Monday, January 23, 2012

Prelude to Upheaval: From Disaster to Outrage

For most Vermonters the big stories of the last year were the state's response to Hurricane Irene, which produced the state’s worst natural disaster since 1927, the struggle over closure of Vermont Yankee, and passage of the first-in-the-nation universal health care system. After almost a decade the state had a Democratic governor who pledged to usher in single-payer health insurance and usher out Yankee. Around the country people were rallying to the economic critique of Vermont's popular US Senator, Bernie Sanders. 

Occupying UVM
Yet in Burlington, where Sanders made his political breakthrough three decades ago, financial trouble at Burlington Telecom, a city-owned enterprise, and a deal with military contractor Lockheed Martin forged by Progressive Mayor Bob Kiss sparked local outrage. By spring there were clear signs of political upheaval ahead.

The larger story of the last year, in the Green Mountains and far beyond, was the sea change in public discourse – from anti-government rage to a radical focus (also angry at times) on economic inequality and concentration of wealth. Conservatives called the new movement class warfare, but it actually reflected an overdue wake up from a long period of mass amnesia.

The pace of change quickened – revolt across much of the Middle East, Greece and other European countries on the verge of economic default, and a titanic struggle for the soul of the US in the presidential race. Many progressives and Democrats were experiencing Obama Fatigue, while among the Republican candidates Mitt Romney had the organization and the money. But Romney was also a member of the 1%, a “vulture capitalist” who seemed to lack core principles.

By early October, from Vermont to San Francisco, thousands were protesting the growing wealth disparity between the rich and almost everyone else. In Burlington, Montpelier and other communities in the state, people began gathering to express themselves and organize. Using social networks and a collective (aka leaderless) approach the Occupy movement spread rapidly to hundreds of US cities, gaining momentum as unions and politicians offered support.

According to a Gallup poll, 44 percent of Americans felt that the economic system was personally unfair to them. More to the point, the top 1 percent had greater net worth than the “bottom” 90 percent. And, in an unusual generational twist, more people under 30 viewed the general concept of socialism in a positive light than capitalism.

The movement’s objective was nevertheless ambitious – to occupy parks, schools, corporate offices, streets, anywhere and everywhere – until something real is done about what the movement defined as economic tyranny. And tyranny is an uncomfortably apt description of the current “world order,” if you can call it orderly except in the capacity to concentrate wealth and power at the top.

On the other hand, some participants sounded shocked at the heavy-handed response in many places, as if they had discovered something new about the relationship between the state and those who dissent. What about Cointelpro, the Palmer Raids and countless other counter-intelligence ops over the years? Others suggested that the new efforts to create self-governing communities represented a breakthrough of paradigm-altering significance. Was this arrogance or just idealism and ambitious goals?

Many in the movement see it as a counterculture, a transformational social experiment. In order to succeed, they argue, it needs to remain separate and uncompromised by the dominant culture. One problem identified last fall was that to fully participate in its non-hierarchical, consensus-based process people had to make it a central part of their lives. This posed a problem for those with limited free time.

As protesters chanted "We are the 99%” the local elections began in Burlington. At a Democratic debate two days after declaring his run for mayor, State Sen. Tim Ashe, once a Progressive member of the City Council, proposed fusion with Democrats to defeat the Republican challenge. But there were three other candidates and one, Miro Weinberger, a housing developer angry about how the city had been managed under a Progressive Mayor, Bob Kiss, thought he was best qualified for the challenges.

In late October activists launched an ongoing encampment at City Hall Park. As long as some basic rules were followed Mayor Kiss signaled that he was prepared to be flexible. Things went fairly well at first, in contrast with violent confrontations between police and protesters elsewhere. But an impromptu concert sparked relaxation of normal restrictions and the next day some people were still intoxicated, including a 35-year-old homeless man.

Joshua Pfenning’s death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound was traumatic, especially for those who knew him and tried to help. It also abruptly ended the encampment. But General Assemblies have continued, while dozens of working groups develop the movement’s next phase.      

By Thanksgiving almost everyone was talking about the one percent (or 1%, as some prefer), the few with most of the wealth – bankers, oil tycoons, hedge fund managers and the rest. But as filmmaker Robert Greenwald pointed out, there is an even smaller elite – the top 0.01 percent, wealthy military contractor CEOs.

That made the embrace of Sandia Laboratories and Lockheed Martin by Vermont’s progressive leaders, including Sanders, somewhat perplexing. On military funding and partnerships with defense corporations, otherwise vocal critics of the 1% and military-industrial complex made much the same arguments as other members of Congress.

Shumlin and Sanders push Smart Grid
Although Lockheed ultimately backed out of its climate change agreement with the city – at least partly in reaction to public pressure – Sanders succeeded in attracting Sandia, which is managed by Lockheed for the Department of Defense. The result is a multi-million dollar satellite lab at UVM to usher in Smart Grid metering, announced at a December press conference with gov. Peter Shumlin.

Along with Senator Pat Leahy and Congressman Peter Welch, Sanders also supported the prospect that Lockheed-built F-35s might be bedded at the Burlington International Airport. If the plane was going to be built and deployed, he argued, Vermont should get a share of the manufacturing jobs and support for its National Guard.

On the other hand, he continued to fight for working people and speak out strongly during the year against economic inequality and corporate personhood. Momentum grew for Town Meeting and legislative action on a Constitutional Amendment to declare that money isn't speech and corporations aren't people. A state legislative resolution introduced by Sen. Virginia Lyons, the first of its kind in the country, has a decent chance of passage. It proposes “an amendment to the United States Constitution that provides that corporations are not persons under the laws of the United States.”  

In December, local Democrats reconvened their caucus – it stalled in November after three rounds – and nominated Weinberger, the political newcomer. Two days later Republican Kurt Wright, a state legislator with more than a decade of experience on the City Council, launched his campaign. The emerging dynamic pitted an experienced insider downplaying his conservative approach against a neophyte outsider with business expertise – at a time when the city faces difficult choices. 

The shape of the race shifted again with the entry of Independent Wanda Hines. An African-American organizer who works for the city, Hines filled the vacuum created by the Progressive Party’s indecision and division. On Jan. 22 local Progressives opted not to run a mayoral candidate this year, but may still endorse one of those running.

Major questions loom as Town Meeting Day approaches. For example, will voters at Town Meetings send a strong message on corporate control of the political process by recommending a Constitutional Amendment? And will the state legislature act? How can the progressive movement deal with the recent damage to its local brand? Could Vermont’s liberal city actually elect a Republican who thinks selling the municipal electric department is the preferable way to reduce the city’s debt?

Beyond the Queen City, with a federal judge ruling on Jan. 20 that federal authority trumps Vermont law -- meaning that Vermont Yankee won't have to close in March and extended legal and regulatory fights lie ahead -- how will activists and the public respond? 

And one more: Will the 99% movement for economic justice and economic democracy that emerged so dramatically last year find a way to pose specific questions about the limits of corporate influence, turning its potential and aspirations into an inspiring and practical vision?

Summing up a year, in Vermont or beyond, can become a superficial or even misleading exercise. But who could ignore the signs of change last year as the Tea Party’s no-nothing rejectionism gave way to a global outcry against economic unfairness and corporate exploitation? That much at least was obvious, and not a bad way to wake up and get ready of 2012.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Remembering MLK: Death, Life & Secrets

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of a Memphis motel as he prepared to support striking Black sanitation workers there. Although James Earl Ray initially confessed to the crime – he later recanted – doubts about what happened persist. 
In the late 1990s, former FBI agent Donald Wilson, who investigated the murder, presented evidence he claimed to have found in Ray’s car – slips of paper that support charges of a conspiracy involving federal agents. Wilson didn’t produce the evidence earlier, he said, because he didn’t trust other investigators and feared for his family’s safety.

Coretta Scott King and the rest of King's family won a wrongful death civil trial against Loyd Jowers and "other unknown co-conspirators." Jowers, the owner of a restaurant near the Lorraine Motel, claimed to have received $100,000 to arrange King's assassination. The jury of six Whites and six Blacks found him guilty and concluded that "governmental agencies were parties" to the assassination plot.

William Pepper, who represented the King family in the trial, charged that Ray was framed by the federal government, and that King was killed by a conspiracy that involved the FBI, CIA, military, Memphis police, and organized crime figures from New Orleans and Memphis. A friend of King near the end of his life, Pepper also represented Ray in a televised mock trial in an attempt to get him the trial he never had. The results of his investigation are provided in his book, An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King.

Yet, it’s easier, in a way, to accept that King was the victim of a conspiracy than to face other aspects of his life. As Kentucky civil rights leader Georgia Powers put it, “He was a great man – but he was still a man.” Like Bill Clinton, whose record as president was largely overshadowed by relentless investigation of his personal behavior, King was hounded by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, who hoped to discredit the civil rights leader by exposing his alleged “womanizing.” Many civil rights leaders dismiss such charges as mean-spirited attempts to sully King’s memory and discredit his achievements.

Georgia Powers certainly had no intention of doing that. On the contrary. She worked closely with King in the 1960s, organizing to end discrimination in public accommodations and employment and pass open housing laws. In 1967, she became that first Black and first woman elected to the Kentucky State Senate, a position she held with distinction for the next 20 years. During her first term, less than a month before King’s death, she spearheaded passage of a statewide open housing bill. After a distinguished career, she passed away in 2016 at 93 years old. She was in her early 70s when we first met in 1997.
MLK and Georgia Powers
As she explained then, her relationship with King was more than professional. Her 1995 book, I Shared the Dream, described how their work together led to a love affair that continued until the last moments of his life. Keeping that secret for almost three decades, she went public only after other civil rights leaders released inaccurate accounts of their relationship and the events surrounding King’s death.
She was particularly upset by a comment in And The Walls Came Tumbling Down , an autobiography written by Ralph Abernathy, King’s close friend and confidante. Although willing to attribute Abernathy’s repetition of Hoover’s smear to illness and poor memory, she felt compelled to set the record straight. “When Dr. King’s life is researched,” she wrote, “I want the part relating to me to be available in my own words. It is my own history as well, both the good and the bad.”

It began with mutual admiration, she explained, and “progressed into a deepening friendship in which we shared opinions, confidences, and laughed often.” She called him “M.L.,” and he called her “Senator.” But King was under tremendous pressure, and ultimately turned to Georgia for intimacy and emotional support, she claimed. Although they sometimes discussed issues and strategies, his main unmet need was time to let his hair down and set his cares aside.

“Some people called him a prophet, and compared him with Jesus,” she recalled. While she did believe that he was divinely inspired, “I knew Martin had all the imperfections, foibles, and passions of a mortal man.” A meticulous person with an affection for silk suits, he enjoyed laughter and jokes, barbecued ribs and soul foods, not to mention the company of attractive women. In short, she said, “He had a good appetite for life.”

He also had a strong sense that he wouldn’t get to see his visions come to pass. Tired and melancholy one night, he told her, “I’m just as normal as any other man. I want to live a long life, but I know I won’t get to.”

Georgia was in Memphis with King on the day he died. The previous night he’d confided, “I’ve never been more physically and emotionally tired.” On April 4, they waited most of the day to see if a temporary restraining order against the planned demonstration would be lifted. But King was adamant. Regardless of what the court decided, he promised, “We will march on Monday.” When Abernathy asked whether he feared what might happen, King answered softly, “I’d rather be dead than afraid.”

As the meeting broke up and the group prepared for a soul food dinner, King brushed past Georgia on his way out the door. “I’m looking forward to a quiet and peaceful evening,” he said. “Don’t make any plans.” They were the last words he ever spoke to her. Moments later he was shot.
Looking back, Georgia regretted that her actions may have hurt others, especially King’s wife. But despite those feelings, she didn’t regret her decision, insisting that it wasn’t just some tawdry affair. “When we were together,” she recalled, “the rest of the word, whose problems we knew and shared, was far away. Our time together was a safe haven for both of us. There we could laugh and speak of things others might not understand. He trusted me, and I him, not to talk about it.”

As the years passed, however, she became increasingly uncomfortable with the rumors that distorted their relationship. She also realized that her own life, like so many, was full of hidden truths. One was her ancestry. Although she didn’t know the identity of her father’s father, she eventually learned that he was White. Another involved her great aunt Celia Mudd, who was born into slavery but eventually inherited the rural Kentucky farm on which she spent all her life.
Eventually, she uncovered most of Celia’s story. The key was a 1902 will in which Sam Lancaster, whose father had bought the Nelson County farm, left it to his most trusted employee – the former slave whom Georgia knew as Aunt Celia. That fateful decision led to a court battle with Sam’s surviving brother. The case went to Kentucky’s highest court, yet most newspapers declined to report about it. A Black woman inheriting more than 500 acres of land from a White man apparently wasn’t considered news. Neither was the fact that Celia Mudd went on after winning the case to become a local philanthropist, admired by Blacks and Whites alike. 

Powers and I collaborated on a novel , Celia’s Land,* that explores this forgotten history. During the research I visited the farm on which Celia spent her life. Stepping into the old slave quarters where she was born, I reflected on how much we still don’t understand about that time, when Whites believed Blacks were no more than property. I also thought about how often racism is still ignored, distorted, or downplayed.

Rather than the petty arguments, name-calling and cruel distortions that often characterize political discourse these days, what we need is the courage to face our own and society’s uncomfortable realities – to openly acknowledge them, replace hatred with compassion, and stop accepting convenient myths.
  (Original version posted on April 4, 2008; most read post, Jan. 2012)
* In addition to working with Georgia on the book I have written a play, The Inheritance, also based on Celia Mudd's story.

Friday, January 20, 2012

What is The Vermont Way?

A fresh look at the remarkable Green Mountain State... An engaging, accessible study of Vermont’s political, economic and cultural evolution and influence...


Restless Spirits and Popular Movements