Portland Occupier http://www.portlandoccupier.org News From The Occupation Mon, 02 May 2016 23:45:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Burgerville Workers Form Union for Better Wages and Workplace http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/04/29/burgerville-workers-form-union-for-better-wages-and-workplace/ http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/04/29/burgerville-workers-form-union-for-better-wages-and-workplace/#respond Fri, 29 Apr 2016 16:00:50 +0000 http://www.portlandoccupier.org/?p=10665 DSC_8620aStory and photos by Pete Shaw

Over 120 people gathered at the Clinton Street Theater in SE Portland on Wednesday April 25 to mark the launch of of the Burgerville Workers Union. The workers have organized themselves with the support of the Industrial Workers of the World at multiple stores in Portland and Vancouver, Washington and are demanding a $5 an hour raise for all hourly employees, healthier working conditions, more flexible scheduling, and greater respect from management.

The Burgerville Workers Union officially unveiled itself with a short film shown at the theater. Running at a little more than 5 minutes, it was a well-crafted film that featured some Burgerville employees who talked about how their wages were barely subsistence and their hopes that having a union will change their fortunes.

Burgerville currently has over 40 locations in Oregon and Washington, and in 2010 it took in approximately $75 million dollars in revenue. It has established a niche in the fast food world by portraying itself as a responsible and progressive business by adopting practices such as using locally grown food, powering its stores with wind energy, and composting food waste.

However, when it comes to how it treats its workers, Burgerville seems little different than McDonald’s, Burger King, or Wendy’s. According to the union, a typical Burgerville crew member makes $9.60 an hour and works 26 hours per week. That comes out to about $990 per month before taxes.

I’m poor because they’re rich, and they’re rich because I’m poor,” said Burgerville employee Ellie during the film, “and I don’t think it should be that way.”

Much of the film centered on the difficulty of being able to afford housing in Portland while making a Burgerville wage. Greg noted, “Most people can’t even afford to have an apartment and everyone knows that the cost of living in Portland has gone insane. Basically it took me a second job to have a place of my own. I couldn’t afford it definitely with what Burgerville pays me.”

According to a 2014 report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a single mother earning the minimum wage in Portland would have had to have worked 78 hours a week to afford a two bedroom apartment to adequately house her and her children. In order to afford that apartment on one 40 hour per week job, she would have needed to earn $17.73 an hour.

Luis Brennan, who works at the Portland airport Burgerville, described himself as “the heart of Burgerville” when speaking from the theater stage about how difficult it is for him to stretch his wages over a month. After paying all his bills which include rent he shares with his partner, a student loan, and automobile related costs, Brennan is left with $27. “Oh joy,” he sardonically told the crowd, “I could eat at Burgerville three times.”

Compared with Jake, who appeared in the film, Brennan sounded like he was living high on the hog. Robert stated he relied on Burgerville for food, saying, “I’m not in a position to go out and eat or go buy groceries. If I’m not working there, I just don’t eat.”

The Burgerville workers’ announcement came as a flurry of states have recently passed legislation raising their minimum wages. The recent pressure to raise the wage floor began when fast food workers in New York went on strike on November 29, 2012 demanding higher wages, better working conditions, and the right to form a union without retaliation from their managers, and has been pushed by grassroots movements such as 15 Now. While the gains made have been substantial, they have clearly been made to favor business interests over workers. For example, in March, Governor Kate Brown signed into law a new minimum wage that will reach $14.75 an hour in Portland in six years. If the minimum wage established in 1968 had kept pace with inflation, it would now be about $22.50 an hour, and it is difficult to see how workers will be any better off at that wage in 2022 than they are today–especially if rents keep skyrocketing.

“I’m part of the union because I’m tired of being treated as though I’m disposable,” said Brennan.  “I want to be valued and to be able make ends meet. Portland is my home and at these wages, I’m going to be pushed out of my home. The new minimum wage increase is great, but it’s not enough. We don’t need a raise in 6 years. We need a raise now.”

A wide swathe of groups have come out in support of the Burgerville Workers Union, including Portland Jobs with Justice, the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, the Portland Central America Solidarity Committee, the Portland Association of Teachers, ILWU Local 5, the Alberta Street Cooperative Grocery, and People’s Food Co-op. Suzanne Cohen, the incoming president of the Portland Association of Teachers told the boisterous crowd inside the Clinton Street Theater, “I’m here representing 4,000 educators to say we’ve got your back. We enthusiastically support you because when you better your working conditions you better all of our living conditions…We will stand with you every step of the way.”

Soon after the film, the crowd exited the theater and marched up SE 26th Avenue to the Burgerville that sits on its intersection with Powell. There, some members of the union delivered a letter to the store’s manager, outlining the workers’ demands. As well, groups of supporters went into the store, bought food, and told the manager that they were pleased that the workers had unionized. They also left tips that amounted to $23 for each worker.

One key to victory will surely be breaking down Burgerville’s progressive facade for its customers to see. “Their posters (inside the stores) are always like ‘we care about the community’ and ‘you know this local farmer–we support him by buying potatoes from him,’” said Greg during the film. “But you could take care of this local community of workers. We’re the local community.”

Ultimately, it is the workers’ resolve and unity that will be needed to win their demands. The Burgerville Workers Union and the alliances it has fostered with numerous community groups should go a long way toward achieving them. As Brennan told the crowd in the Clinton Street Theater, “When workers stand together in solidarity, we are stronger than the boss.”

 

To find out how you can support the Burgerville Workers Union, check out their Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/burgervilleworkersunion/?fref=ts

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Teressa Raiford Acquittal A Major Victory on the Road to Reclaiming Justice in Face of Police Violence http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/04/25/teressa-raiford-acquittal-a-major-victory-on-the-road-to-reclaiming-justice-in-face-of-police-violence/ http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/04/25/teressa-raiford-acquittal-a-major-victory-on-the-road-to-reclaiming-justice-in-face-of-police-violence/#respond Mon, 25 Apr 2016 16:00:02 +0000 http://www.portlandoccupier.org/?p=10649 DSC_8521

Photo by Pete Shaw

Story by Pete Shaw

A small grin crept across Teressa Raiford’s face as the jury acquitted her of second degree disorderly conduct on Thursday April 21. It slowly got a little bigger, and she clapped her hands a couple of times. She certainly was relieved, but perhaps not ecstatic. While walking around downtown a few hours earlier, Raiford expressed confidence that her six peers would find her not guilty. At the same time, she fretted about the repercussions of such a verdict, leaving me with the impression that she would almost consider it a shame if she and her attorney, Matthew McHenry, walked out of court with no reason to file an appeal.

After all, she told me, the trial had given the Black Lives Matter movement over three days of free organizing and education, and it would be a shame not to continue using the court system as a forum. “This is part of the protest,” Raiford said. “It’s a continuity of all the work we’ve been doing.”

That work has been focused on making people aware of, and organizing against, police violence–most clearly in Raiford’s work with Don’t Shoot PDX, a group associated with the Black Lives Matter movement that she helped found after Michael Brown’s murder at the hands of Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson on August 9, 2014. It was Raiford’s high profile that led police to target and arrest her at a community art project she helped organize on the one-year anniversary of that murder. The point of that day, Raiford said during cross-examination by Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Jeffrey Lowe, was to take a break from the many actions initiated to lament the horrific results of police violence, particularly upon people of color, and instead celebrate the lives of people–both dead and alive–who have been affected by that bloodshed.

Some musicians who were supposed to show up to the event couldn’t make it, and so Raiford decided it would be a good idea to put together a panel to discuss police violence. When the panel ended, people decided to move the celebration outside, and then the group–which numbered about 100–took to the nearby intersection at SE 82nd and Division. In memory of the four and a half hours that Michael Brown’s body lay in the street after Wilson murdered him, they settled on occupying the intersection for four and a half minutes. (According to video, the activists ended up closing it off for about seven minutes, holding up traffic for that time.)

A few police arrived and nothing eventful happened. Soon, people returned to the sidewalk to chant and educate; to give passersby something to think about. Quite a few more police arrived with witnesses for the defense estimating that about 13 patrol cars amassed across the street from them. The police did nothing for a short while, and then a few officers came over to get people on the sidewalk. Then a clutch of them walked up to Raiford and seized her. Arresting officers filed reports saying Raiford resisted arrest–struggling, kicking, yelling, and inciting the crowd toward violence. Witnesses who saw the arrest said Raiford was targeted. They also said she offered no resistance and was not screaming at the police.

The original charge against Raiford was that she had been intentionally obstructing traffic when she stood in a right turn lane during the rally, following the occupation of the intersection. But during a pretrial hearing on Monday April 18, Portland police officer Susan Billard gave testimony about Raiford’s arrest that was contradicted by video of the rally. Billard said that Raiford’s presence in the lane forced traffic to a “complete stop” for “5 to 10 minutes,” with motorists eventually having to go around Raiford in order to get past.  Judge Michael A. Greenlick, after comparing Billard’s testimony with the video, effectively called Billard a liar and ruled that there was no probable cause for Raiford’s arrest.  However, he also ruled that the State could amend its charge and apply it to the stoppage of traffic at the intersection.

Photo by Kathryn Kendall

Photo by Kathryn Kendall

In order to find Raiford guilty of second degree disorderly conduct, the jury would have to be convinced that she had “intentionally created public inconvenience or annoyance by intentionally obstructing vehicular traffic on a public lane.” That would require showing that Raiford was the leader of the event who willfully dragged the crowd into the intersection with the explicit intent of stopping traffic.  

McHenry brought forth at least 10 witnesses who had attended the event on August 9, 2015. Upon questioning, each of them described the taking of the intersection more as an organic act on their and the other attendees part whose intention was not to stop traffic, but to make people aware of police violence and the destruction it brings to people and communities of color, as well as to impoverished people.  As well, most of them, if not all, noted that other people were also in the street when Raiford was arrested, either implying or directly stating that they believed Raiford was targeted by the police.  Furthermore, those witnesses said that they would have gone into the intersection even if there was no traffic.

At one point Judge Greenlick made a comment to McHenry about his accumulation of similar responses from the defense’s witnesses, implying that this may have been excessive.  McHenry looked up and replied, “Yes.”  It was an excellent strategy. When cross-examining those witnesses, prosecuting attorney McMahon (who had been joined by Lowe after the missteps of the pre-trial proceedings) tried to evince replies that would convince jurors that Raiford had engineered the takeover of the intersection, explicitly intending to shut down traffic. That was no mean task as McMahon was basically forced into questioning the witnesses in a manner implying that each one really had no idea what she was talking about. That might work with one or two witnesses, but by the time you reach seven or eight, it becomes a very thin gruel.

Another problem for Lowe and McMahon was that they never managed to control the narrative. Simply, they had very little to work with. The video that proved to be the primary evidence which decided the jury in Raiford’s favor was shot by Laura Vanderlin, a witness for the defense. Too, the prosecution never seemed entirely sure just of what it was seeking to convict Raiford. Her crime, the jury was often told, had nothing to do with her police interaction, but with her leading people to the intersection with the explicit intention of bottling up traffic. Yet nearly every time McMahon cross-examined the witnesses for the defense, he was asking them questions relating to Raiford’s arrest.

The highlight of the trial came when Raiford took the stand. She introduced herself to the jury through her story of growing up a foster child in Portland, but one who grew up with a strong sense of community. She left for Dallas, Texas in 1996. While visiting in 2010, her nephew was gunned down outside a Portland nightclub. That murder is what pushed her into her activism.  She has appeared before a congressional committee and had an audience with First Lady Michelle Obama. From many angles, she was clearly as a very serious person heavily invested in working on the problem of police violence.

In response to questions from McHenry, Raiford talked more deeply about her activism work and its relation to the events of August 9, 2015. “The biggest problem we have in America,” she said, “is that people in poverty are policed differently.” Raiford said that on that day–one year after Michael Brown’s murder–people went into the intersection at SE 82nd and Division, not with the intent to stop traffic, but to display the work that children had created as part of the community art project she had organized. Her role was to make sure people remained safe–working “safety patrol” as she called it.

The more experienced Lowe cross-examined Raiford, beginning by saying that he understood why Raiford would be upset over being arrested. “I’m not upset that I was arrested,” said Raiford, who took control over the narrative from the start, noting that it gave her the opportunity to show the integrity of the Black Lives Matter movement. When Lowe amended his statement to say she must have been upset about being put in a patrol car, Raiford responded again that it did not upset her because it helped educate people about how police act.

Photo by Joe Meyer

In fact, it was Lowe who seemed upset. When he asked Raiford about why she got arrested–for which she was not on trial–Raiford said she didn’t know and agreed with Lowe that it is not okay to break laws. Lowe then asked, “How else would you get arrested if you didn’t do wrong?” Raiford sedately rejoindered by asking Lowe if it was not in fact his job to discern that during the trial. This prompted Lowe to slightly raise his voice, telling Raiford for the first of three times, “I get to ask the questions here.” At another point when getting nowhere with his questioning, Lowe put a hand behind his back, clenching it into a fist so taut that it began quivering.

Raiford never budged an inch. When Lowe said he wanted to ask her some questions about the significance of the numerous signs such as those reading “Black Lives Matter” that appeared in the video, but did not want to show the video to the jury, which had already seen it numerous times, Raiford replied, “You can play the video so I can see each one (of the signs). I don’t mind.” She knew full well that another viewing of the video could only help her case.

When during the viewing Lowe noted a stopped bus with passengers on it and asked Raiford, “You wouldn’t describe that as trapped, held hostage?” she responded, “You’ll have to ask the bus driver.” When asked if it was true that the traffic was stopped for seven minutes, she replied, “I have no idea. I wasn’t the timekeeper,” reiterating that she was “safety patrol”, along with several others to make sure people stayed out of harm’s way, buttressing the statement made by most of the other defense’s witnesses that Raiford, while certainly a leader, was not the leader.

On it went for about 25 or 30 minutes, with Raiford turning the questions to her–and sometimes the Black Lives Matter movement’s–favor. Asked if she knew that 82nd Avenue had a “reputation” as a large artery–again to try and show Raiford consciously blocked traffic at this particularly busy intersection–Raiford replied that she knew it had a reputation of “being over-policed” and an area with many people living in poverty. And when asked if she knew how many times the traffic light cycled while the group held the intersection Raiford told Lowe, “I don’t work for the Department of Transportation.”

Her cool and composed performance prompted me to write in my notebook, “Raiford looks almost amused by these feeble attempts. Almost not making an effort to swat them away. Seems like she should be on a porch sipping at a tall glass of lemonade. Lowe flustered. She is barely making an effort as she stomps Lowe into a jelly. She’s using him.”

Raiford’s time on the stand was probably more than enough to convince the jury that the prosecution’s case was a loser.  McMahon’s closing pitch, which was often a word salad composed of tidbits of defense witness testimony taken out of context, doubtlessly did little to alter that impression.  

McHenry’s final statement cast aspersion on the prosecution, emphasizing that it was clearly overreaching, but that the jury–a jury of six of Raiford’s peers and not six state prosecutors, he noted–could stop that. That, McHenry said, was an important principle of the founding of this country; a noble role that this jury had the opportunity to fill.

Photo by Kathryn Kendall

Photo by Kathryn Kendall

Then McHenry reminded the jury that the prosecution needed to show that Raiford’s objective was to stop traffic, something it had failed to do. Furthermore, he noted, none of the arresting officers were at the intersection during the occupation and, if the closing off of the intersection had created such a public inconvenience and annoyance, why were the prosecutors unable to bring to the stand “a single member of the public saying they were annoyed?”

She was arrested because she’s Teressa Raiford,” McHenry intoned. “She was arrested because she speaks her mind and encourages others to do the same. She was arrested because she was standing up in the face of oppression and saying this is not okay…Let’s be real: she was arrested because she was targeted.” McHenry kept hammering on the various reasons the police–and ostensibly the State–would want to target Raiford and to “intimidate her into silencing her voice.”

The final nail in the coffin probably came when McHenry said the police lied about Raiford’s behavior and falsified their written reports. Lowe objected, but Judge Greenlick overruled him. From behind, I saw Lowe’s head jerk in surprise, and perhaps McHenry too was taken aback. It was almost as if Greenlick had–in the presence of the jury–agreed with McHenry.

Onward McHenry marched, noting how the prosecution did not want to talk about those falsified reports. They had portrayed Raiford as yelling, kicking, and in general being unhinged. “None of these things are true,” McHenry told the jury. And after Raiford’s turn on the stand, the jurors had no reason to believe otherwise.

Perhaps the last chance the prosecution had–if only to save face–was to argue that Raiford clearly could not have been targeted because another woman, Diane Chavez, was also arrested that day. McHenry chopped that down as well, noting that Chavez was told by police to get off the street at least seven times before they arrested her. Raiford, however, had at most been given only one warning.

Finally, McHenry noted, the state had sent in not one, but two prosecutors to obtain a conviction for a misdemeanor. This, he implied, was no different than how the police acted toward Raiford. The District Attorney’s office, like the police who showed up at the intersection of 82nd and Division, was targeting her.

Lowe gave a rebuttal, but he had nowhere to turn. He did the prosecutor’s version of throwing himself at the mercy of the court, reminding the jury that we were a society of rules, and that all rule breakers must be punished. He sounded meek, shallow, and petty. Within the context of a trial that featured much testimony about the Black Lives Matter movement as a response to police who clearly were not subject to those same rules, Lowe came across as someone blind to the reality in the backyard he was theoretically charged with helping oversee.

And when Lowe closed by stating, “I’m asking for justice,” I’m not entirely sure that anybody in the room understood what he could possibly be talking about. Instead, what Raiford and McHenry had shown was that the police and the District Attorney’s office, through Lowe and McMahon, had sought to bring their power to bear on Raiford to intimidate her and other members of the Black Lives Matter movement.  

In retrospect, the verdict was simply a formality.

As Raiford stood in the hallway outside the courtroom, Aimee Green of the Oregonian asked if the jury had sent a message. Raiford said it had, and that was to “stop targeting Black people in Multnomah County. Stop it. End racial violence and excessive force. Stop profiling.”

The police, as well as the District Attorney’s office, may have bigger problems on their plates than changing their behavior. Billard’s testimony was exposed as a pack of lies, and those falsified written reports McHenry mentioned in his closing statement will surely arouse curiosity. In fact, while a contingent of Raiford’s friends and supporters waited in Lownsdale Park awaiting the jury to return its verdict, one of them said she had received a Twitter message saying quite a few attorneys were interested in reexamining cases in which Billard had provided testimony, as well as expressing wonder that the District Attorney would use testimony that was so easily shown to be so rife with prevarication.

Photo by Kathryn Kendall

Photo by Kathryn Kendall

After the closing arguments had been completed and the jury had gone off to make its decision, I got to talk with Joe Meyer of KBOO who had been covering the trial. He is an optimistic sort, and he gave 10-1 odds that Raiford would be acquitted. I had similar feelings, but I did not want to express them: while it seemed so obvious Lowe and McMahon had not come close to proving their case, history is rife with examples where the jury renders the opposite of what seems obvious. In particular, there is no shortage of those occurrences when the trial involves people of color.

All victories are huge victories, even if they do not seem so at the time. The “official” huge victories–the ones that get splashed across the pages of the New York Times or make the history textbooks–do not come out of the ether. They are built upon numerous seemingly small victories–and defeats of all sizes as well.

Make no mistake: Raiford’s acquittal was a huge victory with deep roots. We are very fortunate in this city to have so many people like Raiford, including–but hardly limited to–Dr. Reverend Leroy Haynes of the Albina Ministerial Alliance; JoAnn Hardesty of the NAACP; educator and artist Walidah Imarisha; and Adrienne Cabouet, jamallah bourdon, and Ahjamu Umi of the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party who have spent so much time an effort in the pursuit of justice. We are also fortunate to have lawyers like McHenry, as well as Bronson James, the attorney who originally took her case, who in that same pursuit have provided their services for free. They and so many others have spent so much time bringing together so many together to educate, organize, and fight for a more just world–not just for people of color, but for all people.

Five years ago, I doubt Meyer would have given those odds, and I probably would not have dared to consider any form of optimism. Perhaps Billard’s testimony would have been accepted. Maybe the jury would have disregarded what was clear–that Raiford was targeted–and given the benefit of the doubt to the police because they knew them to be dedicated upholders of law and order. And perhaps the jurists would have never considered that the District Attorney would also be involved in targeting Raiford, and by extension, others involved in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Frederick Douglass famously said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will.” When I got outside after Raiford’s acquittal on Thursday afternoon, the sun was shining bright, so much so that I had to apply sunscreen despite it still being April. It was a gorgeous day. People were soaking it up in Lownsdale and taking in the unseasonable warmth and light. They were wearing shorts as if it was late June. You couldn’t have painted a more perfect day.

However, when Raiford left the courthouse she headed up the sidewalk, away from the parks, in the cool shadows of the buildings. There were more demands to be made.

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Rally for Rent Control and Tenants’ Rights Demands Action from County Commissioners http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/04/14/rally-for-rent-control-and-tenants-rights-demands-action-from-county-commissioners/ http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/04/14/rally-for-rent-control-and-tenants-rights-demands-action-from-county-commissioners/#respond Thu, 14 Apr 2016 17:32:01 +0000 http://www.portlandoccupier.org/?p=10616 DSC_8215aStory and photos by Pete Shaw

Over 100 tenant rights activists gathered in front of the Multnomah County building on Thursday April 7 to demand  the Multnomah County Commission declare an immediate one-year rent freeze and moratorium on no-cause evictions. Advocates want the county commissioners to counter the rapidly rising rents that are casting people out of their homes and tearing apart communities. The rally came six months after the Portland City Council, under pressure from organizations such as Portland Tenants United (PTU), which organized Thursday’s rally, and the Community Alliance of Tenants, declared a housing state of emergency. Since then, according to PTU, the housing disaster has only worsened, with city and statewide eviction notice periods failing to prevent record rent increases or hundreds of no-cause evictions.

“These notice periods do nothing to resolve the housing crisis,” said PTU organizer Margot Black. “Now we have 90 days to deal with the inevitable trauma of being forced from our homes, instead of 30.”

Oregon law bans local rent control measures, but also allows for taking emergency action. In particular, the relevant statute–ORS 91.225(5)–states “Cities, counties, and state agencies may impose temporary rent controls when a natural or man-made disaster that materially eliminates a significant portion of the rental housing supply occurs, but must remove the controls when the rental housing supply is restored to substantially normal levels.”

That language is vague, but for people who have lost their homes or are living on the edge of making the rent, the reality of a disaster is clear. During the rally, numerous tenants argued that the housing crisis is a disaster–one clearly man-made–and thus the County has the authority and moral responsibility to enact rent control and eviction protections.

Gabriel Erbs, spokesperson for PTU said, “The County has a clear mandate in the law to enact rent and eviction control if they declare a housing disaster. So really, the question is: do Jules Bailey, Deborah Kafoury, and the rest of the Commission believe Portland’s housed and houseless are experiencing a disaster or not?”

DSC_8234a“This is a disaster,” said Sammy Black of the PTU. “It’s a man made disaster. There’s a natural loss of housing stock. There needs to be an immediate freeze on rent and moratorium on no-cause evictions until the sever lack of housing that people can afford is remedied and the legislature in Salem takes up a new law. People are being tossed out into the streets.”

There have been some changes enacted that have benefitted tenants. In October, the Portland City Council required landlords to give tenants 90 days written notice prior to raising their rent more than five percent or when issuing a no-cause eviction. And in March, Governor Kate Brown signed into law legislation banning rent increases in the first year of month-to-month leases. The same law also requires landlords give those tenants 90 days notice for rent increases after one year.

But at least for those present at Thursday’s rally, those changes are a band-aid across a severed artery, ultimately and predictably doomed to failure. Margot Black told the crowd, “We demand a rent freeze, a moratorium on no-cause evictions. And to hell with 90 days. We need these things in place until this crisis either fixes itself and all that magical supply comes online when the developers build themselves into a supply glut–which by the way won’t happen, because, Economics 101–or until a more sustainable solution is in place, and that’s a sustainable solution that’s going to involve removing screening barriers, getting people into housing, lowering security deposits, mandating landlord licensure and education, tenant education, and tenant rights.”

For the PTU, as well as many other tenants and advocates for increased tenant rights, housing is a human right, not a commodity to be exploited for obscene profit. Meanwhile, the laws clearly favor the landlord class and follow the capitalist rubric of commodification. The end result is the usual: profits take precedence over people. The results range from constant, nagging fear of losing one’s home–through landlord or economic eviction; to children having to be uprooted from their schools; and to once stable communities being ripped asunder.

“The climate of apathy and disregard of fellow neighbors and renters in this city now is intolerable and totally unacceptable,” Marsha Breuer, whose rent was recently increased $365 a month. “What is happening to so many of us being displaced is not only about being kicked out of our longstanding neighborhoods–which is a horror in itself–but a larger issue: a systemic greed disease. Our homes have become commodities to be bought and sold to the highest bidder. The rug is being pulled out from under us as our lives are disrupted and traumatized. We are thrown out, our rents doubled or tripled. How do we even find another place to live? Affordable housing is almost non-existent now.”

The housing crisis is just one of many issues–including making enough money to pay the exorbitant and rising rents–facing working people. Teressa Raiford, who is perhaps most prominent as an activist for Don’t Shoot Portland, urged people to see the relationship between policies meant to funnel money upward and the results of those policies. “We have to look at this greedy practice. If you live in poverty, they don’t want you in Multnomah County. They don’t want you in this liberal city. The poverty that exists is systemic. They’re pushing us into prisons. They’re pushing us into mass incarceration. They’re pushing people out of the city. It’s business as usual, and they can’t accommodate us anymore.”

DSC_8224a

Raiford then called upon people to use their power at the ballot box. “Where are our leaders?” she asked the crowd. “They’re gonna ask us to vote for them. We have the voice. We have the vote. We keep electing people who leave us behind. We can’t do that in 2016.”

It was a point that received applause, but whether it will be heeded and acted upon is another story. It should be. For those people whose lives have been upended by huge rent increases or evictions, action and amelioration have been tepid and have not come quickly enough. But the numbers are there to force serious change if tenants can organize on a mass scale. Sammy Black noted, “Tenants make up about 50% of voting age people in Portland, and that is expected to rise to 60% by 2020. The power balance between tenants and landlords is very skewed. We’re going to change that.”

Voting is not an end, of course, but as part of a movement, it can be an effective tactic. That movement must also include other tactics that can bring politicians pushing your goals into power or force those in power to concede to your demands. Tenants, particularly of the numbers Sammy Black mentioned, have many potent tools at their disposal. Margot Black pointed to one of the most powerful as she finished speaking.  “We need safe housing,” she said. “We need secure housing. We need stable housing. We need it for us. We need it for our communities. We need it for our schools. We need it for our local business leaders who can’t raise wages enough to keep us in our communities. If the landlords keep moving the goalposts, we’ll always need more money. The wages won’t get high enough. Rent freeze, eviction moratorium, and if they don’t give it to us, then we start talking about rent strike.”

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Fair Trade Advocates Urge Oregon’s Democrats Not to Be Fooled by Trans-Pacific Partnership http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/04/05/10600/ http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/04/05/10600/#respond Tue, 05 Apr 2016 16:00:00 +0000 http://www.portlandoccupier.org/?p=10600 Photo by David E. Delk

Photo by David E. Delk

Story by Pete Shaw

Fair trade advocates gathered outside of Oregon Senator Ron Wyden’s Lloyd Center office on April 1, demanding he not be fooled by the empty promises of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The event was part of a statewide action that saw opponents of the TPP converge on the congressional offices of Representatives Earl Blumenauer, Susan Bonamici, and Kurt Schrader, as well as Wyden’s Medford and Salem offices.

The proposed 12-nation trade arrangement would be the largest of its kind, encompassing countries that produce over 40% of the world’s gross domestic product, and if enacted would be likely to negatively impact jobs, wages, access to medicines, and the environment.

The time for exposing the foolishness in passing more job-killing trade deals is now,” said Michael Shannon, Executive Director of the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign. “The legacy of past deals has been increased deficits, lost jobs, and depressed wages. Congress should not get fooled again by repeating the same mistakes, hoping for a different result.”

After 7 years of negotiations, the TPP was signed on February 4 by the 12 Pacific Rim countries involved in the agreement. It now must be ratified by the governments of those countries, and President Obama has made clear he intends the TPP to be one of the grand accomplishments of his administration.

Sadly, what President Obama–and certainly the multinational corporations and their lobbyists who have been pushing the TPP–would regard as a great victory may prove to be devastating to working people. After all, the track record of so-called free trade agreements (FTA) have shown that in practice they have very little to do with free trade, but rather are all about increasing corporate profits. According to Public Citizen’s Lori Wallach, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has resulted in a net loss of over 1 million US jobs, decreased wages and rising inequality.  The Economic Policy Institute reports that between 1997-2014 the US lost over 5 million manufacturing jobs, with most of those job losses due to “growing trade deficits with countries that have negotiated trade and investment deals with the United States.”

Those lost jobs and wages, as well as the dismantling of environmental regulations, have helped pad corporate bottom lines. The same can predictably be expected from the TPP for, as Shannon said at Friday’s rally, “If we’re going to enter into an agreement with countries with a low or no minimum wage, it will give US companies an incentive to offshore more jobs.”

DSC_8088a

Photo by Pete Shaw

The TPP would also result in further deterioration of the environment. While the Office of the US Trade Representative has stated the TPP’s “groundbreaking provision will help the environment” and that its text “includes the most comprehensive environmental commitments we have ever negotiated in a trade agreement and represents a significant opportunity to address pressing environmental challenges,” the Sierra Club has a different take. The group’s “analysis of the final text reveals that the environment chapter would fail to protect the environment and in some respects falls short of past US trade agreements…and of what is needed to actually reduce environmental degradation on the ground. Far from an environmentally-friendly agreement, the TPP text also fails to protect environmental policies from the threats posed by the deal’s many polluter-friendly rules, including those related to foreign investment and fossil fuel exports. For the environment, the TPP’s net balance is decidedly negative.”

Another deeply troubling aspect of the TPP concerns its effect on access to medicines, including life saving ones. After the final text of the TPP was released, Doctors Without Borders issued a statement saying it was “gravely concerned about the effects that the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal will have on access to affordable medicines for millions of people, if it is enacted.” Noting that the TPP would “further delay price-lowering generic competition by extending and strengthening monopoly market protections for pharmaceutical companies,” Doctors Without Borders concluded, “The TPP is a bad deal for medicine: it’s bad for humanitarian medical treatment providers such as MSF (Doctors Without Borders), and it’s bad for people who need access to affordable medicines around the world including in the United States.”

Considering these realities, it should come as no surprise that the TPP was negotiated in secret. Crafted largely by corporate representatives, few members of governments (including the US Congress) knew what it contained until it was ratified in February. Once President Obama asks Congress to take up the TPP, debate will be limited to 90 days during which no amendments can be added to the accord–senators and representatives vote either yes or no. Combined with Fast Track–the legislation approved by Congress that gave away its constitutional mandate to oversee trade–the whole history of the TPP has been an exercise in usurping democracy.

Prior to its ratification, all that was known about the TPP was due to material leaked through Wikileaks. As David Delk of the Alliance for Democracy has noted, the TPP is about “government of, by, and for the corporations.” Delk’s point becomes even more acute when considering how the TPP, as with previously ratified FTAs, allows corporations to sue governments for loss of future profits should a government pass legislation that would curtail those profits. For example, last year the Portland City Council passed a resolution that says the city will no longer build fossil fuel infrastructure. But if the TPP is passed by Congress and signed by President Obama, any corporation could sue Portland–in a private court–for the money it will lose by not being able to build that infrastructure.

Those lawsuits have proved successful for corporations in the past, with over 90% of those brought against the US before the World Trade Organization–a body whose members are not elected by any country’s citizens–decided in favor of corporations. If such a suit was brought against Portland, the City’s only choice to avoid paying out a large chunk of money would be to repeal the resolution. Similarly, should Oregon refuse to allow Nestle to mine water in the Columbia River Gorge, Nestle could sue Oregon for future lost profits. Food safety standards, environmental and labor safety regulations, legislation promoting solutions to climate change, GMO labeling–all could be declared an impediment to corporate profits, despite the clear benefits these rules bring people.

As a result of these profit-over-people transgressions, in January over 1,500 progressive organizations, including over 75 from Oregon, representing women’s, LGBT, environmental, consumer, family farm, labor, faith, student, internet freedom, human rights and other constituencies sent a joint letter to Congress warning that “the TPP elevates investor rights over human rights and democracy.”

TPP

Photo by Pete Shaw

Despite these and numerous other issues with the accord, Senator Wyden and Representatives Blumenauer, Bonamici, and Schrader–all Democrats–have refused to condemn the TPP. Early on during TPP negotiations, Wyden decried a lack of transparency, but his protests seemed more geared toward feeling a personal slight rather than the anti-democratic nature of the secrecy. He has never found a problem with the actual rules–nor apparently the repercussions–of any FTA.

At Friday’s rally, Shannon, along with activist Ben Gerritz and nurse practitioner Betsy Zucker presented large cards to Wyden field representative Ree Armitage and Blumenauer staff member Jason Little to remind them of the corporate powers that support the TPP.

If the TPP is ratified,” Gerritz told Armitage and Little, “millions across the globe will struggle with new barriers to affordable medication, especially biologics, a class of drugs with great promise for treating diseases like cancer and hepatitis. It comes down to who is lobbying for the TPP and who–such as Doctors Without Borders–is asking our members of Congress to respond to the will of the people.”

“I know Oregon is dependent on trade,” Gerritz continued. “I know free trade deals have hurt working people. I also know the 1% don’t need more money.”

Shannon noted how despite the rhetoric coming from supporters of the TPP, it does little to deal with major issues facing people worldwide. “I don’t believe a 21st century trade agreement would omit the phrases ‘human rights’ and ‘climate change,’” he told Armitage and Little. “I don’t believe we need to be giving greater access to our markets to human rights abusers like Malaysia and Brunei.”

Gerritz also noted that New York’s entire federal delegation–both Democrat and Republican–had signed a letter in opposition to the TPP. “Why is it that Oregon, which is heavily Democratic,” he asked Armitage and Little, “can’t represent its constituents like New York’s delegation?” he asked.

Though the staffers did not seem especially engaged by the protesters,  Armitage did perk up when Gerritz expressed worry about Democrats staying home come November should their representatives support the TPP. Though Wyden, the ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee, is in little danger of losing his seat, the Democratic party may be squandering a tremendous opportunity should congressional representatives like Wyden, Blumenauer, Bonamici, and Schrader support the TPP.

If these politicians refuse to stand up for the working people who make up their base—never mind for keeping the planet sustainable for human life–they should not be surprised if voters lack enthusiasm come November.

 

Want to get involved?  Check out the Oregon Fair Trade Campaign at: http://www.citizenstrade.org/ctc/oregon/

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Oregon’s Democrats Make U-Turn From Republican-Lite; Support $22.50/Hour Living Wage as Part of “Pro-Life” Agenda http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/04/01/oregons-democrats-make-u-turn-from-republican-lite-support-22-50hour-living-wage-as-part-of-pro-life-agenda/ http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/04/01/oregons-democrats-make-u-turn-from-republican-lite-support-22-50hour-living-wage-as-part-of-pro-life-agenda/#respond Fri, 01 Apr 2016 16:00:09 +0000 http://www.portlandoccupier.org/?p=10583 Occ 1Story and photos by J.R. Robertson

In a shocking change of course, Oregon Democrats in the legislature have decided to stop acting like Republicans and ram through a new minimum wage law that will be an actual living wage. The bill, which is expected to sail through an emergency legislative session to be convened by Governor Kate Brown later this month, will raise the wage floor to $22.50 an hour as soon as it becomes law.

Yearly changes to the wage will be pegged to a more expansive definition of inflation that will not be based solely on basic survival needs. It will also abolish the preemption law forbidding localities from establishing their own minimum wage. Brown said she will sign the bill “as soon as it lands on my desk.”

“This is a huge win for the working class,” said Justin Norton-Kertson of 15 Now PDX. “Oregon has become the first state to actually, really end poverty wages.”

The new law will be part of a package of “Pro-Life” laws that will also address issues of rent control, houselessness, and police violence, all of which are expected to pass during the upcoming special session as Democrats gain some long-needed spine and seek to distance themselves from Republicans.

While the recent abbreviated legislative session made some minor headway in the area of the minimum wage, it fell short of what working people in Oregon were looking for, and more importantly, it did little to change the overarching reality that it has become almost impossible to work a minimum wage job and make ends meet. Between low wages and skyrocketing rents–particularly in Portland–people find themselves increasingly squeezed out of what was once considered one of the most livable states in the country.

The minimum wage law which emerged from the shortened session earlier this year was the result of pressure due to the hard work of many activist groups, particularly the 15 Now campaign which was readying a ballot initiative for the November election. Had that initiative passed, the minimum wage throughout Oregon would have been $15 an hour. The bill Brown signed into law on March 2 created a triple tier which would have seen the minimum wage raised to $14.75 per hour in Portland, $13.50 per hour in smaller cities, and $12.50 per hour in rural areas by 2022.

During negotiations, Brown had herself attempted to water down the demanded $15 an hour minimum, proposing in January that the Portland wage be dropped a dollar from $15.52 per hour to $14.50. Brown’s conservative-leaning proposal came after a meeting with business and labor leaders in an effort to pass a bill that would make it unlikely that 15 Now’s ballot initiative insisting the statewide minimum wage be $15 per hour would pass.

DSC_5747“You’re probably wondering why I met with business leaders to discuss the minimum wage,” Brown said at a press conference this morning. “I really have no idea why I would do something that stupid. What was I thinking? Why would business leaders want to do anything but lower wages and benefits? They would put children to work if it would save a buck. Actually, they did do that about a hundred years ago, and when people wanted to end that practice, the business community complained that it would be the end of the world. Guess what? The sun still rises, the Earth still spins, and we’re still here.”

When asked about the concerns businesses have raised about hiking the minimum wage at least $22.50 an hour, and tying it to inflation, House Speaker Tina Kotek said, “Every time you try to do anything to help working people–things the business community will always oppose–they have the same stock reply: we will have to lay off workers. It’s rubbish. They don’t care about workers–not in any meaningful sense. They just want to make as much profit as possible, and the easiest way to do that is to pay their workers as little as possible. If they cared so much about their workers, they would have been fighting to make sure workers always had at least a living wage.”

Only a few weeks ago, Kotek was like many Democrats who have been overtly acting like Republicans. According to Oregonian reporters Ian K. Kullgren and The Traitorous Denis Theriault , some Democrats had been looking for ways to roll back the gains of the law that Brown signed in March. In particular, both Kotek and Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick had stated they would seek to lower the minimum wage for young people.

“Yeah, that was ridiculous,” said Burdick, who in 2006 sided with business interests in opposing Portland’s Voter Owned Elections that helped Amanda Fritz win a seat as a City commissioner. “It’s kind of like that weird scene they had in Portland with the part-time Recreation workers who were making less per hour than their full-time counterparts despite doing the same work. It’s unfair, and frankly, it’s also selfish and stupid.”

The move to raise the wage has been bolstered by California’s recent move to a statewide $15 per hour minimum wage and similar impending legislation in New York. “The Golden State’s raising of the minimum wage,” said Kotek, “was the result of intense organizing by working people in California. They forced that law, and I suppose it is a reasonable start. But really, should people have only a wage that allows them the bare minimum of survival?  We’re humans, not beasts, and it’s time we started treating people as such.”

California’s wage increase, much like Oregon’s under the current law, takes a long time to phase in. Only in 2022–after a series of increases–would it finally reach $15 an hour. “$15 an hour certainly is better for a minimum wage,” said Brown, “but it hardly cuts the nut when it comes to paying for rent and food. A person would have to work 70 hours a week to make ends meet. And what about some of life’s simple pleasures like going to a movie or a soccer game a couple of times a year?  All people have a right not just to survive, but to enjoy life.” She then paused to venerate before a photo of the late, great Johan Cruyff.

Why the sudden change among these Democrats who for so long, particularly on economic matters, have embraced conservative and neo-liberal economic ideals that devastate working people, their families, and their communities? Certainly the work of the 15 Now campaign–as well as groups who worked with it in solidarity, such as Black Lives Matter Portland and Don’t Shoot PDX–had much to do with it, quickly burgeoning into a powerful movement since its inception in early 2014. 

Kotek said, “We were forced to do this. Those 15 Now people really applied a lot of pressure, and they are reaching out in solidarity to other groups. They will soon form a powerful political bloc. How long can you keep squeezing people before they take up the proverbial pitchforks and torches? For too long people have had two choices: side with fascist types like Trump or Cruz, or vote for the corporate Democrats that have come to dominate the Democratic Party. But 15 Now is showing people they can take control of things and get involved with other people working hard to make real change, not just slight tweaks to this unjust and unfair capitalist system. If they keep at it, they will bring the system and the 1% serviced by capitalism to their knees.”

DSC_9100Alyssa Pagan of 15 Now PDX is pleased with the new path being taken by Oregon’s Democrats. “I used to think we needed a third party to get anything done; that the Democratic Party was long sold off to big business. God bless Governor Brown for proving me wrong, and for her loyalty to the working class of Oregon.”

“That working class fervor isn’t going to go away,” added Norton-Kertson. “We are going to keep building and fighting both here in Oregon and across the country.”

“Raising the minimum wage to a real living wage just makes sense,” said Burdick. “We live in a consumer economy–which is a problem unto itself–but nonetheless, that is so. If we are to have such an economy–and there is no reason why we can’t have an economy based on what people need instead of one that puts outrageous sums of money into the hands of a select few–people need money so they can buy stuff. The new minimum wage will make sure people have more money to spend, and as well will provide more revenue for the state. Imagine how many great things we would be able to do if we hadn’t given that stupid tax break to Nike. Even better, imagine if the workers just took over Nike.”

Not all Democrats are on board. Senate President Peter Courtney could not be reached for his opinion, having barricaded himself in his office, worried sick that people might start protesting or something similarly terrifying. However, slid under his office door on the end of a stick, was a note clearly written in a delirious state, reading, “We cannot get out. The end comes. Drums, drums in the deep. They are coming…”

But in this case and with the other upcoming Pro-Life laws, it appears Courtney and his Republican-lite ilk will be swept to the political winds.

“Good riddance,” said Brown. “They can take their corporate sponsors, including the ones to which I used to be beholden, and shove off. Sometimes we forget we live in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, and in the 21st century at that. The way we–including so many Democrats such as myself–have acted with such abject fealty to the wealthy, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was the Dark Ages. Or a Republican controlled legislature.”

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Walidah Imarisha’s “Angels with Dirty Faces” Explores Themes of Justice, Redemption http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/03/14/walidah-imarishas-angels-with-dirty-faces-explores-themes-of-justice-redemption/ http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/03/14/walidah-imarishas-angels-with-dirty-faces-explores-themes-of-justice-redemption/#respond Mon, 14 Mar 2016 16:09:58 +0000 http://www.portlandoccupier.org/?p=10541
Angels

Story and photos by Pete Shaw

There is an odd moment at the end of the first section of Walidah Imarisha’s Angels with Dirty Faces (published by AK Press), that only reveals its peculiarity in retrospect. While visiting her adopted brother, Kakamia, who is in prison for conspiracy to commit murder, Imarisha meets a man in a wheelchair who reveals to her the great kindness with which Kakamia treated him, including volunteering to share a cell with him and providing help as needed. “I don’t know if I would have gotten through it without him there,” the man tells Imarisha. “It just reminded me that someone cared, when it felt like nobody, not even God, did some days.” It was something Imarisha likely expected was within Kakamia, but the information still clearly surprises her. Kakamia, having gone to make some popcorn, returns and asks Imarisha, “Hey, miss me?” Her response, “Always,” is fraught with ambiguity, but revelatory all the same.

The moment is odd–at least by one reading of “always”–because Imarisha does not overlook too many things. Whether writing about Kakamia, or Mac, a hitman for the vicious Irish Hell’s Kitchen gang, the Westies, or her own experiences with an absentee father and a former boyfriend who assaulted her; Imarisha is always searching and finding. What she finds never stands in isolation. The personal is political, writ large, small, and all points in between. But because she is constantly questioning, reflecting, finding conclusion, and then doing it all over again, she must always be missing things. When she finds them, she also finds more that she has missed.

Such is intellectual restlessness. And such is the foundation of this book that makes a cogent and persuasive argument for abolishing prisons. Not just because of how they destroy the lives of the people behind their walls and the lives of those friends and family left outside, but also because they reflect and augment the deep ills of a society that so often is an inversion of the values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness it claims to represent.

Imarisha writes, “Prisons are not about safety, but about control and containment of potentially rebellious populations.” At least in the United States of America, that has long been the case. As she notes, the current prison system’s disproportionate concentration of Black people began with the end of legal slavery (contrary to popular opinion, the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution did not completely outlaw slavery, allowing for the exception “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”). “It’s not what you do,” she notes, “but who you are that lands you in prison.”

We spend billions of dollars to put people in prison, but have a very tight purse when it comes to making sure people have health care, education, wages, child care, food, housing and other social goods that ultimately help keep people from committing crimes.  Imarisha encourages her readers to consider what her, Kakamia’s, and Mac’s lives–and ostensibly their own lives–would have been like had our society been organized around principles which promote those goods instead of punishing those who–so often lacking those goods–end up in prison.

Full disclosure: Walidah Imarisha is my friend. I have a profound respect for her keen intellect whose boundaries are constantly expanding, and my regard for her compassion for others runs even deeper. Those qualities are on full display in Angels with Dirty Faces.

The book is divided into three sections, each telling distinct stories that overlap and create a kind of feedback loop that demonstrates that intellect and compassion.  It also invites readers to engage in the same rigorous questioning and reflection. Two of those portions center around prisoners–the aforementioned Kakamia and Mac–and the other, sandwiched between, on Imarisha. All involve a search for self: if not a fully defined or redeemed one based in a nurturing and loving community, then one that grasps for the fruits of that community while standing on its shoulders.

Truth is an important consideration here. Not “the truth”–which I am not sure has any importance, or even meaningful consideration here–but something far more fluid, adaptable, and ultimately of greater value. Clearly, facts are important. Kakamia is in prison for taking part in a heinous crime. Mac is in prison for committing many heinous crimes, the end products of which often were literally scattered across the water. Imarisha was physically, mentally, and spiritually violated by someone in whom she had placed her trust.

But all the facts in the world–the truth as it were–in the end only serve to obscure if we do not know the full story surrounding them. Without context, these facts define complexity singularly: Kakamia as a criminal, Mac as a murderer, Imarisha as a survivor.

Behind those dangling facts lie people, full of contradictions, and possessing collections of experiences, circumstances, and possibilities that have brought them to where they are and will, for good or ill, help guide them toward their future stories. They cannot be defined so easily, though the state does define them as such, allowing for justification of the deplorable conditions under which prisoners exist.

Mac grew up in poverty and eventually found himself killing people for the Mafia. It was a job that provided a path out of destitution and helped pay the bills. That side of him–his business side as he might have put it–coexisted with a man who lovingly cared for his wife, mistress, and girlfriend, as well as the 4 children that were part of these relationships.

 

If he had been a soldier, volunteered or drafted like so many

Others, he would have gone to Vietnam. He would have been

ordered to participate in the My Lai massacres, and the others

we do not know the names of. He would have done it. He

would have come home with a chest full of medals and the

exact same nightmares. If Mac had been a cop, like his friend

Jackie had wanted so badly, he would have received

commendations for his use of violence.

 

America does not abhor violence. The concern this nation has

is not people killing for profit, but that it is done in the service of

Private acquisition of wealth, rather than corporate wealth.

 

The state does not have a moral objection to murder; it has a

Monopoly on it.

 

The state also has a monopoly on determining the truth, which in the case of those imprisoned, denies their fundamental humanity. Admittedly, it is difficult to see the commonality between us when people who look more or less the same have committed unspeakable horrors. Yet during one of Imarisha’s meetings with him, Mac pulls from his hands–the ones that ended so many lives–a beautiful rose formed from three delicately folded white napkins.  It is a disturbing contradiction. He promises her a bouquet of them in blue, a phenomenon, Imarisha notes, that does not occur in nature, “an impossible gift of eternal hope from the hands of a killer.”

Kakamia, who is friends with Mac, is equally complex. Like Mac, he also grew up in poverty, and was faced with stark daily choices. Some of those choices included acts of violence. Like Imarisha, he had a father who was barely present.

Walidah1

Walidah Imarisha

Kakamia is an artist, his talent for drawing only budding after he was imprisoned. He has known the disappointment of being turned down for parole, once even passing through the parole board, but finding his path blocked when the governor refused to sign his papers. He practices Buddhist chanting and meditation.

Imarisha felt such a bond with him–and he with her–from their various correspondences that they adopted each other. In the eyes of the state, their sibling relationship is a fiction. Actually, it does not exist. In their eyes, however, it is a truth as profound as the deepest poetry.

That word “poetry” is a very important one. Imarisha is a poet. She understands the subtleties of words, both on their own and in combination with more words, and the sentences, paragraphs, and chapters they inhabit as she ferments them into story. Those words are the essence of truth, and in her hands–sometimes literally as when near the end of the book Imarisha is “caught” smuggling notes out of a meeting with Mac–they are molded, unflinchingly and lovingly.

Those words add great color and depth, both in what is revealed and what lies hidden. They service broader truths. The realities of prison “bleed” over the walls. History is “not just the past, but a living legacy, continuing to crush the breath from our lungs,” a legacy harkening back to the “living specter” of the plantation. Neoliberal economic policies, which include privatizing prisons and thus fueling the need for more prisoners in order to increase profits, make the world “tight as a noose around the necks” of working people. Those truths lead Imarisha to conclude that “many prisoners’ lives were cages before they ever stepped into a prison. I have learned that poverty confines, hunger contains, homelessness chokes, powerlessness restricts, and oppression destroys.”

That knowledge is not limited to those who are so obviously confined: “I have learned we all have prisons in our lives, and most of us are too frightened to look directly at them.”  Imarisha does not excuse Kakamia’s and Mac’s crimes. But she also refuses to run from examining their motives.

At some point–to be precise, in the second section titled “Walidah,” which is a quasi-memoir as it, like the rest of the book, is qualified by Imarisha’s doubts about objectivity and memory–the poetic language wanes, becoming sparse if not extinct. The metaphors are quiet; the similes set further apart. Consisting of little more than her facts, she shifts gears to a narrative that paints just enough of a personal picture so that in some bare areas of a canvas whose subject has already been partially revealed by the compassionate insight she displays when writing about Kakamia, tone and texture are added.

That shift, I don’t think, is a coincidence. As she notes, Imarisha has a healthy ego, as even a brief look at her Facebook page will show. We learn of an absentee father, a tough as nails mother, and their young and growing daughter who finds the so-called conventional world stifling because of the lies it both projects and protects. Those points are written with an eye to the details Imarisha finds important for the reader, but without the verve of the prior pages as well as what follows. One might well glean more narrative from a baseball box score.  It is a calm before the storm.

Rather suddenly comes the tempest binding individual and world. Imarisha’s boyfriend assaults her. Or rather, to use her language, “His dick slipped out of my vagina behind me. There were no words between us. Then I felt its pressure on my asshole. In my asshole. Barreling in. Rearranging.”

It is a horrible image, compounded infinitely by the reality of it being committed by someone whom she trusted implicitly. Someone with whom she envisioned a bright future. Violation, savagery, and dishonesty–a complete breaking of that trust–combine to create a very ugly froth.

If you take part in any sort of movement that demands a radical change from the status quo, you will inevitably encounter naysayers who want to know how you will better handle certain situations, often bringing up a worst-case scenario. “You think we should get rid of prisons? Would you still feel that way if you were raped?”

Imarisha offers a nearly unequivocal yes, an answer that, she emphasizes, is hers alone. But it took a bit of time before she got there, and as “nearly” implies, she occasionally waivers. She questions herself. What just happened? Was that an assault? Does it really count? This was not like in the movies where somebody in a mask dragged her into an alley, and with a knife at her throat had his way with her. Further onward, is there possibility for redemption? Does she also want punishment? The path forward has hardly been linear. Indeed, life is “much messier and more painful…on your skin than on paper.” But ultimately, Imarisha realized what she, her boyfriend, and their communities needed was healing.

“I absolutely believe communities need to hold people who do harm accountable, while also holding them as humans who can change. Redemption cannot be unattainable if we are all to remain human.” That truth she saw not as confined to only those who lived in the nominal freedom of life outside prison, but one that should also be available to those whose freedom exists only on the smallest of margins. 

But where do all these truths lead us? What meaning lies in them?

Do we want a society where people–the imprisoned and their families, friends, and communities–are brutally punished–or as Imarisha puts it, have their bones, bodies, connections, and hearts severed, sliced, and broken–with no consideration of their circumstances and innate humanity? Or do we want one that recognizes that a system that works just fine in controlling and containing “potentially rebellious populations,” must be destroyed? As Imarisha writes, “Too often the state uses the word ‘justice’ when it should say ‘maintain the social order.’ Justice and order are often not only antithetical but in direct conflict with one another.”

Is redemption possible? Do we draw lines in the sand determining who is capable of it, and who will be forever stained by their crimes? Can people like Kakamia and Mac truly be forgiven and admitted back into the world outside of his walls? Can we forgive those who have harmed us? On any given day, perhaps yes, and on many given days, perhaps not. Humans are complex creatures, constantly recreating themselves in response to the world around them. That world is too often not a kind place.

There are many alternatives to jail that are not based upon the vengeance and retribution that are the predictable byproducts of dehumanizing people and decoupling them from the world which created them. As Imarisha says, there are no magic solutions or perfect endings. And healing is hardly guaranteed. But however one goes about it, “alternatives to incarceration need to focus on more than restorative justice; we want transformative justice, because we don’t want to restore what was unequal before, but to transform it into something new.” Imarisha suggests starting down this road by asking, “’What would be the healthiest for the individuals and community involved?’ rather than ‘Who should we make pay?’”

That is a question for everyone, and the complexity of its answer requires much more than a consideration of innocence or guilt. “If our movements and our communities are not addressing the very real ways oppression is enacted upon individuals’ bodies,” Imarisha notes, “we can never hope to fundamentally transform the current system.”

One key is recognizing that there is little to no difference between individual violence and more systemic forms of it: the former predictably follows the latter.  

 

Any movements for justice where we do not see the ways that

larger societal oppression is replicated by individuals we know

and even sometimes love–where we do not create mechanisms

to address serious harm that is done within our communities–

achieves no real justice at all. Instead, we just reproduce the

brutality of the larger system.

 

Angels with Dirty Faces covers a wide array of issues, both individual and collective, ranging from prison abolition to accountability measures offering redemption, and perhaps, forgiveness, with many points in between. In exploring these through Kakamia, Mac, and herself, Imarisha not only sees things big and small, but also how those things work together. She has invited us to consider a world where we would create new systems that focus not solely on truly just outcomes, but on achieving the just conditions that would likely keep people like Kakamia and Mac out of prison.

That moment with which I began this review–the one where the man in the wheelchair reveals the great kindness and generosity Kakamia is capable of–is not only odd. Rendered by Imarisha’s sensitivities and talent for words, it is also a gorgeous reminder of truths that so often remain hidden behind the monolithic labels used to paper over the complex reality of human lives in a land where all people are clearly not created equal; roses struggling to bloom, sometimes doing so in the most unlikely of colors.

 

Walidah Imarisha will be reading from Angels with Dirty Faces at Powell’s on Hawthorne on Monday March 14 at 7:30 PM.

Angels with Dirty Faces is available from AK Press  as well as local bookstores.

For more information on Walidah Imarisha’s upcoming events, go to her webpage at: www.walidah.com.

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Portland Committee Recommends City Divestment from Wells Fargo Due to For-Profit Prison Link http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/03/02/portland-committee-recommends-city-divestment-from-wells-fargo-due-to-for-profit-prison-link/ http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/03/02/portland-committee-recommends-city-divestment-from-wells-fargo-due-to-for-profit-prison-link/#respond Wed, 02 Mar 2016 18:43:21 +0000 http://www.portlandoccupier.org/?p=10530 Photo by Enlace

Photo by Enlace

Story by Pete Shaw

After several months of deliberation and community input,  the Socially Responsible Investments Committee (SRIC) voted unanimously to recommend that the City of Portland divest its holdings in Wells Fargo & Company due to the company’s financing of for-profit prisons and “morally bankrupt” lending practices. The City currently holds $40 million in Wells Fargo corporate bonds.

We are thrilled that the committee made the right decision today,” said Mary Mendez of Enlace, the Portland-based organization that has led the charge of the National Private Prison Divestment Campaign. “Our Black, Latino, and immigrant communities have suffered enough from incarceration.”

The February 22 vote was the first taken by the SRIC, which was created through a 2014 City Council resolution. According to the Office of Management and Finance, the SRIC “is charged with recommending corporate issuers for inclusion on, or removal from, the City’s Corporate Securities Do-Not-Buy List in the City’s direct investment in corporate securities.”

The SRIC’s decisions are based on City Council’s list of seven “established social and values concerns as principle for consideration” that include concerns about abusive labor practices, corrupt corporate ethics and governance, and most importantly as these pertain to Wells Fargo, concerns about impacts on human rights. While it may seem obvious that Wells Fargo’s role in financing the private prison industry would place it squarely on the Do-Not-Buy list, the decision is not as simple as it sounds.

City Treasurer Jennifer Cooperman told the committee that if the City divested itself of its $40 million in holdings in Wells Fargo bonds and put that money into US treasury bonds, it would lose $1.8 to $2.3 million. Of course, the divested money could be invested in some of the City’s 55 other eligible issuers of corporate bonds (all of which will be subject to the scrutiny of the SRIC).

Or it could be invested in other more productive ways.. “When we divest from the prison industry all the way up the food chain from prisons to prison contractors to Homeland Security to the police,” said Amanda Aguilar Shank of Enlace, “we free up literally billions of dollars that can be invested into programs that reduce crime and support communities, like education, healthcare, and living wage job creation.”

Paulino Ruiz, who helped organize hunger strikes against the abusive conditions at the GEO Group's Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. Photo by Doug Yarrow.

Paulino Ruiz, who helped organize hunger strikes against the abusive conditions at the GEO Group’s Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. Photo by Doug Yarrow.

Cooperman also added that while the City’s securities in question were issued by Wells Fargo Bank, people who supported divestment were talking about Wells Fargo Asset Management, the branch of Wells Fargo that decides what stocks will make up its mutual funds, pensions, and 401(k) accounts. She described the latter as a “totally different entity” than the City-owned debt securities.“The bank per se is not purchasing equity securities,” Cooperman said.

The decision marks the first time a public body has voted for divestment from Wells Fargo due to its complicity in the private prison industry and comes eight months after a student campaign at Columbia University pushed the school to sell its shares in Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the largest for-profit prison company in the US.

In December the University of California (UC), announced it would divest from its $25 million of holdings in CCA, The GEO Group, and G4S (G4S provides security for Portland’s City buildings, including City Hall, the Portland Building, and the Communications Center/Emergency Coordination Center). The UC decision came after pressure from student groups, in particular the Afrikan Black Coalition and the Black Student Unions on all nine UC campuses who supported a resolution demanding the UC system sell its investments in for-profit prisons.

The campaign has also moved on to the national political stage. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have promised to outlaw private incarceration if elected.

In testimony prior to the committee’s vote, Paulino Ruiz of Woodburn spoke about his two years in immigrant detention, including his role in organizing hunger strikes at The GEO Group owned Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington. The hunger strikes were set up in response to the abusive conditions in the prison. Ruiz said he was “retaliated against” for helping coordinate the hunger strikes and was not allowed access to an attorney and his case information.

Just during my detention,” Ruiz told the SRIC, “prisons and investors like Wells Fargo made over $100,000 that could have been spent doing good for the community instead.”

DSC_0823

Elsa Mengis, whose son Thomas Amanuel was held in a GEO Group prison for 4 years, asking the SRIC to recommend the City of Portland divest from Wells Fargo. Amanuel was released the next day. Photo by Doug Yarrow.

Elsa Mengis, whose son Thomas Amanuel was being held at the The GEO Group’s Mesa Verde Detention Center in Bakersfield, California, implored the committee to recommend divesting from Wells Fargo. Mengis, who is from Eritrea, fled the country during its war for independence. Her son, 38, has lived in Portland for most of his life, leaving Eritrea when he was 1 year old.

While Mengis is a US citizen, due to bad legal advice she received when she first came to the US, she did not apply for her son to become a citizen. Now, according to #Not1More, “a simple theft conviction” has not allowed Amanuel to naturalize.

The charge was a result of a plea bargain that Thomas agreed to,” said #Not1More, “even though he had no appropriate legal representation and little understanding of his options. This charge, and a DUI conviction from almost 10 years ago, are the factors ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) has relied on to detain and place Thomas in deportation proceedings.”

One day after the SRIC meeting, on February 23, Amanuel was released after spending 4 years in prison. During his time there–which Kayse Jama, director of the Center for Intercultural Organizing, said was costing US taxpayers about $200,000 a year–ICE was working on deporting him to Eritrea, where he has not lived for nearly 40 years. If the idea of sending Amanuel to a place where he would not know anybody is bad enough, a United Nations Human Rights Council report found “systemic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed in Eritrea under the authority of the Government” and that “some of these violations may constitute crimes against humanity.”

Photo by Pete Shaw

Photo by Pete Shaw

Prior to the meeting, some supporters of the City divesting from Wells Fargo were concerned about having enough votes. They need not have been concerned. Most committee members strongly opposed the City remaining invested in Wells Fargo, not just for its links to for-profit prisons, but also for its role in payday lending and illegal foreclosures. Committee member Robert Landauer said, “The private prison issue is egregious and sufficiently egregious to stand by itself,” while Sayer Jones described Wells Fargo’s business plan as “prefaced on hurting people” and the company as “morally bankrupt.” Sayer also said Wells Fargo was “an impossible company for us to make money on as a city.”

Responding to Cooperman’s statement regarding the separation of Wells Fargo bank and its asset management branch, Hyung Nam noted that even so, divesting the City’s holdings would send a clear signal to Wells Fargo that investments in private prisons were unacceptable. Nam seemed to sum up the feeling of the committee when he declared, “They’re horrible.”

Financial institutions like Wells Fargo, the private prison companies they invest in and politicians all have a symbiotic relationship. Banks and the private prison companies hire lobbyists to influence politicians to create (and increase) the number of laws that result in growing incarceration rates. These laws are often aimed at people of color, particularly those without documentation. More prisoners, whose terms are paid for by taxpayers, means more money for these for-profit prisons and also their investors, like Wells Fargo. And through its relationship with Wells Fargo, Portland is helping to provide the capital these private prison companies use to lobby the government.

Private prison corporations are responsible for the theft of billions in taxpayer dollars, as well as the destruction of tens of thousands of lives of those caught up by prison-backed policies advancing hyper-incarceration,” said Shank. “Private prison lobbying has driven things like the drug war, which targeted Black and brown communities, as well as more recently, family detention, where immigrant mothers and children are incarcerated in prison-like detention centers. Private prisons, who earn their money on a per person, per day rate, see our bodies as vehicles to make greater profit. It is unethical as a city to profit from these practices and to use our public dollars to prop up this inhumane system.”

Monday’s victory also show the rewards reaped when people commit themselves to a long, focused struggle. For instance, in Portland the campaign began with an affinity group from the Portland Central America Solidarity Committee (PCASC) occupying the Wells Fargo branch on SW 5th Avenue during the Occupy the Banks protests on November 17, 2011. Eight people, coordinating their action with the rally, shut down the branch as the march passed by, educating hundreds of people in the process.

Soon, PCASC had partnered with other community groups, such as Enlace, as part of the national Prison Divestment Campaign working to force Wells Fargo to divest from the private prison industry.

Photo by Pete Shaw

Photo by Pete Shaw

In August of 2012, over 20 people gathered outside the Wells Fargo branch on NE Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard to educate people about the bank’s support of the private prison industry. Six weeks earlier, after a coordinated action at eight Wells Fargo branches in Portland that resulted in the group receiving a letter from Wells Fargo’s senior legal counsel in Los Angeles, California saying PCASC was not welcome in Wells Fargo to do anything but bank.

PCASC member Jake Dacks at the time said, “We recognize that we have hit a nerve, and we are going to keep up the pressure in Portland through direct action and protests, and we will continue encouraging individuals and institutions to get their money out of Wells Fargo. There are plenty of credit unions in the Portland area that use investment to offer lower interest loans to the community. The money in credit unions is invested in the community, not in private prisons, which rip communities apart.”

The direct actions and protests rolled on, and now 4 years later the City Council will have a chance to take a stand against Wells Fargo’s support for the private prison industry.

Today’s decision indicates that it is time to take the profit motive out of incarceration,” said Jama. “Private prison corporations and their financial backers like Wells Fargo should not be profiting from incarceration, and should not be allowed to lobby on criminal justice and immigration policy, because their motivation is to put more and more people behind bars.”

Want to get involved? Call the City Commissioners and ask them to listen to the community and add Wells Fargo to its Do-Not-Buy list.

City commissioners’ phone numbers:

Nick Fish (503) 823-3589

Amanda Fritz (503) 823-3008

Charlie Hales (503) 823-4120

Steve Novick (503) 823-4682

Dan Saltzman (503) 823-4151

 

To join the 20 faith, labor, and community organizations that make up the Portland Prison Divestment Coalition, contact Enlace at (503) 295-6466 or info@enlaceintl.org.

 

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Homeless Group Gains Stable Site; R2DToo Receives City’s Blessing after Protracted Struggle http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/02/26/homeless-group-gains-stable-site-r2dtoo-receives-citys-blessing-after-protracted-struggle/ http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/02/26/homeless-group-gains-stable-site-r2dtoo-receives-citys-blessing-after-protracted-struggle/#respond Sat, 27 Feb 2016 00:38:59 +0000 http://www.portlandoccupier.org/?p=10522 Photo by Ruthie Benjamin

Photo by Ruthie Benjamin

Story by Pete Shaw

After nearly two-and-a-half years of negotiations, town halls, council meetings, and testimony, Right 2 Dream Too (R2DToo) is moving to a new home near the Tilikum Crossing. In a 4-1 vote on February 24, the City Council approved a resolution whereby the rest area for people without housing will relocate across the river to a 9,000 sq ft City-owned plot at SE Harrison and 3rd.

Though the move was opposed by many area companies and business interests, particularly East Side Plating, it comes during a City-wide housing state of emergency and the council has acknowledged the important role R2DToo plays in helping many houseless people get into housing. (This was the second attempt to provide a suitable site for R2DToo. On the verge of approving a spot under the Broadway Bridge in 2013, the City reneged in the wake of vehement–and at times ugly–pushback from Pearl District residents and developers.)

“You’ve come up with a self-help solution that deserves our respect,” Mayor Charlie Hales told R2DToo members who were in attendance. “And that’s what this is about–about respect. So thank you. Thank you Ibrahim (Mubarak, one of the founders of R2DToo) and everyone else involved for creating a valid, short-term temporary solution to a really big problem the we all need to work on.”

On February 18, the council heard 3 hours of public testimony, much of which was in opposition to R2DToo’s potential move. A scheduled vote was delayed when Commissioner Steve Novick asked for more time to discuss the issue with staff, leaving members of R2DToo understandably nervous going into Wednesday’s meeting.

The first order of business was approving a resolution confirming that R2DToo would comply with the zoning code of its new location. Commissioner Fritz spoke in tones that gave the impression she knew both resolutions would pass, as did Hales. The resolution passed 4-1, with Commissioner Nick Fish opposed.

The resolution approving R2DToo’s move took a bit more time. Commissioner Dan Saltzman introduced an amendment for the rest area to be off limits to people under 18 between 8 PM and 7 AM and that “Right 2 Dream Too shall refer all pregnant women who stay on the premises to a federally qualified health center for prenatal care.” The second portion of the amendment drew protest from Fritz who asked Saltzman, “Why would a person who lives outside have to go to a center when people who live inside can go to a private provider?”

Photo by Pete Shaw

Photo by Pete Shaw

Though the amendment was later struck down, Saltzman made clear he was not letting go, saying he had been disturbed by testimony last week in which people said that pregnant women were intentionally avoiding hospitals because they are afraid of losing their children. Some people in the council chambers replied, “It’s not fear. It’s truth,” but it looks certain that Saltzman will insist upon revisiting the issue later on during the crafting of the use agreement.

Ironically, it was Saltzman who cast the deciding vote to approve R2DToo’s move, a rather surreal conclusion, as he has often been the group’s antagonist. When he oversaw the Housing Bureau, Saltzman’s actions–whether levying $25,000 in fines against it for illegal camping or publicly worrying that R2DToo was “bleeding” money away from affordable housing–often made clear he was not an R2DToo fan.

Yet not only did he vote in favor of the move–while noting that he still believes affordable housing is more desirable than “tent camps as a solution to homelessness”–he spoke of R2DToo in glowing terms. “I give a lot of respect to R2DToo in the last four or five years,” Saltzman said. “They have really proven to myself and many others who were skeptical about their ability to maintain alcohol and drug free operations; to maintain a very good environment in and around the neighborhood. They’ve proved me and other people wrong.”

“I think it will only be a matter of time before East Side Plating and Right 2 Dream Too are best buddies, and I think that synergy will develop,” said Saltzman, referring to the company whose land abuts R2DToo’s new home. “I think this will be something we will look back in a year or two from now and we’ll probably wonder what all the controversy was, just like many people look at where Right 2 Dream Too now is and say, ‘What was all that controversy about four or five years ago when Saltzman was making a stink about it?’”

It was an extraordinary moment on this extraordinary day.

Fritz talked about receiving 537 phone calls from people who said the City needed to do more to deal with houselessness. She agreed with their position–“Being in tents is not a solution. It’s a temporary place for safety off the streets.”–while adding that solving the problem will require much more money than the City has to spend on the issue. “For those who are saying, ‘yes, take care of people who live outside, and don’t cut police or fire or anything else I care about,’–it just can’t be done.”

“Today my head and my heart are in conflict,” said Fish, the lone ‘no’ vote. While acknowledging Fritz’s hard work and dedication as well as R2DToo being a “symbol of hope, resilience, and determination,” Fish said he found the resolution overrode the zoning code and last use goals, disregarded concerns raised by the Central Eastside Industrial Council, and ignored issues of safety related to East Side Plating’s use of dangerous chemicals. He also found it problematic that the site would fall under the auspices of the Office of Management and Finance rather than the Housing Bureau and that the plan suffered from a “lack of clear accountability measures, benchmarks for success, or even a budget.”

While Novick stated those concerns are valid, he noted, “We unfortunately have people sleeping outside all around the city and we do not have places inside for all of them to go. The mayor and Commissioner Fritz have worked on this for a very long time, and I don’t have another site to suggest.”

Brad Gibson, JoAnn Hardesty, Ibrahim Mubarak, and Lisa Fay after the resolution passed. Photo by Pete Shaw.

Brad Gibson, JoAnn Hardesty, Ibrahim Mubarak, and Lisa Fay after the resolution passed. Photo by Pete Shaw.

At the previous council meeting, some opponents expressed fear of being in close proximity to people without housing. Novick sought to allay those anxieties by repeating what Chief of Police Larry O’Dea had told him–“Police do not get called to Right 2 Dream Too.”

Hales talked about the struggle to find a suitable site for the rest area. “It’s difficult. It’s messy. It’s imperfect. It’s incomplete. But it’s better than drift. It’s better than accepting that homelessness is permanent and that we’ll never get any better.”

The resolution’s approval was an important achievement for Commissioner Amanda Fritz, a stalwart ally of the people of Right 2 Dream Too. After losing the 2013 site, she continued pushing, and with Hales’ help, finally made it over the finish line. In typical fashion, Fritz thanked a long list of those who had made success possible, and following the meeting, congratulated members of R2DToo who were awash in smiles at their enormous victory.

Also a huge win was the fact that a government body was willing both implicitly and explicitly to  acknowledge the humanity of people without housing by overriding the arguments–many of which were dehumanizing–of so many of R2DToo’s opponents.

Most of all, though, there seemed to be relief that a great weight has been lifted from the many people without housing who use R2DToo–a safe space that now has been ratified by City Council.

“We made it,” said R2DToo Vice-Chair Brad Gibson, while leaving the council chambers. “We have stability.”

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Parks Employees to Receive Living Wage, Union Rights in Wake of City Council Decision http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/02/24/parks-employees-to-receive-living-wage-union-rights-in-wake-of-city-council-decision/ http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/02/24/parks-employees-to-receive-living-wage-union-rights-in-wake-of-city-council-decision/#respond Wed, 24 Feb 2016 17:00:36 +0000 http://www.portlandoccupier.org/?p=10497 DSC_7693a

Story and photos by Pete Shaw

Many part-time recreation employees are cheering the unanimous Portland City Council decision on February 17 to ratify an agreement between the Parks and Recreation bureau and Laborers Local 483. Under the arrangement, Portland Parks and Recreation will create 130 new living wage union protected jobs by the Fall, and the City will recognize these “casual” or “seasonal” Recreation Support staff as part of the union once a majority show support for joining. As union-protected employees, they will be able to collectively bargain for their wages, benefits, rights, and work conditions.

“Today is a milestone for myself and other casual workers,” said William Zeigler, an employee at Mt. Scott Community Center in Southeast Portland. “Through this agreement we see a way forward to living wages and opportunities for full time work.”

The agreement settles a nearly 15-year dispute between the City and the Laborers over the use of casual workers who, according to the City, were non-union employees and thus could be treated differently from those workers protected by union contract. Because of that classification, the City was able to pay those casual workers less than union members while offering neither benefits nor job security, despite them doing the same work as the unionized employees. The Laborers said this violated their contract with the City and in 2013, Local 483 filed a grievance. On May 1, 2015 arbitrator David W. Stiteler determined the City “violated, and is continuing to violate, the contract” by assigning the work of union employees to the non-union casual employees. He ordered it to cease and desist from this practice, but left it to the City to figure out how to navigate this new terrain.

Prior to Wednesday’s vote, the City had made some small but significant progress toward increasing wages and benefits for workers. In May 2015 the council approved amending the City’s Fair Wage Policy, setting a $15 an hour minimum wage for all full-time workers, as well as over 150 janitors, security guards, parking attendants, concessions workers, and others who work for companies contracting with the City. But that move left out over 1,800 part-time workers, most employed by the Parks and Recreation Bureau overseen by Commissioner Amanda Fritz.

The new agreement will, according to Laborers Local 483 president Wesley Buchholz, “draw clear lines preventing future workers from being paid less to do the exact same work as their permanent counterparts while keeping wage standards clear for current members.”

Jennie Birt, Recreation Coordinator at Mt. Scott Community Center said the agreement “ensures all Recreation staff will be paid properly and fairly for their work. It creates new full-time benefitted positions, returning many of the jobs lost to budget cuts over the years. This important step forward ensures respect, fair wages, and helps alleviate staff facing staggering workloads. It’s also good for the community we serve: when staff are fairly paid, Parks can retain great talent and ensure the quality recreation opportunities that Portlanders have come to count on and expect from our award winning bureau.”

DSC_7683aThe council’s vote comes at a time when Portland is experiencing dramatic rent increases–making life in the city difficult to impossible for those not receiving a minimum of $15 an hour. (As many people have testified before the council on an array of issues, even that figure is cutting it close.) Those two fights–raising the minimum wage for all workers and providing protections for renters–are being vigorously waged at the state level, and the council’s vote on Wednesday should prove a small move toward pushing those ends.

“When the City Council says we need to take action to stem the tide of rising rents,” Buchholz said, “it begins in the City’s own house, with its own employees. When hundreds of City employees can’t afford the rent, that is a housing problem. When City employees are forced to live at home with their parents or find themselves commuting from far away, that is a problem. City employees, like any type of worker, deserve a wage that allows them to live in the city they serve.”

Farrell Richartz, now a member of Laborers Local 483’s executive board, told the council about his 12-year stint with Parks and Recreation, and another 10  as a utility worker with maintenance operations. “I know first hand the struggles of low wages and the lack of job protections and vital benefits such as health care,” Richartz said. “My life was improved by moving into a full-time, union represented job with better wages and benefits. I know that the actions being taken by this council have the potential to positively affect lives of many people who work to provide services to our communities and are themselves members of those communities.”

Buchholz fleshed out some of those struggles that Richartz mentioned. “These casual staff–many of whom have worked for the City 9, 10, even 24 years, year after year–have had to make do with poverty wages in a city that now has the fastest rising rents in the nation. This has meant workers have had to forgo important doctors visits and apply for food stamps to put food on the table. It has meant Rec staff have left the very communities they serve in order to find housing for their families. It has meant empty cupboards, empty bank accounts, and in a number of disturbing cases, bankruptcy and homelessness.”

However, while the agreement has been passed, paying for it may be another story. Fully funding these changes, according to Commissioner Fritz, will cost $4.4 million, which coincidentally is the same amount of new revenue predicted by the most recent City budget forecast. Anything less, she intoned, could result in the City cutting services.

Prior to casting his vote, Commissioner Steve Novick echoed and expanded upon Fritz’s caution, adding that if the City does completely honor the agreement, the result may be cuts in other bureaus. Meanwhile, Commissioner Nick Fish said he would do all he could to make sure the agreement was fully funded.

DSC_7701aAny labor victory is cause for celebration, particularly at a time when anti-union rhetoric–especially against public sector workers–around the country has reached a feverish pitch. The tone of the council session was congratulatory and magnanimous, by both those who testified on behalf of the Laborers, and the commissioners. Hales thanked negotiators for their honesty, and Erica Askin, business manager for Local 483, thanked a litany of government figures for their dedication and hard work, saying the agreement “lights the way for fellow workers in both the private and public sector as they strive for fair pay, benefits, and recognition in the workplace.”

At a celebration held in the 3rd floor Rose Room after the council’s vote, which included both Parks and Recreation workers and some City government staff, there was a palpable sense of congenial achievement, and many words were spoken about how the negotiations would provide a blueprint of how management and labor should work together as partners, not adversaries.

That language belied the fact that for over 10 years the City barely budged on allowing many of its employees to work for anything resembling a living wage. It was only through these employees working together–including filing the grievance that resulted in Stiteler’s decision that essentially forced the City’s hand–and not backing down in their demands that Wednesday’s vote was taken and won.  The upcoming budget fight may well put the friendly rhetoric of collaboration and partnership to the test.

But for a few minutes in the Rose Room, over a spread that included a traffic safety orange congratulatory cake that matched the bright, blinding orange of the shirts worn by nearly 20 union and perhaps soon-to-be union members, there was an unmistakable sense of victory.

 

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Right 2 Dream Too Relocation Delayed by City; Vote Scheduled for Wednesday http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/02/22/right-2-dream-too-relocation-delayed-by-city-vote-scheduled-for-wednesday/ http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/02/22/right-2-dream-too-relocation-delayed-by-city-vote-scheduled-for-wednesday/#respond Mon, 22 Feb 2016 19:00:14 +0000 http://www.portlandoccupier.org/?p=10486  

Photo by Pete Shaw.

Photo by Pete Shaw.

Story by Pete Shaw

Right 2 Dream Too (R2DToo), the rest area for people without housing currently located at the corner of Burnside and NW 4th, must wait until Wednesday to find out if it will have a new home in Southeast Portland. After four hours of deliberation on February 18 the City Council appeared ready to vote on a resolution to affirm R2DToo’s move. Instead, Commissioner Steve Novick, who was silent throughout the meeting, asked to delay the vote at the last moment, saying there were “some conversations” he wanted to have “with staff.”

Founded in 2011, R2DToo has helped hundreds of houseless people–from providing a safe place to spend the night to assisting them in finding jobs and permanent housing. In 2013, just as it was poised to move a spot under the northwest side of the Broadway Bridge, Pearl District residents and developers pushed back, and the plan was scuttled.

One key difference between then and now is that Mayor Charlie Hales is not seeking re-election. Perhaps since he is no longer beholden to the fundraising and glad-handing that accompany political campaigning, Hales has been free to pursue a more aggressive agenda. While he has hardly offered the systemic solutions required to meaningfully attack the problem of houselessness, his efforts have yielded some temporary solutions that may point the way toward more permanent ones. The SE Harrison and 3rd Avenue plot that the City recently bought from the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT)–the land that Hales (and Commissioner Amanda Fritz) intend to be R2DToo’s new home–is part of that plan.

The council session was essentially divided into two parts, both surrounding R2DToo’s move. The first order of business concerned vacating a portion of Harrison Street that abuts both the plot and East Side Plating (ESP), a metal finishing company–a move Hales called necessary whether R2DToo’s move was approved or not. That vacation would permanently close Harrison Street where it intersects with SE 3rd Avenue.

Photo by Pete Shaw

While testimony was supposed to be on the street vacancy issue, opponents were already eager to explain why R2DToo should not be allowed to provide its services. Andrew James of WYSE Real Estate Advisors had to be reminded by both Fritz and Hales to stay on topic and quickly pivoted to safety issues, a topic that consumed most of the 11 people who spoke against the change. Debbie Kitchen, a property and business owner in the area, also said the vacation would cause “irreparable harm” to various companies in the area.

In particular, representatives (including the owner) of ESP testified that changes to the street would result in a drastic loss to their business, focusing in particular on potential issues with the trucks that deliver chemicals (many of which are corrosive) to East Side Plating. Their arguments were difficult to follow at times, largely because they were often contradictory. For example, ESP president Gary Rehnberg began by chastising the council for pursuing the vacancy despite the opposition of the Planning and Sustainability Commission (PSC). Commissioner Nick Fish noted that the City had responded to the PSC’s opposition and asked Rehnberg how the new proposal would affect ESP. Though Rehnberg said he had not seen the new proposal, he stood by his opposition.

After city facilities manager Bob Keita came forward and explained the current proposal, Rehnberg noted that delivery trucks servicing ESP would, if the vacancy passed, be required to back up to transfer their contents to the factory–something he asserted the drivers would be unwilling to do. The alternative, which involved using barrels instead of bulk delivery, would be vastly inefficient and would harm business.

Scott Hendrickson, Environmental Health and Safety Manager at ESP then presented a short video showing the difficulties trucks already had making deliveries. Navigating through a parking lot, the truck made a hairpin turn on to Harrison as well as some of the City-owned parcel, and then–despite what Rehnberg had just stated–easily backed up to make its delivery. When Fish noted the discrepancy, Hendrickson stated the problem was a matter of poor visibility of oncoming traffic.

Hales found interest in the video, particularly the truck’s use of Harrison Street and the City-owned plot. “Your business has been relying on the use of this piece of real estate and this public right of way to conduct the truck maneuver that you just described,” he told Hendrickson. “The video you just showed us shows you are relying on the free, available use of a piece of real estate plus the free, available use of this city right of way.”

Tim Lamb, an owner of ESP, stressed that his feelings had nothing to do with people without housing, but the simple reality that there was no way to close off Harrison Street without hurting his business by limiting the services ESP could offer to customers. “It’s pretty hard for me to credit a situation in which you’ve made major investment in the reliance on trespassing on an adjacent property,” Hales told Lamb, who responded by saying ODOT had allowed for the land’s use by East Side Plating. When Hales asked if Lamb had this in writing, Lamb replied he did not.

Hales then offered a solution whereby the City would build a driveway to the plant that would also prove a better angle for trucks and, allowing East Side Plating to lease the required land for $1. Lamb saw no reason why that could not work.

Linda, who has been working for 43 years near the site of R2DToo’s new home, parks her car at ESP. She expressed worry about houseless people getting in the way of deliveries and also that she will have a hard time finding parking, should the City vacate the street and allow R2DToo to relocate. Susan Kiel, Chair of the Board of OMSI, saw it as her mission to “defend our community from harmful actions by the City,” and worried about the burden local businesses would bear should that portion of Harrison be vacated.

Following the testimony of two supporters of the vacancy, one of whom, Robert Jackson, accused opponents of taking a “Not In My Backyard” attitude, the council added an amendment to the resolution, saying it would work in good faith with ESP to make truck access to its plant easier. The resolution passed unanimously.

                                                        ~~~~~~~~~~~~~

In 2013, opposition testimony at City Council regarding R2DToo’s possible move to a site under the Broadway Bridge, ranged between sudden concern for the well-being of people without housing (who, for example, might get ill from bird droppings) to outright hatred toward them. In fact, the way houseless people were being described bore more than a passing resemblance to the kind of verbal abuse seen at recent Donald Trump and Ted Cruz rallies.

During the second portion of Thursday’s City Council session, which dealt with both the zoning of the land to which R2DToo would move and approval for that move, opponents’ language rarely seemed to reach the same fevered pitch. Or maybe it did, but after years of hearing demeaning language relentlessly used toward people without housing, it failed to register as painfully.

Hales introduced the two resolutions by noting the state of emergency regarding housing and how R2DToo’s move would be just one of many attempts to deal with the problem, with Fish adding that “nobody here thinks that living in a tent is an ideal solution.” Hales, no doubt aware that opponents of the move would play the crime card, noted that the Portland Police Bureau’s Central Precinct Commander, Sara Westbrook described calls to the rest area as “non-existent.”

After Matt Wickstrom of the Bureau of Development Services’ Land Use Division explained how the new R2Dtoo site would fit zoning regulations, the council heard invited testimony. Trish Reed an R2DToo board member recapped many of the organization’s achievements, including helping 297 people find housing, 286 people find work, 35 people get off drugs, 17 women keep their children, and 35 people complete online education degrees. “We cater to everyone who comes to our gates,” Reed said. “We do our best to provide safety, support, and love to our family. And these people are our family.”

Photo by Pete Shaw

Photo by Pete Shaw

Brad Maisil, President of the Central Eastside Industrial Council, opposed the move saying it would do “irreparable harm” to business. Maisil, like many others, took pains to note that he had nothing against R2DToo, a line often repeated during the session. Andrew James came back for a second round to express worry for the safety of people without housing. “We owe all people a restful, peaceful place to rest their heads,” James said, while maintaining an apparent imperviousness to the feelings houseless people might actually have in relation to their own safety.

Mr. Parker, who volunteers at the Oregon Rail Heritage Foundation, asked the commissioners to consider the great harm people without housing might cause to the historic trains lying just below where R2DToo would stay. And Debbie Kitchen returned to expressed fear that the Good Neighbor Agreement that R2DToo would sign would not be worth the paper it was written on, because the organization would be lying about anything it said.

Gary Rehnberg kicked off his second appearance by obsequiously thanking Hales for “the privilege of using your property,” as a person in the gallery suggested the commissioners collect back-fees from him for parking. Rehnberg then said that his primary concern as president of ESP is the safety of the 129 employees he serves.

In an effort to prove he is not against the houseless, but instead for a safe truck turnaround, ESP owner Tim Lamb let it be known that his sister was houseless, but then went on to say he would he not want her to be “forced to camp” at the new location. Lamb’s comments evoked some quiet jeering from the crowd to the effect that if he cares so much why would he be opposed to her finding refuge with a group that has done so much to assist people without housing?

Linda said she realized people without housing need a place to stay, but she was concerned about drug use as well as “our safety, especially after dark.”, followed by hand wringing about garbage and drug needles and all sorts of other horrors that doubtless would deter customers from doing business in the area, though in point of fact none of these concerns apply to R2DToo. “Please help us protect East Side Plating jobs,” she begged the council.

Jeremy Horn, a chemical engineer who works at ESP, expressed worry that in the event of a toxic spill, the people at R2DToo’s rest area would not know how to react. A bit later Mike Summers of R2DToo, said he had worked a job similar to the workers at ESP and that he could easily teach people at the rest area how to respond in the event of an emergency.

Photo by Ruthie Benjamin

Photo by Ruthie Benjamin

In a way, Horn and Summers showed one of the glaring differences between opponents of the move and people without housing, as well as their advocates. Opponents’ language is heavily laden with assumptions about houseless people, and–despite numerous assurances of care and compassion for people without housing–appears to be rooted in fear, greed, and ignorance that come together to form the central question, “What can we do to make them go away?”

More often than not, the people without housing used the language of uplift to describe what they want, or more accurately, what they need. They understandably see R2DToo for what it has done and what it will continue to do for those it serves.

Sarah credits the organization for helping she and her husband stick together, saying R2DToo “is great when you don’t have other options.” Lisa Fay noted that despite the fears of opponents, R2DToo would be enticing others without housing to the area. Fay implored opponents to ask R2DToo’s current neighbors about how it has enhanced the neighborhood.

Wade Varner talked about R2DToo’s value in providing humane solutions such as those noted earlier by Trish Reed. Pork Chop, who has stage 4 cancer and a partially amputated leg, lives in Bud Clark Commons, which he described as a “heroin house.” R2DToo has helped him “keep clean and sober, noting that the rest area, “let me be safe. Right 2 Dream Too has saved my life”. Pork Chop also told Tim Lamb that he would be willing to help his sister get back on her feet by taking her to R2DToo, to which Lamb made no reply.

Tammy Moody came to R2DToo 3 years ago. She credited it with saving her marriage and helping her get off drugs. Another man described arriving at R2DToo four years ago with a methamphetamine addiction and a failing marriage. He said the rest area helped him turn his life around. Later on he moved to Idaho and started a business, but soon fell back into old problems, so he has returned to R2DToo, noting–with his wife beside him–that as of the coming Sunday, he will have been clean for 5 weeks.

A few people provided additional constructive testimony. Dan Yates suggested allowing camping in McCall Park as well as the City buying old boats and refurbishing them  for people to live on along the Willamette River, while Joe Lobesque offered to provide the council with his expertise on building affordable homes, an offer Commissioner Fritz took up. Tim McCormick promoted the use of “houslets” and noted that while the new site may not be ideal, every site would have its battles. “In the meantime,” he said, “if you don’t do something, you keep people on the street.”

R2DToo co-founder Ibrahim Mubarrak noted that none of the people who were speaking out against the move appeared to have shown any concern for R2DToo, and ostensibly people without housing, before the City proposed this move.

After the council session, Commissioner Novick declined to elaborate on his reasons for a postponement, which is his prerogative; however, as he is normally a stalwart defender of progressive values, his delay has registered as odd.

So once again, the fate of Right 2 Dream Too lies in abeyance, which really is another way of saying that at least by some, the lives and dignity of people without housing are again being ignored.

 

Take action: Call the City commissioners and tell them you support Right 2 Dream Too’s move to its new location. Then show up at the City Council meeting at 2:00 PM this Wednesday, February 24 in support of R2DToo and people without housing.

City commissioners’ phone numbers:

Nick Fish  (503) 823-3589

Amanda Fritz  (503) 823-3008

Charlie Hales  (503) 823-4120

Steve Novick  (503) 823-4682

Dan Saltzman  (503) 823-4151

 

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