Tag Archives: occupy movement

The 19th Annual LaborFest

7 Aug

The Present Is the Past: Occupying the Commons, July 30, The Green Arcade, San Francisco. Photograph by Steve Zeltzer.

It was fun and hard work for the Organizing Committee putting together nearly eighty events for the month of July.  But the process is collaborative and many of these events are actually organized by individuals not on the committee.  This year’s theme was Occupy, Past Present and Future: Lessons of the Past for Labor Today.  Presenting on the last day of programming, the evening before the closing party, I spoke on three events from unemployment activism and labor history that show us precedents for the ways in which the present Occupy Movement has utilized public space for political redress: the industrial armies of 1894 marching on Washington; the Ludlow, Colorado tent colony during the southern Colorado coal fields strike of 1914; and, the Bonus March on Washington in 1932.  It was standing room only at Patrick Marks’s bookstore.

One of the anecdotes I opened with involved a conversation between two people from Ukiah, California, who walked past the Occupy SF encampment on Market Street in front of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, a site in use since early fall 2011.  Dan was engaged in a conversation using his cell phone about company projects.  Alma, his wife, and I were accompanying him to a local stationery store to purchase office supplies for the project where I am temporarily employed.  We passed the camp, which is separated from the bank by a pedestrian throughway along the sidewalk and metal barricades at the bank’s portico edge .  One couple struck me especially, a woman who was topless being held by a man, both swaying gently where they stood.  I later thought of Paul Cadmus’s egg tempera painting What I Believe (1947-48), based on E.M. Forster’s essay of the same title; “Love and loyalty to an individual can run counter to the claims of the state.  When they do ― down with the state, say I, which means that the state will down me” (see http://weimarart.blogspot.com/2010/10/paul-cadmus.html).  In this painted idyllic vision of humanity, an area is taken up by individuals in peaceful assembly; the heterosexual couple to the right just beyond the grave could have been the couple Alma and I spotted that morning.

The woman’s nudity shocked Alma.  Once Dan was finished with his business call, Alma asked him if he had seen what we just passed.  He said no and asked who these people were Alma described.  Alma replied, I don’t know, some homeless people.  If the two of them had known that they passed an Occupy site, Dan would surely have derided the camp and its inhabitants.  In a conversation I had with a cafe owner in my neighborhood about the incident, Brian told me that homeless people do join the camp because they will not be harassed by the city’s recently passed sit/lie law.  Brian probably speaks with some accuracy because he is host to a number of homeless people at his cafe, many known by name and present on a regular basis.  He is a very generous person allowing people in whom other business owners would keep out.

The anecdote prompted some people at the bookstore slide lecture to defend the Occupy Movement.  While the momentum of the movement seemed to peak as municipality after municipality across the country found ingenious ways to dismantle encampments situated in public space, the tactics have shifted.  Thus, today, occupation is alive and well, such as the occupation of an Oakland elementary school by volunteer teachers, parents, and students following the closure of five school sites by that city.  The parents were expected to ship their children to charter schools and they are not happy with that.  Nor should anyone else be when it comes to privatization.  Privatization is only the encroachment of corporate business in the public sector, rewarding a few individuals with captive markets.

The peace activist A.J. Muste observed in 1962: “We are now in an age when men will have to choose deliberately to exchange the values, the concepts of ‘security,’ and much else which characterizes contemporary society, and seek another way of life.  If that is so, then the peace movement has to act on that assumption, and this means that the whole picture of our condition and the radical choice must be placed before people―not a diluted gospel, a program geared to what they are ready to ‘buy now.’ ” (quoted by Nat Hentoff in Peace Agitator: The Story of A.J. Muste [New York: The Macmillan Company, 1963]).  I embrace ongoing political protest and the occupation of public space.  The work is not over.

Tents II

13 Apr

A Nightly Encampment, 2012. Pen-and-ink on Bristol paper, 9 x 12 in. Based on photograph.

“…He seems to be profoundly impressed with the sufferings of mankind and with a belief that there is a deep-laid plan of monopolists to crush the poor to the earth.” — a reporter on Jacob Sechler Coxey, as conveyed in the Pittsburgh Chronicle Telegraph of March 22, 1894

It appears pleasant enough: men sprawled across a grassy area as if at a picnic.  The arduous journey, though, that the many different groups traversed in order to converge on the Washington capitol  in 1894 was anything but a picnic.  Kelly’s Army, the largest of the “unemployed armies,” began their march from San Francisco, organized by Colonel William Baker and led by Charles T. Kelly, a thirty-two-year-old compositor in one of the city’s printing businesses.  Arriving in Council Bluffs, Iowa from Omaha, Nebraska on April 15, the men slept on damp ground.  Upon relocation to Chautauqua grounds three to four miles east of the city, the army slept in the mud and spent the next day standing in cold rain with flurries of snow.  That an otherwise unused amphitheater at Chautauqua Hill housed a militia company instead of Kelly’s men was no mistake: the militia officer in charge kept them out.  Eventually an indignant citizenry demanded the removal of the militia.  Kelly’s army had drawn an estimated 30,000 of the curious to Council Bluffs; the same curiosity followed the various unemployed armies wherever they passed.  Although their demands were lodged with the governor, the people held the railroads responsible for the calling out of the militia and the mistreatment of these men.  Not dissimilar to today’s social discontent over a government run by corporations, this was an intriguing tale of populist agitation to reform government, captured sympathetically in Donald L. McMurry’s 1929 book, Coxey’s Army: A Study of the Industrial Army Movement of 1894 (Little, Brown, and Company; see page 24 for the above quotation and pages 164-6 for the above account; unless otherwise noted, quotations that follow are from same, indicated by page number).

A financial panic in 1893 preceded the movement of these armies, for which the monopolists or “plutocrats” were blamed,  an upheaval in markets resulting in runs on the banks, business closures, and massive unemployment.  This was not the first time the nation’s workers suffered from widespread unemployment.  Franklin Folsom points out, in his book Impatient Armies of the Poor: The Story of Collective Action of the Unemployed, 1808-1942 (University Press of Colorado, 1991), that the first in a recurring cycle of “full-scale, national, modern depression[s]” occurred in 1819 (page 18).  Perhaps two million or more were unemployed in 1894 (see McMurry, page 9, for various estimates).  At the Populist Party’s first national convention in Omaha in July, 1892, a platform was adopted, reading, in part: “We meet…in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin.  Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench.  The people are demoralized…The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled; public opinion silenced; business prostrated; our homes covered with mortgages; labor impoverished; and the land concentrated in the hands of capitalists…The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for the few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty.  From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice are bred the two great classes of tramps and millionaires” (7).

We have come full circle since the cry for reform of 1894.  Today’s Occupiers are dismissed as individuals uninterested in finding jobs and their camps are cited as public health nuisances.  The branding of reform movements as communistic lost its political edge.  Certainly there were anarchists and socialists in 1894.  “Petition in boots” was the phrase applied by Coxey to his endeavor and was perhaps coined by Carl Browne, one of Coxey’s lieutenants, who had long dreamed of a march on Washington.*  The British editor W.T. Stead attributed the origin of the phrase to a Professor Hourwitch at the University of Chicago, who compared the march of Coxey’s army to the “petition in boots” of the Russian peasants, marching “in bodies to present their grievances” (33, ftn. 1).  A Senator Wolcott of Colorado railed against the armies arriving at the Capitol by urging his colleagues to “stand together against socialism and populism and paternalism run riot” (112), the last key word a reflection of a federal government forced to provide for its unemployed.  But the industrial armies’ detractors appeared to focus, for the most part, on labeling the individuals comprising these organized, determined, and highly disciplined bands as tramps, “hoboes,” the “shiftless,” or “vagrants” (apparently even “walking bums” were despised by their own class in regard to those who lacked the “skill and nerve” to hop fast-moving trains).  McMurry carefully describes the estimated forty to sixty thousand “professional hoboes” in the United States during the early 1890s in order to differentiate the “tramp liv[ing] by his wits at the expense of society” from  the unemployed workers comprising the industrial armies converging on Washington (see 12-14).

Coxey was a successful business man based in Massillon, Ohio.  The owner of a sandstone quarry and producer of sand for steel and glass works, Coxey also held extensive farming interests.  He envisioned a federal government that would relieve the unemployment crisis through his Good Roads Bill, which instructed the Secretary of the Treasury to issue 500 million dollars in legal-tender notes for the construction of roads throughout the nation.  The bill would both secure work and circulate money.  Coxey followed this proposal with his Non-interest-bearing Bond Bill, which would authorize any governmental entity to issue such bonds for financing public works projects, the bonds possibly deposited with the Secretary of the Treasury as security for a loan of legal-tender notes.  Coxey, like members of the Greenback Party or Greenbackers, opposed a monetary system based on the deposit of gold bullion because political power then followed the dictates of private banks and corporations, sole determinants of the value of production and labor.

Like the Occupy movement today, the “Coxeyites” or “Commonwealers,” as these various marching groups became known, received popular sympathy.  Their long journey was aided by stays in locales where the armies might receive provisions or shelter for the night.  At Canton, Ohio, a number of Coxey’s men were housed overnight in the jail; at Louisville, Ohio, a number of the men slept in the city hall.  This particular army did carry a circus tent wherein the men slept on straw.  The armies were sometimes greeted by populist sympathizers with brass bands, crowds of onlookers, and supportive speeches in halls.  Train hopping and train stealing were frequently aided by railroad workmen willing to turn an eye or state governors unwilling to call in militia when demanded by railroad corporations.

At times, political sentiment in the Capitol also ran in the industrial armies’ favor.  In an open letter to the press, Senator William S. Stewart, of Nevada, addressed this direct petitioning of Congress, as Coxey progressed through Ohio, by defending the ballot as the only legitimate means of “retain[ing] [the] right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  But he did agree with the overall sentiments of the Coxeyites when looking back on the previous two decades, observing that: “…now a ‘soulless despot of alien origin’, whose name was Money, was ‘monarch of the commercial world’, and administrative and legislative bodies were his servants” (72-3).  While Brigadier General Ordway assembled militia in the Capitol to stop Coxey’s arrival, Populist Senator Peffer, of Kansas, who had introduced Coxey’s bills to Congress, prepared for an open reception of the petitioners, referring to the perception of his senatorial colleagues as an “‘American House of Lords’, out of touch with the people” (107).  In the House of Representatives, Haldor E. Boen, of Minnesota, introduced a resolution instructing the Secretary of War to “provide camping grounds and tents for all organized bodies of laborers that came into the district” (109).  All for naught as Coxey, Browne and Christopher Columbus Jones were arrested on the steps of the Capitol building without having had an opportunity to utter a word on their petition.  As a result, fifty or more people from a crowd gathered at these steps were beaten by police clubs for having cheered Coxey.  Coxey’s intended speech included the observation: “…Upon these steps where we stand has been spread a carpet for the royal feet of a foreign princess, the cost of whose entertainment was taken from the public treasury without the approval or consent of the people.  Up these steps the lobbyists of trusts and corporations have passed unchallenged on their way to the committee rooms, access to which we, the representatives of the toiling wealth producers, have been denied.  We stand here today in behalf of millions of toilers whose petitions  have been buried in committee rooms, whose prayers have been unresponded to, and whose opportunities for honest, remunerative, productive labor have been taken away from them by unjust legislation, which protects idlers, speculators, and gamblers” (119-20).

*Franklin Folsom reprints part of a speech made by Joseph R. Buchanan to a San Francisco labor group in 1886 in which Buchanan outlines a march on Washington for the unemployed (Impatient Armies of the Poor, 147).  Folsom also details Carl Browne’s involvement in Dennis Kearney’s rise to power in San Francisco.  Kearney, an Irish immigrant who formed the Workingmen’s Party of California (WPC), saw the advantage he would have advocating against Chinese American labor: in 1877, one month after witnessing participants of a Workingmen’s Party of the United States rally join an organized group of “hoodlums” to demolish more than twenty Chinese laundries on July 23, Kearney changed his former support for Chinese laborers, and their reputation for working hard, to cries of “The Chinese must go!” in his speeches.  Browne became one of three members of the WPC executive committee and a large stockholder in the corporation controlling it.  Browne’s weekly paper, the Open Letter, served the same party.  Eventually Browne became Kearney’s private secretary (ibid, 131-6).

An Evening of Music at ILWU Local 34

16 Jan

Child Labor III, 2012. Pen-and-ink on Bristol paper, 9 x 12 in. After Lewis Hine. Collection of Steve Zeltzer and Kazmi Torii.

In commemoration of the 100th year anniversary of the Bread and Roses textile workers’ strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 34 hall was host to a lively evening of music and poetry.  Carol Denney presented several of her songs on American class and culture with a vibrant voice.  Denney shared with us her song “Have Yourself a Slice of Occupy,” which the artist has combined with collaged images from Occupy Berkeley and Oakland sites in a voice recording video clip that can be viewed and heard at YouTube: http://youtu.be/_WlSOkadPaw.  The lyrics to the song appear below.

Have Yourself a Slice of Occupy, a ragtime salute by Carol Denney 11-8-2011

we are having quite a slice of occupy
hot, fresh, wild, delicious occupy
stir it up a nice hot cup of occupy
share it with your friends and neighbors
taste the fruit of all your labors
be the first one on your block to occupy
wind it up and set your clock to occupy
tell the cops and tell the mayor
you’ve become an occuplayer
have yourself a slice of occupy

grab your tent and screw the rent come occupy
join the slackers and the hackers occupy
meet the folks who lost their homes
meet the folks who never owned one
meet the folks down to the bone you’ll
find you’ll never be alone
grab a sign and join the line at occupy
admit you’re the 99 and occupy
if your tent don’t get reception
change your channel of perception
have yourself a slice of occupy

don’t you love the great outdoors
there’s no bureaucracy
but your meeting might be endless
it’s democracy – you gotta love it

don’t be late no need to wait just occupy
have yourself a heaping plate of occupy
hop on your bike and be the mike at occupy
the rich are going to miss the fun
but afterwards we’ll all be one
lose your frown and dance around at occupy
boot the blues and make the news at occupy
this ain’t no occupy in the sky
and there’s more to occupy than meets the eye
come have yourself a slice of occupy
(we really mean it)
have yourself a slice of occupy

You can also catch online her performance of another song she shared on Wednesday, “Song of the Wealthy Man,” which was presented as part of a Revolutionary Poets Brigade performance at Mythos Gallery in Berkeley on July 22, 2011: http://youtu.be/5yO4qgqx0aE .  This is a good time to consider Denney’s commentary on what the Wealthy Man thinks of the common man, especially since the Republican presidential candidacy is a complete chorus line of wealthy individuals.  Should one wonder, then, that current Republican attempts to relax child labor laws are happening a century after the Progressive Movement brought the ills of child labor to the attention of America?  Or that Newt Gingrich, one of the chorus line, advocates relaxation?  I suppose, if “vulture capitalist” had been sincerely lobbied by this chorus at No. 1 contender Mitt Romney.  At Harvard University, Wealthy Man Gingrich proposed doing away with laws that would prevent children in poor neighborhoods from being put to work, and on December 10th, 2011, the same puffy professor proposed putting New York City high school students to work as janitors.  In Maine, the state Restaurant Association lobbied for a law, sponsored by Republicans Debra Plowman and David Burns, that would allow an increase of total weekly hours for teenagers from 20 to 32.  The legislation as passed increased the number of hours to 24.  But please note that teenagers are allowed by law to be paid as little as $5.25 per hour, $2.25 less than the state’s minimum wage.  In Wisconsin, another legislative act of grace conferred upon teenagers the ability to work more than 24 hours per week during school session and more than 50 hours per week during summer break, this thoughtful enactment inserted into an amendment to the state’s budget bill in late June by Republicans Robin Vos and Alberta Darling.  A state Grocers Association spokesperson is quoted by Holly Rosenkrantz as saying: “It wasn’t like [our members] were trying to overwork these kids or create a sweatshop…”  Of course not.  But we can guess that the initiative is to drive down wages, just as the Maine legislation enables employers to do (see Rosenkrantz, “Taking Aim at Child Labor Laws,” Bloomberg Businessweek [January 11, 2012; http://www.readersupportednews.org/news-section2/320-80/9381-taking-aim-at-child-labor-laws; accessed 1/14/12]).

We were also energized on Wednesday evening by singer/songwriter Hali Hammer, social justice singer/songwriter David Rovics, both with driving voices and uplifting messages, the magnificent Rocking Solidarity Chorus, labor poet Alice Rogoff and a song from poet Mary Rudge.

Note on drawing: Working as an investigative reporter, Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940) documented working children at employment sites and home between 1908 and 1924.  More than 5,100 photographic prints and 355 glass negatives, along with records of the National Child Labor Committee, a non-profit organization that advocated for child labor reform, were given to the Library of Congress in 1954.  The following caption for the photograph upon which the above drawing is based appears at a website for Hine’s photographs, http://www.lewishinephotographs.com/: “All in photos worked (even smallest girl and boys) and they went to work at (noon) 12:45. Some of the following boys and girls mey [sic] be 14, many are not. John Gopen, 189 Elm St. Joseph Stonge, 73 King St. Billie Welch, 178 Union St. Tim Carroll, 310 Salem St. Michael Devine, 64 South Broadway. Jacob Black, 15 Bradford Bl. Binnie Greenfield, 281 Park St. Andrew Pomeroy, 76 South Broadway. Louis Gross, 39 Myrtle St. Arthur Davois, 244 Salem St. Joseph Latham?, 165 Willow St. Salvatore Quatirtto, 48 Union St. Sam Gangi, 82 Pleasant Valley St. These two boys were about the youngest of the boys, others nearly as young. Location: Lawrence, Massachusetts. Date Created/Published: 1911 September. LOC original medium: 1 photographic print. Picture of child labor by Lewis Wickes Hine.”  Ayer Mill may be a misattribution on my part.  If anyone has better information, please notify me so that a correction can be published.

My thanks to Summer Brenner for notifying me of the Rosenkrantz article.

Tents I

13 Jan

Joanie Mitchell. Occupy Tents, 2011. Digital print, 26 x 18 in. (On view at Expressions Gallery, Berkeley, through March 2nd).

“The evils that are permitted to generate, unmolested in industry, must always, sooner or later, assert themselves in politics.” — Ethelbert Stewart to Louis Freeland Post, U.S. Department of Labor, November 21, 1913, Records of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, National Archives, quoted in Martelle, Blood Passion, page 33

Tents are intrinsic to the landscape of American history, especially its history of political redress.  The Occupy movement continues the noble tradition of placing citizens’ concerns within a public dialogue through the bodily occupation of public space.  It cannot be otherwise.  The radical ideas under circulation at this time regarding social equity, public good, and material property can only be argued free from the restraints of preexisting structures.  The goals of corporations are antithetical to the concerns expressed through this movement.  The interests of non-profit centers can address these concerns in piecemeal fashion, but the broadly articulated critique on the ills of American society must be broached beyond the doors of any particular institution.  The ideals of such a movement can be utopian, as we can see in Mitchell’s drawing of circles of discussion during an Occupy Oakland day.  The utopian vision is reinforced by the cluster of tents at the top of the drawing suggesting a city of brotherly/sisterly accord.  The makeshift dwelling of the tent is suitable to a people’s movement and symbolic of the loss of home epitomized by today’s failed home mortgage industry.

So it was in Ludlow, Colorado when coal miners struck in September 1913, that tenting and political redress merged.  Ludlow was one of the sites in the southern fields of the state’s mining industry.  Miners were paid by the ton of coal brought up from the mines, where they were often cheated at the scales.  Often, they were not paid for the work required to set up excavation, such as bolstering underground roofs or laying tracks for coal cars.  Mining companies ignored state mine safety laws.  According to historian Scott Martelle, “organized mines, particularly those in states where unions dominated, had 40 percent fewer fatalities than nonunion mines, such as those in Colorado” (see Martelle, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, Rutgers University Press, 2007, page 19).

Here, towns were few and far between; many coal seams were remote from human civilization.  As a result, mine owners established camps, where low-grade housing was erected, in the words of Martelle, “little more than shanty towns in some cases.”  The structures were usually frame, while the more recent vintage were made from brick or concrete block.  Martelle notes the closed economic system that a typical camp comprised, where workers “were paid in company scrip, forced to live in company houses (or at least on company land in jerry-built shanties), shop at the company store, worship in the company church to sermons uttered by the company-hired minister, and drink in the company saloon…” (Martelle, 27).

The United Mine Workers of America secured tents for the strikers evicted from company-owned homes.  These tents were placed on leased pasture land, the strikers’ main settlement situated east of a railroad line connecting Trinidad to Denver, and north of Ludlow, a string of buildings that included a post office, saloon, store, and “a small cluster of houses” (Martelle, 68).  Following a gun battle between mine owner’s guards and tent colony residents on October 7th, trenches were dug beneath tents and a “deep underground bunker” was dug for the purposes of providing a birthing chamber for the colony’s pregnant women (Martelle, 89).

Living conditions were harsh in the tent colony, given that winter had set in.  But the residents made what they could of comfort.  Union meetings were held outside in good weather.  During rain or snow, a big tent with a potbellied stove in the middle was used for gatherings.  There were makeshift picnic tables and clotheslines outside the tents.  Old linoleum was used to cover cracks in floorboards to guard against the winter’s cold.  There were tables and chairs for some, and orange crates in service as stands for storage.

According to Zeese Papanikolas, as many as 1,300 people lived in this colony (see Papanikolas, Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre, University of Utah Press, 1982, page 83).  To diffuse tension following an October 17th machine gun attack by men of the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency against a strikers’ tent colony at Forbes Junction, union man John Lawson organized Ludlow colonists into squads, with work organized around grounds, building, sanitation, and other useful preoccupations; a police force was organized with an effort to provide enough squad members who could service the 22 languages spoken in the camp (Papanikolas, 92).  (Like a modern-day Academi, previously known as Xe Services LLC, Blackwater USA and Blackwater Worldwide, Baldwin-Felts was a private Virginia-based police force for railroads, mine operators, and other businesses, whose apparent purpose during the Ludlow strike was to provoke violence from the strikers in order to force the governor of the state to send state militia.)

As much as the strikers tried to keep peace, their efforts did not stop a state militia from being formed to command the strike zone under undeclared martial law.  And before the year ended the same militia broke the governor’s promise to keep the mining companies from importing labor during the strike.  The state would draw down militia forces, but within this vacuum was formed a local troop, a “hastily-assembled collection of mine guards and pit bosses armed and paid by the [mine] companies…one hundred and thirty men or more, unorganized, without uniforms, scarcely drilled.”  Additionally, a Lt. Karl E. Linderfelt, already relieved of militia duty, remained with 34 men, “nursing his anger at his superiors and the ragged foreigners in the tents” (Papanikolas, 211).

On April 20, 1914, following orders from a Major Pat Hamrock to send troops to the tent colony, an all-out attack ensued in which machine guns ripped through tents during a ten-hour gun battle.  Under orders from Linderfelt, tents were burned while militia men ransacked strikers’ property.  Eight men died in the battle.  The next day, the bodies of two women and eleven children were found in a trench below a burned tent, having asphyxiated during the marauding fires set above them.  The seven-month strike remains one of the bloodiest capitalist-labor battles in our history.  Little was accomplished following the strike.  At least John D. Rockefeller, Jr., unlike his father, paid attention to the costs of the struggle by developing a “company union” for Colorado Fuel & Iron Co., which sought to put in place a model that would preclude the need for worker-organized unions.  The model became popular enough, and workers would wait until the 1935 Wagner Act established the National Labor Relations Board, banning company unions and protecting workers in their choice to join independent unions.  Rockefeller also hired Ivy Ledbetter Lee to present the company’s version of strike events at Ludlow, who created what may have been the first “major public relations spin campaign” (Martelle, 214).

While worker-organized unions remain viable today, despite sustained attempts by capitalists and their paid political representatives in Congress, the courts, and the executive branch to eviscerate the power of the working class, so does the deceptive spin issued from advertising offices via corporate media.  The battle is not over, no matter what lessons were learned.

100th Year Commemoration of the Bread and Roses Strike

4 Jan

January 12, 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the Bread and Roses garment mill workers strike in Lawrence, MA.  And just as today’s Occupy Wall Street movement focuses on the 99% and 1%, the truth of 1912 was that 1% of the richest Americans owned 50% of the country’s wealth.  Conducting a difficult eight-week struggle during the dead of winter against “Textile Trust” mill owners, banks, state militia, police, clergy and local government, this strike involved thousands of immigrants, nearly half women, fighting for justice and human rights, a watershed moment in the history of American labor struggles.  LaborFest commemorates this event with a cultural and arts event at ILWU Local 34 at 801 2nd Street, San Francisco, next to AT&T stadium.

Painting, photography, drawing and graphic art will be on display from Sunday, January 8th through Wednesday, January 11th, 2012.  A reception will be held for the nine artists participating in this exhibition on Sunday from noon to 3 PM.  Free parking is available in the ILWU parking lot adjacent to the corner of 2nd and King Streets.  Viewing hours will be from noon to 5 PM, Sunday through Tuesday, and noon to evening closing, Wednesday.

A potluck will be held on Wednesday, beginning at 6:30 PM with a presentation on the Bread and Roses Strike at 7:15 PM.  Bring a dish and your voice.  All are welcome.  A $10.00 donation will go to Occupy San Francisco and ILWU Local 21 EGT Fighting Fund, Longview, WA.  No one will be turned away due to lack of funds.  Artists and poets include David Rovics, Renee Gibbons, Alice Rogoff, The Rocking Solidarity Chorus, Halie Hammer, Mary Rudge and others.  LaborFest organizes events on labor and culture for the month of July every year, 2012 marking the nineteenth year of July events sponsored by the organization.  Events for January 2012 will be posted at laborfest.net.

Jesus Barraza and Melanie Cervantes are graphic arts collaborators in their project Dignidad Rebelde.  The poster products from this teamwork reflect community struggles, visions of hope and assertions of dignity.  Their subject matter embraces a wide humanity, recognizing that “the history of the majority of people worldwide is a history of colonialism, genocide, and exploitation.”  Barraza, an activist printmaker based in San Leandro, CA, is co-founder of ten12, a collective of digital artists, and Taller Tupac Amaru, a studio devoted to screen printing.  Barraza has taught and exhibited widely, including Chicago, El Paso, New York, San Francisco, Santa Fe, Tokyo, Bolivia and Mexico.  Cervantes, who holds a BA in Ethnic Studies from the University of California, Berkeley, is an Xicana activist-artist who serves justice movements with her artistic vision.  She has exhibited in Austin, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and her art has reached audiences worldwide.

The muralist Mike Conner is a former member of IBEW as an electrician and is now a member of IATSE Local 1 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.  His art has been focused on labor themes for decades, where it has been displayed at labor festivals and art exhibitions, including a continuing series called Boss Greed.  He is a continuing contributor to LaborFest, participating in the commemoration of the 1934 San Francisco general strike in 2009 and the 100th Year Commemoration of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire this year.

Jan Cook has always made art in the context of social issues.  Her early work developed first during the rising awareness of women’s issues in the 1970s and gradually broadened to include labor, race and class perspectives.  Cook studied at the University of Illinois and California State University, Los Angeles, obtaining irrelevant BFA and MFA degrees.  After a few years of experimentation as an illustrator in the movie industry, Cook became involved with the Los Angeles Mural Movement, working with Judy Baca and others.  Moving to San Francisco, the artist continued painting murals and making prints.  Recently Cook has been combining printmaking with digital painting, altering hand-drawn images with found pictures of historical and contemporary news events from the Internet.

David Duckworth employs drawing to comment on the social conditions of cities and political states.  He has exhibited at Bluedahlias and Underglass in San Francisco, Works/San José, and with Collaborative Concepts at Saunders Farm, Garrison, NY.  As a performance artist, Duckworth has organized and presented Detainee at Roger Smith Hotel, New York, and collaborative work at Jonathan Schorr Gallery, New York.  As a curator, he has organized Body Commodities / Queer Packaging and American Seven at Works/San José, Detainee Wear at Bluedahlias, and several exhibitions for LaborFest.

Gloria Frym’s family connects the artist to the textile industry for over three generations.  Her immigrant father, grandparents and other relatives all worked in the Manhattan textile industry.  Her maternal grandparents are buried in Workman’s Circle in a Long Island cemetery.  An associate professor in the MFA and BA Writing and Literature Programs at California College of the Arts, Frym has been photographing handmade protest signage for the last ten years.  Primarily a writer, Frym is the author of two short story collections, Distance No Object (City Lights Books) and How I Learned (Coffee House Press), as well as several volumes of poetry, including Mind Over Matter (BlazeVOX), Any Time Soon (Little Red Leaves), and The Lost Sappho Poems (Effing Press).  She also has a book of interviews with women artists and published numerous essays, articles and reviews.

A San Francisco-based painter, Amelia Lewis has exhibited in Dallas, Los Angeles and San Francisco since 2001 and curated exhibitions since 2004.  All images are from the Do I Look Illegal series, which first opened at the former Timezone Gallery, San Francisco.

Graphic artist Doug Minkler has designed posters for several decades that address social inequalities and oppression, war, and corporate profiteering and plutocracy.  The artist was recently honored by the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Los Angeles.  Minkler is a past contributor to LaborFest, most recently exhibited at SOMArts Cultural Center and Expressions Gallery, Berkeley.

In artist Rachel Schreiber’s specific work for this exhibition, the portraits of early twentieth-century textile workers’ immigrant women leaders and contemporary labor activists of Mexico bridge the time span between then and now, American labor activism of the past and global labor activism of the present.    Presently Associate Professor and Director of Humanities at The California College of the Arts, Oakland and SF, Schreiber has exhibited at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco, Maryland Institute College of Art, Baltimore, SOMArts Cultural Center, San Francisco, and Art in General, New York.  The artist is also active as a instructor, lecturer and cultural historian.

Source: David Duckworth Research, Google Maps.

Black Friday Revisited

5 Dec

Steve Zeltzer, Protecting the Merchandise on Friday in San Francisco, digital photograph, 2011.

“When such men as these, together with the cheap college professors and still cheaper writers in muckraking magazines, supplemented by a lot of milk-and-water preachers with little or no religion and less common sense, are permitted to assault the business men who have built up the great industries and have done more to make this country what it is than all the other agencies combined, it is time that vigorous measures are taken up to put a stop to those vicious teachings which are being sown broadly throughout the country.” — Lamont Montgomery Bowers, in a letter to John D. Rockefeller, Jr., October 11, 1913, (vice president, treasurer, and chairman of the board to owner of Colorado Fuel & Iron [CF&I]), quoted in Scott Martelle, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West (Rutgers University Press, 2007), page 92

“…[the CF&I Primero mine was] probably caused by some miner smuggling in pipe and matches, the use of which is prohibited.  The mine was thoroughly ventilated, but, like most soft coal mines, has pockets of gas that are struck which causes explosions, and then the dust ignites and havoc follows.  The latest reports indicate that the mine is not damaged, and work will resume as soon as the miners get over the excitement.” — Bowers in a letter to Frederick T. Gates, a Rockefeller advisor, February 1, 1910, on an explosion that killed 75 workers, quoted in Martelle, page 45

Indeed, the Colorado coal mining region at the time of Bowers’s writing was the site of a deadly class war, just as it had been in West Virginia.  Earlier union organizing struggles at the Colorado fields had resulted in the suppression of that effort in 1903.  The mine operators then imported labor from areas of Europe, including large numbers of workers from Greece and Italy, a payroll reflecting thirty nationalities, with the intent of replacing an English-speaking force of American-born workers and immigrants from Cornwall, Scotland, and Wales.  The purpose was, of course, to thwart unionism’s progress by “produc[ing] in advance a condition of a confusion of tongues, so that no tower upon which they might ascend the heavens could be erected,” according to what Edwin V. Brake, Colorado’s deputy labor commissioner, learned by admission from one of the coal companies in 1913.  Further, the newer hires were inexperienced in mining, “not conversant with the rate of wages or the conditions that prevail in this country, and they will submit to conditions that men will not tolerate who have had experience as practical miners.”  This second point is why mines were so dangerous when operated by owners who were virulently anti-union (see Martelle, page 26, for quotations and points).

With this understanding, it is clear why Bowers would rather wait until the “excitement” of his company’s workers subsided in order to resume business as usual, workers’ reaction in reality probably closer to shock and fear at the death of 75 others.  The Colorado coal companies at the time flouted state law regarding mine regulation and safety.  They also had the ability to prevent miners from seeking legal avenues of redress since these companies controlled local law enforcement and the courts.

Corporate business has always had the upper hand in this nation’s affairs.  As Robert Scheer observed on the recent dismantling of the Occupy Los Angeles encampment: “The bankers slept well. Their homes in Beverly Hills were not spotlighted by a noisy swarm of police helicopters, searchlights burning through the sanctity of the night, harassing the forlorn City Hall encampment of those who dared protest the banks’ seizure of our government” (Scheer, “You Can Arrest an Idea,” Nation of Change; http://www.nationofchange.org/you-can-arrest-idea-1322835690, accessed December 2, 2011).  Concrete barriers were erected following the eviction of tent encampment occupiers, Scheer surmising: “However, the result was the same as elsewhere; the bankers were protected from the scorn they so richly deserve and there will no longer be a visible monument to the pain that they have caused.”

The dominant rhetoric employed to dismantle Occupy camps across the country cites concerns for health and safety.  Corporate media safeguards the cover of this tone of language in order to further the corporate cause.  Dan Whitcomb and Mary Slosson, writing for Reuters (picked up by Yahoo! News), reported: “…city officials complained of crime, sanitation problems and property damage…”  City park workers were tasked with “rehabilitat[ing] debris-strewn ground whose landscaping was ravaged by campers…,” later “collect[ing] 30 tons of waste from the site…”  Mind you, police pulled down and flattened tents, so the reader cannot know from the text how much of the strewn debris was a result of police action.  A police lieutenant is cited to convey that “some protesters had been reported to be storing human waste at the site for unknown reasons” (italics mine).  Additionally, the article claims “police entering the camp had encountered a ‘horrible stench'” (see Whitcomb and Slosson, “Police take down Occupy L.A. camp, arrest nearly 300,” Reuters [http://news.yahoo.com/police-down-occupy-la-camp-arrest-nearly-300-015210061.html; accessed November 30, 2011).

The dependence upon portraying Occupy protesters as filthy individuals challenging public health and safety relies upon a formula of containment that runs deep in our history.  The logic behind such containment stresses the distance from the mainstream of elements of society, but in terms that avoid true ideological or political points of contention.  Much as Communists and homosexuals were constantly portrayed as infiltrating the American population, as if they were organisms entering the human blood stream, from the end of World War II through the end of McCarthyism, today’s protesters are portrayed as infecting the body politic.

Within the structure of containment, infection and political infiltration — read social infiltration as highlighted below in Lait and Mortimer’s exposé — are one and the same.  Rather than portray today’s Occupiers as representative of a more widely held view that American society is not functioning to the benefit of all, as some news agencies are willing to do, these protesters are presented by corporate media as infectious stains that must be removed from public spaces.  The one element of Zeltzer’s photograph that truly stands out are the hands of the police officer in the foreground, wrapped in rubber.  The first time I knew of police officers using rubber gloves to handle protesters was during the 1980s as AIDS activists took to city streets, corporate offices, and government headquarters to protest restrictive drug policies and pharmaceutical corporate greed.  AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) inspired a generation in its use of bodily occupation of space, contesting the boundaries between private and public (dates and actions can be consulted at: http://www.actupny.org/documents/capsule-home.html).  On June 1, 1987, as ACT UP protesters staged an action of civil disobedience outside the White House, police wearing rubber gloves removed activists.  On June 23, 1988, ACT UP met with the homeless at a “Talk-In” at a tent city at City Hall Park in New York, “built to protest the city’s policy on the homeless.”  September 14, 1989: “ACT UP once again makes history by stopping trading on the Stock Exchange floor.  Seven ACT UP members infiltrate the New York Stock Exchange and chain themselves to the VIP balcony.  Their miniature foghorns drown out the opening bell, and a banner unfurls above the trading floor demanding ‘SELL WELLCOME.’  Other ACT UP members snap photos which they then sneak out and send over newswires.  Four days later, Burroughs Wellcome lowers the price of AZT by 20%, to $6,400 per year.”

Not only do the rubber-encased hands in the Zeltzer photograph make immediate reference to government policy regarding political and social infection, but they also act as figurative conductor’s hands, ready to orchestrate the movement of a phalanx of police officers guarding the entrance to Macy’s.  During these current tense days of provocation and suppression over the occupation of public space, relatively little has been reported regarding the health and safety of the occupation of outdoor and indoor space as Black Friday shoppers progress to point-of-sale.  Yet, clearly, the danger to public health and safety is greater at WalMart locations across the country on Black Friday than at Occupy sites currently being dismantled by city governments.  We can expect more of the same during next year’s holiday season, i.e., more maiming, more killing, because corporate America ultimately governs how public space is policed.  Nor, should we hope that the public take on the issue of health and safety on Black Friday, since the buying public, the mass of individuals who agitate to obtain goods of consumption, descend upon their destination somewhat akin to the animated zombie of the West African Vodun and Haitian Vodou, the hypnotized person “bereft of consciousness and self-awareness, yet ambulant and able to respond to surrounding stimuli” (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zombie).  The witchcraft involved here relies on the manipulation of markets by corporations and their tools: advertisers and merchandisers.

Scheer refers to a decision by U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff in a case against Citigroup for that company’s “sale of a billion dollars’ worth of toxic securities that were designed to fail and which the bank had bet against.”  While the Securities and Exchange Commission found Citigroup guilty of “negligence,” Rakoff points out that the company had already been fined for four similar scams, thus, one would expect far more serious charges to be leveled against such a repeat offender.  Rakoff is quoted from his case summary: “…in any case like this that touches on the transparency of financial markets whose gyrations have so depressed our economy and debilitated our lives, there is an overriding public interest in knowing the truth.  In much of the world, propaganda reigns, and truth is confined to secretive, fearful whispers.  Even in our nation, apologists for suppressing or obscuring the truth may always be found.”

Page from Jack Lait and Lee Mortimer, Washington Confidential (Crown Publishers, New York, 1951).

This Is What

26 Nov

Black Friday Specials, pen-and-ink on Bristol paper, 9 x 12 in., 2011.

“…From the beginning the occupation movement has been resolutely antihierarchical and participatory.  General assembly decisions are scrupulously democratic and most decisions are taken by consensus — a process which can sometimes be unwieldy,  but which has the merit of making any manipulation practically impossible.  In fact, the real threat is the other way around: The example of participatory democracy ultimately threatens all hierarchies and social divisions…” — Ken Knabb, “The Awakening in America,” Slingshot, Issue #108 (Hella Occupy Extra Edition 2011), page 14.

Oh, the joys of holiday shopping.  The annual prequel to Sunday football.  Shop, and if you survive, relax with a beer in front of this year’s flat screen TV.  Consumers, the living dead.

Planet Home: Part II

12 Nov

“…a staid old house, where hoops and powder and patches, embroidered coats rolled stockings ruffles and swords, had had their court days many a time.  Some ancient trees before the house were still cut into fashions as formal and unnatural as the hoops and wigs and stiff skirts; but their own allotted places in the great procession of the dead were not far off, and they would soon drop into them and go the silent way of the rest.” — Charles Dickens, Great Expectations

“The negro [sic] has an artistic charm that the white man has not.  The negro has inherited the charm of music, the love of nature and the simplicity of life.” — “A Talk Given by Mr. Louis P. Wilson in the Salon of the Art Center Association,” typescript, 2 pp. Scrapbook 293: Exhibit of work of negro artists (first of two scrapbooks), The Records of the Harmon Foundation (Box No. 121, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

I have come to detest lawns.  My step-father decided that a rock garden with shrubbery was preferable to a lawn as he designed the front landscape for our home in Southern California.  Still, the back yard featured a lawn with lovely jacaranda trees and a border of mint.  Very few neighbors on the block understood that an arid climate would not naturally support the production of lawns, and so, also cultivated rock gardening with heat and drought tolerant plants.  With an unlimited supply of water diverted from and piped in from sources hundreds of miles away, what resident would think about their use of an absolutely precious commodity?  Los Angeles and the history of its misuse of water is widely known.  Still to this day, over a century since it exhausted its own water tables, the city and county consumes water from afar.  The battle for the survival of Mono Lake (http://www.itvs.org/films/battle-for-mono-lake and http://www.monolake.org/about/film) is epic in proportions, a water source that, quoting the second website cited here, underwent dramatic change: “From 1941 until 1990, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) diverted excessive amounts of water from Mono Basin streams. Mono Lake dropped 45 vertical feet, lost half its volume, and doubled in salinity.”  Activists were able to stop the death of this lake.

The problem of natural resources is not confined to the illogic of pumping water to a naturally waterless terrain.  Communities across the planet are now fighting against the incursion of global corporations that have usurped local rights to water, begging the question, “Is water a human right or a commodity to be bought and sold in a global marketplace?” (http://www.thirstthemovie.org/).  Waterways have been besieged for decades by pollution at our hands.  When I was a child growing up, the use of natural gas seemed absolutely benign.  It is only now, in very recent time, that I understand that the extraction of natural gas through “fracking” pollutes water tables and waterways (http://www.gaslandthemovie.com/whats-fracking).

My interest here in the extraction of resources, though, cannot be separated from man’s desire to transform environments into aesthetic and fashionable enclosures for the pursuit of comfort and pleasure.  Man has separated himself from nature during a very long history.  The separation between civilization and wilderness, between communal ecosystems and forest and other natural ecosystems is age old and universal.  Man’s fear and abhorrence of nature runs deep.

Within the United States, the encroachment of industrialization produced an irrational formulation of a pre-industrial man representing a oneness with nature.  By the 1920s, finding a symbol for this mythic being was directed at African Americans.  Observing the effects of the industrial age, Daniel Gregory Mason, in his book The Dilemma of American Music, wrote: “Perhaps the  most insidious one is the jaded emotional state…The fatigue-poisoned mind and body, too dull to enjoy quiet beauty and true thought, crave the crude excitements so abused among us; restless speeding in motor cars from nowhere to nowhere;…violent plastic arts using harsh angles and garish colors; noisy, mechanical, over-accented music.  The ‘jazz age’…is a joyless age, incapable of the happy serenity of creative leisure.” (William Heard Kilpatrick quoting Mason in Our Educational Task As Illustrated in the Changing South [Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1930], pages 61-2).  Thus, the Negro, to use the term applied extensively at the time, long before popular usage of Afro-American or African American, was singled out for being an emotion-centered being, childlike, “primitive,” and, so, as close to nature as man could be.  The evidence of this belief could be found in the extensive writings of the period praising the qualities of Negro spirituals.  Never mind that popular music such as ragtime and jazz were also cultural products of African American creativity.  Music critics and musicologists before 1930, such as European American song collector William Francis Allen or European pianist and folklorist Albert Friedenthal, predominantly found in this output of musical creation another type of the “primitive,” an expressed belief by some in a “savagery” that could be linked back to Africa.  African American writer Benjamin Brawley perceived even in the spiritual something akin to the primitive.  Critiquing London-born Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, Brawley found his music based on Negro folk-songs to be “characteristic of the melancholy beauty, the barbaric color, and the passion of the true Negro music” (Brawley, The Negro in Literature and Art in the United States [New York: AMS Press Inc., 1971; reprint of 1930 edition published by Duffield & Company, New York], pages 164-5).

The modern Western mind has been searching for the primitive font of wisdom for several centuries.  Frances S. Connelly’s book, The Sleep of Reason: Primitivism in Modern European Art and Aesthetics, 1725-1907, is a good source for reading about eighteenth and nineteenth century attempts to derive inspiration from “primitive” cultural sources.  The cultures of Archaic Greece, Gothic Europe, even European folk cultures, served towards this end.  By the advent of Cubism early in the twentieth century, the artifacts of non-Western cultures were already being aggressively plumbed for aesthetic borrowing. Two occasions in New York during 1985 redirected my thinking about the use of cultural artifacts.  With the occasion of Te Maori: Maori Art from New Zealand Collections, an exhibition organized by The American Federation of Arts, the process of interpretation was no longer a Western enterprise.  Maori writers and spokesmen shaped both the exhibition and catalogue.  I saw this incredibly beautiful show at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Through the catalogue, I learned of a Maori oral tradition, which accomplished the feat of recording Maori history for posterity over centuries.  By contrast, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) offered “Primitivism” in 20th Century Art: The Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern, with a team of cultural analysts seemingly replaying the tropes of Western cultural appropriation and manufacture.  Although both exhibitions were breathtaking, MoMA’s show stirred considerable controversy, with criticism, such as Thomas McEvilley’s now classic essay, “Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief: ‘Primitivism’ in Twentieth-Century Art at the Museum of Modern Art,” questioning the very basis of placing Western and non-Western cultural objects within a comparative analytic framework.  The entire enterprise of colonialism in a post-colonial world had become suspect, and the narrative of great Western artists deriving inspiration from the forms of colonial subject manufacture had become hollow.  As much as I love African art, I knew then that, taken out of cultural context, objects considered art by Western standards did not speak for the culture from which these objects sprang.  The standard art history textbooks at the time relegated African art to a minor chapter.  These objects were described as fetish objects without any clues to the nature of the spirits they supposedly represented nor the character of the ancestors they supposedly worshipped.  The only obvious factor involved was that Westerners were fetishizing objects from outside their realm of experience.

This is why I greeted the film Oka! with mild concern.  That I wanted to see it was certain.  I just did not want my enthusiasm to be distracted by the burdens of representation.  The film was recently playing here in San Francisco for a very short time.  Based on ethnomusicologist Louis Sarno’s more than twenty-five years among the BaAka, or Bayaka, (“Pygmy”) in Yandoumbe, Central African Republic, the story tells of one Larry Whitman, played by Kris Marshall, who travels to Africa to record the music of this community.  The BaAka play the characters of this story, characters who represent people in Sarno’s life from an earlier generation.  Directed by Lavinia Currier, and co-written by Currier and Sarno, the film is filled with rich acoustic and visual textures.  The performance by a group of non-actors is excellent.  I am reminded of earlier attempts to film stories within traditional cultures using non-actors.  Director F.W. Murnau’s Tabu, a Story of the South Seas (1931) advertised the fact that only native-born South Sea islanders, “half-castes,” and Chinese played the roles portrayed in the film.  Michael Powell directed The Edge of the World (1937) at Foula on the Shetland Islands off the coast of Scotland, focusing on two families that are torn between preserving their native island culture and younger members leaving for a modern world.  Powell did use professional actors but drew the acting corps from true islanders.  Salt of the Earth (1954), directed by blacklist victim Herbert J. Biberman, involved actual Mexican American miners and their families in telling the story of the 1951 strike against Empire Zinc Company in Grant County, New Mexico.  Director Gillo Pontecorvo strove for realism in The Battle of Algiers (1966) by employing Algerian non-actors.  Rolf de Heer’s production of Ten Canoes (2006) involved an Arnhem Land, Australia community casting themselves as actors based on a 1936 photograph taken by anthropologist Donald Thomson and shown to director De Heer by actor David Gulpilil.  The BaAka are master storytellers, as Sarno relates in his memoir, Song from the Forest: My Life Among the Ba-Benjellé Pygmies (Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1993).  The acting demanded of them for the film ushered in a new dimension of story telling and required a different understanding than their familiarity with the documentary film process (refer to http://okamovie.com/).

My only experience with Pygmy music was through Deep Forest, Michel Sanchez and Eric Mouquet’s 1993 debut album.  The musicians combined New Age electronics with UNESCO field recordings of music from Zaire, the Solomon Islands, Burundi, Tibesti and the Sahel.  The vocal recordings of the Pygmy on the album are enchanting.  In the film Oka!, the title taken from the Benjellé meaning “listen,” the music of the people and the sounds of the forest merge and separate in subtle ways, an orchestration that makes this film an aural pleasure.  Steeped in the love of music, having once had the boyhood ambition of later becoming a composer, Sarno was reawakened by a song heard on a Flemish radio station.  Leaving from Paris with a one-way ticket and what remained of his savings, Sarno traveled to Bangui in Central African Repulblic.

The journey that Sarno (and Whitman) take is problematic for its exploration of an exotic people.  Sarno’s first impression at the camp where the BaAka live, is that “the Pygmies of Amopolo had strayed far from their roots and had degenerated into a decultured people” (Sarno, 46).  But, like the narratives within Tabu and The Edge of the World, there are forces from the outside world greater than a people can merely deflect.  Amopolo is a government-directed community, the BaAka considered uncivilized by their Bantu neighbors.  They have been forced to leave their ancestral home in the forest in order to live a civilized life, which also does not permit them to hunt.  Amopolo is near the Sangha-sangha village Bomandjombo, where the BaAka depend on a steady supply of manioc, cigarettes, marijuana, and mbaku, a locally produced moonshine.  In exchange, the Sangha-sangha depend upon the BaAka for meat (illegally hunted) and raffia.  Sarno’s relationship to his hosts is problematic for the fact that from the beginning he provides money and other goods in exchange for the privilege of living with and recording the music of the BaAka.  As Sarno himself muses, “Yet what, I now wondered, could I have brought such a culture but corruption, jealousy, and rivalry, with my cigarettes and gifts?  What could I have been to them but a kind of Pandora’s box, unleashing hungers that could never be satiated?” (Sarno, 291).

Sarno’s place within his adopted community gradually changes, so much so that he enables the BaAka to return to the forest.  In the film, shaman Sataka and wife Ekadi, played by Mapumba and Essanje, respectively, live continuously in the forest, refusing to partake in the Bantu’s terms of civilization.  They function as a mythic ancestral couple.  Unlike Adam and Eve of the garden who did not know their god, they know the forest and the spirits within.  It is their wisdom that draws the BaAka away from conditions that are unhealthy.  In Sarno’s narrative, the forest-cleared, sandy encampments that the BaAka live in are rife with mosquitoes and chigoes, sand fleas that burrow into human flesh.  Malaria kills a number of people.  Excessive mbaku consumption and other forms of aberrant behavior are rampant.

Another thread within both Sarno’s narrative and the film’s focuses on the destruction of the forest by non-African logging interests.  When Sarno first arrived in Bomandjombo, the logging company was run by Yugoslavians.  Their business eventually failed.  An attempt to revive the sawmill failed in 1989.  In the film, the Chinese businessman Mr. Yi, played by Will Yun Lee, who manages the mill, has a keen interest in hunting animals, and hopes, through a corrupt Bantu mayor, to implicate the BaAka in an elephant hunt, forcing them permanently off the reserve for the crime of poaching and, thus, opening the land to unlimited logging.

I recently attended a SF Debate event hosted by the Commonwealth Club.  The resolution posed to the group was: “This House supports the Occupy Wall Street Movement.”  Opening pro and con arguments were formally presented by two members.  Thereafter, discussion was opened to attendees.  One of the criticisms of the Occupy Wall Street Movement was that the movement’s concern over income inequality was misguided.  A young person, by my consideration, of little practical experience or knowledge of history, offered his insight to correct this.  Outside of the homeless, a “miniscule” portion of people in our society (those apparently dispossessed of possessions), people in poverty still had many consumer goods, including flat screen TVs.  Obviously this was a sign that our economy was healthy.  Of course, as a person who is temporarily housed, but still homeless, I challenged the ability of anyone present to accurately assert the number of people homeless.  But I also challenged the notion that wealth could be measured in terms of the production of consumer goods.  Where is our moral compass when a health prognoses upon our society is based on common access to  a select group of goods within a steady stream of consumption?  The poor in this context are so much like the BaAka under the civilizing terms of Bantu supervision.

I often think in mythic terms when questioning the viability of an earth mastered and run by a human population with an unlimited appetite for its resources.  In San Francisco, I see signs of engagement with the earth that envisions a symbiosis not based on exploitation for the material consumption of plastic goods and electronic gadgets.  During many Sundays in 2010, I participated in communal activities at Hayes Valley Farm, a volunteer-run farm on land temporarily leased by the city (http://www.hayesvalleyfarm.com/).  The push there is to regenerate soil through practices that do not take healthy soil from other areas of the state; the products of the farm are simply handed out.  There is a green movement afoot that I want to see succeed, that will take us, in Joni Mitchell’s words, “back to the garden.”  A garden conceived in our own moral health and the health of the natural world surrounding us.

Untitled, digital photograph, Felton, California, 2006.

The Past Revisited

27 Oct

It is axiomatic of American thought that the past will always be forgotten when speaking about the present.  Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the “Bread and Roses” strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts on January 12th.  I will be curating a local exhibition to commemorate that long, brutal strike.  And just as today’s Occupy Wall Street movement focuses on the 99% and 1%, the truth of 1912 was that 1% of the richest Americans owned 50% of the country’s wealth.  Conducting a difficult eight-week struggle during the dead of winter against “Textile Trust” mill owners, banks, state militia, police, clergy and local government, this strike involved thousands of immigrants, nearly half women, fighting for justice and human rights, a watershed moment in the history of American labor struggles.  LaborFest will be commemorating this event with a cultural and arts event at ILWU Local 34.

Spinning Room, Mechanic’s Mill, Fall River, Mass. Stereoscopic card. Kilburn Brothers, Littleton, New Hampshire, date unknown. Kilburn Brothers No. 617.

Immigrant Anna LoPizo was shot dead on the street, a crime local authorities unsuccessfully tried to pin on Joseph Ettor and Arturo Giovannitti for the words these labor organizers used to embolden workers to fight for better conditions.  A young Syrian immigrant named John Rami died from a wound inflicted by a militiaman’s bayonet.  (Read Bruce Watson’s Bread and Roses: Mills, Migrants, and the Struggle for the American Dream, Viking, 2005, or visit, http://www.breadandrosescentennial.org/node/77).  And yesterday, Iraq veteran Scott Olsen was hospitalized with a fractured skull and brain swelling after possibly being hit by an Oakland Police Department tear gas canister (see http://www.baycitizen.org/occupy-movement/story/iraq-vet-critically-wounded-occupy/ or http://www.indybay.org/newsitems/2011/10/25/18695124.php).  Please add your name to a petition asking for an investigation, even though an announcement has been made that an investigation will take place: http://org2.democracyinaction.org/o/5966/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=8589

It seems we will never stop the use of physical force.  Whether Ludlow, Hiroshima or Vietnam, physical force has been the desired catalyst for change throughout our history.  When I unearthed the post-World War I cartoon that appears below I was stupified.  Of course, our dictates are reasoned when leveled by Uncle Sam.  And so on down the chain of command.

“America Looks At Neighbors,” New York World-Telegram, 1932 (Rollin Kirby, artist).