Tag Archives: steve zeltzer

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.

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).