Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 20, 2015

German racists seek to build “anti-imperialist” bloc with Russia

Filed under: Germany,mechanical anti-imperialism,racism — louisproyect @ 4:26 pm

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The magazine Compact represents Elsässer’s longstanding attempt to coalesce an “anti-imperialist” bloc around a phantasmal Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis to counter American hegemony. Nonetheless, since anti-Muslim racism serves at the moment as the point of convergence for these different forces, it makes sense to sketch the function of racist discourse directed at Muslims in Germany over the last few years.

Writing in 2007, the sociologist Georg Klauda noted that a specifically anti-Muslim racism in Germany remained confined primarily to the intelligentsia:

Islamophobia has, at least in this country, its relevance not as a mass phenomenon, but as an elite discourse, which, shared by considerable numbers of leftist, liberal, and conservative intelligentsia, makes possible the articulation of resentments against immigrants and anti-racists in a form which allows one to appear as a shining champion of the European enlightenment.

While this statement was undoubtedly true in the context it was written seven years ago, what Pegida represents is the transformation of anti-Muslim racism from an elite discourse into a mass phenomenon, something capable of mobilizing large demonstrations of more than 20,000 people.

Elsässer began publishing books and articles arguing for the constitution of a “Berlin-Paris-Moscow axis” in opposition to Washington. After a series of explicitly nationalist interventions got him booted, successively, from pretty much every major left-wing publication of note, Elsässer started Compact, thus creating a coherent ideological center for a new type of far-right politics: resolutely German nationalist, explicitly adopting traditional far-right tropes against “finance capital,” positing the formation of a “Eurasian” power axis as a counterpole to the United States, and resolutely anti-immigrant in terms of domestic policy while supporting “anti-imperialist” countries such as Iran or Syria abroad.

read full article

January 1, 2015

Steve Scalise, David Duke and white nationalism

Filed under: Fascism,racism — louisproyect @ 10:11 pm

On December 28th, liberal blogger Lamar White Jr. posted an article that has shaken the Republican Party to its foundations. By Googling “Steve Scalise” and “David Duke”, he discovered a link to an item that appeared on the Stormfront website in 2002 that referred to Scalise, the House majority whip from Louisiana, speaking at a white nationalist gathering organized by Duke, a long-time fascist politician:

EURO’s recent national convention held in the greater New Orleans area was a convergence of ideas represented by Americans from diverse geographical regions like California, Texas, New Jersey and the Carolina’s. This indicates that concerns held are pervasive in every sovereign state and Republic alike, within an increasingly diminishing view of where America stands on individual liberty for whites.

In addition to plans to implement tactical strategies that were discussed, the meeting was productive locally as State Representative, Steve Scalise, discussed ways to oversee gross mismanagement of tax revenue or “slush funds” that have little or no accountability. Representative Scalise brought into sharp focus the dire circumstances pervasive in many important, under-funded needs of the community at the expense of graft within the Housing and Urban Development Fund, an apparent give-away to a selective group based on race.

EURO stands for European-American Unity and Rights Organization. It was just one of among many initiatives launched by Duke in an effort to widen the base for American fascism. Stormfront was launched in 1990 as a bulletin board to support Duke’s Senatorial campaign from Louisiana that year. Running as a Republican, Duke’s reputation was so bad that a Republican rival in the primary dropped out so as to help the Democrat get elected.

Lamar White Jr.’s scoop would have probably been ignored if it hadn’t been picked up and publicized by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), an outfit that raises money largely on the basis of frightening its supporters about the looming threat of fascism. Alexander Cockburn took note of its founder and executive director Morris Dees in a May 15 2009 CounterPunch article titled “King of the Hate Business”:

What is the arch-salesman of hate-mongering, Mr. Morris Dees of the Southern Poverty Law Center doing now? He’s saying that the election of a black president proves his point. Hate is on the rise! Send money!

Without skipping a beat, the mailshot moguls, who year after year make money selling the notion there’s been a right resurgence out there in the hinterland with massed legions of haters, have used the election of a black president to say that, yes, hate is on the rise and America ready to burst apart at the seams, with millions of extremists primed to march down Main Street draped in Klan robes, a copy of Mein Kampf tucked under one arm and a Bible under the other, available for sneak photographs from minions of Chip Berlet, another salesman of the Christian menace, ripely endowed with millions to battle the legions of the cross.

Was there anybody better than Alexander Cockburn at the Swiftian turn of phrase? I can’t think of one.

In a bid to clear Scalise’s name, Kenny Knight, a long-time aide to David Duke who organized the event, says the whole thing is a misunderstanding. NOLA.com, the website associated with the New Orleans Times-Picayune that discontinued its print edition, told its readers:

Kenny Knight, a longtime political adviser to Duke, said Scalise spoke at a meeting of the Jefferson Heights Civic Association — not affiliated with the European-American Unity and Rights conference that was held in the same Metairie hotel — two-and-a-half hours before the white nationalist event started.

Instapundit, an offshoot of the rightist Pajama Media, quoted from the NOLA article but neglected to include this key piece of information from the article, namely that Knight was the head of the Jefferson Heights Civic Association. Supposedly the two gatherings were not connected.

Knight maintains that Scalise was only there to speak to his community group and had no idea that the EURO convention was being held there later that day, and furthermore that he only knew him as a neighbor and not as Duke’s top adviser. Of course, there is the problem of Scalise’s confession that he did speak at the convention with the excuse that he was not aware of its agenda.

Did Scalise have any idea that Knight was Duke’s right-hand man? Or did he question the wisdom of speaking to the civic group Knight headed in the same place as the EURO meeting that Knight had organized? We’ll never know, I guess, but some people with a lot less knowledge of Louisiana politics took it upon themselves to stay away from the hotel that day as Gambit, an alternative New Orleans newspaper, reported back in 2002:

The Iowa Cubs will be playing the New Orleans Zephyrs from May 16-19, the same time frame as the EURO workshop. Originally, the Cubs were slated to stay at the same hotel as EURO participants.

Normally, when playing the Zephyrs, the Iowa Cubs stay at the Best Western Landmark. Due to the controversial nature of EURO, the Cubs will move to a different hotel. “We would just as soon stay away from a group that will create controversy,” says Iowa Cubs general manager Sam Bernabe.

As soon as I heard about Scalise’s rush to distance himself from David Duke, I wondered once again what compelled Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to invite Duke to a holocaust revisionism conference in Tehran back in 2006. Given the massive campaign to tighten the screws on Iran and make its people suffer, why put down the red carpet for a former leader of the KKK? Was this the type of “anti-imperialism” that so many people on the left had begun to identify with? One that was missing a brain?

This was not the only sign that Duke had sympathies for the “axis of resistance”. In an article on his website dated April 30, 2014 he said things that have a leftist tinge:

Putin, by ardently supporting the Assad government, almost single-handedly stopped a Zio mass invasion of Syria, as occurred in Iraq. The Zionists of course see Syria as an ardent enemy of Israel. He has had the Russian envoy on the UN Security Council veto and/or make known that Russia would veto resolutions which the Zionists want the Council to take.

A few months later Duke called attention to his appearance alongside the Syrian Girl on Jeff Rense’s radio show. The two would “expose the truth about the Zionist created Syrian conflict and the role Zionist controlled U.S. Policy in the rise of ISIS.”  The Syrian Girl is a 27-year old woman named Maram Susl who blogs on behalf of the Baathist dictatorship from her home in Australia. Her Youtube videos praising Bashar al-Assad have been played more than 2.5 million times. Jeff Rense is another left/right figure. When he isn’t praising Russia standing up to NATO over Ukraine or the Baathist war on its own people, he is reporting on UFO’s, how 9/11 was an inside job and how AIDS got started as an experiment in American biochemical weaponry labs.

Most of you are probably aware that Syria has attracted the support of rightwing figures in Europe who are as committed to white nationalism as David Duke. British National Party leader Nick Griffin has visited Syria twice and other groups have taken up the Baathist cause, including the French National Front and Greece’s Golden Dawn.

What do all these groups and individuals have in common, including Steve Salise, David Duke, Nick Griffin and Vladimir Putin? It is white nationalism.

Across the board, they see Muslims, immigrants, and people of color as inimical to their interests. Duke’s problem is that he is too obvious about it. The idea is not to promote “white pride” but instead call for an America that does not “entitle” some people to have more than others. Under the guise of being “color-blind”, the Republicans push legislation that punishes African-Americans disproportionately. When the cops kill a young Black man, the Republicans spring to their defense. Unlike the Democrats, they know how to fight for their cause uncompromisingly.

Perhaps the perfect denouement for Steve Scalise is the backing he has received from a Black Democrat who assured Americans that his colleague did not have a racist bone in his body. So said Cedric Richmond, a fellow Congressman. Like the recently unseated Mary Landrieu, Richmond is a typical Louisiana Democrat and a member of the centrist New Democrat Coalition that was founded by former Congressman Evan Bayh who sat on the committee that cleared the CIA of any wrongdoing in hacking the Senate Committee investigating torture. Did I tell you that the CIA handpicked the investigators investigating the investigators?

Richmond, like Landrieu, was a defender of offshore drilling and oil royalties to the state, a sine qua non for the continued domination of the petroleum industry over Louisiana politics. The state is infamous for its Cancer Alley, a 150-mile stretch along the Mississippi River that is dominated by unregulated petroleum refineries. In 2002, the same year that Scalise turned up at the hotel hosting David Duke’s conference, Louisiana had the second-highest death rate from cancer in the United States. As E.M. Forster said in the epigraph to “Howard’s End”, only connect.

December 30, 2014

David Duke’s warning

Filed under: Iran,racism — louisproyect @ 9:50 pm

RAW STORY

Ex-KKK leader David Duke: Lay off Steve Scalise or I’ll start naming other pols I met with

David Duke (DavidDuke.com)

In an interview with Fusion.net explaining his connection to current House Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), Duke said that he is exceptionally well-connected within the U.S. political class and that charges of racism against him are a product of the media’s “zionist” and “tribalist” mentality.

Incoming Majority Whip Scalise has come under fire over a speaking engagement with Duke’s pro-white EURO (European-American Unity and Rights Organization) foundation in 2002.

According to Duke, the rush to repudiate Scalise and his possible white-nationalist sympathies is “all bullshit.”

“I’ve grown up” since his days as a Grand Wizard of the Klan, Duke told Fusion’s Brett Logiurato via phone. “And I know who the real racists are.”

* * * *

Yeah, and this is one of them:

November 25, 2014

The “accidental” killing of Akai Gurley was no accident

Filed under: housing,New Deal,New York,racism — louisproyect @ 7:45 pm

As the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri was calculating how to avoid bringing killer cop Darren Wilson to trial, another ignominious homicide took place in the Louis H. Pink Housing Project in Brooklyn, NY. The New York Times reported on how a rookie cop named Peter Liang killed a young Black man named Akai Gurley:

Two police officers prepared to enter the pitch-black eighth-floor stairwell of a building in a Brooklyn housing project, one of them with his sidearm drawn. At the same time, a man and his girlfriend, frustrated by a long wait for an elevator, entered the seventh-floor stairwell, 14 steps below. In the darkness, a shot rang out from the officer’s gun, and the 28-year-old man below was struck in the chest and, soon after, fell dead.

The shooting, at 11:15 p.m. on Thursday, invited immediate comparison to the fatal shooting of an unarmed man in Ferguson, Mo. But 12 hours later, just after noon on Friday, the New York police commissioner, William J. Bratton, announced that the shooting was accidental and that the victim, Akai Gurley, had done nothing to provoke a confrontation with the officers.

A follow-up article detailed how such an “accident” might have taken place:

From different corners of Brooklyn, the lives of Mr. Gurley and Officer Liang, two young men separated in age by a single year, collided amid the faint shadows of the stairwell inside 2724 Linden Blvd., one of the buildings in the vast the Louis H. Pink housing project.

For Mr. Gurley, the stairs, even in their sorry state, offered the best alternative to chronically malfunctioning project elevators. For Officer Liang, their darkness presented a threat.

Often the department’s least experienced officers are sent.

“This is a result of poor in-street field training; you literally had the blind leading the blind out there,” said another high-ranking police official.

Both police officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the shooting investigation is still unfolding.

Most of the reporting centers on the cop’s inexperience as if a way to ward off interpretations that he was acting out of a KKK mentality so prevalent in the St. Louis police department. Since Chinese-Americans don’t tend to be seen as vicious racists, it is more difficult to mount Ferguson type protests over the killing. But in a very real sense, Brooklyn = Ferguson. It was the poverty and neglect of East New York that created the conditions for just such an accident.

Furthermore, a look at housing projects in general and the Louis H. Pink project in particular will demonstrate that we are dealing with institutions just barely distinguishable from South African shantytowns, even though they were at one time a staple of New Deal reform.

Louis Heaton Pink was an advocate of public housing in the 1930s who became the director of the New York Housing Authority, the city agency responsible for projects all across the city now in various states of disrepair. He was first appointed to a state housing agency by Al Smith, the governor of New York who despite having a solid record as a reformer got on FDR’s wrong side after running against him in the 1932 presidential primary.

This article from the February 14, 1934 NY Times should give you some idea of how Pink envisioned public housing:

louis pink article

When I worked for the Department of Welfare in Harlem in 1967, housing projects were considered a step up from slum buildings on the side streets even though they were beginning the steep decline that would eventually lead to the violent crime, broken elevators and darkened stairways that served as Akai Gurley’s death chamber.

The explanation is obvious. Like most public institutions that sprang up as a result of the modern welfare state, NYC public housing was the first to be sacrificed at the altar of austerity. The first to go was public housing. Next came hospitals and now it is CUNY that has to tighten its belt.

But austerity is not the end of the story. If the Housing Authority was truly broke, then the broken elevators, etc. might be understandable even if not forgivable. It turns out that there was money available for repairs but the rich white bastards who run the NYCHA had other ideas about what to do with it as the Daily News reported on August 1, 2012:

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In a New York Magazine article that appeared shortly after the Daily News revelations, the sad state of the Louis H. Pink Houses was detailed in a lengthy article:

That said, I was in the Pinks because of its namesake, Louis H. Pink. Born in Wausau, Wisconsin, in 1882, a former resident of a Lower East Side tenement, Pink was a leader in the fight to rid New York of its slums, which in 1920 reputedly covered seventeen square miles of the city. Three decades after Jacob Riis depicted the horrors of slum life in How the Other Half Lives, city children were “still being brought up in dark, ill-ventilated, overcrowded, unsafe tenement houses,” Pink wrote in his 1928 book, The New Day in Housing. Taking his lead from the Gemeindebau, or “community construction,” built in “Red Vienna” following World War I, Pink felt New York would benefit from “modern, sanitary housing for the great mass of our less well off citizens.”

Pink was joined by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who blamed the TB death of his first wife on the evils of slum living. “Down with rotten, antiquated ratholes! Down with hovels! Down with disease! Down with crime!” the Little Flower proclaimed, saying every New Yorker deserved “a bit of sunshine in every window.” On December 3, 1935, Louis Pink joined La Guardia, Governor Herbert Lehman, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to dedicate First Houses on Avenue A and 3rd Street. It was the beginning of public housing in the United States.

In 1959, when the Louis H. Pink ­Houses opened, no First Lady appeared. Public housing was in its stolid middle age, the era of idealism long gone, and NYCHA’s enterprise had morphed into a full-scale building boom pursued with typical assembly-line zeal by the city’s chairman of slum clearance, Robert Moses. Filed under the rubric of “urban renewal” (James Baldwin called it “Negro removal”), slum-clearing was done for private development as well as great municipal feats like the Cross-Bronx Expressway. The displaced, especially white lower-middle-class workers who otherwise would have moved to places like bucolic (and racially segregated) Levittown, were encouraged to move to public high-rises full of Mayor La Guardia’s sunlight.

Not surprisingly, New York Magazine—prime reading material for Manhattan’s upwardly mobile—gave NYCHA head John Rhea an opportunity to defend himself.

The centerpiece of Rhea’s “public-­private solution” for NYCHA has been the city’s 2010 funding deal with Citigroup. In exchange for fifteen years’ worth of guaranteed federal low-income-housing tax credits, the bank helped secure $230 million for 21 troubled developments that were built but no longer funded by the city and/or the state. The arrangement triggered NYCHA’s eligibility for the onetime infusion of $75 million of federal stimulus funds.

“If you want to save the proud tradition of public housing in this city, you’ve got to think differently,” Rhea declared, adding that while heading NYCHA was “by far the biggest challenge” of his career, he had come to love his job and the projects themselves. “NYCHA is supposed to be this great problem,” the chairman said. “But if your rich uncle left you NYCHA in his will, that would be the luckiest day of your life. NYCHA, with its vast holdings, is a tremendous asset for the City of New York.

You would of course have to conclude that any bureaucrat who thinks in terms of “public-private” and cuts deals with Citibank would be the last person to attend to public housing woes in New York, even if he is African-American (another version of Barack Obama, to be sure.) After four years of getting nothing done, Rhea resigned in December 2013 before Bill de Blasio had a chance to fire him.

I don’t think the Black community expects much from the new “reformer” based on this August 27 article that appeared in the NY Observer.

Bill de Blasio Heckled While Touting NYCHA Safety Gains

Mayor Bill de Blasio today at the Lincoln Houses in East Harlem. (Jillian Jorgensen)

Mayor Bill de Blasio went to the Lincoln Houses in East Harlem to talk about crime reductions and safety upgrades in the city’s public housing stock — but some residents just didn’t want to hear it.

The mayor was heckled by at least two people who gathered to watch his press conference in a sunny courtyard Wednesday, where he stood strategically in front of construction workers removing scaffolding residents have long complained are a blight and a danger.

As the mayor sought to take the microphone after Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito spoke, a man shouted in Spanish at the mayor about needing more security. Mr. de Blasio at first tried to keep talking, but eventually paused and offered: “Thank you, brother.”

Shortly after, NYPD Chief of Housing Carlos Gomez was also met with a skeptical response from a local resident as he spoke.

“July first, the crime in housing was up. It was up for the fifth year in a row. With the additional officers, and resources, the additional work being conducted by other city agencies, I’m proud to say as we stand here today crime in public housing is down, more than 4 percent — that’s higher than the city averages,” Mr. Gomez said.

“Since when?” a woman called out. “Since when it went down?”

“From July 1 until now crime is down double-digits throughout NYCHA in the city, down 13 percent. Murders are down 18 percent, and our shooting incidents are down in NYCHA,” Mr. Gomez said.

But as he spoke, the woman responded “That’s a lie. That’s a lie.”

When asked by a reporter about that response, the mayor said he understood why it seemed to some residents that crime had not truly fallen.

“Because it takes time, first of all, for everyone to feel it. And I don’t blame anyone who is feeling there isn’t enough yet in the way of improvement. We have a lot to do. The numbers that Chief Gomez gave are the numbers, and that clearly means progress,” Mr. de Blasio said. “That means some people are alive today who wouldn’t have been otherwise, some people are safe today who wouldn’t have been otherwise.”

Though the city has had 29 fewer murders this year and 1,000 fewer robberies, the mayor said, people won’t believe in change until they see it — comparing it to the focus of his press conference, the removal of the scaffolding or “sheds” that residents argued served as hiding places for guns and illegal activity.

“Until people see the sheds down, they aren’t going to feel the benefits,” he said.

After the press conference, Mr. de Blasio enjoyed a brief and seemingly friendly chat with the man who had shouted at him in Spanish.

Earlier this summer at the same housing development, Mr. de Blasio vowed to remove scaffolding and add cameras, lights, and hundreds more police officers to the city’s public housing earlier this summer to combat rising crime there.

According to Mr. Gomez, crime in public housing is now down: Year-to-date, in the Housing Bureau citywide crime is down 4.2 percent, with murders down 5.9 percent, rapes down 3 percent, and robberies down 5.6 percent.

Still, shootings are still up in NYCHA developments over the course of the entire year — and are up citywide, outside of public housing complexes — though they have fallen in the Housing Bureau since July 1.

August 25, 2014

He passed muster at the U. of Illinois

Filed under: Academia,racism,Steven Salaita — louisproyect @ 7:32 pm

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Weissberg speaking at American Renaissance Conference, an organization whose journal promotes racial supremacy. Weissberg himself has written that Blacks are genetically inferior to whites.

 

August 22, 2014

Another murder of a Black man in St. Louis–how Abraham Lincoln responded

Filed under: african-american,Obama,racism — louisproyect @ 9:29 pm

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In St. Louis, Missouri on April 28th, 1836, a lynch mob burned Francis McIntosh alive. He was a mixed-race freeman who worked on a riverboat. His crime was refusing to assist two cops who were chasing after another sailor who had been in a fight. When under police custody, he learned that he would have to spend five years in prison. In an attempt to flee from an obviously unjust punishment, he stabbed one of the cops to death and wounded the other.

Wikipedia reports on what happened next:

After a brief chase, McIntosh was captured and placed in jail; however, a white mob soon broke into the jail and removed McIntosh. The mob then took him to the outskirts of town (near the present-day intersection of Seventh and Chestnut streets in Downtown St. Louis), chained him to a locust tree, and piled wood around and up to his knees. When the mob lit the wood with a hot brand, McIntosh asked the crowd to shoot him, then began to sing hymns. When one in the crowd said that he had died, McIntosh reportedly replied, “No, no — I feel as much as any of you. Shoot me! Shoot me!” After at most twenty minutes, McIntosh died. Estimates for the number present at the lynching range in the hundreds, and include an alderman who threatened to shoot anyone who attempted to stop the lynching.

During the night, an elderly African-American man was paid to keep the fire lit, and the mob dispersed. The next day, on April 29, a group of boys threw rocks at the corpse in an attempt to break the skull. When a grand jury was convened to investigate the lynching on May 16, most local newspapers and the presiding judge encouraged no indictment for the crime, and no one was ever charged or convicted. During the grand jury trial, Judge Luke E. Lawless remarked in court that McIntosh’s actions were an example of the “atrocities committed in this and other states by individuals of negro blood against their white brethren,” and that with the rise of abolitionism, “the free negro has been converted into a deadly enemy.”

On January 27, 1838 Abraham Lincoln gave the first important speech in his life to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois. A Lyceum was a place where politicians or other celebrities could give talks to the up and coming professional, sort of like the 92nd Street YMHA. Titled “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions”, it was a plea to resist mob rule and adhere to the rule of law. He referred to the lynching of Francis McIntosh as a threat the American republic:

Turn, then, to that horror-striking scene at St. Louis. A single victim was only sacrificed there. His story is very short; and is, perhaps, the most highly tragic, if anything of its length, that has ever been witnessed in real life. A mulatto man, by the name of McIntosh, was seized in the street, dragged to the suburbs of the city, chained to a tree, and actually burned to death; and all within a single hour from the time he had been a freeman, attending to his own business, and at peace with the world.

Such are the effects of mob law; and such as the scenes, becoming more and more frequent in this land so lately famed for love of law and order; and the stories of which, have even now grown too familiar, to attract any thing more, than an idle remark.

At first blush, this sounds like the Lincoln we know from Stephen Spielberg’s biopic—a man committed to emancipation. But not so fast. Lincoln goes on to say:

He had forfeited his life, by the perpetuation of an outrageous murder, upon one of the most worthy and respectable citizens of the city; and had not he died as he did, he must have died by the sentence of the law, in a very short time afterwards. As to him alone, it was as well the way it was, as it could otherwise have been.–But the example in either case, was fearful.–When men take it in their heads to day, to hang gamblers, or burn murderers, they should recollect, that, in the confusion usually attending such transactions, they will be as likely to hang or burn some one who is neither a gambler nor a murderer as one who is; and that, acting upon the example they set, the mob of to-morrow, may, and probably will, hang or burn some of them by the very same mistake.

As someone who is not that fond of Lincoln’s ornate circumlocutions, let me paraphrase it in Proyectesque terms. Lincoln said that McIntosh deserved to die but only after being found guilty in a court of law. One can only imagine what a jury made up of his “peers” would have decided in a state that passed a law in 1825 stating that Blacks were not competent to testify in cases that involved Whites.

Even more worrisome was Lincoln’s remarks on abolitionism. In the South, there were laws that banned the promotion of abolitionist ideas. Lincoln warned against “mob rule” that would attempt to circumvent the rule of law. Once again, you have to put up with the circumlocutions: “There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law. In any case that arises, as for instance, the promulgation of abolitionism, one of two positions is necessarily true; that is, the thing is right within itself, and therefore deserves the protection of all law and all good citizens; or, it is wrong, and therefore proper to be prohibited by legal enactments; and in neither case, is the interposition of mob law, either necessary, justifiable, or excusable.”

When I first got wind of Barack Obama in 2007, I noticed that he was a big fan of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals”, a study of Lincoln’s presidency that found great merit in his appointment of men who were hostile to abolitionism. Obama, of course, was inspired to appoint a bunch of shithooks every chance he got, to show how determined he was to be like Lincoln.

Upon taking office, Obama told a reporter: “”I will tell you, though, that my goal is to have the best possible government, and that means me winning. And so, I am very practical minded. I’m a practical-minded guy. And, you know, one of my heroes is Abraham Lincoln.” He referred the reporter to “a wonderful book written by Doris Kearns Goodwin called ‘Team of Rivals,’ in which [she] talked about [how] Lincoln basically pulled in all the people who had been running against him into his Cabinet because whatever, you know, personal feelings there were, the issue was, ‘How can we get this country through this time of crisis?’”

Well, we know how that turned out. Badly.

We have had six years now of an administration that is to the right of Richard Nixon’s. It harasses reporters, favors the rich, sends drones to blow up wedding parties, creates health care “reform” more beneficial to the insurer than the insured, and caves in to the Republicans every chance it gets.

And, now returning to the crime against a Black man in St. Louis once again, we have Obama following in Lincoln’s footsteps. Which means trying to straddle the fence and be acceptable to Black voters and to the white racists who would as soon see them get the short end of the stick just like the Palestinians. No wonder the people of Ferguson carry signs in solidarity with Gaza.

 

August 12, 2014

Saint Louis County top cop has Confederacy flag on his wall

Filed under: racism — louisproyect @ 10:41 pm

Screen shot 2014-08-12 at 6.33.37 PMAnonymous hacked police chief Jon Belmar’s webcam and found this incriminating evidence

 

July 29, 2014

Bratton, De Blasio and the subway break-dancers

Filed under: crime,New York,racism — louisproyect @ 7:35 pm

Today’s NY Times reports on the crackdown on break-dancers in the subway.

The young dancers, Peppermint and Butterscotch, scanned the scattered faces aboard the New York City subway. One caught their eye.

“Are you a cop?” a performer asked, as their Q train rumbled toward Canal Street. The man waved them off. Peppermint and Butterscotch were satisfied.

“It’s showtime!” they shouted.

Music filled the train. Legs curled around the car’s graspable bars like creeping ivy. Then came a finale that surprised even the dancers: four plainclothes officers converging in tandem, and two sets of handcuffs.

Cheered by tourists, tolerated by regulars, feared by those who frown upon kicks in the face, subway dancers have unwittingly found themselves a top priority for the New York Police Department — a curious collision of a Giuliani-era policing approach, a Bloomberg-age dance craze and a new administration that has cast the mostly school-age entertainers as fresh-face avatars of urban disorder.

There’s probably nobody more opposed to being a captive audience on the subways than me. I have been riding NYC subways since they cost 15 cents a ride. When they were this cheap, they lacked air conditioning and were as noisy as hell, but you could at least be assured that you would never be forced to watch a musical performance, begged for spare change, or listen to a sermon.

That was a function of the city being a lot more economically and socially viable than it has been ever since the fare reached the dollar level at least. In 1961 the city was home to a million and one small manufacturing plants that provided jobs for Blacks and Latinos. This is not to speak of the jobs in heavy industry just across the river in New Jersey, such as the Ford plant in Mahwah. In those days, jobs were like low-hanging fruit for recent immigrants from the Deep South or Puerto Rico. They disappeared long ago, forcing the grandchildren of those who worked in them to beg for change or to break dance just one step ahead of the law.

In some ways it is the subway preachers that make me the most crazy, even though they are probably certifiably insane themselves. When I used to take the number one train up to Columbia University, there was a guy who showed up about once a month and preach to us. He had a thick Jamaican accent and would always prattle on about how Jesus was coming to take the faithful up to heaven and send the sinful down to hell. I had to restrain myself from ranting about there being nothing but colliding atoms. What good would it do?

During the Giuliani administration, chief of police William Bratton implemented the “broken window theory”, one that posited petty crime as creating a climate for more serious crimes. This meant in practice arresting the homeless men who used squeegees on car windows when they were stopped for a red light. They generally didn’t say anything if you refused but hoped to get a dollar for their work. The cops also went after young men, mostly Black and Latino, who spray-painted graffiti on subway cars, including Michael Stewart who died in 1983 while under police custody. Despite eyewitnesses who saw the cops kicking and beating him, an all-white jury acquitted the six officers.

Eventually the “broken windows” policy led to the formation of a Street Crimes Unit that targeted young Blacks and Latinos for selling drugs or other minor offenses. This was really the beginning of “Stop and Frisk”, the policy that Bill De Blasio claimed he wanted to abolish. Obviously it has snuck back in through the back door. In a very good article on Bratton in the ISO newspaper, attorney David Bliven describes his experience with Bratton’s law and order:

As a young civil rights lawyer in Jamaica, Queens, at the time, I had more than a few victims of this police harassment come into my office. They were often Black teenagers who described how they were walking home from school, or from the store, or just hanging out with friends, when a car pulled up and out jumped the NYPD thugs. They’d throw the teen into their car, rough him up in the backseat, try to get drug sale information out of him, and when they determined the kid knew nothing, end up dumping the then utterly frightened kid on the other side of Queens.

The Street Crimes Unit was eventually disbanded–not because it wasn’t effective at its mission (intimidating and oppressing Blacks and Latinos)–but because it eventually made its way into the mainstream press and thus fell out of favor with the white liberal establishment. The idea behind the Street Crimes Unit lived on and was quickly replaced by Drug Sweep Teams, which were the precursor to the “stop-and-frisk” policy.

Now that Bratton is running the police department again, the “broken window theory” has been reinstituted. Besides break dancers, it seeks to protect the public from the mostly minority men and women who sell single cigarettes on the street at a cut-rate price. One of them was Eric Garner, an immense but sickly African-American who died as an illegal chokehold was being placed on him and as he cried out that he could not breathe:

To its credit, the NY Times editorialized against Bratton’s policy:

How terrible it would be if Eric Garner died for a theory, for the idea that aggressive police enforcement against minor offenders (he was a seller of loose, untaxed cigarettes) is the way to a safer, more orderly city. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton responded swiftly after Mr. Garner was fatally assaulted by officers on Staten Island. They reached out to his family, promising to retrain every officer about the rules against using chokeholds. Two officers have been put on desk duty pending investigations.

The mayor and the commissioner should also begin a serious discussion of the future of “broken windows” policing, the strategy of relentlessly attacking petty offenses to nurture a sense of safety and order in high-crime neighborhoods, which, in theory, leads to greater safety and order. In reality, the link is hypothetical, as many cities and towns across the country have enjoyed historic decreases in violent crime since the 1990s, whatever strategies they used. And the vast majority of its targets are not serious criminals, or criminals at all.

Bratton is a pioneer of broken windows policing and Mr. de Blasio is a stout defender. The tactic was embraced in the crime-plagued New York of 20 years ago. But while violence has ebbed, siege-based tactics have not. The Times reported on Friday that the Police Department made 394,539 arrests last year, near historical highs.

The mayor and the commissioner should acknowledge the heavy price paid for heavy enforcement. Broken windows and its variants — “zero-tolerance,” “quality-of-life,” “stop-and-frisk” practices — have pointlessly burdened thousands of young people, most of them black and Hispanic, with criminal records. These policies have filled courts to bursting with first-time, minor offenders whose cases are often thrown out, though not before their lives are severely disrupted and their reputations blemished. They have caused thousands to lose their jobs, to be suspended from school, to be barred from housing or the military. They have ensnared immigrants who end up, through a federal fingerprinting program, being deported and losing everything.

No matter how much clout the “newspaper of record” has, the politician that the Nation Magazine, Salon.com, and the Huffington Post drooled over will likely ignore its recommendations. Once again from the NYT article we linked to at the beginning of this post:

Mayor Bill de Blasio has defended the approach even as some police reform advocates have called for big changes after the death of a Staten Island man, Eric Garner, during an arrest over accusations of selling untaxed cigarettes, a subject of complaints by local businesses.

“If you’re violating the law, I can understand why any New Yorker might say, well that might not be such a big offense or that might not be something that troubles any of us individually,” the mayor said, standing with Mr. Bratton on Monday at City Hall. “But breaking the law is breaking the law.”

And what exactly is the difference between Giuliani and De Blasio? I guess the same difference between Bush and Obama. In a period of declining economic opportunities, law and order will become more and more repressive. In the early stages of capitalism, vagabonds roamed the British countryside and prompted the equivalent of “stop and frisk” back then—draconian policies including being sentenced to a debtor’s prison.

Chapter 28 of V. 1 of Capital begins as follows:

The proletariat created by the breaking up of the bands of feudal retainers and by the forcible expropriation of the people from the soil, this “free” proletariat could not possibly be absorbed by the nascent manufactures as fast as it was thrown upon the world. On the other hand, these men, suddenly dragged from their wonted mode of life, could not as suddenly adapt themselves to the discipline of their new condition. They were turned en masse into beggars, robbers, vagabonds, partly from inclination, in most cases from stress of circumstances. Hence at the end of the 15th and during the whole of the 16th century, throughout Western Europe a bloody legislation against vagabondage. The fathers of the present working class were chastised for their enforced transformation into vagabonds and paupers. Legislation treated them as “voluntary” criminals, and assumed that it depended on their own good will to go on working under the old conditions that no longer existed.

Now that we are in the period of capitalism’s senescence, we find that once again manufacturing cannot absorb the “free” proletariat. In the 18th century this was because it had not come into existence. In the 21st it is because it no longer exists.

April 27, 2014

Donald Sterling: racist and sexist pig extraordinaire

Filed under: capitalist pig,racism,real estate,sexism,sports — louisproyect @ 8:45 pm

This week there were blatant signs that America was not yet a “postracial” society. First we were treated to the spectacle of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, hailed by the libertarian right for his stand against a federal government he deemed non-existent, telling a NY Times reporter that Blacks abort their young children and put their young men in jail “because they never learned how to pick cotton.”

Fast on his heels, Donald Sterling, the 81 year old owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, a basketball team with a Black coach and star guard who also happens to be the president of the players’ union, was caught saying over the phone to his 38 year old girlfriend—of mixed Latino and Black ancestry—that she should stop showing up at his arena with so many Blacks. Quoting Sterling:

It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?

You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.

I’m just saying, in your lousy fucking Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with black people.

…Don’t put him [Magic Johnson] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games.

This was all on a tape that his girlfriend released to TMZ, a gossip website.

This story has burst through the seams of sports and become a hot topic on television news and the newspapers. In today’s NY Times, William C. Rhoden, a Black sports reporter, wrote:

The more compelling question for the league’s players is whether they will speak out — or act out — against Sterling. And what about the league’s other owners? How will they respond? Will they remain silent? Will they issue a collective statement? Or will individual owners like the usually vocal Mark Cuban, who declined to address the Sterling issue, send their own messages?

Mark Cuban has a reputation for being one of the more progressive-minded owners (his Dallas team, like Sterling’s, is in the playoffs). He also owns Magnolia Pictures, a prime distributor of hard-hitting documentaries including one based on the the March 2006 rape, murder, and burning of 14-year-old Iraqi girl and the murder of her parents and younger sister by U.S. soldiers.

But I am not that surprised he declined to comment on the Sterling affair. Cuban is a diehard libertarian and as such views property rights as sacrosanct, just like the Nevada rancher.

In digging into Sterling’s past, I made the discovery that he was born to Jewish immigrants surnamed Tokowitz. Like many men getting off the boat, his father made a living as a peddler just like my grandmother. Sterling’s father peddled fruit while my grandmother pushed clothing.

Sterling started off in Los Angeles as a divorce lawyer but soon switched to real estate cases. That led in turn to a full-time real estate business that included properties in Black and Latino neighborhoods. This is where his racism first reared its ugly head. Dave Zirin, a radical sportswriter for the Nation Magazine, details his sordid past:

Sterling is also the Slumlord Billionaire, a man who made his fortune by building low-income housing, and then, according to a Justice Department lawsuit, developing his own racial quota system to decide who gets the privilege of renting his properties. In November of 2009, Sterling settled the suit with the US Department of Justice for $2.73 million, the largest ever obtained by the government in a discrimination case involving apartment rentals. Reading the content of the suit makes you want to shower with steel wool. Sterling just said no to rent to non-Koreans in Koreatown and just said hell-no to African-Americans looking for property in plush Beverly Hills. Sterling, who has a Blagojevichian flair for the language, says he did not like to rent to “Hispanics” because “Hispanics smoke, drink and just hang around the building.” He also stated that “black tenants smell and attract vermin.”

One of my earliest memories was visiting “Tante Leya” in New York with my mother—I must have been 10 years old or so. This was most likely my grandmother’s cousin who spoke no English. After spending two of the longest hours in my life as Leya and my mother chatted in Yiddish over tea and cookies, we finally left to go downtown—probably to see the Radio City Christmas show or something like that. In the elevator, my mother turned to me and said,”Leya is a slumlord. She buys buildings and rents the apartments to Negros who complain about rats and broken boilers.” That was the first time in my life I heard the term slumlord.

At 81, Sterling’s values were a lot closer to Tante Leya’s than mine. This was a man who worshipped money not “Jewish values”. When a Satmar Hasidic slumlord was killed a few months ago, I was reminded of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express”, a case in which Inspector Poirot was stymied by the fact that a multitude of people had motives to kill the victim. The Satmar was such a crook and so callous in his dealings with Black tenants that it was impossible to figure out who killed him. If Donald Sterling ever ends up with a knife in the back, the cops will have the same problem.

A Sports Illustrated profile on Sterling from 2000 analyzes his cheapskate behavior as a reaction to childhood poverty. Michael Selsman, his former publicist, told SI: “As a kid, Donald never had enough of anything. With him, acquiring great wealth is a crusade. He’s psychologically predisposed to hoarding.” Not every Jew who lived through the Great Depression ended up in quite that manner. My mother complained bitterly about my father’s reluctance to buy a house in the roaring 1950s but understood it as a reaction to childhood poverty. That being said, my father—like most Depression era men—had no ambition to build an economic empire over hapless victims, particularly Black people.

Perhaps taking the advice of another publicist concerned about his shitty reputation, Sterling got involved in a project to benefit Los Angeles’s enormous homeless population but like everything else the billionaire gets involved with, it was nothing but a scam. The Los Angeles Weekly reported in 2008:

These days, though, Sterling’s vow to help the homeless is looking more like a troubling, ego-inflating gimmick dreamed up by a very rich man with a peculiar public-relations sense: Witness his regular advertisements proclaiming another “humanitarian of the year” award — for himself. From homeless-services operators to local politicians, no one has received specifics for the proposed Sterling Homeless Center. They aren’t the least bit convinced that the project exists.

“He uses every opportunity to have it announced somewhere,” says Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest who runs the Skid Row day-care and education center Las Familias del Pueblo. “But it sounds like a phantom project to me.”

Like many other scumbags who made a fortune (George Steinbrenner, Fred Wilpon, James Dolan) in some other type of business, Sterling decided to buy a professional sports team at the top of his game. In 1981, he bought the Los Angeles Clippers, a franchise that was nowhere near as prestigious as the Los Angeles Lakers (Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s team) but a bargain at twice the price. His initial 12.5 million dollar investment is now worth a half-billion.

The SI profile captures a man who would make Scrooge McDuck look like Lucky Jim Fitzsimmons. He suggested to coach Paul Silas that they could save money if he taped the players’ ankles.

Nobody ever bothered to challenge Sterling until the superstar Elgin Baylor became general manager. Baylor was committed to making the team competitive even if it meant demanding that his boss open up his wallet. After 22 years of fighting a losing battle, Baylor was probably relieved to be fired in 2008 but not so much so to prevent him from filing a racial discrimination case against Sterling. The LA Times reported:

In the original lawsuit, Baylor said that Sterling had a “vision of a Southern plantation-type structure” for the Clippers and accused the owner of a “pervasive and ongoing racist attitude” during long-ago contract negotiations with Danny Manning. The lawsuit also quoted Sterling as telling Manning’s agent, “I’m offering you a lot of money for a poor black kid.”

Baylor alleged Sterling said he wanted the Clippers to be “composed of ‘poor black boys from the South’ and a white head coach.”

It should of course come as no surprise that Sterling was a sexist pig as well as a racist. ESPN, a sports magazine similar to Sports Illustrated, Jason Easly recounts his scandalous abuse of women. Christine Jaksy, a former employee, sued Sterling for sexual harassment in 1996. ESPN states:

Jaksy first worked for Sterling in 1993, as a hostess at one of his “white parties,” where guests dressed Gatsby style at his Malibu beach house; she eventually went into property management. Jaksy testified that Sterling offered her clothes and an expense account in return for sexual favors. She also testified that he told her, “You don’t need your lupus support groups I’m your psychiatrist.” Jaksy left her job in December 1995, handing Sterling a memo that read in part, “The reason I have to write this to you is because in a conversation with you I feel pressured against a wall and bullied in an attempt to be overpowered. I’m not about to do battle with you.” She carried a gun because, according to her testimony, she feared retribution.

One of the most shocking revelations about Donald Sterling was the NAACP’s decision to present him with a Lifetime Achievement award this year. (Of course, they also decided to give a Man of the Year award to the snitch Al Sharpton.) Even though they made the decision to present the award before the phone call tape was released to TMZ, they must have been aware of all his other anti-Black words and actions. What prompted them to overlook this was his handing out of from 2 to 3 thousand tickets to Black youth for home games of the LA Clippers. They have since rescinded the award.

Professional sports fascinates me both as a fan and as a critic of American society. What makes it unique is the tension between private ownership and the public’s sense that it is “their team”. Toward the end of the NBA season, New Yorkers planned to stage a protest against owner Jim Dolan in front of Madison Square Garden. They were sick and tired of his meddling in the team’s business, making decisions that undercut the team’s fortunes. Apparently nervous that the protest might lead to more escalated forms of action such as a boycott, Dolan hired Phil Jackson, a basketball legend like Elgin Baylor, to run the team and promised to not interfere.

When you listen to sports fans calling in to WFAN or the ESPN station in New York, they sound more informed about the team than Jim Dolan. Unlike their generally passive acceptance of whatever Chase Manhattan Bank has up its sleeves to screw the working person, the sports fan is ready to take to the barricades in order to win a championship. In the documentary “Manufacturing Consent”, Noam Chomsky states:

Take, say, sports — that’s another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view. For one thing because it — you know, it offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. That keeps them from worrying about — keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in (discussions of) sports (as opposed to political and social issues). I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in — they have the most exotic information and understanding about all kind of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this.

If and when that passion becomes devoted to challenging the corporate system as a whole, we might finally see the possibility of realizing that old-time vision of a Socialist America.

 

April 17, 2014

Vanishing Pearls; Bad Hair

Filed under: energy,Film,racism — louisproyect @ 4:49 pm

At the risk of stretching a point until it breaks, both films under review bear on the relationship between race and petroleum. “Vanishing Pearls”, a documentary opening on April 18th at the Imagenation in New York and Downtown Independent in LA (nationwide screening info is at http://www.affrm.com/vanishing-pearls/), looks at the plight of the largely African-American oyster fisherman of Louisiana who have been screwed royally by BP and their henchmen—witting or unwitting.

Since “Bad Hair” (Pelo Malo) is a Venezuelan narrative film about a 9-year-old biracial boy living in Caracas with his mestizo mother and since the Tribeca Film Festival where it is being shown is a platform for films from a left perspective, one might assume that it would be full of positive references to the benefits accrued from petro-development. In fact, just the opposite is the case. The protagonists of Mariana Rondón’s very accomplished film appear totally untouched by the Bolivarian revolution. Despite my commitment to the goals of the Venezuelan government, I could not help but be troubled by the reality depicted in Rondón’s film. Notwithstanding the doubts it raised in my mind, I strongly recommend it as a neorealist examination of the lives of poor people in Caracas, and particularly as a study of the challenges that Junior, its 9-year-old hero, faces in a society where homophobia still looms strong.

If you’ve grown sick of those BP commercials about how the Gulf coast has “returned”, generally shown to the point of saturation on Sunday morning news shows, as well as those full-page ads in the NY Times about how poor BP is being robbed by unscrupulous lawyers, “Vanishing Pearls” is a film that that will provide some satisfaction since it nails the criminal corporation to the wall. Written, directed, and produced by Nailah Jefferson, a young African-American female from New Orleans in her debut production, it profiles a group of oyster fishermen from Pointe a la Hache taking the lead of Byron Encalade, a sixtyish boat owner whose family, neighbors and friends have been ruined by BP’s greed and neglect.

The film is both a fascinating history of an important element of the Black struggle in the Deep South and a study of the environmental impact of unregulated oil drilling in a state where criminal outfits like BP run the state government like a puppet on a string.

Alcalade’s ancestors started out as sharecroppers on sugar and cotton plantations. When Black Louisianans first broke into the oyster fishing business, it was also as sharecroppers. A wealthy white man would pay for the boat and the gear and hire Black crews to operate them. Based on the haul, they would earn a percentage of the profits, just as if the oysters were cotton. Eventually, however, they were able to put away enough money to buy their own boats and become independent small entrepreneurs.

Oyster fishing was one of the prime casualties of the chemical dispersants BP sprayed into the Gulf waters to mitigate the effects of the disaster. In a very real sense the cure was more harmful than the disease since the oil was simply broken down into smaller droplets and floated to the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, where it could destroy the habitat not only for oysters but other marine life.

Jefferson did not manage to get interviews with the openly nefarious BP corporate heads and the politicians they own but did get plenty of time with two men who were supposedly on the side of the fishermen. One is Kenneth Feinberg, the lawyer who is supervising payments from BP and who has an alarming tendency to sound and look like a bald Donald Rumsfeld. Feinberg was also the lawyer who managed payouts to the victims of Bernie Madoff. After seeing his double-dealing with the oyster fishermen, you pray that he would end up in a cell next to Madoff. Essentially, most of the fishermen took one-time payments of $25,000 from BP in exchange for agreeing that they would make no further claim. Since all were out of business for months after the BP spill and economically distressed, the payoff was effectively a form of blackmail. Feinberg made no effort to force BP to look after their long-term interests. Feinberg’s firm was paid $850,00 per month for its services. After a couple of months showing its pro-corporate bias, BP rewarded it with a raise to $1,250,000.

The other unwilling villain is a scientist named Wes Tunnell who wrote a report in three days effectively underscoring BP’s claim that things would return to normal by now. At one point he tells Nailah Jefferson that the spill amounted to a cup of coffee being spilled into the New Orleans Superdome, seen from an aerial mounted video camera.

The press notes for “Vanishing Pearls” reveals how Feinberg and Tunnell worked as a tag-team:

By December, many of the fishermen were in dire and desperate straights. Suddenly, Feinberg and GCCS decided to issue “emergency funds” as Christmas neared. This move was not without one small caveat – getting the funds required waiving all rights to bring a suit against the BP oil company. The gravity of the struggling that many of the fishermen had to deal with led many to take the settlement offered in the hopes that they would be able to save their homes and businesses.

Amidst this mess, in 2013, the documentarian decided to contact Feinberg to try and get some answers. Strangely and without hesitation, he agreed to meet with her. It was revealed that BP had begun to urge Feinberg to halt claims payouts all together. They had paid for a “scientific study” and based on the resulting report, BP felt “the areas affected by the spill had recovered and the economy was improving.” The biased report had been commissioned by GCCS and was the sole instrument used to stifle claims. The reality of the situation was quite different, it had been over the stated two years and the oyster beds had not regenerated themselves, the fishermen were still out of work, and recovery claims were still not being paid. Feinberg remained ambivalent. He offered no apology and simply stuck to his ludicrous story that “everything would come back.”

Ms. Jefferson has made a very compelling documentary on a shoestring budget. Considering the fact that Barack Obama has given BP a green light to continue drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, this film arrives at a time when it is most needed. My recommendation is to check this film out and to tell your friends about it.

Marta has her hands filled raising her son Junior and another baby son in a Caracas high-rise that has seen better days. She has just lost her job as a security guard and is scraping by as a maid. In an early scene, she asks Junior to scrub the walls of a Jacuzzi in a middle-class apartment. Yielding to temptation, he fills the tub, strips down to his underwear, and reclines beneath the soothing waters until the matron of the house spots him. Chagrined by her son’s fecklessness, Marta returns home where the conflict between mother and son continues.

Like the women in Chris Rock’s documentary “Good Hair”, very likely a partial inspiration for Rondón’s film, Junior is obsessed with his “bad hair”, the curly legacy of his Black father who was killed by gang members in their typically lawless neighborhood. While fleeing from his Black identity, Junior seems equally gravitating toward some early form of Gay identity, or at least that is Marta’s fear based on his love of singing. What can be more gay, after all, then a 9 year old loving to sing?

Marta’s mother-in-law is okay with his gay tendencies since that would protect him from gangsters. Who would find a reason to shoot a gay man? When Marta leaves the boy with his grandmother while she is out job-hunting, the stay is always crowned by her tending to his hair with a blow dryer. When he all set to get a photo id for school, she gets the bright idea to adorn him in a costume she is sewing together that is similar to the one worn by a popular singer. It goes one step further than Elvis’s costumes in Las Vegas. It is a gold lamé dress that Junior rejects with the words: “I am not a girl”. If the film is influenced by Rock’s documentary, it also bows in the direction of “Billy Elliot”, a British narrative film about a young boy who prefers ballet to boxing, defying his coal miner father’s homophobia.

The film depicts a daily life that is not only untouched by socialism, but by any of the social safety nets of a welfare state except for the local clinic that is free. Marta keeps bringing Junior in the hopes that the doctor can figure out what is making her son “queer”.

There is little doubt that Rondón takes the Bolivarian revolution with a grain of salt. The film is set in the final months of Hugo Chavez’s illness and she includes footage from Venezuelan television of that time when people were praying for the president or shaving their heads in solidarity. She leaves the impression that the people view him as a semi-divine benefactor.

As might be expected, the film has generated a fair amount of controversy in Venezuela. Caracas Chronicles, an anti-Chavista website, has taken the director’s side. While keeping her distance from the violent street protesters, she blames the country’s polarization for the way that her film has been used as ammunition against the government.

Wikipedia reports that “In 2007 she directed and produced Postales de Leningrado (Postcards from Leningrad), an autobiographical film (her parents were members of the Venezuelan guerrilla movement Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN).”

It is a little hard for me to glean her politics from this film other than to say that it is best seen as a study of sexual and racial paradoxes in a country trying to move forward as best it can under very difficult circumstances. As film, it is deeply involving and worth seeing whatever its political orientation, especially for the performance of Samuel Lange Zambrano as Junior, about as fine as one from a child actor as can be imagined.

 

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