How's that Working Out For You?

In order to translate the core assumptions of collective bargaining for Vietnamese undergraduates, I have had to turn my attention to the way democracy is actually practiced in our own country.

Play vs no play — June 28, 2020

Play vs no play

It’s summer, schools no longer sending out lessons, and kids are starting to run out patience with being cooped up. Also, they miss each other. Small pods of them are starting to show up in parks.

I was up in Cordonices Park today, a beautiful park with a large flat grassy picnic area bordered by a large oak and bay tree-lined hillside riddled with dirt paths. Long flights of stairs climb up the hill. Down at the bottom, a natural creek runs out of a pool under a waterfall.

Kids running all over the place. These are 6-8 year olds (I asked). Certain amount of social distancing going on. One or two maybe wearing masks. Moms down near the creek, looking up to try to follow the little bodies as they scramble up and down the hillside paths.

“I guess they’ve gotta get out of the house,”I say.

“It’s not just that,” says the mom. “It’s developmental. They need each other to play with.”

I was also listening to how they were talking to each other. I suddenly realized what was different – I hadn’t heard conversations like this in months. It was like hearing birdsong in the first few weeks of the shutdown — wow, what was that? And then I noticed what they were doing. I’ll just catch the fragments of conversation that I heard:

Three boys: What did your brother say? He’s not my brother. OK, your friend.

Four boys, running: Where’s the base? Back here! Run, he’s already there. We can get across here. You’ll get wet. I don’t care. Come on!

Group of five boys, splitting up as one goes to help another: There’s Eric! he’s coming up. I’ll go help him. Wait for me! Use this (long vine offered down the hillside). Come on. Wait for us!

Four boys: Have you ever been hit in your eye? Anyone? Have you been hit in the eye? (Three boys stand silent listening, awed.) I have been hit in the eye!

This is play, energetic, focused play, no particular scenario, just the hillside with a lot of trees and a tangle of paths. But in the conversations, which came to my ears as something completely new because I haven’t seen anything like it for nearly four months, I saw the negotiation of identity; giving of approval, encouragement, advice; invitation to join, leading a group and telling a personal history. Rapid deployment, testing and passing along of social skills, something that could not be done by a kid alone in a house with a parent, or on line.

Gorgeous oaks that will be here after the virus has gone, and maybe after we’re gone, too. Over 125,000 dead in the US, half a million worldwide, and the spike going up. EU countries are talking about banning travelers who come from the US. We are hearing indirectly about how other countries are viewing us. A friend in Denmark is developing a curriculum about US racism — you mean there’s something special about US racism? It sounds Hmmmm.

Bottom line right now: we assume we and everyone will get it. We expect to survive but aren’t sure about that. We expect that a vaccine will be developed but that getting it will not be decided fairly. Access to it will be decided by who can pay for it. If you are expendable (people in nursing homes on Medicare, prisoners) you will be last in line. If you are an “essential” worker you will find out what is meant by “essential.” Does it mean that the economy depends on your work? What if there are other people who can do your work if you aren’t available? Is it you or your labor that is essential? Slaves on sugar plantations in the Caribbean had a life expectancy of 3 years. They were replaceable but as time went on they got more and more expensive.

Time to read Black Jacobins which has been on my book pile for months. I am highly recommending Little Fires Everywhere, incidentally, the TV series with Reese Witherspoon, which is better than the book. And for looking into the future, Supernova Era by Liu Cixin.

The reason for reading Liu Cixin is because the picture of what the world would look like if it was run by 13 year olds is not pretty. Readers can draw their own parallels. But the the thirteen year olds he is describing are ones that were provided with standard if not elite educations, not kids packed into bedrooms or apartments for months at a time with no opportunity to learn to play together except on video games where they shoot each other.

Juneteenth in Oakland, retail social distancing and BLM in a nearby park — June 19, 2020

Juneteenth in Oakland, retail social distancing and BLM in a nearby park

Big march in Oakland

In honor of Juneteenth the ILWU has shut down the ports on the West Coast and there is a Black Lives Matter march from the Port of Oakland into central downtown. Thousands of people, as far as I could see. Very much in the spirit of Occupy.

Behind the signs you can just barely see the crowd coming down off the bridge over the freeway.

It’s possible that I should not have jumped out of my car and gone and stood in the middle of the march to take these photos, even though I had my mask on. I was in and out quick, though.

ON my way back into Berkeley I listened to a KPFA interview with people in the new Autonomous Zone around the Capitol in Seattle: after 4 or 5 days of intense police intervention, the police suddenly went away; they have now had two days of a full-scale Occupy, with food, music, medical supplies, meetings, etc. The interviews said that the local merchants are letting people use bathrooms, charging their phones, and putting out tables on the street to serve food. They also mentioned the transmission of experience from Occupy veterans to new young people who were saying, “What do we do next?” And how fast things fell into place.

A good job of retail social distancing

By comparison, here is what it looks like at the entrance to ACE Pastime Hardware on San Pablo Avenue. There is a big guy standing at the front entrance checking to make sure everyone is wearing a mask. He asks you if you know what you are going to buy. You say yes and he asks you what, and he tells you where it is so you can just go straight there — “Aisle 28, then Aisle 42” – and get your item out to the checkout counter. No browsing.

I’m posting this because of my friend in Pennsylvania, where Governor Tom Wolf apparently said that he didn’t think masks really made a difference. They are in the “green phase” or re-opening. My friend works at a big grocery store and has been posted at the door to persuade people coming in to wear masks. She says that about 20% of them refuse and some get angry at her.

BLM in our neighborhood park

Apparently earlier this week a group of young Black girls, belonging to a club where they learn rock climbing, came to the park in our very white neighborhood to train. They were shouted at by a wandering woman and called racist names. This is a park with a big rock and people come from all over the Bay Area to climb it. Someone overheard the woman yelling and sent out a message on various neighborhood lists. The immediate result has been a small vigil which will be followed this afternoon by a neighborhood meeting. In the photos below, the orange tape fence has been up there for 13 weeks now, to prohibit anyway from climbing. It has now been ignored -for the last 4 weeks – except for when someone decides that the wrong people are climbing.

The background issue is the whiteness of the hill neighborhoods, dating back to the redlining of the whole East Bay.

What is really different right now is that it is totally normal for people in our neighborhood to object to someone (even someone who is probably in need of mental health assistance) calling out racist remarks. A month ago that behavior might have been tossed off, with “Oh, she’s just another nutcase.” Now, it causes a neighborhood meeting.

On top of the suggestions for a meeting come suggestions (from Joe) about changing the actual demographics of the neighborhood by building or otherwise creating low-income housing, co-op or halfway housing, etc.

The actual meeting today

There must have been 150 people there. From all over the different neighborhoods around here.

Hard to get a picture because they were social distancing. But this kind of thing has never happened before. “This is something different,” everyone is saying.

Hindsight is 20-20 — June 13, 2020

Hindsight is 20-20

Drove into Oakland today, my first venture out of my bubble since March 9, so that’s 3 months. A friend who came over a few nights ago said that since the protests, “Oakland is just one great art gallery.” Downtown Oakland businesses have boarded themselves up, and now the muralists are out painting on the boards. If it was just one or two, that would be interesting, but it’s hundreds. I could not begin to take enough pictures. And this is just along Broadway and Telegraph as you go from about 35th street in towards 12th, and then beyond.

In the meantime, the level of conflict is rising quite fast. There are signature-gathering campaigns in 9 states to recall Democratic governors; Trump appears to have backed off sending in federal troops but there was that amazing thing about his photo-op at St. John’s (the tear gas and flashbangs to wipe away protesters, the army guy who by mistake wore his uniform and apologized, the Bible); but there’s also the continuing spread of peaceful but fierce demonstrations throughout the country with Trump literally hiding in his bunker in the White House.

Talk of police reform is everywhere; Minneapolis is “dismantling” their police. Not sure what that means yet. There are demonstrations to get cops out of schools, demonstrations to “de-fund” police, and it looks as if things like this are actually happening. The movement is ahead of the leaders here, if you can figure out who the leaders are anyway.

The virus continues to spread, both from the lifting of shelter-in-place order in states where they existed to begin with and from states where there are none, and from the demonstrations. Kids are graduating from high school and celebrating with car caravans and fireworks, which puts people who are huddled in their homes on edge.

On the other hand

Spike Lee’s new movie, Da 5 Bloods, was premiered on Netflix last night. It is set in Vietnam. Watching how Vietnam and the Vietnam/American war is depicted was painful and embarrassing. I can’t decide which is worse: the roles played by Asian actors portraying Vietnamese people or the distortions of the landmine (unexploded ordinance) removal effort grabbed to serve as a plot twist. Other important details are also bad. Spike Lee throws in everything from Agent Orange to Crispus Atticus, including some brutal footage that may or may not be genuine but certainly creates a “wow” factor — “How did he get that?” The movie starts out as if it’s a goofy comedy about a bunch of guys on a memory trip together, but then aspires to be a complete “high points of Black experience in the US” laid on top of a set piece Vietnam war movie, only with Black actors. I’ll be curious to see the reviews. Delroy Lindo has a monologue near the end that might win him an Oscar. Watch it, skip the movie.

No “back to normal” — June 3, 2020

No “back to normal”

When this was just a medical crisis, sheltering-in-place was the fix, because it would protect our healthcare system from being overwhelmed. Then we realized that just having enough ventilators wouldn’t keep us from getting sick, so we acknowledged that, great, the healthcare system is OK now, how about us? We’d probably be wearing masks until a vaccine was discovered and distributed to everyone — in the world? Hmmm. (Ebola is still moving in the Congo.) Then there was a lot of talk about how going back to traffic, pollution, gasoline engines, air travel was something normal that we didn’t want to go back to — we’d want a “new normal” that allowed people to work from home, and that might include really getting a Green New Deal. So with masks, vaccines and a Green New Deal we could get a “normal” that would let us get back to business.

Then George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis by a police officer and all hell broke loose. I truly hope that these protests will continue. This may be the day when we do not go back to normal.

The American Conflict

The book that has shaped my view of America the most this year (and that’s saying a lot) was published in 1864. It’s The American Conflict: A History of the Great Rebellion in the United States of American, 1860-1864, by Horace Greeley. Greeley was editor of the New York Tribune; the book is written as if it was a collection of feature articles, starting with the first sentence:

The United States of America, whose independence, won on the battle-fields of the Revolution, was tardily and reluctantly conceded by Great Britain on the 30th of November, 1782, contained at that time a populations of a little less than Three Millions, of whom half a million were slaves.

In the second chapter Greeley tells how, at the Ninth Continental Congress ins 1783, the states of Rhode Island, New Jersey, Delaware and South Carolina, which did not have charters granting them as yet unsettled lands extending westward, engaged in negotiations with the states that did, such as Connecticut, Massachusetts and Virginia, to get those individual states to cede their claims to unsettled land (or most of it) to the United States itself.

The expectation was that ultimately this land would be formed into new states. Land that was affected by this had become, by the time that Greeley was writing, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. One of the terms of the agreement (the “Ordinance”) was that, as of 1800, “there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any of the said states, otherwise than in punishment of crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted to have been personally guilty.”

If only.

The idea was that this Ordinance would be form part of the “fundamental conditions between the thirteen original States and those newly described.”

Greeley continues:

When, on the 19th of April, 1783, Congress took up this plan for consideration, a Mr. Spaight of North Carolina proposed that the article prohibiting slavery be stricken out.

Greeley, as he does throughout this book, reports the vote. Each state, with two representatives, had two votes. Those in favor of keeping the prohibition were from New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania. Those in favor of striking it out were the delegations from Maryland, Virginia (including Thomas Jefferson), and South Carolina. North Carolina’s vote was divided. The member from New Jersey was not in attendance.

Thus individual votes were 16 in favor of the interdiction against slavery and 7 against it (in favor of striking the interdiction out). The states stood 6 for it and 3 against it. But the Articles of Confederation (which is what bound the States together at that point) required “an affirmative vote of the majority of all the states to sustain a proposition and thus the restriction failed, through the absence of a member from New Jersey, rendering that vote of that state null” (page 39). One vote.

From that point forward, both in history and in chapter after chapter of this enormous but readable book, we see arguments, proposals, laws, votes, elections etc in rising intensity as we draw closer and closer to the Civil War. What was in 1783 a matter of someone showing up at a meeting and casting one vote became, 80 years later, thousands dead on the battlefield.

I have heard of a play or something called “The Gentleman from New Jersey,” referring to this guy who failed to show up. I googled it and found nothing.

So, same story, 160 years later

And today, it’s George Floyd and mass protests all across the country. The protests are almost all peaceful, with people kneeling (Colin Kaepernick’s gesture) en mass in public squares. The protests continue day after day. The sick, insane guy in the White House used “smoke bombs” (tear gas) to clear a path to St. John’s, the church across the street, to pose with a Bible, then hurried back to his bunker to tweet things like “When the looting starts, the shooting starts” and calling for the National Guard to step in. There is now an 8 pm-5 am curfew in the East Bay; the same places that were just starting to open for business (pizza places like Zachary’s) are closing at 6 so that workers can get home before the curfew. The people in the photos of the demonstrations are very mixed — white, black — lots of white people, young people, and they’re wearing masks. They look very disciplined and very serious.

Eight states hold primaries

Nonetheless, eight states and Washington DC held elections yesterday, 153 days before the national election. People are still voting for Bernie — in Pennsylvania he got 19.1 per cent of the votes and in South Dakota he got 23.6. Although for some reason quite a few delegates to the convention are yet to be allocated, right now it’s Biden 1922 to Bernie 1013, with 1991 necessary to claim the candidacy. Biden has made some public (media) appearances recently, which is…. well, about time.

The protests have even reached up into our very white, very quiet neighborhood.

Our grocery store has never been cleaner, though, and the shoppers more disciplined:


A final thought before the next onslaught of news lands: today, the people who are wrapping the situation up into a narrative that is recognizable, credible and — ok –inspiring, are comedians. Comedians?

Trevor Noah, for example, on the Daily Show.

Has it always been comedians? Maybe that’s not the right word for them.