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Olympics, debt and repression: An interview with Andrew Zimbalist

Monday, August 8th, 2016

Andrew Zimbalist is professor of economics at Smith College and author of Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, which The Guardian newspaper has called “A remarkable study that exposes the extraordinary chicanery and dodgy dealing behind staging the Olympics and the World Cup.” Zimbalist was one of the leading voices in the successful No Boston Olympics movement.

SB: Wherever they are hosted, the legacy of the Olympics is one of private affluence, public austerity. Why do cities continue to compete so fiercely to host the Games?

AZ:  Like most investments, the Olympics reproduce class relations; in that respect they are not peculiar. As a public investment, the Olympics reflect politicians’ ties to private capital and politicians are responsive to important voices and sources of power in the community.  If you’re a Mayor and the head of the largest construction firm in the city or three execs from the largest companies come to you and say “the Olympics would be good for the city, and by the way, there are 50,000 unionized construction workers and they like the idea too, and I can bring along some executives from the insurance industry and the hospitality sector.”  Mayors will listen. Combine this with the fact that the IOC has a very well honed public relations mantra that it uses about how the Games will bring tourists into the city, put the city on the world map and excite businessmen from around the world who would want to come and invest in your city and all these other things that they say, and then they go out and they hire a private consultant firm to make some estimates about the economic impact and the private consulting firm gets paid a couple of million dollars, they use a false methodology with unrealistic assumptions and they come out with an example that you would expect. They have a very well studied program about how to get these things through.

SB:  And yet it’s now well-known that the Olympics leaves behind huge public debts.

AZ: Here’s how it works; it goes in cycles. Back when Los Angeles was awarded the 1984 Olympics in 1978, it was the only city that was willing to bid (editor’s note: this followed the 1976 Montreal Olympics which stuck Quebec taxpayers with a $1.5 billion bill).  LA was successful for a variety of unique reasons, primarily because of the city’s bargaining position with the IOC.  Because they were successful, then other cities looked at that and they said “oh, you can do this successfully,” and they wanted to do it, and then what happened was the costs of hosting started to explode.  The costs started going into tens of billions of dollars and then cities started to lose interest again. Most recently five European cities dropped out of the competition for the 2020 Winter Olympics. The IOC was smart enough to realize that they had to switch the gestalt.  They had to produce cleaner images of what the Olympics could be and so they passed a reform agenda. Agenda 2020, as its known, has all these nice resounding phrases in it about being more flexible, looking for bids where the city doesn’t waste money and putting more emphasis on sustainability.  So far, those are just words, but they’ve been relatively successful: the number of bidders for the 2024 games is up to four.

SB:  Do the protest movements that spring up around the Olympic bids and the actual Games have an impact? Take Rio as an example.

AZ:  They will have some impact, but it’s very hard to detect the direct line from the protests to who gets influenced by it or general impact.  One thing that’s going to happen— it’s already happening in Rio—is that you are going to get a lot more repression during the Games; you’re going to get a militarization of the streets.  Rio will have 85,000 security personnel trying to make sure there is no disruption and it’s going to be very regimented and very harsh. That’s the way that they are going to try to contain protests and try to stop them from spilling out onto the streets.

SB:  Do you think it’s more likely that authoritarian governments will increasingly host the Games? Places where dissent is more easily quashed without public outcry?

AZ: Yes, probably it’s more likely.  However, that’s going to be mediated by the IOC’s concern for its image.  So I think it’s hard to predict, but it makes it more likely certainly that the IOC is going to look for host cities and societies where it’s less likely that there will be dissent, protest, and disruptions.

(This interview was edited and condensed for length)

A version of this article appeared in Canadian Dimension magazine, volume 50 number 3, Summer 2016.

The PT’s Own Goal

Monday, August 8th, 2016

Brazil’s Workers Party (PT) government, led by former Marxist guerilla, Dilma Rouseff, is in the midst of a political crisis that it may not weather. Embroiled in a corruption scandal involving the state petroleum company, Petrobras, and a number of construction firms, the government has been rocked by massive street protests and the machinations of a ruling elite hell bent on ending 12 years of leftist rule in South America’s largest and most economically powerful country.

Acting through the judiciary, and backed by a corporate media which ignores the corruption of right-wing politicos, the opposition appears to be plotting a coup, pushing for the impeachment of President Rouseff and the imprisonment of her beloved predecessor, the former lath operator and trade union leader, Lula da Silva.

The PT has endured political crises before. Brazil has seen waves of anti-government protest over the last three years. But now the government faces a confluence of factors that has shaken the foundation of Brazilian society, including the spread of the Zika virus, an economic downturn, and a rush to prepare for the 2016 Olympics.

In a country in which sports—and especially soccer—and politics are deeply intertwined, it was the PT’s insistence on hosting the World Cup and the Olympics back-to-back (in 2014 and 2016) that seems to have weakened support amongst the party’s poor and working-class base. Although the government’s partial break with neoliberalism and strong economic growth has lifted close to 40 million Brazilians out of poverty, in a country in which so many still lack access to the basic necessities of life, the millions spent on sporting spectacles has led many supporters to question the PT’s priorities.

Such is the religious devotion to soccer that the PT’s sins might have been forgiven had Brazil won the World Cup. Instead, it crashed out of the competition in spectacular fashion in the semi-finals against Germany. The unraveling of the national team seemed to mirror the unraveling of the political compact that has kept the PT in power.

Problems on the pitch

On that infamous day in July 2014, the game started badly. With only 10 minutes passed, Thomas Muller—Germany’s most prolific strike—stood unmarked at the back post and easily converted a corner kick. Ten minutes later, Germany scored again and added another within two minutes. And then, with the home crowd in a state of shock, a fourth German goal a mere twenty seconds after the restart. By halftime, it was 5-0.

After the break, the Canarinho—as the national team is nicknamed—returned to the field looking like they would much rather have been somewhere else. The thousands of Brazilians who had packed the Estadio Minerao sat in stunned silence; the atmosphere eerie for a match of such grand importance.

The game ended 7-1, the biggest defeat suffered by the national team in its 100-year existence. The team of footballing legends such as Zico, Socrates, Girancha, and Pele, had been dismantled, humbled, and humiliated in front of a television audience of close to one billion people.

Brazil’s manager, Luiz Felipe Scolari called it the “worst day of my life.” In a post-match interview, tears streaming down his face, the Canarinho’s captain, David Luiz, said, “I just wanted to bring happiness to these people, my people have suffered so much with other things.”

As the Guardian’s South America correspondent, Alex Bellos, wrote on the eve of the World Cup, the PT was banking on national team success to “help soothe unrest.” “Nothing less than glory,” Bellos noted, “is good enough for the host nation.”

Two years on and with Brazil’s right-wing forces and upper middle class on the march, the PT needs its poor and working class base more than ever. But as Dave Zirin has observed, the “party is not drawing millions of defenders into the streets, partly because there is a mass dissatisfaction with the status quote, and partly because the World Cup and the Olympics have exacerbated the hard times and symbolized a government woefully out of touch.”

On entering office, President Lula had a soccer pitch installed on the presidential lawn. Rumour has it that during kickarounds, the former President liked to play right midfield, emulating his hero Zizinho by dribbling around the finance minister or a trade union leader. It should have been his and the PT’s first and last attempt at capturing sporting glory.

 

A version of this article was published in Canadian Dimension magazine, volume 50 number 2, Spring 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When it Comes to Poverty Reduction, Budget 2016 Earns Failing Grade

Saturday, April 30th, 2016

Another provincial budget, another Liberal betrayal of Ontarians living in poverty. Despite past promises, the provincial government’s Budget 2016 does not prioritize poverty reduction. While the budget does include some concrete measures designed to make life more affordable for low and moderate-income households, as Ontario Federation of Labour President Chris Buckley has remarked, “modest program improvements in certain sectors are being paid for by across-the-board cuts to others.” Make no mistake about it: despite overtures to “social investment”, this is an austerity budget and makes a mockery of the provincial Liberal’s poverty reduction commitments.

Back in 2007, the Liberals announced a much heralded poverty reduction strategy with the modest goal of reducing child poverty by 25 percent over five years. However, according to economists with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, Ontario ended its five-year strategy with the same level of child poverty as when it began in 2008.  While long overdue increases in the Ontario Child Benefit and the minimum wage, the roll out of full-day kindergarten, and the introduction of Healthy Smiles Ontario (a program providing dental care for kids in low-income households), have all been important developments, since the austerity budget of 2012, the Liberals have beat a hasty retreat in their War on Poverty.

Our self-styled “social justice premier”, Kathleen Wynne, is a former schoolteacher and has written her fair share of report cards. Well it’s time to issue the Wynne government a poverty report card and in subjects ranging from social assistance to food security, the provincial Liberals are earning very bad grades.

F in Social Assistance

Close to 900,000 Ontarians rely on social assistance to help meet their basic needs. Since the Harris Conservative’s cuts in 1995, welfare incomes have been grossly inadequate, falling far below the poverty line.

For folks on social assistance, Budget 2016 does bring some good news. The Wynne government has committed to ending the dollar-for-dollar claw back of child support from social assistance, although the amount of child support that single parents will be able to keep has not yet been determined. Furthermore, as the Income Security Advocacy Centre has pointed out, there is no new money for legal aid services that give single parents the assistance they need to obtain child care support orders.

In terms of social assistance rates, the budget includes a 1.5 percent increase in rates for families on OW and ODSP recipients and a 3.7 percent increase to the rates for single individuals without children on OW (which amounts to an extra $25 a month). However, the increases will not kick in until September and October. Furthermore, with inflation at around 2 percent, a 1.5 percent increase actually amounts to a cut in the real income of families on OW and folks on ODSP.

F in Child Care

According to the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, Ontario tops the list of the highest and least affordable child care fees in Canada, with long wait lists for subsidy in many communities.

Despite this, Budget 2016 offers no new money for child care and creates no new child care spaces. As Carolyn Ferns, Public Policy Coordinator of the Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care, has said “The Ontario government is squandering its chance to make real progress on early learning and child care.”

The budget ignores the affordability crisis facing Ontario’s parents, especially low and moderate-income families. Subsidized child care can be a route out of poverty, especially for single mothers on social assistance. Sadly, the Wynne Liberals are doing nothing to improve access to quality, affordable child care.

D in Housing

With long waiting lists and a huge backlog in repairs, social housing in Ontario is in crisis. Yet the budget doesn’t serve up any major new cash for social housing needs and instead simply repeats previous commitments.

There is an injection of $178 million over three years into the Liberal government’s existing affordable housing strategy. This will go into assistance to those fleeing domestic violence (a $2.4-million pilot) and homelessness outreach ($45 million). Details are thin on where the remaining $100 million will be spent, although the budget says it will support 1,500 new supportive housing units providing assistance to those with disabilities and other needs. Again, this is not new money but simply the repackaging of previous commitments.

Furthermore, as the Income Security Advocacy Centre points out, there is no increase in direct funding to low-income households, especially folks on social assistance, to pay for the housing-related expenses—like first and last month’s rent, utilities arrears, and furniture replacement. These expenses used to be covered by the Community Start-Up and Maintenance Benefit, which the Wynne government axed in 2013.

F in Food Security

Rising food and housing costs are leaving many cash poor folks with the dire choice either paying the rent or putting food on the table. According to the Daily Bread Food Bank, food costs are up 4% and vegetable prices have increased upwards of 18%. Food bank use has been on the rise throughout the province. The Daily Bread estimates that after paying for rent and utilities, the average food bank user has an income of only $6.67 a day to try to live on. With no commitment to food security in Budget 2016, people living on low-incomes will continue to have to rely on food banks and experience the health problems associated with poor diets.

B in Post-Secondary Education

On the poverty file, post-secondary education is the one bright spot in Budget 2016. Changes to the post-secondary grants and loans system and education-related tax credits will mean that students from families with incomes under $50,000 will receive more in non-repayable grants than they pay in tuition for most post-secondary programs.

These changes apply to anyone who is eligible for OSAP, including those receiving social assistance. While the devil is in the details—students and/or parents will stay have to pony up $3000 to access these grants—this appears to be one subject in which the Wynne Liberals are worthy of a decent grade.

However, the government is providing no new funding for post-secondary education overall and this means little will change for the army of precarious part-time instructors who now do the bulk of undergraduate teaching in Ontario and who often earn near poverty-level incomes.

New Initiatives

The provincial government has announced it will be setting up a guaranteed basic income pilot project but with few details, we should reserve judgment on this subject.

Overall grade: F

When it comes to poverty, the provincial Liberal’s 2016 budget deserves a failing grade. In Ontario, there has been a 38% increase in poverty over the past 20 years. Nearly one in five of the province’s children live in poverty and close to 7 workers are now earning within $4 of the minimum wage. Ontario families pay up to $19,000 a year for child care, the highest costs in Canada. And as the Income Security Advocacy Centre has said, “below-poverty incomes for people on social assistance continue to leave them in dire circumstances.” Overall, Ontario funds all of its social programs at the lowest rate in Canada.

The need to build a strong anti-poverty movement in Ontario has never been more pressing. Not simply an example of the moral callousness of the Wynne government, Budget 2016 is a reflection of the current weakness of our movement. If the provincial Liberals are to earn better grades, we will need to encourage them—with protests, rallies, organizing, activism, and effective advocacy—to go back to school.

Simon Black is Assistant Professor at the Centre for Labour Studies, Brock University, and a member of Peel Poverty Action Group

The Coming Revolution in the NBA (and the Woman Who Will Lead It)

Sunday, January 24th, 2016

When Marx and Engels penned the Communist Manifesto in 1848, Europe was in the midst of revolutionary change. The opening line of the Manifesto is “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.” The idea of an economy and society democratically controlled by working people was one that struck fear into the hearts of Europe’s ruling classes.

In the world of professional sports, the bourgeoisie hasn’t quaked in their loafers for some time now. In the past ten years, team owners have boldly locked out players in the NBA, the NFL, and the NHL (twice), weakening collective bargaining agreements in the process. In many ways, labour relations in pro sports mirrors the one-sided state of class struggle beyond the floodlights and scoreboards. Players’ associations, like other labour unions, have been in retreat. In Major League Baseball, the players’ share of league revenue has fallen close to 20 percent in the last 20 years. In the NFL, it’s down from 50 to 47 percent. And in the NBA, the last two rounds of collective bargaining saw a massive transfer of wealth from players to owners—some $3 billion over a decade.

Enter Michelle Roberts, pro sports answer to Angela Davis. Last July, the Harlem-based lawyer made history by becoming the first woman to lead a major North American professional sports union, the National Basketball Players’ Association (NBPA). Roberts is African-American and grew up in public housing in the South Bronx. According to a profile in the New York Times, her mother, Elsie, raised Roberts and her four siblings on her own, cleaning houses and selling home-cooked food to supplement the money she received on welfare.

After attending New York City public schools, Roberts earned a scholarship to a prestigious private school. From there, she went on to the University of California at Berkley, graduating with a degree in law. Roberts became a public defender, reflecting her belief that “poor people have the right to a good defense”, before earning a reputation as one of America’s fiercest trial lawyers. Oh and she picked up a side gig teaching at Harvard along the way.

Despite having no background in labour relations, Roberts beat out 300 other candidates to replace Billy Hunter as executive director of the NBPA. Hunter was considered a soft touch at the bargaining table and had long ago lost the confidence of basketball’s rank-and-file.

In her first big media interview, Roberts struck a markedly different tone than her predecessor. Throwing a verbal hand grenade into the normally polite discourse of NBA labour relations, she called the league’s billionaire owners “replaceable”. Channeling Marx, Roberts asked, “Why don’t we have the owners play half the games? There would be no money if not for the players. Let’s call it what it is. There. Would. Be. No. Money. Thirty more owners can come in, and nothing will change. [The players] go? The game will change. So let’s stop pretending.”

Then, when asked if she thought she would be underestimated in the male-dominated sports world, Roberts replied, “My past is littered with the bones of men who were foolish enough to think I was someone they could sleep on.” As New York magazine put it, “If you’re looking for the one person most likely to alter the world of sports most dramatically over the next decade … It’s this 58-year-old woman sitting in her office in Harlem, ready to watch the sports world burn.”

Although NBA team owners are crying poor—they always do—Roberts knows that the league has never been more profitable. The NBA is the midst of a revenue boom with a new $24 billion television contract, rising gate receipts, and strong merchandising sales. The average NBA franchise is worth $1.1 billion—and yet owners want to chip away at player gains in salaries, benefits, and working conditions (never mind continuing to squeeze city governments for taxpayer dollars, building shiny new arenas on the public dime).

Well Roberts is having none of this. With her at the helm of the NBAPA and a new round of collective bargaining on the horizon, the players are in a bolshie mood. Even the league’s wealthiest player, LeBron James, is sounding like a basketball Che Guevara and was recently elected to the union executive. A players’ strike could well be on the horizon.

But despite their resources, the players’ have always had one serious disadvantage vis-a-vis owners—a disadvantage somewhat unique to their occupation. When your career is five years long, losing a season’s salary to a strike is a serious financial hit. Roberts answer to this? Ruminating on the future of the NBA, she insisted that the players, if pressed, are capable of forming a league of their own; that is a league managed, owned, and controlled by the players themselves. With Michelle Roberts at the bargaining table, it seems a spectre is haunting the NBA.

A version of this article was published in Canadian Dimension Vol 49 No. 2 March/April 2015

Unifor Faces Off Against Owners in Major Junior Hockey Fight

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

The gloves are off in what could be one of the most watched labour fights in recent years. The Canadian Hockey League is an umbrella organization administering three hockey leagues with 60 teams in Canada and the US. The CHL supplies the labour, i.e. the players, to North America’s pro leagues, including the NHL (close to half of all NHLers have come up through the CHL). Despite being big business, CHL leagues self-classify as “amateur student-athlete development leagues” and the average player earns a fee or allowance of $35 to $50 a week for 40 plus hours of work, in addition to educational support in the form of a scholarship. I recently spoke with Jerry Dias, president of Unifor, about the union’s campaign for justice in major junior hockey.

SB: Jerry, why do Major Junior hockey players need a union?

JD: In short, because they are exploited. Here you’ve got kids between the ages of 16 and 20, chasing their dream. They are all working for for-profit CHL franchises. This is big business. The Quebec Ramparts just sold for an estimated $25 million dollars. The London Knights make millions in profit every year. The CHL just signed a ten year deal with Rogers cable worth about $80 million. There’s a significant revenue base. Where does that money go? It goes into the pockets of owners and people who run the leagues. These are for-profit companies that have players working for free. They receive small stipends and they are promised that their post-secondary education will be paid for but more than half of them never receive a dime because of outrageous restrictions on how and when they use their scholarships. The people who run these businesses do incredibly well—and they do so on the backs of unpaid labour.

There are other reasons. Take the case of Tim Nolte, a player for the Spruce Grove Saints. He had to spend $20,000 on dental surgery after getting a stick in the face.  The league’s insurance only covered $2500. Players’ accident expenses should be 100 per cent covered. A young man that is working for an employer, a for-profit company, ought to be taken care of. As long as you’re dealing with an organization that frankly is all about profit first and people second, then you’re going to end up with these types of situations. So the only way these issues can be fixed is if the players have a collective voice and a collective agreement.

SB: The CHL argues that small-market teams will go under if the players unionize. What do you make of this argument?

JD: It doesn’t matter what the industry, when you talk about unionizing, owners say the sky will fall. The fact is that every successful professional sports league has revenue sharing. Small market teams are subsidized by big market teams. The key to a successful business model can’t be having your workers work for free. I worked at Bombardier aerospace. Imagine my employer said “okay Jerry, you buy the necessary equipment, and then you can work at Bombardier for four years for free but we’ll give you a scholarship at the end of it. But wait, you have only 18 months to use that scholarship after you’ve finished or you’ll lose it.” If this scenario is not okay in your workplace, it shouldn’t be for major junior hockey players. 95 percent of these players are not going to have a career in professional hockey. So if the average ticket price is $17 are you telling me $1 cannot go to players’ wages? The person that cleans the ice gets paid. The coach gets paid. The manager gets paid. The person who cleans the toilets at the rink gets paid. Yet the person whose labour generates the profit doesn’t get paid.

SB: What’s the current state of the campaign?

JD: Charney Lawyers have commenced a $180 million class action lawsuit on behalf of all current and some former players in the CHL.  The lawsuit seeks compensation to the players for their back wages, overtime pay, holiday pay and vacation pay which should have been paid to them while they played. If the court decides that the players are employees, not “amateur student-athletes” then the fee violates minimum wage legislation in every Province and State where the teams play hockey. This process will take about a year but we suspect that when the owners realize they’re in huge trouble we might then be able to sit down and have a common sense discussion about how we take care of these young men. I’ve also had a lot of discussions with the Minister of Sport and the Minister of Labour. So we’re waiting to see how the government responds as well.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length

Published in Canadian Dimension 49(3) May/June 2015

A People’s History of the Yonge Street Rebellion

Monday, May 4th, 2015

Today marks the 23rd anniversary of the Yonge Street “riot”. I wrote this for a community arts organization a few years ago. From #TDot2Bmore #BlackLivesMatter. Reposting on this May 4th, 2015.

May 4, 1992. Los Angeles was burning and Public Enemy’s Shut ‘Em Down sat atop the rap charts, its opening lyrics delivered in Chuck D’s booming baritone:  “I testified/my mama cried/Black people died/When the other man lied”.  Four Los Angeles police officers had just been acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. Closer to home, two Peel Region cops implicated in the shooting death of a Black teenager, Michael Wade Lawson, had walked from the courtroom free men. A year prior to the Lawson shooting, Lester Donaldson had been shot by Toronto police as he stood unarmed in his rooming house. And a year following, police had shot and paralyzed 23 year-old Sophia Cook, the third Black person shot by Toronto police in the space of fifteen months.

Then, just days after the King verdict, a 22 year-old Black man by the name of Raymond Lawrence was shot and killed by a Toronto police officer. And so the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC) and its supporters—an organization formed in the wake of the Donaldson shooting—amassed on Yonge Street, just south of Bloor, to protest the shooting death of Lawrence, the decision in the Lawson case, the ongoing police harassment of Toronto’s Black communities, and to stand in solidarity with the LA uprising.  The demonstration was initially small, numbering in the hundreds, primarily young Black women and men. But as they began to march, their numbers grew. Aboriginal youth, homeless youth, youth from other racialized communities joined the demonstration following BADC’s lead, chanting “No justice, no peace!”

The protestors moved through the streets to the US Embassy and on to Nathan Phillips Square. After speeches decrying Toronto Police Services and their defenders at City Hall, the march doubled back on Yonge, heading northwards. BADC leadership drew the formal demonstration to a close, concluding with a rousing rendition of the Black national anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. Many young people, however, remained, angry and insistent that the march continue.

As protesters moved up Yonge, windows were smashed and cops were pelted with eggs, bottles, and stones. The police were alarmed at the growing militancy of the demonstration and attempted to block the protestors at Bloor, parking two buses across the road. But the protestors were not for turning, gathering pace as they moved towards the roadblock with intent. In response, the police removed the buses and retreated westward down Bloor.

Lennox Farrell, co-founder of BADC, recounts the anger of the young marchers: “A youth came up to me and said ‘Mr. Farrell, this is our time. We have to get back at them for how they hurt us’.”

The demonstration turned left on Bay Street, heading south towards police headquarters. According to Farrell, “Every single window pane on Bay St. was broken. The police knew where the youth were going and must have thought, ‘Nah this can’t take place.’ Anything could have happened.” Police horses and the riot squad met the march, batons lashing out at the protestors. After a long standoff—police headquarters under siege by the young and militant—the crowd dissipated.

The media called it a “riot”, but in the words of Farrell “it was a rebellion more than a riot.” A mass demonstration, an uprising against police brutality, against anti-Black racism, and the indifference to injustice displayed by the city’s political elite.

“The moment was surreal but necessary,” says hip hop intellectual and march participant Dalton Higgins. “You read the history of social movements, about moments of resistance like the Brixton or Watts riots, moments driven by oppressed peoples,” says Higgins. “It was like a scene out of a movie, out of a documentary on the civil rights movement. This was the feeling; the same kind of rage and anger.” Hip hop was central to the political awakening: Higgins remembers, “That generation was weaned on Public Enemy, X Clan, Brand Nubian, KRS One, and Queen Latifah. It was cool to be versed on one’s culture, one’s history, to be conscious. We rocked t-shirts and medallions with messages of Black pride.”

“The powers that be were shocked”, recalls Farrell. “We had had mass demonstrations before; you know long speeches and so on. And the police would harass you on the way home; give you a parking ticket and that sort of nonsense. But this time, the police had to move their buses, shift out of the way of these youth; youth totally incensed … angry. The event was a political catharsis. A cathartic moment, even for the city, because what happened was a log jam broke; a log jam of denial by the authorities, a logjam of delusion by the political establishment. That rebellion broke that logjam.”

In the wake of the events of May 4 1992, the Ontario government appointed Stephen Lewis to report on the state of race relations in the province. In the report’s findings, Lewis wrote, “what we are dealing with, at root, and fundamentally, is anti-Black racism … It is Blacks who are being shot, it is Black youth that is unemployed in excessive numbers, it is Black students who are being inappropriately streamed in schools, it is Black kids who are disproportionately dropping-out, it is housing communities with large concentrations of Black residents where the sense of vulnerability and disadvantage is most acute, it is Black employees, professional and non-professional, on whom the doors of upward equity slam shut. Just as the soothing balm of ‘multiculturalism’ cannot mask racism, so racism cannot mask its primary target.”

The province’s anti-racism secretariat was expanded, employment equity legislation was introduced, and funding for existing community programs, like the now legendary Fresh Arts, was forthcoming from the municipal and provincial governments. The province also appointed a commission to report on systemic racism within the Ontario’s criminal justice system.  “The sad reality of the Yonge St. Riot,” according to human rights lawyer Julian Falconer, “is that the only time government attention is focused on racial problems is when they reach crisis point.”

At a BADC press conference the morning after, broken glass still glittering on the sidewalks, the late Dudley Laws, freedom fighter and executive director of BADC, summarized events this way: “What we saw yesterday was the frustration and the anger of the people coming out. We have waited for the justice system to deal justly with our community and it has failed.”

American historian Howard Zinn once wrote, “There is an underside to every age about which history does not often speak, because history is written from records left by the privileged.” The privileged have called the events of May 4 1992 a “riot”. It was a riot in the pages of the city’s major newspapers and in police records. It was a riot in the minds of those politicians whose rule was, and remains, dependent upon the suppression of historical memory—upon the active containment of struggles, on the erasure of resistance stories and rebellious narratives.

But a people’s history cannot be contained, hidden, or erased. While the “official” history of the Yonge Street Rebellion gathers dust in the dead spaces of government office buildings and newspaper archives, a people’s history of anti-racist organizing—of Black Torontonians’ resistance to state-sanctioned violence and other forms of institutionalized racism—is preserved and honoured in bookstores on Bathurst and the Eglinton strip, in the minds and teachings of community elders, in grassroots newsletters committed to truth-telling, in blogs which realize the power of insurgent knowledges, in the scribblings of playwrights and poets, on stages and community radio. And perhaps most of all, it is preserved and honoured in the actions and radical dispositions of new generations, committed to honouring their past, to dreaming freedom dreams, and making histories of their own.

 

Sources:

Interviews with Lennox Farrell and Dalton Higgins

Toronto Missing Plaque Project

Wasun. 2008. A Short History of Community Organizing Against Police Brutality in Toronto: The History of B.A.D.C. and Beyond<http://basicsnews.ca/2008/03/a-short-history-of-community-organizing-against-police-brutality-in-toronto-the-history-of-b-a-d-c-and-beyond/>

Wright, Lisa. 1993. “A Year after the Yonge St. riot frustrations still simmering.” Toronto Star, May 3: A1.

*Acknowledgements: Thank you to Verle Thompson for sharing her knowledge of Fresh Arts and JobsOntario Youth. Thank you to Lennox Farrell and Dalton Higgins for sharing their memories of the rebellion. And much respect to Wasun for documenting the history of police brutality and BADC organizing in Basics Community Newsletter.

 

 

 

 

“We the North” and the Marketing of Blackness

Monday, March 16th, 2015

In my latest sports column for Canadian Dimension, I deconstruct the rebranding of the Toronto Raptors–with a big shout out to  Gamel Abdel-Shehid.

The Raptors are hot. Toronto’s professional basketball team sits atop the Eastern Conference and are arguably the NBA’s most exciting team to watch. But the on-court swagger has been paired with a slick rebranding, the centerpiece of which is the “We The North” campaign.

The campaign’s lead commercial intersperses Raptors’ highlight reel dunks with shots of amateur ballers —primarily young black men—on street blacktops and in gymnasiums. Some of the city’s racialized, working class neighbourhoods—Jane-Finch, Regent Park, St. James Town—act as backdrop. There are graffitied walls, tattooed (black) bodies, and imposing apartment blocks. According to Raptors’ exec, the sixty second spot portrays Toronto’s “authentic basketball culture”. Only two days after its release, the ad had garnered 500,000 views on YouTube.

Last year, the Raptor’s named Toronto-born hip hop star, Drake, the franchise’s “global ambassador”.  But Drake didn’t lead the rebranding efforts; that task fell to a multi-million dollar creative agency called Sid Lee.

The Raps “redefined brand identity”, as the agency calls it, fits an NBA history of on the one hand commodifying blackness—black culture, style, music—while on the other policing black identity and black political expression. For example, ex- NBA commissioner David Stern devised a dress code to prevent players from wearing hip hop fashions like baggy jeans, fitted baseball caps, and chains. As Dave Zirin noted, this move “reflected fears that profit margins would shrink if NBA brass did not show upscale white fans who was in charge of this majority Black league, all with an eye on the green.”

When NBA players recently warmed up wearing “I Can’t Breathe” t-shirts in solidarity with the family of Eric Garner and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, Stern’s successor, Adam Silver, responded by saying: “I respect our players for voicing their personal views on important issues, but my preference would be for them to abide by our on-court attire rules.”

As We The North and the Raps embrace of hip hop culture suggests, the franchise see profits to be made from marketing a certain kind blackness. In a 2005 essay, “Who Got Next? Raptor Morality and Black Public Masculinity in Toronto”, York University prof Gamel Abdel-Shehid argues that “as an almost all-black league in a racist culture”, the NBA has had to market “a certain kind of blackness as entertainment”. When the Raptors came to Toronto in 1995, the franchise confronted white Canada’s association of basketball with hip hop, gangs, and school violence. To be a commercial success, the team had to “market a certain version of black public masculinity that accords with rigid (essentialist) caricatures of black masculinity in the racist realm of American popular culture.”

What Abdel-Shehid called “Raptor Morality” hinged on an aesthetic that tied together basketball, black masculinity, capitalism, the failed nuclear family, and a mythologized “inner city”. It played on individualistic narratives of young Black men working hard, staying out of trouble, and “making it” through pro sport.  “In place of a collective struggle to combat the nightmares of racism, police brutality, and class exploitation,” Abdel-Shehid writes, “the Raptors offer a Hoop Dream.”

For Abdel-Shehid, the Raptors’ success “attests to the ways in which forms of capital have relied on pop cultural notions of blackness to sell an image to everyone, regardless of the average level of consciousness of ‘race’ and racism … It is important to pay attention to the kind of blackness that the Raptors attempt to narrate, and to locate this process within the history of Canadian attempts to write black experiences out of the nation.”

So back to We The North, the Raptors and TO in 2015. While people of African descent make up 8.3 per cent of Toronto’s population, they account for 25 per cent of the civilians stopped and documented by the police. Black men are up to ten times more likely to be stopped than their white counterparts. In the city’s high schools, Black students are three times more likely to be suspended than whites.

In the interests of profit, the Raptors market a commodified blackness while as a franchise remaining silent on the policing, state-sanctioned violence, and other forms of institutionalized racism to which Black bodies are subject to in the city on a daily basis. There are some aspects of the Black experience in Toronto that just don’t fit the Raptors “redefined brand identity.” To paraphrase legendary comedian Paul Mooney, “everybody wanna be black, but nobody wants to be black”.

A version of this article was published in Canadian Dimension magazine Volume 49 No. 1 Jan/Feb 2015

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Pom-Poms and Picket Signs

Sunday, January 11th, 2015

On the day Made in Dagenham premiered in British cinemas—a brilliant film about the 1968 strike at the Ford Dagenham car plant, in which 850 female workers walked out in protest of sexual discrimination—The Guardian newspaper reported that 37 per cent of British schools now offer cheerleading as a sport. For Guardian columnist Victoria Cohen, the day marked “one march forward, two twirling steps back,” for the women’s movement. “Forty years after the Dagenham strike,” Cohen wrote, “four out of 10 British schools are putting the hot girls in porny costumes and teaching them to shake their buns through life.”

Cheerleading has long drawn the ire of feminists. I’m not talking about competitive cheerleading but what feminist writer Emily Jupp calls “the silly, fluffy pom-pom shaking, semi-nude dancing you see at the edges of American football games.” The former is performed for serious judges; the latter under the gaze of beer-swilling men.

But I imagine more than a few feminists will be rallying behind the National Football Leagues’s cheerleaders as they launch a series of labour actions aimed at winning better wages and working conditions. While some feminists may continue to denounce cheerleading as a handmaiden of the patriarchy, others will ask of their movement sisters (and pro-feminist brothers), “which side are you on?”

Over the past few months, cheerleaders in America’s biggest sports league have taken their employers to court over a series of wage violations; there are even rumblings of a union drive. Cheerleaders are speaking out against their exploitation at the hands of NFL teams who refuse to pay a minimum wage and subject them to a range of sexist treatment, including “jiggle tests” where coaches inspect cheerleaders’ bodies while they do jumping jacks. The Buffalo Bills’ cheerleading squad, the Jills, are leading the fight.

The minimum salary for a single player in the NFL is $420,000 a year. As the Jills’ lawyer points out, it would cost only $235,000 to pay the whole cheerleading squad New York State’s minimum wage for 20 hours a week for 42 weeks per year, the length of the season from tryouts to the Super Bowl. Having been the only NFL cheerleaders to unionize—only to be decertified in a bitter fight with their employer—a former member of the Jills, Andrea Kremer, has said that the league’s cheerleaders may soon attempt to organize en masse; “we’re women, and we are standing up for our rights,” she recently told Salon.

As cheerleaders join sex workers and fashion models on the move for workplace justice, some feminists say industries that trade on male fantasy, the sexual objectification of women and commodification of their bodies are worthy of abolition. Others rally behind these overwhelmingly female workforces in the name of workers’ rights and women’s rights. Of course this divide is not new; it relates to what bell hooks has called the “unresolved question of what is a feminist liberatory sexuality.”

As Amanda Hess has written, professional cheerleading has “always presented a dilemma for the traditional feminist movement. On the one hand, feminism is committed to fighting for fair pay for women in all areas where they are discriminated against because of their gender. On the other hand, this particular kind of labor… suggests another kind of gendered exploitation, and one that’s hard for some feminists to rush to defend.”

The NFL’s cheerleaders want better wages, working conditions, respect on the job, and an end to sexist treatment. They may soon put down the pom-poms and pick up the picket signs. Some in the women’s movement may continue to think that what cheerleaders do is bad for women’s equality and that theirs is not a feminist fight. But as Hess argues, it’s not a contradiction “to stand up for the legal rights of the women who perform work that nevertheless fails to reflect the ideal, gender-equitable society.” Feminists who decide to sit this fight out may just miss professional cheerleading’s Made in Dagenham moment.

Published in Canadian Dimension Nov/Dec 2014 Issue

Open Letter re: Blackface at Brock University

Monday, November 10th, 2014

On the night of October 30th, Issac’s Bar and Grill in the Brock University Student-Alumni Centre hosted a Halloween party and costume contest. Several non-Black students participating in the contest were dressed as the Jamaican National Bobsled Team.

These students wore blackface: black make-up or paint on their faces. Blackface can never be disassociated from the vicious legacy of white supremacy and institutionalized anti-Black racism in the United States and Canada, just as redface or “playing Indian” cannot be disassociated from colonialism and the subjugation and dispossession of indigenous peoples.

Very close to Brock University, in Niagara Falls, blackface minstrel shows were aimed at white tourists until the 1950s. However, blackface is not simply a remnant of a racist historical past, but part of a broader set of cultural practices which maintain and normalize anti-Black racism and systemic oppression. Students, staff and faculty at Brock University need to understand that such costumes are not “just a joke”. Regardless of the intent or motivation of the students in question, donning blackface for Halloween is never okay; it is racist, full stop.

The incident at Isaac’s has generated concern and anxiety on campus, particularly because the students wearing blackface were awarded a cash prize for their costume and the Student Union’s initial response to the incident was halting, at best.

Given this history and contemporary reality, we are extremely disappointed at the lack of a response to this incident from the university’s administration. A university committed to equity, diversity, and anti-racism must address such incidents head on. We fear that without a strong rebuke from senior administration and a clear anti-racism plan of action moving forward, what happened at Isaac’s will be validated and a message will be sent to the Brock community that racism is an accepted reality of campus life.

Professor Simon Black, Assistant Professor, Centre for Labour Studies, Brock University

Professor Kendra Coulter, Associate Professor, Centre for Labour Studies, Brock University

Nick Ruhloff-Queiruga, Brock Labour Studies Students’ Association

Professor Larry Savage, Director, Centre for Labour Studies, Brock University

Ontario NDP losing its voice on minimum wage

Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

“When it came to issues affecting the most marginalized in our society, including the working poor, the NDP was once a prophetic voice in Ontario politics. Sadly, that voice now speaks in whispers.”

Read my latest op-ed for The Toronto Star here