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Thoughts on the reactions to the DeVos Family Power article

February 8, 2016

Last Thursday, I posted an article headlined, “it is impossible to have justice and equity as long as the DeVos family has power.” 

The article got about 3,000 hits over the past 4 days on the GRIID site, plus an additional 60 shares on Facebook. There were a variety of reactions, which are worth discussing here, since they reveal some interesting aspects of our current political climate.

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As I have come to expect with any posting that exposes or challenges our understanding of power, especially in West Michigan, there were responses where people made threats or wrote rants that were often difficult to follow. Often these sorts of responses use derogatory name calling as part of the rant and sometimes suggest that if I don’t like it here I should move to North Korea. This is a curious response, since I never said that I didn’t like it here and I fail to see how they equate my critique with a desire to go to North Korea. Regardless of the lack of logic, what the hate-driven responses usually want, is to draw you into an endless argument that leads no where, sort of like the MLive comment section, which should be avoided at all cost.

Strategic Annoyance

A second kind of response takes the form of trying to deceive you by creating what appear to be bogus blogs that hyperlink to the GRIID site. I have received dozens of such notifications where a GRIID article is hyperlinked on another blog and all of these hyperlinks have to do with something specific to one of the members of the DeVos family, particularly the information we have about the various DeVos family foundations. What is curious about these blogs is that they all celebrate the benevolence of the DeVos family, which is interesting, since the hyper links from the GRIID site have a very critical analysis of those family foundations. I find it hard to believe that there are dozens of blogs out there with writers waxing eloquently about the wonders of the DeVos family. Instead, it seems like this is a tactic that is used by media & PR people who work with or support the DeVos family to annoy anyone who questions their politics. Thankfully, one can avoid approving the hyperlinks by having their wordpress settings reflect pre-approval.

Internalizing the dominant narrative

A third reaction is somewhat disturbing, but not surprising, considering the role that commercial news media and other institutions play in determining the dominant narrative about powerful families like the DeVos’s. As we have been documenting for over the past 20 years, West Michigan news media presents the DeVos family as being pillars of the community, generous philanthropists and even the main reason for reviving the downtown of Grand Rapids.

One common retort is, “where would Grand Rapids be without their generosity?” Such a response is understandable, since this is how commercial media presents the DeVos family, but such a reaction is based on a faulty and simplistic narrative. There is rarely any mention of how much public money the DeVos family is able to utilize for their many endeavors – ArtPrize, the Downtown Market, the Arena, etc.; no critique of the function of the funds they use for social engineering through their tax havens, known as foundations; and there is even less coverage of the political funding they engage in that does concrete harm to working class families, the LGBTQ community, public education and secular society in general

However, what is more disturbing than the mimicking of this dominant narrative by a broad range of people is when working class people, even people who are struggling, internalize the dominant narrative. What is equally important is that many of these working class people who defend the DeVos family also identify as liberals. I’m not suggesting that liberals can’t or shouldn’t internalize the dominant narrative about people with power, instead I merely want to point out that liberals often embrace the dominant narrative as zealously as those who identify as conservative, despite the fact that such support negatively impacts their own well being.

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Liberals with Power & Wealth?

A fourth, and final response, also comes from progressives who really like it when we post articles that are critical of the DeVos family. Often, the commentary that follows the liking or sharing of such postings make it clear that their distain for the DeVos family is based on their own partisan bias. This is instructive for two reasons. First, when we post critiques directed at the DeVos family we make it clear that the issue is not the conservative nature of their politics or their devotion to the GOP, the critique is directed at the nature of power their wield.

The second reason such responses are instructive is that it reveals the fact that these progressives have no real problem with individuals, families or institutions wielding the kind of power that the DeVos family does, as long as it fits their worldview. So rarely have I come across people who roundly condemn the DeVos family political influence and then apply the same condemnations to people like George Soros or any number of the liberal billionaires like Bill Gates or more recently Mark Zuckerberg. This kind of thinking is dangerous because it means progressives don’t question how “rich liberals” acquired their wealth and more importantly, it means that they ultimately don’t question systems of power and oppression like capitalism, white supremacy and Imperialism, which equally important to rich liberals and rich conservatives alike.

Such contradictions can clearly be seen currently in the push by liberals and progressives to encourage and often shame others into voting for candidates like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Advocating for Democrats at the federal level often results in having millions of people spend lots of time and donating hundreds of millions of dollars to support a corrupt and undemocratic political process that will not fundamentally challenge the kind of power exemplified by the DeVos family. In fact, all this energy and money often results in fortifying the very systems of power and privilege that Rich, Dick, Betsy and the rest of the DeVos clan are constantly fighting to maintain.

It is impossible to have justice and equity as long as the DeVos family has power

February 4, 2016

We have written a few articles recently about the kind of political, economic and cultural influence the DeVos family has in West Michigan.Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 10.43.58 AM

In September we posted an Indy Media Guide to ArtPrize, which looks at the deeper function of the annual spectacle in Grand Rapids. On October 1, we looked at the relationship of Rick DeVos to the same political forces that his parents and grandparents have. 

On October 28, we provided a detailed look at how the DeVos family influences state legislation, by grossly outspending everyone to buy politicians that will support their reactionary policies. On January 5, our post critiqued MLive’s weak reporting on DeVos family foundation donations and made it clear that they only contribute with clear political objectives.  These are only the most recent posts that look at the political power the DeVos family wields in Grand Rapids and across the state.

The power this one family has is astounding and there is no evidence that this will change anytime soon. If one looks at the most recent campaign finance data from OpenSecrets.org for the 49503 zip code, you can see that the largest donors based on the maximum amount one can donate each time are members of the DeVos family. In fact, of the top 200 donations from the 49503 zip code, 199 of those are from a member of the DeVos family. The only non-DeVos contributor in the top 200 donations was Hank Meijer. This means that the DeVos family has contributed hundreds of thousands for the 2016 election cycle and will likely exceed a million dollars before the November election.

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 5.34.27 PMCollectively the DeVos family donates to entities like the Republican Party of Michigan, Jeb Bush’s Right to Rise PAC, the Upper Hand Fund and various state and Congressional candidates. A great deal of these funds are going to key races and candidates that the DeVos family plans to use to continue to push through legislation that meets their agenda. Rumors are already swirling that getting school voucher legislation passed will be a a focus for 2016.

But effecting legislation is just the tip of the iceberg for the DeVos family. They use their tax havens, known as foundations, to influence economic, social and cultural outcomes in West Michigan. In addition, they sit on various boards and are apart of numerous entities (Grand Action, West MI Policy Forum, Right Place Inc.) that also use their power to push for things like the transfer of public money to private projects, with a recent example being the Downtown Market.

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Collectively the DeVos family is worth around $10 billion. Ten Billion. Imagine what that amount of money could be used for in Grand Rapids. We could probably eliminate homelessness, hunger and poverty. Everyone could own their own home and not have any debt. Health care expenses could be taken care of and people would not have to agonize over weather or not to pay the heating bill or buy groceries this month. In other words, their wealth could be used to end a great deal of suffering………but that is not what they plan to do with it.

The point to all of this is not to single out the DeVos family, they are merely a local example of how the current economic and political systems function and who they really serve. Living in an economic system of Neoliberal capitalism means that there will be a small percentage of people who have a disgusting amount of wealth, while the masses live on the edge. Families like the DeVos’s didn’t become wealthy by their own efforts, rather through exploitation of workers, the environment and the use of a political system to redirect public money and pass policies that benefit their bottom line.

Which brings us to the title of this posting. Do you really think that there can be justice and equity as long as the economic system of neoliberal capitalism and the neo-fascist political system ( as embodied by families like the DeVos’s) are allowed to exist?

Movements for social justice and revolutionary transformation have always had to come to terms with the function of systems of oppression and power. As the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.” Slavery in the US was not ended because plantation owners one day decided to let blacks go free or because someone reasoned with them. Slavery was ended because slaves rose up and won their freedom, often by killing the slave master and burning the plantation.

Workers in the US did not win an 8 hour work day, better wages, benefits, workers compensation, the end of child labor, etc., because bosses gave these things to workers. Workers had to organize, fight, risk arrest, risk being beaten, jailed or even killed in order to win even marginal labor rights.Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 11.00.02 AM

The revolutionary uprisings by communities of color from the 1950s til today are what brought about any substantive change for those communities. The political and economic system gave them nothing, they had to fight, organize, go to jail, risk being lynched, fired from their jobs, evicted from their homes or end up being murdered in order to make the gains they have made. None of it was a gift. 

I know there are those who say that we should focus on what we can do for ourselves, what kind of justice we can create for ourselves and not worry about the power and influence of these systems of power and oppression that are embodied by the DeVos family. I agree that we need to always be figuring out what kind of world we want to live and and what it will look like. I agree, that we need to create justice in our homes, our neighborhoods and in our lives. We can do the work of building community gardens, worker run operations and housing collectives. We can make our homes places of hospitality for those with no place to live and spaces where patriarchy, white supremacy, ablism and exploitation are not tolerated.

BUT. We cannot ignore that there are forces who need injustice, inequity and exploitation to maintain their power and privilege over others. Do you really think it is possible to work for a transformative society and not challenge the systems of oppression and power symbolized locally by the DeVos family? We have to do both, because power concedes NOTHING without a demand.

Day of Action draws attention to the fight for worker justice in Grand Rapids

January 28, 2016

Yesterday, members of Amalgamated Transit Union Grand Rapids, GVSU United Students Against Sweatshops and community activists participated in a variety of actions to put pressure on The Rapid, which has been harassing workers and threatening to alter or end bus driver pensions.2016-01-27 13.01.19

The battle for worker justice has been going on for roughly nine months, ever since The Rapid has refused to negotiate a contract settlement with ATUGR members. As we have reported in the past, The Rapid has threatened workers engaged in educating the public about their campaign, denied them their free speech rights and have failed to participate in collective bargaining. These threats against bus drivers have all come at the same time that rates for riding the bus have increased and the CEO of the Rapid was given a substantial salary increase.

The Day of Action began at noon, when banners were hung just off the Wealthy Street exit of US 131, banners which lays the blame for worker abuse and lack of contract negotiations at the feet of The Rapid CEO Peter Varga.

Shortly after the banners were hung, about 15 people gathered at the Central Bus Station to initiate a fare strike. Activists got on a number of buses and handed the drivers a quarter sheet stating that they were not paying the fare. The drivers then called dispatch to say what was happening, while those involved in the fare strike then passed out flyers to everyone else on the bus telling them to use the flyer as a ticket, refuse to pay and tell the driver why.

The flyer that was being handed out read in part, “The Rapid’s recent actions toward you and your riders is a form of economic violence that I won’t condone. Because it is illegal for union bus drivers like you to go on strike in Michigan, I am doing the closest thing that I can as a rider by engaging in this one-day fare strike.”Screen-Shot-2016-01-21-at-4.44.57-PM

This tactic was fairly effective since it not only sent a message to management, it provided a forum to engage in popular education with riders. Several hundred flyers were handed out during the fare strike and many people whom this writer observed taking the flyers were both supportive and somewhat shocked to find out about how bus drivers were being treated.

The third component of the Day of Action was to flood The Rapid with phone calls telling them to stop harassing workers, to stop threatening bus driver pensions and to negotiate a contract settlement. Not only were people in West Michigan participating in the call-in action, but people from across the state and the country were participating as a show of solidarity with the fight for worker justice in Grand Rapids.

The last part of the action took place during the monthly ITP board meeting, which began at 4pm at the Central Station headquarters. About 30 people, again consisting of union members, students and community activists, showed up to participate in this part of the action.

During public comment, there were several people who got up to address the treatment of workers and the injustice of giving the CEO a raise, while raising the fare and threatening worker pensions. After public comment was closed these 30 activists turned their seats around so that their backs were facing the ITP board members. This symbolic act was to demonstrate their frustration with the ITP’s unwillingness to truly listen to the concerns of people and move towards negotiations.

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After the board got through the agenda, they then planned to have a closed meeting to talk about collective bargaining. ATU Local 836 President RiChard Jackson had asked during the public comment to allow him and other union members to be part of that discussion, but the ITP board members refused to respond to that request.

At this point some people got up and made statements directed at the board members while a group of about 15 people sat on the floor right in front of the ITP board members and began chanting with the expressed intention of disrupting their “closed meeting.” Here is some video from the sit in part of the Day of Action, which includes the ITP security and the GRPD forcing people to leave to room.

The ITP Board members were clearly bothered by the sit in, with some getting up and leaving the room, while others just decided to look at their phones. None of the board members even bothered to talk to those sitting in, nor did they go out to lobby area to engage union members. At one point, a board member came up to this writer wanting to know what I thought about the union’s desire to create a “special class of people.” I told him that he should talk directly to the union if he wanted to debate class politics.

The Grand Rapids Police were called almost immediately, but did not enter the room until about an hour and fifteen minutes into the protest. At that time they told those still sitting in the board room that if they didn’t leave they would be arrested. Those who were taking place in the sit in then decided to get up and leave. The doors were closed and then the cops told people that they could no longer be in the building (despite the fact that it is public space) and even harassed folks to not stand outside in front of Central Station unless they were all the way to the curb area.

People can debate the effectiveness of such actions, but to this writer it seemed to not only involved lots of people, it also motivated people to want to continue to be involved in the campaign and increase the pressure against The Rapid.

We spoke with ATU Local 836 President RiChard Jackson about his thoughts on the Day of Action.

Also, as of this posting, there was no other media coverage of these actions in Grand Rapids, although MLive did run a nice piece about National Chocolate Cake Day.

Racism and White Supremacy are deeply entrenched in Grand Rapids: Seeing the World through the eyes of Dr. King Part III

January 25, 2016

This is part 3 of a three part series in honor of the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. All three articles are based on what King referred to as the Evil Triplets of militarism, capitalism and racism in his 1967 speech, Beyond Vietnam. Part I dealt with militarism, Part II on capitalism, thus Part III will focus on racism.

As we have noted in the previous 2 articles in this three part series, Dr. King’s understanding of the world evolved over time. The great orator for the Black Freedom Struggle went from fighting for desegregation to fighting institutionalized racism in all its forms, most notably in economic policy, social policy and through state violence.Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 4.21.45 AM

In the remaining years before his assassination King didn’t sound as much like The Dreamer as he did a Prophet. And as a prophet, King did not shy away from calling out the systems of power and oppression in the US, particularly the system of White Supremacy.

In his 1967 speech entitled, Which Way Its Soul Shall Go, Dr. King stated what you see next to his picture.

These kind of assessments were the result of King coming to terms with how deeply entrenched White Supremacy was in America. Once King moved his efforts to the north, he began to see more clearly how racism was part of the very fabric of white society.

Reflecting on the struggle against segregation in the south, Dr. King had some very keen observations in a speech he gave in Canada in 1967, entitled, Impasse in Race Relations. King states:

Negroes were outraged by inequality; their ultimate goal was freedom. Most of the white majority were outraged by brutality; their goal was improvement, not freedom nor equality. When Negroes could use public facilities, register and vote in some areas of the South, find token educational advancement, again in token form find new areas of employment, it brought the Negro a sense of achievement, but it brought to the whites a sense of completion. When Negroes assertively moved on to ascend the second rung of the ladder, a firm resistance from the white community developed. This resistance characterized the second phase, which we are now experiencing. In some quarters it was a courteous rejection, in others it was a stinging white backlash. In all quarters unmistakably it was outright resistance. The arresting of the limited forward progress by white resistance revealed the latent racism that was deeply rooted in US society.Screen Shot 2016-01-25 at 4.30.55 AM

It seems pretty clear that what King is pointing out is that white society was only willing to allow for blacks to have limited access or limited, almost token equality. Such an astute analysis by King in 1967 is equally important for today.

We are told over and over that black Americans have gained full equality and opportunity in the US. Indeed, with the election of a black president, we are now living in a post-racial era of America. The only problem is, most black Americans are as bad off (or maybe worse) now as they were in 1967. If we look at social indicators, one can see, as King stated, that racism is deeply rooted in US society.

The data on racism in West Michigan

Recent data on the percentage of those living in poverty in Grand Rapids is quite alarming. based on census data for 2014, an estimated 26.7% of people in Grand Rapids are experiencing poverty. These numbers are proportionately higher for blacks and latinos/as. Kids Count data says that 23% of children overall are experiencing poverty, but for black children that number is 47%. 

When looking at the number of blacks in Kent County, the census data says that 10.4% of the population are black. However, when one looks at the percentage of blacks in the Kent County Jail, the number is significantly higher. Poverty is certainly one of the contributing factors in a disproportionate number of blacks in the Kent County Jail, but so is the practice of police targeting the neighborhoods where the majority of blacks live in Grand Rapids. 

Last year there was some sobering data released on the worst cities for blacks to live in and Grand Rapids was one of the worst. The research looked at income and unemployment in the Grand Rapids area and found the following: 

The typical black household in Grand Rapids earns $25,495 annually, less than half of the $57,186 the typical white household earns and also about $10,000 less than the $35,481 the typical American black household earns in a year. The unemployment rate for blacks is 13%.

When one looks at the numbers around infant mortality, the data shows that Black babies are twice as likely as white babies to die in the first year. According to one report, “The African American infant mortality rate in Grand Rapids is just slightly better than the overall rate in the Gaza Strip.”  The same disparity exists in other health-related areas, such as heart disease and obesity.

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In addition, the recent practices of Mercantile Bank, which denied loans to blacks in Grand Rapids and the gentrifying impact on the black community in numerous parts of the city, also demonstrates how deeply entrenched racism and White Supremacy is in Beer City.

Based on the data, it is safe to say that if King were alive today and visiting Grand Rapids, he would most likely still say, “I am sorry to have to say that the vast majority of white Americans are racists, either consciously or unconsciously.”

Such an assessment flies in the face of all the claims about diversity and inclusion that many whites in Grand Rapids are quick to claim. It is quite possible that white society in Grand Rapids is in denial about the realities of racism and white supremacy or they recognize that in order to maintain power and privilege the racial disparities that exist must remain in place.

I would argue the later. Therefore, if white people are serious about ending racism and white supremacy in Grand Rapids, then we need to put our energy towards dismantling the power and privilege that white people have in this city.

More media that promotes the dominant narrative about Grand Rapids

January 22, 2016

Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 5.02.28 AMIt is instructive that the dominant narrative about Grand Rapids continues to only include the new “development” projects and the commercial aspects of certain neighborhoods throughout the city.

Within the past few days there have been two examples that reflect the dominant narrative growth in Grand Rapids, a narrative that in reality ignores large portions of the population.

The first example is a new video from Experience GR. The video begins with a few words from the new mayor and then includes several spokespersons who highlight the commercial and entertainment value of downtown Grand Rapids and the neighborhoods adjacent to the downtown.

This dominant narrative about Grand Rapids is further cemented if you go to the Experience GR neighborhoods section. Each of the neighborhoods highlighted in the video have their own section, but primarily feature place to eat, places to shop and entertainment options. Again, the commercial and entertainment aspects of neighborhoods are featured, with no real assessment of the residential aspects of those neighborhoods.

The video has limited voices in terms of racial and class representation, with the voices being dominated by people either connected to Experience GR or people who are business owners. Such a limited view of neighborhoods is quite attractive to investors, professionals  and tourists who might be considering Grand Rapids as a destination, but it omits a large percentage of the working class residents who also live in some of the neighborhoods featured.

However, what is more alarming is the omission of voices and visual representation of neighborhoods in Grand Rapids where thousands of residents are struggling to make ends meet. I completely get that including these parts of the city and residents from those neighborhoods wouldn’t be beneficial in the marketing of Grand Rapids the way that Experience GR wants to, but having such voices and such spacial representation would at least be a more honest reflection of neighborhoods in Grand Rapids.

Why is it that we do not hear the voices of people who are experiencing poverty in Grand Rapids. After all, they make up almost one-third of the population, according to recent data? People experiencing poverty, working class people, migrant families and other marginalized communities contribute to this city in all kinds of ways. In fact, they are often the ones who wait tables at the restaurants that are featured at Experience GR, they cleaned the hotel rooms that attract the tourists, along with all the other service sector jobs. They are an integral part (although quite exploited) of what Experience GR wants to highlight in the video, yet they remain invisible.

These voices and where they live are excluded because in order to bring them into the conversation would mean we would have to come to terms with the economic and racial oppression that is quite pronounced in this city and that just doesn’t make for a fun or attractive video.

Celebrating New Development Projects

The other recent media piece that reflects the dominant narrative about what is happening in Grand Rapids – the new shiny aspects – was a feature story on Rapid Growth Media. The article is entitled, For better (or worse): 10 development projects that are changing the face of Grand Rapids. The headline suggests that there are positive and negative aspects of these new development projects, when in reality the article essentially celebrates each of the nine new development projects instead of trying to grapple with the ongoing tensions around gentrification, displacement and rent increases, all of which negatively impact communities of color and working class communities.

Now, I don’t expect that Experience GR or Rapid Growth Media would include these voices and any kind of alternative narrative, since both entities function within the framework of neoliberal urban development. Just look at all the renderings of the shiny new development projects Grand Rapids will see over the next year.

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However, if people are seeking other perspectives of what these development projects mean, who they benefit and who they negatively impact, we recommend that you check out the analysis of recent development projects and other topics that challenge the dominant narrative about Grand Rapids, which are explored at If the River Swells

The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of white society: Seeing the world through the eyes of Dr. King – Part II

January 18, 2016

Last week we posted the first in a three-part series in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The three-part series is modeled after a statement that Dr. King made in his Beyond Vietnam speech, where he identified the Evil Triplets – militarism, capitalism and racism. In Part I we looked at Dr. King’s message around militarism. Today’s posting looks at the economic system of capitalism. MLK1-cc_Celestine_Chua

One day we must ask the question, “Why are there forty million poor people in America?” When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.

(Final speech to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, 1967)

The evolution of Dr. King is vital for our understanding of the man who was often referred to as the conscience of the Black Freedom Struggle. Dr. King went from fighting for de-segregation and civil rights to fighting larger systems of oppression, particularly ones that he would refer to as the Evil Triplets – militarism, racism and capitalism.

His questioning of the economic system had begun early on, but it wasn’t until he moved his focus from the south to the north. King had moved to Chicago in 1965 and began organizing around campaigns that made clear to him the intersection of race and class.MLK2-cc_notfreelance-300x200

In 1966, Dr. King, along with numerous organizations began a campaign in Chicago to challenge poverty, particularly poverty in the form of housing. King often referred to communities were Blacks lived as slums and he began to organize tenants to fight for rights, particularly through various forms of direct action. One such action was the closing down of the Dan Ryan expressway, where hundreds of people took over the highway and shut down parts of the city in order to make a statement against the violence of slums.

Here is one reflection that King had on slums:

The slums are the handiwork of a vicious system of white society; Negroes live in them, but they do not make them, any more than a prisoner makes a prison. Let us say it boldly, that if the total slum violations of law by the white man over the years were calculated and were compared with the lawbreaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man.” (The Triumph of Conscience)

Dr. King despised poverty, slums and the economic system that created such conditions. King recognized that poverty and slums for black people meant increased wealth for white people. King knew that modern day capitalism, more aptly called neoliberal capitalism, is like a virus that spreads, and like a virus it must cause harm in order to grow. Not everyone can prosper and neoliberal capitalism thrives when one small sector of society benefits at the expense of the majority. King acknowledges this dynamic in an observation he made in 1967, when he says:

We are now making demands that will cost the nation something. You can’t talk about solving the economic problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground because you are messing with folk then. You are messing with the captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difficult waters, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism. There must be a better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a Democratic Socialism.”

Maybe a more recent example of what Dr. King is referring to can help us understand how an economic system benefits one sector of society at the expense of others. Just yesterday on MLive, there appeared for a brief period of time (since the postings are always changing) two stories that appeared at the top of the news section that illustrates the contradiction of neoliberal capitalism.

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You can see from the screen shot here that there were two stories, one about the increase in hotel profits in Grand Rapids, juxtaposed with an article about the racist practices of Mercantile Bank

The story on the hotel profits is in line with the ongoing narrative in Grand Rapids that there is lots of growth and that city has become a destination for the creative class and tourists. After all, how does one explain a $20 million increase in hotel sales in Grand Rapids as anything other than things are wonderful?

However, at the same time, there is this article about the racist practices of Mercantile Bank, based on newly released e-mails that demonstrate the contempt the bank has for Black business owners. Some may read this article as a critique of racism, not neoliberal capitalism. The reality is that race and class often intersect and in this case the predatory neoliberal practice of the bank had negative economic consequences for members of the black community.

The larger narrative that the economy is doing so well in Grand Rapids should always beg the question, “doing so well for whom?” A recent report on poverty statistics shows that 26.7% of the population is experiencing poverty according to the 2014 data, which is up from 21.9% from 2009. These numbers refer to the overall population that is experiencing poverty, but when one looks at the numbers for black and brown communities, the percentage of those living in poverty is over 30%. Again, the benefit of some is the cause of suffering for others.J20_KoIoT50C

King was so convinced of the brutally immoral nature of neoliberal capitalism that he spent the last few years of his life engaged in work that focused on supporting working class and poor people. One can read about King’s growing connection to organized labor in the US, in the beautifully documented book, All Labor Has Dignity. Indeed, it was King’s support of the striking city sanitation workers that brought him to Memphis in April of 1968.

More importantly, beginning in 1967, Dr. King had begun organizing what he and others around the country referred to as the Poor People’s Campaign. The Poor People’s Campaign was calling for a mass action of people to come to Washington, DC to march and then to set up shanty towns (known as Resurrection City) to demand that the government pass what King called an Economic Bill of Rights.

King was assassinated weeks before the action in Washington, so it is hard to know exactly what the outcome of the campaign would have been had King not been murdered, but we have a pretty clear message from King about this Economic Bill of Rights.

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In his essay, Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. King calls for a massive redistribution of wealth, akin to reparations, that he felt was owed to the black community for several centuries of exploitation.

“No amount of gold could provide an adequate compensation for the exploitation and humiliation of the Negro in America down through the centuries. Not all the wealth of this affluent society could meet the bill. Yet a price can be placed on unpaid wages. The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to apply for American Negroes. The payment should be in the form of a massive program by the government of special, compensatory measures which could be regarded as a settlement in accordance with the accepted practice of common law. Such measures would certainly be less expensive than any computation based on two centuries of unpaid wages and accumulated interest. I am proposing, there- fore, that just as we granted a GI Bill of Rights to war veterans, America launch a broad-based and gigantic Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, our veterans of the long siege of denial.”

Seeing the world through the eyes of Dr. King – Part I

January 15, 2016

In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave one of his most memorable and insightful speeches at Riverside Church in New York. mlkbeyondvietnam

The speech, entitled, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” was revolutionary on many levels. In this speech, which further marginalized him from the Civil Rights community, Dr. King identified what he called the Evil Triplets – racism, capitalism and militarism.

This reflection is the first in a three-part series that looks at the commentary of the Beyond Vietnam speech, the larger body of work by Dr. King and what relevance it has for us today. In other words, if King were alive today, how would he see racism, capitalism and militarism? What would we see if we were to look through his eyes or use the lens of someone who was assassinated because he dared to challenge the systems of power and oppression in the US?imperialism-is-the-problem

This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

With these words, Dr. King sheds light on several aspects of US militarism and Imperialism. As if wielding a sharp knife, King makes it painfully clear that there is no way to reconcile the realities of war with “wisdom, justice and love.” King points out that the harm done during war is lasting and impacts people on a physical and psychological level. King punctuates this moral discernment about war with the last sentence in this paragraph, in a statement that leaves no wiggle room for apologists of war.

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

In some ways King speaks to the whole world with this statement, yet it is clear that he is speaking specifically about the US. Such an assessment was haunting then and it continues to be so ever since in the US.

Every US administration since the Johnson administration in 1967, has spent more of the taxpayers money on militarism than on programs of social uplift. I emphasize every, because for some reason in 2016, there are lots of good willed people who think the current administration does not engage in the kind of militarism that Dr. King was condemning in 1967.federalpiefy2016

Lets look at the facts. The US budget, every year continues to spend more on militarism than anything else. In fact, the US spends nearly as much on militarism as it does on everything else combined. According to the War Resisters League research on the US budget, US military spending is roughly 45% of the budget. 

Another resource on US military spending is the National Priorities Project, which has a running counter for numerous aspects of US militarism. If we were to look at the amount of money spent on militarism by the US since 2001, the total as of this posting is $1,633,820,000,000. This is a number that is hard to fathom, so another way of looking at it is that the US government has spent $8.36 million of taxpayers money on militarism every hour since 2001. 

However, militarism is more than just money, it involves a larger system of oppression that one could identify as the Military Industrial Complex. But before we look at the details of current US militarism, lets look at other points that Dr. King made in his Beyond Vietnam speech.

Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.”military-industrial-complex

This comment by Dr. King re-enforces what he said earlier, but in a more descriptive way. His words are like a hot knife through butter when he says, “so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube.” This is a haunting visual about how US militarism impacts communities all across the country. It’s not just a suction tube, but a demonic suction tube. $8.36 million dollars are being sucked out of our communities every hour to fuel militarism.

So what is all this money being spent on and what does the US Military Industrial Complex look like? The graphic shown here is a good starting point, but it doesn’t provide a real picture of what the Military Industrial Complex looks like on the ground, especially what it looks like around the world.390ec29fe37ddc47f202

Currently, the US has roughly 1,000 military bases around the world, with several hundred thousands soldiers, tens of thousands of private contractors (mercenaries), millions of vehicles that negatively impact the countries where these bases are located. The US is currently involved in military actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Colombia, parts of North Africa, in Cuba and Mexico. Then there are countries that the US provides weapons, advisors and military training, which number in the dozens.

The Military Industrial Complex includes operations under the guise of the War on Terror and the War on Drugs, which includes other agencies like the CIA, the DEA and the FBI.

On the domestic front, the Military Industrial Complex involves bases, training centers, military recruiters, defense contractors, lobbyists, virtually all members of congress, detention centers, border patrol and the massive advertising budget that is used to convince the public how wonderful the various branches of the US military are.

This last point, about how we are all indoctrinated to embrace the necessity of US militarism can only be counteracted when we exercise our critical thinking skills and see US militarism for what it is. In addition, since US militarism is so deeply entrenched in every facet of US society and culture, we can no longer afford to exclude US militarism in our analysis and actions against any and all systems of oppression – White Supremacy, Capitalism, Heterosexism, Ableism and all forms of ecological destruction.

However, ask yourself, how often does US militarism get connected to other forms of oppression in the US? How often to we employ an intersectional analysis that connects US militarism to police violence against communities of color, the detention and deportation of immigrant communities, rape culture, climate injustice, environmental racism, health disparities or food justice? The links are there, we just need to find them, expose them and act on them.

Making these connections is exactly what Dr. King did. He made it clear in his powerful 1967 speech that the Black Freedom Struggle in the US was directly connected to US militarism. Here is what King had to say:

“My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettoes of the North over the last three years — especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”

Again, the clarity of such analysis is sobering. King not only makes the connection between militarism and the struggle that Black and Brown people were engaged in on a daily basis, he called himself out by what he acknowledged in the last sentence. “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”

Indeed, if Dr. King were alive today, he would still be calling the US government the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today. Maybe it is time we start doing the same.

The greatest purveyor of violence in the world today is my own government

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