Sunday, November 27, 2011

Two Hard Cases, Two Bad Laws


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

There’s an old saying in the legal profession that “hard cases make bad law.” In mid-November two court decisions threatened to prove that once and for all. On November 14, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear a constitutional challenge to the Affordable Care Act, the official name of what’s almost universally referred to by the pejorative “Obamacare.” Among the questions the justices will be ruling on are whether the law can require every American either to purchase private health insurance or pay a “penalty,” “fine” or “tax” (and which of those words apply is itself a key issue the justices will have to decide!) to the government; and whether, if the so-called “individual mandate” is unconstitutional, can the rest of the law be sustained or will the whole thing be thrown out?
Three days later, on November 17, the California Supreme Court unanimously ruled that, the official sponsors of Proposition 8 — the initiative by which California voters decided in November 2008 that same-sex couples would no longer be able to marry in this state — have so-called “standing,” the legal right to appeal federal judge Vaughn Walker’s decision that the initiative was unconstitutional. The state court got involved when the three-judge panel hearing the case for the federal Court of Appeal for the Ninth Circuit asked them for a ruling under state law whether the proponents of an initiative would have the legal right to represent it in court if the people who are ordinarily supposed to do that — the elected governor and attorney general — won’t.
These are hard cases not only for the legal system in general but for me personally. The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the challenge to the constitutionality of Obamacare and the likelihood that the Proposition 8 case will also make it to the U.S. Supreme Court are both potential political disasters for the progressive community. The U.S. Supreme Court is currently in the grip of five Right-wing ideologues who have already signaled their willingness to run roughshod over century-old precedents in order to fulfill their role in a political movement aimed not only at winning immediate electoral and policy victories for the Right but making it impossible that those victories could ever be reversed.
Already they’ve set aside virtually all restrictions on the ability of corporations to influence the political process. They’ve extended the obnoxious doctrine of “corporate personhood” in ways that actually give corporations more rights than mere mortal humans. They’ve used technical nit-picking to deny victims of Wal-Mart’s persistent discrimination against women any realistic chance of relief in court. They’ve directly determined the outcome of at least one Presidential election, and they’ve found for the first time in U.S. history that the Second Amendment grants an individual right “to keep and bear arms” that has nothing to do with “a well-regulated militia.”
Given the record of the current justices — especially the five (John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy) who constitute this Right-wing activist wing which aims, like the modern American Right generally, to return this country to a late-19th century concept of politics and economics — believing that the U.S. Supreme Court will uphold Obamacare or throw out Proposition 8 makes about as much sense as believing in Santa Claus. In a November 15 Los Angeles Times column, law professor Erwin Chermerinsky laid out an argument that the Court’s previous decisions interpreting the constitutional clause giving Congress the power “to regulate … commerce between the states” virtually require it to declare Obamacare constitutional.
Chermerinsky cited the Court’s 2005 decision in Gonzalez v. Raich, in which “the court held that Congress constitutionally could criminally prohibit and punish cultivation and possession of a small amount of marijuana for personal medicinal use.” He added, “If Congress’ commerce clause powers allow it to prevent Angela [sic] Raich from growing a small amount of marijuana to offset the ill effects of chemotherapy, then surely it has the authority to regulate a $2-trillion [health care] industry.” The Raich case hit home for me personally because I met Angel McClary Raich (her real name) when she gave a press conference in San Diego before the Court ruled on her case, and I will never forget this frail woman with failing eyesight for whom only marijuana stood between her and blindness.
Louis Brandeis, the legendary attorney who argued social justice cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and then was appointed a Justice himself, pioneered the idea that appeals courts, including the Supreme Court, shouldn’t just look at the cases before them as a matter of law. They should consider the effects of their rulings on real people. When he was called upon to defend the constitutionality of a statute outlawing child labor, Brandeis filed a brief devoting one page to the legal issues — and over 200 pages to sociological research showing what child labor did to the children involved, their families and society as a whole. Eventually the liberal justices appointed to the Supreme Court by Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower adopted the Brandeis approach — and then in the 1970’s the Court swung to the Right again and eventually returned to its historic role of relying on crabbed, nit-picking legalisms to affirm the rights of corporations and the rich and slam the doors of justice in the faces of everyone else.
So the current Right-wing majority on the U.S. Supreme Court will have no trouble declaring Obamacare unconstitutional. Years of precedents establishing a broad meaning of the interstate commerce clause? Irrelevant, just as the years of precedents on the legitimacy of regulating gun ownership and corporate influence in politics were irrelevant because they got in the way of the Right-wing majority’s ideological agenda. A contradiction between saying a sick woman can’t have marijuana to keep from going blind and saying the government can’t require people to carry health insurance? No problem; the current Court majority simply decides that Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce applies when Congress does something the justices like, and doesn’t when Congress does something they don’t like. What’s more, since virtually all the federal government’s power to regulate the economy stems from the interstate commerce clause, if the current Right-wing court can cut back on its reach, they can declare everything from the Clean Water Act to the minimum wage unconstitutional, and thereby bring us closer to the dog-eat-dog Ayn Rand libertarian world they, like the rest of the American Right, want this country to become.
As for the Proposition 8 case, the idea that a court dominated by such a hard-line Right majority could actually do something so radical as extending civil-rights protection to same-sex couples seeking marriage equality was always a pipe dream. The principal pipe dreamer was Ted Olson, who before he filed the Perry v. Schwarzenegger case challenging Proposition 8 was a charter member of the Right-wing attack machine. Olson joined forces with David Boies, the Democratic attorney who had opposed him on Bush v. Gore in 2000, with the idea that a properly framed case challenging marriage inequality as a denial of equal protection under the 14th Amendment would win the presumed “swing vote” of Justice Anthony Kennedy.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. After all, Justice Kennedy had written the two greatest decisions the Queer community ever got from the U.S. Supreme Court: Romer v. Evans (1996), which threw out an anti-Queer initiative in Colorado on the ground that it unfairly handicapped the Queer community in building majority support for Queer rights; and Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which abolished anti-sodomy laws nationwide. But that was then and this is now. The current Justice Kennedy signaled his change of heart on Queer issues when he joined the majority opinion allowing the Boy Scouts of America to discriminate against Queers and atheists on the ground that they were a “religious organization” and therefore had a First Amendment right to restrict their membership. He cemented it when he personally made the decision not to allow the trial of Proposition 8 in Judge Walker’s court to be televised live — and in his opinion he said that where once Queers had been the oppressed minority, now it was Christians and other supporters of “traditional marriage” who were being harassed and deprived of their political rights by the Queer community.
The likely outcome of the Obamacare suit is a 5-4 decision declaring the individual mandate unconstitutional as a gross overstepping of Congress’s power to regulate interstate commerce. It’s less clear whether the justices will take the more radical step of throwing out the whole law as unconstitutional; it’s possible that Clarence Thomas and/or Antonin Scalia will take that position in a concurring opinion, but the other three Right-wing justices will draw back — at least partly because, like the rest of the American Right, they may be so convinced the 2012 elections will put Republicans in complete control of the federal government and then “Obamacare” will be toast anyway.
As for the Proposition 8 case, the only real question is whether the vote will be 5-4 or whether some of the so-called “liberal” justices in the minority will find it too radical for the court to declare, as a matter of constitutional law, that the understanding and definition of “marriage” that has prevailed throughout U.S. history — one man and one woman — is a civil-rights violation. And while most of the Right-wing justices will probably preserve the right of individual states to allow same-sex marriage, Clarence Thomas will file a concurring opinion stating that according to his reading of the Constitution, all laws that allow marriage between anyone other than one man and one woman are presumptively unconstitutional.
What’s more, even if a miracle happens and Ted Olson somehow finds five votes on the current U.S. Supreme Court willing to go against a half-millennium of American tradition and find marriage equality not only desirable but constitutionally mandated, that’s not going to be the end of the story. The radical Right will immediately mobilize for passage of a Federal Marriage Amendment to nullify the decision. The barriers to a constitutional amendment are pretty formidable — approval by two-thirds of each house of Congress and ratification by 38 of the 50 states — but not impossible. Enough socially conservative or just plain scared Democrats could well join the ascendant Republicans in the next Congress to pass the amendment, and at least 35 states have already passed their own versions of Proposition 8.
Both the Obamacare and Proposition 8 cases pose uncomfortable moral dilemmas for progressives. We find ourselves defending fundamentally unjust but politically convenient positions. The “individual mandate” to purchase health insurance is an outrageous concept on its face. Never before in the history of the U.S. has every resident of this nation been required to buy a product of a private industry as a condition of being allowed to live here. Indeed, President Obama rightly opposed an individual mandate when he ran for the Democratic nomination in 2008 — the fact that Hillary Clinton was for it and Obama was against it was one reason I voted for him over her in the California primary — only to embrace it once in office.
The idea that we have to buy a particular capitalist product as a condition of being allowed to live in the U.S. is obnoxious enough on its face. The common analogies to requirements that drivers carry auto insurance and doctors carry malpractice insurance are false. Driving and practicing medicine are legal privileges, things that the government giveth and the government can taketh away. You don’t want to buy auto insurance? Don’t drive. You don’t want to buy medical malpractice insurance? Don’t be a doctor. You don’t want to buy private health insurance from an industry that adds absolutely no value whatsoever to the health care system — it just sits there like a vampire, sucking money from the system and making its profits by denying rather than facilitating health care — and, if Obamacare is upheld, you’re S.O.L.
As for Proposition 8, my heart sank when I heard how the California Supreme Court ruled because I knew having the case thrown out on standing was the one realistic way we could ever hope for the return of marriage equality in California. I feel this issue on a personal level because my husband Charles and I were both politically savvy enough that we got married within the 4 ½-month “window” between the time the California Supreme Court’s decision for marriage equality took effect and the time the voters reversed it with Proposition 8. As I’ve said at more than one marriage equality event, I’m tired of my husband and I having “special rights” to be married while other Gay and Lesbian people in long-term committed relationships who want to marry can’t.
But at the same time, throwing the Proposition 8 case out on standing would have been fundamentally unjust to the people who voted for it and the people who worked hard for its passage. As the court declared in its opinion, if the governor and attorney general of the state were permitted effectively to repeal an initiative simply by refusing to defend it against a court challenge, the whole idea of the initiative — the people coming together to make laws directly when their elected representatives refuse to do so — would crumble into dust.
Though the enormous cost of qualifying an initiative for the ballot and mounting a campaign for it in a state as large as California has turned the initiative from a weapon against the special interests to one most often used by special interests — corporations, wealthy individuals or, in the case of Proposition 8, the enormously well-funded Roman Catholic and Mormon churches — to impose their will on a scared and easily manipulated electorate, it’s still conceivable that a liberal initiative (like the one consumer advocate Harvey Rosenfield just announced to give the state power to regulate health insurance premiums) could pass and a Republican governor and attorney general could decide they would effectively veto it by refusing to defend it against the inevitable lawsuits against it by the corporations it would regulate.
Indeed, something quite similar has actually happened in Wisconsin over the issue of marriage equality. The state legislature had passed a domestic partnership bill, which the radical Right sued in state court to have thrown out on the ground that it violated Wisconsin’s version of Proposition 8. Wisconsin’s previous Democratic governor had defended the suit in court, but when he was replaced by Republican Scott Walker, Walker announced that he was dropping the defense and conceding in court that a domestic partnership bill did constitute legal recognition of marriage equality in violation of the state constitution. It’s an object lesson in how positions taken in one context because they seem to offer a way to victory for our side can come back to bite us in a different context when the roles are reversed.

Greg Palast Presents Vultures’ Picnic in San Diego

Investigative Reporter Ties Oil Scandals Into the Occupy Movement


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

On August 28, 1963 Martin Luther King, Jr. famously used the phrase, “I have a dream,” as he addressed an estimated 250,000 people on the mall at Washington, D.C. at the climax of the March on Washington for equal rights for African-Americans. Forty-eight years later, introducing his new book Vultures’ Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates, and High-Finance Carnivores before a much smaller audience at San Diego’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center, investigative journalist Greg Palast used his own recurring phrase, “This is why we occupy,” to tie his book, and its obsessively documented tales of corporate irresponsibility, into a movement that hadn’t yet gone public when his manuscript arrived at Dutton, a branch of Penguin — the world’s largest publisher — and was readied for release.
Written in mock-James Bond style, replete with characters with names like
Goldfinger and Ms. Badpenny, Vultures’ Picnic kicks off with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico and travels all over the world, from the coast of Alaska to New Orleans to Liberia to Azerbaijan (which Palast calls “The Islamic Republic of BP”) to Fukushima, Japan and wherever else he can document the abusive amorality of corporations and how it’s literally killing people. Though his book was available in print form at the event, Palast worked at least as hard promoting the interactive version for e-readers and tablet computers — and early on in his speech he mocked Republican rhetoric by saying he’d received a request from Mitt Romney to take the word “vultures” out of his book’s title and rename it Job Creators’ Picnic.
“We occupy for Stanlee Ann Mattingly, an Osage Indian who made $30 a week watching the oil trucks,” Palast said in the first of several stories from his book which wove a web depicting corporate power, influence and sheer greed. “She saw them take out 100 barrels of oil on the Osage reservation and mark down 70 barrels. They’d take 40 barrels and mark down 30. I followed the trucks to the central loading dock, and the man said, ‘I want more overage.’ In the old days we called that ‘thievery.’ Today we call it ‘job creation.’ The guy standing on the deck was named Charles Koch” — one of the notorious Koch brothers who are among the principal corporate villains cited by the Occupy movement — “and when he was asked why, since he’s already a billionaire and he’s taking $3 from Stanlee Ann Mattingly — Koch said, ‘I want what’s coming to me, and that’s all of it.’”
Palast, who made his living as an oil company consultant before he got fired and became a journalist (in Vultures’ Picnic he said his last work for the oil industry was a four-volume study of the Exxon Valdez tanker spill in 1989 that pointed out that, though Exxon took the public blame, “the real culprit in destroying the coastline of Alaska is British Petroleum”), said he received a cable from a confidential source which said that BP had had a similar spill to the Deepwater Horizon blowout in September 2008. You didn’t hear about it, he explained, because it occurred in the Caspian Sea off the coast of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan — whose government was so pro-oil industry and anti-investigative reporting that the Azerbaijani police actually arrested Palast and his crew when they tried to film the site of the disaster in 2011.
The spill off Baku occurred, Palast claimed, for the exact same reason the Deepwater Horizon rig blew two years later: “cheap cement made by Halliburton” that couldn’t withstand the pressure of the oil under the ocean floor. “They covered it up with bribes, beatings and babes,” Palast said. “Lord Brown [BP CEO] flew in a 727 with two bags and brought the Azerbaijani officials to lap dances in London. One bag was $30 million and the other bag was Margaret Thatcher. Leslie, a double agent for MI-6 [the British equivalent of the CIA and the agency the fictitious James Bond worked for], was a BP executive. He was holding the bag with the $30 million. Lord Brown wanted to hand it directly to the president of Azerbaijan. The president turned the money over to the Azerbaijani state oil company — and BP provided some weaponry to a guy named Baba, who used it to overthrow the Azerbaijani president in a coup. Three months later, BP got an exclusive contract to drill in the Caspian Sea.”
Palast, who does his reporting for British outlets — the Guardian newspaper and the BBC — because no American mainstream media, including PBS (which because it gets so much corporate sponsorship from Chevron and other oil companies, he calls the “Petroleum Broadcasting System”), will touch his stuff, explained that under British law he’s required to report what he’s about to publish to the company he’s targeting to ask them whether or not it’s true. When he was about to report that a BP executive had lied to the U.S. Congress in 2009 when he said the company had never had a deepwater drilling accident, just a year after they had in the Caspian, BP neither affirmed nor denied it. Instead, Palast explained, “BP sent back a note that said, ‘We followed all the rules and regulations.’ No denial. It was a very smart phrase at the time because under British law it was not against the law to pay bribes.” According to Palast, BP’s lies cost the lives of Jason Alexander and the other 10 Deepwater Horizon crew members who were killed when the rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
As for Palast’s condemnation of PBS as the “Petroleum Broadcasting System,” as part of his evidence he cited the documentary its acclaimed series Frontline did on the Deepwater Horizon spill. “Nothing about Baku,” he said, “but they did say that BP had ignored several safety warnings. They didn’t say that PBS had also ignored BP’s safety record. Then they said that BP had no ‘culture of safety’ — unlike Chevron.” According to Palast, not only did the PBS filmmakers uphold PBS’s number one sponsor in the oil industry as the company whose “culture of safety” BP should have emulated, the network redesigned its Web site around the same time to delete the Chevron logo and the acknowledgment of it as the network’s number one corporate sponsor.
In order to challenge Chevron’s claim to be the “good” oil company as opposed to BP’s “bad” oil company, Palast ended up in Ecuador, where he was ferried across a lake in “a carved dugout log with a paddle and an indigenous guy paddling it” to investigate a spill at a Chevron site. Chevron had been sued by several native Ecuadorians who said the company had spilled oil into their lakes and hadn’t warned the natives that swimming in the oil-covered waters could be toxic. “Chevron had said this was the biggest fraud in history,” Palast recalled, “and so I asked, ‘Who’s the biggest con man?’ I asked the chief, ‘Didn’t you just hook up with some rich gringos with deep pockets?’”
As Palast recounted it, the chief was “very formal” as he told him that both his sons had bathed in the oil-tainted waters, started vomiting blood and eventually died of leukemia. “The Chevron lawyers said, ‘So these are the only kids that ever got cancer?’ Then they said, ‘You can’t prove that it’s our oil.’ But I got hold of this document, signed by B. J. Shields, the president of Texaco [before its merger with Chevron], that’s an order to take all documents relating to oil spilled in the jungle and make them ‘ser destrucados.’ I asked the lawyers for Chevron/Texaco to translate, and then I asked if they knew the meaning of the words ‘obstruction of justice.’ They said, ‘There’s always an explanation,’ so I asked them to send it to me. It’s been two years.”
Palast’s wide-ranging presentation included a discussion of the mysterious death of Gulf Power executive Jake Horton in Pensacola, Florida in 1989. Palast called him “a real scumbag, until the end,” and said he had been about to turn state’s evidence in a federal investigation of Gulf Power and its corporate parent, the Southern Company, when he was killed in a plane crash. “In the old days, corporations could not make donations to political candidates,” Palast explained. “But [Horton] did, and when he got caught and the company let him hang out to dry, Jake said he had a lot of dirt and he went to meet with the attorney general of Alabama. Thirty minutes after his plane took off, it went boom and both he and his papers were gone.”
According to a contemporary report in the May 22, 1989 Time magazine, three hours after the plane exploded, the local sheriff’s office received an anonymous phone call. The caller said, “You can stop investigating Gulf Power now. We took care of that for them this afternoon.” The article also mentioned at least three other mysterious deaths involving Gulf Power, including Pensacola graphic artist Ray Howell, who disappeared in December 1988 as he was about to testify before a grand jury about his work for Gulf Power; and Gulf Power director Robert McRae and his wife, who were found shot to death at their Graceville, Florida home in January 1989. Fredric Levin, Horton’s attorney, told Time that after Horton’s death three yellow birds were dumped outside his home and office. Levin, Time reported, believed these were “Mafia-style warnings not to divulge the substance of his last conversation with Horton.”
Horton, Palast said, had not only paid illegal bribes to Florida utility regulators on behalf of Gulf Power and Southern Company, he also had evidence that the company was billing utility customers for coal it was supposedly mining from its own mines — but the supposed “coal” shipments were actually rocks. After Horton’s death, Palast got access to Southern’s internal records and found they were billing customers for $100 million for “spare parts” for their nuclear reactors and power lines — “spare parts” that did not in fact exist. Palast flew to England to try to stop Southern’s bit for a British utility company — and was entrapped in a phony sex scandal which was widely reported in tabloid articles, including one written by Piers Morgan, now host of CNN’s flagship evening talk show.
Meanwhile, Southern neatly got out of any legal jeopardy by using its political connections to have the laws rewritten so what they had done is no longer illegal. What’s more, Southern and Reliant Energy, a company Palast describes as equally corrupt, have won contracts to build two of the five new nuclear power plants under $8 billion in loan guarantees enacted under President Obama. According to Palast, some of these plants will be operated by yet another company — Tokyo Electric, the people who ran the nuclear plant at Fukushima, Japan destroyed in the March 2011 tsunami. These companies got the contract, Palast said, by bidding to build each reactor for $5 billion even though their own internal documents said each plant would cost over $7 billion, which, Palast noted, “used to be called fraud and is now called ‘job creation.’”
Palast’s presentation also included a section about “pigs” — electronic devices that are supposed to monitor oil pipelines for leaks. Once the pig detects a leak, the company running the pipeline is legally required to shut it down until the leak is fixed — but, Palast explained, because it’s expensive to have a pipeline out of commission that long, oil companies routinely change the computer software governing the pigs so leaks go undetected. Palast said he got this story from sources who refused to be identified or photographed — even with their faces blurred out and their voices distorted — including one who identified himself as “Pig Man” and said a recent incident in which six people had been killed by an exploding pipeline was “not an accident, it’s a homicide.”
Also on his docket were the Keystone XL pipeline, being pushed by a Canadian company to deliver oil from tar sands across the United States — cutting across, and potentially soiling, several important aquifers, including the one that supplies water to the entire state of Nebraska — and a recent ad campaign by Coca-Cola that involves marketing special white cans of Coca-Cola and announcing that “they’re raising money for endangered polar bears.” This, Palast said, led him to a virtually unreported story that the polar bears on the Alaskan island of Kaktonic are being moved so the area — part of the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge — can be drilled for oil. According to Palast, President Obama approved the permit for Shell Oil to drill off the coast of Kaktonic on August 8, 2011.
Palast’s dossiers can make dispiriting reading — which is probably why he cast the book as a James Bond-like adventure and gave his villains names like “Goldfinger.” The man’s real name is Michael Francis Sheehan, an American investor who runs his company out of the British Virgin Islands. Sheehan, Palast said, “had paid $3 million to the president of Zambia to agree to have his nation pay off foreign debts with money we gave them for AIDS medicines.” He also, Palast claimed, got rid of the prime minister of Bosnia and installed a new one who would go along with what he wanted. Palast said the Bush administration actually contacted him for his information on Sheehan, but the FBI never followed up.
“The Zambians arrested their own president, and the Bosnians are investigating their prime minister, but the Americans are doing nothing” about Sheehan’s alleged corruption, Palast said. As for Sheehan himself, the day before Palast spoke in San Diego Sheehan called the BBC “and said, ‘We have a file on Greg Palast.’ I’d like to see it.” Palast said he’s also investigating Charles and David Koch, who have become the Left’s current poster children for the evils of capitalism, and closed out his presentation with a plea for activists to “occupy the airwaves” and a boast that “we have to tell the vultures the feast is over. Charles Koch, you may be too big to fail, but you’re not too big to jail!”

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Way She Sees It: Jamala Rogers in San Diego


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

If there’s one thing Jamala Rogers “gets,” it’s that the various progressive struggles — of African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, Pacific Islanders and Native people for civil rights, of women for equality and Queers for equality and protection under the law — are linked. It came through in the way she got the job as political columnist for the St. Louis American, an African-American weekly, in 1994: she confronted the paper’s publisher, Donald “Doc” Suggs, and demanded to know why he had only one woman columnist, and all she wrote about was religion. Suggs saw her point that his paper needed a woman writing about politics, and gave her the column she writes to this day.
Rogers’ sense that all struggles for equality and freedom are linked comes across in her new book, The Best of “The Way I See It” and Other Political Writings, 1989-2010. (“The Way I See It” is the name of her St. Louis American column; since 2006 she’s also contributed to the Web site. The very first The Way I See It column reprinted in her book is one from June 1998 called “Human Rights Are Gay Rights,” which directly took on the religious and secular leaders in the African-American community who oppose Queer rights. “The African-American community has definitely absorbed anti-Gay messages from the mainstream that feeds into the very similar forms of discrimination we experience daily,” she wrote with her usual bluntness. “That should sensitize us not to victimize others. This isn’t always so.”
The outspoken columnist and activist (she’s the chair of the Organization for Black Struggle and the Coalition Against Police Crimes and Repression, and co-chair of the Freedom Road Socialist Organization) came to San Diego November 15 to speak at the World Beat Center in Balboa Park. Co-sponsored by the World Beat Center and Activist San Diego, Rogers’ speech took place against a nationwide campaign of police repression against the Occupy movement, in which campers protesting the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth and income in the U.S. were rousted by police using suspiciously similar tactics in various cities.
Rogers’ origin story of how she became an activist reminded her audience that the repression against Occupy was nothing new. “I was in 1968 in Kansas City, after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” she recalled. “There were rebellions all over the country” — itself a revealing choice of words, since the mainstream media then and now called them “riots.” “In my community, six people were killed and the drugstore at which I worked was leveled,” Rogers said. “The National Guard was called in. My mother said, ‘Don’t go down there. Stay at home.’ So I went down there.”
When she did, Rogers recalled, “the first thing that hit me was the smell of tear gas. But the most important sight was a U.S. tank coming down the street. It was a clear message that you could be killed if you got out of line.”
Rogers said the 1968 riot in Kansas City was one of the two most important events that have shaped her life. The other, she said, was Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the blatantly racist ways authorities handled both the evacuation of New Orleans and the cleanup and rebuilding afterwards. “I had a sort of post-traumatic stress disorder just watching it on TV,” she said. “I went to the Gulf four summers in a row and saw no changes in the [poor, mostly Black] Lower Ninth Ward and a lot of things in the [upscale, mostly white] French Quarter. So I wrote a column calling the Bush administration’s attitude towards Katrina genocide.”
She didn’t just mean that as a metaphor. According to Rogers, “people were shot in the back by the police as they tried to get away from Katrina, and one person was burned in a car.” She said that, like the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles in 1991 and the 1992 acquittals of the four police officers who beat him, which sparked the 1992 L.A. riots, the activities of the police in New Orleans and its suburbs showed how differently white and Black people see the police.
“White people see the police as really serving and protecting,” she said, “but in lower-class communities and communities of color, the role of the police is occupation and repression.” Indeed, one peculiar sort of hope she holds out regarding the Occupy movement is that its white participants, too, are getting to see the police behaving badly. The rousts, the arrests, the meaningless and arbitrary rules, the destruction of property and physical attacks by police on Occupy protesters are the same things “we get on a daily basis in our communities,” Rogers said.
One story Rogers covered was about an African-American professor who did a study of how the St. Louis police functioned in communities of color. “”The study was so controversial, no American journal would publish it. It had to be published in Great Britain. We felt he should do a presentation to Black mothers who thought their children were doing something wrong because they were getting in trouble with the police. The police in St. Louis had a model of stopping people that had nothing to do with ‘probable cause’ [the Constitutional standard]. They would stop students going to school with backpacks. The police would rip open the backpacks, saying they were looking for drugs. If this happens twice a week, sooner or later the kid is gong to bad-mouth the police, or they’re going to be late for class and have a bad attitude in school. White mothers don’t have to deal with this. Black sons are programmed from the fourth grade to be part of the criminal-industrial complex.”
Rogers also exposed scandals relating to racism in the St. Louis Fire Department, which she encountered soon after she settled there in 1972 and which is still going on. “When I first came to St. Louis I was told by a Black firefighter who said the firehouses were so segregated, the white firefighters didn’t want their silverware washed with the Black firefighters’ silverware. That was in 1972, and in 2007 a Black person was beaten for going into a firehouse to use the phone.”
One of the columns from her book she read at the November 15 event (“Where’s the Fire?,” page 101) was about Sherman George, the first African-American fire chief in St. Louis’s history, and how he was denied the control over promotions his white predecessors had had. Eventually the white mayor, Francis Slay — a former corporate lawyer who was re-elected by wide margins in 2005 and 2009 — fired Chief George for “insubordination.” Slay has been in the news more recently for taking a tough line against the Occupy movement in his city.
Rogers says her writing and activism are about “the ways people live in a community, and the privileges and racism that keeps people from not only being equal but realizing our full potential as human beings. Our schools are now under the control of the state, and there’s little to offer the kids. I can remember shedding tears when Barack Obama was elected president and I worked in his campaign, but those of us on the Left know that there are limits to what any elected official can do. We have to raise up our voices and talk, and that’s one of the things Occupy Wall Street is doing.” One of the things we have to talk about, Rogers said, is how “there’s almost a parallel government, and definitely a parallel military force,” that protects America’s rich and powerful.
Asked how to reach white people and give them an understanding of the African-American struggle, Rogers said, “You have to really inform people with statistics and numbers from sources they think are legitimate. In the 1970’s and 1980’s we all heard about the ‘welfare queens’ and not about the welfare corporations get. … Some of it is fighting people with information. The rest is taking people into the community. People who have relationships with people of color learn about it.” She noted that Washington University in St. Louis actually warns their students, “Don’t go north of Del Mar” — i.e., don’t go into St. Louis’s Black community — “and the kids don’t, except for a few who want to see the whole city.”
Rogers closed her prepared remarks with a short bit of advice on how to build a better, healthier and more effective movement for progressive social change. “First, do no harm to the movement and the organization,” she said. “Second, do what you say you’re going to do. We have to deal with homophobia, genderphobia and racism.”

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

America's Unequal Heritage


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The Tea Party movement has perpetuated a lot of dangerous and silly myths about American history in its leaders’ and members’ attempts to advance themselves as the only true defenders of America’s Constitution. Some of the earliest Tea Party leaders even said that the original United States Constitution of 1789 was “divinely inspired” — an idea which would have dumbfounded most of the people who wrote it, who were Deists (believers in God but not in an interventionist God that takes an ongoing role in human affairs) — and, by implication, that the amendments that have been made to it since are not only objectionable but attacks on the divine plan. The Tea Party has largely adopted the position of its coalition partners in the radical Christian Right that the opening words of the First Amendment — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” — were not a guarantee of religious freedom for non-Christians but simply a statement that no one branch of Christianity could ever be the “official religion” of the United States the way Roman Catholicism is in Italy or Anglicanism is in Great Britain.
Though claiming a reverence for the Constitution as a whole, the Tea Party has been fiercely critical of a good deal of it — particularly the birthright citizenship provision of the Fourteenth Amendment (“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside”) and the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Amendments, which respectively allowed the federal government to collect income taxes and moved the election of U.S. Senators from the state legislatures to the people at the polls. Indeed, it’s hard to say whether the “divine inspiration” the Tea Partiers claim for the Constitution of 1789 extends to the Bill of Rights, approved two years later, since aside from the Second (the right to bear arms) and the Tenth (federalism and state’s rights) Amendments, they don’t appear that enthralled by the Bill of Rights — particularly the ones guaranteeing “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures,” due process for those accused of crimes and a ban on “cruel and unusual punishments.”
But there’s one aspect of the U.S. Constitution that the Tea Party is right about, at least in regards to the framers’ original intentions. The Constitution really does make this country a republic, not a democracy, and the form of government it sets up is intended, among other things, to protect the rights and properties of the elites — who today are being called “the 1 percent” — from attempts by the majority to distribute wealth and income more equally. You don’t have to take the word of the Tea Partiers for that; it’s clearly articulated in Federalist #10, probably the most oft-cited of the Federalist Papers written in 1787 as part of the campaign to get enough states to ratify the Constitution so it could take effect. Though three people wrote the Federalist Papers — Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay — #10 was written by Madison, who quite literally knew more about the Constitution and the “original intent” of its framers than anyone else.
Not only did Madison actually write most of the Constitution himself, but during the Constitutional Convention he also took the notes that are our only primary source for what went on inside it and how the various disputes over what the Constitution should say were resolved. Sometimes Madison’s notes have been used for progressive purposes — as when they were cited as the Supreme Court’s authority for striking down states’ attempts to impose term limits on Congressmembers. But there’s little comfort for progressives in what Madison had to say in Federalist #10. Madison made clear that the Founders had no intention of making the U.S. a democracy — even though “democracy” is the word generally (and incorrectly) used to describe our form of government. Instead, this country was to be a representative republic which would, in Madison’s words, “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”
What that meant in practice was a system in which the electorate would not get a chance to vote directly for any office higher than their own member of the House of Representatives. Senators would be chosen indirectly, by state legislators, and the President would be picked by an Electoral College whose members could be selected any way the state legislature chose. What’s more, the pool of potential voters would be considerably smaller than what we’re used to now. At the time the Constitution was enacted, the states restricted the franchise to owners of “property” — which in 18th Century-speak meant land. It took centuries of struggle before that limited franchise was actually extended. The populist movements of the 1820’s that gave rise to the presidency of Andrew Jackson and the modern Democratic Party struck down the “property” requirement and essentially won the vote for all white males.
People of color didn’t theoretically get the vote until 1870, when the Fifteenth Amendment was passed — and over the next 30 years a campaign of terror and intimidation waged largely by white-supremacist Southern Democratic politicians and their paramilitary arm, the Ku Klux Klan, effectively abolished the African-American vote until Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965. And, of course, over half the American population remained disenfranchised until 1920, when after decades of struggle women won the vote through the Nineteenth Amendment. (In a few states some people of color could vote before 1870, and women before 1920.)
This history is important in understanding and dealing with the Tea Party because it highlights how profoundly reactionary a movement it really is — and how elitist it is, despite its periodic claims to be populist and anti-corporate. The Tea Party is the latest in a series of Right-wing movements aimed at nothing less than reversing virtually all the gains progressives have struggled for over the last two and one-half centuries of American history and returning to the original understanding of the Constitution: a limited franchise comprised exclusively of affluent people who in any case were not given direct authority to vote on the highest offices in the land.
During the 1980’s and early 1990’s it was a common complaint on the Left that the Right of the day wanted to return us to the values and mores of the 1950’s, when Blacks were still on the back of the bus, women were still in the kitchen and Queers were still in the closet. Then it began to occur to people on the Right that there were some aspects of the 1950’s that didn’t fit their world view — like the upper bracket of the income tax, which was 91 percent (although almost nobody actually paid that much), and the percentage of workers in labor unions: one-third, higher than at any time before or since. So starting with the Republican takeover of Congress in the 1994 elections — after which talk-show host Roger Hedgecock said the new Congress would “undo the mistakes of the last 60 years” (i.e., go back to a pre-New Deal economy and society) — they proclaimed an intent to go even further back: to the 1880’s, before Social Security, unemployment insurance, laws protecting workers’ health and safety, to a time idealized in Ayn Rand’s writings as one in which “job creators” (Republican-speak for corporations and the super-rich) got to amass huge profits and build giant industries while the workers who actually created their wealth got just barely enough to live on, and sometimes not even that.
Now the Tea Party wants to take us back even farther than the 1880’s — to the early years of the United States, when the country was dominated by owners of huge plantations whose workforces they either owned outright as slaves or paid such pittances they might as well have, and in which only a handful of property owners had political rights at all. At least part of this stems from a Right-wing understanding that a republic can survive only as long as it does not allow the dispossessed majority — “the 99 percent,” as the Occupy movement calls them — to redistribute wealth and income by voting high taxes on the 1 percent. Once again, James Madison’s words in Federalist #10 support the Tea Party’s agenda: “A rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project, will be less apt to pervade the whole body of the Union than any particular member of it.” Madison, who on some issues — notably the freedoms of the Bill of Rights — was among the most progressive of the Founding Fathers, would, if he were alive today, quite likely denounce the Occupy movement as an “improper or wicked project.”
The Tea Party’s drive to return to the Founders’ desire for a limited republic that would ensure the dominance of propertied interests — the great landowners who were the 1 percent of their day — is taking many forms on the ground. It includes not only such unlikely dreams as a call to repeal the 17th Amendment and return the election of Senators to state legislatures but a series of restrictions on voting rights Republican governors and state legislators are rushing through to keep younger, poorer and darker people from being able to vote at all. Under the guise of preventing “voter fraud,” states governed by Republicans are cutting back or eliminating same-day voter registration, early voting and mail ballots — used largely by working-class and student voters — and in Florida a Republican legislature and governor passed such draconian restrictions against private organizations’ voter registration drives that the League of Women Voters announced they would stop doing them because, as the group’s Florida president Deirdre Macnab said, “We could not put our volunteers at risk of these fines and penalties.”
When they’re covered at all — which, aside from an excellent front-page article in the October 30 Los Angeles Times, they generally haven’t been by the mainstream media — these restrictions on voting rights have been portrayed as Republican efforts to defeat President Obama and the Democrats in 2012 by shrinking the pool of potential Democratic voters. That’s just a short-term goal; the long-term intent is farther-reaching than that. It was expressed by Florida State Senator Michael Bennett (R-Bradenton) when he called voting “a hard-fought privilege” — not a right, but a privilege, which in legal-speak means a gift (like driving or practicing medicine) the government giveth and the government can taketh away. “This is something people died for,” Senator Bennett said. “Why should we make it easier?”
At a time when a lot of the rhetoric on the Left is openly contemptuous of electoral politics, and many Leftists wrongly believe that both major political parties are so totally dominated by corporate lobbyists and the 1 percent’s campaign donations that it doesn’t matter who wins elections (it doesn’t matter anywhere nearly as much as it should, but it still matters), the American Right is pursuing a long-term strategy to re-establish a piece of the Founding Fathers’ “original intent” this country should have outgrown a long time ago. The idea that under the guise of a “republic” we should actually be governed by a self-perpetuating elite runs counter to over two centuries’ worth of struggle to build a truly democratic America out of the limited republic the original Constitution bequeathed us. We ignore this struggle at our peril. To paraphrase Senator Bennett, people died so that wage workers, people of color, and women could vote in this country. Why should we make it easier for the Tea Partiers and the rich people who fund them to take our votes away from us?

S.A.M.E. to Host Holiday Fundraiser December 9

The San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (S.A.M.E.) will host its annual holiday fundraiser Friday, December 9, 7 to 9:30 p.m., at the Bamboo Lounge, 1475 University Avenue in Hillcrest. Half the proceeds will go to the defense fund for the Equality 9, nine S.A.M.E. members and supporters who are going to trial in March 2012 for their civil disobedience action at the County Administrative Center in August 2010 to protest the county’s failure to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples after a federal district judge found such discrimination to be unconstitutional. The other half will go to pay medical expenses for Occupy San Diego and Canvass for a Cause activist Michelle “Jersey” Deutsch, who needed treatment after she was beaten by San Diego police during one of their raids on the Occupy encampment in Civic Center Plaza downtown.
Entertainers will include singers Joshua Napier (who also performed at S.A.M.E.’s 2010 holiday fundraiser) and Drew Searing. There will also be a retrospective video presentation of S.A.M.E.’s activities during 2011 and other performers to be announced later. For more information visit the S.A.M.E. Web site,

Chaos in the Medical Marijuana Community

news analysis by LEO E. LAURENCE, J.D.

Copyright © 2011 by Leo E. Laurence for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Faced with powerful pressures from federal prosecutors and an aggressive city attorney, medical-marijuana dispensaries are also struggling with disunity in their own ranks.
There are two major community organizations involved: the Americans for Safe Access (ASA), a broad-based organizations with several “chapters” spread throughout San Diego county; and a financially stronger group representing dispensaries, the Patients Care Association’ (PCA).
Although their interests are nearly identical, they aren’t talking to each other.
And the PCA is split between local leaders who successfully scored a victory by forcing the city council to repeal its ordinance that was a de facto ban on dispensaries, and a man who is trying to personally take all the credit for that victory, Randy Welty.

Disaster Expected

Welty is pushing two ballot initiatives, one locally and one statewide.  To pay the huge cost of these initiatives, Welty is pushing the PCA to put on a huge gala with $500 tickets. No way in hell that will work, especially with no professionals producing the gala event and an impossible, one-month promotional time. This isn’t La Jolla, and even there a sizeable lead time is required to promote and advertise a major event.
Welty, however, is polished in selling, and he’s trying to do it again with the two initiatives, though copies of neither initiative are available.
The PCA meetings are nominally run by 28-year-old dispensary owner Alex Scherer. But, according to PCA members, Scherer has difficulty chairing the meetings because Welty “takes over” with long speeches that make him into a “Rambo” character of the medical marijuana community. There is a lot of resentment locally because Welty seems to be trying to take credit for the hard work of locals.
“It’s either Welty’s way or the highway,” said one PCA member critically. When a recent PCA meeting voted to give control of a major project to a local board, rather than a statewide group run by Welty, Welty got upset and walked out of the meeting.  The tension in the PCA meeting was so thick you could cut it.
After he returned from his “smoke break,” the conflict continued.
“I’m not going to work with the local group,” Welty said bluntly. “You have to put me in charge to get my support.
“We need $5,000 by tomorrow, but only have $2,000,” he added.
Everything he discussed during his speeches was in general terms with no specifics.
Even the so-called “budget” for the gala he was promoting didn’t have detailed figures, though the event was just weeks away. A six-page promotional document he distributed listed “expenses” at $85,000, but didn’t give specifics of those expenses.
The major income from the “gala” event was the tickets at $500 each, and he anticipated selling 600 . . . to whom?
With talk of two initiatives, one local and another statewide, Welty didn’t answer a question as to which would control local dispensaries.
There was considerable talk about lawsuits that have been filed against local and federal prosecutors, but nobody at the PCA event had details of any of them.

Photo caption: Alex Scherer, 28, of Ocean Beach runs meetings of the Patients’ Care Association, when Randy Welty isn’t giving a speech and taking over.  Photo by Leo E. Laurence.

A Few Minutes with the Real Andy Rooney

He Personally Apologized for Infamous 1990 Gay Slur

reminiscence by LEO E. LAURENCE, J.D.

Copyright © 2011 by Leo E. Laurence for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Andy Rooney, who produced weekly CBS commentaries on 60 Minutes about the absurdities of everyday life, was practically deified when he died at 92 on Nov. 4th, just weeks after his farewell broadcast. CBS News said he died of complications after minor surgery.
He had written and aired 1,097 original essays on final broadcast on October 2, and had worked for CBS News for 62 years.
The network had hired me in 1996 to work on its coverage of the Republican National Convention in San Diego.
One day while walking in a secure section behind the convention center, I found myself walking behind a hump-backed old man wearing a suit that looked like he had slept in it.
I particularly noticed that his shoes were so worn out that the old man was literally walking on the sides of the heels. I thought he looked homeless … but I figured a homeless person couldn’t be inside the security zone limited to only CBS News personnel.
However, everything about this man looked poor, even his unkempt hair.
Out of curiosity, I followed him right into the huge tent used by CBS News to feed its entire crew. I still hadn’t seen his face.
Not until we got to the long, food line did I realize that I had been following the world-renowned Andy Rooney. Oddly, everyone was ignoring him.
After we got our food, he sat alone at a table and I asked if I could join him.
“Of course,” he said, amicably.
His clothes were a mess. He sat bent over his food, looking even older than the 79 he was.
Though I was 65 at the time, he treated me like a grandson over lunch.
Usually when meeting a famous person, I’m the one asking questions as a journalist. But Rooney was filled with questions for me. He asked about my family and my life, seeming more interested in me than I was about him.
Whenever I asked him a question, he managed to twist the answer around to talk about my life, not his.
Somehow, he made me feel special, as if the world revolved around me, rather than him being the superstar.
Yet I was stunned by his homeless look.
During our casual, lunchtime conversation, I was especially surprised when he interrupted the flow of our chat with an admission: “While you don’t look Gay, I guess you are and I want to apologize for a commentary I made in 1990.
“I’m not homophobic, and I made a big mistake by comparing homosexual marriages with smoking and drinking that can lead to premature death.”
That surprised me. He was able to read me so correctly, and he was still uncomfortable with a broadcast that he had made so many years ago.
He had been given a three-month suspension by CBS News for that commentary. 
I still remember that he looked homeless to me.


“Born-Again” Activist with Canvass for a Cause


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

For the last two years, people — mostly young — have been accosting passers-by on the streets of San Diego wearing professionally printed T-shirts with a distinctive logo reading, “Legalize Gay.” They’re part of an organization called Canvass for a Cause, founded in the wake of the defeat for marriage equality in California when Proposition 8, which banned legal recognition of same-sex marriages, was passed by voters in November 2008 and a similar initiative, Question 1, was passed in Maine a few months later. Canvass for a Cause was started to get the marriage equality message out to residents not only in San Diego’s so-called “Gayborhoods” of Hillcrest, North Park and University Heights, but throughout the city. It was also designed to finance itself and raise money so its members could not only spread the message of marriage equality but get paid for doing so.
Zenger’s interviewed Nico D’Amico-Barbour, regional director of Canvass for a Cause October 13, which by coincidence was also the date the San Diego police did their first of several attacks on the ongoing Occupy San Diego camp-out in the Civic Center Plaza downtown. The police originally ordered everyone out of the plaza, then relented and allowed them to stay but only as long as they didn’t have tents. My interview with Nico coincided not only with the police attack on Occupy San Diego but also the controversy surrounding the decision by the board of Equality California not to press for repeal of Proposition 8 in the 2012 election, and the sudden departure of its executive director, Roland Palencia, after just five months in the job. In his comments on the Occupy movement and Equality California, Canvass, Nico stressed that he was speaking for himself and not for Canvass for a Cause.
Nico so strongly supports Occupy San Diego that he’s been spending time at the occupation site and originally wanted us to do the interview there, though his duties with Canvass for a Cause made him reschedule for the Canvass headquarters at — ironically — an old Mormon church just south of 10th and Robinson in Hillcrest. While we were doing the interview, we were interrupted by a young man coming to apply for a job with Canvass for a Cause, a long-time staff member who needed Nico’s attention, and a phone call with a person Nico was letting go. They’re certainly a busy group, not only with marriage equality and other Queer issues but also a subsidiary organization called Gay Groups Give Back, which raises money for non-Queer causes like earthquake relief for Haiti. Canvass’s Web site describes the group as “strictly progressive, occasionally Queer.”
What’s interesting about Nico in particular and the members of Canvass for a Cause in general is how much they show a level of dedication and commitment more often associated these days with the Right than the Left. The infectious excitement with which he described Canvass’s growth doesn’t sound all that different from a capitalist entrepreneur waxing eloquent about a particularly successful start-up, and his personal dedication to activism reminded me so much of what I’ve heard from born-again Christians that I decided to headline this article “‘Born-Again’ Activist.” The remarks Nico made as we were finishing the interview —  “When you are so exhausted and tired from doing the work that you feel you need to do to help others that you feel that you just can’t physically do it anymore, that’s when it’s time to take a break … Most people cannot honestly say that they’ve been activists” — show a quasi-religious dedication to the causes he cares about that goes far beyond what most of us either would or could maintain.
To join or contact Canvass for a Cause, visit their headquarters at 3705 10th Avenue in Hillcrest, phone (619) 630-7750, e-mail them at, contact the Canvass for a Cause page on Facebook, or visit their Web site at An audio version of this interview was previously posted for streaming at, or for download at

Zenger’s: Let’s start by you telling me a little about yourself, and how you got into activism.
Nico D’Amico-Barbour: My first experience with anything LGBT [Queer] was when I first came back from Italy. My parents were in the Navy, so I spent the second half of my first decade there. I came back to the United States when I was 10, and my parents took me to the Unitarian-Universalist Church of San Diego. It’s probably one of the most liberal churches in the world. In the early 1980’s the Unitarian-Universalist Association put out a mandate saying that all ministers had to marry Gay couples — and that was in the early 1980’s!
So from a very young age, I was playing with little boys and little girls who had two moms or two dads. It wasn’t strange to me. It wasn’t weird. It was just how I grew up. But at the same time, I didn’t really have a great grasp on the difficulties the Gay community faced. That didn’t come about until high school, when I became a little less sheltered and I got to see a bunch of kids from a lot of different lifestyles, and what those different lifestyles and cultures thought about the Gay community. I went to a fairly progressive school, but that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t exposed to some homophobia.
I got involved in the GSA, Gay-Straight Alliance, as a result, and while there I met a very good friend of mine at the time. Her name was Noelle, and she became like a sister to me. She was very closeted. She had a terrible time coming out. It got to the point where I and a few of her friends would basically force her to go to Hillcrest and hang out with us. And we would just be like — “Oh, there’s a girl over there. Why don’t you tell us three things that you notice about her.” We would say, “Come on. Be honest with yourself, really.” Later she became very open, and because of that I went to a lot of events with her.
I joined the GSA. I did school-wide awareness events such as Day of Silence. People took bets on whether I could do it, whether I could keep my mouth shut all day. Then I got into the Decline to Sign campaign, which was a volunteer effort towards making sure that Proposition 8 wouldn’t even get on the ballot. That was my first experience with actual politics.
However, after high school I drifted away from activism. I didn’t have as much time to do stuff like that. I had to worry about getting a job and paying the bills. I was managing a small coffee shop and I went to a church event. I met a girl there and we were talking, and I was saying, “I’m sort of between jobs right now. I hate my job. It sucks. I’m in a small coffee shop. What do you do?” And she said, “I fight for Gay rights.” I said, “So you volunteer a lot?” She said, “No, no, I get paid to fight for Gay rights.” And I’m like, “Hold the phone. Say what? You can get paid for that?”
I was working at Canvass for a Cause less than a week later. The very first thing I said was, “Sign me up.” As I came to work here, I went out, I did voter outreach, I signed up members and recruited volunteers. More and more, I just needed more. I literally would go up to people here at the office and say, “I need more. I need to do more stuff.” They started giving me more stuff, and within a couple of months I got a promotion. A couple of months after that I got another promotion, and I’m pretty dedicated to working here now. I spent some time in Los Angeles opening up our second office, the L.A. office. I spent three months up there making sure that office was off the ground, in the black, ready to go. Then I came back to San Diego, and now I’m moving into a regional position. I’m overseeing the San Diego and Los Angeles offices.

Zenger’s: Can you tell me a little about Canvass for a Cause: how it started and how it works?
D’Amico-Barbour: That’s a very long story! Canvass for a Cause started as a group of six pissed-off activists in the aftermath of Proposition 8. Nobody in the community was actually doing anything. They were all just “strategizing.” A lot of people, the six pissed-off activists included, said, “Listen. We would literally have more of an effect on the Gay rights movement if we just went up to doors and just talked to people. We could literally just go up and say, ‘Knock-knock, Gay,’ and that would have more of an effect than doing nothing, because at least people would be talking about it.”
They had this idea about going out and fundraising, and using those dollars to run volunteer events where they would get their volunteers and activists to go into non-supportive neighborhoods and persuade voters to come back to the side of equality. It was an amazing idea, but it wasn’t something they had any way to germinate and do an actual campaign. It looked like they weren’t sure if it was going anywhere or not, until they had what they like to call the Bat-symbol in the sky moment, the moment where they said, “We need to go help. That’s what we’re talking about.”
What that was for us was something called Question 1. Question 1 was the same exact thing as Proposition 8, except that it happened in Maine. In 2009 Maine passed a Gay marriage bill through their House and Senate, and it was signed by the Governor. It was set to become effective on January 1, 2010. However, the National Organization for Marriage showed up and qualified a special election for October 2009. So, because Question 1 was a constitutional amendment that would ban Gay marriage pre-emptively, the No on Question 1 campaign put out a national call for help through all these different activists across the country.
The ones here in San Diego, our founding members, went. They didn’t get paid for it. They literally were volunteers for three weeks. The only thing the campaign provided for them was support or housing. They went and, thanks to their volunteer experience and the organizing experience they had, they helped run volunteer events and recruit volunteers for the entire state of Maine. And on their way back, they were thinking, “God, we can’t believe this! We’re going back to nothing. We just spent this amazing, amazing time in Maine doing this organizing work, and we have this strong feeling about what should happen in California. We should do this. We should keep doing this.”
Literally on the plane flight back from Maine to San Diego, they went on the IRS Web site and registered Canvass for a Cause as a nonprofit. So that’s where Canvass for a Cause was born, 5,000 miles above Kansas City, Missouri. But When they got back to San Diego they hit the ground running. As our executive director, Tres Watson, likes to say, we started with $20 and a Discover card, two volunteers and donated moldy space.
The way we operated at first is we would fundraise, go out and recruit volunteers, and then we would put those fundraising dollars and volunteers towards projects with coalition partners, where we would go out into non-supportive areas and persuade voters. We kept growing as an organization and eventually moved out of the donated moldy space. We moved into a nice little executive suite downtown. It was kind of cool, except that it was a tiny, tiny little space, and we kept growing as an organization.
Eventually we got to the point where we really needed another make-or-break moment, and what that was for us was the disaster in Haiti. When you saw these images of thousands dead, thousands more displaced, there was this incredible feeling of, “Man, we need to do something.” What that was for us was a project called Gay Groups Give Back. We became coalition partners with other groups in the community, and in the name of the Gay community we fundraised money to send to Haiti to get survival packs in the hands of families, so they could survive for months while they waited for more permanent help.
We were able to help 12 families that day, and what’s more, we did it in the name of the Gay community, which was something that was really needed. The Gay community at the time was seen as somewhat secular. We want people to help us with our issues but we don’t necessarily want to help everyone else with theirs. So that was something that we were endeavoring to do, and it was an awesome feeling. We did a lot of work, and what it showed us was that we didn’t need to throw our volunteers at these other organizations. We could run our own volunteer events, because we organized that entire event ourselves.
That’s really when the field program was started here at Canvass for a Cause. That’s when we started hiring field directors. That’s when we started doing field work. And from that point on, the rest is history. We just kept growing and growing and growing, adding more to our field programs, taking on more and more events, and now we’re at the point where we not only work on our own campaigns but people will literally come to our field committee meetings and say, “We’ve got this great idea. Can you help?”
One example is we did a prisoners’ rights rally a few weeks ago. It was literally brought to us by a woman whose husband was in prison and on a hunger strike. She literally said, “I’ve never done this before. I’ve never organized a rally before, and I feel I would be lucky to get 200 signatures at this rally.” We helped her out, and we got something like 370. Now she’s personally thanked us for teaching her all of these methods she needed to organize that rally in order to organize around her specific issue.

Zenger’s: How is Canvass for a Cause funded?
D’Amico-Barbour: Canvass for a Cause is a completely grass-roots organization. We’re funded by thousands and thousands of donors every single year who believe in what we do. The largest donation that we’ve ever had out in the field is $508. And yet, despite that, we manage to operate with 50 activists in two cities here in California, operating on no more than $508 contributions at a time. And the reason we are able to do that is when we go out there, people are constantly funding us.
Because we operate at the grass roots, it helps keep us honest. We’re not working for one or two donors who can dictate what we do or don’t do. We’re working for ourselves. We know what we want to do, and if people disagree with us and don’t agree with the work we’re doing, they won’t give us donations anymore. That’s one of the things that’s so special about working in the grass-roots field: it’s completely self-sustainable. But also it keeps movements honest. It ensures that movements are going to live up to their promises, or else their funding is just going to fall out from underneath them.

Zenger’s: Any comment about the decision by Equality California not to seek the repeal of Proposition 8 on the ballot in 2012? Personally, do you think the community should be doing a campaign right now or not?
D’Amico-Barbour: On a personal level, I would say absolutely. One of the sad things about the campaign is that during the original Proposition 8 campaign we had something like 400 volunteers statewide, and yet a few weeks after Proposition 8 passed we had hundreds of thousands of people up and down the state marching in the streets in protest. They had the time to take away from their daily lives to come protest, but they didn’t have the time to volunteer in the first place. That’s what Canvass for a Cause is. We’re out there activating voters. We like to say that Canvass for a Cause is the antidote to apathy. If someone feels strongly about this issue, they shouldn’t just sit on the sidelines. They should go out and figure out what it is that they can do to improve the movement.
Of course I believe that we should be fighting to repeal Proposition 8 next year. But if every single person in the state isn’t behind that — if every single person sitting at home reading this article isn’t going forward, moving forward on this issue and doing everything they can — then we might not be able to get equal rights. We need everyone on board. This isn’t something that five people can win. This is something that takes an army of advocates and activists, all working on human rights issues.

Zenger’s: That’s how the people on the other side got Proposition 8 in the first place.  They had the dedication, they were able to mobilize their forces to get it on the ballot, push it through, and change a 15-point deficit in the early polls to a five-percent victory on Election Day.
D’Amico-Barbour: Exactly.

Zenger’s: So what you’re saying is we need to be at least as organized as they are.
D’Amico-Barbour: At least, if not more. Canvass for a Cause has tons of volunteer events all the time. We have tons of opportunities to get involved, but more so than just Canvass for a Cause, the progressive movement has so much more potential than people give it credit for. People assume that things are going to happen because they vote a certain way. But the fact of the matter is that when you’re an organizer, you’re not just producing your own vote. You’re producing thousands of votes as you go out and talk to people.
So what I would want your readers to do is ask yourselves, “Do I want to be one vote to the election, or do I want to contribute 1,000?” Because you can contribute 1,000 easily. Even if it’s not with Canvass for a Cause, you can find ways to organize. You can go out and, even if you just go door-to-door in your neighborhood, knock on random strangers’ doors and say, “Hey, do you support Gay marriage? Really? Why not?,” at least you’re doing something about it.

Zenger’s: You said that people, especially on the progressive side, think they can achieve social change by electing the right people. One source of frustration to me has been that the Right seems to understand the limits of electoral activism a lot better than the Left does. The Right seems to understand that your electoral activism and your direct action out in the street need to work together, and the Left doesn’t seem to have a clue about that. Leftists seem to think that’s an either/or choice.
D’Amico-Barbour: One of the things that makes me sad is that every day I would go out in the field, I would hear at least one person say, “Oh, don’t worry, don’t worry, it’ll happen.” That sentence is the reason why we don’t have Gay rights in the United States. “Don’t worry, it’ll happen.” NO! It will not “happen.” If you’re saying that “it’ll happen,” that means that you’re not doing what you need to be doing to ensure that it will. If someone cares about his issue, they should get out and do something about it. And the same with every other issue as well. Being an active member of a democracy is more than just about voting. It’s about organizing and speaking your beliefs.

Zenger’s: We’re speaking while the Occupy Wall Street protests are just about a month old, the Occupy San Diego protest is about a week old, and one of my fears about that is that instead of realizing that there has to be an electoral component as well as doing those kinds of actions, we’re going to not be able to translate a lot of that good energy into positive change.
D’Amico-Barbour: I would disagree with that, and the reason I would disagree is because when someone becomes activated on any issue, they start to look at the world in a completely different way. When I first came to Canvass for a Cause, I had done a little bit of work on Decline to Sign, but that was nothing compared to the work I’m doing today. When I first came to Canvass for a Cause, sure, I had political beliefs, and I even talked to people when the moment was right about those political beliefs.
But what doing activism work teaches you is that it isn’t about believing in politics and then doing what you need to get a certain vote through, or to get a certain election to happen, or to pass a certain bill, or to get a certain person in office. It’s about seeing the world in terms of not how it is or how it should be, but how you can improve it and how you can make it better. Sometimes that’s a compromise, and sometimes that’s a complete and total victory.
But as long as you’re looking at the world in that light, and as long as you’re thinking about everything in terms of how it can change, you can make positive growth. I think what Occupy San Diego does is, even if it doesn’t bring that electoral component into it, it is awakening so many people. There are people downtown who are walking through that area and seeing everything that’s going on down there, and asking and figuring out what’s going on. When that person has the lightbulb moment, when the lightbulb finally goes off in their head — even if they’re not doing that electoral work right there, they’re finally activated.
Now you’re going to be seeing that sort of thing everywhere, in everything from the food you eat to the clothes you wear. We should always be thinking about the social impacts we’re having. A great example is I refuse to buy new clothes because I know most of them are made by sweatshops in foreign countries. That, in its own way, is a form of activism. And looking at your entire life that way is how you can truly contribute to society.

Zenger’s: One possible outcome I can see from the Occupy movements is that, by stressing how much both major parties are in thrall to the corporate agenda, they might actually make it easier for the Republicans to sweep the 2012 elections. The kinds of people who three years ago were volunteering for Obama are turning up at these things and saying, “Well, he wasn’t the Messiah. Therefore, we shouldn’t bother to vote,” and everyone from our side who doesn’t bother to vote is a vote for the Republicans and the Tea Party to take complete control of the country and move it in the direction they want, which is quite different from what we want.
D’Amico-Barbour: I think that right now, the progressive movement is going through a sort of cocoon phase and a rebirth. Up until now, so much of it has been about some sort of centralized movement. Right now people are finally waking up. People are realizing that it’s not about becoming part of something; it’s about doing things for yourself. And yes, that includes voting, and it includes voting for the right person. But it’s not about being swept into something. It’s about being able to find our own way.

Zenger’s: Why can’t the Left be more like the Tea Party?
D’Amico-Barbour: I don’t think that’s the answer. Becoming like the Tea Party means being swept up in a movement. People in the Tea Party don’t necessarily even understand what they’re fighting for. They’re fighting because they’re angry and they’re involved in this movement. However, they’re not thinking for themselves. I don’t think that the answer for the progressive movement is to become more like the Tea Party. It’s to become the complete opposite of the Tea Party. It’s to individualize and educate every single person, and to activate every single person to become their own organizer.

Zenger’s: That’s an interesting statement, because a lot of the criticism of the Occupy movement in the mainstream media has been that at least when you go to a Tea Party rally, you know what their group stands for. When you go to one of the Occupy events, so the argument goes, you’re stepping into a group of people that don’t have a unified set of demands.
D’Amico-Barbour: The Occupy movement isn’t about a specific set of demands. It’s about educating the public and bringing people outside of their daily lives. If you go down there, there’s no power, there’s no electricity, there’s no showers. We’re lucky there’s a restroom. That means that every aspect of modern society that distracts us from the issues that affect human rights and human suffering here in the United States is removed. You’re not bogged down by everything that usually bogs us down in daily life. All that’s left is a pure sense of community, understanding a progressive forward vision and the need for activism and positive movement.
So many times I’ve met people out in the field who don’t want to talk to me until I say, “No, you’re going to have to talk to me today.” And by the end of that conversation they want to volunteer with us 10 days a week! The reason why that happens is because long before I managed to have a conversation with them, they were thinking about their daughter’s soccer game and their son’s recital, and about the groceries and what they need to do for work, and what the boss said last time, and their mother-in-law is coming for dinner that night, and all these things about their daily life. Until someone has a conversation with them that pulls them away from all that and says, “Stop! Forget all that for a second. These other things are happening.”

Zenger’s: I guess what’s going through my head is the fear that the 2012 election is going to be a major change for this country, and it’s not going to be the change we want. It’s going to be the total takeover of the Republicans and the Tea Party, and they will move this country as far to the Right as Germany was moved by the Nazis in 1933.
D’Amico-Barbour: We don’t know that to be true, and I would actually argue that right now the Occupy movement is making a lot of people wake up. A lot of people in the United States are waking up in a way that they never have before, and if they aren’t now, they will soon, because the Right is going crazy right now. and They’re gathering support, but they’re gathering support from people who are scared. They’re gathering support using fear. They’re not gathering support using education and understanding, and in the end education and understanding is always going to win. It just sometimes takes time.
I personally think the election is not going to be as bad as you think it is. I think the people are going to surprise you. But even if it is, it will always get better. I take pride in that, and it will always get better because there will always be people like me and groups like Canvass for a Cause that will not stop, and will continue to fight no matter what the odds are against them. The beginning of Canvass for a Cause was by no means impressive, but we continued to grow and we continued to fight. We continued to strive until we became what we are today.
And if every single person took as much drive and as much initiative as Canvass for a Cause as an organization has, then we would have every human right and every human dignity that people have been calling for in the United States. It’s just that people sit by and do nothing, and that’s why we don’t have what we have now.

Zenger’s: I know. I put out a newspaper and cover a lot of events, do alternative media, do publicity, get things on the Web, and I ask myself sometimes, “Mark, are you really doing enough? Are you really doing everything you could be?”
D’Amico-Barbour: I think the answer to that question is when you are so exhausted and tired from doing the work that you feel you need to do to help others that you feel that you just can’t physically do it anymore, that’s when it’s time to take a break. That’s when it may be time to spend some time on yourself, and I can understand people that were in activism and spent a lot of time in activism and leave it to do their own things, because there comes a time in your life when you need to take some time for personal care.
Most people cannot honestly say that they’ve been activists. They can honestly say that they’ve been contributing members of society, and that in itself is respectable. But every single person has it in them to be an advocate and an activist, both for themselves and for the suppressed minority groups that do not have the means to speak for themselves. When every single person can honestly say, “I have been an activist and I have done good work,” that will be the day when the United States will finally be where it should be. And even then there will be more work to do.