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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Bond Issues Along Protests on School Takeovers, Privatization, and Charter Expansion

New Orleans  Throughout the country parents, teacher unions, and community groups have been opposing the viral spread of privatization of public school systems and the efforts of charter school operators to expand their footprint in school districts. Perhaps the most controversial maneuvers are the state takeovers of local public school districts by removing duly elected school board members and replacing them with unaccountable managers.

The most famous was certainly the post-Katrina usurpation in New Orleans which has now led to all but four of the more than 100 schools in the district being run by charter operators. School districts have also been taken over in Indianapolis, threatened in Buffalo, in some California districts, and others as well. Despite only a small number of poorly performing schools of the forty-eight in the Little Rock School District, the state of Arkansas asserted control seemingly triggered by outside donors and advocates of charter expansion being opposed by the Superintendent, who was immediately replaced.

These fights have sharp dividing lines, but increasingly the claims of private and charter operators of improved education and test scores has not been proven by the actual results. Advocates of vouchers to accelerate the process of moving students out of public schools have also made progress in more than half of the states in the country and now have a staunch advocate as head of the Department of Education, but recent studies are indicating that students are falling behind in many of these private and parochial facilities. Claims from New Orleans and New York that such programs would decrease racial and ethnic segregation in public school systems are also achieving the opposite outcomes.

In the tug of war over school control, which is often cultural and ideological, the voice of protests have often been simply ignored by state governments and others. Events in the ongoing fight in Little Rock may have found a way to force authorities to hear their opposition using the ballot box to express their anger when presented with a school bond issue. A wide coalition of groups, including Local 100 and Arkansas Community Organizations, the former Arkansas ACORN, opposing the bond issue for new school construction and other programs in the district united under the banner of “Taxation without Representation,” made their protest of the state takeover clear.

Despite a united business community and being outspent by a ratio of ten to one, opponents smashed the bond issue by a margin of almost 2 to 1, 65% to 35%. The district is 70% African-American now and in many African-American precincts the margins against the bond issue ran 90% to 10%. Normally liberal districts in middle-income, hipper Heights area also defeated the bond issue strongly. The turnout was the highest for a bond issue in 17 years. The Governor Asa Hutchinson, whose administration was responsible for the takeover, campaigned for the measure and was embarrassed by the results. The state appointed Superintendent was forced to concede the loss even before balloting ended.

Bond mileage increases on property taxes funding school districts are usually the lifeblood of public schools. Often the district needs the money as much as the taxpayers do in these tough financial times, but even if this is playing with fire, there is no denying the power of the protest when a community unites to oppose privatization, charter expansion, and undemocratic takeovers of local districts. Little Rock protesters and voters may have shown others around the country the path to take to force their voices to be heeded.

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Executions, Drug Companies, and High Drama in Arkansas

Protesters gather outside the state Capitol building on Friday, April 14, 2017, in Little Rock, Ark., to voice their opposition to Arkansas’ seven upcoming executions. (AP Photo/Kelly P. Kissel)

Little Rock       So, if you ask , what’s happening these days in Arkansas, you think you’re being a wit, because what in the world could be happening in Arkansas, now, really?  These days though there is high drama in Arkansas, none of which is heaping credit on the Wonder State.

For months the state has been getting huge publicity as it prepared to execute eight men over coming weeks before its supply of the drug used for the lethal injection expired.  After no executions in the state for years, this was a hurry up and kill move, rare anywhere in the country.  The first executions were scheduled in days.  Not surprisingly lawyers for the prisoners have predictably gone into court on all manner of grounds, but mainly questioning the drugs on offer.  One execution had been stayed, while others were moving forward.

Then, all heck seems to have broken out, and it came from unexpected directions.

Four pharmaceutical companies challenged the state over their stockpile of various lethal drugs and how the Arkansas Corrections Department had gone about getting its hands on the drugs.  One company, McKesson, the 5th largest company on the Fortune 500 in the US and the country’s largest drug supplier put a sharp point on the whole matter by flatly accusing the State of Arkansas of outright deception in how it had come to have the drugs.  Piecing the story together, Arkansas seemed to have made an order through a state physician on what had seemed to be a routine purchase of potassium chloride.  Two weeks after the sale, the company became suspicious that there was a slight of hand involved and demanded the return of the drug, issued a refund of the purchase amount, and sent a self-addressed shipping seal for return of the drugs.  Arkansas didn’t return them though, which led to McKesson going to court.

Needless to say, this is a unique situation in the history of executions in the USA.  Never before have drug companies tried to step in the way, saying they didn’t want to be party to this kind of thing or have any of their products involved.  In public comments, one company made it abundantly clear.  They saw themselves in the business of life-saving, not life-ending and believed there was reputational damage to any of their products being used in executions.  Given how sensitive corporations are of their images, I have to wonder if this might be a turning point in the long fight to end executions in the this country.  Obviously, the drug companies have decided that they don’t want to be on the wrong side of history, and that’s huge.

Pulaski County Circuit Court Judge Wendell Griffin, also host of a popular show on KABF and a member of the radio station’s board, issued a stay of several days based on the drug company’s pleadings.  In late breaking news a federal judge in Little Rock acted to stay all the executions to sort out the issues, likely making the Arkansas government’s plans for a killing spree moot.  Governor Asa Hutchinson and the State Department of Corrections have thus far said nothing on the charges of duplicity in obtaining the drugs.

Never think Arkansas is boring!

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Supporting Grassroots Struggles over Immigration

New Orleans   In the wake of the Trump-Ryan debacle of play-pretend healthcare reform, the Republican gunfighters of the circular firing squad are now talking tax reform, debt ceilings, and other intricate problems that will confuse the living bejesus out of the American people. Oh, and of course in the current mess it is easy to forget the other mess that is still front-and-center since the inauguration, but is now framed in “bans,” “extreme vetting,” dropping foreign student applications, canceled school trips to the US from Canada and other countries for fear of border problems, reduction and stalled business investment in Mexico, and all manner of very personal trauma and uncertainty in communities all around the country, and of course the president’s “big, beautiful wall.” Yes, we’re talking about immigration. For all of us keeping score, let’s remember that the healthcare disaster is the second major domestic policy disaster of this new administration, because immigration is at heart a local, not a foreign policy issue.

Talking to Mireya Reith, the founder and executive director of the Arkansas United Community Coalition, recently on Wade’s World, was a constant reminder, if anyone needed one, that the fight for immigration reform and the life decisions that teeter on every twitch and tweet from the White House are daily dilemmas at the grassroots level of millions and millions in the United States now. Reith is based in Walmart and Tyson country in northwestern Arkansas, but with seven support and information centers around Arkansas in places like McGeehee, DeQueen, and Fort Smith, not to mention Little Rock, it’s hard to get more grassroots than her operation.

Reith worked heroically in the interview to keep her remarks positive, but it was a medal winning effort, because the stories were rending. For every school district she mentioned that was stepping up to support children afraid to go to school, the list was obscuring the silence from many more as well as from the state, not to mention her story of some teachers telling children in their classrooms right after the election that they needed to leave the country and do so now. Whole families are retreating into the shadows now all over the country, and Reith and the United Community Coalition know their names in their communities.

That part of her job is hard, but perhaps not as thankless as her reports of having recently been in Washington talking to her local and state Congressional delegation about the continued need for immigration reform and the human faces of these issues in the community. Once again Reith was relentlessly positive about the reception she received, including from Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who has been touted as something of a Trump “whisperer” in the early days of the administration. Cotton, whose raw ambition and extreme conservativism has him on many short lists on the right as a comer nationally, is also the architect of one of the most anti-immigrant pieces of legislation introduced in the Senate. Not satisfied with drumbeating about undocumented immigration, his proposal is to reduce even legal immigration more than half and more than even the Administration is proposing.

Only eight years ago the fight was to get real immigration reform on President Obama’s agenda in the first hundred days, which we lost. Now the fight is almost to keep so-called immigration reform off of the agenda for the first two hundred days of this Congress, when most believe is the only time the legislative window is open before mid-term elections make most anything impossible to pass. We have to hope that Reith’s work and that of the Arkansas United Community Coalition and other grassroots pro-immigrant groups around the country are successful in saving America’s reputation and principles as an open and welcoming country to all, and we have to support their work as much as possible in these chaotic and dark times.

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The Long Tail of Payback on Harvard’s Investment in Coal Fired Electricity Production

Students from Harvard University’s Philip Brooks House at the ACORN Farm

New Orleans   What goes around, comes around, even if forty-five years later. Hearing that food activists from Harvard University’s Philip Brooks House were interested in volunteering in New Orleans, triggered an immediate invitation from ACORN International for them to visit and help at the ACORN Farm in the Lower 9th Ward. Seven showed up on a cool morning to weed, mow, and help in any way possible, having only arrived the night before, barely escaping the heralded snow-ageddon northeaster hitting their area.

But, before work began, the circle had to be closed with additional thanks for the help of Philip Brooks House years ago when ACORN embarked on our first campaign to gain national attention. Middle South Utilities, now Entergy, the parent of Arkansas Power & Light had announced that it wanted to build the world’s largest coal-fired plant at White Bluff near the town of Redfield on the Arkansas River between Little Rock and Pine Bluff. The coal was going to come from the Fort Union deposit under the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, parts of Montana, and North Dakota. Their proposal to move the coal to the plant was to build a slurry line where water from the arid west would flush the coal all the way down to Arkansas.

ACORN had been fighting both gas and electric utilities over exorbitant rate increases and saw the plant as driving rates even higher, so on that score our members were already agitated. Quick research found that there increasing reports, particularly from Europe, on the adverse impact of sulfur pollution, especially on agriculture. ACORN dispatched an organizer to put together groups of farmers and others on both sides of the river, who were worried about diminishing crop yields, while the company was claiming it would lower their costs. There were actions a plenty in Arkansas to try and stop the plant, and I joined our farmers on a company-paid private plane flight to Kentucky to see the TVA’s Paradise plant, which we blew up in their faces with reports of pollution warnings caused by the plant.

All of that moved the needle forward, but the major paper at the time, The Arkansas Gazette, still saw ACORN and our efforts as rag-tag. As a public company, ACORN was able to determine its major investors were the pride of the Ivy League, with Harvard first and Princeton and Yale right behind. We reached out for an organizer we knew in the area, and he started making contacts at Harvard, launching a petition, getting students to join us in demanding the Board of Harvard join us in opposing the plant unless there were scrubbers to stop the pollution and other modifications. The Harvard Crimson did a piece by Nicholas Lemann, from New Orleans, and now with The New Yorker and other posts, all of which triggered the Gazette to run ACORN’s campaign on the front page for the first time in our young history.

We eventually won a good deal of that campaign when the company had to cut the size of the plant in half, drop the slurry line, also opposed by our allies in the Northern Plains Resource Council, and made pollution adjustments. Where did we get the most support at Harvard: the Philip Brooks House, where I also spoke and did recruitment, but that’s another story.

We thanked the Harvard students again as they worked with us in a different way, and gave them an ACORN flag from our Latin American affiliates to bring home to hang in the House, reviving the tale, and closing the circle once again.

PS. The researcher was Steve Kest, the organizer was John Beam, and the campus organizer was Bill Kitchen!

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Just When You Think It Can’t Get Worse, It Just Gets More Bizarre

New Orleans   We’re living in bizarre times without easy explanations, making it hard not to start drawing straight lines in our mind about things that might normally have seemed simply examples of random events, but the examples abound.

The legislature is meeting currently in Arkansas for instance. News reports indicated that there was a difficulty in the conservative Republican legislature in passing an “open carry” law for college campuses in the state similar to what exists in Texas. They worked it out a compromise by passing the “open carry” for colleges but also adding that “open carry” would be extended to bars and other venues. Yikes!

They had a similar problem when some of them wanted to make the Bible the state book. A number of them thought that was a grand idea, but a couple of wet blankets among the thumping crowd thought it might demean the Bible and be sacrilegious. More seriously, I listened to a lot of discussion about a bill that kept failing and being pulled back up until it passed that essentially said that any time a school district closed a school for any reason a charter school operator would have first dibs on taking the school over. Since Little Rock schools were pretty arbitrarily taken over by the state, many of the opponents of the takeover see the state legislature’s action as just another backdoor move to force charter schools into the district to make the Waltons happy.

But, before anyone gets the big head, looking at state legislatures in many of the Republican controlled states is clear evidence that Arkansas is neither the first, nor the last, in this kind of weird world. Federal courts had to strike down a Louisiana legislative act that tried to bar nude dancing in strip clubs in that famously wide open state for young women between 18 and 20, because it not only abridged their free speech as determined in the past by the US Supreme Court, but there was also no way the judge could find any evidence that the bill was really about sex trafficking despite the legislatures cover story.

Seems a bit like Muslim Ban 1.0 and now Muslim Ban 2.0. It really isn’t enough to protect you from the US Constitution and the rights it offers against discrimination because of religion or national origin, to insert a sentence or two in the new ban that says, hey, this isn’t discrimination. Judges and lawyers may have been born at night, just not last night.

Meanwhile as Russian knocks on the door of the centennial anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 1917 in a surprise Prime Minister Putin has put the kibosh on any kind of big celebration of what any would acknowledge as one of the seminal events of world history in the 20th century. According to spokespeople in Russia, the government is of two minds. On one hand Putin doesn’t want to remind anyone that revolution might be a good idea, because in his view that would be a very bad idea. And, on the other hand there are many others in the country who see the end of the Soviet era, according to a spokesperson, as being “like Brexit,” the vote in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. You can’t make this stuff up!

Ok, all this is random, but so bizarrely connected that it’s enough to prevent anything like clear thinking on any given morning. That’s my excuse anyway. I wonder what theirs might be.

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