What started as an awareness raising and ethnographic styled walk through Sierra Leone, this site now details the encounters of a not so academic academic who spends more time occupying Wall Street and squats than a university...

Friday, April 27, 2012

Occupying our Tuesday

So over the last few days we've really gotten into some solid actions here, mostly through the 99 pickets campaign (#99pkts) for May Day.  On Tuesday we started out with an action in support of Street vendors in NYC.  I mean, after all, what is NY without a hot dog vendor on every corner?!  New York City has been continually shrinking the area in which vendors can operate, granting less licenses (which packs them on top of each other), and in turn forces out mostly minority and immigrant workers trying to legally earn a living. The Bloomberg and Giuliani administrations have been definitively against vendors for a couple decades now. Vendors are competition for brick and mortar companies and/or those that can afford to sign leases and have access to capital to fund retail faced start ups. Street vending is a way to get started with less initial capital expenditure (Macy's and Dagastino's in fact started like this), but it is competition to store fronts and big retail chains (Macy's and Dagastino's are now staunch opponents).  

The push by the street vendors is to start with a reform in the fines received and how they are administered.  They used to pay $250 a violation and the fees didn't compound with different offenses, now it is $1000 and if you get a fine for being too close to a subway and for not having your name tag around your neck they compound and cost much more.  (I was todl by oe vendor he makes about $7000 pr year profit).  If you want to know more you can read coverage from the Village Voice on a short research study by U of Wisconsin that lays down the ECONOMIC foundation for why the fines are too high. 
"In 2009 street vendor enforcement cost the city $7.4 million. In addition, the city collected a small percentage of fines. Out of $15.8 million in total civil vending penalties in 2009, $14.9 million went uncollected."
Fines between $1-399 were paid 47% of time, $400-799 - 25%, $800+ - 7%. If the goal is to put street vendors out of business through exorbitant fines, then the city may be succeeding, if it is to make revenue off of legal enforcement of the laws, it is grossly failing. Fact is the city is losing money on this enforcement, it is putting small business entrepreneurs out of business (gasp!), AND yes, I believe it is reinforcing institutionalized socio-economic and racial hierarchies of power and disparities in opportunity that are paramount to reinforcing the horrors of racism and capitalism so grossly entrenched in America and the world.

Which leads me to Tuesday's second picketing action along a common theme!  Land Grabs in the developing world, specifically in Africa.  Obviously I spent some time in Sierra Leone and talked to a lot of people while there.  Several things were blatantly happening there that I found truly disturbing and were detrimentally affected the local populace.  One was an agricultural project by a European non-profit that swallowed up hundreds of hectares of land.  They were working on planting biofuels for export.  The issue was though, that while they had the greatest of intentions, they were still displacing thousands of people from their ancestral lands, taking there farming area, decreasing the amount of arable land for local food production (they live on 1200 calories a day per person), while promising to move them and give them jobs - which were not materializing while I was there.  So people were getting their property and ability to farm and eat taken so that they could become wage-laborers mostly tied to the land or sent to a big city to fend for themselves.  Sad, very sad.

The biggest thing going on though was the Africa Minerals investment in Tonkolilli to take down an entire mountain range for one of the world's largest iron ore deposits.  They promised 10,000 jobs and signed a 66 year lease with an option to renew.  What was the local compensation?  They were moved off their lands, and the only jobs I had seen were for foreign workers staying at the "posh" Wusum hotel and for local drivers to drive them around.  I go back to James Ferguson's concepts of socially thin development models I've spoken of in the past.

The protest there it self was organized by Ethiopian groups in response to what had been happening in their country and is satirically addressed in this video:    

The protest was also put on by the Oakland Institute and was in response to a conference at the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan by Global AgInvesting.  The conference - at $3000 a place - was not designed to encourage small Ethiopian farmers or their families in NYC to participate, rather it was for Wall St., private equity types, big agricultural companies, university endowment and public pension funds, etc.  Every year, a land area the size of France is divvied up throughout the world to those with the means to take it.  As a press release on the conference states:
"This conference promotes the large scale acquisition of land by foreign investors, a dangerous practice known as "land grabbing" that is leading to record levels of hunger, skyrocketing food prices and environmental degradation.  Community groups, faith leaders, non-governmental organizations, Occupy Wall Street and members of New York City’s Ethiopian community are mobilizing against these destructive trends... Proponents claim that foreign investments in agricultural land in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe will help feed a growing world population and promote development. In fact, these schemes do not contribute to rural well-being. Far from increasing food production for local consumption, land grabbing usually results in export crops, including biofuel feedstocks and cut flowers. Land grabbing has already caused the violent displacement of tens of millions of small producers, worsening poverty and hunger and driving waves of migration. Women farmers, the majority of smallholders, suffered especially."

"Development" isn't about people in the West making money off the sweat of African backs so they can buy a TV, it is about allowing for the exchange of ideas and options and perhaps empowering people with the agency make their own difference in their lives.  Fact of the matter is that this is just another way for capitalist exploitation and imperialism to expand and accumulate large areas of the world - or colonialism 2.0.

I spoke at length with two American female farmers from North Dakota attending the conference and we had very different views on this situation.  They wanted to the feed the world.  Ok, I commend them for that.  They would like to eventually turn a profit on that and they want to use genetically modified foods.  I strongly disagree with that.  However, I was not trying to dwell on an issue that scientifically neither side is willing to concede of the "proof" of the others' argument.  I rather wanted to ask about the locals, the land, and how it would be obtained in their projects.  They however had little remorse - starting the conversation with the bold and generalized statement that "everyone wants to make money" and who's follow up was framed in colonial language that I rarely get to hear much outside of  old anthropology and history books.  As an anthropologist of sorts as well, I strongly disagree with these types of statements and generalizations.  Yes, in the western capitalist mind it is often taken for granted that "everyone wants to make money", that everyone wants things the way "we" do.  But the world is full of many different types of people, and starting from a place of "everyone wants what I want" is a bit naive not to mention wholly arrogant.

These woman said they were going to employ the people who's land they were taking, provide jobs, give them the means to sell crops abroad and make money.  hmmmm.... this sounds familiar.  Sierra Leone in 1961 at independence was a net exporter of rice and could feed its whole population, but once capitalist deregulation and structural adjustment programs came in, when the country was plunged into civil war three decades later it was a net importer of rice and couldn't feed its population.  Arable land had gone from being used for rice for local consumption to cash crops to be sold abroad and for property owners to make money off of.

These women thought they were doing the right thing.  And in colonial, imperialist, capitalist, and classical economic "development" terms they were.  BUT THAT DOESN'T WORK!!!!  The rich get richer and the poor get further behind.  Capitalism does not work for those on the fringes - about 99% of us some would say!

The bottom line is that Occupy and multiple organizations came together to protest against the rich taking advantage of the less advantaged - be them New York politicians and retail giants, or giant agricultural and financial investors.  We as a society have to question the laws and norms of our society - protest them even.  We need to change society at large to be one that works FOR all of us rather than for just a small few with control over the ideas our minds, and/or the outright ownership of the means of production.  Question it, rise up above it, over throw it!!

No politics!!

So a guy came in to the hiking store today, apparently he's a regular, and he started talking about Chicago and the NATO/G8 events there towards the middle of May.  He was talking about the whole city being evacuated, actually claiming all of Illinois was being evacuated and was off on some details.  Obviously given my position within Occupy circles I had some things to had.  So I stuck in a few general facts about Obama moving the G8 to Camp David and some facts and figures on the police ramp up and supposed tactics being discussed by them.  Nothing too profound, just some point of information type stuff.  The conversation went on and I was pretty neutral and subdued, GMO's came up, occupy, etc.  The other guy working in the store was staying out of it.  He left to get something to eat and I got a bit further into things.  When he came back we were fully into GMO's.  I should also say, the guy was full on conspiracy theorist, so if anything, I was tampering his fervor.  But anyway, we finally get to a closing point and he says "ok, one last question..." which I probably could have guessed.  "9/11, inside job?"  lol.  My colleague was back and declined to answer, I give a politically correct no and brief explanation which the colleague added to.

Once the guy leaves, pleading the whole way that it was an inside job, my colleague tells me nope, natta, we can't engage in politics.  He states that the owner will of course at times (especially amongst ourselves) and sometimes you have to, but that the store can't be seen as taking a political stance.  From a business perspective I see his point wholly and respect it, sounds rational and prudent for business.... but not for life.  I mean think about the world we live in.  We have this unwritten rule in America that in "polite company" we don't talk about politics and religion; two things probably most often gone to war over in human history.  Yeah and maybe on the surface that's a good reason to stay out of it, but come on, what is politics if not your daily life?!  We make choices all the time, choices that are political and can be even more political.  To not engage in dialog about the most contentious aspects of our social existence is to ignore them.  To ignore the most important parts of our lives. 

This to me seems to be just more of the same old dumbing down of America and its politics.  I remember on numerous occasions while in Europe sitting places and speaking to both friends and strangers about politics and religion, and having them express how odd they thought it was that in America they were taboo topics that people didn't want to talk about.  It has become such a part of life here in the US to not express your political and spiritual beliefs - in the land of the free!!  Somehow we don't feel comfortable engaging in this type of dialog, nevermind seeing people protest about it.

My personal opinion is that it is not about the subject matter, but about our manner of discussion.  The way we talk to each other and the respect that we have for other people.  Our political system has become so polarized, and so entrenched with its poles, that these discussions to easily lead to black and white stances with little room for common ground and grey areas to agree upon.  But more importantly, I think these arguments so easily come about because of how we've become as people.  I don't see a mass populace will to listen or taught to be open to new or different people and ideas.  We are brought up to believe in our beliefs as we come to learn them at all costs and not to waver.  Pride and arrogance - and ugly combination.  An open mind it seems is a terrifying thing to possess in America.

Yes, I am generalizing and perhaps detrimentally so.  But I believe on the whole, we have created a country that is unwilling and incapable of simple person to person political dialog in both our friendly and professional circles.  What does this do but simply make us less capable of discussion over time and also less informed.  Person to person dialog is invaluable.  It is the only way to truly understand the lives and politics of other people.  The only politics most people end up getting in their lives is the politics of hand picked - and in many cases agenda driven - sound bites and/or the repetitive voices of well funded political pundits.  That is not politics.  That is large scale social engineering.  I won't get into the American media and the disaster that it is in this post, but its pretty simple, if you really want to learn about people, ask them.  If you really want to understand politics, ask people.  And not just people like you, but ask people you don't know and don't identity with what they think about things.  Random people on the subway, at the mall, the supermarket, wherever: Occupy, Obama, stop and frisk, Romney, banking, Iran, whatever.  As a society we will never learn anything if we can't engage in honest open - nonrepehensible - dialog about our lives, our neighborhoods, our stores, our countries, our world, whatever.  Politics should NEVER be off limits.  Just like stifling protest should never happen.  But I suppose it would be best if first we actually made it acceptable to both have different beliefs, and to accept others with different beliefs.  Talk freely amongst yourselves!!   

Student Debt March!

So Wednesday was the big #1T day.  The day that student debt in America would reach the one trillion dollar mark!

Think about that. 

Yes, that Sallie Mae and Wells Fargo shooting at us innocent students!

 Our GDP is about 14 Trillion dollars a year.  People in the US owe more than 7% of our annual GDP in student loans.  Loans designed to allow our economy to move forward, yet there aren't any jobs to make the requisite money to eventually pay back the loans.  You need education to get good jobs, and jobs to pay back the loans you need to get the education needed to get jobs.  Great.  Except there aren't enough jobs, and won't be.  It's only going to get worse.  Capitalism is based on continual increased productivity and efficiency, and the more efficient we get, the less workers are needed to do similar tasks.  And yes, people can point to entrepreneurship and innovation to set up new industries and businesses, but you need education to find those niches!!  HAHA!!  And also, those niches are not infinite - there is a decreasing marginal relationship in terms of the saturation of an economy to its needs and wants.  What we are doing is just flat out not sustainable.

This is why we protest of course!!  Our economy is drowning in debt, and its drowning in debt used to speculate on a person's future earnings before there is any real indication of output in such a tight labor market.  This allows for so little security in terms of the prospects of future payment!  But the lenders know this, that's why they take out insurance claims, hedge any loses in case their loans don't come back, or simply sell them to other lenders.  They are making money, or at least breaking even no matter what.  Plus, federal student loans are guaranteed to be paid back.  You can't default, you can't die, you can't go bankrupt.  They'll follow you forever, and then ever again.

The current generation is saddled with it even worse as well.  School tuition has FAR outpaced the rise in inflation and the accompanying dip in real wages since the 1970's.  Add in the government cuts to education and you get things like the Philadelphia city schools dissolving, Detroit's and NYC's students walking out in protest.  When education spending gets cut federally, localities -  and specifically lower income localities - can't pick up the slack.  Schools and children suffer, and they suffer exponentially along racial and income lines due to funding streams that are based predominantly on local property taxes.  With these increasingly failing schools, kids try to get into universities becoming more and more expensive and competitive, while their own academic foundations are worse.  Thus, they are less apt to get in and/or gain any kind of scholarships or grants.  So they have to fill the financial gaps with student loans or risk not being able to compete in the job market without degrees.  They're then saddled with this debt for the rest of their lives.  Leaving them little disposable income to engage within the economy, nevermind to perhaps be able to take on a mortgage for a home.

It is no mystery who does make out on this though.  Financial institutions and schools.  The government subsidizes loans, gives money that is then funneled into schools (many of which are private) and banks (all of which are pretty much private).  The banks then hedge the losses, have guaranteed payment for life and after, and make out wonderfully.  Not to mention that those who have to take loans (i.e. not already rich) are saddled forever with debt that keeps them for the most part working "to pay the man" forever - never to BE "the wo/man."  So sad.

So yeah, this is why we protest.  Its just another usurious capitalist scheme to keep us in our place with the system churning ahead (of us).

The protest itself though was great.  There was a mock trial where the "1%" came out and told us all the way it was and why we should just be slaves to it all.  It culminated with a breaking of the chains of enslavement of the prisoners and a burning of student debt balance sheets.  Everyone throughout the day wore stickers saying how much debt they had.  The "my name is" stickers but instead of a name just: $186,000" (the highest I saw).
My favorite one percenter!!

Following the performances we all marched from Union Square down to Wall Street on an amazingly supportive march.  And when I say amazingly supportive, the marchers are always supportive, but in this case I mean police-wise.  When we were in the park and people started burning loan bills I thought for sure we'd be swarmed upon by cops, but nothing came.  Then it all came to light when we got down to just about Wall St. where we were all supposed to branch off and find our own way to the federal steps across from the stock exchange.  My marching companion and I started to splinter and the one cop said: "hey, you can't give up! the march is still going! My daughters have $140,000 in debt!!"  WHAT?!?!? :)  They are human after all!!  Hahaha!!  And I don't mean that in a derogatory way, but that yeah, we all feel this.  That despite the icy stares, and stone faces, they feel it to.  We all do.  And it hurts.   

We ended up on the federal steps without any problems.  Chanted some, sang some, but wholly it was a great ending to a great event.  Also another learning lesson on what Occupy needs to do moving forward.  We need to find these flash button issues that everyone can get behind and just keep hammering away!  We all know this type of student debt is not sustainable, so lets keep volume up!!

Work Update

So the grand experiment that was Timmy the political fundraiser is dead!  Not that it ever sat so well with me anyway!  I had till Wednesday (the 18th) to show progress and be making quota.  It didn't work out.  It was an amicable split.  No drama, nothing too profound.  I will say though that I put myself in the most disadvantageous position I possibly could though probably as I spent the morning embroiled in my deteriorating domestic entanglement and running just over a mile at 6 minute pace to get there barely on time - with tears in my eyes for at least the first half a mile!!  Can't say I've ever cried and ran before that I can remember.  Anyway, so is life - holistic - one thing doesn't wait for the next.  No school, no job, and quite likely no girlfriend all in a few days.  What can you do.

BUT!!  I took a call mid way through the evening shift and already had another job, before I had even lost this one!  It's not a lot of hours, 10/week, but it will be a good start to move forward with.  It will be as a hiking guide and retail sales for an outdoor store in Brooklyn.  It really is so much closer to my heart than fundraising for sure!  It takes me so much further back to things like the Sierra Leone trip and such.  All the gear I put together, the research, all the time I spend out in the woods bouncing off rocks.  It's not enough to sustain myself financially, but it is an income for a quick moment while I figure things out.  In a month I will have a license to be a guide and I will have learned a great deal of things that will mean A LOT to me personally.  Things that I have really wanted to get further into for  long time.  It also may open some really interesting doors as well.

My first day was today (Sunday, 22nd) and it was all about training on the gear in the store.  But we did talk a bit about Sierra Leone and an idea I'd had while there about doing some trail marking to help the country with tourist trips doing ecotourism and hiking (as well as seeing how things are in another place in the world, a much poorer place than America). The one guy thought it might be a great thing to try to do through the store.  Wow, we'll see!!  Anyway, I loved it.  I'm sure it will bring some different issues in general, but on the whole I will just be learning and talking about the outdoors and spending time there.  At least it will be a nice segue to another place in life - either through itself, or on the way to someplace else.  Not to mention, its a job.  What else you gonna do! 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

A day in the life.

So yesterday was a mesmerizing day.  I woke to sunshine and hope.  It was followed by a bit of love, a little annoyance and domestic despair, even a touch of hopelessness.  Then I rushed off to work.  But this wasn't a day of ordinary work.  I was paid to be at a protest rally.  I was paid to hand out political theater on the sidewalk.  I was paid to keep people within the confines of a march, to marshal a protest (i.e. to keep it within the legal parameters of public protest while yet protesting against the illegality of so much of our society).  I must admit that I struggled the night before with the idea of being paid to exercise my freedom of political expression.  But I seemed to easily get past it once we got to Trump Tower and were getting set up.  I was excited. 

I was going to be handing out envelopes with "more money than GE, Verizon, Bank of America, etc. had paid in taxes in the last three years", (one penny inside) and then engaging in conversation about it all with passers-by.  It was great.  But I tell you what, midtown (and 5th ave of course) was a nightmare for sympahty.  Tourists, rich people, businessy types, and an occasional blue collar delivery or tech service type guy.  We did this for a while and then went to down to near Rockefeller center and eventually Bryant park.  Actually it was across the street from the park and Bank of America, right in front of the NFL store!  Which I didn't know existed!  But I'll get back to that in a sec.  So we just waited and waited and waited for things to get organized.  But I just stayed on the corner and handed out my envelopes.  It was so much more fun than just milling about.  I love this kind of stuff.  Flyering is great.  Engaging with real people, about real issues.  Most want to have nothing to do with you, some take it or keep walking while you get your qhick last second hook in.  The business types seem to be the worst, so arrogant.  They don't need your "money" and they certainly don't have anything to "learn" from you is the vibe thy give off.  Hell, why don't they at least stop and teach me something??  No time, no interest, more important things. 

There were some amazing moments though, people who just look at you in amazement at what they've just learned.  People that have no clue of any of this stuff.  It was also interesting in thinking about the people that I approached as well.  The only methodological selection I tried to do was to weed out foreigners.  Otherwise, it was as random as people that weren't on the phone, or obviously rushing.  Suits, sweats, jeans, men, woman, whatever.  But you could see some people when you offer them "money" stop and look like they could desperately use it.  I felt bad sometimes knowing that there really was only a penny in there.  But I think that was the point.  They needed money, they were paying their taxes, and these big businesses had a net tax burden below zero.  They were getting money back.  That's a tough pill for many to swallow.

Anyway, it was an interesting day of that.  But at one point kind of surreal.  Anyone that knows me, knows that I come from a place and history so completely mired by a passion for football and all things related.  One person walking on the sidewalk - unbeknownst to me of course - worked in the NFL retail store there.  I of course tried to give him an envelope and finish the story as he ducked into the store.  I didn't follow him, but tried to finish it from the entrance until he turned around and stood next to the security guard and told me to stop.  He was so rude.  To him I'm sure all I was was just another dirty protestor messing up his day, little does he know how much of my heart has been poured into football and the NFL.  I worked for years with the NFL in Europe with player development, junior national teams, marketing and business development.  Coaching and developing young prospects and sending players to their elite camps, developing the game, playing there.  I played Division I football, and even pushed the game a bit in China and Sierra Leone of all places.  So much of my soul has been spilled on football.  I stood there in silent disbelief, I froze speachless.  He obviously took my hesitation and blank stare as an affront as I looked down at my feet in a daze and saw my one big toe lightly touching the door frame.  I wasn't allowed in the store.  Obviously, they don't want our political theater there, but it was so surreal to me as the two passions I've followed in life came so resoundingly crashing into each other.  I am an activist now.  And the NFL is just another giant corporate entity - granted, one that runs its league along egalitarian socialist terms!  It was tough for some reason to feel that though, to be hurt by it, and to wake up this morning with it in my head.  Odd, yet kind of painful all the same. 

Fact is the whole day ended with a lot of oddities.  Marching for money and organizing for money with an organization is so different.  I go back to the whole horizontalism versus hierarchical structures for getting things done discussion.  The organization of the march was actually kind of poor during it.  They had three groups of marshals, one in the front, one in the middle, and one in the back.  Nothing in between keeping everyone together or on the right path, just clumps.  I took initiative at one point and stopped at a spot where there was construction dividing people and tried to keep them together.  I later approached my "leader" about it and he resoundingly shut down any thought of such preemptive initiative.  We were to stay together and do as he said, which put probably 15 marshals just walking together and occasionally providing a human shield for speakers (which could have been done by half of us).  It was amazing to see this concept of oversight and a lack of faith in individual personal capacity.  At occupy, people just step in and make things happen they see need to be done.  Who needs designated people to keep crowds off speakers when you can just ask people from the audience to do it on the spot?  Free will, personal agency, all hierarchyed out of they equation.  I so much prefer the occupy method, and for the first time REALLY saw what people mean when they say Occupy is a "leaderfull" movement rather than a "leaderless" movement.  Given agency and purpose I believe people will step up, feel empowered to act, and act in an intuitive communal way.   I believe Occupy shows this.

As it was, there was not a big Occupy presence there at this rally though.  I was under the impression they would be meeting up with us today.  But it didn't happen.  Not that their weren't occupier's there, but it was not a huge presence.  Maybe they were all still down on Wall St getting mistreated...

Anyway, the rest of the day went as it does.  Some good comradery and catching up with occupiers and others as the "work" and the march wound down.  But then of course there was more domestic uncertainty and dismay as the evening went on.  Life is a struggle right now.  As was yesterday.  I felt at home - to my core - acting within my own personal agency, activating other people, reaching out to them, engaging, and then just stepping in and filling unforeseen gaps in the event.  But sadly, as much as I felt at home and felt like I TRULY made a difference yesterday, I stand a very good chance of losing my job today.  It doesn't matter what I can do on a street corner with the issues, or step up at an event and make things happen, it is only about how much money I can make for them.  And yeah, it probably doesn't help that in filing in holes in the event, I was not following "orders" appropriately.  Who knows how much that will matter.  Some seemed to see the value of that, others seemed more concerned with their own power maintanence - a product of their adherence to and belief in hierarchy perhaps.  But so be it.  I felt good about things, even if I don't feel good about my prospects in this type of life per say.  Wholly capable, yet wholly in capable it seems.  


Monday, April 23, 2012

Chipotle! Pay your workers!!

Sunday was another incredible day that started out with a rally put on by the Coalition of Immokalee workers for the campaign against Chipotle's expropriation of farm workers.  Coming off a recent victory against Trader Joe's CIW where able to raise the wages of the tomato pickers, they were back at it again.  There are personal connections here as well, as the son of the people I stay with a lot works with them in Florida.  So pleasantly, it's a bit of a family affair!  :)

Yes, the tomatoes you buy there are sourced in American sweat shops.

After stops at two Chipotle's, I quickly scurried from there to work - where I was of course again up against the final throws of the quota.  I was however over it after four days, so was pretty excited, and Sunday was optional, so I thought I was doing a good thing going in!  As it turned out later in the week, it would be my demise!  But anyway, that will be a story for another time.  I made no money that day and headed to the airport to pick Lily up.

The big event of the day however was that it was the cut off for graduate school decisions.  It was down to this day for me to hear if I would be doing a PhD next year.  I was on the waiting list at Rutgers.  The day though did not end well as I was not admitted.  Very sad day in that regard, and one I will write about at length in a bit.

So there was Sunday, helping to fight injustice, trying to get money into politics - and failing as usual - and then seeing my future dreams evaporate!  But the protest was fun!!  ;)