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MANCHESTER DIVIDED: SEIU ‘FIGHTS FOR $15’ IN NH WHILE ITS CANDIDATE FIGHTS FOR $12

Republican Debate Night_020616_DSC_3124_Images©2016 Derek Kouyoumjian

Photo by Derek Kouyoumjian

February 8, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

The “protest pit” outside the Republican Presidential Debate at Saint Anselm College in Goffstown, New Hampshire on Saturday evening was a fenced-in area in a field about a quarter mile down the road from the main entrance to the campus.

Bumper to bumper traffic ran in front of the pit. Odd given that NH State Police were letting few cars onto the campus. Most were told to turn around. No one that Republican leadership didn’t want in was getting anywhere near the Carr Center where the debate was taking place.

Powerful lights shone down on the scene from one side—lending it an eerie cast. Behind the fence facing the road were a couple hundred supporters for a few of the Republican candidates. But that was just the first layer. Behind them were about 500 activists with the Fight for 15 campaign—organized andbankrolled for $30 million as of last August by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Whose leaders had bused in SEIU staff and members; student activists; and allies from other unions and immigrant organizations from around the region. At least 13 busloads from southern New England overall, according to the campaign’s registration form for the event.

A respectable showing, if not the “massive crowd of underpaid workers” that SEIU’s press release had promised.

So there they were. Supporters of a $15 an hour federal minimum wage. A fairly diverse group. Standing in a snowy field on a back road, enthusiastically waving banners—some quite creative, cylindrical and glowing from within like Japanese lanterns—and periodically trading chants with the mostly white right-wing activists in front of them.

Republican Debate Night_020616_DSC_3138_Images©2016 Derek Kouyoumjian

Photo by Derek Kouyoumjian

Their presence was part of SEIU’s current tactic to raise the profile of the Fight for $15 campaign byprotesting presidential debates and other high profile events like the Super Bowl in recent months. Which makes sense as far as it goes.

What doesn’t make sense is why SEIU pulled out 500 people onto a chilly windswept hill in suburban New Hampshire to protest for a laudable reform that their chosen presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, absolutely does not support.

Clinton, like Barack Obama, has come out in favor of a $12 an hour minimum wage. Bernie Sanders, the only candidate whose politics are in line with labor unions like SEIU, is also the only candidate who publicly supports the Fight for $15 campaign’s main goal—a $15 an hour minimum wage. Barely a living wage at all in many parts of the country. Hardly the huge ask that opponents make it out to be. Especially given the wage freeze imposed on most Americans by corporations and our political duopoly since the 1970s.

Photo by Jason Pramas

Photo by Jason Pramas

Yet the leaders of the 1.9  million member SEIU backed Clinton last November. Joining the heads of a number of other large American unions in supporting the candidate with a proven record of pushing policies completely antithetical to union demands. Like the insurance industry scam known asObamacare instead of “Medicare for all.” And they have alreadypumped millions to Clinton Super PACs over the heads of their largely voiceless members.

In response, a coalition of progressive unions and activist union members has formed Labor for Bernie to win as many union endorsements for Sanders as possible. Even as Sanders hasamassed a $75 million warchestfrom mostly small donations—without the truckloads of cash that labor unions have traditionally lavished on Democratic candidates over the past few decades.

With Sanders doing very well in the NH polls as of this writing, and clearly capable of staying in the race all the way to this summer’s Democratic National Convention, it appears that SEIU leadership made a serious miscalculation this election. And the fallout from that miscalculation is already playing out in the very state where they organized the standout for their Fight for $15 campaign over the weekend.

Two New Hampshire SEIU locals—560 (Dartmouth College workers) and 1984 (NH State Employees’ Association)—broke ranks with SEIU leadership last fall and backed Sanders for President. Both locals were present in Goffstown on Saturday.

Whether Bernie Sanders wins the nomination and election or not, current SEIU leadership—and the leadership of every union marching in lockstep with the worst elements of the Democratic Party—is going to face increasing pressure from its rank-and-file members to stop supporting pro-corporate anti-labor candidates like Clinton. Likely culminating in major grassroots insurgent campaigns aimed at removing union leaders perceived as sellouts—as has happened on many occasions in labor history. It remains to be seen whether such internal reforms will happen before the major unions collapse under the death of a thousand cuts being inflicted on them by their traditional political enemies and their erstwhile allies alike.

SEIU and less democratic unions like it could forestall the looming civil war in their own ranks—and increase the American labor movement’s chance of survival—by learning from the more democratic practices of the 700,000 member Communication Workers of America (CWA)—whose leadership stepped aside last year and let their members directly decide: a) If they should endorse any candidates for POTUS, and b) Which candidate they should endorse.

CWA members, some 30 percent of whom are Republicans, voted to back Sanders in December.

This article is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism — and stands in for this week’s Apparent Horizon column. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director. He has been a member of three SEIU locals (925, 285 and 888) over the past 17 years, and helped lead a successful union drive with SEIU Local 509 last year at the cost of his job.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

GE BOSTON DEAL: THE MISSING MANUAL, PART 2

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Image by Kent Buckley

February 1, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Two weeks after the first installment of this Missing Manual, we now know that GE will receive up to another $100 million of Boston’s largesse in the form of reopening the Old Northern Avenue Bridge and $25 million in state money for work on roads, pedestrian walkways, and bike lanes near the corporation’s new Seaport District HQ. Pushing the total giveaway to over $270 million in public funds.

Gov. Charlie Baker, Mayor Marty Walsh, and boosters like the Boston Globe claim that the investment will be worth it. Yet GE’s record of slashing jobs, despoiling the environment, and evading taxes says otherwise. And their role in the subprime mortgage crisis further repudiates such official optimism.

Back in 1999, the Glass-Steagall Act—a critical piece of Depression-era social legislation that put up a firewall between commercial banks and investment houses—was torpedoed by Congress. One of the excuses for the deregulatory push was the claim that so-called “shadow banks”—institutions that perform banking functions outside of the traditional system of federally-regulated banks—were doing great business with less regulation. The now-diminished GE Capital was then one of the largest shadow banks, since as the finance arm of an industrial concern it was not classified as a bank. Thanks to that fact and the happy coincidence that GE Capital owned a small Utah savings and loan operation, it was allowed to “engage in banking under the lighter hand of the Office of Thrift Supervision.” Rather than the more strict banking regulations overseen by the Federal Reserve—which do not allow banks to engage in commerce—according to a 2009 report by ProPublica and the Washington Post.

Ironically, the deregulation of the banking system proved to be a key factor in the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis and the resulting 2008 financial crisis. And the much-praised practices of shadow banks like GE Capital were precisely the ones that nearly wiped out the US economy. GE had long used GE Capital, equivalent to the seventh largest banking company in the US until 2008, to fatten its bottom line. According to Maureen Farrell of the Wall Street Journal, “GE got into lending decades ago and grew that arm of its business steadily in the years before the crisis, as it was able to leverage its triple-A credit rating for access to cheap capital. Before the credit crisis, GE relied upon lending for around 50 percent of its earnings.”

So in 2004 GE Capital had plenty of ready cash to buy California-based WMC Mortgage Corp.—a company that specialized in foisting subprime housing loans on poor families that couldn’t really afford them, using highly unethical sales tactics—for about half a billion dollars. According to a 2012 report by Michael Hudson of The Center for Public Integrity, even before the purchase, WMC “… was producing $8 billion a year in subprime home loans and boasting profits of $140 million a year.”

Then in 2006, US housing prices declined sharply. Subprime borrowers with no reserve cash were unable to refinance their home loans as their adjustable-rate mortgage payments increased mercilessly. Subprime lenders then began to automatically slap late-paying borrowers with even higher penalty rates. More and more people defaulted on their loans. Lenders like WMC suddenly went from being cash-rich to being cash-poor.

GE Capital was hemorrhaging money by 2007. During the first half of that year WMC lost over $500 million as the mortgage industry “spun into chaos.” By October 2007, the Center for Public Integrity report concludes, “WMC Mortgage was effectively out of business, dead after having pumped out roughly $110 billion in subprime and ‘Alt-A’ loans under GE’s watch.”  

Meanwhile, GE Capital, like many other financial institutions of the period, had rolled packages of subprime mortgage debt into Residential Mortgage-Backed Securities (RMBSs)—which it then sold to investors. Including institutional investors like government-sponsored housing lender Freddie Mac. When the WMC subprime mortgages collapsed in 2007, the GE Capital RMBSs based on them followed suit. And the whole house of cards built on bad mortgages to poor people fell down. GE Capital immediately put hundreds of millions of dollars aside to pay off its investors. But not its mortgage holders. WMC-issued mortgages failed at rates of up to 75 percent in some areas. Ruining the lives of tens of thousands of working families in the process.

GE had gotten out of the subprime racket just in time to stay solvent into 2008. The most significant federal blowback from the episode came in 2011 when the Federal Housing Finance Agency that regulates Freddie Mac sued General Electric for selling them $549 million in subprime-based RMBSs. According to American Banker, they “charged GE’s former mortgage lending unit with presenting a false picture of the riskiness of residential mortgages behind securities that were sold to Freddie Mac.”

GE settled the suit in 2013 for just $6.25 million.

Coming soon in part 3: the 2008 financial crisis and federal bailout of General Electric.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

GE BOSTON DEAL: AN ACTIVIST HANDBOOK

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Images (from 2012 protest against GE in Boston) by Chris Faraone

January 28, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Say friend … is a multinational corporation with a terrible reputation, a limitless PR budget, and a penchant for backroom deals with fawning politicians bleeding your state for hundreds of millions of public dollars that would be better spent on virtually anything else? A multinational named General Electric?

Are you afraid of the consequences of such malfeasance for your community and for democracy itself? Want to do something about it? Then look no further. What you need is a corporate campaign. Sourcewatch—a fine resource for journalists and researchers alike—has a concise definition of the term:

Corporate campaigns were developed in the mid twentieth century by activists and organizers such as Saul Alinsky, and honed in recent decades by labor unions and non-governmental organizations in the environmental, social justice and consumer movements. The goal of a corporate campaign is to publicize undesirable behavior or practices by a corporation through various strategies and tactics that can force change upon the company and thus allow the campaigning organization to claim a victory for its cause. At any given time organizations and even individual citizen activists are waging scores of corporate campaigns, some of which last for years, with varying results.

In my own experience, a corporate campaign is a limited strategy. It does not automatically lead to a broader democracy movement in a society, but can be a stepping stone along that path. It is not always a progressive strategy, although progressives probably use it more than any other political current. NIMBY activists in rich towns use it to keep apartment buildings and wind farms out. Right-wing Christians use it to attack companies that publicly support things they oppose—like reproductive rights, gay marriage, and the wheel.

That said, a corporate campaign is still a useful arrow in the proverbial quiver of justice. And here’s how you can run one.

  • First, decide that a campaign is needed. Gather some like-minded friends into a loose organization, and agree to work together towards a common goal.
  • Second, see if there’s already an organization running such a campaign. If there is, check them out. Do they seem to be a real grassroots expression of the needs of some definable community? If they do, then consider joining them or working with them in coalition. Or do they look like what seasoned activists call an “astroturf” group—a fake organization typically set up by some powerful interest or other to help confuse its antagonists and stop them gaining public support. If so, give them a wide berth and spread the word that others should do the same.
  • Third, start researching your target corporation. Talk to librarians, journalists, academics, and experienced campaigners for advice. Find out everything you can about the company —with a focus on their recent activities. Look for proof of bad behavior in their business and political dealings.
  • Fourth, research possible remedies. What have other communities done to reign in the power of your target corporation and corporations like it? Court action, regulation, and legislation are all good avenues to pursue.
  • Fifth, publish your evidence. Papers, articles, broadsides, podcasts, and videos are all good ways to get the word out.
  • Sixth, if you haven’t already, start fundraising. You’ll need money to win a corporate campaign. You might get some small grants from open-minded foundations early on, but your lifeblood will (and should) be donations you raise from your personal network, your new organization’s network, online via crowdfunding using platforms like GoFundMe, and through fundraisers of various types. You’ll never have anything like the money of your opponents. But you’ll have the strength of your convictions, and—if you do your job well—the support of your community. And can therefore overcome any obstacle if you persevere.
  • Seventh, organize your allies. Pull together community organizations, religious groups, non-profits, labor unions, friendly politicians—anyone who is going to aid your campaign and is willing to work with you.
  • Eighth, build a solid social media presence. Make use of widely available free communications technology to make friends and turn them into supporters. Create a page on Facebook, and a central Twitter account—both with your campaign’s name on them. Regularly feed your presence with updates about campaign activities and links to relevant material. Converse directly with your followers as interaction is key on social media.  Keep in mind that you may never have to create a full website for your campaign if you make good use of social media, but it’s usually a good idea to at least launch a blog on one of the many free blogging communities.
  • Ninth, prepare your public relations campaign. Develop contacts in the press. Plan events and actions that will get and hold the public’s attention. Encourage journalists to cover those events and actions.
  • Tenth, hold your events and actions: open forums, lobby days, protests, and boycotts are all good ways to pressure politicians and corporate leaders to change their policies.

Finally, mobilize as many people as you can to support your campaign. Be sure to give them simple things they can do to show their support and attract even more people: like wearing one of your campaign buttons or putting one of your bumpers stickers on their car. If you’ve done your job well, so many people in your community will agree with you that it will become possible to win your campaign goals—whatever they are.

For a useful model, check out the recent successful #NoBoston2024 campaign—which wasn’t a traditional corporate campaign, but that nonetheless had all the elements of one. And it was a slam dunk resulting in a resounding popular victory against putting the City of Boston in hock for decades for a sporting event with a long history of corruption.

Questions? Feel free to contact me at jason@binjonline.org. And for those of you who might launch a corporate campaign against GE: let’s be careful out there.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

GE BOSTON DEAL: THE MISSING MANUAL

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Image by Kent Buckley

January 18, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

The saga of GE’s flight from Connecticut began with the June 2015 passage of a very much needed package of state tax increases aimed at raising an extra $1.1 billion over the next two years. By extending a temporary 20 percent surcharge on its corporate profits tax and by implementing a more straightforward way of calculating corporate taxes, the Constitution State expects to pull in $700 million of that total from major corporations. The money will be used to fund social programs and improve mass transit. Imagine that.

GE brass immediately flipped out. And followed through on a threat to move their headquarters out of Connecticut. They began publicly courting cities around the US to get the best possible deal. Boston moved to the front of the pack by the fall. Then last week, GE officially announced that they would be moving their HQ to the Hub—specifically the so-called “Innovation District” on our soon-to-be-flooded waterfront.

What followed has been one of the most disgusting spectacles of press release transcription by the Boston mainstream news media in memory. Fulsome praise was lavished on Gov. Charlie Baker, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, and their busy lieutenants like John Barros for literally selling out the people of this city and this Commonwealth. A massive giveaway of $25 million in city “property tax relief” and $120 million in state “grants, tax incentives, infrastructure improvements, and help with real estate acquisition costs” to GE was treated as if it was the product of genius, rather than another nail in the coffin of democracy. The record of one of the most vicious and capricious corporations in world history was soft pedaled by focusing on the supposed benefits of the deal to the people of the Bay State. Which are … what exactly? The 800 predominantly transplanted jobs at the new GE Boston HQ? The up to 600 jobs at the new Marlborough branch of GE Healthcare Life Sciences by 2017? The assertion that the company will “base a new division, focused on lighting and energy, in a to-be-announced location in the Boston area” at some point? Airy claims about GE’s presence attracting other businesses to the state? Blather about “corporate philanthropy to the arts?” And something about “bragging rights?”

Stuff and nonsense. For starters, the vast majority of jobs that will be created locally by GE in the coming years will be professional/managerial level. Worked by the kinds of helicopter yuppies that will then buy some of the expensive condos that are being built all over the region. These few new jobs are not the jobs that are needed. They are not the tens of thousands of regular jobs that are going to help get beleaguered working and middle class families back on their feet after the economic depredations of the last 40-plus years. Depredations that GE pioneered.

The company had 13,000 mostly unionized workers in Pittsfield, MA decades back. Last fall, the Saudi Arabian-owned remnant of the former GE plastics division based there announced that it was leaving for Houston and taking the last significant group of ex-GE jobs, 300 in total, with it. GE had over 12,000 mostly unionized workers in Lynn, MA as recently as the early 1980s. Now there are about 1,400 unionized workers left, and 3,000 workers overall. GE closed its plant in Fitchburg, MA in 1998—taking 600 good jobs with it. GE is closing its Avon, MA plant later this year. Another 300 jobs gone. Cuts that devastated a number of communities, and contaminated the Housatonic River around Pittsfield with PCBs that GE is still fighting to avoid fully cleaning up—an issue capably reviewed by International Business Times last week.

Over the past year, GE leadership has continued such labor “innovations” by cutting medical and life insurance benefits to all non-unionized retirees over 65 on January 1, 2015. And cutting the same benefits to all unionized retirees over 65 at the start of this year. Tossing a mere thousand bucks a year to tens of thousands of GE retirees around the country and telling them to buy their own supplemental medical plans somehow.

Given this disturbing backstory, the claim by feckless pols that property taxes and other taxes that GE will eventually have to pay Boston and Massachusetts will soon outstrip the $145 million being handed to them beggars belief. GE is a vast corporate behemoth that employs hundreds of tax specialists to avoid paying any taxes at all. According to Citizens for Tax Justice, between 2010 and 2014, GE earned $33.5 billion in profits but claimed federal tax refunds of $1.4 billion—an effective tax rate of -4.3 percent. And paid a combined state tax bill of only $530 million—an effective state tax rate of just 1.6 percent for the period.

This is GE. This is the corporate scofflaw that Charlie and Marty and their many business buddies cut a bad deal with. Now what are readers going to do to stop it and #makeGEpay?

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

STOP THE ICE RAIDS: FIGHT FOR THE ‘RIGHT TO THE WORLD’

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Image by Kent Buckley

January 13, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Over 100,000 undocumented immigrants from Central America have entered the US since 2014—seeking to escape what the mainstream media like to vaguely call “violence and political instability.” And they have been living in abject terror since the Obama administration’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) began deportation raids against 121 of their number in December. Raids which come just as right-wing Presidential candidates whip up hysteria against immigrants and refugees. As if these “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” are somehow the cause of our many societal woes.

These latest ICE raids against undocumented immigrants are reprehensible, and anyone who believes in democracy should oppose them. Especially because—as has been pointed out repeatedly by immigrant advocates—many of the people getting deported stand a good chance of being killed by reactionary governments or gangs if they’re forced to “go back where they came from.”

But also because Americans all bear some responsibility for electing governments who have made a series of decisions over the last century that have resulted in the immiseration of the countries that undocumented immigrants have left.

Such immigrants come here largely fleeing poverty—created by US hemispheric policy aimed at increasing profits for American multinational corporations and in maintaining control over the region. Time and time again, in each of the countries at the center of the current crisis—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—and many other countries besides, the US has moved to crush governments that show any sign of pursuing political and economic democracy.

For example, leaders like then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the rest of the Obama administration backed a coup d’etat in Honduras in 2009 against the popular government of President Manuel Zelaya. To the great benefit of the Honduran military, a small number of elite landowning families, and some huge American corporations.

The country is now essentially run by criminals, and has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Similar processes continue in Guatemala. And in El Salvador. Which finally has a progressive government, but which faces a hostile US Congress, truculent local elites, and greedy multinational corporations. Plus, major gangs like MS-13 that owe their existence to US machinations in the region.

It’s worth noting that once here, undocumented immigrants (and refugees) almost universally work hard, pay taxes, and contribute to their communities. So arguments that they are somehow stealing something or “taking jobs” from American citizens and documented immigrants remain ludicrous on their face.

The only way out of this dilemma is to not only institute a humane and just immigration system—a hard enough challenge in the present political moment—but also to enshrine the “right to move” freely between nations in international law. And ultimately the even more democratic “right to the world” that Vassar College professor Joseph Nevins recently explained as follows:

A right to the world complements a “right to the city”—the right to radically remake places and those who inhabit them in ways that are inclusive and socially and environmentally just and sustainable—that many on the political left champion. A right to the world envisions more than a right for those who already inhabit a place, however. It also seeks a right to a just share of the earth’s resources and to a sustainable “home,” and a right to traverse global space, especially for the globally disadvantaged.

In other words, a right to a world where people mired in structural poverty and violence—like the current wave of immigrants from Central America or the even larger wave of refugees from Syria—would have the freedom to move to countries where they have the possibility of building a new life. And the right to have their basic needs met wherever they go. Without being branded “illegal” and treated like criminals for doing what any one of us would do in the same circumstances.

Readers looking to help stop the latest round of ICE raids, and to work on the long-stalled federal immigration reform process, should get in touch with the Mass Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition and their network of allied immigrant organizations right away.

Those who want to fight for the right to move and the right to the world are going to have a less straightforward path—as they’ll have to help build a new movement for migrants rights from the ground up.

A good start towards that larger goal would be to join the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in pushing the US to ratify the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families. Steps beyond that will likely take a decades long fight.

For Americans feeling swayed by the anti-immigrant election rhetoric dominating both the news and paid campaign advertisements, I can only say this: take a careful look at the history of US relations with other nations in the Western Hemisphere and around the world. Notice what our political and corporate leaders did to those countries over the last century, and then reflect on where most immigrants and refugees are coming from. And why.

Then you might better understand why I’m saying that Americans owe immigrants and refugees a much better deal than we’ve been giving them of late.

It also wouldn’t hurt to remember that anyone who isn’t Native American is basically descended from immigrants. But please don’t embarrass us all by thinking that every one of your ancestors came here “legally.”  Or that this land wasn’t stolen lock, stock, and barrel from its rightful owners.

If you’re looking for a book to read up on these and related matters, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is still a fine choice.

La lucha continua.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

SILENCE IS COMPLICITY: GREATER BOSTON’S WHITE COMMUNITIES NEED TO SUPPORT #BLACKLIVESMATTER

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January 5, 2016

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

The #BlackLivesMatter movement is hitting the streets again in a renewed wave of protests for racial justice around Boston and America. Not that it has ever really stopped since Trayvon Martin was gunned down in 2012—as fresh injustices against Black people continue week after week, day after day. The latest being the unconscionable acquittal of the white cop who murdered 12-year-old Tamir Rice in cold blood for playing with a pellet gun in an “open carry” state.

#BLM is an impressive and necessary political phenomenon, led here as elsewhere by young Black activists. Which is as it should be. And there are significant numbers of allies from other communities—including white activists who have learned enough about the profoundly racist history of this country to be inspired to take action as well.

But there aren’t enough white allies. Not by a long shot. Especially in a tremendously segregated region like the Greater Boston area.

So the fact that hundreds of young white college students in Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville have marched under the #BLM banner is commendable. Yet not enough of a groundswell to spark a real change in attitude in largely white neighborhoods in the city proper or in the many largely white suburbs.

And that is by design. The segregation of Black people from white people was the result of a series of racist housing policies starting after the Civil War that culminated in Black people being packed into redlined neighborhoods in cities like Boston—and stopped from moving into most suburbs post-WWII until the Civil Rights Movement forced some improvements. The story was much the same for Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans. These policies continue in various forms to this day. Laws or no laws.

People in the predominantly white neighborhoods, cities, and towns are currently free to ignore #BlackLivesMatter. As long as that is the case, there can be no real justice for Black people in America. Because white people who are able to live apart from Black people will likely never confront the monstrous truths that #BLM—the new Civil Rights Movement—is exposing. Including the fact that their relative privilege is built on legal, political, economic, social and cultural systems designed to subjugate Black people. And in not confronting it, they perpetuate those racist systems. Silence, in this case, is truly complicity.

This situation will only change if the #BlackLivesMatter movement comes to them. Directly. In person. Every damned day from now until justice is won. And that cannot happen unless white allies step up in every white enclave. Beacon Hill. Back Bay. Hingham. Needham. Sudbury. Wakefield. Stoneham. Reading. Danvers. Marblehead. Any local can come up with a much longer list in their sleep.

Walk around these white areas and look for a #BlackLivesMatter or a #JusticeforTamir sign. You will see few—and those mainly outside some progressive houses of worship. And a disturbing number of the signs that you’ll see have been vandalized or otherwise messed with over the last year.

So here’s what has to happen to start to make things right. White people living in predominantly white communities have to start getting a lot more #BlackLivesMatter signs up. Then, when you all hear about major #BLM actions, spread the word to your friends and family. Go to the actions. Watch. Listen. Learn. Go back to your community. Find other local allies and call solidarity protests and vigils in public places. Organize community forums on the core #BLM issues. Always invite #BLM organizers to speak. Be respectful. Build political alliances. Figure out where to go from there.

This is how Americans can change a racist power structure that produces white cops who can cut down a Black child in a hail of bullets without so much as a warning. By tearing it up at the roots, one neighborhood at a time.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2016 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

ONE QUESTION FOR 2016

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Image by Tak Toyoshima

December 29, 2015

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

As the new year approaches, it’s the tradition for journalists who have the honor of writing a regular column for the general public to prognosticate about the year to come.

Well I am a journalist. I have a regular column. But I’m not going to make any predictions this year.

I’m just going to ask a single question: Do you want to live in a democracy?

I want you to take some time by yourself, then I want you to sit down and really think about my question. Do you want to live in a country where you have a say about what happens in your daily life? A say about what happens where you live, where you work, and where you hang out. Do you want to live in a country where everyone has that say? Regardless of their race, sex, or sexual identity. Regardless of where they were born. Regardless of whether they are poor or rich. Regardless of whether they believe in a god or gods or none at all.

Do you want to live in a country where everyone has freedom of speech? Freedom of expression? Freedom to participate in politics? Freedom to hold and act on any of a broad spectrum of political views?

Really think about it. Because I’m concerned that too many people don’t think about democracy much lately.

And with a Presidential election looming in which most of the candidates are awful, and with some of the candidates clearly interested in moving away from even the modestly (and highly flawed) democratic form of government we have toward outright fascism—an authoritarian system specifically organized against democracy and equality—I think my question is worth some consideration.

Think about every institution in this society with the tradition of voting. Government at all levels, sure, but also political parties, neighborhood associations, benefit societies, community service organizations, clubs, co-operatives, labor unions, and some significant religious groups. Democratic organization is built into the fibre of this nation. Yet the core democratic impulse to participate in collective decision-making is withering away in many ways—replaced by a sort of dispirited individualism. The internet, ostensibly built to enhance democracy, may actually be harming it by increasing the power of unelected technocrats to determine the direction of key institutions.

Important decisions increasingly get made over our heads by corporate leaders in tandem with government staffers and politicians that are absolutely convinced they know how to “fix” societal problems without meaningful public input. All while allowing a small number of people to make tremendous profits at the expense of the rest of populace. Without genuine discussion, debate, or voting. They are enabled by technology that allows them a degree of social control undreamed of by history’s worst dictators to date.

These developments point to the very real danger that this layer of new oligarchs will use their money, power, and connections to simply drop the pretense of democracy sometime in the near future and start ruling by fiat. Unless Americans—and immigrants and refugees who wish to join us, and allied institutions and nations the world over—decide to revive our democratic traditions and stop the descent into an autocratic abyss. From which humanity may never emerge in this age of ecological crisis.

So after you’ve thought about my question, and talked it over with friends and family, if you decide that you do want to live in a democracy I’d like you to look for people and organizations that share that belief. And to start working to expand democracy in every part of your lives. In 2016, and in every New Year’s Day to come. My simple admonition to you all.

And don’t forget to party, too.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2015 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

DISCIPLINE AND PUNISH (THE YEAR IN KRAMPUS)

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Image by Tak Toyoshima

December 21, 2015

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Popular culture always tells us a lot about the spirit of the time in which it was created. So when three movies get released featuring the same little-known supernatural character in the same year, it’s safe to say that something new is running through America’s collective unconsciousness.

And this holiday season, that something is stern. It’s righteous. It’s Krampus.

Yes, St. Nick’s goatlike pal himself. For the uninitiated, in parts of Europe—especially in alpine villages in Austria—Santa Claus is the jolly guy Americans are already familiar with. He gives toys and treats to all the good little girls and boys. But when it comes to naughty kids, it’s all about Santa’s demonic companion Krampus—who hunts them down, whips them with a bundle of sticks, chains up the really bad apples, and drags them off to hell.

Unless you’re from Austria, the first time that you might have heard of Krampus was probably by watching a December 2013 “American Dad!” episode. Still, shortly after the show aired, US awareness of the pugnacious personality seemingly returned to its usual level of zero.

This year, out of nowhere, Krampus is suddenly on America’s radar in a big way (see: “Krampus,” “KRAMPUS: The Reckoning,” and “A Christmas Horror Story”). So I’m thinking all the sudden exposure for an archaic European folk monster could have something to do with the fact that Americans are feeling like there are a bunch of naughty people and institutions in serious need of some festive correction hereabouts.

And why not? Nationally, making a 2015 naughty list is no challenge at all. Just look at most of the Presidential candidates. From open fascists like Trump 2.0 to neoliberals like Clinton—all backed by Wall Street and a bunch of supremely naughty billionaires—it’s like: naughty, naughtier, naughtiest. So Krampus should pretty much drag off the whole lot—and maybe let Sanders off with a light switching for his militarist foreign policy, and keep him here on Earth to do a better job of running the country than anyone else who conceivably has a shot at the Oval Office next year.

Here in Massachusetts, deciding who to turn in actually takes thought. So I checked with friends on social media and quickly drew up a short list of our baddest local apples. And I’m happy to pass it on to the K man right now. In hopes that he’ll appear and apply cloven hooves to backsides later this week.

For starters, anyone who had anything to do with pushing a Boston 2024 Olympics—from John Fish to Shirley Leung—is naughty. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, already naughty for his role in the Summer Games debacle, is also naughty for not acting faster to fully replace the Long Island homeless shelter and affiliated treatment centers that his administration shuttered last year in the midst of a growing homelessness crisis. And for a number of other infractions.

The Boston Police Department is naughty for engaging in racially discriminatory stop-and-frisk practices that have disproportionately targeted Black and Latino communities for years. Then trying to brush off a damning ACLU report on the matter this summer. And basically succeeding with the help of a very naughty Boston mainstream press. Who just can’t write enough glowing fluff about the BPD to satisfy their naughty (and largely white suburban) audiences.

The Democrat-dominated Mass legislature is naughty for joining Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and paving the way for privatizing the MBTA. McDonald’s, Burger King and other fast food giants are naughty for paying their Bay State workers sweatshop wages—and fighting tooth-and-nail to stop them from unionizing. Retail outlets like Primark and Walmart are naughty on the same grounds.

Hardly an exhaustive list. Plus right-wingers won’t find much to agree with. Because there’s good reason to think that the horned one leans left. Both the fascists who ruled Austria between 1934 and 1938, and the Nazis who followed them until 1945, banned Krampus. And they wouldn’t have done that if they thought witches and socialists and free-thinkers were first in line for some magical non-consensual bondage every winter solstice.

But hey, this is fun for the whole family! Make your own naughty list. Have a Krampus party and read it out loud. Then wait for all the sweet holiday retribution to start. And look forward to a much more compassionate (and chastened) Commonwealth in the new year.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director. He has a bundle of sticks and is willing to use it.

Copyright 2015 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

GO BIG OR GO HOME: TOWARDS A MASS CLIMATE JUSTICE MOVEMENT

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Image by Kent Buckley

December 16, 2015

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

On Saturday, one important global process ended and another began. The process that ended manifested in the form of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference. The process that began—or more correctly, accelerated—manifested in cities all over the world. Here in Boston, it took the form of Jobs, Justice and Climate—a rally and march to “defend New England’s future.”

Over 2,000 people attended the action last Saturday. A fine turnout by current standards, and the largest regional climate justice rally in recent memory. The organizers—representing a coalition of nearly 150 labor, social justice and environmental organizations —are to be commended. As are their 600,000-plus colleagues across the globe. Including the Paris climate activists who have been harassed and detained by the French security state in the aftermath of the tragic November 13 attacks by supporters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. As if people exercising their democratic rights to take to the street to stop capitalism from destroying the planet have anything in common with people who slaughtered dozens to push Western states into precisely that sort of undemocratic reaction.

The UN-brokered climate justice process launched at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro ended in failure. The so-called Paris Agreement that 195 participating countries negotiated this month at best still leaves the door open to the possibility of a real climate pact in the future, and at worst is just an empty PR move by powerful nations and multinational corporations intent on continuing their carbon-burning business as usual at any cost. Built, as it is, on non-binding voluntary commitments without real enforcement mechanisms.

If there is ever to be a real pact to stop global warming, it will only come about if the grassroots democratic process—which started years before the 1992 Earth Summit—makes it happen. That process must take center stage now, and should only finish when its activists come home “with their shields or on them”—to paraphrase an old saying attributed to ancient Spartan women by Plutarch.

That is a tall order to be sure.

Here in New England, in addition to the work by a growing number of climate justice organizations and institutions that goes on day-to-day—collecting solid climate research, conducting popular education, training new activists, reaching out through the media, pressuring climate criminals and lobbying the government at all levels—there must be a constant and ever-larger series of public political actions to demand the swift transition to a carbon-free economy before it’s too late.

It’s important to keep the scale of the task in mind. There were over 14,000,000 people in New England in 2010. There are more now. There will be more still every year until at least mid-century—assuming food supplies remain stable, which we cannot assume as the impact of global warming worsens. A significant percentage of those people need to be mobilized and kept mobilized for years if there is to be a climate justice movement strong enough to overcome the vast panoply of money and political power arrayed against it. Those growing numbers must then be deployed to push through binding local, state, and regional climate agreements that pave the way for binding national and global climate agreements.  

So, a rally of 2,000 is great. But let’s put that in perspective. One can see 2,000 people at the average high school football game. Or at a large religious service. Or at a large nightclub. It’s just not a very large gathering by the standards of our era. Even if each of those 2,000 people directly influenced 10 people to become (or remain) activists—no mean feat—that’s only 20,000 people. Not an unreasonable figure considering the many organizations endorsing the Boston rally. But not enough to fill Fenway Park either. Let alone Gillette Stadium.

It’s true that those 2,000 rally attendees influenced many more through the press coverage they got for the rally. And that 20,000 people can influence many many more with available digital media. But spreading ideas does not automatically impel people to act with the necessary speed, frequency and force to forestall the climate disaster that even now—in this hottest year on record—is starting to take hold as science predicted.

Political organizing is tough work … until it isn’t. Until a movement that dwarfs anything ever seen in human history rises and sweeps through the entire population. Getting to the point where organizing isn’t tough is very difficult indeed. And it’s impossible to predict the arrival of such a mass movement. It will either happen or it won’t. There’s no telling when. Making it all the more important that today’s environmental activists think really really big going forward.

New England is only one small region of the United States with less than 5 percent of its population. And the US has less than 5 percent of the world’s population. But much of its political and economic power. Therefore, the work that climate activists do in this region and nation today is potentially more effective than work their counterparts do outside such centers of power. That is cause for hope. And it should encourage activists in Boston and around our region to redouble their efforts towards a future where New England—and the world—will no longer have to be defended against global warming. Because global warming will have been stopped by human action. As it was started by human action.

Maybe then humanity will be able to survive to the next stage of our evolution … a global civilization built on principles of democracy, equality, social justice, peace, and ecology. Ad astra per aspera. Through hardship to the stars.

It is that vision that has kept me politically active since the 1980s. Perhaps it will inspire some of you, too. If fellow climate justice activists would like to talk in more depth about the issues I’m raising here, I can be reached—as ever—at jason@binjonline.org.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director. He is a longtime climate justice activist.

Copyright 2015 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

GROUNDED MONKEYS: MILLIONAIRES UNLIKELY TO FLEE COMMONWEALTH IF RAISE UP MASS WINS TAX ON 1 PERCENT

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Image by Kent Buckley

December 8, 2015

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Boston Business Journal’s Craig Douglas made an interesting criticism of Raise Up Massachusetts last week (“Excited about the proposed millionaires tax? Cut off your nose while you’re at it,” Dec. 4). For those who missed it, RUM is a progressive labor-community coalition that just collected over 155,000 signatures to field a constitutional amendment referendum in 2018 that will create an additional 4 percent income tax for residents who make more than $1 million a year.

RUM initially estimated that the new tax would generate $1.3 billion to $1.4 billion of new revenue a year if enacted in 2019. Then the state Department of Revenue recently did their own analysis, and projected that the additional revenue will be significantly higher—$1.6 billion to $2.2 billion a year.

This led BBJ’s Douglas to call foul on both the RUM numbers and the DoR numbers. The problem? BBJanalysis shows that projections by amendment advocates and the DoR aren’t taking into account that the number of Mass millionaires fell in 2013 and 2014—leading him to point out that the amount of tax money the amendment will raise could be far lower than expected.

Certainly food for thought. And if Douglas had stopped there he would probably have landed on solid ground. But then he overplayed his hand, arguing that if the amendment passes we can “expect more millionaires—and their earnings—to flee the state like a bunch of flying monkeys.”

That’s just a truism. The kind of spectre that anti-tax jihadis are fond of raising whenever there’s the slightest danger of tax equity in America. And Douglas offered no citation to back up the claim.

Turns out the Commonwealth’s very own UMass Amherst Political Economy Research Institute did a study called “Raising Revenue from High-Income Households: Should States Continue to Place the Lowest Tax Rates on Those with the Highest Incomes?” in 2012 that states “… the research reviewed in this study suggests that modest tax increases on affluent households are unlikely to make substantial changes in their work effort or entrepreneurship or make them any more likely to leave the state.”

Also, Douglas seems to have forgotten his own article from Oct. 22, “The BBJ Wealth Report: The towns and cities with the most millionaires,” in which he stated that the falling numbers of millionaires in the state were the result of rich people accelerating “income-related activities in 2011 and 2012 in anticipation of the pending rate hikes on high-income earners” and “deferred asset sales and related income-triggering events to avoid the higher rates, hoping instead for a more-favorable tax climate following the 2016 national elections.”

In other words, they played games to make sure that they could report as little income as possible after 2012. Nowhere did he say they left the state, however. Or even that they really lost money.

And that’s basically what I would expect rich people to do if the amendment passes. They’ll play games that allow them to report as little income as possible. Some will drop off the millionaire rolls for a time. But the state will gain a good chunk of desperately needed extra income we’re not getting from any of the various neoliberal shell games that legislators have been playing to avoid taxing the rich. The flying monkeys, meanwhile, will remain safely in their roosts.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director.

Copyright 2015 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.