This is a follow up article to the one I wrote for In These Times in late October, Michigan Transit Workers Fight To Prevent City Bus System From Eliminating Their Pensions.
The conversation was lively, with union members discussing tactics and strategies on how to deal with the ongoing threats to their pensions from The Rapid board members. Around 2pm, the ATUGR was in a meeting with people from The Rapid. Here is what rank and file member of Local 836m Louis DeShane, had to say about what happened.
“We were in negotiations today and the ATU wanted to give The Rapid a proposal. They (The Rapid) did not want to listen to it and they just walked out of the negotiations.” When I asked Louis why he thought that The Rapid chose to walk out of the negotiations today, he replied, “They keep saying they want to negotiate, but every time we propose something, they want nothing to do with it.”
This has been a pattern for months now, where the ATUGR has attempted to negotiate in good faith, but The Rapid leadership has refused to meet with the union or compromise on their proposal to alter the bus driver’s pension plan, which the ATUGR says would negatively impact workers, some of whom have been driving for the Grand Rapids transit system for over 20 years.
As we continue to talk outside the north end of The Rapid facility, bus drivers come and go during shift changes and stop by to shake hands and offer up encouraging words to the union members standing outside.
Inside, other members of the ATUGR were meeting to discuss other strategies, which included a response to The Rapid walk out during the meeting on Monday.
Some allies also joined the small rally outside The Rapid facility. There was a member of the Grand Rapids Federation of Musicians, which is also faced with a standstill in contract negotiations with the Grand Rapids Symphony.
Along with the local musicians union, a member of the GVSU United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) also came to show solidarity with the Grand Rapids bus drivers union. The GVSU chapter of USAS has been the most consistent in their support of the ATUGR and had recently participated in an action during a Grand Rapids City Commission meeting to confront that elected body on their unwillingness to truly negotiate.
In addition to The Rapid’s failure to negotiate, they continue to intimidate workers who are pressing the issue. As we reported for the In These Times article, workers who were leafletting at the bus station on their own time were threatened with arrest by The Rapid. Now The Rapid is trying to limit what workers can say while on the job, especially when communicating with fellow workers about their campaign.
According to a message from Todd Brogan, with the national Amalgamated Transit Union, The Rapid issued a new Social Media policy that workers say is meant to silence dissent online and violates their Constitutional rights.
Some excerpts from The Rapid Social Media policy are as follows:
1. “Before creating content, consider some of the risks and rewards that are involved. Keep in mind that any of your conduct that adversely affects…people who work on behalf of The Rapid or The Rapid’s legitimate business interests may result in disciplinary action up to and including termination.”
ATU Local 836 President RiChard Jackson responded to this latest attempt to silence workers by stating, “Given their recent history, the obvious intention is to scare employees into silence, because there is no way to know what is safe to say.”
Despite these anti-worker tactics by The Rapid, the momentum is building for union members and allies. In fact, there is an event this coming Sunday (Dec. 6) where union members and allies will gather to show solidarity, to share information, news ideas for the campaign and to enjoy live music and food at what the promotional material is calling a Labor Revival Night.
“When we’re united, working families have more power than they realize. This Sunday, December 6 at 3pm, at the Kent-Ionia Labor Center, we’ll be holding an old fashioned Labor Revival.”
Sounds like a perfect opportunity for people to support the ATUGR campaign and even be part of building a larger worker movement in West Michigan.
Last week I attended an event that was centered around the urban experience of Indigenous people living in the greater Grand Rapids area.
The event was beautiful and moving. A drumming circle began the evening, followed by a welcoming and explanation of the significance of the drumming circle and the sage ceremony that followed.
However, the rest of the evening was filled with local members of the Native American community speaking about their lived experience of growing up under settler colonialism. Several of those that spoke addressed the issue of identity and self-esteem. One of the Native speakers addressed being sent off to a boarding school at an early age, where he was not only separated from his family, but was not allowed to speak his own language. This practiced of forceable removing Native children from their communities to be place in state-run or religious schools has impacted thousands of indigenous children within the US, a topic that is addressed in the book Kill the Indian, Save the Man: The Genocidal Impact of American Indian Residential Schools.
The Native speakers talked about the trauma of being in a boarding school, as well as the trauma of growing up in a society that did not value them or saw them in some strange, media created stereotype. Those that spoke made it clear that much of their adult life has been dedicated to reclaiming their indigenous heritage and identity.
Another issue that was raised dealt with the lack of resources available to the Native community in West Michigan. The number of native people experiencing poverty is high and the lack of resources for education and autonomy are staggering. One example of this was when people talked about Lexington school being closed in the 1990s. The closing of that school was devastating, since Lexington school provided a space and resources for people to build community, to meet some material needs and for elders to share their language with members of the community who grew up not knowing their own language.
Towards the end of the community dialogue, the question was posed by a White audience member. This question always seems to come up for White people no matter what. This person asked, “How can I support you and your community?”
Several from the Native community responded to this question. One response had to do with how Native people have always dealt with Euro-Americans who wanted to be in support of Indigenous struggles. The response was, if you truly want to support us and fight with us, then we consider you part of the community.
Other responses were:
- Learn about Native history and struggles, particularly that of Native people from the Great Lakes region
- Listen to Native voices
- Be a part of Native struggles, but on their terms
- Fight against White Settler Colonialism
Learn Native History and History from an Indigenous Perspective
An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life, by Winona LaDuke
Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence, by Vine Deloria Jr.
A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present, by Ward Churchill
Unsettling Ourselves: Reflections and Resources for Deconstructing Colonial Mentality https://unsettlingminnesota.files.wordpress.com/2009/11/um_sourcebook_jan10_revision.pdf
Walleye Warriors: An Effective Alliance Against Racism and for the Earth, by Rick Whaley and Walter Bresette
The Canary Effect (film) – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lD7x6jryoSA
This means that those of us who are Native should shut up and listen to Native voices, especially when we are at events or meetings. It also means that we should never speak on behalf of Native people.
Be a part of Native struggles, but on their terms
There is no shortage of current Indigenous struggles. A few of them worth mentioning here are the Idol No More Movement, which has a Michigan chapter. There are also the Indigenous Environmental Network , Indigenous Action Media and Unsettling America: Decolonization in Theory and Practice.
Being part of these struggles is vital, but it is equally important that we engage in solidarity as determined by Indigenous people. Here are some good guidelines, as presented by Waziyatawin:
- The movement for Indigenous liberation is a radical political struggle
- Being an ally does not mean signing up for Indigenous spirituality
- We need strong, solid individuals who are not floundering with their own spiritual struggles
- This is not a struggle for those people who believe it’s trendy to support Indigenous causes—we are in it for the long haul
- You can find Indigenous individuals who will support any position you want them to support—that is a direct result of the colonial experience
- Those indigenous individuals who encourage non-Indigenous participation in ceremonies are often (not always) those who are attempting to curry favor with white women, or white people for their own purposes
- Because this is a political struggle, it is essential to work in solidarity with critically minded and politically engaged Indigenous individuals
- Remember that decolonization is a process for both the colonizer and the colonized
Fight Against White Settler Colonialism
For those of us who want to engage in solidarity with Indigenous struggles, we have to make our work about fighting against and dismantling the structures that make up White Settler Colonialism. A good resource on what it means to do anti-colonial work, we suggest you check out Everyone Calls Themselves An Ally Until It Is Time To Do Some Real Ally Shit.
Last week, MLive ran a story about the local pro-Capitalist think tank, the Acton institute. The story is about an award the Grand Rapids based organization won for a documentary that purports to offer a solution to poverty.
The award was presented by the Templeton Foundation at the annual Atlas Network’s Liberty Forum & Freedom Dinner. The MLive writer cites the Atlas Network’s CEO and Acton’s Executive Director, Kris Mauren. Interestingly, if you look at the Acton blog post for November 13, one would think that the MLive reporter just used the Acton content instead of writing their own story.
However, even more egregious than simply plagiarizing the Acton blog, the MLive reporter doesn’t even bother to provide any information on the Templeton Foundation or the Atlas Network, let alone an opposing point of view to the claim made by the Acton film.
The Atlas Network states that their vision, “is of a free, prosperous and peaceful world where limited governments defend the rule of law, private property and free markets.” Their President is Alejandron Chaufen, who also happens to be on the board of the Acton Institute. The list of partners for the Atlas Network are hundreds of neoliberal, pro-capitalist think tanks and foundations, such as the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the American Enterprise Institute and the State Policy Network, which just held its national convention in Grand Rapids in late September.
Each of these entities promotes policies that redirects more money to the top, promotes the privatization of public services, the deregulation of industry, denies Climate Change and attacks unions and workers.
The PovertyCure project, which the Acton film is based on, is a project of the Acton Institute. The PovertyCure project promotes a Christian ethic, coupled with the belief that free market capitalism is the only thing that will bring people out of poverty. One of the core values of the PovertyCure project is that, “Humans flourish most in environments where private property, free association and the free exchange of ideas and goods are sponsored by a culture of trust and protected by the rule of law.” This value is quite similar to the vision of the Atlas Network.
The documentary, Poverty Inc., does take a critical look at the global charity approach to poverty alleviation, but offers up free market capitalism as a cure to poverty. The film has an edgy feeling to it that is deceptive, so much so that filmmaker Michael Moore even praises the film, by saying, “You’ll never look at poverty and the third world the same again.” Moore screened the neoliberal capitalist film at his annual film festival in Traverse City this past August.
The PovertyCure project has several hundred global partners, all of which are religious based organizations that embrace the free market. It seems pretty clear that there is a network of religious groups that promote the supremacy of the free market and are now giving each other awards for promoting what they all agree upon. This should come as no surprise for the Acton Institute, since they have a long history of being funded by the likes of the DeVos and Prince families, which are the poster families for the merging of religion and capitalism. Unfortunately for MLive readers, they would not get any of the backstory to this network, but they do give an endorsement of the Grand Rapids-based right wing think tank.
A few days have past since over 100 civilians were killed in the attacks in Paris. In the past 48 hours it has become increasingly clear that the reaction to these attacks within the US reflects the deeply held view that some lives are more worthy than others.
People have been asking others to pray for Paris, while others have been calling for an increased war in Islamic groups. In Michigan, Governor Snyder has suspended a project that would have offered hospitality to Syrian refugees. However, the most common response from people is for them to change their Facebook status to one with the French flag.
The social media response is instructive on many levels and has already been remarked on by numerous sources. Why is it that so many people are changing their Facebook status in light of the Paris attacks, yet these same people rarely do the same when other parts of the world experience the same kind of violence, often in greater numbers?
In the 1980s, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky co-authored the book, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. In that scholarly work, the authors make the point that the US media, in tune with US foreign policy, often demonstrated that there were “worthy and unworthy victims.” For Chomsky and Herman, in the 1980s the US media would give a tremendous amount of attention to violence perpetrated by the Soviet Union, but rarely to foreign governments that were US allies, many of which received military aid and training. Chomsky and Edwards demonstrated that there was more media coverage of the murder of one catholic priest in Poland than the murder of dozens of priests and other religious workers in Latin America. In this case, the Polish priest was a worthy victim, while the religious workers and priests in Latin America were unworthy victims.
The same could be said of the attacks in Paris, especially when juxtaposed with attacks in Gaza, Afghanistan and US drone strike deaths. How is it that so many people have changed their Facebook status so reflexively in recents days to empathize with France, but so few did the same thing when the US bombed a hospital in Afghanistan recently, when Israel bombed Gaza last year or the cumulative deaths of civilians in US drone strikes in recent years?
For Chomsky and Herman, this is a direct result of how the US media reports on US foreign policy. However, it is also the result of how many Americans internalize the racist practices of US imperialism.
People have already been pointing out how Facebook itself has engaged in a double standard by encouraging people to stand with Paris, while ignoring Beirut. However, some people still say there is nothing wrong with showing sympathy for those who have died in Paris. Maybe so, but if one seriously reflects on the reactions to recent events, it becomes clear that this is about more than sympathy. In fact, the reaction from Americans is a lesson in US imperialism and the shallowness of social media activism.
When violence happens on a large scale it is a normal human reaction to become upset and to empathize with the victims. However, if one is really moved to honest empathy, one will be moved to want to do something to minimize or prevent such actions from happening again. Taking action requires agency and we are more effective in area where we actually have agency.
In the case Paris, there is little that people in West Michigan can do short of making donations to the Red Cross. However, in the case of the attack on the Afghani hospital, the 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza or the civilian deaths from drone strikes, there is a whole lot more that we can do, since these civilian deaths are all the direct result of US military activity. In this case, we can prevent further violence, by changing US military policy, by attacking the military industrial complex and by engaging in counter-military recruitment work. Each of these activities are a real demonstration of empathy, unlike the changing of our Facebook status, which is ultimately just symbolic and only meant to make us feel good about ourselves.
After attending the forum last week on policing in Grand Rapids and coming away feeling like there was little new information, little challenge to the function of policy locally, no mobilization of people to organize against police violence and no serious discussion of root causes or systems of oppression, it seems appropriate to push some of those ideas.
It is also something that has been part of ongoing study, reflection, discussion and brainstorming about how to deal with police violence and the larger prison industrial complex, since GRIID has been hosting a class on the history of policing in the US, using Kristian Williams book, Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America.
This will be the first in a series of articles in response to the larger, more structural issues surrounding policing and the prison industrial complex in West Michigan. For a good article that critiques the GRPD in recent months, we recommend the article, Controlling the Narrative, Controlling the Streets. What we will present in this article is some understanding of what the Prison Industrial Complex looks like in West Michigan.
As writers, activists and organizers have been saying for years, police violence and police repression must be seen as part of a larger system of oppression that is called the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). The PIC has many components, which are summarized here. These components are not listed in any particular order, but represent a larger inter-locking system of oppression. For the purposes of this article, we are mainly looking at data from Kent County.
Law Enforcement – In Kent County, there are several law enforcement agencies that police our communities on a daily basis, such as the GRPD, the police departments from surrounding municipalities in Kent County, the Sheriff’s Department, the Michigan State Police and several federal agencies like Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). All of the law enforcement agencies are made up of several thousand people who spend the bulk of their time policing people who are experiencing poverty, from communities of color or immigrant communities. The collective budgets of these agencies are astronomically high and should give us an indication of what the priorities are of government. For instance, according to the Grand Rapids City Budget for 2015, the GRPD consume $55 Million in public funds , while the Kent County Sheriff’s Department consumes a little over $56 Million of public funds.
The legal system – Once people are arrested they end up in the legal system, which involves judges, attorneys, probation officers, and a whole slew of people that “manage” those whom the system has no decided to punish. Going before a judge is often a very demeaning process, especially for marginalized populations. When looking at the cost of just the local Circuit and District Courts, that adds another $31 million dollars of public money supporting the PIC.
Incarceration – If you have been charged with a crime and are unable to pay fines or can’t afford a lawyer, you might have to spend time in the Kent County Jail or the Kent County Juvenile Detention Facility. The Kent County Jail, according to their own reporting, has 1,147 beds and is now listed as one of the “top one hundred jails in the country.” The budget for operating the Kent County Jail for fiscal year 2015 is $35 Million, which is part of the $56 million budget of the Sheriff’s Department.
Normalizing Street Crime/Criminalizing Communities – There are numerous entities in our society that contribute to the criminalization of certain communities, particularly communities of color and those experiencing poverty. Some of those entities are organized religion, educational system and the dominant commercial culture. However, more than any other entity, news agencies overtly perpetuate the criminalization of certain communities on a daily basis. For years we logged the racial make up of those accused of crime in the local news media and communities of color were always disproportionately represented. This criminalizing of people of color is the result of how news agencies function. They emphasize urban crime over rural crime and they emphasize street crime over corporate crime. The cumulative effect of people seeing images like the one featured here to the right, that appeared on MLive today (11/4/2015).
Social Services, Social Management – When people end up in the PIC, their family members often must interact with the social service system. Social Service agencies might
provided needed services to people caught up in the PIC, but often they perpetuate harm and prop up the very function of the PIC by not challenging the root causes of why people are caught up in the PIC to begin with. In many ways, social service agencies act as a buffer between systems of power and marginalized communities, wherein they can redirect public rage against the injustice of the PIC to focusing on individual behavior.
Systems of Oppression – Lastly, it is important that we acknowledge the major role that various systems of oppression play in the creation and perpetuation of the Prison Industrial Complex. Capitalism creates tremendous economic disparities, White Supremacy informs and enforces the normalization of a disproportionate number of people of color who end up in the PIC. (a point which Michelle Alexander makes in her book The New Jim Crow) Patriarchy plays a vital role in the PIC by promoting gender violence and then using more violence to “teach perpetrators a lesson.” This violence deeply impacts both women and men. Heterosexism is also a system of oppression at play in the PIC, which is why there is a disproportionately high rate of queer youth and those who identify as transgender in the PIC. Lastly, US Imperialism plays a major role in the PIC, since many people who come to the US as immigrants are fleeing political and economic violence often driven by US imperialism. And since the US is deeply stricken with xenophobia, immigrants are highly suspect and targeted by law enforcement, resulting in millions of immigrants in detention across the US.
If we are serious about addressing the role and function of policing in West Michigan, then we have to not only have to understand the interlocking systems within the Prison Industrial Complex, we need to creatively engage in radically new ways of addressing root causes of problems that are currently dealt with through arrest and incarceration.
Two days ago MLive ran a story that names the DeVos family as the largest single donor to Michigan electoral politics for the 2013-2014 cycle.
The article was prompted by a new report from the Lansing-based watchdog group Michigan Campaign Finance Network (MCFN). The report, authored by MCFN director Rich Robinson, is a clear indictment of how money dictates electoral outcomes. The cover of the report (shown here) is pretty clear about what happens to democracy with the financial power of families like the DeVos family.
However, even though the MLive article has a hyperlink to the report, they only include part of the title, which says “a citizen’s guide to the cycle.” The MLive reporter omits the part of the report title that says, “Big Money Dominates Michigan Politics.” This is a subtle point, but relevant nonetheless, since the MLive story just presents a simple data overview of the report without any real analysis of what the implication are for individuals or individual families spending millions of dollars to influence the outcome of elections throughout the state.
The MLive reporter does the obligatory quote from the report’s author, but the one sentence is just a restating of the obvious. “The DeVos family doesn’t have a peer among individual donors, or as far as interest groups go,” said Robinson.
Comparatively, the MLive writer asked for a response from the DeVos camp and gave them significantly more print. The response come from Greg McNeilly, who ran Dick DeVos’ failed campaign for the Governor of Michigan in 2006. McNeilly continued to work as a DeVos operative, when he became the Windquest Group’s Chief Operating Officer in 2012. McNeilly also runs one of the DeVos state policy front groups, the Michigan Freedom Fund.
Here is the full MLive quote from McNeilly:
“Political speech is the most protected form of speech, and we need more people participating at higher levels. We should applaud anyone who is leading on that dimension and try to encourage greater participation in our great American experiment.”
Buying State Policy
The larger problem with the MLive article is the utter failure to even follow the money trail to see how the money that spent at the state level impacts election results and policy decisions.
The DeVos family political contributions have had clear results in recent years in Michigan. Their totals for the 2013-2014 cycle were $4,902,055. Most of that money went to the Michigan Republican Party, with smaller amounts going to individual candidates and other state groups that would lobby on their behalf. Lets take a look at a couple of examples of how this plays out.
This past June, Governor Snyder signed into law HB 4052, a law that takes away local control. Why is this relevant, because powerful entities like the DeVos family do not want local communities adopting policies like a living wage, regulations against wage theft or adopting anti-discrimination ordinances that would include or add anti-discrimination protections for the LGBT community.
HB 4052 was introduced by Rep. Earl Poleski (R) and then went to the Committee on Commerce & Trade, which is chaired by Joseph Graves (R). Graves received $9,000 from the DeVos family for his re-election bid in 2014, along with several other members of the Committee on Commerce and Trade. This committee recommended that HB 4052 be adopted and then it was put before the Michigan Senate. The Michigan Senate sent the bill to the Competitiveness Committee chaired by Mike Shirkey (R). Rep. Shirkey received $4,500 from the DeVos family for his re-election bid in 2014, as did several other members of this committee.
Some of the groups that lobby hard for this bill were also recipients of DeVos family money, such as the Michigan Chamber of Commerce ($5,300) and the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce ($30,000). The Michigan Freedom Fund was a major proponent of the legislation and they were funneling money through the Foundation for Michigan Freedom to run paid political ads in favor of HB 4052. The bill was signed into law in June of this year.
A second example would be the recent bill that was also signed into law this summer, HB 4188. This legislation, often framed as a religious freedom bill, would allow adoption agencies in Michigan the ability to deny LGBT couples/partners/families from adopting.
HB 4188 was introduced by Rep. Andrea LaFontaine (R). Rep. LaFontaine received $8,100 in campaign contribution in 2014 from the DeVos family. Many of the cosponsors of this bill were also recipients of DeVos family funding.
The largest adoption agency in the state of Michigan is Bethany Christian Services. Bethany has been a major recipient of funding from the various DeVos family foundations. For instance, the most recent 990 documents (2013) for the Richard & Helen DeVos Foundation show that they contributed $250,000 to Bethany Christian Services. The Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation provided $25,000 to Bethany in 2013.
When we look at specific policy outcomes, it becomes clear that the amount of money that families like the DeVos family spend on influencing public policy negatively impacts the lives of millions throughout the state.
It is also worth noting that of the top 15 financial contributors to Michigan politics in the 2013-2014 cycle, five of them are from Grand Rapids. In addition to the DeVos family, there is Michael & Susan Jandernoa, John & Nancy Kennedy, the Van Andel Family and the Meijer Family.
These families are also connected in other ways, serving on numerous boards together and influencing policy in West Michigan. They collaborated, along with other powerful people a few years ago, to form the West Michigan Policy Forum, which has led the way on numerous state policy changes such as Right to Work, the elimination of business tax and more recently the Michigan road funding issue. This West Michigan connection is also not part of the MLive article, even though it seems like it would be an easy connection to make. But then again, Mlive is not in the business of conducting any kind of substantial power analysis, let alone holding power accountable.