Monday, December 9, 2013

#ISupportTheStrike Or Down With The McBurglars!

Last weeks fast food worker strike is another link in a chain that I hope will be used to hang poverty wages and abusive work situations in the public square. I stand in solidarity with those workers not only as a sympathizer, but also as a former fast food worker myself. In this short entry I would like to draw attention to three different experiences that I went through not only as a former employee, but also as the child of a former employee of the industry. My thesis is that these workers deserve their demands because everyday they suffer the effects of poverty wages, lack of benefits/opportunity, and daily disrespect.

I grew up as the only child of a single mother who worked 2-3 fast food jobs every day on minimum wage for more than a decade. During that time the federal minimum wage changed a few times, but my mother and I were never even close to being able to lift ourselves out of poverty. It kills me to listen to the talking heads on TV talk about how unfair it would be to pay workers a living wage. I wonder if they have ever had to stand in a bread line, wait in a dark room at a church for food, or live in a motel that is infamous for housing crackheads. Such was the life for my mother and me for years living on minimum fast food wages. And keep in mind she didn't work just one fast food job… she worked several.

The American dream is supposedly based on the idea that if someone works hard then they can have access to opportunities like an education and/or moving up the proverbial ladder. When someone is not even making enough money to feed and clothe themselves or keep a roof over their head, how can they be expected to pay exorbitant tuition costs? Additionally, what happens when a fast food worker gets sick? The vast majority of mega munch corporations do not provide health insurance or sick days, so when a worker gets sick their financial straights are made even more dire. What about moving up the ladder? For the sake of the illustration let's say that there are an average of 10 employees per fast food restaurant including management. Let's also say that the manager of McDonalds location X has been there for ten years and gets promoted to district manager. Only one of those other nine people is going to get a chance at the promotion and that's assuming the chain doesn't hire from outside. Are those other nine employees—who, again, cannot afford an education or healthcare—going to be able to wait another decade for an opportunity? Even if they do… what about the other seven?

The skeptic may say, "Why don't they get another job?" I would point you again to my mother as an example. She worked from 6:30AM-2PM at her first job before picking me up from school. Then she quickly made me dinner before going to her night job. When did my mother have time to look for another job? "How about her day off?” that same person may ask. Well, for one she needed some sleep. Secondly, due to the poverty wages she was receiving, she also had to spend time in bread lines and church drives so we had enough food and clothes. Poverty wages produce a vicious circle of dependency that keeps people tired, under the poverty line, and without opportunity.

While lack of adequate wages and opportunity are debilitating, very few things are as demoralizing as the disrespect that fast food workers receive only a daily basis. I have firsthand knowledge and have watched my mother suffer the consequences of this as well. Given the fact that fast food work is low wage and no benefit there seems to have developed a social stigma against it. How many of us have stood in line and watched first world privileged people huff and puff because they didn't get their burger in 30 seconds? How many times have you seen a cashier being yelled at because one of the cooks forgot the no pickles request? The aggressors in these situations don't seem to have considered that maybe these people are tired. Maybe like my mom this is their second job that day. Maybe their child is sick at home alone because both their parents had to go to work so they could have the money to pay rent. Maybe their marriage is on the rocks because they don't have enough money for school clothes and their diabetes medicine. I don't think people realize the depths of depravity that people are forced to live in because they are trying to support families on $7.25/hr.

Fast food CEOs are saying that if they grant their employees $15/hr, then they will have to raise prices. Why can't they give some of their salaries? In 2012, James Skinner, the CEO of McDonalds, made over $27M.[1] Why can't they downsize the advertisement budget? Billions of dollars a year seems a bit exorbitant.[2] Why can't they slow down their global expansion?[3] How much is enough?

I could go on for days describing my personal knowledge of how poverty wages, lack of opportunity, and daily disrespect can destroy families and stress people into sickness, but my goal is not to make you cry. I simply want you to consider the plight of millions of people who live in poverty so that large mega corporations can pay their executives millions of dollars a year, spend billions of advertising, and buy corporate jets. There are human souls crying out for justice behind those tacky corporate visors. The only thing I would ask of you is to consider my story, my mother's story, and the story of countless millions of oppressed individuals who are kept under the boot heel of corporate greed so you can buy a burger for a dollar and get it in under two minutes. Please support these workers and- for the love of god- please tell them you appreciate them once and a while. You might be surprised how far those two small acts of kindness can go.

My name is Larry Swetman and #ISupportTheStrike.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Me & Obama(care) Or What The Hell Is A Deductible?

I am one of the privileged few who has been able to log on to Healthcare.Gov and complete the process. I even chose a plan. I am writing this short entry in the hopes that anyone considering signing up for Obamacare can have an honest evaluation of the process and not have to depend on what the politicians and talking heads say about it.

I began with the infamous website. The design of the website was encouraging. It wasn't stiff or overtly bureaucratic as one might expect a government portal to be. The colors were bright, the images crisp and modern, and the introductory video helpful in terms of defining what I could expect from the “marketplace” experience. The video- also draped in sleek modern graphics- told me that I could expect to compare different plans in the virtual marketplace; find "clear information” about prices/benefits; and search for definitions of what medical words like premiums, deductibles, or co-pays meant. Every plan- a sweet soothing voice told me- would offer “comprehensive benefits” and no one could be turned down. It took me about two hours from sign up to enrollment.

When I arrived at the launch page I immediately set up an account. The information required was pretty basic and streamlined. Name, address, phone number, etc. So far, so good. 

In terms of who qualifies? I noticed that there were specific groups that were purposefully left out, such as undocumented immigrants and incarcerated individuals. I will not make a judgment of these barriers here, but I do feel it necessary to point out that this program was not designed for all Americans.

Once I arrived at the privacy statement I slowed down a bit to read the fine print. Part of the terms and conditions state that if any of the information I entered, such as income or residency, did not match the information in the Heatlchare.Gov database[1] then I would have to provide "proof" of the changes. This proof could include information from inaccessible bureaucratic labyrinths like the Internal Revenue Service, Social Security Administration, and Department of Homeland Security, among several others. I worry about the accessibility of such information for a large cross section of the population who aren’t used to navigating government red tape. Even my "Eligibility Notice"-- which is a sort of what’s next kind of jawn—doesn’t make it clear how to obtain the information.

After entering my personal information the website asked me whether I wanted to enter my income to apply for a tax credit. I find this question to be of supreme importance for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was an option. Unless I am mistaken the Affordable Healthcare Act was designed so that folks who have typically not been able to afford or have access to health insurance can. Why is it an option? What if I had missed the significance of the question and pushed "no”? Then none of my potential plans would have included the subsidy that I qualified for and I consequently would not have known that the price I was quoted could have been significantly cheaper. Secondly, the language of the site offered me a "tax credit toward my monthly premiums". Thankfully, I understand what tax credits and premiums are, but I do worry about the accessibility of such language to people who aren’t as familiar with what they mean.

The tax credit itself turned out to be the most important part of the process for me. I entered my expected income for the year and was provided with an amount: $2,724. That amount was based on my income and basically covered the cost of my monthly premium for a year because I live under the poverty line.

Then I was presented with options for how I would like to receive that tax credit. Basically, I could either put all or part of the $227/mo. subsidy toward my monthly premiums or receive it all in one lump sum with my federal tax refund. The website did offer very helpful color-coded graphics to help understand these options as well.

I was a little disappointed that I had to choose how to use my tax credits before I saw the actual plans. I chose the use all of it every month option so when I was presented with my options in the marketplace section my monthly premiums were $227 less.

When I arrived at the marketplace itself I was offered a few different options for the types of plans I wanted: bronze, silver, gold, and platinum. They basically varied in deductibles, out of pocket maximums, co-pays, etc. I chose silver because I wanted low premiums (monthly fees) and cheap doctor visits.

When I went to choose my plan the confusion began. I think the goals of the website were met in terms of presenting my range of options in plans, providers, and costs, but it did not help explain what these costs were. My monthly costs and co-payments were clear, but I still don't quite understand what a deductible is or when I have to pay an out of pocket maximum.

I tried to use the "live chat" option as well. I was quickly connected to a representative, but it did not prove very helpful for me. I asked a lot of the same questions that I have presented here: What is the difference between a deductible and an out of pocket maximum? What am I going to be billed for? The reps’ answers sounded more like scripted responses when I could’ve more used a more free flowing dialogue. I finally searched the website for the definition of a lot of these terms, but again they sounded more like entries in an textbook for medical billing than a helpful one-stop-shop explanation of healthcare costs. Again, I imagine that this could get especially difficult for those not familiar with navigating the Internet or making sense of medical terms.

In the end I chose a plan that would provide me with $5 doctor visits, $25 emergency room visits, $4 generic prescription, $10 x-rays, $0 deductible (whatever the hell that means), and a $2,250 out of pocket maximum (see: Previous Parenthesis) for $0.13/mo. thanks to the $227/mo. subsidy/tax credit for which I qualified. My Eligibility Notice said that I am still required to send proof of my income to the Health Insurance Marketplace before I can be approved. It's not a done deal yet, but I am hopeful.

Overall, I am satisfied with my experience of Obamacare and Healthcare.Gov, but I am not sure that it quite meets its stated goals. I am a young College-educated person who is familiar with the Internet, kind of knows some health insurance lingo, and can easily access information from government records. However, it seems to me that the rhetoric of Obamacare has been that it will offer millions of Americans easy access to health coverage for the first time. It is easy, but it’s not that easy. If I did not have the education I have then I may have had some trouble navigating the bureaucracy and language.

If the goal of Obamacare is to get young people like myself enrolled in insurance programs, then I think Healthcare.Gov can work. If the goal is to get insurance to the most vulnerable among us who need it the most, then I fear it will fail because a lot of the same barriers that have always existed between the lower classes and affordable healthcare still exist. The subsidies will help, but the process may cost the program some enrollees. Personally, I still think the most vulnerable among us should be offered a public option that is as basic as if you have a social security number then you have security in the form of universal health care no matter where you come from or how much “worth”. Obamacare seems to work for me, but whether it will work for everyone… only time will tell. 

UPDATE 12/5: After a bit of searching I finally found the submit proof of your income portal. Again, the live chat option was no help at all, but after a bit of digging around my profile I finally found it. I uploaded a pay stub electronically. It was relatively simplae and there are a myriad of options for the type of documents that are accepted. All that should be left now is the insurance company contacting me. I'll update everyone when I have news. 

[1] I never did figure out from where that information originated.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Searching for Socio-Economic Asylum

I am looking for a place to live for free where I can grow my own food, collect rain water, and make a sustainable alternative to the renter/rentee relationship. Now before you jump to conclusions about me let me explain what I mean. I am what some would call an anti-capitalist. What I mean by this is that I am morally opposed to a framework of the have's and have-not's. The way our current economic system is structured such that the vast majority of Americans are expected to work for forty or more years at a job they hate (if we are privileged and/or lucky) so that we can give half of our earnings away to rent and spend the rest trying to pay for overpriced education and gadgets. The result is that a fortunate few end up owning property and the rest essentially become debt slaves. So, we work day in and day out to try to measure up to the standard that the rich and powerful have set for us. 

I have a different vision. My vision is of a world where individuals and communities can spend their time bettering themselves and those around them. Every great period in human history has come when the people have had the social and economic security to pursue their dreams, whether they be artistic, social, or innovative. I want to start a movement toward those goals. Between never ending wars, corporate profiteering, and the ineptitude of government there is no one left to defend the public interest. I want to take that power back into my own hands in the hopes that others will want to follow suit. In short, I want to take the power away from the corporations, banks, and government and help restore it to the people.

To do this I need a place to make my vision a reality. I need an open enough space that is big enough to grow my own food (whether on the roof or in a garden), capture and filter rain water (again, the roof would be helpful), a strong enough electrical infrastructure to install solar panels, and a big enough space to host free community meals and art projects. I do not want to make a dime off of this project. I simply want to show the world that if the have's and have-not's can join together in a common pursuit of social stability then we can undermine the current system of exploitation that has plagued civilization since its inception.

All it will take to get this project started is you... the land/building holder. I need you, the person/family holding an extra piece of land to take a chance on a revolution. This revolution will be peaceful, sustainable, and open for everyone, but it needs you. It needs you to take a chance on change.

I am a college graduate who has given the past couple of years of his life to making this world a better place, but it's a full-time job. With your help I would like to make this vision a reality not only for you and me, but for the world as well. 

If you want to take a chance on love: email me.

Monday, June 17, 2013

A Culture of Dissent Or Democracy 451

I'm sad. I'm sad because I'm worried. I'm worried because the world seems to be on fire and we are, for the most part, just watching it burn. All over the world people are rising up, but where are we? Take Turkey for instance, what started as a demonstration by a handful of activists to save a public park organically morphed into essentially a popular anti-authoritarian movement. What began as "save the park" became "save the country." The authorities, in turn, escalated the battle. The police brought in tear gas, water cannons, rubber bullets, and chemical cocktails along with their general brutality to the park. The result has been astounding. Even today some Turkish unions are calling for a General Strike to check the power of Erdogan and his government. It all started with a few people willing to defend a park.

The revolutionary spirit which laid dormant for decades and centuries was reignited in the Middle East in 2011 with the Arab Spring before quickly jumping over the Atlantic to drive the fervor of Occupy Wall Street. Last night I read about demonstrations in Rio de Janeiro that turned violent when police bum rushed peaceful activists who were simply protesting bus fare hikes. Today I read about Mexico City and Greece where peaceful protestors were also gathering and being repressed. Who knows who I will read about tomorrow. A culture of dissent seems to have manifested in the global culture, but what are we doing here in America? 

In Turkey, their uprising started to save a park; In Rio, bus far hikes; In Greece, they are demonstrating against austerity and cutbacks. While I realize that the socio-politico-economic situations in each of these countries is far more complex than the broad strokes with which I am painting them, it has been something relatively small that has ignited the passions of the people and police brutality that has exacerbated the struggle into a People's Movement. Here at home we have a military and domestic police state many many many times the size we need that is paid for with our tax dollars. Meanwhile, corporations and private interest buy our elections and lobby for favors while paying no taxes. Meanwhile, the everyday citizen is forced between working 2-3 jobs at minimum wage and abject poverty. Oh and by the way, all of your communications are subject to search and seizure by your government. These are all serious problems that affections millions every day and are just the tip of the iceberg. What is it going to take for us to pour into the city centers and demand our rights?

Here in Philadelphia we have a plethora of local problems, not least of which is the school situation. The banksters stole hundreds of millions of dollars from our school district which left it with a budget crisis. What was the city's response? Close 23 schools. Meanwhile, there are 400 prison beds opening up outside Philly from the $400 million dollar prison expansion. If the kids can't go to school I guess Harrisburg felt like they needed somewhere to go and for those corporate cronies prison is the best option. Then let's talk about hunger, homelessness, poverty, and our crumbling infrastructure on top of the systematic oppression that has existed for so many for centuries. The list goes on and on. We do not live in a Utopian future where our "leaders" rule wisely while we feast on the byproducts of our greatness. No, inequality has gotten so bad in this country that we let the rich and powerful push our communities to the margins to fade into the background while the Fat Cats feast in their corporate towers. Let me ask you: what do you think they would have done in Turkey, Greece, or Rio under these circumstances? I feel pretty damn safe saying that they would not settle for working groups, rallies, and Facebook posts. I am inclined to believe that they would take to the square and (dare I say?) occupy it until their demands are met. 

We do not do that here anymore though. Part of me understands: people have got kids, jobs, and have to put food on the table. Not everyone can gather in the public square 24/7 to provide a space for the people to voice their dissent, but what about those of us who can? What are we doing? I had a beer with some folks today to talk about a potential action on July 4th and our visions were quite different. One of us wanted to put on a creative action outside of a public target; one of us wanted to do some clandestine fun protests to draw attention to issues and share the stories on Facebook; and one of us wanted to try to get everyone and their mother down to a park for a talk. The end of all three conversations was the same: "I am interested in the prospect but I don't want to do the organizing work." We all three are tired of the complacency and want to act, but we a) don't believe that we could muster any amount of people for any kind of action in the current American political climate and b) don't want to put in the foot work to get it done, even if we did believe. United we can make a stand, but divided we will most certainly continue to fall. So, I ask you: what hope do we have?

"Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die." I first heard that phrase while listening to a Gospel song back in my Church-going days. The premise of the song is that everybody likes the idea of going to heaven, living in the new world, or a resurrected pure lifestyle, but they don't like selling all of their possessions and giving the money to the poor, laying down their life for their enemy, or forgiving each others' trespasses. In short everybody wants to be rewarded, but nobody wants to put in the hard work. Is this where we have come to in this country? Has all hope of popular democracy faded? Have we burnt ourselves out in a flame of occupied glory? Or is there something else? 

Is there a bright new day on the horizon? What will it take for us to leave everything behind? What kind of conditions do we, our friends, family, and neighbors have to live in before we are fed up enough to fight back? When will rallies turn into revolutions? I don't ask this with any sort of pride. I am honestly humbled to ask such a question because there are so many people who give their lives to this work, but I was first humbled by a capitalistic military mechanism designed to enslave me, you, and everyone you and I care about. Now, I am angry. I am angry and sad. I am angry at my country and I am sad that the vast majority of us are watching it burn. Somebody please tell me what we are going to do. Better yet, meet me in the park and let's talk about it. Anybody want to join me?

Monday, June 10, 2013

If There Is Hope, It Lies In The Proles

This is the transcript of a speech I gave at Independence Mall on 6.9.2013

I want to start out and acknowledge how much of a privilege it is to stand before you today. I was born into a world where the way I look gives me certain privileges; those privileges extend from being able to know that I am always at the top of socio-political chain. For centuries men who looked like me have built an empire for the benefit of the rich on the back of the working, poor, and people of color. The simple fact that I am able to stand before you today is a privilege denied to many for fear of reprisal from the police state. I, like many of you, did not ask for this privilege but either God or fate decided that I should wear this skin, but we must bear that responsibility, for better or for worse. With great power comes great responsibility and that responsibility is what has brought us all here today.

George Orwell is his monumental work 1984 burned forever into our minds the fear that truth could be so distorted such that we would accept lies as the truth and the truth as lies: War is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength. At first glance these ideas seem paradoxical. Such ideas can redact mistakes, change the meaning of words, and even rewrite history. In the story Big Brother, the personified state, had cameras on every street corner, microphones in every room, and eyes on everything written. As a result, the people lived in fear of being found out to be what is called a thought criminal. A thought criminal was someone who disagreed with the state. Even the mere utterance of dissent was punishable by death. Big Brother’s omnipresence was his omnipotence.

While Big Brother’s presence in the cities was absolute there was a contingent of resistance. They were called the Proles. Students of history will note that this is shorthand for Marx and Engels’ proletariat, the working class. They were described as such as well. While the elite of Big Brother’s machine dined upon the finest food and drank the finest wine, these resistors lived in abject poverty, so marginalized by the machine that they were driven from the public square to exist in pockets of poverty away from the “safety and security” of Big Brother’s bosom. Out of sight out of mind, they say. When the Proles got out of hand they even could expect to be bombed in their sleep. Sound familiar?

1984 is an extreme example of a dystopian future. When I read this book in College I thought to myself, naively in hindsight, that things could never get that bad. Never could a state have total access to my emails, my phone calls, and my thoughts. Never could the US government, a supposed beacon of liberty and democracy for the world, imprison and torture one of its own for telling the truth. Never could a democratic government even attempt to justify raining death down from the sky on its own people. I was wrong.

I think we all knew that the state was spying on us, but the recent revelations of the scope and audacity of the government’s spy program is infuriating. In the world of 1984, the people were painfully aware of Big Brother’s presence. “Big Brother is Watching You”, the posters said on every corner surrounding the face of their crypto-fascist benevolent leader. In the world of 2013, at least up until very recently, our crypto-fascist benevolent leaders are much more subtle. They are not so audacious as to reveal their motives. They operate in secret, in the dark, where their lies will not be exposed. Thankfully, we have heroes committed to telling the truth.

In Orwell’s classic we were thankfully provided with a hero. Winston Smith was just another cog in the machine. He was responsible for protecting state secrets. He was one of the worker bees who was responsible for rewriting history to fit Big Brother’s narrative till one day he decided he had had enough. He went home and wrote in his journal “Down with Big Brother/ Down with Big Brother/ Down with Big Brother/ Down with Big Brother” over and over again. His rage became all consuming. He started traveling to the areas where the Proles lived, sought out comrades, and started to live an alternative life until the chance came to join the resistance. (A theme running throughout the book is an underground resistance that operates in secret). For Winston the chance never came. He was arrested, tortured, kept in solitary confinement, and brainwashed into believing that Big Brother was reprimanding him for his own good.

We have our own Winston Smith, but our Winston has not caved under the pressure of his torturers or his solitary confinement. His name is Bradley Manning. Bradley Manning, like the hero of our story, was charged by his superiors with hiding the truth and rewriting history. However, instead of hiding information away like Winston, Bradley did what any person of good conscious would do- he exposed the truth. What was Big Brother’s response? In both cases our heroes were taken and locked away. Like Winston, Bradley was arrested, tortured, and kept in solitary confinement for refusing to hide the truth. He has been beaten, humiliated, and dehumanized for refusing to rewrite history.

One of the last lines of 1984 is a picture of Winston sitting in a diner watching Big Brother on TV. “He smiled and looked up. He loved Big Brother.” Our story, however, will not end this way. Our hero will not cave. He has endured and continues to endure years of inhumane treatment at the hands of Big Brother, yet still he remains strong. Just last weekend hundreds of us gathered in support of Bradley in Fort Meade, MD where his court martial is taking place. People came from the horizons and margins of the northeast to show their support and solidarity for our Winston. Because our Winston does not love Big Brother. He loves the people of the world living under the boot heel of imperial oppression and is currently suffering for it. Bradley’s livelihood is on the line right now. Why? Because Big Brother wants to keep his secrets and steal yours and mine.

Thankfully, the story does not end here. There is another line in 1984 that bears worth mentioning: “If there is hope, it lies in the Proles.” If you’ll recall the Proles were the everyday people who refused to live under the eye and out of the poisoned breadbasket of Big Brother. As a result, they suffered. They went hungry. Their homes, businesses, blocks, and neighborhoods were derelict at best and firebombed at worst. But behind the cold dead eyes of oppression an idea remained, and ideas are bullet proof. The idea was resistance. It was almost impossible to find the resistance in 1984 because they had to stay so well hidden to stay out of Big Brother’s sight, but I would bet you that behind every eye is Proleville you would find a hope. A hope that resistance was real and that they were not alone.
We gather in public today to express that very idea, resistance, and to affirm to all who would gather with us: you are not alone. Revolution will not come today. It probably won’t come tomorrow or the week after that, but as long as Big Brother spies on us, censors us, and continues to chip away our human rights, our discontent will continue to be kindled and fanned until it erupts into the fires of rebellion.

We are the discontent. We are the truth tellers. For if it is not us, then who? If not now, then when? How many rights must we be stripped of before we stand our ground, even in the face of beatings, prison, torture, and loss? Must we stand naked before the tribunal of our conscious in a world that we let manifest before we wake up to the dangers of a surveillance state? I pray that day never comes.

My favorite theologian Bishop N.T. Wright, speaking of the work of Jesus, said of him that he did not fight the battle with the enemies sword for that would have been to lose the war in principle. Likewise, we must remain vigilant, and if our democratic rights are not affirmed and upheld, then we bear the responsibility to resist. Emails will be taken; Phone calls will be recorded; People will be taken; And some of us will bear the blunt force of the state, as so many of us have before. But we must, like Bradley, endure their schemes, persevere through their suppression, and resist their order.
We are gathered here to protest the surveillance state. We already live in a surveillance state. Some of our brothers and sisters are living in a brave new world, content to be lied to and pacified by corporate media and celebrity culture, but you and I are Proles, living under the constant gaze of Big Brother’s PRISM colored eyes. But if there is hope, it lies in the Proles and as long as resistance lies in our hearts and we cultivate community, we can and must overcome.

George Orwell once said, “In a time of universal deceit - telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” We, with the shared heart of Bradley Manning and all the victims of senseless violence committed in the name of the Empire, are here to tell the truth which means that we are here to commit revolutionary acts. This is a scary thing. Not everyone has the capacity or privilege to stand at the enemies’ gate and speak truth to power, but those of us who do have the capacity have the responsibility to remain steadfast. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We do not have the lobby, the money, or the power, but if there is hope it lies in Proles. We are all Winston Smith. We are all Bradley Manning. And we have gathered here today because we all feel morally compelled to resist. First they will ignore us. Then they will laugh at us. Then we’ll fight back. But then… we’ll win.

Down with the surveillance state and free Bradley Manning!

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Continuing Saga of the People V. Wells Fargo

Two weeks ago thousands of Philadelphia public school students walked out of their classrooms to head to City Hall and to the school district headquarters with one demand: more funding for education. The budget deficits and poor priorities of city government have caused the city to close 23 schools with more cuts coming to music, art, sports, after school activities, and community centers, among a host of other public service cuts in the coming years. When asked “why?” the local and state government always cry “austerity!” and “cutbacks!” Why? We know where the money is; We just need to go get it back.
Between 2003 and 2009, 107 school districts and 86 local governments in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania entered into interest rate swap deals with some of the power house banks on Wall Street: Wells Fargo (then Wachovia), Morgan Stanley, and Goldman Sachs, among others. All together those districts and governments tied up $14.9 billion dollars in the swaps. Philadelphia was one of those school districts. During the life of those loans they lost $331 million in interest and cancellation fees. That’s on top of the net loss of around $71 million that they lost over the life of the swaps in fees and services.
 Last year the Philadelphia school system had a $629 million dollar budget deficit. That deficit has caused schools to close, teachers to be laid off, and cultural programs being removed from the remaining schools’ curricula. In 2008 the big banks received $700 billion (with essentially a $3.5 trillion buffer in addition loans being offered) in rescue funds from the federal government while our city was losing tens of millions in interest to the banks. While our schools were starved the fat cats were feasting on our losses. In the third quarter of 2012 Wells Fargo alone posted $4.9 billion in profits. Where did that money come from? It came from starving schools systems and city governments who are now faced with a choice: default on their debt or cut essential services. Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein earned $21 million last year. Where did that money come from? In part, from the Philadelphia school district.
These huge megabanks were not born in Philadelphia (indeed, they were never born at all). They weren’t even conceived here. Wells Fargo is a west coast bank. Bank of America has its base of operations in North Carolina (for low corporate tax rates[,] mind you). These banks are more than strangers. They are shady strangers with a gun protruding from their suit pocket. If they are going to operate their global mob operation within our city limits then the least they can do is pay for it. When asked“why?” tell them it was for the single mother who works two jobs whose son is on the street because there was no funding for the community center. Tell them it’s for the next Mozart who just had her clarinet taken from her because there was no funding for instruments. Tell them its for the young man who could finally make the Sixers great again but can’t play because he has to work a job and go to an underfunded school because he has to take care of his sister because his mother can’t afford her medicine and their groceries. Tell them it is for the People.
When will these vampires have enough of sucking the lifeblood out of our families and communities with their racist predatory lending, unjust forecloses, and gambling on Wall Street? How long is it going to take our leaders to recognize the connections between austerity-minded politicians, the greed of corporate lobbyists, and the satanic temple that is the banking industry? And when are we going to get our retribution?
The city should start by taking every public dollar out of Wells Fargo as councilman Kenney’s has proposed. Then they should demand their money back from the cancellation fees and, if they are brave, the damages from the manipulation of LIBOR rates and subsequent losses incurred on interest payments. Then they should pass a Robin Hood tax on big banks: put a price on every transaction that banks enter into with the city and charge them an occupancy tax.
The connection between the greed of the big banks, our current budgetary plight, and the educational crisis is obvious. The question is what are we going to do about it. 

Monday, March 25, 2013


Hey Everybody,

Just so you know I am writing this with a mixture of feelings. One of those feelings feels somewhat like loss, but thankfully this is only temporary.

I am going to Europe. The original reason was the World Social Forum in Tunisia, but last I checked there were no flights out of Barcelona into Tunis. Once I arrive in Barcelona I am going to give finding a flight one last shot and see what happens, but if I can't find a plane or a ferry there then I will be staying there in Barcelona for a few days. After that I am going to make my way to Paris and see what happens from there. The ticket I bought was one way and I am taking camping gear. I think I need some open air for a while.

Since I became active in the movement in September 2011, I have not stopped. Every waking moment I have had- even in the midst of great joy and pain- has been devoted to participating in this movement. I have a lot to learn, but I am a believer. My biggest problem is that when I commit myself to something I go all in. I, like many of you, have been all in since 2011. I have been through marches, arrests, trials, meetings, city council hearings, national rallies, national gatherings, anniversaries, relief efforts, conference calls, in addition to the normal trials of life. I am tired. I need a break. I need air. 

I want to be upfront and acknowledge that this is such a privilege to be able to do this, knowing that I have a support network or friends and (as far as I'm concerned) family that will always be there for me. I also want you to know that while I will not be at work for a while, I will most definitely be at work. I need some headspace, but I never stop.

The main reason I want you to know my itinerary is because I want this to be a work trip too. I am planning on meeting up with some movement folks from Spain and France. If there is anyone I should meet up with that you folks know from anywhere (I am going to try to make my way to Italy, Slovakia, Amsterdam, really wherever I can), please, do tell. I would hate for this opportunity to go to waste. When I come back I hope to bring experiences and ideas that will be helpful for the movement. Whether it be networks, tools, or tactics I want to share and share alike. I am going to write out my experiences on this blog

Some of you I will miss and some of you I will long to see, but just know I'll be alright. I think we all have a pilgrimage to somewhere to take. I think it is telling that the places I want to go are churches, cathedrals, and monasteries. For those of you who are so inclined: pray for me. Everyone else spare a thought for me every now and again, fondly I hope. 

With A Pocket Full Of Dreams,