Tuesday, December 24, 2013


RECORD DEPORTATIONS — Hard to understand, impossible to justify.….

From the beginning of his first term, Obama has been submerged in conflicting currents. Whatever his personal commitments to peace, civil liberties. economic and social justice, they are countered by the conviction that he must prove his credibility as head of the world’s primary imperial power and commander-in-chief of its vast military establishment.

So, much as I strongly oppose the catastrophic NSA surveillance dragnet and the ghastly drone program, I’m not surprised by Obama’s stance. And I can still recognize positions that distinguish Obama from war hawks like John McCain and support his preference for peace (e.g. negotiations with Iran).

But why is the Obama Administration breaking all records for deportations? How can Obama stand by — no, actually enforce — the cruel destruction of families, seizing parents away from their children, wrecking marriages, separating brothers and sisters? His only answer, breaking the inexplicable silence, is that it’s up to Congress (this worst Congress since the time of slavery) to produce “reform”.

Is there no dramatic action Obama can take? Why can’t the President take this elementary human and moral issue forcefully to the people, with confidence in the conscience of the nation (most of it anyway)?

What would happen if the President said: “Stop”? What if, as a matter of conscience, the Administration refused to continue enforcing current policies of large-scale deportation?

Would Obama be impeached? Or would the public conscience wake up, the family wreckers be damned?

Sunday, December 22, 2013


Charles Blow's Defining Moments and Crystal Stairs (NY Times, December 18, 2013), is the most moving and powerful column I've read this year :

In June of 1998 in Jasper, Tex., just about three hours southeast of where I was raised, where the Lone Star State pushes itself into the back of the boot shape of Louisiana, a black man named James Byrd Jr. was subjected to what folks called a “lynching-by-dragging.”
Three white men had given Byrd a ride, but instead of taking him home they took him to the woods, where they beat him, urinated on him, tied his ankles to the back of their truck and dragged his body for three excruciating miles.
He was believed to be still alive while the asphalt ate away at his flesh. Reportedly, he died only when he was decapitated by a culvert.That was just 15 years ago. I was in my 20s. Yet the memory of that story remains fresh and wet in my mind like blood seeping through a bandage. It was a story that changed me, that revealed how my country’s violent past was linked to its present vestige.
For no matter how much progress had been made, or will be made, there will always linger, in the dark corners of cruel minds, something sinister: an assumption that not all men are created equal, or, perhaps, that some men aren’t even men at all.
I have struggled with the violence visited upon men who look like me — often by other men who look like me — for so long, trying to find a way to acknowledge it and remember it without being consumed by it. How to look optimistically to the future, while gazing painfully at the past?
Unfortunately, these sorts of defining moments keep coming. I have James Byrd Jr. My parents had Emmett Till. My children have Trayvon Martin.
These events play a defining role in the African-American dilemma. They violently remind us of otherness and give voice to frustration about nonviolent forms of societal inequality ever bubbling beneath the surface. They let the air out of aspirations.
Does this struggle affect young people today in the same way it affected me? Do centuries of violence inflicted on a people inculcate something deep within them? Has a culture systematically assigned to poverty and whose families were routinely plucked apart succumbed to the vision of the oppressors?
And how do we hold the system accountable, and yet break free from it? Are the scars too long and too deep?
I’m generally an optimistic person. I believe that, as the coaches and preachers say, “if you can conceive it, you can achieve it.” But, I’m also a person who keeps track of numbers and trends and I see just how daunting a reality many of us face.
These are not issues that can be overcome by the ever-elusive “national conversation on race” that folks always seem to call for after something egregious happens. Truth be told, I don’t know what that phrase — the “national conversation on race” — even means. People talk about race all the time. If it means something akin to a “truth and reconciliation” conversation, I won’t hold my breath for that. Personally, I don’t want or need that.
On the one hand, I prefer to focus on eliminating the systemic bias that sweeps across our culture like a bitter wind — invisible but inescapable. We must acknowledge what the data clearly show: that anti-black bias is real and widely affects people’s lives.
On the other hand, I want every person, especially every child, to understand and embrace the value of their beauty, worth and potential, cultural cues notwithstanding. Sometimes gathering the courage to simply love yourself — the skin that you’re in, the way your hair grows out of your head, the creativity that stirs in the pit of your stomach and the brilliance that erupts from your mind — is the most radical and transformative thing a child can do.
I want to encourage them to never give up “because of…” but to always keep going “in spite of…”
I’d like to share with them some words of one of my literary fathers, Langston Hughes, and his poem “Mother to Son”: “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” And yet, we must continue to climb, “sometimes goin’ in the dark, where there ain’t been no light.”

That poem helped change my life when I was younger. It steadied me when the world was rocky. Maybe today, it can do the same for someone else.

Saturday, December 7, 2013


Yesterday, our Current Events discussion group at the Downtown Oakland Senior Center did something unusual. We took turns reading from an eleven page text of the entire opening statement of Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia trial on April 20, 1964. It was a revelation, so much more enlightening than many of the tributes on TV.

Here was a young man on trial for his life, soon to be given a life sentence at hard labor by a government as beastly as any of the fascist regimes that had launched and lost a war for world conquest. What stands out though is not just his courage and self-sacrifice; he gives a remarkably reasoned account of what the struggle for freedom in South Africa was about, of his political and philosophical views, of the principles to which he dedicated his life — summed up in the final lines:

… I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

In the speech, he takes difficult questions head on, telling his persecuters and the whole world why he and the African National Congress eventually moved from non-violent resistance to sabotage and armed struggle, why they put aside ideological debates and made common cause with communists, why he combined his admiration for parliamentary democracy and acceptance of private enterprise with ultimate belief in socialism.

Many eulogies have pointed out that Mandela never regarded himself as a saint or anointed authority, that he was flexible in his thinking, and respectful of differing opinions. That’s what makes his Rivonia speech so interesting, so worthwhile engaging with, so suited as a takeoff for considering issues of our time as well as of our history.

While the expected flood of eulogies for Mandela can never be “too much”, I must admit impatience with the glorification in death of Mandela by some pundits who, in the early years when it really mattered, ignored or even vilified him and the ANC as terrorists. One TV clip I saw shows Reagan praising Mandela after the victory over apartheid. But I remember Reagan’s “constructive engagement” with South African Apartheid when the ANC and worldwide movements for sanctions were striving to bring the beast down. Historical truth gives way often to fairy tales, fashioned to fit current political constructs and media mythology.

Steve Biko
The fact is that historical truth is complicated, that it encompasses contradictory, sometimes sharply conflicting realities. The media’s memorializing of Mandela is bound to run into difficulty on matters where “cold war” thinking still dominates. One can expect silence on the sorry tale of the West’s truck with the Apartheid regime, including US and Israeli collusion on military support and aid toward its acquiring nuclear weapons. We can expect equally uncomfortable silence on Mandela’s embrace of crucial support for the ANC by the Soviet Union; also the fact that black and white South African communists were prime allies of the ANC and among the most committed freedom fighters and martyrs.

The point here is not to overlook the history of atrocities and human suffering that is part of the legacy of the 20th Century, whether in the name of falsely claimed communist ideas or on behalf of capitalist "free enterprise" and colonialism. But we should honor, as Mandela does, the truthful legacy of all who fought heroically side by side for freedom.  Mandela was not a communist, although he was held guilty as a communist by the Court. This is what he said:

It is perhaps difficult for white South Africans, with an ingrained prejudice against communism, to understand why experienced African politicians so readily accept communists as their friends. But to us the reason is obvious. Theoretical differences amongst those fighting against oppression is a luxury we cannot afford at this stage. What is more, for many decades communists were the only political group in South Africa who were prepared to treat Africans as human beings and their equals; who were prepared to eat with us; talk with us, live with us, and work with us. They were the only political group which was prepared to work with the Africans for the attainment of political rights and a stake in society...

It is not only in internal politics that we count communists as amongst those who support our cause. In the international field, communist countries have always come to our aid. In the United Nations and other Councils of the world the communist bloc has supported the Afro-Asian struggle against colonialism and often seems to be more sympathetic to our plight than some of the Western powers. Although there is a universal condemnation of apartheid, the communist bloc speaks out against it with a louder voice than most of the white world. In these circumstances, it would take a brash young politician, such as I was in 1949, to proclaim that the Communists are our enemies.

Ruth First poster in South Africa
Perhaps I focus too much on Mandela and the communists. In part, it’s my reaction to a book I recently read: Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid, by Alan Wieder, with a forward by Nadine Gordimer  (Monthly Review Press, July 2013) 

They were wife and husband, South African Communists. The Apartheid regime assassinated Ruth by way of a mail bomb. Joe was one of the founders and builders of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military arm of the ANC; he was a member of the cabinet Mandela chose when he became President. Their story is fascinating, including differences between them on attitudes toward the Soviet Union. Like Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Steve Biko and all the other heroes, their courage is almost beyond belief.

We would all do well to read and think about the Ravinia address of a young, brilliant and brave Nelson Mandela, probably the most outstanding person of our times.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


Past 90 (9)

On my 92nd birthday I lost a very old friend. These days, hardly a week goes by without the passing of a friend, usually one not as old as I. But this friend was 47 years old when I was born. I won’t miss her quite as much as so many of my dearest departed. But she was magnificent and I loved her.

For more than 20 years, I’ve been walking the approximately 3 miles around Lake Merritt in Oakland.  Many times I paused along the way to admire the massive and beautiful, 120 foot tall Eucalyptus. Now it lies prostrate, though impressive as ever, felled by a fierce windstorm in the early hours of Thursday, November 21st, 2013.

Our first group of Lake walkers started out as members of the Oakland Y. Now our variable group, about eight or nine, includes only one who was there when I first tagged along. We used to do it two times a week, now down to one.  The Lake area has been upgraded and landscaped into as nice a center of community as any city could call its own.

But our own Old Faithful is alive no more. Salud!

click to enlarge photos