Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Year's End, Year's Beginning ...


As 2014 draws to a close, it would appear that America’s albatross is alive and well and determined to reestablish itself. Where has it been? Undercover? On the downlow? America has experienced decades of “political correctness.” We’ve attempted to redress long-standing wrongs by simply not referencing them. “Let’s just do the best we can to make things better, okay?” To play the “race card” became the height of ill-manners. Of course, that card is simply an acknowledgement that America still has a long way to go. The ugly claws of a legacy of slavery are sunk deep in every American’s psyche.

Witness 2008, when a majority of voters selected Barack Obama to be the President of the United States. I was so excited that after 8 years of buffoonery and criminals, we would have an intelligent, moderate president. But, to the abrasive minority that rejected this president, it signaled their release from political correctness. Suppressed grievances over gains achieved, especially by Blacks and Latinos, that they did not believe were deserved reemerged and signaled a time to reject civility and make sure that the “other” understood their place. The “other” being not only people of color, but also all women and all homosexuals and all religions not Christian or not Christian enough. And so it began.

It is interesting that there was also a reactionary wave of behaviors that are best described as “circling the wagons” among the power brokers at every level of society. Slowly, and in some instances suddenly, the workplace became “them and us.” People who had seemed on a “management” track were now “out of that loop.” Just do as you are assigned. No noise. No ideas or suggestions. The water cooler gossip stopped. It reminded me of back in the day, when I would enter into a group of Irish-, Italian-, Polish-Americans and suddenly everyone became “White.” Then, when I would point that out, people would laugh and recognize it and we would move on to whatever distraction we found to laugh over. In today’s American culture, to point out such a change is met by blank stares and stopped conversation; people wander off.

Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives in 2010. The President was reelected in 2012 to the bewilderment of his opponents, but then the Republicans gained control of Congress in the 2014 midterm elections. This history in and of itself illustrates the American dilemma. “White” Democrats had straddled the fence between supporting their party’s president and kowtowing to those who see him as some kind of harbinger of an impending “Black” takeover. The paranoia is worthy of serious study! An interesting aside is that in the 2014 elections, where Democratic candidates reached out to the President, they won and where they didn’t, they lost.

Of course, all of this is the intended distraction from how the plutocrats are undermining American democracy. They have many strategies. I think it clever that think tanks were developed to focus specifically on local elections and state legislatures before the electorate woke to the fact that the national elections were not the only important game in town.

So, that’s my “Other,” those who would deny the constitutionally granted right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to the vast majority of Americans who aren’t multi-millionaires. My battle cry is “Regulation, Regulation, Regulation!”

The foregoing has been by way of full disclosure on my context for what comes next.

In the late 1980s, I was involved with a number of programs presented by the National Council of Christians and Jews. At a community workshop in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., participants were asked to consider “white privilege.” I rejected this approach. For me, to spend any time contemplating how “White” people receive preferential treatment was time that I felt better spent contemplating the systemic structures that allow the mistreatment of people of color, all women, all homosexuals, all non-Christians or not-Christian-enoughs.

Fast forward. Now in 2014, there is a wide cultural embrace of the concept of “white privilege.” I have read wonderful heartfelt essays written to describe how it is an advantage to be White in America and how that shouldn’t be. However, there is never a plan forward. I can’t imagine what someone is supposed to do with this information, personally. Should there be a rejection of the fruits of the fact of privilege; should they quit their jobs if they got jobs denied to equally-qualified or better-qualified workers or should they demand a moratorium on their community services paid for by the neglect of other taxpaying communities until all communities are served? Seems rather ridiculous, doesn't it?

In the 1960’s when so many white kids, beneficiaries of a period when American “white privilege” though unnamed blossomed full-bloom, rejected injustice and stood to fight against it, reality was a harsh lesson. People get older, and for most voluntarily doing without becomes a real bummer. People face situations where the power structure will kill you, literally, and suddenly being a stock broker doesn’t seem so bad after all. These are life-and-death considerations and capitalism makes them even harder to consider.

So. What does a close examination of “white privilege” accomplish? If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would suggest that it reminds the majority of white America just how good they have it. It is a twilight whisper that they not rock the boat. A reminder not to look back, cause “they” may be catching up on you. But, I’m not one of those. I think it’s because it’s easier to have that discussion than to demand that public systems be regulated and held accountable. Making a true demand is hard work. We don’t even want to bother voting once every two years!

(The 2014 elections witnessed the lowest voter turnout in recorded history resulting in the election of some of the most unqualified public officials one could imagine. I’m still in a state of apoplexy over that one!)

I would like to suggest some topics more worthy of public discussion and action:

  • A reexamination of mandatory minimum sentencing.
  • A reexamination of the rights of released felons, given the debacle of the War on Drugs.
  • A public forum on the purpose of public education in America.
  • A reexamination of systems for the welfare of dependent children.
  • A change in policy to make federal agency budgets and disbursements intelligible.
  • A reexamination of policies and laws pertaining to immigrants.
  • A demand for a fair system of taxation.
  • A demand for transparency in the awarding of government contracts and their pay scales.
  • A public forum on housing.
  • A public forum on why governmental reports need to be thousands of pages long, which is really a public forum on politics and government.
  • A public forum on how to eliminate institutionalized racism.

In terms of institutionalized racism, America might best be served by a close examination of how race is an artificial construct designed to separate and control. There is no reason why government agencies need to know race. I would think, if anything, the first and possibly only identifier should be citizenship.

Another legacy of the 1960’s is that the power of education was made undeniably clear. If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would say that that is why so many young, educated leaders of the black community have been assassinated or incarcerated for life; why suddenly in the wake of integration, there was this huge “achievement gap,” which led to programs that demoralized students and weakened educational programs; why charter school corporations have been allowed to poach the education budget, enriching only testing developers and rarely students. But, again, I’m not one of those. I think that education remains the most powerful tool of a democracy. As it has been weakened by a misunderstanding of that very fact, and a tremendous lack of vision, America has lost the creative energy of more young people than I can rationally contemplate. America has lost much of its ability to inspire — getting rich is a byproduct not the main event.

So, enough with “white privilege.”

Happy New Year, Everyone! Hopefully 2015 will find me ranting away and acting whenever I can. See you at a public forum or two … or more!


Monday, September 1, 2014

The Thing Is ...

The thing is, the United States of America is a young country. One that has grown and prospered in such an explosive and exponential fashion that it has even shaped much of world culture. We are like adolescents, having changed so much, change has become second nature to us. And yet, perhaps because of a prevailing reverence for the perspective of youth, the status quo feels as if it has always been.

How in the world did people live without indoor plumbing, electricity, telephones, automobiles, air travel, television, traffic signals, movies, computers and the Internet? How? Did people really do that? You're kidding!? (Even I phrase the question as such, when in fact, people do live without these things. Many, many people in this world live without these things.)

Change in older societies feels as if it came at a slower pace. There seems to have been time to appreciate the process of change, to reflect and from that vantage point, to hunger for an envisioned future and to strive toward it. The opposite approach surrounds us now. We react. Some like to say that we are proactive, but proactivity requires reflection and long-term planning. Neither of these two behaviors is particularly popular in American society today.

In America today, we feel that our current societal structures are what have always been. Always a bank, a gas station, and a liquor store on every corner. Always chain grocery stores. Always fast food. Always a bipartisan political system, always impotent and corrupt unions, always the rule of money over all other considerations. And, always local police departments.


The Western genre on the big screen and The Andy Griffin Show and The Rifleman on the small screen are examples of a mythology that has taken hold in the American psyche. Law enforcers are quick on the draw and powerful fighters. Thank you, John Wayne. Law enforcers are insightful members of the community who help to nurture the young, and guide the misguided; be they indigent or abusers of wives, or alcohol. Thank you, Andy Griffin. It is these two postures, in their mythological iterations that we think of when we see the oft-used expression on the sides of police cars, "to protect and serve."

As a young child on the Southside of Chicago at a time when children actually were told to "go outside and play," I was taught that the police were there if I needed help. Lessons that held true by the examples of experience: telling a policeman that I was lost, resulted in his taking me home (not to a police station); or, the time that I lost my bus fare and the policeman took me to the bus and asked the driver to let me ride anyway. With the advent of my teen years, the lessons were modified with the caveat, "If the police ever stop you, you tell them to take you to jail and call your mother." Again, examples of experience supported the lesson: coming from a neighborhood party once in violation of the public curfew (Chicago once had a curfew for unescorted, underage children), when the policemen ordered me to get in the police car and then offered me a choice of going to jail or going to an implied party with them, I said simply, "Take me to jail and call my mother." Their reply: "Get out!" To this day I wonder about that encounter. It taught me to be wary of the police. And this was decades before the police came to routinely harass teenagers. Decades before young, unarmed lives seeped onto the sidewalk from police bullets.

To be clear, I think that teenagers need supervision, and for some that supervision will only come from the police. But, there is a huge difference between guiding and oppressing. The police are charged with discerning the difference between the cockiness of youth and the intent to commit a crime. It's a hell of a job.

We expect law enforcement to protect us from the worse instincts of the worst of the society. They experience behaviors that we desensitize ourselves against on reality TV. Only, they could easily be maimed or lose their lives instead of watching the credits roll. Yet, we are surprised when public policies encourage police officers to become indistinguishable from criminals.

The heroes of the mythological American West, shot first and asked questions later. Those infested with the “master” ethos by American slavery policies celebrated the ability to subjugate, dehumanize and kill any one who was different from themselves, but especially African-Americans. Ronald Reagan ushered in the era of "law and order,” a natural progression from these earlier attitudes — not an evolution, just more of the same in modern guise. Regardless of attempts at political correctness through sensitivity training and programs for police liaisons in schools, give the cop on the street military weapons and you awaken their collective subconscious of power and authority through force and the threat of violence.

Local police departments no more need military arms and equipment than citizens need automatic weapons with massive ammunition clips. Given such weapons, they will be used. Ask the people of Philadelphia, Massachusetts who, on May 13, 1985, were witness to a police bombing of a residential row house owned and occupied by MOVE. MOVE was a group of separatists, indistinguishable from contemporary militia groups except that they were urban and they were African-American. Eleven people lost their lives and 60+ homes, a full city block, were destroyed by the resulting fire. Would these losses have occurred if the order had not been given to “let the fire burn,” rather than control and extinguish it?

Would any of it have occurred if police had not had the ability to bomb their own community and, thus enabling the callous detachment necessary to war, let people, including 5 children, die amidst the destruction?

The police are not at war with their communities. But, for those of limited means and for people of color, it is very difficult to trust this fact.

We are in the midst of another transition in American society. It is one of those changes that effects all areas of life. It is one that demands vigilance on the part of American citizens, and it demands intelligent and active response. If that response is to be within the bounds of American democracy, we will need to end the militarization of American police departments.


One question keeps haunting me: Why did this trend ever begin in the first place? Whatever happened to the National Guard? Shouldn’t excess military arms and equipment have gone to states’ National Guard units? And then, there is the question of how we are managing to have such surplus in the first place!? Perhaps in order to gain insight an examination of the munitions industry is required. Stay tuned.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Stupid Is As Stupid Does, Or, Doesn't Do


And so, the Republicans who control the U.S. House of Representatives have used their majority to vote in favor of suing the President of the United States. The media is currently enjoying touting how this is a first step toward presidential impeachment. Report after report dissects the political maneuvering that generated the suit and the political strategies that have the Republicans and the Democrats rattling sabers as we march to the November elections.

Personally, … Well, a friend of mine used to say of me when I would be raging on about this or foaming at the mouth about that or jump-up-and-down angry about some other thing, “Calm down or I’ll take you out back and hose you down.” Personally, I probably need a trip out back. But, what are We, the People to do?

We have a Congress that is completely ineffective. There are Republican members who seem to be set on destroying the government’s ability to do anything but help the uber-wealthy make more money. There are Democrats who seem to be focused solely on fundraising for their next campaign. It is shameful.

How many Americans even know what issue(s) form the substance of the House’s suit? Do you? I don’t blame the Republicans for this ignorance. I blame the Democrats. There seems to be a general consensus on the part of politicians that the American people are emotion-driven and basically stupid, that we only vote out of reactionary anger. (Hard to counter that assumption when 13 million fewer people voted in 2010 than did in 2008! But, I digress.) If our elected officials aren’t reeving up anger or biases, they are silent. There is no information, only sound bites, coming out of government in a societal climate where there is also very little journalism available to the general public. You know, the “who, what, where, when and why” variety. In other words, none of us know nuthin’!

Another, dare I say, “friend” of mine, commented before the 2010 elections that he would vote Republican because “it wouldn’t be good for one party to have control.” Haven’t been able to ask him how he feels that decision is working out. So many Americans voted against their own best interests as they elected right-wing ideologues who looked them in the eye and lied.

Leadership should lead us through rational consideration of issues and options toward intelligent solutions, not whip up emotional knee-jerk reactions against, or for, existing societal structures.

When Bill Clinton dropped the ball, along with his shorts, it enabled the Republicans to try out the strategy they are now perfecting. Just shut it down. Don’t do anything. Focus on whatever there might be to distract from the business of governing. First,  they thought a focus on reducing the deficit as if the world would end tomorrow if the budget weren’t balanced immediately, would be enough to tide them over until Romney was elected in 2012. Oops!

The deficit has been reduced, substantially paid for by cuts to food stamps and other programs that address the needs of the most vulnerable among us, so there’s no longer any talk about that, especially since there is such massive waste of taxpayer monies on completely pointless and repeated votes against the Affordable Care Act and hearings on Benghazi. And, the obstruction strategies of delay that keep important appointments to important government positions floating around in limbo.

This is a good place to share why the Republicans are suing: they feel that providing delays in the implementation of the Affordable Care Act for large companies was outside of the President’s authority and therefore, he broke the law. If it weren’t so ludicrous, you’d have to laugh. The hypocrisy exceeds all bounds.

We have Republicans who are so anti-Obama that they undermine the President by making negative comparisons in favor of foreign leaders and visiting other countries to present their positions as if the President was not who he is, the leader of the richest, most powerful country in the world. THE leader. I feel this has emboldened actions in the hot spots of the world that might not have jumped off quite so blatantly if the Congress gave Obama the respect due his office and kept any dissensions as nobody’s business but our own.

The President was, and I think still is, committed to bipartisanship in government. It is moral on his part, but in the face of Republican response to his election, TWICE, it is highly unlikely to happen. At this point, I think that the American people need a third and a fourth political party. In the meantime, I think We, the People need to file a class-action suit against the Congress for failing to do the job they were elected to do. In case anyone is confused, that job is not to cover their collective political ass!
Since that is unlikely to happen, I can only recommend that everyone VOTE! It’s not good enough to say that you don’t like any of the candidates; that politicians are all corrupt; blah, blah, blah! Pick. one. and. V-O-T-E!

Friday, July 11, 2014

Move On Down the Road

The second weekend in June, 2014, the $18 million Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) Ohio Street Structure Replacement & Rehabilitation Project closed IL90/94 in downtown Chicago, the heart of the Kennedy Expressway, for the weekend. It was the first of 3 weekend closings that were originally planned. Turns out that it only required 2 weekend closings. Yea! IDOT! This replacement and rehabilitation work is being done in the name of safety and future maintenance efficiency, especially for the 15,300 cars which are estimated to use the Ontario Street westbound ramp on a daily basis.

For those weekend travelers needing to get across the city, the moans and groans caused by the pain of trying to “find an alternate route” rose from the crawling side street traffic as one with the increase in smog.

It’s interesting. For years, I have thought, “Instead of subjecting us all to weeks of lane closures and detours, why not just shut it down and get the work done?” It appears that the decrepitude of our public roads is demanding just such an option. Still, the work and the inconvenience is infuriating. Perhaps that’s because we rarely think about just how much has changed. Come with me on a little historical voyage.

credit: Wilmette, IL Historical Society
This tree indicated by this marker
is not shown at right, but looked similar.
credit: Downes Studio,
Great Lakes Trail Marker Tree Society





The conclusion of the American Revolution not only confirmed the independence of the 13 former colonies, but also ceded to the emerging nation the territory northwest of the Ohio River.




This fact would seem completely irrelevant, except that it highlighted the needs that began the federal government’s involvement with public roads.

By 1803, as settlement increased and Ohio was admitted as a state, it became apparent that unless something was done, the nation would have states that could only be reached with difficulty, via mostly old Native American or military trails. In 1806, President Thomas Jefferson signed a bill into law that allocated $30,000 for building what was called The National Road. The road would extend from Maryland, the center of the nation at that time, west to Ohio and beyond. It would move settlers west, but it would also move the goods of traders and farmers to markets in the east.

In 1811, the first construction contracts were awarded. The contractors used state-of-the-art road construction methods. The road was “covered with a very thick layer of nicely broken stone, laid on with great exactness both as to depth and width, and then rolled down with an iron roller, which reduced all to one solid mass. This is a road made for ever” wrote a British visitor to one of the construction sites. The road also incorporated what was then the longest single arch stone bridge in the nation.


Construction reached Vandalia, Illinois in 1839, and although planned to continue to St. Louis, Missouri, that was where America’s first large federal public works project stopped. The thinking was that trains would soon supersede roads.

The young United States of America was ablaze with innovation: canals, steamboats, railroads and train sleeping cars, the cotton gin, cast-steel plow, and Interchangeable parts; then bicycles (yes, bicycles were once a new mode of transportation), and personal automobiles. By 1909, the shift from local and regional markets to national markets had completed itself and the components of the “American System” economic policy were firmly in place. Domestic manufacturing had decreased American dependence on foreign imports and increased wage labor. There was federal commitment to a system of internal improvements (such as roads and canals) which would knit the nation together and be financed by tariff and land sales revenues.

An interesting research project would be to unravel how this national approach to the movement of goods and services became dispersed between a kazillion local entities, sowing the seeds for corruption and neglect by enabling finger-pointing at every level. Whose responsibility are the public roads? “Not mine,” says municipal government, “the county’s responsible for that road.” “Not mine,” says the county, “that’s the state’s problem.” And, as with all things in government today, it goes on and on and on without any effective approach to addressing the redundancy and introduce accountability. Look at the lifespan of the methods used to repair and resurface today’s roads. Who checks that the work was done correctly in the first place and demands redress when it doesn’t meet contractual guarantees? Who, indeed. But, I digress.


—-

Soon after Napoleon took the French throne, a slave revolt broke out in French-controlled Haiti, which cost the French 55,000 soldiers and drained their national coffers. With pending war in Europe, Napoleon was desperate for funds. At the same time, President Thomas Jefferson saw French control over New Orleans as an obstacle to America's westward expansion. James Monroe was sent to France to purchase New Orleans for $3 million. Napoleon countered with an offer to sell the entire Louisiana Territory. On April 30, 1803, the Louisiana Territory was sold to the United States for $15 million. The Louisiana Purchase doubled the size of the United States.
Early on, the United States population was located predominantly on the Atlantic coast, with all major population centers on a natural harbor or navigable waterway. Water and river transportation were central to the national economy. Most overland transportation was by horse, which made it difficult to move large quantities of goods. By 1803, travel between the predominately landlocked states of Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio and the coastal states to the east was by foot, pack animal, or ship.
In 1808, a government-sponsored Report on the Subject of Public Roads and Canals suggested that the federal government should fund the construction of interstate turnpikes and canals. Despite controversy — Anti-federalists opposed this expansion in government power, while others were persuaded by the military and commercial need for overland roads — work began on a National Road to connect the West to the eastern seaboard. Construction on the National Road began in 1815 and by 1818, the road spanned from Cumberland, Maryland to Wheeling, West Virginia (then part of Virginia). Political conflicts prevented further western advance to the Mississippi River, but, the road became the gateway for thousands of westward-bound antebellum settlers.
So, who was building the National Road and all the other roads for that matter? Answer: Corporations. During the early part of the 19th century, these corporations were primarily banks, insurance companies, and turnpike or canal companies established under special state charters. Special charters also were used to incorporate the first railroad corporations in the late 1820s. However, by the late 1840s, the demand for railroad charters became so common that many states enacted a “general law” of incorporation that allowed a railroad to incorporate without a special charter. Enter the age of the Corporation.

“A corporation is an artificial being, invisible, intangible, and existing only in contemplation of law. Being the mere creature of law, it possesses only those properties which the charter of its creation confers upon it, either expressly or as incidental to its very existence. These are such as are supposed best calculated to effect the object for which it was created.”
— Chief Justice Marshall, United States Supreme Court

How the Supreme Court has changed! Yet, as it turns out, the latest debacle surrounding corporate “personhood” was just that, the latest in a long line of efforts to confer the corporation with the rights of individuals. But, I won’t go there — now, anyway — stay tuned. The point is, that although the projects were public monies, accountability for these projects was not held to be a public matter.

—-

The fertile prairie land of the Midwest was settled quickly. Advances in agriculture like John Deere’s steel plow, invented in Ogle County, Illinois, and Cyrus McCormick’s reaper, manufactured in Chicago, made prairie farming profitable, and supported the development of local government entities. In Illinois, these are first state, then county, townships, precincts, cities, towns, villages, and special-purpose districts.

In response to several economic crises brought on by overall economic conditions and the failure of a number of railroad charters, the state imposed debt limits on local government units. In response, local governments created new units in order to bypass debt limits. For example, instead of a city running a park system and a sewer system, separate park districts and sewer districts were created. Each could incur debts up to its own limitation. The result was a tremendous increase in small local government units. Illinois continues to have more than 8,000 local government units. This is the largest number of such entities under a single state government in the U.S. I suppose it is only natural that these units should seek to control a road or two.

The statutes that establish road jurisdiction reads like the rules to a game of Monopoly. And just like in that game, the more “roads” you have, the more money you are eligible for from local taxes, as well as state and federal funds, because jurisdiction carries with it the responsibility for maintenance. Maintaining the national infrastructure is, as it should be, an ongoing budget item at all levels of government. Just wish we got more of our money’s worth.

So. The National Road was the beginning. Enter the Office of Road Inquiry (ORI) in 1893. Followed by the Bureau of Public Roads (BPR) in 1905. The profitability of farming depended on moving farm output to market. Getting this output to railways and canals meant getting farmers “out of the mud” so that they had road access to other modes of transport. From there, it’s really an incredible story of technology and vision, and greed. There is a wonderful book, which traces the history of American highways, available free online from the National Archives at this link: https://archive.org/details/americashighways00unit .

Fast forward 40 years or so, and lessons learned in World War II by General, then President, Dwight D. Eisenhower about the necessity of being able to move defense forces and materials around the country are a primary source of the existence of the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways, commonly referred to as the Interstate Highway System.

The rise and fall of American modes of transportation have been stimulated by previously unprecedented technological advancement. Today, the Cook County Department of Transportation and Highways is responsible for 1,474 lane miles of pavement, 130 bridges, 332 traffic signals, 5 pumping stations, and 5 maintenance garages. And, that is just under Cook County jurisdiction. Still, the potholes return like the passing of the seasons and the bridges rot away until they can be closed down and replaced. Should I mention that some closings have lasted years without completion of the replacement? Still waiting, huh, Blue Island, Illinois residents?

Automobiles have held sway for nearly 100 years now, bolstered by their ancillary manufacturing and energy industries, plus the occasional government bailout — past and present, not to mention the call of the wild that beats in the American breast to hit the road, Jack! for better or worse. Given the monumental position of automobiles in the economy, I wonder what it will take to enable the ascendency of something new, something even better. Beam me up, Scotty!

Monday, February 10, 2014

“lo que mal empieza, mal acaba” -- What Starts Bad Ends Bad!

Credit: REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas 

I am a long time coming to this post. I began on November 17, 2013 when I listened to and then read a report produced by Christopher Woolf for Public Radio International (PRI). The gist of this report was a glimpse at the historical antecedents to a ruling by the Constitutional Court of the Dominican Republic. The ruling and the subsequent government decree (Decreto 327.13) put into effect a “Plan nacional de regularización de los extranjeros ilegales radicados en el país” (National Plan for regularization of illegal aliens residing in the country) mandated by constitutional revisions in 2010. This “regularization” requires that people living in the Dominican Republic who were born after 1929 and who do not have documentation of legal residency or at least one parent of Dominican blood are to be declared either in the country illegally or “in transit” (which allows residency for only a 10-day period). This decree potentially affects as many as one-in-ten Dominicans, who are originally from Haiti or of Haitian descent. Many of these people are 2nd and 3rd generation residents.

What!?! So, I was off to try and connect the dots on how this could ever have become an acceptable possibility.

I contributed to the tourist economy of the Dominican Republic once. Once was enough. I went to an all-inclusive resort on the beaches of Punta Cana. There were people from all over the world there, and the beach was a string of one resort after another forming a chain of “guests only” warning signs.

The resort workers lived beyond commute distance and so they stayed at the housing provided by their employers in shifts that might extend to 2 weeks before having 3 days off, mostly spent traveling home and back. Touring the Dominican side of the island outside of the resort enclaves produced the expected American culture shock, even when one works hard to just experience and not compare. And being me, I soon found myself in conversation with one of the guides about all things politics in the Dominican Republic.

We talked about education and how even in a 1-room elementary school house,”no uniform, no shoes, no service.” Education was not free and for some families that meant that one sibling attended a morning session, then traded uniform and/or shoes with another sibling who attended an afternoon session.

We talked about land use and how difficult it was for Dominicans to own land without the threat of imminent domain capitalized on by foreign business interests.

We visited a community beach, full of misuse, uncollected trash, and limited vistas in contrast to the resort areas, and so we talked about how Dominicans were denied the natural resources of their own country.

And, we talked about Haitians. This young, college-educated, practicing Catholic explained to me that Haitians were a race apart. They were without moral values and practiced “voodou,” a term he literally spit out. With that, we talked about religion (always a mistake) and he was not well-pleased with me, to say the least.

The entire experience left a sour taste in my memory. How did this antipathy between Dominicans and Haitians develop? As usual, it’s a long story.

Beginning in the 15th Century, European nations embarked on a 300-year period of exploitation (oops, Freudian slip) exploration to find trading partners, new goods and new trade routes. The contemporary history taught in the U.S. most often presents the explorers of this period as noble and courageous beings seeking adventure, but even more so, seeking knowledge. But, as always, a fuller understanding is served by following the money. Begin with Prince Henry “the Navigator” of Portugal.

Prince Henry directed the development of the caravel, a ship that was lighter than what was then typical and thus able to sail further and faster than heavier ships. As a young man, Prince Henry participated in the capture of the Moorish port of Ceuta in North Morocco. The Moors had used the port as a staging point to raid Portuguese settlements and enslave the residents, adding them to the traffic in African captives.

As governor of Algarve, Prince Henry repopulated a village on the Sagre Peninsula, which provided access to both the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. He received funds from his various positions as governor and was awarded all profits for areas he “discovered,” as well as holding a monopoly on vital resources and permissions. His motivating goals were to stop pirate attacks and to learn the source of the west african gold trade, but in addition, he also received a portion of the profits from the sale of slaves at the nearby market in Lagos.

Moreover, Prince Henry desired, as did the other European nations of his day, to find a new route to access the spice and silk trades within Asia. These trades had been severely limited, along with access to North Africa and the Red Sea, by the Ottoman Empire when it took control of Constantinople in 1453. The expeditions that Prince Henry sponsored established colonies in the Madeira and Azores Islands and succeeded in circumventing the Muslim controlled land-based trade routes. Soon gold and slaves began arriving in Portugal. Thus, the Age of Exploration Began. It might also be said that thus, an age of imperialism began.

While the Portuguese focused on sailing along the coasts of Africa to access the eastern trade, Christopher Columbus marketed a different idea, to sail west across the Atlantic. Columbus found Portugal and England disinterested in his ideas. However, Spain proved much more receptive (well, initially anyway). Columbus wanted fame and fortune, as did the monarchs of Spain. And, there was another motivation. Spain had just accomplished its “Reconquista,” expelling Jews and Muslims out of the kingdom after centuries of war. Ferdinand and Isabella now focused on the exportation of Catholicism to lands across the globe. In 1492, with a promise that he could keep 10% of whatever riches he found, and, receive a noble title and the governorship of any lands he should encounter, Columbus set sail under the Spanish flag. Just over two months later, he arrived in the Caribbean and proceeded to sail from island to island in search of the wealth he had promised to the Spanish crown. In March of 1493, Columbus left 40 men on the island he had named La Isla Española (now called Hispaniola) and returned to Spain.
LANDING OF COLUMBUS, John Vanderlyn (1775-1852)

It was here that I found myself distracted by all manner of things: Why was Columbus spurned by Britain and Portugal? Why did the Ottoman Empire restrict European trade rather than take advantage of tariffs or other income sources from that trade?  Where were slaves taken and for what purposes? What is the story of Africans enslaved into Europe during this period? How did slavery as an institution integrate into the various European cultures? How were slaves differentiated from serfs? Not to mention wanting to know more about why the Fall of Constantinople marked the end of the 1,500 year reign of the Roman Empire AND how fleeing scholars sparked the Italian Renaissance. Anyhoo …

Columbus’ dream of wealth did not end well, but in 1496, his brother built the first European settlement in the western hemisphere, the city of Santo Domingo. The Spanish then proceeded to develop a plantation economy on the island and used Santo Domingo as a headquarters as they expanded their presence in the “New World.” Over the next 200 years, the Spanish decimated the indigenous peoples of Hispaniola through forced labor, disease and intermarriage, while at the same time establishing the encomienda plantation system that gave rise to an elite social class and the internalization of racial and religious biases.

Initially, those considered “slaves” in Hispaniola were servants brought from Spain to serve the Spanish elite. Known as “Ladinos,” these servants were people of African descent who had been born in Spain and who had accepted Christianity.  However, with the establishment of the first sugar mill on the island, there rose a demand for labor that was filled by enslaved African workers, and the importation of Africans increased substantially.

In the absence of the isolation control patterns that were to be established in the American system of slavery and that have come to be accepted, in the U.S. at any rate, as norms of the African Slave Trade, the Africans who arrived in Santo Domingo were often from the same geographical areas. This provided the opportunity to  communicate, organize, and to flee, which they did - repeatedly. These rebellions established an African presence in the mountains and eastern section of the island, and created intermarriages between the native Tainos and Africans, who were now known as Maroons. By 1530, the Maroon population had increased to the extent that they had established a level of control over the mountainous central and northern sections of the island.

After the conquest of the Aztecs and Incas and amidst the various wars in Europe (here again, I found myself distracted as I encountered European conflicts that I had never heard of before, but which hold considerable significance in a wide variety of subsequent contexts), Spain shifted its attention to securing Spanish presence and claim to the riches of the Americas. In 1697, Spain ceded the western area of Hispaniola to France as part of the Treaty of Ryswick, which ended a 9-years war wherein France fought against an alliance composed of England, the Netherlands, Spain, the Holy Roman Empire and the North American Provinces.

Now named Saint-Domingue, the French colony became extremely wealthy through coffee, sugar, cotton, and indigo plantations and the labor of enslaved Africans, who represented 90% of the colony’s population by the end of the 18th Century. In 1791, enslaved Africans, joined by free people of color enacted the revolution that gave rise to the leadership of Toussaint Bréda. Early in the conflict, Bréda renamed himself Louverture. 

The story of this period in Haiti’s history is a distraction in and of itself. As I researched the events, I recognized that being American, I have an internal image of the historical African slave as bereft of politics and the military trappings of politics. Yet, following an increased and indiscriminate demand for plantation workers as the colony’s wealth developed, the majority of the male Africans who found themselves enslaved in Saint-Domingue were captured from the same region, soldiers sold and exported to eliminate an opposing force. These were trained military men, familiar with the weapons and strategies of war in that period. Was it the violent victory of the initial moments in their revolution that nurtured the fears that led plantation owners in the United States to heightened barbarism and oppression as they institutionalized slavery into the birth of the American way of life? Or, were their fears fanned into the obsessive passions that haunt the U.S. to this day by a recognition that the strength so prized in labor and the intelligence witnessed (yet disallowed) could as easily be turned to revolution?

European empires and the newly formed United States shared a common commitment to slavery, but they all coveted one another’s Caribbean territories. With the revolution underway in Saint-Domingue, England and Spain looked to take over the tremendous wealth of the colony. The Spanish offered the insurgents weapons and commissions in the Spanish military, thinking to again have the whole of the island. Louverture accepted the weaponry and subsequently used it to drive the Spanish from Saint-Domingue. The English offered like-minded planters the preservation of slavery in the face of French leanings toward abolition.

As a counter, French Republican commissioners offered freedom and citizenship to any who would fight on the side of France. When there were holdouts, Louverture among them, the commissioners abolished all slavery in the colony. A delegation of elected representatives was sent to France to win the approval of the National Convention. Their success was in itself revolutionary. In 1794, by decree, "the Convention declare[d] the slavery of the Blacks abolished in all the colonies; consequently, all men, irrespective of colour, living in the colonies are French citizens and will enjoy all the rights provided by the Constitution." The decree created the legal foundations for the first multiracial democracy in the “New World.” Hearing of this decree, Louverture rallied to the French side. Subsequently, he was named Governor General of the colony by the French government. 

In 1795, Santo Domingo and Saint-Domingue were joined when Spain ceded their territory to the French as part of the Peace of Basel that ended the War of the Pyrenees. ($50 to anyone who can follow European war history!) Again, more distractions: Louverture’s designs to make Saint-Domingue independent mirrored the former plantation structures - after all, that way lay the established patterns of income. However, whatever the elite or the government might have wanted, the people were vehemently against plantation structures. This was the beginning of independence, but it was also the beginning of a lasting societal schism for the whole of the island. 

In 1799, the French Revolution came to an end with a military coup d’etat. Napoleon Bonapart took power in France. He centralized all power in his own hands as First Consul for Life and just as quickly moved to return Saint-Domingue to the pre-Louverture colonial order. After Louverture created a separatist constitution for the colony, Napoleon, who considered the constitution a personal insult, negotiated with the European powers for the safe passage of his ships into the Caribbean and moved a massive military expedition to Saint-Domingue.

PÉTION AND DESSALINES, Guillon-Lethière
(1760-1832)
What followed is an intricate and phenomenal tale of war, intrigue, and betrayal that saw the fall of Louverture - he would die in a French prison in 1803. In that same year, Louverture’s successors were victorious over the French and created the independent nation of Haiti. Two years later, Haitian troops under the command of general Henri Christophe invaded Santo Domingo so violently that it engendered an animosity between Haiti and what would become the Dominican Republic that echoes into the present day.

In 1808, following the now Emperor Napoleon’s invasion of Spain (he crowned himself in 1804), a Britain/Haiti, coerced, alliance returned Santo Domingo to Spanish control. In 1821, José Núñez de Cáceres, who had been the top colonial administrator, declared Santo Domingo to be independent of the Spanish crown. Cáceres had looked to join Simón Bolivar’s republic of Gran Colombia, but just nine weeks later, Haitian forces under Jean-Pierre Boyer, invaded and prevailed, again joining the island into one sovereignty.

Under Boyer’s occupation forces in the Dominican Republic, slavery was abolished and most private property nationalized, including much Church property and all property belonging to the Spanish Crown. Other changes impacted which crops would be grown, reformed the tax system, and allowed foreign trade. Oddly, education collapsed at every level, and the conscripted Dominicans in the occupation troops were unpaid and left to forage among the Dominican people. Then, Boyer was ousted and in 1843, The Dominican Republic declared independence from Haiti. As with Haiti, the next decades were anything but stable within the Dominican Republic, which also had to fend off multiple renewed, though unsuccessful, Haitian invasions.

Okay, so wouldn’t you think that Haiti and the Dominican Republic would have looked to join forces against outside intervention? At different points, both countries looked to align themselves with other republics and regimes in the region, but never on their own island. Haiti and the Dominican Republic seem to have continually seen each other as enemies. The animosity has been complicated by conflicts over religion, skin color and class that is an inheritance of the racial and economic biases of American and European imperialism.

So, where are we? The ongoing internal political upheavals in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic have shackled the aspirations of the people of both countries. It is dizzying to attempt to follow the string of revolts and the perpetually failed leadership. A condition nurtured by the dominant nations of the world. As the struggle for world dominance continued, America and the European nations jockeyed for position, supporting Haiti and the Dominican Republic in turns of neglect, threats, aiding and abetting the enemy of the moment, and pilfering as much wealth from the island as was possible.

There were decades in which the world refused to recognize the newly independent Haiti as a sovereign nation. This was the lynch pin of a history of poverty and debt for an area where the resources should have continued to provide abundance.  So much of the wealth of nations has come from the resources of the “New World” and African slaves. European thought developed extensive religious and intellectual justifications for slavery. These attitudes of superiority remain the bane of global society. In some ways, it is the naturalization of these attitudes among the oppressed that have allowed them to persist. Even the varied abolitionist movements though opposed to slavery, were unprepared for and unaccepting of difference in dress and mannerisms, particularly for those with darker skin. The existence of Haiti threatened the systems of thought and behavior that grounded America and Western European wealth acquisition.

As a result, Haiti found itself turned away from a seat at the international table, again and again. When recognition was finally granted, it came with a level of debt that paralyzed the country. In 1825, France agreed to halt further attempt to retake Haiti and to grant recognition of Haitian independence in exchange for a payment of $150 million francs (later reduced to $90 million francs) which was supposed to represent the value of property lost by French planters as a result of the Revolution. This payment was borrowed from French banks and came with considerable terms of interest.

It is debt that was used to justify various foreign interventions into Haiti, ultimately resulting in America taking control of the national bank in 1914, sending in the marines to remove all assets, and establishing an occupation the following year that lasted nearly 20 years.

As for the Dominican Republic, it also struggled under massive debt incurred by a series of corrupt and self-serving governments. In 1902, it agreed to a 50-year arrangement with the U.S. under which America would administer Dominican customs (its major source of income), using these funds to repay Dominican foreign debt and also assuming responsibility for said debt. In the following 14 years, the Dominican Republic was engulfed in political intrigue and civil war. Such that in 1916, U.S. President Wilson ordered the occupation of the Dominican Republic. Big distraction here: Wilson's actions were so hypocritical. It makes you want to spit.

Between 1916 and 1922, the United States of America occupied all of the island of Hispaniola.

In 1930, General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo Molina was elected President of the Dominican Republic (unopposed after the violent elimination of any challengers). During what would be a long and iron-fisted regime, lasting until his assassination in 1961, Trujillo accomplished economic growth and progress in healthcare, education and transportation with a building program of hospitals, clinics, schools, roads, harbors and housing. Under Trujillo an undisputed border with Haiti was negotiated and the customs agreement with the U.S. was ended in 1941, instead of the original 1956 end date. The Dominican Republic was debt-free in 1947. Trujillo‘s accomplishments were accompanied by absolute repression, where any opposition was met with murder, torture, and terrorism. They were also accompanied, or perhaps enabled, by the United States and the Dominican elite. It is notable that in 2013, 3 Dominican families maintain ownership of 75% of the land of the Dominican Republic.

Haiti’s occupation by the U.S. ended in 1934. However, Haiti’s debts were still outstanding and the American Financial Advisor-General Receiver continued to handle the Haitian budget until 1941. The occupation ended, but, political disorder remained. From 1957 until his death in 1971, Dr. François Duvalier, known as “Papa Doc,” was President of Haiti. He was succeeded by his son Jean-Claude Duvalier, who ruled until his ouster in 1986.
For both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the hallmark of political leadership appears as an unrelenting and violent oppression of both the populace and any political opponents by what are essentially military dictatorships. The dictators grow rich, along with their foreign cronies, while the people suffer.

The 2005 Annual Report of the United Nations Subcommittee on Human Development in the Dominican Republic, ranks the country No. 71 in the world for resource availability, No. 79 for human development, and No. 14 in the world for resource mismanagement. These statistics emphasize national government corruption, foreign economic interference in the country, and the rift between the rich and poor.

In Haiti, the struggle to escape the control systems of plantation-, and now factory-, based control continues. Following the devastation of the earthquake in 2010, Haiti was able to clear its massive, ever-present debt, but quickly raised it again to nearly $1 billion. Did I say ever-present? The story of the current Haitian President is yet another epic tale of U.S. interference and one that makes the push from the Clinton Foundation for an industrial park (funded by U.S. taxpayers), whose first and main tenant, a South Korean company, will pay workers $3.65 per day, just a bit suspect. I can see how this might serve the South Koreans, but I’m not at all sure about the benefit to the Haitians. I hope the U.S. is getting something more than bargaining leverage with South Korea, but I guess we’ll have to wait for Wikileaks to tell us what that might be. Just seems odd to me.

On the other hand, since 2012, Haiti has recognized Kreyol, along with French, as official languages. In this lies hope that the majority of Haitians will finally be able to follow what is going on in their own government.

An interesting comparison between all-things Haitian and all-things Dominican can be found at the Index Mundi website, http://www.indexmundi.com/factbook/compare/haiti.dominican-republic/economy

Only time will tell what will ultimately result from the enforcement of the Dominican Decreto 327-13.

So why has this post taken me so long to produce? Quite frankly, my mind is still reeling.

I see the historical pathways. I see the contemporary status. In the struggle between Haiti and the Dominican Republic lies a personal revelation about the struggles of both the oppressed (read “poor”) and the majority (read “workers,” “middle class,” “undereducated degree holders,” etc.) in a capitalistic, plutocratic world, who have integrated the attitudes (read “racism,” “gender dominance,” “sexism,” “elitism,” “classism,” “religiosity,” etc.) and aspirations (read “wealth,” “privilege,” “entitlement,” etc.) of those in power, such that there is no impetus for a vision of some other way. As I apply the implications to me and it hasn’t been easy - sometimes you just don’t want to look,… Well, it’s been months of exploring just how much of the kool-aid I’ve ingested all these years.


So? What do you think? Never can tell. At any moment, someone will be saying that the U.S. minimum wage should be thought of in terms of per diem, and those in power will be selling people, “Don’t worry. This will only impact ‘those’ people. Drink up!”

Friday, November 22, 2013

Will the Revolution Ever Come? Or, Did I Miss It?

Recently, I attended the Chicago premier of The Trials of Muhammad Ali, an 86-minute documentary by Bill Siegel. Siegel is an Academy Award nominated filmmaker, who resides in the same little suburb as do I. This personal, albeit distant, connection was the first in a series of connections that have left me thinking about this film ever since.

Why do you go to the movies? It is rare for me to go to a documentary screening at a theater, unless it is part of a festival of some kind. Mostly, I go to the movies to exploit what the big screen has that even the largest flat-screen TV cannot provide; larger than life explosions, epic stunts, and magnificent vantages - all of which allow me to completely suspend disbelief. And that is the magic of the movies.

I am hooked, like most of America, on films. Always have been. When The Good, The Bad and The Ugly was first produced, I spent an entire day in the theater, munching popcorn and watching it over and over. And loving it every time! When the capacity crowd was ushered to a side exit which fed into an alleyway after a viewing of The Exorcist, I shuffled along pressed against the strangers beside me as the crowd formed one delightedly scared mass until we scattered into the safety of the sidewalk and lights and traffic. Watching The Trials of Muhammad Ali was something different.

I followed the storyline and images, marveling at how very handsome he was and learning things that I had not known previously about Muhammad Ali’s life and career. Yet, at the same time, I was transported into my own memories of life during those years, as if there were a parallel track playing simultaneously.
  • 1960
Muhammed Ali won Olympic gold, and I graduated elementary school. He was so cute! I wasn’t.
  • 1961 - 1963
While Muhammed Ali was building his boxing legacy:
George Jackson, aged 18, was sent to San Quentin after an armed robbery conviction, sentenced to 1 year to life. He would later become one of the “Soledad Brothers.” He was killed during an escape attempt from Soledad Prison in 1971.
Robert Franklin Williams and Mao Zedong.
Robert Franklin Williams evaded arrest by going to Cuba with his family after being falsely accused of kidnapping. He would come to travel to China and ultimately return to the U.S. in 1969, on a plane where he and the U.S. marshals were the only passengers. Once he was extradited for trial, the State of North Carolina dropped all charges.
The Nation of Islam membership rose to 30,000 under the recruitment efforts of Malcolm X.
John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote his Letter From A Birmingham Jail and the March on Washington occurred.
I was learning that one must stand for what you believe; share those beliefs with others and speak your mind; don’t automatically oppose that which feels wrongly different from everything that you’ve previously known; recognize that the justice system is most often unfair; and, sometimes even the best and brightest are lost.
  • 1964 - 1965
Muhammad Ali becomes heavyweight champion and announces that he has joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Cassius X. Malcolm X breaks with the Nation of Islam, and was subsequently assassinated in 1965.
Martin Luther King, Jr. becomes the youngest person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The U.S. Congress passes the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.
  • 1966 - 1969
Cassius X, now Muhammad Ali, declares himself a conscientious objector and refuses military service. He is charged with refusing induction and found guilty. He is stripped of his title and banned from boxing.
The Black Panther Party for Self-Defense is formed.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated. African-American communities in urban areas erupt in violence.
Black Panther Fred Hampton is assassinated by the Chicago Police Department, in collusion with the F.B.I., while sleeping in his bed on the west side of Chicago.
Robert Kennedy is assassinated.
I learned many, many lessons about politics and activism. And many, many more lessons about how I would come to express myself in these realms.
  • 1970 - 1971
The Supreme Court reverses Muhammad Ali’s 1967 conviction, paving the way for his return to boxing and regaining his title.
The Ohio National Guard fires on unarmed students, who are protesting at Kent State University, killing 4 and wounding 9 others.
The police fire on unarmed students protesting the invasion of Cambodia at Jackson College in Jackson, Mississippi, killing 2 and wounding 12 others.
I went to Europe.


It is very hard to realize that all this was so many years ago now. Even harder to accept that the lessons of those years are in need of being learned all over again today. But, what is exciting is to know that there are young leaders emerging again, as well. Have at it, Dream Defenders! (http://dreamdefenders.org) It’s quite a ride!