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AmplifyGR to host second community meeting on July 27

July 21, 2017

The DeVos-funded, Rockford Construction partnered group, AmplifyGR, announced yesterday that they will be hosting a second “community listening meeting” on Thursday, July 27 at the same location as the first meeting. The doors open at 5:30pm, with the meeting beginning at 6pm,

We reported on the first meeting, a meeting that received a fair amount of push-back from the community. We were all told at that meeting that they would find a larger venue to host the second meeting and that they would be adding new information to the AmplifyGR site. Instead, the meeting is being held at the same location and the only thing that AmplifyGR has added to their website was the maps of the two locations in which they are targeting.

These maps, unfortunately do not provide very clear details on the actual properties that have been purchased by Rockford Construction, unlike the maps we have provided in pervious postings (shown below) and the MLive article, which provides pictures of the properties they have purchased.

Since the first meeting, we have also written two additional articles based on comments that Doug DeVos made at the first meeting. The first article was a response to the notion that what AmplifyGR wants to do is to provide opportunities to people in the Boston Square area. We challenge that notion by making the point that since DeVos has so much political and economic power, it makes it extremely difficult for people to be treated as equals at the table.

The second article was a response to the claim that DeVos gave when he said that they have already invested a great deal into the southeast part of Grand Rapids, where AmplifyGR is operating. Upon investigating that claim we discovered that there were numerous non-profits that have received financial support from one of the many DeVos family foundations. We ask those groups if they had a position on AmpligyGR’s plans and what kind of influence the DeVos family had in the work they do, since they have received funding from them.

MLive and the 67 riot: perpetuating the dominant narrative while ignoring the current conditions for another uprising

July 20, 2017

Over the past few days, MLive has been running a series of articles about the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids. Next week is the 50th anniversary of the 3 day riot that took place and MLive has been posting several stories, lots of photos and video about the 1967 riot.

There have been some positive aspects of what MLive reporters have done in this series, especially the interviews with members of the African American community that witnessed the 67 riot or those who have researched it.

However, there are also many problems with the MLive series on the 1967 riot. We want to address what is problematic about the coverage and why their reporting perpetuates a tremendous amount of misinformation about what took place in July of 1967.

No Ownership on the part of the GR Press and its role in the reporting in 1967

It is vitally important for us to think about the events 50 years ago in Grand Rapids, to come to terms with its significance, and how the dominant narratives around the 67 riot impact us today.

The Grand Rapids People’s History Project has assembled all the articles and the editorials from the Grand Rapids Press during the 3-day riot in 1967. The articles are in order of appearance between July 25 and July 27.

One thing that is apparent in the Press headlines is how the riot is framed. The riot is framed as violence and the response from the City of Grand Rapids is presented as keeping the peace. This is to be expected, since the dominant narratives about riots affirms the idea that riots are an attack on the social order of the day.

However, as Dr. King so eloquently put it, riots are the “language of the unheard.” In addition, riots are a response to the structural and daily violence imposed by the systems of capitalism and white supremacy on communities of color. Structural violence is the daily oppression that communities of color experience in the form of poverty, lack of adequate housing, poor health care, lack of educational opportunities and environmental racism.

Therefore, it is no surprise that the GR Press coverage in 1967 presents the violence as being perpetrated by members of the African American community against white business owners, against the cops and against the city officials who are merely trying to “restore order.”

The Grand Rapids Press editorial for July 26, 1967, conveys the message that the riots were the actions of a few and that “the great majority of the Negro community is law-abiding.” The same editorial goes on to say that there “must be no compromising with the forces of disorder.” What the editorial writer is saying is that disorder – African Americans responding to systemic racism – cannot be tolerated and that order – systemic racism and exploitation – must be re-established.

A great deal of the articles in the Grand Rapids Press during those 3 days in 1967 are from the perspective of those in government and the police, with only an occasional point of view being shared by those who decided enough was enough. In two separate editorials on July 27, the Grand Rapids editorial writers praise the State Police for its role in restoring order and condemning Stokely Carmichael for suggesting blacks should engage in guerrilla warfare in US cities across the nation.

Therefore, it is important to see the coverage in the Grand Rapids Press 50 years ago as the dominant narrative of the day and a white supremacist narrative, which says that African Americans, even if they have legitimate grievances, must work within a system that constantly works to oppress and exploit them.

MLive and the continuance of the dominant, white supremacist narrative

Fifty years later and the major daily news source in Grand Rapids is continuing to perpetuate the dominate narrative, which is to say a white supremacist narrative.

The first article in the series is entitled, Grand Rapids 67 riot: when anger, oppression erupted into ‘chaos.’ There are dozens of accompanying photos that solidify the dominant narrative, showing white cops arresting or detaining black suspects.

Several of the African Americans interview for this MLive article do offer some insight into the conditions that the black community were subjected to, but the MLive article also sought to convey the message that things are better now. Things are better now based on what Mayor Bliss is doing with the racial equity initiative, what the Chief of Police is doing with community relations, what data the City Manager has looked at and what an employee of Start Garden has to say about bringing economic development to communities of color. The MLive writer does not investigate any of the claims made by those who believe that things are better now and there is no evidence to support such a claim.

In addition, there is a video that MLive put together, which through the use of archival photos and text essentially affirms what was said in the article. There is some acknowledgement that inequality exists, but that city leaders are “now addressing issues of racial inequity head-on.” Again, no evidence is provided to show how racial inequity is being addressed in concrete terms.

A second article in the series is made up of interviews with five African Americans and two white people who were living in Grand Rapids at the time. I can appreciate the attempt to make these voices public, but there is little historical context to what was shared by these seven people. 

A third article in the MLive series looks at how Division Avenue in Grand Rapids has never recovered from the 1967 riot. A variety of people are interviewed, historians, business people and the Grand Rapids Chief of Police. There is some acknowledgement of white flight and disinvestment in the southeast part of Grand Rapids, but there is no acknowledgement of the current gentrification that is happening in and around the area most impacted by the riot in 67. Instead, employees of DeVos-owned entity Start Garden, “are focused on redeveloping Grand Rapids at the micro level by helping small businesses and startups.”

A fourth article in the series makes the claim that the city is doing what it can to address racial inequity. The MLive article gives voice to Police Chief Rahinsky, City Manager Greg Sundstrom and Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss. Of the three, Sundstrom is more honest about the challenges, saying that he didn’t think the problems from 1967 are getting any better today. However, both Rahinsky and Bliss make the claim that the city is addressing these problems and is making headway.

What is problematic about Chief Rahnisky’s claims that the City has been aggressive in finding solutions since the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, is that many in the African American community don’t believe that the city has really done anything to address inequity. In fact, as many in the African American community have been pointing out, the city leadership and the police department continue to downplay the urgency surrounding the numerous and recent incidents of violence by the GRPD. 

In addition, the city has failed to take serious the black community’s word on racial profiling by the GRPD, especially motorists. This became evident recently, since the city paid thousands to conduct a traffic study, wherein the results were a confirmation of what the black community has been saying for years.

The current affordable housing crisis and the growing gap between the rich and the poor in Grand Rapids are also evidence that the city is not any closer to achieving racial and economic equity in the past 50 years. The movement by white people back to the urban core areas of Grand Rapids and the re-investment to those areas not only makes rent higher for thousands, it displaces communities of color at a disproportionately high rate.

The City of Grand Rapids needs to take seriously the platform of the Movement for Black Lives, which has laid out an ambitious and just vision for how to achieve justice, which are laid out here. However, I don’t think people should expect the city to embrace such a vision. What will likely happen is what has always happened is for African Americans to take matters into their own hands and challenge this system of white supremacy and managerial racism in Grand Rapids. How they chose to do it is another matter, but it seems that the current state of emergency might call for another uprising, like in 1967.

We had to destroy the neighborhood to make it sustainable: Green technology to benefit Rockford Construction’s new neighborhood on the westside

July 19, 2017

On Monday, Consumers Energy and Rockford Construction announced that they will be installing solar panels and a battery storage facility to in the same neighborhood that the development company has radically altered over the last few years.

An MLive article cites Rockford Construction CEO Mike VanGessel who states:

“Our vision is to provide a safe, innovative, sustainable neighborhood on the West Side that is a magnet for people and commerce,” said Mike VanGessel, CEO of Rockford Construction, which is redeveloping the block northwest of Bridge Street and Seward Avenue.

The MLive article goes on to say, “The Circuit West project also promises lower energy bills due to more accurate meter reads in the district, which extends between Bridge Street and First Street and Seward and Stocking Avenues, according to its sponsors.

Like the MLive article, other West Michigan news sources gave the Circuit West project favorable coverage. WZZM 13 and WOOD TV8 also reported on the announcement, which continued the same narrative as MLive, thus providing no critical coverage of what the implications of this project are.

However, what is completely left out of the news coverage about this announcement is that Rockford Construction essentially torn down the old neighborhood, where working class families once lived, to create a neighborhood that will primarily house an economically privileged class and benefit a brewery, upscale restaurants, the soon to be constructed Meijer store and Rockford Construction owned properties.

We have been reporting on the gradual takeover of this working class neighborhood by Rockford Construction, which began when the company moved its headquarters to First and Seward several years ago. The development corporation has been buying up property and engaging in development projects which primarily benefit those with economic privilege.

At the same time, these development projects have resulted in the direct displacement of families and individuals that used to live in the area that the Circuit West project is targeting. The target area of Circuit West can be seen in this graphic here.

Another aspect of this project, which the local news media have failed to address is history of Consumers Energy and renewable energy.

In 2012, Michigan had a renewable energy ballot initiative, known as Proposal 3. However, Consumers Energy spent $2.9 million to defeat that renewable energy ballot initiative. 

In addition, according to the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, Consumers Energy spent $311,117 on lobbying and $240,400 in direct campaign contributions to lawmakers to make sure they would get the kind of energy policy that is most profitable to them. 

Lastly, if you look at the current campaign contributions from Consumers Energy in Michigan, they continue to support politicians that are NOT committed to real sustainable energy. 

So let us be clear about who will benefit from this Rockford Construction/Consumers Energy partnership. These corporations will benefit, both from the Public Relations end and financially. Those who occupy the businesses and the mostly market-rate housing in the Circuit West project area, will also benefit. This means that the economically privileged will benefit, while the working class poor and communities of color are displaced and will not be charging their electric cars.

Betsy DeVos Watch: Title IX listening sessions give voice to anti-feminist groups that minimize sexual assault and rape on campus

July 18, 2017

Last Thursday, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos hosted what she called a “Title IX Listening session.”

The media release for the event stated that, “DeVos announced she will convene a diverse group of stakeholders at the Department of Education Thursday, July 13 to discuss the impact of the Department’s Title IX sexual assault guidance on students, families and institutions.”

Sounds like it was a good thing to do. However, upon closer examination, some of the “stakeholders” that DeVos had invited were made up mostly of mens groups that are anti-feminist and are making the claim that too often women on campus are wrongfully accusing men of committing sexual assault.

Some of the organizations invite by Betsy DeVos are groups like National Coalition for Men Carolinas, which is a chapter of a national organization. This organization’s website states the following:

Men are easy targets, often staying silent while being publicly attacked by radical feminists and the media. But that is changing. Men are uniting and standing their ground against anti-male hatred and directed discrimination.

Besides their anti-feminist propaganda, one thing that the National Coalition for Men does is publish photos, names, and biographical details of women who have accused men—falsely, the National Coalition for Men insists—of rape. Its members routinely bring lawsuits against women-only networking groups and social events, crying discrimination.

Another group invited by Secretary DeVos to the Title IX listening session was Stop Abusive and Violent Environments (Save). SAVE is another anti-feminist organization that believes that campuses are experiencing “rape culture hysteria.”

According to a recent article on Slate.com, “The Southern Poverty Law Center has identified SAVE, which opposes rules that prevent defense attorneys from entering evidence of a survivor’s sexual history in a rape trial, as a planet in the “manosphere” of misogynist online forums. SAVE lobbies against domestic violence protections, claims that the “leading reason” for abuse is “female initiation of partner violence,” and calls falsely accused perpetrators the “true victims of abuse.” 

One addition group invited to the Title IX listening sessions was Families Advocating for Campus Equality (FACE). The FACE website is full of videos, commentary and links that make the claim that too many men on college campuses across the US are being falsely accused of sexual assault and rape.

Sexual Assault and rape at US campuses across the country are a serious matter, but the new administration, through the efforts of Betsy DeVos, are making it clear that they want to overturn the gains made by women’s groups who have fought against violence for decades.

The Michigan Student Power group has been circulating a petition in response to Betsy DeVos’s Title IX listening sessions, which provides some useful analysis of last week’s meeting.

Individual behavior, not collective liberation: Why DeVos Family foundation funding compliments AmplifyGR

July 17, 2017

During the AmplifyGR-hosted meeting on June 29, Doug DeVos stated that he and his wife have been, “active in many of the non-profit agencies that are here in this neighborhood.”

This statement prompted me to look at the 990 documents from all of the DeVos Family foundations to see how much money they have collectively contributed to non-profits that are based in the neighborhoods that AmplifyGR is operating or those that do work in those neighborhoods.

We found several non-profits that are currently operating in the area that AmplifyGR is targeting with their development plans. I then sent an e-mail to each of the organizations that are working in the designated area and have received DeVos Foundation money to ask them the following two questions.

First, does your organization have a position on the AmplifyGR development proposal for the Boston Square & Cottage Grove areas in the southeast part of Grand Rapids?

Second, your organization is listed as having been a recipient of funds from a DeVos Foundation between 2013 – 2016 (the most recent 990s available). Since your organization relies on DeVos Family funding, is there financial pressure to support the AmplifyGR development proposal? (Note: I looked at the 990 documents from 2013 – 2016 for the Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation, the Richard & Helen DeVos Foundation, the Dick & Betsy DeVos Foundation, the Dan & Pamela DeVos Foundation and the CDV5 Foundation, founded by Cheri DeVos)

What follows is a listing of the organizations I contacted, what their response was, a summary of the kind of work that they do and how much money they received from DeVos Foundations between 2013 – 2016.

Baxter Community Center’s mission “seeks to reveal God’s love by responding to human needs in its community through effective programs and partnerships.” Baxter Community Center provides a variety of social services, educational services and skill building opportunities.

The Executive Director of Baxter Community Center, Melanie Beelen, responded to the questions by saying: “1. Baxter Community Center does not have a position on the Amplify GR proposal. It is our understanding that at this point, they are still collectively getting information from others. 2. We have not received any pressure one way or another from the DV families regarding Amplify GR.” There are two Amway representatives who sit on the Baxter Community Center Board.

Exhalta Health (formerly Health Intervention Services) “was established in 1996 by local physicians, nurses, social workers, pastors, and business people to serve underprivileged women with faith-centered medical care. The acronym HIS was created to represent the Christian motivation for service.” The Executive Assistant Theressa Hoekstra responded to our questions by saying, “We have had no pressure from the AmplifyGR group.”

Restorers Inc. mission “is to show Christ’s love by promoting long-term sustainable change in families and neighborhood. We do this through unified committed relationships between community and church so that greater dignity and quality of life are achieved.” They provide entrepreneur programs for people wanting to start their own business, youth mentoring programs and work closely with Believe 2 Become. Restorers Inc. did not respond to our questions.

SpringGR is an entrepreneurial training program located in Grand Rapids, MI. This program provides training, mentoring, and networking opportunities designed for aspiring entrepreneurs from neighborhoods of few entrepreneurial opportunities to develop a thriving business. SpringGR works closely with Start Garden, one of the businesses projects that Rick DeVos runs. SpringGR did not respond to our questions.

Oakdale Neighbors is a Christian community development organization. Its goal is to create a neighborhood of grace and vitality by discovering, developing, and connecting skills and resources. Their response was: “Oakdale Neighbors has not taken a formal position on the development proposal. We try to build productive relationships with many partners and potential partners in the city.” I did speak with Tom Bulten from Oakdale Neighbors on the phone and he informed me that AmplifyGR had contracted with Seeds of Promise and Oakdale Neighbors to go door to door in the area and conduct a survey of residents. Oakdale Neighbors does list the Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation and CDV5 Foundation as two of its partners. 

Jubilee Jobs’ mission “is to serve Christ by equipping and empowering the economically underserved toward self-sufficiency, emotional healing, and spiritual renewal.” Jubilee Jobs has a representative of Amway on its Board of Directors and lists Believe 2 Become as a community partner. Jubilee Jobs did not respond to our questions.

The Grand Rapids Urban League provides a variety of social services, like housing, education and employment. The mission of the Grand Rapids Urban League is to provide the means to empower African Americans and other minorities to achieve economic self-reliance, parity and civil rights. The Grand Rapids Urban League did not respond to our questions, but we did find something interesting on their website. You can see from this graphic that the CEO of Rockford Construction, Mike VanGessel, which is part of the AmplifyGR project, was given the Drum Major for Justice award.

Madison Square Church is part of the Christian Reformed Church. They have numerous ministries in the community, including youth and missions projects, particularly in Liberia. Pastor David Beelen responded to the questions by stating: “We do not have a position from our church in support of Amplify. And, although we are listed as getting funds from DeVos we were simply providing a fiduciary oversight function for one of our former pastors, Samuel Reeves, who is now pastoring in Liberia, West Africa and has used those funds to build and support a medical clinic there.  DeVos foundation has not applied pressure for us to support Amplify nor do I perceive pressure from them to support it.  On the contrary, we have used our place in the Madison community to pressure them to hold meetings, be fair to our neighbors and do their work in a manner that is just to our parish.

Linc Up, formerly Lighthouse Communities Inc, is an economic development entity, that also is involved in housing, education and some advocacy work. Linc Up has relied on DeVos Foundation money for most of its existence, until last year when the Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation stopped providing funding. A great deal of the DeVos funding over the years was to contract with Linc Up to implement the Believe 2 Become program. Linc Up Executive Director Jeremy DeRoo responded to the questions with these comments: “In terms of Amplify GR I haven’t seen something that I would consider a “development proposal” but have heard them say they want to fill underutilized industrial space with businesses that will hire locally.  They also want to develop a large track of land in Boston square into something that will include affordable housing and more business opportunities.  They are also going to be starting a community engagement process at the end of the month to hear what the best way to do all that is.  LINC supports community driven processes that successfully create local jobs and affordable housing.”

The Inner City Christian Federation (ICCF) is a non-profit housing organization that rehabilitates existing housing and builds new housing. Their mission statement says, At ICCF, we believe God desires our community to be a healthy and vibrant place for all people to have opportunity to flourish and have safe and beautiful homes they can afford.” ICCF did not respond to our questions. The organization does utilize as its primary construction partner, Rockford Construction, which is part of the AmplifyGR project.

It is also important to mention Believe 2 Become, a program which not only provides a mechanism for inserting faith-based dynamics in the Grand Rapids Public School system, it provides a means to develop workforce talent, as their most recent report acknowledges. Both Doug DeVos and Mike VanGessel are intimately involved in Believe 2 Become. We include some of their comments about Believe 2 Become here.  It is also important to note that the Doug & Maria DeVos Foundation has been the largest contributor to Believe 2 Become, which was already mentioned, is a partner with several of the entrepreneurial programs listed above. 

It seems clear that the kinds of organizations that the DeVos Family foundations are funding that are working in or based in the southeast part of the city that is being targeted under the AmplifyGR project are social service agencies, Christian groups and organizations focused on entrepreneurial opportunities. What these organization don’t do is provide any real analysis of systemic oppression or skill building for challenging systems of power. This seems rather obvious when one considers that the DeVos Family and their foundations are rooted in power, thus they would not want to provide funding that in anyway undermines their own power and this is exactly what the AmplifyGR project is all about…….not challenging systems of oppression and systems of power.

Grand Rapids African American Museum & Archives hosts photo exhibit and film discussion on the 1967 riot

July 13, 2017

The Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives, founded by George Bayard,  is currently hosting a photo exhibit on the 1967 riot in Grand Rapids.

The photo exhibit includes headlines from local newspapers and photos taken mostly by journalists who were present during the three days that the riot in Grand Rapids lasted in July of 1967.

The photo exhibit will last through July 30th at the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives, located at 87 Monroe Center in downtown Grand Rapids. The photo exhibit is available for viewing between noon and 5:00PM, Tuesday through Saturday and is free to the public.

In addition, the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives is producing a short documentary film about the 1967 riot, which will include interviews from several historians and some eye witnesses to the what took place from July 25 – 27th in 1967 in Grand Rapids just south of Wealthy Street between Division and Madison.

The documentary film on the 1967 riot will be shown at the GVSU downtown campus, in the Loosemore Auditorium, on July 25 between 6 – 8pm. After the film screening there will be a panel discussion on the same topic.

The Grand Rapids People’s History Project interviewed George Bayard last year on the mission of the Grand Rapids African American Museum and Archives, which you can watch here below.

The Acton Institute defends White Supremacy and Imperialism, all in the name of Faith and Family

July 12, 2017

There are statements that politicians make all the time, that are often quite hollow and devoid of any real meaning. However, often, such statements are taken at face value to be truisms, like God and Country. These truism are both the result of extreme naivete and ideological constructs.

Last week, while President Trump was attending the G20 gathering of world leaders and imperialists, he invoked one of these truisms when he said, “We put faith and family, not government and bureaucracy, at the center of our lives.

Last Thursday, Rev. Ben Johnson, who writes for the Acton Institute, posted a piece reflecting on President Trump’s speech that was given last week in front of a memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising during the Nazi occupation of Poland in 1943.

That Trump chose this location, the site of one of the most famous acts of Jewish Resistance during WWII, is in and of itself an insult to all those who have fought oppression. The United States is seen by millions around the world as an oppressor nation and an imperialist nation that has contributed to a tremendous amount of violence through war and economic exploitation.

However, the Acton Institute writer saw this declaration from President Trump at the Warsaw Ghetto uprising memorial site as visible sign that the United States in continuing a tradition of promoting faith and family foundational principles of this country.

Johnson then quotes Trump at length, where the President is speaking about Poland’s transition from Communism to Free Market Capitalism:

“Through four decades of Communist rule, Poland … endured a brutal campaign to demolish freedom, your faith, your laws, your history, your identity; indeed, the very essence of your culture and your humanity,” the president said. Yet despite the onslaught of a soulless system, the Polish people “stood in solidarity against oppression, against a lawless secret police … and you won. Poland prevailed. Poland will always prevail.”

The Action Institute writer takes great joy in Trump’s assessment of Poland post-communism and believes that much of the “success” after communism had to do with people putting their faith in God.

However, we have learned since the fall of communism in Poland, is that many people have felt betrayed by the Solidarity government and its imposition of an economic shock doctrine on the country. This assessment is affirmed in Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine, specifically her section on Poland, but if you prefer a more moderate source, this Harvard study (a shorter version appeared in the journal Foreign Affairs) draws many of the same conclusions that Klein does.

The Acton Institute writer then cites the US President’s condemnation of “radical Islamic terrorism” as the current threat to the United States. Johnson, again quotes Trump:

“While we will always welcome new citizens who share our values and love our people,” Trump said, “our borders will always be closed to terrorism and extremism of any kind.”

Such a statement is both absurd and historically inaccurate. The US has closed its borders most often when refugees and immigrants have come from non-European and non-White countries, since the US has always embraced a White Supremacist immigration policy that has historically demonized the Chinese, Japanese, pretty much all of Latin America and some African nations as well. (see Aviva Chomsky’s book, Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal)

The statement by Trump is also absurd, since it doesn’t take into account that there have been and still are numerous domestic groups that advocate terrorism and extremism, such as the KKK, neo-nazi groups, Militia groups, Christian Identity groups and a whole list of organizations that embrace and promote White Supremacist and Xenophobic values. These groups are not only free to engage in all kinds of violent behavior, they are often supported by mainstream US society, which is tends to embrace White Supremacists values. (see the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Hate Map)

Much of the rest of what Rev. Johnson has to say in his post on the Acton Institute website continues to extol the values of The West (read: White values), with particular emphasis on family, faith and free market capitalism.

While some may want to simply respond with a dismissive tone that, “this is Trump speaking, so of course he would say this shit.” The reality is that every US President has said uttered the same kinds of truisms that the current President did last week. The lessons we should walk away with are: 1) the Acton Institute is essentially an apologist for US imperialism; and 2) the Acton Institute is a very dangerous organization that promotes White Supremacy, Colonialism and the exploitative nature of neoliberal capitalism.