Month: June 2016
The House Democrats’ sit-in (or, when nonviolence is violence)
When Georgia Representative and civil rights movement veteran John Lewis likened the extraordinary sit-in staged last week by House Democrats (a sit-in he lead) to the historic 1965 civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama – “We crossed one bridge,” Lewis stated, “but we have other bridges to cross” — he invited us all to see the Democrats’ sit-in as nonviolent direct action in the tradition of the civil rights movement and as an expression of the movement’s highest ideals.
Just as Selma protesters, for example, were champions of nonviolence against the violent and unjust system of racial segregation, the Democrats (Lewis suggested) were champions of nonviolence (i.e., gun control) against a violent system of gun ownership and accessibility, a system that the Republican leadership – through its refusal to allow a House vote on gun control legislation – both upholds and reproduces. And just as Selma protesters persisted in spite of the violent defiance of Selma’s power structure – “it took [Selma protesters] three times,” Lewis reminded us, “to make it from Selma all the way to Montgomery” – so, too, would Democrats persist in the face of House Republicans’ defiance.
The two proposals over which Lewis and his Democratic colleagues staged the sit-in, however, cannot be reconciled with either the Selma movement or with nonviolence. In fact, both proposals – a ban on gun sales to women and men on the FBI’s terrorist watch list, and the expansion of background checks on prospective gun buyers – are so steeped in violence that they effectively render the Democrats’ sit-in, a sit-in for violence.
Consider this: the first proposal rationalizes a system that, as the American Civil Liberties Union points out, is “error prone and unreliable because it uses vague and overbroad criteria and secret evidence to place individuals on blacklists without a meaningful process to correct government error and clear their names.” Indeed, the system is applied in an “arbitrary and discriminatory manner,” such that it functions by and large to target, criminalize, and harass (and thus do violence to) Arab and Muslim communities (ironically enough, Representative Lewis himself was watch-listed, an experience through which he found that the system “provides no effective means of redress for unfair or incorrect designations”).
Furthermore, because the first proposal is justified as a matter of “national security” (as California Senator Feinstein asserted during the course of the sit-in), its function, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues, is ultimately to “strengthen the country’s security state and to further justify the ‘war on terror.’” That war, according to a joint report issued by Physicians for Social Responsibility, Physicians for Global Survival, and the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, has so far cost at least 1.3 million human lives (the cost to the lives of other sentient beings, we must presume, is equally astronomical).
Although seemingly benign in the context of gun control, background checks – the subject of the second proposal – also reinforce a security state framework and, like the first proposal, do nothing to “address the underlying causes of violence in America.” In fact, the proposal – and by extension, the House Democrats’ sit-in – presupposes that the legitimate ownership of guns is the absence of violence. And yet gun ownership is violence, just as the stockpiling of nuclear weapons is violence.
Nonviolent direct action that is not grounded in a transformative commitment to nonviolence, that “neither contests nor seeks alternatives to the dominant imperial mentality of the day” (to borrow the phrasing of Sean Chabot and Majid Sharifi in “The Violence of Nonviolence”), is action that can be easily deployed to champion policies that are, in fact, inherently violent.
Such is how we must view the House Democrats’ sit-in. Not only did the Democrats legitimize legislation that reinforces systemic violence; they also failed to offer anything remotely transformative (such as, for example, legislation that bans guns altogether and commits the United States to international gun control). And they certainly didn’t offer any critique that tied gun violence to “relatively invisible forms of structural, epistemic, and everyday violence” or to our culture of violence.
Imagine if Martin Luther King, Jr. had organized a sit-in on Vietnam in which he called not for the end of the war, “racism, militarism, and materialism” – and not for a “revolution of values” – but merely for the cessation or limited use of Agent Orange.
Given who John Lewis is and the fearlessness with which he confronted the violence of segregationists in Selma and elsewhere, I don’t offer this critique lightly. But as a state actor, he has – along with his colleagues – turned nonviolence on its head. On the floor of the House, the Democrats’ nonviolent sit-in was state violence dressed in nonviolent clothing, and in so being it left unquestioned and undisturbed the structural and spiritual underpinnings that not only shaped the Orlando massacre that triggered the Democrats’ sit-in, but that also continue to drive the everyday visible and invisible violence that continues to roil communities the world over.
Following the Verizon workers home
As many of you have heard by now, the Verizon strike was, by all indications, a successful labor action with far-reaching consequences for future union organizing. On April 13, 2016, close to 40,000 Verizon workers walked off the job because Verizon refused to renew its contract with the Communication Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) – the two unions representing Verizon workers. The company insisted that any new contract had to include terms that, for example, enabled it to outsource thousands of jobs, reduce retirement benefits, and send workers out of state for specific work assignments.
Rather than accept these fundamentally anti-labor contract provisions, the workers voted to go on strike – a labor action that turned out to be the largest one conducted in the U.S. in the last four years. Though Verizon tried to break the strike by (for example) eliminating workers’ health benefits and hiring scabs, it utterly failed, for throughout the course of the strike Verizon was faced with an unsympathetic public, a Bernie Sanders and Hilary Clinton walk on the picket lines, falling profits, inept scabs, expressions of solidarity from members of Congress, and tremendous strike discipline on the part of Verizon workers. By the end of May, Verizon relented and agreed to a number of favorable union contract terms. It also dropped many of the contract demands that it made prior to the strike.
On June 1, 2016, most of the striking workers returned to work.
What you might not know, however – because it got very little attention from the press – is that the strike was precipitated in part by Verizon’s refusal to negotiate with its Brooklyn, New York retail workers, who are primarily African American.
Two years ago, these workers had the audacity to organize and join CWA. In fact, they were “the first retail workers to form a union in Verizon Wireless.” However, the company refused to negotiate with them any raises, any improvements in benefits and working conditions – any contract whatsoever. By so refusing, Verizon made clear not only that it wanted to smash the union even before it got off the ground; but also that it was entirely comfortable with the fact that its employees found it difficult to make ends meet on the wages they earned, often couldn’t secure adequate health care for themselves and their families; couldn’t contribute much to the economic well-being of their communities; and, ultimately returned home every day to communities crowded with people who faced similar, if not worse, circumstances.
This latter point regarding the distress in places workers call home was not addressed at all during the course of the Verizon labor strike. And yet it is arguably the most critical point, precisely because of what it says about both the effects of corporate anti-labor policies on the communities in which workers live and labors’ failure to secure more broad-based support for unionization.
Let’s assume, for instance, that the African American retail workers who unionized two years ago actually live in Brooklyn, where black people constitute 35.2% of the Brooklyn population as a whole (note: my attempts to speak to union representatives about the Brooklyn retail workers were unsuccessful). And let’s assume further that these workers live in the primarily black neighborhoods that cover a mere 4 mile square area of Brooklyn (close to one million African Americans and blacks from the diaspora reside in this New York City borough, making it home to the largest concentration of black Americans in the nation).
While Brooklyn is certainly a space where black people thrive in so many ways, it is also a place of high black poverty and unemployment. Almost a quarter of Brooklyn residents live below the poverty line and, of that number, 23.7% are black (the numbers recited here reflect 2015 estimates). The unemployment rate in Brooklyn’s primarily black neighborhoods ranges from 8.1% to 12.5%, and “over half of the residents” who reside in these highly segregated communities “spend more than 30% of their monthly gross income on rent.”
In Brownsville – a Brooklyn neighborhood that is 75% black; “the poorest…in Brooklyn”; “the seventh-poorest neighborhood” in New York City; and, has “the second-highest” incarceration rate in the city (“three and a half times the Brooklyn and citywide rates”) – 10.7 % of the residents are unemployed and a whopping 38.6% live below the poverty line (the median income in Brownsville is $25,291).
Finally, in all of Brooklyn’s black neighborhoods, many of the residents – like others throughout New York City – go “without needed medical care” in spite of the existence of Obamacare. A consequence is that too many deaths in Brooklyn’s black neighborhoods are entirely preventable.
When we examine the distress of the communities in which the newly unionized African American retail workers more likely than not live (we can presume this precisely because Brooklyn is so segregated), then we are necessarily confronted with the fact that Verizon’s refusal to negotiate a contract with them directly contributed – in some small way – to those communities’ distress. That is to say, we see that, through its workers, the company actively helped to reproduce these Brooklyn neighborhoods as communities with large numbers of people who work for low wages or no wages at all; who spend a huge percentage of their income on rent; who cannot afford or obtain adequate health care when they or their family members need it; whose personal lives are often circumscribed by the whims and demands of their employers; who are economically constrained to live in segregated spaces that, by and large, lack good public schools, affordable housing, and other resources available to Brooklyn’s more affluent neighborhoods; who cannot – because of the wages they earn – contribute much (through taxes, for example) to the economic vibrancy and well-being of their communities; and, who are often policed as if the fact of their economic and social distress makes them criminals.
Did Verizon refuse to negotiate with its Brooklyn retail workers because they are primarily African American? Maybe. Maybe not. We can nevertheless presume that its no-contract strategy could have only compounded suffering (like, for example, residential segregation, employment discrimination, racist law enforcement) that is by and large the product of long term, systemic racist economic and social practices of government and business institutions.
Moreover, it bears noting that African American retail workers in general are more likely than their white counterparts to be working poor, the lowest paid, and offered only part-time work even though they want and ask for full-time employment. Verizon’s actions can be reasonably viewed as part and parcel of industry practices that relegate African American workers to the bottom of the retail workforce and that simultaneously facilitate the exploitation (as well as harm the communities) of working class retail workers as a whole.
In any event, by paying attention to black Brooklyn – by following the newly-unionized workers home or simply considering the neighborhoods where workers live – we see Verizon in the distress of the workers’ communities. And once we see Verizon in that distress, we are compelled to consider and further scrutinize just how deeply implicated the company is in broader corporate/government policies and practices that reproduce social and economic inequalities in neighborhoods across the nation and throughout the world.
The Brooklyn workers’ successful win of a first contract and the success of the Verizon strike generally are great victories – and greater than generally conceived because of the implications of the companies’ no-contract and other anti-labor practices for the communities in which the workers live.
And yet, had the labor action been one through which the unions framed Verizon’s anti-labor policies and practices as fundamentally anti-community, the victories might have been even greater and more far-reaching. Imagine, for example, what it would have meant to hear, as he walked the picket line, Bernie Sanders speak out about Verizon’s role in reproducing distress in black Brooklyn. Imagine how that might have changed the terms by which race, class, and labor were talked about during the course of the strike and the final weeks of the primary season.
Indeed, imagine how such a critique could transform union organizing going forward.