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DeVos, Gilbert and friends are still buying elections

December 15, 2015

We are less than a year away from the next Presidential Election and already it is clear that the super rich are buying the election.Screen Shot 2015-12-15 at 4.32.38 PM

This should in no way be surprising to those who have seriously looked at how elections function in the US, but it is always useful to follow the money.

Below is a listing of the top corporate political contributions as of November 16, 2015, according to the Center for Responsive Politics

The top contributor so far is Rock Holdings, which is a subsidiary of Dan Gilbert’s company Quicken Loans. Gilbert has been buying up property all over Detroit in recent years and is a major player in the gentrification on the east side of the state. Gilbert’s election contributions in Michigan are to the Republican Party and candidates.

Number two on the list is Jon Stryker Architecture, which is part of the Stryker Corporation and Stryker family wealth. The Stryker family has a long history of contributing to the Democratic Party and its candidates, which they continue to do in this cycle. Their support for the Democrats, makes it clear in Michigan, like in any other state that the rich buy elections regardless of party affiliation.

Third on this list corporate purchasing of elections is the Kojaian Companies. The Kojaian Management Corporation owns and operates industrial real estate properties around the state, including near the Grand Rapids airport, Byron Center, Walker, Holland and Zeeland. Their contributions go primarily to the GOP.

The DeVos Family, through the Amway and Alticor business entities are 5th and 11th on the list so far in political contributions for the 2016 cycle. The DeVos family has consistently contributed millions of dollars to the Republican Party and its candidates and is known for influencing public policy, with a few pieces of legislation in Michigan being the most recent examples. It should also be noted that the amount of money the DeVos family contributes personally is much larger than that which is contributed through the corporation they own.

Some of the other companies listed also have a long track record of buying influence, either through elections or lobbying around state policy. In a recent report from the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, companies that are listed below, such as Dow, DTE, Ford and Quicken Loans (of which Rock Holdings is a part) have all contributed significantly to political action committees in the current election cycle. 

Again, this is not new information, but should be a reminder of how elections really function. More importantly, the fact that DeVos, Gilbert and other members of the elite are constantly engaged in a class war and will use whatever means necessary to impose their will on the rest of society.

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Grand Rapids participates in National Day of Action to Stand with Immigrant Families

December 11, 2015

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Yesterday, several dozen people gathered outside the offices of Justice for Our Neighbors to participate in a National Day of Action to Stand with Immigrant Families as the Supreme Court takes up the issue of deportation relief. 

Alexandra Gillett, with Justice for Our Neighbors, welcomed those who showed up to take a stand on immigration justice. Alexandra stated, “Today we’re here to urge the Supreme Court to hear the case on Administrative Relief, it’s called Texas v. United States.  You’re going to hear from individuals from across WM: they are faith leaders, business owners, leaders in the Hispanic community; and immigrant advocates.  They will share their experiences and stories to illustrate how important it is for the Supreme Court to hear the case on DAPA and expanded DACA.”

DAPA stands for Deferred Action for Parental Accountability and DACA is Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

The representative with Justice for Our Neighbors made it clear what has happened with DAPA and DACA so far.not_one_more_deportation_hunger_strike_obama_daca_deferred_action_850_607

1. DAPA would provide certain parents of US citizen or legal permanent resident children with a work permit that is good for 2 years.  This does not provide a path to a green card or citizenship, but it does allow immigrants to work legally and remain with their families.  I want to be clear: it DOES NOT GRANT AMNESTY to anyone.

2. Expanded DACA is similar to the DACA program currently in place, but it expands the program to help more people and it allows for a 3 year work permit instead of 2 years.  This would allow more undocumented people who were brought to the US as children to receive work permits.  Again DACA does not provide a path to a green card or citizenship, but it does allow immigrants to work legally.

Gillett was followed by several other speakers, each of which made points about the importance of this moment in history and why immigrants, both documented and undocumented, deserve justice.

Adam Lipscomb, a Pastor at City Life Church, spoke about his congregations work with immigrants. More importantly, he shared a story about the deadly consequences that those who are deported could face.

Sergio Reyes, Co-founder of Cultivate Holland, spoke about the importance of recognizing this historical moment and made the connection between previous movements for social justice and what those struggles were able to accomplish.

However, maybe the most important voice heard at the rally was Vanessa Gutierrez, a DACA recipient and immigrant advocate. Vanessa talked about her own experience of how the broken immigration system made life for her and her family a constant struggle. Vanessa also told those in attendance that her fight has paid off, but that we all need to be involved in the ongoing efforts to stop deportations and treat immigrants with the respect and dignity that all humans deserve.

Other speakers were Roberto Torres, Executive Director at the Hispanic Center and the Rev. Kate Kooyman, with the Christian Reformed Church Office of Social Justice. The rally in Grand Rapids was co-organized by Michigan United.

Graphic from http://dignidadrebelde.com/

Your Wealth is Causing My Poverty: Grand Rapids Poverty numbers up, but we still love all the shiny new development

December 7, 2015

On Friday, MLive posted a story based on new data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The article states early on, “Statewide, more than one out of every six people are living in poverty, a 17 percent increase from the previous 5-year period.” In Grand Rapids, the data shows that 26.7% of the population is experiencing poverty according to the 2014 data, which is up from 21.9% from 2009.

The article also states that medium income levels in Grand Rapids fell by 8 percent over the last 5 years.

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How is this so? I mean, don’t we always hear about how Grand Rapids is the best place to raise a family and how the economy here is doing so great? There is not a week that goes by where there is a new story about a new “development project” and that there a housing boom in Grand Rapids. Even the headline from the MLive article says, Michigan’s poverty rate soars as income drops even in economic rebound, census shows.

Even in the economic rebound. However, the question we must always ask ourselves when such seemly contradictory claims are made is, WHO is benefiting from the economic rebound and WHO are the growing number of people experiencing poverty?

These are questions that the MLive story do not ask. In fact, the people they do cite in the story are from the Chamber of Commerce, a state demographer and someone from the Michigan League for Public Policy. Each of the three people who were cited do not shed light on why poverty is increasing across the state, nor who it is disproportionately impacting.

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The MLive story does link to federal standards for income levels that categorize who lives in poverty. These numbers are inadequate however, since poverty is about so much more than income.

For those who experience poverty, income is just one indicator for quality of life. But lets be real, the income levels for poverty are also pretty ridiculous and it is clear that those who determine such numbers have never experienced poverty themselves. Does anyone really believe that if you earn just over $11,770 a year you can survive? Rental costs keep going up, as do food costs, transportation and health care. Increasingly, people have to make choices between eating and heating, or eating and transportation. In other words, for those who live in poverty, it is a constant battle with limited options one has.

Then there is the experience of those in poverty with the charity services sector. People are often scrutinized by the social service system and made to feel shame about experiencing poverty. This speaks to the emotional and psychological toll of living in poverty, which underscores the point that it is so much more than just income levels.

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Another failure of the MLive article is the lack of investigation into whom this increase of poverty in the state and in Grand Rapids is affecting. Statistically we know that communities of color, immigrants, refugees, people with disabilities and LGBTQ youth experience higher levels of poverty than do those who hold all kinds of social and economic privilege.

Some of the most recent data from Kids Count, shows that the percentage of children in Michigan experiencing poverty in 2014 was 23% for the entire population. For White children the percentage experiencing poverty is 16%, while African American children experiencing poverty is 47% and 32% for Latino/a children. The astronomically higher numbers of poverty for communities should be a clear indicator that poverty is disproportionately a result of institutionalized racism and White Supremacy.

Wealth and Comfort for some means poverty for others

Back to the question of how can poverty be increasing during an “economic rebound.” First, it is important to point out that phrases like economic rebound or economic growth are misleading. Such terms distract us from the harsh reality of economic systems, particularly the current system of Neoliberal Capitalism.

NeoLiberal Capitalism is based on the notion that some will benefit at the expense of others. In September, the latest Forbes Richest people for 2015 has the Meijer brothers list at 58th richest in the world at $7.9 Billion and Richard DeVos at 84th on the list with $5.7 Billion. The combined wealth of these two families and that of a few others in West Michigan is greater than the combined wealth of everyone else living in this area.Class War.001

However, those who have accumulated tremendous wealth aren’t the only ones contributing to the increase of those living in poverty in Grand Rapids. There is another class of people who are aspiring to accumulate more wealth, those who have six-figure salaries or more who also contribute to poverty creation. This is a professional and entrepreneurial class of people who embrace the system of Neoliberal Capitalism. We hear about these people all the time as well, since they are the ones starting new businesses, sitting on local boards or participating in some new philanthropic venture. These are the 40 Under 40 crowd who not only are benefiting from the poverty of others, but act as a buffer for the super wealthy, since they perpetuate the notion that we just need to come up with creative ways to help those in poverty. This class of people are the executive directors of agencies that convince those in poverty that they just need more opportunities to achieve success. Don’t question the economic system or the structural causes of poverty, just get people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps or get your friends to spend more of their money that will benefit the creative class, who will donate a portion of their business earnings to charitable programs that helps us all feel good and divert us from having to think about the systemic causes of poverty.

Grand Rapids Transit Workers Continue the Fight, Despite Intimidation Tactics

December 1, 2015

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

It was a cold afternoon in downtown Grand Rapids and members of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATUGR) Local 836 and a few supporters were standing outside of The Rapid facility.2015-10-17 12.12.54

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.Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 12.15.56 AM

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.”

2. “Employees are prohibited from using social media to distribute…false or misleading statements about The Rapid or its personnel…”12265883_10153737067981737_7309855162669876410_o

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.

Listening to Native Voices: Fighting Against White Settler Colonialism

November 25, 2015

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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.51qLW4HW3NL._SX354_BO1,204,203,200_

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

Some suggested sources on this topic are:978-080705783-4

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

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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 experienceno-thanks-no-giving
  • 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.

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MLive provides a plug for the Acton Institute…..again

November 20, 2015

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. Screen Shot 2015-11-20 at 3.15.43 AM

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. 

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Worthy Victims, US Imperialism and the Paris Attacks

November 16, 2015

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.Manugactorinconsent2

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.

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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.

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