May 22, 2009

May 21, 2009

Not in Our Town: Unity in Numbers, Oregon Community Counters a Neo-Nazi Threat

Repost from Not in Our Town.

Unity in Numbers: Oregon Community Counters a Neo-Nazi Threat
by Jim Willeford

Once again, the face and symbols of intolerance, hatred and violence threaten to become part of the social skyline of Jackson County, Oregon.

On April 22, the Mail Tribune, Medford, OR’s daily newspaper, featured a front-page headline story that pulled the covers off a homegrown group of Nazi skinheads and their organized efforts to become established. The skinheads’ home base is in Phoenix, OR, between Medford and Ashland.

On April 24th, a courageous and dedicated Polish/Cherokee woman, Nicole Strykowski, not yet connected to the variety of progressive organizations in The Valley, took it upon herself to connect with Anita Burke, a reporter for the Mail Tribune. On the 25th, the Tribune did a front page story announcing a counter-demonstration, to be held in Phoenix that Sunday.

Over the duration of the demonstration, the progressive side maintained anywhere from 100-125 people. The Nazis, in full regalia, positioned themselves across the street, where uniformed policemen maintained a degree of separation of about 45 feet from the skinheads. Those who opposed the Nazi agenda sent a powerful message in contrast to the hateful images of just 5 neo-Nazis. The imagery of the diverse cross section of nonviolent protesters was inspiring, as you can see in the Mail Tribune video below:

There were no incidents of violence. The Wagnerian imagery, however, was chilling! The Nazis were dressed in SS uniforms and had expensive, dramatic flags all too reminiscent of the Third Reich. One of the flags was a traditional American flag, and the others all had swastikas or other Nazi imagery, large in size, and of unusually high-quality production.

I invited Ms. Strykowski to a meeting of the Community Response Team, which was very well attended. We will be meeting again to finalize plans for ongoing community action, and follow-up education.

The Tribune’s April 30 edition has a new story about the recent arrest of neo-Nazi leader Andrew Lee Patterson and one of his chief lieutenants. But that’s another whole story, worthy of a blog post all its own.

Jim Willeford is a NIOT Network leader and activist in Medford, Oregon.

May 17, 2009

Guest Commentary: Tabatha on Rape, Racism, and Recent Protests

On May 15th, a racist, anti-immigrant group going under the name Oregonian's For Immigration Reform (OFIR) hosted a demonstration outside a Wendy's restaurant in Milwaukee, Oregon. In response to media reports of the rape of one worker at the hands of another at the restaurant, OFIR seized on the immigration status of the accused rapist as the defining factor, protesting the alleged failure of the restaurant to investigate the immigration status of their employees. Do OFIR's calls actually have anything to do with an interest in women's rights, worker safety, or justice?

The woman's mother reported that she was previously abused by her attacker, but didn't report it.

This brings the spotlight to an often ignored issue (violence against women), framing it in well within a long history veiling racist attacks in the guise of defending white women. This is bad for women and immigrants, pulling focus off the real issues at hand, and pitting oppressed people against each other.

Why would a woman feel that she couldn't report her previous sexual assault, even to her mother? Our society is harsh towards rape survivors. After experiencing these terrible crimes, a woman's life becomes scrutinized under a magnifying glass. The "justice system" is very unresponsive to most rape and sexual assault, often only prosecuting cases on behalf of women who meet very strict standards of what it means to be a "good" woman (white, thin, virginal or married--mother, modestly dressed, and straight, and assaulted by a stranger). Any deviation and a woman is perceived to hold some blame. Rape survivors are shamed, often in the media, as people from right-wing pundits to self-proclaimed feminists question their accountability if they have been drinking, flirting, wearing a short-skirt, or any other "dangerous" activity. If the rapist is an acquaintance, every interaction is questioned. Did she lead him on?

In fact, women are more likely to be assaulted by someone we know (coworker, partner, friend, family member). By portraying rapists as unknown and undocumented menaces, OFIR is "othering" rapists. This allows us to be free from questioning the culture that supports rape, and our role in perpetuating this. We don't have to question consent, patriarchy, misogyny or sexism. "Othering" rapists supports these systems. Women need to be protected from these "Illegal Aliens"; we need to be protected by the state and by men. Women are framed weaker, which falls right into the hand of the patriarchy. Protecting women's "virtue" from other men then becomes vital to our society. Whipping up a media-fueled panic encourages us to concede rights for protection. In doing so, we lose autonomy.

Historically, rape (and the casting of people of color as "primal", '"animalistic" or "hypersexual") has actually perpetuated the culture and systems of violence either through lynch mob "justice" in the South or, more recently, at the hands of the judicial system. The recent media, state, and even progressive demonization of Lovell Mixon in Oakland is a useful metric of this. Further, men of color are less likely to receive fair treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system. They are jailed at higher rates and more likely to receive longer sentences than their white counterparts. Women of color sometimes find themselves unwilling to turn their abusers into a system that they know to be racist, as they don't want to cause more injustice from their experiences. Pitting men of color against white women in such a context invokes racist stereotypes from the early history of American racism, without acknowledging the realities of rape.

This obsession with rape and sexualized violence by white supremacists deserves investigation. Thomas Wenning, whose anti-immigrant protests at Portland's Day Labor Center, has been a speaker at OFIR meetings, and his protests have been supported and promoted via OFIR's mobilization infrastructure. By his own public admission, Wenning was convicted of rape in the early 70's. In December of 2007, another member of OFIR was arrested and charged on five counts of using a child in a display of sexually explicit conduct, two counts of sex abuse and two counts of hindering prosecution for acts alleged to have occurred in his small town barbershop. There is obviously no fair argument that OFIR members (or white men for that matter), are more inclined to rape than any other demographic. It does, however, point to the hypocrisy of OFIR's stance on the Wendy's assault by reflecting the realities of rape. Rape is prevalent, it is common, it is under reported, and it is typically perpetuated between people who know each other and in relationships of relative social power.

Rape is always egregious. Our culture supports rape no matter the social strata, but poor women are more at risk. At their workplaces, they have less power and are more unlikely to risk their jobs relying on a justice system that doesn't support them. The most vulnerable are undocumented women workers. These women have more sexual harassment, assault, and rape at the hands of their coworkers and bosses than their documented counterparts, and they face fear of reporting and deportation in reporting to hospitals, police, and other authorities. This is a common story that the news doesn't report. If they did in accordance with its frequency, you'd see on every channel every day. It would be on the morning news programs, breaking news at noon, at five, again at six, and before the late shows. But it doesn't support our power structures, so you won't see it, unless you look for it.

Our class system is reliant on sexism and racism to divide us. By offering racism to white women and sexism to men, capitalists exploit us all while we are busy caught up fighting each other. The "other" noted above are the enemy, and whatever structures need to be put into place to protect us from them we will welcome. At our own peril, we hand sole power to arbitrate violence within our communities in the form of increased policing and increased incarceration in institutional systems entirely rooted in often sexualized violence (note popular conceptions of prison rape).

Not only does our fear control us, but we've failed to posit solutions outside of handing power and hope for justice to the same state responsible for mass violence, terror, and the enforcement of color and class lines in our communities. For rape survivors, justice is often at the expense of dignity, when seldom won.

The question worth asking, then, is what is OFIR's real goal? And what CAN we do, short of appeals to a flawed, racist, and violent criminal "justice" system, to create safety, justice, and accountability for all victims of sexual violence in our society?

May 8, 2009

Free Trade For Who?

One of the primary catalysts for immigration from Mexico in the last decade has been the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). NAFTA established a, "Preferential access for U.S. products." Meaning Mexico's local economy, especially small scale farmers, had to compete with U.S. imports from subsidized US producers. Despite the farmer's protests the Mexican government does nothing, since they do not want to upset the U.S. This influx of goods, largely corn, lead to two thirds of Mexican farmers reporting that their wages decreased. U.S. taxpayer subsidized agriculture flooded the market. Many Mexican farmers lost their land and found themselves out of work. NAFTA also took its toll on manufacturing jobs as companies streamlined their production in order to compete on the global market. In 1995, one year after NAFTA was implemented, one million Mexican workers lost their jobs. Therefore, is it any great mystery why immigration levels peaked in the mid 90s? In contrast to the perpetually rising rate of immigration some voices would have us believe the immigration rate rose, peaked, and declined. A drastic alteration of an economy will result in some equally noticeable ramifications. One of which was a lot of displaced workers trying to find a livelihood further North. In truth, the pattern of movement we see from Mexico into the U.S. in the 1990's and 2000's might be more accurately labeled 'forced migration'.

To complicate matters it was not just Mexican workers who were losing their jobs. NAFTA policies have also been detrimental to U.S. workers. Unfortunately, yet predictably, the finger was pointed at immigrants, and the claim was job theft. A functioning red herring was thus created to keep the working class from noticing that NAFTA only benefits the corporations, governments, and the wealthy. While the U.S. tries to maintain that NAFTA is benefiting Mexico it only looks that way on paper. Unemployment levels look lower than they are because statistics count someone as employed if they have worked at least one hour in the week prior to the survey. In addition, job quality has declined. People may be working but for lower wages. Workers everywhere are feeling the negative impact of NAFTA, whether they realize the source or not. However, many companies are benefiting from NAFTA. For example, in order to get around the tariffs in the past the Kellogg company would need production sites in Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. Now that NAFTA eliminated the tariffs they were able to close the extra plants and export without added fees.

Free trade agreements put downward pressure on U.S. wages and allow for the constant threat of 'Outsourcing'. These agreements flood the primarily agrarian population of Mexico (and other nations) with U.S. subsidized crops, sweatshops, and disposable goods. There is a clash of displaced workers in subject nations and an enticing story of the land of plenty right across the border. Hunger, desperation and hope of a better life for their families moves people to cross deathly deserts to come to the U.S. This combination of American fear and Mexican poverty is played on by both corporations that profit from this relationship and nativists that use it to embolden racists movements. Working class white folks against working class immigrants always means that we lose -- we lose power, we lose resources and we certainly lose our dignity. As long as immigration is viewed as a matter of ethnicity, a clash of nations, or more drastic accusations we've all heard the root causes are ignored, and the upper class keeps all the profit. Once we ask ourselves who benefits when the workers vilify each other, instead of concentrating on the real crooks, we begin to see how xenophobia can be a valuable tool of the upper class.

April 29, 2009

Voter Fraud - The Art of Distraction

Unfair barriers to voting -- that's what the Voting Rights Act was in opposition to, that's what the Freedom Summer was working against and that's what we threw out the door 93 years ago with the Grandfather Clause.

In the last year, there was much pointing and shouting about people without documents participating in our democracy unlawfully -- voting when they have no right. The Right would have us believe that we have an epidemic problem of illegal voting and that making it more difficult to vote will be a benefit to democracy. History shows that their true intention is not to create a safer process but to keep power in the hands of the white elite.

Cascade Policy Institute (CPI), a rightwing think tank based in Oregon, asserts that there is a severe problem of voter fraud in this state and that our rules need to be restricted so that it is more difficult to vote, and as a result more difficult to cheat the elections system. (CPI - Jeff Alan)

Oregonians for Immigration Reform (OFIR) and other anti-immigrant organizations have already begun to grab onto 'Voter Fraud' as a tactic. In 2008, OFIR was one of the primary advocates of a ballot measure that sought to implement stricter laws around registering because of the threat of undocumented immigrants voting.

However, both these organizations are simply wrong about voter fraud. Many studies conclude that incidents of voter fraud are shockingly low.

“Impersonation fraud is highly unlikely and exceedingly rare.” (The Truth about Voter Fraud) An average of 8 people per year are convicted or plead guilty to committing voter fraud in national election (the most participatory elections.) (Project Vote)

CPI reported that in Umatilla County, Oregon there are 6 voters (actually 5 as one was a numerical error -- which, by the way, is an 18% error rate) still on the roles but legally dead, according to the state. These 6 were mailed a ballot, none of those 5 ballots of the dead were returned. (Jeff Alan)

CPI's prescription for dealing with illegal voting is to fundamentally change the nature of our voter registration in Oregon to say that if you don't vote for two federal elections than your registration would be kicked out. (CPI)

This is a mistake not because it couldn't be logical but because that would be yet another barrier to participation. I can understand CPI's concern that we don't want any dead people voting; I don't either. But if we are to take their concern at face value compared with the facts; the argument is just silly.

What is not at all silly is having the most accessible democracy possible -- not to the point of naivety but to the point of accepting 5 dead folks who don't turn in ballots on the rolls if it means that we all get to stay registered to vote without contest. As a matter of principle, it shouldn’t (and currently doesn’t) matter if you are a terribly lazy voter, inactive or only care about school board elections that happen on mid-term years -- you should be allowed to stay on the rolls until you are ready to come off.

So, considering their weak arguments, what is it that OFIR and CPI really want? Because, however minor this might seem, what is at stake is fair and open elections in a country that has long been known to corrupt the system to maintain white power whenever possible. Exclusion is inevitable in narrowing the system, there are always going to be those left out -- that is, actually, the point. That exclusion is what permits white supremacy to reign and power to be kept in the hands of the few.

OFIR and CPI are part of a long history of nativists using allegations of voting fraud to maintain white power (if not primarily elite power) in the government. Each time there has been a notable expansion of the right to vote, such as the Voting Rights Act and it’s renewal in 2008, the threat from the Radical Right has been that it will increase fraud. When we see dramatic efforts to register people to vote in registration drives of people or color and the poor, the same claims surface. These allegations are based in keeping the voting system, the system that supposedly chooses leaders and enables policy, closed to those that are historically disenfranchised. (Politics of Voter Fraud)

It is not particularly a surprise that the newest targets are immigrants. OFIR’s primary public rationale during the 2008 ballot season for harsher voting restrictions was because “Illegal immigrants are taking advantage of a lax system." Their campaign was not about democracy or accessible government or fairness. Illegal voting was a red herring (although I’m sure OFIR believes that threat in their heart); this was about keeping electoral politics as closed as possible to keep the existing power structure in place. OFIR’s voter campaign was fear mongering amongst the white working-class community to continue their stoking of the anti-immigrant fires.

While these campaigns to restrict registration and voting rights might appear based in democratic principles of fairness to common eyes, they are insidious. These initiatives conveniently overlook the reality that poor, elderly, rural folks and people of color have many similar issues around valid identification as undocumented people.

“In some cases, people may have never been issued a birth certificate because they were born at home and their birth was not officially registered. A particular problem exists for a large number of elderly African Americans because they were born in a time when racial discrimination in hospital admissions, especially in the South, as well as poverty, kept their mothers from giving birth at a hospital. One study estimated that about one in five African Americans born in the 1939-40 period lack a birth certificate because of these problems.”(S. Shapiro) African Americans, senior citizens and those living in rural areas are more likely to lack birth certificates or passports and would be more strongly affected (than white, urban and young). (L. Ku)

Restricting their access via collateral damage with these initiatives does not appear to be a concern to OFIR. The fact that groups like OFIR are unconcerned about the true victims of restrictive voting – primarily rural and older black folks -- outs them as not even just anti-immigrant but as white supremacist.

While Cascade Policy Institute is not specifically addressing undocumented people voting, they have aligned themselves with OFIR. CPI regularly published opinion columns that intend to drive wedges between legal immigrants, the working poor, 'taxpayers' and undocumented folks. Even going so far as to profile an immigrant who got caught up in an awful loophole in the immigration system and using her story to make hyperbolic statements about "illegals" in general. "Jasmin is not one of the many illegal residents in the U.S. relying on government aid. She immigrated not for financial assistance, but to pursue her dreams." We see where CPI stands. What is telling though, are the comments attached to this column -- readers won't stand for this columnist rhetoric or logic. Of the 8 posted comments, most of them argue that this woman in an unfortunate situation caught in bureaucracy and deportation does not deserve our effort or sympathy either.

Voting as an act might well be a small gesture but it represents the idealism of our democracy and, in fact, is the foundation of the notion that we are all equal in choosing our leaders and decision makers. Keeping elections and voting as open, transparent and accessible as possible does not breed fraud but something more terrifying to nativists – it breeds power for the poor, working class, people of color and immigrants.

There are better systems available to us to develop the most participatory and active democracy possible -- even better than what we have. Stay tuned to the second segment of this two-part series: Residency Voting.