Elizabeth Schulte explains what the Republicans’ voter ID laws are really about.

African Americans lined up to vote in Philadelphia in 2008

August 2, 2012
originally posted here


MORE THAN a million people in Pennsylvania alone might not get to vote in November if a new voter ID law goes into effect in that state.

They won’t be alone, because voter ID laws–which require that voters show a photo identification in order to cast a ballot–are spreading from state to state, sponsored by Republican lawmakers who claim they’re preventing “voter fraud.”

But the only thing these laws are preventing is Black and Latino people’s right to vote.

Some 32 states have some form of voter ID law on the books right now. But if it makes it through a court challenge this month, Pennsylvania will be the most restrictive yet.

So was there an epidemic of stuffed ballot boxes or fraudulent registrations in Pennsylvania’s recent elections? Nope. There have been no incidents or investigations of in-person voter fraud in the past, according to state officials themselves.

That’s right, absolutely none.

In Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker is trying to pass a voter ID law, an investigation of the 2004 elections revealed just seven substantiated cases of individuals knowingly casting invalid votes. That’s a rate of 0.0002 percent for the state. And each of these seven cases were people with felony convictions who were attempting to vote when they were banned from doing so–something a photo ID law probably wouldn’t have stopped.

Pennsylvania Republicans were hardly covert about the real reason behind the new law. “Pro-Second Amendment? The Castle Doctrine, it’s done. First pro-life legislation–abortion facility regulations–in 22 years, done,” said state House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, boasting of his party’s recent “accomplishments.” “Voter ID, which is going to allow Governor Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania, done.”

Clearly the Republicans will stop at nothing. They will lie, cheat and, yes, steal to win elections.

How many people will be affected if the Pennsylvania proposal becomes law? Estimates run anywhere from half a million, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, to as high as 1.6 million. According to an investigation by the City Paper, 437,237 people, or 43 percent of city voters, may not have the proper ID to vote under the law.

A valid photo ID can be difficult to obtain, especially for people who don’t have financial resources. The Pennsylvania law requires documentary proof of citizenship, a Social Security card and proof of address to get a photo ID. According to a study by Matt Barreto, director of the Washington Institute for the Study of Ethnicity, Race and Sexuality, who is testifying against the Pennsylvania law in court: “Among eligible voters who currently lack a valid ID, 27.6 percent do not have at least one of the three required underlying documents needed to obtain a valid photo ID.”

Viviette Applewhite, the 93-year-old lead plaintiff in the case initiated by the ACLU and NAACP against the Pennsylvania law, says she can’t come up with the documentation she needs in time for the election. After 50 years of voting, the African American grandmother could be barred from taking part in voting because she no longer has the official papers she needs after her purse was stolen.

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ACCORDING TO the Brennan Center for Justice, in the 10 states with the most restrictive voter ID laws (Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin), more than 10 million eligible voters live more than 10 miles from the nearest office that provided IDs and was open more than two days a week. That’s a hardship for voters without access to transportation.

The Brennan study found that:

1.2 million eligible Black voters and 500,000 eligible Hispanic voters live more than 10 miles from their nearest ID-issuing office open more than two days a week. People of color are more likely to be disenfranchised by these laws since they are less likely to have photo ID than the general population.

The Center emphasized the difficulties imposed by the cost of obtaining the documentation needed to obtain the ID, concluding:

Birth certificates can cost between $8 and $25. Marriage licenses, required for married women whose birth certificates include a maiden name, can cost between $8 and $20. By comparison, the notorious poll tax–outlawed during the civil rights era–cost $10.64 in current dollars.

Stealing the minority vote is hardly a new idea for Republicans. In 2000, the disenfranchisement of African American voters in Florida delivered a narrow 537-vote victory for Republican George W. Bush. According to a Civil Rights Commission reportreleased in June 2001, this was a premeditated act orchestrated by Florida officials, including George W. Bush’s own brother.

Two years before the 2000 election, Gov. Jeb Bush authorized a purge of “possible” and “probable” felons from voter registration lists. Blacks made up 44 percent of the list of 58,000 people who were purged, many of them without cause. Then, after the Black votes were stolen, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against a full recount of ballots in an election that Bush barely won. Al Gore conceded, and Bush became president.

The GOP has plenty of other tricks to disenfranchise the most vulnerable–like attacking groups that work to make voting more accessible. A right-wing campaign against Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN–claiming among other things that the group’s volunteers engaged in “voter fraud” during the 2008 election–forced a grassroots community organization that provided invaluable assistance to millions of poor people to shut down in 2010.

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WITH A new set of restrictive voter ID laws, the right to vote could become an illusion for millions of people this year. Democrats are leading the opposition to these reactionary laws for the obvious reason that they mainly affect the party’s loyal supporters.

But even without voter ID laws, millions of people have had the ballot stolen away from them, and with almost no complaint at all from Democrats–because of punitive laws aimed at potential voters with felony convictions.

Some 5.3 million Americans with felony convictions–and in several states, with misdemeanor convictions–are barred from voting. Of those, most were convicted of nonviolent offenses, and 39 percent have fully completed their sentences, including probation and parole. More than 1.4 million of the disenfranchised are African American.According to the ACLU, “In 11 states, you can lose your right to vote for life.”

Fifty years ago, civil rights activists stood up, risking their lives in the face of racist vigilantes, to win the right to vote. They took on poll taxes, literacy tests and racist harassment and intimidation at voting stations. Their activism put a nail in the coffin of Jim Crow segregation in the South.

Recently, civil rights and immigrants rights activists have begun organizing solidarity actions to take on the right-wing attack on the right to vote. They are part of the movement against the new Jim Crow–with a call for the right for every person’s vote to be counted, whether they have been a victim of the criminal justice system, whether they are undocumented, and whatever the color of their skin.


Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor explains how the police, rather than protecting and serving, maintain a system of racism and inequality.

Originally posted here

Terrorists in blue

“TO SOME Negroes, police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression. And the fact is that many police do reflect and express these white attitudes. The atmosphere of hostility and cynicism is reinforced by a widespread belief among Negroes in the existence of police brutality and in a ‘double standard’ of justice and protection–one for Negroes and one for whites–a deep hostility between the police and ghetto…was a primary cause of the riots.”

The passage quoted above was from a government-commissioned investigation into the causes of urban rebellions throughout the 1960s. For four years, from 1964 through 1968, hundreds of thousands of African Americans rose up against the racism and injustice across the U.S. In dozens of cities, the causes were the same: unemployment, substandard housing, and police brutality among many others.

This report was published in 1968, and yet the description of the police’s relationship to Black communities sounds very familiar. The only significant difference now is that in many urban areas, Black and Latino cops make up a larger part of the police forces.


Stand with family members of victims of police brutality. Find out more about the National Alliance of Parents Against Police Violence on Facebook.

In some cities, there have even been Black police commissioners and superintendents along with Black political representatives, whether it be mayors, city council members or other ranking officials. These changes in the demographics of the police and city administrations that govern them haven’t changed the way that police departments regularly occupy, harass, intimidate and terrorize communities of color.

The reason behind this continuity is something that people in these communities already know: the police do not exist to protect and serve but are here to maintain racism and inequality.

This isn’t a conspiracy theory but is demonstrated in multiple ways, whether it is the disproportionate way that Blacks are arrested for drug crimes compared to whites or the way in which African Americans and Latinos are “legally” stopped for no reason at all.

The New York Police Department’s policy of stopping and frisking young men of color has resulted in literally hundreds of thousands of stops for random searches in hopes of finding contraband. In more than 90 percent of the stops, nothing is ever found, but the possibility of being stopped is a way of intimidating and controlling the movement and presence of Blacks and Latinos outside of spaces they are presumed not to belong.

Police operate in Black and brown communities as if the Bill of Rights does not exist–randomly stopping people for no reason, conducting searches without consent, and arresting and holding people with no charges. It is also infuriating because they operate with impunity. It is next to impossible to have a dirty cop charged with a crime or even disciplined for illegal or unethical behavior because the cops police themselves.

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BEYOND THE daily harassment, more than ever, the police are being used to hem in the potential for protest and resistance to the social crisis that is consuming Black communities across the country.

Black America is being ravaged by unemployment, growing rates of poverty, public school closures, and rental evictions and home foreclosures, to name only the most extreme conditions. In the absence of any real solutions to the economic crisis in communities hit the hardest, more police violence and intimidation are prescribed to keep them in check.

In Chicago, for example, growing poverty and disillusionment with any notion of social mobility in this society has given way to desperation and horrible violence across the city’s Black neighborhoods, but instead of addressing what is painfully obvious–some of the highest rates of poverty and unemployment in the U.S.–local officials periodically suggest new, esoteric policing strategies to address crime.

These policies include neighborhood sweeps of young men, a growing number of surveillance cameras, and an increased police presence in these neighborhoods. These measures, of course, do nothing about crime except add to the number of young Black men with criminal records and thus increase the likelihood that they will never get employment, exacerbating the central problems of unemployment and poverty.

Not only can’t the police do anything about the conditions that give rise to crime but they actually contribute to it. In Chicago, the police have been found to be involved in crime rings that sell drugs and guns.

The combination of growing racial and economic inequality with aggressive policing and the criminalization of Black youth is resulting in even more police violence and even murder at the hand of the cops. According to a report published by the Malcolm X Grassroots Collective, since January 2012, 110 African American men and women have been murdered either by the police, security guards or white vigilantes–almost a person every two days.

Despite the continuity over time of police violence, there’s a perception that it’s getting worse. Because of social media and networking, it’s easier for recordings of police terror to “go viral” and be seen across the country in a matter of hours.

The media initially ignored the murder of Trayvon Martin, but word of the racist killing of the Florida teenager exploded via social media, and the case morphed into a national symbol of racism and police corruption.

Protests against a police riot in Anaheim, Calif., were captured on video, and people around the country were able to see what the police tried to cover up. The mainstream news reported that police offered to buy cell phones from those who recorded the police actions for fear that word would get out.

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THESE ACTIONS point to a greater reality that, while police terrorism is intensifying, so is the willingness to confront it and organize against it. The time is ripe for a movement against the police.

In New York City, activist organizing and an emergent movement against stop and frisk has the NYPD on the ropes, and the potential to end that legalized racism is within sight. Earlier in the summer, more than 13,000 people in New York marched silently to dramatically demonstrate against stop and frisk.

In Anaheim, where the police executed a young Latino man in cold blood, community members rebelled and lashed out at cop terror. In fact, after an evening of being shot with rubber bullets and arrests, community members demonstrated inside of the police department demanding justice.

In Chicago, a “people’s hearing” against police violence brought out more than 100 people, despite city officials’ efforts to thwart the meeting by forcing it to relocate. Across the country, communities large and small are organizing vigils, marches, demonstrations and community organizing meetings to speak out against police violence and murder against African Americans and Latinos.

At the center of much of this organizing are the family members of the victims of police murder who bravely and heroically are finding each other across the country and joining forces to demand justice and speak out against this racist terrorism. The outpouring of protest and organizing in response to the lynching of Trayvon Martin showed that the potential for a movement against police brutality, murder and corruption is vast.

Police terror may be a permanent feature of a system that is as economically unequal and unjust as this one, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t make demands for police accountability and beyond. Our growing movement should demand an immediate end to the legalized racial profiling of stop-and-frisk programs in New York City and everywhere else variations of it are used.

We should call for federal investigations of local police murder and brutality cases because we know that the police can’t police themselves. We should demand elected and accountable police review boards that can independently investigate police crimes. We should demand an end to laws that criminalized the filming or audio recording of police as these are often the only means capture “proof” of their crimes.

There has never been a more urgent need to build a movement against racist, police terrorism in the U.S. There is another reality to consider as well. If the police continue to kill Black men and women with impunity, the possibility of the kinds of urban rebellions that shook American society in the 1960s is a distinct possibility.

One must consider that this isn’t the 1960s, but it’s the 21st century–and there’s a Black president and a Black attorney general and people surely expect more. Moreover, in just the last several days near- riots have broken out in Southern California and Dallas, Texas, as the police, growing more brazen in their disregard for Black and brown life, have executed young men in broad daylight, out in the open for all to see.

In Dallas, people watched the police shoot a man in the back as he was running away. Hundreds of people gathered in response to the Dallas Police Department’s deployment of a SWAT team and riot police.

There’s a growing feeling of exhaustion with the vicious racism and brutality of cops across the country and the pervasive silence that shrouds it–and people are beginning to rise against it.

While working people continue to suffer declining living standards, Bankzilla is feasting on massive profits, explains Eric Ruder.

July 31, 2012
Originally posted here

Bankzilla vs. the rest of us (Eric Ruder | SW)

THE YEAR is 2009. Home values were in free fall, and tent cities were springing up in cities like Seattle andReno as a wave of foreclosures began to wash over U.S. homeowners. The unemployment rate was shooting up, and anxiety stalked the lives of tens of millions of people who wondered if their job might be next on the chopping block.

Stock trader Steven Schonfeld, on the other hand, wasn’t worried at all.

He told a Wall Street Journal reporter that he had “earned” $200 million the year before and his net worth was around $1 billion. He had just moved into a $90 million mansion near Long Island Sound, with its own nine-hole golf course. No one could use the golf course if he wasn’t home. “It’s not a private golf course,” Schonfeld explained. “It’s a personal golf course.”

Schonfeld was making a few upgrades to the estate–like erecting a poolside cabana designed to look like the Cove Atlantis resort in the Bahamas. “I don’t think it’s putting anyone’s face in it,” he said. “I live in this house.”

Welcome to the Great Recession–as in great wealth for the already super-rich, and the worst recession since the crisis of the 1930s for the rest of us.

A year earlier–while Steven Schonfeld was making $200 million–the entire world economy teetered on the brink of a financial meltdown brought on by the crisis of American banks. The U.S. and other power governments hastily assembled bailouts that they said would save the world economy.

The $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) passed Congress with the support of then Sen. Barack Obama and the Democrats and was signed by then-President George W. Bush.

It’s likely that only a few minutes passed before the titans of Wall Street began popping corks.

Mega-bank Morgan Stanley received $10 billion in TARP money. Its profits were down by 41 percent by October 2008–but it still managed to set aside $6.44 billion to pay out in bonuses for executives. Goldman Sachs also got $10 billion from TARP and paid out $6.85 billion in bonuses for 2008.

Sure, those numbers were down compared to the record-setting bonuses paid out in 2007, but at more than $200,000 per employee–and certainly far more for the top executives–that’s pretty spectacular compensation for wrecking the global economy and the lives of tens of millions of people.

TARP funds were used to purchase toxic assets like subprime mortgage bonds, making the American taxpayer the proud owner of billions of worthless financial instruments that the risk-taking bankers had invested in. Still, the bailout was supposed to spur banks to begin lending again and get the gears of capitalism moving again.

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TO THIS day, Bankzilla continues to terrorize whole communities of homeowners while feasting on massive profits.

In May 2012, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation reported that U.S. bank profits were the highest in nearly five years–a total of $35.3 billion in the first three months of the year, which represented a $6.6 billion increase from the same quarter a year earlier and nearly double the figure from two years before.

And the “too big to fail” banks that got us into this mess in the first place just keep growing. In 2002, the 10 largest U.S. banks accounted for 55 percent of U.S. banking assets. Today, the top 10 banks control 77 percent of banking assets. The “big six” U.S. banks–Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Bank of America and Wells Fargo–control assets equivalent to about 60 percent of the entire annual economic output of the U.S.

But did the bailout at least get the economy moving again? Are the banks loaning out money again?

Nope. In the first three months of the year, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Citigroup cut their lending by a collective $24 billion. That almost completely reverses the $34 billion increase in lending at the four banks in all of last year.

The slowdown was concentrated in the “consumer-lending sector”–that is, the rest of us. Credit card loans fell nearly 6 percent and home equity credit lines by more than 2 percent. While mortgage lending was up slightly, most of the increase came from refinancing by homeowners seeking lower interest rates, not new loans.

That’s just one more sign of what most ordinary people recognize–that while those at the top might still be making big profits, the economy is still stagnant or worse for the rest of us.

A study by Northeastern University researchers found that during the first two years of the recovery following the official end of the recession in June 2009, “corporate profits captured 88 percent of the growth in real national income while aggregate wages and salaries accounted for only slightly more than 1 percent” of the increase.

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IT DIDN’T have to be this way. Consider the fact that billionaire investor Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in the world, also invested $5 billion in Goldman Sachs–shortly before the U.S. Treasury gave Goldman $10 billion in bailout funds.

In return for his investment, Buffett got a portfolio of preferred stock as well as warrants to purchase common stock in the future. The preferred shares pay a 10 percent dividend, and the warrants to purchase stock in the future would make him a windfall when Goldman’s stock price rebounded.

About three weeks later, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson forked over $10 billion of taxpayer cash to Goldman Sachs. But the deal that Paulson negotiated got only a 5 percent dividend and a fraction of the warrants–plus those toxic assets that the federal government was now responsible for.

Of course, it could be that Paulson just wasn’t as shrewd an investor as Buffett. But a more likely explanation is the fact that Paulson himself made $37 million in 2005 as CEO of Goldman Sachs before becoming treasury secretary. Therefore, Paulson would havewanted a bad deal for taxpayers, which translated into a great deal for his friends at Goldman.

In fact, many mainstream economists thought the whole concept of TARP–handing mountains of cash over to banks in exchange for taking responsibility for toxic assets–was foolhardy. Many economists argued for a stock injection plan–the same kind of deal that Buffett got–instead of making the toxic assets the property of the Treasury Department.

The bailout bill passed by Congress actually gave Paulson the option of using the stock-injection approach. Not surprisingly, Paulson didn’t exercise his “discretion” in this regard–and the main reason, according to economics correspondent Adam Davidson of National Public Radio, was opposition to the plan among powerful constituencies with a stake in the outcome.

One group is conservative Republicans. “They just don’t fundamentally, in their guts, don’t like the idea of the U.S. government owning shares of private companies,” [Davidson] says. “It just smells like socialism to them and they can’t support it.”

Perhaps more importantly, banks really hate the idea. When the government took over insurance giant AIG, it essentially bought a huge share of the bank’s shares and zeroed them out. All the shareholders lost billions of dollars and the chief executive of AIG was fired to boot.

Of course, the fate of AIG–whose gambling on esoteric investments pushed them into bankruptcy–is an example of how the free market is supposed to work, according to its defenders. They explain that their expertise and willingness to take big risks is what justifies their obscene compensation, and of course they insist that the essence of a free market is that bad investments should not be insulated from bad outcomes by non-market forces, including government bailouts.

But as the Wall Street bailout demonstrated, all this flies out the window when it’s the bankers’ necks on the line. Suddenly, the only “reasonable” approach is to push the losses off onto taxpayers–because the banks are just too big to fail.

This outcome wasn’t left to chance, either. According to Richard Eskow, a senior fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future:

The banks have paid Washington lobbyists $50-60 million per year for the last few years–and they’ve gotten their money’s worth. The White House has yet to indict a single banker for the events leading up to the financial crisis, although billions have been paid out in settlement fees for criminal activity. When you look at it in context, $150-200 million over three years is one of the best investments Wall Street has ever made.

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THE SAME corporate criminality that plunged the banking sector into crisis five years ago continues unabated. The Libor scandal and the attempt by JPMorgan Chase to hide at least $2 billion in losses from investors are only the latest examples.

The story behind the scandals is that federal regulators and the political establishment continue to look the other way as the financial industry and its executives return to profitability–and turn institutional positions into private fortunes.

But apart from the criminality and cronyism, the latest economic turmoil is also being milked for another purpose–to bolster the dynamic of exploitation at the heart of the capitalist system.

Corporate profits are up 22 percent since 2007, while employers continue to shed jobs. This has created healthy corporate balance sheets–and unhealthy lives for workers.

Sylvia works in a massive warehouse in the middle of a California desert. In an interviewwith a reporter from Mother Jones, she described the conditions:

It’s way bigger than a Wal-Mart, but with no air conditioning. Our temperature gets up to 115 degrees. Sometimes it feels so hot in there that you just can’t breathe. You have a lot of people go home sick from the heat. To stay cool, people put towels around their necks. They go back and forth getting ice to chew on.

We’re given orders by scanning our badges and totes into a computer system, which tells us what to pull and how quickly it has to be done. Back when I started in 1999, the rate wasn’t so bad, but for about a year, they’ve been gradually ratcheting it up. Say the old rate was 100 orders a day. Now they’re up to 160, sometimes even higher.

I’ve talked to some of the coordinators who add up the numbers at night. They’ve told me that it’s impossible to meet the rate that they want with the amount of people that we have. So we have to work longer. We already worked 10 hours a day. Now we work another hour or two hours overtime, sometimes with last-minute notice. If we refuse to stay longer, we get disciplined.

This same intensification of work–falling on the people who still have jobs–is true across the economy, whether in blue-collar occupations or the service sector or in highly skilled professions like doctors.

According to an air traffic controller named Steven:

You make a thousand decisions a day. Any one of them could not only cost you your job, it could cost lives or money…Now with all the publicity about fatigue issues, more facilities are doubling up on controllers. Well, where did that second person come from? They don’t have enough guys, so some other shift is now short to backfill the midnight shift. For some people, it has made an unsustainable situation even worse…

I can’t tell you about all the suicides and the accidental deaths where I work. One year we lost more than a tenth of our controllers due to burnout. One guy was 38. He went home after a really long day, poured himself a drink, sat down in his armchair, and died.

Stress hurts your body. When my dad retired in his late 50s, he looked like he was 90 years old. I’m only 45, and when I visit old friends they go, “You look from a distance like you are physically healthy, but when I see you up close…” And it bothers me because I love the job, and I’ve made this commitment that I’m going to see through to retirement, I hope. But at what cost?

As far as Corporate America is concerned, this is the new normal–lay off workers and get the remaining employees to do the work they used to do.

According to economist Brad DeLong:

[It used to be that] businesses would hold on to workers in downturns even when there wasn’t enough for them to do–would put them to work painting the factory–because businesses did not want to see their skilled, experienced workers drift away and then have to go through the expense and loss of training new ones. These days firms take advantage of downturns in demand to rationalize operations and increase labor productivity, pleading business necessity to their workers.

From the Con Ed workers in the private sector to Chicago teachers in the public sector, the pressures to do more for less are relentless. Needless to say, the surge in productivity hasn’t translated into higher wages. If median annual household income had kept pace with the economy since 1970, it would now be nearly $92,000, not $50,000.

Instead, those gains have gone to the top of the income scale. Between 1979 and 2007, income growth for the top 1 percent of U.S. households was a jaw-dropping 390 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute, but only 5 percent for the bottom 90 percent.

And even this slim increase in income for the rest of us has been more than offset by the massive destruction of wealth–in home values and retirement accounts, for example–since the onset of the Great Recession.

According to Christian Weller, a public policy professor at UMass-Boston:

American families lost a total of $19.4 trillion (in 2010 dollars) in household wealth from June 2007 to March 2009, when the stimulus started to take hold. First, it was the housing market, and then it was the housing and the stock market together that tanked. American families lost $6.4 trillion in home value during this period.

Trillions of dollars are sometimes hard to grasp, so think of it this way: One complete house (at 2008 prices) was lost every 1.7 seconds during the Great Wealth Destruction. And this doesn’t even count what happened to American families’ rainy day funds and retirement savings.

This completes the story of the great bankers and bosses’ robbery–of how Bankzilla made out while we lost out. We’re the ones who must tell it because it’s seldom told in the mainstream media.

Instead, when it comes time to find blame for the nation’s economic woes, the media tells us to blame ourselves for not working hard enough–while CEOs who do nothing constructive pay themselves millions of dollars.

We’re told to blame “greedy” public-sector workers–instead of the greed of the bankers who manipulated the Libor rate to make handsome profits for themselves, and in the process drained billions of dollars in fraudulent interest payments from municipalities now struggling to make ends meet.

And we’re asked to blame the unemployed–instead of the bankers who shifted their losses onto taxpayers while keeping the profits for themselves.

One of the greatest indictments of capitalism is fact that while people are unemployed, while millions desperately need goods and services, while factories and offices lay empty, corporations are sitting on a record $1.7 trillion of cash that they won’t invest to put people to work.

No wonder most people think the system is broken. It is–for them. But the system is working exactly as it’s supposed to for those at the top. Capitalism puts profits and power ahead of all other considerations. We need a different system altogether–a socialist society that puts the lives of working people ahead of profits.

New elections have been set for June 17 in Greece, and the far-left SYRIZA alliance is currently favored in opinion polls to take first place. If that happens, it would be a stunning blow to the austerity agenda that the bankers, bosses and political elite of Europe have imposed on Greece, in the form of the so-called “Memorandum.”

Originally Posted here

A first set of elections on May 6 dealt a devastating blow to the country’s two main parties, the conservative New Democracy and the center-left PASOK—which together ended up with fewer than half the number of votes they won in the previous election. SYRIZA, which stands for the Coalition of the Radical Left, catapulted from small-party status to second place. None of the three top finishers could form a government, so new elections have been called.

SYRIZA endured intense pressure to capitulate on its platform of repudiating the Memorandum and rolling back the austerity measures that were a condition of a financial bailout by the European bankers. With that stance gaining in popularity, SYRIZA is calling on left-wing party, including the Communist Party and the smaller anti-capitalist alliance ANTARSYA to work in alliance with the aim of forming a government of the left.

Antonis Davanellos is a leading member of the Internationalist Workers Left, a revolutionary socialist organization that was a cofounder of SYRIZA in 2004. He spoke to Ahmed Shawki and Alan Maass about the outcome of the May 6 vote and what will come next in Greece.

Greek workers march during a general strike last year
Greek workers march during a general strike last year

CAN YOU summarize the reasons behind the stunning result for SYRIZA in the May 6 election?

THE MAIN factor was the resistance of the workers and the people in Greece. In the three years that followed the signing of the Memorandum with the troika–with the European Union, the European Central Bank and the IMF–we saw huge resistance from the workers, from the youth and from the popular masses. This was not just inside Athens, but everywhere in the country. This is the most important factor.

SYRIZA was, from the beginning, very clearly identified as the part of the left that said a clear “no” to the Memorandum and that, at the same time, stood side by side with the people who were fighting. That was very important. And it was easier for us because of our policy of the united front–of the unity of the left and the unity of the movement–is a main characteristic of SYRIZA.

So in their day-by-day experience, people came to the understanding that SYRIZA was a good way to escalate the resistance. That was a major achievement by SYRIZA in the years before the election.

But also, some months before the election, SYRIZA made a point of saying that we can win. That was important because the Communist Party, which is bigger than SYRIZA, was saying that we can’t do anything. As we wrote in DEA’s newspaper: “They chose to proclaim to the people that any effort they make to change their lives today, rather than in some sort of ‘people’s power’ regime of the distant future, is a dangerous illusion.”

So before the elections, SYRIZA was the only part of the left that was saying that we can win–that we can overthrow the current government and propose a new government of the left. We said that we must take this possibility to put an end to the Memorandum and all of the austerity measures, and permit the people to turn around the cuts in salaries, in pensions, in public schools, in the public hospitals, and in measures of support for the unemployed people.

We faced a very big question on this: Where will you find the money? And on that question, SYRIZA was also very clear.

We said that, first, we will stop the payments to the international and local banks–to the IMF, the European Central Bank and so on. We will stop paying the debt. Second, we said that we will tax the rich in Greece–the corporations and the wealthy. Third, we said that we must take public control of the banks–put the banks under democratic and workers’ control.

These answers of where we will find the money are very near to the feelings of huge numbers of people. So that’s why there was a popular tide of support to SYRIZA. Before the election, I think that I felt very optimistic in expecting that we would win between 12 percent or 15 percent. At the end of the day, we found ourselves with 17 percent.

This was a political earthquake. Around 3.4 million voters moved away from PASOK and New Democracy, compared to the last election–mainly to the left, though there was also growth for the Nazis. But it’s clear that SYRIZA was the main recipient of many of these votes.

TELL US more about SYRIZA. What is its presence like in struggles and in neighborhoods?

SYRIZA IS a coalition of parties and organizations, and but there are also unorganized people of the left who participate. There is no unified political line within SYRIZA, but we have a strong agreement on the main points of the current period.

SYRIZA is organized into local committees. Its connection to local struggles has been very important over the years. And SYRIZA is also supporting a coalition of rank-and-file union workers of the left inside the factories and inside the public sector. At this rank-and-file level, we have very strong relations with the comrades of ANTARSYA. On many levels, we are acting together–in the unions, at the demonstrations, in the big struggles.

So people have seen members of SYRIZA on the front line of everyday struggles. But it was also very important to have a presence at the national political level. People know from what SYRIZA was saying at the parliament, and in the newspapers and the media, that it was supporting the different struggles.

We have faced real pressure, as well. If you remember some years ago, in December 2008, there was a rebellion of the youth in Athens after the police killed a 15-year-old student. For a month and a half, Athens was burning every night. And SYRIZA was the only party that was saying, “Continue to demonstrate, don’t go back.” This was at a time when SYRIZA suffered a big loss of votes.

But now we are winning the votes of all these people around very important demands of a change from the austerity measures. People have come to understand they can trust SYRIZA.

In this last parliament beginning in 2009, we had only 13 members, but they did good work. The president of our parliamentary group, Alexis Tsipras, was a sharp and explicit critic of the government, in a way that expressed the anger of the people. There are also members like Panagiotis Lafazanis, who raised in parliament all kinds of questions critical in workers’ struggles–the cuts in salaries and pensions, the changes in laws that have made strikes more difficult.

And so people understood the general political message of SYRIZA to be that we must resist and that we can win. Both parts of this message were important to our victory–not only resistance, but the slogan of a government of the left that can scrap the Memorandum.

WHAT HAS taken place since the election?

AFTER THE election, the bankers and the industrialists in Greece insisted that there must be a government, and so the two main parties, New Democracy and PASOK, pushed very hard to create a government of national unity or national salvation. They were promising almost anything to SYRIZA if we joined a government of national salvation.

In reality, the pressure was to push SYRIZA inside a government that would continue the policies of the Memorandum, which capitalism needs, not only in Greece, but which the European Union is demanding as well.

It was very important that SYRIZA resisted this, and it was a huge battle every day to do so. All the parties were demanding that SYRIZA take part in the government. And we were saying no–we will not participate in a national unity government. We said that we have declared before the people that the only government we will take part in or form is a government of the left, a government that will change the Memorandum and all the laws that of the last three years, during the period of the crisis.

Now, the efforts to form a national unity government have collapsed, and we are facing new elections in a month. Many polls are saying that SYRIZA will be in first place in the next election–with 20 or 25 percent of the vote, and the expectation is that this number will only grow.

We have an incredible situation. This is not revolutionary, not pre-revolutionary, but we are confronting the fact that in a month’s time, SYRIZA will be the leading party in the country.

So we will be called on at that point to form a government that can transform things for the people of Greece. But we also know the reality of our organized forces and what we have inside the banks, inside the army, inside the police. So we understand the challenges.

SO WHAT will it mean to prepare for this next election?

THAT’S A very difficult question because we have a huge responsibility to the people who are supporting SYRIZA. We must ask all the real questions–what is it we want to change and what is it we can change.

We also have a responsibility to transform the situation of the left. We will call again on the Communist Party to have a relationship of unity with us. And we will also call on ANTARSYA to recognize that it would be silly to operate separately in this election–that it’s very important to work with us and confront all these very serious challenges together.

At the same time, we must state clearly and honestly inside the people’s movements that the only way that we can achieve real changes is when people are organizing and protesting in the streets and in the workplaces–when people get organized and struggle around many different issues, as well as the larger questions about society.

In the week after the election, when the pressure on us was huge, with groups of capitalists and officials of other European governments demanding that SYRIZA go back and accept the national salvation government, SYRIZA called open general assemblies of people in Athens–65 in all–to discuss the issues.

The participation was greater than anything we’ve seen before now. For example, in one poor neighborhood between Athens and Piraeus, where a meeting called by SYRIZA might have drawn 30 or 40 people, there were 1,000 people at the general assembly.

IS THERE anything that the left internationally should do to support the efforts of SYRIZA?

ABSOLUTELY. ONE big difference between SYRIZA and the Communist Party, as well as some “national” currents of the revolutionary left, is that we have always insisted that the solution to the crisis must be a European solution. When we say that, we aren’t talking about currencies–the euro or a return to the drachma. We mean the solution lies in the relationship between the working-class movements in Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Britain, Ireland and so on.

This is what has historically changed the history of Europe. So we strongly support the building of relationships between the left in Greece and left organizations and parties throughout Europe. If Greece can set an example, then we can change the direction of things in Europe. But we need strong support in this, because alone, we can’t do much.

We are keeping our eyes on the huge forces of the working-class movement in Europe, which has traditionally been in Italy, France, Spain and so on. We need the help of all these forces.

It’s not a fantasy to look to this kind of solidarity. I remember last year, during one of the worst nights of police violence we had here in Greece, that after many hours of facing tear gas in Syntagma Square in Athens, I got back home and I saw on television some pictures of a demonstration in Spain, with the slogan, “Our brothers in Greece, hold on, we are coming.”

That sense of solidarity from below, between the workers of Greece, Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and so on, is what we need to change the situation.

I think it’s very possible that we’ll face some major provocations in the coming weeks. The rulers of Greece are very frightened right now. Until last week, they were hoping that the bourgeois parties would find a solution and create a government. Now they know that hope is finished, and they are very afraid about what comes next. If the elections happen and SYRIZA comes in first place, it will be more difficult for them to stop us–I don’t mean it’s impossible, but it will be more difficult.

So there are many possibilities of what they could do in a crisis–like close down the banks or stop paying pensions or things like that. And at that moment, we will desperately need the support of the European movement. If Angela Merkel of Germany or any other political leader tries to strangle the government in Greece, we will need the intervention of our sisters and brothers there on the left.

Transcription by Karen Domínguez Burke

Trayvon Martin is dead today because racism is built into the fabric of U.S. society.

March 21, 2012

Students gather at a protest for Trayvon Martin outside the criminal justice building in Sanford, Fla. (Werth Media)
Students gather at a protest for Trayvon Martin outside the criminal justice building in Sanford, Fla. (Werth Media)

TRAYVON MARTIN is dead because he was a young Black man walking where someone thought he shouldn’t be. His devastating story is as old as the United States–and it proves that racism is alive and well in 2012, while the first African American president sits in the White House.

The widespread shock and anger over what happened to Trayvon–and the beginnings of protest around the case–tell us something else, too: That large numbers of people are outraged by racist injustice in this and other forms.

A similar sense of outrage has been at the heart of some of the most important struggles for social change throughout U.S. history–struggles that transformed American society, not only for African Americans, but for everyone, in ways people often take for granted.

Those who care about creating a different world need to do whatever we can to win justice for Trayvon–to sharpen the anger people feel at his death, and to turn that anger into protest, against both his senseless murder and all the aspects of racism that caused it.

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THE FACTS of Trayvon’s murder have made national and international headlines this week. On February 26, the 17-year-old went to a store in Sanford, Fla., a suburb of Orlando, where he was visiting his father and his fiancé. He was walking back through the Retreat at Twin Lakes gated community when he was spotted by George Zimmerman, the self-appointed head of a neighborhood watch.

The 911 calls made by Zimmerman and released by police, but only after growing pressure, provide a chilling documentation of how Trayvon was racially profiled and stalked. “This guy looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something,” Zimmerman, who is Latino, told the police operator. In a later call, he says his victim “looks Black,” and he defies the operator’s instruction not to follow Trayvon.

This week, Trayvon’s girlfriend came forward to describe her last cell phone conversation with him after Zimmerman started following him. “He said this man was watching him, so he put his hoodie on,” the girl, who wishes to remain anonymous, told interviewers. She said that Trayvon got away from Zimmerman at one point, but that the watch volunteer tracked him down and confronted him.

The call ended abruptly–around the time that Zimmerman shot Trayvon. Zimmerman claims the two got into an altercation; that Trayvon, who weighed about 100 pounds less than Zimmerman, forced him to the ground; and that he fired in self-defense. But other 911 calls from witnesses who heard the confrontation say the cries for help before the fatal gunshot came from Trayvon, not Zimmerman.

Minutes later, police arrived and found Trayvon dead. His body was taken to the medical examiner’s office and listed as a John Doe. Authorities apparently never attempted to use Trayvon’s cell phone to find out who he was–his father was still desperately calling 911 24 hours later to say that his son was missing.

The cops’ apparent disregard for Trayvon after his death contrasted with their treatment of Zimmerman, who was released after questioning–because, police said, they had no evidence to disprove Zimmerman’s self-defense claim.

To this day, George Zimmerman has not spent a single minute in custody. Imagine if the roles were reversed, and a Black teenager not from the community had admitted to shooting in self-defense a neighborhood watch volunteer. Can anyone seriously believe that Trayvon would not be sitting in prison right now?

The killing of Trayvon is no exception. While his death in February has gotten increasing media attention in the month since, the killing of Dane Scott Jr. last week in Del City, Okla., passed almost without notice beyond routine “crime” stories in local media outlets.

Scott, who at 18 was one year older than Trayvon, was killed after a routine traffic stop turned into a high-speed chase, with a crash at the end of it. Police claim Scott was armed when he got out of his car and was killed during a “scuffle.” But the teen was shot in the back, and witnesses say he was running away from officers with his hands in the air when police fired “four, five, six” shots, said a worker at a nearby convenience store. “It was like being on a firing range.” Even the state Medical Examiner’s office declared Scott’s death a homicide.

Readers of SocialistWorker.org will know about many other examples of police abuse and violence against Blacks–because they take place every day in every city in the U.S.

In New York, to take one example, one side of the story is the horrifying killing last month of Ramarley Graham, another 18-year-old, this one shot by police in the bathroom of his home, in the presence of his grandmother and 6-year-old brother. The other side is the harassment faced every single day by hundreds and hundreds of African Americans because of the NYPD’s “stop-and-frisk” policy, a not-so-veiled excuse for racial profiling, whose victims are overwhelmingly Black or Latino.

And the cops, of course, are just one face of a criminal injustice system infected by racism at every level.

The U.S. is the leading jailer in the world, with more of its population behind bars–by proportion or in absolute numbers–than any other country in the world. But the number of incarcerated African Americans is the scandal within this scandal. As of the middle of 2009, there were just under 2.3 million people in state, federal or local prisons or jails, according to federal statistics. More than 900,000 of them were Black–40 percent, or more than three times the percentage of African Americans in the population as a whole.

The U.S. justice system is a machine that victimizes Blacks, especially young Black men. According to The Sentencing Project, African Americans, who are 13 percent of the population and 14 percent of drug users, according to surveys, account for 37 percent of the people arrested for drug charges and 56 percent of those serving time in state prisons for drug offenses.

As a result of these disparities, the federal government calculated that the odds of a Black male born in 2001 going to prison during their lifetime was one in three–compared to a one-in-17 chance for a white male.

Like the experience of police harassment, there is no other possible explanation for these statistics than that racism is pervasive and systematic in U.S. society–something that is reflected in every aspect of life for African Americans.

African Americans are more likely to live in poverty–27.4 percent of Blacks were poor according to the Census Bureau’s 2010 figures, compared to 15.1 percent overall. In good economic times or bad, the unemployment rate for Blacks is roughly double that for whites–in February, the official (and vastly understated) jobless rate for Blacks was 14.1 percent, compared to 7.3 percent for whites. By every measure, African Americans get an inferior education from public schools–from number of suspensions and discipline to enrollment in accelerated programs to graduation rates.

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AGAIN, THESE statistics will be familiar to many readers, but they bear repeating since the conventional media wisdom after the election of Barack Obama was that we were living in a “post-racial” America.

That was always a myth, promoted mostly by right-wingers. But it is true that the conditions African Americans face today are a stark contrast to the hopes and sentiments of millions when Obama took office–the pride, and not just among African Americans, that a country founded on slavery had elected its first Black president, and also the expectation that life would get better for the have-nots in U.S. society.

The grim facts prove that life hasn’t gotten better–and that racism persists in even sharper forms, as the Great Recession has hit hardest among the disproportionately working-class ranks of the African American community.

Not only that, but Obama has proved during his time in office that he isn’t interested in challenging racism. He has avoided, in spite of the ever-worsening crisis of the Black community, every opportunity to champion programs that would provide special help to African Americans. He usually hasn’t defended himself against the racist smears of Republican opponents, much less stood up against the right wing when it spews hate and stereotypes about Blacks more generally.

This record tells us something important about racism and how to challenge it. The systematic discrimination against African Americans won’t be changed by symbolic actions or better education or the legal system.

Racism is built into capitalism as one of the primary means that a minority at the top maintains its rule. As the Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass put it, society’s masters “secured their ascendency over both the poor whites and the Blacks by putting enmity between them. They divided both to conquer each.”

The economic component to racism dates back to the capitalism’s earliest days, when the first great fortunes of the bourgeoisie were built on the backs of slave labor in the U.S. South, which produced the cotton that fueled the Industrial Revolution. The ideology of racism was necessary to justify slavery–a crime that was, in the words of Marxist CLR James, “so shocking…that the only justification by which humanity could face it was to divide people into races and decide that the Africans were an inferior race.”

Capitalism outgrew the need for slavery, but not the ideology of racism. Instead, it was continually adapted to perform the same function–of both justifying the fact that one part of the working class was being held down, and of keeping workers divided and unable to unite against their common rulers.

Today, the creeps running for the Republican presidential nomination show all the time that open racism is still tolerated in U.S. politics–from Newt Gingrich calling Obama the “food stamp president” to Rick Santorum saying he doesn’t want to “make Black people’s lives better by giving them somebody else’s money.”

The Republicans’ aim is not only to whip up the party’s base against Obama, but to invoke racist stereotypes used by politicians of both parties to justify attacks on government programs. Ronald Reagan shifted the war on the poor into high gear in the 1980s with false claims about Black “welfare queens” living the good life, thanks to generous government programs. Gingrich and Santorum–and the Democrats who employ the same arguments, but more carefully, by talking about “personal responsibility”–are following in that tradition.

Even the bigotry of an individual neighborhood watch volunteer must be seen as the product of a system that benefits from the demonization of African Americans.

As Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, has argued, the ideology of racism has shifted, especially in the post-civil rights era, from claiming that Blacks are inferior, to perpetuating a stereotype of criminality, especially for young African American men. For one thing, this justifies the building up of a state apparatus that can be turned not only against persecuted minorities, but anyone who challenges the status quo. And of course, the law-and-order hysteria remains an effective means of keeping working people pitted against one another.

Racism is built into the fabric of capitalism, and so confronting it can’t stop with racist ideas–though it is important to challenge those ideas whenever they appear. Racism has to be confronted by struggle–and scapegoating by the spirit of solidarity, with the goal of building a multiracial working-class movement based upon championing the demands of all the oppressed and exploited.

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THIS IS why the African American struggle against racism and for liberation has always been a decisive question for the left in the U.S.

The immense wealth of U.S. capitalism and the power of the American state were founded on the basis of slave labor, and the ideology of racism has remained essential to the U.S. ruling class ever since. And so each example of African American resistance has represented a basic challenge, however small or large, to the system.

When this resistance has been victorious–from the abolition of slavery in the 19th century to the overthrow of Jim Crow segregation in the 20th–it has provided some of the highest peaks in the struggle for freedom and liberation in the U.S. Plus, the actions of people standing up against racism–whether Blacks alone or a multiracial struggle–has again and again provided an example that inspired others to take action.

The abolitionist movement in the 19th century–which counted many ex-slaves like Douglass among its leaders–not only contributed to transforming U.S. society with the overthrow the Southern slaveocracy, but its activists went on to play important roles in other struggles, like the fight for women’s rights and the labor movement.

A century later, the civil rights movement in the South and then the Black Power movement directly inspired protest and dissent throughout U.S. society. The first demonstrations against U.S. imperialism’s war in Vietnam were organized by activists trained by the civil rights movement.

There’s a reason for this crossover in the history of resistance in the U.S. The attempt to unravel one injustice in a capitalist society, where exploitation and oppression in many forms are bound together, inevitably pulls at the threads of other injustices.

The struggle against racism is not only an urgent moral obligation for anyone who hates bigotry. It is also an essential part of a wider struggle. That’s why all socialists and radicals need to respond to every outrage of hate and bigotry in whatever ways we can–and put the struggle against racism at the center of all our efforts to win change.