was to reflect on the amazing courage taking videos of the police would require. We had just gone through an episode which could only be described as hapless and almost touristic in our joy to hit the green fields around the airport. My son, Chaco, had taken several pictures of the airport and its surroundings with his phone in celebration. Six of us were together as we left the airport including Toney Orr from Local 100 in Arkansas, Eloise Mallet from Re-Act in Grenoble, and the two local Cameroon organizers along with Chaco and myself.

We were hauling our bags around the long field to a cheaper spot to take a cab into town. I was walking ahead with Josef, one of the Cameroonians, when we turned because there was some commotion after we had crossed the street to meet our cabdriver. The police were converging on Toney and Chaco at the curb. One short policeman grabbed Chaco’s phone, and the look on Chaco’s face was nothing but shock and surprise, as he tried to understand the problem. A policewoman was also there, and our people started asking, and arguing, about what the problem might be. Suddenly, we were in the middle of a mess, and couldn’t help much since it was all conducted in French.

The problem simply put is that we were informed that it was illegal to take pictures of the police. Period. Something everyone presumably in Cameroon knew, but as dumbass visitors we were going to learn. Eventually, with a third policeman who was the supervisor, an agreement was concocted that allowed the pictures to be deleted and the phone returned. If this is what happens to folks within meters of the airport, I can’t even imagine the risks that others might take trying to record corruption or police abuse in West African countries.

Despite the fact that this was a story of hope in the Times, a more careful reading was also cautionary as they wrote:

Human rights workers say that the practice of sharing videos in West Africa is a natural extension of longstanding frustrations with abuse of power in the region. But even with today’s ability to capture and broadcast evidence immediately, the videos have not always produced tangible results. Often the clips are hard to verify, and few prosecutions have followed, experts say. Scenes of police officers seeking checkpoint bribes or beating civilians sometimes amount to no more than a handful of Facebook comments expressing indignation.

My first message back to the rest of the participants coming to the meeting in Douala once we were on the internet, was plain and simple: Don’t take any pictures of police!

Our message this week in Cameroon will be to build strong organizations. Smartphones and Facebook are not going to be enough.

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Hacking is Everywhere, What are You Saying on Your Email?

silhouettenoire-blocked22            Douala, Cameroon     Crossing the world to places where you feel lucky to have internet, rather than thinking it’s as common as air, I follow this hacking thing perhaps more than the average bear.

In Germany between Hamburg and Berlin, a funny thing happened to me that in my naiveté, I ignored blithely until returning to the United States. It was a situation I wrote off, jokingly, in mi companera’s words as Mercury-in-Retrograde, when mechanical things and even simple communications go awry. I would send an email in Hamburg tightening down a meeting or a pickup, and somehow it would never be received. My blog wouldn’t show up for posting in New Orleans. Finally hitting New Orleans I consulted our server mastermind, thinking, duh, it might be me, not them. Sure enough he and his team found that 87 of my emails had been blocked from so-called “blacklisted” sites. I’m still sorting it out, and working to tell people that in some cases their homes are even blacklisted, not just random buildings, coffeehouses, and hostels. They recommend that I go through a VPN network like people do in China and Russia, so that I’m linking virtually to an eye-spy server in the US with a random address and then bouncing on from there. Maybe their right. Maybe it’s the way we all need to go?

With emails being randomly hacked throughout the US now, first with tech companies and Hollywood, and now politics and most recently former General and Secretary of State Colin Powell, I read that a network anchor had stayed home to delete his entire Gmail account so that he wouldn’t be taking a chance. Others in public life are also scouring their emails. Senator Lindsey Graham told a reporter, no problem, he had never sent an email yet, so he wasn’t worried. What world does he live in, and can we move it farther from the rest of us?

The simple lesson might be, don’t say anything in private that you wouldn’t want to have made public, but who among us could ever live in that glass house forever. Even if we tried, that doesn’t protect us from misinterpretation or, you know, Mercury-in-Retrograde.

Veterans of the burn from previous hackers say that in fact you learn to be more careful. Law firms have created abbreviations that essentially say, talk to me in person, and don’t put it in an email.

None of this is a step towards more transparency and in fact it seems to be a step away from the quick and fluid communication that is part of the gift of email.

So what’s the solution? Go all German and flip IP addresses and blacklists like cards in a deck in the name of privacy, but that may mean even emails that you might want to read are being blocked from you or slow-death in a spam file. Meanwhile weeks may go by before some poor sucker, like me, realizes he’s talking to the internet, and not the people he’s trying to reach.

I’m with the “no substitute for good judgement” crew, because we have to communicate to move forward, but what a mess!

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Koch Brothers Teach Community Organizing

grassroots-leadership-academy900x507px-opt_0New Orleans   This is scary, and not because it’s the devil trying on a pair of angel wings, but because it’s reads like it is smart, comprehensive and effective. I’m talking about the fact that the Koch Brothers are looking past Trump and 2016, win or lose, and going for the long term victories at the grassroots level by implementing a training program to develop activists and, gulp, community organizers. They appear to have picked up our playbook, financed it, and are getting ready to run way past us!

An extensive report in the New York Times detailed the work of their “secret weapon,” the Grassroots Leadership Academy, a division of Americans for Prosperity Foundation, the political education arm of the Koch network. The curriculum appropriates “Saul Alinsky, the Marxist-inspired Frankfurt School, and even President Obama’s Organizing for Action.” This program isn’t small potatoes either. They claim to have held training sessions since February 2015 in three dozen states that have been attended by 10,000 people at a cost to the Koch’s of a bit more than $3 million which the intend to scale up even bigger in 2017 and beyond.

Here’s what’s worse. In many ways, they “get it” about community organizing. Maybe even more than progressives do these days.

Listen to Levi Russell, Americans for Prosperity’s communications director:

“We want a cultural shift of people being able to know what they want and how to talk to the people in their communities, so that in the future, when there are political leaders that want to demagogue free-market issues, they do hit resistance.”

With all of the discussion about the impact of demagoguery on the natural, working class base of the Democratic Party, wonder why they don’t understand this?

Listen to Slade O’Brien, vice president of the Grassroots Leadership Academy about what he learned from progressive political tactics:

”It was incredibly relationship-driven; it was truly at the grass-roots level. And they didn’t have to agree on everything to agree to work on something – that incremental victories matter, and they would work on those rather than swing for the fences and try to hit a home run.”

This is scary. They do have an understanding of the basics of community organizing, and they are making it their tool!

O’Brien added, astutely, that “You can’t just show up at somebody’s door six weeks before an election and build a relationship with them…” Like I say, he gets it, and if he gets it, the benefits are going to accrue to conservatives of the Koch stripe.

This is smart strategy, just like any national community organizing strategy. The Koch’s are trying to plant organizers all around the country. They are giving them tools, including how to attract media and use props in demonstrations. Sure not all of this will work. Not every root will branch, but if they keep this up, they will develop a more effective grassroots base and plant their own forest around the country. I would guarantee that.

You have to wonder: why aren’t we doing this?

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Wells Fargo, Criminal Enterprise

ct-wells-fargo-settlement-questions-oversight-20160910New Orleans   I’ve never been a fan of Wells Fargo. We fought them endlessly over predatory lending practices in mortgages and subprime products. They don’t listen, they obfuscate, stonewall, and hide behind layers of lawyers in stubborn refusal even when faced with evidence of clear misdeeds. We were able to fight Citicorp, Bank of America, HSBC, and a ton of subprimes, even Countrywide, and succeed in reforming practices and achieving decent settlements, but Wells Fargo, even when they settled did so narrowly and without conviction. I was clear for ACORN and our members, you just can’t trust a bank like that with your money.

It is some relief that now everyone in the United States is getting a crash course in learning that Wells Fargo is not the community banker it has claimed to be, but a criminal enterprise.

Let’s review the facts, now being widely reported. For five years employees of Wells Fargo opened up to 2 million bank and credit card accounts willy-nilly without any permission from anyone. Often the accounts were closed fairly quickly which is why the penalties now being paid by the bank are less than $200 million. It was a penny ante, amateur scam with employees making up email addresses and sometimes virtually opening up the accounts from Wells Fargo internet domains. The bank has now fired 5300 employees who were involved in this fraud. As the New York Times’ columnist, Andrew Sorkin, points out, “that’s not a few bad apples.”

Wells Fargo has taken out ads apologizing and taking responsibility, but they clearly, as usual, have their fingers crossed behind their backs. A couple of months ago before all of this criminality became public, they allowed Carrie Tolstedt, a 27-year veteran and their head of “community banking,” to retire and walk away with over a $120 million going away present. Various banking analysts are calling for a “clawback” since Wells has rules allowing them to recover monies from executives where there were ill-gotten gains. The Wall Street Journal was so grossed out by all of this that they reported the calls for clawbacks and showed a picture of Ms. Tolstedt, but couldn’t bring themselves to mention the $120 million she took away with her office plants for fear that all of us Visigoths would be clamoring at the gates.

What will they learn? Likely nothing.

But, it’s easy to explain how this happens, and it is the same way that it happened when mortgage brokers were writing fictitious so-called, “lair’s loans,” where many observers of the 2008 financial meltdown are still confused and some think it was the borrower fibbing, rather than the underwriter. In the current Wells Fargo case on cards and accounts, as well as their own and many other situations previously on loans, it is crystal clear that once you link pay to simple production, you can guarantee there will be fraud. The only question will be how long it takes you to be caught, and how much money the bank makes in the interim.

For managers there, just like Carrie Tolstedt, there is a disincentive to impose the kind of controls that would weed out these problems. Top dogs get paid on the numbers, just like the runts of the litter. In bank after bank, once you get them across the table for all of their talk about protection using sophisticated algorithms, risk management, and blah, blah, blah, they simply are culturally and systemically unable to tightly manage on performance and standards, once production is all, and pay is linked to such incentives.

They are all smart enough to know this, but it’s the nature of capitalism in some ways to ignore it. You can only conclude that they didn’t care or thought that they wouldn’t be caught. None of which recommends a bank like Wells Fargo as a place to trust your money, since they are clearly committed to themselves first and their customers last, as little more than numbers being crunched in their back rooms somewhere.

***

Please enjoy Phish’s Breath and Burning. Thank you KABF.

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At This Point Do Health Records Really Matter?

day2New Orleans   Big news! TV and radio are full of 24 hour commentary on Hillary Clinton feeling the heat and now a doctor’s opinion that maybe her cough is pneumonia, rather than a reaction to allergies, as she has said earlier. Some pundits and editorialists are calling for more disclosures of the candidates’ health records, which in both cases have been somewhat sketchy.

As you recall, Clinton’s were somewhat perfunctory, though they were effusive in comparison to Donald Trump’s letter from one of his doctor’s that seemed like he might have gotten it from a doc-in-a-box with a one-hundred dollar bill in an envelope and essentially said, he was healthy as a horse. But, really, what do we expect. Neither of these candidates are youngsters like Obama. One is 68 and the other is 70. We’re not talking about folks ready for the Olympics. We’re more in the Reagan and Eisenhower demographic. These will be the last candidates to understand that Vietnam was more than a question on a geography quiz.

But, my question is, really, does it matter at this point? Either would have to suddenly have a stroke and then go into a coma to not be on the ballot in less than two months. Be serious. There’s not going to be a do-over at this point. If their hearts are beating and their tongues are wagging, one of these seniors is going to be President.

One reporter suggested that they each provide their health records to a few elite reporters in order to make a report to the public. That almost seems reasonable, but we’re not dealing with very transparent folks. We are already dealing with Trump and Republican forces fabricating ill-health voodoo spells on Clinton in recent months. Trump’s VP candidate, Mike Pence, released his income tax records, but Daddy Warbucks is still gripping his with a tight death grip. We all know about Hillary’s views on privacy versus publicity, and if not, read up on the email server mess. Who is prepared to believe that reporters would get the complete package on something so personal and private? This is a situation where no one is going to believe anything, so it’s likely just destined to be a hot mess.

And, what makes the public think that this is something that the press can handle. Remember the mess with Senator Eagleton as the presumptive running mate for George McGovern in the last century? He was eviscerated for some mental health issues that most now would see as certainly manageable, if not trivial. And, if anything that’s what most of us would like to know about a candidate for President. How stable are they with their fingers near the button? How firmly are their feet anchored to the solid ground? There has already been speculation on Trump and psycho drama, and with Hillary, as a woman, that’s just a common assumption for a whole group of voters. But, friends, no one is talking about sharing any info on mental health.

This is one issue we should let evaporate into back ground noise. There’s no good that can come of it. Our rights to this information are tenuous and our ability to handle healthcare information is nonexistent. We have a long record as a people proving that we don’t understand anything about health. The ongoing conflict about Obamacare is a good case in point.

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Tradeoffs Between Time and Money

timeormoneyNew Orleans   Two professors reported on the results of a study they made about the choices people made between time and money. They reported that people were happier and more satisfied with their lives when they chose to value time over money. They led into the piece by mentioning that one of the economists – a man – faced the choice analytically over spending time over a weekend with a new baby. He was offered a reasonably lucrative opportunity to conduct two days’ worth of workshops across the country which would have helped pay for the cost of daycare and other associated expenses of a new child, or he could have chosen to spent the time at home with the child. We were sort of left hanging on this one, but given their survey result and his argument, he clearly chose time over money.

All of this seems fine and dandy, but it also stops way short of being about reality. To have any real meaning such a study would have to try to determine what the financial benchmark would be that would realistically allow an individual the luxury to choose. Furthermore, there are two edges to this sword when you grab it, but we’ll get to that.

At the simplest level you have to have money in order to choose time. The professor was making a choice on allocation of his resources, but he started with sufficient resources to allow him to have a choice or at least believe that he had a choice and to believe that the consequences of either decision would not have been fatal or painful or face public scorn. And, in fact his time itself had value, as evidenced by the fact others were willing to pay him to expend it. An interesting question for him, as an economist, might have been what level of payment for these two workshops would have established a tipping point where he chose the work and the money, being able to rationalize that it would allow him to essentially purchase more time in the future.

For marginal workers and lower income families all over the world who lack baseline resources, there simply is no choice. If someone shows them the money, they have to go for it. And, in fact there’s another public risk for lower income individuals and families, especially those that get any kind of public support or resources. This is the other edge of the sword. This is the “welfare Cadillac” problem. A significant part of society wants all lower income individuals and families to never have a choice, but to always choose money, meaning work, because they believe against all evidence that work is always available, that nothing is too menial, and that anyone essentially choosing time is stealing their money and should have no choice. When it has to do with women on welfare with children, the same folks might want their wives to stay at home with their children for the sake of the children as their view of a social good, but want to deny such a choice to anyone receiving public aid.

Admittedly all of this was on my mind recently as I spent more than 30 hours in order to travel in one day from Berlin to Amsterdam to Washington, DC to Toronto and then wend my way through rental car hell and pouring rain to my final destination all as the result of a series of decisions solely based on being forced to choose money and assign zero value to time. The pre-dawn train and flight from Berlin to Amsterdam, is what had allowed visits with many activists, organizers, unions, and parities in Hamburg and Berlin in the first place. The cost of the roundtrip to Amsterdam was at the lowest possible cost to allow a peoples’ party to marshal its resources and the last and cheapest flight to Toronto and the cheapo 24-hour EZ-Rental Car operation was about saving every looney and toony for ACORN Canada.

Are people really happier with time rather than money? Sure, if that have enough money to start with and the right to make a choice in their best view of their interests. How many people are excluded from the right to make such a choice? Without that information, it would seem the conclusions are both irrelevant and trivial.

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