Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Ongoing Importance of the Occupy Wall Street Movement and Its Impact on National Political Discourse


From just two weeks ago...


The Stunning Victory That Occupy Wall Street Has Already Achieved
26 October 2011

by Joshua Holland AlterNet [3] | Op-Ed

In just one month, the protesters have shifted the national dialogue from a relentless focus on the deficit to a discussion of the real issues facing Main Street.
Occupy Wall Street has already achieved a stunning victory – a victory that is easy to overlook, but impossible to overstate. In just one month, the protesters have shifted the national dialogue from a relentless focus on the deficit to a discussion of the real issues facing Main Street: the lack of jobs -- and especially jobs with decent benefits -- spiraling inequality, cash-strapped American families' debt-loads, and the pernicious influence of money in politics that led us to this point. To borrow the loosely defined terms that define the Occupy movement, these ordinary citizens have shifted the conversation away from what the “1 percent” -- the corporate right and its dedicated media, network of think-tanks and PR shops -- want to talk about and, notably, paid good money to get us to talk about. Peter G. Peterson, a Wall Street mogul and Nixon administration cabinet member, has reportedly dedicated a billion dollars of his fortune to the effort since the 1980s. How successful have he and his fellow travelers been? In 2009, the Washington Post came under fire for running an article – in its news section, not its opinion pages – written by Peterson's Fiscal Times, which the watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting described [4] as “a propaganda outlet … [formed] to promote cuts in Social Security and other entitlement programs.” (It was Peterson Foundation employees, among those from other outside groups, who staffed Obama's “bipartisan deficit commission.” [5]) As I noted back in May, a study done by the National Journal that month quantified what the Washington Post's Greg Sargent, described [6] as a “deficit feedback loop,” in which “the relentless bipartisan focus on the deficit convinces voters to be worried about it, which in turn leads lawmakers to spend still more time talking about it and less time talking about the economy.” According to the Journal [7], “major U.S. newspapers have increasingly shifted their attention away from coverage of unemployment in recent months while greatly intensifying their focus on the deficit.” The analysis -- based on a measure of how often the words "unemployment" and "deficit" appear in major publications -- portrays a dramatically shifting landscape of coverage over the past two years, as the debate over how to fix the federal deficit has risen to prominence and the question of how to handle still-high unemployment has faded from the media's consciousness.

Consider the impact that relentless focus on the deficit – and declining coverage of the jobs crisis and housing meltdown -- had on public opinion until very recently:

Now fast-forward five months, and we see an entirely different media landscape. According to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism [9], the economy dominated last week's news, grabbing 24 percent of the mainstream media's “news hole.” Occupy Wall Street accounted for 10 percent of the news hole, up from 7 percent the week before, and 2 percent the week before that. (The death of Libyan leader Moammar Ghaddafi drew more attention to foreign policy issues this week [10], but the economy continued to be a dominant topic.)

Last week, Zaid Jilani of Think Progress offered [11] some data which tell the tale of a dramatically shifting media landscape. He noted that “at the beginning of August, when Washington, DC was debating the debt ceiling crisis, the national debt dominated the airwaves.”

While it was appropriate for the media then to be covering the deficit due to the debt ceiling debate at the time, there was a stunning lack of coverage of the jobs crisis. A ThinkProgress review of the media coverage of the last week of July found that the word “debt” was mentioned more than 7,000 times on MSNBC, CNN, and Fox News, and “unemployed” was only mentioned 75 times.

But, writes Jilani, a recent “review of the same three networks between Oct. 10 and Oct. 16 finds that the word 'debt' only netted 398 mentions, while 'occupy' grabbed 1,278, Wall Street netted 2,378, and jobs got 2,738.”

This sea-change can't be attributed only to the Occupy movement – it also correlates with the White House's “pivot” toward jobs and the economy – but there is no doubt that Occupy Wall Street has played a major role in bringing attention to the plight of working America. Even House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, acknowledged the occupiers' grievances when his office announced that he would be giving an address “about income disparity and how Republicans believe the government could help fix it.” One would be naïve to believe Cantor would ever support such measures, but it nonetheless marked a dramatic departure from the GOP's usual class-war stance. (Cantor later canceled the speech when he learned he would be greeted by protesters.)

The real-world impact of this shift is difficult to predict, but the problems on which our mainstream discourse focuses are the ones most likely to be addressed.



Art Handler Workers Engaged In Union Battle With Sotheby's In Solidarity With Occupy Wall Street Movement


Like I've been saying for two months now the Occupy movement in all of its many dimensions is off to a very powerful and necessary beginning and it can only grow and become even more so as it continues to rapidly evolve and mature...Holla!


At Sotheby’s and Beyond, "Occupy" Movement Boosts Unions
10 November 2011
by Mark Brenner and Jenny Brown, Labor Notes [3] | Op-Ed

What started as mostly young people hunkering down in New York’s financial district has mushroomed into an inspiring protest movement against runaway corporate power and staggering income inequality.

One of the most visceral examples of the disconnect between the 99 percent and the 1 percent has been highlighted by a series of actions bringing together locked-out Teamsters and Occupy Wall Street activists in New York.

The two groups returned to the high-end art auction house Sotheby’s Wednesday night, bringing crowds that packed the sidewalk and spilled into the street.

About 400 blew whistles and shouted “shame” as patrons in suits filed through a police cordon to enter Sotheby’s much ballyhooed contemporary art sale.

Management has locked 43 blue-collar art handlers out of their jobs since August 1, as punishment for refusing to accept cuts to their hours, benefits, and job security. They’re members of Teamsters Local 814.

Occupy Wall Street protesters have conducted serial disruptions during Sotheby’s auctions, standing up one by one and denouncing union-busting by the company, which is making soaring profits but insists it should be able to replace full-time workers with lower-paid temps. Sotheby’s responded by requiring a $5,000 deposit to enter its auctions.

The Occupy Movement couldn’t ask for a better poster child for wealth and power run amok. “Sotheby’s: Where the .01 percent go to shop,” said one sign Wednesday. “Art for the masses, not the upper classes,” they chanted. “All day, all week, occupy Sotheby’s.”

Seven protesters were arrested inside Wednesday. One neatly dressed demonstrator was carried out of the building and down the sidewalk suspended only by his arms. “Let him go!” yelled the crowd as police loaded him into a squad car. The protesters had locked themselves to each other inside the building to make them difficult to remove.

Last week four were arrested for sitting-in at the auction house, and pickets have targeted Sotheby’s board members constantly in recent weeks. At a fancy dinner last week for the New York Women’s Foundation, where Sotheby’s board member Diana Taylor chairs the board, the wives of five art handlers called on Taylor to end the lockout.

“The art market is flush with money and booming,” noted an arts writer reviewing the auction season for the New York Times. The author expressed vague surprise that this was true despite continuing economic misery for American workers.

Inside, one painting sold for $61.7 million, more than double its estimated value, which the Times reported as the “high point,” of the auction, noting “the salesroom burst into applause.”

The article didn’t mention the noisy picket line outside. Instead, it quoted a former Sotheby’s expert: “People still really enjoy the auction process,” she said. “It’s enthralling, they get a thrill and they get to take something home besides.”

Changing the Debate

Labor has embraced Occupy Wall Street because the movement is succeeding where unions have stumbled—turning the national attention back onto those responsible for the biggest economic collapse since the Great Depression, and onto who should pay to clean up the mess.

In two-and-a-half years on the defensive about the auto bailout, health care reform, and so-called greedy public sector workers, unions have spent untold time and treasure trying to turn the tide of public opinion. From the One Nation rally last fall to the AFL-CIO’s April actions in solidarity with Wisconsin, labor has struggled to silence the drumbeat of austerity and anti-unionism.

“We endorsed Occupy Wall Street because they’re 100 percent right that banks caused this problem,” said Marvin Holland, director of community action for Transport Workers Union Local 100, which represents 38,000 bus and subway workers.

Some unions, notably the Service Employees, with their Fight for a Fair Economy campaign, and National Nurses United, with their Main Street Contract with America, have made changing the national economic debate a major thrust of their activity. But outside the Wisconsin uprising, none of labor’s efforts have pricked the national consciousness in the same way as Occupy Wall Street.

“This has really struck a nerve way up the spinal cord,” said Jason Chambers, a 10-year ironworker who’s been camping out in Dewey Square since the start of Occupy Boston. “People are just fed up that there’s no accountability for these banks that got bailed out. Meanwhile our rights are under attack across the country.”

Although participating in the occupy movement has been an adjustment for labor activists unaccustomed to the lack of formal demands or clearly identified leaders, for others it’s opened up new horizons. “This is the first time I’ve seen real democracy in my lifetime, at the general assembly at Occupy Boston,” Chambers said.

This third-generation ironworker, die-hard Bruins fan, and self-described regular guy says the “occupy” phenomenon has had a profound impact on him and his co-workers. “My vote counts and my voice is heard. To be able to contribute to it is amazing.”

One-Two Punch

With Occupy Wall Street’s meteoric rise has come pressure to clarify who’s in charge and what protesters want. But rather than pressing occupiers to move beyond the rallying cry “We are the 99%,” unions should treat the movement as a strategic ally—a megaphone and a magnifying glass for labor’s ongoing battles over everything from public sector layoffs to preserving defined-benefit pensions.

Together it’s a powerful one-two punch, with Occupy Wall Street crystallizing the big-picture problems of our upside-down economy and labor providing potent examples of corporate excess—like Sotheby’s—and clear targets for a movement ready to take to the streets.

It’s a combination that has worked well in previous challenges to the long winter of corporate rule, from local living wage fights and campus-worker struggles to flashpoints that brought labor together with new allies, such as the global justice movement that emerged from 1999’s “Battle in Seattle.”

Where's It Going?

These actions are starting to unwind the conventional wisdom that there is no alternative to budget cuts and unemployment, by taking aim directly at the 1 percent who’ve gotten filthy rich by squeezing the rest of us.

Thanks to the occupy movement, new flying squads are springing up every day ready to join the fight. Occupiers are planning creative disruptions, whether it’s a pie in the face at a bankers convention or a glitter bomb during a corporate cocktail party. More than a thousand have been arrested in New York alone since the protest began.

More arrests will surely follow if protesters and their labor allies continue to disrupt business as usual, and especially if they move from symbolic civil disobedience to shut-it-down confrontations. Those can be powerful, as shown this fall by mobile picketers at Verizon and by longshore workers in Washington state who blocked trains from delivering grain to scabs in a port.

But the most important lessons union activists should soak up from time spent shoulder to shoulder with the occupiers are their audacity and their commitment to direct democracy.

After a generation of defeats, union leaders instinctively head for what’s “politically possible.” The occupiers have turned that conventional wisdom on its head, focusing not on what we can win this minute but on what we deserve.

The ground is fertile for a new common sense, and the seeds are just hitting soil.



Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Robert Reich On The Real Stakes of the 2012 National Elections, The Wall Street Debacle, And the Collapse of the U.S. Economy

(Photo: Andrew Bossi / Flickr)

"The disconnect between Washington and the rest of the nation hasn’t been this wide since the late 1960s.

The two worlds are on a collision course: Americans who are losing their jobs or their pay and can’t pay their bills are growing increasingly desperate. Washington insiders, deficit hawks, regressive Republicans, diffident Democrats, well-coiffed lobbyists, and the lobbyists’ wealthy patrons on Wall Street and in corporate suites haven’t a clue or couldn’t care less.

I can’t tell you when the collision will occur but I’d guess 2012.

Look elsewhere around the world and you see a similar collision unfolding. The details differ but the larger forces are similar. You see it in Spain, Greece, and Italy, whose citizens are being squeezed by bankers insisting on austerity. You see it in Chile and Israel, whose young people are in revolt. In the Middle East, whose “Arab spring” is becoming a complex Arab fall and winter. Even in China, whose young and hourly workers are demanding more – and whose surge toward inequality in recent years has been as breathtaking as is its surge toward modern capitalism.

Will 2012 go down in history like other years that shook the foundations of the world’s political economy – 1968 and 1989?

I spent part of yesterday in Oakland, California. The Occupier movement is still in its infancy in the United States, but it cannot be stopped. Here, as elsewhere, people are outraged at what feels like a rigged game – an economy that won’t respond, a democracy that won’t listen, and a financial sector that holds all the cards.

Here, as elsewhere, the people are rising."

--Robert Reich


Robert Reich says it all here and then some. This is just the beginning of a massive social movement that will-- if intelligently sustained and expanded --serve as the very foundation in the short and longterm for any real concrete social, economic, and political change in this society. So while it's just a (brilliant) beginning the important thing to remember is that it is a very POWERFUL beginning and for the first time in a very long time we, the People are in the forefront of actually making or at least demanding these changes. That is an inspiring reality in itself that will continue to serve as a major incentive for mass participation and elevating the very principle of grassroots struggle and mobilization that animates all genuine radical change in society and culture. This is our major opportunity to ACT on our own collective behalf for once without crippling ourselves with the eternal copouts and lazy equivocations of cynicism, solipsism, fatalism, nihilism, and despair. We dare not blow, take for granted, or smugly dismiss this great opportunity for creating real change. If we do so it will only be at our own peril as citizens and human beings...


3 November 2011
by Robert Reich
Robert Reich's Blog | Op-Ed

The biggest question in America these days is how to revive the economy.

The biggest question among activists now occupying Wall Street and dozens of other cities is how to strike back against the nation’s almost unprecedented concentration of income, wealth, and political power in the top 1 percent.

The two questions are related. With so much income and wealth concentrated at the top, the vast middle class no longer has the purchasing power to buy what the economy is capable of producing. (People could pretend otherwise as long as they could treat their homes as ATMs, but those days are now gone.) The result is prolonged stagnation and high unemployment as far as the eye can see.

Until we reverse the trend toward inequality, the economy can’t be revived.

But the biggest question in our nation’s capital right now has nothing to do with any of this. It’s whether Congress’s so-called “Supercommittee” – six Democrats and six Republicans charged with coming up with $1.2 trillion in budget savings — will reach agreement in time for the Congressional Budget Office to score its proposal, which must then be approved by Congress before Christmas recess in order to avoid an automatic $1.5 trillion in budget savings requiring major across-the-board cuts starting in 2013.

Have your eyes already glazed over?

Diffident Democrats on the Supercommittee have already signaled a willingness to cut Medicare, Social Security, and much else that Americans depend on. The deal is being held up by Regressive Republicans who won’t raise taxes on the rich – not even a tiny bit.

President Obama, meanwhile, is out on the stump trying to sell his “jobs bill” – which would, by the White House’s own estimate, create fewer than 2 million jobs. Yet 14 million people are out of work, and another 10 million are working part-time who’d rather have full-time jobs.

Republicans have already voted down his jobs bill anyway.

The disconnect between Washington and the rest of the nation hasn’t been this wide since the late 1960s.

The two worlds are on a collision course: Americans who are losing their jobs or their pay and can’t pay their bills are growing increasingly desperate. Washington insiders, deficit hawks, regressive Republicans, diffident Democrats, well-coiffed lobbyists, and the lobbyists’ wealthy patrons on Wall Street and in corporate suites haven’t a clue or couldn’t care less.

I can’t tell you when the collision will occur but I’d guess 2012.

Look elsewhere around the world and you see a similar collision unfolding. The details differ but the larger forces are similar. You see it in Spain, Greece, and Italy, whose citizens are being squeezed by bankers insisting on austerity. You see it in Chile and Israel, whose young people are in revolt. In the Middle East, whose “Arab spring” is becoming a complex Arab fall and winter. Even in China, whose young and hourly workers are demanding more – and whose surge toward inequality in recent years has been as breathtaking as is its surge toward modern capitalism.

Will 2012 go down in history like other years that shook the foundations of the world’s political economy – 1968 and 1989?

I spent part of yesterday in Oakland, California. The Occupier movement is still in its infancy in the United States, but it cannot be stopped. Here, as elsewhere, people are outraged at what feels like a rigged game – an economy that won’t respond, a democracy that won’t listen, and a financial sector that holds all the cards.

Here, as elsewhere, the people are rising.



Amiri Baraka On Occupy Wall Street, Mass Struggle, and African American Art and Politics

Amiri Baraka at Occupy Wall St. Photo posted on Baraka's Facebook page by Ngoma Hill

Amiri Baraka Reads at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh

Amiri Baraka Reading at Cave Canem 2011

October 25, 2011
Amiri Baraka on Occupy Wall Street
Sampsonia Way

Amiri Baraka, activist, writer, and a prominent figure of the Civil Right Movement, is renowned as the Father of the Black Arts Movement. Here he responds to five questions on Occupy Wall Street via email.

Is there something in these protests reminiscent of the Civil Rights Movement?

Both are part of a struggle for democracy, in this case not just a bourgeois democracy but a Peoples Democracy, where the 99% rule!

In the Civil Rights Movement strong leaders were crucial. Do these protests have the chance to be successful without appointed leaders?

The best leadership will develop internally. It must if the spontaneous uprising is to be transformed into an ongoing revolutionary force.

How did you get involved in the protests and how do you participate in them?

I visited the Wall St. site at my wife, Amina’s insistence, to see just what was going down. We have communicated our reactions to other activists in the Black Liberation Movement and expressed the need to see more Black activists there. We also have witnessed the rush of a Wells Fargo bank in Minneapolis by people similar to the wall street occupiers

What do you predict for these protests? Are they going to change something in the United States?

These protests have already changed the US to the extent that there are such protests in hundreds of cities, making it clear that a broad sector of the US population are fed up with the day to day abuses of monopoly capitalism.

In an interview with Sampsonia Way you said that “Artists are supposed to do and help the struggle for the advancement of human knowledge.” Do you think that individual artists and art organizations are doing and helping enough in Occupy Wall Street?

I’m sure that some of the protesters are artists, but the need for a more organized response is evident. But then the need for organizational solidarity of the protests is evident as well.

Read a conversation between Amiri Baraka and Salan Udin here:

A Conversation with Amiri Baraka: Civil Rights, Black Arts, and Politics:
Sampsonia Way
Issue 8 September 2011

During the Civil Rights Movement these two men were fighting to put an end to the practices of discrimination. While Amiri Baraka did it from New York, Sala Udin did it from Holmes County, Mississippi and Pittsburgh.

Baraka founded the Black Arts Movement, which advocated independent black writing, publishing, and artistic institutions. In 1966 he set up the Spirit House Players, which produced, among other works, two of his plays against police brutality. Then Sala Udin—a man who, among other things, fought for starting Black Studies at the University of Pittsburgh—used to take young people to those performances. Many of these people went back to change their cities, inspired by the work of “the father of the Black Arts Movement,” as Baraka is known.

Almost fives decades later, in June 2011, it was Baraka who came to Pittsburgh to read at the poetry event that Cave Canem and City of Asylum/Pittsburgh hosted on the North Side. Sala Udin, a former Pittsburgh City Councilman, sat down with him to discuss politics, the future of black art, and the consequences of making political art in America. Their lively conversation is sprinkled with personal memories, sharp political commentary, and humor.

Because it is a unique opportunity to have two figures of the Civil Rights Movement in the same room to talk about that period and their lives afterward, Sampsonia Way presents this interview unedited and uncut. It is our longest interview to date.


Sala Udin: We were just talking about little Ras who’s not so little. I know you must be proud of your son, who is a public school principal, was deputy mayor in Newark, and now has recently been re-elected to City Council. Tell us a little bit about Ras’ entry into the politics of Newark, and how it was an extension of the politics that we started way back.

Amiri Baraka: We used to take my sons to all kind of political things — that included my son Ahi who was very little at the time — and Ras was apparently just drawn to that and picked it up. He and our other son Amiri Jr. were into some political organization when they were in high school.

They organized all the students to walk out of the schools because there was no Black Studies. It was a long journey to where Ras finally got to be the deputy mayor under Sharpe James for four years, for a dollar a year. Now they’re paying deputy mayors $176,000 a year.

Sala Udin: He was a little early.

Amiri Baraka: Well it’s another kind of regime that we have now. But it’s been a long time coming. When Ras went to Howard University some students shut down the school over this Bush appointee who would be on the Board of Trustees at Howard. So the students shut the school down, and I went there and the mayor picked me up. They took me to the school, and the president there was so backwards that he had called a SWAT team.

Sala Udin: He called a SWAT team?

Amiri Baraka: Yes, called SWATs on the students. The students had locked up the administration there. What they did was pull the fire alarm and run out and lock the doors. So he called the SWAT on them. I called people I knew who had children there. I said, “They’re getting ready to do something to your kids.” He backed off after a couple of days.

Sala Udin: That’s similar to the struggle we had at the University of Pittsburgh, where we took over the computer center and locked ourselves into the Cathedral of Learning. At that time computers were as big as refrigerators. We had axes and hammers and were threatening to dismantle the computers, and it changed their tune. They became much more agreeable to having a conversation about Black Studies.

Amiri Baraka: Yeah, I don’t think these students now realize how important it was to do that and that’s why I think that there’s not as tight surveillance by the students and by the faculty over Black Studies. It gets diminished.

What the schools did after all that militancy of enforcing the initiation of Black Studies was to bring in instructors who were not revolutionaries and who were simply faculty members who didn’t care what happened. That’s what’s happening all over the country.

Sala Udin: And the whole initiation is forgotten. They don’t know how they got there. They think that they’re there because of their degrees and their brilliance.

Amiri Baraka: A lot of these Africans they bring in are just intended to be some kind of administrative pawn, but that comes from an era when they thought everything African was militant.

Sala Udin: We go back to a time when we brought a lot of young groups to Newark to see Spirit House [a black community theatre that Baraka set up in Newark in 1966]. Since then you’ve been widely known as the father and founder of the Black Arts Movement…

Amiri Baraka: Remember that we had started organizing people in the Village. We were trying to create some kind of black consciousness because the Civil Rights Movement was unfolding. But when Malcolm X got murdered, a lot of us young writers and painters moved out of the Village and up into Harlem.

I had a play downtown and I was getting some kind of money so we rented a brownstone in Harlem and tore out the bottom floor and set up a theater and then we began to send trucks out into the street: Four trucks every night with music and dance and poetry.

It had a very strong effect on the people because we thought that if we were supposed to be doing such profound artistic things, we needed to bring that right into the neighborhood. What was interesting was the play Dutchman, my play, which won the Obie Award, became a racist play.

Sala Udin: How so?

Amiri Baraka: Well because art in an abstract setting is one thing, but art where you’re actually telling people to do things becomes dangerous. Jean Paul Sartre said that as long as you say that something’s wrong but you don’t know what, that’s art. If you say something’s wrong and you know exactly who’s doing it, that’s political protest.

So we had to work with that and begin to understand that. But we wrote art that was, number one, identifiably Afro-American according to our roots and our history and so forth. Secondly, we made art that was not contained in small venues. We wanted to come out and get into the streets. That’s why I was happy to see rap because here you can hear people running stuff down out in the street. The third thing we wanted was art that would help with the liberation of black people, and we didn’t think just writing a poem was sufficient. That poem had to have some kind of utilitarian use; it should help in liberating us. So that’s what we did. We consciously did that.

We brought artists from all over the area uptown, some of the great musicians of the time. We brought Sun Ra into the community. People were saying Sun Ra’s too out there for the people. But people thought it was dance music, they started dancing to it.

There’s a picture in a book of mine called Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music where we’re getting ready to go out into the street, and I’m bringing wine, and at the top of the steps is Sun Ra. It was very effective, and that particular trend spread across the country in Milwaukee, Chicago, Atlanta.

Amiri Baraka and Sala Udin


Sala Udin:
How do you see Black Art today?

Amiri Baraka: Well we need to restore its purpose. The thing is you’ve got an Afro-American presidential figure and that disarms a lot of people, even though they still suffer from the same ills. I mean, you see that the Tea Party will pop up.

After the Civil War the slaves thought they were free, but then came the Klan. It’s the same thing. You didn’t need the Klan when slavery was going, but the minute you say you’re no longer a slave then you get the Klan and you get Black Codes.

So you cannot stop struggling just because you’ve got a black guy walking around saying some stuff. Just because his skin is your color don’t mean his brain is the same as yours; if you’re going to bomb Libya you’re nuts. So it’s a continual struggle to raise the level of social consciousness in the country. Not only for black people but for everybody who needs that change.

Sala Udin: Do you still see black artists under the continued influence of Black Art who politicize their art?

Amiri Baraka: Some, but you got a whole wave of people who are influenced by this post-struggle art. People who believe that simply to write a poem about themselves or their family is sufficient. That’s not what it is. It’s the whole question of art.

Everything that Shakespeare wrote was against the rulers in that particular age. In Julius Caesar he wrote about the relationship between government and the people. The Taming of the Shrew was about the oppression of women and Hamlet is about the development of liberalism.

So when you can understand that Shakespeare is dealing with the elimination of the whole aristocratic class in that period you see that all the things he talks about are things that we will have to deal with under capitalism for the rest of our lives. But that’s not the way it’s presented. It’s presented as some kind of extra-realistic mumbo-jumbo in verse that puts people to sleep so they don’t see the essence of what that is. But that’s what artists are supposed to do— help the struggle for the advancement of human knowledge.

Sala Udin: When we came to Newark on many occasions there were several Pittsburgh artists who were influenced by what they learned and experienced at Spirit House. Now they are revered here. I wanted to name them and get you to reflect briefly on their work: Rob Penny, August Wilson, Ed Roberson, and John Edgar Wideman.

Amiri Baraka: Well Rob was actually the most active of our unit. He actually wanted to do the things that we were talking about, use art to advance black life and human consciousness.

August was a poet when we first talked. He didn’t write plays yet; he was a young poet talking to me about poetry and I thought that [his movement into the theater] was a miraculous kind of development. When I first met him, he wanted to know why I wasn’t a Beatnik anymore.

Next thing I know he had become a Muslim and joined the Nation of Islam which he stayed with for about that long [snaps fingers]. I think he and Sonia Sanchez got in the Nation of Islam about the same time and stayed about the same time. Thirty minutes. Then they were doing something else.

I was very proud of Rob and August and how much they did. They came to Newark a couple of times.

Ed Roberson I still know. We worked at the same school. I was teaching, and he had an administrator kind of job, but he was writing poetry, and he still is.

Sala Udin: Wideman spoke of you and Ed Roberson as early influences. He talks about Ed and includes him in some of his anthology work.

Amiri Baraka: Yeah well Ed’s poetry is a very fine, profound kind of poetry and it’s interesting to me. John Edgar Wideman and I have had some discussions—that I really don’t really want to credit as his whole being— on whether or not one should teach icons of Afro-American literature. And my line was “You mean you wouldn’t teach Frederick Douglass? You wouldn’t teach DuBois? I don’t understand.” And then he changed his stance because that’s clearly impossible. If you’re going to teach Black Studies you have to teach the great people.


Sala Udin:
As we look at the evolution of the political scene up to 2008, you had put forward a compelling argument for progressives that the Barack Obama candidacy represented an opportunity to push forward the agenda for democratic rights and equality. Now more recently you’ve described Obama as a yapping Negro who would take us back to slavery. I wonder what you would say about Barack’s presidency?

Amiri Baraka: The problem is that I have to support Obama because I remember the Republicans. I remember Bush, and I see the ones they have lined up over there now. At the same time he has to be criticized about what he’s done. I have to ask Obama, what are you going to get by bombing Africa? Take the oil away from Gaddafi? Gaddafi as a leader is no worse than others that he’s close friends with. So where is the logic of that?

And Obama has not learned to struggle like I hoped he would. There’s no way to get anything done unless you’re able to struggle with those long-time lobbies. Even when he was first elected we sent 10,000 newspapers out saying “President Obama, no bailout, nationalize the banks, nationalize the auto company.” I had forums to talk about that.

The only way I could justify his actions is that he thought that above all, capitalism–not just petty capitalism, but big time capitalism, monopoly— has to survive for this country to survive.

I still thought it was a respite, but there’s been so many times where he’s been able to do things and then backed off, like that thing with [Henry Louis] “Skip” Gates getting busted. Obama said it was stupid, then he backed off it. They arrested a guy, a Harvard professor, on his own doorstep. That’s stupid. And obviously racist. But to back away from that with some kind of “let’s go drink beer together,” that’s what began to turn me away from him.

I’ve got to support him to the extent I can, but at the same time I’ve got to criticize him.

Sala Udin: What should be the posture of progressives relative to the upcoming election?

Amiri Baraka: Well you know the right is moving towards fascism. This whole business in Arizona, this whole trading unemployment for refusing to tax the rich. In New Jersey it’s the same thing; Governor Christie will not tax the rich, but we have all kinds of budget cuts. That has to be fought, and Obama has to be held as a bulwark against that; otherwise what are we doing?

I think it’s important to fight the fringe, the Tea Party, and understand that a lot of Republicans, and some Democrats, are the Klan in civilian clothes. They just took off the white robes.

Like I said, after the Civil War, then you get the Klan. So after Barack’s election, then you get the Tea Party and it’s the same thing. It’s the Sisyphus Syndrome. You roll the rock, they’re going to roll it back down on your head. Like I said last night, there was a guy named George Romero who predicted the coming of the Tea Party in a film in the sixties called Night of the Living Dead. But the irony about that is a lot of the people are struggling against their own interests, you know, “Keep your hands off my social security.” That’s a federal program. But that’s where we are now, between a rock and a hard place.

During the campaign of the Weimar Republic, the left split up into pieces and permitted the right to grow. While the left was fighting about whether they were Communists or Socialists, Workers, Syndicalists, Hitler was building. So you looked up and suddenly they had blown up the Reichstag—which reminded me of 9/11—and the next thing you know, they had banned the left from the whole parliamentary thing and began to take hostages.

I don’t see the difference between the media, big media, Murdoch Media, Fox, and what the Nazi media was. Everything is to the right, to the right, to the right, and when you see people like [the radio and television host] Glenn Beck for instance, it’s very scary because they don’t represent anything but fascism.

Sala Udin: You called for the formation of a representative assembly, a united front, to organize black politics. How do you see that happening today? There is nothing close to the kind of assembly that we put together with the National Black Political Assembly. How do you see that evolving?

Amiri Baraka: Well it’s going to have to happen again. First of all, the only way we can go forward in this country is that coalition, that united front that elected Obama. Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and progressive whites have to maintain that motion because if that fragments, we’d go backwards. That’s the danger of Obama acting so backwards, because what he’s doing is cutting off his own backers.

I was actually giving money to the campaign in 2008, but I can’t give money to someone who’s going to bomb Africa. You could never back Great Britain and France against Africa or any other powerless people because they’re bloodsuckers. That’s why when you see these movies about vampires and stuff it’s so popular because they’re talking about themselves, they’re talking about the nature of this economy, the nature of this society. They suck blood from defenseless people.

Sala Udin: So rather than building a united front, many of the critics of Obama—especially left critics—don’t do anything as an alternative to their criticism. They exempt themselves from organizing people, and they think it’s sufficient to stand on the sidelines and criticize.

Amiri Baraka: Well it’s like [American author, actor, and civil rights activist] Cornel West. He called Obama a white man in black skin. This guy taught at Harvard and Princeton. I don’t know many black people who teach at Harvard and Princeton. If you got into one of them you’d be lucky.

I was at a Socialist conference and these people were making all these ridiculous statements. I said “I’m a Communist, I want to know where are the Socialists, where are the Communists in this group?” And Cornel says “I’m a Christian.” So I said: “That’s cool,” but I reminded him, “You know why they killed Christ, don’t you? Kicking the money lenders out of the temple.”

Anyway that’s the problem, people feeling that the Black Liberation Movement was a means of getting them into an Ivy League college. The idea that it was to try to change the very nature of the United States is lost on them because they’re perfectly comfortable. That’s why if you look at that book that [Manning] Marable wrote about Malcolm X, the three people pushing the book were Cornel West, Skip Gates, and Michael Eric Dyson.

Unfortunately Marable fell into this kind of thinking or analysis that the “left,” the Democratic Socialists, even the CP today, and the Trotskyites, are more progressive. I said no, the Black Liberation Movement had the most powerful effect on America. Not the CP, not the Democratic Socialists, not the Trotskyites. And Malcolm and all these Black Liberation groups, the Black Panthers, they didn’t want an Obama. But if you don’t understand that, if you’re going to belittle them because they’re not formally Socialist then you don’t even need Lenin.

Lenin said we don’t measure people’s struggle against imperialism by their formal commitment to democracy, but by the effect they have in beating imperialism. If you’re talking about Lenin, don’t talk to me about no left. That’s the problem: You have people who masquerade under some form of social democracy, pretending they’re on the left, but really just dribbling the ball inside regular capitalist America.


Sala Udin:
When you look back at all of the contributions that you have made as a writer, playwright, music critic, and cultural critic, how do you see the peaks and valleys of your own contributions?

Amiri Baraka: Well, I just wrote a play about [W.E.B.] DuBois called The Most Dangerous Man in America. That’s what the FBI called DuBois. But that man was 82 years old and had a cane.

In the play he explains what they have done to him when they indicted him as an agent of a foreign power for talking about peace and condemning the hydrogen and atom bombs. They indicted him as an agent of a foreign power at 82 years old. He explained that once that happened, publishers that sought his writing no longer did that. They began to stop his speaking engagements. He said “I was a man that every Negro in the United States wanted at one time.”

He became a pariah. So I could understand that. I said yeah that’s what they will do. If you do something that the powers don’t like, they make you invisible. That was the first case against McCarthyism, and at the end, even though DuBois had Vito Marcantonio as his attorney, the last Communist in the Congress. But when he had won, he said: “Now the little children will no longer see my name.”

You can write what you want to, and say what you think needs to be said, but in the end they’ll hit you back.

Sala Udin: Have they done that to you?

Amiri Baraka: Oh yeah, even just money-wise. Last year I lost $16,000 in terms of speaking and stuff. I went to Princeton, and they said: “It’s going to be hard for us to have you at Princeton because we have to spend an extra $10,000 on security,” like people are going to come and shoot me. But it’s a normal thing if you understand what you are doing and who you are opposing.

People are always coming up to me, “Didn’t you have a play on Broadway?” Why should I have a play on Broadway? I mean you think that people want somebody to come up to them and say “You need to die,” and then they say, “Let’s put this on Broadway.” It’s a choice you have to make, it’s a choice you make and you have to live with it.

Sala Udin: What projects are you working on now?

Amiri Baraka: Well the play on Dubois I just finished two weeks ago. That took up my time for the last few months. I’ve got a book called Revolutionary Art that I’ve been waiting on for two years from Third World Press; I don’t know what the publisher’s doing. He sent me two sets of proofs, I marked both of them and still no book.

We are also doing things in Newark: we have a project called Lincoln Park Coast Cultural District. That’s an old district in Newark where the abolitionists lived and used to preach against slavery. Right next to that was the black music center, so we’ve sort of annexed that area and we’re building houses down there. For the last five years we’ve had big music festivals. Matter of fact it’s coming up again next month, and we’re organizing a tribute to James Moody who’s a Newark musician.

Tomorrow [June 26] we’re having a celebration for Juneteenth, the day when word that slavery was over reached Texas three years after the fact. It should be interesting.

We’re just trying to do things now to support Ras and his struggle because he’s the most progressive person on that city council. He’s always involved and struggling against these backwards forces. Politics for some people is nothing but a gig. It’s not about advancing anything in the consciousness.

Amiri Baraka

Amiri Baraka, born in 1934, in Newark, New Jersey, is the author of over 40 books of essays, poems, drama, and music history and criticism. He is a poet icon and revolutionary political activist who has recited poetry and lectured on cultural and political issues extensively in the USA, the Caribbean, Africa, and Europe

With influences on his work ranging from musicians such as Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, and Sun Ra, to the Cuban Revolution, Malcolm X and world revolutionary movements, Baraka is renowned as the founder of the Black Arts Movement in Harlem in the 1960s. Though short-lived, it was a movement that became the virtual blueprint for a new set of American theater aesthetics. The movement and his published and performance work, such as the signature study on African-American music, Blues People (1963) and the play Dutchman (1963), practically seeded “the cultural corollary to black nationalism” of that revolutionary American milieu.

Sala Udin

Sala Udin, whose legal name is Samuel Wesley Howze, is a former Pittsburgh City Councilman, where he represented the 6th district.

Udin traveled south with the Freedom Riders, and during the 1960s, worked primarily in Holmes County, Mississippi, for the benefit of the Civil Rights Movement. It was there that Udin rallied for school desegregation, farmer cooperatives, and voter registration. Upon returning to Pittsburgh, Udin helped to establish a branch of the Congress of African People.

Udin is also known for his acting in the play Jitney and the friendship he had with the famous author of the play August Wilson.

"Something in the Way of Things (In Town)" by Amiri Baraka

Interview with Artist and Activist Harry Belafonte From Colorlines magazine

"Most importantly, Belafonte stresses that our concern needn’t be over President Obama’s political well being; our concern must be with building a people-driven movement for justice, to which any elected official must respond."

Harry Belafonte: ‘You Can’t Wish the Issue of Race Away’

Harry Belafonte speaks with Rinku Sen. Video: Channing Kennedy and Noel Rabinowitz
by Kai Wright

Wednesday, October 12 2011

Harry Belafonte, one of my personal icons, has a new memoir out this month. In “My Song,” the 84-year-old recounts both his artistic and deeply political careers. As he told NPR’s “Morning Edition” today, “I was an activist before I was a musician.” I’d say he’s excelled at both, and I can’t wait to read his own recounting of doing so.

Last year,’s publisher Rinku Sen sat down for a lengthy conversation with Belafonte about today’s race politics. We initially published the interview as we searched for broader context following the 2010 elections, in which the tea party’s message dominated political debate for months. Here’s what I wrote about the interview then:

His accumulated wisdom brings invaluable context to the ups and downs of electoral politics. Most importantly, Belafonte stresses that our concern needn’t be over President Obama’s political well being; our concern must be with building a people-driven movement for justice, to which any elected official must respond.

Listening to the conversation again this morning, I found his thoughts have grown still more relevant and urgent as this political moment drags on. “America prides itself on its compassion, but it is an image, not a practice,” he said—words that have rarely felt so true, as poverty hits record levels and our elected officials debate tax breaks for millionaires.

I’ve also spent a lot of time in the past couple of weeks in tough conversations about how and why it’s crucial to talk explicitly about race right now. Among progressives, the Occupy Wall Street movement has caught fire, but the racial injustice that fuels economic inequality hasn’t been a significant part of the discussion. Meanwhile, inside black America, President Obama’s recent speech at the Congressional Black Caucus has stirred heated debate about whether he can or should explicitly tackle the growing racial disparities in our economy. Here, Belafonte artfully sums up a perspective I’ve struggled to articulate in both spaces. “You can’t wish the issue of race away,” he said. “That’s the easiest thing in the world, to become part of a colorblind movement.”

So we’re resurfacing Rinku’s conversation with Belafonte this morning. Step back from your grind and give it a listen. He’s been working for a better world for eight decades, more or less, and is a reminder that the old saw is true: We must know where we’ve been to figure out where we’re going.

Joshua Holland On the General Strike Called By Occupy Oakland (California)

OWS Oakland Takes Over City, Shutting Down One of the Biggest Ports in the Country - but Nightfall Brings More Chaos and Teargas
3 November 2011
by Joshua Holland
AlterNet | Report

Calling the protests a "general strike" resulted in an unbelievable amount of media coverage - a victory for the Occupy movement.

As many as 15,000 people participated in actions across Oakland yesterday, with small marches peeling off to protest in front of banks or "occupy" foreclosed homes. There were probably eight to ten times the number of people in the streets of Oakland today as I'd seen during past OWS actions. Police maintained a minimal presence throughout the day. There were a few scattered acts of vandalism -- windows were broken at two banks but there was no violence, and the protests were remarkably up-beat throughout the day. But that changed when night fell as the streets of Oakland once again resonated with the sharp cracks of tear gas canisters and "less lethal" projectiles being fired, and flash-bang grenades scattering the crowd.

But first: did a small group of activists manage in just 5 short days of organizing to bring about the first general strike in the United States in generations?

Not exactly. But while there was no broad, city-wide general strike of the sort last seen in this country in 1946, the effort was anything but a failure. A day of scattered actions across the city culminated in a massive "occupation" that shut down the Port of Oakland, the fifth busiest container port in the country. When it was announced that operations had been suspended for the night, thousands of people partied around trucks halted in their tracks, celebrating a victory in their struggle with authorities that began with the violent eviction of Occupy Oakland last week. The Oakland police, and Mayor Jean Quan, stung by negative press stemming from the clashes, essentially gave the port to the movement.

Since the Taft-Hartley Act was passed in 1947, unions have been forbidden from participating in general strikes, but there was no doubt that the longshoremen were firmly on the side of the protesters. The occupiers arrived in waves, and at first small groups blocked the entrances to port facilities, letting workers out at the end of their shifts, but preventing their replacements from taking the next shift. One by one, longshoremen arrived to find a picket line blocking their entrance. In every case, they expressed solidarity -- honking their horns and in some instances getting out and talking to the protesters, and then pulled a u-turn and went home -- their contracts specified that they wouldn't be required to work if there was a disturbance at the port.

Throughout the day, about half of the businesses in downtown Oakland shuttered, many with signs expressing solidarity with the occupiers. The city's economy may not have been brought to a halt, but it was not functioning to full capacity.

Angela Davis gave a rousing speech at 9:30 that morning to kick off the day's proceedings. A "children's march" circled Frank Ogawa Plaza -- renamed Oscar Grant plaza by the protesters in honor of the young man shot to death by BART police on New Year's 2009. They chanted, "Play nice and share!"

A group of high school students told me that their principal had circulated a memo giving them the day off. Calls to the school district to find out today's attendance figures weren't returned at press time, but the Los Angeles Times reported that 16 percent of the city's teachers didn't show up for work. There were many children and young people in the crowd, many attended by their parents.

Calling the day of protests and direct actions a "general strike" may have raised the bar too high, but it also resulted in an almost unbelievable amount of media coverage -- far more attention than ever garnered by protests against the Iraq war, which were attended by hundreds of thousands. In that sense today could be seen as a major victory for the Occupy movement. This may have provided a model for other occupations to follow in the coming months.

But at around midnight, the peaceful protests that had marked the day devolved into something uglier. It began when a group of activists "occupied" an abandoned building. Soon after, word spread that police were preparing to evict the squatters. A call went out to defend the site, and about 100-200 people answered it, filling the street a few blocks away where the building was located and erecting a barricade out of whatever was at hand in an effort to prevent police from reaching the scene.

About an hour later, 16 vans filled with police clad in riot gear arrived at an adjacent corner and began to stage. They formed into several lines and prepared to move in (forgive the blurry pictures).

At that point, somebody set the barrier on fire, an order to disperse was given, and for the next 2-3 hours, a series of clashes followed in which numerous rounds of teargas, flash-bangs and non-lethal rounds were fired at protesters.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

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Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet. He is the author of The 15 Biggest Lies About the Economy: And Everything else the Right Doesn't Want You to Know About Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America. Drop him an email or follow him on Twitter.