The Women Behind the Black Panther Party Logo

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All graphics have a story to tell. Some logos of 20th century political movements have become recognized the world over – the peace symbol, designed by Gerald Holtom; the United Farm Workers logo, created by organizers Cesar Chavez and his cousin Manuel; and the Black Panther Party logo, designed by…whom?

That would be Dorothy Zeller.

The Black Panther Party logo’s roots go back 1966, with the Lowndes County Freedom Organization in Alabama (also called the Black Panther Party). It was a political party running progressive African Americans for office, and state electoral law required such groups to have a logo on their ballot to make it easier for illiterate voters. Although there was no formal organizational relationship between that Black Panther Party and the subsequent Black Panther Party for Self Defense organized in Oakland, California, several figures – including SNCC field organizer Stokely Carmichael – served to bridge these two key organizations in the Black power movement.

In a speech delivered at the 1966 S.D.S.-sponsored “Black Power and its Challenges” conference at U.C. Berkeley, Carmichael said:

We chose for the emblem a black panther, a beautiful black animal which symbolizes the strength and dignity of black people, an animal that never strikes back until he’s back so far into the wall, he’s got nothing to do but spring out. Yeah. And when he springs he does not stop.

The all-white Alabama Democratic Party’s graphic was a white chicken. According to civil rights veteran Scott B. Smith, Jr., a clenched fist had also been proposed as a graphic for the LCFO – but was rejected in favor of a “black cat” with superstitious powers.

But the graphic first used in that campaign bears little relationship to the streamlined, powerful graphic associated with the BPP. Enter Dorothy “Dottie” Zellner. I interviewed Dorothy in 2016 and she explained how it happened:

I was working in the Atlanta office of Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee when I was approached by Stokely Carmichael because he knew I’d gone to the High School of Music and Art. He’d gone to a sister school, Bronx High School of Science. He asked me to draw a panther for the Lowndes County Freedom Organization campaign. I said no, I wasn’t that capable an artist.

Stokely asked my then-husband Bob Zellner to go to the local zoo and take some photos of the panther there, but they weren’t any help.

Bob Zellner was a minister’s son from Alabama, and he reflected on this event in a 2006 listserv discussion of veterans of the civil rights movement:

One day [James] Forman told me to get a SNCC photographer and go with him to the Atlanta Zoo and take a picture of a black panther. “He is lazy so you may have to poke him to make him growl,” Forman said. “Bob, you poke him and the photog can get a growl, maybe. See what you can do.” We got several shots and returned to the office. Forman took the film into the dark room and came back with wet photos. He asked everybody in the office, “Who can draw?” Dottie said, “I went to art school, I’ll take a shot at it. Forman, what kind of picture do you want?”

Forman said, “Make him growl and show some teeth.” I don’t know why we always referred to the panther as “he.” He could have been a she, as far as we knew. Dottie refined the first rough drawing of the now famous Black Panther. Dottie drew it so it would reproduce well in black and white — a panther with curled tail, bared teeth, and pronounced whiskers, ears perked up.

Dorothy further explained:

The next time Stokely asked, he showed me a rough line drawing of a panther – it really looked more like a cat – and asked if I’d try again, so I did. I cleaned it up, added better whiskers, and made it black. at his request.

The next time I saw it, that image was on TV sometime in 1967 – I was shocked!

Many years later I learned that the drawing Stokely had given me was done by Ruth Howard, and was based on a school mascot of one of the HBUC’s in the Atlanta area. [That was Clark College, now Clark-Atlanta University]

The panther name and logo was then taken to the San Francisco Bay Area by community activist Mark Comfort when he formed the Black Panther Project of the Oakland Direct Action Committee.

Bob Zellner concluded his recollection:

The symbol became smoother and more stylized with age. When I wrote about this… I commented on the irony that Dottie, a white northern woman, [was one of the artists involved in drawing] the first black panther.

Even after the panther entered the Bay Area, it remained restless. Although it was used widely in its current form, it was also modified depending on graphic needs. Movement graphic scholar colleague Lisbet Tellefsen and I had noticed that several “official” panthers were… different, and began to track down the artist.

That would be Lisa Lyons. In a 2016 interview, Lisa explained her role:

We chose the Lowndes County Freedom Organization panther for Black Power Day materials since it was already widely recognized nationally as a symbol of black power by the fall of 1966. My husband Kit and I were active members of the Independent Socialist Club in Berkeley, and we also made use of the panther symbol in ISC publications at the time of our work on the 1966 SDS Black Power Day conference. For example, see the cover of an SDS position paper published by the ISC for distribution on Black Power Day and a later ISC leaflet we distributed in Berkeley in the immediate aftermath of the Panthers “inaugural” demonstration in Sacramento.

We used the standard panther in a variety of other ISC and Panther publications in 1966 and 1967. For example, a poster for an ISC/Black Panther Party rally in defense of the ghetto uprisings and a label used for cans for fund raising for the Panthers, and a variety of Panther-related buttons.

I did make various small modifications of the panther symbol from time to time, depending on the size of the publication, etc., (including inadvertently changing the number of claws at least once.).

From ’67 through ’69, we also published other cartoons and buttons that morphed the basic design in more substantial ways.

I thank these three women – Ruth Howard, Dorothy Zellner, and Lisa Lyons – for their heretofore untold role in creating one of the most powerful icons of community self-defense and empowerment of the 20th century.

Images:

Detail, interior panel of brochure for the Lowndes County Freedom Organization, circa October, 1966; image courtesy H.K. Yuen Social Movement Archive collection

Flyer for SDS “Black Power and its Challenges” conference at UC Berkeley, October 29, 1966; image courtesy H.K. Yuen Social Movement Archive collection

Poster for SDS “Black Power and its Challenges” conference at UC Berkeley, October 29, 1966; poster courtesy Lisbet Tellefsen collection, image by author.

Poster for rally for Eldridge Cleaver for President, San Francisco, August 3, 1968; Docs Populi digital archive

Free Huey Newton rally, Oakland, July 28. Poster courtesy Lisbet Tellefsen collection, image by author.

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A version of this piece first appeared in Design Observer 01 Feb 2018

About the author

Lincoln Cushing

Lincoln Cushing is the archivist and historian for Kaiser Permanente, and writes a weekly blog http://kaiserpermanentehistory.org/ Previously he was the Cataloging and Electronic Outreach Librarian at U.C. Berkeley’s Bancroft Library and held a similar position at U.C. Berkeley’s Institute of Industrial Relations Library. He served on the bargaining team for the statewide U.C. Librarians contract with the American Federation of Teachers. He was a member of Inkworks Press, a worker-owned union print shop (GCIU) for 20 years, and co-authored Agitate! Educate! Organize! - American Labor Posters (Cornell University Press 2009). See more at http://www.docspopuli.org View all posts by Lincoln Cushing →

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Saggio da San Frediano – Ben Tornato a San Francisco

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On January 4 Christina and I returned from our 4 month epic adventure living in Florence and traveling all over the Italian Republic and managing side trips to Dubai and Greece! It is good to be home and back with our son Nelson Perez-Olney and both our extended families, comrades and friends. I told my Italian friends that the reason we were going home was to work on flipping the House of Representatives to the Democrats in November of 2018. Only then, I promised, could we return to Italy. We have work to do…but we can do it!

What kind of baggage political and other wise did I bring home from Italy? In this case the metaphor works. Christina and I traveled to Italy with one checked bag and one carry on apiece. After four months in Italy we sent home 14 boxes packed with mostly clothes, books and written publications and magazines! WOW! “Dio Buono” as the Italians might say politely! I still can’t explain this phenomenon, but the act of mailing the boxes using the Poste Italiane and the act of receiving the boxes via USPS deserves a telling.

Da Firenze

In anticipation of our return I began the process of interacting with Poste Italiane on December 11 by toting 2 full and big cardboard boxes from our house in Piazza Tasso to Via Lorenzo Bardolini near the Arno in our neighborhood of San Frediano. The post office is right next to a silk factory – “Il Setificio Antico Fiorentino”–, which is still in operation and has its origins in the Renaissance.

Outside the Poste Italiane there is an automated machine (what we would call an ATM) but it is a Postamat for Italians to access at all hours for cash, credit and bill pay among other services.This is because the Poste Italiane, a state enterprise with 40 percent private investment offers a myriad of services to the Italian public: banking, insurance, bill paying, credit cards, telephones and of course mail. Therefore when you enter the lobby you pull a number for the service that you want: Spedizioni, Finanzi, Pagamenti etc. Then when your number is up over the appropriate “Sportello” you begin your interaction with a postal clerk. On December 11 I interacted with Clara at Sportello #1. She was very kind in explaining to me that there were no proper forms available for international delivery and that they were on order. I would have to come back the next day when the “schede” arrived. She did explain that even on a slow boat (that would take 30 plus days) the cost was going to be considerable: 5-10 Kilos – 60 Euros, 10-15 K’s 75 and 15-20 – 90 Euros. A both heartening but disturbing posted notice in the lobby explained that Poste Italiane might be subject to strike actions between December 15th and January 5th. Good to see the Italian labor movement flexing its muscles, but not at a good time for “viaggiatore Pietro”!

I returned the next day and “le schede” had arrived and I dutifully filled them out. This time Laura waited on me and sent the packages on without any hitches. I have learned not to create hitches by questioning any of the procedures at Poste Italiane. If the clerk decided to label a box incorrectly as to weight and number of items on the manifest I ask no questions. A year ago the packages had arrived safely in the USA from Rome, and I knew the same would be true for this mailing. One interesting sidelight was that the number of “schede” that Laura had would not be sufficient for my estimated 12 boxes. When I asked for more they suggested that I go to another office. So off I went to the Via Senese office outside the Porta Romana, still in our neighborhood. I got the “schede” and was able to mail my boxes out with Laura and Clara! No strikes occurred, and in fact when I asked the employees about a strike, they claimed no knowledge of such an action and asked all their colleagues who also said they knew nothing. My Italian was fine for everything. The only challenge was when my hearing aid died, and I was left having trouble distinguishing words; a nightmare when speaking a foreign language.

San Francisco

The boxes started arriving on January 16th at our home in the Sunset District of San Francisco. This was about a month out from our first mailing and the predicted time via container ship. If I happened not to be at home when the driver from USPS showed up I went to the Taraval Station to pick up the packages.

This station is one of several stations serving the Outer Sunset, a neighborhood that is 60% Asian. The clerks are almost all native Chinese speakers. The service is excellent, and they explained the situation with my boxes simply and coherently in heavily accented English. However when the clerks spoke amongst each other I was in a foreign land, lost because I couldn’t speak Cantonese. So the tale of two post offices is that in Italy I understood the primary language, in my own post office I did not. I celebrate this and only wish that I could speak Cantonese because I can imagine the world that would open up to me. In fact the one neighborhood in San Francisco that reminds me of our Italian neighborhood for street life and banter is San Francisco’s Chinatown. People milling about in public markets and cafes speaking with friends and family…Seems like San Frediano except in Cantonese not Fiorentino.

Both post offices are often reviled and criticized by their citizens. I happen to be a big defender of the PO in this country given the stresses and duties placed upon them, and in terms of delivery times they are far more reliable than Poste Italiane.

I can’t imagine however finding a post office in Italy where the principal language is anything but Italian. Italy relative to the United States is a very homogenous country. The immigrant population (born outside Italy) is estimated to be 14 %. Yet and still the hot topic in Italy leading up to the national election on March 4 is immigration, an issue that the Right is playing very unashamedly ala Donald Trump.

My next installment will be on Italian immigration issues and what if any lessons they hold for our battles here in the USA. We are bringing our baggage home……

A presto.

•••

About the author

Peter Olney

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California. He has worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California. View all posts by Peter Olney →

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THE RICH AND THOSE TAX BRACKETS

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Photo: Robert Gumpert

To get right to the point: Why should “The Rich” pay so much in taxes? In all the recent arguments about the provisions of the new tax law, no one ever makes a reasoned case for the high brackets.

Those protesting that they’re too high simply argue that any taxes are effectively “taking money I’ve earned.” Those claiming the percentages are if anything too low simply state “The Rich” deserve to be heavily taxed. Neither side provides a rationale for its position. I propose to try to do so.

I intend to define “The Rich” in terms of those brackets and I’m going to argue that at the very least the top three brackets comprise – “The Rich”: 32% for taxable income of $157,500-$200,000, 35% for taxable income $200,000-$500,000 and 37% for $500,000 taxable income and over.

For starters, most Americans—or so I contend—do not understand that it is only the income at and above each bracket that is taxed at that percentage. That is, no one pays 32%, let alone 37%, on their entire income. In fact, “The Rich’s” income up to $157,500 is taxed only at 24%. Moreover, all these percentages refer to taxable income—what’s left after all legitimate expenses, itemized deductions and other questionable deductions have been taken.

And there’s the rub. The higher one’s income, the greater the certainty that people will have used accountants and tax lawyers to exploit every possible provision and/or loophole to bring their taxable income down to the minimum. (And by the way, deducting the pay to these individuals as an expense.) Don’t for a minute imagine that when you read of someone being paid $1 million a year that he or she is paying anywhere near 37% of that sum in taxes. In fact, many of the richest people, like many of the largest corporations, pay little or even no income taxes.

Still, I’m willing to accept that this leaves a relatively small percentage of Americans paying the large percentage of the country’s income taxes. So let’s return to their complaint (and that of most Libertarians and Republicans): “They’re taking money I’ve earned!”

But really, can anyone honestly claim that—in an America in which hundreds of millions of people work hard for 35-40 hours a week just to make, say $35,000 a year (let alone $20,000)—can people sitting at desks and manipulating numbers really be said to be “earning” such sums as $500,000? Even a university president or college basketball coach who is paid $500,000—have they “earned” that when the janitors in their buildings work 35 hours for 50 weeks a year to earn $35,000?

Which brings me to my rationale for why “The Rich” not only should, but actually deserve to pay those large taxes. I contend that there is no one earning $157,500 (for that matter, $57,500—but more about that later)—no one in the top three tax brackets who does not depend greatly on large numbers of Americans who earn, say, $35,000 a year or less. People who live from paycheck to paycheck, who can’t come up with even $500 for a sudden emergency, whose net worth doesn’t even come close to $10,000.

Where to start? Virtually all the food eaten by everyone depends on people who earn pitifully low wages—often below minimum and sometimes even cheated out of pay. Not just the primary laborers in the fields and food processing plants but most workers along the chain that brings food to all our tables. Yes, the great chefs and maitre’ds, and sommeliers in “The Rich’s” favorite restaurants are well paid, but much of the staff earns minimum wages. As do store clerks and delivery personnel, and just about everyone else in the food chain.

As do most employees in the other two basic survival sectors—clothing and housing. Again, “The Rich” can tell us of the well-paid dress designers and tailors they frequent but these are only the visible top of the clothing pyramid. From the makers to the sellers of clothing in America, the vast majority of workers are low paid.

Then there is housing. Yes, the owners of grand residences and of the large construction firms and the strongly unionized trades—electricians, plumbers, carpenter etc.—are well compensated, but once more, large numbers of poorly paid Americans toil to build and maintain both residential and commercial buildings.

How about that janitor in your building? And the doormen? Then there’s the cleaning lady. Maybe a maid. Probably a nanny. Those taxi drivers. The daycare workers. The school teachers.
Do you pay a small fortune to your private schools? Yes, but the staff—including teachers—probably works for less than in the public sector because they, too, value the privileged environment you want for your children.

The children to whom you want to leave your “hard earned” savings. Thus, in addition to complaining about the high tax brackets, you object to the ”death tax.”

My point is simple: “The Rich”—and ALL of us who have been paid well over the nation’s median income—have greatly profited from all those low-paid hard-working people. And note that I have not even referred to the millions of “illegals” in America—working with sub-minimum wages and contributing to Social Security that they cannot receive–—let alone the billions of low-paid people around the world who also support our lifestyles. This is why I think there is nothing unfair about the high tax brackets. They simply are a way for “The Rich” to give back a bit of the money they were paid—not earned—at the expense of the underpaid.

So why not expect—demand!–that everyone with an income, say, over the median household (now about $59,000) pay taxes to support Medicaid and CHIP and food stamps and subsidized housing and school lunches and all such programs that basically return some of the money we owe the recipients for working for us at low wages.

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Fighting “Right to Work” in Missouri again: 40 years later!

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The Forum is particularly proud to run an article on the Missouri Right to Work fight written by Sonny Costa out of Heat and Frost Insulators Association Local 1 in St Louis. As many of our readers know The Forum is named after Jeff Stansbury, a longtime labor and political activist. In his capacity as a reporter for the United Autoworkers’ magazine “Solidarity”, Jeff covered the anti RTW fight in Missouri 40 years ago. In an article published in Solidarity in 1978 soon after the defeat of RTW, Jeff said: “How did the New Right lose? The keys to its defeat is found in the coalition organized and led by workers, which included small farmers, students, environmentalists, who saw they had as a mutual interest the struggle against “right-to-work”. The pivotal force was the rank and file worker. Since the organizing days of the 1930’s, Missouri had not seen the outpouring of working class (activities)…that it saw this fall” Maybe history will be repeating itself in Missouri this November.

On September 4th 1978 I remember my sister and I sitting on a curb and my father, a proud member of the Heat and Frost Insulators local in St. Louis, handed us a black shirt with white letters that read “RIPOFF”. “Right to Work is a RIPOFF” was the slogan used by labor leaders and rank and file union members in Missouri during the campaign against Constitutional Amendment No. 23, the GOP’s first attempt to pass a Right to Work law in Missouri 40 years ago. On November 7th 1978, Constitutional Amendment No. 23 was soundly defeated by a three to one margin, marking an important victory for the labor movement across the country.

Since 1978 I have many memories of the Labor Day parade. Walking with my mother, a now retired member of the Communications Workers Union and my father as a child. Walking with my brothers and sisters as a member of the Heat and Frost insulators. Walking with my wife and children. And most recently I have marched as part of the current Anti-Right to Work movement.

The 2016 elections in Missouri went like the rest of the country. The GOP gained a super majority in both the house and the senate. They won all the open seats except the state auditor. The most damaging news for union members in Missouri came when newcomer and Republican Eric Grietens beat Kris Koster for the Governors seat. As Governor his first act was to fast track a Right to Work bill through the legislature. On February 6th he signed SB 19 making Missouri the 28th Right to Work State in the country effective August 28th. That same day Mike Louis, head of the Missouri AFL-CIO and Rod Chapel of the Missouri NAACP filed a petition initiative calling for a citizen’s veto of SB 19 to be placed on the November 2018 ballot.

In Missouri for a petition initiative to be certified you must collect five percent of the votes cast in the last governor’s election in six of the eight congressional districts. With the numbers we were given that meant we needed 100,126 signatures total to qualify the petition. In March Mike Louis laid out the plan for us: train a few members from each union on how to properly gather signatures. Then use them to train that union’s members. From there we wanted to gather signatures from each member’s family and friends. The next step was to go to public gatherings such as County Fairs, 4th of July celebrations and high traffic areas like malls.

On April 9th we began training and collecting signatures. Everyone was on-board and ready to fight. As we started gathering signatures, the support we were receiving from people who did not belong to a union was overwhelming. These were the people who understood that weakening unions is a detriment to everyone. Stripping a union’s ability to collectively bargain effectively would mean stagnant pay and weaker benefits for everyone not just union members. These people understood that without unions, pensions would be weakened and overtime pay would be lessened. They know that to keep their wages high union wages have to stay high. They know that stronger unions help grow the economy. Stronger unions help put money back into local stores and restaurants. Union members buy American made products and help not only the local economy but also the nation’s. Stronger unions help strengthen the backbone of the middle class.

Through the summer of 2017 the working-class people of Missouri stood up and fought back against billionaires named Koch and “Americans for Prosperity”. They stood up against multi-millionaires named Humphries, Sinquefield and Hoberock. We stood up and fought back against the people who had poured millions of dollars into the coffers of politicians to get their way in the implementation of anti-worker legislation. We stood up and showed the “1 percent” we were done being attacked and not fighting back.

On August 18th 10,000 Missouri citizens filled the Capitol Building in Jefferson City to show the GOP led House and Senate that we were ready for a fight by turning in 310,567 signatures to repeal SB 19. This was more than triple the amount needed, and we qualified a petition in all eight congressional districts for the first time in the state’s history. Also we delayed its effective date until after the people vote on the initiative on November 6th 2018.

The September 4th 2017, Labor Day parade in St. Louis had a special feeling as just sixteen days before we had landed the first significant blow in this new fight against Right to Work. We have made this a promise to those who fought before us that we are ready to pick up where my father and his union brothers and sisters left off forty years ago.

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About the author

Sonny Costa

Sonny Costa is a second generation, 27-year member of the Heat and Frost Insulators and Allied Workers local union #1 in St. Louis Missouri He served on Local #1’s executive board for ten years. He has served as Vice President and currently serves as President and Organizer for Local #1. He served in the United States Army from 1993 to 1996 as a Field Artilleryman View all posts by Sonny Costa →

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Saggio da San Frediano #11: i’Bandito, or how il Trippaio Fiorentino stole my heart

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“I had been hearing contradictory stories from local Florentines about lampredotto regarding its taste, texture, quality, cleanliness, and even the people who bought it and made it!”

In Southern California, El Monte to be exact, I grew up eating with abandon hot, spicy menudo, tripe soup. My dad, David E. Perez, had the well- deserved reputation in our large extended family as being perhaps the best menudo “cocinero” in our menudo-loving brood. And for good reason. Dad was a perfectionist when it came to preparing this popular Mexican dish. As with any great cook, his process started with buying the best ingredients from the Mexican butcher: clean honeycombed, or flat chambers of the cow’s gut, chunky marrow bones for added flavor, dry but fragrant oregano, hominy corn, yellow onion, and hot red chilies which produced the spicy sauce that made his menudo blood red.

The next part of the process is what Dad said made his menudo the “best.” The cubed white pieces were cleaned and re-cleaned, and soaked in water and onions until he was satisfied that his manual scrubbing and soaking had removed all “organic” material from the bite-sized chunks. No matter the amount of cleaning, when menudo is cooking it has a signature aroma that takes over the environment; it is the gut cooking after all. You either like the fragrant touch or you don’t. But, like Dad, some of us at home got excited when he got into gear and created his hearty menudo masterpiece, smell and all! Dad didn’t need an excuse like “the cruda” (hangover) to make this meal, but a cold or rainy day might stir him into action. Within hours, large bowls around the dining room table, a set of relatives dropping in to partake, a stack of hot corn tortillas, fresh chopped onion, cilantro, dry oregano, lime, dry red chile peppers, and beer, “Orale”- lunch was served. And what a lunch it was!!!

So it was when Peter and I were driving home on the cold rainy strada from Piazzale Michaelangelo in Firenze with our friends Marinella and Franco that we all made a beeline to the nearest trippaio to chow down on the Florentine favorite, lampredotto, or the so-called “last stomach” of the cow. Up until that moment, I had not been able to wrap my head around the idea of eating this “delicacy” despite having grown up eating “guts” up to my ears, so to speak. In the months being in Italy, I had been hearing contradictory stories from local Florentines about lampredotto regarding its taste, texture, quality, cleanliness, and even the people who bought it and made it! Not an anti-immigrant statement, but a not- so-subtle dig at families with limited means who could least afford the best cuts of meat. I think what felt like uppidity and snobby attitudes finally turned my head “ma dai”, or “come on!” In an instant I realized, lampredotto and menudo are like sorella e fratello (sister and brother) along the stomach chain- che vuoi che sia”, what’s the big deal? The biggest difference is that lampredotto meat is darker than menudo and it is the last stomach of the cow, or as put by our food guide a year ago “the last stomach before air escapes the cow’s body.” You get the picture.

Like menudo, lampredotto, requires focused scrubbing and soaking before being boiled to a tender consistency and chopped much like the tender, juicy pastrami that Americans have grown to love. i’Bandito, the trippaio at Piazza Pier Vettori in the Zona Ponte alla Vittoria did not disappoint. An eclectic tripperia, i’Bandito also made hamburgers and paninos. The menu featured specialties with names well known to Americans – “Billy the Kid”, “Jesse James” and “Calamity Jane”. We chose to wolf down the “Davy Crockett”, which was a hollowed-out panino (a fist-sized crunchy bun) ladled with hot, juicy lampredotto brood (juice) followed by mounds of hot chopped lampredotto meat, fragrant green salsa picante, optional greens, sal and pepe, and a bichiere (glass) di vino rosso to top it off – bravissimo! The large palm-size treat took about five bites to finish off, and each bite-ful was tender, spicy, hot, juicy and molto delicioso!

As I watched the trippaio prepare lampredotto for other customers, I was reminded of the cuts of meat my eyes feasted on when shopping with my Dad for tripe at his local butcher. Like the Mercato Centrale in Firenze, Dad’s butcher had the tripe and the necessary ingredients and required contorno for the finished product close at hand. Looking back however, Dad’s local butcher was poverty stricken in comparison to the variety of body parts sold by butchers at the large Mercato Centrale. For example, in Firenze expect to find every imaginable part of the animal’s body sold, not least: whole chickens and rabbits with heads, spleen, pancreas, kidneys, brains, eyes, ears, hoofs, heads, thymus, lymph nodes; all the stomachs and intestines of the cow, and not to be left out, the bull’s penis! Shopping in Firenze markets has sensitized me to how prudish the American “diet” has allowed itself to become in many parts of the U.S. (my own home included!).

Buon appetito!

•••

About the author

Christina Perez

Christina is a wife, mom, daughter, sister, tia, friend, marathon runner, dancer, keeper of secrets, public servant and more. She has written numerous short stories, songs, poems and missives for herself, for friends, for decades, for fun, for coping and for love. Words, thoughts, moments, in writing- all a mystery to be explored. View all posts by Christina Perez →

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Saggio da San Frediano #10 – The Fields of Piemonte – Bitter Rice – Bitter Laughter

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Our friends LoLo and Viviana invited us to spend a weekend in Vercelli in early December. LoLo is “Una Vercellese” and she and Viviana make the town their home in between their epic travel adventures. Vercelli is a town of about 70,000 halfway between Milano and Torino in Piemonte. We thought Vercelli would just be a sleeping spot for day trips into Torino. Al contrario…… I couldn’t resist attending a Confederazione Generale Italiana dei Lavoratori(CGIL) rally against pension cuts on Saturday in the snow and ice of Piazza San Carlo in Torino. Christina visited the Museo Egizio whose Egyptian collection is only rivaled by the British Museum. We also visited the Lingotto production facility that housed the early production of the FIAT (1923-1982), but is now an upscale shopping mall with the Agnelli family museum on the top floor. The only sign of autos is the “Test Track” on the roof of the old factory and the FIAT logo (Fabbrica Italiana Automobilistica a Torino) stamped in concrete over the old administration building. (If you are in Southern California you can see a similar industrial plant to shopping mall conversion of the old Uniroyal Tire Plant in Commerce)

Vercelli turned out to be the highlight of our trip to Piemonte as we discovered the rice industry and the history of the female rice workers, Le Mondine (from the word “mondare” meaning to clean and husk). This rice growing region centered in the towns of Vercelli, Novara and Pavia make Italy Europe’s number one rice producer. As is often the case you have to leave your own “paese” to learn more about it. While working at the International Longshore and Warehosue Union, I on occasion assisted the workers at the giant Farmer’s Rice Mill in Sacramento, California with their negotiations and internal organizing. There were 400 of them working in the Port of Sacramento, processing rice for export on ships that would come up the Delta to be loaded and then deliver the rice to destinations in the Far East, particularly Japan where California rice was prized in the production of sushi. I knew that the rice came from north of Sacramento, cultivated in flat fields flooded with water, but I had no idea of the production process and certainly no idea about the workforce.

Education about the Italian workforce began with retired CGIL and Labor Council leader Giorgio Comella on Friday, December 1 in Vercelli. We met in the Cavour Bar in the main Piazza of the city. He explained that Vercelli was the center of a history-making struggle for the 8-hour day in 1906. He asserted that 250,000 workers, mainly women, were employed in the rice fields of the Pianura, and that many of them participated in strikes and protests that won the 8-hour standard. I asked how many workers total were employed in the fields now, and he responded about 4,000. Technology has had an impact.

Film still from Riso Amaro (Bitter Rice, 1949); directed by Giuseppe De Santis

This massive scale of female employment, in dramatic environmental conditions requiring young women in short shorts standing knee deep in the water, gave rise to lots of songs and movies. In fact the women were accustomed to sing as they worked and some speculate that the famous partisan anthem, “Bella Ciao” (lyrics here) came out of the rice fields. Nevertheless it is beyond speculation that the song , “Se otto ore son troppo poche”, did come out of the fields and it is a mocking declaration to the rice field owners, “If eight hours are just too little!” There are two famous movies made about the “Mondine” or “Le Risaia”. In 1949 Giussepe De Santis made “Riso Amaro” (a double entendre translated as bitter rice or bitter laugh). This movie starred Vittorio Gassman and Silvana Mangano. Then in 1956 Carlo Pontti made La Risaia starring Elsa Martinelli.

Learning about the workforce needs to be coupled with an understanding of the production process, or knowledge of working class life is limited. And of course changes in the production process have dramatically affected the workforce. On Sunday, December 3 we had the great fortune to dine at Oryzariso part of the Tenuta Castello estate that has a B&B, restaurant and production facility all in Desana north of Vercelli. We were hosted by Eduardo Vercellone whose family has farmed rice for generations. Any good day in Italy always begins with a fabulous meal, and this Sunday was no exception. Risotto was originally a “Primo piatto” eaten by peasants in the rice growing regions where the raw material was rice, not the grain which is used in the production of pasta in more southern regions. Eduardo’s restaurant has made the risotto into a gourmet delite, serving every imaginable combination of risotto with various nuts and vegetables and fruits. My favorite was Risotto with cheese, pear and walnut! Christina couldn’t resist ordering risotto mixed with brown beans. Ole!!!

After lunch we rode to Eduardo’s milling facility and he explained the whole process. Planting takes place at the end of April through the beginning of June. Irrigation has an important dual purpose. After planting, the fields are flooded for irrigation, but also because the water retains the warmth of the sunshine so that the rice plants remain warm during what can be cold nights in the plains. Then in the fall the fields are drained and the harvest is done with giant combines. He explained that the Mondine used to participate in the harvest (now mechanized) where they often encountered snakes and rats who slithered through their legs as they moved forward. And prior to the harvest Le Risaia had to manually trim off herbal infestations from the rice plant. That work has been done by herbicides now although the organic farming movement is pushing the elimination of herbicides in favor of maybe more “mondine”!

Eduardo also showed us his highly mechanized milling equipment (all made in Italia) that takes the newly harvested rice and husks it and dries it for market. While standing outside his mill I spotted the name “Singh” stenciled on the side of a giant harvester. Then an employee of the mill emerged to converse with Eduardo. He was a Sikh. Eduardo explained that there were many Sikhs involved in rice production as farmers, owners and workers. What a small world as Singh is a very common name in the Sacramento Valley and Sikh peoples have been involved in agricultural production in California since the early years of the 20th century. Eduardo promised to ask later if the worker has relatives in California, and he promised to visit our rice fields in the California delta soon.

I am inspired now to return to California and make a field trip to the 4 principal rice growing counties north of Sacramento: Colusa, Sutter, Glenn and Butte. Maybe if I had visited those fields 100 years ago I would have found strong robust women, in short pants singing “Bella Ciao’!?? Unlikely today as the California industry which is second only to Arkansas in rice production is highly mechanized like its counterpart in Italia.

•••

About the author

Peter Olney

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California. He has worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California. View all posts by Peter Olney →

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“How Can Political Shift to the Right Be Stopped?”

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This is the question people left of center have been asking for some time now. In different ways, it is being posed in Latin America, in much of Europe, in Arab and Islamic countries, in southern Africa, and in northeast Asia. The question is all the more dramatic because, in so many of these countries, this follows a period when there were significant shifts leftward.

The problem for the left is priorities. We live in a world in which the geopolitical power of the United States is in constant decline. And we live in a world in which the world-economy is seriously reducing state and personal incomes, so that the living standard of most of the world’s population is falling. These are the constraints of any political activity by the left, constraints the left can do little to affect.

Increasingly, there are movements emerging that make their appeal on a denunciation of mainstream centrist political parties. These movements call for radically new transformative policies. But there are two kinds of such movements, what one might call a right version and a left version. The right version can be found in Trump’s U.S. presidential campaign, Rodrigo Duterte’s anti-drug campaign in the Philippines, the Law and Justice Party in Poland, and many others. For the left, priority number one is to keep such movements from seizing state power. These movements are basically xenophobic and exclusionist and will use their control of the state to crush movements of the left.

On the other hand, there exist movements of the left that have also been organizing on the basis of radically new transformative policies. They include Bernie Sanders’ attempt to obtain the Democratic nomination for U.S. president, Jeremy Corbyn’s attempt to return the British Labor Party to its historic support of socialism, Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, and many others. Of course, when such movements come near to obtaining state power, the world right (mainstream or radically anti-Establishment) unites to eliminate them or to force them to modify their positions in major ways. This is what happened to Syriza.

So this second priority has its in-built limitations. They are forced to become another version of a center-left social-democratic party. This does serve one function: It limits the short-run damage to the poorer strata, thereby minimizing the damage. But it does not aid in transformation.

The middle-run objective of establishing a new world-system that is relatively democratic and relatively egalitarian requires political action of a different kind. It requires organizing everywhere at the bottom level of politics and building alliances up from there, rather than down from state power. This has been the secret of the recent strength of rightwing anti-Establishment movements.

What will make it possible for the left to gain the upper hand in the struggle over the next 20-40 years to establish a successor system to our existing capitalist system, now in definitive decline, is an ability to combine the short-run politics of alliances to minimize the harm that tight budgets do to the poorer strata, fierce opposition to the control of state power by rightwing anti-Establishment movements, and continuous organization by the world left at the bottom level of politics. This is very difficult and requires constant clarity of analysis, firm moral options for the kind of possible other world we want, and wise tactical political decisions.

•••

This piece was first printed in Commentary No. 434, October 1, 2016. To read more by Immanuel Wallerstein visit Binghamton University Commentaries

About the author

Immanuel Wallerstein

Wallerstein first became interested in world affairs as a teenager in New York City, and was particularly interested in the anti-colonial movement in India at the time. He attended Columbia University, where he received a B.A. in 1951, an M.A. in 1954 and a Ph.D. degree in 1959, and subsequently taught until 1971, when he became professor of sociology at McGill University. As of 1976, he served as distinguished professor of sociology at Binghamton University (SUNY) until his retirement in 1999, and as head of the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems and Civilizations until 2005. Wallerstein held several positions as visiting professor at universities worldwide, was awarded multiple honorary degrees, intermittently served as Directeur d’études associé at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris, and was president of the International Sociological Association between 1994 and 1998. During the 1990s, he chaired the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences. View all posts by Immanuel Wallerstein →

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Capture the Democratic Party? More Likely Be Captured! Is there An Alternative?

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A recent analysis and call to action from Bernie Sanders sent to the “Our Revolution” e-mail list is illustrative of the difficulties in “taking over” the Democratic Party. He says:

“We need a Democratic Party which becomes the political home of the working people and young people of this country, black and white, Latino and Asian and Native American … all Americans.”

The Democratic National Committee’s Unity Reform Commission must: (1) make the Party more democratic, and the presidential primary more fair by reducing the number of super-delegates; (2) ending “closed primary systems” in which voters have to declare party preference far in advance of the primary election, and; (3) supplement caucuses with some kind of additional procedure that allows those who can’t attend an opportunity to vote.

And he concludes, “we must institute long-needed reforms in the Democratic Party.

He’s right: if the strategy of progressives is to reform the Democratic Party, they must attend to instituting “long-needed reforms.” Doing that is a lengthy, time-consuming process that requires the commitment of time, talent and money, and attention to details. That’s why he is both right and wrong.

The second difficulty in taking over the party is that having control has little to do with the process of running a candidate as a Democrat—as Sanders’ campaign itself demonstrates. There is nothing in the internal structure of the Party that prevents Joe Blow or Susie Que from declaring him/herself a Democrat, assembling the money, campaign professionals and feet-on-the-street volunteers for a campaign, and then running in a Democratic Party primary.

The idea that Party rules can keep money out of politics flies in the face of both past experience and, more recently, a series of rulings by the U.S Supreme Court that treat the expenditure of vast amounts of money as a matter of free speech.

We need to take over the Party, Sanders says, because:

“People are hurting in this country…Our job is to create an economy and government that works for all of us, not just the 1%…”, and;

“The Democratic Party [must be] prepared to take on the ideology of the…billionaire class…who are undermining American democracy and moving this country into an oligarchic form of society.”

Without taking over the Party, he warns that we cannot address the fundamental issues of social and economic justice or climate change.

Other Possibilities

The industrial union movement of the 1930s (Congress of Industrial Organizations —CIO) was organized independently of any political party. The civil rights movement of the mid 1950s-mid-1960s was organized outside the Democratic Party. The same is true of the gay/lesbian, women’s, immigrant rights, disability rights, senior citizen and other efforts that extended rights, power and material benefits to previously marginalized, exploited and discriminated against groups.

For the most part, once having built their power base outside the framework of the political parties, these movements and organizations choose to enter electoral politics and “join” the Democratic Party. Instead of capturing it, it captured them. The lessons to be learned from the cooptation of independent movements and organizations are abundant. If you’re not already convinced of that, nothing I can say will convince you.

In my lifetime, I watched up close and personal how that happened in Mississippi—where in 1963 I was a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and continued full-time in SNCC until the end of 1966. From 1961 – 1964, SNCC built from the bottom-up the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP). At the 1964 Democratic National convention, MFDP challenged the seating of the Mississippi racist regular party. It made national news, but lost. At the opening of Congress, MFDP challenged the seating in the House of Representatives of the elected Mississippians. More than 150 members of the House voted for this challenge, but it, too, lost. The MFDP campaigns probably had as much to do with the passage of the Voting Rights Act as did the Selma-Montgomery March.

The Democratic Party concluded that MFDP was too independent, and proceeded to undermine and weaken it by means of a two-part strategy. First, an alternative was created—the Mississippi Democratic Conference (MDC). By the time of the 1968 national convention, MDC controlled three quarters of the delegates; MFDP had the remaining one quarter. Second, the expenditure of poverty program funds had the effect (and intent) of coopting the SNCC-initiated and -led civil rights movement there. The movement was enmeshed in the MFDP. Except in a few counties, it had not built a base sufficiently autonomous from electoral politics to withstand the two-part strategy of marginalization and cooperation.

Just To Be Clear…

This doesn’t mean that the Democratic Party is not an arena for struggle. In many cases, though not all (for example, where a local party is deeply enmeshed in corruption, the Republican Party, a third party or an independent effort might be a better vehicle), I think it is the most likely one. But making it an arena for struggle is different from becoming enmeshed in its internal workings. As Sanders himself demonstrated in his Democratic primary race for the presidential nomination, an apparatus can be built outside the framework of the party. Just as his independent campaign mobilization apparatus used the party as a vehicle, so is it possible for independent ongoing organization to use it to further its agenda, which might include running or supporting candidates.

But there are other ways of entering electoral politics that should be carefully considered as well.

“Fusion,” the strategy of the Working Families Party (WFP), is one. WFP is a third party that endorses Democrats, occasionally a Republican, and in some cases runs its own candidate. If you vote, for example, for a Democrat under the WFP ballot listing you at once play in the “lesser-of-two-evils” reality of American politics but, at the same time, let the Democratic Party know that you are a to-its-left independent, and strengthen a third party.

“Partisan non-partisanship”. In this case, an organization presents its political agenda to candidates, and asks them, “Where do you stand on the people’s issue(s)?” It then demands “yes” or “no” answers to questions that make clear where the candidate stands. Examples might be:

Do you support Medicare-for-all? Yes or No

Do you support $15.00 living wage? Yes or No

Do you support Dodd-Frank? Yes or No

Do you support a “path to citizenship” Yes or No

A more detailed definition of what “support” means can be part of the process of interviewing or otherwise judging the candidate. But this is crucial: the organization that asks these questions has to be trusted by voters; it has to have roots that go more deeply than social media, paid mass media or even enthusiastic but here-today, gone-tomorrow canvassers. Only a year-round organization that does more than electoral politics can dig those roots.

The organization then engages in a large-scale voter education, registration and get-out-the-vote (GOTV) drive in which voters learn where politicians stand on issues that mean the most to them. If it is respected, and the drive a serious one, vote totals will demonstrate that a politician cannot afford to ignore this organization’s political agenda and win. Efforts such as this were undertaken in past years with success in Chicago (the CAP organization) and New Orleans (by ACT).

Large public accountability sessions are another way of making candidates define themselves in terms that they otherwise might want to avoid. In front of several thousand people, candidates are asked “yes/no” questions on key issues. A candidate who refuses to come to the session is a “no”. These events often gain major media attention. Some years ago, San Antonio’s COPS illustrated the power of this approach. The organization sponsoring the event then engages in the same education/registration/GOTV campaign identified above.

Finally, you can build an officially non-partisan political organization that directly endorses candidates. The Richmond (CA) Progressive Alliance (RPA) did that. Over a careful building process that took roughly ten years, the organization developed sufficient trust among the electorate to take over the Richmond City Council in 2016. In congressional districts where the choice was a clear one, ACORN did that in a number of electoral campaigns across the country by registering and turning out low-to-moderate income citizens who typically don’t vote but who, when they do, overwhelmingly support Democrats.

These approaches can be taken in national, state and local races. The core idea is to retain your autonomy while playing politics in the framework of “lesser of two evils” because that is the realistic framework in which you have to play if you want your vote to count in winner-take-all elections, or even worse if you don’t want your vote to have the effect of electing the worse of the two evils. And note: don’t do any of these unless the numbers you can deliver are substantial and demonstrable. If otherwise, you simply advertise your weakness.

None of these strategies require that you put all your marbles in electoral politics. Quite the contrary, their success depends upon your organization having a life and vitality that is separate from electoral politics. The activities engaged in as part of that independent life make the organization’s name mean something to voters…and to members.

Just as running third party candidates in national elections is a mistake because it is a wasted vote and, possibly, a vote for the greater evil, so is it a mistake to make capture of the Democratic Party the strategy of people interested in bringing about fundamental/transformational/substantive change in American politics. Something has to be built external to the Democratic Party that has a life independent of electoral politics, for which engaging in elections is a tactic to be used along with other tactics.

A Moral and Cultural Struggle

I have elsewhere in Stansbury Forum discussed the character of mass based organizations that I think are the best vehicles to build power external to the Democratic Party. Their building blocks are religious congregations, union locals, and civic, interest and identity groups that are deeply rooted in values that challenge the present dominant culture.

These building blocks contrast sharply with the inevitable character of major political parties in a winner-take-all system. Ideological parties in a parliamentary system can be transformational in outlook and still win seats in the government. Trades take place in parliament. Major parties in the U.S. are transactional. They are forums within which interest groups make trades in order to create electoral and governing majorities.

The struggle in which we are now engaged in the United States is not simply one of political program or collective bargaining issues. It is a deeply cultural and moral one that requires a counter-culture to challenge the existing status quo.

•••

About the author

Mike Miller

Mike Miller’s organizing background includes the early student movement at UC Berkeley, field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (1962-end of 1966), directorship of a Saul Alinsky community organizing project (1967-68), and a number of subsequent organizing projects. His articles on organizing have appeared in Social Policy, CounterPunch, Dissent, Socialist Review, International Journal of Urban Planning and Reseearch, Organizing, and The Organizer. He is author of Community Organizing: A Brief Introduction, A Community Organizer’s Tale: People and Power in San Francisco, co-author of The People Fight Back, and co-editor of the recently published People Power: The Organizing Tradition of Saul Alinsky. He directs ORGANIZE Training Center, www.organizetrainingcenter.org View all posts by Mike Miller →

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Saggio da San Frediano # 9 – Sheila e La Frecciarossa

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On September 24 we met our friend and Christina’s colleague from work, Sheila James at the Fiumicino airport in Rome. Sheila was joining us for a week “a Firenze”. What a great week it was as Sheila proved to be a “viaggiatore” not a “turista”. My Italian friends make this distinction between those who arrive and want to see all the guidebook sites and those who want to dig into Italian life. Sheila led us to places we were not aware of, perfected some Italian, met and befriended the local merchants and discovered a direct train from Florence to the airport in Rome. Sheila knows about mass transit. Having grown up in NYC it is in her DNA and is her preferred mode of transportation. She reads timetables and understands connections. In fact she is a “mass transit celebrity” having been the subject of an August 21 Business Day feature in the New York Times, written by Conor Dougherty and Andrew Burton and entitled “Up at 2:15, At Work by 7”.

This New York Times spread complete with multiple fotos detailed Sheila’s time consuming commute from Stockton, California to work in downtown San Francisco. To be at work by 7 AM Sheila catches her first train in Stockton at 4:12 AM (Altamont Corridor Express) to arrive at a bus in Pleasanton for a 4:58 AM pickup that puts her on a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train leaving at 5:55 AM for Civic Center, San Francisco where she arrives at 6:50 AM, and walks to her office. This is a commute of 83 miles if by car and 62.8 miles as the crow flies. Sheila gets up in the morning at 2:15 AM so as to drink her coffee and ready herself peacefully for the commute. The article points out that many commuters are making this same trip or longer (5% commute 90 minutes or more) because of housing costs in the inner Bay Area where median home price in San Francisco is $1.2 million versus $260,100 in Stockton. Rents are similarly skewed. Sheila pays $1000 per month for a three-bedroom home in Stockton. In SF it would probably rent for $4000-$6000 per month!

What the article neglected to discuss, but what was painfully obvious to Sheila when she got to Italy, is the lack of a decent “rapid” transit system in California. When we took Sheila on the train from Rome to Florence on the Frecciarossa we arrived in one hour twenty minutes and traveled an average of 155 miles per hour. This is a driving distance of 174 miles. As our friends and family who travel the Northeast Corridor of the USA know the Amtrak Acela averages 63 miles per hour, making the Boston to NYC trip about a 3 and 1/2 hour ride.

Italy still has a public passenger rail system called Trenitalia owned by Le Ferrovie dello Stato. This system was founded in 1905 and consolidated Italian rail service that had historically been regionally based and reflected the city-states and regional “Ducati” that predated the unification of Italy in the 1860’s. Under fascism in the 20’s and 30’s there was a maniacal obsession with building a national train system and while workers paid the price in increased hours and reduced pay, it is true “Durante il facismo i treni arrivavano in orario”, the trains ran on time, and they continue to run on time. In 2006 with the liberalization of transportation services mandated by the European Union there was the formation of Italo, a private passenger company that provides only train service on the high-speed lines between major cities. Trenitalia provides all the regional services and competes with Italo on the high-speed lines. The workers of both services are represented by Italy’s three large labor federations. Train travel is not cheap but it is far more convenient than air in terms of waiting time and security hassles.

I decided it would be interesting to try to replicate Sheila’s commute in Italia and see what her travel time would be like using Italian trains. Stockton is a city of 300,000, 63 miles (101 Kilometers) as the crow flies from SF. I choose Bologna in the region of Emilia Romagna as a starting point for a commute to Firenze. Bologna is a city of 388,884 and is the seventh largest city in Italy. The distance from Bologna to Florence is 104 kilometers and is traveled crossing over the Apennine Mountains. If Sheila were to leave the train station in Central Bologna at 6:05 AM and travel to Firenze Santa Maria Novella she would arrive at 6:41 AM. With all due respect, Stockton is not Bologna, but the distances from point to point are comparable and the differences in ease of travel are extraordinary. It is important to point out that the trip is on the main artery of the high speed lines that enable a traveler to get from Naples to Torino in 5 hours and 25 minutes, a distance of 574 miles! Let’s hope we get high-speed rail in California so the 400 mile commute from LA to SF can become 4 hours in the comfort of a train rather than 6-8 hours on highways. And in Tuscany even commutes on regional lines are shorter at comparable distances, and do not necessitate 3 connections as the Stockton to SF commute does for Sheila.

The passenger train system of the USA is a disgrace. What’s more on most train lines outside the Northeast corridor freight traffic has priority over passenger travel, so one can wait for hours on a single track siding for a long “money train” carrying “precious” cargo to pass by. This was not always so, as there was at one time an extensive passenger system in the US with multiple providers of service. These systems and extensive urban metro systems in surprising places like Los Angeles fell victim to the power of the oil and automobile production lobbies.

Sheila is already ready for a return visit to Italia in 2018. She will probably speak Italian by then, and will spend her time discovering new facets of life in Tuscany. And of course she will ride the rails of Trenitalia and appreciate a modern passenger system. Viva Italia!

•••

About the author

Peter Olney

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California. He has worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California. View all posts by Peter Olney →

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Finding Hope

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Health insurance means very little to a person without available and affordable transportation because he still does not have the ability to go see a doctor.”

A couple years ago, I traveled to Rwanda. Winding through the hilly countryside on a bus with my classmates, I would stare out the window and watch the passing towns. I would take inventory of the homes and storefronts. I would study the people. I would ask questions and dream up responses.

What were they thinking? How were they feeling? What were they doing? In other words, how was their head? How was their heart? How were their hands?

At the time, I thought I wanted to be a doctor. I had volunteered for three years at a world-renowned hospital, and I had seen how impactful a single doctor could be on a person’s life. So as we drove, I also wondered what their healthcare system looked like. Were any of these people I observed doctors? Were any of those storefronts medical clinics? What did access to healthcare look like here?

This experience sparked something within me, and over time, my questions have evolved. Now, I not only wonder who has access to healthcare, but question who has access in other areas of life as well. For example, who has access to education? Who has access to travel? Who has access to citizenship? To democracy? To owning property? To freedom of expression? Who has access to solidarity—who is impacted by issues we are willing to stand up and speak out against, and who is impacted by issues we tend to ignore?

As I use this broadened framework to revisit my initial question about access to healthcare, I find myself integrating more nuance and complexity into the discussion. In the United States, for example, when we look at healthcare, we often start talking about insurance coverage. Although universal coverage treats a symptom, it does not cure the disease. Health insurance means very little to a person without available and affordable transportation because he still does not have the ability to go see a doctor. It also means very little to a person working a minimum wage job because s/he still cannot afford to take time off from work to go see a doctor. Even if these barriers are not applicable to a particular individual, s/he still needs the health literacy skills to find a provider and ensure any appointments or procedures will be covered under that insurance. Despite efforts to provide coverage for every individual, access to healthcare is still a system hindered by all the institutionalized barriers and inequalities present in our communities. Those are the same barriers and inequalities that limit access to education, travel, solidarity and the rest.

Increasing access throughout the world requires us to diminish these systems of racism, sexism, poverty, violence, and discrimination. This is a tremendous undertaking, and it often seems one step forward prompts a backlash that leaves us ten steps backwards. In this last year, mixed messages, uncertainty surrounding healthcare, and fear resulting from the federal administration’s stricter immigration policies has magnified the challenges many communities face when trying to obtain health coverage. Recipients of Covered California and MediCal, which in most cases requires you to be a legal resident, are asking to be un-enrolled because they fear the government will punish them for accepting benefits from a federal program, and they would rather go without insurance, risking medical and financial hardships, than risk inviting any unwanted attention into their communities.

I have learned to …”

With each of these un-enrollment requests, my heart sinks; with every effort to repeal or sabotage the Affordable Care Act, my head fills with trepidation. I constantly face the reality that the United States, as an institution, considers healthcare to be a privilege not everyone deserves. For the most part, I remain hopeful we can eventually live in a nation where medicine is not considered a luxury. Through involvement and advocacy, I truly believe every individual has the agency to impact the health and wellbeing of communities throughout the United States.

But remaining hopeful is challenging, and I also experience waves of anger, frustration, cynicism and heartbreak. To move through the obstacles, I have learned to recognize the headway leaders before me have already made. To push for progress in the face of regression, I have learned to adapt in how I approach and address these issues. To promote meaningful change, I have learned to evaluate how I frame the work. This past year has required me to respond with patience, persistence, creativity and passion.

In doing so, I find myself circling back to the questions that brought me here in the first place. Who has access? Who does not have access?

I find myself back on that hilly countryside in Rwanda trying to connect with each individual. What are they thinking? How are they feeling? What are they doing?

I have found human connection to be my source of rejuvenation in this work, and I have found hope in the heads, hearts and hands of those around me.

•••

About the author

Brianna Nielson

Briana is a senior at Saint Mary's College, majoring in biology with a minor in psychology.  She is originally from Phoenix, Arizona.  She learned a lot about the conditions of our health care system as part of an independent study she did in Concord, analyzing the impact the dismantling of Obamacare is having on low income communities and undocumented workers.  After college she plans to identify how global health systems impact individuals at a community level. "My hope is to create a discussion that highlights the intersections between healthcare and social justice in a way that changes the way we think about wellness in the United States." View all posts by Brianna Nielson →

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