Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Just a Renter

Founding member of Portland Tenants United (PTU), Margot Black, has often spoken at rallies and recounted the story about when she first became a tenants' rights organizer. She was a renter supporting her small children at the time, when her landlord one day announced to her that if she wanted to stay in the apartment she lived in with her family she had to suddenly come up with an additional $300 in rent each month. That was impossible on her income, so she had a month to find another place for her and her family to live. After thus evicting her, her landlord said to her, “you'll be OK. You're just a renter.”

Upon discovering that everything that had just happened to her was perfectly legal in the state of Oregon and the city of Portland, she became an activist, among other things. What happened to her isn't unusual, and it's happening in cities and towns across the US. And while the words of Margot's landlord were perhaps especially crass and offensive, they also serve well to illustrate a broader point about how society functions – or doesn't.

Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously said “there's no such thing as society.” Believers in society -- and idea that government has an important role to play in maintaining some kind of harmony in society that requires things like affordable housing and health care -- argued vehemently with her in so many ways. But as I look around me now, among the shambles of a society ravaged by decades of a heartless, bipartisan neoliberal assault, among the tents and the walking wounded shuffling down the sidewalks with their shopping carts and matted hair, I think Thatcher was right. There is no such thing as society.

And why should there be? Half of this city rents, and the other half owns. It's true that most of those homeowners are homeowners in name only. But if they have a stable mortgage, then they're living in a different world from the rest of us who rent. For anyone who owns a house, things like clean streets, nice parks, good schools, a low crime rate, these things are good, naturally enough. And while renters also appreciate these things, we know that every one of them comes with not just a potential but a very real, inevitable cost – the nicer the city gets, the higher the rents will rise.

And as long as half the city wants property prices to rise and the other half wants them to fall, when you consider everything that that contradiction implies, there is no possibility of having any kind of functional society. Unregulated capitalism and real estate speculation have precluded that, and now we're living with the consequences.

Residents at the Wimbledon Square and Gardens, a 600-unit apartment complex across from Reed College here in Portland, Oregon are organizing a tenants union, the Wimby Tenants Union, with the support of PTU. The mass of three-story wooden structures they live in there is an obvious, 600-unit fire hazard with blocked fire exits, ancient fire extinguishers, toxic, rotting, moldy walls and a rodent problem – to name only some of the challenges faced by the tenants.

One of the tenants fell through a stairwell that collapsed while he was walking up it, badly damaging one of his knees. A lawyer for Prime Group, the multi-billion-dollar corporation that owns the complex and makes a million dollars a month off of the renters in that complex alone, was overheard commenting that the apartments were in such bad shape that perhaps the best thing to do was to throw a match at them and start over. In my more cynical moments I think maybe he was on to something.

Just A Renter

Ten thousand yuppies just moved here
Ten thousand others came last year
The rent has doubled since I moved in
Each month I take it on the chin
Each month I wonder how many more
Can I stay in Portland before
Before I move into my car
Or end up somewhere behind bars

Ten thousand yuppies say don't complain
Now that the city is in the fast lane
It's just the market and it knows best
That's how the bankers built the west
So just get rich and you can stay
Otherwise just go away
There's no room here for us
Holding on under the bus

I'm just a renter, this ain't my town
Might as well just burn it down 

For all I care

Ten thousand yuppies think it's great
To invest in Portland real estate
“Keep Portland weird” they like to say
But that was over yesterday
Of their achievements they're so proud
Living lives in some cloud
But unlimited data will get you nowhere
If you can't afford to care


Ten thousand yuppies and on each block
They're flipping houses and taking stock
Where's the next place they can transform
Tents and mansions, the new norm
They like Ted Talks, they like greed
They like wine bars, they like weed
They like bike lanes, they want more
They're the face of the new class war


Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Paradise Lost

The small city of Paradise, California has been burned off the map. It is a smoldering ruins, unrecognizable. Foundations where once there were houses, charred remains where once there were cars, with sometimes only the ashes remaining of the people that occupied those cars and houses when the firenado overtook the city and laid it to waste.

The heat, the speed of the wind, how dry the brush is, how drained the aquifers are, how much development there is in areas further and further away from population centers, how high the cost of housing is – all of it is unprecedented. In combination, it turns out we now know what the consequences of the status quo are – the evidence is now in.

If you have a society built largely on real estate speculation and free market capitalism, one thing you end up with is a housing crisis. The solution to the housing crisis is led by the market, because the political leaders who believe in sensible zoning don't tend to last long here in the plutocracy, so we end up with entirely unsustainable forms of suburban sprawl. Real estate speculation and free market capitalism also dictate other policies related to the use of land and water, rather than environmental considerations that can't be monetized by local political bodies, largely controlled by developers, so as a result, existing land and water use policies are completely unsustainable.

In a society led by a real estate speculator billionaire, founded by an obscenely wealthy real estate speculator (named George Washington), we are faced with the reality that our survival as a society depends on declaring officially that all of these homes in California are really worth nothing if they're just going to burn up, if the air is going to be unbreathable, if there's no water. These homes are worth nothing, this economy is based on kindling.

The question before all of us is whether we can possibly reverse course. But doing so will not involve recycling your garbage, riding your bicycle or taking shorter showers. It will involve declaring all of this so-called property to be as worthless as it really is, and starting over again with a new economic model that puts society first – that is, the needs of people for things like housing and food within an ecologically sustainable environment – above individual profits.

We have seen the consequences of the American Way, and it is the apocalypse.

Paradise Lost
Up on a ridge is a nice place to be
The trains pass by in the mining country
Time marches on and the old saloon
Was joined by houses and shops and then pretty soon
An old mining outpost, an old timber mill
Became a small city as a town will
But it's a town in the west and it's 2018
An age of drought and of fire and things unforeseen
You just throw the dice and see how they get tossed
This time, Paradise lost

The fire was started and all the dead brush
Went up in flames in a terrible rush
Thousands of homes soon were on fire
Along with the cars, the roads and the tires
Melted and charred with bodies inside
Of the scores or the hundreds of people who died
You can talk about forests, but all that you need
Is the dead grass that grows from the grass seed
In this age of tornadoes and firelines crossed
And places like Paradise lost

If you don't get gunned down then you can be burned
Is that the lesson we're supposed to have learned
Either way it makes sense, it's the logical end
For a system that's based on how much money you spend
Divert the rivers, sell real estate
Until early one morning we find it's too late
As the townspeople woke or slept in their beds
And the skies above them turned suddenly red
Soon a graveyard will mark out the terrible cost
Of the day that left Paradise lost

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Failed States of America

In the fall of last year, scores of people had just been massacred from the 31st floor of a hotel room in Las Vegas, with hundreds injured in the carnage. At the same moment, much of the US was still on fire after a devastating summer of burning towns and cities. To the east, much of the state of Texas and the neocolony of Puerto Rico lay flooded and in ruins.

Now in the autumn of 2018 we have just experienced another series of sensational massacres throughout the country, the deadliest fires in California history, and much of the east coast once again smells like mildew, having only recently seen the latest devastating floodwaters recede. Along with these man-made disasters is the latest electoral disaster, where once again the party of capitalism and imperialism has the majority in both houses of Congress.

Any of these developments could have been the sorts of things that would cause major changes to happen in a responsibly-run country. There might be big new federal initiatives to address the causes of these calamities – passing and enforcing gun control laws, ending the use of fossil fuels, depaving the flood plains.

But in the US, with our supposed representatives in government overwhelmingly of the bought and sold variety, these earth-shattering developments are not only not addressed by those with the power to do so, but there is a clear bipartisan effort to actually make conditions worse in preparation for the next time. And next time always comes.

The US is, by definition, a failed state. A state facing the kinds of calamities that will inexorably lead to the total breakdown of any semblance of social or political order, and yet it is institutionally incapable of mounting any kind of defense of its own society -- its own constituents, its own air, land and water.

The cost of housing is so high in so many places that millions of people are homeless, and 4 in 10 people in the US are essentially one or two paychecks away from homelessness. Our solution to poverty is mass incarceration, solitary confinement and riot police. We have completely drained and poisoned the world's biggest aquifer. In the summers we now have the world's most toxic air. We're burning and drowning at the same time.

Until further notice, my new name for the country in which I was born and raised is the Failed States of America.

Failed State
When you're working two jobs and living in a tent
When a house costs a million bucks and you can't pay the rent
When politicians say they'll help but it keeps getting worse
Each time the landlord lobby pulls the strings of the purse
When the human right to housing isn't even part of the debate
You know you're living in a failed state

When millions of citizens are spending half their lives
Locked up in a prison for trying to survive
When laws must be broken just to have a place to stay
When the prisons pay the senators to look the other way
If you have to be a criminal to put food on your plate
You know you're living in a failed state

When you're facing climate breakdown, when the trees are all on fire
When half the country's underwater, when a climate change denier
Runs the nation and the opposition party
Votes for oil rigs and pipelines, this is not so much a country
As it is a corporation, buckling under its weight
You know you're living in a failed state

When your nation is an empire facing daily blowback
And the only thing your leaders can think to do is attack
Bipartisan consensus that we need to spend
700 billion before the year's end
On a military budget to make America great
You know you're living in a failed state

When almost every day some psycho with a gun
Has to open fire on a crowd before it's done
When a music festival becomes a free fire zone
And all they can say is it's OK now, he was acting alone
Buy some armor, pray to God and hide behind a gate
You know you're living in a failed state

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Armistice Day Centennial

On November 11th, 1918, the most deadly, most massive, most mechanized, most extended period of carnage heretofore known to humankind finally sputtered to a very temporary end. Tens of millions of men mowed each other down systematically with rapid-fire weapons of all kinds, which all the main warring parties had been investing in in an ongoing arms race for years. The war was one that was waiting to happen, a reckoning of the great powers of the day for the spoils. The spoils being colonial domination of much of the globe.

To win this “victory,” all sides essentially sacrificed an entire generation of men. Along with them, millions more people, especially children and the elderly, died of disease, malnutrition, and lack of medical care. Those who emerged “victorious” from this war of attrition – Britain and France, in particular – set about dividing up the defeated Ottoman Empire into new nations with borders purposefully designed to undermine any possibility of national cohesion, purposefully designed to encourage sectarian conflict, making sure there would always be a powerful ethnic minority backed by a foreign power that could theoretically then control the rest of the population on their behalf.

But if you return to the seats of empire, to the cities of Paris, London, or New York, you'll find among the spoils of empire enjoyed by the bankers, arms dealers and stockbrokers a massive underclass that has been an almost constant feature of these imperial capitals for centuries. The ruined, broken, discarded servants of empire. The shell-shocked, conscripted killers for 20th-century colonialism, asking passersby for spare change.

When Johnny Came Marching Home

He got off the plane and looked at no one
He walked down the tarmac in the direction of nowhere
He followed the sun as it was setting
Glad to be done with all the bloodletting
There were no banners for the proud and the few
Just workers in airports that do what they do
Fuel up the planes, unload the bags
Along with the coffins all covered in flags
When Johnny came marching home

The town he was from was a dead little place
So he looked for a job somewhere off-base
In this city of pawn shops and hotels and bars
Gas stations, strip clubs, highways and cars
He went to a dive, ordered a beer
Said turn the music up loud so it's all that I hear
Try to rewind, turn back the years
Stop the explosions between my ears 
When Johnny came marching home

The jobs were all shit and the beer it was cheap
And besides there was no other way he could sleep
Still the screams and the guns would wake him at night
And he was always on edge and ready to fight
And when he closed his eyes he would just see the face
Of a someone he killed in some far-away place
Over and over, the white of her eye
And her final and terrible terrified cry 
When Johnny came marching home

After just a short time his health fell apart
With an ache in the joints and such a thump in the heart
And the doctor just told him it's all in his head
But he couldn't stop drinking or get out of bed
And with no place to go but the wrong way
It was a shock to his ears when he heard himself say
Over and over to anyone within range
Hey mister, can you spare some change
When Johnny came marching home

Reflections on Singing for Wikileaks

My takeaway from the recent welcome news of Julian Assange's release from prison is that collective action works. When the news broke th...