Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Welcome to the Free Market of Outrage! The Koch brothers are killing public transit, Trump's putting young children in cages, Monsanto's fighting farmers, 17 years of war and the VA still fails veterans

MEMPHIS, Tenn. - I live part time in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, and I can’t tell you how elated I was when the city’s trolleys recently began running again after a four-year absence. The clang-clang of those vintage electric cars is part of the charm of this old city, and I’d been missing that sound ever since a fire on two of them in 2014 took them all offline for extended repairs and some replacements.

They might never have come back if the federal government hadn’t kicked in $2.6 million to help one of the nation’s poorest cities get at least one of its three trolley lines back in action. Only the Main Street line runs today, but the two others are expected in the not-so-distant future.

How did the Koch Brothers allow that $2.6 million federal outlay get past them? Did you know that the right-wing billionaires and their minions in Congress, state Legislatures and governors’ mansions have been working hard to kill public transit projects across the land?

Their most recent success was in killing a $5.4 billion mass transit plan in Nashville, Tenn., that would have added needed public transportation to one of the South’s—and nation’s—most vibrant, growing cities. Koch drones spread across the city making thousands of phone calls, knocking on doors, spreading the Koch gospel about the evils of taxes and government of any kind that doesn’t support billionaires like themselves.

Oh, and by the way, the Koch industrial conglomerate “is a major producer of gasoline and asphalt, and also makes seatbelts, tires and other automotive parts,” reports New York Times writer Hiroko Tabuchi in an article published today (June 19).  However, “it supports spending tax money on highways and roads.”

The Koch brothers want you to get in that car and drive, burn their gasoline and the rubber off their tires, and please use your seatbelt!

It’s just one of many outrages in what seems to be a daily onslaught these days.

Of course, the latest is the Trump policy toward immigrant families crossing the border to the south, separating thousands of young children from their parents as the government cages them all, then only giving the parents an 800 telephone number when they’re released and trying to find their children again. Attorney General Jeff Sessions cites the Bible in his defense of this Nazi-like program, but who’s surprised by that?

Many of Trump’s legions will never be shamed into backing away from their führer, but sooner or later those who’ve not drunk too deeply of the Kool-Aid will feel the pain themselves that Trump’s government is inflicting on others. They’ll see his own untrustworthiness—remember how he actually seemed to be endorsing sweeping immigration reform just last January then did as much as anyone to scuttle any realistic reform?

We live in a corporate world, and what business wants, business gets. When Arkansas last year sought to ban the weed-killing-but-also-crop-damaging herbicide dicamba, Monsanto intervened like gangbusters, decrying this limitation on free enterprise.  Halliburton and other companies in the military industrial complex have successfully kept this nation at war since 2001, yet three Veterans Administration secretaries in the last four years have failed to make VA hospitals and clinics fulfill minimal promises to suffering veterans.

Here in the South, now the model for the rest of the nation--and that’s not a good thing, folks--politicians won’t fund basic services and fight Medicaid and other programs for the poor tooth and nail, yet they continue to shell out big bucks to corporations. Witness Alabama’s recent willingness to shell out $700 million in incentives to Toyota and Mazda to land a factory.

I could go on, but I don’t have all day. People are protesting, however. Just this week in front of the Governor’s Mansion in Jackson, Mississippi, members of the Poor People’s Campaign burned the Confederate and Mississippi state flags (which carries the Confederate emblem) to protest the racism that has become inherent in modern-day capitalism. It’s a brown as well as a black issue, but, you know, really at bottom it’s a green issue. 

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Special needs workers at Didlake in northern Virginia demand union rights; and riding the City of New Orleans to the Big Easy, where Dylan says "you can almost hear the heavy breathing" of ghosts

Didlake workers say their rights include the right to join a union even if they have disabiities

The Rev. William Barber II and his Poor People’s Campaign have joined striking workers at the nonprofit firm Didlake in Arlington, Va., in their public protest to bring attention to the company’s resistance in recognizing their vote to join a union. Hundreds of workers with special needs work at the Manassas, Va.-based company.

(The Rev. William Barber II)

“We ain’t going to let no corporation turn us around,” sang Barber as he led workers in song and chant recently. “Everybody has a right to live. Forward together, not one step back!

Barber said that “it says in James that when we exploit workers we exploit God.”

The company is “taking advantage of us,” one worker told veteran labor organizer and video filmmaker Richard Bensinger.

Custodial employees at the Army National Guard Readiness Center in Arlington voted 12-6 in favor of unionizing in April 2017. They went on strike May 25. Didlake says past National Labor Relations Board rulings show standard labor practices could be harmful to workers with disabilities like those at Didlake. Unionization might threaten the provision of needed services, the company says. Yet the NLRB regional director has also backed the rights of those workers to unionize.

Didlake works with the federal government on programs requiring counseling and training services to special needs workers. An appeals process with the board is underway on the union issue.

A ride down memory lane to the Big Easy on the City of New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS – I made my first pilgrimage here back in the late 1960s, with my buddies crammed in a jalopy all the way from North Carolina. We stayed at the decrepit Hotel Paris, drank cheap beer on Canal, then wandered down Bourbon, where old-school jazz masters like Papa French and Sweet Emma still performed.

(To the right, yours truly on the City of New Orleans)

My wife Suzanne and I rode in style this time, the City of New Orleans that Arlo Guthrie sang about, enjoying the club car as we passed through the Mississippi Delta with its endless fields, primeval swamps and bayous, tiny, sunburnt towns. In the city, we stayed with our daughter Jessica in the Irish Channel, a short Uber ride to Galatoire’s for a meal I couldn’t have afforded in the 1960s.

Papa French and Sweet Emma are gone, but Steamboat Willie is there on Bourbon, playing Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans? at the Café Beignet. Steamboat knows what it means. Hurricane Katrina forced him to leave, but the former preacher and Bible salesman came back. “I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing,” he told once during an earlier visit. “I am in the right place.”

(With Steamboat Willie, daughter Jessica Byrd and wife Suzanne at the Cafe Beignet on Bourbon Street)

A different kind of musician, Bob Dylan, says New Orleans is a city where the ghosts of the dead and the laughter of the living are never far apart. “The ghosts race towards the light, you can almost hear the heavy breathing,” he writes in his autobiographical Chronicles. “Around any corner there’s a promise of something daring … something obscenely joyful behind every door—either that or somebody crying with their heads in their hands.”

The great New Orleans photographer Clarence John Laughlin captures this dichotomy in his haunting depictions of tombstones and Greek statues, Corinthian columns, strange figures peeking out of rooftop gables, young women staring off into the distance as if searching for something lost, forgotten or never found. From its founding, New Orleans has offered a “special kind of fantasy,” Laughlin once wrote, whether it’s “the unparalleled development of funereal art in the old burial grounds” or “the wild fantasy of the Mardi Gras.”

One evening we sat in a courtyard with some of Jessica’s neighbors, surrounded by banana plants, giant elephant ears, and cats everywhere. We met an author of children’s books in training to become a voodoo priestess, a writer for the National Enquirer, a former missionary who now operates a women’s clothing store on Magazine Street, a restorer of 100-year-old shotgun houses, a civil engineer with deep roots in New Orleans who has come back home after years of being away.

They talked of their city with joy and pride, of its resilience after the devastation of Katrina in 2005. Dylan wrote Chronicles just before Katrina, but he saw and felt the same. “There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better,” he wrote. “Everything in New Orleans is a good idea.”

As our train made its way back through the Delta toward Memphis, I studied the passing landscape--an abandoned store with a huge sign offering the promise of “CANDY” inside, junked cars, old graneries and cotton gins, a lone man standing next to his motorcycle on an empty street. I thought of other exotic train rides the world offers—the Orient Express, the Trans-Siberian Railway, the night train I once took from central Poland to Bratislava, Slovakia.

A woman in the group next to us in the club car began singing. She sang about loneliness, how there’s only her husband and her mother in her house, no children. Her friends listened with admiration and asked her how she came up with such music. “I just write ‘em down,” she told them.

Like the city we just left, I told myself, this is a train ride that holds its own with any in the world.

A shorter version of this column on New Orleans appears this week in the Jackson Free Press in Jackson, Mississippi.