Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Afraid of What?

Police in a number of cities have tried to evict Occupy protesters, with varying degrees of success. There are several reasons why they may be trying to get rid of the protesters.

The city councils and mayors that give the police their orders and that are protecting the status quo may be afraid that the protests do not look inviting to visitors. They may be afraid that the protest encampments will become permanent squatters' villages, such as those established in cities elsewhere in the world. These are questions of appearance, and most people probably share these concerns. People want New York and Chicago and other American cities to remain livable and attractive. The powers-that-be understand that this is what most people want, so when they ousted the occupiers, they said it was to clean the parks.

The powers-that-be may also be concerned that the protests will become violent if they get large enough, even though they have been peaceful so far. Most people don't like violence, so if the powers-that-be can make the protesters appear to be violent, the public will go along with repressing the protests. The problem the powers-that-be have had in making this argument is that so far the only significant violence that has come out of the protests has been caused by the police, as has been clearly shown on videos posted online.

But the powers-that-be may be concerned about something that is much more threatening than untidy parks or unruly demonstrators. They may be worried that if the protests continue, people will start thinking more seriously about making fundamental changes to the way the capitalist system operates in our country.

Most people support some of the ideas which we are told are the foundation of our current economic system. Principally, people like the idea that they will be rewarded for their talent and effort, and they believe that the possibility of making money encourages people to be creative.

But there is an awful lot about the so-called capitalist system that people aren't particularly interested in preserving. Most people don't believe that the richest people have been able to amass large fortunes solely based on their talent and effort. They know that luck usually plays a role in financial success, and that exploitation and corruption often do also.

People don't like the idea that individuals and corporations should be allowed to accumulate vast wealth without paying their fair share to the government and without helping people who are not as fortunate and who are in need.

People don't believe that business profits should go only to the people who invest money in the businesses, without a share of the profit going to the people who work for the businesses. They think that people deserve bonuses and raises when their work makes companies profitable.

People also don't believe that businesses have the same rights as people do, despite what the Supreme Court recently decided. People think that they are more important to this country than the companies that make their toilet paper or import their waffle irons.

People also no longer believe that whether a person is wealthy should determine whether they, their children, or their parents get to see a doctor.

If the police and their bosses can keep people thinking about the outward appearances of the protesters and the tactics the protesters are using, most people will support the repression of the protests. It is not so clear what will happen if the public starts listening to what the protesters are saying about economic justice, and it is impossible to predict what kinds of changes people will make if they decide to restructure the economic system so that it acts in the way that the people think that it should.

Monday, November 28, 2011

What Do They Want?

Many commentators, particularly those who sympathize with the monied elite who are being referred to as the One Percent, have been criticizing the Occupy movement for not setting forth their demands. Maybe these critics should turn their gaze to the One Percent and ask what it is that they want.

Does the One Percent want young men who are living in gang-infested, economically distressed, racially segregated parts of our cities to shoot each other on a daily basis? Do they want innocent bystanders to get caught in the crossfire? Does the One Percent want children to drop out of high school because, seeing no successful people in their neighborhoods, they have no hope that education can help them succeed in life? Does the One Percent want middle-aged workers to sink into depression when they are laid off and unable to find work because their jobs have been sent overseas to maximize shareholders' values?

Does the One Percent want young people who cannot pay their student loans back to rely upon an underground black-market economy for their livelihoods and the goods and services they need, generating no tax revenue? Does the One Percent want to be catching colds and flu and more serious communicable diseases because people without health insurance do not get treatment? Does the One Percent want to feel they have to barricade themselves in their houses to avoid burglaries and muggings and kidnappings which increase as desperate people do what they feel they have to do in order to support themselves or their families?

Does the One Percent want their children to grow up in a world where increasing numbers of people resent them because of their privileged position? Does the One Percent want to have to walk to work through a gauntlet of beggars tugging at their sleeves? Does the One Percent want to live in fear that if they make bad investment decisions or are just unlucky they will be forced into the misery people at the other end of the economic spectrum experience on a daily basis?

An historically high level of economic disparity is the status quo that the police are protecting. Is that what the One Percent wants? Or do they really want what the Occupiers want – more hope, more justice, more equality, more respect, more peace, more democracy. If the One Percent and the Occupiers each wrote up their demands, how similar would they look? And if they were different, whose list would you sign on to?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Made In America

I went to buy a couple of pillow cases and towels because we needed them for the guests who were coming for Thanksgiving, an American holiday. At a store called Bed Bath and Beyond, I found linens made in a half dozen countries, but not in America. Three salesclerks were standing in the aisle, talking with each other, so I approached and asked if they had the items I was looking for that were made in America. They all said no. I asked if anything in the whole store was made in America. All three pondered, until one of them said there were some baking sheets at the front of the store that were made in America. That was the only American-made item that any of them could think of. At the checkout counter I saw the baking sheets, proudly displayed next to a sign saying they were made in America. The sign, which seemed to have been placed there to give the impression that the store had American-made merchandise, would have told a more complete story if it had said that the baking sheets were the only things in the whole store that were American made.

Next I went to Macy's, where they had plenty of pillow cases with brand names like Martha Stewart that sounded American. But all of the towels and bed linens were made in Turkey, India, and other foreign countries, not in America where cotton used to be king. I noticed that none of the foreign-made goods were branded to sound like they were made overseas. There were no Lakshmi towels or Patel pillowcases. There were no signs boasting that the merchandise was made abroad. You practically had to have a magnifying glass to read the little tags on the merchandise to find out where they were made. Stores must have concluded that Americans want to buy things that seem American even if they are not.

When I got home, I did find what I was looking for on the Internet. If I had thought ahead I could have ordered the American-made items and had them shipped to me. But I like to be able to feel towels and other soft-goods before I buy them so I can judge their quality, and you can't do that when you shop online.

I don't have anything against foreigners. I am happy that they are busy making things to sell. It just saddens me to think how much our manufacturing sector has shrunken. Years ago, I worked in a clothing store. It sold everything a man could wear, including socks, underwear, suits, coats, sweaters, jeans, handkerchiefs, belts, and hats. Items made of cotton, wool, linen, leather, and synthetic fabrics. No shoes. That's where I learned the importance of feeling the goods before buying. Nearly everything in the store was made in America by union workers. The quality was excellent and the price was reasonable. There were only a few foreign-made items, like some French sweaters for which there was no American-made substitute. They cost more than the American sweaters. No one ever had to ask to see merchandise that was made in America.

I remember salesmen stopping by the store and pulling samples out of their cases, proudly inviting us to feel the quality and inspect the stitching. The salesmen were Americans. I remember phone calls to the factories to reorder goods that had sold well. The factories were in America. The phones were answered in America, by Americans. I remember removing crumpled-up newspaper which had been stuffed inside of big shipping boxes to cushion the smaller boxes of merchandise inside. The newspapers were in English, and they came from American towns.

As I reminisce, I think of the people in those towns scattered all across America who used to make and pack the merchandise that I sold and I wore. I hope they enjoy Thanksgiving with their families. I hope they are healthy. I hope that those who want to work can find work.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Police Procedures

The video of a police officer at a California university casually spraying non-violent student protesters with noxious chemicals, the photo of an 84-year-old woman who was pepper-sprayed by police, the video of a marine whose skull was fractured by a projectile the police shot at him, the video of police firing point-blank at a reporter, and the photo of a protester's face which was bloodied by a police baton have all become emblematic of police repression of the Occupy movement.

We have learned from recent events that, to a disturbing degree, some police all over the country are better equipped with weapons than with judgment, and they have been acting with uncalled-for brutality. The civilian authorities have not done a very good job of controlling these police. Or perhaps, in some instances, the municipalities have been pleased with the police actions.

Some people think that the police are justified in using whatever force they want, and that the protesters could have avoided injury simply by not protesting. The point that they miss is that unless police officers are constrained by well-thought-out policies that are strictly enforced, the police will become a menace to the public at large.

That is exactly what happened the other day when police pursued a man who drove off in a minivan that he had stolen from a shopping center parking lot in suburban Northbrook, Illinois. Seven police cars chased him on the expressway, where he was apprehended after crashing into four vehicles, injuring himself and two other people.

The police could have simply written a report and told the car's owner to file a claim with her insurance company, like they do with countless other auto thefts. Instead, the police created a situation which resulted in damage to five vehicles, injuries to three people, and which could have caused even greater mayhem. The police were willing to risk that innocent motorists would be killed, just to apprehend someone who stole a car.

It is hard to imagine what policy the police were following. What rational person would risk so many lives in order to recover a car? But that is what police do every day. A couple of weeks ago, eight people were injured, four critically, when a car that was being chased by Chicago police crashed into another car.

After four students were shot by National Guardsmen at Kent State University forty-one years ago, President Nixon established a commission which investigated the killings. It concluded that the guardsmen had acted improperly and should not have been carrying lethal weapons when they confronted the protesters. In 1997, a study published by the U.S. Department of Justice said that because of the risk of injury to the public, high-speed police pursuits should only be undertaken if necessary to apprehend violent felons, and then only after weighing the risks.

Police like to think they are protecting the public. The public likes to think so, too. But unless the public insists that police follow reasonable procedures, the police can end up being more of a danger to society than the people they are supposed to be protecting us from.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Stranger Than Fiction

Months ago, Democrats – astonished by some of the Republican rhetoric about eliminating government regulation – joked that the next thing Republicans would propose would be repealing the child labor laws. This week, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich actually made that proposal, and he was being serious. He said that schools should save money by firing janitors and making the kids do the janitors' jobs.

Schools in Chicago and elsewhere have been lengthening the time students spend in class, in order to improve their educational performance. Newt thinks kids should spend less time studying in class and more time sweeping. If this proposal was coming from one of the other Republican candidates who have already lost credibility within their own party, it wouldn't be so newsworthy. But Newt is the latest candidate to surge in the polls as a possible challenger to Romney. He is being taken seriously largely because he actually has some experience in government, although people who remember how he behaved when he was in office are probably less likely to vote for him than people who didn't witness his antics.

Newt says that there is nothing wrong with a kid washing cars or selling newspapers to make a few bucks. I agree. I cut a neighbor's grass and shoveled snow and had a lemonade stand. But I did it in my free time – not when I was supposed to be in school. We had school janitors to mop the floors, clean up vomit, clean the toilets, pick up broken glass on the playground, balance on window ledges to wash the windows, and climb ladders to replace light bulbs. They did their jobs while I was in class. Sure, I occasionally washed the blackboards and clapped the chalkboard erasers. Other kids were playground assistants or hall monitors or bell-ringers or supply-room helpers. These were positions that were designed to teach us responsibility, and to give us a feeling of pride and involvement. We weren't just cheap labor brought in to bust the unions. Newt specifically attacked unionized janitors in his comments.

There are plenty of countries where kids still work instead of going to school. They shine shoes, sell gum, run errands, serve coffee, and mine minerals. What they don't do is get an education. They are too busy working to support themselves and their families. That's one of the big reasons we have child labor laws – to make sure kids get educated.

Another reason we have child labor laws is that when kids work, they get injured. They lose eyes and arms and lives – not shoveling snow or selling greeting cards door-to-door – but working on farms and in restaurants and factories, and falling off ladders and window ledges. Kids don't have a lot of power to insist on safe working conditions. It's hard for them to tell an adult supervisor that they don't think they have been given the proper equipment or training. Kids just do what they are told, unlike unionized adult workers.

Newt is actually proposing that adults be fired and replaced by lower paid kids. Newt talks as if this would be good for kids in poor neighborhoods. But will those neighborhoods be better off if adults' jobs are converted to kids' jobs, with lower pay? This degradation of income is one of the things that child labor laws were enacted to prevent. Newt must know this. He used to be a history teacher.

Our country has been attacked a few times, but Newt is one of very few people who can boast that he actually shut down the U.S. government, back when he was in Congress. He rose to power because of his “contract for America,” which was so destructive that it became knows as his “contract on America.” He is chiefly remembered as a guy who told his wife while she was in the hospital for cancer that he was leaving her for another women with whom he was having an affair. When he tells us that our kids should work instead of study in school, I have to wonder why anyone, even the most regressive Republican, would think it was a proposal that should be considered or that he is a candidate who deserved anyone's support.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Throwing Away Money

Once again, local elected officials seem to be in competition with the Pentagon to see who can waste the most taxpayers' money. A high school board in north suburban Chicago (Glenbrook District 225) wants to spend $3,500,000 to replace the grass on their football fields with artificial turf, and it is willing to distort the projected costs in order to justify the expenditure to the public.

In order to make the artificial turf look like it isn't as expensive as it seems, the school board points out that the artificial turf is less expensive to maintain than natural grass. Perhaps it is, but how much less? The board estimates that the artificial turf will cost only $36,500 per year to maintain compared to the $80,000 it now costs to maintain the natural grass. That is an annual savings of $43,500, which means it would take 80.5 years for the savings on maintenance to equal the $3,500,000 cost of the artificial turf. The board, in an apparent attempt to make the savings look larger than it really is, said the cost of maintaining natural grass would be $800,000 over ten years. Apparently they hoped we wouldn't notice that they were comparing ten years' costs for maintaining natural grass to one years' costs for maintaining artificial turf.

But that isn't the only problem with the figures the school board is using to justify buying artificial turf. The school board plans on borrowing money to pay for the artificial turf, so it would have to pay interest on the money it borrows, which means the turf would actually cost more than $3,500,000, which means it would take even longer than 80.5 years for the maintenance savings to equal the costs of the turf.

But wait, there's more. Because, according to the artificial turf industry, artificial turf only lasts about ten years, it would have to be re-installed seven times over the eighty-year period. The costs of each re-installation could be as much as several hundred thousand dollars, so that the total cost of installation and re-installation would be about $7,000,000, or twice as much as the $3,500,000 initial cost. In other words, it would take about forever for the cost of the artificial turf to be offset by the decreased maintenance costs.

But don't stop there. There are also concerns about the environmental impact of artificial turf. When it is uninstalled every ten years, it has to be disposed of, like a giant carpet taken out of a flooded basement. And if granulated rubber, which is made from old tires, is used to fill in the field, as is commonly done, and as was done on the artificial turf that the local park district installed, the entire field essentially becomes a big, smelly waste dump, complete with the possibility of air and water pollution from the rubber.

The school board wants us to believe that artificial turf is good because students can play on it even if it is wet, so the students could play outside in the rain and snow, instead of staying dry and healthy by playing inside when the weather is bad. The school board doesn't mention that they have just spent oodles of money building and renovating their indoor pools and field houses and other gym facilities. There is no reason for the kids to play outside during bad weather.

On the same day that the news story ran about the school board's plan to buy artificial turf, another story ran saying that up to 20 percent of the students at one of the two schools in the district are getting subsidized school lunches so they will have enough to eat. This school district is normally considered quite affluent, but in this difficult economy, families are having trouble feeding their kids. And yet, the school board wants to spend millions on artificial grass. Why? Because a neighboring school district has artificial grass.

The people who want the artificial turf originally told the school board they would be able to raise a million dollars in private donations from the sports boosters clubs to help pay for the turf. But they changed their estimate, and now say they could only raise about $500,00 over four years. Apparently they found out that people don't have as much money to throw around as they once did. The next time someone complains about the federal or state government wasting billions of dollars, we might want to remember the little school district that wasted millions, and tried to fool the taxpayers into thinking it was really saving them money.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Where Are The Young People?

Ever since the protests against the Iraq War started nearly a decade ago, people have observed that a lot of the protesters have been baby-boomers or older. “Where are the young people?” has been asked both by critics of the protests and by many of the protesters themselves. The Occupy protests, which have a large component of people in their twenties or thirties, have provided part of the answer. But there is more to the story.

All around the country, young people who have been learning about government and politics by volunteering for Obama or other campaigns or helping organize grass roots initiatives are coming onto the public stage and running for office. Last week, Holyoke, Massachusetts elected a new mayor – a twenty-two year old who was a senior in college when he launched his campaign. During the 2008 election, a twenty-eight year old from downstate Illinois became the youngest elected member of the U.S. House of Representatives. And where I live, young people are running for office and getting elected.

One young candidate is Ilya Sheyman, who graduated college just a few years ago. He is the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. House. Another young candidate is Daniel Biss, who was elected to the Illinois General Assembly when he was thirty years old, and is now, two years later, running for the Illinois Senate.

Some people have expressed concern that some of these candidates are too young to hold such important jobs. I have known both Sheyman and Biss over a period of years. A few minutes into our first conversations, I forgot all about their age, because each of them had a command of the issues and an understanding of the political process that I have only seldom encountered in other candidates and officeholders regardless of how old they were or how long they had been in their jobs. But more importantly, both Sheyman and Biss are in touch with the challenges that the voters are experiencing during these tough times, and they have genuine concern for the people and a determination to make things better.

I don't write this post to promote these candidates, although I do support both of them. I write today simply to observe that the answer to the question “Where are the young people” is “Right where we want them to be.” They are stepping forward and making themselves available when their country needs them, just like their elders taught them they should.

I understand the hesitation some people have about supporting young candidates. Their lack of life experience might suggest that they are not prepared. But the young candidates whom I have seen emerge do not fit that generalization. They are ready, eager, and able. If we want young people to take an interest in politics and government, we should evaluate them on their merits, not on their birth certificates.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Might and Right

On a recent visit to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum and other Lincoln historic sites in Springfield, Illinois, I learned that because the Union armies won the Civil War, slavery was abolished in the United States. The docents and wall labels made it sound as if everything turned out the way it was supposed to. Slavery was evil, and it was ended by the victorious Good Guys.

But things could have gone the other way. For a while, the secessionist Southern States were winning battles. They could have won the war. If they had won, slavery would have been around longer than it was. It might be with us today. If the South had won, museum visitors would probably be told that the Confederate victory proved that slavery was indeed a good thing, and that everything had turned out the way it was supposed to.

Throughout history, our museums and schools have taught us that we won wars because we were right. Lincoln himself said that “right makes might,” so the fact that we are mighty proves that we are right. Which is really the same as saying “might makes right.” Or, put another way, might is all that matters, whether you are right or wrong.

Some people have been saying, however, that might and right are independent of each other. We defeated the Native Americans because we were more powerful. There was nothing right about our victory. We wanted the land and we took it. Period.

More recently, we have had to explain how it could be that we have been losing our military adventures. We lost in Vietnam. Were we wrong? Some people think so, but I haven't yet seen a schoolbook or museum label that said so. The books and museums try to pretend that we didn't really lose, or they say that we weren't really at war, or they say that we would have won, but we gave up. They never say that the other side won because they were right. As a country, we never say we were wrong.

The Civil War has been over for 146 years. And still, the ideological descendants of the Confederacy are not willing to admit that their side was wrong. They are still arguing for “states' rights,” which during the civil war meant slavery, a hundred years later meant racial segregation, and today means no social programs for Blacks, expulsion of Mexicans, denial of reproductive rights for women, and repression of Muslims.

Although we would all like to think that we will not have another civil war, our schools and museums continue to teach us that if you can win a war, you not only can impose your will on those whom you defeat, you can also claim that it was God's will that you won. So, as we hear that sales of guns have increased since a black man was elected president, and that the right to carry concealed weapons in public has been affirmed in all but one state, we ought to ponder just how close we may be coming to the day when angry people will once again set out to prove that they are right by declaring war on what they see as an illegitimate domination of their states that has gone on since the surrender at Appomattox Court House. If that day comes, we can expect that our schools and museums will teach that whoever won was supposed to win. And if slavery once again becomes legal, we will be taught that everything is the way it is supposed to be.

Monday, November 14, 2011

What I Learned on Vacation

We took the AMTRAK from Chicago to Springfield, Illinois. The online ticket purchasing was easy. The check-in was quick, and we didn't have to arrive early or go through security. The conductor was pleasant. The seating was much more roomy and comfortable than on an airplane, and we could walk around. There was no charge for luggage.

I struck up conversations with a couple of other passengers. Everyone seemed to be enjoying the ride, which was much cheaper than flying, safer and more relaxing than driving, and less polluting than either. We arrived right in downtown Springfield and walked a couple of blocks to a hotel. We were delayed because of a computer problem experienced by the freight line that shares the tracks with AMTRAK, so we arrived about an hour and twenty minutes late. The delay was annoying, but much less annoying than construction or accident delays we might have encountered on the road. AMTRAK is talking about putting high-speed rail on this same route. Sounds like a good idea to me.

We toured the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum that the State of Illinois opened in 2005. It does a nice job of presenting a very limited story about Lincoln, but it probably didn't need to be built. Few authentic objects from Lincoln's life were on display. The historic district just a couple of blocks away, which is run by the U.S. Department of the Interior, is more impressive. At the historic district we toured through the actual Lincoln home, which has been beautifully restored. The tour guide was very knowledgeable and helpful. In another building, there was a well-presented orientation video. Those who say our federal government doesn't do anything well should visit this historic district. I have visited historic sites and museums all around the country, and a few abroad, and the Lincoln historic district is among the best. Admission was free. Paid for by our tax dollars.

We also visited the historic old state capitol. This is the stone building Obama stood outside when he announced he was running for President. Although some relatively minor mistakes were made in the restoration, such as putting the wrong kind of glass in the windows, the friendly docents were quick to point out the errors and to give additional information to anyone who wanted it. I walked out on a presentation about Civil War weapons. The presenters seemed entirely too in love with their killing machines and didn't seem to have any perspective on the destruction those weapons caused in their time or how they have contributed to our present-day militarism. The talk was for a general audience, and the presenters made an effort to engage the youngsters who were there. But it upset me that the only message those kids were getting about guns was “golly-gee-whiz isn't that cool.”

We talked with a few Springfield residents. They like their town but are sad to see it in its present state of economic decline. One state employee told us that the big problem is that recent Democratic governors have eliminated a lot of government jobs and moved others to the Chicago area, where most Illinoisans live, rather than keep them in Springfield, where Republican job-holders used to turn out the vote. Seemed strange to hear complaints in this traditionally strong Republican town that the Democrats are cutting government too much.

Everywhere we went, the people who depend on tourist dollars were gracious and accommodating. Over and over they thanked us for staying at their hotel, eating at their restaurants, visiting their attractions. I'm not sure that a few years ago, when people had more choices of jobs, that they were quite so hospitable.

It was good to get out of the house, talk with a few strangers, and see what is going on somewhere else. The hard times are reaching far and wide, and they will have long-lasting effects, good and bad. Just like when Lincoln was president.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Herman Cain

A woman who is generally aligned with the Tea Party posted on Facebook, “I wish I cared if Herman Cain was innocent or guilty of the allegations made against him. But after Bill Clinton, John Edwards, ... and Anthony Weiner, I only care if he will be better than the person currently in the Oval office. That answer is an easy yes.”

I don't understand how she could not care. She has a daughter. Would she want her daughter to interview for a job with Herman Cain, having heard what he's accused of doing to a woman who sought his help in getting her job back at the National Restaurant Association? If he used his position as head of a trade association to get sex, how would he abuse his power as President? Does it make any sense to not care whether he is guilty or innocent?

In general, what someone does in their own personal life is their own business. But the charge against Herman Cain is not simply that he was pursuing an extra-marital affair. He is accused of breaking the law by pressuring a job applicant to have sex with him.

The NRA paid two other women a year's salary each to keep quiet about Cain's sexual harassment. The NRA did not admit in the settlement that Cain did anything wrong. But the NRA paid these women far more than most women receive to settle their harassment cases. The NRA was represented by attorneys who were experts in this area of the law. If the charges against Cain were baseless, as Cain insists, why didn't the NRA defend the cases in court, where everyone could see just how unfounded the charges were? That is exactly what most employers do when faced with unfounded charges – they stand up to their accusers.

Our schools have a slogan they use in teaching children how society expects them to conduct themselves. The slogan is “Character Counts.” The schools are telling the kids not to cheat on tests, not to copy each other's homework, not to bully other kids. The schools are trying to counter the message kids hear over and over on TV that the only thing that matters is winning. Our schools are trying to instill ethics into our kids before the kids go out into the wide world.

The “Character Counts” slogan is a response to Olympic competitors breaking each other's kneecaps, to politicians taking bribes, to corporations ignoring environmental laws. It is based on the idea that if we have a strong moral core, a sense of right and wrong, confidence in ourselves, and sensitivity and concern for others, we will be able to make good choices as we encounter challenges in our lives. It is a message that I would have thought almost everyone agrees with, particularly people who like to think they are superior to other people because they are Conservative - Tea Party - Right Wing – Christian - Value Voter - Moral Majority, and legally in this country.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Guns In Church

The Catholic archbishops of Milwaukee, Madison, La Crosse, Green Bay, and Superior say that it is up to individual churches whether to allow parishioners to carry weapons into churches, now that Wisconsin law allows people to carry concealed weapons. "Whatever an individual parish decides to do regarding its policy on concealed weapons, we ask that all people seriously consider not carrying weapons into church buildings as a sign of reverence for these sacred spaces."

I guess we've come a long way since the 1960s, when John F. Kennedy had to confront people's concerns that as a Catholic he would have to obey the Pope, which could conflict with his obligation to the nation. Today, the church hierarchy doesn't even seem to feel comfortable telling people how to act in its own churches. Now that carrying guns in church is OK, gum chewing must be, too.

I like that the church's statement encourages people to make their own choices on how to behave, although it does seem odd, coming from a church which is famous for telling people which choices they should make in their own bedrooms. And I like that the church reminds people that they are supposed to have reverence for sacred spaces. What I am having trouble figuring out, though, is why the church is being so timid. Surely the Catholic church can't think that their churches are really dangerous places to be on Sundays, or they would be arming the ushers.

For the past ten years, very few religious organizations have taken a stand on the most fundamental of all questions: whether we should make wars and kill people. I have been told that a lot of religious leaders sidestepped that issue for the very practical reason that they didn't want members who disagreed with them to stop coming to church and contributing to their church's coffers. Is this why the Wisconsin Catholic churches aren't taking a stand on guns? Are they afraid that Wisconsinites love their guns more than they love their God?

Without claiming to be an expert on Catholic church doctrine, I feel safe in saying that a basic belief of that church is that people are supposed to have faith in God, and that people are supposed to demonstrate their faith in the way they live their lives. Could the church think it would be asking too much of people to show their trust in God for a few minutes each Sunday by take their guns off?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Oakland and Chicago Occupations

Reading about the violence in Oakland, which was apparently initiated by some of the police and joined in by some of the occupiers, I have been pondering whether the occupations in Chicago and other cities can expect that they will also experience more violence, either by the police or by others. Because protests in both cities were inspired by the occupation of Wall Street in New York, news reports about them make it seem as if they were all part of one movement, and many of the protesters like the idea that they are part of a nationwide movement. In many respects they are. Most notably, they share many of the same concerns and some of the same tactics.

But there are differences. One difference is that the people in Oakland are different from the people in Chicago. Not necessarily different races or income levels or ages – just different people. It seems obvious, but the reporting on the occupations seems to have overlooked this difference in the protesters, the reporters, the politicians, and the public.

People in Chicago have to deal with Mayor Rahm, a man who was elected despite the fact that just about everyone who had ever dealt with him described him as a bully. When he had the police roust the protesters from the park where they were encamped, it came as no surprise. People in Oakland knew what they could expect, too. It is a city with its own history of police brutality and resistance to that brutality. This is not to say that the police in either Oakland or Chicago are worse, it is just to say that the protesters in each city know their own police and politicians, and they have developed their own strategies for dealing with them over the years.

Besides the people, there are huge differences between the two cities. Different industries, different histories, different geography, different neighboring cities, different climate, different everything. Chicagoans take pride in their El, the way they garnish hot dogs, the thickness of their pizzas, their jazz, their sports teams, their corrupt politicians, and their accents or lack of accents. People in Oakland have their own sense of pride-of-place, too. It shouldn't come as a surprise if the way they protest is different from ours, or if they have fringe groups among their occupation that we don't have here. When the police in Chicago get out of control, we chant, “The whole world is watching” because of what happened here in 1968. I don't know what they chant in Oakland when their police go on the attack.

The press in Chicago has been doing a pretty good job reporting on the Chicago occupation, and the press in Oakland has probably been doing a pretty good job, too. But a reporter in either city would have to do an awful lot of homework to be able to really understand the situation in the other city. Some news outlets try to overcome this problem by having local reporters cover each city and write joint stories. But with deadline pressures, even this collaborative approach has severe shortcomings. So the stories we get really don't give us much basis for drawing any conclusions about whether the activities in one city will be duplicated in another. Social and political scientists can theorize about what will happen, but their predictions usually look backward into history, and they have the same problem the reporters do of not being familiar with the differences among the occupied cities.

Probably anyone can guess what will happen next, but no one can make reliable predictions. The future will depend upon so many things. Oakland ain't Chicago, politics ain't beanbag, and things ain't always the way they seem to be. To date, Oakland is the only city among dozens in this country that are occupied where there has been any level of serious violence. The violence may be more about Oakland than it is about the occupations.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

I Was Wrong

When I encouraged readers to attend the Urban Dolorosa events that are being held at five churches this week, I thought I was sending people to the sorts of anti-violence vigils that take place on a regular basis when someone is killed. I attended the first event this evening and found that I was mistaken. The event was extraordinary. The music is beautifully performed by musicians and vocalists with professional-quality abilities. The photographs that were projected were powerful. The reading of the names of the victims left the room in a solemn silence, and when a few people in the audience called out names that had not been on the list, the message that violence is too commonplace was driven home beyond any doubt.
There are four more of these events this week. See the previous post for the dates, times, and locations. Make a point of attending one.