Saturday, March 11, 2023

Occupy Reflections: 2011, 2020, and Beyond

Before all the banks fail, we lose our jobs, and go out into the streets again, some reflections on the last time that happened.

The sixteenth-biggest bank in the US has just suddenly and dramatically collapsed and is being bailed out by the federal government.  This may or may not be a precursor for a cascading series of other bank collapses, but with subprime (aka "variable rate") mortgages being more popular now than they have been since 2007, I smell an imminent financial crisis.

This is not the only thing that makes me think about Occupy Wall Street, and the autumn of 2011, especially, but it's one of them.  Witnessing the fizzling-out of another very youthful and multiracial movement that took over the streets throughout the US more recently reminds me a lot of the last time I had that experience, in the wake of Occupy. 

There were other nationwide stirrings of social movement activity in between the autumn of 2011 and the summer of 2020, most notably in the wake of the police murder of Eric Garner in New York City in 2013, that of Michael Brown, Jr., on the street in front of his grandmother's place in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, and in the wake of Donald Trump's election a couple years later.  But the further into the future we get, the more perspective I find that makes me want to reflect on the commonalities and differences between these two recent historical moments, the social movements that took place across the US during the fall of 2011 and the summer of 2020.

To be clear, it's not like things are dead right now, in terms of social movement activity in the US.  Of particular note are the many charges of "domestic terrorism" being levelled against scores of people essentially for trespassing in Atlanta over the past few days and weeks, and the police killing of one of the trespassers.  More broadly, there's an upswing in grassroots union organizing across the country, and various other signs of life, too.

There are a number of other social movements that involved people organizing in every little corner of this country in relatively recent memory -- the global justice movement circa 1998-2003, the antiwar movement of 2001-2005, and the immigrant rights movement in the spring of 2006 being three of them.  But certainly for anyone alive today who is under the age of thirty, the fall of 2011 and the summer of 2020 tend to stand out.

The first thing veterans of most any social movement will say about it is we didn't win -- the rulers still rule, not us.  Arguably, though, past social movements in this country (and so many others) have won a lot, without winning lasting power.  We could easily say that the social movements of the 1930's bore a great part of the responsibility for the fairly decent welfare state that existed for two generations following that extremely tumultuous decade, for example.

Victorious or not, however, social movements are worth reflecting on, for so many reasons.  And the value of contrasting 2011 and 2020 is not just because of their temporal proximity to the present and to each other, but because they had a whole lot in common, in terms of strengths, weaknesses, challenges, and perhaps lessons for the future.

Both movements were responses to the realities which created them.  In 2011, some combination of the ongoing legacy of the financial crisis that began to unfold three years earlier, inspired by the tactics of the Wisconsin uprising and the Arab uprisings that began in the previous winter.  In 2020, some combination of the ongoing police killings of Black people on the streets of the US, combined with the extreme inequities exposed by and exacerbated by the pandemic and measures taken to deal with it, with the livestreamed, nine-minute-long police execution of George Floyd in the middle of the street in the middle of the day in Minneapolis being the final straw.

In the case of 2011, the initial protest on Wall Street was planned in advance, and organized well.  The expansion of the idea to include financial districts in small and large cities across the US and beyond was not part of the original plan.  Similarly, in 2020, though the initial nationwide outburst was a direct response to the lynching of George Floyd, the months of sustained marches, acts of civil disobedience, and other activities were not necessarily anticipated in advance by many people.  In both cases, what began as a local thing quickly became national, quickly started getting massive media coverage, quickly started being met with extreme police brutality, and quickly developed widespread popular support.

My personal experience with both movements was in some ways similar and in others very different.  In 2011 I was still touring all over the US on a regular basis, rather than mainly in Europe.  The gigs were still good enough for me to do here, and I was touring a lot.  So in 2011 I played at thirty Occupy camps in different cities, before I lost track.  In 2020, years after I was no longer touring actively in the US, and most importantly, months into the pandemic lockdown here and around the globe, my direct experience with what was happening on the streets around the country was the Portland area, and interviewing people on a daily basis for much of that year from different parts of the US.

Partly because of the pandemic and the necessity for everyone to wear masks, live performance at events in 2020 was a lot less frequent than with previous social movements.  There was plenty of music, which in Portland was largely provided by the Portland Sound Bloc, which was mainly one person, who was a veteran of the global justice movement.  On a couple of occasions when the police took or destroyed his sound system, he borrowed mine.  Whichever sound system he was using, he played a wonderful soundtrack which provided a great combination of entertainment, encouragement, and education, with songs and speeches from throughout recorded history.  But it was canned music, and although there were things happening literally every day for at least six months, at the peak of the movement, live music was only occasionally part of the proceedings.  I only sang live at a small handful of events organized by different folks involved with the movement.

For better or for worse, it should also be noted that among the youthful organizers of protests at Portland State University and elsewhere in the area, it had become customary that all of the speakers and performers at events they organized be from a marginalized group.  While there are so many good reasons to have a policy that emphasizes voices from marginalized groups, having this kind of policy where folks like me are allowed to provide the sound system, but aren't invited to sing a song or two, did not help anything in any way that I could see, it just meant that rallies tended to have even less live music than usual, particularly since Trump's election.

Occupy Wall Street, on the other hand, involved a whole lot of live music in all kinds of situations, though it was usually not amplified, because of the "human microphone" tradition that basically developed by accident in New York City, and then spread virally across the country.

Several months before the September 17th protests in Zuccotti Park in 2011, I got an email from Justin Molito, who I first knew as a union organizer in Connecticut during the days of the global justice movement.  There was going to be a significant event that day in Manhattan, get there if you can.  I think by luck I already had a gig the night before in Brooklyn, so it was very easy to show up in lower Manhattan the next morning.

I had a tour already booked that would be taking me all over the US and Canada for the next several months, as it happened, which was why it was so easy for me to fully take advantage of the Occupy camps wherever they were, and show up to sing a few songs.  As one might expect, this was always appreciated by folks.  One of the known features of any movement that involves taking over a space and occupying it on a long-term basis is boredom, and this is a condition that traveling troubadours are designed to alleviate, if we're worth our salt.

So many of the people involved with Occupy were very young, for sure.  But the slightly less young folks were out in force as well.  One small piece of circumstantial evidence to back up this claim is that everywhere I went that fall, my actual pre-organized gigs had hardly anyone at them.  Once, only five people showed up, and we just skipped the gig altogether and went to the local Occupy camp.  But the local Occupy camp was where most of the other people were, at those other gigs with very few people at them.  Which is to say, the remnants of the global justice movement, along with the other various random anarchists and leftwingers who constitute the bulk of my audience, were at the local Occupy camp, not at my gigs.

Social movements are like this, in every case that I know of.  They're constituted by lots of new folks who have never been involved in one before (often because they were little kids the last time one happened), and lots of folks who are veterans of one or another of the social movements that have happened in living memory.  So, throughout my entire life, having been born in 1967, I'm always meeting new baby boomers -- that is, folks a decade or two older than me -- who tell me this is the first protest they've been to since the Sixties.  Someone is always attending the first protest they've been to since the Sixties.

As things heated up and got more organized in 2020, it was a similar experience for me, in terms of hearing from folks I hadn't heard from since the global justice movement, along with hearing from lots of folks who weren't born yet when that was going on -- teenagers who had been following me on Spotify, and were now organized under the banner of the Youth Liberation Front or another moniker, and could somehow recognize my face in the dark with a mask on in downtown Portland.

In 2011, although so many folks who had been involved with the global justice movement were also active on the streets to varying degrees, I very frequently encountered an orientation among people I talked to from this milieu who avoided much involvement with Occupy activities because they were put off by the attitudes of some of those involved with the movement, because of some folks who exhibited sexist tendencies or other problematic behavior.  Which of course could sometimes be extremely problematic, as with society at large.

I had been hoping at the time that all those who had been involved with shutting down World Bank and IMF meetings in the past would immediately see the connections with this viral movement against the 1% that was taking public space at prominent, key locations across the country.  Some did, many stayed away.  What impact this had on the movement, I have no idea, but I'm sure it wasn't positive.  Mainly what ultimately ended Occupy, by my observation, was it collapsed under the weight of the combination of police brutality, trying to camp in the winter, and the vulnerability the movement had to getting overwhelmed by the magnitude of the crisis of homeless people in our society in need of all kinds of care, which a movement under constant siege by violent police could not seem to provide.

In 2020 there were organized efforts -- successful ones, in some cases -- to occupy spaces, such as preventing the residents of a house in north Portland from being evicted.  But for the most part, the space occupied was the streets.  So although plenty of people involved with the protests were themselves living on the streets (at least here in Portland that's true), this movement was holding different kinds of spaces than Occupy had been.

Aside from the common, massive problem of police violence, and provocateurs of all sorts -- many surely paid agents of the state -- creating problems and trying to sow division, the movement in 2020 differed from 2011 in terms of emphasis and aims, at least in the minds of many.  With the dichotomy between the 99% and the 1% that was the essence of Occupy Wall Street, although it was often said that the movement lacked any clear goals, the basic emphasis on systemic change to the severe inequalities of American capitalism was inescapable, it was in the very meme itself.

Although the movements of 2020 included lots of people focused on ending evictions for everyone, and refocusing on the housing crisis in light of the sudden mass unemployment that came with the pandemic/lockdown, the biggest emphasis, especially in terms of media coverage, was around Black Lives Matter and racial justice.  For certain elements of the movement that had gained particular prominence in the wake of Trump's election, this took the form of what became known for "white allies" as "doing the work" of reconciling our racist upbringings with our antiracist beliefs.  At an accelerated pace, I began to hear more and more about prominent organizers I knew or knew of, across the country, being publicly attacked for "centering" the wrong people or "not centering" the right people, for "doubling down" if they had differing opinions than their detractors, and for "refusing accountability."  The effect of these campaigns, it seemed, was to focus collective attention on the perceived moral shortcomings or transgressions of organizers, rather than focusing on collective action towards the goal of system change.

Eventually the movement had largely vanished from the streets of most of the country, in terms of any kind of daily presence.  In Portland it persisted, in a shrunken, hyper-militant, increasingly insular form, until its inevitable collapse.  In retrospect it seems obvious that a big vulnerability of this movement was to the idea that the problem we were challenging was not necessarily institutional racism and institutional problems with the nature of policing and the laws the police were charged with enforcing, but the inner racist demons lurking within the white people within this movement, which in most of the country constituted the majority of the folks on the streets most of the time.

One of the big new challenges in both 2011 and 2020, as well as with the protests after Trump's election, was all the media coverage.  In prior movements -- certainly including the global justice movement and the antiwar movement of earlier years -- media coverage was rare.  There were many protests involving civil disobedience and all kinds of other stuff, attended by tens or sometimes hundreds of thousands of people, that received almost no national media coverage.  (I promise I'm not exaggerating this claim at all.)

In 2011 and 2020 events on the streets were covered very thoroughly, but very selectively.  Getting so much media coverage so quickly seemed like a wonderful pipe dream for folks who had tried in so many creative or dramatic ways to get media coverage in the past, with limited success.  But it's evident in retrospect that getting all that coverage may have fueled the fires of protest (both figuratively and literally), but it also created a lot of problems.

Whereas in previous movements, organizers had to do a hell of a lot of outreach and creating of networks in order to get any kind of turnout for anything, at which point there might be a small chance of getting a bit of media attention, in 2011 and 2020 there was daily coverage of whatever was happening with these movements on the streets.  Getting that much "help" from the media ended up giving a lot of people the impression that there was a lot more organizing going on than there actually was.  Unlike with past movements, all the events I attended in both 2011 and 2020 that involved thousands of people also involved mass media coverage prior to the events in question.  When media didn't play this role, attendance was often in the low dozens -- sometimes better, often worse.  There were local exceptions to this rule, but overall, across the country, that's how it was, by my observation.

When a social movement receives this much media attention and posturing from politicians trying to appear supportive of the movement, as was the case particularly among many Democratic politicians in both cases, and the movement receiving so much attention is largely a spontaneous, leaderless uprising, the result of this kind of imbalance is the media and the politicians end up having tremendous control of the narrative of the movements.

So in 2011, the media narrative was these young activists mean well, but they don't really know what they're trying to accomplish.  Did the mainstream media ever interview widely-acknowledged intellectual leaders of the movement, such as author and professor, David Graeber, to ask for his thoughts?  Very rarely.

In 2020, intellectuals already popular in the liberal end of the corporate media spectrum were essentially appointed movement representatives, and so we heard endlessly about the importance of better police training and learning about overcoming racial prejudice within ourselves, and understanding our inner biases.  Largely absent from the media coverage were the voices of anticapitalist antiracists.  There was more "historical racism" coverage than ever, owning up to the persecution of groups such as the Black Panther Party fifty years prior, coverage which painted this as a historical wrong, but almost never did we hear perspective from surviving members of this group, or why so many of them are still in prison today.

In both 2011 and 2020, blanket media coverage helped make a sustained national movement out of what might have been a comparative flash in the pan.  While all the coverage served a useful purpose for the media -- different purposes, depending on whether we're talking about corporate liberal or corporate conservative media -- once the coverage wasn't seen as useful anymore, it stopped, and with it, most of the marches did, too.

If I could predict the next uprising, or if I knew the formula for instigating a successful one, I'd do that, and so would a lot of other people.  But whatever's coming up, perhaps in the aftermath of the latest financial crisis that seems to be looming, hopefully it can be a movement that learns from the shortcomings of the last ones.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

A Very Brief History of Capitalism, Empire, and the Yellow Peril

Unlike the propagandists that publish most of the textbooks that we brainwash our children with in the US, reality-based historians have oft observed that the history of civilization is a history of the ongoing conflict between the haves and the have-nots, the rich and the poor, the ruling class and those they would like to rule.  One of the main factors that continually makes this conflict a very dynamic one that is forever unfolding in new ways is the obvious inequity of the whole thing, with a small class of rulers, owners, and landlords always trying to control a very large majority of subjects, workers and tenants.  In order to maintain such a state of constant inequality, particularly in severely unequal societies/empires like the United States, strategies of divide and rule are always in play, whether we're talking about maintaining domestic tranquility, or running the global American empire.

From the time of British colonization of the Americas, the colonial rulers and later the sovereign US rulers of this land have sought to keep the bulk of the population -- the tenant farmers, the small landowners, the urban workers and renters, the immigrant and the native-born, the enslaved and the free -- at each other's throats, and thus distracted with fratricidal conflict, rather than united in opposition to their common oppressors.  The ways society is divided and the ways the rulers seek to exploit those divisions locally and globally evolves over time, just as other things evolve, such as technology, and different forms of organization, such as corporations, unions, parliaments, and developments such as the massive US military industrial complex.

In light of these realities, it's not hard to understand scenes like President Biden going to Alabama to remember those killed by white supremacists in a church bombing in 1963, while having nothing to say about state-sanctioned pogroms being committed by organized mobs of people against Palestinians -- towns being burned to the ground by mobs sanctioned by one of the biggest recipients of US military aid on the planet.  In light of these realities, we can understand why the US Attorney General is once again in Ukraine, talking about prosecuting Russian war crimes in the International Criminal Court, while saying nothing about prosecuting war crimes committed by Americans, Saudis, or Israelis.  In light of these realities, we can see why the State Department can justify the double-standard involved with publicly attacking the Chinese government for allegedly considering selling arms to Russia on the same day as they announce the sales of the US's most advanced fighter jets to Taiwan.

Turning on the news in the US today means hearing a constant drumbeat of anti-Russian and anti-Chinese rhetoric that is completely detached from any sense of history, and which involves less and less effort at maintaining any semblance of objectivity.  

Hearing our leaders demonize Vladimir Putin and the Chinese Communist Party, one might think the leaders of the free world have only had it out for the Russians and the Chinese since Putin or Xi came to power.  Or if not then, perhaps since both countries had revolutions, in 1917 and 1949, respectively.  The historical reality is far more insidious. 

The powers-that-be in the US have been actively vilifying Russian and Chinese migrants, while tremendously profiting from their labor, since the 19th century, just as the US military and State Department has been actively working to weaken and control Russia and China for most of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.  Don't be fooled by the rhetoric about specific Russian or Chinese leaders or governments.  US policies towards Russia, China, and towards Russian and Chinese people has nothing to do with that.  It has to do with methods of divide and rule at home, and abroad, with geopolitical concerns around how to effectively dominate the world.

History, from the 19th century right up to today, illustrates what I'm talking about.  Unfortunately, I'm pretty sure this is history that is entirely lost on the likes of Joe Biden, Antony Blinken, Merrick Garland, or the supposedly, fashionably "anti-globalist" leaders of the Republican Party, either.  I'll highlight a little bit of this history.

In the 19th century the US authorities and business owners actively solicited migration of workers from Europe as well as from China, Japan, and elsewhere.  In the case of Chinese and Japanese migration, it was more about guest worker programs -- families not welcome.  So when we talk about the US having a whites-only immigration policy back then, this didn't include those who were brought in from China to build the railroads, and then deported afterwards, which is what happened, on a huge scale.  Asian workers were super-exploited, facing discrimination of all kinds, and frequent massacres at the hands of desperate mobs of their fellow workers, many of whom had swallowed the nonsense propaganda about the Chinese as people who would always be willing to work for half the going wage.  Several different Exclusion Acts were passed, aimed specifically at Asians, that prevented workers from bringing their families over, and/or forced workers to go back to Asia after the corporate barons had no more need of their labor.  Exclusion laws against Asian emigration were in place until 1943.

Meanwhile in China itself, the US military participated in the Opium Wars, along with the British, the French, and the Russians, among others, which involved imperial European and American troops burning entire Chinese cities, killing tens of thousands of people, and forcing the Chinese government of the time to import addictive opium from the British-run farms in British-occupied India.  This invasion which forced China to open the gates to what became a nationwide epidemic of opium addiction is what the British and the American authorities referred to as the "opening" of China to "free trade."  The deadly Opium Wars were known as "trade wars."

On the east coast in particular, as the US was flooded with migrants from Ireland to Russia and most everywhere in between throughout the 19th century -- actively solicited by the kingpins of American industry -- those migrating from eastern and southern Europe in particular developed a reputation for being especially subversive.  This reputation, of course, was actively promoted by the powers-that-be, as one more avenue for creating division among the source of their profits, and their class enemy, the working class.  

In reality, the horrific conditions of the factories, mines and mills of 19th-century America made radicals out of most people who weren't killed off by those conditions, regardless of their race, gender, or national origin.  But certainly the ranks of the organized workers and rebels was indeed full of Italians, Germans, and Russians, along with everybody else.  So other exclusion laws were passed to target eastern and southern Europeans, which were not lifted until 1944.  These laws meant that throughout the 1920s, 1930's, and well into the 1940's, Germans and Russians -- Jews included -- were barred from migrating to the US directly.  Germans, Russians (Jewish or non-Jewish), along with Italians, were especially singled out by those in power and their media mouthpieces as undesirable subversives.  The prejudice against these groups was only amplified by events such as the Russian Revolution.

Meanwhile in Russia itself, as World War 1 was coming to an end, after the Bolsheviks had seized power, the US, the UK, and many other allied countries participated in an invasion of the Soviet Union with hundreds of thousands of soldiers, aimed at supporting the Czarist forces that were attempting to take power back from the Red Army, an effort which failed.

After the Chinese Revolution in 1949, the US and many other participating forces from other countries invaded Korea, which was basically in the course of having a popular national revolution against the dictator which the Japanese Empire had put into power, a dictator which the US backed.  China supported the revolutionary forces in Korea, against the US-supported dictator.  In the course of three years of active conflict, hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers were killed, along with tens of thousands of US soldiers.  

The US empire has hundreds of military bases around the world, which have strategically, intentionally surrounded both Russia and China.  The US is the only country with such military bases around the world, that can transport large numbers of troops wherever it wants to.  The notion that the US authorities are concerned with the lives of Ukrainians, Taiwanese, or people in Xinjiang is just as laughable as the notion that the US authorities are concerned with the lives of Palestinians, Yemenis, or Guatemalans.  We hear about the former and not the latter groups for purely cold, geopolitical, strategic reasons.  Anyone who thinks otherwise is engaging in a futile exercise to put a human face on an entirely inhuman set of imperial calculations -- a set of calculations which has its roots in centuries past.

I am a descendant of Russian Jewish migrants who were subject to every form of discrimination, before they left Minsk, and later in the northeastern United States.  I am raising a family with a Japanese woman, and our children look visibly Asian.  One doesn't need to have any personal involvement in the history of abuse of Russian or Asian migrants in this country, or the history of US imperialism in Europe or Asia, to be worried about what the future might look like, as the leadership of both parties in this country paint a rising China as somehow threatening to the US, and we hear more and more about Chinese expansionist intentions, Chinese coal plants causing climate change, Chinese surveillance apps stealing our data, Chinese subsidies to Chinese industries undermining American industry, Chinese workers undercutting American workers, Chinese spies among us in academia and in Silicon Valley, seeking to steal our secrets, and even Chinese viruses.

One of the many things about Biden's trip to Alabama, and all his new-found rhetoric about racial equality, at least when it comes to discrimination against Black Americans, is that out of the other side of his mouth he is telling us to fear the Russians and the Chinese out there in Russia and China, as well as the ones among us who may fail to demonstrate the requisite loyalty to the American Way, and loathing of their respective governments and everything they stand for.  This is how the politicians talk before the wars and the lynchings begin.

Monday, March 6, 2023

An Open Letter to the Portland Public Schools School Board on the proposed reform to Local Schools Foundations

There is widespread recognition that Portland's public schools are under-funded and under-staffed (like most of the public schools throughout the United States).  There is an ill-conceived initiative to reform the Local Schools Foundation.  The LSF is the primary reason the better-functioning schools are able to function better, and this reform would kill it, in the name of equity.  But if the answer is taking money from an already under-funded, under-staffed elementary school, then we're asking the wrong question.  More info and to get involved:  Save PPS Foundations
Dear PPS School Board members and District leaders:

My name is David Rovics and I am a parent at Richmond Elementary School. I am writing this letter to humbly ask you to reconsider the proposed reform to the Local Schools Foundations program and reverse the catastrophic reduction to our school budget next year, that would severely tax money we have crowdfunded, which has thus far served to nominally reduce the chronic under-staffing problem at Richmond, in order to slightly increase funding at other schools in the district. 

I lived for many years in Boston, Massachusetts. Without making any real reforms that would increase much-needed funding for education, the city of Boston embarked on a program in the 1970's called "busing." The idea behind the program was this: since integrating neighborhoods had failed -- due to institutional racism, red-lining, and a housing market that was unaffordable to so many working class people (especially people of color) -- municipal leadership decided if we can't desegregate the neighborhoods, we'll seek to address the entrenched problems of racial inequality by desegregating the schools, by busing working class Black children to go to schools in working class white neighborhoods.

This policy was ended, because it was extremely unpopular, across the city. The reasons it was unpopular were complex, but the primary reason was that many people could clearly see that the problem with the schools throughout the city of Boston was chronic under-funding and under-staffing, and busing was a policy akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, without doing anything about the approaching iceberg. The proposed reform to Local Schools Foundations is exactly the same. It is a carbon copy of Boston's failed busing program, which seeks to redress inequality by taking from one working class community in order to give to another, without solving the problem of chronic under-funding and chronic under-staffing of the Portland Public Schools.

Like every one of the other schools in the PPS system, Richmond Elementary is under-funded and under-staffed. The only reason it doesn't feel that way is because of crowdfunding efforts on the part of Richmond parents and teachers, and innovative programs like having classroom interns all the way from Japan, getting college credit to work with the kids, in the Japanese language. These programs exist because of Richmond parents and teachers crowdfunding for the Richmond Elementary School.

A lot of parents also volunteer in the school, in order to make up for the chronic under-funding and under-staffing there, and to create a good environment for the kids. If these parents also wanted to volunteer in other schools, that would be very nice, but should they be required to do so, in order to be allowed to volunteer at the school their children attend? This is the sort of logic of the proposed reform.

The result of this reform will be to do the opposite of what it intends to do, just like with busing did in Boston. We all want racial equity here in Portland. (Or if there are people against racial equity in Portland, I haven't met them.) Different neighborhoods and racialized groups among the overwhelmingly working class student body that makes up the majority of the PPS system should not be pitted against each other like chickens in a cock fight, while the scions of the Portland establishment who refuse to properly fund our schools look on and watch the show.

This city and this state has tremendous wealth that goes untaxed, or is woefully misdirected. We have some of the worst-performing schools in the United States, which itself has some of the worst-performing schools in the so-called developed world. Where has a policy like this proposed reform created the desired outcome of racial equity and better schools for a city in the US or anywhere else? Nowhere. Where have such policies created conflict, division, and even worse educational outcomes? Lots of places, such as Boston. So, why not try something that has worked well, such as taxing the wealthy and those with high incomes to facilitate massive increases in funding for education, and much smaller class sizes? Why not look at what actually works in other places, and emulate what they're doing? We'll have to look outside the borders of the US in order to find such public school systems, but that's not hard. Given that Scandinavia has some of the best outcomes in the world, I'd say start there. We don't lack the wealth here in Portland, or in Oregon, or in the US. As a professional musician who spends much of my time in Europe, I see first-hand how things could be done differently, all the time. What we lack is vision, and political will.

But rather than come up with real solutions to the tragic problems of PPS, this proposal is just a mechanism to create a distraction, by pitting the working class against each other, neighborhood by neighborhood. Soon, someone somewhere in Portland will call us Richmond parents who are upset about this reform words like "privileged," "racist," "NIMBY," or any number of other things. I'm personally horrified by this prospect, on behalf of my friends and neighbors who have never faced such unsavory accusations, but I've lived in Portland long enough to know where this is probably going. so I'd like to address this question for a moment.

Richmond Elementary is a public, bilingual, Japanese-immersion school. As with all the schools, there are limited spaces for new students each year, but it's not an exclusive space. Naturally enough, though, a large percentage of the students have one or more parents who are Japanese or of Japanese ancestry. None of them have any interest in trying to compete with anyone with different ancestry or from other racialized groups in any way, and no one that I know is interested in trying to claim that they're more marginalized than anyone else in this society. But it bears mentioning that ALL of those of Japanese ancestry on the west coast who have been around the west coast for several generations had ALL of their property stolen from them by the US government, and they were never compensated for this in any meaningful way. Most of the rest of the Japanese parents recently immigrated from Japan or are living here temporarily. So when we're talking about wealth vs. income, and the multi-generational, inherited wealth that exists in some communities in Portland, it's worth bearing in mind that while lots of Richmond parents have decent jobs in the tech sector, so many of them are paying market-rate rents on apartments and houses that are constantly getting more expensive to live in. In my family's case, the sole income-earner is a musician. Our rent has gone up by 250% since we moved to Portland 16 years ago, and that's completely typical in this city. Squeezing out a few more dollars from my family and other Richmond families who are overwhelmingly living in similar circumstances is not the solution to chronic under-funding and under-staffing rife throughout the Portland Public Schools. Please try something else.

If the answer is taking money from an already under-funded, under-staffed elementary school, then we're asking the wrong question.

With respect,
David Rovics

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Tortuguita's Playlist

Tortuguita was killed by Georgia state police on January 18th, 2023. A few days ago a friend of theirs sent me a playlist on Spotify.

Tortuguita was killed by Georgia state police in a forest encampment in the outskirts of Atlanta on the morning of January 18th, 2023, in one of the highly militarized police raids that had become a regular feature of life for the forest-dwellers by then.  Tortuguita was 26 years old, and by all accounts was one of the folks anchoring the movement based in the woods that the mayor of Atlanta is still intent on turning into a huge police training camp, which folks have nicknamed "Cop City." 

Very soon after Tortuguita was killed, I started getting messages from people, telling me about what happened, and telling me I need to write a song about this.  I read up on the movement to stop Cop City, which I hadn't heard about before this police killing.  I heard from more people, from different groups, one telling me about how Tortuguita was an active member of Food Not Bombs, another telling me about their involvement with the Industrial Workers of the World.

In another time, when I used to play gigs in most states in the US at least once or twice a year, I would have known about the movement to stop Cop City, and would by now probably have visited the forest camp multiple times, instead of never.  But it's been years since I was in Georgia, or most of the country --  due to the vagaries of the indy music biz these days, as my regulars have heard too many times already, most of my touring over the past decade is on the other side of the Atlantic, where the gigs still pay.

Though I had never heard of Stop Cop City or met Tortuguita, as far as I know, from everything I heard from people, they sounded like particularly dedicated movement-builder types, with their fingers in every pot, community-oriented, life-affirming, multi-talented and brilliant.  Hearing about their death and their character, I was reminded of the other folks I have known who have died young and violently, under similar circumstances.  They all tend to share these kinds of traits.  

I thought of the night my housemate, Eric Mark, was killed in San Francisco while watching out for cops on the street while me and other members of our posse decorated an abandoned building with May Day stuff, early on May Day morning in 1993.  I thought about looking at the Pacific Ocean with Felony one day, being cold, and having her put Gypsy's jacket on me, soon after he had been slain by a tree that was felled in his direction by a logger.  I thought about getting a phone call from the Palestinian Occupied Territories from a comrade of Rachel Corrie's after she was killed.  I had been reading her missives from the front lines of the International Solidarity Movement there in Palestine regularly.  

I remembered the phone call that informed me late one night in October, 2006, that my friend Brad Will had been killed in Oaxaca.  I was especially reminded of Brad, hearing about Tortuguita.  I hadn't known Brad's last name, over the years I knew him, when he was alive.  I had his number saved in my phone as "Brad IWW," but he was just as known in Indymedia circles, or in the guerrilla gardener circuit, or among the tree-sitters in northern California, or among the squatters in New York City, or among the Black Bloc at any major protest anywhere I went.

At the risk of someone out there thinking I may be bragging, I've known a few people who paid such a price for their commitment to social change.  It comes with the territory.  In fact, putting aside the question of whether Tortuguita was the first environmental activist to be killed by the authorities in the USA, as many people are saying, this kind of thing is such a regular occurrence that the vast majority of incidences like this that I hear of, I never end up writing anything about.  

That would probably be the case this time, too, but for a message I got a few days ago on Instagram from a friend of Tortuguita's, containing a link to a Spotify playlist Tort had made.  The song pretty much wrote itself, and it's called "Tortuguita's Playlist."  The song is short, like a typical song length, and doesn't cover much ground, other than to say a very little about Tortuguita and the outrageous circumstances of their death.

One of the things many people say about their friend was Tort shared songs with people regularly, and loved music.  This is very evident from the 90-song playlist their friend shared with me, which is certainly among the best selections of 90 songs I could imagine, if you're trying to give someone an introduction to the role of music within social movements over the past century, with an emphasis on Tortuguita's lifetime, which happens to almost perfectly coincide with my career as a touring performer.

For more about Tortuguita, there's quite a bit of good material you'll find if you search for "Tortuguita Atlanta" or other such parameters.  The rest of this missive will be all reflections inspired by Tortuguita's Spotify playlist.

Most of it was put up on Valentine's Day in 2021.  The last song was added at the end of November, 2022.  The spirit of the playlist -- and, perhaps, of its compiler -- is ecumenical, embracing the resistance of people to bad things like capitalism, imperialism, and fascism.  The first track on the playlist is from Florida band, Against Me!, "Baby I'm An Anarchist."  The last track, #90, is the late Faith Petric and my friend Mark Ross, from just south of me here in Oregon, in Eugene, singing "Ain't Done Nothing If You Ain't Been Called A Red."

There are a few artists on the playlist that have as many as four songs.  There's one band with five, and that's the one band that has evidently removed all their material from Spotify since the time that Tort made this playlist.  You can still see the name of the band and titles of the tracks on Spotify, but they're no longer playable.  Searching online for the story here, I was expecting to see that they had removed their material from this platform for political reasons of some kind, but apparently the band canceled itself in the course of an internal schism.

The playlist is heavy on folk punk and hiphop from the 1990's to the present, but it includes a solid introduction to some of the classics of what they used to call "folk" music.  Woody Guthrie, Paul Robeson, Pete Seeger with the Almanac Singers, Joe Glazer.  Joe Glazer was one of the folks who put together the songbook that was like my Bible in my early years of learning about the musical traditions of the labor movement, Songs of Work and Protest.

The number of familiar faces among this playlist, both in terms of my musical education as well as my circle of friends, was a bit uncanny.  Seeing each one of them made me want to ask Tortuguita if they had heard of so-and-so, who is absent from the list.  

Representing my late teens, working at a vegetarian restaurant (Morningtown) in Seattle in the 1980's, there's a couple from British singer/songwriter, Billy Bragg, doing a song that Woody Guthrie wrote lyrics for, reminding me of the first track I ever heard of Billy Bragg, which was him singing a song about Phil Ochs, set to the tune of a song Phil Ochs wrote about Woody Guthrie.  In England, most people first heard Billy Bragg because of one of his hits there, I suspect.  For me and, I suspect, Tort as well, it was through the more circuitous route of the IWW.

There's Utah Phillips, another who I discovered in the 80's, in the form of a well-stained cassette in Morningtown's kitchen -- Utah Phillips Sings the Songs and Tells the Stories of the Industrial Workers of the World.  The great Ani DiFranco is represented, but only as the person providing the musical backdrop for one of Utah's pieces.  Did Tort ever get around to discovering Ani's solo music, I wonder?  Not evident from the playlist, anyway, whether her solo stuff cut the mustard for them.

Anne Feeney, who I first encountered in the 90's, is well-represented, with two of my favorite songs, and another one which isn't one of my favorites of hers, but I see why Tort liked it -- it's about an event when a plane full of CEO's crashed and everyone on board died.  Indeed, to prove the point, another song in the playlist on this very subject, from the Coup.  

A flood of memories hits me again, continually, whichever direction I peruse the playlist.  Opening for the Coup somewhere in Arcata, California sometime in the 90's.  Meeting Anne around then, and touring all over the US and Scandinavia with her.  She died of Covid, much too young.  I'll be picking her guitar up from where I left it in Copenhagen this spring, to eventually get to her daughter, Amy, in Texas, also a fine musician.

There on the playlist in position #41, the brilliant Scottish musician and fan of Leon Trotsky, Alistair Hulett, rendering the version of "the Internationale" that has long been my favorite.  Where did Tort discover it?  I brought Alistair to tour the US once, and he retaliated by organizing a seven-week tour for the two of us in Australia and Aotearoa.  Whenever I sing "the Internationale" -- this classic song that originated as a poem written by a veteran of the Paris Commune in 1872 -- I do Alistair's version of the song, and I mention to the audience I'm singing for that this is Ally's version.

There's Chumbawamba doing the classic Italian antifascist song, "Bella Ciao."  Only one song by this amazing band?  Did Tort know their other material?  I bet they would have liked "Give the Anarchist a Cigarette" -- Tort smoked, apparently.

Rebel Diaz is well-represented, as are Immortal Technique, and Tom Morello.  There's the amazing English hiphop artist,  Lowkey, with one track.  All performers I met somewhere along the line singing at protests over the course of Tort's short life.  There's the wonderful hiphop duo, Dead Prez.  Every time I played at a protest with them somewhere in the USA, the sound system crapped out just before they were to begin their sets.  I always figured the FBI was following them around, and doing their sound for them, too.

There's the Irish Brigade, with a song about plastic explosives.  I stay with my friends in that wonderful band most every time I'm in Belfast.  This is not the only song on the playlist that makes Tort's militant orientation fairly evident.  It's a militancy that I completely share, just as I share Tort's oft-quoted orientation that the most effective way to conduct a campaign like the one they were involved with in Atlanta is through strategic nonviolence -- different from pacifism, but related.

Of the four songs of mine in Tort's playlist it is somewhat startling to note that two of them are about people who died young, violent deaths.  The same sorts of deaths, involving the same sorts of messages from their friends that I received from Tort's friends after they died.  One about Heather Heyer, the young woman killed by a white nationalist in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

The other, "Rojava," I wrote after getting messages from someone who was writing from that nominally Kurdish-controlled region of Syria, telling me about how he and a friend had been at a little gathering of fighters like them, fighting for the YPJ, at the time mainly against Islamic State, which was the main group always trying to take their part of Syria from them.  At the gathering, everyone was expected to sing a song from their tradition.  The person writing me and his friend sang my song, "Behind the Barricades," that night.  His friend, Michael Israel, from the Sacramento IWW, was killed in a firefight a few days later.

Given their age and political affiliations, it's quite likely that Tort, like me, knew many young people who went off to Syria to fight in the ranks of the Kurdish-led international brigades.  Like me, Tort probably knew some who never returned.

"I thought you might like to know that Tortuguita loved your music so much," is what the note said.  I didn't know Tort, but I know their playlist well, and I think everyone should hear it.

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