DeVos Founded Voucher Group Accused of Breaking Wisconsin Election Law

A pro-voucher organization founded by Dick DeVos, the former Republican candidate for governor and a longtime supporter of the religious right, will likely be investigated for violating Wisconsin election law following a complaint filed on Friday.

All Children Matter (ACM), an organization founded by former Republican candidate for governor and longtime financer of the school voucher movement Dick DeVos, is being accused of laundering money and failing to properly register with the state of Wisconsin according to a complaint filed Friday with the Wisconsin Elections Board. The complaint alleges that a political action committee (PAC) run by All Children Matter out of Virginia failed to register in Wisconsin before contributing $35,000 to a PAC run by the organization in Wisconsin. Through the Virginia-based PAC All Children Matter is also accused of violating Wisconsin election laws that bar corporate contributions, with an entity in Wisconsin–Alliance for Choices in Education–contributing $90,000 in money that eventually made its way back to Wisconsin in the form of $35,000 spent on “issue ads” criticizing three Democratic legislative candidates. The complaint describes the transfer of money from Wisconsin to Virginia and then back to Wisconsin as “a scheme to launder campaign contributions” that hides who paid for the advertisements.

Across the United States, All Children Matter has intervened in a number of state legislative races, often drawing criticism for pumping large sums of out of state money into legislative races. During the 2004 election in Wisconsin, All Children Matter contributed over $500,000 to Republican candidates. All Children Matter campaigned heavily for Republican state legislators in Florida in during the 2004 election, but never disclosed the fact that it ultimately was formed to support school vouchers. In South Carolina in 2004, All Children Matter contributed several hundred thousand dollars to candidates who had pledged support for “school choice” while also funding direct mail advertisements in school board races. The organization also intervened in Utah in 2004, contributing the majority of the money used by a Utah-based organization pushing for school vouchers. In Missouri’s 2004 election, close to 95% of the candidates supported by All Children Matter were elected as a result of the organization’s $385,339 in contributions. While these contributions are legal in the aforementioned states, they are often disclosed only as “All Children Matter” and obscures the out-of-state sources for the majority of the money. In Missouri, a study revealed that less than 1% of the total contributions to the state’s ACM PAC came from Missouri residents. As a result, All Children Matter’s activities in Missouri and other states should be seen as an attempt by wealthy political activists–many like DeVos with long histories of supporting the religious and economic right–to subvert the democratic process.

All Children Matter was formed in the Spring of 2003 by Dick DeVos and his wife Betsy DeVos as an organization that would work to coordinate a national movement in support of political candidates that support government-funded vouchers for private schools. The organization–incorporated as a 527 organization that is consequently exempted from restrictions on the amount of donations it can give and being legally permitted to run advocacy or “issue” ads in elections–was formed in the wake of a 2002 Supreme Court ruling that upheld a voucher program in Ohio. The organization has been active in the “opportunity” states of Florida, Wisconsin, Texas, Colorado, and Virginia where DeVoses believe that the pro-voucher movement has a chance of succeeding. All Children Matter is one of many organizations around the country supported by Dick and Betsy DeVos, who have a long history of support the voucher movement. In Michigan, they bankrolled a failed 2000 ballot initiative that would have created a voucher program and run the Education Freedom Fund, an organization that awards scholarships for students to attend private schools as a means of building support for private schools and creating an ideological climate in which private schools are seen as “better” that public schools. In addition to running the Education Freedom Fund, they hold leadership positions in a number of organizations that are working to pass voucher programs around the country and to build support for the privatization of the public schools. Like their funding of organizations through their Dick and Betsy DeVos Foundation, their participation in the voucher movement is a fusion of religious right and free-market ideology. In addition to supporting vouchers, the couple has also funded charter schools as another means of advancing an agenda that seeks the privatization of the public education system.

Freedom of Speech at Risk—How to Challenge the Establishment to get Media Justice: Midwest Social Forum

Last weekend at the Midwest Social Forum, a workshop was held on the issue of media justice and the ways in which progressives can work towards a movement for racial justice in the media.

In light of the fact that five corporations determine the content of most broadcast and print media, Karen Bond of the National Black Coalition for Media Justice and Chicago Media Action along with Salim Muwakki of In These Times conducted a workshop at the Midwest Social Forum in Milwaukee last Sunday focusing on the issue of media justice and ways in which it can be worked towards. The workshop offered an overview of how white progressives and the “media reform” movements often fail to understand the need for media justice, with Karen Bond explaining that it is difficult for white people to understand how institutions such as the media work against the aspirations of people of color. Media justice was framed as an issue that cuts across all issues and the two panelists urged people to incorporate media justice work into their organizing.

Salim Muwakki began the workshop by explaining how the number one issue of media justice is the question of addressing slavery’s racial legacy. He explained how people of color have been systematically excluded from the media and that they remain the most oppressed sector of United States’ society and as such, the status of people of color can be seen as an indicator of how democratic media is in the United States. Poverty, education, and incarceration—all issues which have tremendous effects on people of color and how they are portrayed in the media—are never examined by the corporate media as part of a racist system, with many in the corporate media having “race fatigue” that sees racism as “old news.” While some media outlets have report on prisons and how high incarceration rates threaten the viability of the African-American community, the coverage has been inadequate compared to the scope of the problem due to the exclusion of African-Americans from the media. Muwakki reminded the audience that the movement for media reform, which has grown over the past few years and gained considerable support in white progressive circles, has often not incorporated justice and has often viewed white supremacy as the status quo and has not offered much opportunity for people of color. As such, Muwakki expressed the opinion that media justice has to have a distinct part separated from the movement for media democracy and explained that media activists need to reach out and facilitate a dialog with people of color. Muwakki advocated for a two-tiered approach for achieving media justice that not only seeks better coverage and representation in the corporate media but also includes building racially just independent media outlets.

Karen Bond expanded this discussion by describing how recent media policy has continued to exclude people of color from the media and encouraged racist beliefs through the media’s negative portrayals of people of color. She explained that with only five corporations owning the majority of the media that it is easy for such racist portrayals to be seen as the status quo and that it is essential for folks to continue to challenge this. She cited the 1996 Telecommunications Act as being partially responsible for these portrayals, describing it as “a major media power grab” that has since limited the diversity of voices in the media. She explained to the audience how many corporations spread stories written by one reporter across a variety of media outlets, thereby limiting voices and perspectives that the public hears. As an example, she cited Clear Channel and their massive radio that which includes the ownership of many stations in communities of color and the effect that Clear Channel’s ownership has had on limiting free speech. The audience was encouraged to consider the fact that journalism is protected in the United States constitution as a government watchdog and explained that people need to realize that once journalism is no longer protected that freedom and democracy will essentially be gone as well. In this vein, she urged people to work against media monopolies and to monitor media ownership by people of color and to work to ensure more ownership of media outlets by people of color in order to prevent the limiting of voices.

Karen Bond offered a variety of suggestions on how to incorporate media justice work into the everyday organizing work being done by progressive groups. She encouraged the audience to incorporate media justice work into their organizing as a key component of organizing and urged every group to dedicate people to working on this issue, as she argued that it is impossible to succeed without accurate media coverage. She also encouraged organizers to develop better relationships with the media as a means of generating better coverage. As a means of securing better coverage, she asked the audience to get involved in the fight to save public access and to get involved in advocacy work dealing with media policy. The importance of “localism” was stressed and expanded to not just encompass local content but also local ownership, with Bond arguing that local ownership is key if people are going to have success in holding the media accountable. She also urged the audience to exploit the mainstream media whenever given the chance as its reach is unmatched by the independent media.

Media justice was also discussed extensively last year at the National Conference on Media Reform held in St. Louis.

Exploring the History and Myths of US Immigration—Setting the Record Straight: Midwest Social Forum

As part of a series of workshops and discussions held on the issue of immigration and the prospects for continued organizing efforts on the part of the immigrant rights movement, a workshop titled “Exploring the History and Myths of US Immigration: Setting the Record Straight” was held this past Saturday in Milwaukee as part of the 2006 Midwest Social Forum.

As part of a series of workshops and discussions held on the issue of immigration and the prospects for continued organizing efforts on the part of the immigrant rights movement, a workshop titled “Exploring the History and Myths of US Immigration: Setting the Record Straight” was held this past Saturday in Milwaukee as part of the 2006 Midwest Social Forum. The workshop was designed to review the history of United States immigration policy, to address the various myths that circulate in the media and in the discussion about immigration, and to give an overview the proposed legislation that has come out of the United States House of Representatives and the Senate. The workshop consisted of three panelists active in the immigrant rights movement and invested in the success of long-term organizing efforts in immigrant communities—Salvador Carranza of Latinos United for Change and Advancement (LUChA), Alfonso Zepeda-Capistran of Latinos United for Change and Advancement (LUChA), and Alexis Mazon of the Coalicion de Derechos Humanos and Immigrant Defense Task Force in Tucson, Arizona.

The workshop began with Alexis Mazon giving and overview of the current legislation in Congress—the House’s bill HR 4437 and the Senate’s bill S 26.11 (often called the Hegel-Martinez bill), both of which she described as “very frightening” and expressed frustration that the two bills are now seen by many in Congress and the United States as the only possibilities for immigrants. As would be expected, Mazon rejected the approach of criminalization of immigrants offered by Wisconsin Representative F. James Sensenbrenner in HR 4437 and outlined how the bill would build more walls along the border, make “existence” within the United States without documents a felony subject to detention, deportation, and a lifetime ban from entering the United States, and would make it a crime for individuals and organizations within the United States to aid undocumented immigrants. However, Mazon’s criticism of the Senate’s bill—seen by some as a compromise in light of the draconian House bill—was a departure from much of the dominant discussion within progressive movements and set the stage for a real discussion of how the movement should respond to a “compromise” bill that fails to address even the most minimal aspirations of the movement. Mazon called the Senate bill a “report to deport” measure and explained that the bill’s “legalization” provisions were offered in exchange for leaving the United States and registration with the government with no guarantees that workers would be allowed back into the United States once they left as one of the preconditions for the guest worker program. Aside from criticizing the guest worker program as an inadequate solution to address immigration caused by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and other economic and structural reasons for immigration, Mazon outlined other “criminalization” aspects of the Senate legislation. These included the provisions making it a crime potentially subject to deportation to have ever used a false security number to obtain employment, the creation of a “continuing crime offense” where immigrants who admit to crossing the border without doing so legally are considered to have committed a “continuing crime” that is subject to up to twenty years in prison, indefinite detention provisions for immigrants, increased cooperation between local police and the border patrol, the expansion of detention facilities (which will be done by companies such as Halliburton, Bechtel, and Wackenhutt), and the extension of a wall along the United States-Mexico border. Panelist Alfonso Zepeda-Capistran echoed Mazon’s objections to the Senate bill and also pointed out that while the media has emphasized the “amnesty” component of the bill—a provision that does not even exist in any substantive form within the bill—there has been no discussion of its actual provisions including the lack of guarantees for admission into the guest worker program once immigrants have left the United States, the requirement for citizens to learn and demonstrate proficiency in English, and the limits placed on due process rights for immigrants.

Following Mazon’s discussion of current legislation, Salvador Carranza examined several common myths in the immigration debate. He began by discussing how militarizing the border is not a deterrent to undocumented immigration and indeed more people have enter the country via extra-legal means due to the process of criminalization and restricting the number of visas allowed. Carranza asserted that the militarization of the border or the “security approach” has cost millions of dollars as the Border Patrol increased its patrol time by a multiple of eight, its budget by ten, and increased its officers threefold since 1994. He addressed the myth that the guest worker program being offered by the Senate bill and the notion that immigrants take jobs by explaining how immigrants are working simply to secure their existence and that the primary responsibility for job lost lies with corporations and neoliberal trade policies. According to Carranza, a guest worker program would create a second class of citizens that will depress the wages of all workers. The myth that undocumented immigrants cost money was countered by the facts that the $10.1 million spent nationally to provide immigrants with servers often goes unclaimed as immigrants use half the services over their lifetime that they are eligible for, that the Social Security system has made $420 billion from immigrants according to 2004 statistics (a full 10% of its revenue, that undocumented men have a 96% labor participation rate, and that with the United States projected to lose 85 million workers in the next 15 years with only 60 million being replaced, immigrants could fill that void and provide even more money for the Social Security system. Alfonso Zepeda-Capistran also explained that one of the frequent questions in the debate—why immigrants do not come legally—is largely mute as it is, for the most part, impossible due to limits placed on entry via family sponsorship, corporate sponsorship/employment, or special country designations. As examples, he explained that only 38,000 visas are given out annually for spouses, that employment visas are hard to get unless one has training in a field with high demand, and that to enter under the corporate/employment designation as an investor one must invest at least $500,000 and create ten jobs. Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights one of the many groups present at the Midwest Social Forum has a number of fact sheets dealing with immigration myths and the process of immigrating to the United States.

Unfortunately, while there was little time to address the complete history of immigration policy in the United States, the panelists were able to respond to audience questions about how would be the best way to address the issue of immigration. Alexis Mazon explained to the audience that Texas Representative Sheila Jackson-Lee of the Congressional Black Caucus offered a much more humane immigration bill that would allow for legal permanent residency of undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States for five years, would double the number of family visas allowed, and would increase the number of work visas awarded to immigrants. Mazon rightly criticized Jackson-Lee’s bill for failing to address NAFTA and other root causes of immigration, but explained it was the best proposal in Congress until Congress realizes that they have a vested interest in developing policies such as living wages, health care, and fair housing as a means of “securing people” instead of “securing” borders. Salvador Carranza offered up the European Union’s policy on immigration as a potential sample policy as well. Of course, as Carranza pointed out, when there are people such as Bill O’Reilly openly admitting that they are fighting immigration legislation as means of maintaining white privilege, it is hard to believe that there could be a legislative or legal path to realize the human rights of immigrants. Mazon argued that aside from being ineffective in light of the current situation and the history of the criminalization of immigrants, electoral strategies “leave out millions” and cannot approach the power of mass mobilizations and community organizing strategies. Mazon declared that current immigration policy where 5,000 have been found dead on the border in the last 12 years is “literally killing” the immigrant community and that immigrants have been sold out by politicians every time whether it has been the Real Id Act, Homeland Security, or Senate bill 26.11.

Counter Military Recruiting: Midwest Social Forum

At the Midwest Social Forum in Milwaukee, three individuals representing the broad range of voices active in the counter-recruiting movement discussed various tactics and methods that can be used to build more effective counter-recruiting campaigns.

As the antiwar movement has debated how best to bring about an end to the United States occupation of Iraq, activists across the United States and in Grand Rapids have started campaigns to challenge the military’s recruiting efforts. The efforts have arisen for a variety of reasons ranging from high school student’s objection to predatory recruiters harassing them in their schools and at their homes, an understanding that the racism implicit in the military’s targeting of youth of color exposes the racist foundations of the United States’ occupation of Iraq, and the pragmatic idea that in light of the military’s difficulties meeting its recruiting goals that preventing a few recruits from joining the military can have a direct affect on the military’s capacity to wage the war in Iraq. It was out of this context that Will Williams of Veterans for Peace and Madison Area Peace Coalition, Peter Blewett of the Milwaukee School Board, and Adam Breihan a youth organizer with Peace Action Wisconsin shared their experiences doing counter-recruiting with an audience of activists and high school students at the Midwest Social Forum in Milwaukee.

Will Williams, a veteran of the Vietnam War and long time participant in the antiwar movement, opened his comments by reminding the audience of the fact that the military is feeling pressure from the antiwar movement and cited the recent arrests of activists doing counter-recruiting leafleting at the Taste of Chicago and the arrest of a veteran wearing a “Veterans for Peace” t-shirt at Veterans Administration facility. Williams explained that military recruiting efforts have increased due to the ongoing occupation of Iraq, the lack of the draft, and the No Child Left Behind Act that requires schools to supply the military with their students’ information in order to aid recruiting efforts. He then pointed out that due to No Child Left Behind, schools are apart of the military-industrial complex and must therefore be considered an appropriate terrain of struggle for antiwar activists. Williams explained that there are difficulties in organizing against military recruiting in the schools, especially with parents who are not engaged and therefore are unlikely to demand that recruiters stop harassing their children and the belief of school administrators that the military is good. In organizing in Madison, this has been particularly true, as school administrators have argued that the military is good as it offers “scholarships” to students who would otherwise be unable to get into college. Williams explained that his group has overcome this opposition in part by highlighting the fact that military’s money for college in exchange for service is more of a “contract” than a scholarship. His group has also been successful in engaging parents by educating the public about the ways in which military recruiters are avoiding local limits on the number of times they can visit schools (currently each branch can only visit each public school in Madison 3 times a year) by serving as voluntary “teacher’s assistants.” Not only due recruiters functioning as “teacher’s assistants” function as recruiters when they teach physical education classes using climbing walls or allow shop students to work on Humvees, but they also violate teachers’ union contracts and undermine school regulations by failing to be accredited. Near the end of the workshop, Williams remind the audience that the same facts regarding military recruitment hold true in Iraq as they did in Vietnam and that it is “minorities and the lower class who are the ones that who die for this bullshit.”

Milwaukee School Board member Paul Blewett expanded the dialog on counter-recruiting and offered his experiences in getting the Milwaukee public school system to adopt policies that limit their disclosure of student data to the military. Citing recruiter dishonesty in helping potential enlistees cheat on entrance exams and fake drug tests and recruiters doing things such as showing up at a Milwaukee high school students’ 16th birthday party in a military Humvee, Blewett explained how he was able to make military recruiting a privacy issue that gained the support of a coalition consisting of groups such as the Wisconsin branch of the ACLU. Blewett led an effort that developed clear guidelines restricting when military recruiters can visit Milwaukee high schools and how they conduct themselves as well as adopting a policy for the Milwaukee Public Schools that emphasizes students’ ability to “opt-out” from having their information released to military recruiters (and also made it so that students under 18 can fill out their own opt-out forms without needing their parents’ to fill them out). In addition, for students who do not fill out the “opt-out” form, the data released to the military by the Milwaukee Public Schools no longer includes students’ phone numbers and addresses. Unfortunately, there is still a need for a statewide policy as the state releases the names, addresses, and phone numbers of student in the state. Blewett emphasized the fact that school districts who chose not to comply with No Child Left Behind’s military recruiting provisions risk losing federal funding, but that school districts can alter the nature of information released and urged workshop attendees to organize in their communities to get their school boards to adopt policies of “active notification” with separate “opt-out” forms and outreach efforts to parents instead of the “passive notification” of “opt-out” procedures buried within dense school policy guidebooks. Blewett distributed sample resolutions and policies for those interested in working on the issue and directed attendees to the National School Board Association for additional sample policies. (The group ACTIVATE has the sample policies for use by antiwar activists in Grand Rapids).

Adam Breihan, a June 2006 graduate of Riverside High School in Milwaukee and organizer with Peace Action Wisconsin, explained how students at his high school began organizing against military recruiters. Breihan told the audience that from the time he started high school to when he graduated this year he saw an increase in military recruiting within his school in response to the ongoing war in Iraq with recruiters becoming omnipresent during his school’s lunch periods, in the school’s guidance officers, and in class rooms. Moreover, due to No Child Left Behind’s student data disclosure provisions, Breihan and his classmates began receiving “piles” of information from recruiters despite never requesting it. This increased in recruiters, coupled with the sexual harassment of one female student by recruiters and Breihan’s own experience being physically stopped by a recruiter who made him late for class while attempting him to join the military. In response to the military’s tabling, through which the students realized that the military was targeting students of color, students at Riverside High School formed the Milwaukee Youth Liberation Army to approach military recruiters from a two-tiered approach targeting recruiters from the bottom through grassroots tabling across from recruiters when they were in the school (or once per week when they were not) and distributing information and showing anti-recruiting videos, and from the top by approaching the school board with testimony of parents, students, and others about the ways in which recruiters operate and the need to restrict them. Breihan encouraged people doing counter-recruiting work to table within schools, to get parents involved, and to look at teachers as potential allies. Breihan also reported that they had success in organizing “Books not Bombs” rallies and Not Your Soldier” rallies outside of recruiting centers.

The Fight against Water Privatization in Wisconsin, Michigan, and the World: Midwest Social Forum 2006

In a workshop titled “Grassroots Struggle Against Water Privatization: The Fight against Corporate Water Bottling Companies” at the 2006 Midwest Social Forum, four panelists outlined recent struggles against water privatization in the Midwest states of Michigan and Wisconsin, in the United States, and across the world.

In a workshop titled “Grassroots Struggle Against Water Privatization: The Fight against Corporate Water Bottling Companies” at the 2006 Midwest Social Forum, four panelists outlined recent struggles against water privatization in the Midwest states of Michigan and Wisconsin, in the United States, and across the world. The panel consisted of Don Roy of Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation, Arlene Kanno of Wisconsin-based Concerned Citizens of Newport, Orin Langelle of the Global Justice Ecology Project and Jessica Roach of Food and Water Watch, all of whom have been active in these struggles both in their local communities and within the global context of resistance to the commodification of water.

Arlene Kanno, who is involved with Concerned Citizens of Newport, a group that successfully fought and prevented a bottling operation near the Wisconsin Dells, outlined what has become a fairly typical process through which a large multinational company—in their case Nestlé—comes to an area and seeks to develop the necessary infrastructure for a large bottled water factory. In this case, Nestlé entered an unincorporated area inhabited by many farmers and people who had moved out of Wisconsin’s urban centers of Milwaukee and Madison seeking a more quiet life in the country, and sought to build a 2 mile pipeline for water along with an additional well at the bottling plant as part of a 320 acre development to host the operation (70 acres of which would be paved). Nestlé initially claimed that they would leave the area if the people wanted them to, and once opposition to the project was organized, Nestlé reneged on its promise and stayed in the area despite requests by citizens. The group then went to their state legislator who was unwilling to help them, citing the fact that they were a “freshman” legislator and essentially had no power to do anything if they were to be reelected. In response to the failings of the legislature to deal with Nestlé’s water bottling, the group began an extensive public relations and popular education campaign that emphasized the plant’s threat to prairie restoration efforts, its devastation of wetlands, ruining of the area’s “quiet” way of life, and the taking of the area’s water for private gain. The group also worked extensively to organize sportsmen, nature groups, native groups, poets, artists, and others that had an interest in protecting the area. When it became clear that Nestlé and the state were not going to bow to public pressure, the group filed a lawsuit based on the fact that water is the public trust (although the idea of a “public trust” is not a statue in Wisconsin and has no real power) and that the Wisconsin Environmental Protection Act mandates the government’s protection of water resources (although this seems void if the government wants a harmful development). Following an initial delay, the lawsuit was one by the Concerned Citizens of Newport, although they have continued organizing after stopping the plant because their victory resulted in Nestlé moving its bottling efforts to Michigan.

Of particular interest to residents living in West Michigan was Don Roy’s discussion of the struggle to stop Nestlé from pumping and bottling water in Mecosta County. Roy explained how Nestlé, a large multinational corporation, came into Michigan almost immediately after its defeat in Wisconsin and sought to apply the lessons that it learned there in combating the grassroots movement that formed in Michigan to oppose Nestlé’s bottling operation. Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation (MCWC) was one of the groups to come together opposing the bottling of Michigan’s water, objecting to it based on the potential for environmental impairment and harm with the operation being near streams, lakes, and wetlands; the commodification and privatization for profit of a vital public resource (Nestlé only paid for its permit and pays the state and its residents no additional money for taking its water); and the fact that bottling water is not a sustainable form of economic development. MCWC formed in December of 2000 and has seen its membership grow to 1,800 and recently was successful in obtaining an out of court settlement to a case in Michigan Circuit Court that requires Nestlé to limit how much they are bottling (400 gallons per minute) and to submit data on their operations to a hydro-geologist working with MCWC. The group is currently in the process of petitioning the Michigan Supreme Court in a case that seeks to stop the operation completely and is considering other avenues to pursue the struggle against water privatization in Michigan. Roy cited the Michigan Water Law, passed in early 2006, as an inadequate means of protection with a large loophole for bottled water in that it declares that any bottling operation is not a diversion if it is bottling water in containers that hold less than 5.7 gallons (of course, the average bottling plant in the United States bottles 300 million gallons per year). MCWC is currently considering a constitutional ballot initiative for 2006 that would protect Michigan’s water in light of the failure of the state’s governors and legislature to take adequate measures, is advocating for the extension of the bottle deposit law to include non-carbonated beverages in light of the fact that 90% of water bottles are never recycled, and looking towards increasing coordination with other environmental groups and hosting a possible annual conference on water privatization in Mecosta County.

While companies such as Nestlé can make as much as one million dollars per day in profits from bottling plants such as those in Mecosta County and frequently receive multi-million dollar tax abatements, there have been several successes in the fight against water privatization. Jessica Roach of Food and Water Watch detailed several of these recent victories against water privatization in the United States including New Orleans rejecting a bid by Suez to privatize the cities water due to grassroots organizing, a successful organizing effort in Felton, California that resulted in citizens taxing themselves to buy back their water from RWE Germany, and an ongoing struggle to prevent the privatization of Lexington, Kentucky’s water by RWE Germany. Roach also referenced Food and Water Watch’s “Faulty Pipes” report on the history of water privatization and its failures as a model that provides for human needs. The corporations seeking to bottle and privatize water in the United States are active around the world and have been met with resistance in areas such as Central America where companies such as Suez and Bechtel are being driven from the region by popular resistance and replaced with innovative structures like the cooperatives and review boards being developed to provide democratic models of water management. Panelist Orin Langelle expanded on the international resistance to water privatization and showed the audience a slideshow of photos from the International Forum in Defense of Water held this past March in Mexico. The Forum is held as an alternative to the World Water Forum that is sponsored by entities such as the World Bank and Coca-Cola and designed to commodify water rather than protecting it as a basic right.

Celebrating the Immigrant Rights Movement: Midwest Social Forum Plenary

The opening plenary of the 2006 Midwest Social Forum held this weekend in Milwaukee featured an important discussion of the immigrants rights movement, examining its recent successes and future organizing.

The opening plenary of the 2006 Midwest Social Forum held this past weekend was titled “Celebrating the Immigrant Rights Movement” and featured four organizers involved in the historic protests of March through May in which thousands of immigrants and their supporters took to the streets for immigrant rights in response to the passage of the draconian HR 4437 bill sponsored by Wisconsin Representative F. James Sensenbrenner. The discussion—reflecting the wide-ranging impact of the movement and its potential to reinvigorate grassroots politics in the United States—was framed as a way to both celebrate the successes of the movement as well as to address some of the strategic and tactical questions still facing the movement.

Organizer Roberto Rodriguez, a journalist and filmmaker who has been involved in the struggle for immigrant rights for many years, began by declaring that the catchphrase and central demand of the movement is “No One Is Illegal.” He then went on to state that the Democratic and Republican debate over the question of “legality” and “amnesty” was something of which the two parties should be ashamed. Rodriguez described how it is “beyond degrading” to create a system that has its foundation on the dehumanization of immigrants and then to discuss the “privilege” of making some of them citizens through “amnesty” when they did nothing wrong and were simply attempting to live. For Rodriguez, there is “no need for a category of illegal human being” and the fact that there exists such a category shows that the citizens and government of the United States have forgotten that the origins of the United States are based on imperialism and colonization. While Rodriguez described the debate as “degrading” now, he warned the audience that it “will get uglier in the next six months” as the Republicans will likely use immigration, xenophobia, and racism as a means of campaigning in the upcoming elections. In order to prevent such rhetoric from framing Congressional action on immigration, Rodriguez emphasized the importance of organizing proactively as a movement and suggested that the movement needs to stop reacting to legislative threats and put forth innovative proposals such as the European Nations (EU) program that allows workers to cross freely across borders for work.

Following from this context, two organizers focused on the successes of the movement this spring and looked towards the future of actions of the movement. An organizer from Madison, Wisconsin described how she participated in the cities April 10 march under the believe that every human has the right to live and that despite her birth in a county that had a history of oppression, she felt compelled to stand up and protest in support of immigrant rights in the United States. She explained that many children participated in the march because their parents and themselves are working to create a place where they will not feel the need to hide the color of their skin and their language. She also challenged the assumptions of many in this country that believe that immigrants have it “easy” and pointed out that when immigrating people lose their families and live in awful conditions. Christine Neumann-Ortiz, from Voces de la Frontera in Milwuakee, described how marches such as the one in Madison and the 70,000-person May 1 march in Milwaukee—were truly something to celebrate. She cited the fact that the four million people who marched in March through May were the product of sustained national organizing rather than “spontaneous” protest as has occasionally been stated by the corporate media. This organizing grew out of the passage of HR 4437 and opposition to that bill’s criminalization of immigrants and their supporters and that due to this organizing the momentum towards the complete criminalization of immigrants has been stopped and that there is now movement, while not perfect, towards legalization. Neumann-Ortiz also described how national and local organizations, churches, labor unions, the business community opposed to losing its labor force, youth, and the media were all instrumental in the success of the movement.

She also addressed the question of where the movement is going, something that many are wondering now that protests have become less frequent and now that the debate over immigration legislation in Congress has been stalled. Neumann-Ortiz described how there are national marches being planned for the Labor Day weekend (September 4th) around the country as a means of brining the movement back into streets and showing that the demands of the immigrant community have not been met. Several groups have also set a national goal of registering one million Latino voters for the upcoming election both as a means of organizing electoral support and as a way of finding persons eligible for citizenship and helping them through that process. She also explained that there has been some discussion of a national boycott of Kimberly-Clarke as the company responsible for the Sensenbrenner family fortune. She argued that the movement has been an “inspiration” and that it has given the opportunity for building relationships between groups and movements and that now the question facing the movement is “who can out organize who” with Republicans, misinformed sections of the population, and the extreme right-wing blaming economic problems on immigration rather than economic problems brought about by corporate decisions and trade policy. She expressed confidence that the movement could successfully organize the grassroots and consequently move the debate and legislation in the favor of the movement.

The final panelist, Colin Rajah of the National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, reminded the audience that while the debate is often seen as one involving Mexicans and Latinos, immigration is a human condition and that the plight of immigrants extends beyond those groups and that indeed people have always immigrated as becomes necessary for survivability. He cited statistics showing that cross-border immigration has increased over the past century due both to migration as well as the increase in borders. As this immigration has increased, international laws have largely shifted and now view immigration in an economic context with little respect for human and labor rights. While the World Bank has documented that remittances by immigrants’ to their families in their native countries are significant and consequently contribute to economic growth, the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the General Agreement on Trade and Services (GATS) view immigrants as economic units that can be used to promote trade. Even international bodies such as the United Nations, which has been the site of struggle by the immigrant rights movement to obtain protections, have adopted economic rhetoric and have abandoned their role as allies of the movement. He explained that within the larger social forum network, of which the Midwest Social Forum is a part, a migrant rights caucus has been formed and there has been significant progress towards making immigrant rights an important issue on the left.

One point of contention in the plenary was the question of supporting the Senate’s bill on immigration, S26.11. This issue was raised by an audience member who gave a brief summary of a protest that was held Wednesday night (07/05/06) in the Milwaukee area at a forum sponsored by Representative Sensenbrenner, with the audience member arguing that the bill produced by the Senate, while not as draconian as HR 4437, contains several unacceptable enforcement provisions, fails to “fulfill the aspirations of the movement,” and argued that the actual contents of the bill have not been discussed enough. In response, Roberto Rodriguez agreed that the guest worker program is the wrong way to go due to its creation of a second class of citizens within the United States who will consequently be targets for exploitation and oppression. He further stated that he believed that electoral politics are “the wrong way to go” for a movement that should be able to look and see that electoral politics have historically been unable to protect immigrants. Christine Neumann-Ortiz responded that the We Are America Alliance–a coalition of immigrant rights groups—came to consensus after extended debate that while the Senate bill had unacceptable criminalization components, it had made some achievements that reflected the success of the movement.