Exploiting Immigrants Old School in Arkansas-Mississippi Delta

Ottawa   Almost every month for the last 3 ½ years I’ve driven through the Lake Village area of southern Arkansas and more recently back and forth across the bridge to Greenville, one way or another, as well. Along the lakeside past the fishing docks, the boat launches, the catfish and barbecue places I’ve often done a double take when I see Regina’s Pasta Shop, heralding the “Italian Tradition” on the banks of Lake Chicot, and thought to myself, “what in the world is that doing here” in the middle of cotton and soybean country?

The mystery was both solved and deepened as the layers of the answer to that question were revealed in an uncharacteristically long piece in The Economist of all places. The eyebrow, headline and sub-head of the story tell a lot of the tale in a spoiler alert. The eyebrow said: “Immigration’s forgotten history.” The headline was “Moses in the Ozarks.” The subhead was: “The ordeal of Italian labourers is a parable of race and migration in the Deep South.” The dateline was both Lake Village in the south and Tontitown in Ozarks of Arkansas near Springdale, the city now famous as the worldwide headquarters of Walmart.

The story starts in 1861 at the Sunnyside plantation owned by Elisha Worthington who shocked the local community not by fathering two children by a slave, but by recognizing them. After the Civil War the plantation passed hands several times ending up with Austin Corbin, described by the business-conservative Economist as “a robber-baron financier and railroad speculator, who, as a founding member of the American Society for the Suppression of the Jews, barred them from the hotel he built on Coney Island.” He couldn’t find labor so he imported families from Genoa, Italy through New Orleans and up the Mississippi River to Sunnyside on a land contract scam, where they bought acreage with sharecropping credit on future cotton crops. Many died. All of the Italians lived through terrible discrimination against them that was common at the time and well into the 1930s, highlighted by the infamous lynching of 11 Italians in New Orleans in 1891.

The “Moses” of this story was a Jesuit priest from Italy sent as a missionary to Native Americans in Montana and later assigned to New York to “minister to put-upon Italians,” as they write. He bought land west of Springdale, Arkansas in the Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. Forty families ditched their land contracts and somehow traversed Arkansas in an arduous and lengthy journey. The pioneers founded Tontitown, named after Henri de Tonti, a 17th century Italian explorer. Despite the neighbors hostility, which included burning down the first Catholic church, Father Bandini was the “town’s teacher, band leader and first mayor, as well as its priest.” Grapes were imported and despite the poorer soil, the cooler temperatures led to a wine industry still present in the area.

As for the Sunnyside shame and scandal, the Justice Department sent an investigator down in 1917 who stopped the importation of Italian immigrants. Their footprints are deep though. There is a part of Greenville called Little Italy. Lake Village became home to many where churches and traditions survived. Discrimination also grew there from the Ku Klux Klan. On the receiving end of prejudice, as The Economist writes, “is a sort of shadow version of African-Americans’, the hardship milder and the ending sweeter.”

There are still modern lessons to be learned from the hidden history of places like these all around us.

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The Expropriation of Community Organizing Techniques by the Gig Economy

Philadelphia  Every once in a while I run into something scary, not because it has to do with nuclear meltdowns or corrupt mortgage brokers or community-and-family killing slumlords, all of which are real things. I am also seriously concerned when there is an expropriation of the good for purposes of the evil. These are times when we are drowning in such amazing doublespeak that we are pinching ourselves in order to snap out of “1984” moments becoming our reality.

This is now common currency in politics. Terrible health care is now touted as great. Proposing to eviscerate social programs to provide the rich with a tax break is now packaged as a jobs program for working families. Turning the dial back to the 1950s on women, the environment, race, and a hundred other things is whitewashed as patriotism. It goes on and on.

It happens even in community organizing, most dramatically as Saul Alinsky and his Rules for Radicals became repurposed by the right as a model for their vicious tactics. Recently, reading a New Yorker article about the gig economy, it was disturbing to drop down the wormhole and see it happening again in a discussion of the organizing tactics of the ride-sharing service, Lyft, the Avis to the Uber, Hertz.

The author, Nathan Heller, was interviewing Emily Castor, who he described as the company’s “leader in the campaign against regulatory constraint.” She said, “We’re borrowing very heavily from traditional community-organizing models, and looking at the grass roots in each city…Who are the leaders? Who are the people who distinguish themselves as passionate, who want to get more involved? We have a team that includes field organizers who are responsible for different parts of the country.” Well, I don’t know if this is traditional or even community organizing. She is essentially talking about building a base, a customer base, and maybe in an Obama-moment she decided to slap “community organizing” on the hood as she drove around.

But, then she dove deeper into something that is hardly traditional and remains controversial, and threw logs on that fire without any sense that the temperature might be rising. Hired by Lyft as their first “community manager,” whatever doublespeak that might portend, the article goes,

“She found that she could draw on her political training. ‘Collective identity is one of those aspects that, in the theory of social movements, is so important…You’re not just ‘taking rides.’”

Then, Marshall Ganz, former UFW organizer and now Harvard Kennedy School instructor, gets drawn into this with his “story of self, a story of us, a story of now: the collective-identity movement-building method.”

For all of the utility of Ganz’ stories, it is essentially a mobilization model, rather than a community organizing or community building model, which is why it has been so embraced by political campaigns, and now it seems even by businesses that may be about the very opposite of community organizing values. Ganz objects to Lyft’s appropriation arguing that markets are all about exchange and finding a common purpose is what politics is about, but even while reading his distinction, it’s way too easy to see why Lyft and its organizers, thought they could just take the tools and run with them their way, since for them finding a “common purpose” is what triggers their market and its financial exchange.

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The Consequences and Prevention of Nuclear Power Accident Disasters for $29.41 per Person

New Orleans  If you live within 50-miles of a nuclear power plant, then count yourself part of the majority of the US population, since that’s the case for 65% of us. On the other hand, you may not want to hear all about this, but folks with the Union of Concerned Scientists and Princeton University wrote a piece in the recent issue of Scientific American that scared the stuffings out of me.

These scientists were looking at the risks posed by the handling of spent fuel and in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan in the wake of the earthquake in March 2011, are now making the case that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) did not go nearly as far as needed to assure citizen protection for a potential US disaster. The NRC did a safety review and ordered some safety upgrades, but the scientists argue that they “rejected … a measure to end dense packing of 90 spent fuel pools, which we consider critical for avoiding a potential catastrophe much greater than Fukushima.” I visited the Fukushima area several years after the disaster to try and learn the lessons from that disaster and compare them to what New Orleanians had learned from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, so I found all of this unsettling especially since it is six years after Fukushima and some families are only able to return now, and some will never be able to do so.

Here’s the deal. These spent rods are put in cooling ponds for a few years until they can be moved to dry storage casks safely. In the US, the NRC allows them to be kept in this way semi-indefinitely until a “geologic repository…becomes available.” The operators therefore pack the rods in the pools like sardines in order to keep their costs down, but of course that also increases the risks “about 50 times as much as the corresponding values for a fire in a low density pool,” in the NRC’s technical analysis. Yet, the NRC didn’t order a change, which ought to scare the fiery hell out of all of us.

From there it’s all a dogpile of problems. The NRC didn’t look at terrorism. Hey, what could happen? They didn’t look past 50 miles to the other 35% of the US-population that might be worried. They claimed that disaster areas would be repopulated within one-year, which doesn’t fit either the New Orleans or Fukushima experience. The NRC also “assumed radiation dose standards for population relocation that were much less restrictive than those recommended by the EPA.” The scientists estimate that if EPA standards were used “the average evacuated would increase about threefold.” Using the right figures, the NRC cost-benefit ratio would favor moving, which means making the industry pony up about $50 million per plant or $5 billion overall.

They go on and on from here, and, trust me, it only gets worse, and I think you get the message. It also helps to do the math here, since it’s not like nuclear power companies don’t pass the costs on to consumers. I stand second to no one in wanting to keep utility rates down, but when you divide $5 billion by 170 million people minimum that might be affected if the NRC’s pattycake with industry doesn’t play out in our favor, then the cost would be about $29 and change.

Come on, let’s get serious about this before it’s too late. Where can I send my check today?

***

Please enjoy Art Carter’s Mighty Mississippi. Thanks to KABF.

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Oh, No, Subprime Mortgage Brokers are Coming Back

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New Orleans   Please, just move the soapbox over here a little closer, because I’m going to jump and shout yet again, and sadly, not for the last time about the little named co-conspirator and enabler of the Great Recession real estate meltdown: mortgage brokers. They are under regulated, lightly trained, totally unsupervised, largely sales people too often paid little more than commissions on mortgage closings achieved often by hook or crook. They beat the bushes to create the paper stream of deals that are then packaged and picked up by banks and, increasingly, nonbanks, who have even more of the mortgage action than they did a decade ago.

A thinly disguised job announcement in the “B” section of The Wall Street Journal headlined “Subprime Brokers Back in Demand” is a warning to the rest of us that big trouble is on the way, especially in lower income communities. The reporter wrote that Southern California was once again on the “cusp of efforts to bring back an army of salespeople who once powered the mortgage industry and, some say, contributed to the housing crisis.” Call me, “some,” because that’s exactly what I’m saying. Further she notes, that “some brokers faked loan applications and steered people into debt they couldn’t afford.” Oh, yes, many, many of them did, and subprime companies ate these loans like candy.

Here’s what’s really scary. The demand for brokers is coming largely from nonbank lenders and smaller lenders, both of which are lightly or hardly regulated, by states not the feds, and in the case of nonbank lenders, they are not even required to follow the Community Reinvestment Act or provide their data through the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act. The market includes families with lower credit scores, and, god knows, there is a huge market, especially now in the wake of the recession, and these families want and need loans, and many of them deserve mortgages, especially as the Home Savers Campaign has found, since too many are finding no alternative outside of land installment contracts and various rent-to-own schemes. Additionally, workers and families with difficult to verify income sources from cash payments in the gig economy or tipped employment, need so-called stated income loans, where their money is verified without company provided W-2s. We absolutely believe there needs to be a set of subprime products and stated income loans. Where we separate is over the issue of who and what is going to protect families from abuse. One of the reforms of the last decade has been an increasing reliance on affordability, meaning a family’s ability to pay the loan. Who and what is going to assure that that benchmark remains prominent?

Brokers are just in sales-and-promotion. They push the responsibility to financial institutions, and since they are the middle-men, they can venue shop until they find some place willing to take paper and issue the loan. They then get paid. Period. The consequences downstream mean nothing to them.

Meanwhile nonbank lenders have almost half of the total mortgage market now. In the increased scrutiny since the recession, only $6 billion nonprime loans have been issued in the first quarter of this year and only $22 billion in all of 2016, compared to $1 trillion in such loans in 2005 according to Inside Mortgage Finance, cited by the Journal.

If regulators don’t make the effort to separate the baby from the bathwater this time around, millions of families and thousands of neighborhoods will drown in it again.

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Sessions and Republicans’ ACORN Obsession Blocks DOJ Settlement Funds to Nonprofits

New Orleans   The clock may be ticking on Jeff Sessions, the former Alabama Senator, as Attorney General. Reportedly he offered his resignation to the President in recent days as Trump tweeted his displeasure at the Justice Department’s modifications of his travel ban. Nonetheless, an order from his office seemed to come out of nowhere last week barring nonprofits and third-party groups from participating in any implementation and remediation ordered as part of financial and other settlements approved by lawyers with the Justice Department. Who saw this coming?

Well, anyone who has followed the obsessions that Sessions and his old Republican colleagues continue to have with all things ACORN and nonprofits as a whole, that’s who.

What is Sessions talking about? Frequently settlements with big companies include provisions for remediation that can only be appropriately implemented by nonprofits. The Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal included a requirement that the company invest $2 billion to fund zero-emission technology and the related support to achieve zero-emission cars in the future. Settlements from the banking catastrophes that triggered the Great Recession also routinely included remediation by nonprofits involved in financial education or housing counseling involving groups as disparate as the American Bankruptcy Institute, La Raza, NeighborWorks, and the Urban League, all of whom have long standing programs in these areas. Republicans see this as unrelated and a siphoning off of money to create slush funds to support the nonprofits.

And, here’s where the ACORN obsession comes in. The Nonprofit Quarterly quoted one of its late columnists, saying….

Subcommittee chairman Tom Marino (R-PA) grilled a Justice Department witness over whether anyone from the White House or some unknown outside group had guided Justice and the banks on the selection of the third-party implementers—again, the specter of the hand of ACORN all but flowing from Marino’s lips. Rep. David Trott (R-MI) concluded that the settlement agreement process “looks and smells a little bit like a slush fund” and raised suspicions about how the banks got access to the list of HUD-approved nonprofit counseling agencies (apparently unaware that they are on the HUD website). Marino then observed that the Justice Department’s prosecution of the banks on mortgage lending issues amounted to “using extortion to make banks appropriate funds to left-leaning organizations.”

Or as reported by the Huffington Post…

.as part of Bank of America’s $16.65 billion settlement with the Department of Justice in 2014 (a former subsidiary of the company, Countrywide Financial, was one of the most toxic subprime mortgage lenders), the bank could donate $100 million to community and legal groups. Such donations to approved groups would then count toward the settlement’s total value. Conservative groups portrayed the Obama administration as a shadowy slush fund for leftist organizations, hyping connections of the groups that received funding to ACORN, the Republican boogieman that was defunded after false accusations of wrongdoing.

You get it now?

No matter the fact that ACORN and other groups working in lower income communities saw their neighborhoods, families, and work thwarted by these nefarious corporate practices, the key issue for the Republicans is making sure that these communities remain impoverished and continue to be feeding grounds for corporate vultures.

Thank Jeff Sessions for keeping hate and harm alive and well.

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I’m Not Complaining, but What a Week

New Orleans  Returning exhausted from stops in Shreveport, Louisiana, Little Rock, Arkansas, and Greenville, Mississippi, somehow I can’t get these weird signposts of the times and odd ends out of my mind. Normally, I would let them go, but somehow this Chief Organizer Report is going to be a report on the chief organizer, so bear with me.

Bargaining four nursing home contracts in Shreveport, the company already wants to include language making the Affordable Care obligations moot, even while the whole operation continues forward in the stalemate of Congress and presidential politics.

A studio chair and some folding chairs for WAMF, the new low power FM radio station that we just got on the air in New Orleans, was donated to us in Bossier City across the river (thanks Butlers and Clarks!). In a pleasant middle income suburb between a mall and an expressway, I parked my big truck, doors wide open in the driveway of the unoccupied house waiting for Local 100 organizer, Toney Orr from Arkansas, to help me load it all in. Neighbors drove by and up and down the driveway next door. No questions asked, even as we hauled the furniture out. Is that weird?

In Little Rock, despite six months of work on the Home Savers Campaign and running PSAs on KABF referring calls to Arkansas Community Organizations, the former Arkansas ACORN, that yielded little, we finally broke through and within 48 hours found a trove of both Vision Property Management and Harbour Portfolio rent-to-own and contract to purchase houses throughout central Arkansas. We had boomed out to visit victims in Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania and here they were right under our noses! The lesson, even when the spirit is willing, we have to shore up the capacity to account for how often the flesh of our operations need more underwire. Capacity matters, even a little can make a huge difference, and that’s worth remembering. Oh, and, a Home Savers organizer, Dine’ Butler, was the big finish of the well-regarded Reveal podcast, home visiting a victim in Detroit.

Capacity, capacity, capacity, it comes up again and again, and amazingly we stumble around trying to find it even when it is kicking us in the knees and pushing us to the ground. One kingdom after another lost for lack of a horse. Our biggest underwriting partner at KABF was being stymied on promoting its great work, because we had never pressed hard enough for the spots for them to realize if they gave us copy we could produce them quickly or allow hosts to do “reads.” Ouch!

Visiting radio station WDSV in Greenville for the 7th month, it was the same story with a different verse. Frustrated and stalled in achieving their mission after 5 years on-the-air as the voice of the people in the Delta, they were being held hostage by technology too large and complicated for them to easily access to master the ladder to the heaven they sought. The magic and miracle is not that we can fix that, but that it takes so long for us to marry problems to solutions, so that we can move forward in our work.

Sometimes I’m racing so fast that I miss how easily it is to stumble on the simplest steps. I wish it were just me!

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