Sunday, September 23, 2012

S.A.M.E. Hosts Victory Celebration for Marriage Equality Protesters

Event Packs the Bamboo Lounge, Offers “Past, Present and Future” Program


Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

L to R: Hugh Moore, José Medina, Sean Bohac, Chuck Stemke, Felicity Bradley, Cecile Veillard, Zakiya Khabir

Pat Brown and Leo Laurence

Over 75 Queer community activists and enthusiastic supporters packed the back room at the Bamboo Lounge sushi restaurant and bar in Hillcrest Friday night, September 21, for the “Equality Nine Victory Celebration.” What the event was celebrating was the successful two-year court fight of the Equality Nine, members and supporters of the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (S.A.M.E.), who were arrested at the San Diego County Administration Center August 19, 2010 for attempting to enter the San Diego County Clerk’s office and demand marriage licenses for three same-sex couples in light of Federal District Judge Vaughn Walker’s decision declaring California’s ban on legal recognition of same-sex marriages unconstitutional.
But the event’s program was broader than just a commemoration of the Equality Nine, whose case was finally dropped by the San Diego city attorney’s office August 24, more than two years after the initial arrests. A previous attempt to bring the six defendants to trial in April ended embarrassingly for the city attorney when the judge caught the prosecution systematically excluding Queer people from the jury in violation of California law. The case was scheduled for retrial on September 18 when the city attorney’s office abruptly pulled the plug on the prosecution.

The Past: San Francisco, 1969

The program for the September 21 victor celebration was called “Past, Present and Future” and was intended to celebrate the history of Queer activism, discuss the Equality 9 case and allow the audience members themselves to brainstorm what militant Queer activists should do in the future. The past was represented by Leo Laurence and Pat Brown, who currently live in San Diego but in March 1969 were in San Francisco and were instrumental in launching the radical militant Queer movement there, three months before the Stonewall Inn riots in New York City that are generally considered to be the starting point for the U.S. Queer rights movement.
“By day I was an editor and reporter for KGO radio in San Francisco, and by night I was a reporter for the Berkeley Barb,” Laurence recalled. The Berkeley Barb was a radical underground paper that by 1969 was already legendary for challenging the Bay Area establishment and publicizing the Left. But Laurence was also the editor of Vector, the house publication of the Society for Individual Rights (SIR), a so-called “homophile” organization that rejected not only direct action but even use of terms like “homosexual,” let alone “Gay” or “Queer.”
Laurence wanted to make Vector more appealing, and he recruited a 20-year-old writer named Gale Whittington to write a fashion column. “We needed a photo of him, so we did a photo shoot in his home, and he was wearing nothing but a pair of really skimpy cut-off shorts,” Laurence said. “But I also asked a Berkeley Barb photographer to come, and at the end I asked if the Barb photographer could take a picture of Gale and I together. I put my arms around him and hugged him tightly.”
The Barb photographer gave a copy of the two-shot of Laurence and Whittington to his editor, Max Scherr, who cropped it to make it look like Whittington was nude and ran it alongside an article by Laurence called “Don’t Hide It.” When that issue of the Barb came out, Whittington saw a copy on the desk of his boss at the States Steamship Lines offices, where he worked in the mailroom. The boss fired Whittington that day, and he called Laurence at 11 that night in tears.
“I felt I was responsible,” Laurence said, “and I thought we should do something about it. I wasn’t sure just what, but I wanted to do something bigger than we’d ever done before.” Brainstorming a name for their new Queer rights organization, Laurence ultimately decided on “Committee on Homosexual Freedom,” or CHF, at a time when even the word “homosexual” was considered dangerously in-your-face. Eventually they decided to do a daily picket of the States Steamship Lines office during the lunch hour so they’d have maximum visibility in San Francisco’s financial district — the first time in U.S. history that a private employer was actually picketed to protest anti-Queer discrimination.
Pat Brown came in as picket captain because he’d had experience leading anti-war demonstrations. “I asked the American Friends’ Service Committee (AFSC, the direct-action offshoot of the Quaker Church) to send someone to train us, and this organization — which had sent people to register voters in the Deep South — refused because we were ‘too controversial,’” Brown recalled. Instead, Brown bought a copy of the AFSC’s direct-action manual and the CHF used it to train themselves. Though Laurence said the pickets happened only once a week — mainly because, with his work responsibilities, he could only be there once a week — Brown insisted that they happened every weekday during lunch, so they’d be as visible as possible to office workers in San Francisco’s financial district, where States Steamship’s offices were located.
Laurence also said that when the picketers received death threats and the San Francisco Police Department refused to do anything about them — “They said they couldn’t do anything until I actually got hit,” he recalled — he reached out to the biggest, baddest organization in the Bay Area Left at the time: the Black Panther Party. He met them in the most revealing clothes he owned — a pair of knit shorts he showed off at the event — “and they liked it,” he said. “The Panthers felt that Gay liberation was tougher than what they were doing, because they couldn’t change the color of their skin but we could be in the closet.”
The result was a full-page article in The Black Panther magazine by the party’s leader, Huey P. Newton, announcing a change in the party’s position from anti-Gay to pro-Queer liberation: the first time a major Left organization of people of color embraced the Queer movement and drew the now-commonplace analogy between the civil rights struggles of people of color and Queers. Laurence also got something more tangible out of it: an emergency phone number he was told to call in case his group got attacked, so the Panthers could come and defend them.
“I was on the picket line one day, and someone told there was a car with three people carrying baseball bats,” Laurence said. “I went up to the car and told one of the people inside, ‘I’m calling the Black Panthers.’ One said, ‘The Panthers are going to help you, faggots?’ I headed for the phone — and the main guy of the three said, ‘This is serious. The Panthers will wipe us out.’” So the would-be bashers drove off and the picket continued unmolested.

The Present: The Equality Nine

Five of the Equality Nine members appeared at the victory celebration: Sean Bohac, Felicity Bradley, Zakiya Khabir, Chuck Stemke and Cecile Veillard. “Doing protests is a great way to change people’s minds,” said Bradley. “This is the proudest thing I’ve ever done in my life. I really love you guys. Helping you has helped me grow.” Bradley also recalled her own coming-out process and the Queer people she’s known who committed suicide, and said she hoped the Equality Nine and the other struggles for Queer liberation will help convince people that being Queer is nothing to be ashamed of and they should live, be proud of who they are and join in the struggle for their rights.
Stemke said he saw Queer rights in general and marriage equality in particular as “a big political issue that keeps coming back again and again. In San Diego we had 25,000 people in the streets [in the first big protests after the passage of Proposition 8 in November 2008]. Proposition 8 was a cause for outrage across the country. There are nine of us, and a lot of things can get nine people arrested, but what made us special was the mass movement behind us. … These actions were meant to show that people aren’t going to take it anymore. They came at a time when it was necessary to clog up the gears of the system and show our frustration.”
One warning Stemke had was that people might become complacent on the issue. He admitted that there was a lot more grass-roots interest in protesting Proposition 8 in August 2010 than there is now, when “there’s a feeling that the President has come out for same-sex marriage” and it’s only a matter of time before legal barriers like Proposition 8 fall and marriage equality becomes a nationwide reality in the U.S. Quite the contrary, Stemke said; it was the pressure put on by “people in this room” that got the San Diego city attorney to drop the charges against them, and only through continued activism and pressure can we win the struggle for marriage equality and full civil rights.
Sean Bohac pointed to the poster on one wall of the Bamboo Lounge on which attendees were allowed to write the names of people they felt should be acknowledged for their support of marriage equality, S.A.M.E. and the Equality Nine. He thanked the members of Canvass for a Cause (CFAC) for their petition drive, which “organized 2,000 signatures to the city attorney to get him to drop the charges.” He also acknowledged Bamboo Lounge chef Ditchi Manley, who along with her partner had shown up at the County Clerk’s office August 19, 2010 expecting the clerk to honor their appointment for a marriage license.
“This is a room full of people who’ve made a difference in what a lot of people are calling a ‘lull’ in the movement,” said Bohac. “Is it a ‘lull’ or is it just that we’re waiting for the right pitch? If you Google the Equality Nine you’ll come up with 70 media links, including a lot of press who’ve talked about how there still isn’t marriage equality in California.”
“Judge Walker’s decision should have stood,” said Cecile Veillard — referring to the decision then-Federal District Judge Vaughn Walker issued on August 4, 2010 finding that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional and ordering an immediate end to its enforcement. Judge Walker agreed to “stay” — delay — his order until the proponents of Proposition 8 could have a chance to appeal, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals made the stay indefinite until the U.S. Supreme Court either rules on the case or decides not to hear it at all. That’s why, though both the district court and the appeals court have ruled Proposition 8 unconstitutional, same-sex marriage remains illegal in California.
According to Veillard, the state could — and should — ignore the appeals court’s stay and start marrying same-sex couples again. That, she said, was the point S.A.M.E. was trying to make on August 19, 2010 in the action that led to the arrests of the Equality Nine. That, she said, was “the day that had been designated the end of marriage discrimination in California. There were announcements in newspapers that our rights would be honored. Not only were our appointments not honored, not only were we not given marriage licenses, but we weren’t even allowed to approach the desk [at the County Clerk’s office]. [Equality Nine member] Mike Kennedy got his fingers slammed in the door, and I regret we didn’t sue the County for damages.” Indeed, Veillard suggested that the reason the city attorney waited so long to drop the charges was to make sure the Equality Nine would end up on the wrong side of the two-year statute of limitations for such a suit.
Zakiya Khabir reminded the group that August 19, 2010 was the second time S.A.M.E. had staged a demonstration inside the County Clerk’s office. The first time was May 27, 2009, at which the clerk responded very differently, allowing S.A.M.E. members and other marriage equality activists to remain in the clerk’s office throughout the business day as long as they didn’t get in the way of people having ordinary business with the office. She recalled publicizing the event the night before at a big downtown rally where San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders spoke.
The Equality Nine had a personal as well as a political effect on Khabir. “It forced me to come out to my mom and on my job,” she said, explaining that when you tell your boss that you may have to take two weeks off because you’re going on trial, naturally they’re going to want to know why. She also announced that Monday, September 24 is the deadline by which the U.S. Supreme Court has to decide whether to hear the latest appeal in the Proposition 8 case and also six pending challenges to the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA), the 1996 law that allows states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages from other states and denies federal benefits to married same-sex partners. [According to, the official Web site of the American Foundation for Equal Rights, which brought the lawsuit against Proposition 8, the Supreme Court has at least until October 1 to decide whether to hear the appeal, and could vote to extend the case even past that date.]

The Future: Keeping Up the Pressure

Among the open-mike speakers during the “Future” portion of the victory celebration was Holly Hellerstedt of Canvass for a Cause, who recalled that when she first arrived in San Diego Cecile Veillard was one of the first activists she met. “S.A.M.E. was the first group I met that was using identity politics to grow past identities,” she said. She drew a parallel between CFAC, S.A.M.E. and Occupy San Diego as groups that are challenging San Diego’s image “as a conservative military town.” She also recalled that when CFAC presented the petitions to the city attorney’s office calling on them to drop the charges against the Equality Nine, “they sent us an e-mail that you could end it any time just by taking a plea bargain.” The fact that six of the Nine insisted on taking the case to trial, she said, “shows the dedication of activists who know it’s a long-term struggle.”
Veillard saw the same connection between S.A.M.E. and the Occupy movement. “S.A.M.E. has built the Left in ways that helped Occupy grow,” she said. She also recalled that during the two years the Equality Nine faced being tried for their actions, “We did have to rethink over and over whether to continue to fight the charges, but we felt so much support from the community we were encouraged to keep fighting. Because there were so many of us, we knew it would be an expensive trial — but it would be well publicized, and we were sure we would win.”
While few people actually gave suggestions for what S.A.M.E. should do in the future — which was what S.A.M.E. was hoping for when they scheduled a “Future” segment as part of the victory celebration — Allan of the International Socialist Organization said, “I was really amazed to hear the story of the Gay rights struggle from the 1960’s, especially the fact that the Black Panthers were down with the homosexuals at a time when the ruling class was coming down on everyone else.”
Sean Bohac used his last turn at the mike to announce S.A.M.E.’s regular meeting the second and fourth Tuesdays of every month, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., at the San Diego LGBT Pride office, 3620 30th Street in North Park. “Last year, we led or were part of over 40 events,” Bohac said. “There’s injustice, and often it gets a headline and the public attention goes away, but sometimes you can put together an event and keep getting attention.”

Genetic Roulette (Institute for Responsible Technology, 2012)


Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine
• All rights reserved

The film was called Genetic Roulette and was based on a book of the same title by Jeffrey M. Smith, a long-term activist who’s written other books on the subject and set up a Web site called the Institute for Responsible Technology ( Charles and I had a close association with the issue of genetic engineering and genetically-modified organisms (GMO’s) when we were heavily involved in the protests against the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO)’s 2001 convention in San Diego, and the biggest difference between the information as it was presented in 2001 and the information as it’s presented in 2012 is that the dangers we were warning about then — notably the cross-contamination of GMO and non-GMO genes in the environment, the possible evolution of new, previously unknown organisms with potentially destructive properties, and the direct health hazards of eating GMO foods (both for livestock and for humans who consume GMO’s both directly, through products like corn and soybeans that are almost universally genetically modified in the U.S. today — 88 percent of all U.S.-produced corn is GMO, along with 94 percent of soy, 90 percent of canola, 90 percent of cotton, 95 percent of sugar beets and more than 50 percent of Hawai’ian papaya — as well as eating meat from cows, pigs and chickens fed GMO feed) — are now coming true.

The film is a good review of the case against GMO’s, both the intrinsic case and the corruption of the process used to allow them to be marketed; in 1992 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ruled that GMO food did not have to go through any special health or safety testing whatsoever because it was “chemically identical” to food produced with conventional methods. The villain in the piece, at least according to Genetic Roulette, is one Michael Taylor, who has turned the “revolving door” between private industry and public service into a warp drive: he has easily shuttled back forth between the U.S. government and Monsanto, which according to the film is the number two marketer of genetically modified seeds and products designed to work with them (which rather begs the question of who’s number one) but has become the symbol of GMO evil for the opposition. According to Genetic Roulette, there are 65 documented health hazards in eating GMO food, including inflammation, immune disorders (since the human immune system frequently recognizes GMO genes as “foreign” or “non-self” and mounts an attack on them), nutrition deficiencies because GMO foods don’t contain as much protein or important trace minerals as their non-GMO counterparts, allergies (including increasing levels of food allergies as people who get allergic to GMO foods end up also allergic to their non-GMO counterparts), reproductive problems (noticed both in humans and in livestock, to the point where animal raisers have lost 90 percent or more of their herds when switching from non-GMO to GMO feed), infant mortality, sterility, disease and death. Those last items are particularly a problem for Bt, which is short for Bacillus thuringiensis, a bacterium originally discovered in Thuringia, a German state, which in the early 1960’s was promoted as a non-toxic alternative to DDT as a pesticide. Bt became a standard technique for organic farmers since it poisoned insects while leaving plants healthy and unscathed — but that wasn’t good enough for the biochemical industry in general or Monsanto in particular, who sought to isolate the gene in Bt that generates the toxin and insert it right into corn.

The parts of the film that resonated with me particularly were the evolution of an entirely new microbial pathogen that’s been discovered in the guts of farm animals fed GMO food — it’s not a bacterium (the people in the movie have the annoying and all too common habit of using the word “bacteria” as singular as well as plural), a virus, a viroid, a rickettsia or a macrophage, but it’s been proven according to Koch’s Postulates to cause disease — and the relentless attacks from the biotech industry and its captive politicians on scientists who try to expose the flaws in the studies by industry scientists supporting GMO’s and do their own studies that show they’re not safe. The stories of Dr. Arpad Pusztai and others who have lost jobs and grants because they dared to perform and publish studies challenging the safety of GMO’s are all too similar to those of other scientists who have found their careers, and sometimes their livelihoods, destroyed because they dared do work that challenged an industry — like John Gofman, a nuclear physicist who challenged the safety of nuclear power; or Peter Duesberg, who shredded his scientific career by questioning the dogma that HIV is the sole cause of AIDS. It reveals an all too familiar pattern that, whereas in the past scientific research had to contend with interference from religious authorities (does the name “Galileo” mean anything to you?) and from political dictatorships with their own agendas (like the way Stalin elevated Trofim Lysenko’s ideas about genetics to official dogma and punished any scientists who clung to the established Mendelian ideas about heredity), right now the biggest single threat to scientific integrity is the same as the biggest single threat to economic well-being and political liberty: the awesome power of the giant corporations and the unscrupulousness with which it is yielded by these amoral organizations that exist for no other purpose than to maximize their own profits. In a very real sense, the message of Genetic Roulette is that scientific truth has ceased to exist: in science, as in economics and politics, the “truth” is whatever the big corporations say it is.

There’s an attempt at the end of the movie to portray the situation as not entirely hopeless — including a list of previous attempts to market GMO’s that failed due to organized campaigns of consumer resistance (from the “FlavrSavr” tomato, which was a GMO with a flounder gene inserted — yes, that’s from a fish — to make the tomato flatter and therefore easier to ship — to the madness of using recombinant bovine growth hormone to boost cows’ milk production at a time when there were already milk surpluses; ironically Walmart, the evil empire on so many issues, emerged in Genetic Roulette on the side of good on this one as the first major supermarket chain to realize that rBGH milk was going to be a money-loser for them because people didn’t want it) and a major push for Proposition 37 on the California ballot, which would require the labeling of genetically modified foods. It’s not surprising that Monsanto and the other GMO companies have fought labeling requirements tooth and nail — just as the political Right has fought against disclosure requirements that, if they wouldn’t stop corporations and wealthy individuals from buying elections, would at least let us know who was hijacking our democratic-republican process with big money — because, as one of the activists shown in the movie says, nobody wakes up in the morning thinking, “Gee, I can hardly wait to go to the supermarket today to buy some of that yummy genetically modified food!” Given a choice, most people will prefer to buy food without genetically modified ingredients — which is why the industry has fought so hard not only to get their crummy GMO food to the marketplace but not to let us know that GMO food even exists. (Indeed, at the height of the rBGH controversy the Alta-Dena dairy had to go to court to win the right to advertise that their milk didn’t contain it; the dairies who were using it claimed that Alta-Dena was libeling them by implying some doubt about the safety and health of rBGH milk, even though all Alta-Dena was saying in their ads was, “If you want to avoid rBGH in your milk, buy from us.”)

It’s fascinating that the people who scream the loudest against government regulation and in favor of the “free market” are also the ones who scream the loudest against being made to level with the public as to just what’s in the products they sell or under what circumstances they’re manufactured; Adam Smith himself, the founder of capitalist theory, said a free market wouldn’t work unless people knew what they were buying and could trust the sellers to be honest with them — but then what passes for “capitalism” in the U.S. (and most of the world) today has little or nothing to do with Adam Smith; indeed, by allowing corporations to merge and become fewer in number and larger in size, the U.S. and (to a lesser extent) the European Union are reproducing the era of mercantilism, a corrupt economic system to which Smith was promoting free-market capitalism as a superior alternative. Under mercantilism, the government designated one company to have a monopoly over a certain industry — and in many industries we’ve seen a sort of neo-mercantilism emerge from the ashes of the “free market.” (This was the real significance of that bizarre antitrust suit the feds filed against Apple and three book publishers that alleged price-fixing in the price of Internet books — a suit that helped because the deal between Apple and the publishers had been aimed at breaking Amazon’s monopoly power over the pricing of e-books. The feds had essentially designated Amazon as a state-sanctioned monopoly by punishing other corporations that tried to challenge them.)

Smith’s film is an eye-opener and yet more evidence that the real threat to liberty in this country is Big Business, and to the extent Big Government is a threat to liberty it’s not from overly restricting the private sector but, quite the contrary, by enabling and protecting it, allowing it to market its poisonous products and to drive down wages so much that the economy will remain in a state of permanent decline because American business will still have the capability to produce lots of stuff (even though they send the actual jobs of manufacturing it to China and other countries where dictatorial governments enforce sweatshop conditions and arrest or assassinate people who try to organize unions) but they won’t be able to sell it because they’ve done such a good job driving down wages that no one has the money to buy it. It’s nice that the anti-GMO activists were able to get Proposition 37 on the ballot, but barring the intervention of a billionaire do-gooder like (do I dare say the name?) George Soros on the anti-GMO side, they’re likely simply to get crushed by the advertising blitz Monsanto and other GMO companies are going to unleash on them to make California voters think GMO’s are the greatest thing since sliced bread and that enforcing labeling requirements on them will drive up the price of food and starve the Third World (a favorite argument of Monsanto’s PR people, official and unofficial, expertly debunked in this film).

Monday, September 17, 2012


Sean Bohac and Cecile Veillard of the Equality Nine were interviewed about the case in February 2012.

August 19, 2010: The situation in the county clerk’s office. Of the four people sitting down, Zakiya Khabir is at far left and Sean Bohac at far right.

August 19, 2010: A phalanx of riot gear-clad sheriff’s deputies gives the S.A.M.E. protesters an order to disperse.

August 19, 2010: Sean Bohac is taken into custody.

(Photos of August 19, 2010 courtesy of San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality.)

SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (S.A.M.E.) is presenting the “Equality Nine Victory Celebration” Friday, September 21, 7 to 9 p.m., at the Bamboo Lounge, 1475 University Avenue in Hillcrest. The event will feature a program celebrating LGBT activism past, present and future; a repeat of the popular “Radical Queer Bingo” game played at the Pride party hosted by S.A.M.E. and Canvass for a Cause July 21; a social mixer and a chance to relax and have fun.
The event will be a combination program, party and celebration of the recent decision by the San Diego city attorney to drop charges against six of the nine marriage equality protesters who had been arrested at the San Diego County Administrative Center August 19. 2010, when couples who had appointments to get married today were barred from the county clerk’s office and a squad of sheriff’s deputies in riot gear were called to clear them from the hallway.
Nine people were arrested that day and three agreed to plea bargains, but the six who stood up for their rights throughout the process — Michael Anderson, Brian Baumgardner, Sean Bohac, Zakiya Khabir, Chuck Stemke and Cecile Veillard — had legal charges hanging over their heads for over two years until city attorney Jan Goldsmith moved with the court to drop the charges on August 24. A previous attempt to bring the six defendants to trial in April ended embarrassingly for the city attorney when the judge caught the prosecution systematically excluding LGBT people from the jury in violation of California law.
The “Past, Present and Future” program will consist of:
Past: Leo Laurence and Pat Brown of the Committee on Homosexual Freedom (CHF), founded in San Francisco in early 1969 — before the Stonewall Inn riots in New York City commonly believed to be the start of the LGBT rights movement — and the first U.S. group to organize a picket against a private employer for discriminating against LGBT people.
Present: Members of the Equality Nine and their attorneys will talk about the case, and an attorney will brief the crowd about the ongoing litigation challenging the constitutionality of Proposition 8, the ban on marriage equality narrowly approved by California voters in November 2008.
Future: People at the event will have a chance to speak openly and freely about the next direction S.A.M.E. should take for marriage equality and other battlegrounds in the ongoing campaign to secure complete freedom and equality for LGBT people and build coalitions with other victims of discrimination and oppression in the U.S.
Admission to the “Equality Nine Victory Celebration” will be free. A free-will offering will be solicited, and attendees are encouraged to buy food or drink to support the venue.
S.A.M.E. is an open,
democratically run organization committed to fighting for Queer rights
including marriage equality. It meets the second and fourth Thursday of every month, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., at the San Diego LGBT Pride offices, 3620 30th Street in North Park.

Labor, Community Leaders Target Wal-Mart September 21

Big Demonstration Starts at Golden Hill Park, Marches to Sherman Heights


Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Christian Ramirez (center) leads a community rally against the Wal-Mart under construction in Sherman Heights as part of San Diego’s May Day 2012 events. The sign reads “Wal-Mart Miente” — “Wal-Mart Lies.”

San Diego’s labor movement and an organized community resistance movement in Sherman Heights are holding what they’re advertising as “the largest-ever rally and march against Wal-Mart in San Diego history” Saturday, September 22. The event starts with a preliminary rally and march assembly at 9 a.m. at Golden Hill Community Park, 2590 Golden Hill Drive north of 25th Street and Russ Boulevard. The march will go south to 21st  Street and Imperial Avenue in Sherman Heights, where Wal-Mart is building a so-called “neighborhood market” on the site of the old Farmers’ Market. In preliminary meetings with city representatives and neighborhood organizations, Wal-Mart promised to keep the Farmers’ Market intact — but when they actually got the go-ahead to build, they destroyed it.
According to Christian Ramirez, community activist and former San Diego City Council candidate, this has been the pattern of Wal-Mart’s behavior ever since they started the project. “We had a lot of demands, including lighting, but the main one was that Wal-Mart sign a legally binding community benefits agreement,” Ramirez told a meeting of the Sherman Heights Town Council September 12. “One of the first commitments was to preserve the historic character of the old Farmers’ Market. They refused to sign the community agreements, and the building has been destroyed.”
Another one of the neighborhood concerns, Ramirez said, was the direct impact of Wal-Mart’s construction on the area and in particular on its already fragile and overcrowded streets. “Many of their vehicles are going up Sherman Avenue,” Ramirez said. Ramirez also explained that when Wal-Mart first announced their project, only half the site was zoned commercial; the other half was zoned industrial. “Wal-Mart secured permits for the entire site to be zoned commercial, which should not happen,” Ramirez said. “We tried to get city officials to explain [why Wal-Mart got special treatment], and our City Councilmember [David Alvarez] has ignored our requests.”
So the community group went to the state legislature and got help from State Senator Ben Hueso, a former City Councilmember. Hueso promised that he would convene the Senate’s audit committee “to determine if San Diego gave favoritism to Wal-Mart,” Ramirez explained. “This does not mean that construction will be halted, or that we will be able to get city officials in trouble, but it will mean the state will conduct an audit of this and other sites. We’re still concerned that this store is able to come into our community without the necessary permits. I hope the City Councilmember will take this on.”
Most of the Sherman Heights Town Council meeting was conducted in Spanish, but one speaker who addressed the crowd in English was a Wal-Mart worker — or “associate,” as Wal-Mart calls them. The term “associate” is an attempt, since copied by many other employers, to get employees to identify their interests with the company they work for rather than each other — just part of the massive campaign Wal-Mart has waged not only in the U.S. but everywhere in the world to make sure their stores remain union-free.
The associate said that, despite Wal-Mart’s promise when it hired him that there would be opportunities for advancement, he’s been there for 16 years and he’s still doing the same job he did when he started. “The only thing I’ve ever done is push carts,” the associate said. “I make $13.90 per hour, two cents below the livable wage for this county. When I started 16 years ago, I made $6.50 or $6.75 an hour.” The associate asked the group if they had at least been able to get Wal-Mart to promise that Sherman Heights residents would get first crack at the jobs in the new store — and he was told they hadn’t. Wal-Mart representatives had told them the jobs would be “first come, first served” and anyone anywhere in the county could apply.
“I can tell you that Wal-Mart’s contempt for organized labor extends beyond their own associates,” the associate said. “One of the market managers complained how costly it was for them to hire cart-retrieval companies to pick up shopping carts from the neighborhood. They charge $4 per cart, and when my store manager asked why it cost so much money, another Wal-Mart person said, ‘They must belong to unions.’ So they don’t care for unions anywhere in the economy.”
The associate said that he’s been able to make a decent living on his Wal-Mart salary, but only because he’s single. “I live pretty well even though I’m a paycheck away from being homeless,” he said. “I live O.K. because I have nobody to take care of but my mother, but if I had a family, or if I were a single dad with two kids, I couldn’t do it. There’s a worker who’s been a door greeter for 17 years. He has cerebral palsy, he uses a wheelchair and he works part-time. He worked from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and the company was O.K. with that, but then they decided they didn’t want to pay for his health insurance. They told him he had to work more hours — and that forced him off Social Security disability. If I don’t help him off his scooter into the store and he’s late too often, he’ll be terminated.”
According to the associate, Wal-Mart’s frantic desire to get out of paying for their workers’ health care is nothing new. “In 2005 they put out a memo that said the biggest concern they had was how much health care costs they’d be paying for their workers, and they needed to attract younger, healthier associates,” he said. The associate added that in recent months his own job has become more difficult as Wal-Mart hasn’t fixed the cart-dispensing machine he’s expected to keep full. They’ve also allowed the four to six motorized carts which used to be available in his store for customers with disabilities to break down and wear out to the point where they can’t be repaired.
Another attendee at the meeting, Daniel Cardena, said that one of the most notorious effects of Wal-Mart on a neighborhood — the way its predatory pricing drives out well-established local businesses — is already happening in Sherman Heights even though the Wal-Mart there hasn’t even opened yet. “Two of my neighbors lost their jobs when La Palapa Marketplace at 25th and Imperial closed, and the liquor store nearby will have to lay off four or five people,” Cardena said. “I don’t want to stay with my arms crossed. Why save 50 cents on a soda when in the end the community will be paying for it?”

S.A.M.E. & Centro Cultural Present Joint Event on Queer Immigrants

Queer Immigrants, Asylees and Refugee Seekers
 Explore Emerging Issues

SAN DIEGO — The San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (S.A.M.E.) and the Centro Cultural
De La Raza are presenting their first joint event on immigration issues and the Queer community Saturday, September 29, 6 to 9 p.m., at the 
Centro Cultural,
 2004 Park Boulevard in Balboa Park.
Experienced attorneys will speak about issues impacting Queer
immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, including the progress made 
in adjudicating claims by same-sex bi-national couples; the impact of
the Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA) on the fates of Queer couples from different countries; the possible effects of the end of DoMA, either by litigation or repeal, on Queer immigrants and much more...

This event is the first direct collaboration between the Centro Cultural De La Raza a Queer community organization. The expected audience will be a good mix of people from both the uptown
communities of Hillcrest, North Park, University Heights and  Mission
Hills etc, as well as communities like Barrio Logan, Sherman
Heights, National City, and San Ysidro.
S.A.M.E. is an open,
democratically run organization committed to fighting for Queer rights
including marriage equality. It meets the second and fourth Thursday of every month, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., at the San Diego LGBT Pride offices, 3620 30th Street in North Park.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Labor Radicalism Is Alive and Well in the U.S.

Chicago Teachers’ Struggle Continues Tradition, Smith Says


Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The group that assembled at the Queer-rights organization Canvass for a Cause’s Hillcrest headquarters September 1 came to hear author and activist Sharon Smith talk about her new book, Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. But before Smith spoke, the room was galvanized by another speaker, a Chicago teacher and labor activist identified only as Becca, who spoke via Skype about one of the best-kept secrets in the U.S. today: the Chicago Teachers’ Association (CTU) has done extensive community organizing for a potential September 10 strike.
Though Sharon Smith’s talk was officially sponsored by the Occupy San Diego Labor Solidarity Committee, it had the appearance of an International Socialist Organization (ISO) event. Not only were many local ISO members there, the group had canceled their own regularly scheduled meeting two days earlier and urged its members to attend Smith’s talk instead. What’s more, Smith regularly publishes in the ISO’s press, her book was put out by their publishing company (Haymarket Books), and her talk largely matched the ISO’s ideology, particularly its rejection of any electoral work within the Democratic Party.
Indeed, many people there — including Smith herself — saw the CTU’s struggle as confirmation of their rejection of the Democratic Party as a potential vehicle for social change. They noted that Becca described the union’s principal enemy as Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s recently elected Democratic mayor and previously chief of staff for President Barack Obama, who along with the Obama administration and officials from both major parties is pushing an education “reform” agenda including relentless student testing; a “back to basics” curriculum that eliminates art, music and culture as “frills”; encouraging privatization of education through non-union charter schools; and demonization of teachers’ unions as the principal obstacles to “reform.”
“I’m proud to be part of a union seeking to educate the whole child,” Becca said. “This is a fight for schoolchildren and also a fight for union rights. We’ve seen concession after concession, and I’m proud to be part of a union that has chosen to make a stand. We’re fighting for a better school day, smaller class sizes, art and music education, and more social workers and nurses in schools. My school only has a nurse on duty twice a week — and we have 18,000 students, many of them with diabetes.” The CTU’s other key demand, Becca said, is “treating teachers like professionals.”
Becca said the fight-back against the privatization “reform” agenda began two years ago, when an insurgent slate, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators, won the union’s own elections and took over its leadership. “We were building a rank-and-file union, not just a service union and a crusty bureaucracy,” she explained. “We had teacher activist trainings where teachers could learn to become organizers. We produced a document called The Schools Chicago Students Deserve, which articulates a vision of what sort of schools we want. Too often we say what we’re against but not what we’re for. We’ve built relationships between teachers in different schools, and also worked hard on getting community and parent involvement.”
Rahm Emanuel got on the teachers’ enemies list by not only continuing but extending the school-privatization agenda of his predecessor, Richard M. Daley. In particular, he pushed through the closure of 17 schools, most of them in communities of color. The union decided to mobilize against the closure and, while they weren’t able to stop it, “we gained a lot because parents and community members saw us as fighting for the schools,” Becca explained. “The union has also hosted and participated in town-hall meetings and sponsored ‘Teacher in the Pulpit’ programs where teachers volunteered to outreach to churches, synagogues and mosques.”
According to Becca, this community outreach campaign has helped the union blunt the “nasty, anti-teacher” attack ads Mayor Emanuel has put out. “Parents have told us, ‘The city thinks I’m stupid enough to listen to this and believe it,’” Becca said. She also said that teachers have benefited from “a great deal of student activism” on their behalf — and in some cases have suffered for it.
“Social Justice Academy is a school in a mostly Mexican neighborhood that was founded by teachers and parents going on a hunger strike,” Becca said. “They fired the principal during the summer, the students rebelled and they fired teachers for helping the students protest. Students are taking active roles [in the current struggle]. They are having discussions on just what types of education we need.”
There’s been little corporate media coverage of the Chicago Teachers’ Union’s threatened strike, and what there has been has made it seem like a normal, everyday wage dispute. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, the Chicago schools made what they called their “last, best” offer last May — a 2 percent salary increase every year for four years, but abolition of pay raises for “seniority and credentials.” The CTU has denounced the offer as “insulting” and said the school system is reneging on 4 percent increases it previously agreed to and is refusing to pay teachers for the 10 extra days it required them to work the past school year.
But Becca says it’s about much more than wage increases; it’s a clash between two very different visions of education, one focused on rote learning and teaching to standardized tests, and one based on teaching students to think and act for themselves. Though she doesn’t think the Chicago school system could fire the striking teachers en masse the way President Reagan did with the air traffic controllers in 1981 — “There are 26,000 union members and they can’t fire us all,” she said — she is worried about “the scab operation and what it will look like.” She’s also aware that the long-term vision of Mayor Emanuel and the others running Chicago’s schools is of an increasingly privatized operation in which 100 more schools will be closed and replaced by 200 non-union charter schools.

Sharon Smith: It’s All About Class Struggle

Sharon Smith’s presentation began with a ringing affirmation of the continued relevance of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, starting with a quote from the Communist Manifesto that “the history of all existing society is a history of class struggle.” She added that “for the better part of the last 35 years, many people relegated Marx’s theory to the dustbin of history because class-based social movements seemed to be breaking out everywhere but here.” What’s changed in the last 18 months — first in the response to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s bid to bust the state’s public employee unions, then in the Occupy movement and now in the CTU’s struggle — is the beginning of what Smith calls a “new phase” in the class struggle in which America’s working people are rediscovering their tradition of militant resistance.
“The Chicago struggle is significant because it marks the first time in decades that a union is standing strong and defiant, with leaders that feel accountable to their members and committed to winning the best contract for their members,” Smith said. “No one under 35 to 40 years old has any living memory of class struggle in the U.S., but class struggle is what built the union movement and won the eight-hour day and the 40-hour week. You younger workers don’t realize that this is a major advance.”
Smith also attacked the notion, pushed by “most commentators” in the corporate media, that the present is an era of “labor peace” and that the U.S. is a middle-class consumer society. “In fact,” she explained, “we are a nation today of indebted workers only a paycheck or two away from poverty. The image of the ‘middle-class consumer’ is a stereotype planted by TV programs, newspapers and schools. The consumption patterns of the ‘middle class’ are taken as a given. We’re inundated with the message that we are a ‘middle-class society’ and that if you’re not part of the ‘middle class,’ it’s your fault.”
Another stereotype of the U.S. Smith challenged is the belief that “the fact that half of the adult population stays home on election day is a sign that the U.S. is an apathetic society.” What it really means, she said, is that people sense that “democracy has been reduced to pulling a lever once every four years for one of two ruling-class parties. Most Americans are part of the working class” — which Smith defines broadly, as Marx did, as “the class that does not own the means of production and are forced to sell their labor to survive. There is a middle class in this society,” she acknowledged, “but it is much smaller than claimed. There is never a period in which class struggle is stagnant. One side is always winning, one side is always losing, and the only time the working class wins is when it’s involved in mass struggle.”
One purpose of Smith’s talk — and her book — was to educate her audience that there was a long and powerful history of mass working-class struggle in the U.S. until the late 1940’s, when in a purge that has become known as “McCarthyism” (even though it started before the rise of Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy and continued well after he was disgraced), “thousands of radical union members and rank-and-file members of the Communist Party, U.S.A. were driven from their jobs and sent to prison. The U.S. working class possesses a tradition that at certain points has led the world in militancy.”
Among the high points she cited were the struggle for the eight-hour day, the proclamation of May Day as the international workers’ holiday, and the origin of International Women’s Day in the ladies’ garment workers’ strike of 1909. She also mentioned the mass resistance to U.S. involvement in World War I — which continued even after the government made it illegal — and the sit-down strikes of the 1930’s, in which industrial workers reached across racial lines and occupied factories to force their employers to recognize their unions and negotiate.
According to Smith, the sit-down strikes “built the industrial unions and brought together thousands of Black and white workers against a common enemy at a time when lynchings were commonplace and Jim Crow [racial segregation] was the law of the land. Thousands of white workers came over to the fight against racism.” Smith said the workers in the sit-down struggles took on sexism, too. “Far from taking a back seat in the struggle, women built unions in their own right and took a leading role in the sit-down strikes,” she said. “The Flint Women’s Auxiliary Brigades armed themselves with baseball bats and beat back the National Guard on some occasions.”
Smith also said that the workers of the 1930’s “broke with the Democratic Party and broke with Franklin Roosevelt’s pose as a friend of the workers when he was saving capitalism. The 1935 United Auto Workers’ (UAW) convention voted overwhelmingly against endorsing Roosevelt, and in favor of forming a nationwide farmer-labor party. At any given time thousands of workers belonged to a radical workers’ party.” Smith said that at its height the Communist Party, U.S.A. had 88,000 members, nine percent of whom were Black. She went further back in history to mention the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a radical union in the first two decades of the 20th century which “welcomed women, Blacks, immigrants and unskilled workers” at a time when the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was open only to white males working in skilled trades, and the Socialist Party, which “got over 1 million votes for its candidate for President, Eugene V. Debs, in 1912.”
The bottom-line message of Smith’s talk was, “Radicals built much of the strength of the U.S. union movement.” And despite the major purge of radicals from both American labor and American life in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Smith said, the radical spirit still broke forth in the wildcat strikes of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s and groups like the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM) organized by African-American workers to challenge, as Smith put it, “not only the companies but the racism within the UAW.” In addition to building much of the American labor movement, Smith said, U.S. Leftists also created the Black power movement, the women’s movement and a Queer rights movement “that has only now begun to reap successes from decades of struggle.”
Smith also acknowledged the role of immigrants — particularly ones who’d been radicalized in their countries of origin and brought those traditions here — in building the U.S. union movement. She said the socialist and anarchist traditions in this country were largely started by German immigrants, and hailed the May Day immigrant rights’ demonstrations in 2006 — the first mass May Day events in the U.S. in decades — as rekindling that tradition of radicals from other countries bringing their politics here and lighting a fire under U.S.-born activists. Ironically, the immigrant roots of much of American radicalism turned out to be a two-edged sword, as they made it easier for capitalist propagandists to denounce Left politics in general as “un-American.” One of the principal instruments of the McCarthyist purge of Leftists from American life was even called the “House Un-American Activities Committee.”
After recounting this history, Smith again returned to her theme of the futility of seeking fundamental change through the Democratic Party. “The problem of class and social inequality is not going to be solved by re-electing President Obama or getting a Democratic majority in Congress,” Smith said. “Increasing the inequality of wealth and income has been a long-term bipartisan project that began under Jimmy Carter. The last three and one-half decades has been a continuous process in which the rich set out to make themselves richer, and the working class and poor people poorer.”
As part of that campaign, the U.S. ruling class began a long-term effort to rid themselves of labor unions altogether, according to Smith. “By the 1980’s, U.S. corporations were spending half a billion dollars on union-busting firms,” she said. “That is how today we have achieved a level of inequality not seen since the 19th century robber barons, and they are determined to finish off unions altogether. The Great Recession has just accelerated the deliberate immiseration of the working class and the poor to enrich those who are already obscenely wealthy. The so-called ‘debt crisis’ was artificially manufactured on Wall Street. We know all the budget problems could be solved just by raising taxes on the 1 percent, but they will not turn to this solution until they’re forced to do so.”
So what is to be done? Smith’s recommendation is to keep building radical movements and confronting the system — and to reject the plaint of so-called “realists” that the only thing we can do is work through the Democratic Party to achieve a slightly more “liberal” form of capitalism. “What seems impossible today can be taken for granted tomorrow,” she said. “Who thought that the whole country would be swept up in Occupy’s rhetoric of the 99 percent versus the 1 percent, or that the Occupiers would beat back the police in New York’s Zuccoti Park without violence? I’ve lived in Chicago and I wouldn’t have predicted the CTU. In fact, because the U.S. has only two major political parties and they’re both pro-corporate and don’t even pay lip service to working-class interests, this country is even more unpredictable than others.”
Smith summed up by returning to her Marxist roots: “The essence of Marxism is to understand that exploitation ultimately breeds resistance. The ruling class can use repression and all kinds of tactics to fight back, but they cannot do more than delay the day of reckoning.”