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.”

Image Brokering: PR Firm Hired to Put Spin on Human Rights in Guatemala

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (July 1995)

“A terrorist is not just someone with a gun or a bomb, but also someone who spreads ideas that are contrary to Western and Christian civilizations.” – Jorge Videla, President of Argentina 1976

Earlier this year we were given some information in the corporate media about the CIA involvement in human rights abuses in Guatemala. Several weeks later Guatemala has again fallen into the abyss of International coverage of the BIG Press. This is in spite of the fact that human rights abuses continue, impressive land occupations are occurring and that the country is gearing up for presidential elections in the fall. Because of the corporate media’s blatant omissions one gets the impression that things are just peachy in Guatemala. Unfortunately for citizens of Guatemala and the US the Guatemalan military is not taking any chances on the world’s perception that things are getting any better.

In May, Washington PR firm R. Thompson & Co. was hired for “$420,000 to conduct a six-month public relations effort,” according to a May 15 issue of CounterPunch. “The funds will allegedly improve lines of communication in the US so the government’s story and the truth are fully explained, said a letter from the firm to Defense Minister Gen. Mario Enriquez.” Enriquez initially said the money that was being provided to the PR firm was from “private companies”. He later admitted that the companies are all owned by the Guatemalan military. The firm of R. Thompson & Co. plans to arrange visits to Guatemala by US government officials. Outrageous you say? Well this is not the first time that Guatemala has had help in its attempt to cover up what Americas Watch called “Guatemala’s systematic campaign of terror and human rights abuses.”

In 1979, when the Lucas Garcia regime was implementing its counterinsurgency war against the civilian population, they hired the Hannaford Company to influence some within the US government and the corporate media’s view of what was going on at the time. (see Sultans of Sleaze: Public Relations and the Media, by Joyce Nelson, pg. 40) All throughout the 1980’s and even the early part of the 1990’s Guatemala continued to hire PR firms to bolster their image, especially in the US.

According to a study done by the Center for Public Integrity named The Torturers’ Lobby, during 1991 alone several elements within Guatemala had hired 5 different PR groups to lobby for them in Washington. (Patton, Boggs, and Blow; Schuette & Associates Intl.; Schuette & Associates; Reichler & Soble; and MWW Strategic Communications) These 5 PR firms received a combined amount of $475,000 from military and non-military sources in Guatemala. This PR lobbying was an attempt to reactivate the $2 million of military aid that was suspended by the US government, even though both Americas Watch and Physicians for Human Rights sharply criticized the Guatemala government that year in a report entitled Guatemala Getting Away With Murder. The report said: “Government forces continue to commit torture, murder, and disappearances with impunity.” Now with the help of R. Thompson & Co., an old hand at congressional lobbying, the Guatemalan military hopes to regain its good favor with Washington.

In 1991-92 R. Thompson & Co. was also hired by the Republic of Turkey for $400,000 to put a spin on their international image. Here the stakes were higher, since the potential US foreign aid was listed at $804 million for fiscal 1991. Robert Thompson, who knows his way around Washington, (he was Deputy Director of Legislative Affairs in the Reagan administration) called upon some of his old pals who were questioning the integrity of Turkey. The PR firm lobbied several influential members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, including Michigan Democrat Carl Levin. The aid eventually went through even though a 1992 Amnesty International report entitled Turkey: Torture, Extrajudicial Executions, Disappearances, said that “no practical or legislative steps had been taken and the already large volume of credible torture allegations had, if anything, increased.” The report added: “Systematic practice of torture continues throughout Turkey.”

If the PR firms have their way we will all believe, as the tourist industry has many believing, that Guatemala is a paradise. Don’t believe the hype. More importantly don’t let Congress believe it when they receive slick material from R. Thompson & Co. showering praises on the government of Guatemala for “embracing democracy”. Unlike what the Sprite commercial says, in this case, image is everything, death is nothing, the policy makers obey the image brokers.

Keeping the Promise of Patriarchy Alive: Some Reflections on the Promise Keepers Men’s Movement

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (July 1995)

A headline in the local Christian publication Something Better News reads “Promise Keepers: Christians 72,000; Lions Zero.” This strange but telling headline boasts of the rapidly growing numbers of a “new” men’s movement known as the Promise Keepers. 72,000 men gathered recently in the Pontiac Silverdome football stadium to “worship, pray, and commit themselves to God and their families.” I attended a smaller meeting here in Grand Rapids just prior to the larger gathering in Pontiac and I came away feeling frustrated and afraid for the future of relationships between opposite genders. This “new” men’s movement is fundamentally the OLD one, where male dominance is the order of the day, in the family, church, and society. I also recently read the Promise Keepers handbook, Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, published by the ultra-conservative Focus on the Family of Colorado. In this article I will give some analysis of the movement based on their own writings and my observations at one of their meetings.

The first and most disappointing aspect of what I understand about the Promise Keepers is their failure to denounce violence against women. In the 207 pages of Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper, not one word was mentioned about the need for men to stop raping, beating, and murdering women. Sure, at the meeting that I attended men were admonished to treat their wives with respect, but that advice within a male dominant context may have nothing to do, as we shall see, with the end of spousal abuse.

Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper is a collection of 18 essays by 17 different men who offer strong advice to men on how to keep women subordinate. Many of the book’s contributors have not only been faithfully anti-feminist, but also anti-gay, pro-military, and intolerant of other religious and spiritual traditions. A quick look at some of these men will help put in perspective their urgings to other men.

Dr. James Dobson is the founder and leader of one of the largest rightwing sectors of evangelical Christianity, known as Focus on the Family. Started in 1997g, this organization has grown to a $90 million a year operation, an operation that publishes books, 10 different magazines, and broadcasts its radio program on 1,400 radio stations daily. Dobson has been a big supporter of Operation Rescue, is opposed to sex education and evolutionary theories in the public schools, but is more recently known for his major influence in the passing of anti-gay legislation in Colorado.

Luis Palau, as was reported last fall in The Fundamentalist, advocates Christianizing the world, even through violent means. This has been demonstrated by his long standing relationships with numerous despots throughout Latin America, most notably the former General of Guatemala, Efrain Rios Montt, who was responsible for the deaths of nearly 20,000 people in 18 months as president by coup.

Jack Hayford has been a longtime preacher on Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), the Network that produces the “praise the Lord” program that brought Jim and Tammy Baker to fame. Hayford has been the personal minister to Paul and Jan Crouch, the founders of TBN. The Crouchs, although less political in their programming, are very involve in the politics of Israel, especially since it fits into their Armageddon theology (the notion that the world is going to end soon with the return of Jesus).

Bill Bright is president of Campus Crusade for Christ, which began on the campus of UCLA in 1951g. Bright’s movement became well known during 1968g, when it entered berkely with the intention of “thwarting the efforts of the movement against the Vietnam War and supporting Governor Reagan in his attempt to contain massive campus disruption (Diamond, Spiritual Warfare, pg. 52). Bright also is active in setting up chapters of his ministry on military bases. Known as the Officers Christian Fellowship, this group of 7,000 officers ministers to active duty officers on United States military bases here and abroad. In 1987g, Bright was included on the exclusive guest list of Ronald Reagan at a dinner for then Salvadoran President Duarte.

One of the features of the Promise Keepers, as eluded to in the opening paragraph, is by way of making their events seem like a sporting event. One of the main proponents of this men’s movement is Bill McCartney who is the head football coach at the University of Colorado. The language and metaphors that he uses in his essay of the book Seven Promises of a Promise Keeper are exclusively sports related. McCartney talks about he gets men to relax before a game by watching boxing matches. This is similar to the military showing pornographic films to soldiers before going into battle, as was done during the United States war in the Persian Gulf. McCartney is also hailed as being a healer of racial tensions, specifically between Blacks and Whites. At one point he relates his experience of being at the funeral of a former Black football player. He says that this mostly Black-attended funeral changed his life, yet does not elaborate on it or give any specific examples of what it did for his future relations with Blacks. Sure he advocates that his Black and White players get along, but that is in part so they play better together, because, as I believe, with male unity women can be better kept in place. Many other contributors to the book echo this same sentiment.

Several of the contributors refer to men “who have let the women be heads of household” as “weak” and “sissies.” Dr. Tony Evans, who is a Chaplin for the Dallas Mavericks professional basketball team, says tthat the primary crisis for this country is the “feminization of the American male…a misunderstanding of manhood that has produced a nation of sissified men who abdicate their role as spiritually pure leaders, thus forcing women to fill the vacuum.” Evans’ essay on Spiritual Purity is by far the most blatant in its advocacy for female subordination, in a subsection entitled “Reclaiming your Manhood,” Evans says, “The first thing you must do is sit down with your wife and say something like this: ‘Honey, I’ve made a terrible mistake. I’ve given you my role. I gave up leading this family, and I forced you to take my place. Now I must reclaim that role.’ Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying here. I’m not suggesting that you ask for your role back. I’m urging you to take it back.” In many ways this sums up the fundamental principles behind this men’s movement: to subordinate women, because God says so. This is one of the differences between this movement and that of the Robert Bly version. This movement is exclusively supported by the perceived male godhead religion of Christianity. What is interesting is that even these men, like many other men’s movements, are trying to appropriate the language of women’s ability to give birth by saying that “Like a woman who is pregnant and nearing the end of her term, we Christian men are about to burst forth with the coming of the Lord in ways we have never experienced.”

While I can acknowledge that this movement may help men to stop drinking, cheating on their spouses, and spend more time with their children, it does not promote real equality where women are seen as equals and not as narrowly defined homemakers. In my opinion the Promise Keepers is a movement that, apart from being homophobic and supportive of the economic status quo, is a response to the influence of the feminist movements to challenge the old guard of male dominance. It is a pep rally-like movement that brings men together to primarily affirm their desire to control women. Like a football game, they are the stars that score the touchdowns, while the women stand on the sidelines in a non-participatory role to cheer them on. God is the coach and HE sends in the ideological plays that men zealously follow with other men to achieve their goals. The only promise that the Promise Keepers really keep is to continue to play this game.

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.

Speak Spanish, Sell American! Local Ad Agency puts on a Business Seminar for Investing/Exploiting

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (June 1995)

Since the beginning of 1995 it has been no secret to most that the Mexican economy has taken a turn for the worst. That is to say that most Mexicans, who are not included in economic planning, are the ones suffering from the current economic crisis. The several dozen billionaires and other corporate hacks are not worried about where their next meal will come from. The situation is like this – the peso has been devaluated (again), strict conditioned international loans have been given, and there are pressures to privatize more and more of the Mexican economy. Sound familiar? It should. In many ways this is a text book example of the USA government led structural adjustment programs that the IMF and the World Bank have been forcing on the majority of the developing countries around the world. Then again maybe this doesn’t sound familiar, because the corporate media has chosen to blame Mexico’s woes on their government’s incompetence or societal backwardness and not the earlier IMF imposed economic plan.

A similar failure of the corporate media was it’s failure to report on the recent Chase Bank memo directed at the Mexican government on the Chiapas problem and a favorable investment climate. In a February 1 issue of the CounterPunch newsletter we are given excerpts of an internal memo from Chase Bank. The memo says “There are three areas in which the current monetary crisis can undermine political stability in Mexico. The first is in Chiapas, the second in the upcoming elections and the third is the role of the labor unions, their relationship to the government and the governing PRI.” The memo goes on to say “While Chiapas, in our opinion, does not pose a fundamental threat to Mexican political stability, it is perceived to be so by many in the investment community. The government will need to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and of security policy.” It seems clear to me that from the reporting by the justice-based press that the Zedillo government is taking to heart Chase’s suggestion about eliminating the Zapatistas.

An April 21 article from the National Catholic Reporter states that “on April 7, Roger Maldanado, from the Chiapas human rights organization CONPAZ, documented abuses in at least 20 towns and villages under army control. The violations include torture, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention and rape.” As to the issue of “labor unions and their relationship to the government,” again we have to consult the justice-based press since the corporate press continues to wax eloquently about the wonders of NAFTA.

To most workers in Mexico the devaluation of the peso was no surprise. According to numerous studies done by the Inter-hemispheric Resource Center based in New Mexico “the average wage in Mexico has stagnated or declined over the past 15 years, unemployment has risen and the cost of living has increased.” In addition to this, the climate for labor organizing has become very repressive, especially in USA run companies like GM, Motorola and Nike. Fortunately the bleak economic picture is not going unnoticed in some sectors of the US left. As we go to print there is a labor conference in Detroit sponsored by Labor Notes that is focusing on the consequences of NAFTA and the prospects for US/Mexican labor solidarity.

On our side of the Rio Grande things are also not as lovely as was predicted by pundits with the passage of NAFTA. Some government and corporate claims have stated that NAFTA has created 100,000 jobs in the USA in 1994. That claim however, is being challenged by the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies (IPS). An IPS study could only pinpoint 535 jobs attributable to NAFTA. On the other side of the ledger, the number of jobs lost to the trade treaty appears to be in the tens of thousands. “The US Labor Department says that nearly 13,000 workers have applied for NAFTA-related Transitional Adjustment Assistance (TAA), but the AFL-CIO labor organization reports 47,000 applicants in the first nine months of NAFTA operations.” (Latinamerica press) According to the IPS study, the apparel industry, with one-third of the applicants in the TAA program, was hardest hit by NAFTA displacement. Fifty-one percent of all job loss was attributable to plant relocation to Mexico and another 21 percent to increased NAFTA competition.

Eat Mexican Food

Listen to Mexican Music

Don’t Give a Shit about Most Mexicans

In March I attended a seminar organized by a local ad agency (Burglar Advertising) on some of the benefits and how to of investment in Mexico. The seminar took place at San Chez restaurant, complete with “ethnic” food, music, and little name tags that said me llamo (my name is). The entire morning was filled with speakers that ranged from economists and investors, to ad people. Needless to say the majority of those in attendance were Anglo businessmen.

The tone of the seminar was set by Comerica Bank economist David Litman. His talk was entitled “After NAFTA, GATT and the Psycho peso: What Next?” Mr. Litman’s job was to basically calm the storm that might have been in the minds of current and potential investors since the recent crash of the peso. Like most economists he gave us a whole litany of facts and figures that seemed meaningless. In the end he said “the bailout will only prolong the inevitable growth. In the real world Mexico has done well. The Salinas program set the stage for future expansion.” If by future expansion he means greater control by transnational corporations in the region, then he is right. This of course leaves out the majority of the population that will drown in poverty or join the ranks of the Zapatistas and their allies.

Next we were entertained by Andrzej Rattinger, publisher of ADCEBRA, an advertising and marketing journal in Mexico “for establishing the Mexican view of American Marketing.” This former employee of Bayer and Kodak talked about the potential for marketing in Mexico and how “most of the Mexicans are waiting for your product.” He shared an interesting image with us on the possibilities of product growth, even in a country that he said had 53 million people earning between $120-500 per year. “On highway 95 in Mexico you have two men, one is driving a new 1995 car, the other a donkey. Both are in two completely different economic brackets, but both may be drinking Coke, wearing Levi’s jeans and listening to the same radio station.” That, he said, is the importance of “Speaking Spanish, but Selling American.”

The founder of Burglar Advertising, Marcel Burglar, spoke about an ad campaign he did for the Asgrow Seed Company. This seed company wanted to introduce new tomato seeds into the Mexcian farm industry. This new type of seed would be for northern Mexican climate and would give the tomato a long shipping and shelf life. Obviously these seeds are designed for the export market. As an ad man he talked about the cultural education that he learned in attempting to develop a campaign that would speak to Mexican cultural heritage. This is all quite fine except he did not address how the increased agro-export model is unsustainable for most economies, nor did he address the fact that it will hurt most of the small ejido farmers who can not compete with these large scale farming operations (like the ones targeted by this ad campaign).

The only two Latino presenters spoke last and also echoed the words of the previous speakers. They showed us some car commercials made in Mexico for the Chrysler LaBaron. Mind you they were trying to sensitize us to the culture. The commercial was filled with elite images, and a woman waiting to be picked up and taken away by her man. This almost Victorian display did not seem to reflect the cultural sensitivity about most Mexicans that I have met either here or in Mexico. It was obvious that the target market was the upwardly mobile members of Mexican society, not the masses of indigenous or mestizos that make up the bulk of the Mexican population.

For me the seminar was a clear demonstration of cultural and economic imperialism that some in the business continue to display. Not once did anyone ask the question about what our responsibility is to promote free trade systems that honor people’s needs, respects the environment and fosters solidarity among the people of North America. One way to make this happen would be to investigate local business/government efforts that take advantage of the NAFTA model. It is with these examples that I believe we can reach a broader audience, since it makes the local connection about the real effects of these policies. People understand the local connection and will organize around it. Focusing only on the multinational corporations can sometimes leave people feeling overwhelmed. However we do it, it is high time we hold businesses and governments accountable for their policies at home and abroad.

The Acton Institute’s War on the Poor

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (May 1995)

On Thursday, March 30th, the Grand Rapids Press ran a short article about recent efforts by the Grand Rapids based Acton Institute to lobby congress on the current welfare for the poor debate. The Acton Institute held a day long press conference in Washington on the “ethical implications of welfare reform.” Its founder and main spokesperson,, Paulist priest Robert Sirico said “This [welfare for the poor reform] is not just a question of efficiency, it’s a question of morality.” Cute, but we need to know more reverend. The article does not articulate what exactly Fr. Sirico means, but does say that the “institute’s agenda won high praise” from Gang Leader (House Speaker) Newt Gingrich. It’s too bad that the Press did not look farther, even within the ranks of the corporate media, to expound on this morality that Sirico refers to.

The neo-fascist and fanatic Rev. Moon’s paper The Washington Times featured an editorial by Rev. Sirico on Feburary 3 of this year. In response to the urgings of some politicians and most working class people for an increase in the minimum wage, Fr. Sirico displays his true colors. He says that if we “Raise the wage high enough, all but a few would be out of work.” Sounds awful to me. Then he says “Labor productivity would fall to near zero.” That’s right, pay people better and they will have no incentive to work. Please! The good reverend claims that a raise in the minimum wage would hurt the poor in particular, because they “lack the skills for the high-wage job.” Such concern for the poor is noble, but tremendously misled. In the reall world people cannot live off of the wages that are presently being paid, especially since wages for many people have either stagnated or actually dropped over the last 15-20 years (see “Overworked America,” by Juliet Schor). Rev. Sirico also feels that in order for businesses to continue to make profits, they would have to scale back their jobs if the minimum wage increased. This may be true as long as the businesses’ primary concern is profits and not providing economic security for its workers or serving the public interest. But with the paradox of the USA economy (higher unemployment and bigger corporate profits) we can clearly see where most corporate interest lies.

Last but not least, in a March 5 article in the paper of record, The New York Times, Fr. Sirico, in response to comments about the GOP’s Contract for America said, “I would go further than the contract.” Oh, beware America and beware Grand Rapids. We are surely going to have tough times ahead with the Acton Institute blasting the poor.

Who are Jay and Betty Van Andel?

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (January 1995)

The Grand Rapids City Commission gave the [Van Andel] museum its new name because Jay and Betty Van Andel gave $3 million toward its new name because Jay and Betty Van Andel gave $3 million toward its construction, and later gave an additional $3 million to its endowment. That $6 million total is a little more than one-tenth of one percent of their total $4.5 billion (recently estimated) wealth.

Betty Van Andel, as far as most Grand Rapidians know (or probably care) is Jay’s wife. Period.

Jay Van Andel is a founder and chair of the board of Amway Corp. Amway is a huge multi-national corporation that, according to ex-distributor Steve Butterfield (writing in a 1985g book, “Amway: The Cult of Free Enterprise”), has systematically resisted efforts at unionization of its salaried employees and has set up a structure for most of its workforce that assure high profits for a select 1-2% while 98-99% “are not, nor can they ever be, at a level where they can make enough to replace the income of a single wage-earner in the family.” Amway has falsely advertised this scheme as providing more opportunity than it really does, and thus drawn in many unsuspecting people. It operates much like chain letters, which, for good reason, are illegal. Amway’s clout has apparently been sufficient to prevent most legal sanctions against its version of that old scam, though the Federal Trade Commission found the company guilty of price fixing in 1979g and ordered it to stop misrepresenting potential earnings to new salespeople.

Van Andel’s politics include support of various anti-labor organizations, and opposition to the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (Amway thrives on the desperation of recession and unemployment), the Consumer Protection Agency, and various other entities and policies that benefit the public at large.

This reactionary approach reaches the pathological at times, as evidence by a $300,000 gift for construction of a facility to house the “Creation Research Society,” which claims, in Jay’s words, to use “modern scientific research to validate the creation story as presented in the Bible.”

Van Andel was one of four top Amway people who denied guilt at first, then in the face of the evidence pled guilty in the early 1980g’s to criminal charges of having defrauded the Canadian government of some $148 million starting in the mid-1960g’s. A tipster in the case was threatened, and at one point reportedly beaten. Amway paid a $25 million dollar fine, and later worked out a deal in which it paid only $38 million to settle the civil case. Thus this fraud, the largest in the history of Canada, produced an estimated net revenue to Amway of $85 million. Jay, who as board chairperson oversaw (or should have overseen) the operations that produced the fraud, never served a single day in jail.

Jay, along with Amway partner Rich DeVos, has used the company’s clout to help elect reactionary politicians–Ronald Reagan for instance–to office. At times, government has directly supported these efforts. In addition, Amway has been able to write off many of its rallies, in which such politicians have been supported, as tax-deductible business expenses. These politicians have, in turn, supported the gross materialism that is one of Amway’s hallmarks.

Amway, which aggressively touts itself as a “green” company, is known in at least one case to have been forced to pay to help clean up one of the nation’s worst toxic waste dumps, to which it contributed. Given its mission to sell as many (expensive and mostly unnecessary) goods around the world as possible, this must be considered no more than the tip of an iceberg.

Amway’s selfishness has even taken precedence over some of its supposed friends at times. For instance, Amway repeatedly donated food to Nicaraguan terrorists (the “Contras”) in the 1980g’s; much of that food turned out to be extremely outdated, stale, in some cases rancid or buggy. Amway claimed tax write-offs at grossly inflated prices for this supposed generosity.

If the total wealth that Jay and cos partner Rich have amassed were put in an account that paid 7% interest, it would be enough to bring every household in Grand Rapids out of poverty – forever. Or if it were distributed to a million of the poorest families in nations exploited by policies supported by these two, it could literally save the lives of over a million innocent children who would otherwise die of starvation or disease. Think of the terrible anguish suffered by so many parents that could be averted by such a redistribution of wealth!

VanAndel Museum Center: By the Rich, for the Rich

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (January 1995)

FUN sponsored an informational event at the opening of the new museum on November 19. Following is the information contained in the leaflet we distributed, some of which should be of interest to FUN readers:

The Van Andel Public Museum, opening today, replaces the Public Museum of Grand Rapids, originally founded in 1854g, and located in the same building on Jefferson Avenue since 1940g. Since at least 25 years ago some people have pushed for the construction of this new building — a push that accelerated in the 1980g’s, and has culminated in today’s opening ceremonies.

During the same period, numerous groups of and representing the poorest people in the Grand Rapids area have sought better housing, mass transportation, and decent work that would enable them to feel self-supporting and more fully a part of the community. In the decade between the 1980g and 1990g censuses, during which population in Grand Rapids grew at a much faster rate than in any other center city in Michigan, unemployment increased from 6.7% to 7.4%, families in poverty increased from 10% to 13%, home ownership decreased from 63% to 60%, occupied housing units without a phone increased from 5.5% to 6.6%, workers taking public transit declined from 4.4% to 3.5% as funding and service were slashed, while at a time of rising car ownership nationally, the percentage of households in Grand Rapids with no car remained virtually the same–slightly more than one out of seven.

Since the last census many of the poor in Grand Rapids can attest that things are getting worse. Sharply increasing violence among young people is only the most visible sign of this continued deterioration.

Also during this period, numerous extremely poor people in Third World countries have struggled desperately to throw off brutal USA-backed repression and to gain a fairer share of the earth’s resources. The USA, through unfair trade and other practices backed by military might, has taken much more than its share of those resources — making possible such projects as this new $39 million museum, and making certain that more people in Third World countries will continue to suffer terrible abuse and poverty.

Most of the $39 million came from public funds. $12 million in “private” funds was raised by a committee chaired by Jay Van Andel. The committee set aside about 4% of that to be raise in a so-called “grassroots” campaign — donations of $3000 or less. Casey Wondergem, a top Amway person and chair of the fund drive’s executive committee, used this ploy to claim, “It’s a very democratic campaign. It’s not elitist.”

When it was brought to the attention of City leaders that the site of the new museum is on a flood plain and that it could be inundated at virtually any time, they brushed that aside. And several years ago they used City resources to push for a “yes” vote on a “cultural consolidation” package that would have included public money for the museum’s construction. A threat of legal action forced them to stop doing so. The proposal was overwhelmingly voted down – by nearly a 3 to 1 margin. But it didn’t matter; the area’s “democratic” leadership was able to find other ways.

One of those ways was pressing state representatives for money. Due to intensive lobbying, they succeeded, despite budget cuts elsewhere. For Instance, museum funding (and funding for DeVos Hall) agreed to in 1990g “were made possible in large part by an agreement to cut funding for the employment program, the Youth Corps, from $24 million to $18 million.”

The area’s monopoly corporate “news”paper, the Grand Rapids press, helped. This corporate organ, owned by two multi-billionaire brothers who would make fit company for Jay Van Andel, informed the community how important it is to raise taxes “toward meeting some critical community needs — starting with a new Grand Rapids Public Museum.” Press editors apparently forgot about a rapidly rising murder rate, homelessness, an extremely high rate of sexual assaults, and a host of other serious problems right in its back yard.

What if the use of that $39 million had been determined not by a clique dominated by the area’s richest people, but by a coalition representing both the poorest people in the city and oppressed people in the Third World? Assuming it was divided half and half, here are two examples of what might have been done:

In Grand Rapids there are 5000-plus very-low-income families, most with less than $5000/year income, who pay excessive rent. $19.5 million dollars, at reasonable mortgage rates, would be sufficient supplement to enable all of them to purchase their own homes, assuming each family obtains a home at the median value (for Grand Rapids) of about $60,000. Once these homes were paid off, these families would be in a much better position to permanently escape poverty.

As for people in the Third World, whose grossly exploited labor supports our profligate consumption, millions die yearly due to lack of adequate health care. According to World Bank estimates, $19.5 million worth of basic public health services would save over 3000 lives.

There is another way in which this museum serves the rich rather than the poor, despite Jay Van Andel’s claim that “the museum will be for everyone.” Many of us could ill afford the admission charge at the old building of $2.50. Doubling that charge prior to opening this building has made it abundantly clear whom the museum is designed to “serve.”