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Monthly Archives: November 2015


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Image by Kent Buckley

November 30, 2015


As the latest round of the ongoing neoliberal campaign to shift the cost of mass transit in Massachusetts from state government to individual riders gets in gear—a necessary step along the road to privatizing the MBTA—regular readers will be unsurprised to find that I am in agreement with progressive transportation advocates like Alternatives for Community and Environment that are against T fare hikesof any kind next year.

However, there is a related fare reform proposal being floated that also needs to be vigorously opposed early in the game: The idea of means testing T riders and giving poor people lower fares.

Supporters of the proposal include Monica Tibbits-Nutt and Brian Lang—two members of the powerful new MBTA Fiscal and Management Control Board that is tasked with bringing public transit costs to heel in the Bay State at a time when the T’s annual operating deficit is expected to rise from a projected $170 million this year to $240 million next year to $427 million by 2020. Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack has also voiced support for the idea.

I don’t doubt that Lang (president of Boston’s hotel and food service union UNITE HERE Local 26), Tibbits-Nutt (executive director of the 128 Business Council), and Pollack (former associate director for research at the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern University and onetime Conservation Law Foundation staffer) are well-meaning in their concern for low-income riders in the face of constant pressure for regular fare hikes.

But I think their push will create a two-tier system that undercuts the core principle of public services: universality. As the tremendous success of the Social Security program informs us, society as a whole does better when public services like mass transit contribute to the common good. If we start giving a better deal to one relatively powerless group like poor riders, then other more entitled groups like middle class riders will stop seeing support for the T as being in their best interest. Driving another nail in the coffin of the idea of public transportation as a human right and a critical public service when the governor’s seat is held by a Pioneer Institute privatizer like Charlie Baker and when a Democratic legislature has just suspended the anti-privatization Pacheco law for the T for the next three years.

Also, such a weak policy initiative can be undone as easily as it is enacted. Poor riders can have their discount taken away in a political heartbeat. And that’s the danger of mass transit advocates inside and outside government trying to forestall a necessary battle in the public interest with piecemeal reform. That’s the danger of hewing solely to politics of the “possible”—the politics of least resistance—and of buying into Maggie Thatcher’s dictum that “there is no alternative” to the neoliberal capitalist ideology. To forgetting about democracy. To absolving corporations and the rich of their responsibility to pay taxes, and privatizing government. Thus killing off public services while guaranteeing ever greater profits for the one percent.

Last spring, the Boston Globe‘s Shirley Leung predictably tried to put a positive spin on the means tested fare discount plan by inferring that it is somehow akin to progressive taxation—the opposite of Thatcher’s vision—where the poor pay a smaller percentage of their income in taxes and the wealthy pay a higher percentage. But while declaring that the single fare system is a regressive tax on the poor, she tripped lightly past the fact that if we had a genuinely progressive income tax in Massachusetts we’d not only have plenty of money to properly fund the T without regular fare hikes, but would also be able to significantly expand the system. And get all those suburban SUV cowboys and cowgirls on a public bus or train once in awhile—which would be good for both the environment and for reminding conservative suburbanites that they live in a democratic society. Not a Randian individualist dystopia.

The constitutional amendment campaign by the labor-backed Raise Up Massachusetts coalition would go part way towards that goal if enacted by raising state income tax on just the rich and by dedicating some of the funds to mass transit. Which is helpful. But, absent a public groundswell an order of magnitude larger than the Occupy movement, we’ll apparently have to wait for a progressive coalition with the political will to fight for a full progressive taxation amendment that will really solve the problem of properly funding public services like the MBTA.

Meanwhile, former Transportation Secretary James Aloisi (a sometimes controversial figure himself) amply demonstrates what could be done to save the T without major tax reforms in a recent article in Commonwealth—starting with forcing state government to take back the billions in “legacy” and Big Dig debt it dumped on the T years back, shifting up to 10 percent of highway dollars to mass transit each year for five years, and committing the billions in freed-up revenue toward desperately needed system maintenance.

Aloisi points out that the highest possible fare hikes under the law passed in 2013 that limits T fare hikes to 5 percent every two years would only result in an additional $20-23 million in new annual revenue when its operating deficit is rising and the bill for deferred maintenance—that will allow the system to reach a “state of good repair”—is $7 billion (and rising). And that even the 10 percent fare hike that some legislators insist the 2013 law allows would only bring in around $40 million in new annual revenue. So fare hikes are only going to alienate more people from the T in an era when it needs strong public support more than ever.

There’s lots more political drama to come over the next few months before anything is set in stone, but my general admonition to transportation activists would be to echo what a mentor of mine, longtime labor activist Tim Costello, told me over and over again in situations like this years before he passed away: “Don’t bargain against yourselves!”

In other words, mass transit advocates should not start the current fight with a weak political proposal like trying to give low-income T riders lower fares and exposing a lot of other better off—but still economically vulnerable—riders to a stiff hike. They should fight to defend and expand public transportation on democratic principle.

If it becomes necessary to make political accommodations along the way during the hard grassroots fight it will take to make that goal a political reality, then at least public transit advocates will be bargaining from a position of strength … and will end up winning more than they started with.

Rather than less.

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.



November 23, 2015


The following passage is excerpted from a piece I wrote in 2005. It recounts the story of King Philip’s War—which was fought across southern New England 340 years ago, and started not far from where I attended a Thanksgiving dinner that year at my cousin’s place in North Attleborough. Read it. Think about it. Discuss it with friends and family. And, if you can make it, join the United American Indians of New England and allies for a day of remembrance and protest at the 46th National Day of Mourning on November 26 at noon at Coles Hill in Plymouth. Get all the information, and a more accurate version of the history of  “Thanksgiving” at the UAINE website.

In 1675, a Wampanoag sachem named Metacomet (or King Philip to the English) launched—somewhat reluctantly—a war against English colonists in what is now Massachusetts that came closer than any other war launched by America’s native peoples to ending European domination in at least one corner of the “New World.” It was the last colonial war in which the two sides had relatively equal numbers, and used basically equivalent technology.

Had not disease already decimated the native population of the area decades before, the English never could have won.

The grievances of the faction of the Wampanoags that began the war—and the other nations that joined them including the Narragansetts, Pocumtucks, and Nipmucks—were fairly straightforward. The English unceasingly attempted by foul means and fair to convert the native nations to Christianity. And they continually overstepped the bounds of various treaties and contracts with native peoples in taking land that wasn’t theirs for their own exclusive use.

Two years later, roughly 800 colonists and 6000 Native Americans were dead. Dozens of towns and settlements on both sides were wholly or substantially destroyed. Atrocities were committed by all parties to the conflict—though the English outdid their opposition in that respect, unsurprisingly.

Most of the fighting took place in what are now Plymouth and Bristol Counties in southeastern Massachusetts, in much of Rhode Island, and in the Connecticut River Valley in both western Massachusetts and Connecticut—but it raged throughout modern day New England, and smouldered on for over 100 years with no official end date marked. No treaty, broken or otherwise, was ever signed by either side.

A number of Native American nations were for all intents and purposes destroyed—at least as political entities. The rest were assimilated or marginalized.

The war forever cast Native Americans into the role of “savages”—a subhuman status fit only for subjugation or extermination. For 300 years after the war, most American historians gave short shrift to native justifications for the conflict, and exulted in the glory of a holy war won against the forces of darkness.

After you absorb that Native American history, I recommend you delve into some local Black history that activists at Harvard Law School have unearthed. It seems the school was founded with money from a vile family of slavers by the name of Royall. Making matters worse, Harvard Law then adopted the Royall family coat of arms as its crest. The protesters are calling for the decolonization of their campus, the symbols, the curriculum and the history of Harvard Law School. Readers can find out more by following #RoyallMustFall on Twitter and Facebook.

And a big shout out to the #ConcernedStudents2015 student activists at Brandeis University occupying their administration building for racial justice on their campus as we go to press. Stay strong!

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.


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Image by Kent Buckley

November 17, 2015


Shortly after the Paris attacks on Friday, I flipped on the TV and saw that Fox 25 was feeding Fox News live during its normal evening entertainment slot. I was not surprised to find that News Corp HQ was taking full advantage of Americans’ understandable outrage about the tragic slaughter of more than 100 innocent people to foment hysteria against immigrants, refugees, Muslims and any other convenient target in the service of a raft of hard-right policy agendas. From calls to shut all European and American borders against people fleeing the horrific Syrian civil war, to demands that government increase surveillance and expand military and police budgets.

All par for the course. Fox will be Fox after all.

But that’s not what bugged me in this case. What bugged me was that the rest of the major American news media was not much better than Fox in its early reportage of the Paris crisis, and that we do not have a mass independent news media representing the positions of the broad left (and much of the populace) in this country: democracy, equality, peace, human rights, and social justice.

There are many interesting “humane and sane” independent news projects around the US—like theBoston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism that I’m helping organize. They’re just not large enough to reach masses of people during periods when global politics is fast-moving and when—as with this latest crisis—reactionary demagogues are given days of constant exposure to rehearse their racist colonialist Islamophobic fantasies unchallenged to audiences of millions on Fox and allied outlets. Which means that News Corp succeeds in pulling public discourse far to the right in the absence of major outlets willing to confront them when it matters most. The comedian journalists of The Daily Show excepted.

The politics of major American news organizations—conservative protestations to the contrary—now generally run from right to center. With editorial lines that are beholden to the rich and powerful. There are a few large outlets like the Boston Globe that lean left in select political economic and cultural debates, but they are slow to challenge powerful government officials and corporate leaders in dangerous moments like this (and the run-up to various recent imperial wars, the railroading of numerous anti-democratic “trade” treaties like NAFTA since the early 1990s, the defeat of several landmark global warming treaties in the same period, etc., etc.).

In many other countries, however, the media spectrum is much broader. There are mass news media of the left, right, and center. The left press is fairly large, influential, and far more likely to be critical of elite responses to political crises like the Daesh (ISIS) orchestrated killings in Paris. And to inspire their audiences to act politically to prevent such crises from being used by the hard right as an excuse to clamp down on civil liberties or rush headlong into armed hostilities. Especially, as with the Syrian civil war, when a multinational conflict and related refugee crisis is already ongoing.

This independent progressive news media has often been funded by donations from trade unions, non-governmental organizations, protest movements and—significantly—by subscribers who are sometimes organized into consumer co-operatives. Employees may also hold a stake in such publications through employee co-operatives. Examples of this kind of progressive mass independent news outlet include Die Tageszeitung in Germany and WOZ Die Wochenzeitung in Switzerland. There are others like Dagbladet Information in Denmark that have more traditional ownership arrangements.

But there has been nothing like these major news publications of the left in the US since the weeklyAppeal to Reason folded in 1922 and the NYC daily PM folded in 1948. Even the smaller city-based alternative weeklies that were founded in the 1960s and 1970s—like the Boston Phoenix—have been in rolling collapse for some time.

Working on BINJ, and having run the left-wing metro news weekly Open Media Boston for seven years before that, I have no doubt that there is more than enough talent in cities like Boston to build the kind of professional mass progressive news operations that this country desperately needs if we are going to remain a democracy in the coming decades.

The question is: Will the remaining progressive institutions with deep enough pockets to bankroll such major news operations step forward while there’s still time? The labor unions, the major nonprofit community organizations, the progressive businesses, religious denominations, foundations and wealthy donors. And will you—the audience that agrees we need such a left news media complex—step forward and donate to projects like BINJ, and to consortia of such projects?

I hope so. At BINJ, we’d like to work with any institution or organization that is forward-thinking enough to see the need for a mass progressive news media. And that is willing to put their money where their aspirations are. Email me at to start that conversation today.

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.



November 9, 2015


Lots of innocent people are spending time in jail in Massachusetts. And unsurprisingly many of those people are poor and a disproportionate number are people of color. But they are not convicted criminals. They are people who are charged with a crime—often a minor infraction—and can’t afford to pay the cash bail they’ve been assigned. So judges consign them to what to amounts to debtors’ prison while they await trial.

The number of people in the Commonwealth’s pretrial holding has grown nearly 13 percent since 2008, according to a recent study by MassINC, Exploring the Potential for Pretrial Innovation in Massachusetts, while “arrests have declined by 10 percent and the number of commitments annually to state prisons and county houses of correction has fallen by 22 percent.”

Although bail data are woefully scarce statewide, numbers released by the sheriffs in three Massachusetts counties are telling. The study shows that “Black residents are overrepresented in the pretrial population by a factor of 10 in Barnstable County. As a share of Franklin County’s jail population, the proportion of Black detainees is nine times higher than the share of Black residents in the general population; in Norfolk County, the disparity is a multiple of five.”

Furthermore, defendants of color face much higher bail. “In Barnstable County, the median bail amount for African-American defendants is four times higher than for white defendants. Median bail amounts for African-Americans in Berkshire County are five times higher than for white defendants.”

Clearly, the Commonwealth’s mostly white judges have some explaining to do.

Regardless, immediate reform is needed. Advocates are proposing a number of approaches to improve the system, but the one that will likely have the fastest effect is to significantly reduce the use of cash bail. Judges already have the ability to release people charged with a crime on their own recognizance until trial. And it would be good if they did that more often—especially for Black defendants that are currently being slammed with cash bail at a higher rate and for a larger amount than white defendants charged with the same crimes in the same jurisdictions. An even better option would be for Mass. courts to use unsecured bonds that only require a cash payment if a defendant fails to appear for court and abide by conditions of release.

Readers interested in getting involved in the campaign for bail and other pretrial reforms should check out the Pretrial Working Group and the Massachusetts Bail Fund. Those organizations are working on “An Act reforming pretrial process” (H.1584/S.802) that will introduce a raft of solid improvements to the Bay State’s bail system if enacted.

If you want to help affected folks right away, go to the Mass. Bail Fund website and donate whatever you can afford. They help defendants who owe $500 bail or less stay out of jail prior to trial by directly paying their bill. It’s a stopgap solution, but a necessary one until real bail reform gets passed.

The idea that defendants are innocent until proven guilty is enshrined in common law, in the US Constitution, and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We cannot allow such a core democratic principle to be nullified for anyone in our society. Especially here in Massachusetts. So join the fight for bail reform now.

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.


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Kenmore image by Henry Han via Wikimedia Commons

November 2, 2015


If you work in one of the creative professions, then you know how tough it has become to make a living in the Boston area in recent years. But there are a couple of upcoming events that are aiming to improve the political economic situation for local artists, writers, musicians, dancers, designers, filmmakers, journalists, and other creative workers, and both are definitely worth attending.

First, the annual Artists Under the Dome event is happening at the Massachusetts State House this Wednesday (Nov. 4) from 9:30 am to 2 pm. It’s hosted by the Massachusetts Artists Leaders Coalition (MALC) together with the State Treasury, the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

MALC’s mandate is “to make Massachusetts one of, if not the best, State in the Nation for artists of all disciplines to live and work in,” and “to empower artists of all disciplines to become part of public policy dialog on the issues that impact their livelihoods.” As such, Artists Under the Dome is essentially a grassroots lobby day when creative workers are encouraged to connect with their state representatives and senators, and to speak with them about key legislation affecting the creative professions. According to MALC, legislators and other state government officials will assemble to “thank and talk directly with the artists community regarding issues, legislation, and regulations that directly impact working artists of all disciplines.”

There are a number of important arts-related bills coming up this legislative cycle—including An Act Establishing a Public Art Commission (HB 3667)—that will stand a much better chance of getting passed if lots of creatives show up to bend their legislators’ ears on Wednesday.

Second, on Nov. 19, creative professionals are invited to join my Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism colleagues and I for a panel discussion we’re organizing called “The Crisis in the Creative Professions: How Can We Make a Living in Boston Again?” The free public forum at the Community Church of Boston will take a look at how creative workers might organize more effectively to improve our situation. Speakers will include professionals from the affected fields and advocates from relevant advocacy organizations. The event is co-sponsored by Getting by in Boston, Mass. Creative Workers, and Community Church of Boston.

If you’re a creative worker and wondering how you can makes ends meet while doing what you love, plan to attend … and spread the word. For starters, go to Facebook and click “Like” on The Crisis in the Creative Professions event page to get plugged in.

Hope to see Apparent Horizon readers at both events.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ network director, a member of the MALC steering committee and active with Mass. Creative Workers and Getting by in Boston. He is a visual artist and journalist.

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