Employment in Inner City Grand Rapids: Not Just an Issue of Black and White

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (May 1996)

A few people had told me that employment in Grand Rapids’ inner city, particularly among Black males, was shockingly low – much more so than for Whites. Others dismissed the figures as certainly exaggerated. So i decided to investigate, using 1990 Census data.

The data available did not allow me to break down employment according to male and female in most cases, though i was able to do so for young adults. But here is what i was able to come up with:

In the entire city, the White employment rate for ages 16 to 65 is 95%; the Black rate is 81 %. Put another way, official Black unemployment in Grand Rapids is almost four times higher than official White unemployment.

In the central city – which. defined as all those neighborhoods any part of which is within one mile of the Downtown or Heartside neighborhoods – official White unemployment, at 8%, is less than a third the rate.of official Black unemployment, which stands at 26%.”‘

Those official figures do not take into account those not in the labor force, whether because they are unpaid “homemakers”, or have given up looking for paid work, or for other reasons. Taking that into account, the citywide White employment rate is 78% while the Black rate is 57%. In the central city those respective rates are 74% and 44%. In other words, in the central city slightly over I in 44 White people of employable age are not employed, while that figure for Black people is more than 1 in 2.

Among 16- to 19-year-olds who are not in school, 39% of Whites are either unemployed or not in the labor force. For Blacks the figure is 72%. In the central city those figures are 47% for Whites and 76% for Blacks. To put those last figures another way, slightly over half of young White people in the central city who are not in school have a job; the comparable figure for young Black people is slightly less than one out of four.

Due to lack of further information, these figures should be treated with some caution. In particular, there is no way to know how many of those considered “not in the labor force” are being monetarily supported by other family members.

In addition, it does not make sense to compare apples to oranges; the data are only meaningful when similar categories are compared to each other. For instance, comparing the extremes of the rate of official unemployment among White adults throughout the city (or the county) to the rate of those “not in the labor force” who are Black, young adults, and not in school, Is not very meaningful- there are too many variables to enable one to draw meaningful conclusions from such comparisons.

Nevertheless, the discrepancies that these figures make clear are striking enough to be of very serious concern. And according to recent data developed by GRETS, population is up in Grand Rapids while employment is down. Thus, the situation is probably worse now than it was in 1990g.

Hearing on Imprisonment Indicates People are Ready to Change Direction

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (May 1996)

On March 19 members of the State State Judiciary Committee held a hearing in Grand Rapids to take testimony from citizens on a broad range of issues relating to the prison system. It was one of three or four hearings in different parts of the state designed to take “a comprehensive look at the Michigan Correctional (sic) System”.

Numerous people showed up to testify, and the hearing lasted three full hours. Following are highlights of the testimony, taken in the order it was presented:

John Campbell, Chair of the Allegan County Commission and representing the Michigan Association of Counties, said that the large and increasing cost of imprisonment in Michigan means that other services are increasingly limited. If present trends continue, “corrections” and Medicaid will end up being the only programs funded in the state. Alternatives need expansion, and privatization should be looked at.

Patrick Bowler, Chief Judge of 61st District Court; and representing District Court judges, said: “I don’t think a judge today-can send someone to jail because they tick ’em off. At least judges shouldn’t do that.”

I personally found that interesting, having been kept in jail for nearly a month last year after Bowler got “ticked off’ when i insisted on a personal rather than a video arraignment, and then would not agree to stay away from Calder Plaza (my “home:’, then and now).

David Schieber, an assistant Kent County Prosecutor who claimed to represent Michigan prosecuting attorneys, complained about prison being too comfortable, with “regular meals, TV s, VCRs … ” Relatively minor felony infractions are “useful” to put “dangerous people” away for along time. The ADC (sic) program is “basically producing feral children.” Going to prison in sign of manhood for some; “the stigma of prison is gone now.” We inevitably have to consider alternatives that have a stigma, such as caning, which should be done by martial arts instructors, as it is in Singapore. In Singapore, women can safely waIk the streets at night.

Questioned about alternatives other than caning, Schieber replied that co did not want to get into that, as it would likely “demean what is a serious discussion” .

Jerry Ammon(?) held family breakdown as being responsible for most criminality, saying: “Most prisoners are from single parent families.” Parents who can’t make child support payments, rather than being locked up, should be asked to do work benefiting society. Judges should be required to have college credits in family-related courses.

Deborah Gutierrez cited a man sent to prison for five years for drunk driving who now “cannot take care of’ cos family. “Humongous sentences are given for small amounts of cocaine.” Rehabilitation is suggested instead. Overcrowdedness results largely from mandatory minimum sentence laws. As for the prison system, “the more people they keep in there, the more money they get.”

John Wynbeek; Director of Alternative Directions and a member of the State Community Corrections Board, said the goal of the criminal justice system should be–reconciliation and restitution for harm. Last year those in Alternative Directions, a 75-bed facility [located at 1706 S. Division in GR], earned $500,000, enough to pay substantial taxes, over $100,000 in rent, and $71,000 in restitution.

A person whose name i did not get said the prison system’s grievance procedure was basically totally ineffective.

Dennis Schrantz, former director of the Michigan. Community Corrections Board, told legislators that they have added 5000 prison cells and one billion dollars in yearly costs since 1980. There has been a dramatic drop in the rate of increase since the Michigan Community Corrections Act was passed in 1988. Judges should have more discretion, and legislators should not set minimum sentences.

William Van Regenmorter, Committee Chair, commented in response that Michigan’s index of violent crime has gone down 20% since 1985.

Doug Redford of Prison Fellowship [a “Christian” group headed by ex-burglar Charles Colson] said we’ve poured billions into the prison system, yet when inmates leave they typically have a fourth grade education, no money, no job skills, no friends, no place to stay, etc. So the 75% recidivism rate should be no surprise: “Moral reformation” was offered as the answer!

I said if anyone belongs in prison, it is JayVanAndel, Rich DeVos, and others of their ilk who have stolen far more of our wealth than anyone else. Corporate power and greed are the driving forces for the increase in imprisonment. We have to take back control over large corporations. Money being spent for prisons should go to those who now have the least as a matter of justice. “Most of the total existing wealth on this planet was not created by a few corporate executives sitting in their jets and air-conditioned offices, but was created by a combination of nature and the work of all of our ancestors.” Judges who intervene in the prison system have a slightly moderating influence, which is good, but are afraid to do more partly because of “self-serving politicians such as some of you up there who mouth deceitful ‘tough on crime’ slogans because you believe doing so will help you get voter support”. We all, because we are part of the human family, “have basic rights and deserve basic respect and support, no matter what we may have done”.

Joseph Soper; local Court Administrator, said, “It’s good to force us to be creative at the local level rather than rely on the state bureaucracy.”

” Will Konyndyk, of Hope Network/Exodus (a ministry to people released from prison jail), asked that mandatory sentences be dropped. At Exodus, “we try to· teach personal responsibility”. Mary Montgomery, who husband was denied parole in 1994, said letters to the Parole Board have often been sent back due to legislation recently passed by the State.

Hiba Nimmer(?), whose prisoner advocacy with the American Friends Service Committee~ said wardens now are encouraged to deny “special good time” to prisoners. This often results in years more prison time; in one case eight years more.

The Judiciary Committee, dominated by Republican legislators such as Van Regenmorter who have often played to public fears in pushing for more punitive measures, was confronted during the evening with a clear message that we need to follow a different path. Whether that path ends up being less punitive is an open question, though majority sentiment clearly favored that. And i was surprised when my presentation, in a roomful of suits, was one of a few that elicited generous applause.

One would not know any of this from Grand Rapids Press coverage of the hearing. The headline was, “Caning could be a crime stopper”, and Schieber’s testimony was given the most prominent and extensive space. In fact, only two others who testified were quoted at all.

Thankfully, G.R. Press to the contrary, there was only one David Schieber at the hearing. Once again, there is some public indication that things are starting to turn around.

Labor History in Grand Rapids, Part I

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (May 1996)

In 1900 Grand Rapids was a bustling river town, not fully settled, but no longer frontier. The red light district was located in the river valley while the mansions of the wealthy overlooked the city from Heritage Hill.

Only seventeen years earlier, the last great log run swept away the railroad bridge near Ann Street. Crowds gathered along the banks of the Grand River to watch as thousands of white pine logs created a jam seven miles long and thirty feet deep. Perhaps this is why so many furniture factories started in the “valley city” — cheap wood, cheap water power, and cheap labor. Scattered along the river and throughout the city were 85 furniture and woodworking factories. Berkey and Gay, Widdicomb, American School Furniture Co. (American Seating), Sligh, Stickley Bros. and others were just then making this medium size city of 87,576 the furniture capital of the United States, a title it held until the Great Depression.

It was this cheap labor that bothered Thomas Kidd, secretary of the newly formed Amalgamated Wood Workers International Union (est. 1895). Low Grand Rapids wages were depressing the earnings of his members.

If the union was to grow, Grand Rapids workers needed to be brought into the fold. Kidd made numerous speaking trips to the city passionately and eloquently presenting his case to the English, Irish, German, Dutch, Polish, and Lithuanian finishers, rubbers, cabinet makers, sanders, and machine hands who compromised the 7,000 workers of Furniture City, USA.

“The most foolish and silly thing the working men have done of late years is to allow themselves to be kept divided by the religious question. Who ever heard of a corporation, a trust, or a combination of any kind, of capitalists allowing any question foreign to the objects for which they are organized to enter into their consideration at all? Everything likely to create discord is wisely cast aside, and all keep their eye on the main thing — the dollar. That is what they are after.”

“All the institutions of the country are used against us, even our chump of a president, Grover Cleveland [enthusiastic applause] and our condition will never be improved with being a better Democrat or a better Republican. Is all this not enough without our quarreling over questions of faith and thus assisting the enemy to bind us still tighter? [Many of the Dutch were opposed to trade unions.] The working men of this country are gradually but surely getting behind those of other countries. I am a Scotsman and I never worked over eight hours per day, nor on Saturday afternoons until I cam to this progressive country.”

“The union label is the coming power, and it will do away with strikes. The wood workers have adopted a label and already a furniture manufacturer in Chicago is using it on all his furniture, and a Minneapolis manufacturer will at one begin using 22,000 labels a week, and there will be no more strikes there. Furniture without the label can easily be boycotted through the central bodies in other cities.”

“In comparison with other furniture localities, wages here are fairly good, but if the workers here remain unorganized it will only be a matter of time when the employers will have to cut you still lower in order to compete with furniture from other parts. Reason as you will, experience proves conclusively that you will never get better wages unless you organize. In Oshkosh and Marshfield, Wisconsin, wages were as low as five cents an hour before unions were organized in those places, and the men were working eight hours a day, forty cents a day! Just think of it. Do you want to come to that? If you do, continue to go it alone, each man for himself, and you will get it, just as sure as you live.”

Despite Kidd’s best efforts, Grand Rapids Local 46 and Spindle Carvers Local 84 never numbered more than 200 members. In March, the AWWIU held its national convention in Grand Rapids. If the workers would not come to the union, the union would come to them. As hosts, Local 46 and 84 hand made convention badges of “white maple veneer handsomely lettered and mounted.” Sixty-eight delegates attended the week long session.

Most were German immigrants with a few English, French, and Swedes thrown in. The constitution was amended and union policies debated. However, all was not work. Germans, being Germans, and definitely not following the temperance fashion of the times, attended a social session held for the delegates entertainment:

“When the social session opened at 9 p.m. the hall was crowded, over four hundred present. ‘Elk’s mil’ was the first order of business and after several trips of the white-aproned dispensers, the fun began.”

An invitation was sent by the delegates to the local furniture manufacturers inviting them to meet with the union’s officers to discuss the advantages of the union label. Sligh, Rettig & Sweet, and the Luce Company agreed to meet.

The appointed time came and went, but no furniture representatives.

Unwilling to was the evening, the AWWIU officers decided to take in a performance at the Powers Theater. And what should be playing but “Sappho,” a performance so risqué, with the actress who portrayed a Greek heroine baring her arms and feet, that it had been banned in New York City and Kalamazoo, Michigan.

However, this was not the only thing laid bare that night. It seems the lure of culture was too strong for even upright, respectable businessmen, for there, seated in the crowded theater, were the errant furniture barons.

Epilogue

Kidd never did organize the furniture workers of Grand Rapids, despite his charismatic appeal and unceasing efforts. It would take another organizer and another union to lead Grand Rapids furniture workers in the Great 1911 Furniture Strike.

Justice 2000 Plan Runs Up Against Mayor’s Arrogance

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (May 1996)

While testifying at a Grand Rapids City Commission bearing on billboards last year, i suggested that there may be conflicts of interest involved with the Mayor and one other Commission member. Before i could continue, Jobn Logie (Grand Rapids Mayor) interrupted to explain cos view of those possible conflicts of interest. Co counted that time as part of my allotted 3 minutes, and cut me off immediately at the end of that time. When i protested, saying that cos interruption shouldn’t count as part of my time, co said, falsely, that i bad asked a question, implying that it was reasonable to count the “answer” as part of my time.

At a recent Commission meeting i did ask a question: Why no response to the request several of us made in December that the City establish a “Grand Rapids Justice 2000 Plan”? The response to this direct question was … utter silence. When i said something like, “I’m asking a question, and would like a response”, Logie said that the Commission does not have to respond to anything during a public comment period. So i asked, “Then, how do i go about getting a response?” Logie’s response to that: “if we decide to respond, we’ll let you know.”

If you are concerned about this arrogance and lack of meaningful response on the part of elected City officials, you might contact the Mayor’s office to express that concern: Jobn Logie, 300 Monroe Av. NW, Grand Rapids, MI, 49503; phone: 456-3168.

Residents Ignored Again as Grand Pricks Committee Pushes to Convert Downtown G.R. Streets into a Racetrack!

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (May 1996)

Since as early as 1992 DeVos and two others have been talking about holding “Grand Prix” races in downtown Grand Rapids. These races are held elsewhere in the country, though generally not on city streets! They involve loud, souped up cars that race repeatedly around a track.

Why? Good question!

At any rate, as one might gather from the presence of a DeVos, even such a crazy idea as this is no mere fantasy. In fact, it has been taken seriously by several City officials. Until recently, it was being planned-for July 1997. Now it is tentatively set for August 1998g.

Such an event is said to attract business to the area. In the eyes of some, that seems sufficient to justify virtually anything. Corporate sponsors would cover a good deal of the cost, and it is anticipated that many people would actually pay to witness these cars racing around (apparently they do so in other places).

One of the major corporate sponsors is Exxon, of Alaska oil spill fame. Promoters don’t seem to care what reputation the sponsors bring, so long as they bring their money.

To set up for such a race, which would be held over a three-day weekend and cover a circuit about two miles long, streets must be “rotomilled” and repaved. Manhole (sic) covers would have to be welded shut. Blockades must be set up to protect spectators and others. The route is proposed to fall within DDA (Downtown Development Authority) boundaries “so the DDA can be used as a financial resource to assist in the payment the street improvements.” The DDA, dominated by rich White males who do not live downtown, or necessarily even in the City, has control over millions of tax dollars that are diverted from schools and general government.

A committee supporting this idea says total costs of over $2.5 million would involve essentially no cost to the City other than some staff time. That staff time, in some cases at $30-$50 an hour, has perhaps already been considerable, though no estimate is available on total staff time cost. In addition, there is apparently no contemplation of rental charges for use of downtown streets. Of more concern, citizens would be barred from use of those streets during most of the three-day period of the event. Apparently no cost has been assigned, or even figured, for that loss of use.

In discussing the idea initially, one might think that the committee pushing for this event would want to get-the reaction of Grand Rapids citizens generally, and especially of those who live and/or work downtown. Not so! In setting up initial meetings to pursue the idea, Craig Kinnear, director of the Downtown Management Board, invited presidents or directors of GVSU, the Chamber of Commerce, the Grand Action Committee (a group of rich people who are responsible for the Arena, among other “development” projects), other business and tourist promotion groups, and owners/ managers of various large businesses downtown. NO average citizens were invited, NO residents or representatives of resident groups were invited, NO neighborhood association representatives were invited, NO workers or representatives of worker groups were invited, NO students were invited. In short–business as usual.

When Craig was asked why the planning group was so limited, co responded that any plan needs final City approval, and that public input could occur at that time. Co touted the idea as “an opportunity to showcase Grand Rapids:’ Asked if co had any concern about using Grand Rapids streets to “showcase” such exploitative companies as Exxon, co said simply, “No.”

Not at Play in the Fields of the Lord: The Bible League and Genocide

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (April 1996)

In October, Ralph Reed, director of the Christian Coalition, spoke in Grand Rapids by invitation from the Acton Institute. (Founded by a Catholic priest, the Acton Institute believes that Christianity and Capitalism make great bedfellows) In attempting to localize the influence of the Religious Right I gave a presentation at the Institute for Global Education the month prior to Reed’s visit. While researching the local connections I was amazed at how many groups there were and what role they play on the international scene. This essay will focus on the Wycliff Bible Translators/Summer Institute of Linguistics work and their relationship to the Illinois based group, The Bible League, which has its Latin American branch based in Jenison, Michigan.

Around the turn of the century a growing number of Christians, called Millennialists, thought that the Great Tribulation would occur by the year 2000. This cosmological view of the world prompted many missionary groups to work towards evangelizing the planet before the rapture, with the hope of bringing more souls to Christ. One such young evangelist, Camerond Townsend, felt that more than any other population in the world, indigenous people would benefit the most.

After being challenged to translate the Christian New Testament into a Mayan language known as Cakchiquel, Townsend decided that he would develop an organization to translate the Christian bible into all the indigenous languages in the world. Thus the Wycliff Bible Translators came to be. This was in the 1930’s when there was some antichurch sentiments running through Latin America. To avoid the appearance of being missionaries, Townsend decided to call his overseas operation the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL), to lend more credibility to his efforts. In the end the SIL, who’s claim that they were not an evangelistic organization, came under significant fire for their deception as a linguistic group and the role they would play in the colonization, exploitation and genocidal policies directed at many indigenous communities around the world.

While researching the historical role of SIL I discovered that a local group, The Bible League, was translating Christian bibles for SIL in Mexico and Peru. I wrote to The Bible League to ask if they were aware of the accusations made against SIL by well known scholars, anthropologists and Indigenous groups? A Rev. Chester Schemper wrote me back stating that “SIL publicly and categorically denies these charges as completely false. We have every reason to accept SIL’s categorical denials.” Rev. Schemper and the folks at SIL may categorically dent these accusations, but there is too much credible scholarship that says otherwise.

Mexico

SIL formally has its beginnings in Mexico. Cameron Townsend was invited to Mexico by a government official who was impressed with Townsend’s work in Guatemala. Townsend was quickly able to win over the administration of Lazaro Cardenas in supporting his project to learn the native languages of southern Mexico. Cardenas was very impressed with Townsend’s projects that he even bought him a brand new car to show his gratitude. So why would a government that tended to be anti-clerical give such support to a Christian group like SIL? Consistent with most “liberal” and “revolutionary” governments in the Americas, Cardenas was hoping to bring the indigenous population more fully into the national identity. This strategy has been employed mostly to provide cheap labor for expanding markets, but also to snuff out potential indigenous led insurgent movements or the support of those movements. The work of SIL fit nicely into this nationalist program.

Beginning in the 1970’s, however, SIL came under attack from Mexican activists, indigenous groups and anthropologists. One example of this criticism came from anthropologists who were shocked when they found out that a SIL translated dictionary of the Tzotzil speaking Maya of southern Mexico had eliminated both Spanish and native words for ideological concepts that threatened the status quo. Interestingly this came at a time when there were significant conflicts in the region. Another anthropologist cited in Is God An American: An Anthropological Perspective on the Missionary Work of the Summer Institute of Linguistics (Hvalkof & Aaby, 1981), observes that SIL encouraged indigenous people to submit to the repression since it was being perpetrated by the local authorities. “If any of you are killed by the bosses….do not retaliate. God is the one who has set the bosses in authority over us; therefore we must pray for them. They are part of God’s plan…God is in control and He always works for our good. It is impossible for anyone to kill us before God says we can come home. If we are killed by them, let us consider that since God is over all, this is part of his will.”

In 1979, a commission from Mexico’s College of Ethnology and Social Anthropology had presented the government with a report that concluded “SIL supports the expansion of capitalism in areas rich in natural resources, opening these areas to the capital markets and turning the population into a docile and cheap labor force.” (Spiritual Warfare, Diamond 1989) This comes as no surprise when one realizes who has been funding SIL over the years. In Thy Will Be Done, the authors give us this list: the Pew Family Sun Oil Company, Nelson Baker Hunt Placid Oil, Standard Oil of New Jersey, Weyerhauser, Samuel Milbank Corn Products Corporation, USA military surplus, USAID, US Department of Defense, CIA and the US State Department just to name a few.

When I wrote The Bible League and inquired as to their relationship with SIL, I also asked “do you think that Indigenous communities that have practiced their own forms of religion for centuries need Christianity? Is Christianity a superior form of religion, and how do you respect people’s basic right to engage in their own form of worship and beliefs?” Their response was “The Bible League is convinced that what the world needs more than anything else is the Bible, which introduces men to Christ in who people can find hope for now and eternity….If the people were to respond to it, this would certainly be a lot better world to live in.” At this point it would do us well to ask for whom is it a better world to live in? From all of the sources I have read and cited here, just in regard to SIL, suggests that indigenous people are worse off than they were before the missionaries invaded their territory. In fact, SIL has been very intolerant and antagonistic towards the religious traditions of the indigenous groups they have come in contact with.

SIL has viewed indigenous religious beliefs and practices as the “principle abode of Satan.” (Fishers of Men or Founders of Kingdom, Stoll 1982) In standard imperial fashion this missionary group even equated the indigenous peoples troubles with their practice of “witchcraft and shamanism.” With this kind of thinking it is understandable that these kinds of religious groups would feel that their work is not only good, but necessary. Indeed, like much of the Cold War rhetoric, SIL saw the influence of communism in many countries, where nationalist or revolutionary movements grew, as the influence of Satan. To collaborate with US government agencies or US client state authorities was standard fare in the battle for people’s souls. This imperialist practice even reached into the realm of culture. Stoll cities one example where SIL was “supplanting Amuesha sacred music with its own. Set to Amuesha words, all too familiar tunes like ‘O My Darling Clementine’ and ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ were leaping out of cheap play-back only cassette players which translators distributed from Peru to Guatemala.” This may not seem like such a big deal to The Bible League or many others, since it is the very nature of missionary groups to engage in this type of religious and cultural imperialism, but in the realm of international law it is simply called genocide.

According to the 1947-48 Genocide Convention “genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation. It is rather intended to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aimed at the essential foundation of life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the group themselves. The objectives of such a plan would be the disintegration of the political and social institutions of culture, language, and national groups…” This type of genocide, sometimes called cultural genocide, is stated quite clearly by the North American Congress on Latin America in regards to SIL, “The integration policies, however designed to abolish the reservation, wipe out the material basis for any possible continuance of indigenous culture. These policies force upon the Indians a whole spectrum of relationships based on private ownership of property and remove the underpinnings of their cultural survival.” (Report on the Americas – NACLA 1973)

For the past 20 years or so SIL has been the target of much criticism by numerous groups, especially indigenous. In 1980, at the Inter-American conference, delegates denounced SIL and asked that conference participants withdraw an honor that had been given to SIL founder Cameron Townsend in 1972, Benefactor of the Linguistically Isolated Population of America.” The decision was unanimous. According to Guatemalan author Victor Perera “SIL officials pressured Guatemalan politicians not to ratify funding for the Academy of Mayan Languages in 1990” for fear of losing control over linguistic work in the country. (Unfinished Conquest, 1993) Perera goes on to cite Mayan cultural activist Demitrio Cojti on the SIL, “The time has come for Mayas to reclaim their own languages as well as the distinct cultural vision they sustain. We have no more need of foreign excavators and interpreters of our Maya heritage.”

It is my view that as Mayans and other Indigenous people struggle to reclaim cultural autonomy, and in some cases political sovereignty, we need to respect and support these efforts. The Bible League, even though it may deny the charges of SIL participation in government and corporate crimes, it is still an accomplice in genocide. In many ways they serve the same function as Catholic priests did who blessed the European conquest of the Americas, chaplains who blessed soldiers and bombs as they murder civilians, or Christian leaders who encouraged the anti-semitic and fascist policies of Nazi Germany. One might ask how providing bibles overseas could be equated with the heinous atrocities committed in the previous examples? One may remember that US Chief Justice Robert Jackson, who presided at the Nuremberg trials against war criminals, sentenced Julius Stricker to death for his part in the Nazi extermination campaign. Stricker’s crime was acting as the editor of a German newspaper that dehumanized the Jews and contributed to the German public’s acceptance and participation in genocide, particularly with the racist caricatures of Jews on the pages of Der Sturmer. The Bible League does no less, since its literature promotes a cultural assimilation that can lead to cultural genocide.

I would encourage people to challenge the Bible League on this matter by contacting them at 16801 Van Dam Road, South Holland, Illinois, 60473 or call the Jenison, Michigan office at 616-457-3900. Also, I would suggest that we investigate and challenge the activities of any and all foreign missionary groups to see if they are engaged in similar activities. Ultimately we may need to call into question and challenge the very nature of mission work, since it is based upon the assumption that the truth they proclaim is superior to that of the Indigenous.

Resurgent Mayan Identity: Human Rights, Elections, and Popular Organizing in Guatemala

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (January 1996)

It was Saturday afternoon in Chichi when we arrived. This was market day where the human activity resembled that of an ant colony. Everyone was busy buying and selling, trading and bargaining. The economic activity of this market economy is radically different from the one that we are used to in the US. It is more of a social event than anything else. Most people who are displaying their wares either made them or grew them. Food clearly dominates the items for sale, thus creating a large potluck atmosphere with people eating and sharing all day long. The smells of the comedores and the sight of tipicas bring great pleasure to the senses, senses that are deadened in the standard supermarket of the North, filled with plastic, preservative, and a multitude of products disconnected from their makers. It is in this vibrant, dynamic setting that the new party members brought their message.

We arrived accompanying members of the newly formed political party Frente Democratico Nueva Guatemala. We were invited to accompany them since the majority of candidates are popular movement organizers who have been on the death squad lists for years and because the government has labeled them an extension of the armed resistance movement. This is a standard tactic used by repressive governments against new parties that advocate anything other than business as usual. This discrediting label did not seem to take effect here in Chichi. The people swamped the pickup truck we were riding in, all extending a hand out to get the literature that was being passed out. Within 30 minutes the flyers and calendars that were being distributed were gone. At first we thought that this was an aberration. Maybe people were taking flyers because it was free or because literature was hard to come by in these rural communities. Our speculations were quickly dismissed when two other party groups arrived passing out their respective flyers. People did not swarm their trucks nor struggle to grab the paper with outstretched hands. While we watched these parties flounder on the street, Maria, a Mayan woman with the Frente, began to speak over a loudspeaker.

People gathered around to hear her powerful words. She spoke with conviction and clarity about the dreams and desires of her people, but she also talked about how her party members have been fighting for justice alongside these people for years. That is why the crowds listened intently and that is why they rushed to take the flyers. All of this was not clear to me at first, because Maria spoke to the crowd initially in Quiche. This was another clear distinction between the Frente and the other parties, they always had local representatives who spoke the local language. Maria did not use much political rhetoric nor did she make idle promises. She spoke as she has spoken for years, about the demand for an end to murder, an end to the disappearance, an end to poverty, and an end to impunity. Only then will the people be able to determine what kind of future they will have.

This scene, like many others i witnessed, reflected the political space that was opening up in Guatemala. A space that was not given to them, but one that they made for themselves. I arrived in Guatemala 3 weeks before the elections on November 12. My intention was to meet with as many people as possible, to gather information, to work on a video about human rights, and to observe the elections. The following is some of the information and experiences of my trip.

Popular Movements and Political Repression

As was mentioned before the public activity of the popular movements is at an all time high. Every time I go back to Guatemala new groups have formed. Some of them form to fill a void in the popular base or to challenge some of the faults of the existing groups. Notable, are the increase of women’s groups and indigenous groups. The women’s groups are more and more challenging the machismo of the ladino and indigenous societies. They have learned from their own experience and that of other Central American women that their issues cannot be subordinate to the revolution. The indigenous groups are also refusing to allow ladinos to set the political tone in a country that has its own form of apartheid, with 60% of the indigenous population still having no effective political representation at the government level. Plus the indigenous groups also do not want to lose their own cultural identity within the national identity, whether that is a totalitarian identity or a nationalist identity.

One of the newest indigenous groups is CONIC, a campesino-based organization that is fighting for land rights by challenging the traditional property system in the courts, but mostly through land occupations. CONIC was born out of the 500 years campaign that has existed in Guatemala formally since the late 1980g’s. Their main objective, aside from autonomy, is to reclaim land that was once theirs. This they believe is fundamental to rebuilding a new society. An enlarged statement on one of their organizational brochures says “The struggle for land, is a struggle for life and peace.”

Another area of increased organizing is with the repopulated communities. These groups consist of communities that were either refugees in southern Mexico since the early 1980g’s or internal refugees who were displaced from their villages and survived in the highland regions. i had an opportunity to spend time with both, once internal (Los Cimientos) and external refugees (Nuevo Mexico in the south coast). Each community was dealing with the lack of sufficient community resources, children adjusting to unfamiliar places and tensions with surrounding communities. At the same time they are essential to the foundation for a new society based upon their experience and ability to survive under extreme circumstances.

Overcoming Impunity

Even with the tremendous political space that has been created by the popular sectors, human rights violations still mar the political landscape in Guatemala. It is in the area of human rights that I spent most of my time, specifically with the group CERJ. This organization, which was born out of the need to resist the forced civil patrol duty of indigenous men that was instituted during Rios Montt’s reign of terror, has now become one of the most outspoken defenders of human rights.

Most of my time was spent between documenting the testimonies of people who had been victims of human rights abuses or witnesses to them, as well as accompanying members of the organization when traveling about since they are constant targets of military repression. In both instances the video camera I brought with was a tremendous asset. One incident that we documented is particularly noteworthy, since it demonstrates the type of repression that most of the groups like CERJ must deal with on a daily basis. Just days after accompanying CERJ members who were campaigning for the Frente in Chiche, a woman and her three children were strangled to death in that same village. This alone was abominable, but to make matters worse the murderers then put up posters throughout the town accusing CERJ of committing the murders. Upon discovering this we went to Chiche to make a public declaration against this defamation of CERJ. The intention of course was to create confusion amongst the villagers, but the murderers made a fundamental mistake, the defamation was written in Spanish in a community where most of the inhabitants could not read and only spoke Quiche. The attempt at character assassination was also a failure since CERJ has won the trust of most villagers by their years of solidarity with Mayan brothers and sisters.

The rest of the country was experiencing similar forms of terrorism. In early October the military entered the community Aurora 8 de Octubre, in Xaman, Alta Verapaz. This was a clear violation of the terms of agreement between repopulated communities and the government that were signed in 1993. When the community members confronted the soldiers, the soldiers opened fire killing 11 people and wounding another 25. This event, which received some international attention, affirmed the analysis of the human rights groups in the country….that some things are not getting better. In fact, most of the groups who have been documenting the abuses said that there have been more human rights violations during the year and a half of President Carpio (the former human rights ombudsman) than during the years of Jorge Serrano. Serrano, the previous president of Guatemala, was forced to flee the country after suspending the constitution and plundering the national treasury. According to the families and Relatives of the Disappeared group, GAM, some 1,433 human rights abuses were documented in 1994. This includes murders, disappearances, death threats, and detentions. In the first 6 months of 1995, GAM had documented over 700 abuses, thus keeping pace with the previous year’s numbers. Still, the major contention that surrounds the issue of human rights is impunity. Everyone knows who is committing the crimes and virtually nothing is being done to stop them. Even the UN, which came out with their 3rd report (early Nov. 1995) in as many years on human rights in Guatemala said “….no one is prosecuted, especially as it applies to the government.”

Vote… if you can

Historically voting has been somewhat of a formality in Guatemala, since most everyone knows that the military runs the show. People either vote out of fear or not at all for lack of faith in the system. Abstention generally claims the majority of votes. This election proved slightly different from the very beginning, not due to the electoral process but to several factors that made the privileged few very uncomfortable.

On October 20, the anniversary of the 1944 revolution, people participated in the usual demonstrations and public rallies, calling on people to reclaim the spirit of that revolution. With the election being just weeks away it added anew sense of revolutionary purpose in the popular movement, especially with the newly formed FDNG. However, a new popular party was not the only thing that motivated people in these tense days.

To add to the excitement and expectations of many people, president Carpio allowed something that most people did not expect. The remains of one of the revolutionary presidents, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, were returned to Guatemala with much fanfare. The FDNG took advantage of Guzman’s return by calling it a “symbol of the return to revolutionary democracy in Guatemala.” This helped set the tone for the Frente as they scrambled to make up for the limited time for campaign organizing.

It was also not only an issue of time for the Frente but also the lack of resources that the “traditional” parties enjoyed. The Prensa Libre said that both PAN and the FRG overwhelmingly outspent the FDNG on election expenses. The money spent on election day alone for party observers, transportation and other expenses were as follows: PAN Q476,100, FRG Q250,000, and the FDNG Q15,000. The FDNG could also not run the types of campaign commercials on the TV and radio that most of the other parties could, nor did they have the resources to give away hats, T-shirts and other paraphernalia with the hopes of buying voters. At one FDNG rally a labor organizer made the statement that “PAN is for the rich, but tortillas, the food of the poor, is what the Frente represents.”

Political violence was evident, especially in the rural areas just prior to Election Day. We saw several military battalions on maneuvers in the Ixil Triangle at 2:00am while traveling on bus from north Quiche. Few of the Frente candidates were harassed, but that was in part due to the fact that most of the candidates were people who have been escorted by members of the international community for the past 10 years. Rosalina Tuyuc, the director of CONAVIGUA, a widow’s organization, was threatened one evening and her vehicle was also stolen just days before the vote. The most ominous form of political repression however, was and remains in the form of poverty. This is something that the Frente kept highlighting in their platform. Democracy cannot exist, nor can you have democratic elections when people are starving. This is something that will certainly plague the country for years to come unless major structural changes are made with the entire system.

All this aside, the most important aspect of this election was the increased participation of the indigenous population. Not in the usual sense of just casting a ballot for some wealthy ladino but in a new way that could be the key to real change in years to come.

“Our cries, pain, and woe from the last several hundred years have begun to end, and now we can begin to listen to our own voices.” This declaration from Nukuj Akpop, a Mayan phrase for “Experiment in Governance,” reflects the present awareness and selfdetermination of many of the indigenous people. Never since the Spanish invasion of Guatemala have indigenous people organized their own election candidates, nor have they had their own platform. Of all the candidates that ran for the Frente, 130 were indigenous, including mayoral candidates, Congressional candidates, and even the vicepresidential candidate was a Quiche Mayan, Juan Leon. This new dynamic gave many great expectations for change and real participatory democracy.

As an election observer it was my job to report on any part of the process that was in violation of election standards, as well as to act as a deterrent to any potential fraud or violence that may occur. I was one of 100 or so independent observers from all around the world. In addition to us there were groups from the OAS, UN and even the Union of European States. These groups had more resources, labeled vehicles, and walkie-talkies to assist in their work. However, they were fewer in number and tended to be in the more urban areas, away from the potentially more volatile rural areas. I worked in the department of Quiche and observed in 5 towns throughout the day.

We did observe some elements of coercion. In Patzute members of the PAN party were giving money to people before they got into line, hoping to buy votes. In San Pedro Jocopilas some parties were displaying party emblems, a violation of Election Day rules. No one could wear a hat, T-shirt, or anything else that had party colors or symbols. Many people also discovered that their names did not appear on the register, even though they had a voting card with a designated number. At the same time there were reports that names of people who had been dead for years appeared on the voting lists. And there were reports of military personnel or civil patrol members around voting stations, also a clear violation. The biggest problem, however, lay with the very structure of the electoral system itself.

Most of the people who came to vote in the areas that I observed in were indigenous. Many of them had never voted before or were not that familiar with the voting process. Matters were complicated by the fact that the voting procedure was in Spanish, thus making it difficult for people who were either unable to read or only spoke an indigenous language. The election representatives at each table were almost exclusively ladino and male. When people had problems, many of them could not communicate with those in charge. The most common thing we witnessed was people were going to the wrong place. Many of the voters had to travel from another town to vote, since not every village had its own station. Upon arriving most people would simply go to the nearest voting site and wait in line, sometimes 2 or 3 hours. When reaching the front they were often told that they were at the wrong voting station. If people were not familiar with the town they were not able to find the other voting stations, and election personnel were not really assisting them. Frustrated, many people simply gave up and went home, never able to fulfill their hopes of voting for change. Clearly the system was fraudulent, at least for the majority poor indigenous population. At one point we decided to tell people which lines to get in when they arrived, since we had copies of the voting station numbers. In spite of these efforts and that of many of the popular movement, nearly 60% of the population either refused to vote or could not because of the difficulties posed by the system.

At the presidential level PAN candidate Arzu was the top vote getter with 36%. Portillo, the Rios Montt-led FRG party candidate, was second with 24%. Of the 19 presidential candidates the FDNG was in fourth with 8%, not bad for the lone oppositional party that had only 3 months to organize. Even the press in Guatemala referred to their position in the results as “A Big Surprise”. At the local and congressional level the Frente did much better. I watched the vote counting in Santa Cruz de Quiche, and at all three tables I witnessed a Frente victory. It was a delight to watch and listen to the vote counters as they kept echoing the words Nueva Guatemala (short for the FDNG). Representatives from the other parties did not seem to be surprised though. These were areas of the country with a Mayan majority and where Frente candidate Amilcar Mendez has worked to defend people’s human rights through CERJ over the past 8 years. Other impressive victories were the election to Congress of Nineth Montenegro, the director of GAM, whom I had escorted for months in 1988, due to constant death threats against her, and Rosalina Tuyuc, who became the first Mayan woman ever elected to Congress.

In spite of these victories, the FDNG went public the day after calling the elections a sham that was fraudulent. On Monday, Nov. 13, the day after the election, the electricity went out in the entire country. We were told that this was the first time that that had ever happened in their history. This means that the election computers went down for awhile, much in the same way as in Mexico in 1988, when it was revealed that the ruling party PRI fixed the election results. We are still waiting on the truth of that mysterious blackout, but many villages did not wait to express their disgust with the election outcome.

A community of recent returnees in the Huehuetenago area were denied the opportunity to vote even though the accord signed with the government granted them that right. In Escuintla hundreds of people were accusing the mayor of fraud. In Santa Lucia Milpas Atlas, a crowd of people set fire to tires calling for a re-election for mayor. People in San Miguel Acatan were so disgusted with the results that they burned the ballots. In Guanazapa, Escuintla, PAN supporters beat several people and took election council representatives hostage. These types of public protest were repeated in Tecun Uman, Olintupeque, and San Aguastin Acasaguallas. As of this writing many towns are still protesting the election results and some are threatening to boycott the January run-off between Arzu and Portillo for the presidency.

It still remains to be seen what will eventually happen with the final results of the election. Many people are wondering how the Frente candidates will fare in Congress or if they will live that long. People are also speculation on whether or not the Frente can deal with internal party problems that have plagued other regional democratic movements. Many things remain uncertain, but one thing is for sure, the majority of the population wants a change. I have no doubts that they will continue to struggle for an authentic democratic society in Guatemala, but as long as US policy remains the same there it is questionable as to whether the Guatemalans will ever be able to achieve authentic democracy.

Why Give a Damn about Guatemala?

If people have even bothered to read this piece on Guatemala, they might be wondering of what importance it has to people living in Grand Rapids. My response is this – US corporate exploitation of most Guatemalans has been going on for at least a century, causing loss of land, poverty, and death. Our consumption of their labor contributes to this vicious cycle of misery. The US government has directly been involved with repressive political policies at least since 1954. This has meant that Washington has directed and supported the bloody political structure in Guatemala that has caused over 200,000 deaths since 1960. Our tax dollars have helped to pay for this brutal repression with the funding, training and arming of one of the worst militaries in the hemisphere

These policies have caused thousands of refugees to flee Guatemala, many of whom have made their way to Grand Rapids. This exacerbates the already difficult economic conditions in Grand Rapids as people fight for jobs with companies looking for the lowest bidder. Since “our” system is inherently antagonistic to “foreigners”, their misery is often extended here. Now, I realize that most of this takes place without our knowledge. This is no surprise since the GR Press more or less chooses to ignore the political realities there. They printed only one piece (with no sources) on Guatemala that was 3 column inches high on the last page of section A on Nov. 12. They received a fax that I sent them a few days after the election, but failed to print it or contact me upon return. So it goes.

I also realize that most of these decisions, ones with brutal outcomes, have been made without our input and no doubt will continue unless we do something. The point is that it is in Washington’s and corporate America’s best interest to maintain these unjust dynamics. They will not change unless WE change. I emphasize we because it must be a collective response. A response that is predicated on our developing a relationship with Guatemalan people and personalizing their suffering. It is my experience that we can count on their continued involvement in the struggle, what is not clear is what our involvement will be.

What Lack of Faith in the Government Can Lead To: Some Personal Reflections on the Kent County Militia

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (November 1995)

It was the usual media literacy class. People were asking good questions, not too surprised by the depth of the monopolization of the media in this country. I gave participants a sampling of media bias and censorship; the Gulf War, the invasion of Panama, PR spin-doctors at work, and the power of advertising. Afterwards two men from the group came up to pay me compliments on my understanding and critique of government policies. When I asked them what they hoped to produce on GRTV they said that they were from the Militia and hoped to “clear-up the public misconceptions about the militia that has been created by the media.” I thanked them and encouraged them to take advantage of the free speech platform that GRTV provides. Before I could leave they invited me to attend their meetings to be able to see for myself what I though of their movement. I was delighted by the prospect and since mid-July I have been attending one of their weekly meetings. Before I share my thoughts on who the local militia is, I feel it is important to note what resources I have been reading on the militia movement and the related movements within the country. This does not mean that I equate the Kent County Militia with any of the other movements or even any other militias, rather, I believe, it is important to have an understanding of these reactionary movements within the country in order to put into context the one that I have come to know personally.

There have been numerous journals that have dealt with the militia phenomenon and more recently several books. The most notable journals have been The Nation, The Progressive, Klan Watch, Covert Action Quarterly, and Z Magazine. Some of these publications have dealt honestly with the militia movement, others have not. The seasoned reporters and researchers of reactionary, or what is referred to as right-wing movements, have done the best job to date in my opinion, specifically Chip Berlet and Sara Diamond. Both have been following these movements for years and have keen insight into the sociological nature of such movements. Sara Diamond recently published Roads to Dominion: Right-Wing Movements and Political Power in the United States, a very thorough investigation of reactionary movements since 1945g. Chip Berlet has two books coming out before the end of the year. In a recent interview in Z Magazine, Berlet talked about how many of the recent militia recruits were victims of the global economic restructuring, especially farmers. Many of these disenfranchised workers were directly target by reactionary movements in part because of their general disdain for government, but also because of their particular ideological view of the world. Both Berlet and Diamond agree that people have gravitated towards the militia movement in part because of the failure of the progressive or left movements to reach out to rural and working class people who have been devastated by the “new world order.” Diamond, who has been following the Christian Right for over a decade, also suggests that people should not simply dismiss the militia movement. She believes that, like the Christian Right, much can be learned from these movements about the larger, more systemic reactionary elements within our society. But she also believes that they should not be quickly dismissed, since many of these people are just like you and me.

Every Friday night from 6:30 to 7:00 people wander in to a meeting room that is adjacent to the local John Birch Society book store at 1369 Plainfield Ave. People mingle and usually talk about the latest on the Waco hearings, the Oklahoma bombing, or current draconian measures proposed at the State and Federal level. Some of the men are dressed in military fatigues, but most people look like they just finished the evening meal or a long day at work. The meeting is called to order by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag. There is clearly a hierarchy involved with “ranking officers” sitting up front and facilitating the discussion. In some ways their ideas reflect a paranoid and conspiratorial view of the world and at the same time, I could not help but find myself nodding in agreement with many things that were put on the table.

The discussions are always very lively and are usually accompanied by stacks of literature, copies of audio lectures, or recently produced videos that are circulating the country. Everyone is invited to participate and I have heard at least one guest speaker. People speak very personally about how they have lost faith in the system or how they have been direct victims of “unconstitutional behavior” while serving in the USA military. People are encouraged to “think for themselves since much of what they read, hear, and see in the media are lies.” Towards the end of each meeting current legislation is discussed and letter writing usually ensues. A few members surf the Internet and print out relevant material so that members can have the full text or summaries of legislation up for discussion. This was one method they employed that impressed me even though it seems contrary to the general public’s perception. Why would a movement that “advocates” violence work within the system? One of the local militia officers said that this, in addition to education, is “how we have to change things. We can change things through the courts, the guns and training are a last ditch resort. We can change things without firing a shot.” They also talked about how they want to avoid being viewed as an extremist organization. They have adopted part of the US 131 highway to help boost their image. They also feel that producing a show on GRTV would help with their image, because then people could hear for themselves what it is that the militia is saying.

The group’s fundamental belief is that we need to get back to what the founding fathers had intended in the constitution. They believe that next to the Christian Bible, the constitution is the supreme text for governing society. Some of them so firmly believe in the wisdom of the constitution’s framers that they said “if there ever was a super race on this earth it was the founding fathers.” This country, they believe, went astray in part due to the federal reserve system that was implemented around the turn of the century, but most definitely after World War II. Promoting the United Nations is at the core of their conspiracy theory. They believe that the United Nations is already engaged in taking over the sovereignty of the United States. This is demonstrated by the fact that at a United States military base in Fort Bragg, the only flag in the main office is a United Nations flag, not a United States one. I would agree that there are forces that are eroding this nation’s sovereignty, but it is certainly not the United Nations. I would suggest that anyone questioning this should read recent books by Noam Chomsky that clearly document the opposite. That the United Nations has tended to be a lackey of United States policy or ineffectual when the United States has voted against a majority United Nations position.

Another source of contention for the militia is what has happened to Gulf War veterans. This Gulf War Syndrome, they believe, was a biological experiment conducted by the Pentagon on United States soldiers without their knowledge. Here, I can agree with their analysis. In fact, we have shared resources to confirm that position. Several of their members were delighted with an article I gave them from a back issue of Covert Action Quarterly. They believe that this disease, the AIDS virus, and the Ebola virus all have some connection and that to me is not out of the realm of possibility. One of the local higher ranking officers is even trying to convene a state-wide convention just to talk about these viruses.

There also seems to be a nativist element to their ideology. They would like to see states have more autonomy from the federal government, counties more independent from the state, and common law courts revived. They are certainly opposed to big government and an intrusive government. No surprise that they would be actively opposed to any gun restriction legislation and even more up in arms over the so-called anti-terrorist legislation. Here researchers like Berlet caution us to be very careful at how the FBI and other federal agencies deal with the militia. He cautions us on how the FBI might use militias to further erode our civil rights. Clearly that is what the anti-terrorism legislation is all about. For the militias that was the purpose of the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing.

They believe that the Federal government was responsible for the bombing. This would cause a smokescreen to repress or scapegoat the militia or any other anti-government reactionary groups. While I am not convinced as to who did the bombing, I do not dismiss this as out of the realm of possibility. Anyone who does so ahs not familiarized themselves with United States history. What is important here is that we don’t use any conspiracy theories to demonize any group. There are two kinds of populist movements, a progressive participatory populism and a reactionary, scapegoating populism. I would rather be with the former. Progressive populism doesn’t see things as conspiracies, rather they tend to critique things in a structural way that says that an ongoing repression and exploitation is business as usual in the present system, not some conspiracy of people sitting around plotting global takeover. Progressive populism also does not blame or scapegoat other people who are also victims of this system; immigrants, inner city dwellers, women, gays and lesbians, or Jews. In this case the local militia has taken a negative view on immigrants for sure, stating that we should close our borders. They have not expressed any racial superiority of the Klan fashion, yet all members are White and tend to be Christian.

It is not clear to me if the group as a whole embraces the Judeo-Christian writings as a sacred text. Certainly the majority does, but not in a theologically orthodox way. They believe that this nation was founded on Christian principles and that those principles should govern society. When discussing the evolutionary theory, one member said, “I’d like to see Darwin part the Red Sea.” To many of them, evolution, abortion, gay life, and the “public fool system” are all part of the “new world order.” But the religious element still seems overshadowed by their desire to fight for basic constitutional rights.

As an organizing tactic, one night one member said that we need to get to know our neighbors, go door to door, and find out if people believe in their right to bear arms. They believe that much of the public would be behind them if there was not this misconception of who they are. Over and over again they stress the need to educate themselves and then others. The resources that keep springing up the most are materials on the Internet, Bill Cooper’s radio talk show, The New American journal, Veritas newspaper, The Spotlight, Reader’s Digest, the Chuck Carter Show, G. Gordon Liddy’s program, and the Washington Times. Certainly these are reactionary publications by and large, but they also base their actions on the state and federal constitutions, copies of which can always be obtained at meetings. Most meetings consist of 30 to 50 people, and that is just on a Friday night. They meet other days for those interested in the TV show and semi-regularly for training.

I have been impressed with many of the members’ commitment, diligence, openness, and frankness with which they confront the present state of affairs. I may not agree with much of their analysis, but I respect their desire to work for change. Certainly one must always be cautious of populist movements that are reactionary, often this is what can lead to a fascist movement’s rise to power. There is always a danger in naively accepting any group’s political position, but at the same time, it is essential that there be a healthy exchange between groups for clarity and most importantly for the opportunity to find some common ground. If we allow factionalism, sectarianism, and intolerance to govern our motives, then there can be no hope for a healthy, dynamic, and pluralistic society. I would encourage people to attend their meetings to see for yourself. No one can say they know what these people believe unless you engage directly with them. I also feel it would be beneficial to hold some sort of public forum to discuss diverging opinions on the present state of affairs, with the hope of challenging each other’s fundamental beliefs. I do not know if there can be any common ground between the militia and progressive movements in this community, but to fail to promote the possibility could be disastrous. If we are to overcome our own prejudices and others’, to say nothing of the structural ones, then we cannot remain isolationist. Isolationism is the breeding ground of all kinds of phobia.

The Klan Rally and Counter-Hegemonic Race Talk

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (November 1995)

How do you get 500 Grand Rapidians out to demonstrate against injustice? Invite the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) to town.

As someone who has helped organize public resistance to numerous forms of injustice in the area, I was delighted that so many people would publicly articulate their disgust for the Klan. However, I am concerned about how people view racism within this geographical arena called “America.” There was certainly no homogenous group of people who came “to see” the 10 member traveling Klan show and although I do not want to dismiss anyone’s motives for being there, I believe it is important to question those motives in the context of a system that, in the words of Black feminist scholar bell hooks, “is built on White Supremacist Capitalist Patriarchy.”

I was there to tape the event, in order to show it on GRTV. With the camera’s aid I was able to talk to people about why they were there. Most people simply said they were opposed to the Klan, but some admitted that they just wanted to see and hear what the Klan had to say. I asked several people if they would come out to protest the systemic racism of the people who wear black robes. Most people did not respond, or just gave me a strange look as if to say, “what are you talking about?” Some Black members of the crowd did say that that was indeed the question to ask. Unfortunately, I did not hear the local corporate media ask that question. They covered the rally as if it were a sporting event, reporting numbers of people on both sides and giving a play-by-play description of how it went. The Grand Rapids Press gave most of its printed space to what Klan leader Thomas Robb had to say as well as what police chief Hagarty felt about how “professional” his officers were and how they “took an awful lot of stuff.”

Some African Americans there were clearly expressing their rage against a White Supremacist organization, while others demonstrated because they were disappointed that the local Black groups, specifically the NAACP, decided to ignore the Klan’s presence. Refusing to give the Klan an audience is a good strategy, but it can be stifling to the need for the articulation and understanding of rage against White Supremacy, especially from Blacks. In her most recent book, Killing Rage: Ending Racism, bell hooks says “As long as black rage continues to be represented as always and only evil and destructive, we lack a vision of militancy that is necessary for transformative revolutionary action.” Most White people probably didn’t have a problem with yelling by Black people at the Klan rally; indeed many joined in, possibly to show their “sympathy” for Black rage. But this is easy to do at a Klan rally. Would the same White crowd publicly stand in solidarity if and when the Black community demonstrates against the elimination of affirmative action, ghettoization of the Black community, or the racist nature of the so-called “war on drugs”? My guess is no. It is quite easy to hate the Klan, but it is another thing to confront institutional racism, the type of racism that gives me, a White male, certain privileges and perks in this society. In most instances Black rage is quickly dismissed or marginalized. Here bell hooks observers, “It is useful for white supremacist capitalist patriarchy to make all black rage appear pathological rather than identify the structure wherein that rage surfaces.” People who viewed the rally on TV would also probably dismiss the rage of both Black and White demonstrators because of their superficial display of rage; throwing cans, eggs, and adolescent insults at the Klansmen.

An even larger contingent of White folks in the crowd seemed to be there as spectators. Reflective of political culture in the USA, these people came as spectators, to watch not only the Klansmen but also the more active members of the crowd, as if they were anticipating, even hoping for some ugly confrontation. The police presence only added to the Hollywood-like nature of the day. Cops on the roof tops, cops in the street, cops with riot gear, and the chief perched up near the County building overlooking the whole event like a Roman emperor who gives hand signals that will give the go for state sponsored brutality. The mystique of this event was like some weird rendition of a Mortal Kombat video game without all the blood, but with the consequences being far more reaching and far more devastating, and all to real.

Our failure to see systemic racism clearly reflects how many of us in this society culturally perceive race and racism. We have simply personalized it, so if they are not saying anything racist, or doing something that can easily be labeled racist, they believe they are not racist. In addition, if we listen to say Black music and root for Black athletes, then we are not really racist because we “are enjoying part of Black culture.” That, some Black scholars would say, is because it is now more acceptable to embrace Blackness, simply because it is a commodity, not because if reflects the beauty of Black heritage. White people can then listen to inspiring Black jazz, but not give a damn about Black liberation struggles. bell hooks has this insight into how people are socialized about race in this country: “By socializing white and black citizens in the United States to think of racism in personal terms, individuals could think of it as having more to do with inherent prejudicial feelings than with a consciously mapped-out strategy of domination that is being systematically maintained.”

This perception of racism is reflected in how people view the Klan. People think that the Klan exists as a group in opposition to the present forms of racial relations in this country. That may be the case to some degree, but by and large the Klan simply reflects the White Supremacist structure of the United States in an overt fashion. Looking at the history of the Klan one can see that, as Michael Novick, author of White Lies, White Power, says that “They (the Klan) exist as a supplement to the armed power of the sate, available to be used when rulers and the state find it necessary.” According to Novick, more lynchings have taken place in this country when Klan activity have been low or non-existent. When Black resistance movements have surfaced and organized, the White power structure gives the Klan full license to operate. The Klan then can be easily blamed for current racist policies or attacks, even though during the civil rights years, it was local, state, and federal government policies that prevented Blacks from achieving any kind of equality.

Now we are in a period of backlash against civil rights gains, where it is clear that local, state, and federal policies are attempting to dismantle those gains. The Klan now has a better climate in which to recruit, feeding off structurally racist sentiments – but they are not needed to create terror against minority or immigrant communities. Government policies, the corporate war against workers, and media pundits do a fine job of that. This growth period is beneficial for the Klan, because it will give them an opportunity to strategize and organize for the future when the White power structure will need them to undermine Black and minority liberation struggles. Until we understand the role of the Klan in history and the nature of structural racism in this country, our rage will either be misdirected or we will see racism as not being “our” problem.

To confront and challenge the present notions and realities of racism in this country it is essential that we educate ourselves. We cannot claim racial understanding if we do not listen to the voices of people who are the targets of racism. We cannot claim a commitment to racial justice if we do not invest in those struggles and stand in solidarity with people of color. This of course means that we have to acknowledge and relinquish some of our positions of privilege that exist under the present power structures. Lastly, as bell hooks says, “we must begin to engage in a counter hegemonic race talk that is fiercely and passionately calling for change.”

Global Exploiter DeVos tells his Prostitutes about “Working Hard for what you Wish to Achieve.”

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (July 1995)

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I am sick and tired of seeing the DeVos, Van Andel, or Amway name plastered all over Grand Rapids: on its buildings, cultural events, and billboards. Certainly the appear in the local monopoly press often enough, especially to talk about their expanding business, but the recent coverage in the Grand Rapids Press was enough to evoke some personal rage and disgust.

From June 9 through the 11th, there appeared four articles on different aspects of the Amway monopoly. The lead story of June 9 promoted all the others. The Grand Rapids press felt it necessary to give front page coverage to the awful dilemma that faced Amway co-founder Rich DeVos. Should he be in Grand Rapids for the Amway convention on Friday, where ex-president and international terrorist George Bush would be speaking, or at game #2 of the NBA finals in Houston, where his team the Orlando Magic was playing? I’m sure that all of you can relate to this dilemma. It really creates stress in our lives when we have to decide between going to our annual convention with the hopes of continuing to amass wealth at the expense of others or going to a basketball game where we also will amass wealth at the expense of others. What to do! Loyal to his political chum Bush, he stayed in town.

To make matters worse, The Grand Rapids press gave DeVos another platform to promote his version of compassionate capitalism, AKA GREED! On the front page of the sports section of Friday the 10th, DeVos is said to have spoken with his basketball players in the same manner that he speaks to his Amway employees. “I always say a few words, sometimes tell a story, sometimes just say a few things about life and being responsible, and working hard for what you wish to achieve.” One of the great myths that exists in this world is that if you work hard enough you can make it big. Well Rich, what about the millions of African Americans who labored their whole lives, some with minimal pay, most as slaves, and died poor? What about the millions of European immigrants who labored in the factories in this country, fighting to gain minimal rights, only to die poor? What about the millions of Asian and Latin Americans who have labored in the fields to pick our food and died poor? What about the countless women who have raised children, taken care of all the home work, without pay, who died poor? Pulling oneself up by the bootstraps just doesn’t apply in this world. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said “pulling yourself up by the bootstrap doesn’t work if you are barefoot.” Remember, DeVos is also telling these pearls of wisdom to a group of men who get paid hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars to play games.

The children I work with, both at my job and in my neighborhood, admire one of the basketball players that DeVos owns, Shaquille O’Neil. They admire him because he is good, but they don’t understand that he is just a commodity to people like DeVos who buy and sell people all the time with their top down economic philosophy. They also have these prostitutes sell for them; the Amway distributors door to door and O’Neil, who recently signed a contract to endorse and promotes Nutrilite products, a subsidiary of Amway. The sad thing is that none of the youth in my neighborhood will be like O’Neal and most probably none of them will sell enough Amway products to make it as big exploiters. What is worse is that Rich DeVos doesn’t give a shit if these children and their families, many of whom will work hard all their lives, die poor.

A small post convention article also appeared in the Grand Rapids Press on June 11. That article ends with more wisdom from the DeVos family. “I do know I see nothing to stop the Amway growth trend. I’m convinced we will see the Amway story mentioned in history as one of the greatest business successes of all time. It is true that the global trend is to Amwayzie the planet, with fewer that “make it” because of the hard work that others do for them, but my perception of history, as well as that of many of the world’s poor, will see Amway as one of the greatest exploiters of all time.