Portland Occupier http://www.portlandoccupier.org News From The Occupation Thu, 23 Jun 2016 16:40:36 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Illegal Re-entry Charge Against Francisco Aguirre Dropped; Fight with ICE Continues http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/06/23/illegal-re-entry-charge-against-francisco-aguirre-dropped-fight-with-ice-continues/ http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/06/23/illegal-re-entry-charge-against-francisco-aguirre-dropped-fight-with-ice-continues/#respond Thu, 23 Jun 2016 16:40:36 +0000 http://www.portlandoccupier.org/?p=10811 DSC_6981a

Story and photos by Pete Shaw

Francisco Aguirre, the immigrant justice activist who for 81 days in 2014 took sanctuary in Augustana Lutheran Church when the US government threatened to detain and deport him, returned there on Sunday June 19. However, this time the cause was celebratory. On May 27, Assistant US Attorney Greg Nyhus filed a motion to dismiss the illegal re-entry charge that the Department of Justice had been pursuing against Aguirre for nearly 21 months.

And for those 21 months numerous people, and faith and justice groups, rallied behind Aguirre and his family, providing them with the necessary support and working every available avenue to see Aguirre prevail. They also provided a platform for calling attention to some of the hardships faced by people without documentation in the United States and the need for a more humane immigration policy.

“One thing I learned is that hope is the last thing you’re going to lose in life,” said Aguirre Sunday night. “If you don’t have hope, you’re not going to survive.”

Aguirre came to Portland from El Salvador in 1995 without documentation, fleeing violence that was largely a consequence of US foreign and economic policies, particularly the Dirty Wars of the 1980s and the Drug War. Those US interventions in Central America resulted in destabilized legitimate governments whose reach is short, and in those places where they have no power, have been replaced by the rule of drug cartels and others who use violent means to reach their desired ends. That instability and its resultant gang violence is also what lies behind the more recent migration of mothers and children from Central America, particularly Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

After a no contest plea to drug trafficking charges–which Aguirre disputes, adding that he thought he was pleading innocent–Aguirre was deported to El Salvador in the late 1990s. He soon returned to Portland, again without documentation. In August 2014, he was pulled over for driving under the influence, a result, he said, of drinking two beers. That DUI charge drew the attention of the federal government.

On the morning of September 19, 2014, a federal agent knocked on the door of Aguirre’s home in Fairview, saying he wanted to discuss something with him. At first the agent did not say what he wanted to talk about, but when Aguirre pressed him, he said it had to do with Aguirre’s small computer repair business. Finding it suspicious that this man was backed by 11 other agents, Aguirre asked him for paperwork showing that was in fact why they were there. The agents worked for ICE, and the claim of investigating Aguirre’s company was a ruse to draw him out of his home so they could take him into custody. Aguirre stood his ground and asserted his rights, saying they could not enter his home without a warrant.

9918Following the encounter, Aguirre made some phone calls, and very quickly the immigrant and immigrant rights community moved to defend Aguirre. By that night he had taken sanctuary at Augustana Lutheran in Northeast Portland. For a few months thereafter, wherever Aguirre went he was surrounded by allies–often in large throngs–who had his back. Court dates saw the gallery packed with those who could not find a seat waiting outside. On one visit to the Portland Field Office of US Citizenship and Immigration Services to complete some requirements for obtaining a U Visa–offered to immigrants who are victims of serious crimes and who have cooperated with authorities in prosecuting those crimes–Aguirre was accompanied by a caravan of supporters. Phone calls, petitions, and visitors flooded the offices of Billy Williams, the US Attorney for the District of Oregon, demanding the charges against Aguirre be dropped.

Aguirre also had in his corner Ellen Pitcher, the tenacious lawyer who defended him. At Sunday’s celebration, Pitcher stated that Williams said he was not aware of an illegal re-entry charge ever being dismissed. She said she was confident that Aguirre would have prevailed had the trial gone forward due to his experiences in El Salvador and his good works here in Portland, which include organizing day laborers, helping found the VOZ Workers Rights Education Project, and serving as coordinator of the Martin Luther King, Junior Worker Center on NE Grand Avenue. Pitcher’s mettle also no doubt helped with the charge being dropped. “I’m very persistent,” she said. “I refuse to give up.”

What was celebrated Sunday was the refusal of Aguirre, his wife Dora Reyna, and the numerous people and organizations who supported them to give up. Yet during the interfaith service guided by Augustana Lutheran Church’s Pastor Mark Knutson, at least 10 different community and faith groups that stood with Aguirre–and all immigrants suffering under the United States’ unjust immigration laws–were represented, although none seemed willing to take credit for their work. Rae Anne Lafrenz, coordinator of the Interfaith Movement for Immigrant Justice, spoke to this humility and grit when she told the audience, “You guys are the leaders. Any achievement that has happened is because of each one of you. Francisco’s family is together because of all of you. When Congress won’t act on our behalf, and when the government won’t act on our behalf, it’s up to the communities like this one to take action.”

Action will continue to be taken, and not just because there are about 11 million people without documentation in the US who, as Aguirre put it, are living with the fear that when they go out of their homes, they don’t know if it is the last time they will see their families, friends, and community members. Aguirre himself is not out of danger. He still faces the possibility of ICE detaining and deporting him. He said ICE had served him a warrant for his arrest and tried to get him to sign a document giving up his rights to fight the case in court. In his fight against ICE, Aguirre is being defended by Stephen Manning of the Immigrant Law Group.

DSC_9706aPitcher urged people to continue fighting for Aguirre and for all people without documentation. She noted that it was particularly important for people to lean on their representatives in Congress. Those representatives, she said, chose not to get involved in supporting Aguirre as he faced the illegal re-entry charge because they did not want to trespass on the Department of Justice’s turf. “They do not have that excuse anymore,” Pitcher said from the altar. Noting that Congress does have power over ICE, she stated, “It’s up to you and me to convince them to use it.”

Aguirre’s victory in his battle with the Department of Justice is a bittersweet one. Moises, his son from another marriage, was living with Aguirre, Reyna, and their two children. Just like Aguirre, Moises lacked documentation, and the stress of seeing what his father was experiencing, as well as the fear of going to jail–a conviction for illegal re-entry could have resulted in up to 20 years in prison–drove him to go back to El Salvador. On February 2 he was murdered there. Noting that Moises “ended up paying the consequences of all of this,” Aguirre expressed his belief that he was “here with us in spirit.” And a little more: on this Father’s Day, Aguirre noted that he had become a grandfather. With a mixture of sadness and pride he said, “I also want to say, Moises, happy Father’s Day.”

During the service, the house band–a very fine jazz trio–struck up a song with the line “God is watching from a distance.” In some religious communities, particularly those whose focus is on a punitive God who seems lustful for vengeance, such a line would be taken ominously. But the tone at Augustana Lutheran Church invokes a nurturing, loving God. Knutson gives the impression of someone who regards God in a non-traditional sense; that is, he invokes a God who reveals Herself in various ways to different people, but always calls them to act according to their better angels. Her watching from a distance is a gentle reminder that when all else seems to fail, She is there to soothe and comfort. Perhaps it is that grace that led Aguirre to say, “(US Attorney) Billy Williams should be proud because he made the right decision. This is his victory too.”

And maybe it is that grace, along certainly with Aguirre’s courage–augmented through the support of other immigrants and allies in the immigrant justice community– and of course, hope, that keeps Aguirre pushing his fight. Standing in the soft early evening light filtering through the windows of Augustana Lutheran Church, Aguirre thanked his supporters, but also encouraged them to join him in continuing to fight for immigrant justice. “We must welcome immigrants in whatever part of the nation immigrants exist. In a country of immigrants, we must learn to work with the immigrant community. We must continue to fight for the 11 million immigrants. We must come together to protect them.”

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Deepening Solidarity in the Fight for Racial Justice http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/06/21/deepening-solidarity-in-the-fight-for-racial-justice/ http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/06/21/deepening-solidarity-in-the-fight-for-racial-justice/#respond Tue, 21 Jun 2016 16:13:54 +0000 http://www.portlandoccupier.org/?p=10799 Photo by Lokmee Au

Photo by Lokyee Au

Story by Pete Shaw

The road to obtaining political power is fraught with obstacles, including a variety of institutional forms of racism. As Frederick Douglass once noted, power concedes nothing without a demand. Democracy must be wrested from the powerful through the hard work of those struggling for justice.

As advocates for justice organize communities, they develop goals, strategies, and tactics; eventually they may gain enough leverage that those in power are forced to listen to and act upon their demands. It is a long and tedious process, replete with many setbacks, but it can reap great rewards.

But what do communities do once they achieve some modicum of political influence? Do they keep pushing for more power and more justice, or do they take a more conservative approach, focusing on maintaining what has been gained? As communities push forward, what form will that push take? Can activists achieve more power by doubling efforts within their group? Or do they reach out to forge alliances with other groups?

Many of these issues were addressed in a forum held on Wednesday, June 15. Hosted by the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO) and made possible in part by a grant from Oregon Humanities, Layered History, Linked Liberation: Solidarity and the Role of APIs (Asian-Pacific Islanders) in the Fight for Racial Justice brought together a panel of Chinese American leaders who discussed how they thought the Asian-Pacific Islander community and Asian-Pacific Islander organizations–including APANO–could, according to Lokyee Au, APANO’s Engagement and Development Coordinator, “identify where there are gaps in our work for racial and social justice, and to create more intentional actions to bridge those gaps.”

Au also noted, “APANO has been in coalition with allies and advocated for issues for other communities of color, but we are really intensifying our look at how that solidarity goes deeper, how we call out the wedges that divide our communities.”

The event’s discussion was informed by the recent sentencing of New York City police officer Peter Liang for the murder of Akai Gurley, a 28 year old Black man. Liang, who grew up in New York City’s Chinatown, is the son of Chinese immigrants. On November 20, 2014, while patrolling the New York City Housing Authority’s Louis H. Pink Houses in Brooklyn, Liang fired his gun–it was declared an accidental discharge–and after ricocheting off a wall, the bullet struck Gurley in his chest. On February 10, 2015 Liang was indicted on multiple charges, including manslaughter, of which he was found guilty a year later, along with official misconduct. On April 19 of this year, Liang’s manslaughter conviction was downgraded to criminally negligent homicide. He was sentenced to 5 years of probation and 800 hours of community service.

Liang’s trial raised hackles in both the Black and Chinese American communities. Police killing Black people is clearly nothing new, but indictments, let alone convictions, are rare. A 2014 investigation by the Daily News found that in the prior 15 years no fewer than 179 people were murdered by on-duty New York City police officers (43 more deaths occurred at the hands of off-duty officers). Only three of those deaths resulted in an indictment in state court, with one of those indictments thrown out on technical grounds. Of those 179 documented murders, only once was an officer convicted, but he did not receive time in prison.

It was a complex moment, and this was reflected in the reaction of many people in the Asian American community.  Certainly many Asian American people and organizations supported Liang.  Given the rarity of indictments, it had to be more than a coincidence that Liang was not only indicted, but convicted and sentenced. For them, Liang was a scapegoat.

Photo by Pete Shaw

Photo by Pete Shaw

However, numerous Asian American organizations–the Asian Pacific Environmental Network of Oakland, Asian Americans United of Philadelphia, the Asian American Resource Workshop of Boston, CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities of New York City, the Chinatown Community for Equitable Development of Los Angeles, and the Chinese Progressive Associations of both Boston and San Francisco–issued a joint statement expressing outrage “that Peter Liang has escaped accountability for killing Akai Gurley.” Describing the downgrading of Liang’s sentence as “an insult to Akai Gurley, his family, and all victims of police violence,” the announcement declares, “we must hold all police officers accountable to continue to fight for violence-free communities and win change in our systems and our institutions.”

The statement continues, “We continue to affirm that if we believe in true racial justice, we cannot excuse an officer for killing an innocent unarmed black man because Peter Liang is Chinese or Asian like us. We know that the strength of our power is fully realized when we stand together with those who also face injustice.”  Noting that “other communities of color stood with us against the police killing of Yong Xin Huang in 1995 and other incidents of police brutality and countless critical moments our communities were also hurt,” the signing organizations emphasize, “we have a responsibility to protect our prosperity by protecting ALL families and that means also the family of Akai Gurley who has lost their loved one forever.”

In her introduction to the forum, Kara Carmosino, APANO’s Director of Programs and Strategy, stated that Liang’s trial had “raised tensions around racism, community loyalty, and solidarity” in the Asian American community. Specifically, those tensions were between Asian-Pacific Islanders and communities of color, particularly Black communities.

Scot Nakagawa of ChangeLab moderated the panel.  He provided important background for understanding some of the historical relationship between Asian American and Black communities, focusing on the year 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act was signed. That law resulted in the abolition of the earlier quota system based on national origins and created a new immigration policy that while still maintaining per-country limits, focused on reuniting families and attracting skilled labor to the United States.

The legislation, said Nakagawa, was pushed along by the Civil Rights Movement, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. In particular, the Vietnam War resulted in a shortage of skilled workers in the US such as doctors and engineers, and many Asian immigrants filled those roles. These professionals were, as Nakagawa put it, the cream of the crop. But those professionals helped give rise to the myth of the model minority. Nakagawa noted the irony of this myth being used as an argument against racial justice policies, even as studies show that Asian Americans, despite the promotion of their aggregate economic success, are less likely to receive promotions at work.

The myth is also used against other people of color, particularly Black people. During the Civil Rights Movement, Asian American stereotypes were held up as examples of how minorities should act. According to the myth, Asians were quiet and obedient, while Black people were loud and rebellious. Nakagawa explained that prior to the successes of the Civil Rights Movement, Black people had a lower rate of unemployment than white people. But once they received legal protections, employers began looking for other workers they could exploit, such as many do today with immigrants lacking documentation.

As Black people were pushed out of the labor market and their unemployment rates skyrocketed, President Richard Nixon began getting tough on crime and launched the war on drugs, which was drastically ramped up under Ronald Reagan. As a result, huge numbers of Black people–stereotyped as lazy and prone to crime–were sent to prison (and at extraordinarily higher rates than white people who were committing the same drug crimes). Because of these practices, young Black men became the face of criminality in the US. In contrast, Asian Americans were held up as examples of how minorities should act and what the results could be if people just did what they were told and did not rock the boat.

It was these myths and stereotypes, Nakagawa said, that animated racial tensions that came to the fore during the Liang trial. And it is these myths and stereotypes that stand in the way of greater justice for Asian-Pacific Islander Americans and Black people.

The first question before the panel was what the appropriate roles were for leaders and community institutions in addressing the divide between the Asian American and Black communities. Jennifer Phung, who leads Organizing People/Activating Leaders‘ (OPAL) Youth Environmental Justice Alliance, replied that it was important to “have spaces to talk about the complexities of how we are addressing anti-Black racism in our communities.” Phung noted that when Liang was on trial, much of the Chinese media called for Chinese people to band together and fight for justice, but that she sees this idea of justice as an unhealthy form of nationalism. She explained that organizers ought rather to show how “our struggle connects with other people’s struggles.”

Helen Ying, an expulsion hearings officer for the Parkrose and Reynolds school districts who was a teacher for many years, agreed with Phung, saying organizers need to reach out beyond their communities and seek common ground with other ones. When a rally for Liang was held at Pioneer Square earlier this year, Ying organized a conference call with leaders of Chinese American and Black community groups to foster an understanding of common values. To that end, Teressa Raiford of Don’t Shoot PDX spoke at the rally alongside her Chinese American counterparts in justice.

Photo courtesy of APANO.

Photo courtesy of APANO.

Nakagawa then noted the importance of transforming the understanding of solidarity “from ‘me for you’ to ‘we for us.’” To that end, he wondered how the Asian American community could create solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Kyle Weismann-Yee, who grew up in the Woodlawn neighborhood of Northeast Portland, said that solidarity comes from education. That education must come from leaders, but individuals also have to educate themselves. In particular, he noted the importance of recognizing “Black people’s lived experiences.”

Weismann-Yee said it is important to teach people that it is in their self-interest to forge bonds with others outside their communities, while Phung talked about the importance of recognizing how many of the “rights we benefit from come from prior liberation movements.” Phung also emphasized that people in the Asian American community are also affected by police brutality and police violence, albeit in different ways from the Black community. “Our liberation is connected,” she said. “If the system doesn’t value Black lives, then it doesn’t value us.”

So how can Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders continue building power in solidarity with others? Ying stressed empowering Asian-Pacific Islander students to build relationships with other communities. Phung added that people in Asian communities need to keep building with other leadership groups, that what people are fighting for should lead to “a collective liberation that embodies everyone’s justice.” Weismann-Yee added that it is important to understand where to provide needed support to other communities as well as to “see the shared values that make us complete people.”

One of Aesop’s Fables tells a story of a father with three sons who are heading out into the world. He instructs each of them to gather two sticks. When they return he takes one stick from each of his sons, and he breaks each one individually over his knee. Then he takes the remaining three, but is unsuccessful in his attempt to break them. The message is clear: together, the brothers are stronger.
The solidarity necessary for achieving transformative liberation is significantly more difficult than gathering sticks. But as history has shown many times over, when that solidarity is achieved, the gains are far greater than could ever be accomplished by any group on its own.

Thanks to Lokyee Au for her help in writing this article.

For more information in how you can help build deeper solidarity between communities of color, go to APANO’s website at: http://www.apano.org.

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As American as Cherry Pie http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/06/15/as-american-as-cherry-pie/ http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/06/15/as-american-as-cherry-pie/#respond Wed, 15 Jun 2016 16:00:43 +0000 http://www.portlandoccupier.org/?p=10776  

Photo by Kathryn Kendall

Photo by Kathryn Kendall

Where’s evil? It’s that large part of every man that wants to hate without limit, that wants to hate with God on its side. It’s that part of every man that finds all kinds of ugliness so attractive.”

                                                                                                     –Kurt Vonnegut, Mother Night

 

As I type, it’s been about 36 hours since the horrible news came out of the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida: 49 people dead, 53 people injured. Many of them people of color. Twenty-three of them were of Puerto Rican descent. The news is saturated with coverage of the massacre and the investigation. Depending upon where you tune in, there are all sorts of questions awaiting answers, the same questions that get asked time and again when awful stuff happens, as well as the same questions that should get asked, but never do, when the victims are deemed unworthy.

Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and candidate for Vice-President, has uttered some of her inimitable vitriol, claiming, “We’re dealing with a deadly, evil ideology that’s embraced by those who live a lie…they love death more than life.” I knew it was only a matter of time before she waded into the waters, her fame clock seemingly stuck at 14:59. I don’t spend much time on Sarah Palin’s musings, or at least how she presents them. Her content, however, is always worth taking seriously.

In some circles, I suppose this was part of a major foreign policy speech by Palin. In it, she took Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan to task for his tepid response to the murders in Orlando, for refusing to talk about what the fear mongers at Breitbart and so many other right wing media outlets call “radical Islam.” She also likened Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who only hours after the massacre took to Twitter to thank people for congratulating him for “being right on radical Islamic terrorism,” to a “blue collar billionaire in touch with the people.” Two rotten peas in a rancid pod. Two very damaged people who in a more rational society–one that truly valued people for their humanity instead of seeing them as commodities–would be isolated and studied.

Over the course of his administration, right wing sorts have taken President Obama to task for not using phrases like radical Islam, which I suppose is the international version of Black on Black crime, obscuring history and deflecting attention from real problems such as US capitalism and its accompanying imperialism. I am not sure why folks like Palin feel the need to hear that term. Perhaps their bloodlust requires it to make some sense of the relative lack of focus in US foreign policy whose architects don’t care who they bomb as long as it promotes capitalist expansion.

H. Rap Brown once said that violence is as American as cherry pie. While people like Palin and Trump are trying to put the focus on Muslims, the reality is that Omar Mateen, the man who shot the people in Pulse, was born and made in America, a country that was founded on the stealing of native land and built upon the backs of enslaved people from Africa. A country that has inflicted horrific violence both overseas and within its borders, while paying lip service to creating a freer, more just world.

Photo by Kathryn Kendall

Photo by Kathryn Kendall

I imagine Mateen probably heard this phrase, in some form, which has been running through my mind: love the sinner, hate the sin. Every so often I hear that line from someone who identifies as a Christian, applied to people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT). It creates a separation where none exists. The so-called sin is the so-called sinner.

There is a lot to unpack in that. First, it relies on the fallacy that people choose to be LGBT. People may choose to engage in sexual activity that some people categorize as LGBT, but who they are is, to use a phrase, just as God made them. For those who believe God is infallible–and really, shouldn’t knees, backs, and the fresh hell that qualifies as pizza here in Portland show this to be false?–there is a dilemma because if being gay is a sin, and God created gay people, then God made an error. Or perhaps the error is in thinking being LGBT is a sin because by the same logic, God, in His perfection, created LGBT people too. So why, if there is such a thing as sin, is condemning people for who they are not a sin?

Second, it is bullshit. Complete, total, and utter bullshit. According to the American Civil Liberties Union about 110 pieces of legislation designed to treat lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender as second-class citizens–that is, deny them their civil and human rights–have been introduced across the US this year. These have nothing to do with the so-called sin. Nothing. They are all about demonizing, dehumanizing, and hating people who are LGBT. And they are not being written by Muslims.

What becomes interesting is that people like Palin so easily and readily call out Muslims for being atavistic agents of repression while they engage in and promote hateful acts of repression themselves. These are the people who have brought to our lexicon phrases such as “legitimate rape” and “unwanted sex,” both of which obfuscate a simple word: rape. They have also justified rape because “she was asking for it,” a phrase used to excuse rape because a woman was drunk, wearing “provocative” clothing, flirting, or generally having a good time, and thereby deserved to be raped. Even so-called progressives can engage in misogyny, as numerous women activists in Portland can tell you.

And this just in from Gawker. It seems Mateen frequented Pulse and used a gay dating app. If true, there is perhaps a link to be made. Here is what happens when toxic masculinity combines with the self-loathing produced in a society that says a LGBT people’s very existences are wrong.  Larry Craig helped craft legislation to oppress LGBT people. Ted Haggard told LGBT people they would be going to hell. Sow hatred; reap death. And, of course, it helps when there are virtually no restrictions to purchasing an AR-15.

Perhaps, as some reports have it, Mateen was in league with Isis. Maybe so, but he spent 29 years as a US citizen. He was born here. He was raised here. He learned to hate here. He killed here. He is our very own homegrown radical American terrorist.

In Portland a candlelight vigil was hastily thrown together for Sunday night while people were still reeling from the shock–and those who boycott commercial media were first hearing about the massacre. Despite the last-minute nature of the vigil, over 2,500 people on Facebook said they were going. The standing crowd filled NW Broadway between Burnside and Davis, centered on the podium at The Embers Avenue, a sprawling gay bar and nightclub at the intersection of NW Broadway and Couch.

In the crowd, two people, who perhaps were partners, wore shirts reading, “Two men kissed.” This was a reference to reports that Mateen went on his rampage because he saw two men kissing, and this disgusted him. Two men, perhaps in love, and certainly happy in each other’s presence at that moment, sent him into a rage. In a society where “pro-life” is so often synonymous with anti-woman, where non-heterosexual relationships are often regarded as deviant or evil, and where too many people feel–and are–empowered to hurt and even kill other people who are not like themselves, I am sometimes surprised people like Mateen don’t come along more often.

Photo by Pete Shaw

Photo by Pete Shaw

But I don’t want to end on a stone bummer, nor even a minor one. At least a couple of thousand people came out to that vigil outside The Embers Avenue on Sunday night. Another several hundred attended a slightly later vigil organized by the Trans Community and held at Salmon Fountain along the waterfront. Both vigils were wondrous and wonderful. They displayed people at their best, reaching out to each other with tenderness, compassion, and courage. Strangers hugged each other. People handed out bottles of cold water, Voodoo Donuts, gifts of flowers and candles. They told each other their stories, sang, held hands. In a dark moment, this was Light.

For more light, I leave you with the beautiful words of a friend whose eloquence goes far beyond anything I could ever give:

My heart is so heavy right now, I’m filled with grief and anger. My heart goes out to all my LGBT friends and the greater LGBT communities for enduring yet another act of atrocious hatred and violence against our bodies and our humanity. I want to extend my love and solidarity to all of you.

I also need to say that as sensationally violent as this attack was, it shouldn’t overshadow the violence and abuse that the LGBT community endures daily. We are mocked and ridiculed, beaten and murdered, queer children are thrown out of their homes by hateful parents, or they run away because their parents are violent, abusive, and cruel. I don’t know one LGBT person who hasn’t been bullied or harassed, many of my friends have been physically attacked multiple times. Many LGBT people take their own lives because they simply can’t endure what it takes to keep living.

We’ve been dying all along and we will keep dying. The fifty people killed last night are just another drop in the bucket of hateful violence directed at our communities, just a few more dead queer bodies to toss onto the pile next to Matthew Shepherd and Lela Alcorn and all the rest.

Which brings me to Pride. It’s pride month and sometimes people say, “I don’t understand what gay people have to be so proud of.” And if you’re still confused about it, it’s this: our survival. We face this hatred and violence every day and we keep living. We leave our houses and we go to work, or school, or whatever. We don’t know when or where, but the next assault on our humanity is just around corner. It could be a mass shooting or a bigoted law about which bathrooms we’re allowed to use. We don’t know when or where or how or what, but we know it’s coming.

Love and solidarity to all my queers out there. All of you are in my heart today.

Stay safe and stay strong. And happy Pride.

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Down in the Flood: Vanport’s Living Memory http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/06/04/down-in-the-flood-vanports-living-memory/ http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/06/04/down-in-the-flood-vanports-living-memory/#respond Sat, 04 Jun 2016 16:00:57 +0000 http://www.portlandoccupier.org/?p=10736 Photo by Pete Shaw

Photo by Pete Shaw

Lord, I’ll tell the world the water,

Done crept through this town.

                                                                                        –Charley Patton, “High Water Everywhere, Pt. 1”

 

History is written by the victors.

–Walter Benjamin

Story by Pete Shaw

History is about memory. Whose memories are respected? Whose memories are taken from them, and whose are considered important, and to whom? Who decides what truths to tell and what truths to hide. And what is truth?

The Memorial Day weekend, as always, was a contest of competing histories. My better 99% and I took in a few of the programs that were part of the Vanport Mosaic Festival, a remembrance of the city that once lay in the floodplain between the Columbia River and its slough, between North Denver Avenue and what is now the BNSF Railway. Protected by levees and a railway berm, Vanport was built essentially as barracks for people working in the Kaiser Shipyards during World War II–people who were not wanted in Portland. The city was literally wiped off the official maps on May 30, 1948 by a great flood which swept it away: after a very wet Spring combined with snowmelt to swell the river, the railway berm–which also provided something of a levee–burst. The city existed for six years and numbered as many as 42,000 people–including veterans. It was the second largest city in Oregon, but it has now been replaced by the Portland International Raceway, the Herons Lake Golf Club, and a wildlife preserve.

Very little remains of the Vanport infrastructure, which makes sense, since nearly all of the city’s 447 buildings were made of wood and set on wooden foundations. Its lowest point was 15 feet below sea level, so perhaps any foundation would have been doomed in the flood. On Memorial Day, we went to the race track to walk a 5 kilometer loop that along the path provided information about the former city’s structures. Tables under canopies pointed out where schools, the hospital, a bus station, and other buildings once were, with photographs showing a community going about its daily life.

Any sort of concrete evidence that Vanport existed is difficult to see. There literally is one such, a slab of concrete that was part of a theater’s foundation. Now the Mud Slough gently meanders just beyond it, with the golf course to the right and the race track to the left, so it is difficult to imagine that theater in use. It was open nearly all hours and held 750 people.

Further along the Mud Slough, a sign points across the water to where an administrative building once lay. An old concrete balustrade and staircase leads down to the slough and may have been part of a larger building which once stood atop the now gravel covered lot.

What does remain is memory. On Saturday May 28, we were lucky enough to attend Cottonwood in the Flood at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center. The play centers on a Black family from Selma, Alabama who move to Vanport so Lonnie can work in the shipyards for a much higher wage than he now earns. Lonnie’s son Henry narrates the play, both as the young boy whose family made the trek Oregon in 1943 and as an adult who much later in life looks back upon his days in Vanport, his father, his father-in-law, Granddaddy Kenyon; and his wife Alma, who clearly is the family engine. Another son, Will, has joined the army, and after the war, he too settles down in Vanport. When Will returns from the war, he searches for work, but he is denied employment because of his skin color, and as well he must endure bigoted taunts. This is what he risked his life to preserve, it seems. However, he and his wife Lola open a dance academy which proves successful.

Photo from Portland State University Library

Photo from Portland State University Library

I presume the characters are composites of actual Vanport residents. Oregon was a free state during the Civil War, but the desire to keep the state as white as possible included keeping slaves outside Oregon’s borders and exclusion laws that denied Black people basic rights. In 1940, less than 1,800 Black people lived in Oregon. Just as in Selma, Vanport’s Black people found their neighborhoods segregated, even though that was not an explicit policy of the Housing Authority of Portland (HAP) which administered Vanport’s housing. However, other aspects of Vanport were integrated. Henry attends a school dance and takes to the floor with a young white woman who cannot understand why Henry is nervous about dancing with her. The audience knows that Henry recalls his mother’s admonition that he should mind his actions lest he find himself hanged from a cottonwood tree by a white lynch mob.

Vanport was built shoddily because it was never supposed to outlast the war. It was a temporary city for a temporary need. But public housing had never appealed to the citizens of Portland. In 1938, the city opted not to take the large amount of federal housing money it was offered, making Portland the largest city in the country without a federal housing program. That lack of public housing, combined with racist and classist attitudes, helped keep Vanport afloat following the end of World War II, even as its population dwindled due to the lack of demand for ships of war. By the time of the flood, the population of Vanport had dropped to about 18,000 people, but there were still few welcome places for these people in Portland.

On the morning of May 30, 1948 Vanport residents, who had been wary of the rising waters surrounding them, received a typed message from the HAC at their homes informing them all was well and there was no reason to panic. “The flood situation,” it read, “has not changed since the prediction made last Thursday that the highest water will come next Thursday, that the dikes were high enough and strong enough to withstand the crest, and that barring unforeseen developments VANPORT is safe.” Its final words are, “DON’T GET EXCITED!”

A little after 4 PM, the water breached the railroad berm. Thirty-five minutes later, Vanport was going under. By nightfall it was destroyed. Photos taken at the time show ravaged apartment buildings torn from their slipshod foundations, cast upon the water like large, roughly torn crusts of bread. Fifteen people died, although in Cottonwood in the Flood, the narrator Henry suggests there were more.

Cottonwood in the Flood does not present the Vanport deluge as a moment in time, but rather as part of a continuum of marginalized and oppressed people resisting and struggling for something better. The flood brought that resistance and struggle to Portland, with a Black community taking hold and flourishing in the Albina neighborhood surrounding Williams Avenue. But much like Vanport’s residences built on and of wood, it was not meant to last. Redlining assured that very few Black people owned their homes, much less owned property outside of Albina. Soon, urban renewal saw the Rose Quarter and the surrounding interstates cut into the heart of the Black community. In 1970, Legacy Emanuel hospital, with the support of Portland’s government, demolished houses, took the plot bounded by North Williams Avenue, Vancouver Avenue, Russell Street, and Knott Street–which only in the past couple of years has shown signs of actually being used as anything more than field with a parking lot–and tore another hole in the Albina neighborhood.

Redlining as a practice has technically ceased, although subprime mortgages, which were often foisted upon people of color even when they qualified for a prime loan, continued the basic process along with the recent foreclosure crisis. Gentrification has now pushed a large number of Black people from the Albina area. As rents soar, Black people–as well as other people of color– are being driven from their homes to the fringes of Portland, or beyond.

The foundation of the theater that once sat 750 people, one of the few remaining physical pieces of Vanport. Photo by Pete Shaw.

The foundation of the theater that once sat 750 people, one of the few remaining physical pieces of Vanport. Photo by Pete Shaw.

Which is where Vanport once lay.

Portland likes to bill itself as a liberal city, one which welcomes all sorts of people. But it has never been welcoming toward Black people. Oregon’s founding as a white utopian state–on land stolen from indigenous people–points to that. In 1943, in an article in the Oregonian, Portland Mayor Earl Riley commented, “Portland can only absorb a minimum number of negroes without upsetting city life.” And it is notable that Vanport’s housing was never improved despite it being built for the short term, yet in the end clearly intended for long-term use. The Black people who lived there were never welcome in Portland. Today, institutional forms of racism remain, most prominently in the form of a police department whose relations with communities of color, according to a 2012 Department of Justice report, is “tense.” Who needs cottonwood trees when you have a badge and a gun?

The Community Oversight Advisory Board (COAB), formed according to the Settlement Agreement between Portland and the Department of Justice, is charged with suggesting unbinding reforms to maybe, possibly, perhaps–pretty, pretty please?–change this. It seems like the members of it have been having pleasant conversations, but especially with a few of those members being police, it is hard to see how anything other than the City giving itself a gilded star can come from it. It seems like it was meant to fail or at least accomplish nothing more than create the illusion of change.

That is one of many reasons not to forget Vanport. Its history is deeply woven into the history of Portland and Oregon. On issues of race, it is part of a continuum. The state, much like the country as a whole, has never truly reckoned with its history and legacy of racism. So much gets swept away because so many truths are inconvenient, contradicting the official history. While Charley Patton was singing about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and the racial disparity and injustice it exposed, his song has flown through time and space, passing through Vanport, and more recently, New Orleans. Its continued relevance is haunting.

In Cottonwood in the Flood, Lonnie tells Henry that although cottonwoods were used for the lynchings his mother warned him about, they are strong trees. He says you can bend them every which way and knock them down, but they will get back up. They are tough and resilient. In the quarter-mile south toward the racetrack along North Expo Road from the Expo Center Max Station, near the site where Japanese and Japanese Americans were herded before being shuttled off to concentration camps during World War II, there are quite a few cottonwoods. The breeze off the Columbia River sends their seed aloft, drifting like summer snow over the area where that was once Vanport.

It is now gone. Many of the people who lived there have also departed. Some went back to their former homes. Some established themselves in Portland. Most have passed on. What remains is memory. What becomes of that memory and how it informs the present and future is up to us.

 

Cottonwood in the Flood plays at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center through June 12.  For more information on the play, as well as how to purchase tickets, go to: https://www.facebook.com/CottonwoodInTheFlood/

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Six Years After His Murder, Community Still Seeks Justice for Keaton Otis http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/05/18/six-years-after-his-murder-community-still-seeks-justice-for-keaton-otis/ http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/05/18/six-years-after-his-murder-community-still-seeks-justice-for-keaton-otis/#respond Wed, 18 May 2016 16:00:39 +0000 http://www.portlandoccupier.org/?p=10715 aSix years have passed since the Portland police murdered Keaton Otis near the southwest corner of NE 6th and Halsey. On Thursday May 12, 2016, nearly 100 people gathered at Maranatha Church in Northeast Portland to remember Otis and his father, Fred Bryant, and to keep alive the demand for justice. A mixture of past, present, and future, the memorial served as a poignant reminder of the effects of police violence on people, families and communities, and also urged people to continue fighting for recompense, not just for Otis and Bryant, but for all people affected by that brutality.

Just prior to the event, JoAnn Hardesty and Walidah Imarisha hung the large canvas banner featuring the likenesses of Otis and Bryant that was created for last year’s fifth-year memorial. It has since been out in all Portland weathers on the 12th of every month. Under its gaze, sometimes over 130 people have come to the monthly vigils to bear witness and to demand justice for Otis, Bryant, and all victims of police terror. As the backdrop for those who spoke in Maranatha Church’s inner sanctum Thursday evening, it was a constant reminder that the fight for a more just world requires commitment to a long-term struggle.

Beginning June 12, 2010, a month after the police slew his son–and on the 12th of every month thereafter until his death in 2013–Bryant held his vigil near the spot where Otis was slain. Bryant would bring some photos of his son and light a few candles. Only a few feet down the sidewalk were holes from some of the 23 bullets that three police officers shot at Otis.

Six years later, the vigils continue. They must. Six years later, the police who murdered Otis still patrol Portland’s streets. Six years later, those police–a total of seven were involved in Otis being pulled over and subsequently slain–have never been held accountable.

Six years later, so much of what was wrong that night remains alive and well.

bHowever, over these six years, much of what is right has sprouted and grown. Black Lives Matter is a movement formed in response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in 2013, and it burst into national prominence after Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson gunned down Michael Brown on August 9, 2014. Wilson was never indicted for that crime, and that blatant injustice set off a rebellion in Ferguson that spread across the country and has become a part of the country’s political discourse. Increasingly, people are aware of the violence of police in society; increasingly, people share the heartbreak, pain, hurt, frustration, and indignity felt by the survivors of the Black people who are killed every 28 hours in the US by police and vigilantes. Hundreds of vigils have been held, vigils like Bryant’s, ranging in size from a few to a few hundred, to honor the memory of the dead by fighting for justice.

Keaton Otis should be alive. As Imarisha recounted, Otis was “followed and stopped for looking like a gangster.” That is not a supposition: officer Ryan Foote said he pulled over Otis because “he was wearing a hoodie…He kind of looks like he could be a gangster.”

Fred Bryant should be alive. According to Imarisha, he “worked himself to death” trying to get justice for both his son and the community. “Fred is the reason we are here,” she said. “Fred is the reason we come every month and the reason we will continue coming until there is justice for Keaton and for the rest of the community.”

And Chris Kalonji should be alive too. Kalonji was 19 when a Clackamas County Sheriff’s Deputy shot and killed him on January 28, 2016. Like Otis, Kalonji was a person of color. And like Aaron Campbell, who was murdered by the Portland police on January 29, 2010, he had been experiencing a mental crisis the day the police took his life.

Kalonji’s mother, Irene Kalonji, spoke at Maranatha, driven by the same purpose that motivated Fred Bryant to get up in the morning and do whatever he could to advance justice. Her words were heartbreaking, as one would expect. “I cry for people who die from injustice,” she said. “I cry for my son.”

But Kalonji’s words were also uplifting, reminding people why they had gathered this night. “I came here to this community because I know I can’t make change alone. I want to be with you in hard times and in good times.”

Imarisha, who emceed the event, made quite a few references to “holding space.” How do people hold space? The monthly vigils, including this one, hold space, she said, for people “to remember their humanity and our humanity.”

Art goes a long way toward reminding people of that humanity, and so three artists–Blaque Butterfly, Mic Crenshaw, and Rochell Rodeezy Hart–took the stage. Blaque Butterfly reminded the audience that much work remained, but that “together we can conquer anything.” Crenshaw brought forth a long term view, connecting the police violence that took Otis’ life and the lives of other people of color to “part of a continuum” of US imperialism, extending back to the days of slavery. Hart noted, “there is no blueprint for how to grieve your seed,” and stressed that this struggle was “a movement, not a moment.”

DSC_0320aHart’s words echoed those of Dr. Rev. Leroy Haynes of the Albina Ministerial Alliance. “A movement requires sacrifice,” he said. “A moment is significant, but it will pass away. A movement is protracted.”

Haynes himself is an embodiment of the difference between moment and movement, having spent most of his life fighting for justice. He has likely lost track of how many times he has spoken to people who have lost loved ones to racial violence, but he never seems to lose his intensity, his commitment, and his compassion. “Struggles have to be followed inch by inch, foot by foot, yard by yard, acre by acre,” he said, urging people to be participants in those trials, not spectators.

Alyssa Bryant–Keaton’s sister and Fred’s daughter–has struggled. Yet with each year she appears to move forward, more sure of herself. She talked about how grateful she is for the community gathered in Maranatha Church, as well as those who have attended the monthly vigils and others who have given her support. Alyssa Bryant is an apple that did not fall far from the tree. Like her father, she understands that this is not just about her. She focused on how much she misses her brother and father, “You think it would get easier, but it gets harder and harder.” Describing her enduring sense of palpable absence, she noted that when the police murder, “they think they’re killing one person. They’re killing a whole family and a whole community.”

With exemplary grace, Alyssa Bryant reached out to Kalonji, reminding her to keep fighting and to take care of herself. “We don’t want to lose you,” Bryant told her. “This community is here to help you.”

The community will soon gain a new member, as Bryant is pregnant. Her child is due on January 10, Fred Bryant’s birthday. “That kinda made me smile real big,” she confessed. The news brought a round of applause from the crowd, a form of call and response befitting this house of worship. It was a moment that gave flesh and spirit to the words Hardesty had earlier used to describe the banner that she and Imarisha raised before the event began: “I’m happy this is made of such resilient material.”

The vigil for Keaton Otis is held on the 12th of every month at the corner of NE 6th and Halsey, from 6-7 PM.  For more information go to: https://www.facebook.com/JusticeForKeatonOtis/?fref=ts

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A-APRP Celebrates One Year of Feeding Bodies and Minds http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/05/10/a-aprp-celebrates-one-year-of-providing-food-for-students-bodies-and-minds/ http://www.portlandoccupier.org/2016/05/10/a-aprp-celebrates-one-year-of-providing-food-for-students-bodies-and-minds/#respond Tue, 10 May 2016 16:00:52 +0000 http://www.portlandoccupier.org/?p=10694 Photo by Kathryn Kendall

Photo by Kathryn Kendall

Story by Pete Shaw

“What have you learned here in the last year?”

Ahjamu Umi poses that question to the four young people–Emmanuelle, Habakkuk, Jaiden, and Ja’waun–who have gathered around a table of food and packages just outside of Columbia International Cup coffeehouse in New Columbia. Last April, the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party (A-APRP), with the support of numerous community members and groups, established a free breakfast program at the coffee shop. The intention was to provide students with healthy meals prior to attending school as well as to educate them in African culture and history, neither of which are found in abundance in the Portland Public School system (or most schools in the US). One year later, the program has clearly been a success.

A large crowd gathered for that first meal at Columbia International Cup in April, 2015, and in many ways the adults seemed more excited than the children. Students were being offered a healthy alternative to the food offered in Portland’s schools, which according to the children’s guardians is largely processed sugar, salt, and fat. The A-APRP offers fruit instead of pre-cooked cinnamon sticks; whole grain muffins and hard boiled eggs rather than a frozen waffle saturated with syrup.

The program, to borrow a phrase Umi often uses, stands on the shoulders of its ancestors. It revitalizes the Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program that helped make it “the greatest threat to internal security in America,” according to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. The proclaimed peril did not lie with the greatly exaggerated violence with which an intense propaganda campaign tagged the Black Panthers.  Rather, the real risk posed by the Black Panthers was in their demonstrating that it was possible to create a society not beholden to capitalism. It is that spirit of constructing an alternative that helped lead to the A-APRP bringing the program to New Columbia which neatly fits into a larger goal of building communities liberated from the capitalist paradigm.

Over the course of a year, the A-APRP has served many hundreds of nutritious meals to students–all students, as all people are encouraged to attend–better assuring they are ready to learn when they get to school. But the students are fed knowledge as well. They have learned elements of Twi, a language spoken by over 9 million Ashanti people, most of whom live in Ghana, and they have discussed African folk tales. They have been talked about the exploitation and injustice that for centuries have been brought upon African people and continue to be brought upon them by European and US colonizers. Much like the food the students eat, this information is better balanced than what is provided by Portland’s schools.

Photo by Kathryn Kendall

Photo by Kathryn Kendall

The need for the program is clear for many reasons. On the local level, New Columbia has the highest concentration of African people in Oregon. Despite Portland’s billing as a liberal beacon, systemic racism–perhaps most obvious in the police force which has been cited by the Department of Justice for its poor relations with communities of color, which the City appears reluctant to reform in any meaningful sense–runs deep here. In that larger national picture, Black people continue being gunned down by police and vigilantes at an alarming rate of one every 28 hours.

More holistically, Donald Trump’s march toward the Republican nomination for president has once again brought to the surface the virile racism that despite assurances following Barack Obama’s election to the White House in 2008, has never died. The Democratic Party’s soft-pedal version hits those same rancid notes, but with a language more acceptable in liberal circles. Even Bernie Sanders, who has taken the imagination of the progressive-liberal wing of the party, has not been immune to this. When asked during one of the Democratic debates how he would improve race relations, Sanders replied, “What we will do is say instead of giving tax breaks to billionaires, we are going to create millions of jobs for low-income kids so they’re not hanging out on street corners.” Contrary to the popular image, not all young people of color are hanging out on street corners, a description that has implications of laziness, and as portrayed in corporate media, one that is often equated with dangerous people, in particular, young Black men.

Spoken in loud volumes or soft undertones, racism has remained strong in this putatively post-racial era. And the capitalist infrastructure that undergirds it vigorously endures. As Adrienne Cabouet, a member of the A-APRP who often attends the breakfast program, noted in a speech at Portland’s May Day rally, “We must understand capitalism to be the origin of our oppressions. We must understand white supremacy, racism, and patriarchy as the ideological products of the most destructive economic system the world has ever known. We must understand white supremacy, racism, and patriarchy as lies–absurd lies–manufactured to justify genocide, theft, brutality, and slavery all over the world. We cannot destroy racism, white supremacy, and patriarchy without also destroying capitalism. We cannot hope to to destroy capitalism unless we transform ourselves.”

These young people at the breakfast program are learning that there are alternatives, and they are witnessing some of them in action. They are seeing members of the community working with each other to craft those alternatives; to model on a small level what another, more humane system might look like. The food is donated by local groups and markets such as Vegans of Color, the Alberta Cooperative Grocery, and Food Not Bombs, as well as other community members. Brian and Tereza Bottman, the owners of Columbia International Cup, provide the space for free, and Brian can often be seen cooking pancakes and other breakfast items. jamilah bourdon, also of the A-APRP, is a constant presence, biking from across town through all the manner of weather that comes upon Portland, reminding the students of the value of persistence.

Photo by Kathryn Kendall

Photo by Kathryn Kendall

The young people who show up for A-APRP breakfasts are seeing the transformation Cabouet mentioned. And they are taking part in it.

************

Outside at the tables, Jaiden and Ja’waun answer Umi by mentioning coltan, the “special material that’s put in phones” that is mined from Africa–a small strand of the continuity of a long, brutal history of Euro-American imperialism that has kept large numbers of Africans, including some in New Columbia, poor and oppressed. Emmanuelle remembers a lesson about the great civil rights leader and organizer Fannie Lou Hamer. And Habakkuk recalls that SWAT teams gained popularity with many city police departments in the 1960s as Africans revolted against their oppression.

It appears to be a light breakfast day. There are some apples, juice, and veggie-scrambled eggs. But this is a day of celebration. A one year anniversary is something to be proud of, and as such, Brian has also brought donuts. Soon Umi is breaking out a bag of presents to thank the students for helping the program grow. Emmanuelle gets a bean bag toss, while Habakkuk unwraps Mastermind. Ja’waun gets a game set that includes chess and checkers, and Jaiden opens a box with a couple of long plastic mitts and a ball that resemble the equipment used in jai alai. Consistent with the overall theme of the program, these gifts nurture both body and mind. The greatest marker of success of the program may be that these young people happily share their presents with each other.

The real work of creating a more just world takes place in understated ways. While it is the big events such as large marches and demonstrations that grab headlines, those seemingly singular events are the result of weeks or months of behind-the-scenes hard work. Educating and organizing is grinding and grueling, and at times it can seem fruitless, particularly if one is looking for quick results.  

But the work pays off. The A-APRP is addressing some of the needs of African people in Portland, and it is also teaching about and setting an example of what an alternative, transformed society might look like. To further those ends, the A-APRP has been working with parents in New Columbia and other organizations to start up a “revolutionary weekend school” in July, building upon the lessons of the breakfast program.

Change happens slowly. But it does happen. Not by the grace of those who control and wield power, but because of the hard work of those travailing to wrest that power from the hands of the few into those of the many.

The A-APRP free breakfast program is held on Monday and Friday from 7AM to 8 AM at Columbia International Cup coffee house, located at 9022 North Newman Avenue.

For more information on ow to register for the program and how to donate to it, go to: http://www.aaprporegon.org/store/c1/Featured_Products.html

 

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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 13055259_10154088107737440_5656900127472283645_oStory 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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