Friday, October 28, 2022

Talking "This Land Is Your Land"

Woody Guthrie, Portland Tenants United, and the Persecution of Margot Black

Apologies to all my friends who have already spent far too much time beating this dead horse at People's Music Network gatherings over the past several decades.  Most of the world weren't at those gatherings, so this is for them.

First, I want to talk about Woody Guthrie's song, "This Land Is Your Land."  Later I'll explain how this relates to the founder of Portland Tenants United, Margot Black, and her ongoing persecution.

At the risk of tooting my own horn too hard, up top there is a video taken by my friend Tony at a show in Los Angeles that took place around the 100th anniversary of the execution of labor organizer and songwriter, Joe Hill.  There were a whole bunch of great acts taking part in the event, and most of us got together on the stage at the end to sing one of show organizer Tom Morello's favorite songs.

Woody Guthrie wrote the song in 1940 as a sort of socialist American anthem, which is exactly what it soon became, popularized by Woody's friend, Pete Seeger, and many other artists.  The verses in the song build on the theme that our country should belong to the people, to share, rather than for the rich to profit from.

It surely didn't take long for some people to look at the lyrics of the song from the vantage point of settler-colonialism, however.  As someone who has been singing these kinds of songs professionally for most of my adult life, including lots of Woody Guthrie songs, I have tended to avoid this one.  I completely understand where Woody was coming from when he wrote it, and I share the dream for an equitable distribution of everything everywhere, very much including in this horrifically unequal land.  But if you're, say, a white guy who finds yourself singing this song on an Indian reservation, you might find it a bit awkward, for fairly obvious reasons -- not because of anything in any of the verses, but more just how the chorus itself, or even just the title of the song, can come across, especially if the very intense 1940 context of socialism vs. capitalism is not fully understood.

The song, however, remains popular to this date, among a wide diversity of people from all over the US and the world (as demonstrated a bit by the video up there).  On the occasions where someone requests the song at a show I'm doing, I'll sometimes sing it, but with an introduction, explaining the context and how the song is generally viewed by those who sing it, and how it's been sanitized over the decades, which has helped contribute to the way the song can be even more easily misinterpreted.

One day at a retreat for Portland Tenants United, a PTU member sang "This Land Is Your Land" around a campfire, but not without first giving a lengthy introduction to the song, much like the one I just gave.

Why do I mention this and how is it connected with the persecution of Margot Black?

First of all, for those of you reading this who are not living in Portland, Oregon and immersed in local politics, Margot wears many hats and has many skills, but for the purposes of this piece, she is the founder of Portland Tenants United.  Since she was hounded out of the organization she founded, she has remained very relevant as a tenant organizer, recently playing a central role in winning a victory for tenants facing eviction in Tigard by the Hamilton-Zanze investment group, and just this week winning another victory, working with tenants in north Portland who were facing the same fate with their landlord, the Green Cities corporation.

Having seen Margot in action as an organizer and in many other capacities, it's easy to say that she's one of the most effective organizers in Portland, or anywhere.  What she has managed to accomplish on behalf of tenants rights generally around here, and for specific groups of tenants as well, has been often noted in the press and by people around town generally.  As someone who has been a PTU member since soon after the group was founded, participating in many PTU events over many years, who has continued to be involved with any other organizing Margot has been doing since she left PTU's board, I would be one of the many to emphatically agree with the chorus of Portlanders who are wildly impressed with and deeply thankful for Margot's commitment to the well-being of all of us renters.  The battle continues to be an uphill one, but it would be worse without Margot's efforts, no doubt at all about that.

OK, so that's who Margot is.  And when did her persecution begin?  Actually it began when she was born.  If you've ever heard her speak about her background, she was raised by a mom with terrible mental illness, often living on the streets, which is ultimately a big part of why she became such a passionate advocate for the rights of renters later in life.  But in terms of the persecution I'm referring to in this piece, it began with a rambling essay published by a former member of PTU, full of innuendo, but with absolutely no concrete allegations whatsoever related to Margot in it, written several years ago.

We can only speculate about why the piece was written, or what actual issues the author had with Margot, since the meandering article made absolutely no concrete allegations at all.  We are left only with the notion that if we are to "believe the victim" as properly modern identitarian progressives, we don't need to know what the specific allegations actually are.  If someone felt unsafe, especially someone deemed to be from a more marginalized background than Margot's, that's enough, and now Margot is a perpetrator of abuse, who needs to be held accountable.

The problem from the outset, however, was that there were no actual allegations against Margot for her to be held accountable for.

For anyone familiar with the bizarre machinations of what some call the Nexus, or the politics of guilt and virtue-signaling that passes for left discourse these days, once this hit piece was written about Margot by an obviously very troubled and fairly prominent former PTU member, the flood gates were opened.  

The way this works, in Margot's case and in most other cases where the phenomenon of "accountability-seeking" is in play, is like this:

  • you start with an organizer such as Margot, who gains some kind of notoriety because she has accomplished things, such as Portland's Relocation Ordinance
  • some people then see someone like Margot as a person with power, or at least influence
  • anyone in a position of power or influence is then a person to whom you can "speak truth to power" at, do some virtue-signaling, and feel important about when you attack them
  • when the attacks result in people or organizations distancing themselves from Margot for fear of being attacked next, the attackers can see this as a sign that they were right in the first place
  • any time someone like Margot gets media attention because she just participated in a press conference or won another victory on behalf of a group of tenants, this is seen by the Nexus as another opportunity to "seek accountability" and publicize the supposed fact that Margot is somehow or other avoiding "accountability"
With each new cycle of this ongoing process -- the most recent one being a confused group of "accountability"-seeking, very recent transplants from California posing as members of the "tenants rights community" who can't organize themselves out of a paper bag -- the rabbit hole gets deeper, and the original allegations get more and more unclear.

In the latest hit piece against Margot -- obviously timed to coincide with her involvement with this most recent, successful tenant organizing effort in north Portland -- there aren't even any allusions made to what her original offenses were supposed to have been.  There are links to other hit pieces written about Margot, which themselves also do not contain any concrete allegations of any kind.

In my efforts to get to the bottom of all this, the closest thing to a concrete allegation that isn't about someone's tone of voice is that a member of PTU -- who wasn't Margot -- sang "This Land Is Your Land" around a campfire, with introduction.  This allegedly made someone feel unsafe.

What is the smearing of the good name of Margot Black really about?  A lot of things -- none of them having anything to do with Margot being a bigot of any kind, or otherwise doing anything that should result in public denunciations, unless it's coming from a disgruntled landlord.  My top hypotheses for why someone who isn't a capitalist would have it out for Margot is that some people can't handle confident women in leadership positions, or they're jealous, or they're opportunists who are more interested in taking someone down in order to climb up some imaginary ladder a little higher, who are not thinking in terms of victory for the struggle, but more in terms of moral purity, or a very twisted notion of "safety."

But as a renter in the city of Portland who has been involved with the struggle for the capitalists to be accountable to the suffering renters whose lives they are destroying, along with so many other renters who are and will always be fans of the woman who has done so much to make the city of Portland and the state of Oregon at least a little more accountable to tenants' rights, I will close with these thoughts:

Long live Margot Black.  May this land someday belong to you and me -- not the investment groups, the hedge funds, or any of the other landlords.

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