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The COVID-19 crisis in Grand Rapids and the Wealth of the Meijer & DeVos families

April 2, 2020

It has been clear since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic that the US government has decided to not really meet the needs of the public, particularly those most vulnerable to contracting the virus.

The so-called stimulus bill, while providing some mild relief for millions of Americans, was mostly a massive bailout for Wall Street, corporate America and the investor class. The current crisis has further exposed the fallacies of capitalism and the priorities of the federal government. There is not a lack of funding to make sure that everyone is safe, has access to health care, food and other basic needs during this crisis. The issue then, is about priorities, particularly how the Capitalist class is prioritized at the expense of everyone else.

In Grand Rapids, there are thousands of people who are out of work, don’t have enough food and are faced with housing costs they cannot meet. There are hundreds who are homeless, and thousands who are faced with potentially high health care costs if they get tested for COVID-19. There are literally thousands of people who are worried about whether or not they can afford to be tested, thus increasing the likelihood that many will not get tested out of fear they will go into massive debt over health care costs. This is very, very frightening. People should not have to worry about the costs of testing for the virus and they should not have to worry about have equal access to health care resources should they test positive.

However, the hospitals in Grand Rapids are already acknowledging that they may not have adequate resources to handle the potential numbers of infected. This reality also exposes the failure of the for-profit health care system, which puts profits above the well being of people. Here again, it is not a matter of money, but of priorities.

For instance, if we look at the wealth of the two richest families in Grand Rapids, the DeVos and Meijer families, which according to the 2017 Forbes 400 list, was a combined wealth of $12.6 Billion. Doug & Hank Meijer were worth $7.2 Billion in 2018 and Richard DeVos was worth $5.4 Billion in 2018, the same year he died. Now, this doesn’t include the wealth of the other DeVos family members, which would easily put the total over $15 Billion between these two families.

What the combined wealth of the Meijer and DeVos family could translate into, is that NO ONE in Grand Rapids would have to worry about not working during the COVID-19 crisis, EVERYONE would have access to testing, proper health care, food, housing and any other basic needs. The JW Marriott just announced that they were closing, which means there are hundreds of empty bed that could be used by individuals and families who are facing a housing crisis right now. The wealth of the Meijer and DeVos families could translate into our ability in Kent County to truly flatten the curve and minimize the number of deaths from COVID-19.

Unfortunately, we know that the Meijer and DeVos families will not give up significant amounts of their combined $15 Billion in order to save lives in Kent County. These two families have demonstrated for decades that they are more interested in maintaining and expanding their wealth than they are in the well being of all residents of Kent County.

People reading this might be saying, “well, it’s their money, they can do what they want with it.” First, this completely ignores the fact that these two families made their wealth off the labor of others. Secondly, and more to the current crisis, the Meijer and DeVos families do not have the right to maintain their disgusting amounts of wealth, while hundreds or thousands in Grand Rapids die from the COVID-19 virus. Their failure to act in the midst of this pandemic would be their real legacy.

As an alternative, if you are willing to contribute a few dollars to provide some relief to people who are currently struggling to survive in Grand Rapids, please consider donating to the Grand Rapids Area Mutual Aid Network

Betsy DeVos thinks Trump is doing a great job responding to the COVID-19 crisis and she is trying to ram through more Neo-Liberal Education policies

April 1, 2020

At a Press conference on Friday, US Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, had this to say about Trump and the COVID-19 response: 

Let me start by saying thank you, Mr. President, for your clear-eyed leadership during these challenging times for our country and for the world. The bold actions you have taken are making a significant difference.

Look, it is not really important whether or not DeVos actually believes that Trump is providing “clear-eyed leadership,” but what is important is that the Secretary of Education is perpetuating a narrative that the Trump administration is doing all that it needs to do in responding to the COVID-19 crisis. The commercial news media is also guilty of perpetuating the same narrative. 

However, beyond Betsy DeVos’ complicity in the administration’s oppressive response to the COVID-19 crisis, it is important that we recognize how the US Secretary of Education is using this crisis to push for more Neo-Liberal Education policies.

Like most bureaucrats, DeVos uses lots of vague and lofty language in her comments from last Friday, such as providing learning opportunities and making sure that the most disadvantaged students are getting their education needs met.

However, the devil is always in the details. In her comments, Betsy DeVos said that the US Department of Education would be providing micro-grants to students and teachers. DeVos states:

One area is providing direct financial support to students, families, and teachers. We will propose Congress provide microgrants to help students continue to learn. These would be focused toward the most disadvantaged students in states or communities where their school system has simply shut down. I’ve always believed education funding should be tied to students, not systems, and that necessity has never been more evident.

We will also support microgrants to teachers, to help them pivot to supporting all of their students in a different environment than they’ve been used to. We know they are dealing with an unprecedented situation. It’s been truly inspiring to hear story after story of teachers rising to the occasion and meeting the unique needs of their students.

Unfortunately, Betsy DeVos does not provide any information about how to access these micro-grants and there is nothing on the US Department of Education’s website about these micro-grants. Now, if recent history has taught us anything, then we should be very concerned about what these micro-grants and how they will be used. Much like the Freedom Education Scholarships, which is just another way to redirect public funding for private and charter schools, we should be concerned about the micro-grants that Secretary DeVos is proposing. 

The online education news source, Chalkbeat, reported that an Education Department spokesperson said later Friday that the proposed grants could be used for tuition and fees for an online program at a public or private school. The Chalkbeat report then said:

The idea — especially the grants for students that could pay tuition — is a glimpse at how DeVos will use the upheaval to advance her ideas about education. A proponent of private-school vouchers and school choice, DeVos has long downplayed the role of the federal government and scoffed at those who see school buildings or school districts as education’s key organizing principle.

We know that after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Maria, that the Department of Education leveraged its power to push for the privatization of public education. The current COVID-19 crisis provides yet another opportunity to push the larger Neo-Liberal Education model and undermine public education.

Disaster Capitalism in Michigan: Part II – Mackinac Center creates a far right coalition from Hell

March 30, 2020

Yesterday, we looked at how Disaster Capitalism is being promoted in Michigan, with our post on Americans for Prosperity Michigan. 

In Part II, we want to take a good look at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and a new coalition they have formed with two of the main far right policy entities in Michigan, both of which are essentially front groups for the DeVos family.

The DeVos family has been a long time funder for the Mackinac Center, with some family members sitting on their Board of Directors over the years. Currently, the only board members from West Michigan are Richard Haworth (Haworth Furniture) and J.C. Huizenga, founder of the private charter school group, National Heritage Academies, and a member of the Grand Rapids Power Structure

The two groups that the Mackinac Center for Public Policy has partnered with are the Great Lakes Education Project and Michigan Freedom Fund. Betsy DeVos created the Great Lakes Education Project to promote her Neo-Liberal Education model and the Michigan Freedom Fund is run by Greg McNeilly, who works directly for the DeVos family as the Chief Operating Officer for The Windquest Group. McNeilly was once quoted as saying:

“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.”

These three groups – Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the Great Lakes Education Project and the Michigan Freedom Fund – all have a scary history of pushing for far right policies in Michigan. However, this new coalition, what the Mackinac Center is calling the COVID-19 Coalition, is far more dangerous together then they are as lone entities.

This COVID-19 Coalition, which should more honestly be called a Disaster Capitalism Coalition, is calling for major policy changes in the state of Michigan. In true Orwellian fashion, this coalition is naming their work as a Blueprint for Health, Safety and Economic Opportunity. This new coalition is calling for states policies that Michigan should enact and policies they should NOT enact.

You can go to this link to look at the COVID-19 Coalition wish list of Do’s and Don’ts, but below is a summary of what they are calling for and what we are pointing out about these policy do’s and don’ts.

As you can see, the COVID-19 Coalition policy Do’s and Don’ts are not only dangerous, they are clearly designed to push a Neo-Liberal Capitalist wish list during the current pandemic. The Capitalist Class would like us to be distracted with how they are “helping” during the COVID-19 crisis, because what they are hoping to do under the radar will not only widen the wealth gap in Michigan, it will further push a de-regulation and anti-environmentalism.

The Capitalist Class LOVES Disaster Capitalism!

 

 

 

Disaster Capitalism in Michigan: Part I – Americans For Prosperity

March 30, 2020

If people are familiar with Naomi Klein’s important book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, then people understand that the proponents of Neo-Liberal Capitalism are always seeking to capitalize on redirecting public money and public services to the private sector during a crisis.

Klein has already been talking about and warning us about how Disaster Capitalism will play out and already is playing out amidst the COVID 19 crisis

I want to look at how the proponents of Neo-Liberal Capitalism in Michigan are planning to use the current crisis to further advance their own interests, particularly through state policy.

In Part I, we want to look at the role that Americans for Prosperity Michigan are proponents of Disaster Capitalism.

On March 26th, the online independent news source, The Intercepted, posted an article entitled, Charles Koch Network Pushed $1 Billion Cut to CDC, Now Attacks Shelter in Place Policies for Harming Business. 

In that article, it mentions how the Koch created group, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), have were responsible for pushing funding cuts to the CDC and now are against Shelter in Place policies. The article states:

The Michigan chapter of AFP on Monday slammed Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order, which closed down fitness centers, nail salons, amusement parks, casinos, and other businesses deemed nonessential, calling it the “wrong approach for our state.”

Whitmer’s order, variations of which are being implemented by state and local governments nationwide, contains exceptions for critical industries such as grocery stores, pharmacies, health care providers, financial services, transportation, child care, hazardous materials, and energy.

“All businesses are essential — to the people who own them, the people who work in them, and the communities they serve,” said Annie Patnaude, the Michigan state director for AFP, in a statement responding to the order.

The full statement by Americans for Prosperity Michigan Chapter reads: 

“We are in the midst of an unprecedented health and economic crisis. However, a blanket shelter-in-place order is the wrong approach for our state. All businesses are essential — to the people who own them, the people who work in them, and the communities they serve.

“Entrepreneurship and human ingenuity will ultimately drive solutions to this global pandemic and create ways to get people what they need. Our policymakers should place a high priority on identifying ways to encourage innovation and not squelch it. We appreciate the example Governor Whitmer set when she took steps to remove excessive regulations in order to allow more people to  safely access the health care they need.

“It is critically important that any further actions to address this threat are targeted, limited in scope, and free from politics. We look forward to working with our policymakers to identify other ways to improve health without disastrous economic side effects.”

In other words, Americans for Prosperity Michigan are both outraged that the government could shut down businesses, plus they believe that entrepreneurship will “drive solutions to this global pandemic.

Americans for Prosperity has only been around since 2004, but the group has some 38 state chapters and has had a significant impact on both state and federal policy.

In Michigan, AFP was a major player in the effort to pass a Right to Work policy that was signed by Gov. Snyder in 2012. According to SourceWatch:

“Scott Hagerstrom, the Michigan director of AFP, stated the “Michigan passage of right-to-work legislation will be the shot heard around the world for workplace freedom. A victory over forced unionization in a union stronghold like Michigan would be an unprecedented win on par with Wisconsin that would pave the way for right to work in states across our nation.”

Americans for Prosperity have also worked to undermine the Affordable Care Act, have been a proponent of Climate Denial, and they were a major partner with the Republican Tea Party.

In Part II, we will look at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy and their new partners that are pushing Disaster Capitalism policies in Michigan.

The Capitalist Class does not give a Shit about You: Essential workers and the myth of meritocracy

March 26, 2020

I am still going to work. I work as a direct care staff person in an adult foster care home for people who have had serious injuries. I assist people with basic, daily living dynamics like bathing, grooming, using the toilet, eating and distributing medication.

The needs of the residents I work with vary, but none of them are able to live on their own. Because of the COVID 19 crisis the residents where I work cannot have visitors and they cannot attend the daily activities they normal go to.

The work is physically demanding, requires that you can stomach unpleasant things like emptying catheter bags, but more importantly, my work requires that I have the kind of people skills and empathy for those whom society has pretty much discarded. Thus, I am an essential worker.

With the current COVID 19 crisis, it should be clear to most people that the Capitalist class does not give a shit about workers, essential or not. First, if I am an essential worker, then why do I not making a living wage? I do work that many people would not want to do, which is to make sure that the daily physical and emotional needs of people with severe disabilities are met. So, if I am an essential worker, a worker who cannot work from home, then why am I not compensated justly for my work? It would seem to me right now (actually, it is clear to me all the time, not just during a pandemic) that what I do is more relevant, indeed more important, than what a bond trader does. However, Capitalism deems that a bond trader makes a whole lot more money than I do.

Second, it is clear that the Capitalist class does not give a shit about workers, because they spend a portion of their wealth buying and lobbying politicians to make sure that legislative policies will primarily benefit their interests. Go to OpenSecrets.org and you can see that campaign financing and lobbying is dominated by the Capitalist class and the industries that they own.

Third, it is clear that the Capitalist class does not give a shit about workers, because they have been using their bought politicians right now to get “COVID 19 Relief bills” passed that will primarily benefit their interests, with some minimal relief for the rest of us. Wall Street can get bailed out again, but regular folks don’t. In fact, you and I get stuck with the bill. Also, don’t tell me that this shit is all on Republicans. Yes, Republicans are the highest order assholes, but Democrats also are bought and paid for. The Obama administration decided that bailing out Wall Street was more important than bailing out main street in 2009. Just because the Trump administration is so fucking awful doesn’t mean we should ignore the shitty things that the previous administration has done.

Lastly, it should be clear that the Capitalist class does not give a shit about you, because now they are saying that it is more important to save the economy than it is to keep people safe or to provide the necessary testing and health care that people need with the pandemic. Trump, numerous politicians and media pundits have been making this claim for weeks now. In Michigan, State Rep. Thomas Albert, who represents the 86th District (Lowell), said that the Governor’s stay at home order “goes too far.”  Not surprising, is the fact that the number one campaign contributor to Albert is a member of the local capitalist class, John Kennedy. 

The Capitalist class is only interested in their wealth and how to acquire more of it. The rest of us are expendable and if that is not clear under the current crisis, then you have have internalized the values of the Capitalist system. The question for those of us who are not part of the Capitalist class, is what will we do to change this, even after COVID 19 crisis is over?

Xenophobia and anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 crisis: Acton Institute perpetuates hate

March 24, 2020

We have witnessed with increasing alarm, incidents all over the country targeting the Asian American community in connection to COVID-19. For example, in San Fernando, CA, a 16-year old Asian American boy was physically attacked at school because he was accused of having the coronavirus. In Plymouth, IN, two Hmong men were denied service at hotels under the false assumption that they were Chinese and carrying the coronavirus. In New York, a woman wearing a face mask, who was believed to be Asian, was physically and verbally assaulted in a subway station.

The above comments are from a letter that over 260 Civil Rights organizations sent to House and Senate leadership, calling for unity and publicly denouncing the racist and xenophobic attacks on Asian Americans. A link to the letter can be found here.

While there is great organizing and education being done to combat the anti-Asian racism and xenophobia, there are still too many entities perpetuating harmful and hateful positions that only perpetuates the increase of anti-Asian racism and xenophobia.

One such entity that is perpetuating xenophobia and anti-Asian racism is the Grand Rapids-based organization, the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. Last week, they post this headline on their website, How Communist China’s virus coverup caused a pandemic.This post on the Acton site is based on an interview they did with Helen Raleigh, a senior contributor at The Federalist.

Raleigh is an immigrant from China, who is the owner of Red Meadow Advisors, LLC, a Colorado Registered Investment Advisory Firm, and an immigration policy fellow at the Centennial Institute in Colorado. Not surprising that the Acton Institute would use a Chinese immigrant, who not only despises the government of China, but who runs an investment firm. The Centennial Institute, where Raleigh is a policy fellow, is identified as part of a larger right-wing network, according to SourceWatch. 

As was mentioned earlier, Raleigh is a contributor to The Federalist. The Federalist is a conservative online publication created in 2013, which promotes racism, homophobia, transphobia and many other far right positions, according to Media Matters

Putting all of this context aside on who Helen Raleigh is, it is clear that the Acton Institute is engaging in xenophobia and anti-Asian racism primarily because they loath the political ideology of Communist China and because they think that the only economic vision that is beneficial to humanity is free market capitalism. How is free market capitalism working out right now for humanity?

Today is the 40th Anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero

March 23, 2020

In the early 80s, I cut my political teeth because of the Central American Solidarity Movement. While I was a seminary student at Aquinas College, we hosted a Salvadoran labor organizer, someone who had just survived a bomb attack, with a piece of shrapnel lodged in her head.

This was the first time I had heard about Oscar Romero, just 3 years after his assassination. Romero’s death was a huge catalyst for the thousands of people who got involved from the US in the Central American Solidarity Movement in the 1980s. Like lots of people, I participated in demonstration, distributed information, went to meetings, got arrested at government facilities, was part of a group that declared itself a sanctuary in 1986 in Grand Rapids, and eventually this work led me to do accompaniment work in Central American and Mexico on 13 separate trips between 1988 and 2006. I wrote about those experiences in the book Sembramos, Comemos, Sembrmos: Learning Solidarity on Mayan Time

Part of why so many people were moved to be part of the Central American Solidarity Movement, was due to the fact that priests, nuns and other religious workers were now being targeted by death squad governments in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Not that people who relied on the national news sources were privy to this information in the 1980s. In fact, Noam Chomsky & Edward Herman, in their masterful book, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media, provide a powerful news comparison to make this point about what the New York Times, CBS, Time & Newsweek were reporting on.

Herman and Chomsky did an 18 month study of these news sources and compared the amount of coverage that all of the 72 religious workers who were killed in Central America received, compared to the amount of coverage that one Polish Priest who was killed also received. In each of the four major national news sources, the Polish priest’s death received more news coverage than all 72 religious workers killed in Central American combined. This study demonstrated the disparity of US media coverage between violence that was happening in a Communist country, compared to the violence happen in US client states.

However, despite the fact that major US news outlets were not providing comprehensive news coverage about US-financed state terrorism in Central America, there were hundreds of thousands of religious groups, labor organizations and other sectors of civil society in the US that became engaged in the Central American Solidarity Movement. Also, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, this was the first time that large numbers of Americans actually went to Central America, not as missionaries, but as participants in acts of solidarity with the people who were being targeted.

Of course, most people did not go to Central America directly, but their religious communities became sanctuaries, hosted speaking tours of Central Americans who were educating people about US policy, providing material and financial aid, organized marches, did collective fasting and even got their local governments to make Central American communities a Sister City. In fact, in 1984, a national group called the Pledge of Resistance, even got thousands of people to commit to doing civil disobedience if the US if the US escalated the wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua. This meant doing Direct Action at government offices, US military bases and private weapons contractors that were profiting from those wars, as can be seen in this map.

And there was the image and message of Archbishop Oscar Romero right in the middle of it this. Romero was an inspiration to the movement in so many ways.

Romero then began to challenge the power structure in El Salvador, mostly through his Sunday sermons and his weekly radio broadcast. Romero understood all to well that the poverty and violence that people endured was because of the unjust economic power that the country’s wealthy possessed.

Romero also understood that the political violence that was terrorizing the country’s poor and working class people was a direct result of US military aid to El Salvador. Five weeks before Romero was assassinated he wrote a letter to then US President Jimmy Carter. Part of that letter states: 

For this reason, given that as a Salvadoran and archbishop of the archdiocese of San Salvador, I have an obligation to see that faith and justice reign in my country, I ask you, if you truly want to defend human rights:

To forbid that military aid be given to the Salvadoran government;

To guarantee that your government will not intervene directly or indirectly, with military, economic, diplomatic, or other pressures, in determining the destiny of the Salvadoran people;

Noam Chomsky writes in the book Manufacturing Consent, that after Romero sent the letter to Carter, the Carter administration put pressure on the Vatican to try and curb the activities of the archbishop. Five weeks after Romero sent the letter to Carter, he was assassinated.

Romero also understood that many of the foot soldiers in the Salvadoran military were poor people who had been forced into the army. The day before Romero was assassinated he made a special appeal to the soldiers in El Salvador to not kill their fellow Salvadorans. Romero ended his sermon with these words:

“Brothers, you came from our own people. You are killing your own brothers. Any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God, which says, ‘Thou shalt not kill’. No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you obeyed your consciences rather than sinful orders. The church cannot remain silent before such an abomination. …In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cry rises to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: stop the repression.”

It was precisely because Romero was willing to die for the people of El Salvador, that so many people were inspired to be part of the Central American Solidarity Movement.

I share these thoughts on the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, not out of pious reasons, but to say that his example impacted millions around the world and that when we engage in radical, transformative acts of collective liberation, who knows how far reaching those acts will be.