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Occupy Wall Street!

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

Here’s my latest Politics As Usual blogpost for POUND. More on Occupy Wall Street to come…

I doubted them; I really did. After so muted a reaction to the housing foreclosures, Wall Street’s robbery of the public purse, the disappointment of a Yes We Can President consistently uttering No We Can’t, the record number of their fellow citizens falling into poverty, the hunger, the unemployment, the homelessness, the Tea Party, the bullshit media…I didn’t think our American brothers and sisters had it in them to mount a mass protest movement which calls out the injustice being foisted on them by the rich and powerful, that names names, that challenges the oligarchs, and demands a better world…but they have. Single mums, trade unionists, college students, the unemployed, Vietnam vets, Democrats, socialists, anarchists, liberals…they have taken a downtown Manhattan park and made it their Tahrir, their Liberation Square. Could the Arab Spring be followed by an American Autumn?

With Occupy Wall Street in its third week, and showing no signs of abating (even after pepper spray and 700 arrests), the movement has begun to spread. ‘Occupy (name of American city here)’ are popping up all over the US. And now we can look forward to October 15th when Occupy Toronto makes its debut. I’ll be there; will you?

The mainstream media has done such a piss poor job of covering this movement but at the least The Toronto Star’s Mitch Potter got things somewhat right with this piece. Check the link here.

Cornel West calls Obama “a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats”

Wednesday, May 25th, 2011

Throughout the Obama presidency, Cornel West has provided some of the most trenchant criticism of the administration. Along with less well-known public intellectuals, such as Paul Street and Adolph Reed Jr., West has taken Obama to task on what Martin Luther King Jr. called ‘the three evils’ of modern America: racism, imperialism, and economic exploitation. But unlike Street and Reed, West supported the Obama campaign, making numerous public appearences and speeches on Obama’s behalf. His public criticism of Obama is thus all the more revealing and relevant. In a recent interview with Chris Hedges, West blasts Obama, calling him ”a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black puppet of corporate plutocrats.” Read the interview here:

http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_obama_deception_why_cornel_west_went_ballistic_20110516/

And below I’ve reproduced the brief column I wrote for POUND magazine just a month after Obama was elected:

The Perils and Promise of Barack Obama

Four months after Jesse Jackson whispered “Barack’s been talking down to black people… I want to cut his nuts off…” on Fox Television, he provided one of the most emotional moments of election night. As the screens flashed the news of Obama’s election, tears streamed down Jackson’s cheeks, his face strained and twisted by the duelling emotionsof pain and joy.

Cynical observers saw Jackson’s tears as an acknowledgment of his obsolescence in Obama’s America, claiming civil rights ideals anachronistic. How could racialized politics be relevant in a country with a black president? But unemployment, prison, education and health statistics tell a different story—one where race still matters.  Like other cautious supporters of Obama, Jackson emerged from an earlier era of black politics inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and the struggle against what he called the “triple evils” of America, “racism, war and economic exploitation”. As his critics point out, on the “triple evils” Obama is found wanting.

ON WAR, the President-elect has openly stated his willingness to bomb targets in sovereign nations without their permission, has committed to extending the war in Afghanistan and intensifying the troop presence there, has continuously softened his Iraq anti-war stance, and says nothing about dismantling the military empire which includes 700-odd U.S. bases beyond its own border. His steadfast support for Israel leaves the long suffering Palestinians with few hopes of progress toward national liberation and statehood. As Condi Rice and Colin Powell demonstrated, African-Americans can bomb third-world countries with the best of them.

ON RACISM, Obama has walked the post-racial tightrope: Attempting to build a broad coalition of voters, his supporters claim Obama must talk beyond race while still appealing to the African-American community to which he owes a great deal of his success. The always on-point Tavis Smiley recently asked “Is it worth winning the White House for an African American candidate if the suffering of black people must be rendered invisible during that campaign by said candidate?”

ON ECONOMIC EXPLOITATION, frequent contributor to the Black Commentator, Paul Street observed, “Obama has placated establishment circles on virtually every front imaginable, the candidate of ‘change we can believe in’ has visited interest group after interest group to promise them that they needn’t fear any change in the way they’re familiar with doing business.” His support for the $700 billion dollar bailout of Wall Street may have been necessary, but his failure to articulate a vision of economic justice that goes beyond corporate capitalism-as-usual belies his mantra of real and substantial ‘Change’. One only has to look at his presidential transition team, filled with CEOs and Clinton-era hacks (including those who pushed for the devastating welfare reforms of the mid-90s which devastated many Black communities and played into racist stereotypes of the Black poor), to know that ‘change’ may mean little more than a change in personnel in the top echelons of power, not a the type of change that would empower the poor and working class.

These are the perils of Obama. The promise lies in the fact the first Black president was elected through a massive mobilization and empowerment of Black, Latino and young voters, particularly the hip hop generation. Obama owes them and on issues of social justice he must ante-up. As Cornel West said on the eve of the election, “I’ll break-dance tonight if Obama wins, but I’ll wake up the next day his critic”. In other words, celebrate the achievement of all that is Obama, but keep him accountable to his message of ‘Hope’, ‘Change’ and ‘Progress’.  In this, the hip hop generation has a massive role to play.

Glenn Beck targets Frances Fox Piven

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

For the past year or so, my friend and mentor Frances Fox Piven has been subject to a rather bizarre but nevertheless dangerous campaign launched by Fox News blowhard Glenn Beck.  Beck, whose weekly rants attract 2 million-plus viewers in the U.S., has targetted Piven as one of the conspiratorial leaders of a movement to bring down the United States’ “economic system” and replace it with authoritarian socialism. According to Beck, everyone from Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama and community group ACORN are indicted in this movement (I only wish Obama had some left-wing convictions!). 

Frances has dedicated her life to the cause of social justice and she was a central figure in both the welfare rights movement and the passing of Clinton-era legislation, the National Voter Registration Act, which sought to ensure low-income Americans could excercise their democratic right to vote.  She’s always believed that it is the mobilization of everyday people that can change politics for the better and bring about a more just society. Her activism and scholarship have advanced the struggle against what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “three evils”: militarism, racial injustice, and poverty.

It’s both sad and disturbing that someone like Glenn Beck, whose ideology and actions are geared toward reinforcing the massive inequalities in power and wealth that characterize American society, is a household name. The Center for Constitutional Rights (http://ccrjustice.org/) has written a letter to Fox demanding Beck end his attacks. We will have to see what comes of this. In the meantime, check out some of the links below:

Here’s Piven’s latest article in The Nation magazine: http://www.thenation.com/article/157292/mobilizing-jobless

And some coverage of Beck’s idiocy in the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/22/business/media/22beck.html

Finally, here’s a link to an interview Frances gave on Democracy Now, giving her take on the whole affair: http://www.democracynow.org/2011/1/14/why_is_glenn_beck_obsessively_targeting

music is language and language is politics: a conversation with Dead Prez

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

Dead Prez @ Chung King Studios, NYC. M1 talks on their latest album (Pulse of the People), the Obama presidency, music and resistance. 

SB: Last time we spoke, you quoted an African proverb to describe your position on President Obama:  “When the axe entered the forest, the trees said, ‘Look, the handle is one of us’”.  Over a year into Obama’s presidency, has your position changed?

M1: Ain’t nothing changed man. It ain’t even about Obama. He’s a pleasant face, a breath of fresh air as far as him as a person is concerned. But as far as the administration, they are doing the same things they’ve been doing and said they were going to do and I think some people are dealing with the hope and wish that he was going to represent maybe more or that we need to give him more time. I’m not here to hate on the positive things he can do. But I know the U.S. system; the agenda is still the same. And Obama is just there to make more people believe in that system again. The world said “America is full of shit,” with the economic crisis, race relations, the prison industrial complex, the food crisis, people have been saying “America is shiting on itself”. And if it wasn’t for Obama being a black man and that new historic thing, people would have made more advances in terms of political organization independent of the Democratic Party. People were willing to try different things, maybe revolutionary things. I think people are realizing that nice guys who seem sincere are in the end just fucking politicians.

SB: With the economic crisis, the time seems ready made for a Dead Prez album. Do you think that will affect how it’s received?

M1: I don’t know. When we came out with Let’s Get Free, the ‘in thing’ was bling. So we never pick good times to come with what we come with. We just come with what we come with and the times gotta get with us. I don’t think it’s a very revolutionary time. I think the time was more right when Bush was just a blatant asshole and people were starting to equate the system with the administration. People who ain’t even up on some radical political shit were saying “Fuck Bush” and they weren’t looking at it like a radical thing, it was so common. But for us, it ain’t about what’s common, it’s a principled thing. We might be a minority voice here, but in the world who ain’t hungry? Who ain’t had a U.S. soldier’s boot on their back? Who ain’t seen the police be breaking people’s arms as they cuffing their hands behind their back? That shit is mainstream in the world and most people can relate to it. We ain’t trying to sell the illusion of the U.S. as this prosperous place. I’m not going to sell the world an image of the U.S. that really is only about 10% of our population, the very rich. That’s the minority, not the mainstream.

So we just coming with that real shit. That’s what hip hop do. It’s the power and the platform for that. It’s the number one cultural export from America to around the world. It’s the language that young people speak in all cultures. I see that as power and that’s something we have to keep developing.

SB: As far as your international work and activism around Palestinian rights or the World Social Forum in Venezuela, how does that experience influence the music and not just the politics of Dead Prez?

M1: Well let me just touch on the politics. We went to Cuba and there ain’t no words for that experience when you see socialism in effect. When you see at 98% literacy rate in one of the poorest countries. When you see a free health care system, local organic produce; all these initiatives that make it a strong country even though they are economically weak as their shitted on by Europe and the United States. They still have their sovereignty. When you see it yourself, that’s amazing.

SB: But when you’re in those places and parlaying with the artists, do you find you’re influenced by them in a musical sense? Or maybe I should be asking has world hip hop progressed beyond American influence and do you see the hip hop indigenous to those countries as shaping your own work artistically?

M1: Oh, good question. Yeah, when we started travelling 10 years ago, we saw peeps trying to be what they see on MTV. As we keep travelling, say to Africa and the Congo, or in Senegal, we see different cats we’ve met who say “We used to rhyme in English, but now we rhyme in our indigenous language.” They realize that they can do it in their own language, their own way. So the imperialism of the English language I think is what makes American hip hop think it’s more legitimate than what else is out their beyond our own borders. But people out there are saying, “Your hip hop (U.S. hip hop) ain’t shit if I don’t support you, so support me too.”

SB: So a Palestinian artist rapping in Arabic, or Haitian artists rapping in Creole, is itself a form of resistance?

M1: Yeah, definitely. It’s being able to speak your reality, express your experience with your own people’s words. It’s like if I can’t speak freely in my music or I put it in Harvard English, it’s not going to communicate the essence and pulse of me and where I am coming from. The problem is English is the language of the colonizer. So in order to communicate we be having to use the colonizers language. So you have to figure out how to use that language without becoming trapped in it. For example, in English, the word ‘black’ is bad. It has so many negative connotations: evil, dirty, mysterious, black hole, black sheep. ‘White’ is purity, angels and shit. And that ain’t in every language. When you speak in this language and that’s all you know, this shit becomes deep in your psyche. That’s why I’ve tried to learn Swahili and different languages to know that English is not the end all and be all of reality. Music is language and language is very much tied into politics. So yes, it is about resistance.

SB: Word.  Do you see your music as a tool for mobilizing people around political and social issues? You don’t necessarily drop the names of CLR James or Walter Rodney in your verses but it has such strong political content. How do you see your music developing over the 9 years since Let’s Get Free?

M1: Well, really we are more influenced by our audience than we try to influence it. We listen to the things that are going on, what sounds are current. We’re not trying to be so different that we alienating people. If something’s hot, nigga that shit is hot. We’re inspired by the culture; we’re not anti the culture. So I won’t say we’ve changed but just Let’s Get Free was so raw and so honest ‘bout our politics that people try to say “this is who you are, we’ve done made a mould of you and everything you do must conform to it”.  So as artists we are always trying to carve out our own identity, not what people think our identity is and not no gimmick. Everything we do is genuine; whether we are talking ‘bout Obama or meeting a chick. And that’s what we as Dead Prez are about. We don’t talk politics as a gimmick, it’s a sincere interest that we have in our life. And I think it’s helpful that people see us as regular human beings with a range of interests but we are political. You can be a regular human being and care about the world. You don’t have to be the Dalai Lama and shit. You can be a regular nigga. I’m a regular man with contradictions and all but that don’t stop me from loving my people and using my platform to talk about our interests.

SB: What can fans expect from Pulse of the People?

M1: Well it’s a new sound because it’s all produced by DJ Green Lantern. It’s a hard sound cuz Green was pushing for the streets. He was saying “the streets need y’all.” So he came with a lot energy. But all our shit is hard. You know for me, rocking your child to sleep is hard. Being hard ain’t no stereotype. So you know with us, you’re going to get honest music. We have some good collaborations: with Bun B from UGK; Chuck D; a dope R and B cat called Avery Storm; Green’s artist Johnny Polygon; and Styles P.

It’s all real shit. We talk about the economy, enjoying the summer, having sex. Everything. We talking ‘bout life, you know man, the Pulse of the People.

Making Trouble: An interview with Frances Fox Piven

Monday, November 30th, 2009

Frances Fox Piven is a long-distance runner of the American Left and personification of the ‘public intellectual’. Professor of political science and sociology at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, Piven is best known for her activism in the welfare rights movement and scholarship on social movements. She is the author of numerous books, including the classics Poor Peoples Movements and Regulating the Poor, and most recently Challenging Authority: How Ordinary People Change America. In an interview exclusive to simonblack.org, Prof. Piven discusses the political conjuncture in the United States, its historical resonances, and the need for popular mobilization.

SB: Frances Fox Piven, hopes were high when Barack Obama was elected president in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. Progressives in the U.S. were hoping Obama would act as a new Franklin Roosevelt, enacting the kind of social and economic reforms that would shift the balance of power between big business and the working class as FDR did in the 1930s. Yet many on the Left have been disappointed by the administration’s response to the crisis. How would you assess the Obama presidency thus far?

FFP: Well, FDR did not become the leader of the New Deal, the program innovator we now remember him as, except in the context of a lot of disorder and mass unrest, rent riots, food riots, riots in the countryside where farms were being auctioned off. When journalists were talking about revolution, this was 3 or 4 years into a massive depression. That’s not the situation in the U.S. today; maybe because people are not nearly as desperate as they were in the early 1930s when miners in the coal region were digging coal for 30 cents a ton or very large numbers of people were unemployed, we don’t know exactly because they weren’t official statistics but from estimates maybe a quarter to a third of the workforce was unemployed by 1932. Those who were still working had suffered enormous pay cuts and there was no safety net, no social programs, the only thing that existed were soup kitchens and even those were not that numerous and certainly not very generous. Today there is a safety net in the United States, even though it is inadequate and people like me criticize it all the time, but it still is there and it does make a difference. Moreover, Obama has improved the safety net because one of the things his stimulus bill did was put money into food stamps and money into our welfare program for example. People did pay attention to the fact he was doing that – or there would have been a lot of criticism from the right – because it was buried in the stimulus bill. Aside from that a lot of the people who took such heart from the Obama election really had fantastic expectations. Obama won the election because he’s a very skilful politician; he put together a very clever campaign organization and he had a lot of money to campaign with. Now put those things together, political skill and a lot of money – a lot of money comes from people with money – and political skill means taking account of the forces that exist. It’s a very unique kind of political skill to stake itself on forces that are yet to emerge. That’s a movement leader and Obama is not a movement leader. He’s a skilful politician. So where I come down on it, Obama is a much better president than George W. Bush. He isn’t doing what we need and want and only doing a little and the question is whether the forces will emerge in American society that force him to take stronger action, to antagonize the banks that he’s been stroking, that force him to break with the private health insurers that make health care reform so difficult in the US. This is not going to happen because Obama makes it happen. Obama is a better person to negotiate the different claims on the head of state than a John McCain or George W. Bush because Obama is also vulnerable to the people at the bottom, to minorities, to the poor, but also vulnerable, he’s not just vulnerable to those constituencies but has to take into account the insurance companies and the big banks. How much we’ll get in the way of reform from the class of interests between the big banks and the people, or between the insurance companies and those who need health care, depends at this juncture in large part on how hard people will push, how much trouble they will make, how much disorder they will threaten in American society. And better to have Obama when we are in that kind of moment because he won’t call out the National Guard nearly as quickly.

SB: Let’s talk about some of the movements which have mobilized since the election of Obama. The right has been very active in opposing health care reform and around other issues, such as immigration. The left on the other hand has not matched the mobilization of the right. The Nation magazine estimated about 5,000 people at the protest of the American Bankers Association last week, a significant decline in numbers from the anti-globalization protests of a decade or so ago. Has the election of Obama had a demobilizing affect on the Left, in that people may have seen his election as a movement victory as opposed to one stage in an ongoing struggle?

FFP: I don’t think it has demobilized the Left. I don’t think a shift in the political context which gives people hope demobilizes them at all; I think it tends to spurn them if other conditions are right. But the mobilizations of the right that we have seen tap into that 25% or 30% of the American population that is profoundly fundamentalist, in a sense archaic, that sees most contemporary developments as a real threat to their way of life. They see themselves as being left behind by all the major trends in the country. Then the majority, the country, elects an African American president! Now, these people are not only fundamentalist and aching for a return to familiar, traditional patterns of life, but they are also profoundly racist. We have this population in the U.S. that is not going to go away and it will act up and react to liberating and forward looking changes. This also happened in the 1930s: we may remember FDR as the leader of the Great Majority but there was a tremendous amount of right-wing protest at the same time.

SB: Going forward it seems the biggest issue on the Obama administrations agenda is health care reform. Could you give us an idea of how active the Left has been around health care reform and also the issue of a single-payer or public health care system?

FFP: The Left has been pretty active but it’s kind of a lobbying activism as opposed to social movement activism. But they have been active as lobbyists and it’s one of the reasons senate majority leader Harry Reid has come out in favour of a strong public option in the reforms; whether it will be strong remains to be seen. I think there will be a health care bill and there will be modest improvements in the health care system. If the insurance companies were to succeed in blocking it, I just don’t know what would happen. It would be a tremendous failure for the Obama administration and also evidence of unbridled interest group politics. We’ll have to see how people react if that is the case.

The Perils and Promise of Barack Obama

Tuesday, January 13th, 2009

Four months after Jesse Jackson whispered “Barack’s been talking down to black people… I want to cut his nuts off…” on Fox Television, he provided one of the most emotional moments of election night. As the screens flashed the news of Obama’s election, tears streamed down Jackson’s cheeks, his face strained and twisted by the duelling emotionsof pain and joy.

Cynical observers saw Jackson’s tears as anacknowledgment of his obsolescence in Obama’s America, claiming civil rights ideals anachronistic. How could racialized politics be relevant in a country with a black president? But unemployment, prison, education and health statistics tell a different story—one where race still matters. Like other cautious supporters of Obama, Jackson emerged from an earlier era of black politics inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and the struggle against what he called the “triple evils” of America, “racism, war and economic exploitation”. As his critics point out, on the “triple evils” Obama is found wanting.

ON WAR, the President-elect has openly stated his willingness to bomb targets in sovereign nations without their permission, has committed to extending the war in Afghanistan and intensifying the troop presence there, has continuously softened his Iraq anti-war stance, and says nothing about dismantling the military empire which includes 700-odd U.S. bases beyond its own border. His steadfast support for Israel leaves the long suffering Palestinians with few hopes of progress toward national liberation and statehood. As Condi Rice and Colin Powell demonstrated, African-Americans can bomb third-world countries with the best of them.

ON RACISM, Obama has walked the post-racial tightrope: Attempting to build a broad coalition of voters, his supporters claim Obama must talk beyond race while still appealing to the African-American community to which he owes a great deal of his success. The always on-point Tavis Smiley recently asked “Is it worth winning the White House for an African American candidate if the suffering of black people must be rendered invisible during that campaign by said candidate?”

ON ECONOMIC EXPLOITATION, frequent contributor to the Black Commentator, Paul Street observed, “Obama has placated establishment circles on virtually every front imaginable, the candidate of ‘change we can believe in’ has visited interest group after interest group to promise them that they needn’t fear any change in the way they’re familiar with doing business.” His support for the $700 billion dollar bailout of Wall Street may have been necessary, but his failure to articulate a vision of economic justice that goes beyond corporate capitalism-as-usual belies his mantra of real and substantial ‘Change’. One only has to look at his presidential transition team, filled with CEOs and Clinton-era hacks (including those who pushed for the devastating welfare reforms of the mid-90s which devastated many Black communities and played into racist stereotypes of the Black poor), to know that ‘change’ may mean little more than a change in personnel in the top echelons of power, not a the type of change that would empower the poor and working class.

These are the perils of Obama. The promise lies in the fact the first Black president was elected through a massive mobilization and empowerment of Black, Latino and young voters, particularly the hip hop generation. Obama owes them and on issues of social justice he must ante-up. As Cornel West said on the eve of the election, “I’ll break-dance tonight if Obama wins, but I’ll wake up the next day his critic”. In other words, celebrate the achievement of all that is Obama, but keep him accountable to his message of ‘Hope’, ‘Change’ and ‘Progress’. In this, the hip hop generation has a massive role to play.

Published in POUND, 44 Winter 2008