Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Common Security Clubs

We mentioned Common Security Clubs (CSC’s) briefly when we were blogging from our convening on “Applying the Commons.” For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, CSC’s are small groups of individuals who meet together to learn, support each other, and take action to create a new economy that serves people and the planet. In the process, a common security club allows neighbors (co-workers, etc) to get to know one another, find inspiration, have fun, and strengthen community.

The number of clubs has grown quickly over the last couple of years as people struggle to find a sense of security in very uncertain times. Many have realized that security cannot be created by individuals alone, but rather by coming together and sharing what we have in common.

On Wednesday, Dec 8th at 3pm Eastern, there will be a webinar on how to start a Common Security Club, the background behind them, and a review of the curriculum

For more information on Commons Security Clubs, as well as resources and additional groups and trainings in your area, visit the CSC website.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thoughts On Thanksgiving

I start by admitting that I am not a fan of the Thanksgiving holiday. When I worked in domestic violence, it was one of the two busiest days of the year for men beating up women (the other was the Super Bowl). We always had a full house at the shelter and all lines lit up on the hotline. It is a day of gross consumption: a few people (generally again women) work very hard for many hours making a meal, and everyone, including the cooks, spend 30 minutes eating it and two hours recovering from it. Then a few people spend several hours cleaning up. Families often come together on Thanksgiving, which should be good, but people who love their families probably see them as frequently as time and money allow, and those who only see their families on Thanksgiving are often not in the “love my family” category. People have too much to drink, causing old resentments to be aired and new ones to be formed. However, one could hardly expect a holiday with such dubious (some would say imperialist and genocidal) origins to be other than what it is.

But Thanksgiving has its upsides: leftovers! And an automatic four day weekend as Thanksgiving cannot be moved to Monday.

Even though I don’t like Thanksgiving, I am a fan of holidays in general and I wish there were way more of them. They provide good practice for not working, particularly for Americans who are chronically overworked. When a society has only a few holidays, each holiday has to multi-task: get the family together, eat well, have fun, get some rest, and get caught up on all kinds of tasks that we don’t have time to do during the normal work week. It is no wonder that few holidays are really fun—they are layered with a to-do list that makes going back to work something to look forward to.

In the Middle Ages, people had about eight weeks worth of holidays in addition to Sunday. Peasant life was hard and life in general was short, (the average lifespan was 30 years), but pleasure was a value for all classes of people. In fact, Christmas, which we have narrowed down to one day, was 12 days long.

A commons society has a lot of holidays, far more than the eleven Federal holidays we observe in the USA, (many of which are not given to people who work in the private sector.) We have built into our Constitution the basis for a commons society: “the right to….the pursuit of happiness.” If we made happiness our highest value, how would we structure our society? Perhaps sometime over this weekend, between turkey and pie, phone calls to distant friends and watching the Macy’s Day parade, we should think about that.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Gated Country

The second day of our trip to Arizona was spent in Mexico at a border station.  Half of our group went to Nogales and the half I was in to Naco.  Naco is a tiny little town that is divided down the middle by “the wall”, with a fairly empty and depressed downtown on the Arizona side and a livelier but still small downtown on the Sonora side. 

We parked on the AZ side and walked over the border to a migrant station about 100 yards from the checkpoint.  The border crossing into Mexico is staffed by US immigration officials, which is odd because generally other countries staff their own borders.  The border between Arizona and Mexico is essentially occupied by the US.  The border guards were friendly and entering into Mexico was easy, as was coming back.  We showed our passport and said we were going to visit the Migrant Resource Center.  They waved us through. 

The most striking detail in this town is “the wall.”  I am not that good at estimating height, but I would say it is at least 12 feet high.  It runs the entire length of the Arizona border, as well as much of New Mexico and California, and you can see it snaking along the border in both directions. Unmanned planes, or drones, provide surveillance.  Parts of the wall are made from old runways from the first Gulf War.  Built by Marines, it is sunk into three feet of cement and cost about $1 million per mile.  On the US side, there is also a ditch right along the wall.  In many places, there is a double wall, and apparently the plan is to have a double wall along the entire border.

The wall causes all kinds of environmental problems because animals can’t migrate as they would normally do and water can’t follow its normal routes.  Flooding in border towns is now common.  Debris piles up along it, and mostly it does not really keep  migrants out of the USA, although many people sprain or break their ankles or twist their knees as they come off the wall on the US side.  In the summer the metal of the wall radiates heat and burns any sentient being that touches it. 

I found the wall far most upsetting than I thought I would.  I could imagine animals trying desperately to find a hole or break in the wall, and people climbing up one side and then shimmying down the other, tearing up their hands in the process or jumping and landing in the ditch. The desert is one of the most fragile ecosystems and the heavy equipment used to build the wall, and the All Terrain Vehicles now used to patrol cause scars and damage that will never heal.

The wife of a border patrol agent organized schoolchildren to paint flowers and pretty designs on that part of the wall that goes through Naco.  I can imagine her motives were good:  she does not want this hulking behemoth to scare children or to appear so threatening.  But as one of our hosts pointed out, you don’t want to make something like this pretty.  It is not just ugly, it is evil, and no mural of smiling children skipping through fields of flowers can change what this wall is about.

On our southern border, we are a gated country now, and we might as well put up a sign:  “Americans only. Brown people not born here are not welcome.”

Thursday, November 18, 2010

"And for what?"

Last weekend I went to Tucson, AZ with 15 members of a religious community I belong to called Loretto.  I went to see for myself the ways that undocumented people are treated in Arizona and also to participate in a protest at Ft. Huachuca, which is where “enhanced interrogation techniques” (which a layperson might be forgiven for mistaking for torture) are taught. 

Friday we went to the Federal Courthouse to witness “Operation Streamline” which is a way of moving hundreds of undocumented people through the court system quickly.  About 50 men and 7 women, ages varying from 18-40, sat waiting their fate.  They were  handcuffed and these cuffs were in turn attached to a chain that went around their waist, and their feet were shackled.  A bevy of public defenders sat near them.  We were the only people in the audience.  There were also a small number of border patrol agents and two US Marshals.  The prosecuting attorney, called throughout the day, “the government” wore a light colored linen suit, but everyone else was in a dark wool suit, except the accused, who of course wore whatever they had on at the time of their arrest.  All of them had been arrested Nov 10 and their trial was Nov. 12. 

Except for the shackling, the proceedings were surprisingly humane.  The Judge seemed genuinely kind and concerned that the accused understand what they were accused of, and what their options were.  Each of the accused had a headset and everything was translated into Spanish.  The Judge explained slowly and carefully what would happen in the court room and often paused to see if there were any questions or concerns.  There were none. 

The accused were brought to the front of the courtroom in groups of seven.  They were each asked a series of questions:

“Are you a citizen of Mexico?  (or in two cases, Guatemala)”   Answer “Si”
“On or about Nov. 10, did you enter the United States at a time or a place not approved of by the US immigration service?”   Answer: “Si”
“Did anyone threaten you or promised you anything for the plea you are about to enter?”  Answer:  “No.”
They were then told what they were accused of again, (“petty offense of entering the US illegally”) and asked as a group “how do you plead?”
Answer in unison:    “Cupable”  (Guilty.) 

The Judge then handed down sentences of 30-150 days (depending on how many times they have committed this offense)  to be served in a private prison run by the Corrections Corporation of America in Florence, AZ.  They then shuffled out of the courtroom, and the next group of seven went to the front. 

Immigration is very much a commons issue.  In a “commons” world, there would either be no borders at all, or people would be welcomed at borders.  “Welcome to our country!  We hope you enjoy your visit and that you find our culture and way of life kind and friendly.  We hope you will share some of your culture with us.”  Of course in a commons world, people would only travel to other countries if they wanted to and not because they felt forced to by desperate poverty. 

How much further from a commons world we are is evidenced in the treatment of these prisoners.  Someone not knowing what the proceedings were about could well conclude that these people must be, at the very least, serial killers or war criminals.  To have hands and feet shackled for the “crime” of coming into the USA, and no other crime, is absurd.  

I was most struck again by the total commodification of everything (neo-liberalism).  These people come to the US to do work for a low wage.  This allows their employers to make more money and thus these undocumented workers are worth quite a bit.  But now, whether they work or not, they are valuable commodities because taxpayers will pay CCA (the private prison) $2,270 per month to house them.  This makes them profitable as prisoners.  Prior to the private prisons, a public defender told us, they would simply have been deported.  Now they serve time and then are deported, making each of them a profit center.  The sheer cost of arresting, prosecuting, sentencing, housing in prison and then deporting these workers, is staggering.  A public defender calculated that the Judge handed down $300,000 worth of prison time in the two hours we were in court.  That same judge will preside over another 70-100 accused in the afternoon, and does this five days a week.  Almost 1,000 undocumented people a week are sent to Florence and then deported, for a total of over $2 million of federal tax money paid per week to a private prison.   This total does not include those undocumented people who are accused of more serious crimes of drug trafficking or robbery or driving under the influence who are tried separately. 

A public defender we spoke with afterward said this entire process is a money-generating scheme and a gross injustice.  It has gotten much worse since 9/11, and will get worse if SB 1070 is found to be legal (it is currently in court).  He also noted that there are Russians, Poles, and Asians in Tucson illegally, but they are never brought in front of a judge or deported.  “The system is aimed at Mexicans and Latin Americans. No other undocumented people are dealt with this way.”    He voiced the question in all our minds, “And for what?  For what?”

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Call-in Day to Stop Cuts to Unemployment

Groups across the country are sending out announcements today asking folks to call their representatives and stop them from cutting unemployment benefits. Their message? Don’t cut benefits for the unemployed to pay for MORE tax cuts for millionaires!

In last week’s Real Change interview post, Kim Klein noted that “what we do with tax dollars is a mirror of community values.” Our friends at Citizens for Tax Justice point out that, “if Congress fails to continue the unemployment programs, 2 million people in December alone will be left with no income. In the next five months it will be almost 6 million people.” What does this say about our values as a nation when at the same time as talk of these cuts is happening, talk of extending the Bush tax cuts is going on as well?

Furthermore, EPI analysts have shown that “maintaining these extended unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed will create about 700,000 full-time equivalent jobs and save millions of people from poverty. The authors also note that because unemployment insurance benefits are quickly invested in local communities, thereby stimulating economies and creating jobs, the “sticker price” of these benefits is considerably less than advertised.” (Read more in their issue brief A Good Deal for All)

To call your representatives today, Go to www.usaction.org or call 1-866-606-1189.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

US One of Least Taxed Countries

In this blog post, I want to share with readers the following report from Citizens for Tax Justice, which lays to rest any mythology that Americans pay a lot of taxes.  It is clear that revenue increases must be part of the solution to debt.  Decreasing debt by increasing human suffering is immoral and, more to the point, unworkable.  Cutting public service programs simply throws people who need these services onto those public agencies which cannot be cut (such as emergency rooms), strains existing public services to a breaking point, or provides a pipeline to one of America’s favorite ways of dealing with needy people: criminalizing their behavior and sending them to prison.  All of these options cost money, and so debt is deferred but not reduced.

There are dozens of fair and just revenue solutions which would decrease unemployment, reduce (and eventually end) poverty, and address health care and climate change issues.  Tax revenue is an integral component of any conversation about the common good, and that conversation will begin when Americans realize that people in other developed countries live much better and longer than we do because they pay taxes.

United States Remains One of the Least Taxed Industrial Countries (PDF)

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Reimagining the common good

Several weeks ago, Kim Klein was interviewed by Timothy Harris, Executive Director of Real Change for their newsletter. I thought I’d re-post the link here today since it captures so well why this work is important to nonprofits and why fundraising for our organizations is no longer enough.
This is a democracy, and what we do with tax dollars is a mirror of community values, and right now the values say that we don’t care if a lot of people are homeless, and we don’t care that a lot of people are hungry, particularly children, which is now 20 percent of those living below poverty, and we don’t care that a handful of people have massive amounts of money while the vast majority don’t have nearly enough.
Click here to read the full interview.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Giants fever

The San Francisco Giants have won the World Series for the first time since they came to San Francisco and only the second time since 1954, when they were still the New York Giants. 

Almost everyone in the Bay Area caught “Giants fever” over the past few weeks.  People dyed their hair orange, total strangers greeted each other with “Go Giants” and conversations were struck up by BART riders, people standing in line at the bank and at the grocery check-out stand about the Giants. Schools and offices emptied out for the parade yesterday down Market St, and the day became a holiday by the sheer exuberance of the fans.

I was in a yoga class while the last game was happening.  Our class is fairly sedate. People move from pose to pose following our teacher’s instructions, which are delivered in a soft mellifluous voice.  There are no questions, and it is really not a bunch that grunts or sighs with effort, so the class is very quiet.

This class was every so often filled with the sound of shouting as the Giants scored once, then twice, then again.  Somewhere between Downward Dog and Warrior Pose, the teacher said, “I think the Giants are winning.”  We all laughed (softly) as she had read all our thoughts.  With inward cheers, we moved into Shoulder Stand. 

I am not much of a baseball fan or really much of a sports fan.  I have tried to be because I like being caught up in excitement and rooting for something or someone to win, and I like anything that cheers people up so much, and I like things that appeal to all kinds of people.  The World Cup, the Super Bowl, the Tour De France, all have these huge followings and people seem to suspend their other judgments of each other as they discuss teams and players.  I like those things, but the extent of my contribution to the conversation is usually, “How about that game?”  Then I nod sagely as if I understand all the commentary that generally follows.  God forbid I ever talk to someone more ignorant than me and have to face the question, “What game?”

Contrast Monday night’s World Series win with Tuesday night’s election results.  Where I was there was no cheering, no crowds in the streets.  There were some victories, to be sure, but overall, state by state and town by town, the country seemed to take another giant step in the wrong direction. 

Of course during the Obama campaign and for awhile afterwards, many of us had the excitement generally reserved for sports victories.  And Giants fever will soon be replaced by other concerns or excitements.  People want to be excited and to be transported beyond ourselves.  Many of us love having an excuse to smile at strangers and to feel part of something bigger than ourselves.  Our task as commoners remains to find a way to generate and then maintain that kind of excitement for questions of the common good.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Voting: A Duty of the Commons

Election Day has taken on huge political significance this year. The balance of power between the two parties is up for grabs, and the projections have been constantly changing. Polls show that half of voters see this election as a referendum on the President’s agenda. And the rise of the right-wing Tea Party’s influence has captivated the media. So politicos have been looking forward to this day as if it’s a political Superbowl -- a partisan death-match. This may make for exciting political theater tonight as we watch the returns, but seems at odds with our progressive, commons-based values.

Sadly, our form of democracy just reflects a society based on competition, enclosure, and an overall winner-takes-all mentality. In her book, Governing a Commons from a Citizen’s Perspective, nobel-winner Elinor Ostrom wrote about how governing a common pool of resources requires a different notion of responsibility and citizenship. But we have allowed our political processes to be enclosed by corporate interests, just like the environment and so many other parts of our Commons. The Citizens United case exacerbated the long-standing problems of private money dominating elections. According to the Sunlight Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to government transparency, there has been more than $450 million in outside spending on this election; with nearly $200 million being spent just in the last two weeks. That level of spending by private, corporate interests is dramatically increased compared to the 2006 midterm. And we’ve seen the results of that spending when we turn on the tv for the last month.

All of the spending on political ads (especially this season’s overtly racist ones) is in a perverse way a response to the general lack of interest and involvement in our democratic processes. Voters are a rare commodity in the U.S., so candidates (and their corporate sponsors) spend as much money as possible to appeal to our basest, ADD-afflicted, sensibilities. In the 2006 midterm elections, the voter turnout rate was only 40%. Although turnout was significantly higher in 2008 for the presidential election (it usually is), we still have roughly two out of five people who are eligible to vote opting out of the democratic process.

In response to this lack of involvement in the democratic commons, many countries have established compulsory voting. In fact, roughly 10% of the world’s governments use compulsory voting. Australia established compulsory voting at the turn of the 20th Century; with the “impetus for compulsory voting at federal elections appear[ing] to have been a decline in turnout from more than 71% at the 1919 election to less than 60% at the 1922 election.” Imagine, our high-turnout mark of 60% was enough of a shock to Australians that they made voting a duty of its citizens.

I don’t know that compulsory voting would be a magic bullet, but a robust democracy needs both commons-based (public) financing for elections and for its citizens to step up to the call of duty and vote. Otherwise we’ll be stuck with the rash of outside spending that amounts to the enclosure of campaigning by rich corporations, and the hyper-partisanship due to our obsession with competition over cooperation. And what’s worth it’ll be what we deserve.