Category Archives: U.S. Political Developments
Division Street remains the principal east-west residential artery in Atchison, Kansas. The town is named after a leading defender of slavery who himself “owned” many slaves: David Atchison. A powerful Senator in the pre-Civil War era, Atchison advocated founding the town on the west side of the Missouri River to bridge the Kansas territory with the pro slavery forces of the State of Missouri to the east..
There are signs of a Division Street in all U.S. towns and cities, in the South and the North. The multiple deaths of black men and women at the hands of law enforcement and the ensuing mass protests before and during the pandemic have called our attention to these signs of racial separation and conflict. Let me take you to Indianapolis, Indiana my hometown, the capital of a “free state” prior to the Civil War.
When my family moved there in the mid-1950’s African Americans were virtually banned from purchasing homes north of 42nd Street. Real estate agents would not show homes in my white neighborhood to potential black buyers; banks denied their mortgage applications. I grew up with no African American neighbors and no black children attending my elementary school. In the early 1960’s when support for racial integration and opposition to the City’s discriminatory practices and legislation grew, the neighborhood and City changed. As black families moved into houses in the area, some realtors contributed to the view that they would bring a decline in neighborhood appearance and property values. This widespread expectation did create a white flight to northern Indianapolis suburbs along with increased profits for realtors.
By the time I entered high school in 1960, many of my neighbors were African American. Once the inevitable was accepted, integration took place suddenly and quickly. I learned that one of the black families on my paper route hosted Rev. Martin Luther King on his visits to the city. My graduating class at the City’s premier public high school was half African American and included the school’s first black junior prom queen.
Fifty years after my high school graduation, I was dismayed to learn that not all of my class’ white students took pride in the School’s progress in adapting to a more racially diverse student body. At the reunion in 2014, no reference was made in the program that we had been participants in historic change at the City’s oldest high school. For some attendees, it was evidently no cause for celebration.
In my wife’s Atchison, Kansas hometown, Division Street is a constant reminder of the conflict that continues to divide this country today. The Street’s name also describes the seated U.S. Congress. Republicans want to preserve the filibuster, a measure originated by southern congressmen to defend segregation and subjugation of the black population in the South. In response to Republican legislation in a majority of states to limit voting by persons of color, Democrats have now submitted a bill to protect and expand the right to vote . Without ending the Senate’s filibuster procedure, however, the “For the People Act” has little chance of being approved.
Thanks to the intransigent solidarity of the Republic opposition, expansion of voting rights, substantive measures to reduce income inequality, reform of immigration policies and even urgently needed repair of the nation’s infrastructure will continue to be stalled or voted down. Inoffensive Republican gestures affirming citizens of color continue as the party’s political strategy for the next elections. There was near unanimous Republican approval of a national Juneteenth holiday this year in the Congress. African Americans have for years celebrated the June 19, 1865 freeing of slaves in Texas when a Union general arrived at a State seaport and made the announcement, more than two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. But how many white U.S. citizens now celebrate the Juneteenth holiday?
The spring Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered in Memphis, TN I had a college job in the national headquarters of a leading shoe retailer. There were dozens of low wage “key punch operators”, most of them black and Puerto Rican women and I knew most saw King as a martyred leader. The day before the King funeral, I protested the company’s refusal to give anyone paid time off to watch and was promptly fired. How many U.S. citizens still resent the national holiday in January celebrating his birth? It became a national holiday in 1983 but did not become an official state holiday in all 50 states until the year 2000.
You’ve been picking onions this summer. Now someone is taking you to pick peaches and apples somewhere. You only know it will be as hot as where you picked the onions. As soon as it begins to cool off, the apples will be picked and your visa will expire. Then they take you back to the border crossing.
For three or four years the recruiter returns to take you to the same fields. The orchard owner notices and likes your work. He asks if you’d like to work year round and become a “crew boss”. The pay he mentions exceeds what you ever imagined making.
You are one of the lucky ones. In 2020, there were 213,000 H2A temporary agricultural worker visas issued by the U.S. In 2007 there were 51,000. Ninety three per cent of the 2020 visas were awarded to Mexican farmworkers. Estimates of the total U.S. agriculture work force vary widely but most range from 2 to 3 million workers, both seasonal and year round.
Even as a H2A visa holder you are not eligible for most government services. Your housing is in a field camp, but you are responsible for your health care, sick pay and food when natural disasters or pandemics prevent you from working. Whether you receive any help with these is up to the owner of the fields. That is unless there is an organization like the Migrant Farmworker Assistance Fund (MFAF) of Kansas City.
Since its founding in 1984, the MFWAF has been the catalyst for creating a health clinic and a Head Start early childhood education center. MFAF staff and interns have offered farmworker children after school and summer camp programs, assisted with scholarships and counseled families on opportunities for a college education. Just retired from 39 years as a Legal Aid attorney, the organization’s founder and leader is Suzanne Gladney.
For workers in the orchards and packing sheds an hour drive east of Kansas City, Suzanne’s legal support has been vital. Adults and family members rely on her to negotiate the byzantine and dysfunctional U.S. immigration system. The MFAF legal and other services help ease some of the farmworkers’ transition to year round employment and residency in the U.S..
Many of the workers are from rural Mexico and have never seen a doctor before going to the clinic organized by MFAF. “They say,” Suzanne recently told me, “why go to a doctor? You don’t think I’m dying do you?” Health services and educational opportunities available to workers and family members compensate for the hard labor, long hours, low pay and often poor housing afforded the men and women.
Thanks to MFAF guidance and encouragement, many farmworker children have graduated from nearby high schools and community colleges. A few have continued their studies and one young man is now studying for a PhD at Catholic University in D.C. He completed his Masters’ degree in Memphis where he met his wife-to-be, the principle dancer with the Memphis Ballet. George is one of many success stories of MFAF’s contributions to the lives of Kansas City farmworkers.
In our meeting, I asked Suzanne what keeps her going in her work to maintain funding, guide staff and volunteers, improve living conditions for farmworkers and their families and struggle with U.S. immigration policies. “It’s the stories that help keep me going” she quickly replied.
“May our love not be centered upon ourselves! May this love not incite us to love only those who are like us or to espouse ideas that are simililar to our own! To only love that which resembles us is to love oneself; this is not how to love.”
These are the words of the Malian mystic Tierno Bokar Saalif Taal, a disciple of the Sufi tradition of Islam. The unity of all believers, like the unity of humankind, was basic in his teaching.
“To believe that one’s race or one’s religion is the only possessor of the truth is an error. This could not be. Indeed, in its nature, faith is like air. Like air, it is indispensable for human life and one could not find one man who does not believe truly and sincerely in something. Human nature is such that it is incapable of not believing in something, whether that is God or Satan, power or wealth, or good or bad luck.”
Tierno (pronounced ‘Chair-no’) Bokar grew up in a devout Muslim household surrounded by social conflict in Segou, a major town of southern Mali. While periodic battles threatened the population, his mother, aunt and grandmother taught and lived the virtues of love and charity. Following his father’s flight with one of the contending militias, Tierno and family settled at 18 in the village of Bandiagara where he lived the rest of his life. As a man who exemplified modesty and humility, he taught that God bestowed faith and wisdom on all peoples regardless of their level of technological advance or education.
His leading disciple Amadou Hampate Ba wrote that Tierno said, “Contrary to what usually happens, one should therefore not be surprised to find spiritual riches in someone from a people considered as backward, but one should instead be troubled at not finding them in civilized individuals who have long worked on developing their material lives.” Ba urged us to remember that all of Tierno’s words “came out of a modest room of dried earth, in the heart of black Africa, in 1933”. Amadou Ba’s 1957 record, published in French, of his master’s teaching was titled A Spirit of Tolerance: The Inspiring Life of Tierno Bokar in the 2008 English translation.
Mali was a French colony and after the Catholic Director of the Office of Muslim Affairs read Amadou Ba’s rough transcript of Tierno’s words, he wrote,
“These were words in their pure state, words spoken not to exalt man, neither speakers nor listener, but rather truly animating words, spoken with such sincere feeling for the other as to cause god to lie in the heart of the unbeliever, to vivify his faith, and to give a meaning to the lives of everyone.”
At the age of 33 Tierno Bokar opened his school, or “zawiya”, in Bandiagara. It was where Amadou Ba began his education. After years of study in the French schools of “French Soudan”, Ba spent six months in 1933 with Tierno, his first and foremost teacher. He took copious notes recording for himself and others what this master of wisdom and faith taught.
Apart from his teachings of tolerance and the unity of humankind, Tierno Bokar appealed to his pupils to find what God was trying to communicate to us through our senses and the “Book of Life”. As Jesus sought to do with the parables, Tierno often based his lessons on seeking the meaning of commonly shared experience. Amadou Ba’s book tells a moving story of his teacher repairing a bird nest and follows it with Tierno recounting an incident when his dog served him as an example of faithfulness. Ba comments, “For him, all of nature, animals and plants included, should be respected because they are not only our nourishing Mother, but they are, moreover, the great divine Book wherein everything is a living symbol and a source of teaching.”
During the six month sabbatical from his post in the French colonial administration Ba asked Tierno whether it was good to study other religions. The “sage of Bandiagara” replied,
“You will gain enormously by knowing about the various forms of religion. Believe me, each one of these forms, however strange it may seem to you, contains that which can strengthen your own faith. Certainly faith, like fire, must be maintained by means of an appropriate fuel in order for it to blaze up. Otherwise , it will dim and decrease in intensity and volume and turn into embers then from embers to coals and from coals to ashes.”
Tierno Bokar then added, “That which varies in the diverse forms of Religion – for there can only be one Religion- are the individual contributions of human beings interpreting the letter with the laudable aim of placing religion within the reach of the men of their time. As for the sources of religion itself,” he went on to say, “it is a pure and purifying spark that never varies in time or space, a spark which God breathes into the spirit of man at the same time as He bestows speech upon him.”
With his emphasis on love and humility, Tierno’s teachings on religious tolerance came naturally. A plea for the unity of all believers accompanied his teaching on tolerance:
“Brothers of all religions, let us in God lower the boundaries that separate us. Down with the artificial creations that pit human being against each other….. Let us fly as an eagle with powerful wings towards the union of hearts towards a religion that is not inclined towards the exclusion of other ‘credos’ but towards the universal union of believers, freed from their own selves and morally liberated from the appetites of this world.”
Tierno advocated respect and acceptance for Christian missionaries and colonial officials: “This religion, which Jesus sought to deliver and which was loved by Muhammad, is that which, like pure air, is in permanent contact with the sun of Truth and Justice, as well as with the Love of the Good and Charity for all.”
It is with excitement that I introduce most of you readers to the teaching of Tierno Bokar. I am looking forward to re reading Ba’s book again and expect it will soon fill with my scrawled notes and comments. The lessons of a heightened awareness of what is going on around us in nature, the animal and plant realms in particular, hold a special appeal for me as I approach three quarters of a century in age. I also plan to order the only other book I know of that treats Tierno’s insights on God’s presence. Published in 1984 it is by the author of the introduction to Ba’s book, Dr. Louis Brenner, and is titled West African Sufi: The Religious Heritage and Spiritual Search of Cerno Bokar Saalife Tall .
Five years after our move from California to the Missouri side of Kansas City, I thought the culture shock was behind me. I did know and had told friends that the adjustment was felt here more than adapting to life in San Luis Potosi in central Mexico. Until now though I hadn’t really grappled with the vast differences of life in the State of Missouri after thirty plus years in California. The response of people in Missouri to the COVID pandemic, especially in the rural areas of the State, reflects a gulf in outlook and values much greater than I had heretofore realized.
According to a “WalletHub” study, there is now a greater risk of contracting the COVID -19 in Missouri than in any other state in the U.S. Health facilities in the southern part of the State are now overwhelmed by the number of COVID infected patients. The fire chief in Springfield, the largest town in southern Missouri, stated last week “This is a mass casualty event, happening in slow motion” and declared, “Our community is in crisis”. Low vaccination rates particularly in southwestern Missouri are the major factor in the high death rates from COVID. The CEO of the Springfield’s Greene County Health Department tweeted, “Likely all recent deaths were avoidable with vaccination, perhaps a few would have had cold like symptoms.”
Although health officials in the area continue to plead the case for vaccination, resistance is still high. Head of Cox Health Services, which manages several hospitals in southwest Missouri, declared, “If you could see the exhaustion in the eyes of our nurses who keep zipping up body bags, we beg you.” Taney County, with a Cox Hospital in Branson, ranked number 10 in the nation in new infections the week after the July 4 holiday. Only one in four persons in the County has been vaccinated.
Resistance to vaccination accompanies resistance to mask wearing by many people in Missouri. The town of Nixa with 21,000 residents south of Springfield, will soon vote on whether to remove its mayor. Infuriated by the mayor’s imposition of a mask wearing ordinance last October, citizens petitioned for the recall vote. Missouri’s Governor Mike Parson who hails from southern Missouri has customarily made public appearances maskless and contends it is a “personal matter”. But the alarming climb of the rate of COVID infections in his State has now led him to request federal assistance in combatting the virus. His official bio still claims that “Missouri has outperformed projections for both COVID-19 and the economy and continues to meet each challenge head on”.
Surpassing the Governor’s influence on COVID response in southern Missouri has been the former President’s laissez-faire attitude on citizen protection. There was no challenging of the 2020 presidential election results after Trump was backed by 57 % of Missouri voters. His support in the southern part of the State was overwhelming. Three counties in the south which are expected to see a tripling of COVID cases in coming weeks voted for the defeated incumbent by a 76%, 78% and 82% margin.
With multiple health care officials at the State and local levels emphasizing the spread of COVID in Missouri, the Governor has urged a calm response. “I don’t think we need to be out there trying to scare people into taking a vaccine” Parson told reporters after a Kansas City press conference. That statement followed his warning that the federal aid in Missouri’s anti-virus efforts should not include a door to door information campaign. A White House official called the Governor’s description of the federal three-pronged plans a “mischaracterization”.
Political posturing in the Governor’s fulfilling his responsibilities is especially lamentable when so many poor nations are now pleading for access to the vaccine. Due to the recent assassination of the country’s President, we in the U.S. now are aware there have been no COVID vaccination programs in Haiti. As of mid May, the UN reported that less than 2% of the vaccinations in the world have been administered in Africa. Although widely available throughout the State of Missouri, less than 40% of the population has chosen to be vaccinated.
Amazon employees are joining internationally to oppose the mega corporation’s squeezing of its workers for huge gains in profits and stock price. While the loss of the Alabama vote to form a union disappointed, the company is facing a swelling tide of indignation over the heartless treatment of its workers. One of them who helped lead the organizing at the Bessemer, Alabama warehouse pointed to the international impact of their movement. 58 year old Perry Connelly told In These Times that the organizing team realized that if a union could be formed in the most anti-union region of the U.S. “we’ll be making a huge difference not only in Alabama, but globally”.
Coinciding with the end of voting in Alabama, workers went on strike at six Amazon warehouses in Germany on the Monday of Easter week. The German strike was planned with the traditional Easter buying surge as well as the customary Polish workers’ holiday in mind. This prevented the company from relying on its Polish Amazon warehouses to fill the season’s orders. A worker at one of the German Amazon “fulfillment centers”, the company’s term for its warehouses, led in organizing Amazon Workers International (AWI) that has enlisted workers at 175 Amazon facilities worldwide.
Another German Amazon worker described coordinated international strikes as Amazon’s “biggest fear”. He went on to summarize the importance of the Alabama struggle to form a union, “If there’s a union in the USA, this will multiply,” he said and further emphasized, “If one fulfilment center falls, everything will go.” His assessment is supported by the magnitude and variety of Amazon tactics to defeat the union in Alabama.
The company initially counted 1500 workers as the warehouse labor force but at the National Labor Relations Board hearing two months later (after the U.S. presidential election) submitted 5,800 as the total. The union organizers had no trouble garnering the threshold of 30% of the work force’s signatures to hold the election, but they could not counter the intimidation tactics that led many card-signing workers to vote no.
The company had Bessemer change the location of traffic lights to force organizers to contact workers directly in front of the warehouse entrance. A postal service mailbox was installed in the facility parking lot and employees were encouraged to use it for their election ballots. Outspoken union supporters were removed from and/or not allowed in the mandatory anti-union one hour “training sessions” the company repeatedly held in the pre-election period. A few days after its defeat, the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU) filed 23 complaints with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). Not included in the list of charges is the fact that Amazon hired a consultant with the Center for Independent Employees to advise on how to defeat the union. The Center receives substantial funding from the ultra-conservative billionaire Charles Koch and its President also heads RWP Labor which declares its mission is to maintain union-free workplaces across the U.S.
Amazon’s intimidation of individual employees and threats to cut pay and benefits, if not close the warehouse, are standard tactics in U.S. companies’ response to union organizing. Widespread media coverage of the Alabama vote along with support by the Biden administration have helped call attention to the need for the U.S. Senate to pass the House bill to Protect the Right to Organize or PRO Act. Nearly all the anti-union practices deployed by Amazon during the Bessemer campaign would be illegal under the PRO legislation.
In his summary of how U.S. labor law currently favors companies in their defeat of union organizing one union official drew a comparison. “Imagine the 2020 elections but only [former President Donald] Trump was allowed to talk to voters” Ryan Kekeris told journalist Rebekah Entralgo. “Biden had to stay in Canada and shout over the border, and Trump and his supporters had unfettered access to corral U.S. voters into a room, forbid you from leaving, and tell you that you had to vote for Trump,” Kekeris continued. He concluded by noting, “Now imagine that under the eyes of the law this is considered completely fair and legal. That is how U.S. labor law works right now.”
Senate passage of the PRO Act appears unlikely but the U.S. Labor Relations Board (NLRB) may well call for another vote in the Bessemer Amazon warehouse. And the Alabama workers’ dramatic and bold example has fired organizing at warehouses in Baltimore, New Orleans, Portland, Denver, and southern California. Rev. William Barber of the Poor Peoples Campaign stated following the announcement of the defeat in Alabama, “This is just the first round.” He emphasized that “Amazon did things to intimidate and suppress the vote”. The North Carolina-based leader praised the Alabama workers as having “set a fresh trend in the South”.
Likely to be of even greater concern to Amazon in the long run is the progress made among labor organizers in creating ties with workers in the U.S. and internationally. There are currently an estimated 1,538 Amazon facilities in the world: 290 in Europe, 294 in India and 887 in North America. When workers went on strike at 15 of the company’s warehouses in Italy, some carried banners that read, “From Piacenza to Alabama – One Big Union”. A Dutch Amazon worker involved in the international organization Make Amazon Pay told The Intercept last year, “Amazon is able to build power by operating on a global level without opposition”. Concluding his case for support of its work force uniting across borders, he noted, “We have to match the transnational scope of its organization with an internationalist strategy.”
On this Good Friday in the U.S. we await the result of the most significant union organizing drive in decades. Workers in Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama warehouse have voted this month on creating the first collective bargaining unit in one of this country’s multiple Amazon “fulfillment centers”. A yes vote will mean the 6,000 Bessemer warehouse workers will negotiate on their wages, benefits and working conditions that now are determined solely by the corporation’s management and board with the aim of maximizing profits and the price of company stock.
With growth of the global economy in the late sixties and early seventies, the number and strength of union organized workers has fallen dramatically in the U.S. As manufacturing jobs in “heavy industries” like steel and automobile have grown overseas, they have been replaced by jobs in the retail sales, restaurants and fast food, transport and warehouses of the “service sector”. Global trade distributes products to consumers around the world products made outside their country’s borders. This applies as well to purchases made by U.S. manufacturing companies for assembly of their products.
The largest retail sales company in the U.S. and the world today did not exist before 1962. Wal Mart was founded and has grown on a business plan wholly dependent on the global economy and lower costs for labor. Advances in shipping and air transport permitted the company to rely on importing products made at much lower wages, from China in particular, and selling them in sprawling stores at prices below the competition. Low wage labor overseas was complemented by steadfast, and often fierce, opposition to unions being formed by their U.S. workers. The result is a dependence by many Wal Mart workers on meager U.S. government programs of food stamps, health care, and housing.
Little progress in union organizing has been made in the past five decades among the U.S. service industries’ workers. Prevailing anti-union media references, the dwindling power and funding of union organizing and state and federal governments’ failure to defend the right to organize have militated against the organizing of service sector workers. The “neo-liberal” economic policies proposed by politicians of both parties, ex-President Clinton being the leading example among Democrats, have left workers with little support from those in power.
Among President Biden’s programs and positions representing reform of U.S. capitalism the most significant among them could be the administration’s outspoken support for unions and organized labor. A former union leader has been named to the Cabinet position of Secretary of Labor for the first time in fifty years. More vigilant oversight of company malpractice in opposing organizing and the holding of elections is promised. And President Biden himself has urged Amazon workers to vote yes on a union at the Alabama warehouse. These gestures could signal growing recognition of the role of organized labor in creating a stronger economy and healthier social climate in this country.
The organizing campaign among the Alabama Amazon workers has been aided by an international effort to “Make Amazon Pay” higher taxes in all countries where the company operates and by Amazon’s shoddy treatment of its workers during the pandemic. At the outset its white collar staff were told to work from home while the warehouse workers were offered unlimited unpaid leave. As consumer orders immediately increased in March 2020, the company raised the hourly wage $2 an hour and doubled overtime pay to further motivate workers. For workers proving a positive COVID test result for themselves or a family member, two weeks of paid leave was offered.
Once Amazon had hired more workers for its 500 U.S. warehouses, the unpaid unlimited sick leave was rescinded in May 2020 and the wage increases revoked the next month. By July the total shareholder value of Amazon had increased $500 million to $1.4 trillion confirming founder Jeff Bezos’ status as the richest person in the world. Company growth did not lead to favorable responses by unionized workers in the European countries where Amazon operates and the workers in Germany announced a strike prior to Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. Amazon then trumpeted the awarding of Thanksgiving worker bonuses amounting to $300 for full time workers and $150 for its part-time workers.
The Amazon worker bonuses received an unanticipated reaction from the global coalition which organized Black Friday protests in 15 countries. UNI Global Union, Amazon Workers International and other participating groups in a statement noted Bezos could give $105,000 bonuses to every Amazon employee and not have lost in net wealth during the spread of the COVID virus. The coalition statement on Black Friday last year faulted the company’s impact on the environment asserting that its “growing delivery and cloud computing businesses are accelerating climate breakdown”. Amazon’s “carbon footprint” is “larger than two thirds of all countries in the world” the multiple coalition groups, including OXFAM, the Sunrise Movement and Public Citizen, stated. A coalition leader, Global Union’s Christy Hoffman, responded to the Thanksgiving worker bonuses, “To show it values its workforce, Amazon should collectively bargain wages and conditions with workers throughout its operations, rather than make one time unilateral gestures”.
Unlike the U.S. employees, Amazon workers in most of the countries where Black Friday protests took place have been able to organize unions to negotiate with the company and/or appeal to the courts to address their needs. Activist workers in this country are vulnerable to being fired with no defense by a union. Support for Amazon organizing from the Biden administration could also foretell increased pressure to pay higher taxes in this country. Tax avoidance through the use of profit shifting, tax havens and loopholes enabled the company to pay just under 2 per cent of its profits in 2019 tax reporting and no taxes in the previous two years. In the country where it was founded and still has its headquarters, Amazon pays little to nothing to uphold the public infrastructure and the “common good”.
There is now growing recognition in this country that major corporations devote little attention, let alone concern, to the “common good” or the well being of their rank and file workers. Executive compensation and performance of the company stock are given priority through their public relations campaigns, tax dodges, hire of anti-union consultants and dismissal of workers with complaints. The grotesque preoccupation with profit taking by executives and company boards dehumanizes all participants in an economy which threatens world survival. On this Good Friday, the U.S. worker hangs on a cross of corporate greed. There is more at stake in the Amazon worker vote than just forming a union in one “fulfillment center”, as the company calls its warehouses. Amazon’s fear is justified that a worker victory in Alabama will lead to organizing campaigns among its warehouse employees nationwide. We can only hope that is the outcome.
The title “Every Single Other” comes from a kind of mantra we recite at the end of worship at Peace Christian Church which my partner and I, both retired ordained Christian ministers, attend. The congregation is affiliated with two theologically progressive denominations in the United States, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
“Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s spirit is in them – living and breathing God. Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life.” Ro 8:5-6 (The Message Peterson translation)
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton was on his customary shopping rounds in Louisville, waiting on a busy downtown street for the traffic light to change. The sidewalks were crowded with people and suddenly Merton experienced what he described as an epiphany. He saw each person as he imagined God saw them. All of them in search of meaning and joy. All in need of love. He wrote in his Confessions of a Guilty Bystander “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness.” Merton’s “epiphany” helped guide him for the rest of his life.
A former member of Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement, Michael Harrington, wrote the small book that helped guide the policies and programs of the Kennedy and Johnson Administration’s War on Poverty. The Other America detailed with current statistics the suffering of the poor from hunger, illnesses, violence and broken families. It helped lay the groundwork for the civil and human rights legislation that moved the nation closer to its founding vision of “liberty and justice for all”. It helped lay the groundwork for Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and expanded aid for persons injured at work.
I’ve thought about that book while watching and supporting the nationwide Poor People’s Campaign over the last two and a half years. The Campaign now is active in organizing and partnering with other groups in calls for a living wage, for union representation of workers, for Medicare for All, for giving voice to the demands of low wage workers and the unemployed. The Campaign highlights current conditions of 140 million poor and low income persons in the U.S. Since the 60’s little has been done legislatively to improve housing, health care, and wage security for the “other America”. Many view state and federal policies after 1980 as constituting a “war on the poor” in contrast to the progress of the War on Poverty towards a more just society.
Years after his epiphany on the Louisville street corner, Merton wrote a sentence that for me beautifully captures the struggle we all, Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, those with and without faith in a loving Creator, face in loving “every single other”. It returns to me again and again as a prayer to leave behind “obsession with the self” and be freed to lead a more “spacious life”. Merton wrote, “If today I hear God’s voice, may I not reject a softer, more compassionate heart.” With the spirit of this prayer in mind, I wrote a poem/prayer shortly before the U.S. presidential election that imagines the hardening of heart we must overcome to help bring about a government “of, by and for the people” (Lincoln’s description of our political system). The poem tries to direct our attention to those rendered voiceless and to some of the characteristics of a heart that has hardened.
Election Time in the Super Power
Hear our prayer, O Lord –
Of the silenced, unseen, unheard,
Of the devalued and degraded,
Of those known by their labels,
Of all considered disposable when they
are considered at all.
Let our cries come to You, O Lord –
By those who confuse ambition with conviction,
By neighbors who cede power
to one who boasts of his own.
By all brought up to doubt and never trust,
By all who seek to preserve their
dignity with falsehood,
Hear our prayer, O Lord –
For us whose ‘we’ keeps shrinking,
For the others known by their fangs,
For those who must prepare for a future in peril,
For us all whose freedom comes at a cost.
The winter solstice of 2020 also brought the “Great Conjunction” of the planets Saturn and Jupiter. The event was hailed by many as the return of the “Star of Bethlehem” which guided the magi to the manger cradle of the baby Jesus. Although that designation remains conjecture, there is no disputing that 2020 was an extraordinary year in the life of our world.
As we begin 2021 with vaccines, the eagerness to return to “normal” is tempered by what we have learned during the past year. The failures of the U.S. in protecting and treating its citizenry during the pandemic and yet more graphic evidence of the nation’s devaluing of its black residents and persons of color in general cry out for change. It is as though the guardians of our hyper individualistic political and economic order must in 2021 ponder the needs of the disadvantaged and discriminated and allow significant change to begin to take shape.
The poem following reflects on this time of “Kairos”, crisis, and chaos and what the “Great Conjunction” of 2020 might be messaging us.
The Great Conjunction Phenomenal but how interpret the orbits’ coincidence? A tryst, a search, a studied return or a reconciliation? Don’t ask Galileo since his lenses were trained elsewhere. Your answer discloses clues of what you were looking for. Its appearance yet a visitation while longing for connection Fed by centuries of bearing us to a place of rebirth Or bearing us to our contemplation starving for a sign. On first sighting the illumination turned the lens back on us Turned where the ancient message belonged before we left the slime When the addressee remained unknown with no forwarding As we hurtled through the heavens fiddling to our end. The clock ticks toll louder ‘til defeaned by the rage We find ourselves released to join the dance of heavens’ embrace Calling us to explore the wink of elements in our lives. What do the lights tell us now that we know they are two Their brief approach again creating that great light For the seers and all those who notice such things And allows our access to all the darkness within our complicity in the scheme of things which ignores the magi who returned from the cradle of love a new way Wondering if the babe will overcome 456 million miles of separation.
David Gilbert, U.S. political prisoner for nearly 40 years, is serving a 75 year to life sentence in New York State prisons. Last month five Nobel Peace Prize laureates and multiple interfaith religious leaders, including the chief ministers of four U.S. Protestant denominations, signed a November letter calling for his release. In 1981Gilbert participated in the “expropriation” of $1.6 million from a Brinks armored van at a Nyack, NY shopping center. Two police officers and a Brinks guard were killed and Gilbert with two other veterans of the Weather Underground were apprehended at a roadblock that night. Although unarmed as the driver of a getaway van, Gilbert and all other participants in the action received lengthy sentences.
Seeds of remorse for the victims’ families and regret for his participation in the action were planted at his trial. In his 2014 book Love and Struggle: My Life in SDS, the Weather Underground, and Beyond he described a disturbing incident during the trial. “Trying to show that life sentences didn’t deter revolutionaries, I declared that the issues that motivated us to fight—the depth of racism in the US and the millions of people killed each year by the economies and wars imposed by imperialism—were much larger than three lives. I meant the three of us facing life in prison.” He goes on to note, “But when I said ‘three lives,’ I caught a glimpse of a woman in the court who flinched as if I had struck her. Only later did it dawn on me that she was a relative of one of the men killed on October 20, thinking, feeling, that those three lives were the ones I was dismissing so cavalierly.”
In 37 years of incarceration, David has led an exemplary life. Soon after one of the other Brinks action participants died of AIDS in prison, Gilbert started an HIV/AIDS education outreach program. One former prisoner recently wrote, “It was at Dave’s urging that I took the HIV/AIDS Peer Training Class which he had developed. It changed my life and that of so many family and friends at that time and up to this very day.” Under Gilbert’s patient encouragment, Jerome Wright enrolled in college classes while incarcerated and became an HIV/AIDS peer trainer. The older white man with “an undying commitment to not only bring out the best in people” is credited with turning Wright’s life around. He sums up David’s impact on his life here, “The person who, more than anyone, is responsible for helping me–along with literally hundreds of other young people–become a productive and contributing member of society is still in prison today.”
The letter appealing to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo begins with these words, “The extraordinary October 3, 2020 Papal Encyclical calls for ‘a better kind of politics’ based on rethinking social charity and justice approaches to the death penalty, and ‘forgiving not forgetting.’ We write with those sentiments in mind, aware that inordinately long prison sentences are designed more for punishment and revenge than rehabilitation and remorse.” One of the letter co-signers, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu had previously written his own letter in support of David Gilbert’s release. He wrote in his letter, “our common beliefs in renewal, rehabilitation, and positive change all provide a foundation which makes it possible for Governor Cuomo to grant freedom.”
Another noteworthy supporter of the 76 year old’s release during the spread of COVID among U.S. prisoners is newly elected San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin. Son of David and Kathy Boudin, the Rhodes Scholar campaigned for the position of the City’s chief prosecutor by arguing that prison sentences should be used only as a last resort. An article this year in Mother Jones magazine reported, “during the pandemic, he has tried to find alternatives to jail for people who are older or medically vulnerable. And he helped reduce San Francisco’s jail population by 40 percent since January.” In the same article District Attorney Boudin laments the dangers threatening his father and other elderly and COVID vulnerable persons as the pandemic spreads. “They are not a public safety risk,” he stated. “They have all served long prison terms—they’ve changed, they’ve grown old.”
The aging revolutionary has not changed his forthright advocacy for revolutionary change in the U.S. In a podcast interview last year, he continued to describe himself as “an anti-imperialist political prisoner”. He then went on to say, “It’s funny to define yourself as anti-imperialist, but that’s a reflection of how much domination and oppression define the current society. I’m really pro-people. I’m for all people of the world to have a chance to flourish, and against all the ways people are limited and abused and demeaned. To me, imperialism is the best way to sum up those structures of domination.”
While it was the U.S. civil rights movement of African Americans that opened Gilbert’s eyes politically at age 15, internationalism and international solidarity shape his political positions today. In the same interview last year he cited where he finds hope. The wisdom of his response indirectly makes a powerful case for his immediate release. “Love can defeat hate. That our sense of humanity is bound up with everybody else and with the natural world. And this can be awakened in everyone if there’s a chance, and there’s an opportunity. And if we create a world where people have a chance to develop their creative powers, we can solve all kinds of problems. So yes, I’m anti-Imperialist as I said at the beginning but that means that I’m for humanity and for nature and we have that potential.” During 37 plus years of reflection, study and writing in the “involuntary monasticism” of prison, David Gilbert has changed and our country and the world would benefit from granting this revolutionary change agent the freedom to tell us how and why.
The defeat of Donald Trump in the U.S. election marks another significant victory for nonviolent resisters over those who would hold on to power. In the face of strategies of voter suppression and outright disenfranchisement of voters of color, the U.S. voter turnout was the largest in history. For many U.S. citizens, the election will be remembered as the only national election in which the current administration orchestrated a campaign to subvert and ultimately reject the outcome.
From jeopardizing the safety of mail-in absentee ballots to pressuring Republican election commissioners to withhold or oppose certification of the results, the subversion of the voting began early and continued after the Biden win had been declared. Two weeks after the election, the President hosted at the White House the two white commissioners in Detroit, an 80 per cent African American city, in an effort to discredit the voting in the swing state of Michigan.
That Trump and the Republicans failed can be attributed primarily to unprecedented participation in the election by persons of color and the impact of voter registration drives especially in Georgia. A southern State which a Democratic presidential candidate had not won since 1992 went for Biden and will determine who holds a Senate majority with their run off voting for their two allotted Senators in January. Georgia is a prime example of effective nonviolent resistance to voter suppression and other Republican efforts to rig the election.
We can now include the United States in the list of countries where nonviolent civil resistance has protected the democratically expressed will of the people. Also in 2020, massive demonstrations in Malawi in southern Africa denied an incumbent president’s third term. The election there followed the ruling by the nation’s highest court that the 2019 announced results defied credibility and demanded a rerun of the voting. Multiple examples of the defense of people’s rule by movements of civil resistance have attracted the attention of more political scientists in the U.S. and elsewhere.
A post-election article in The New Yorker titled “How to Stop a Power Grab” focused on the work of Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth. In her 2011 book Why Civil Resistance Works Chenoweth and co author Maria Stephan analyze how in the last century nonviolent campaigns of resistance proved more than twice as effective as those employing violence in achieving their goals. A memorable example cited by the two authors is the mass organizing of protests which rule brought the Shah of Iran’s regime to an end in 1979
Apart from the effective mobilization of voters in the U.S., we expect to experience more change resulting from the Black Lives Matter nonviolent protests in cities across the nation in 2020. Reforms in oversight of policing and in budgeting for public safety and mental health are among the topics prioritized now in many City Councils. Despite the administration’s attempts to blame outbreaks of violence on protestors, evidence has emerged that counter-protestors, many of them heavily armed white supremacists, provoked the violence and any looting that occurred. This year of 2020 highlights then a major shift from expressing rage and opposition by endorsement and practice of violent practices such as those the U.S. and Europe experienced in the 1960’s and 70’s to the recognition and embrace of nonviolent resistance in this nation today.
U.S. citizens, young and old, intent on helping create a more just, equitable economic order and further democracy are intent on applying nonviolent tactics in making change possible. This is cause for celebration and gratitude among those who will always lament the suppression of the movements for change fifty years ago which succumbed to and foundered on their resort to violence. Armed with the experience of the Gandhian movement for Indian independence, the civil rights gains of nonviolent protestors in the 60’s and multiple nonviolent social change achievements of the last century, change agents and activists today represent a “force more powerful” than the armies of empire and autocracy.
So who holds now “the spiritual atom bomb”? In 1965 Chinese Defense Minister Lin Piao coined the phrase in an article in the Chinese Communist Party newspaper when he declared “the spiritual atom bomb that the revolutionary people possess is a far more powerful and useful weapon than the physical atom bomb.” In an essay entitled “Who Has the Spiritual Atom Bomb?” Rev. A.J. Muste envisions U.S. unilateral disarmament as the answer to Piao’s advocacy of violence and the world’s acceptance that “power comes out of the barrel of a gun”. With ample evidence provided in this year’s political developments “revolutionary people” in the U.S. know mass nonviolent resistance will represent the “spiritual atom bomb” for years to come.
Note: For more on A.J. Muste, the organizer of nonviolent resistance protests from the era of WWI through the Vietnam War, see this website’s 2020 blogs of March 3, April 1 and April 21.