The FUNdamentalist

Good people, greed, and the corporate cult(ure): An insider’s view of Amway

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (February 1998)

FUN co-editor Richa interviewed former Amway employee Amy Schatner. Amy’s sibling, Sharon Schatner, who was there listening to Amy’s complaints during Amy’s years at Amway, also contributed. The interview was reviewed by Amy and edited. The book reference is to Stephen Butterfield’s 1985 book, “Amway: The Cult of Free Enterprise.”

Amy: My aunt worked there and told me about a job opening. I went in and interviewed for this job — I was right out of college — they told me they had something more in line with my career. I got all excited. It turned out to be something where the distributors call in to get their items replaced when they’re defective.

So, I got in that way. I stayed there for six months, moved to another department for six months, then another department for about five years, then another. I was there a total of about seven and a half years.

Richa: Did you know anything about Amway when you went to apply there?

Amy: I knew it was a big company out there in the country where my aunt worked, and my brother. I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about “corporate America,” I just wanted to get a job.

For the most part I pretty much did the same kind of work. I worked directly with the distributors on the phone. I moved up and I moved on. Each promotion gave me more responsibility and was more challenging.

I’ll tell about the good things first. They gave me opportunities to learn computer skills that I didn’t have before… [long pause] I can’t think of anything else!

Sharon: Well, the thing about Amway is, you get in there, they pay so well, they give good benefits, you have such security. I worked there for just a short time, but what I’m saying, once you’re in there, it’s kind of like a little trap.

Amy: The golden handcuffs. That’s a good point, because that is part of why I stayed there. The important thing to note is that I realized, probably in year two, that I wasn’t happy, this wasn’t where I wanted to be, I didn’t see it as my career, I didn’t identify myself with my work, and I always knew… I’m out of here any minute now, just any minute now. I never bought into it like all the other people I worked with, I never had the loyalty, the enthusiasm for the company. But, yet, I stayed there seven and a half years.

There were a lot of personal things that kept me there. Fear of failure, fear of success, not really knowing what I wanted to do. I decided at one point I wanted to go to graduate school and get a degree in psychology. So I went through that process, tried hard, and thought I had a strong application. I did not get in. A that point I was miserable enough, backed in a corner enough, so that I was just going to do whatever I had to do to get out of there.

That’s how I finally was able to get out of there, and became more blessed than I ever deserved, because I got a job that I love with all my heart. I mean, it’s very emotionally taxing and a very hard job, but I love this job.

But anyway, at Amway, there are things that would happen that I would talk about with my coworkers, and they would say, “Just don’t think about it.” For some people it is the only opportunity they have. People that live way out, they haven’t had educational opportunities…

Richa: Did Amway do things to cultivate or reinforce that attitude, that things should just be accepted without question?

Amy: Yes. Amway does an excellent job of building company loyalty. This is going to sound cynical, but I honestly believe it is not because they really, truly want their people to be happy, but because they know the value – the monetary value – of having a workforce that loves the company they work for.

I always felt like I was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. That’s kind of how I felt; that that wasn’t “the way to be” – so blindly loyal and blindly accepting of everything.

Just to give you kind of a funny story, they have these monthly employee meetings where virtually every employee of the entire corporation is invited…

Sharon: It’s mandatory.

Amy: No, it’s not.

Sharon: Oh? I was never told I had an option.

Amy: Anyway, the president of the company, or the vice-president, addresses everyone on how business is, and people can ask questions. Most often I’d go to these meetings – most people in my division did — because it was an opportunity to get away from the drone of work. It was near the holidays, and I came in and all the chairs had this blue sheet. It was a poem about Amway: “I go in every day, this is the way I like to earn my pay…” You know, just the hokiest, “Rich and Jay, hooray! Hooray!” I mean, just like that. I wish I could remember the lyrics. I thought, “What is this?”

Well, it was a song. And they got a piano out, and everybody was asked to sing this song. And I’ll be damned if everybody didn’t sing this song. I mean, everybody sang it! And they were happy to sing it, and they enjoyed singing it, and I just wanted to disappear! It was just the most bizarre thing. I felt like it was the Third Reich.

Sharon: The crowd behavior thing.

Amy: Yeah. It just didn’t seem like there was one person that thought, “This is weird,” or even, “This is silly,” or something.

Richa: I would think it would have been hard to tell.

Amy: Yeah. But I’m too rebellious, or maybe I’m stupid, but I didn’t sing it, and I looked around and it was like, these people are like sheep.

But I worked with some wonderful people, and some friends that I will always have. I just feel at the time they were all mindless, even though I know that’s not the case.

I could ramble on for hours, but the bottom line for me, my leaving Amway, feeling it was not a place where I belong, was greed. I worked on the phones with Amway distributors every day, all day. That was the bulk of my work for many years. Near the end of my tenure there, maybe the last two or three years — every once in a while we’d get to travel on these weekend “expos” where distributors would get together and rent this hall and they’d have speakers and they’d have expos of products. Quite a lot of contact with distributors. Greed, and all the ugliness that greed brings. That’s what I saw a lot of. That’s really what kicked my butt out the door.

Richa: Can you describe specific ways that the greed came through?

Amy: Boy, every subtle and not-so-subtle way. Distributors on the phone would be willing to be just a little dishonest, or just cheat a little bit in order to get more money. Lie to you to try to get from you, as if you had the secret of how to get more money. The distributor functions were… a lot of gold and diamonds. I mean, huge diamonds. In the Amway hierarchy they reach different levels of achievement, and they’re all represented by different gems. The highest one is diamond. “Go diamond!” is the battle call. “Go diamond!” everywhere you hear. And diamonds is one of the things people spend their money on.

There’s a monthly magazine they have called “The Amagram,” and they would always feature a “star” couple. They would be depicted in rolling his with their mansions. The pervading message was “You gotta have more! You gotta have more!”

I’ve go to say, the two founding fathers, Rich and Jay, I truly believe that they were, and they are, good men with the best of intentions and the highest integrity. The second generation, the very kids, I don’t feel that way about. And I don’t know if it’s because it’s just so big now that they can’t keep their hands on everything…

Another story: Remember, during the elections, when Amway purchased TV time for the Republican convention for the sole purpose of being able to air the convention? You know, they’re a privately held company; they can do that. That’s the way our system works in this country; they have that power. But what bothered me was I went to one of those employee meetings, and Dick DeVos stood up there and said they did that — a private donation that they never planned on being publicized — for the sole purpose of wanting to expose more Americans to the democratic process. And I though, “Why can’t you just say you’re Republicans and you want Republicans to win?” That just really bothered me. And I thought, this guy, he spins things so much as he goes along, that I don’t know if he really believes that, or if you spin things for so long you lose any objective perspective.

Sharon: Remember you told me about the meeting where they talked about something with capitalism, where they were trying to win everybody over to their way of thinking?

Amy: Rich wrote this book called “Compassionate Capitalism,” which had these different points, and they would do this thing during those meetings where they would show Rich talking about each point, a different one each time. He would talk about what each meant.

Richa: Did people pretty much buy that?

Amy: Oh, yeah, because there’s a certain ring of truth in that. I mean, there has to be, otherwise nobody would buy it at all. There’s nothing wrong with personal responsibility; it depends on the spin you put on it.

Sharon: It sucks people in with beliefs they’ve been taught all their lives, and it makes it seem like you’re just confirming what everyone knows.

Richa: I remember some of that from the book. It came very much out of a Cold War type of thinking from the 1950s, even though the Soviet Union no longer existed by the time it was published. But did those talks focus more on the personal?

Amy: No, it’s definitely economic theory, financial theory.

They are into making money, and they make no bones about that.

This is something that started happening just before I left. You’d hear a lot about “corporate culture”; how very important that was, the corporate culture you were working with, and how we should all “be on the same page.”

They have this little thing called “Culture Seminar” where you spend half a day eating doughnuts and drinking coffee and watching videos and doing exercises, about trying to identify with an Amway distributor and who would like to be an Amway distributor. Part of that is watching the video that shows a typical distributor: They’re trying to work a full-time job, and take care of kids, and build their business in their spare time. So all their evenings and all their weekends are spent at Amway functions. That’s no kidding: I mean all of them. And their kids — I couldn’t believe this: The video would show, “Mom, dad, come and toss the ball with me.” And mom and dad would sit down and explain that they’re building their future, blah, blah, and the son was just kind of, “Whatever.” And the weekend comes and they drag him out of town again for this distributor function yet again, and there’s the whole problem of the babysitter. The kids are tired, the parents are tired, the babysitter goes home. The kid never did get to toss that ball, but “you’ve reached a different level, and I understand how great that is, and I’m so proud of you” and we’re all just a great big happy family. Then they turn the video off, and I’m thinking to myself, did anybody see how sick and wrong this is? That these kids have no parents? Then I though, okay, maybe I’m the only one that sees it that way; maybe I’m nuts. But somebody did say something; somebody did say, “Boy, I don’t know about those kids?”

Richa: I should think it would be hard in that corporate culture to say anything at all critical or questioning.

Amy: Right. It is.

One more story. My department purchased a type of technology that cost almost a million dollars. I don’t want to say just what it is or what department because there are still people there that I really care about, and I don’t want to see them be hurt. Real expensive technology; state of the art. We were the only ones in the company to have this technology at the time. Well, they wanted to be sure the employees were really going to use it and buy into it. It was a way to help them do their jobs more efficiently and easier. You know, people who have been doing the same job for a few years – it’s hard for them to change the way they do things, so it was rather hard to get people to use it.

So they had a meeting to explain this new technology. And during this meeting my boss said, “You have to use this system [X] times a day.” Somebody raised their hand and said, “I don’t need it. I know this stuff.” And she said, “I don’t care, do it anyway. Just use it.” And I said “Why?” (You learn not to ask “why?” because you get slapped in the face; nevertheless I asked, “why?”) And she said, “We have to show that we’re using the system. We have to show the person — you’d know who it was if I said it — we have to prove to them that this is a good investment. We have to show a return on the investment, and we have to do it fast.” And I said, “You want me to lie about how often I use this, and how often I need this?” And the answer was “Yes.” And by that time I had been pushing it, so the answer was, “YES, and PLEASE shut up!”

I’m sure that happens everywhere across America; it’s not unique to Amway.

Richa: That’s the only time such a thing happened?

Amy: That was the only time I was blatantly asked to lie, other than my old supervisor saying, “Tell ‘em I’m not here” kind of thing. And this is from a woman who I respect. She’s a neat lady. I mean, I like her. And I think that it was just another case of, she didn’t just sit down and say, “You know, I’m asking people to lie for me.” She was so intimidated by her manager, and so afraid, that she just did what she though she had to do. And she probably wouldn’t even remember it.

That incident, more than anything else…that was near the end…I though, I can’t do it, I just can’t play the game any more. And there was no way that I could play the game, and sort of melt into the background. They would see it, because the numbers would show that I was not using the system.

Richa: Getting back to the distributors, Butterfield wrote that only 1-2% of distributors ever make, or ever can make, the way Amway’s system is set up, enough money to comfortably support a family. In talking with distributors every day, did they ever indicate that they had an idea of the odds against them? Did they have a sense of the frustration in trying to do that, or the structure that makes it so hard to do that?

Amy: Absolutely. I remember probably four years ago hearing that the average direct distributor earned $30,000 a year. You have to have reached a certain level, and you have to have so many people under you who have reached a certain level, to become a direct distributor. The vast majority of the people I talked to were not direct distributors; were nowhere near being direct distributors. I mean the vast majority.

Every so often you talk to a high roller, but that was unusual.

I always attributed that to the nature of my job. People who need my help may be somebody who is not as experienced.

But I think there are a lot of people out there who get into the business because they think that they’re going to get rich, and they’re going to have a nice annual income with moderate effort. And that’s just not the case. That’s not going to happen. You won’t make real money unless you are like, one of those people who are in the video, who puts that much into it.

The whole nature of that, the whole lifestyle, you have to buy into. They want to make their employees more and more thinking like the way their distributors think. You have to think Amway, and breathe Amway, have Am-friends, and Am-products. It scares me! That kind of lack of creativity. It just makes me very uncomfortable. It brings out the worst in people, and that’s where you see the greed.

Richa: Did you see that being true for the employees as well; the people you worked with?

Amy: No. The people I worked with were pretty much normal people.

I love the paycheck, but you have to sell your soul for that time and a half because you’re smiling and you’re acting like, “This new product is just the living end!”

There’s always this mystery to me about why people are so willing to throw out their feelings about things and just buy into this. It’s not people who just don’t have any other opportunities, or people who aren’t terribly bright.

Sometimes, they’d send us to meetings, and you’d get to fly, and stay in nice hotels. You’d be there with all distributors representing the corporation, and you’d smile and wave, and they would all want to know about what it’s like to work for Amway. On one hand, they think it’s so great, but on the other hand, they just can’t believe, “Boy, I can’t believe, why aren’t you an Amway distributor? We know what this business can do!” These are doctors, a construction worker, an accountant, or something like that… It kind of reminds me of the games with fraternities or sororities, “I’ve got to belong” or something; be part of the group.

Richa: What about these meetings for distributors you mentioned. What would they be telling people?

Amy: People who work at the corporation in a certain department that distributors work with a lot would come on stage, and the distributors would get very excited about these corporate people. If you were a family member — anybody named DeVos or VanAndel — tears would come to their eyes. They were very moved even to be in the same room. They could say or do anything, and [the distributors] were just very thrilled.

I just want to say that all these great and noble reasons for me not working there are not it. I mean, that’s not completely why I am not there. I have to say that the very personal nature of my work was very difficult for me. I’m the sort of person who doesn’t like it when people aren’t fair, and aren’t nice and kind. People aren’t going to be fair, whether it had anything to do with me or not. And just by the nature of my work I had to deal with that and I just didn’t like it. I used to be good at it, but I just didn’t like it.

So maybe, if I had a job that was creative, where nobody asked me to lie, where I did work that I could say I was proud of, and that kind of enriched me, after all I just said, I might still be there.

I took a pay cut to leave that job, and I would take a pay cut to do anything that was better than that; better for me, for my soul.

Richa: When you first applied, did you have any knowledge at all of the fraud, forged documents, dummy corporations in Hawaii to cheat on taxes, that sort of thing that had gone on and gotten a lot of publicity in the corporate media? Or did you learn about some of those things while you worked at Amway?

Amy: That all happened before I came there. When I first came there I wasn’t paying attention to that kind of thing. It just kind of had to slap me in the fact before I woke up. I would hear references to it and people would make jokes about it, but I never really got into that whole story.

There was a sense of people around me that we should be grateful to have a job. We should be grateful we were given the opportunity to work.

Sharon: And to have such a good job, because the company is so good to you. And they do things that make you feel you are very lucky to have a job because you’re sitting at a phone or whatever, you’re making nine or ten dollars an hour..

Amy: When I left I was making $15 an hour. Now that’s a lot of money.

Sharon: And all the benefits and bonuses.

Amy: And some people made more money than that, who didn’t have a degree. For them, darn right, they were very grateful.

For me, little things too. Like, I am a vegetarian. I don’t eat meat or fish or poultry. To people I worked with, that was a freaky thing! I mean totally freaky, crazy. They’d tease me constantly. Not in a mean way. Just, they’d never let go of the fact that they really felt that was bizarre.

Richa: Did it seem to you, as Butterfield wrote, that Amway had characteristics of a cult?

Amy: You know, a lot of people refer to Amway as a cult. I don’t think they are a cult in the sense that most cults are, but the distributors (“distributor organization”) use a lot of tactics that are very similar to cults. It is very much a pure world and if you diverge… Anybody who isn’t “with” that is either a “negative person,” or at their most generous, somebody who “just isn’t quite ready yet.

Privileged People Get Together to Talk about Racism

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (January 1998)

From October through December, the Grand Rapids Magazine provided us with a look at how arrogant and candid rich white people can be. Not that this was the intention of the local glossy mag, rather it was the outcome of their organized chat group of privileged people from the area who came to discuss racism in Grand Rapids.

The “dialogue” took place in June and consisted of 5 white folks, 2 black people, 6 men, and one woman. All seven people represent significantly privileged economic sectors of the community: Peter Cook – Chairman of Mazda Great lakes; Stephen Drew – partner with Drew, Cooper & Anding; Tom Regis – Regis Reality; Diana Sieger – President of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation; Dan West – GRPS Board of Education; Casey Wondergem – Amway Senior Public Affairs Counsel; and Bob Woodrick – Chairman of D&W.

It would be relevant to the discussion here to note some of the other connections that members of this dialogue group have in the area. Casey Wondergem is a member of the Downtown Development Authority, the non-elected body of rich, white men, that use tax payers money for “development” projects in downtown Grand Rapids. Peter Cook, according to Russ Bellant’s book The Religious Right in Michigan Politics, is very active in religious right activities. He is part director of Gospel Films Inc. in Muskegon, a media forum that promotes religious intolerance and political theocracy. Cook also is a major donor to TEACH Michigan, an anti-public schools organization, Campus Crusade, Focus on the Family, the right-wing Media Research Center, Michigan Family Forum, and the Acton Institute.

Having said all that it is not my intention to dissect the text of the “racism dialogue,” instead I only wanted to mention some of the things said and encourage our readers to get a copy of the October, November, and December issues of the Grand Rapids Magazine.

All of the white members of the panel, except Bob Woodrick, either down-played racism in Grand Rapids or simply denied that it existed at all. Peter Cook said, “I hate to say this, but most of the racist comments I hear come from the black community against the white community.” Tom Regis scapegoated Sidney Rhoads Jr. (who does a show on GRTV) for creating negativism in the community. Sidney apparently said that blacks feel cheated because they created the wealth in this country that the whites have. It would seem that Mr. Regis doesn’t think that history has anything to do with our present situation.

Casey Wondergem probably topped them all in ridiculousness with a comment that I thought was no longer tolerable in most common sense circles. He said “some of my best friends are African Americans.” After picking myself up off the floor from laughter, I came to my senses and saw that what the whole discussion was revolving around was not really racism, but classism.

While both West and Drew contributed the more intelligible comments, neither of them questioned the economic inequity that exists in our community, nor that most people of color are disproportionately poor in this community. Tom Regis’s idea of the community coming along way was the example of Casey Wondergem arranging a party at the University Club with Dutch and non-Dutch people. Radical indeed.

Reading this discussion made me realize even more how out of touch with reality people in power are. Their words were self-indicting as to their ignorance, indifference, and complicity in creating and maintaining structures that exploit and exclude people in this community.

Everyone needs to read this series of articles. Make copies and pass them on to friends. Let’s start our own discussion groups and submit the results to Grand Rapids Magazine or suggest real people in the trenches to be part of another discussion group for their mag. Maybe FUN will organize one for the next issue. Who do you think should take part.

Press Censors Some Citizen Input on New Police Chief

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (January 1998)

Only 20 people showed up for a public forum on input for what kind of police chief the City should hire. These 20, however, were not short on ideas. The Press, instead, chose to report on the less significant aspects that were presented by the public.

Only 2 of the twenty were mentioned by name or quoted in the article. In fact, City manager Kurt Kimball got more print than all the citizens present combined. The ideas reported were the need to hire from within the department, an honest chief, dealing with rogue cops, and some mention of sensitivity to “racial and economic diversity.”

What a disservice to the Grand Rapids public. People had some great ideas, ideas that came from a real community/neighborhood perspective. Dave Bulkowski who is with the Peoples Transportation Forum and the Center for Independent Living urged the new chief to be sensitive to people with disabilities. Frank Lynn, with Catherine’s Care Center and a long time neighborhood activist, came whole list of ideas, none of which were mentioned in the Press article of Nov. 12.

Frank suggested that the police chief work closely with neighborhood groups, that the police work should be rooted in the neighborhoods in a collaborative effort. The chief should also be about economic reinvestment into the core city neighborhoods as a preventative measure against crime. This could be done by supporting the re-directing of seized drug assets back to neighborhoods most effected by drug related crime. Frank also suggested that more alternatives to crime should be employed to take some offenders out of the cycle of crime.

Other comments suggested that the chief take a strong stand against police brutality, which was a much different statement than what the Press ran. The issue of sensitivity to the diversity in the community was actually stated as sensitivity to racial, cultural, gender, and class diversity in the community. I found it interesting that class was changed to economic.

In addition was the concern about the process of public input. Before the public was invited to participate the City Commission voted to give a $27,500 contract to the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) to conduct a search for the next chief. If the city will consider hiring within the department why hire a DC base firm? It seems to me that the public input process is a bit of a token or a wish to put on the appearance of following a democratic process.

Lastly, it should be mentioned that someone raised the issue of the chief of police being more accountable to the public. As it now stands the chief is accountable to a non-elected official, the City Manager…Kurt Kimball. This was conveniently omitted from the Press article, maybe because it went more directly to the point of a real democratic process with the next police chief.

Local Think Tank Invites Media Pundit

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (September 1997)

On October 20, for $7 you could have heard ABC’s 20/20 personality John Stossel speak on “Greed and Freedom.” Sponsored by the Acton Institute, Stossel was to speak about the evils of regulation and the “unnecessary level of fear that exists for the American consumer.”

Of course Stossel would say this, he works for ABC, which is owned by Disney, a company that makes its money off of the slave labor of mostly women in poor countries around the world. Stossel, who used to be a consumer advocate and activist-reporter has now become one of corporate America’s favorite pundits. According to Jeff Cohen and Norman Solomon in their most recent book, Wizards of Media Oz, Stossel has been producing bogus shows on 20/20 like “Much Ado About Nothing?” where he questioned the bans on unsafe chemicals or “The Town That Loves Garbage” where he hailed landfills and belittled environmentalists who worked for conservation.

Stossel was such a hit with big business and ABC that he eventually began hosting hour-long specials. One entitled “Are We Scaring Ourselves to Death?” was a critique of the federal regulations aimed at the chemical industry. “Unknown to viewers, two of the three producers hired to work on Stossel’s special had resigned–because their research, including data that showed product safety regulation to be cost-effective, did not conform to Stossel’s preconceived beliefs (Wizards, pg. 20).”

Also according to Cohen and Solomon, Stossel gave a speech in 1994g to the “American Industrial Health Council” – a group that includes Du Pont, Procter & Gamble, Pfizer, and Squibb – telling the firms what they wanted to hear. Stossel claimed that the EPA and the FDA should be abolished. The Council paid Stossel $11,000 for the speech.

Increasingly there is less and less distinction between the “news” companies and those they are doing stories about. Stossel himself is quoted as saying “I have come to believe that markets are magical and are the best protectors of the consumer. It is my job to explain the beauties of the free market.”

The Sweetened Version of a Modern Day Crusader

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (September 1997)

On Saturday, October 18, the Grand Rapids Press ran a front page of the “Religion” section article on Campus Crusade for Christ co-founder Vonette Bright’s recent talk in town. Press writer Joane Sher tells us that Bright was hosted at Calvary Chruch, the mega-church located just off the East Beltline with a seating capacity greater than DeVos Hall.

The article quotes Bright frequently on the importance of women being witnesses, sort of a compliment to the growing men’s movement known as the Promise Keepers. The article also gives us quote a bit of background on both Vonette and her husband Bill, how they met and co-founded the Campus Crusade for Christ movement in the early 1950g’s. Interestingly, nothing much is said about what Campus Crusade has done, nor what its mission is.

Founded on the campus of UCLA in 1951g, Bill Bright’s goal was always to promote an ultra-conservative Christian worldview. To counter the anti-war movements on campuses in the 1960g’s, bright organized the Christian World Liberation Front. The group eventually split off to become what was known as the “Jesus Movement.”

In the 1970g’s, Bright went worldwide with a huge crusade in South Korea called “Explo 74.” The crusade was endorsed by South Korean leader Park Chung Kee who was notorious for being repressive. The site of Bright’s headquarters for the South Korean campaign was located on a spot that was donated by the government, which was the scene of a bloody battle between Park’s military and squatters in 1968g.

In 1973g, Bright co-founded Third Century Publishers, a conservative evangelical publishing house to promote a right-wing economic agenda and a neo-theocracy approach to government. Amway co-founder Rich DeVos was also involved with the project. In 1987g, Bright was personally invited by President Reagan to be a part of a dinner meeting with Salvadoran President Duarte and his military brass. Bright attended and there was no mention of his challenging Duarte for his bloody campaign against the Salvadoran people, nor Reagan’s military and financial support of the bloodbath.

These are only a few omissions from the Press article on an ultra-conservative movement leader while in town. This should not surprise us in a religious political atmosphere that praises the Promise Keepers and demonizes women who question their agenda. (Some of the info in this article comes from Sara Diamond’s book Spiritual Warfare)

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.

Lawbreaking Lawmaker Passes On Legacy of Killing

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (May 1996)

In the Jan/Feb FUN we reported how west Michigan State Rep. Leon Stille bragged about violating speed laws, and urged others to violate speed laws, despite knowing that increased injury and death was the inevitable result. Stille also advocated modifying those laws, knowing that doing so would sanction increased death and injury.

Now we learn that Leon Stille’s daughter, Kristina Lee Stille, rammed cos car into another car with the result that the driver of the other car was killed. Stille had apparently been drinking prior to the crash.

Moreover, Kristina Stille apparently bad been in two previous crashes (“accidents”, according to Grand Rapids Press terminology). One of those bad injured two people.

Leon Stille commented, ”We’re just absolutely devastated for their family and for ours.” But there was no indication that their “devastation” resulted in any rethinking of cos support for higher speeds for the lethal vehicles that this family uses regularly and apparently takes for granted. One more person dead- too bad; on with business as usual.

We bet that Kristina Lee Stille will not get a long prison sentence for this murder. In fact, we bet co will get no jail or prison time whatsoever. The family is White, prominent, and is making “appropriate” noises of remorse for this “tragedy”.

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.

The Press Commits Another Sin of Omission: When Rape is Passe

Reprinted from The FUNdamentalist (May 1996)

On April 13, in the Religion section, the Grand Rapids Press ran an article from Newhouse News Service writer Julia Lieblich about a US nun who is engaged in a protest/ fast across the street from the White House. Actually, the article spends more time talking about the “concern” that National Security Advisor Anthony Lake and his associates are having in this case.

The headline reads “Administration officials make late-night visits to see protesting nun.” The title alone is enough to lead you to believe that they are on some humanitarian mission. According to the article, Lake has paid three visits to Sister Diana Ortiz who has been camped out since April 2. In fact, the article gives more print space to the supposed empathy of government officials than that of the reasons for Ortiz’s actions.

The Press article simply states that Sister Ortiz “was raped and tortured in Guatemala.” No other specifics are mentioned. We are given no date or any testimony from Sister Diana herself about what happened. It is almost as if rape and torture were incidental in this case. The article mentions former US Ambassador to Guatemala Thomas Strook’s challenge of Ortiz’s story, but no one who supports her case is cited. For as much as the article reflects the agony of the government officials on this case you might expect the writer to give equal time to the agony of Sister Ortiz. Not so. The specifics of her abduction, rape, and torture are quite available, however. You can find full testimony in publications such as Report on Guatemala, the Bulletin of the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission/USA, as well as a taped interview on Alternative Radio. Any competent journalist could easily find these sources.

Some of the specifics of her case are as follows. She was abducted on November 2, 1989. Her abductors took her to a warehouse-like building, where Sister Diana recounts that she heard “the despairing screams of people being tortured and I watched helplessly as an innocent person was tortured.” She was then questioned and every time she responded men burned her with cigarettes. In all she has 111 burns on her back from the interrogation. She then says, “I was raped numerous times. After pouring wine over my body they used and abused my body in horrible ways that are too humiliating to describe in detail. Then they lowered me into an open pit packed with human bodies – bodies of children, women, and some men, some decapitated, some lying face up and caked with blood, some dead, some alive – and all swarming with rats.” Had any aspect of this testimony from Sister Ortiz been included in the Grand Rapids Press article would it have changed your impression of this case? I think it probably would have.

None of these serious omissions by the corporate media should surprise us though. If we look at the date of the crimes committed against Sister Diana, Nov. 2, 1989, we can make other conclusions about the self-censorship that the corporate media engages in regularly.

According to Noam Chomsky in Terrorizing the Neighborhood, when this story appeared on the AP wire service on Nov. 6, 1989, none of the major media picked the story up, nor were there Congressional calls for an investigation. Just over a month later and right before the illegal US invasion of Panama, George Bush waxed indignantly about what happened to a US woman in Panama. “If they threaten and brutalize the wife of an American citizen, sexually threatening the lieutenant’s wife while kicking him in the groin over and over again – then….please understand, this president is going to do something about it.” (see Stephen Shalom’s Imperial Alibis, pg. 178-79) So, if a US woman is terrorized in a country that the US military is about to invade it is an outrage, but if a woman is terrorized in a country that systematically murder’s its own people (with US government support) it is not worthy of mention? You decide.

Finally the Press article does make mention that Sister Diana is pushing the Clinton Administration to release all classified documents related to her case. They also cite a catholic priest who believes that Anthony Lake’s interest is more posturing than genuine concern. However, the article does not seriously look at the present efforts by the Guatemalan solidarity community in this country to push the Clinton Administration to release all declassified documents related to Guatemala since the CIA-led coup of 1954. In the most recent issue of Report on Guatemala, Jennifer Harbury states that after receiving some declassified documents it is clear that Anthony Lake and other US government officials were either withholding information from her or deliberately deceiving her in regards to the status of her husband Efrain Bamanca Velasquez, who is now believed to have been killed at the hands of CIA paid military officers in Guatemala. No wonder the corporate media is “missing” the real story, it would not only indict the role of numerous US administrations in grave human rights abuses in Guatemala, it would also be self-indicting since the bulk of the information on cases like Sister Ortiz has been available for decades and has not been reported on.