Flipping the Script on Panthers’ Bobbie Seale and AFL-CIO’s Rich Trumka

Black Panther co-founder Bobby Seale checks food bags. March 31, 1972.

New Orleans   It’s a topsy-turvy world out there. What was down, is up, and what was up seems down, and we’re all looking for solid ground.

Take Bobby Seale, the controversial political and cultural icon of the 1960s and former Chairmen of the Black Panther Party. Steve Early, labor representative and journalist (and regular contributor to Social Policy), noted these same ironies in a recent piece in Counterpunch on the way what goes around has come around for the 81-year old Seale in his homecoming in the Bay Area and the Panther’s work in Richmond, particularly.

As Seale recalled last week, the BPP’s first local organizing in Richmond involved policing complaints. In its Richmond heyday, the BPP fed up to forty-five kids a day in a lower-budget breakfast program not funded by Big Oil. Panther volunteers did testing, door-to-door, for sickle cell anemia and hypertension. They gave away hundreds of free shoes to people in need. Although the BPP promoted black empowerment, Seale describes the Party today as a “populist movement” committed to “crossing all racial, religious, and ethnic lines.”

As the Richmond Progressive Alliance, a multi-racial political formation, has gained municipal clout in recent years, Panther history has won official and unofficial recognition locally. The RPA operates out of downtown storefront office renamed the Bobby Bowens Progressive Center, in honor of a Richmond Panther leader now deceased.

As Seale noted during his visit, a city hall proclamation in 2009 thanked him personally and “his organization and all the Black Panthers who…emerged from Richmond to activate, unite, organize, educate, mobilize, rally and increase awareness and hope for a better future for all the residents of our city.”

That local appreciation was expressed again in the standing ovation Seale received after his hour-long speech, to a crowd of 350, at a second Black History Month event hosted by For Richmond last Friday. Chairman Bobby began his talk with the observation that, once again, it’s “time to struggle and stand up for what you believe in.” He concluded, as expected, with the famous Panther salute, “Power to the People!” But, in between, he reminded his listeners that “the methodology of grassroots community organizing” remains key to gaining political power in Richmond or any place else where it hasn’t been well shared in the past.

Down comes up, it seems when the arc of history is long.

On the other hand, a message hit me from another friend and comrade calling attention to a visit by Rich Trumka, President of the AFL-CIO to Fox Business News. He was red-hot mad that Trumka, seen as the voice of American workers, had called Trump’s speech before Congress his “finest moment” and expressed his willingness of labor to “partner” with Trump on trade and other issues. I listened to the clip, and, inarguably, Trumka said those things, but it wasn’t totally upside down, because he was also clear that Trump has promised, but hasn’t delivered, and has to balance the playing field, rather than toadying to the rich. It seemed clearer that President Trump has labor leaders like Trumka walking a tightrope without any net. They want him to deliver on jobs and trade, but know that they are going to get hammered almost everywhere else. This is a dangerous act though, since Trumka, like most union chiefs, have to understand that Trump can start and stop the merry-go-round any time he wants, either tossing them aside or making Trumka and his team, in the famous British expression of the relationship of George Bush and Tony Blair, his “toy poodle.”

Maybe Trumka has not totally flip flopped from up to down, but he – and the rest of us – have to be worried about whether we can survive with Trump anywhere near the middle.

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Richmond’s Takes Charge of Foreclosures

Kansas City     Richmond, California  became the first city in the country to take charge of the foreclosure crisis, lingering since 2007,  by using its powers of eminent domain to force the hands of the banks to renegotiate the mortgages to market value. As it happens, this issue of Social Policy  leads with a great article on Richmond and the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), part of the organizational power moving progressive change there. 

            For the story behind the national headlines, check out Mike Parker’s story, “Richmond Progressive Alliance:  Communities Fight for Community Control Over Corporate Power.”

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Richmond’s Fight to Use Eminent Domain to Stop Home Foreclosures

New Orleans   Talking to community activists this week who are among the sparkplugs behind the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) in Richmond, California, one of the hot topics was the investigation by the city of whether or not eminent domain might force refinancing of houses facing foreclosure that are “underwater,” where owners owe more than market value.    After widespread attention in San Bernardino County last year and their retreat from that notion, I had thought this proposal had been shelved everywhere, but it turns out there is still a heartbeat, and Richmond, used to fighting giants like Chevron with its huge Bay Area refinery that often treats the city like a company town, might be just the place to give this tactic a try.

They have been working with a group of investors called Mortgage Resolution Partners (MRP) who have advanced the scheme.  According to the Mercury News, it would work like this:

“The plan, according to MRP and Richmond officials, goes something like this: After a government agency seizes the underwater mortgage, investors brought together by MRP pay off bond holders at close to the current appraised value, then line up a new mortgage for the homeowner at far less than the previous amount. MRP takes a $4,500 cut from the new lenders.”

My friends had a good friend-of-a-friend-friend-of-a-friend perspective on what happened in San Bernardino County as well.   It seems that before the vote on using eminent domain there, private jets clogged the runways in southern California from Wall Street banks and mortgage funds delivering the message that if San Bernardino tried this tactic they could forget about ever borrowing a dime again or selling a bond on a public works project anywhere ever.  San Bernardino officials were forced to fold like a cheap suit.

The whole fight is the old fight since 2008 of getting banks to agree to principal reductions in refinancing mortgages underwater, particularly those mortgages held in huge Wall Street tranches with hundred of investors making it virtually impossible to get agreements to restate the mortgages to current market values even this long after the bubble burst.  The eminent domain tactic would make loans performing again but banks and other investors would finally have to restate all this paper value to what is really on the streets where people live.

Cities like Richmond on the West Coast and Newark on the East Coast, where this is also under discussion, are desperate.  Studies that say 49% of the mortgages in Richmond are underwater made it easier to get a 6-1 vote to see if a deal can be forged with MRP to use this tool.   Newark with Mayor Cory Booker now raising money coast-to-coast for a snap election for the U.S. Senate will never go toe to toe with big finance and big bankers.   

Richmond though is a whole different matter.   After our visit we toured the site of the old Kaiser shipyards and walked through the National Park Services’ Rosie-the-Riveter museum in this hulking facility with a million dollar view of San Francisco and Marin County from its docks.  They have taken the measure of Chevron and are in a constant struggle with the 8th largest corporation in the world.  They tried to pass the first tax on sugar sodas in the country by referendum going toe-to-toe with the food giants.  They have a Green mayor and a great, volunteer-led progressive organization in RPA, local community organizations like ACCE, formerly California ACORN, and others.  There’s steel in Richmond, so this still might be place that takes the measure of Wall Street and recreates a housing market for working families out of the rubble of the recession.  

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