Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Staying Occupied in Burlington

MAVERICK CHRONICLES, 11/23/2011:  Practicing democracy – from the city council to a park encampment and on to the caucus. Plus, Is America over? Thanksgiving memories – Mumbai and Obama, immigration and the moving border, Burlington’s mayoral race, financing downtown redevelopment, and a few rumors. Stories and Thoughts by Greg Guma

What can I say? It’s been hectic. And it certainly feels as if we’re living through tumultuous, even revolutionary times. The pace is rapid, sometimes overwhelming. Six month ago the Middle East erupted in what we now call the Arab Spring. Since September protests against economic inequality have spread to hundreds of cities across the US and far beyond.

Marching past City Hall
Whatever happens with the onset of winter, the national discourse has shifted – from the Tea Party’s anti-government rage to a focus on concentration of wealth by a tiny elite, the illusive, wealthy and well-connected one percent. Conservatives call the new movement a form of class warfare, but it actually reflects an overdue recovery from a long period of mass amnesia.

On the other hand, some participants in recent protests seem shocked at the heavy-handed official response, as if they’ve discovered some new truth about the relationship between the state and those who dissent. Haven’t they heard of Cointelpro, the Palmer Raids and assorted other counter-intelligence ops? Others suggest that their efforts to create self-governing communities represent a breakthrough of paradigm-altering significance.  A little grand for a movement less than a year old.

On the ground, things aren’t so simple. To say that you represent almost everyone – except a few super-rich pigs at the top – doesn’t mean that you actually do, or that the vast majority of people will continue to identify with various tactics or the overall grievance, no matter how it is presented.

But that’s a discussion for another day. Instead, here is a bit of what I’ve been studying and writing about. And first, a side trip down memory lane...

The Edge of Obama: Thanksgiving 2008

This excerpt from The Howie Rose Show, originally broadcast on WOMM-FM in Burlington in November 2008, looked at the recent bombing in Mumbai, the opening weeks of the Obama era, and other timely topics . It was a lively post-Thanksgiving conversation with FP Cassini and his dad. Enjoy. 
Practicing Democracy: From the Border to the Caucus

Cardenas: The border is moving.
After interviewing four Democrats running for mayor in Burlington, I recently took a brief break from local politics to attend a talk by Mexican organizer Macrina Cardenas and Danilo Lopez, who recently played a key role in sparking a revision of state policy on bias-free policing. Macrina’s point, in saying that the border “is moving,” seemed to be that free trade and inconsistent immigration policies have produced devastating social, legal and economic impacts far away from Mexico. Maybe it also relates to the general militarization of society since 9/11. Another topic for the future. Meanwhile…

There is much doomsday talk these days, even in establishment circles. The cover of the latest Foreign Affairs, official house organ of the eastern establishment (only kidding/not really), screams:


The lead article by George Packer goes directly at inequality: “Inequality hardens society into a class system, imprisoning people in the circumstances of their birth – a rebuke to the very idea of the American Dream.”

But the next essay counsels that the way back is “retrenchment,” or “cutting back to move forward.” In this case, the topic is overextension of US imperial ambitions. The authors, Joseph Parent and Paul MacDonald, suggest what they see as a more humble – and frugal – approach. But the best they can offer is a prescription for “modest decline.” They actually admit that overseas “commitments” are unsustainable and suggest making “a virtue” of the necessity to pull back. It’s making lemons out of…  The advantage for America? This can “not only slow its decline but also sow the seeds of its recovery.”

Inspiring stuff.    

No less dispiriting is much of the left’s analysis. Here is John Feffer, assessing whether Europe is over in Foreign Policy in Focus:

“The social ideals that once animated the European project are dissipating fast. The continent has simply become a good place to do business, particularly in financial services. The current crisis and the resulting austerity measures have served to further Americanize Europe through privatization, reduction of government services, and the like.

“Europe as a continent will, of course, continue. But what made Europe a compelling political, economic, and social alternative wedged between Anglo-American free marketeers and Soviet nomenklatura is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. A much less appetizing European history, whether the dangerous interwar period of the 1930s or the fratricidal melee of the 8th century, now threatens to repeat itself.”

Roman infrastructure?
It’s good to know that Europe will continue to exist, though it may look a bit like pre-Nazi Germany.

The mood in Burlington is a bit better, despite the untimely death of a 35-year-old homeless man in a tent at Occupy Burlington. Things had been going well, in contrast with the violent confrontations between police and non-violent protesters elsewhere. But an impromptu concert seems to have sparked relaxation of the normal restrictions on drugs and alcohol. The next day a number of people at the camp were still intoxicated, including Joshua Pfenning.

His death, reportedly from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, was traumatic for those in the movement, especially those who knew and tried to help.

A few days earlier, representatives from the encampment had attended a City Council meeting, eager to build on their success and win official support. It was an unusual session, also featuring public comments from local skateboard enthusiasts and a lively council debate over their own democratic rules.

That Sunday, just three days after the Pfenning’s death and the city’s decision to end the encampment, more than 1,300 people gathered two blocks from my home for an historic Democratic Party caucus.

As the Regime Changes: Caucus Interruptus

It’s been a strange journey already, and it has hardly even begun. The elections aren’t until March 6, 2012 – just two days after my 65th birthday.

Decades ago, back when I was editing The Vanguard Press and chairing the Burlington branch of the Citizens Party, I ran for the City Council myself as a fusion candidate. In that case, it meant getting the Democratic nomination after entering the race as a “third” party candidate. Democrats like Phil Hoff and Joey Donovan were supportive, understanding even then what Tim Ashe has been saying lately – that the feud between Democrats and Progressives need not be permanent.

But this is now, and it will take some time to heal several decades of mutual mistrust, and some moments that veered into open hostility. In a recent series of articles for I have attempted to delve a bit deeper into this tumultuous relationship at a time of transition. Here are three recent dispatches:

DJADOG rocks the caucus.
One of the pleasures on my new job is the chance to spend time in and around City Hall, an elegant building at the corner of Church and Main Streets, at the base of the city’s famous pedestrian area. Even when there isn’t an encampment in the adjacent park it is a lively and beautiful spot.

Most City Council meetings aren’t as well attended as the one on Nov. 7 when the skateboarders and Occupiers came to make their cases. Often it is just the 14 members of the council (also known as the Board of Aldermen), plus the mayor, a few key staff, and the Channel 17 camera person.

Some of the business is tedious, and, for those unfamiliar with parliamentary process, a bit opaque. But there are also frank and informative discussions at times, and actions that reveal underlying issues and new directions.

At the most recent meeting, for example, the council heard about a proposed tax incremental financing (TIF) district, a financial strategy designed to promote redevelopment and increase the tax base. It’s a big deal – the city wants authority to take on $10 million in debt in hopes of making public improvements that promote private development. Yet I was the only journalist who did more than mention it.

Yet that isn’t what makes it odd. It’s that, 30 years ago, back when I was a candidate for the council and Bernie Sanders was making his first run for mayor, the impact of redevelopment was one of the main problems the emerging progressive movement pledged to solve. When Bernie said “Burlington is not for sale,” he was talking about redevelopment on the waterfront and throughout downtown, the whole thrust of a proposed “master plan” designed to gentrify the city beyond recognition.

That didn’t happen, in part due to Sanders’ election, but also because local citizens continued to resist redevelopment plans. In fact, when the Sanders administration tried to make a deal for waterfront development that included a hotel and condos near the water’s edge, public opposition stopped it.

But that was then… and now all three political parties apparently support targeted redevelopment through TIF.

Yes, times are tough, and state and federal help with some worthwhile local projects is unlikely. But those projects will likely be things like parking garages and amenities that increase the value of nearby properties. In the short term, there will be jobs; in the long term, more valuable real estate and tax revenue. It sounds fine, except that success also means higher rental prices, more downtown traffic, and more tourism dependency.

As Bernie and others used to note, the jobs will be temporary or low-paying, and the local cost of living and luxuries will increase. It’s a tough bargain. But this is now…

In any case, here’s a report on the most recent City Council meeting, including details about TIF, some recent praise for the city’s oft-maligned Mayor, and a resolution on oversight that failed to persuade.

It was upbeat session and ended with an official nod to the Occupy movement: wiggling fingers to vote for adjournment. But some juicy questions hung in the air. Considering the recent praise and success in pushing his agenda, will Mayor Bob Kiss run again? Rumors are circulating that he may step in as an Independent candidate if the Progressives decline to give him another nomination.

Stranger still is the whisper that Councilor Karen Paul, who introduced the doomed oversight resolution, may also run as an Independent – if Miro Weinberger doesn’t prevail at the reconvened Democratic Caucus. Was the resolution really the tentative start of a campaign?

Or is this all just smoke and mirrors? We’ll have to see. Until then…Occupy Yourself. And have a restful time despite the holiday. 
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