“I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.” – Langston Hughes “Rivers”
As we in the U.S. grope to imagine becoming a nation respecting, honoring and celebrating its multi-ethnic heritage, music can help us find some encouragement and direction. An argument can be made that the most powerful arm of U.S. culture exported worldwide has grown from its body of music.
This year’s release of the music documentary Summer of Soul bolsters our hope that the day of multi-ethnic reconciliation and embrace may still come. It’s hard to imagine a sane human being claiming the U.S. as a white nation after viewing this masterful survey of 1960’s black popular music. Stunning footage of performances at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival inspired the film and will continue to inspire a new vision of ethnic harmony for the country’s future.
Throughout the 60’s Harlem could be described as a community divided by the turmoil of radical change demanded by its leaders. Malcolm X and not Rev. Dr. King carried more credibility and weight among Harlem’s change makers when the Cultural Feastival was organized. Not far from the Harlem Park where the concerts took place, a demented black woman had stabbed Dr. King in the chest. “If I had sneezed”, Dr. King proclaimed in later speeches, “I would not be with you here today”. A doctor measured the wound as a few millimeters from the heart. In 1969, eleven years after the attempted assassination, Harlem’s cultural and political activists were even more divided.
Featuring a staggering assembly of musical styles and talent, Summer of Soul represented the largest gathering of “Negroes” many in the audience had ever experienced. Most viewers, myself included, will be introduced by the film to the gospel choir “The Edwin Hawkins Singers” led by a young woman who looks like she could have just left a southern field after a hard work day. Their rendition of “Oh Happy Day” had me feel like the heavens were opening up. That segment was followed by thirty year old Mavis Staples singing the first verse of “Precious Lord” at the request of Dr. King’s favorite singer Mahalia Jackson.
An instructive footnote added by the film’s debut director Questlove tells us Roebuck Staples, “Pops” to the Staple sisters, was picking cotton in Mississippi when he taught himself the guitar. With daughter Mavis Staples’ insightful commentary on what the concert event meant to her and to the Harlem community interspersed with the incomparable depth of her singing, Mavis Staples was the headliner of the documentary for this viewer.
Still singing powerfully at age 82, her influence on the current and future history of U.S. music is unfathomable. Bob Dylan in a recent magazine interview reminisced about listening to Mavis on his 45 rpm. turntable as a high schooler. It is noteworthy that in Hibbing, Minnesota where he grew up very few “Negroes” lived or were even seen. Dylan told the interviewer he had his first crush on Mavis Staples.
As for U.S. black music’s impact on whites in the south, B.B. King’s singing of “Why I Sing the Blues” takes us back to the Alabama-born Big Mama Thornton. Her recording of “Hound Dog” when covered by Elvis Presley at Memphis’ Sun Studio sent his career to the stars and became his signature number in the superstar’s pure rock ‘n roll years.
Within a year of the “Hound Dog” release I saw Elvis perform in Fort Wayne, IN. Gaining access to his dressing room with the friend whose father wrote up the event for the Indianapolis News, it was my first encounter with fame and talent. That is until I experienced the incandescent explosion of energy and joy in a performance of Jackie Wilson at the Apollo Theater in 1965.
A black high school senior in Paterson NJ invited me to accompany him that night, the first of a few concerts at the legendary Harlem auditorium where I attended a few concerts in the mid-1960’s. After visiting Stanley’s relatives in a spacious ground floor Harlem apartment, undoubtedly the first white person not a landlord or government agent to enter there, my friend bought our tickets for the middle of the first balcony. When Jackie Wilson brought out the cape, red on one side and black on the other, and performed “Your Love is Lifting Me Higher” for over a half hour women swarmed to the stage below us. No genre of musical performance in my lifetime has ever topped it. Van Morrison’s hit “What Jackie Wilson Said” testifies to Wilson’s enduring influence on U.S. pop music.
As does the film’s segment of Sly and the Family Stone on “I Want to Take You Higher”. One of the “talking heads” taped for the documentary speaks of Sly Stone breaking black music’s color barrier by including a white drummer and singers in his band. Sly wanted to help build the groundwork for a new society with his hit “Everyday People”, another performance highlight of Summer of Soul. The potential merger of blacks’ hunger for social change with the boomer generation’s search for alternatives to the degraded values of capitalist America reached a kind of apotheosis with the black group Fifth Dimension. Their leader recounts finally getting in to see “Hair” at a Broadway theater and being blown away by the cast’s singing of “Aquarius” and “Let the Sunshine In”. The Fifth Dimension’s melding of the two songs remained number one on the hit parade for weeks and became the top hit of 1969.
Although Dr. King’s disciple and the founder of the Operation Breadbasket movement Rev. Jesse Jackson took over the stage to introduce Mavis and Mahalia, it was the prophetic voice of Nina Simone who interpreted
most forcefully the political context of the Harlem Cultural Festival. Trained as a classical pianist of great promise, Simone took the stage with the ziggaraut-like hair styling and large gold hoop earrings of an African princess and began singing a fierce “Backlash Blues”. It reminded her audience that white America was preparing for its suppression of the Festival’s vision and hope with California’s 1967 election of Governor Ronald Reagan.
“Mr. Backlash, Mr. Backlash
Just who do you think I am?
You raise my taxes, freeze my wages
And send my son to Vietnam”
Nina Simone sang and the tenor of her song’s hope struck a new and different note:
“But the world is big
Big and bright and round
And it’s full of folks like me
Who are black, yellow, beige and brown”
The song concludes with the promise that it would be Mr. Backlash who some day would be the one singing the blues.
It is not surprising that the two lead movie reviewers of the New York Times placed Summer of Soul at the top of their consensus choices of the ten best movies of 2021. They wrote, “the film is more than a time capsule: It’s a history lesson and an argument for why art matters — and what it can do — in times of conflict and anxiety.” You can watch the film on the streaming service of Hulu which offers a thirty day free trial without ads.
For years Mexican women crossed the border for an abortion in the U.S. Until medication was developed which can terminate a pregnancy the options in Mexico were limited in the second most Roman Catholic country in the world. Following the unanimous Mexican Supreme Court September decision ruling the border State of Coahuila’s anti-abortion law unconstitutional, Mexican activists have been offering assistance to Texas women seeking an abortion.
Co-founder of the Coahuila women’s rights organization Accompañtes Laguna, Laura Hernández, told The New Yorker they had already helped 3 U.S. women and are establishing the protocol to aid more. “It’s painful to know that not everyone can access the same rights,” Hernández said. “We feel a great responsibility toward women there.”
Two drugs enable a woman to terminate a pregnancy. While they both require a prescription in the U.S., in Mexico they are prescribed for treatment of gastric ulcers and other disorders and sold over the counter. As the Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk Gerson explains however, a new Texas law criminalizes delivering those medications to women in the seventh week of pregnancy and beyond, potentially placing at risk anyone making them available.
Another Mexican Right to Choose organization, Las Libres (“The Free Ones”) is now busy building a “confidential network to give women instructions on use of the drugs and accompanying them throughout the procedure.” They offer close oversight on the day the medication is administered and daily check-ins thereafter. A Las Libres organizer was asked if she is worried about being sued in the U.S. for aiding the women. “No, not really.” When asked if Las Libres has found a way around the TX law she responded, “We are doing it.”
In the U.S. today, the right to abortion is threatened as never before since the historic 1972 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. Laws restricting access to abortion and calling for harsh penalties if violated are being considered and passed in many States with Republican majority legislatures. In Texas with the 2021 SB 8 TX law, the New York Times wrote that “effectively, nearly all abortions in the state have been banned since the law went into effect.”
Appointment during the Trump administration of a sixth conservative justice to the 9 member U.S. Supreme Court has placed on alert activists and the public majority in the country which favors a woman’s right to choose. With the Court decision to hear arguments in December against a harsh new Mississippi anti-abortion law, Mexican women’s assistance of women in Texas and other States takes on added significance.
Although a minority, the strategies of packing U.S. courts with ideological conservatives, taking control of State legislatures and further restricting access to voting have paid off for Republicans. Some of the super wealthy intent on expanding their fortunes are bank rolling right wing thinkers in universities, foundations and politics. At a time when U.S. young adults openly denounce capitalism, some conservative voices have been heard espousing authoritarian rule and the pitfalls of democracy. Utah Senator Mike Lee wrote a pair of tweets last fall arguing that “democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace and prosperity are.”
Throughout the “American century”, as the publisher Henry Luce named the last century, U.S. relations with other nations sought to promote capitalist economic policies as essential to a democracy. It now seems likely that this doctrine will be increasingly disputed by partisans of the right and the left. In such a time of confusion and uncertainty, with little consensus on what is truth and its most reliable source, some of us find cause for hope in the actions and voices of world citizens outside the U.S.
The solidarity of Mexican women with U.S. women choosing to have an abortion is another example of the role of international support and solidarity in the defense and progress of human rights in the world today. Christians celebrated Sunday November 28 as the first Sunday of Advent, the coming of Jesus of Nazareth. Traditionally, the theme for that Sunday is hope. As we contemplate sources of hope in our lives, on the social plane the work of the Mexican activists on behalf of us all stands out.
In a blog dedicated to “erasing borders” I want to address what force or forces serve to defend and strengthen national borders and border enforcement in the world. Now is the time because increased migration of threatened people across borders, “free trade” agreements, new technologies, and more travel (among other factors) all call for easing traffic across borders.
It is a confounding paradox for citizens of the U.S., especially for those born in the country with a single cultural identity, to delight in being surrounded by persons of other cultures while the politics and political economy of the country fosters suspicion and enmity of other nations and cultures. How could it be that a nation whose ideal self image, the ideal we grew accustomed to celebrating in our lives and in the life of the nation, has been that of a country leading in welcoming immigrants, how could it be that the same nation remains deadlocked on immigration reform for 35 years and focuses on combatting one enemy overseas after another?
Any attempt at a satisfactory answer to this question must consider some indisputable facts too long ignored. For anyone following the news casually, regardless of the news source in this country, we are aware of the U.S. emphasis on national defense and security. From the Defense Department budget, to television ads selling insurance for veterans, to conversations with those whose loved one is serving in the military, to statistics on the U.S. military’s footprint in over 80 other countries, we know this country is exceptional in equating military might with power and security.
What we don’t know and seldom talk about in our public forums is the effects on our loftiest ideals of our emphasis on preparation for war and conflict. What we also don’t think or talk about much in our civil dialog is the interaction between production of weaponry and the health of our economy.
Histories of California’s economy all point to the manufacture of aircraft as leading the way in the State’s growth. Its long Pacific sea shore has seen the rise of some of the largest and most important military bases during and following WW II. When a few bases were closed in the 90’s, and major aircraft production sites shut down, there was deep concern about what would replace them in the economies of the local communities and the State as a whole. Today the strength of California’s economy should assure us that a transition from an economy relying on defense expenditures can benefit a state’s population
Following the “Great War”, as many in the U.S. now term WW II, the late Prof. Seymour Melman devoted his research and writing to bringing to light the potential boost of the national economy with a conversion from defense production to production of “things that make for peace”. Despite his sterling credentials as a Columbia PhD in economics and his teaching at the same university until 2003, there has been little support for Melman’s views except among left wing intellectuals and peace organizations. He continues to be a “voice crying in the wilderness” in the political and economic discussion in this country.
Yet Melman’s case for such a conversion of the U.S. economy is more relevant today than ever. In a 1990 interview with journalist Bill Moyers, Melman noted “there’s no mystery in the shabby railroads, the broken bridges, the unpaved streets, the wrecked buildings, the absence of adequate housing, the aging character of the industrial equipment.” There is today more decline in U.S. manufacture of goods used by or benefiting individual consumers. With 46 per cent of U.S. production equipment devoted to manufacture of weaponry in the mid-1980’s, Melman urged us to consider the impact on employment in manufacturing, on industrial research and development, on worker productivity and on wages among other measures of a healthy economy.
In highlighting the economic effects of this country’s production of goods individuals do not consume, Melman’s views also raise questions about the effect of arms production and sales on U.S. policies as a superpower. How do arms sales abroad, we accounted for 37 % of the world total sales in 2020, affect our foreign policy? What about the influence of the arms industries (the Lockheeds, Raytheons, General Dynamics, etc.) on the military establishment strategies and our perpetual wars? What are the costs to the nation’s ideals and self image of selling vastly more weaponry than any other nation in the world? Finally and most urgently in our time, how does our focus on defense and arms production handicap our capacity to lead in renewable energy production and innovation?
While controversy rages in our politics over what to do about the climate crisis worldwide, the response to a global pandemic, and how to move toward a healthy multi-racial society there is little conflict in our politics on defense and security issues. Consensus of the two parties on expanding our military and waging war for international conflict resolution seems guaranteed.
A few years ago a Cherokee Indian fable was widely shared. A wise grandfather advises his grandson that there are two wolves inside all of us. One of the wolves is characterized by anger and fear and the other wolf is accepting and loving. The two wolves fight within each of us. So the grandson asks which wolf finally wins and the grandfather replies, “The one you feed will win”. Despite its lofty ideals and grand achievement in the past, does anyone doubt which wolf the U.S. continues to feed today? What will be the consequences for the nation if the wrong wolf wins the battle within us? What will be the consequences for the world?
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.
“The most politically radical and intellectually challenging work of nonfiction ever made for television” Time magazine called “Exterminate All the Brutes”. The new four episode television series tracing the history and origins of Western colonialism was funded by and can be seen on HBO. The director and co-writer of the series, Raoul Peck, comments in one of the episodes, “The very existence of this film is a miracle.” The U.S. website The Intercept agrees and noted it’s no coincidence we had to wait until this time for such a documentary to be made. Its reviewer commented that for AT&T, one of the largest U.S. corporations and owner of HBO, to have funded its making “demonstrates that something profound about the world is changing”.
Peck begins the series by demythologizing the history most citizens have been taught about the United States. President Obama’s declaration that “America was not a colonial nation” is refuted by the film’s assertion that “America IS a colonial nation.” The first episode retells the story of our “settler colonialism” requiring wars on the native American population and the appropriation of their lands and resources.
The prevailing mythology of the U.S. as a beneficent nation of immigrants has been elaborated by those in power from the Pilgrim days to the present. The film’s themes and analysis flow from its change in perspective. “The whole vision of the film is based on changing the point of view of who is telling the story” Peck told one interviewer. In dramatizing the fatal encounter of the Seminole female chief Osceola with a commander of the troops assigned to displace her tribe, the first episode gives voice to those who suffered the consequences of the settlers’ encroachment. “You steal land; you steal life; you steal human beings. What kind of a species are you?” Osceola asks.
In a later episode the film tells the story of the Haitian slave rebellion and the founding in 1804 of the first nation in the Americas to free all human beings on its soil. The Haitian born Peck reminds us that the example of the Haitian revolution and its freed slaves’ democratic rule was widely feared in the U.S. In response the U.S. opposed recognition of the new nation until 1862. Some U.S. political leaders continue to portray Haiti as a “s..hole country” while their powerful northern neighbor continues to corrupt and manipulate Haitian politicians to the present day.
This film represents a powerful tool for those who are committed to this era’s project of truth telling that connects the dots of colonial expansionism with current systems that seek to maintain white supremacy and white privilege. Republican leadership foresees political gain is to be made in defending the prevailing myth of U.S. history. Confronting some of the truth long suppressed is feared as a threat to their power. An April 30 letter of Senate Minority Leader McConnell warned the new administration’s Secretary of Education that “powerful institutions increasingly subject Americans to a drumbeat of revisionism and negativity about our nation’s history and identity”.
There is, however, widespread agreement in the U.S. today that if the nation is to progress in creating the multi-racial society we have envisioned its citizens must come to grips with the legacy of slavery and the expropriation and elimination of native Americans. Decades ago, James Baldwin, the subject of Peck’s previous documentary “I Am Not a Negro”, described well the film’s potential role in helping the change come about in the U.S. “Not everything that is faced can be changed” Baldwin stated. “But nothing can be changed that is not faced.”
Peck’s intention in making the film was not to shame or point fingers at anyone. In interviews he has consistently upheld Baldwin’s position that the truth must be confronted before substantive change can take place. “What must be denounced here is not so much the reality of the Native American genocide, or the reality of slavery, or the reality of the Holocaust” he has said. “What needs to be denounced here are the consequences of these realities in our lives and in life today.”
Adding to the strength of the film’s impact is its placement of U.S. “settler colonialism” in the context of European theories of racial hierarchies and the era of exploration, slave trading and colonial rule. Peck credits three historians including the native American scholar Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz for helping him trace the origin of racial hierarchy schemes with whites at the pinnacle to the Spanish Inquisition. In reclaiming Spain after centuries of Moorish rule, those Arabs and Jews who had converted to Christianity were assigned a lower rank and later persecuted and killed. Doctrines of protecting the purity of race evolved with the Crusades and continued to evolve until deployed to enable the Nazi rise to power in Germany.
Those doctrines maintain their hold in Europe and the U.S. today in the anti-immigration politics and erosion of the human rights of persons of color in many Western countries. An appreciative review of the film in The New Yorker magazine highlights its effective exploration of “the connection of Nazis to the rhetoric, the symbolism, and the violence of current-day white supremacists”. While most advocates for anti-immigrant policies in the U.S. today would bristle at their placement in the supremacist camp, the historical antecedents for their position are powerfully detailed in this film. Peck as narrator notes the word “exterminate” derives from the Latin words meaning “drive out” and “boundaries”.
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.