Sunday, January 29, 2012

Pre-Occupied in Oakland

Shields made out of trash cans
protect Occupy Oakland warriors
Occupy Oakland is back in the streets an up against what is arguably the most vicious police force in the USA.And O.P.D. is once again up to its old tricks.

Saturday's march was called "Move-in Day and the plan was a takeover of a deserted commercial space to convert it into a community center where all sorts of activities like workshops, films and meals could take place. Granted, it was a bit of an overreach but a center of this kind would be a wonderful opportunity for outreach to the various communities of Oakland.

The march atmosphere was more animated and festive than most political protests. Seasoned Occupiers held makeshift shields made of garbage cans with peace signs or anarchy symbols painted on them. The sight of them under a  mobile row of Tibetan prayer flags gave the whole event the air of a fiesta in Latin America.  

Many marchers, including myself and my partner, had no idea where the chosen building was located. It was kept secret to prevent the police from interfering with the plan. The problem was that many police actually knew more than the marchers did.

There were quite a few logistical errors associated  with the selection of the mammoth Henry J. Kaiser convention center building as a move-in target, the biggest one being the construction occurring on the roadway beside the building along with the cyclone fences in front of it. The two rows of cyclone fencing created a trap for those of us directly behind the police line and in front of the building. When the cops started throwing flash-bang grenades and announced that we had one minute to disperse, there was nowhere to go.

Some folks had pulled apart the fencing as far as it would allow, creating a triangular hole that one person at a time could squeeze through. The young people were very thoughtful and courteous and let their aged comrades (Deborah and I) through almost at once. Fortunately for all of us, the cops held off on resorting to stronger weapons on their captive audience and after some sound and fury everyone was allowed to move on.

Just around the corner a few minutes later, the larger confrontations began and some of the trash-can warriors not only held their ground, but actually began advancing on the police. That is when the smoke bombs and teargas canisters began exploding and all hell broke loose.

The mass arrests didn't occur until later in the evening and I can't report on them first hand because we departed in the afternoon. On Sunday at a gathering in Oscar Grant Plaza, I learned that nearly four hundred people were surrounded by police and arrested outside of the Oakland YMCA in direct violation of their first amendment rights although the YMCA did help quite a few folks escape through their back door. Police claim their intentions were illegal ones, i.e.: the intent to take over a building. So, I guess it's official: thought crime is now against the law.

The mainstream media is making much ado over a flag-burning inside Oakland City Hall. It's helping Jean Quan  acquire much-needed political capital by championing her motherly protection of the city from wild and crazy radicals.

Supervisor Ignacio De La Fuente wins the award, hands down, for scariest politician. He has called the Occupy protests "domestic terrorism." Now you know how they're planning to use the National Defense Authorization Act. Indeterminate detention with no right to trial. I see a bleak image is appearing in my crystal ball...

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Eroding Teacher Seniority Will Bust Unions

Same Stuff, Different Day
The right-wing debate against public employees has shifted and now it is teachers that are being targeted on all levels. From the privatization of education through charter schools, to misguided movies like "Waiting for Superman." Educators have become the new enemy, responsible for everything from the massive disobedience and lack of discipline of students to the failure of the public education system in this country.

In poor and working class communities the problems of poverty, parental neglect (often due to financial necessity), and the lack of motivation of the students themselves are some of the reasons for this systemic breakdown. But as with other union targets before them, all logic is being tossed aside, replaced with the easy out of a new dog to kick.

Even Obama who is now waxing populist in deference to the Occupy Movement, has raised  and praised the idea of "replacement teachers" as a cure-all for the ills of the education system. This is presented as a simple formula in which the "best" teachers will be rewarded while those who no longer have "passion" and have outlived their usefulness, will be let go. Ending teacher tenure is their new rallying cry.

In reality, terminating the seniority system will destroy the teacher's unions and erode job security, benefits and pensions for the whole profession. It serves as a crack in a door that was previously shut tight, a perfect way to break in and destroy a highly organized, predominantly female, group of professionals. Doing away with seniority means that all ongoing employment decisions will be subjective and open to the ebbs and flows of bias and personal prejudice. Older people will be discarded for their "lack of energy." Teachers who take too much initiative will be replaced for their lack of obsequious and deferential behavior. Unpopular minority group status (LGBTs, blacks, latinos, etc.) will be used as factors in decision making. The list goes on and on but the end result is that people will lose their livelihoods at the whim of those in power.

The teachers who survive this reorganization will be young and full of vigor. But the burn-out rate is high in teaching and, given four or five years in the classrooms, especially those of inner city schools, even the hardiest young, bright-eyed idealist will lose some of her enthusiasm and spark. And so teaching will become a stint kind of job, much like service in the military.

Indiana is now poised to join Southern states in passing a "right-to-work" bill (Brave New World Speak for massive anti-union legislation), the tenured teacher is poised to be a relic of the past.

All union jobs and protections will go the way of the dinosaur if we end seniority protections for some workers. We must stand with our educators in ensuring that they don't have an ax hanging over their heads as they try to perform an already difficult job.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Old Worker & Young Boss--Capitalist Anomaly

The Industrial Revolution Was
Revolting in Many Ways
Many cultures respect and revere the elderly. From Native American tribal groups, to the Hmong, the Aka and the other hill tribes of Southeast Asia, natural human communities reserve a special place for those who have given their time, their lives to the work of the society.

In the corporate world the basic equation of learning and life experience is turned on its head. Youth is sought after and prized while age is feared and despised. This may stem from denial and fear of mortality, but, whatever the cause, this reality plays out in a tremendously inhumane fashion.

Just as the loss of decent paying jobs with union protections and benefits affects us all, this dismissal of the elderly should threaten the young as well as the old. It is a waving red flag from a future where every worker is both disposable and interchangeable. The "there are more where you came from" philosophy hurts everyone and that indeterminate future always seems to approach more quickly than any of us want to believe it will.

Due to the fact that the massive generation of baby boomers is now beginning to become old people, we are faced with the prospect of a society that includes a high proportion of members who are "of age." Throw in the unbridled capitalism that has reared its very ugly head of late and you have the makings of workplace disaster. Combined with the slash and burn workings of capitalism we have the odd and unnatural coupling of young bosses and old workers.

Many of us from the baby boom generation will continue working long into our "golden years," not because they love their jobs, but because, from a financial perspective, they have no choice. The boss/worker relationship is a strained, anti-human one under the best of circumstances. When that boss is half your age, the contradictions and unfairness of the system are magnified and rendered more unfair and ridiculous than ever.

For those who have children it is a particularly ironic bind. Older folks are often told what to do by their adult children, but most commonly, this is after a degree of impairment has set in. Workplace interactions between those of different status classifications can range from low-stress and facile to hierarchical and difficult. It all depends on the specific work site and its cultural norms.

But if corporate stratification followed our native instincts and promoted the values of learning and experience, we would take instruction from those among us from those who have had the time to acquire knowledge, our elders. Try to envision a society where leadership ability was proven over time and not awarded for superficial, extraneous factors like youth, beauty, family money, gender and ethnicity. You need to have a good imagination to even begin.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Falling Short in the "Meritocracy"

Which Way Forward?
One of the major myths we grow up with here in the USA is that we live in a meritocracy where brains and hard work are rewarded. The theory is that Americans comprise a homogenized mixture with equal parts this and that and the cream will naturally rise to the top. In other words, George W. Bush earned his spot at Harvard and Chelsea Clinton was the most qualified applicant for her plum position at NBC.

The lie of meritocracy harms people by:
1. Obliterating the reality of socioeconomic class and all other forms of prejudice and discimination.
2. Making tons of folks feel inadequate for their lack of accomplishment.
3. Falsely reassuring the achievers that they are the most intelligent and deserving members of society.

In the capitalist workplace the truth is far more complex. Brains and innate ability comprise part of the story but, in our society, even very smart folks may end up in jail or on the street. The largest component of the ability to function under capitalism is socialization. By that I mean having parents or care-givers who were willing and able to model appropriate behavior. The universal assumption in our culture is that everyone is raised with this kind of exemplary parenting.

Many children, whether from wealth or poverty, are raised with the relatively basic guidelines where good behavior is rewarded and bad behavior punished. But some children, especially if parents are substance abusers or if child rearing is not a priority in their lives, acquire no reliable index of propriety. In these homes whatever action a child initiates will either be followed by a random, totally unpredictable reaction or no reaction at all. There can be know learning of values and norms under these circumstances.

My sister and I were raised in such a home. Being five years her senior, I had the honorary position of her mother in our family. We were pretty much ignored. Our friends envied our lack of supervision as well as the prodigious amount of alcoholic beverages available in our residence. There was usually quite a bit of food in the refrigerator and if we wanted to eat a whole package of Sara Lee brownies washed down with Coca Cola for dinner, that was always an option.

My mother couldn't deal with my curly-kinky hair so she only washed it about once a month. Both my sister and I had the experience of showing up at school without skirts at different times in our early lives. Luckily, we had the wherewithal  to put on tights over our legs.

On the positive side, we became quite adept at navigating through the world because this skill was engendered by necessity at an early age. But later, in the strictly choreographed world of the capitalist workplace, the children of neglect tend to fall down. Since the cultural norms that have been passed to them have come only from superficial observation, not gut-level understanding, the workplace is fraught with hazards. Hierarchy and pecking order are antithetical to those raised without them and, no matter how old I grow to be, I still believe that these are inhuman constructs to begin with.

My dream, as I approach retirement age, is that one day we will create a society big enough to encompass all our differences; our failings as well as accomplishments and hold them, without judgement, as nothing more than what they are: survival strategies. The next step would be to build a culture, expansive and compassionate enough to accept each individual's contribution, their gifts as well as their limitations, with the equanimity of a sane and just society.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Just Stand in the Doorway and Block Up the Hall

Wild Old Women at Bank of America
The title of this post is not only a quick reversal of the famous lines from the Bob Dylan classic, "The Times They are A Changin'" but also a brilliant political strategy naturally and effortlessly utilized by a group calling themselves "Wild Old Women" out of the Bernal Heights neighborhood of San Francisco. These militant "old ladies" shut down a branch of Bank of America by blocking access with their walkers, oxygen tanks, wheelchairs and slow-moving bodies.

The women ages ranged from 69 to 82 and their issues were the same ones that have brought so many people to the streets of late: rising bank rates, foreclosures, the hardship of living on a fixed income as the cost of living rises.

They didn't need to storm the bank. Like the exiled, overlooked and underestimated elderly everywhere, they simply had to show up and get in the way, thereby demonstrating the perfect technique to protest threatened cuts to Medicare and Social Security.

No legal action was taken against the women. But just think of the possibilities. Arresting old people could prove to be the law's worst nightmare. Between special needs, mobility problems and medication requirements, just imagine the monumental inconvenience of, even temporarily, incarcerating the elderly. And then consider the negative media attention it would engender.

These wild old women have undoubtedly tapped into a fantastic idea to be filed away for future use!