Sunday, May 29, 2005

Taking Care of Business and May Day

I hope everyone has had a pleasant Memorial Day weekend. Before May ends, I would be remiss in not writing something about May Day, the international workers' holiday. It just so happens that the Red River Red, America's Greatest Living Public Intellectual, published an article about the history of said day in the newsletter of United Steelworkers of America Local 711T, out at Shreveport's Libbey glass plant. Before that gem, however, there are a couple of things people should know about.
First, U.S. Representative John Conyers of Detroit, one of the most honorable men now serving in public office in our country, is circulating an e-mail letter/petition asking the Bush Administration for answers regarding the "Downing Street Memo," the leaked document detailing their attempts to secure British support for military action against Iraq before receiving authorization from Congress. The document quotes high-ranking British government officials claiming Bush was determined to go to war by July 2002, although the American people were reassured that there was no timetable, and that all diplomatic options would be exhausted. 88 more members of Congress have signed on to the letter, and there is a call for 100,000 signatures from citizens. The letter can be accessed at johnconyers.com. I don't see any better way to support the troops this Memorial Day weekend than by signing this letter, which I see as a big step on the road to impeachment. There is absolutely no reason we have to put up with the evil hubris of these people, and there is no reason that any more American or Iraqi lives have to be sacrificed for their mistakes.
Additionally, I would recommend any citizens out there with a concern for environmental justice, public health, clean government or a myriad of other issues out there come to the Pete Harris Cafe (1355 Milam St.) for the Tuesday Morning Breakfast Group this coming Tuesday at 8:00 AM. Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti will be addressing the group, and I for one would be very interested to hear what he has to say about Willie Fontenot.
Willie Fontenot, 62, was the former community liason officer for the Attorney General's office, "where he helped small towns, many of them black, poor and traditionally powerless, organize themselves to confront global oil and chemical giants that are using their backyards as dumping grounds for toxic waste," according to muckraking journalist Jeffrey St. Clair. He had been doing his job, very effectively by all accounts, for nearly three decades until his forced resignation on April 5 of this year.
In mid-March, Fontenot was leading a group Antioch College master's students in environmental science on a tour of Cancer Alley, basically the areas adjoining the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, where oil refineries and chemical plants have typically undergone little state regulation, resulting in some of the highest cancer rates in the country. Again according to St. Clair, "Using the banner of Homeland Security as a pretext, Fontenot, the students and their two professors were detained by off-duty sheriffs working as security guards for ExxonMobil for taking photographs of the company's chemical plant, one of the most toxic in the nation. That sham arrest was then used as the basis to force Fontenot from his position.
The details are available from the Counterpunch website, at counterpunch.org/stclair04132005.html, and will also be included in the book Grand Theft Pentagon, to be published by Common Courage Press. But Attorney General Foti, who forced Fontenot to resign (having suffered a stroke, prostate cancer and a degenerating eye disease in recent years, he couldn't risk losing health insurance), will be right here in Shreveport on Tuesday morning. And the Red River Red, for one, will be there to confront him. If you would be interested in going as well, contact me at mpbookfreak@hotmail.com, or I will see you there.

Finally, let's remember May Day. Having lived on the West Coast for several years, this was the first time in a while that I wasn't celebrating May 1 with a parade featuring family, friends, comrades, and fellow workers (not to mention riot cops, who lived up to their name in 2000, rioting on the streets of downtown Portland, shooting peaceful marchers with rubber bullets, riding horses into peaceful crowds. At least none of them deliberately pepper-sprayed an infant, as one fascist with a badge did a couple of years later, but I digress. It's so important to remember the struggles of the past, and how things we take for granted, like the eight-hour working day, were fought for with passion, with honor, and with great sacrifice:

From Confederate to Comrade: May Day and the Life of Albert Parsons
by Michael Parker

May Day, the international workers’ holiday, passed a few days ago. A web search shows a coordinated network of European parades in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Stockholm, Helsinki and other cities. A fifteen year-old boy was killed at a Bogota, Colombia, May Day parade by police. A friend once related to me the thrill of marching in a large parade in Guatemala City a few years back. Yet, except for a few stalwarts on the West Coast, and scattered actions elsewhere (including New Orleans), the day passed without much fanfare in the United States, even though the events commemorated occurred in Chicago. What happened in Haymarket Square on May 4, 1886, who were those who paid the ultimate price for it, and why is it still relevant to workers almost 120 years later?
In a nutshell, the events which rocked Chicago in early May of 1886 were the culmination of years of agitation in support of the eight-hour working day. In 1885, the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions of the United States and Canada, the forerunner of American Federation of Labor (AFL), repeated a year-old announcement at its national convention, that “On May 1, 1886, an eight-hour system was to go into effect throughout the country. It would be supported, moreover, by strikes and demonstrations to persuade recalcitrant employers to yield,” (Avrich, p. 181). As Chicago was a center of often-intertwined anarchist and labor agitation, tensions were high, although an 80,000-strong workers’ parade and rally, fueled by 40,000 strikers, passed without incident.
On May 3, however, violence broke out between locked-out workers and scabs at the McCormick Reaper Works. After police responded, at least two workers were killed. In response, a demonstration was called for the next evening at Haymarket Square. Partially because of a late start, there were no more than two to three thousand. Responding to inflammatory remarks by Samuel Fielden, the final speaker of the night, an immigrant from England and devoted father of two, police moved in. Although the crowd had dwindled to a few hundred, the crowd was ordered to disperse. A bomb was then thrown into the ranks of the police, followed by indiscriminate firing of revolvers into the crowd. Seven policemen were killed and 60 wounded, many more by “friendly fire” than by the bomb itself.
Eight anarchists were tried and convicted of murder, although only two were present at the time the bomb was thrown. Seven were sentenced to death, with Oscar Neebe receiving 15 years. Two received clemency from the governor, and one committed suicide in his cell. Among the four hanged on November 11, 1887, was Albert Parsons.
It is always problematic to focus on one individual in an analysis of a social movement. To do so is to succumb to the American tendency to reduce historical events and movements to the actions of a few (Civil War=Lincoln, Grant and Lee; Civil Rights Movement=Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks). But as a Southerner fascinated by the history of dissenting social movements in the United States, including labor, the intersections present in the lives of Albert Parsons and his wife, Lucy, are worthy of analysis independent of their honorable compatriots.
Unlike many of the foreign-born luminaries of the early American labor movement, Albert Parson’s family was long-established in the United States. One ancestor served under George Washington in New Jersey, while another lost an arm at Bunker Hill. Orphaned at the age of five, Albert left his home in Montgomery, Alabama, and went to live with his older brother in Texas, growing up in Tyler, Waco and Galveston, among other places. At 13, he ran away to join the Confederate Army. He served, off and on, for the next four years, seeing combat west of the Mississippi River. The war ended when he was 17, and Parsons returned to the printing trade he had apprenticed in. By the age of 19, he had founded The Spectator in Waco, in which the former Confederate soldier “advocated acceptance of the terms of surrender and supported the new constitutional amendments securing the civil and political rights of colored people,” (Avrich, p. 9). He was influenced in these decisions by his brother’s former slave, “Aunt Esther”, who, after his parents’ death, “had been my constant companion and had always given me a mother’s love,” (Boyer and Morais, p. 85).
Parsons joined the Reconstruction-era Radical Republicans, and served in a number of political posts, including the Texas Office of Public Instruction, the state militia, and as secretary of the Texas Senate. He also met his wife Lucy, a former slave who also claimed Mexican and Indian ancestry. The victories of Reconstruction were rolled back in Texas following Democratic victories in the 1872 elections, and the status of a mixed-race couple on the losing political side was tenuous. After Albert’s first trip to the North, they decided to settle in Chicago.
The Parsons arrived in Chicago just two years after the great fire of 1871, and just as depression gripped the country, lasting until 1879. He joined Typographical Union Number 16 and the two began an intellectual and political journey that led from Radical Republicanism to Socialism and finally Anarchism, all the while helping to build one of the most militant labor movements in the country. Albert joined the pioneering Knights of Labor in 1876, and became a popular English-speaking orator at labor rallies that were often conducted in five languages, owing to the large immigrant population. Parsons also ran unsuccessfully for political office seven times in a five-year period as a candidate of the Working-Men’s Party.
By 1881, Albert Parsons identified himself as an anarchist, having become disillusioned with the potential of electoral politics to achieve substantive power for the working class. By 1884 he was editing The Alarm, an organ of the International Working People’s Association which advocated for direct action. In addition to writing for the publication, Lucy Parsons and her husband opened a small ladies’ tailor shop, needing to supplement Albert’s eight dollar-a-week salary and provide for two small children.
Despite their aversion to political action, Parsons and other anarchist labor leaders in Chicago recognized the potential of the eight-hour movement, which had as many as 250,000 declared adherents by early 1886, and were leaders of the local movement. Much like the broad coalition that now opposes corporate globalization, most dramatically in Seattle in November of 1999, the eight-hour movement (at least in Chicago) brought together socialists, anarchists, the Knights of Labor and even sympathetic local politicians in a campaign for what is now one of the economic pillars of our society (despite ongoing assaults against it in recent years).
After the events of May 4, Parsons went into hiding for several weeks, returning of his own volition to stand trial with his comrades. After a blatant sham of a trial, all were found guilty.
After her husband’s conviction and execution, Lucy Parsons wrote and spoke tirelessly, first on his behalf and then to continue the fights they had shared on behalf of workers. She helped found the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1905, and campaigned against lynching and for the unjustly-convicted Scottsboro Eight in Alabama.
There are few legal and cultural institutions taken more for granted in our society than the eight-hour working day. It is vitally important that we as workers remember that such institutions were the result of the blood, sweat and tears of our ancestors in the labor movement, many of them social pariahs in their own time. Commemorating their victories gives us strength, and remembering their tragedies will give us resolve.

Works Cited

Avrich, Paul. The Haymarket Tragedy. Princeton University Press, 1984.

Boyer, Richard O., and Morais, Herbert M. Labor’s Untold Story. United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, 1955, 23rd printing, 1997.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Expansion of media empire imminent

So the Red River Red has been fighting technical difficulties lately, resulting in two false starts. No doubt, a crack team of Bush-hackers is even now trying to foil this missive, not realizing that yet another front is about to be opened in the battle for truth, justice and damn good music in Shreveport. That's right, comrades, the Red will be on the radio, starting Thursday night!
The show is called "Invisible Republic," and will air on KSCL, 91.3, from 6-9, every Thursday, except for those times I'm on secret diplomatic missions, receiving honorary degrees, testifying before Congressional subcommittees and the like.
The show takes its name from the book of the same title by Greil Marcus, which is a detailed analysis of Bob Dylan and the Band's Basement Tapes, as well as the Harry Smith-compiled Anthology of American Folk Music. The Anthology heavily influenced Dylan, as well as other heavyweights of the American folk music renaissance of the mid-20th century. Smith was one of the most important and underrated cultural galvanizers of that century: an avant-garde filmmaker and painter, pioneering anthropologist and musicologist, and obsessive collector of Ukrainian Easter Eggs, Seminole dresses, string figures and paper airplanes, as well as folk songs, records rather than Lomax-style field recordings.
Smith was also an alchemist, growing up in remote areas of the Pacific Northwest with parents who were practicing occultists. Smith's stated goal in compiling the Anthology was to create the conditions for the liberation of those expressing the sorrows and joys and struggles embodied in the songs - hillbillies, sharecroppers, coal miners, poor African-Americans in the Jim Crow South. Given all that happened in its wake - the Civil Rights movement, the social revolutions of the 1960's, the ending to U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Watergate, greater freedom for ethnic minorities, - and the constant soundtrack folk music and blues and hillbilly-derived rock and roll -it would be hard to argue against the assertion that the goal was met.
In that spirit, the music of "Invisible Republic" will be the traditional and contemporary expressions of such music: folk, classic, outlaw and progressive country, bluegrass, blues, as well our state's own Cajun and Zydeco. Interspersed will be news and commentary about current social and workplace struggles for democracy and dignity.
Also, the plan is to have featured artists every week, and I have to mention that this Thursday's show will feature the Bluerunners, also playing Mudbug Madness Friday from 7-9. Lone original member Mark Meaux has been at it for 18 years now, creating with a rotating cast of bandmates a truly original blend of traditional Cajun and Zydeco with 80's cowpunk-tinged rock and roll. I should note here that the Bluerunners also played the Red's wedding reception eight bliss-filled years ago, so my impeccable objectivity (an always-necessary aspect for America's Greatest Living Public Intellectual) might be slightly frayed. Several cuts from their new Honey Slides album will be played, so you can just judge for yourselves.
Alright, here's where I hit publish post. Another body blow to the American Empire, and for the Republic. Peace, y'all.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Everything I learned on tv about the Iraq war, I learned from MASH

Here in the Red's lair of domestic bliss, we own a tv/combination that doesn't get used much. Frankly, we would probably watch tv a little more than we do, but we can only pick up the ABC and CBS affiliates. That works just fine for Monday Night Football and the NCAA college basketball tournament, but the dramatic and humorous offerings of those two networks at this present time don't particularly motivate me to put down my book, turn off the satellite radio or remove the cd from the stereo. So it just sits idle most of the time, as befitting America's Greatest Living Public Intellectual.
The major exception for me comes at the unusual but highly-accurate listed time of 10:37 PM on Sunday night, as our local ABC affiliate shows two consecutive episodes of MASH, a series that set astronomically high standards for both gripping drama and intelligent madcap humor during its 11 seasons. For me, those years spanned from ages four to 15, so I was obviously watching the original telecasts toward the end of the run.
Part of the genius of the show, and even more of the movie that preceded it, was its setting in the Korean War, although it was obviously commenting on Vietnam. In the midst of the bloodbath (the movie came out in 1969), a movie of MASH's irreverence set in Vietnam might have seemed ghoulish, a slap in the face to Johnson's and Nixon's martyrs, whether in Saigon or Kent State, as if Joseph Heller had published Catch-22 in 1942 instead of 1961.
Like all great art, however, MASH has a timelessness that transcends both its Korean War setting and its Vietnam origins. Perhaps my circuits are overloaded by the visual imagery of my one hour of tv a week, but I find myself completely enraptured by the compassion, the gallows' humor, the intelligence, as well as the Sisyphian persistence of decency and humanism exhibited by the characters in the cruelest, most inhumane situations. And I know that the deep, emotions I feel for that hour, interspersed with relieved purges of laughter, are directly related to the rage I am so often feeling at this damned, stupid war in Iraq.
The first episode Sunday night involved Col. Potter and Major Winchester coming down with mumps and having to be quarantined together, to much hilarity. A replacement surgeon, played by the veteran Edward Hermann, comes to the 4077th and fits in perfectly with Pierce and Hunnicutt: crackerjack cutter, quick with the wisecracks, a conniseur of their homemade hootch. As the pace of casualties intensifies, however, Hermann's character Newsome gradually suffers a breakdown, leaving the operating room, cowering by himself, obsessing about the blood he'll never be able to wash from his hands. An understated performance by Hermann gives the moment true pathos, hitting home the point that any of them could suffer the same fate, that there was no indication that he was weaker than any of them. In the second episode, an abandoned biracial baby is left on the doorstep of the Swamp, the Korean mother unable to bear the burden of raising her in purity-obsessed Korean society. The doctors try desperately to peel back the layers of the bureaucratic onion in order to send the baby to the United States, eventually learning that the U.S. government refused to take any responsibility for such babies during the Korean War. Even the unflappable Charles is nearly driven to blows with a consular functionary, and eventually he, Hawkeye, BJ and Father Mulcahey bring the baby to a Catholic monastery where she will be free of the worst of the xenophobia. A similar scenario involving the acquisition of an incubator in one of the first seasons was played for broader laughs, but the outrage of the characters is barely concealed.
In neither episode do you see actual combat, and rarely did one see it through the course of the series. What is portrayed is the emotional violence done to people who might be perceived as on the periphery of the situation, and the evil banality of the system prosecuting the war in such a way that all considerations of human suffering must be sifted through bureaucratic expediency. Sound familiar? Just read between the lines of today's headlines.
God, I could go on, but I am very tired, and the battle begins anew tomorrow. They're still trying to get Bolton in at the U.N., there are still crypto-fascist judicial appointments to deny, and basic health care and legal representation are still in the realm of mythology in our little corner of the richest country in the history of humanity. My buddies Sisyphus, Hawkeye and BJ and I have an appointment with a large rock in the morning. Peace, y'all.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Put Willie on the Road Again

Hey, folks, this is the Red River Red, with the not-ready-for-Shreveport-Times review. This is an opinion piece I submitted about a week ago to our our local fishwrap. For some unfathomable reason, they decided not to run it. But that's okay, because the eventual Red River Red media empire will eventually crush the puny Shreveport Times, make them beg for mercy,...at least, until the next piece I submit to them. For now, we will share our samizdat ramblings among the few...

For years now, progressive Democrats like myself have been wondering when the current crop of Republicans, led by Texans George Bush, Tom Delay and Karl Rove,would finally have enough rope to hang themselves. Despite a record that would make Warren Harding blanch – the Supreme Court-assisted theft of the 2000 election, ongoing crony capitalist collusion with the likes of Enron and Halliburton, the inexcusable bungling of multiple intelligence warnings about 9/11, the lie-fueled prosecution of an immoral and increasingly unpopular war –Democrats, especially in red states, have consistently proven too unimaginative and accommodating to provide the clear-cut alternatives the American people are yearning for. But a couple of Texas state senators, blinded by the hubris of ideological purity, may bring the whole house of cards down.
Republicans Steve Ogden of Bryan and Jeff Wentworth of San Antonio have blocked the efforts of Democratic State Senator Gonzalo Barreintos to name a 49-mile stretch of Texas Highway 130 after Willie Nelson, “citing the musician’s fondness for drinking and smoking,and active campaigning for Democratic candidates,” (Shreveport Times, 5/2/05). In addition to being one of our country’s most revered singer-songwriters and a genuine folk hero, is there any celebrity whose appeal so cuts across political and demographic lines? While they may not smoke marijuana in Muskogee, Merle Haggard has never let Willie’s predilection for the herb prevent them from collaborating on some classic albums over the years. Willie may have famously smoked a joint on the roof of the White House during the (who else?) Carter Administration (one term in office, two Nobel Peace Prizes), but he’s also been the golfing buddy of several University of Texas football coaches, who could never be accused of embracing the counterculture. Although Willie campaigned heartily on behalf ofOhio Congressman Dennis Kucinich’s antiwar bid for the 2004 Democratic Presidential nomination, he has also recorded duets in recent years with prominent Bush supporters Toby Keith and Kid Rock. And in the iconic role of Uncle Jessie in the upcoming “Dukes of Hazzard” movie, opposite ditzy diva and Bush supporter Jessica Simpson, is none other than Willie Nelson.
Although I supported John Kerry after his clinching of the Democratic nomination, I never thought of him as a particularly strong candidate, and I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach when I heard he had refused to show up at a Labor Day event in West Virginia featuring Willie Nelson and Jesse Jackson. West Virginia, home to one of the most articulate anti-imperialist politicians in Senator Robert Byrd, was one of the safest Democratic strongholds for decades. Even with its small number of electoral votes, it is precisely one of the currently red states that will respond to a passionate and well-reasoned populist, progressive message. And Kerry blew it, blowing off Willie Nelson just so as not to offend the Republicans he was hoping to peel off from Bush. The election of 2004 in microcosm.
My wife and I saw Willie in Alexandria last fall, having been back in Louisiana for less than three months after 10 years away. Oregon plates were still on the car, and the Kucinich, Kerry/Edwards and “Dissent is Patriotic” bumper stickers were seemingly responsible for one act of vandalism. But my Doc Martens seemed at home among the cowboy boots, and the unfurling of a large American flag seemed sincere and appropriate, rather than manipulative and hypocritical. AsWillie sang so many of his classic songs, as well as those of Hank and Merle and Waylon, just eight days after the mindboggling re-election of George Bush, I basked in the company of my fellow Louisianans, close to 60% of whom had made the wrong choice, in my opinion. Despite that gulf separating us politically, I think the vast majority of those concert-goers would be offended by the actions of Senators Ogden and Wentworth. Too many of today’s Republicans are too willing to demonize even the greatest of Americans whose political and lifestyle choices conflict with theirs, and that needs to be a focus of future elections.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Returning to Jazzfest

Well, the Red River Red and his wife are planning to stay by the Red River this weekend, for a change, rather than venturing to the Atchafalaya or Mississippi (besides, Red is a lot easier to spell). Last weekend was the mother-in-law's birthday, so we combined that with a quick visit to New Orleans' Jazz & Heritage Festival. It had been 10 years for the Red, even longer for the wife, and probably even longer since the last day of Jazzfest featured 75-degree weather with no rain. Utilikilt weather if it ever was.
If anyone tries to scare you away from Jazzfest with horror stories about parking, ticket prices, drink prices, long lines or anything else, share our experience with them. Living in Lafayette and Baton Rouge years ago, I developed a bit of snobbishness about Jazzfest. After all, South Louisiana is awash in festivals this time of year celebrating various styles of music, agricultural products, all of my favorite potentially-hepatitis-bearing crustaceans, etc. And most of them are free, with free parking right there in the school/Catholic church/city park parking lot. But, when you're the parents of a four-year-old, and you can get Granny and Papaw to babysit for the day and squeeze in three or four great bands of as many styles of music for what today's exorbitant ticket prices would be for any one of them individually, well, praise the lord and let me inside that fence!
As any plans at this point in our lives must be regarded as tenuous, we had reconciled ourselves to purchasing $35 day-of-show tickets. After shelling out $10 for very close parking, it seemed like an expensive day was shaping up. But on the walk to the fest, two different individuals had tickets they were selling, one for $20 and one for $25, meaning we saved $25 right off the bat.
Security was prompt and courteous on entering the show, but our airplane bottles of liquor were not discovered. We tried lemonade and bourbon first, which was a bit on the sweet side, but then we went with the Mango freeze, a fruit sorbet which mixes divinely with Jack Daniels.
After some general moseying and getting of bearings, we settled in, with (it seemed) about 500,000 others, for the Spearhead show.
Now who to compare Spearhead to? You know how some people out there say they don't like country music, but they'll make an exception for Johnny Cash? Well, Spearhead is the Johnny Cash of hip-hop, with some reggae, soul and rock shadings, as well. Michael Franti is the beautiful, charismatic leader of the band, about 6'7", with long dreadlocks, a former college basketball player and Bay Area fixture with the Beatnigs and Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, socially conscious and peace lovin' and Bush hatin' and weed smokin' and soul insprin'. Among the three other Spearhead shows the Red has attended was the rally in Seattle's Key Arena just before the WTO was shut down in November of 1999. Franti and company shared the stage with heavyweights like Medea Benjamin, Jello Biafra, Tom Hayden, Jim Hightower and Paul Wellstone, melding the yin of music and rhythm and percussion to the yang of political analysis and sloganeering. Their show set the tone for many who saw it, and one of the most clearcut large-scale victories against global corporatism was won in the streets of Seattle over the next several days.
Nothing so dramatic happened in New Orleans on Sunday, or at least the reverbarations haven't been felt yet. But there sure as hell was a lot of dancing and jumping around, all the freaky people making the beauty of the world, to paraphrase one song. And there was a very moving description of Franti's trip to the Middle East, which included a few days in Baghdad. Franti and crew were filming a documentary, and he also spent a lot of time visiting Iraqis and performing - outside of cafes, on Iraqi radio and television, and for a gathering of about 20 U.S. troops. He also met Marla Ruzicka, the young American woman who was documenting the civilian deaths and injuries suffered by Iraqi and Afghani civilians, with the hopes of securing reparations for survivors. She was killed a few weeks ago, by a car bomb not meant for her. While some on the right have been smearing her like the anti-American fascists they are, Franti paid tribute with a soulful, touching and ultimately hopeful song very recently written. Of course, I can't remember the name of it, and I just surfed the Spearhead site (spearheadvibrations.com) to see if I could find it there. No mention of the song, but there is a wealth of info about Ruzicka, as well as Franti's trip and the documentary.
Well, I planned to cover all of Jazzfest in this post, but the keyboard doth runneth over. It's getting on 12:30, and the Red River Red, America's Greatest Living Public Intellectual, needs his brain sleep. A four-year-old livewire preceded me in slumber by more than two hours, and will probably have unreasonable expectations of her daddy being awake in about seven. Love and justice, y'all.