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Start Garden: Investing in the perpetuation of Migrant Farmworker exploitation

March 21, 2019

Last week, the DeVos-created org Start Garden, posted a story from Crain’s Detroit Business, about two guys who received funding from Start Garden’s 5×5 event.

The article tells the story about two siblings who were migrant workers with their parents in various parts of the country, who eventually made their way to Michigan. Michigan has one of the largest migrant worker populations in the country.

The Paredes brothers won $5,000 from the 5×5 event to help support their new project called AgHelp. The brothers have also won other funding sources, notably from the American Farm Bureau Federation, which is the largest agribusiness organization in the country.

The Crain’s Detroit Business article also stated:

Michigan relies on more than 94,000 migrant farm workers to hand-harvest more than 40 different crops, Feliciano said. It’s typical for the state’s farmers to lose millions in unharvested crops because of a shortage of workers, or to have to mow millions of pounds of asparagus that are rotting in the field.

Heeren Brothers of Comstock Park, near Grand Rapids, turned to AgHelp to ease some of those challenges. Heeren has a large apple orchard, a packing facility that serves apple growers from around the state, a produce distribution operation and a warehouse in Iowa.

So here is the thing. While this story might seem like a feel good story, it omits a great deal about the realities of those who work as migrant farmworkers. As was mentioned above, the agribusiness sector is constantly looking for migrant farmworkers to do the hard labor of harvesting their crops. US immigration policy, which is never mentioned in the Crain’s Detroit Business article, makes it increasingly difficult for undocumented immigrants (which make up a large portion of migrant farmworkers) to work in the agribusiness sector, since Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) has created a climate of fear within the undocumented community.

In addition, there is nothing said about the wages and living conditions of migrant farmworkers, which is one of the lowest paying jobs in the country. In fact, farms that employ migrant farmworkers don’t have to pay them minimum wages, since migrant farm work was never included in the federal minimum wage guidelines. Migrant farmworkers often get cheated on their wages and there is not much they can do, unless they are unionized.

The United Farm Workers and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee  are two of the largest migrant worker unions in the country. These migrant worker unions began organizing because farmworkers were underpaid, worked in dangerous conditions and lived in substandard housing, often on the farms they worked on. What each of these migrant farmworker unions will tell you is that unless there is a union to represent the migrant farmworker interests, migrant farmworkers will be exploited. There are also groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which is a workers center that also fights for issues of migrant farmworker rights.

For example, according to a Michigan Civil Rights Commission report from 2010, the working and living conditions for migrant farmworkers was as bad, if not worse, then it was in the 1960s. (see photo on the right of the type of housing they are forced to live in.)

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission published an update in 2017, to see what improvements had been made since the 2010 report was issued. There were some improvement, but many urgent issues had not been addressed.

In contrast, the DeVos-created org Start Garden saw fit to invest money into AgHelp, which while it connects the agribusiness sector to migrant labor and social services, does nothing to challenge the deeply exploitative dynamic that exists within the agribusiness sector’s treatment of migrant farmworkers. However, there is no money to be made in unionizing migrant farmworkers, so it makes complete sense that Start Garden would financially invest in a project that perpetuates the exploitation of migrant farmworkers.



When white people defend the actions of the GRPD

March 20, 2019

(This post was updated with new information at 12:23pm on March 20.)

Yesterday we shared some observations about the GRPD press conference that was held on Monday, a press conference that was held to respond specifically to the arrest of two Latino youth and a separate arrest involving an African American motorist.

People in the black and latino/latinx community have responded with outrage, frustration and more calls for police accountability. This reaction is completely understandable, considering the 2017 report demonstrating that the GRPD engages in the racial profiling of black and latino/latinx motorists at a disproportionately high rate. In addition, the black and latino/latinx community has been deeply impacted by numerous high profile cases involving the GRPD, with black youth being held at gunpoint in recent years, immigrants being arrested because of the GRPD’s cooperation with ICE, and now the most recent incidents.

The response from many white people has been just the opposite. There is a Facebook page called Friends of GRcops. There are over 1,700 people who follow the page. There are people from all walks of life who follow the page, several local politicians and even community organizers. The group even has a website, that pretty much mirrors the Facebook page, with commentary supportive of the GRPD, with regular sharing of posts from the Grand Rapids Police Officers Association.

The Friends of GRCops was started by Ed Kettle. On Kettle’s website he states, “I am presently working with the Grand Rapids Police Officers Association to build their community and political profile. I formed Friends of GRCops, essentially a social media effort, to help solidify public support for our police officers and to create opportunities for public dialogue.”

The Friends of GRCops posted the following on Monday, in reaction to the GRPD press conference:

Interim Chief Kiddle did a great job handling the latest encounter incidents. He’s a by the book guy and stuck by his officers regarding the two young guys walking in the street and ignoring a direct order to stop and give their names. He also stood firm on best practices and behavior regarding the speeder pulled over and resisting arrest. Only those on site know what actually happened, but until all that is sorted out Kiddle presented the best possible response. The loyal opposition responded as expected. An earlier story regarding the young guys by Barton Dieters began with a description of the various conditions in that neighborhood. High crime, drug activity and gang tagging among others. What the ACLU and NAACP seems to forget is that there are hundreds of families and people who live in that area who are afraid for their children and the value of their property. Nothing happens in a vacuum. It would be nice if the opposition could take a broader view of what police actually deal with every day.

This response is not surprising, but it is instructive in terms of who they define as the “loyal opposition,” mainly the ACLU and NAACP. 

Then there was the comments. There were a few that didn’t fully agree with the above statement, but there were specific comments in support of the GRPD’s treatment of the two recent cases (the black motorist and latino/latinx youth), and those people were white.

One white guy wrote:

If these kids would keep their mouths shut and do what the cop asks their wouldn’t be such a problem. If I had talked back to anybody of authority I’m sure my punishment from my folks would be much worse than any I’d get elsewhere.

Another white person wrote:

I was also impressed by the Interim Chief’s response. He described the mutual responsibility of the officers and the community. I do believe the situation with the drivers arrest would have been much different if the driver had cooperated with the instructions given by the officers, but it also troubles me that one officer decided to continue to punch the driver. The other officers did not intervene, so I am unclear as to why that occurred. In the situation with the teens who refused to cooperate and follow directions, I fully support the officer. His safety is more important to me than the feelings of the teens who refused to follow simple instructions. They can complain after the fact if they feel they weren’t treated fairly, but instead they chose to create a dangerous situation for all. At the end of the day, we will only have the type of law enforcement that we accept. This community needs to step up and understand the men and women in these uniforms are human beings and they deserve respect…as does the community.

One last comment from a white guy stated, So good to see he stood by the Cop’s! Wait till City Hall back’s away though!!

In the first two longer comments and the original post, you can see the themes of obeying authority or obeying the cops would have resulted in no harm done to those involved in these two incidents.

The post I cited above had received 109 likes as of last night, with most of those liking the comment being white.

So what is it about white people defending the GRPD? Of course, such a question always results in an element of speculation. However, there are some things we can say that begin to answer the question. First, the reality is that for most white people, their lived experience tends to be one that falls on the more positive side of interacting with the police. This is in sharp contrast to black and brown communities, which have a very negative lived experience of police in the neighborhoods they are part of.

Second, there is a great deal of systemic and structural racism in Grand Rapids. From the founding of the city – with the theft of native land – to the red-lining and apartheid practices of discrimination and the exclusion of black and brown people, to the outright targeting of black and brown neighborhoods by the GRPD – Grand Rapids practices what Todd Robinson identifies as Managerial Racism. The same kind of defense of the police was reflected by white residents during the 1967 uprising, as we noted in the comments from the Grand Rapids Press at that time

Lastly, it must be pointed out that the pushback from black & brown residents of Grand Rapids (including some white allies) receives even more animosity from the systems of oppression, like the GRPD, and their supporters, which are disproportionately white. This push back from black and brown communities is necessary and important, because it will force white people to have to chose sides, thus often illuminating what Dr. King said in a 1967 speech entitled, Which Way Its Soul Shall Go:

I am sorry to have to say that the vast majority of white Americans are racists, either consciously or unconsciously.

Latest GRPD Press Conference addresses recent police assaults on residents of color: Acting Chief says if people obeyed the police there would be no problems

March 19, 2019

Yesterday, Interim Chief of Police David Kiddle addressed reporters after two high profile incidents in the community, where people of color were arrested by the GRPD.

My take on why the GRPD was holding a press conference was simply to respond to two separate incidents that were also video taped by residents in the neighborhoods where the arrests were made. Both of these videos have generated a great deal of attention on social media, so the GRPD wanted to formally respond to “public concerns.”

In fact, Interim Chief Kiddle even stated during the press conference that, “Public videos were release and have created a narrative of public concern.”

We are posting the video of the press conference, so people can make up their own minds about what the GRPD are saying, but people are warned that the Press Conference does include footage of the arrest of two Latino youth from last week, footage people might find disturbing.

Interim Chief Kiddle essentially repeats GRPD report findings, saying that the arresting officers actions were appropriate in both instances. Furthermore, Interim Chief KIddle stated, “these are not racialized incidents.” Alex Vitale, in his important book, The End of Policing, states: Well-trained police following proper procedure are still going to be arresting people for mostly low-level offenses, and the burden will continue to fall primarily on communities of color because that is how the system is designed to operate – not because of the biases or misunderstandings of officers.

During the Q & A portion of the press conference, Kiddle was asked by a reporter, “was it appropriate to use pepper spray with an infant in the car?” Kiddle responded by saying,  Yes, it was appropriate.”

Another question asked during the press conference was, how these incidents could have avoided officers using force or guns and Interim Chief Kiddle said that in both cases, residents demonstrated a “complete defiance of authority. If they had obey the officers, none of this would have happened.”

This last comment from Interim Chief Kiddle is particularly instructive. Most of us have been conditioned from early in life to obey authority. We are told to obey elected leaders, religious leaders, even police officers. However, it is vitally important for us to as ourselves, where has obedience got us. The late radical historian Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, once said:

As soon as you say the topic is civil disobedience, you are saying our problem is civil disobedience. That is not our problem…. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is the numbers of people all over the world who have obeyed the dictates of the leaders of their government and have gone to war, and millions have been killed because of this obedience.

Now, I am not suggesting that the African American motorist or the two Latino youth should have disobeyed the cops, because that could have resulted in the police shooting them. What I am saying is, is that the police are not really here to protect us. The primary function of law enforcement is to protect systems of power and oppression. For instance, when a corporation fires hundreds of people and relocates to another country, leaving workers and their families economically devastated. Then those same workers want to confront the corporation at their headquarters over their loss of jobs, the police will always be there to defend the corporation and arrest workers who do anything to threaten the power of that corporation.

Next week, President Trump comes to Grand Rapids to hold a rally, a president who has repeatedly lied to the public and has encourage his supporters to act on their White Supremacist beliefs. When people show up to protest Trumps visit, who do you think the police will be protecting? Of course, the police will always say they are protecting our right to protest, but only if we protest in a manner that doesn’t challenge those in power.

Maybe it is time that we see that the GRPD and any law enforcement agency for what they really are. Maybe we need to learn from what the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense understood, when they said that the police were an armed occupying force in their communities. In the case of the GRPD, it sure seems like this is the case.

How many more incidents of police abuse must we put up with before we take action and resist this state-sponsored violence? How long must we wait before we defy their authority?

Media Bites: Biopharmaceutical ads talk innovation, but ignore that greed of pharmaceutical companies

March 18, 2019

There are millions of people in the US who cannot afford health insurance, nor the outrageously high costs of medicine produced by the pharmaceutical industry. Millions of people have to chose between buying prescription drugs and paying the rent or having enough food in the house.

Millions of Americans cannot afford health care costs, while the health insurance industry and pharmaceutical companies are making record profits. This is why the last round of commercials that are circulating on traditional media and digital media, from the biopharmaceutical industry, are nothing short of offensive.

One example of these commercials from the biopharmaceutical industry (shown above) presents us with a montage of people who represent researchers in the biopharmaceutical industry. The people depicted in the commercial are supposedly finding cures for cancer or helping people to restore their site.

Towards the end of the commercial it says, America is the leader in medical innovation. While this might be true, it completely ignores the fact that the companies that are engaged in “medical innovation” are massive Fortune 500 companies that are driven by larger and larger profits. These massive profits are made by the biopharmaceutical industry, while millions are dying from treatable disease or cannot afford the necessary medicines because of the high cost of pharmaceuticals.

Then at the very end of the commercial we seen a several dozen corporate pharmaceutical company names or logos, which are apparently those who make up the biopharmaceutical industry the commercial is referring to.

Several of the companies that appear at the end of the commercial made it on the Fortune 500 Global list.  Within the US, many of these pharmaceutical companies contribute massive amounts of money to influence the outcome of elections. According to, the pharmaceutical industry contributed roughly $400 million to candidates since 1990. 

In addition, the pharmaceutical industry has spent on average some $240 million on lobbying each year to influence health-related policies that Congress is voting on, as you can see in the graphic above. 

Lastly, if we wanted to see which political party was most guilty of accepting money from the pharmaceutical industry, we can see that it is pretty much even. There is, and has been, a bipartisan consensus about maintaining a health care system that is highly profitable, while millions of families are suffering from poor health and lack of access to affordable treatment or medicine. 

We should not be fooled by these new commercials from the biopharmaceutical industry. Medical innovation means nothing if profits come before the welfare of the people.

Funding the Religious and Political Far Right: The Edgar & Elsa Prince Foundation

March 17, 2019

The parents of Betsy DeVos, Edgar & Elsa Prince, have had their own foundation for numerous years. While Edgar is deceased and Elsa has remarried, Elsa still uses the foundation name of her late husband to fund the religious right and politically far right groups throughout the country.

The following analysis is based upon the 990 documents for the Edgar & Elsa Prince Foundation from 2015 – 2017.

The Edgar & Elsa Prince Foundation has contributed to numerous religious groups, too many to name. However, there are a few that have received substantial funding between 2015 and 2017.

The largest recipient of funding from the foundation started by the parents of Erik Prince and Betsy DeVos, was the Haggai Institute, receiving $600,000 each of the three years for a total of $1,800,000. The Haggai Institute trains Christian leadership to promote conservative values around the world.

Another religious organization that has received significant funding from the Edgar & Elsa Prince Foundation is Focus on the Family.  Based out of Colorado, Focus on the Family endorses what they believe to be a biblically-mandated patriarchy, where women are submissive to their husbands. Another major belief of Focus on the Family is that LGBTQ people are misled about their true identity. Focus on the Family promotes the harmful and discredited practice of ‘conversion therapy,’ claiming ‘just as there are many paths that may lead a person to experience same-sex attractions, there are likewise multiple ways out. From 2015 – 2017, the Edgar & Elsa Prince Foundation contributed $585,000 to Focus on the Family.

Another religious group that embraces patriarchal norms and anti-LGBTQ values is the Family Research Council. Founded in 1980, the Family Research Council, which had connections to the Reagan administration through Gary Bauer, has received $742,000 from the Edgar & Elsa Prince Foundation, according to the last three years of 990s that are available. 

Another Christian Institutions that have received major funding from the Edgar & Elsa Prince Foundation between 2015 – 2017, are Calvin College, Prison Fellowship Ministries, Bethany Christian Services and Potters House.

Then there are the religious institutions that act as advocacy or policy change organizations. These groups have a more overtly political agenda, even if they share similar theological views to the organizations listed above.

Of course there is the Acton Institute, since Elsa Prince has been a board member with Acton for years. Another think tank organization the Prince Foundation has funded is the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. There are also organizations that are anti-abortion, such as the Pregnancy Resource Center, the Lakeshore Pregnancy Center and Michigan Right to Life, all of which received steady funding from the Edgar & Elsa Prince Foundation.

One last group that advocates policy change at the federal level are the Freedom Alliance, the Council for National Policy and the Center for Military Readiness. Each of these groups believe that the US should be led more by Christian values that democratic values. These groups, like the ones listed above, cause real world harm and promote an ideology that undermines civil society. It is no surprise then, that Betsy DeVos and Erik Prince are continuing their parent’s legacy. 

Latino youth stopped at gunpoint by the GRPD because they were walking in the street in the southwest part of Grand Rapids

March 15, 2019

For several years now we have been reporting on various incidents of the GRPD engaged in racial profiling, specifically of black and latino youth. During this same period of time we have also been reporting about the arrests and detention of dozens of immigrants by either the GRPD, the Kent County Sheriff’s Department or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

These documented instances, along with a recent report that the GRPD disproportionately profile black and latino motorists, provides sufficient reason for communities of color to not trust the local police. The black and immigrant communities have made it clear that the live in fear of having cops pull guns on them, they live in fear of being stop, arrested and detained.

Yesterday, I received word from a friend that a family member and a friend of theirs had been stopped by the GRPD for walking in the street. A resident in the area had video taped two GRPD officers with gun pointing at the two youth, as you can see from the video below. The person filming was clearly trying to get the youth to get on the ground, knowing full well that people of color who do not cooperate with cops could get shot.

I was also able to obtain a copy of the police report, but before I get to that, I wanted to share what the family member had said to me, which was:

We have to expose the unacceptable behavior GR police are committing towards our community.

The incident happened on Monday, March 11, right around 6pm in the southwest part of Grand Rapids, on Lynch Street. Lynch Street, for those of you who are familiar with that part of town, is a short street that run between Clyde Park and Century, SW. The street is only a few city blocks long and is made up primarily of of working class latinos.

The GRPD report states that they were in this area “to proactively patrol, due to the recent increase in gang activities, including robberies and gang graffiti.” Of course, another way of looking at this is that the GRPD was patrolling a latino neighborhood, where the majority of its residents are of low income. In fact, we know that the GRPD disproportionately patrols in poor black and latino neighborhoods, since they believe that there are higher rates of street level crimes being committed in those areas.

The GRPD officer, who was in his patrol car, had noticed in his rear view mirror that these two latino youth were walking in the street. The officer circled back and attempted to stopped the youth and get them out of the road. The officer said he then got out of the car and asked them to get out of the road and while proceeding to the sidewalk, the officer said that both youth were questioning the officer as to why they were being stopped.

The officer also said that both of the youth had their hands in the front pockets of the jackets they were wearing. The officer then writes, “I order both suspects to take their hands out of their pockets, however they both continued to disobey my commands.

The officer also states that he asked them to show him their IDs, but they both said they did not have IDs, since they were minors. In the report the officer says that one of the youth was reaching behind him, and feeling threatened, the officer pulled out his gun and pointed it at the youth.

As you can see from the video, a second officer was on the scene and both of them had their guns out, pointed at the youth.

After cuffing and searching the two youth, the officer said that neither of them had weapons, but one of them was found with one gram of marijuana. The one caught with marijuana was taken to the Kent County Juvenile Detention facility, “where he was lodged on assault, batter, resist or obstruct a Police officer.

The GRPD will no doubt argue that this was just good policing. However, considering the current political climate and the level of collaboration between local law enforcement and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the immigrant community has every right to live in fear and take this most recent example of the GRPD pointing guns at latino youth as further indication that their community is at risk of police intimidation and youth.

The DeVos Neoliberal Two Step: Proposed 2020 Education Budget just means more public money for private and Charter Schools

March 13, 2019

On Monday, the Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, announced the proposed budget for the Department of Education

“This budget at its core is about education freedom—freedom for America’s students to pursue their life-long learning journeys in the ways and places that work best for them, freedom for teachers to develop their talents and pursue their passions and freedom from the top-down ‘Washington knows best’ approach that has proven ineffective and even harmful to students,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

In the proposed 2020 budget announcement, DeVos highlighted several points, such as:

  • The new Education Freedom Scholarships
  • Elevating the teaching profession by personalization
  • Continued support for our nation’s most vulnerable students
  • Promoting safe and secure schools
  • Promoting Workforce Development for the 21st Century
  • Streamlining and improving postsecondary aid

The mainstream commercial media was quick to point out that the proposed 2020 Education Budget is $7.1 billion less than what was approved last year. 

Anticipating criticism of a reduced Education Budget, DeVos included in her announcement on Monday, “We have also reaffirmed our commitment to spending taxpayer dollars wisely and efficiently by consolidating or eliminating duplicative and ineffective federal programs.”

The American Federation of Teachers responded to the proposed Education Budget with their own statement, which included the following reaction: 

“Rather than increase funding for kids with special needs or for those who live below the poverty line in both rural and urban America, or addressing the issues raised in their own safety report, DeVos once again seeks to divert funding for private purposes in the name of ‘choice.’ However, if they listened to parents, they would hear that, overwhelmingly, parents want well-funded public schools as their choice. By assaulting public education again, Trump and DeVos are defying the will of parents, educators and the American people who continue to march, rally and even strike to secure the investment our children and their public schools desperately need. 

Another public education response to the 2020 proposed Education Budget states: 

Funding for teacher development under Title II, totaling $2.1 billion, would be eliminated, as would $1.2 billion in Title IV funding for academic supports and enrichment and $1.1 billion for 21st Century Community Learning Centers that support after-school programs. In total, funding for 29 programs would be eliminated in the federal budget. 

On the other side of the ledger, Trump’s budget blueprint calls for $500 million for federal charter school grants, a $60 million increase from current funding levels. The president also wants $200 million for the School Safety National Activities program, which would more than double the program’s $95 million in current funding—of that amount, $100 million would be used to fund a new School Safety State Formula Grant program. There are no requirements for the grant program related to firearms, according to the Education Department. And the office for civil rights would get $125 million, the same as current funding.

On the school choice front, the department says its main proposal has already been introduced: a federal tax-credit scholarship program from Republicans. The Treasury Department’s budget proposal includes $5 billion for the cost of such a program. 

Former Education Secretary Diane Ravitch responded to the proposed budget cuts by saying: 

The administration proposes $5 billion for vouchers and an increase in the federal charter school program to $500 million. It is not clear why the federal government needs to spend any money to start charter schools, since this project is now well covered by the Waltons, the Koch brothers, the DeVos family foundations, Michael Bloomberg, the Broad Foundation, the Dell Foundation, the Arnold Foundation, the Fisher Family Foundation, the Gates Foundation, the NewSchools Venture, the Charter School Growth Fund, and others too numerous to mention.

The comments from Ravitch and the AFT president are important, especially since much of the mainstream commercial media reporting omits any real critique of the Education Freedom Scholarship plan and the increased funding for Charter Schools.

While, the 2020 Education Budget is still only a proposal, it continues to fit well within Betsy DeVos’ decades long effort to undermine public education at the expense of Charter Schools and privatized education systems, which she loves to call School Choice. However, the reality is that Neoliberal Capitalists like Betsy DeVos, who like to present themselves as fiscal conservatives, have no problem spending public money that benefits the private sector. Every time Betsy DeVos says School Choice, she really means she wants public money to fund private and Charter schools.

To read the full 2020 Education Budget Proposal, click here