Thursday, May 31, 2012

Hope, Danger and Struggle in Greece: SYRIZA's 40-point Program

Alex Tsipras, leader of SYRIZA, the Coalition of the Radical Left in Greece
Greece is in the headlines a lot, usually in the context of various economists or media analysts predicting disaster should the Greek people be allowed to control their own fortunes and reject the austerity measures being forced on the country by the European Union. What's really important to remember is whose side the media is on, and it's not the side of Greek working people, people who have been engaged in dramatic struggle against austerity and repression.

An election was just held in Greece. Because no single party achieved a majority, or could even unite with others to form a governing coalition, new elections have already been called for June. The current government is run by PASOK, the allegedly socialist party that has ruled the country for years. It has sold out every possible principle anyone calling themselves socialist might have, and is rightfully losing most of its support. PASOK didn't get enough votes to continue a government, nor did various right-wing and center-moderate parties. Disturbingly, a literal neo-Nazi party called Golden Dawn did get a significant vote, enough to gain seats in parliament. But the most fascinating development is the advancement of SYRIZA, the Coalition of the Radical Left. In the new elections, SYRIZA is expected to come in first. It is entirely possible SYRIZA will be able to form a government if other leftists agree to join a coalition. This is an incredible development. Surely a government run by SYRIZA will face incredible challenges: the threat of a military coup, of violence from the far right, even of intervention by the EU or NATO. But SYRIZA are not merely "alleged" socialists like PASOK or the victors of the recent French elections, it is a real coalition of real left groups, even including the Communist Organization of Greece (KOE), a really interesting group often reported on over at Kasama.

I wanted to share the 40-point program of SYRIZA. (Source via Proyect). While any batch of these points could be the source of a good discussion about what is possible in elections, this list could serve as a blueprint for what is wrong with settling for the allegedly progressive dribs and drabs offered up by the Democratic Party to the legions of American voters clinging to the mistaken notion that voting for Democrats will solve anybody's problems (except perhaps those of the 1%). This arguably may not be a program for the seizure of revolutionary power by the autonomous working class, but it's a pretty thorough and radical series of demands that bridges what is possible with what is necessary, that expands the aspirations of popular power rather than shuts them down.

Here are the forty points:

  1. Audit of the public debt and renegotiation of interest due and suspension of payments until the economy has revived and growth and employment return.
  2. Demand the European Union to change the role of the European Central Bank so that it finances States and programs of public investment.
  3. Raise income tax to 75% for all incomes over 500,000 euros.
  4. Change the election laws to a proportional system.
  5. Increase taxes on big companies to that of the European average.
  6. Adoption of a tax on financial transactions and a special tax on luxury goods.
  7. Prohibition of speculative financial derivatives.
  8. Abolition of financial privileges for the Church and shipbuilding industry.
  9. Combat the banks’ secret [measures] and the flight of capital abroad.
  10. Cut drastically military expenditures.
  11. Raise minimum salary to the pre-cut level, 750 euros per month.
  12. Use buildings of the government, banks and the Church for the homeless.
  13. Open dining rooms in public schools to offer free breakfast and lunch to children.
  14. Free health benefits to the unemployed, homeless and those with low salaries.
  15. Subvention up to 30% of mortgage payments for poor families who cannot meet payments.
  16. Increase of subsidies for the unemployed. Increase social protection for one-parent families, the aged, disabled, and families with no income.
  17. Fiscal reductions for goods of primary necessity.
  18. Nationalization of banks.
  19. Nationalization of ex-public (service & utilities) companies in strategic sectors for the growth of the country (railroads, airports, mail, water).
  20. Preference for renewable energy and defence of the environment.
  21. Equal salaries for men and women.
  22. Limitation of precarious hiring and support for contracts for indeterminate time.
  23. Extension of the protection of labor and salaries of part-time workers.
  24. Recovery of collective (labor) contracts.
  25. Increase inspections of labor and requirements for companies making bids for public contracts.
  26. Constitutional reforms to guarantee separation of Church and State and protection of the right to education, health care and the environment.
  27. Referendums on treaties and other accords with Europe.
  28. Abolition of privileges for parliamentary deputies. Removal of special juridical protection for ministers and permission for the courts to proceed against members of the government.
  29. Demilitarization of the Coast Guard and anti-insurrectional special troops. Prohibition for police to wear masks or use fire arms during demonstrations. Change training courses for police so as to underline social themes such as immigration, drugs and social factors.
  30. Guarantee human rights in immigrant detention centers.
  31. Facilitate the reunion of immigrant families.
  32. Depenalization of consumption of drugs in favor of battle against drug traffic. Increase funding for drug rehab centers.
  33. Regulate the right of conscientious objection in draft laws.
  34. Increase funding for public health up to the average European level.(The European average is 6% of GDP; in Greece 3%.)
  35. Elimination of payments by citizens for national health services.
  36. Nationalization of private hospitals. Elimination of private participation in the national health system.
  37. Withdrawal of Greek troops from Afghanistan and the Balkans. No Greek soldiers beyond our own borders.
  38. Abolition of military cooperation with Israel.  Support for creation of a Palestinian State within the 1967 borders.
  39. Negotiation of a stable accord with Turkey.
  40. Closure of all foreign bases in Greece and withdrawal from NATO.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Anti-Americana: Trouble Starter

According to the New York Times, the Arabic portion of this sign reads, "Death to America, trouble starter and war starter." This is a protester from a pro-democracy rally in Bahrain. The pro-democracy movement in US-ally Bahrain was sold out by the US-Saudi alliance (see this post here in The Cahokian) last year. Good on these protesters for figuring out who wasn't on their side.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Donna Summer: She Said It Really Loud on the Radio

LaDonna Adrian Gaines, 1948 – 2012

Donna Summer was a phenomenon. Everything she did was on a grand scale. When her career broke through it was an explosion that lasted a decade, changing everything in its wake: our ears are still ringing.

When "Love to Love You Baby" hit the airwaves in 1975 I was in high school. The short version was a ubiquitous hit. The abbreviated moans and groans on the radio edit made it a novelty song: just naughty enough to make me slightly uncomfortable on weekend drives with my mom in the suburbs where we were briefly stranded. Minnie Riperton had already introduced the eargasm to the radio the year before with "Lovin' You," which was no doubt catchy but altogether different in scale. This song's slinkily suggestive groove was impossible to resist. But it was late at night as I lay in my bed reading and listening to the radio when I heard the full 16 minute glory of the song. It turned out not to be a few moans and groans but an extended symphonic orgasm, an intense aural documentary of ecstasy and passion. The guitar, the keys, the sweeping strings, the breathy voice, that funky long screw of a groove. I was a virgin but I knew what that song was about. I felt it. To not feel it, to not be swept up by its sensuality, one would have to be dead. It's the kind of song still, today, that makes me want to reach for a cigarette when it ends. And I haven't been a smoker in 25 years.

Two years later I had finished my first year of college and was spending a couple weeks in New York City. It's a longer story I've told parts of elsewhere on this blog, but I ended up late one weekend night down in the Village, the pre-gentrification Village, a block from the darkness under the still-standing elevated West Side Highway and the mysterious darkened ruin of riverside piers. It was Christopher Street Liberation Day 1977, and this incredible song was blaring from a soundtruck near the armory at the end of the street in the midst of a gay street festival. It was a synthesized beat like nothing I could have ever imagined, with dancing electric lines of crackling noise weaving in and out against a relentless pulsing beat. And there was that same breathy voice, singing once again about feeling "love" but clearly meaning raw, fiery sex. "I Feel Love" grabbed me like the superheated thick New York City night air. I wasn't yet out as a gay young man, and wouldn't be for a little while, but this magic moment cemented in my mind everything I imagined about future possibility.

A year or so later I was finally out, and as I gathered gay friends and learned to navigate the subterranean world of that long-ago hidden gay world, Donna Summer's music remained a constant. There were other artists I found more interesting, but none I ever found more compelling. Her sound was huge. I remember discovering her two-LP concept album "Once Upon a Time." Sure I listened to jazz and soul the rest of the time, but this amazing disco symphony was impossible to ignore. I first heard these songs on a dance floor somewhere in Chicago, probably at the Bistro. Lyrical, romantic, with a dramatic, almost operatic sweep: compositions with a pop catchiness but a furious grandiose ambition to seize the listener not in a heady idyll but in an ecstatic fury of dance and motion. As "Rumour Has It" segued into "I Love You" the lights in the disco would shimmer, the rhythms percolating against that insistent base drum and the sweep of the strings; the dance floor would fill with emotion. It was the happy ending of a fairytale come to life. I don't think I have ever listened to "I Love You" without feeling the memory of tears for the lost bliss of those fleeting otherworldly moments. I loved that record.

I also loved the song she recorded for the B-movie "The Deep," about as close as she ever got to doing a James Bond song (which would have been great!). I had that soundtrack with "Down Deep Inside" on otherworldly transparent blue vinyl. Her 15-minute version of Serge Gainsbourg's "Je T'aime" from Thank God It's Friday? To die for. And hearing her duke it out with Barbra Streisand on the 11-minute version of "No More Tears" is priceless.

I'm not sure that I heard Donna Summer's 17-minute cover of Jimmy Webb's lyrically obtuse epic of loss "MacArthur Park" dancing at the Bistro, but I know that it played the night that my friend Joe announced he had scored a few hits of windowpane acid. Let's just say this song is fried into my brain. Who turns a strange and melancholic song about a cake melting in the rain into a 17-minute disco song? I don't know if it was Summer herself or her producers who came up with this audaciously insane bit of genius. It's like an opera's mad song: beginning with a slow piano against stately strings, like something out of a drama queen's handbag, it takes almost two minutes even to understand what's happening. Suddenly Summer gives a theatrical laugh and it's on. That unforgettable horn-laden hook. It's ecstatic nonsense but it works: anyone who heard this song at that time surely knows what I mean. These songs were all huge at the clubs. Everyone jumped up from their banquettes and bar stools and filled the dance floor to catch the wave.

I remember when her triumphant double album "Bad Girls" came out. I remember the shiny shiny gatefold on extra-thick stock. Unlike the anonymous cooing female voices of so many disco acts, here was Donna Summer the star. While she had always flirted with musical styles beyond disco, "Bad Girls" was her successful power-grab for pop fame. Disco, soul, rock, even country. She not not only did it all, she did it all well. She understood in 1979, well ahead of many of us, that the disco genre she had pioneered couldn't sustain her indefinitely. She did amazing things with disco concept albums — there were several — and with giving new disco life to  Barry Manilow songs, but she knew when she needed to reinvent herself.

Well, we all seem to need to do that now and again. I note how Donna Summer was around (again!) a few times at significant moments in my own life. When I moved to New York City there was her ambitious eponymous album produced by Quincy Jones. It wasn't her biggest commercial success but it's a great record.

I remember her 1983 record "She Works Hard for the Money" with some ambivalence. This was a super big pop hit for her, and certainly the songs were grandly envisioned. But I didn't love this new Donna Summer, and her new openly born-again Christian identity was hard to reconcile with the Donna Summer who helped a generation of gay men dance out of their closets on to the streets. I am prepared now to accept that the fading of her reputation among gay men was the product of inaccurate malicious rumor, but there was a moment when we felt a sting of betrayal. I've said it before but the 1980s were a terrible decade.

Her later records were never huge, though the ones I know have a few magic moments. To my great regret I never saw her perform live.

But eventually all was forgiven. She didn't take back what she gave us, even if for a moment there was uncomfortable silence. Donna, we loved you, we really loved you.

Another one gone too damn soon; this part of growing up and older is hard, to see the people who helped shaped us, even from the other side of speakers and wires, drop away. Dim all the lights, sweet darling.... Love it don't come easy. But when you find the perfect love, let it fill you up. 

Thank you Donna. Thanks for being the soundtrack to my growing up.

Monday, May 14, 2012

"The Party's Over" - Return of a Familiar Friend?

"ARM TEH POOR," Graffiti in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, April 2012 (photo by me)

In the 1980s, a striking graffiti logo appeared all over the streets of lower east side Manhattan. The scene of an extended conflict over gentrification and how New York City would evolve, the LES was home to tenant activists, counter-culture punks, pioneering queers, artists, and the struggling Puerto Rican working class people who took the neighborhood over from the immigrant Jewish community who had, as it were, moved on up. The graffiti was an abstract depiction of an upturned cocktail, and was said to symbolize "The Party's Over." The graffiti was ubiquitous and mysterious, though it turns out it was completely the creation of a local musician and activist, Peter Missing. You can see an original here.

"OWS 2012" Graffiti in Union Square, March 2012 (photo by me)
Is the iconic "Party's Over" logo making a little comeback? I first noticed the upturned-cocktail in chalk at the Occupy Wall Street Union Square encampment in March. But then I noticed it on a lamp-post in Brooklyn, along with the inscription "ARM TEH POOR" ("teh" being the ironic/hipster misspelling of "the," of course) and a hammer and sickle.

It's got an almost apocalyptic resonance, this logo: Which isn't that far off, since the 1980s in which it first arrived was a massive cultural and political turning point both for the city and the world. It does seem appropriate that the symbol return with OWS, who reminds us that we are complaisant with today's challenges at our own risk.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Save the Palestinian Hunger Strikers!

Palestinian protesters (Che T-shirt sighting!) outside Israeli Supreme Court in Jerusalem last week. Photo from Alakhbar English.

Decades ago in the midst of another desperate struggle, imprisoned revolutionaries in Northern Ireland used the final weapon available, and went on a series of hunger strikes to bring attention to British repression. Several Irish Republican Army militants starved to death, including most famously Bobby Sands.

Today the desperate resistance tactic of the hunger strike is being deployed by some two thousand Palestinians in Israeli jails. Two of these protesters, in administrative detention without charges or recourse, are now said to be near death. Thaer Halahla, 34, and Bilal Thiab, 27, shown in the posters above, have been denied visits from their families and independent medical authorities.

Today the Israeli Supreme Court rejected their appeals to end their "administrative detention." At their hearing, one of the men fainted from weakness. The other, Mr. Halahla, is quoted saying, “I am a man who loves life, and I want to live in dignity. No human can accept being in jail for one hour without any charge or reason.” 

These two men are not accused of any crime, merely of being "potential terrorists" by virtue of their membership in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad faction. Sound familiar? This is what the NDAA law passed by Congress and signed by President Obama authorizes here in the United States.

Save Thaer Halahla and Bilal Thiab!

Sunday, May 06, 2012


On May Day in Union Square I saw a contingent of people carrying signs with the old, albeit perfectly legitimate, chestnut of a slogan, "Money for Education, Not for War." I had to look twice though, cause out of the corner of my eye with my less than stellar vision at first I thought the signs said "Money for Revolution, not for War."

I was disappointed when I got a closer look. But hey, you never know!

Friday, May 04, 2012

“Another World Is Possible” – May Day in New York

Occupy/Ocupemos Sunset Park banner. Photo by me.
After months of planning and hard work May Day was a great success for the Occupy movement in New York City. Though you wouldn't know it from reading any New York newspapers, thousands of people participated in hundreds of actions all over the city during the day, and the culminating march from Union Square to Wall Street saw many tens of thousands of exuberant protesters filling the streets. Confrontations between demonstrators and police were few until the final hours of the protest, when cops violently broke up an assembly by some of the protesters who kept things going after the officially tolerated time.

While it is true that the "general strike" calls generated by many in the movement proved only symbolic, the day marked the vibrancy and deepening of Occupy, which spent the winter building ties in neighborhoods and communities, and across networks of activists and organizations. Occupy is anything but moribund.

For me the day started in Brooklyn, as my local neighborhood Occupy assembly, Occupy/Ocupemos Sunset Park, gathered on the Avenue in front of two local branches of the big banks Citibank and Chase. We had planned a march/speakout that would go through one of the main drags of the neighborhood, stopping at various stations to address issues relevant to this multi-ethnic, working class community. So at the point of assembly we carried out a skit about the role of the banks and about income inequality. About 35 of us marched.

The next stop, shown above, was at the offices of May First People Link, the independent radical internet service provider that has recently been targeted and harassed by the FBI. The First Amendment from the Bill of Rights was read in English and Spanish, and May First People Link members read a statement to the gathered protesters.

From there we moved on to the site of a horrible incident of police brutality in the neighborhood a few years ago where several members of the Acosta family, including the grandmother of the family, were strip searched and brutalized right out on the street. Harassment by the NYPD in Sunset Park is a daily thing for the neighborhood's Hispanic residents, many of them immigrants. A member of the Acosta family thanked us and reminded us of our right to reject police mistreatment.

Reclaiming the courthouse. Photo by OSP.
We moved on to the Courthouse building on 4th Avenue, which we have previously targeted for a "People's Repossession." This time we had a ribbon cutting ceremony, and placed a sign promised the "Future Home of the Sunset Park Community Center," and the gathered folks yelled out all the things we'd like to see in such a desperately needed bit of community space. Everything from free daycare and cultural classes to a health clinic and legal aid clinic. Right now this beautiful landmark building is occupied by cops being warehoused to push pencils. We rejected the idea that any immigrants to our neighborhood are "illegal."

From there we stopped at the Dewey Middle School. The city is cutting back services in our neighborhood to working-class families, cutting back funding to daycare and after-school programs, and threatening schools like this one with union-busting turnaround or transformation into for-profit charter schools. Dewey was just saved from turnaround by community outcry, and we celebrated that fact while giving Mayor Bloomberg's corporatist Department of Education "F's" on a giant report card for its role in toying with the education of the children of our community.

Occupying the Subway. Photo by OSP's Krys M.
From there we marched to the Subway at 36th Street and 4th Avenue. Above ground we stopped to call for full employment jobs programs and, well, for an end to capitalism! A bunch of us went down into the subway together (above, and yes, that's me) to ride to Union Square for the big march. On the subway we met up with folks from Occupy Red Hook who are also engaged in organizing an assembly in their neighborhood, right near ours.

Occupy/Ocupemos Sunset Park is a really awesome group of people I'm incredibly proud to work with. We planned the day's event together and carried it out in a real spirit of collectivity.

"Everything for Everyone – Dream Dangerously" Kasama banner in Manhattan. Photo from Kasama.
So into Manhattan we went. I spent some of the time with my Occupy Sunset Park comrades, and some of the time with comrades from the Kasama Project with their wonderfully challenging banner shown above. From my end of the absolutely packed Union Square I couldn't hear the tail end of the rally, but I marched most of the way downtown until my middle-aged ankles started complaining about the day of walking. I missed the assembly at the very end; friends reported that it was incredibly empowering and almost magically beautiful.

It was hard from any one spot amidst the assembled thousands to get a feel for the whole crowd. There were people from every imaginable left group, from unions and community organizations, and thousands of Occupy activists displaying their nack for truly revolutionary creativity. I ran into all sorts of people I've gotten to know from the past few months of organizing.

The mood was high and celebratory, despite occasional minor harassment from the cops who kept trying to pen the marchers in. It's the first time I can remember where a march this size was seized with such absolutely revolutionary optimism. People sang, and chanted, laughed and smiled. And while "This is what democracy looks like" was a favorite, Occupy really showed its colors by chanting things like "Another World Is Possible." This is absolutely a moment when people are coming together to see things with fresh eyes, casting away old illusions and attachments, and bringing a real spirit of hope and real change.

It was not, in the end, a general strike. And millions of New Yorkers probably didn't notice what happened. But I know I feel energized by this May Day; it was a taste of what we can do. A reminder, for sure, of all the work to be done. But tens of thousands of people did see it, did participate in it, and together we can keep building and growing.

For me the day was full of the positive lessons of what real democracy looks and feels like. It's not elections and waiting for somebody else to save us, knowing they will mostly betray us, it's taking things into our own hands because, well, the world is ours, the world, is us.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

We Are Many

It's not the final offensive. It's not the moment of insurrection. The revolution isn't here. But all journeys begin with single steps. And we know what happens if we do...nothing.

The time has come to rise like lions, indeed.

This Is What Democracy Looks Like

Happy May Day!