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Growing Injustice: Several Problematic Plants

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Growing Injustice: Several Problematic Plants

H. Bradford

6/4/18

Warm weather is finally here, so I have spent the last two weeks readying my garden for the season.  Since I’ve been planting more, I have plants on the brain. Lately, I have been thinking about plants and issues of racism (and in one case, anti-semitism).  Some plants have some very questionable names. Other plants have racially sensitive histories that social justice minded gardeners should consider. Plants like Wandering Jew, Kaffir lime, Nyjer seed, Indian Paintbrush, and even Collard Greens may be taken for granted by most growers, but contain issues of race and ethnicity.  Thus, the following blog post offers an overview of some of these offenders, so that we can grow gardens as well as a more just world for everyone! (The list of problematic plants is not comprehensive. I also did not cite sources within the text, but a list of links that I drew from can be found at the end).


Wandering Jew:


If you visit a greenhouse, you may find a plant called a Wandering Jew.  There are several plants that bear this name, including three species of spiderwort plants, four species of dayflower, and two other plants.  The spiderwort species are the sort that seem most commonly used as indoor plants. A few years ago, a local greenhouse recommended a Purple Wandering Jew plant for our home, since they can grow in lower light conditions.  The employee assured my housemate and I that there was nothing antisemitic about the bushy, viney plant. Nearly Natural 27 in. Wandering Jew Hanging Basket The term Wandering Jew comes from 13th Century Christian folklore.  The character is a Jewish man who was said to have taunted Jesus before he was crucified.  As punishment for his taunt, he was cursed to walk the Earth until the return of Christ. In some stories, his clothes and shoes never wear out and after 100 years, he returns to being a younger man.  He was a perpetual traveler, unable to rest, but able to converse in all of the languages of the world. This is not based on any actual Biblical story, though it may have been inspired by the story of Caine and European paganism.  Much like Big Foot or ghosts today, Europeans of the time believed that they had actually seen this character. For hundreds of year, even into the present day, this character has appeared in literature and art. Image result for wandering jew art

Gaston Malingue’s painting “The Wandering Jew”

While the character is very fictional, the antisemitic context the character was born from is not.  In 1290, Edward the I expelled all Jewish people from England. During the middle ages, Jews were banned from owning land.  They were also barred from trade guilds. Medieval cities also relegated Jewish populations to certain areas. In the 14th century, Jews were expelled from France, Germany, Portugal, and Spain.  Expulsions and exclusion from various economic activities provided a material reality for the idea that Jewish people were outsiders or wanderers. Thus, “The Wandering Jew” represents not only a person, but a stereotype regarding the nature of all Jewish people.  This stereotype has been used in modern times to incite hate, such as the Nazi film entitled “Der Erwige Jude,” which revived and modernized the medieval myth and envisioning modern Jewish people as criminal, lazy, and perverse cosmopolitans who controlled the world through banking, commerce, politics, and the media.  The idea of the Wandering Jew has


With this history in mind, calling a rambling, hard to destroy plant a “Wandering Jew” does not seem like the most culturally sensitive nomenclature, to say the least.   Interestingly, the Swedish Cultural Plant Database (SKUD) has changed the name of the “Wandering Jew” plant as well as another plant with an anti-semitic name (Jew Cherry which we know as Chinese Lantern Plants).  I am uncertain what SKUD renamed the plant to, but perhaps Purple Spiderwort, Variegated Spiderwort, or Wandering Spiderwort might be some good ideas. There are other plants with “Jew” in their title and these should be changed as well.   While not a plant, no one should call a wood ear mushroom a Jew’s Ear. I could find no similar examples of plant names that are unflattering/prejudiced towards Christians or other religious groups, but if there were and even if the group did not share the same history of oppression and genocide, there seems no reasonable argument to use derogatory common names.  If I saw such plants at a local store or greenhouse, I would suggest a name change to the manager.


Collard Greens:

A few years ago, I planted collard greens.  I was curious about this vegetable and wanted to grow it because I enjoy trying new things.  However, my housemate suggested that the name was racist since it sounds like “Coloured Greens.”  The leaf green is associated with African American cuisine, so it seemed plausible that the name may have had a more racist origin.  Thankfully, it doesn’t! The word Collard comes from “colewort” in Middle English perhaps influenced by Old Norse “kal” for cabbage, and earlier still, kaulos, which is Greek for stalk.  The “Col” and collard is found in other words like cauliflower, kale, coleslaw, German kohl for cabbage, etc.

Image result for collard green


While the leafy green is more prominent in the cuisine of the Southern United States, it is also used in Brazilian, Indian, and Portuguese cooking.   It was cultivated in Greek and Roman gardens 2000 years ago as is closely related to kale. Prior to this, it is theorized that wild cabbages were in cultivation in Europe 3000 years ago and up to 6000 years ago in China.  Leafy cabbages were also grown in Mesopotamia. While collard greens in particular (in contrast to other leafy cabbages) have long been consumed by Europeans, the history is not devoid of racism or contention. A controversy arose a few years ago when Whole Foods Co-op suggested that customers buy collard greens and prepare them with ingredients such as cranberries, garlic, and peanuts.  Some African Americans felt that this was cultural appropriation of a vegetable used in their cuisine and food gentrification of a vegetable by white people who have recently discovered it and have now re-imagined it as something trendy. This critique is not unfounded. Afterall, Neiman Marcus sold out of their $66 frozen trays of collard greens in 2016. Historically, collard greens, like many members of the cabbage family were poor people food.  (Though Romans actually esteemed cabbages as medicinal and a luxury.) Members of the cabbage family are cool season crops with mild frost resistance, making them part of winter staples or lean time food. Image result for neiman marcus collard green African Americans came to the United States as slaves and were only allowed to grow a small selection of vegetables for themselves.  Collards were one of them. While the vegetable is not African in origin, the methods of preparation were. West Africans use hundreds of species of leafy greens and prepare them in ways that maintain their high nutrient content.  Enslaved Africans found fewer wild greens here and came to rely on collards, which were brought here by the British. (Depending upon where the slaves were taken from, they may have been familiar with leafy cabbages as in the Middle Ages, cabbages of various sorts were traded into Africa through Morocco and Mali).  They are unique among cabbages in that they can continue to produce leaves over their growing season. They can be harvested for months when other vegetables quit in the cold weather. Collards helped slaves to survive due to their productivity. For this reason, poor white people also grew collards. It is a cheap, productive, healthy plant.  Although white Southerners grew the plant, it was a marginal crop to European settlers and African Americans deserve credit for popularizing the use of greens and their preparation. Image result for collard greens

image from Foodnetwork.com

I love plants.  I love gardening.  I have no problems eating vegetables.  But, collard greens do raise the question of how white people (at least those who aren’t poor and from the south) should approach collard greens.  On one hand, when food is gentrified, the cost goes up for those who have traditionally eaten it. For instance, after kale was deemed a superfood, its cost rose 25%.  If food prices rise, it can drive poor people to unhealthier, cheaper foods. Collard greens are also a problem when they are commercialized and fetishized. Judging by the tone and content of internet articles on this topic, I don’t know that most African Americans would take issue with a white individual growing a small amount of collard greens for personal, private use for love of gardening and attempting to try new vegetables.  In the case of Whole Foods and Neiman Marcus, it represented capitalizing on and changing the culinary traditions of Black people. The foods were presented in inauthentic ways, devoid of history, and for profit by cashing in on a contextless notion of the exotic. Since the vegetable is tied to the traumatic history of survival and slavery and has cultural importance (such as a feature of New Year’s meals) it isn’t something to take lightly.   Collard greens have double the iron and protein than kale and 18% more calcium, so there may be legitimate reasons that many people should grow them. Personally, I am curious about many vegetables. Does my curiosity “Colombusize” the culture, culinary traditions, or agriculture of others? In small ways, yes. My hope is that I can be mindful of my decisions and the history/power embedded in even the simplest things.


Nyjer Seed:


Anyone who wants to attract finches to their yard may be familiar with nyjger seed, which is also called thistle seed.  The seed does not come from the thistle plant and the name “nyjer seed” seems suspiciously like another n word. When I was a kid, the seed was spelled “niger” which also makes the seed a little suspicious.  We pronounced it in a way that is similar to Nigeria or Niger in Africa. Unfortunately, some people did not pronounce it this way and instead thought it was pronounced like a racial slur. The bird seed industry actually changed the name of the seed because it had confused people or had been mispronounced.  Nyjer is the 1998 trademarked name of the Wild Bird Feeding Industry. Image result for niger seed While the name might suggest that the seed came from Nigeria or Niger, nyjer seed actually comes from the Guizotia abyssinica plant which grows in the highlands of Ethiopia.  I found a reference to the seed being called Nigerian thistle, which to me indicates that whomever named the seed must have had some confusion about the geography of Africa or, perhaps generically called it “niger” seed as a stand in for Africa itself.  Nigeria, Niger, and the Niger River are all located in West Africa whereas Ethiopia is in East Africa. The genus Guizotia contains six species, of which five are native to Ethiopia. A distribution map of the species shows that it grows naturally in some areas of Uganda, Malawi, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Sudan.  It also grows in India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Nepal. The plants found in and around India are believed to have been brought there long ago by Ethiopian migrants, who also brought millet to the region. Therefore, Nyger seed really has nothing to do with the countries of its (former) namesake and represents a sort of “imagined Africa” rather than any geographical or botanical reality. Image result for niger seed ethiopia

  Field of Nyjer Seed plants in Ethiopia

While in the United States, most people feed the oily black seeds to birds, it is used in the cuisines of India and Ethiopia.  It has been been grown in Ethiopia as an oil crop since antiquity and today, makes up 50% of Ethiopia’s oil seed production. Overall, the main producer of commercial nyjer seed is India, followed by Myanmar and Ethiopia.  About 50,000 metric tons of the seed are imported each year into the United States. It is the only commercial bird seed which is largely imported. This seems to be a tremendous amount of seed- which ultimately goes to bellies of wild birds!  The use of nyjer seed seemingly follows the rise of the U.S. as a post-war global power. Bird feeding became more common through the 1950s, which resulted in demand for commercial bird food. As people increasingly fed birds, it became apparent that certain seeds were likely to attract different (more socially desirable) species of birds.  Nyjer seed was adopted as a bird food in the United States in the 1960s. The first tube feeders used for the seed became commercially available in 1972. In the late 1960s, the seed had to be treated with heat, because it was often accompanied by the seeds of invasive weeds. All nyger seed imports must be subjected to 250 degree heat sterilization treatment. Image result for niger seed ethiopia

image from Northwest Nature Shop

Despite small scale experiments, Nyjer is not currently grown in North America, and in an experiment between N.A grown seen and Ethiopian seed, the birds preferred the Ethiopian grown seed.  Reading between the lines, it is important to think about what the import of this seed actually means. Various countries have tried to grow this seed, including the Soviet Union under the guidance of Ivan Vavilov.  However, the plants do not yield enough seeds to make it economically viable. The region of India which produces the most seed is Madhya Pradesh, which is the sixth poorest part of India (per capita GDP). The regions which grow the seed are also home to ethnic minorities, such as Nagar Haveli which is the home of the Warli tribe.  While I could find no articles which specifically addressed the plight of nyjer seed farmers, it stands to reasoning that because the center of production for these seeds are underdeveloped countries (and even greater underdeveloped regions within those countries) that the work conditions of those farmers is probably characterized by low pay, long hours, and hard work.  Since some of these countries actually used these seeds as an oil and a human food, the movement towards exporting the seeds to the West as bird food has likely reduced its use as a subsistence crop. Finally, the fact that it has not been viable in the agriculture of more developed countries means that it is probably a labor intensive crop (and our labor is too expensive due to labor laws, organization) hence, the fact that it is imported rather than domestically grown.


Personally, I love birds.  I want to attract finches to the yard and provide them with a fatty, seed that they love.  At the same time, it certainly represents a lot of privilege that I can buy imported seeds (sometimes eaten by humans) to give to the birds.  The origin of the seed itself is obscured by its name. There seems to be a lot wrong with nyger seeds. I think that my task as a socialist is to learn more about the specific labor conditions related to the seeds (since there is not a lot of information out there).  If there was more awareness regarding the seeds, perhaps there would be more interest in fair trade or better working conditions for those producers. It is also possible that I could try growing my own seeds for the birds rather than relying on expensive imported seed.  Nyger seed as been experimentally grown on a small scale in Minnesota. I think it is a fascinating seed with a wealth of history. At the same time, more should be done to illuminate the history and economic conditions of the seed.

Image result for niger seed

Image from The Zen Birdfeeder

 

Kaffir Lime:


About a year ago, I picked up some gardening books from the library.  One of the books was about growing citrus indoors. It introduced me to the Kaffir Lime.  I really didn’t think anything of this name at the time. It sounded vaguely Middle Eastern, but I didn’t associate it with any particular meaning.  Little did I know that kaffir is actually a racist term. The k-word is a racial slur in South Africa. The k-word was used in Arabic to describe non-believers, but was used by European colonists in South Africa to describe the African population.  The word is so offensive, that there have been legal actions taken against those who have used the slur in South Africa. The name of the lime itself may come from Sri Lanka, where the lime is grown and where there is an ethnic group which self identifies as kaffirs.  It is also possible that the fruit literally referred to non-believers, as it may have been named by Muslims who saw it cultivated by non-Muslims in Southeast Asia. However, because the word is racially offensive in most other contexts and considered hate speech in South Africa, a different name is an order.  In Southeast Asia, the fruit is called Makrut, which has been suggested as a viable name change. Image result for kaffir lime

Indian Paintbrush:


While this example is not as offensive as the k-lime, there are many plants that are named “Indian x” such as Indian Paintbrush, Indian posy (butterfly weed), Indian Blanket (Firewheel), Indian pipe, Indian grass, etc.  There are many North American plants which have common names which invoke something related to Native Americans. However, the way that these common names are used are not accurate, flattering, or supportive of Native Americans.  For instance, Indian Paintbrush sounds quaint. As a child, I imagined that perhaps the flowers were really used as paint brushes by Native Americans. Indian Paintbrush, also called Prairie Fire, was used as a leafy green, medicine, and shampoo by some Native Americans.  But, it was not used as a paintbrush. While the flower may resemble a brush covered in bright red paint, it could easily be called Paintbrush plant. Using the word “Indian” invokes something wild, mythical, or even something silly (such as literally using the plant as a paintbrush).  It reduces Native Americans into an idea about something primitive, whimsical, or even non-existent rather than actual, living people, with actual uses for plants. This is true of the other plants as well. Many of the “Indian” plants are wild plants that are not commonly domesticated (though some are used in ornamental or “Native” gardens.  There is also a colonizing tone to these names, as these are not the names that Native Americans themselves gave the plants but imagined names from colonizers and their descendents. There are often alternate common names for these plants, so there is no excuse to call them names which invoke a mythical idea of Native Americans. Better yet, maybe some of the plants could be given names from actual Native American languages.  This would demonstrate that Native Americans knew, used, and named these plants long before the arrival of settlers. For instance, Ojibwe called the Indian Paintbrush plant Grandmother’s Hair (though I don’t know what this translates to in Ojibwe). Since plants were used by many tribal groups for different purposes, it would be difficult to determine which language should take precedence over another. At the very least, I think it is important to be mindful of language and consider existing alternative names (which I haven’t always been, since I was raised calling certain plants Indian Pipe or Indian Paintbrush).

Image result for indian paintbrush

image from Wikipedia

Conclusion:

There will always be some people who feel that these issues are no big deal.  Some of these people feel that there is nothing offensive about using traditional plant names or that they know a Jewish person who doesn’t mind “Wandering Jew” or a Native American friend who likes to call plants Indian Paintbrush or Indian Grass.  The world is diverse and certainly there are diverse opinions on these matters. To those folks, this probably seems like much ado about nothing. On the other hand, others may feel that issues of racism or oppression in general are much bigger than the kind of bird seed we use or what we call a lime.  It is better to focus on the big picture than get caught up in the nuances of language. As for myself, I feel that this is a fascinating topic to think about and that to me, it uncovers subtle and not so subtle ways that various kinds of oppression are built into something as simple as what we call a plant or what we grow in the garden.  For me, thinking about these topics is intellectually satisfying (I am interested in learning more about the history of plants) as well as a way for me to be a better, more mindful activist. At the end of the day, helping to grow social movements is far more important than the plants that we grow and know. Growing as an activist means working with others in organizations towards social change, but also the internal change that comes with challenging assumptions and rethinking what is taken for granted.  With that said, hopefully this post helps others to grow in how they think about plants, but also their place in society.


Sources on Wandering Jew:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/49614212_Creating_National_Identity_through_a_Legend_-The_Case_of_the_Wandering_Jew

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/feb/21/wandering-jew-history

https://sputniknews.com/art_living/201709151057426161-sweden-anti-semitic-plans/
https://www.theholocaustexplained.org/anti-semitism/medieval-anti-judaism/who-and-where-were-medieval-jews/

https://www.history.com/topics/anti-semitism
Sources on Collard Greens:

 

http://www.vegetablefacts.net/vegetable-history/history-of-cabbage/

A Letter to the Newgrorati: Of Collards and Amnesia

https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/08/18/kale-compared-to-other-vegetables_n_3762721.html
https://www.wral.com/lifestyles/travel/video/13531214/?ref_id=13531197

http://www.crossroadsnews.com/news/lithonia-festival-is-all-about-the-collards/article_68af27d0-9968-11e7-a979-17d10f0b5b05.html

http://www.ebony.com/life/hungry-for-history-collards

http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2018/01/25/humble-hardy-leaf-defines-national-character/ideas/essay/

http://www.latibahcgmuseum.org/why-collard-greens/

https://weblogtheworld.com/formats/featured/history-of-collard-greens-extends-far-beyond-north-america

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/01/whats-leafy-and-green-and-eaten-by-blacks-and-whites/424554/

http://abc7chicago.com/food/neiman-marcus-sells-out-of-$66-collard-greens/1589488/

https://www.trulytafakari.com/ate-white-peoples-collard-greens-tasted-like-oppression/

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/people-and-culture/food/the-plate/2016/09/5-foods-from-africa/

http://meloukhia.net/2014/06/hipsterisation_and_its_hiked-up_prices_kale_quinoa_and_traditional_foods/

https://everydayfeminism.com/2015/11/foodie-without-appropriation/

 

Nyger Seed Sources:

https://www.topcropmanager.com/corn/niger-seed-production-is-for-the-birds-13172

https://www.petcha.com/nyjer-black-oil-sunflower-bird-seeds-a-history/

http://www.birdchick.com/blog/2009/12/growing-nyjer-thistle-in-north-america

https://web.colby.edu/mainebirds/2016/02/05/the-history-of-bird-feeding-ii/

http://www.manoramagroup.co.in/commodities-niger-seed.html

https://www.mprnews.org/story/2011/11/30/winegar

https://conservancy.umn.edu/bitstream/handle/11299/139533/SB571.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

https://www.bioversityinternational.org/fileadmin/_migrated/uploads/tx_news/Niger__Guizotia_abyssinica__L.f.__Cass._136.pdf

https://www.bioversityinternational.org/fileadmin/_migrated/uploads/tx_news/Niger__Guizotia_abyssinica__L.f.__Cass._136.pdf

 

K-Lime Sources:

https://modernfarmer.com/2014/07/getting-rid-k-word/

http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/07/03/kaffir_lime_racist_murky_origins_suggest_a_racial_slur_might_be_responsible.html

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Reflections and Lessons from the Husky Fire

Reflections and Lessons from the Husky Fire

H. Bradford

5/7/18

I learned about the Husky Fire just before 11 am on April 26th when I was about to leave the Women’s Health Center in Duluth.   A co-worker from Superior rushed into the office and announced that just after 10 am there had been an explosion at the Murphy Oil Refinery, that there are evacuations, and multiple deaths.  The director turned on the television in the lobby, which reported 20 casualties.  My initial reaction was horror and anger.  I felt horror because it seemed as though there were many injuries and deaths.  I also felt horror since I was returning home from Superior after working ten hours at Safe Haven (overnight) and three hours at the Women’s Health Center.  I didn’t know what I would be returning home to or if I would be able to return home.  I felt anger because I just wanted to go to sleep!  I had already worked through the night and into the morning.  It was a terribly inconvenient time to have an industrial disaster.   I texted my housemates Adam and Lucas an alarmed text about evacuations and deaths (which later proved to not be entirely true), finished the last 10 minutes of my shift, and headed home to the unknown of Superior.

Image may contain: outdoor

(An image that I believe was used in the Duluth News Tribune)


Traffic was normal on the way home.  For a moment, I panicked that the Blatnik Bridge was closed, as there was a caravan of large street cleaning vehicles blocking access to the bridge.  The bridge was not closed.  The vehicles were partaking in the normal activity of cleaning the streets.  Still, things were clearly amiss as I could see a giant, black cloud in the distance- spreading menacingly away from the Husky Refinery (which I had until that morning thought was the Murphy Oil Refinery.  I was not aware that the Alberta based company, Husky Energy, had purchased the facility in August 2017).  Despite the sprawling black cloud, everything in Superior was oddly normal.  I noticed someone outside doing yard work.  A dog was sitting out in the yard.  Young children were playing in a park.  I thought it was bizarre and reminded me of Pripyat after the Chernobyl accident.  People slept in their beds, then awoke, and went about their business as radiation saturated them.  Chernobyl may seem like an unfair comparison, but oddly, the Husky Fire and Chernobyl both happened on April 26th (a collapsed country and thirty two years apart).   In any event, at that point of time, there was not as much concern.  My roommates didn’t seem concerned yet and the earlier alarm about multiple deaths and evacuations was found to be untrue.  (The word casualty does not mean death, but can mean injury- such as casualties of war.  However, since the word is often used to mean someone who has been killed, there was some initial misunderstanding about the media use of the word.  As for evacuations, as of 11:15 ish when I returned home, there was nothing beyond the immediate area of the disaster (to my knowledge).


I settled into bed, unsettled, but trying not to worry too much.  No one else seemed very worried.  Not the kids playing or person carrying on the yard work.  I spent time looking at the news, but everything seemed to be under control.  Before going to bed, I told my roommate Lucas to shut all of the windows, but he laughed at me.  I think he even made a Chernobyl joke, about how I had been there, and was the expert now.  I couldn’t fall asleep.  The window was shut, but I imagined invisible particles entering the house and breathing them as I slept.  I thought about dying in my sleep or just inhaling carcinogenic debris.  I felt angry again.  I felt mad about having worked the night shift and that I was unable to get the rest I needed.  Lack of sleep often invokes anger in me.  Eventually, I did fall asleep…for about an hour… before Lucas knocked on my bedroom door and said that an area 3 miles around the refinery and 10 miles downwind was being evacuated.  There had been more explosions.  He said he was heading to Duluth.  I was crabby and exhausted, so I said I would just stay in bed.  I pulled two more blankets over my head, as if it would give me added protection from the poisonous smoke.  Lucas texted me what seemed a frantic message that the traffic over the bridge was extremely backed up and he was stuck.  I became more concerned as it seemed that the people of Superior had finally mobilized to escape.  The schools had closed.  I think the area of evacuation at that time was as near as UW Superior (which isn’t that far from where I live).  While I think that I was just outside the evacuation area, three miles is not a magical perimeter- outside of which everyone is safe.  Oh, 3.2 miles- that’s cool!  Those particles are 100% gone at exactly the three mile mark.


I eventually dragged my extremely tired body out of bed.   Tiredness tried hard to battle fear.  But eventually fear won as my boyfriend said he was leaving for work early, but that he thought I should leave the house too.  He said he wanted to know that I was safe.  I am often feel that my needs (such as sleep) don’t matter much to the universe, so it was touching that my safety was concerning.  I told him that I would also go to back to work.  I work at a domestic violence shelter and our employee break room has a futon.  I thought that if I fled Superior, I could go to my job and rest for a while.  It is odd how work can be a place of refuge.  My work is a shelter- so it is equipped to – well, accommodate the needs of people who need a place to stay.  I didn’t rush to go there, but I did call my job to give them a heads up that I would be trying to sleep there.  Once my refuge was secured, I ambled around the house trying to throw a few things together.  My brain wasn’t in evacuation mode.  It was in “What do I need to bring with me to take a nap at work mode?”.   I packed only a few things, such as a toothbrush and some toiletries.  I also took a shower.  Our hot water heater had broken a week prior and had FINALLY been fixed that day.  I went a week with only one shower (which I took at UW-Superior’s fitness center).  So, showering was a priority above escape from the death cloud. Image may contain: sky, tree, cloud, house, plant, outdoor and nature


I snapped a few photos of the cloud on my way out of Superior and then when I arrived in Duluth.  After taking the photos, I was happy to report to work and find that my supervisor had fixed up the employee break room nicely for me.  She gave me new, clean bedding (not the stained, worn bedding the residents end up with) and had turned the futon into a bed.  The shelter had been made aware that CASDA, a domestic violence shelter in Superior, had been evacuated.   Safe Haven was ready to accept people staying at CASDA, but in the end, they went to a hotel.  As for our own residents, they were gathered around the television, watching the news coverage.  The cloud was much larger and darker now.   They asked me questions and seemed happy that I was safe.  That was also very touching.  They are all homeless and have gone through truly awful things.  Still, they had enough emotional reserves left to care about a worker at the shelter (who often make their lives harder by enforcing rules or determining the length of their stay.)  As I settled down and tried to sleep, my mother called.  She did not know about the accident until she drove home and noticed the cloud in the distance.  The cloud from the fire could be seen over fifty miles away in Cromwell.  She offered that I could stay with her.  It was an hour away and I was beyond tired (having obtained about an hour of sleep), so I declined, but said maybe I would depending upon how bad the situation was.

Image may contain: cloud, ocean, sky, outdoor, water and nature


I really didn’t sleep well.  I checked the news.  There were reports that fire fighters were unable to fight the fire and were just waiting.  It was reported that it could burn for days.  I also read that there were concerns about a tank of hydrogen flouride.  I learned that hydrogen flouride is used at about 50 oil refineries in the US.  I also learned that it becomes hydroflouric acid when it contacts moisture, such as that the moisture of the skin, lungs, eyes, etc.  and causes burns, blindness, fluid in the lungs, and other nasty health effects.  This was the first that I had learned about the tank.  The tank was supposed to be near the fire, but there was no reports of HOW close.  Nor, was there reports that the tank (which was 150-200 feet away from the uncontrollable blaze) was full of a chemical that could kill thousands of people if the tank exploded.   My brain could not turn off.  There was too much information to process and too much lack of information to ponder.  I may have slept an additional 45 min to an hour, but eventually decided to wake up.  Sleep was simply not on the agenda.   Instead, I woke up, gathered myself, and decided to go for a walk.  By then, it was nearly 7pm and there were reports that the fire had been put out and the evacuation would likely be called off later in the evening.  That was encouraging.


Later that night, I joined a few friends for trivia.  I talked to Chris about my concerns about the tank of hydrogen flouride, which she agreed was nasty and would kill/injure thousands of people.  She looked at a google map of the Husky Refinery and we tried to figure out where the tank was in relation to the fire.  This information was not available to the public at that time.  She concluded that it might be one of the smaller tanks by the railroad tracks, as it is unlikely that they would want to transport the chemical that far from the trains that carry it.  This didn’t allay my fears, since these small tanks were not far from the fire (but father away than the ACTUAL tank turned out to be).   Lucas, one of my roommates, decided he was going back to Superior despite the ongoing concern about the tank.  Adam had already been in Superior for several hours, since he needed to take care of his chickens and felt he was safe in the basement.  This made it difficult for me to sustain my concern.  I definitely wanted to go home (since I had slept a sum of two hours in the last day and a half or so).  I hadn’t packed anything.  The evacuation didn’t really come with instructions of what to take or for how long to expect.  Ultimately, I returned to Superior since I didn’t want to be the one roommate out of four who was too chicken to go home.  After all, even the chickens weren’t evacuated.  There is a stigma about being fearful.  It is a sign of weakness.  Personally, I don’t think that I made a rational choice.  I also don’t feel that my house mates were entirely rational about remaining.  But, I think that making smart choices requires information.  I don’t think we had the information required to make smart choices of staying in Superior or not.  The risks of the tank exploding and nature of hydroflouric acid would have been important information.  The suggestion that the evacuation would end as early as 9pm also created false hope and a false sense of security.   Smart choices also require the material support to make a choice.  In my case, in a very real sense I was extremely tired.  By the end of trivia, I could no longer remember my telephone number.  I also could not remember who Anthony Bourdain was (a trivia answer I knew, but could not remember).   I don’t think I had the mental wherewithal to drive a safe distance or make an informed decision.  In a way, I feel that I failed my friends by not being more insistent and concerned for our safety.

 

I returned home sometime after midnight.  I noted that there was a chemical odor in the air, but continued inside to my bed.   The evacuation order was not lifted until 6am.  I was dead tired, but only slept a few hours.  Again, I was obsessed with looking up snippets of news.  But, throughout the night, Facebook and the media were sleeping.   There were no new updates.  By morning, every celebrated how the community came together.  Duluth sent buses to Superior.  Emergency respondents from around the area pitched in.  There were no deaths.  School children were evacuated to the DECC.  People opened their homes to evacuees.  And, the air was said to be normal.  For the most part, life resumed as normal.  Businesses opened.  People went about life as usual.  Despite the air quality being deemed “normal” this seemed impossible, considering that a giant asphalt fire raged on for eight hours creating a plume of black smoke that could be seen 50 miles away.  But, it made me wonder what normal is?  Maybe that amount of pollutants in the air is normal – in places like Los Angelas or Beijing where millions of cars fill the air with exhaust each day.   I considered that perhaps our baseline or our normal is the equivalent of a raging asphalt fire.  What is normal?  Normal does not necessarily equate to healthy….

Lessons:

Conversations: 

The first lesson that I drew from this was that there should be ongoing conversations with friends or loved ones about what to do in the case of disasters.  I feel that we should challenge each other and ask lots of questions.  Where would we evacuate?  Why wouldn’t you want to evacuate? (I have chickens, I like my bed, I feel safe, I don’t like being a guest at someone’s house, etc.)  What would it take to convince you that this is needed?  Where would we take pets?  How would we get somewhere safe?  What are important things  you would want to pack?  I think that these kind of conversations could get everyone on the same page.  There is a social dynamic to evacuating.  People look to each other for cues that a situation is safe or unsafe or if they are too worried or too unconcerned.  I think that conversation could help family groups or friend groups make better decisions in crisis.


 

Expect Disasters:

I feel like a nutty, apocalypse prepared person with a year of food stocked in my fallout shelter.  But really, disasters should be expected.  This is because we live in a profit driven society.   Safety precautions involve increased fixed capital costs to capitalists.  The drive for profits means that there will be short cuts.  I am sure that anyone who has worked anywhere can see this.  Safety is usurped for profits when workers are not properly trained, are given defective equipment, tools or machinery is old or outdated, work days are lengthened, workplaces are understaffed, workers are overly tired, or any of the very ordinary conditions across all sectors of the economy.  Husky Energy has a history of fires and oil spills at other locations and the Superior refinery in particular had a $21,000 fine in 2015 for an OSHA violation related to chemical storage and emergency response.  While the fine was paid and OSHA reported the problem was resolved, the fine is nothing compared to the nearly $10 billion revenue that Husky Energy makes each year.   The drive for profits will always drive the trend towards lack of safety.  Therefore, any work place is a potential source of injury.  However, some work places operate on such a scale or with such dangerous materials that the danger extends from the every day risks faced by particular sets of workers to entire communities.   I remember in 1992, when Duluth and Superior were evacuated due to the benzene spill.  Although I was a child living over 50 miles away, I watched the news as the cloud spread.  I worried that it would come all the way to us.  My father worked in West Duluth (where he had suffered several serious on the job injuries over the years- the individual side of worker safety).  He was among the 80,000 people who evacuated that day.  Thus, I have lived through two disasters of a scale large enough to require evacuation.  Will it be the last?

Struggle is the Only Buffer Against Excesses of Capitalism:

I think this is an important moment for people in Duluth and Superior, since it is an opportunity fight for more safety.  There are plenty of concerned people who want more information and more testing of air and soil.  Many want an end to the use of hydrogen flouride at Husky Energy.  Some want an end to the refinery altogether or have used this as an opportunity to not only critique Husky, but Embridge, which also uses the facility.  The crisis has revealed many gaps in how disasters are handled, how environments are monitored, and how safety is ensured.  If this anger congeals into struggle, we can hopefully curtail some of the worst excesses of capitalism in our community and lessen the risk of future disasters.  The small measures of safety and environmental protection that we enjoy were won by struggle and will only be defended by the struggles of workers, but also social movements like environmental movements.   I have seen some cynicism about the effectiveness of protest, but I think that this is the perfect time for protest, petitions, public hearings, or the number of other methods of resistance which are being planned or discussed.

Challenge Complacency:

Honestly, it is hard to care about everything all of the time.  I have felt fatigued by activism and am often impressed by the amount of emotional energy that others can put into continuing to inform members of our community about this disaster.  I lack that energy.  I care…but I am tired.  Like the day that I didn’t get enough sleep, I just want to pull my blankets over my head and hide from the world.   I commend their efforts.  It is very easy to be complacent.  Should I plant a garden this year?  Should I care?  Everything I eat and drink is inundated with plastics and toxins of some kind.  The air I breathe is full of pollutants from the everyday functioning of our fossil fuel based economy.  At some point in my life, like almost everyone else, I am going to get cancer.  There are thousands of terrible things that happen every moment of every day.  That doesn’t even include the ordinary challenges of simply living.  Everything is terrible all of the time.   The only way to make it better is to fight for a better world  But, that suuuuure is tiresome.   Somehow, we must work together to challenge complacency.   I don’t have an good answer about how to care- but I think it helps to hold on to and grow that kernel of anger.  Anger is frowned upon, especially for women- but I care when I remember something that made me angry.  I am angry that I wasn’t well informed.  I am angry that many people in the world live in the shadow of the next catastrophe.  I am angry that life on our planet is going extinct and that we altering our planet in terrifying, irreversible ways.  I am angry that every day living for workers means potential injury from fast food deep fryers to nuclear reactors.   Yep, there we go.  Anger.  Gotta love it.  It is as refreshing as a hot shower after a week without a hot water heater.

Knowledge is Power:

This is a super cliche conclusion, but really, it is helpful to know things!  I didn’t even know the NAME of the refinery, much less what it does or how it functions.  I still don’t know much about the Husky Energy Refinery.   I am thankful that there are many people in the community who are asking questions and sharing resources to learn more.


I am sure I could draw other conclusions, but that’s all I’ve got for now.  There are other local activists who are far more informed and whose opinions have congealed into more meaningful reflection.   While I have been a lazy activist lately, I am committed to being a part of the struggle in the months ahead.  On Wednesday of this week there will be a protest against the liability waivers that Husky is having injured people sign so that they are not liable for future health problems.   We will all have long memories of the evacuation day.  With time, memories often vanish into novelty.  So, I hope it is not a memory of an isolated event but an ongoing struggle and conversation.

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Deconstructing Duluth’s Demographic Crisis

Deconstructing Duluth’s Demographic Crisis

H. Bradford

4/11/18

On February 24th, the Duluth News Tribune ran an article about Duluth’s impending demographic crisis.  I wanted to write a socialist feminist response to this, but never got around to it.  Not that I am the authority on socialist feminism, but I am a feminist and a socialist…and I do think about these things…so, why not break it down?  Now, whenever I hear the word “demographic crisis” I want to run for the hills, or burn something, or both.  Not really, but I think it is one of those sexist, ageist, racist, pro-capitalist concepts that begs to be dismembered.   Here is why…

Ageism:

Early into the Duluth News Tribune article, when describing the shifting population of the Duluth region, the aging population is described as problematic.


“If population levels were even across age groups, this wouldn’t be much of a problem. But, as you may have heard, the largest generation in the country’s history is marching into retirement, leaving many jobs vacant just as unemployment levels are bottoming out and productivity growth is stalling (Johnson, 2018).”


It is true that our population is aging, but, one must consider why this is a problem.  According to the article, it is a problem because there will not be enough workers to replace those who retire.  On the surface, this seems like a problem, as society needs workers to produce things.  However, this frames the post-retirement age population as the cause of a social problem.  Framing the older population as a “problem” is ageist.  It also ignores their labor, as labor does not end when wage labor ceases.  Their contributions to society do not cease when they reach the age of 65 (or higher ages for the many people who do not have retirement savings, pensions, or the ability to survive on social security alone).  Older adults do unpaid work such as volunteering, caring for grand children, gardening, baking, canning, sharing their knowledge, checking up on one another, and a plethora of other important economic activities that are dismissed because they are unpaid.  Just as the invisible, unpaid labor of women is ignored as a natural or unimportant, this invisible labor and its contribution to society is also ignored.


This connects to the socialist feminist concept of social reproduction.  Basically, in capitalist society, the labor force must reproduce itself.  This can literally mean that the work force must replace itself through biological reproduction, but also means that each worker must sustain themselves through sleep, eating food, washing clothes, maintaining their health, relieving stress, and all the many things that are required to survive and work another day.   Typically, women have played an important role in providing the invisible, unpaid labor that keeps the work force …working.  Caring for children, giving birth, caring for the elderly, washing clothes, cleaning a home, doing dishes, making meals, grocery shopping, etc. are all important unpaid activities that ensure that capitalism will continue.  Of course, older adults who leave the work force also provide some of these services as they are “free” to (my own grandparents made many meals for me, baby sat me, bought me school clothes, taught me information, etc.).  Thus, is it really a problem that people grow old?  Aging is a natural process.  It may happen that we have an aging population, but why is this a problem?  Some people might respond that it is a problem because this group requires more care and there are not enough young people to care for them.  The article itself argues that it is a problem that there is not enough workers to fill jobs and that productivity will decline.


I am not an expert on matters of aging, but I imagine that the “problem of aging” could be mitigated by providing quality, free health care to people of all ages, along with clean environments, living wages, robust pensions, housing, etc.  The aging population might very well “age better” if a high quality of life was ensured for people of all ages.  What does it mean to “age well” anyway?  I think to most people means the ability to care for one’s self, enjoy a high quality of life, and live independently for as long as possible.  If this is what this means, the locus of “aging well” is framed as an individual responsibility and the very human need for care is viewed as burdensome.   This concept is very individualistic and puts the rest of society off the hook for taking responsibility of providing and caring for the variable needs of older adults.  It is also ageist, as aging well is basically the ability to live as similarly to a young person for as long as possible.  Maybe it is okay to be wrinkly, sedentary, crabby, or anti-social.  Society is awful.  Living through decades of economic ups and downs, cuts to social programs, pointless wars, and the general nonsense of everything deemed meaningful by society might sour a person against living with youthful optimism and vibrancy.   After years of being alive, “aging well” might seem like a racket to sell beauty products, skin treatments, fitness memberships, etc.

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(This image leads me to believe that aging well has something to do with being white and wealthy.  Capitalism doesn’t have resources to spare on caring for the elderly, so make certain you stay healthy with fresh air and bike rides in the country.)


If indeed there is a shortage of workers, there are certainly plenty of people in the world and United States itself.  These people might be more inclined to move to this frigid region and provide elder care if this was not low paid, under appreciated service work but unionized with benefits (including retirement plans!), better wages, and better working conditions.   A true shortage of workers might require open borders to allow new workers to enter the country, but this would require a move away from our current racist, xenophobic, nationalist, and exploitative immigration policy.  The “aging population problem” is not a problem with age, but an ageless problem of capitalism to meet the basic needs of humanity.


Of course, the notion of declining productivity must also be challenged.  Why is it a problem when productivity declines?  Why must productivity always increase?  What does this mean for the environment?  When have we produced enough?!  Productivity is a problem in capitalism because of the tendency for profits to decline.  Because competition lends itself to increased investment in fixed capital and there are human thresholds of how much variable capital can be exploited from workers, profits decline over time.  Markets also become saturated as there is only so much people can buy (again because wages only allow so much consumption).  When too much is produced and too little is consumed, capitalism falls into a crisis, which Marx called the crisis of overproduction.  Therefore, productivity is not necessary good.  It is not good for the workers (who must work longer or harder).  It is not good for the environment (as it creates waste and overuse of resources).  And it is not even good for capitalism, since it lends itself to instability.  I think it is important to think against blind productivity and instead think about rational, careful production in the interest of human needs.

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(Capitalism probably produces enough…  though I suppose the gulls don’t mind.)


Sexism:

Another reason why I dislike the concept of “demographic crisis” is that it is sexist.   Although the article only mentions it briefly, increasing birth rates is often suggested as a way in averting the crisis.  Even if it is not mentioned in detail in the article, it is implicit in the premise of the argument.  If the population is aging and this is a problem, that means that not enough new people are being born.  Thus, not only are older adults the problem, the bigger problem is that women are not gestating enough babies.  The bodies of women have long been treated as public property, inasmuch as their reproductive power is harnessed for state interests.  The fight for reproductive rights is a fight to liberate women from their role as the producer’s of the next generation of soldiers and workers.  The birth rate in the United States (according to 2018 CIA World Factbook Information) is 12.5 births per 1000 people.  Our birth rate is slightly higher than the UK, Sweden, France, and Australia which all have 12.x births per 1000.  The rate is higher than Finland, Canada, Switzerland, Netherlands, and Denmark, which have 10.x births per 1000 people.  Our birthrate is certainly greater than South Korea, Japan, and Germany, which range from 8.x to 9.x births per 1000 people.  Despite our higher birth rate, there is enormous pressure upon women to reproduce- to the point that the organized movement against abortion has made birth nearly compulsory in many parts of the country due to restricted access to abortion.  In many of these countries with lower birth rates, the issue of abortion is far less controversial.  Here, anti-choice activists bemoan the loss of millions of fetuses, which they argue contributes to our demographic crisis (fewer workers, fewer students, etc.)   At the core of demographic crisis is a demand to control reproduction- because if population is viewed as a resource, women’s bodies are responsible for producing this resource.


 In the context of capitalism (and unfortunately many economic systems), population is treated as a resource.  Workers need to reproduce so that there are more workers.  This leads to a precarious balance.  Capitalists do not provide for the reproduction of labor (this has often fallen upon women and families) as this requires an investment in workers.  At the same time, workers have to have a basic level of sustenance to continue working and to allow for a new generation.  For instance, if a woman works too hard or consumes too few calories, she may stop menstruating.  Therefore, workers generally have a basic threshold of exploitation which if reached these workers will no longer be able to survive and reproduce.   In the United States in particular, our status as a world power has an economic component and a military component.  The military domination of the world is an extension of the economic component, as military might ensures access to markets, thwarts competitors, offers access to capital (for instance natural resources and labor), etc.  For the United States to remain an economic and military power, babies must be born.  Babies are needed so that there will always be a supply of soldiers and workers.  Reproduction is a national interest.  I think this contributes to the controversy around abortion and the drive to limit it.
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(A piece of art that I created called Capitalism is Built on the Bodies of Women)

As I alluded to in the previous paragraph, capitalism has a contradiction.  On one hand, in seeks to increase profit by extracting more surplus value from workers.  Because profits decline over time, workers are pressured to work harder and longer.  This increased exploitation limits the ability to reproduce labor (to reproduce biologically, but also to maintain a certain level of health as workers).   In the United States, not a lot of profit is redistributed towards caring for our existing population (i.e. ensuring the reproduction of labor).   We do not offer paid parental leave.  We do not have free day cares.  There is a shortage of housing.  Health care is expensive.  The list goes on.  The conditions of capitalism are so extreme that 5.8 infants die out of 1000 born.  In Japan, two infants die per 1000 births.  In Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden, there are slightly more than 2 infant deaths per 1000.  In the European Union as a whole, there are about 4 deaths per 1000 according to the CIA world Fact Book.  Once again, rather than a demographic crisis, our crisis is an inability to care for our population.  Certainly, anyone worried about our economic or military strength might begin by tackling the causes of infant mortality.  But, this would mean diverting profits towards human needs.  Re-thinking profits and capitalism itself would undermine the logic of militarism and nationalism.


Supposing that the United States provided free access to abortion, birth control, all health care, and social conditions favorable to reproduction (paid leave, free day care, adequate housing, etc.)  Even if these conditions were met, women have no obligation to reproduce the next generation.  They should not be scapegoated for demographic crisis.  In the end, it is up to society to creatively adapt to changing populations- not women.


Racism and Classism:

The article concluded that a key to averting Duluth’s demographic crisis is promoting immigration to the city.   Regarding this point, Mayor Larson said,  “Duluth needs to be a community that is welcoming and open to new experiences, new faces, new ethnicities, new races to solve workforce shortages (Johnson, 2018).”  I think that it is generally a positive, feel good conclusion, since well, who doesn’t want Duluth to be a more welcoming city?  The mayor suggests working with education and health care partners to attract more diversity to the city.  Hmm…alright.  What does really this mean?


In a subtle way, the statement hints at what kind of diversity is acceptable in Duluth.  I interpret working with education and health care partners to mean attracting diversity by attracting professionals of color.  The center of this argument is not “let’s build more low income housing so we can attract all of the African Americans in Chicago or Minneapolis who are on housing waiting lists and house those who already exist in our community!”  Duluth DOES have some racial diversity BUT, this diversity is segregated into poor neighborhoods, homeless shelters, and jail.  Yet, because they are poor and people of color, this population is not seen as a solution to the “demographic crisis” because they are an OTHER at best and problem at worse.  They are those people.  Those people who are blamed for crime or making things not like they used to be for white people.  This is another problem with the notion of “demographic crisis”- since demographic crisis always refers to the shortage of a desirable population.  We have a low income population that would probably be happy to invite friends and relatives and grow if Duluth was a more welcoming, less racist, expanded housing, housing and employers ceased discrimination against criminal backgrounds, day care was expanded, public transportation was more reliable, schools were not segregated and plainly racist, etc.


Truly making Duluth a city for everyone, as the Mayor suggested, would mean changing what Duluth is right now.  Right now, Duluth is focused on being a city for business.  In particular, it is a city for businesses that serve tourists.  Centering the city on the tourist industry makes Duluth a city not for everyone, but for middle class, mostly white people, who have the leisure and money to stay at a hotel or the outdoor gear to enjoy our nature.   Duluth can’t be a city for business and for everyone.  We CAN be a city that is for everyone that happens to attract tourists, but the reverse is not possible.  The reverse is what has made Earned Safe and Sick time so controversial, as segments of the business community that are most opposed to it are those sectors that serve tourists (restaurants and hotels).  The reverse has also been what has stalled the Homeless Bill of Rights- because homeless people are a “problem population” not one that should be accounted for in “demographic crisis” and certainly not one that deserves to be treated with basic dignity.  After all, they might just spook the customers!  If we want to be a city for everyone, then we should start by being a city for workers, for the homeless, for people of color, and all of the oppressed in our community.


Conclusion:

Duluth is just one city.  It would be pie in the sky to try to think we can build socialism in a single city.  Many of my suggestions require a massive struggle on a national scale to accomplish.  I do believe that we have local activists with the talent and audience to contribute to such a national struggle.  I am not one of them, but am a small and marginal voice in that struggle.   Beyond the national, there are some things that can be done on a local level.  We can focus local priorities on meeting human needs and support things such as Earned Safe and Sick Time and the Homeless Bill of Rights.  We can challenge the policies of our schools and police to make the city less racist and classist.  We can also think against business interests and promote diverting profits towards social good.  Beyond these material things, I wrote this because I wanted to challenge the ideological logic of “demographic crisis.”  Like many crisis and panics, it is a social construct.  Inherent in this constructed crisis is ageism, racism, sexism, nationalism, and classism.  There are no population problems.   There are only failures of societies to address the needs of populations.  It is only through struggle that we will win the means to address these needs.


Johnson, B. (2018, February 25). ‘Stability’ not enough for Duluth jobs; aging population isn’t being replaced on pace. Retrieved April 11, 2018, from https://www.duluthnewstribune.com/business/workplace/4408874-stability-not-enough-duluth-jobs-aging-population-isnt-being-replaced

https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/rankorder/2091rank.html

End the Lies: Activists Confront Crisis Pregnancy Centers in Duluth

End the Lies: Activists Confront Crisis Pregnancy Centers in Duluth

H. Bradford

3/24/18


On Thursday, March 22nd, activists gathered at the Women’s Care Center in Duluth, MN to draw attention to Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs).  The event was organized by the University of Minnesota-Duluth’s Student Advocates for Choice as part of NARAL’s national End the Lies campaign.  The student organized event in Duluth was also attended by members of several local feminist groups, including H.O.T.D.I.S.H. Militia, Feminist Action Collective, and Feminist Justice League.  On March 21st and 22nd, similar events were held across the country as part of an effort to expose CPCs. These fake clinics use tactics such as deceptive advertisements, websites, and misinformation to deny abortion and other reproductive health services.  The March 22nd protests coincide with NIFLA v. Becerra, a Supreme Court Case which is set to decide whether or not a California law which requires crisis pregnancy centers to post information about abortion and contraceptive services offered by the state and whether or not staff are licensed by the state is constitutional.  NIFLA or National Institute of Family Life Advocates has sued the state of California for their right to mislead women as a matter of free speech.


The Women’s Care Center in Duluth was chosen as the site of protest because it is located across the street from the Women’s Health Center, one of six abortion clinics in Minnesota (State Facts About Abortion: Minnesota, 2018).  In addition to performing abortions, the Women’s Health Center offers STI testing, cancer screening, a variety of contraceptives, annual gynecological exams, menopause care, and other reproductive health services. The Women’s Health Center has provided abortion and other reproductive health care since 1981 to Duluth, as well as large swaths of northern and central Minnesota and Wisconsin as the nearest abortion provider.  In contrast, the similarly named Women’s Care Center was launched in 2012 across the street from the Women’s Health Center (Rupar, 2012). While the Women’s Care Center offers free pregnancy tests, parenting classes, and baby items, it can only be described as an anti-abortion center due to its strategic location, similar name, vague website, and pro-life affiliation. Furthermore, the Women’s Care Center is the annual launching point of the 40 Days of Life Campaign, an annual 40 day anti-choice protest outside of the Women’s Health Center.  Although protesters are commonplace outside the Women’s Health Center on clinic days, the 40 Days of Life means that each fall there are larger numbers of protesters outside of the building and that they are there for longer hours.

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Unfortunately, Duluth is hardly an exception when it comes to crisis pregnancy centers.  As of 2012, there were over 90 crisis pregnancy centers in the state of Minnesota. These fake clinics receive over $2.4 million of state money through the Positive Alternatives Act.  The Naral-Pro Choice Minnesota Foundation found that 73% of the CPCs that they investigated provided false medical claims about the association between abortion and breast cancer, 87% lied about the connection between abortion and severe mental health problems, and 67% provided misleading information about the connection between abortion and infertility.  None of the CPCs investigated referred women to birth control and 67% provided misleading information about the health risks of birth control (State-Funded Deception: Minnesota’s Crisis Pregnancy Centers, 2012). This is just a small sample of the ways in which CPCs use deception and lies to promote an anti-abortion agenda.

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Nationally, CPCs have operated since 1969, when Robert Pearson founded the first center in Hawaii.  Pearson created the template which has been used for decades by CPCs across the country. His manual explicitly called upon CPCs to falsely portray themselves as abortion providers to lure abortion seekers away from actual providers.  His manual instructed “councilors” to never counsel for contraceptives. In a 1994 speech, he said that a women seeking abortion has no right to information that will help her from killing her baby. Make no mistake, CPCs were founded on a concerted effort to deceive.  These fake clinics have flourished in recent decades as they have found support from Focus on the Family and Care Net. They have also obtained state funding through federal “abstinence only” programs, “choose life” license plates, and through tax credits and direct funding allocations (Stacey, n.d.). Image may contain: 3 people, including Jenny Hoffman, people smiling, outdoor


With 2,300 to 3,500 Crisis Pregnancy Centers across the country and fewer than 800 abortion clinics, it is vital for activists to fight the tide of shrinking abortion access.  To this end, feminists should demand an end to state funding to crisis pregnancy centers and work to educate the public about their deceptive tactics with the demand of increased state oversight.  Abortion itself should be destigmatized, state funded, and added to the canon of regular healthcare. It should be safe, legal, and accessible. At the same time, choice cannot exist so long as we live in a society defined by poverty, racism, sexism, ableism, heterosexism, transphobia, and the myriad of oppressions that divide and immersate us.  Choice cannot exist so long as women are paid unequal wages, bear the burden of unpaid labor, and endure the high cost of childcare. Child care should be provided free of charge at facilities that are open all hours and all days. Some Crisis Pregnancy Centers provide clothes and diapers for babies. Lying, anti-abortion organizations should not be left to fill the gaps of our deficient, war mongering state which gives tax breaks to the rich while denying a living wage to the poor.  Housing, healthcare, child care, parental leave, living wages must also be a part of the larger campaign to finally realize the true meaning of choice and thwart the anti-abortion forces once and for all.

Image may contain: Jenny Hoffman, Lyle Matthew Koesterman and Heather Bradford, people smiling

 

 

Sources:

 

Rupar, A. (2012, July 2). Duluth’s only abortion clinic braces for anti-abortion center to open across street. Retrieved March 24, 2018, from http://www.citypages.com/news/duluths-only-abortion-clinic-braces-for-anti-abortion-center-to-open-across-street-6546494

 

Dawn Stacey. (N.D.). The Pregnancy Center Movement: History of Crisis Pregnancy Centers. Crisis Pregnancy Center Watch.  Retrieved MArch 24, 2018 from http://www.motherjones.com/files/cpchistory2.pdf

 

State Facts About Abortion: Minnesota. (2018, January 05). Retrieved March 24, 2018, from https://www.guttmacher.org/fact-sheet/state-facts-about-abortion-minnesota
State-Funded Deception: Minnesota’s Crisis Pregnancy Centers (pp. 1-26, Rep.). (2012). St. Paul, MN: NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota Foundation.

Pandemonium Year in Review

Pandemonium Year in Review

H. Bradford

1/25/18

Pandemonium was founded in October, 2016 as a group that discusses issues related to members of the Bi+ community.  The group also tries to build a sense of identity and community among the members.   Once a month since its founding, Pandemonium has met for “Bi with Pie.”  Bi with Pie is a monthly discussion group which tackles issues related to bi+ identities as well as other LGBTQ topics.  This is an overview of some of the discussions the group has hosted over the last year as well as some suggested goals for 2018.


 

 

January Discussion: Bisexuality and homophobia

In January, we discussed some of the ways in which bisexuals can avoid homophobia and transphobia, but also the realities of biphobia and bi-erasure.   For instance, bisexuals should not assert that everyone is actual bi or bi is the natural state of human sexuality, since this negates and erases the experiences of other sexual identities.

February Discussion:  Bi Identities-

This discussion provided a brief overview of some of the different identities which fall within the bi+ community.   Because we have some new members since this initial discussion, it might be useful to have this discussion again. Image result for bi  umbrella

March Discussion:  Trans in Prison/Letters to Prisoners

In March, Lucas lead a discussion about the oppression of trans individuals in the prison system.  Problems faced by trans prisoners include misgendering, dead naming, placement with male prisoners if female or female prisoners if male, lack of access to hormones, lack of access or expensive access to hygiene or beauty products, etc.  This discussion was followed by an opportunity to write letters to LGBTQ prisoners. Image may contain: one or more people, phone and ring


April Discussion:  Bi Poetry

At the April meeting, Lucas shared some of his own poetry as well as the poetry of several famous bisexual poets.  The poems were discussed for themes related to bisexuality.


 

May Discussion:  Frida Kahlo and Bisexuality

In May, I did a presentation on Frida Kahlo’s bisexuality, as well as her political beliefs.  I discussed the theme of bi-erasure in some media depictions of her. Image may contain: 1 person, text


July Discussion:  Intersectionality and LGBT Organizing

There was no Bi with Pie meeting during the month of June.  However, we met again in July and had a discussion on the topic of intersectionality.   The discussion introduced the topic of intersectionality the way in which LGBT activists have both succeeded and failed to be intersectional.


 

August: Planning Meeting

In August, we met to plan Bi Visibility Day in September.


September:  Poster Making Event:

We did not have a discussion topic in September.  Instead, we gathered together to make posters for Bi Visibility Day.

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Pride:

We had a very small and unprofessional table at Pride.  While our table had a very “do-it-yourself” look, we promoted Bi with Pie, Bi Visibility Day, and sent letters to LGBT prisoners as a solidarity greeting from Pride.   At least two dozen people signed the cards to these prisoners.


 

Bi Visibility Day:

Pandemonium sponsored a very modest Bi Visibility Day picket.  The goal of the event was to draw attention to the existence of bisexuals or the bi+ community  i.e. increase our visibility.  This was the first time we have organized an event like this and it should definitely be on our agenda for 2018.  Bi-visibility day is September 23 rd. Image may contain: 1 person, standing and outdoor Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing and outdoor Image may contain: outdoor


October: Domestic Violence and the LGBTQ Community

Jenny led a great discussion on how intimate partner violence/domestic violence impacts the LGBTQ community.  She showed us an LGBTQ power and control wheel and discussed gaps in services and research.   Since October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month it was a timely talk.


 

December: Bisexuality and Vampires

Our final discussion of 2017  was on the topic of vampires and bisexuality.  The discussion was lively and I only made it through half of the research that I had prepared.  We discussed various representations of bisexuality in vampire media.


Moving Forward-2018 Goals:

Looking back at 2017, I think that Pandemonium hosted some really great discussions on a wide variety of topics.  I also think it was great that we attended Pride and organized a Bi Visibility Day Event.  We attracted some new members, such as G, C, and D, though the group remains fairly small.  Our best attended discussions were the topics of Frida, vampires, and bisexual poetry.   I am sure the group could be larger and more active, but I will admit that as an organizer, I put this group on the back burner.  I do not invest as much of my energy into this group as I do other activist projects that I am involved in.   I  am comfortable with the amount of time I devote to it, as I think it is okay to have a small and low key group.   To avoid burning out, I would like to scale the meetings back a bit, or perhaps mix up discussion based meetings with social activities as we enter the new year.   Also, because I often go to Pizza Luce for other events, I would like to explore alternative meeting venues and meeting ideas.  Here are some suggestions for 2018.


-Have less frequent meetings- perhaps bi-monthly. -Continue to have meetings with an educational discussion focus combined with some social events -Rethink Bi with Pie.  Could we do Bi with Bites- and meet elsewhere for appetizers?  Or Bi with Baklava and meet at Coney Island for Baklava.  Maybe Bi and Beaners?  I would like to move away from buying a pizza for the group for my own budgeting… -Try to promote Prism’s Events and better collaborate with Prism -Do a meet and greet with CSS Queer-Straight Alliance to promote our group. -Try to do something for Pansexual Awareness Day on December 8th! -Consider if we wish to do any LGBT prisoner work this year.  If we do, we must re-visit if Lucas is welcome to participate in the group since he is the main contact and organizer with local criminal justice work.  He has not participated in the group due to concerns about his criminal history -Consider other avenues of bi+ activism -Promote the BECAUSE conference in October -February- no regular meeting, but encourage members to attend feminism beyond the binary -March: Host a discussion on bisexuality and women’s history/feminism for March/Women’s History Month OR revisit last year’s presentation on various bi-sexual identities. -April: Host a discussion or panel on bisexuality and autism for our April meeting- Autism Awareness Day -May:  Topic TBA -June:   Perhaps a fun social event- like a bi bonfire on Wisconsin Point? -July:  Host a birthday party or birthday celebration for Frida Kahlo.  We can revisit the presentation I did last year on Frida’s sexuality or invite someone else to present. -August: Topic TBA -September:  Organize Bisexual Awareness Day/ Consider a Pride Table (though I will be out of town)


-October:  Host a panel or discussion on domestic violence and the LGBTQ community again.   Perhaps work with Prism to co-sponsor this event.  We could reach out to the Education Coordinator at Safe Haven to see if she would be willing to present this or facilitate the discussion.   This is a great way to plug into Domestic Violence Awareness Month.


-November:  Topic TBD


-December:  Consider not having a meeting due to the busy holiday season.

Pansexual Awareness Day- December 8th


 

A Conversation with a Pro-Lifer

A Conversation with a Pro-Lifer

H. Bradford

1/23/18

Today I attended Party in the Plaza, a celebration of choice.  This event is also a counter protest of the Jericho March, an annual anti-choice march held on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.  It was a cold, windy January day outside of the Building for Women.  It was also Monday at noon, which diminished our numbers.  About an hour into the pro-choice protest, an anti-choice fellow who I will call Jim- approached me for a debate.  I don’t often debate the other side.  It is absolutely of no value, since we are so opposite in world views.  But, Jim was kind of annoying.  He had already harassed three people in the group.  He basically told “S” that she was going to go to hell.  Even as she danced and tried to ignore him, he shamed her for having fun and making light of the serious nature of abortion.  He also engaged in conversation with two people who very clearly said they did not wish to debate and did not consent to debating.  He actually ignored the word “consent”!  I was quietly appalled that he talked over them, ignored their wishes, and coaxed them into talking- even when they made it very clear they had no interest or desire to engage.  The blatant male entitlement was astonishing.   Eventually, he moved over to me.  I engaged, but I thought it might be a way to sharpen my debate skills and uncover some of my rhetorical weaknesses.  Here is a summary of how it went:

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Jim:  I just want to ask you why you are here.  When you see this innocent life, aren’t you bothered? (Jim is holding a sign of a mangled fetus that looks to be late term- perhaps eight or nine months). H.  Innocence is a social construct.  I am here because I support adult women.  I am here because I care about the life that already exists in society.  The poor, people of color, women, those who are bred to die in our imperialist wars, the mass incarcerated…


Jim: Good, I also care about those things.  But what about the unborn?  The little ones who no one speaks for?

H. You are here for them.

Jim:  You know, a fetus has a heartbeat at six weeks. (Not sure if this is the number of weeks he stated).

H.  Cows and frogs have heartbeats. Does a heartbeat offer special rights?

J. Those are animals.

H. Humans are animals.

J. Humans are mammals but they are not animals.

H. ?

J. Humans are different because they are made in God’s image.

H. I don’t believe in God.  Do you have an argument which does not invoke God?

J. Even if you don’t believe in God, God believes in you.  God puts morality in our hearts, which is how we know right and wrong.  (Provides examples of morality which I am not sure are culturally universal, but I don’t argue.)


H. The ability to say abortion is wrong requires specific knowledge of how reproduction works.  In Biblical times, people were pretty clueless of how reproduction works, which has continued until modern times.  Until the 1800s, people still believed that women contributed nothing to the pregnancy and that all genetic material came from men.  Fallopian tubes were not discovered until the 1600s.  Ova not until the microscope.  (S. chimes in that scientists believed in homuculus- or tiny humans in semen.)  This is why the Catholic church believed in delayed ensoulment in the 1600s and really didn’t come out against abortion until the 1800s (when the science of reproduction was understood).  <Side note, I don’t like to use religious arguments because you can’t out-Christian a Christian…but, whatever>.


J. No, God knew how reproduction worked and even if the specifics were not known to man, God knew that it was immoral.  (Uses the story of Onan masturbating as an example).


H. I don’t think that is a good example of God knowing how reproduction works.


J.  Have you heard of the Holocaust (I nod my head)?  Abortion is like the holocaust since it specifically targets a group of people, marking them for death.  I am sure that you have heard of the Nazis and what they did to the Jews.


H. Yes, the Holocaust was terrible, which is why we must fight fascism.  We must be vigilant against far right movements and aware that they often align themselves with religious institutions. (He was trying to compare abortion to genocide and ageism, which I didn’t specifically address).


J. There have been six million innocent lives lost to abortion.

H. To tell you the truth, I don’t care if it is a billion.  I believe that abortion is a fundamental right of women and essential for their full participation in society.  I don’t believe that anyone should be forced to be pregnant.  I personally never want to be pregnant and can’t imagine gestating a child just to appeal to someone’s morality based upon a several thousand year old religion.


J. You are passionate about the rights of women, but what about unborn women? H. A fetus is dependent upon women for life.  The rights of women supersede any rights of the unborn.


J. What about the sanctity of life?

H. Many things are alive, but do not have rights.  We do not offer rights to the grass.  I mean, I would like it if people had gardens instead of lawns, but I am not going to legislate that people can’t mow (I was purposefully being a bit sacrilegious comparing fetuses to grass).


J. Let me ask you this.  Have you ever held a baby?  Do you have any nephews or nieces?

H. Yes, I have held a baby.

J. And how did you feel looking into that baby’s cute little face?

H. I felt that babies cry and poop a lot.  Babies have a lot of needs.  (While many pro-choice people love babies and have children, I am really unmoved by babies).

J. Didn’t you feel that they were so innocent and pure?

H. No, not really.

J. How about murder, are you against murder?


H. (I pause to think and garble something about self defense, but really don’t want to share my philosophy on the morality or immorality of violence in the context of capitalism).

J. If someone murdered your friends, you  would be upset- right?

 

H. Yes, I would be upset.


J. What about abortion, which is murder?

H. I really believe that abortion is fundamental to the rights of women and our ability to be full and equal members of society.  I believe that our equality and participation in society trumps the interests of fetuses.  I don’t want to be a parent or forced to be pregnant.


J. You shouldn’t be a parent. S. chimed in that it wasn’t a nice thing to say.

H. No, I really shouldn’t.  No one should have a child if they don’t want to have one.

J. I agree.


H. At the end of the day, there is nothing you will say that will change my mind.  And, there is nothing I will say that will change yours.  We have very different world views.  There are other people on my side (pro-choice), some of them are religious.  But, I am an atheist.  I think it is better to focus on common issues.  For instance, there have been pro-life people in the anti-war movement.  There are pro-life people who work against the death penalty.  I have worked perfectly well with them on these other issues. (I also wanted to add that I am a Marxist, but didn’t want to open that can of worms).


J. No one is actually an atheist, since this requires faith.


H. (This is actually true and leads to a complicated argument).  Yes, that is actually correct.  The existence of God can not be absolutely discounted.  In the same way, we can never prove that there are no purple pandas on the sun.  However, the likelihood of purple pandas on the sun is so low that for all practical purposes I am a purple panda atheist.


J. You are actually agnostic.

H. When I say that I am an atheist, it means that I don’t believe there is evidence that would lead me to believe in God as defined by human societies.  (What is God?  How would a God be operationalized? How would a God be measured? But anyway…thanks for telling me what I am…)


J. Where does life come from?  Life is so complex that evolutionary science can’t explain…

H.  Evolutionary scientists don’t try to answer where life began.  Their main concern is how life changes over time.  There may never be complete answers to how life began or the complexities of the universe, but that doesn’t mean that God exists.  (As a trend, throughout history when something is unknown God is used to fill in the blank.  What causes rainbows?  God.  What causes the sun to rise?  God.  What causes the rain? God.  but with scientific knowledge, the pool of unknowns begins to shrink and God fills in the blank less.  So now, we are left with fewer questions such as- where did life come from?)


J. No, you are wrong!  Evolutionary scientists care where life began and had a conference wherein several top scientists concluded that God must exist.  (There were some specifics about this conference, but I don’t remember these details.  I felt that this was mansplaining, since evolutionary scientists don’t specifically study the origin of life.  Some geologists, paleontologists, chemists, astronomers, etc. may work on this question, but it is not specifically a question of evolutionary biology). The truth is that God made all of us and you are part of his perfect creation.


H. I do know that there have been five extinction events and that over 95% of the life on earth that ever lived has gone extinct.  (Correction, 99.9% of all life has gone extinct).  I think humans are here for a short time and we should just do our best to live well and treat each other well, since one day we will be like the trilobites.

J.  I don’t know what made you this way, but I was once a rebel too.  I am going to pray for you tonight.


Conclusion:

I don’t think I was on my A-game with the argument.  In the end, I was tired.  Debating is tiring!  I don’t like to debate, since I don’t want the other side to feel that I am the voice of the pro-choice movement.  The pro-choice movement is diverse.  Many of those involved are religious.  Many are mothers who love babies and children.  I feel that I don’t represent the movement well since I am a stubborn atheist with unconventional morality.  I do feel somewhat insulted when religious people ask me what made me this way?  I was never angry at God.  I never rebelled against God.  My faith simply changed.  It passed briefly into a deep spirituality of scientific pantheism until it naturally became atheism.  Spirituality was the training wheels to my atheism.  Becoming a Marxist also aided that process.  While I am not angry that God, I am angry with the pro-life movement.  I am angry that they shame people who seek abortions.  I am angry that they seek to control sexuality.  I am mad that they seem to care more about “innocent” babies than grown women or that they pit “innocence” against the sin and guilt of women whom they fault for their poor choices.  I am unapologetically pro-choice.  In fact, I am pro-abortion because I feel that it is health care.  I don’t place moral value on a dental visit or cancer treatment.  Abortion is one facet of reproductive health.  There is too much shame, silence, and stigma for me to back down from that position.  This is a fight that I will continue in the years to come.  I hope one day we advance as a society so that abortion is not looked at as a moral issue.  I hope one day it is not a controversy, but a widely available service that long ago was accepted as vital to gender autonomy and equality.

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Photo from last year’s event

Feminist Justice League Year in Review

Feminist Justice League Year in Review

H. Bradford

1/16/18

2017 was a big year for feminism.  The election of Donald Trump mobilized feminists towards activism, which was expressed through events such as the Women’s March, International Women’s Day Strike, protests and social media campaigns regarding sexual harassment and assault, forming new groups, and more.  It is an exciting time to be a feminist, to be sure.  Locally, there has been a flourishing of feminist activities this past year.  The Feminist Action Collective emerged in November 2016 as a large, active, vibrate group which has sponsored a variety of successful events over the past year.  Locally, we have also seen the re-emergence of the HOTDISH Militia, which began in 2002 but had become inactive over the years.  Our group, the Feminist Justice League, was established several years ago during a much less active time in feminist organizing.  The renewed interest in feminism creates new challenges and opportunities for our group.  The following is an overview of our activism in 2017 as well as our outlook for 2018.


 

January 2017 Women’s March, Duluth MN:

2017 started off big with several January events.  The first was the January 2017 Women’s March.  The Feminist Action Collective organized buses to Washington DC, but there was also a local march in Duluth.  One of our members, A. attended the march in Washington DC and later reported her experience back to the group at an event we hosted as a local coffee shop.  It was an inspiring experience for her, despite some mechanical mishaps experienced by the bus.  Several members of the Feminist Justice League participated in the local march in Duluth, which was attended by several thousand people.  This year, Feminist Action Collective is organizing an anniversary march.  Feminist Justice League is supporting their efforts in a number of ways.  Firstly, we have endorsed the event.  Secondly, we are going to make some posters for the event on Friday.  Thirdly, I have tried to promote their event by obtaining sponsors for them, such as Occupy Duluth, Socialist Action, and Safe Haven.  A. and I will also serve as Peace Marshalls at the event.

an image from the Duluth News Tribune- Duluth Women’s March

 

Glow for Roe:

Feminist Justice League organized Glow for Roe last year, which happened to fall on the SAME day as the Women’s March and Dough for Utero.  Although it was an extremely busy day, about two dozen people showed up to hold glow sticks for our glow in the dark protest in support of reproductive rights.  We have done this event twice before and this was the most successful year for that particular protest.  However, in 2018, we are not hosting a Glow for Roe event.  This is because there is already a Women’s March, Dough for Utero, and Party on the Plaza.  Glow for Roe was developed when there was far less feminist activism, so moving towards the future, it may not be as necessary as it was in the past.  Still, a glow in the dark protest is a fun idea, so perhaps it will return in 2019! Image may contain: 4 people, night and outdoor

Dough for Utero and Party in the Plaza:

January 2017 also saw Dough for Utero and Party in the Plaza, which were both organized by Hotdish Militia and the Women’s Health Center.  Dough for Utero featured $19.73 pizza and beer, raising more money than any previous fundraiser.  Party in the Plaza was a vibrant event in which several Feminist Justice League members attended.  We contributed to the event by promoting it and providing picket signs.  Certainly, 2017 saw more activism related to reproductive rights than there has been in Duluth for a long time! Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing, dog and outdoor

Valentine Letters to Prisoners

In February, Feminist Justice League co-sponsored a Valentine Letters to Prisoners event with Superior Save the Kids.  The goal of the event was to send solidarity cards to prisoners near Valentine’s Day.  In Christian traditions, Valentine cards were first exchanged by St. Valentine while he was in a Roman prison, so the theme seemed suiting.  The event was attended by several people and was a way for our group to be more intersectional as we tried to connect feminism with issues in the criminal justice system.

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A photo of A.C.’s letters last year

Homeless Bill of Rights Letter Writing:

Feminist Justice League hosted a small letter writing event, wherein members gathered at a coffee shop and wrote letters to the editor to various news outlets regarding the passage of the Homeless Bill of Rights.  Feminist Justice League is one of the endorsing organizations of the Homeless Bill of Rights.  A year later, the homeless bill has not yet passed, protracting this already long struggle to pass a bill ensuring that homeless individuals are treated with dignity.


International Women’s Day Strike:

In March, Feminist Justice League organized a symbolic strike for International Women’s Day.  The strike was a protest that lasted for 78 minutes to highlight the pay gap between men and women.  At various intervals, we banged on pots to highlight the pay gap between Hispanic women, African American women, Native American women, Pacific Islander women, and women over the age of 55 and men.  This event was followed by a panel, wherein several speakers discussed labor issues and gender.  The event was successful in that it was covered by several news outlets and was even mentioned in a British Socialist newspaper! Image may contain: 2 people, people standing, hat, child and outdoor

HOTDISH Militia Bowl-a-Thon:

The biggest event that Feminist Justice League participated in April was HOTDISH Militia’s bowl-a-thon.  We had a team of about seven people and though I don’t remember the exact number, I believe we raised over $600.  Our team dressed as superheroes at the event and won a prize for best costumes.  It was a fun event and HOTDISH Militia’s best fundraising event yet!  They reached their fundraising goal and were able to obtain matched funds to help low income women access reproductive health care locally. Image may contain: 5 people, people smiling, people standing and indoor

Graham Garfield Petition:

In May, members of the Feminist Justice League participated in several events related to the Graham Garfield domestic violence case.  We were able to develop a successful petition which contributed to his resignation as a Superior City Councilor.  However, interest in the case waned over time and although his trial is ongoing, there is little activism around it at this time. Still, I think that the group was able to effectively work towards his resignation and can be proud that we sought to educate the community about myths regarding domestic violence.


 

Mother’s Day Letters to Prisoners/Film Showing:

During the month of May, Feminist Justice League co-sponsored a film showing about incarcerated mothers with Superior Save the Kids.  The group also co-sponsored a mother’s day themed Letters to Prisoners event.  By helping to host and support these events, Feminist Justice League hopes to connect feminism with other issues.


 

Chalk for Choice:

During the summer and fall, Feminist Justice League sponsored Chalk for Choice events on the evening before clinic days at the Women’s Health Center.  While these events are often only attended by a few people, our group receives a lot of positive feedback from workers at the WHC.  During these events, we draw or write supportive images and messages for the patients and workers who utilize the Women’s Health Center.  The events provides us with a creative niche for our activism.  Looking at 2018, it should certainly continue these events as they are easy to organize, do not require large numbers of participants, and are a unique way to promote reproductive rights. No automatic alt text available.

40 Days of Choice:

For the past several years, Feminist Justice League has organized events for 40 Days of Choice, which happens each year in September and October in response to the 40 Days of Life.  The 40 Days of Life is an international campaign wherein pro-life activists gather outside of abortion clinics and reproductive health centers to pray and protest to end abortion.  The Feminist Justice League was actually founded in response to this annual pro-life campaign.  This year, as in year’s past, we participated in the event by hosting Friday pro-choice pickets.  Some of the pickets were smaller than in year’s past owing to FJL’s dwindling numbers.  On the other hand, some were larger owing to the participating of the HOTDISH milia this year.  HOTDISH sponsored its own Thursday pickets.  Our goal next year should be to increase the numbers at these events by bolstering our own membership, continued collaboration with Hotdish, and improved collaboration with Feminist Action Collective.  This year, we also hosted a successful launching party for the 40 Days of Choice, but the success of the event would not have been possible without HOTDISH Milia’s collaboration and WHC’s support. Image may contain: 1 person, child and outdoor

Feminist Frolics:

Once a month throughout the year, Feminist Justice League hosted events called Feminist Frolics.  These events usually do not attract more than four or five people, but are high quality educational opportunities and community building events.  This year’s highlights include a citizen science project wherein were learned about women in science and learned how to test the health of a river by examining small fauna such as snails, worms, and insect larvae.  We also learned how to geocache and did this while collecting garbage.  I researched women and waste management and did a short presentation on that topic for our event.  We also learned more about fungi and one of our members, Ar., told us about her experiences gathering and selling mushrooms to local businesses.   A few of us also attended a Halloween themed event wherein we hiked to an abandoned cemetery at night and learned about the history of witches and capitalism, based upon my readings on that topic.  We have not done a frolic in a few months due to cold weather, but we can consider planning more at our next meeting.  My suggestion is that we continued them, but on a more irregular basis in 2018.  Personally, I put a great deal of effort into researching these topics and lack the time I once had.  However, I think that these events remain viable if we can find others who are willing to research and present the topics.  These events remain important because they are an opportunity for learning, connecting to nature, and bonding. Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, sitting, child, shoes and outdoor

Spark in the Dark:

Following the swarm of sexual harassment and assault cases involving celebrities and politicians, FJL organized a small protest against assault and harassment.  The goal was to believe victims, hold public figures accountable, and make ourselves visible.  The evening event was attended by about a dozen activists, despite chilly weather.  In the end, we lit sparklers to symbolize the spark of social movement organizing around these issues but also light in darkness. Image may contain: 2 people, people smiling, people standing and crowd

Christmas Cards to Prisoners:

The same day as the Spark in the Dark event, we once again collaborated with Letters to Prisoners/Save the Kids to send Christmas Cards to Prisoners.  The event was the best attended Letters to Prisoners event yet.  It was hosted at Amazing Grace Cafe and activists at the event were interviewed by a newspaper. Image may contain: 4 people, people smiling, people sitting, table and indoor

 

Looking at 2018

 

Our Challenges and Assets:

As we move into 2018, our biggest challenge by far is that we have a small, active membership.  Over the years, we have lost a few people who used to be more active in the group.  One of our active members, A., has recently had a child so she will not be as active for a while.  Two of our members, C. and An., have young children so they will not be able to participate as much as they would like.  Children should not be a barrier to participation and this also shows our weakness in providing child care.  Since we are small, it is hard to provide this service.  At the same time, perhaps we can think of alternative roles for these members, such as posting online content to our Facebook page.  Small membership limits what we can do as an organization but also has a demoralizing effect.  I often wonder if I have personally failed as an activist when our numbers are low.  Thus, we should brainstorm ways in which we can attract new members.  Ideas towards this end might include collaborating with other organizations, tabling at events, putting up fliers more often, and advertising ourselves more on community calendars.  I think it is also important to reframe what success looks like and better work with what we have.  If interest in feminism is generally increased and other organizations have seen new members, then we should celebrate the overall victory of feminism, even if our organization is small.  Further, even a small organization can maximize its impact in the community through collaboration with others.


Despite our low numbers, we do have some assets.  I am proud of the many events that our group sponsored and organized last year.  We also have some great members with some useful knowledge and skills.  Both J. and I work in the field of domestic violence, which I think puts us in a good position to do activism related to this. I also work part time at the WHC, so I think this will help us continue our reproductive rights activism. We have a new member named C, who is smart, knowledgeable of science, and very active in criminal justice activism.  A. is a male member and close friend who is an asset to the group because of his long history of local activism, especially his labor activism.  We have several members who sometimes attend, but perhaps get spread thin by their own activist schedules.  Overall, we often attract low-income and working class activists to our group.  We also often attract members who have experienced homelessness, trauma, mental health issues, poverty, violence, etc.  I think that we can be proud of ourselves if we continue to be an organization that creates space for those who experience multiple oppressions.  While these things can be barriers to activism, it can inform the sorts of issues we work on and perspectives we promote.  At the same time, our organization mostly attracts white people.  There is no immediate solution to making our group more diverse, but, we should always be mindful of the pitfalls of “White feminism” and seriously consider how the group can tackle racism along with sexism.   Sponsoring, promoting, attending, and collaborating with anti-racism activism is one step in that direction.


Finally, several of our key members and most of those who attend our events are anti-capitalist.  This can help us create a niche in the feminist movement.  Although we are a small group, we can act as a complimentary group to FAC.  FAC is a larger group that appeals to a broader group of people.  However, based upon their focus on candidate events, female identity, representation in politics and the business community, etc. the group leans towards liberal feminist ideology.  Our niche in comparison is that we should try to attract anarchist and socialist feminists or provide space to promote those ideologies.  While this ideological focus is less popular, promoting anti-capitalist feminism is a way to differentiate ourselves and what we do.  This should not be rigid nor a requirement for participation/membership- but a useful framework for focusing the organization’s tactics and issues.  The goal is not to compete with other feminist groups, but to broaden the overall feminist movement through theoretical diversity while collaborating on common causes.


Our Goals:

Based upon the following summary, I suggest the following goals for 2018.

 

  1. Co-sponsor a Letters to Prisoners Valentine, Mother’s Day, and Christmas events in 2018 to continue criminal justice related work.
  2. Continue Feminist Frolics on a more limited basis in 2018.  For instance, create feminist history geocaches in the area for Women’s History Month in March.
  3. Host an event for International Women’s Day in March (depending upon other local events)
  4. Consider collaborating with other organizations to create a community Take Back the Night this summer as the major undertaking of the year.
  5. Continue to Chalk for Choice in the warmer months.
  6. Continue the 40 Days of Choice events.
  7. Work more closely with Feminist Action Collective
  8. Continue to work with HOTDISH Militia
  9. Consider other projects such as a Stitch and Bitch Group
  10. Plan an action related to Crisis Pregnancy Centers
  11. Participate in the Bowl-a-Thon
  12. Host a socialist feminist educational event
  13. Increase our membership by at least one or two core members
  14. Collaborate with and support other organizations and events in areas such as labor, anti-racism, environment, indigenous rights, anti-war, sex workers rights, LGBT issues, reproductive rights, mass incarceration, US imperialism, etc.
  15. Table, put up fliers, make better use of the media
  16. Continue to consider our purpose and niche so that we remain relevant
  17. Try to promote ourselves more!  We could make buttons…

 

In Defense of Protest

In Defense of Protest

H. Bradford

1/15/18

Across the world next weekend, there will be marches to mark the anniversary of the Women’s March.  Last year’s marches in defense of women’s rights brought over five million people together in events held in over 80 countries.  Despite the historic size of the marches and the epic accomplishment of bringing so many people together, these event has been widely criticized.  Worse,  the very notion of protest has been critiqued as ineffective, outdated, or inferior to other methods of social change (namely, electoral politics).  Disagreements about tactics or critiques of events themselves have the potential of helping movements to grow, become more inclusive, correct mistakes, sharpen messages and demands, etc.  At the same time, there is something deeply pessimistic, and worse yet, submissive to capitalism, about the critique of protest itself.  This is why I will take a moment to defend protest.


Why Protest?

To begin, it is useful to ask what is the point of protesting?  From an organizer perspective, the general goal of protest is to bring a group of people together to highlight an issue or injustice and make a demand.  This action is a public display of dissatisfaction with the status quo and a call for change.  The power of protest is that it is visible, massive, public, uniting, and disruptive.  Another positive aspect of protesting is that it can be done immediately, without having to wait for election cycles.  For those who are alienated from the political system, it is way to voice an opinion or concern which may not be addressed by politicians or ruling parties.  It is also an opportunity for those with power to react with promises, concessions, or changes to avoid being ousted from power.  Ideally, protest is a method of challenging and reshaping power.  It can be a pathway to revolution.  For example, in March 1917, women gathered in St. Petersburg, Russia to march, mainly demanding bread (or an end to war time food rationing).  They were joined by striking workers and within a few days, the protests swelled to 200,000- demanding not only food but an end to the Tsar itself.  Tsar Alexander abdicated eight days later, ending three hundred years of Romanov rule.  One of the early events of the French revolution was The Women’s March on Versailles, which began on October 5th, 1789 when women began rioting in Paris’ markets over the cost and scarcity of bread.  This swelled to thousands of women, who marched to Versailles Palace to not only demand bread but political reforms.  Certainly, very few protests in history have resulted in such dramatic overhauls of systems of power.  But, there are many examples of protests that resulted in significant reforms.  The March on Washington in 1963 pushed the United States government towards passing the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act.  While social movements employ a variety of tactics, protest in one form or another, played an important role in many social changes in history from winning women the right to vote to earning the right to an eight hour day.

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Women’s March on Versailles

Protesting doesn’t work…

While historically, protests have won us many of the rights we often take for granted, there is a great deal of cynicism that this tactic works or remains relevant.  It is easy to see why people may feel that protesting fails.  In recent years, there have been many massive protests that have not resulted in much significant or obvious social change.  In February 2003, millions of people around the world protested the Iraq War, but this did not avert the war and over the years, the anti-war movement his dissipated into invisibility.  The Occupy Movement drew attention to such things as economic inequality, the commons, bank bailouts, and fictitious capital, but it was ended largely through the criminalization of the movement (i.e. law enforcement broke it up).  Climate change threatens to bring on a mass extinction event and it seems protest has done little to slow it.  Protest could not stop Scott Walker from hobbling public unions in WI.

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February 15th Iraq War Protest

Redefining Success:

It is hard to know the impact of recent protests, since history continues.  We live in a moment of time, only able to see the defeats behind us.  Successful protests seem to be somewhere further in history or in some far off place in the world.  When success feels distant, it is easy to become demoralized.  Many people may not even be aware of past victories won through protest, because mainstream history tends to focus on great individuals rather than the accomplishments of mass movements.   Viewing history in this manner makes it hard to imagine the possibility that ordinary people can come together en mass and create social change.  This is why it is useful to both redefine what success looks like but also refocus history.  Because I am a revolutionary socialist, my ideal vision of success is the end of capitalism.  I would like to see a world where no one goes hungry, war is no more, climate change is stopped, everyone is housed and clothed, reproductive rights are a given, education is free, health care is a human right, and all people are treated with dignity and full humanity.  This requires both a long view of history but also a long view of the future.  In this viewpoint, protest in the interest of this future is never a failure.


Consider the Iraq War movement.  The failure to end the U.S. war on terror is painful.  But, was this movement a failure?  My first steps to becoming an activist were in 2003.  That was when I became a socialist.  Before I was a feminist activist, I was an anti-war activist.  It is through considering global issues like war, poverty, and colonization that I became a socialist to begin with.  It is through becoming a socialist, that I became a feminist.  On a personal level, the Iraq War movement was part of my political coming of age.  I imagine there are others like me.  And, there are those who participated in their first protest when they attended the Women’s March last year.  That will be part of their political coming of age.  These protests did not bring down patriarchy or thwart U.S. imperialism, but they are part of the process of creating people who will make change.  Even when protest fails in a traditional sense, it can be powerful in personal ways.

Image result for women's march

At the same time, while some protests have not yielded the necessary and immediate results that one would hope for, they have not been for nothing.  There are plenty of times that I have participated in protests of less than a dozen people.  This certainly feels like a failure.  However, it puts a message out into public space.  It may spark a conversation.  At the minimum, it shows the world that this is an issue that a few people think matters.  On the other hand, there are much larger protest movements that may be seen as failure since they became smaller or disappeared.  The Occupy movement resulted in the popularization of a tactic: to occupy!  It also generated interest in anti-capitalist politics and perhaps in spotlighting social inequality, inspired other movements, such as the movement for $15 an hour minimum wage.  The Women’s March last January was followed by a burgeoning of feminist activism over the past year including #MeToo and the International Women’s Day Strike.  The story is not over because history is not over.


Alternatives to Protest:

There are of course, alternatives to protest.  To clarify, when I speak of protests I refer to activities such as marches, pickets, sit-ins, and demonstrations.  These are public events with participation ranging from a handful to millions.  Alternatives to protest include such things as voting, boycotts, divestment, petitions, lawsuits, strike, riot, terrorism, and warfare.  A strike would be a wonderful tactic since it wields a lot of social power.  However, it is not an easy tactic to pull off because many people fear losing their jobs, union membership is not widespread, and most people do not have experience with even more basic labor activism.  This is an aspirational tactic which protest could and should be built towards.  Terrorism and warfare are not on the table for most activists because they are violent, can result in criminal charges or death, are usually not mass movements, and alienate potential supporters.  Boycotts, petitions, and divestment can be useful tools in an activist tool box.  The only shortcoming is that they are often private, so those who are not involved in the movement may not know about them and those who are involved may not feel connected to a larger movement in the same way a protest brings people together.  Legal actions can also be a useful front, but again, this is not as public, massive, and visible.  Even voting or electoral politics can compliment protests.  But, none of these things should replace or usurp protests (well, strikes could but usually massive strikes also include protests).  It seems to me, when there is critique of protest, the alternative tactic suggested is voting.

Image result for divestment and apartheid
This is an example of protest combined with divestment.  In this case, activists were asking for divestment from apartheid South Africa.  Apartheid in South Africa was ended through a variety of tactics, including riots, labor organizing, divestment, protest, international sanctions,  boycotts, armed struggle, etc.

Political Process and Protest


I am extremely alienated from the U.S. political system.  Because both major parties fully support the continuation of U.S. capitalism and the resulting imperialist foreign policy of violence, poverty, and oppression, I can’t get behind Democrats or Republicans.  Therefore, I tend to avoid activist events that involve meeting politicians, phone banking for politicians, or really, anything that diverts energy towards getting candidates elected.  I am open to these tactics for candidates from anti-capitalist parties, but the goal shifts in these situations.  Since individuals who are not a part of mainstream political parties are not likely to win an election, the goal of campaigns tends to be more educational.  These campaigns might be used to point out the political shortcomings or hypocrisies of other candidates, educate people about socialism, or popularize anti-capitalist ideas.  This approach may be hard for others to understand, but at my core, I don’t really care about the existence or well-being of the United States as a nation.  I care about the working people or oppressed people of the world.  Thus, I find it hard to participate in the electoral process of the United States, as once again, both parties generally want to continue the U.S. dominance of the world and capitalism.  Still, I do not absolutely rule out participation in the political process as an activist tool.  I simply do not emphasize it as a prominent tool.


Bringing the topic back to protest, if social movements are effective in mass mobilizations, they can shift the political system without necessarily voting.  For instance, if a protest movement becomes widespread and it seems clear that public sentiment has shifted, politicians will shift.  After all, they want to be re-elected or at least see that their party is re-elected.  Social movements make it “safe” for mainstream politicians to support same sex marriage, utter the word climate change, or proclaim that they are for the 99%.  Thus, the horse is always social movements and the cart is the politicians being dragged along to speak to public sentiment.  Mainstream electoral politics doesn’t favor the brave.  Ideally, it would be wonderful to build space for alternative parties and reforms to our political system that create more opportunities for political representation from a variety of viewpoints.  This won’t happen with the acceptance of lesser evilism, a concession to perpetual disappointment, disempowerment, and disillusionment.


Why so Cynical?

I think there are many reasons why protests are critiqued.  I have only touched on a few.  At the heart of some of the critique is the notion that they have not been working.  It is certainly sad and frustrating to see so much misery and destruction go on, seemingly unchecked.  And, while I can be optimistic about small victories or alternative successes, this means little to those who struggle without a living wage, are brutalized by the police, watch natural resources wrenched from the earth while the planet warms, cannot afford housing, die of preventable disease, live in warzones, or all of the other sufferings in the world.  Change is needed immediately and systemically.  Protests themselves sometimes fail to be inclusive or fail to connect to other struggles.  Beyond this, there is the problem that most people are not engaged in political struggle.  The “masses” are often dismissed as fat, stupid, and reactionary.  It is hard to see our future liberation in the faces of the oppressed in our midst.  Once again, one might find inspiration in the long view of history.  In 1524, illiterate peasants gathered in the Black Forest and managed to create demands, create a banner, and elect leaders, launching the Peasants’ Wars in Germany (which were brutally suppressed, but it is always impressive when a group with little political experience or social leverage manages to organize and fight).  Our president recently designated Africa and Haiti as “shithole” places.  The Haitian revolution was the most successful slave revolt in history- which horrified Europeans with the reality that Black people could defeat white power and govern themselves.  The “shithole” countries of Africa managed to eventually defeat European colonial rule, even if they have not yet defeated capitalism, post-colonial economic relations, and legacies of exploitation.  I bring these examples up because when the masses are dismissed as too stupid, too lazy, too addicted, etc. it not only underestimates them, but concedes that some people are inferior.  This notion of inferiority is thinly veiled classism, racism, sexism, ableism, or other isms.  It is unfortunate that this dismissal of ordinary Americans and the elitism inherent in this sentiment only serves to make Trump more appealing.

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If this is your image of why Americans can’t liberate themselves, consider the classism, fat phobia, ageism, ableism, or other isms which cause you to write off sectors of society as incapable of social change.  People can be mobilized towards many things- from Black Friday shopping to White supremacy.  But, if a person can be mobilized towards these things, then can also be mobilized towards progressive social change with organizing that speaks to the conditions of their oppression and honors their humanity.


There are alternative methods of social change, which certainly can be used with mass demonstrations.  All of these methods may inevitably fail.  Protest as a tactic remains viable inasmuch as it is a visible, social, collective, public expression of the desire for social change.  It also remains viable in the context that working towards systemic change will require mass mobilization.  Tactics should ultimately seek to inspire others towards a cause and serve as a stepping stone to larger more system challenging actions.  Ultimately, what choice is there?  While there may be some tactical choices, there is little room to choose defeat or complacency.  This is not Pascal’s Wager, where faith is a tepid attempt to avoid the possibility of hell.  Hell is here in the creeping barbarism of everyday life in Late Capitalism.  The choice now is between accepting its inevitability or working to end it.  Accepting it is a betrayal of all who suffer and of present life on the planet. Therefore, we must fight relentless and together by all means available, but especially those which offer the most promise of dismantling systems of oppression once and for all.

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Image from 350.org

Frankly, It Isn’t My Feminism

Frankly, It Isn’t My Feminism

Reflections on Al Franken

H. Bradford

I haven’t weighed in publicly on the Al Franken sexual harassment debate.  I don’t have the time to engage in internet debates and I don’t want to alienate allies in the Democratic party, who feel very personally hurt and confused by his resignation.  At the end of the day,  all feminists must work together to end sexual harassment/assault.  Further, as a Marxist feminist, I am in the extreme margins of feminism.  I feel that my opinion means little to most people or that my opinion is a quaint anachronism that is tolerable so long as I do my best to work well with others.   Still, I do want to share my opinion, as I feel very frustrated by some of the ways this debate has been framed.   Thus the following is a laundry list of my Marxist feminist “pet peeves.”

1: Al Franken was a feminist/ally to women


Many people have expressed a sense of grief, loss, disappointment, anger, etc. because of the argument that Al Franken was an ally to women.   I fundamentally disagree with this statement.  He supported the Iraq war in 2003, he has supported airstrikes in Syria, voted for increased sanctions against Iran, approved the national defense budget, voted in favor of PROMESA, he supported Israel’s 2014 attacks on Gaza, against closing Guantanamo Bay, etc.   I have said this many times, but internationalism is central to my feminist beliefs.   US foreign policy is based upon promoting US interests in the world.   The US has violently exerted its power in the interest of profit making.  This has been done through countless coups and wars.  What benefits the continuation violent US hegemony does not benefit women, does not benefit working people, does not benefit oppressed nationalities, does not benefit people of color, does not benefit the environment, and does not benefit the vast majority of the world that lives in poverty.  It does not benefit our own people, who fight in these wars and who pay for these wars (at the expense of social spending towards education, health, jobs, environment, etc.).   Supporting Palestinians is a feminist issue.  Supporting Puerto Rican independence is a feminist issue.  Supporting the end to US wars is a feminist issue.  Politicians who support the status quo of US foreign policy- that is, those who do not question our right to play world police or the assumed moral superiority that nationalism grants us the right to starve, bomb, or destabilize other countries… is not in my opinion a feminist.  Women happen to live ALL over the world.  American women are no more important than women in Syria, Palestine, Pakistan, Iran, Yemen, Afghanistan, North Korea, or Iraq.

This woman in Gaza matters, along with thousands of other people who were killed/injured in Gaza in 2014.  (Image from International Business Times).

 

2. It isn’t Fair that He Stepped Down

The “it isn’t fair” that he stepped down while worse Republicans remain in office is weakest, least morally courageous argument I have heard.   If someone does something bad…something that has hurt women…isn’t the morally responsible thing to do …is take accountability, step back from public life, and quietly work to rebuild trust through atonement?  It doesn’t matter if someone is worse, has done more, or others are not taking accountability.  The “grown up” thing to do when a mistake is made is admit it, apologize, bravely face the consequences, reflect on what happened and how to prevent it again, and work towards remedying the offense.  Yes, it certainly stinks to get in trouble for something when others are evading the consequences of their actions- but if a person truly believes that what they did was wrong, then the punishment of others should be of little concern.   This could have been an opportunity to set an example of how to gracefully, genuinely handle the serious issue sexual harassment.  Instead, Al Franken’s unapologetic resignation made him look like a petulant child- the same sort of behavior one would expect from Donald Trump.


3. Victim Blaming

One of the grossest things throughout this ordeal is the amount of victim blaming.   Despite photographic evidence of Al Franken groping Leann Tweeden, her credibility was attacked because of the bawdy nature of comedy, her conservative interests, her history with Playboy, etc.   Victims who have not identified themselves have even been blamed for not having the courage to reveal themselves- which implies perhaps they are not credible.  Worse, some people bemoan the fact that Al Franken was SUCH a good politician.  Why, he might have had a chance at becoming president some day!  Oh my!  Well, Brock Turner was SUCH a good swimmer!  That pesky sexual assault got in the way of such a promising athletic career.  When people bemoan “what could have been” it blames victims for ruining the careers and futures of offenders.  It is true that groping a sleeping woman is not the same as raping an unconscious woman.  However, there has been a great deal of minimizing Al Franken’s behaviors.   Eight accusations of unwanted touching and kissing IS a big deal.  And yes, Trump’s pussy grabbing and Roy Moore’s grabbing, dating underage women, forcing an underage woman’s head to his crotch, and other allegations of nastiness also matter.  ALL of this matters.  Everyone should resign.  Everyone sucks.  But please, believe victims!!


 

4. Get a Woman into Office!

Another pet peeve has been that the solution to all of this should be the appointment or election of more women into office.  Indeed, the socialization and social position of women in society has not lent itself to the same kinds of oppressive behaviors.  Women are more often the victims of sexual harassment and assault because women it is a method of social control of all women, this keeps women in their place, men feel entitled to women and have historically been entitled to women, women are not socialized to be sexually aggressive or exert control over men in this manner, victims historically and currently are not often believed, this behavior often goes on without consequence, etc.   However, this argument is troubling for a variety of reasons.  For one, it reifies gender.  That is, men and women are different, women are naturally better or less violent/gross/terrible, and the solution must be to include more women in power.  I think that this oversimplifies the problem while reinforcing the gender binary.  It assumes that there is some evil kernel within all men that makes them sexually harass/assault people.   This also ignores transgender, gender queer, gender fluid, or the many other ways to express gender and that these individuals are ALSO often the victims of sexual assault.  It also makes the issue a matter of who is in power rather than a matter of power itself.  Returning to the first point, women in power can be just as terrible- if they are promoting capitalist interests.  The world does not need more Condoleeza Rices, Madeline Albrights, Angela Merkels, Margaret Thatchers, and Hilary Clintons.  Yes, these are women, but they all promoted policies that have hurt women.  While it is less common, men can also be victims of sexual assault and harassment.  Women can sexually harass and assault each other in same sex relationships.  So…this argument is very base to me.  It does not tackle some fundamental issues of power or broader issues of feminism beyond sexual harassment. Image result for madeleine albright starved iraqi children


Beyond this critique, this is a disempowering message to feminists.  This message says that the best thing we can do is hope for a female politician to save us!  Gross.  We should be out in the streets.  Every night should be Take Back the Night.  We should be blocking roads and walking out of our work places in protest of sexual harassment/assault.  We should make power FEAR US.  We should not accept that power should be replaced by a female face.  We should take back power.  We should become power.  Politicians of both parties should fall over themselves to resign, because they fear the rage of millions of mobilized men, women, gender non-conforming, queer, trans, etc. people in the streets demanding  not only accountability….but the destruction of patriarchy itself.   This is a great opportunity for building a mass movement against the machinery of sexist oppression.  A woman will not save us.  We must save ourselves….and this planet.  The politicians will scramble to follow our lead.  If we are smart, we won’t give them the luxury of promises.


Conclusion…

I am sure I could go on, but these are some of the main “peeves” that have angered my socialist sensibilities.   I know that everyone is struggling with these issues.  I know that activism is a path- there is always room to grow and change.  I don’t wish to shame my fellow feminists.  I just…feel like I am alone in the wilderness sometimes.  I am not a Republican or a Democrat.   I don’t have any skin in that game.  I want a new game, with new rules, and new players, and a lot more winning for everyone.  I’m tired of playing Monopoly or Risk.  We are ALL losing.  We will ALL keep losing if we can’t change the discourse and step out of the realm of elections and politicians and into the realm of building the power of mass movements…and labor movement.

Book Review: War Against All Puerto Ricans

Book Review: War Against All Puerto Ricans- Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony

H. Bradford

10/23/2017

Image result for war against all puerto ricans

Like many Americans, I know precious little about Puerto Rico.   I traveled to San Juan briefly in 2016, which piqued my interest.   When I attended a Letters to Prisoners event a few months later, I wrote to Oscar Lopez Rivera, who I didn’t even know about and was surprised that he was still in prison after 36 years.  Last January his sentence was commuted as Barack Obama was leaving office and he has since returned to Puerto Rico to live with his daughter.   After writing to him, I purchased one of his books and a book by Nelson Denis about Puerto Rican’s history entitled: War Against All Puerto Ricans-Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony.   Both books sat in my room, quietly collecting dust until Hurricane Maria hit the island in September.   The climate and colonial nightmare inspired me to finally make time for War Against All Puerto Ricans-Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony something that the U.S. has been making time for since 1898.   The following are some things that I learned from the book.


Denis’ (2015) book does not cover much history prior to the Spanish-American war.  So, the narrative pretty much begins when Puerto Rico shifts hands between Spain to the United States in 1898.  Though, there was an interesting story about Taino resistance to Spanish conquest- as a Taino named Urayoan tricked a Spaniard named Diego Salcedo into believing he was being led to a lake full of virgins. (Why a lake would be full of virgins or the importance of such a lake is another question…).  Instead of finding this lake, he was ambushed, killed, and his body was watched as it decomposed to make certain he was human (as there was some doubt due to immunity to smallpox).  When it was determined that he decayed like everyone else, riots broke out across the island-only to be squashed by Ponce de Leon, who had 6000 Tainos killed.   In any event, other details regarding Spanish rule are not covered in the four pages dedicated to this four hundred year time period.  I suppose that information is left to be discovered in other sources.


What is discussed in the book is an overview of the long history of terrors inflicted upon the island by the United States as well as some of the resistance against this.  It is hard to even know where to begin, but one of the worst things that the United States did includes a forced sterilization project that began in the early 1900s and continued into the 1970s.  For instance, in the town of Barceloneta alone, 20,000 women were sterilized.   And by the mid 1960s, one third of the entire female population of the island had been sterilized, the highest incidence of sterilization in the world.  Women were not told nor did they consent to sterilization, which was done for purely racist motives at Puerto Ricans were seen as inferior, promiscuous, over populated, etc.  Besides literally trying to kill off Puerto Ricans as a people through sterilization, the U.S. sought to kill of their culture and identity through their education system.  English became compulsory in schools, but since this drove up drop out rates, this policy was overturned in 1909.  Today, fewer than 20% of the population speaks English fluently, which could be seen as an accomplishment in resisting U.S. designs for the colony.  However, the biggest theme in the oppression of Puerto Ricans in the deplorable labor conditions.


Labor conditions require special attention because this offers insight to why Puerto Rico is a territory rather than a state.   In 1899, Hurricane San Ciriaco devastated the island, but instead of providing hurricane relief, the U.S. further impoverished the populace by outlawing the Puerto Rican pesos and announcing that the currency was valued at .60 cents to the dollar.  This caused Puerto Ricans to lose 40% of their savings overnight.  In 1901, a land tax called the Hollander Bill forced farmers from their land in a classic capitalistic ploy to proletarianize farmers and amass capital in the form of land.   The farmers sold their lands to US banks and moved to the cities.   At the same time, the first governors of the island were unelected U.S. men with ties to sugar or fruit companies.   In 1922 the island was declared a colony rather than a state, as this was a way to avoid U.S. labor laws such as minimum wage and collective bargaining.   Thus, by 1930, 45% of all arable land was owned by sugar plantations and 80% of these plantations were US owned.  During the 1930s, prices were 15-20% higher on Puerto Rico than in the US and wages were half of what they were under Spanish rule.  At the same time, while FDR is often lauded for providing relief to Americans during the Great Depression through the New Deal, his policy in Puerto Rico was to militarize the island, suppress nationalism, and appoint a hard-line governor named General Winship to oversee the island.   Winship tried to reinstate the death penalty, constructed a Naval-Air Base, expanded the police, and imported more weapons to the island.  Winship also ordered the Ponce Massacre, in which 19 men, one woman, and one girl were killed by police while participating in or viewing a non-violent, unarmed nationalist parade.  200 others were injured when police opened fire on the march, shooting people as they fled.  There were 85 strikes in Puerto Rico during 1933, and in a sugar cane strike, workers went on strike because their wage for a 12 hr day was cut from 75 cents to 45 cents.   The workers actually won that fight and saw their wages increase to $1.50.  However, it is important to note that both Democrat and Republican politicians have historically sought keep the island in colonial status to extract as much profit as can be gained from the beleaguered island.   Over the decades, the island has become a tax haven for corporations and currently it produces 25% of the world’s pharmaceuticals.  Yet, in 2015 the unemployment rate was 15% and the poverty rate was 45%.  33,000 government jobs were eliminated between 2010-2015 and utility rates in 2015 were 300% higher than in the U.S.  Both parties supported PROMESA, which put the island under a bipartisan financial control board in order to control the countries finances (i.e. impose austerity measures to balance the budget).  Of course, the book predates PROMESA….which I believe is Spanish for our promise to allow the corporate plunder of the island.  The book is not overtly theoretical or anti-capitalist, so there is no specific critique of imperialism, capitalism, or how both parties follow the logic of American exceptionalism.

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Image of the 1937 Ponce Massacre


This history of racism, sexism, and economic exploitation sets the backdrop of nationalist struggle in War Against All Puerto Ricans-Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony.  The book mainly focuses on nationalist struggle from the 1930s to 1950s.  The book follows the history of the Nationalist Party and does not discuss other independence parties or socialist/communist history.  Because it covers one party and a specific time period, it obviously does not provide a full overview of social struggle in Puerto Rico.  Even the labor movement is given passing attention.  Still, the events and personalities that are covered are certainly interesting.   Albizu Campos is given a lot of attention.  He was an impoverished orphan turned American educated lawyer turned nationalist revolutionary.  He created the Cadets of the Nationalist Party, a youth organization and formed the Workers Association of Puerto Rico with striking sugar cane workers.  He was arrested under the rule of Governor Winship, who made nationalist expression illegal (such as owning a Puerto Rican flag or organizing for independence) and spent seven years imprisoned.  After his release, he tried to organize a revolution in 1950.  This revolution failed due to heavy FBI infiltration into the Nationalist Party (which comprised plans, members, and weapons stores) and the fact the US actually bombed the city of Jayuya.  The US National Guard even shot nationalists after they had surrendered.  The saddest part of Albizu’s story was after the failed 1950 revolution, he was arrested and experimented on at La Princessa prison.  He was sentenced to life in prison, kept in solitary confinement for months, then given doses of radiation as an experiment/torture.  Even though he showed signs of radiation poisoning, U.S. psychologists deemed him insane for thinking that he was being experimented upon.  However, the global community was not as convinced of his lunacy and a petition to have him released was brought to the United Nations.  Pre-revolution Cuba (an ally of the U.S. still) also passed a resolution to have him moved to Cuba for medical treatment.  He had a stroke in 1956 in which he lost the ability to speak and died 10 years later.

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An image of Albizu Campos as a prisoner-covered in sores and burns from alleged radiation poisoning.


Another interesting nationalist discussed in the book was Vidal Santiago Diaz.  He was a barber who availed himself in the Nationalist Party by stockpiling weapons and commanding the Cadets while Campos was imprisoned.   He was arrested and tortured for his role in gathering weapons- but never provided information about the nationalist movement to the police- even when he was electrocuted, beaten, water boarded, starved, and isolated.  When he was released from imprisonment, he even managed to tell his allies who among them were actually informants (based on what he learned while imprisoned).  His most amazing feat was fighting off 40 members of the US National Guard/Puerto Rican police from his barber shop during the 1950 uprising.  The battle was broadcast live on the radio and it was assumed that the shop was full of nationalists as he fired the various weapons he had stored upon them for several hours.  He was shot various times, but continued fighting until a stairway collapsed upon him.  He was then shot in the head once authorities entered the shop and assumed to be dead, but as he was dragged into the street by the police he regained consciousness.  He was imprisoned until 1952 and lived until 1982.   His story was the most interesting in the book, since he was an everyday person of astonishing conviction and determination- who alone put up the best resistance in the whole nationalist movement in the 1950 revolt.

 


There are other interesting stories in the book, such as the extensive surveillance of the Puerto Rican population.  The Carpetas program collected files of information on 75,000 people.  This information was used to arrest people involved with the Nationalist Party, but also used to blackmail, threaten, and bar employment from dissidents.   Another theme of the book was the lack of coverage in the U.S. media of events in Puerto Rico and how the media framed issues in Puerto Rico as internal and inconsequential.  Even a nationalist assassination attempt on President Truman was framed as a communist plot (even though the assassins were Puerto Rican National Party supporters).  It is no wonder that the movement for independence was not successful, as organizers were challenged by infiltration into their organization, extensive surveillance of the populace,  torture, medical experimentation, imprisonment, military occupation, lack of media attention, and other facets of a fully U.S. funded and supported police state.   Unfortunately, the book ends after the 1950 uprisings (the October 30, 1950 revolt and failed the assassination attempt on Truman).


In all, War Against All Puerto Ricans-Revolution and Terror in America’s Colony, was an engaging read that covered some interesting events and characters from history.   My main critique of the book is that it does not provide much analysis or critique.  Certainly, the book does not provide any solutions.  Also, because the book covers history until 1950, it seems incomplete.  How does this history connect to today?  What about the nationalist movement of the 1960s and 1970s?  How is this connected to other nationalist struggles?  What is the nature of social movements in Puerto Rico today?  Therefore, the scope of the book tends to be narrow in many ways.  The narrative itself is jumpy, moving back and forth between the decades as the first half of the book focuses on events and the second half focuses on people.  While the book is short, there are parts of the narrative that seem less necessary.   For instance, there is a chapter on an OSS agent who runs a club in Puerto Rico.  While it may be useful in creating a U.S. villain to highlight the “terror in Amerca’s colony” aspect of the book, the tone of this chapter is playful and forgiving.  After all, the chapter ends that he “never watered down his booze and brought a touch of class to colonial espionage (156).” As a minor detail, the book specifically mentions coqui frogs croaking at least a half dozen times.  The scene setting novelty of the endemic amphibian wore off eventually.


One book cannot be everything.  After I read it, I did feel that I wanted to learn more.  There are facets of the book that could certainly be their own books, such as the history of the sugar cane industry in Puerto Rico, the history of hurricanes, the labor movement,  socialists and communists on the island, or the nationalist movement after 1950.  And, certainly there are books on at least some of these topics.  Thus, I don’t feel that the book is the best introductory reading to the topic of Puerto Rico, as it offers a truncated piece of history.  It does provide context, but I think the book would best be read after a survey of history or along with other books.  Since I do intend to read other books, I didn’t mind the read- though I was left hoping for more.  Nevertheless, the book is very accessible, quick to read, and full of fascinating people and events.   It is also a timely read, as Puerto Rico has finally BEEN in the news lately because of Hurricane Maria.  Oddly enough, Guam was also in the news this past summer.  With the spotlight on our forgotten colonies, it is a great time to learn more about them to contextualize current events and make certain that their struggles stay pertinent to activists.

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