Samba, Soccer and the Limits of Social Democracy

December 30th, 2013

In my latest column for Canadian Dimension, I reflect on the summer protests in Brazil and the upcoming World Cup of soccer.

During its coverage of the summer demonstrations in Brazil, the New York Times ran a clever little online feature: they posted photographs of two marches, one in Sao Paulo and another in the city of Recife. Each image captured hundreds of protest signs—move your computer cursor over a given sign and an English translation of its contents appeared on the screen.

Slogans ranged from the general: “Come take to the streets to change Brazil!” to the particular, “I’d exchange a congressman for 334 teachers.”

Some seemed like they’d been thought up by a policy wonk caught up in the crowds on their lunch break:  “10% of the GDP for education!”, “Put 10 cents in the public health system!”

The politically ambiguous, “No right or left, we’re all Brazilians!”, “Too many reasons to fit here!” were uneasily juxtaposed with the rallying cries of revolution: “Workers, come take to the streets!” and the perennial “Smash the capitalist state!”

Such was the cacophony of cir de coeurs rising up from the Brazilian streets.

Yet if there was a single collective grievance prioritized by the masses, it was the World Cup of Soccer, due to be hosted by Brazil next summer: “Wake up Brazil! Teachers are worth more than [soccer star] Neymar!”, “Lower the bus fare and put it in FIFA’s check!”, “I want health and education on FIFA’s standards!” (FIFA being the bloated, corrupt world governing body of the beautiful game).

Brazilians frustrated with public transit fare hikes or dismayed at dilapidated hospitals and schools, see the billions being spent on new stadiums, security, and Cup-related luxuries (e.g. inflatable mascots guarding the entrance of public venues) and ask “can we afford this?” Among those stuck in Sao Paulo or Rio’s infamous traffic jams or public transit queues, a unified chorus emerged: “imagina na copa” or “imagine during the cup”.  

In Brazil, soccer is a national religion. The country has won the World Cup more times than any other nation. Brazil is home to the great Pele and a breeding ground for the game’s most skilled, creative…and mononomous players: Ronaldo, Fred, Hulk, Ronaldinho, Kaka. The national team prides itself on fast-paced, rhythmic, technically complex style of play inspired by Samba, the music and dance that permeates Brazilian life.  

And soccer is woven into the country’s political fabric. Take the figure of Socrates, a stylish attacking midfielder who captained the club Corinthians during the dark days of Brazil’s military dictatorship. Historically, Corinthians are the team of Sao Paulo’s working class, counting former president Lula da Silva amongst their fans, yet ownership of the club was controlled by right-wing elites.  From 1978 to 1984, Socrates organized the Corinthians Democracy movement, an informal players association that demanded players’ rights but was understood by fans and players alike to be a symbolic challenge to the ruling junta.  The movement eventually wrestled control of the club from the team’s management and installed a workers democracy.

In perhaps one of the bravest acts in politico-sporting history, in 1982 the players decided to print “Vote on the 15th” on the back of their team uniform in the hopes it would motivate Brazilians–and particularly Corinthians’ working class fans–to vote in the November 15th election. The election turned out to be a pivotal moment in the democratization of Brazil and the Corinthians Democracy movement is widely regarded as an important factor in the country’s transition to democratic rule.

As the mass protests of this summer suggest, some thirteen years after the historic election of Lula, Brazil’s social democratic experiment is pushing up against its internal limits.  Under Lula and now Dilma Rouseff, the governing Workers’ Party has sought to massage big capital, reduce poverty, please its working class base, and keep the middle class on side. But now no one seems happy: the middle class don’t like mixing with the newly mobile poor; the poor want better housing and more social programs; the rich, lower taxes; teachers, a raise; doctors, a vacation; rural peasants, land reform; urban workers, higher wages; and students, free transit. And absolutely no one seems in the mood for a game of soccer. For the country’s political class, that may be the most disturbing trend of all.

 Published in Canadian Dimension Nov/Dec 2013 Issue

On Sport

September 8th, 2013

I recently had the pleasure of guest editing a special sports issue of Canadian Dimension, the first of its kind in the magazine’s fifty year history. Below is my introduction to the issue. Thanks to all of the contributors and to Dimension’s publisher and coordinating editor, Cy Gonick, for the opportunity.

Terry Eagleton has got it wrong. In his 2007 book The Meaning of Life, the literary theorist and doyen of the British Left proclaimed, “It is sport, not religion, which is now the opium of the people.” For Eagleton, the human desire for solidarity and physical immediacy are the raw materials of movements for social change. Yet when these desires are fulfilled through sport, collective struggles go wanting. In Eagleton’s worldview, we either charge the barricades or lace up the skates, march on Parliament or sit in the bleachers, organize a demonstration or organize a softball league.

Yet as the sports-loving, card-carrying leftist contributors to this special issue attest, sports do not supplant social struggle, nor are they simply a ruling-class safety valve for the revolutionary energies of “the people.” Sport, rather, is a terrain of social struggle, a landscape upon which class conflict plays out in both odd and familiar ways, gender norms and identities are shaped and subverted, heteronormativity, racism and the politics of empire are open to contestation. Sport does not stand outside “the struggle” — a distraction from politics proper — but is inherently political. Somewhere between the finest critical sports book ever written, C.L.R. James’s classic on cricket and colonialism, [Beyond A Boundary], and the recent emergence of a new breed of socialist sports writers (including one of CD’s guest contributors, the preeminent left-wing sports journalist of the day, Dave Zirin), the Left chose to treat sport with suspicion, not dialectical thinking.

I can hear the boos from the red seats. Yes, sport — at both amateur and professional levels — often reflects the dominant and interlocking values of neoliberal capitalism, sexism, ableism, racism and imperialism. We need a ruthless critique of sport because as good socialists, it is our duty to engage in ruthless criticism of all that exists. But to dismiss sport as innately capitalist, sexist, and so on — as far too many on the Left have done — is to understand sport, in the words of Charles Springwood, as “a stable, monolithic cultural institution,” not as the site of creative resistance it can be, a space where emancipatory energies emerge, and a new politics of liberation from multiple forms of oppression can take root.

So ignore your lefty instincts; it’s not the picket sign or the tennis racket, the protest or the playoffs. In sport, ideas are in a state of play. We cannot afford to yield sport to the forces of the right — to the free-market fundamentalists and the socially reactionary conservatives — any more than we can afford to yield religion, education, the family or the media. As a reader of CD, you’ll know this is a magazine for people who want to change the world; and if we want to change the world, then we must change the world of sport.

Published in Canadian Dimension, July/Aug 2013

Manning Marable on Hip Hop

August 7th, 2013

A grand democratic socialist intellectual and long-distance runner in the Black Freedom Movement, Dr. Manning Marable died on April 1st 2011 at the age of 60. Marable was a professor of history and political science at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs in New York and guided the university’s Institute for Research in African American Studies and Center for Contemporary Black History, both of which he helped found. In 2012, he posthumously received the Pulitzer Prize for his celebrated biography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.

I was first introduced to Marable through his book How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America; the title a riff on Walter Rodney’s classic How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. Marable was in the tradition of great African-American socialists like WEB Du Bois and A. Phillip Randolph: radical democrats, activists, and public intellectuals. Marable also learned from and incorporated the insights of Black feminism, engaging with the work of Angela Davis, bell hooks and others, and centering the contributions of the likes of Fanny Lou Hamer and Ella Baker in his historiography of post-war Black America (see his Race, Reform, Rebellion: The Second Reconstruction and Beyond in Black America, 1945-2006).  

On a hot afternoon in the summer of 2008, I attended Friday prayers at the Malcolm Shabbaz Mosque at the corner of 116th and Malcolm X Boulevard in Harlem, New York City. Before his break from the Nation of Islam, the mosque had been known as Temple No. 7, founded by Malcolm in the 1950s. Following prayers, I left to interview Marable at Columbia University. He was in the midst of research for what would become A Life of Reinvention, published three days after his passing.

Finding temporary relief from the heat under the green canopy of Morningside Park, I climbed the stone steps that separate Black Harlem from Morningside Heights, walked across Amsterdam Avenue, and on to Marable’s small office just off Columbia’s historic quad. I interviewed Marable about the life and death of Malcolm for two hours. At the end of the interview, later published in the International Socialist Review, we had a brief conversation about hip hop. Here is the transcript of that conversation. On that day, as ever, Manning Marable was gracious, generous, and, of course, brilliant.  

**

Simon Black: Professor Marable, you’ve been involved with the Hip Hop Summit Action Network, done numerous public dialogues with Russell Simmons, and partnered with Russell on a several projects. While not a hip hop scholar, you have thought through the relationship between hip hop, Black America, and the broader political economy. How do you understand hip hop and where it’s at today?

Manning Marable: My reading of hip hop is that it has always had a divided consciousness:  There has been progressive, anti-racist hip hop, largely underground but also represented by popular artists over the last 25 years. For instance, one of my favourite rap groups Public Enemy, artists such as Paris, A Tribe Called Quest, Mos Def, various underground rappers like Dead Prez and so on. And these groups represent anti-racist and anti-imperialist, and many times, but not always, anti-corporate hip hop. There is a strong tradition of this that goes back to Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five and Afrikan Bambatta in the early 1980s. When you listen to a track like The Message it is like a hip hop version of How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America; same political economy, same critique.

By the early 1990s and the birth of gangster rap, you have the empire striking back. The corporate music industry decided to seize hip hop, strip it of its radical elements, infuse it with reactionary politics, and then sell it back to the people who invented it. Or better yet, market it to a whole new group of people who didn’t invent it: the white, middle-class suburbs. So now 70 to 80 percent of all rap is sold and marketed to white suburbia, especially white males. So there is a certain kind of rap that sells.

And even in the barrio and the ghetto, if hip hop doesn’t have good beats, people won’t buy it. So you get reactionary stuff, like 50 Cent or Lil Kim, who represent reactionary politics or no politics, who get promoted aggressively and then progressive artists languish at the margins. That’s deliberate.

So what I’ve been about is trying to work with progressive artists to use arts education as a vehicle, as a template for educating young people about the prison industrial complex, about police brutality, about the theft of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections.

SB: What form has this work taken?

MM: Well for example, through our Center for Contemporary Black History at Columbia we offer a high school course at Rikers Island for Black and Hispanic youth who are 16 and 17 years old. The course is called Hip Hop Criminology. The kids use hip hop to explore their experiences with the criminal justice system and incarceration and to critique it. They interrogate the criminal justice system through hip hop. And we bring graduate students from African American studies at Columbia to work one on one with young Black and brown men who are incarcerated. So we use hip hop to critique structures of injustice. That type of education empowers people.

We also have held several conferences on race, crime and justice in the Harlem community … We did a conference called Schools Work, Prisons Don’t. In New York State between 1988 and 1998 the higher education budget for the State and City Universities of New York declined by about 650 million dollars; during the same ten year period the prison budget rose 715 million dollars. That’s almost a dollar for dollar trade off between schools and prisons.

Between 1813 and 1981, New York State built 33 state penitentiaries. From 1981 to 2001, the state built 38 new state prisons, more than in the previous two centuries. When the Attica uprising occurred in New York State in 1971, there were 11,500 people in prison. By the year 2000, they were 74,000 New Yorkers in prison. 1 in 5 Americans has a criminal record. 5 million Americans have lost their right to vote for life. In the state of Mississippi, one-third of Black males have lost their right to vote for life, even though they pay taxes and are citizens.

Now that’s enough material for hip hop to interrogate, isn’t it? That should be hip hop’s business: critiquing racialized inequality, corporate capitalism, sexism and homophobia, all forms of racialized and gendered injustice. The art form lends itself to that type of radical contestation with the structures of power. That’s in hip hop’s roots, in its foundation in the South Bronx and Harlem in the mid-70s; it should go back to its roots.

SB: So should we see hip hop, as Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci might put it, as a terrain of struggle for hegemony, where competing interests fight for control over the art form?

MM: Yes that’s it. I think Viacom is a better practitioner of Gramsci than the artists are. They (Viacom and corporate America) understood that you have to enter that terrain, contest it, and beat back and destroy the progressive elements in hip hop. They are like the Borg in Star Trek, you know? Assimilate all life forms (laughs). But they will not stop. This is the thing about corporate capitalism that I actually admire: it is an opponent that will not stop, it has to be fought hand to hand; it is a protracted ideological struggle that has to be waged…and has to be won.

August, 2008

 

 

 

How Martin Luther King’s legacy speaks to our Canadian reality

April 4th, 2013

My op-ed for The Toronto Star on the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

On April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot dead while standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. Most Canadians, even those with little knowledge of American history, will know King as a leader of the African-American civil rights movement, a Christian minister and a proponent of non-violent civil disobedience. And many will be acquainted with the public address with which King is most closely associated, the I Have a Dream speech delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. in August 1963.

The version of King commemorated on the third Monday of January each year in the U.S. — the version Canadians will be familiar with — is that of a prophetic, revolutionary voice tamed and made safe for an America — and a world — still characterized by racial, economic and social injustice. As African-American philosopher Cornel West has said, “Martin has been deodorized, sanitized, sterilized by the right wing and neo-liberals to such a degree that his militancy is downplayed.”

On April 4, 1967, a year to the day before his death, King departed from his message of civil rights to deliver a speech against America’s war in Vietnam. Standing at the pulpit of Harlem’s historic Riverside Church, King denounced the war, connecting his government’s military adventures abroad to the failure of the war on poverty at home. The programs designed to house the homeless, feed the hungry and provide jobs for the unemployed — “the real promise of hope for the poor” — were starved for cash as the war effort was ramped up.

As King said that day, “I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic, destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”

He argued that America must “undergo a radical revolution of values” for “when machines and computers, profit and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

King’s criticism of U.S. imperialism, his commitment to ending poverty, and his belief that the promise of civil rights could not be fulfilled without economic and social rights did not endear him to a broad swath of the American public. In the months before his death, his disapproval rating stood at 74 per cent; among black Americans it was 55 per cent. In the wake of his Beyond Vietnam speech, some mainstream civil rights leaders distanced themselves from King, fearing he had aligned himself too closely with the radical left of the Black Power and peace movements. The Washington Post declared: “King has done a grave injury to those who are his natural allies . . . and . . . an ever graver injury to himself.” In denouncing the war, he had denounced a president — Lyndon Johnson — who had taken political risks in supporting civil rights legislation. Financial contributions to King’s civil rights organization dried up. “I’d rather follow my conscience, than follow the crowd,” King replied.

This is the King we seldom hear from today, the King who called for a “radical revolution of values.” His message is a moral beacon, a light whose source may have been the black church, a prophetic Christianity forged amid the struggle against American apartheid more than 40 years ago, but it illuminates the dark corners of Canadian democracy today.

In Canada, we have spent $11.3 billion on the mission in Afghanistan, yet in the latest federal budget there was little for the 3.2 million of our fellow citizens who live in poverty.

We can afford to spend upward of $25 billion on new fighter jets to patrol the skies, but do not have the money to address the crisis of affordable housing that leaves so many Canadians homeless or precariously housed.

We live with racial inequalities — for example, racialized Canadians are three times more likely to live in poverty than other Canadians and in Toronto black males are three times more likely to be carded by police — yet do little to address institutionalized racism in our labour markets and criminal justice systems.

One in five aboriginals lives in poverty and many live without access to basic necessities such as electricity and clean water. Schools on reserves face funding gaps between $2,000 and $3,000 per student each year compared with provincial schools. Yet we have a prime minister who is more eager to greet two visiting pandas from China than First Nations youth who have trekked some 1,600 kilometers to Parliament Hill.

Too many of our political leaders have become well adjusted to injustice. Too many are willing to sacrifice equality and dignity for all on the altar of free markets and the national security establishment.

In that same speech at the Riverside Church, King said, “These are revolutionary times . . . people all over the globe are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wombs of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born.”

From the Arab Spring to the global movement to end violence against women and girls, from anti-austerity protests in Europe to Occupy Wall Street, from rebellions of urban youth in France and the U.K. to indigenous struggles in the Americas, once again people are on the move the world over. We are waiting for new systems of justice and equality to be born.

At home, student protests in Quebec, union demonstrations for labour rights and, perhaps most important, the Idle No More movement, have questioned a social and economic order that benefits the few at the expense of the many.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a world free from poverty, racism and militarism is a universal one. His is a legacy worth wrestling with as we forge the path to a more just society.

 

Published in The Toronto Star, April 4th 2013, p. A25.

The Meaning of Hillsborough

January 18th, 2013

On April 15th 1989, Liverpool Football Club and Nottingham Forest met at Hillsborough Stadium, Sheffield, in the semi-final of English soccer’s oldest and most prestigious competition, the FA Cup. With only minutes played, police stopped the match. At one end of the stadium, in the lower tier of a stand allocated to Liverpool’s traveling support, fans were climbing the security fences which penned them in. Others were being lifted to safety by those seated in the stand above. Attempting to ease crowd pressure outside the stadium, police had ordered open a large exit gate; bodies surged into the stand’s lower-tier.  96 fans died in the crush; hundreds more were injured.

In the days following, higher-ups in the South Yorkshire Police engaged in a secret campaign of misinformation and victim-blaming that has taken twenty-three years to uncover. Many fans knew the truth—that the police were criminally negligent—yet their voices were ignored by the powers that be. Ignored because they were working class people from Liverpool –and because they were football fans. Only ‘trade unionist’ and ‘young black male’ were more despised identities among the ruling elite of Thatcher’s Britain.

Feeding stories of fan drunkenness and aggression to the conservative press, South Yorkshire Police produced a history in which they were exonerated from any wrong doing.  Newspaper headlines read ‘Dead fans robbed by drunk fans’,  Liverpool fans ‘were drunk and violent and their actions were vile.’ Rupert Murdoch’s Sun ran the headline ‘The Truth’ claiming fans had urinated on police officers resuscitating the dying. Thousands of Liverpool fans arrived ticketless at the stadium, The Sun claimed, so they were ultimately responsible for the tragedy. The deceased were at fault for their own deaths.

This September, after 23 years of Liverpool fans campaigning for the real truth, an independent Hillsborough investigative panel released its final report. The panel found that 116 of the 164 police statements taken in the wake of Hillsborough were doctored to show the South Yorkshire force in a better light. Broken turnstiles, unheeded safety concerns, but most importantly, police mistakes had led to the dangerous overcrowding and the deaths of the 96. The panel’s most tragic finding was that 41 of the victims may have been saved had the police’s response been competent.

The police-orchestrated cover-up reflected the contempt for working class people, and particularly the working class of Liverpool, which characterized Thatcher’s rule. Liverpool was a city in revolt against Thatcherism, refusing to quietly accept the neoliberal doctrine of ‘free markets and disciplined people’.

Monetarist policies designed to punish the industrial working class had led to high unemployment rates across Britain’s industrial north, but nowhere was harder hit than Liverpool, with unemployment bordering on 50% in some inner-city neighbourhoods. The Liverpool riots of 1981, two years after Thatcher’s election, saw unemployed youth fight street battles with the city’s police.

Thatcher’s advisors said there was “a concentration of hopelessness” in Liverpool, the result of a declining economy caused by industrial strife. In other words, the city’s working class was too unruly, driving capital elsewhere.  Responding to calls for investment in the city, one of Thatcher’s cabinet ministers said “Isn’t this pumping water uphill? Should we go rather for ‘managed decline’?”

Following the riots, with their collective middle-finger up at Thatcher, the people of Liverpool elected a socialist city council, run by a radical left faction of the Labour Party. To borrow the title of a history of the period, Liverpool was A City That Dared to Fight.

Given this context, it is a shame that the independent investigation was unable to determine was how high up the police ranks the Hillsborough cover-up went—classified cabinet documents on the matter will be released in 2019. By the time of the disaster, the South Yorkshire Police had formed a close relationship with the domestic intelligence service, the MI5, collaborating to crush workers in the 1984-85 miners’ strike.  If the miners were the ‘enemy within’, as Thatcher branded them, then the city of Liverpool was ‘enemy territory’. We know now of the collusion between Thatcher, the secret services, the police and the tabloids to defeat the miners. What we are yet to find out is how far the Conservative government went to humiliate, vilify and defame the rebel city of Liverpool.

Published in Canadian Dimension Jan/Feb 2013 Issue

Poverty, Protest and Power from Below

December 28th, 2012

A friend recently sent me a cartoon depicting two workers in conversation: One says to the other, “Remember when nurses, teachers, municipal workers and poor people crashed the economy and took billions in bonuses and bailouts?” “No”, his buddy responds; “Me neither” nods the first.

If we’ve learnt anything from the economic crisis and Great Recession it’s that big business and their friends in government are brilliantly adept at blaming the victim. And through their control of the corporate media and power to shape and influence public debate, elites have been successful at convincing many of our fellow citizens that public sector workers, unions, and the poor are indeed to blame for the economic mess created by Wall Street and Bay Street, the big banks and high flying financiers.

With cuts to social programs and the assault on unions, ordinary people are being made to pay for a crisis that is not of their making. In the meantime, cor­porations continue to benefit from large tax cuts and sit on piles of cash. The rich escape tax in­creases and park their wealth in offshore accounts while public libraries close, teachers’ wages are frozen, and the poor struggle to put food on the table, avoid eviction, and cope with the daily grind of life on a low income.

Employers have used the crisis to restructure workplaces, increasing in­security for the majority of working people. Keeping workers in fear of being replaced is one method by which bosses maintain a quiescent and com­pliant workforce. Creating precarious jobs—such as temp work that is difficult to unionize under our ar­chaic labour laws—is another. The post-recession jobs recovery has seen pre-recession full-time work replaced with part-time, temporary, and other precarious forms of employment. Quiet workers make for big profits and happy employers.

Governments have used the crisis and resulting budget deficits as an excuse to roll back the hard fought gains of the labour movement. Both Harper and McGuinty have passed or threatened to pass back-to-work legislation to stop workers from exercising their rights to bargain collectively or to go on strike to defend their wages and working conditions. Weakened unions hamper the labour movement’s traditional role as a counterweight to the influence of big business on government.

Workers on welfare or disability have also been under attack. The Ontario government’s poverty re­duction plan has been put on hold. While McGuinty has raised welfare rates, these increases have not even kept up with inflation. If welfare was to be returned to pre-Harris Conservatives levels, the govern­ment would have to raise rates by close to 60 per cent. In addition, anti-poverty measures such as the Ontario Child Benefit have been cut.

So the next few years, and likely the next decade, look tough for all working class Ontarians, but especially for those already living near or below the poverty line; those who were vulnerable prior to the Great Recession are made even more vulnerable since. Low-income Ontarians are confronting fewer child-care subsidies, extended waiting lists for social housing, and persistent unemployment and underemployment. More people than ever are caught in the dire dilemma of whether to feed the kids or pay the rent. Changes to employ­ment standards and labour law, which could create the conditions to lift people out of poverty, are derided as “unfriendly to business”.

How then do we make gains in a climate of auster­ity? Confronted with the resources of the rich and pow­erful, how do we mobilize power from below to defend our past victories and fight for social justice?

We should look to history for guidance. In the 1930s and 40s, Canadian workers went on strike for union recognition and better wages and working conditions. In 1943 alone, one in three workers engaged in strike action. Unemployed workers set out to march on Ottawa to demand they be treated with dignity and respect. Those struggles led to the legiti­mization of unions, the construction of the welfare state, and a greater share of society’s wealth going to ordinary folks.

In the 1960s, unions and anti-poverty organizations pushed for the expansion of social programs and lessened in­equality. They marched, they protested, they made noise.

In the mid-1980s, anti-poverty, labour and women’s groups mobilized to influence the direction of the provincial Liberal-NDP coalition government. Poor people’s marches snaked through three of Ontario’s largest cities. The end result was a 25 per cent increase in welfare rates and the humanization of many aspects of a stigmatizing and punitive system.

History shows us that our silence will be met with government inaction. As American academics Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward put it in their classic book Regulating the Poor, “A placid poor get nothing, but a turbulent poor sometimes get something.”

We may not control great riches or other sources of power like the police and the military, but we do have the power to refuse to go along with agendas of the elites. Society’s ability to function requires that stu­dents go to classes, tenants pay their rent, workers do their jobs, and the poor remain quiet and polite. If we decide not to cooperate, not to go to classes, to with­hold our rent, to occupy welfare offices, or withhold our labour, we can exercise power from below. But we can’t do these things without organization. That’s why it’s more important than ever to join organizations like Peel Poverty Action Group and collectively defend our past victories and work toward building a better, more just world.

 

Published as “How the Powerless Can Win” in the Fall 2012 edition of the Tough Times community newspaper

Heroes and Villains

December 20th, 2012

With so much going on at the crossroads of politics and sports, I’ve decided to name my sporting heroes and villains for the year to date:

Heroes

Caster Semenya

Persevering through some of the most discriminatory treatment meted out to a modern athlete, Semenya will carry her country’s flag in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics and likely be the 800m gold medalist by the time this column goes to press. As the lefty mag the New Statesman put it, Semenya “unintentionally instigated an international and often ill-tempered debate on gender politics, feminism and race, becoming an inspiration to gender campaigners around the world.”

John Carlos

Bronze-medal winner in the 200 meters at the 1968 Olympics, Carlos, along with Tommie Smith, is best-remembered for his black power salute while standing head bowed, shoeless—in a gesture of solidarity with the world’s poor—on the medal podium. Smith and Carlos were suspended from the US Olympic team and subject to years of hate mail, death threats, and public denunciations. Carlos has spent the last year on a book tour for his new memoir The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World; a tour which included stops at Occupy sites across the US.  Forty-four years after the event, he remains an inspiration to all who struggle for social justice.

Herb Carnegie

Hockey legend Herb Carnegie passed away this spring. Born in Toronto, the son of Jamaican immigrants, NHL scouts recognized Carnegie as a magnificent talent. Conn Smythe said he would pick Carnegie for the Toronto Maple Leafs “if someone could turn him white.” Carnegie spent the next fifty years campaigning against racism in hockey, mentoring players of colour, and helping the young to become stars in a league that would not have him.

Mahmoud Sarsak

Palestinian national footballer Mahmoud Sarsak spent three months on hunger strike, losing half his body weight, in protest against his imprisonment by Israel’s apartheid state. Sarsak was arrested while on his way from Gaza to the West Bank to play in a soccer match. Held for three years in Israeli custody without charges or a trial, Sarsak was released in early July pledging continued resistance to occupation and oppression.

***

Villains

Joe Paterno and Penn State Football

The definitive report into the Penn State scandal concluded that Joe Paterno was “an integral part of the act to conceal” former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky sexual abuses. Sandusky was convicted last month of 45 counts of child sexual abuse involving ten young boys over the course of 15 years.  There is a culture of cowardliness and hypermasculine group-think that is imbedded in most men’s varsity sports programs—a culture that normalizes hazing, homophobia, and rape. Joe Paterno and his staff did nothing to challenge this culture and I fear few programs will learn from the tragic example of Penn State football.

London Olympics and security firm G4S

Never have cupidity and stupidity found a more welcome host than Olympic organizing committees. In a nation stricken by high unemployment, Conservative pols could not understand why so few job seekers turned up to fill the thousands of security positions created by the Games. How about sub-poverty wages? The London Olympics drove down wages and working conditions through a cut throat competitive bidding process rather than making this the first Olympics to implement a living wage policy.

The Union of European Football Associations

UEFA’s milquetoast response to racism at the Euro Cup provided another example of football officialdom’s failure to live up its anti-racist rhetoric with meaningful action.

Don Cherry

For yet another season of being himself.

***

Shout outs to the new online journal Left Hook (lefthookjournal.wordpress.com), a project that seeks to bridge the sphere of progressive social/political analysis to the world of amateur and professional sport. The journal is edited and published by my York U comrade Tyler Shipley.  If you enjoy this column, you’ll love Left Hook.

Published in the Sept/Oct 2012 edition of Canadian Dimension

The way forward for Ontario’s anti-poverty movement

October 30th, 2012

A version of this article was published in The Toronto Star as “Ontario Anti-Poverty Movement Needs a Dose of Street Heat”.

Last week, Frances Lankin and Munir Sheikh, heads of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance in Ontario, released their final report, Brighter Prospects: Transforming Social Assistance in Ontario. It contains some good ideas but anti-poverty activists will have to ask themselves whether more aggressive action is necessary.

The commission called on the government to implement some of its 108 recommendations immediately, including a $100-a-month rate increase for single adults on Ontario Works (they currently receive $599 a month, 66 per cent below the poverty line); changing the rules to allow all recipients to earn $200 a month without having their benefits reduced, and raising OW asset limits to Ontario Disability Support Program levels of $6,000 for a single person and $7,500 for a couple. Adopting these recommendations would make small, but concrete material differences in the lives of social assistance recipients.

We’ve been here before. The 1988 review of social assistance, entitled Transitions, was a 500-page tome documenting all that was wrong with the system and put forward progressive measures for change. While some of these measures were adopted under the Peterson and Rae governments, in 1995 the Harris Conservatives came to power, cut welfare rates by 21.6 per cent and turned the province’s social assistance system into one of the cruellest and most punitive in the country.

Despite a few tweaks since forming government in 2003, the provincial Liberals have left this system largely intact. With a dismal record on poverty reduction and an apparent willingness to balance the books on the backs of everyday people, it is doubtful whether a new Liberal leader would move us in the right direction.

In fact, just months prior to the release of the commission’s report, the McGuinty Liberals announced plans to eliminate a benefit program that gave up to $1,500 every two years to families on social assistance that were facing eviction, in danger of having their utilities cut off, fleeing domestic violence, moving from shelters or unsafe housing, or unable to replace bedbug-infested furniture or broken appliances. This followed their cut to the Special Diet program which many social assistance recipients relied on to meet their dietary needs.

The government’s formal response to Lankin and Sheikh’s report has been to announce that it will work with its “partners, both inside and outside of government, to discuss the implications of transformation, and begin creating a road map for success.” More discussions, more timetables, more debate, consultation and “stakeholder dialogue.” The government has said that welfare rates and benefit structures will remain unchanged in the interim. In the meantime, Ontario’s poor continue to face the dire dilemma of whether to feed the kids or pay the rent.

Ontario’s anti-poverty movement — the thousands of individuals and hundreds of organizations committed to ending poverty in this province — is now at a crossroads. A cynic might argue that the greatest achievement of the social assistance review process, and indeed the broader poverty reduction strategy, has been to neutralize the anti-poverty movement, channelling its resources and energies away from organizing and activism and into advocacy, away from challenging government to having dialogue with it.

History tells us that successful movements for social change play both “insider” and “outsider” politics. Social movements need advocates on the inside to push their agenda, put forward progressive policies and develop relationships with decision makers. But these insiders are powerless without the threat of disruption and mobilization on the outside, what American civil rights campaigner Jesse Jackson famously called “street heat.” Organizing tenants, occupying welfare offices, knocking on MPPs’ doors, showing up unannounced at political party fundraisers, marches and demonstrations, mass political education, consciousness-raising, appealing to the moral sensibilities of the general public — these are the sometimes messy but always powerful stuff of social movement politics.

Ontario’s anti-poverty movement has a surplus of insiders, but has thus far failed to bring the street heat. Faced with an intransigent government, the question now is whether the scarce resources of the movement can be turned from consultation and dialogue — the polite politics of the inside — to organizing, activism and agitation, the street-fighting politics of the outside.

Does this shift make sense with a prorogued legislature and lame duck premier? Poor people and their allies are tired of timelines, consultations and “stakeholder” meetings. The movement’s focus on insider politics has appeared to play into the government’s agenda of delay, defer and deflect.

At a meeting of the Region of Peel’s roundtable on social assistance, a woman with lived experience of poverty turned to the group and said, “We’re tired of waiting. We want justice and we want it now.” If the anti-poverty movement can’t find justice via commissions and consultations, it’s time we look for it in the streets, constituency and welfare offices across this province.

Simon Black is a researcher in urban social policy at the City Institute at York University and a member of Peel Poverty Action Group.

Published in The Toronto Star, Oct 30 2012

A People’s History of the Yonge Street ‘Riot’

September 22nd, 2012

May 4th 1992. Los Angeles was burning and Public Enemy’s Shut ‘Em Down sat atop the rap singles chart, its opening lyrics delivered in Chuck D’s booming baritone:  “I testified/my mama cried/Black people died/When the other man lied”. This sentiment underscored a sense of injustice when Los Angeles police were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. Closer to home, two Toronto cops implicated in the shooting death of Black teenager Michael Wade Lawson walked from the courtroom free men on April 7th. A year prior to the Lawson shooting, Lester Donaldson had been shot as he stood unarmed in his rooming house, leading to the formation of the Black Action Defense Committee. A year later cops shot and paralyzed 23 year-old Sophia Cook, the third Black person shot by Toronto Police in the space of 15 months.

Just days after the uprising began in LA, 22-year -old Raymond Lawrence was shot and killed by Toronto police. And so on May 4th  the Black Action Defence Committee (BADC) and its supporters amassed on Yonge Street, just south of Bloor,  to protest the killing of Lawrence, the Lawson verdict, the intense and ongoing police harassment of Toronto’s Black communities, and to stand in solidarity with Rodney King and the LA uprising.  The demonstration was initially small, numbering 50 to 60 people, primarily young Black men and women. But as they began to march, the numbers grew. Aboriginal youth, homeless youth, white youth, youth from other racialized communities joined the demonstration following BADC’s lead, chanting “No justice, no peace!” as they moved through the streets to the US Embassy—in solidarity with King—and on to Nathan Phillips Square. After speeches decrying the police and their allies at City Hall, the march doubled back on Yonge, heading northwards. BADC leadership drew the formal demonstration to a close, concluding with a rousing version of the Black anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. The crowd, however, remained; young, angry and insistent that the demonstration continue.

As the protesters moved up Yonge Street, windows were smashed and the cops were pelted with bottles and stones by an increasingly militant crowd. The police attempted to block the march at Bloor, parking two buses across the road. But the crowd was not for turning, gathering pace as young people strode towards the roadblock with intent. The cops moved the buses and backed up, beating a retreat westward down Bloor.

Lennox Farrell, a co-founder of BADC and veteran organizer, recounts the growing anger of the young demonstrators: “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, they hurt us; we have to get back at them”.

The demonstration turned left on Bay Street from Bloor, heading 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, some protestors moving back down Yonge.

The media called it a ‘riot,’ but in the words of Farrell it was “a rebellion more than a riot.” A mass demonstration, a mobilization, an uprising against police brutality and the fashionable 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.” And 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; you know, 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 long demonstrations before, long speeches and so. 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, shifted 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 of the authorities, a logjam of delusion by the political establishment. That riot broke that logjam.”

In the wake of the rebellion, the Ontario government appointed Stephen Lewis to report on the state of race relations in the province. In his findings, Lewis stated “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 are 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 introduced, and funding for existing programs like the now legendary Fresh Arts was forthcoming from both the municipal and provincial government. The JobsOntario Youth program enabled programs like Fresh Arts, as well as private businesses, to hire youth. “The sad reality of the Yonge St. Riot,” according to human rights lawyer and community elder 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, as broken glass still glittered on the sidewalks of Yonge and Bay streets, the late, great Dudley Laws 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 4th 1992 a ‘riot’. It is a ‘riot’ in police records and in the pages of the city’s newspapers. It is a ‘riot’ in the minds of those politicians whose rule was, and remains premised upon the marginalization of the city’s urban ‘others’ and whose power depends upon the suppression of the historical memories of the rebellious, the resistant, and the resilient, upon the active containment of their struggles, their stories and 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 is being preserved and honoured. This is happening in bookstores on Bathurst and the Eglinton strip, in the minds and teachings of elders, in grassroots newsletters committed to truth-telling. It is in blogs, which realize the power of insurgent knowledges, in the scribblings of playwrights and poets, and on stages and community radio. And it is also in the actions and radical dispositions of new generations, committed to honouring their past, to dreaming freedom dreams, and to 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: Thanks 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.

 

A version of this article was published in Manifesto Festival of Community and Culture 2012

Youth violence in Toronto and our hierarchy of victimhood

August 3rd, 2012

Last year in the city of Chicago, nearly 700 young people were hit by gunfire; 66 of them died. The vast majority of victims were African-American and Latino youth living in the city’s racialized low-income neighbourhoods. A recent analysis found that 8.5 per cent of Chicago (in terms of geography) contained almost all of the city’s shootings and homicides.

The mayor of Chicago insists that his city is safe. After all, around 90 per cent of neighbourhoods are not affected by youth gang and gun violence. This year, programs designed to reduce violence are being cut along with Chicago’s education budget.

While not as extreme in its geographic concentration, youth violence in Toronto is more likely to occur in our low-income postwar suburbs and pockets of racialized poverty in the downtown core than in white, middle-class neighbourhoods or shared spaces such as Yonge St.

As the 2008 report “The Roots of Youth Violence” found, while crime rates are stable “severe violence is apparently becoming more and more concentrated among socially disadvantaged minority youth.” The report concluded that the roots of youth violence are often found in poor, socially deprived neighbourhoods: the immediate risk factors of impulsivity, low self-esteem, alienation, hopelessness and lack of voice are compounded by longer-term issues of racism, poverty, community design, barriers to education and a lack of economic opportunity. The social exclusion of racialized youth and the alienation and denial of full citizenship they experience must be addressed.

When violence migrates from Toronto’s racialized low-income neighbourhoods into the spaces of commerce and tourism central to our city’s sense of collective safety, identity and international reputation, our public discourse shifts, government officials react and respond, and we reveal a hierarchy of victimhood and trauma that contravenes principles of equality.

On Dec. 26, 2005, 15-year-old Jane Creba was tragically killed while shopping on Yonge St. Between December 2005 and last Saturday’s Eaton Centre shooting, our city has lost 20-year-old Allen Benn, 24-year-old Amin Aafi, 19-year-old Yonathan Musse, 23-year-old Ricardo Francis, 25-year-old Michael George, 19-year-old Richard Gyamfi, 23-year-old David Latchana, 25-year-old Fitawrari Lunan, 21-year-old Kimel Foster, 19-year-old Kevon Hall, 18-year-old Keegan Allen, 19-year-old Ryan Hyde, 18-year-old Delane Daley, and 16-year-old Keyon Campbell.

This is a partial list of young people, racialized men in particular, lost to violence in only one of those intervening years, 2007.

These names, along with those such as Andrew Naidoo, Sealand White, Jermaine Derby, Lorenzo Martinez and Okene Thompson, are not as well-known as that of Jane Creba. Their deaths did not invoke statements from the mayor, they were not the topic of talk radio, and they did not occupy the front page of the newspapers.

When shots were fired in the Eaton Centre last Saturday, leaving 24-year old Ahmed Hassan dead and six people injured, it was not the names of these young men that tripped off the tongue of police officers, news broadcasters and elected officials.

Nor was it the name of Chantal Dunn, a 19-year-old black student at York University, who was murdered in 2006 in the Keele and Sheppard area, another victim of gun violence. Nor mother of three Rachel Alleyne, also a young black woman, shot to death in 2007 while socializing with friends in a backyard at Jane and Driftwood .

After the 2005 Boxing Day shooting, politicians of all stripes talked tough on crime, adopting a law-and-order rhetoric thought to match the mood of an outraged public. Premier Dalton McGuinty met with Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair and told him to come up with a strategy to deal with “gang and gun” violence. Talk to front-line agencies that work in the city’s “priority neighbourhoods” and they will tell you that in the wake of the Boxing Day shooting, funds became more readily available for “at-risk youth” intervention and crime reduction programs.

Following the Eaton Centre shooting a well-known Toronto journalist wrote: “Frankly, I don’t much care if hoods want to bump each other off . . . Saves the rest of us a lot of trouble . . . Hell, I’d even jail the targeted ‘victims’ of gang hits, should they survive the attempted rub-out. Usually, they asked for it.”

Racism can be understood in part as the collective denial of the humanity of “the other.” Unlike those deemed “innocent,” poor, racialized young men impacted by youth violence are our “urban other.” Victims and perpetrators alike are spoken of as “hoods,” “gang-affiliated” or “known to police,” never as “citizens,” full members of our community. They are criminalized in life and in death. This “othering” is a form of violence in and of itself.

In our city it is the trauma and victimhood of those seldom exposed to gun violence that is prioritized. In response to last Saturday’s events, a headline on a Toronto Star column said, “It could have been any of us; it wounds all of us.” Yet the reality remains that the primary victims of gun violence in our city are poor, racialized youth. And the primary sites of this violence are those neighbourhoods these youth call home.

All our young people’s lives are precious. We have at our disposal the resources and policy know-how to address youth violence. We have countless studies that show what works in reducing violence and victimization. We know how to build safer and healthier communities.

What we are missing is the political will. The main barrier to generating that will is the hierarchy of victimhood and trauma that governs our approach to youth violence. Only when poor, racialized youth are no longer seen as urban “others” will we realize our collective responsibility to address youth violence.

 

Published in The Toronto Star, June 6 2012