Monday, October 24, 2011

The occupiers: they R us.

Comment posted to the Worcester T&G 10/24:

These young people are not just fighting for us, they ARE us. Except perhaps for some of the folk on this comment list who obviously must have well-feathered nests to be so out of touch with what's going on out here in the real America, so ready to believe all the trite and convenient stories about how everything would be OK if only people would stop interfering with the system and let it roll on unrestrained.

Underneath all the other issues lies jobs and the student debt. The real unemployment rate for young adults is huge, wages are low, and they are caught between this and the crushing burden of their student loans, about to top $1 trillion. But isn't this just their version of the crisis we are all facing?

A huge part of our population is not only unemployed but becoming unemployable - to all the usual reasons now they won't hire you because you're unemployed! Wages for the rest are falling. A huge proportion of homeowners are "underwater", owing more than they could sell their homes for, unable to refinance, unable to follow the work, barely able to make the payments. The Federal debt is ballooning, driven by wars and by many trillions in overt and hidden bank bailouts. Prices for a realistic market basket are climbing much faster than the official cost of living index, eating away at such pensions and savings that haven't been cancelled or drawn down for living expenses. Medicare is facing the chopping block, access to health care is declining, and we're sliding toward a catastrophic war.

The student loan crisis - peonage, a life of debt bondage since Congress in '05 passed the bankruptcy reform act and made it inescapable - is just their version of what we all face. And only a movement that focuses on the heart of the matter, a system which is making the rich richer and the rest of us - the 99% - poorer and driving us all into debt bondage, will help. Issue politics, electing good candidates, none of those are working.

The students speak for us, bringing our own conversation out into the open.

We should join them.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Why Occupy Worcester belongs in the Commons

This is Part II of a column submitted to Worcester InCity Times, Oct 21, 2011:

On Monday night, Oct. 17, at a meeting in the Commons, the Occupy Worcester General Assembly discussed where to stage the Occupation, and the first choice was the Commons itself, a 300-year-old park behind City Hall.

The Worcester Commons is a place where people from all parts of Worcester would see us. It is surrounded by symbols of power - City Hall, bank buildings, State and Federal offices and the regional daily newspaper.

“Occupying the Commons” symbolizes the idea of moving the conversations that have been going on around millions of kitchen tables and barbecue pits all across America “into the commons”, with a goal of drawing us all – the 99% - together into a larger conversation. It is an attempt to create a “democratic space” where we can find each other and escape from the illusion that we are separate, outnumbered and on our own.

But beyond that, the Worcester Commons is a place with a huge historical significance - one we have every right to claim as our own! For it was one of the great stages on which the largely-forgotten drama of our American Revolution played out.

Much of the story of that drama, as reconstructed by historian Ray Raphael, was found in the vaults of the Worcester City Hall. In Raphael’s words:

"During the late summer of 1774, each time a court was slated to meet under British authority in some Massachusetts town, great numbers of angry citizens made sure it did not. These patriots were furious because they had just been disenfranchised by the Massachusetts Government Act. … They feared that arbitrary rulers might soon seize their tools, their livestock, or even their farms.

"Worcester was at the center of this massive uprising. It was the patriots of Worcester who first called for a meeting of several counties to coordinate the resistance. It was at Worcester, on September 6, 1774, that the British conceded control of the countryside."

Unlike the storybook version of the Revolution, the one Raphael uncovered was not a conspiracy led by wealthy merchants, not an armed uprising, not a war. It was a profoundly democratic and largely nonviolent movement. The war came later when the British tried to reverse that revolution by armed force.

The Occupations are in the same spirit. They are very reminiscent of the seemingly endless debates and messy decision-making processes of 1774 as described by Raphael. Those debates spread to nearly every church, tavern and town commons in Massachusetts. By October 1774, when the Provisional Assembly met in Concord to form a new government, he estimates that nearly the entire population of Massachusetts had participated in this “direct democracy”, and well over 90% were in full support.

On Sept. 6, 1774, according to the archives in the Worcester City Hall, 4,722 unarmed militia from 37 towns in Worcester assembled in the Worcester Commons to stop the meeting of the Courts, an arm of what the people had come to see as an illegitimate government. In a profoundly democratic process that lasted all day and in which every person present participated, they negotiated the terms of surrender of the court officials.

Like the Occupations today, the Massachusetts Revolution of 1774 had no prominent leaders, no special heroes, several scary face-offs with the British but no armed battles, and there is no record through the whole Summer and Fall of 1774 of any violent deaths.

The Occupations are the true heirs of that Revolution, beginning anew a great mass discussion by all the people - the 99% - of what to do about a government and institutions that are failing us and have lost their legitimacy.

The Worcester Commons would be a very special place for that!

Who's Behind Occupy Worcester?

Part I of article submitted to the Worcester InCity Times for publication on Oct. 21, 2011:

The media is full of talk about who is behind the Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Washington, Occupy Boston and now the Occupy Worcester movements, and what they’re really after.

I can’t answer for the other cities, but I know the answer for Occupy Worcester: No one!

No one is funding it. There are no paid organizers. No scheming hand of Obama or Soros. The entire decision-making process is entirely transparent, and care is taken that there is never just one or a few leaders.

In fact, there is no money. Sure, we may have to raise money for bail bonds or porta-potties, but people bring food and all kinds of skills. The Mass Nurses Association just showed up at an Assembly with a large gift of food. But “no one” is behind it – no one but the people who’ve stepped forward to participate – mostly young people but a growing number of older folk.

It is an idea whose time has come, driven by the desperation that regular people everywhere are feeling over the economic hardships and injustices that just keep getting worse. I’ve met working people and professionals at Assemblies. I’ve met libertarians, Democrats, anarchists, socialists, died-in-the-wool apathetics, and even a Tea Party Republican. None of this seems to matter. The conversation cuts below all of the hot-button issues and old ideologies to the core problems that we all face.

The young people involved are deeply concerned about foreclosures and bank bailouts, about the attack on Social Security, the endless wars and the erosion of our liberties, but talk with them long enough and the conversation usually comes around to their crushing student loan debt – for college, graduate school or trade school – that can never be repaid because the good jobs aren’t there.

Our critics talk about this movement’s lack of focus; but what brings us together is the recognition that all the issues we face have a common thread - the growing power and wealth of the so-called 1% and their corporations and banks at the expense of the rest of us. (Some would argue it’s really the 1/10 of 1%, the folks with enough money to buy political influence and game the system. See “Who Rules America, posted by G. William Dumhoff, )

This idea is captured in the slogan “We are the 99%!”

What the Occupation is doing is moving the conversations that have been going on around millions of kitchen tables and barbecue pits all across our land “into the commons”, with a goal of drawing us all – the 99% - together into a larger conversation. It is an attempt to create a space where we can find each other and join together our struggles, our anger and our strength.

Could have been: Why we need the Occupation!

Published in InCity Times 6 weeks ago:

Are We Stupid?

The American people weren’t born stupid. How could we be? For three centuries the best and brightest made their way here looking for a fresh start, to escape from the tyrannies and rigid class systems of Old Europe (and Old Asia,) from the legacy of the Conquistadores, from wars and dictatorships and the bondage of poverty.

It was said that if you worked hard, you could always make it here, and the people who came were the ones who were willing to. And work hard we did. It’s said we are the hardest-working people on Earth – working longer hours, longer weeks, working faster, with less vacation time and later retirement than anyone. Our children could always go farther than we did – with the best schools and colleges in the world, with nothing stopping them from moving up in the world and giving their own kids an even better start. So how could we be stupid?

We’re the “land of the free and the home of the brave”, who threw off the chains of empire and serfdom in a great revolution and the chains of slavery in a bloody civil war. We put a man on the moon, built the Interstate System in ten years, split the atom and raised a great citizen’s army that in four short years finished off the fascist hordes of Hitler and Tojo.
How could such a people be stupid?

But, you ask, how could we have let things come to the state they’re in now if we weren’t stupid?

With our living standard’s collapsing, our jobs exported, our cities and states, schools, roads and bridges collapsing, and the banks taking our homes and leaving them boarded up to rot. Aren’t we stupid?

We’re taxed to the limit by a government we don’t trust that gives the billionaires a pass, and we’re not getting much back for it. Our treasure’s being squandered in wars we don’t support, led by a President and politicians who promised to end them ,who lie with every breath, who gave away TRILLIONS to the very bankers that are ruining us. And yet, we elected them! So aren’t we stupid?

Are we? Lots of folks say so – about each other. But most people I talk to are still pretty smart, about the things they know about.

And there’s the rub.

We’re not stupid, we’re just ignorant. Given good information most of us will do the right thing, but we aren’t mostly getting it. Sad to say, the American people, who were long among the cleverest and best educated on Earth, are now among the most ignorant – about what’s really going on around the world, in Greece, in France or Iceland, in Libya or Pakistan - or in Wisconsin or Sacramento or on Beacon Hill and City Hall!

This is not entirely our fault. With a “corporate media” – television, radio, dailies, cable providers – that’s almost entirely owned by a few incredibly rich families; with a public broadcasting system beholden to its corporate sponsors, whose news director was a propaganda chief for the CIA; with endless corporate PR messages and with Rupert Murdoch’s empire deliberately spreading lies and confusion, it’s hard to know what to believe.

So what to do?

First, we need to turn off our TV and radio, and really talk, really listen to each other – about what’s going on and what we’re seeing in our lives, what we’re hearing from other people and what we’re learning.

But then somehow we need to put our truths into a bigger picture, a shared truth, free from the lies of the media barons. To share our stories across the city, the state, the land. Stories that will give us the courage and knowledge to get together, to act, to defend our homes and take our country back.

For that we need independent media: local radio stations, community cable, blogs and reader-supported Internet news services. And locally owned independent newspapers, like InCity Times, in whose pages we can tell our truth to our neighbors across town.

Remember the “Underground Newspapers” of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s? If you’re my age you do. They helped break the media silence about Vietnam and Jim Crow, and gave us courage, knowledge, news of each other. Labor papers like New Unity in Springfield, movement and party papers, independent student newspapers and free entertainment weeklies broke through the silence and empowered us to turn the country around.

InCity Times is one of the few independent papers from that tradition. We need it now, and we need it to be joined by tens or hundreds more around the state. Because we need each other, and we need to be able to share our truth without the by-your-leave of the editors of the T&G.

So Happy Birthday, ICT, and many more!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Occupy Worcester Assembly

Reply to the negative and nasty comments in the T&G:

Most of the arguments here are about theory and stereotypes - about how things should work and why people cause their own problems by ignoring this and what sort of people are doing that and then whining about the results. The people at City Hall yesterday came from all walks of life and many were people who had worked hard for a lifetime or were still working. Their conversation was about what's really going on and what we know about it and what we can do about it.

For more about that reality, see the front page story today about how family incomes are going down twice as fast in the last two years "since the recession ended" as "during the recession". That's reality and your theories won't fix it. Our political parties and most of our politicians either ignore us or can't do anything, our banks are acting like a Mafia and our wars are out of control, and the economy bad as it is will probably get much worse. Arguing about Obama is irrelevant; he's all words but doesn't seem to be able to do anything.

Instead of bellyaching, come join in. You won't be able to dominate discussions with your theories, so try checking them at the park entrance. You'll get the same 1-min turn as the others. So come to listen, share, reflect, join with the Libertarians, Progressives, Republicans, Democrats, Anarchists, Socialists, Independents and "Apathists" - who are all checking their theories at the door too - and join in thinking about how to find a new way forward. There's hardly anyone on this list who's part of the "1%" that's getting s*****d, and we're all caught up in the same disaster.

What's there for us is learning how to really talk to each other and really listen, much like our forebearers did in the Summer of 1774.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Bank Locally, or Don't Feed the Trolls

Think Globally, Bank Locally; or Don’t Feed the Trolls!
by Chris Horton and Grace Ross, published in InCity Times

So here we are in the year 2011 in Worcester, Massachusetts, USA. The “Great Recession” goes on and on, and it’s starting to seem somehow normal – unless you’re the one losing your home or exhausting your unemployment right now!

A quick rundown of how we got here, which most of us could agree to, stars the big banks as chief villains – yet they’re the banks that most of our money is deposited in! So why are we doing that?

The big banks and corporations with the help of laws like NAFTA shipped most of our good jobs overseas and turned us into consumers of cheap imported junk, in the process ruining millions of Mexican farmers who then at risk of their lives crossed our borders looking for work.

Then the banks created a huge housing bubble, bet against it and left us sitting in the rubble with “upside-down” mortgages that sometimes reach two, three, even four times the market value of our homes. In the process they made trillions in profits while crashing the world economy. Now they’re foreclosing, emptying homes and leaving them to rot at a rate that’s climbing back toward 100 a month just in Worcester, flouting the laws and all human decency, while more and more of us double up two or even three families to an apartment.

Congress bailed the bankers out with hundreds of billions of dollars of our tax money, the Treasury Dept. gave them trillions more in guarantees, and the Fed - the private bank that issues our money – has given them guarantees of “tens of trillions of dollars”, bringing the dollar itself to the brink of collapse. But will they lend those trillions to the businesses that could put us back to work? Not! They’re still sitting on them while small business access to capital has dried up and many are going under or hanging on by their fingernails.

The great corporations control our “news”, tell us which itch to scratch, buy our politicians and get us into endless, senseless foreign wars “defending” people who don’t want us there. With our mortgages, car payments, student loans and credit cards, declining real wages, and interest rates that keep going up, they’ve driven us into virtual debt bondage.

So here we are in the midst of the “Great Recession”, which is looking more and more like a depression. Unemployment benefits are running out for thousands. Sales managers, designers, carpenters and programmers all trying to survive on part-time work at WalMart - if we can get it – and everyone but the economists and pundits knows the economy’s about to take another big lurch off the cliff.

And now they all agree the problem is us! Us getting lazy on unemployment and making hospital visits we can’t afford while our pension plans, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and our "greedy overpaid" teachers, postal workers and police ruin the economy!

Have I summed it up about right? Good enough for 400 words or less?

So why are we letting them use our money?

The big national and international banks are at the heart of most of this dismal picture, so why would we choose to give them our money to play with and use against us?

Those of us that is who aren’t flat broke can pull our money out of them and put it into locally-owned banks and credit unions!
Through all the upheavals on Wall Street, the owners of the big banks, brokerage houses and investment companies have been doing quite well for themselves, thank you. But the real economy – where people make, distribute and exchange real things and useful services, raise children, care for each other - is floundering. There’s a huge and growing disconnect between the two. We need to cut the local economy loose!

The big banks have been sucking money out of our local economy, and sending it elsewhere, squandering much of it on useless speculation and bets that create no jobs, here or anywhere else. Local banks on the other hand lend locally, keeping our money in local circulation, and they invest disproportionately in the small businesses that create most of the new jobs. In 2009 according to the FDIC, small banks, with 11% of all assets, provided 34% of all lending to small businesses, while the 20 largest banks, with 57% of all assets, provided only 28%. Credit unions’ loans to businesses are limited by law to 12%, but they lend most if it to members who spend it locally.

Local banks are invested in their communities, know their borrowers and work with them to help them succeed. The big banks could care less. We see this every day in anti-foreclosure work; few of the foreclosures are by local banks and credit unions, and when they do it’s usually truly a last resort. What’s true about local banks is even more true about our credit unions, which are member-owned non-profits.

Worcester Local First has been hosting discussions of a local move-your-money project. In Boston, an alliance of local banks and credit unions is funding Boston Community Capital Collaborative, a non-profit that is buying back foreclosed homes at current market rates and reselling them with a small markup to the previous owners. Discussions are underway to set up a similar venture here in Worcester.

Local banks and credit unions generally have lower fees and penalties than the big banks, pay the same or higher rates on deposits and charge lower rates on loans. Plus, they won’t play “gotcha!” and raise your rates when you slip up or hit a rough spot, and they’re always ready to work with you when there’s a misunderstanding. Funds deposited in a community bank or credit union are insured by the FDIC, and most are part of a network of bank machines so you can always find somewhere nearby for free banking.

An example of the power of moving our money is when the Firefighter's Union in Madison, WI decided to close all their bank accounts when they found out the largest bank in WI had bankrolled Gov. Walker. They went down one afternoon and closed all of their accounts, and withdrawing that much money at once shut down the largest WI bank branch in the 2nd largest city in WI.
“Everybody pretty much is outraged by the biggest banks’ behavior”, says Grace Ross, author of ‘Main St. Smarts’, “but I think we all feel small and powerless, because we forget that most of the economy depends on what we do as regular people. Moving money out of the biggest banks will demonstrate what they already know – they can’t afford to have us take away our money, which they depend on.”

More about how to find a local bank near you and how to move your money can be found at the Grace Team website:

Will moving our money solve all our problems? By no means, but our money will be going back into the local economy to generate jobs, and won’t be helping feed the banking giants to use against us.