Make no mistake about it: the children detained on the US-Mexico border and those winding their way north from Central America are the legacy of US intervention in the region in the 1980s and beyond. Guatemala was left in shambles in the wake of the genocidal war successive military regimes waged against its indigenous population with Washington’s blessing since the US government overthrew the Guatemalan president, Jacobo Arbenz, in 1954.
El Salvador’s attempted revolution stalemated the military regimes after the United States poured a million dollars per day into counter-insurgency for a decade. The result was not only the death of tens of thousands and a shattered economy, but also a country awash in weapons of war. That armament became readily available to young men deported from Los Angeles who took home a new modality of social organization: the “maras,” the gangs they formed in exile to negotiate the mean streets of Southern California and that now terrorize El Salvador.
Honduras was likewise affected. The Reagan administration used the country as a massive military base throughout the 1980s to battle the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the FMLN in El Salvador. In the process, the United States government weakened Honduras’ institutions even further, the coup de grace finally arriving in 2009 with the ousting of President Manuel Zelaya. Honduras became ripe for the double plague its people can endure no longer: a transfer point for drug shipments going from Colombia to Mexico and a breeding ground for youth gangs engaged in the trade, in addition to other criminal activity.
In both El Salvador and Honduras, the gangs have created mayhem of all sorts, inflicting violence upon the population with no apparent end in sight, always hungry for new, young recruits. It is that violence, with its roots in US foreign policy toward the region, that has pushed parents to do the unthinkable: to send their children to the United States unaccompanied by family members. The fear of having their children snatched by the gangs and inducted into them (under threat of death) is greater than the fear of human traffickers.
As a consequence, the US government now faces a compounded immigration problem and the human tragedy of the massive incarceration of children. And given the Republicans’ determination to oppose, deny, and derail every single policy proposal coming from the White House, it is hard not to be pessimistic about the future of those children. President Obama is asking Congress for more funding to do more of the same: to use his executive powers to deport immigrants by the millions. That might be the only proposal he will find bipartisan support for in Congress. After all, can anyone really expect that those who created the problem in the first place would be willing to fix it in a humane, just way?
“All-day suckers and lolly pops
Maple fudges and chocolate drops!
Wares that satisfy; goods that please!
Who sells lovelier things than these?
Who among all of our working clan
Has a happier trade than the candy man?”
The Candy Man by Edgar Guest
I arrived back in the USA in late August of 1972 deplaning at JFK in New York City where I had started my Italian adventure the previous year. I had one small bag, and stuck my thumb out and hitched to Boston. I checked in with my parents in Andover and then headed for The Hub and my friends from the Lewd Moose commune of the summer of ‘71. Two of them, Buck and Steve had bought a house on Pine Street in the same Central Square neighborhood where we had lived together. I was invited to stay, along with half of the street lumpen kids from East Cambridge. My bedroom was in a dank basement that would flood occasionally and I would wake up and stick out my hand for a depth reading before trying to climb out of bed.
Steve and Buck, being movement entrepreneurs, had the idea that they could fund the movement by raising money with events featuring progressive rock stars and cultural icons. The initiative was called “Entropy” and they became mildly successful promoters. One day I remember being told not to barge in on the master bedroom because Allen Ginsburg was using it for some pre performance meditation. There sat the rotund rollypolly Ginsburg oohming in the upstairs bedroom. I think I was the only one in the house with a regular job, which conveniently was a stone’s throw up on Massachusetts Avenue at Albany Street at the New England Confectionery Company (NECCO). NECCO is famous for NECCO wafers and for the Whitman Sampler chocolate assortment box gifted on Valentine’s and Mother’s Day.
My decision to work at NECOO was not the product of deep scientific analysis. I needed a job to support my self, and my Italian experience inspired me to want to be a part of the US working class. I thought that any radical change in America would come from building a strong workers movement, like the one I had seen in Italy.
Like so many other workers in my experience they referenced the good old days when working at NECCO was like being part of a family.
My job at NECCO was to start work early at 5 AM, just when the frequent all night party was winding down at 51 Pine Street. I was the freight elevator operator, and I received a license from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to operate. My job was to carry raw materials and workers, mostly older ethnic Italian, Portuguese and Irish ladies up to the production floors. I enjoyed practicing my Italian with the ladies who mostly spoke Sicilian and Neapolitan dialects. I soon became attuned to some of their issues in the workplace. The clanging noise of “Rolo” and “Skybar” molds being hammered to release the product drove the noise decibel levels over 90, unsafe for human ears. The cold storage area for the filberts and peanuts used in the chocolates was infested with rats. There was a human element to the pestilence also that tamed any desire for milk chocolate on my part. Manny, an older Portuguese worker from the Azores loved to stand in front of all the other male workers in the early AM, and relieve himself into the chocolate vats. I started to talk issues with the women as we rode the elevator, and of course I had a captive audience because I could stop between floors and hold forth with my opinions about their working lives. Like so many other workers in my experience they referenced the good old days when working at NECCO was like being part of a family. Change started to happen in 1962 when NECCO was purchased by the United Industrial Syndicate (UIS) out of New York. UIS was a publicly traded conglomerate that was in the business of picking up manufacturing companies and squeezing their assets for super profits. The women were victims of that drive for increased profitability. The plant manager, Tom Antonellis, a former Boston College football star, would come down on the assembly line and fill up the line with Whitman Sampler boxes so that the ladies had to work even faster during the holiday season.
My employment at NECCO was short lived because of a classic moment of youthful idealism. The Vietnam War continued to rage, and I continued to have my strong feelings about US imperialism. At one point I came to work early and scrawled “Victory to the NLF’ on the elevator walls. I am not sure that Victory to the National Liberation Front, the Viet Cong, was an educational and teachable moment for my elevator passengers most of who didn’t speak or read English let alone know who the NLF was. But there it was penned in magic marker on the wall. It did catch the attention of management, and I was summoned to the Personnel Director’s office. The director was an old blue-blooded Bostonian who probably was given the job as a life cushion after graduating from Harvard. He wore a natty bow tie and proceeded to lecture me calmly about the offense I had committed, defacing company property. He said however, “I understand people have strong feelings about these issues, and if you will promise not to do it again you can keep your job.” I immediately expressed my strong feelings, “Absolutely, I will NOT promise never to do it again”, and I swiftly exited the chocolate factory in December of 1972.
I arrived early and was chatting with some of the Italian ladies when two giants in leisure suits from the BCT approached me.
Even though I was on the street my involvement with NECCO and its workforce was not over. I had earlier connected with an organization called Urban Planning Aid (UPA), headquartered in Central Square. This was a movement consortium specializing in technical expertise in communication, health and safety and other organizing skills. I was particularly interested in health and safety issues given some of the deplorable conditions at NECCO. The labor contract was expiring at the end of January, 1973 for the workers. They were in union Local 348 of the Bakery Confectionery and Tobacco Workers Union (BCT). I decided with the help of UPA to do some street agitation about the health and safety conditions hoping that the union would be spurred to address them with the company. I call it “street” agitation because I was out on the street handing out flyers calling out the noise and the rats in the peanut bags. I got a nice welcome from my ex-elevator passengers who appreciated seeing me in the biting winter cold handing out the newsletter. The BCT was not so hospitable.
I went to the first union meeting of my life on January 22, 1973. The meeting was scheduled in order to update the members on the BCT contract negotiations with NECCO. It was on the second floor of the Odd Fellows Hall at 536 Massachusetts Avenue in Central Square. I arrived early and was chatting with some of the Italian ladies when two giants in leisure suits from the BCT approached me. I was no small lithesome guy, and still they proceeded to pick me up in a fireman’s carry, dragged me down the stairs and deposited me outside on Mass Ave. The contract was ratified and didn’t deal with any of the issues I was agitating about. I have learned that health and safety issues are often of utmost importance to workers, because while pay and benefits are fundamental, the breaking point that often spurs action are issues of human dignity that involve life and limb and safety and health. That was true at NECCO and has been true in every workplace I have organized since.
Of course in retrospect I might have been more effective at NECCO if I had told Mr. Blue Blood, the Personnel Director, that I would promise of course never to deface company property. Then there would have been no legitimate basis for the BCT goons to throw me out of the meeting and I would have had the daily ear of the workers on my elevator. But those were times of high idealism and little political seasoning. I chose principle over pragmatism and who paid the price?
Writing in my journal on December 22 I characterized my decision as “Stupid honesty” and reflected that I had let “Pride and a moral code that you have rejected intellectually, determine the decision”
Next – OO#8: Mass Machine Shop and the United Electrical Workers (UE)
Lillian R. Rubin – On Tuesday, June 17, my friend Lillian R. Rubin died. She was 90 years old. I was scheduled to have lunch with her on Friday, June 20 at Garibaldi’s restaurant on Presidio in San Francisco. I would arrive there for my monthly luncheon with her and ask for Dr. Rubin. The maître de would usher me to her favorite table at a corner spot in the back of the restaurant. Lillian was a sociologist, psychotherapist and doctor in psychology from Berkeley and an accomplished writer and commentator on matters of class, race and family in America. I had read her most famous book, Worlds of Pain: Life in the Working Class Family, as a young organizer in Boston almost 40 years ago so I was thrilled to meet her through a mutual friend in SF. Lillian was a woman who led an extraordinary life, and I will leave it to others who knew her longer and better to tell her story.
Lillian was a writer/mentor constantly challenging me to begin each essay with a paragraph telling the reader what I was going to write about. She would admonish me to go deeper and stop with the bland “encomiums”. I will miss her sharp edits of my essays. I hope that I have improved a little bit because of her coaching. She is missed in my life.
The following stories, told to David Bacon, first appear in the San Francisco Bay Guardian Online 10 June 2014
I first applied for a job at the Select agency in 2000. I’d just arrived from Mexico, and a friend explained to me about the agencies, that they’ll quickly send you out to work. They sent me to some other places before ACI. Then I was out of work for awhile, and I went down to the agency to ask them for another job. They said the only job they had for me was in the garbage.
A lot of people had told me that this job was really bad. The woman at the agency told me, go try it for a day, and if you don’t like it you can come back here. So I went. At first they put me on the cardboard line. That didn’t seem so bad because it’s not so dirty. It’s just that the cardboard stacks up so fast. But then they put me on the trash line, which was a lot dirtier. But the thing is, I needed the job. So I worked hard, and the years passed, and I was still there.
All day every day the trucks arrive, they unload and a machine starts pushing the trash onto the line. Down below, we start sorting it. The line brings all the trash past the place we’re standing, and first we separate out the cardboard. The next line takes out the plastic. Then the metal and aluminum gets taken out on another line.
The worst position — the one with the heaviest and dirtiest work — is the trash line. It’s really ugly. All the really terrible things are there. Things like dirty diapers. There are dangers too. Broken glass. Rusty iron.
I got punctured twice by hypodermic needles, and they sent me to the hospital. I was really scared, because you don’t know where the needles have been. You could get HIV. They kept checking my blood at a clinic in Castro Valley for eight months afterwards, for AIDS or hepatitis or other illnesses.
Afterwards Maria at the agency said the company had checked my papers and found out that they weren’t any good. I wouldn’t be able to work anymore if I couldn’t give them new papers within a month. I told her I wanted to see this in writing, and I’d take it to a lawyer before I signed anything. I told her, “With the lousy wages you’re paying us, do you think you’re going to find people with good Social Security numbers?”
After the month was up they didn’t say anything. I knew three people after that who were called into the office after they’d been punctured by a needle, and the company then checked their papers. But they lost their jobs because they didn’t speak up the way I did.
The heaviest job is separating out the metal and taking it to the containers. Once I was sorting on the line and a heavy piece of equipment fell on me. It really hurt me bad, but they didn’t pay me anything for that or send me to the doctor or the hospital. Last November I slipped and fell while I was putting a cylinder on the forklift, and it hit me in the stomach. They didn’t do anything for me that time either. They just sent me home. They always look for a way not to send you to the doctor when something happens.
We don’t have any medical insurance. They tell us that because we work for the agency, we don’t have a right to this benefit or anything else. No vacations. Nothing. They call us temporary workers because we work for the agency, but we’re not really temporary. Many of us have been working at ACI for many years. We are permanent workers there. But ACI doesn’t have any of its own employees on the sorting lines. Down there we all work for the agency.
When I started at ACI they were paying me $8 an hour. They made us work ten or twelve hours every day, standing in one place all that time. If we got sick and asked for time off they’d deny it. Every Saturday was mandatory. If we stopped the line to get a drink of water because it was so hot they’d get angry. If we went to the bathroom, they’d look at their watch to see how much time we were taking.
Then in 2012 they started two shifts and raised the wages to $8.50 for nights and $8.30 for days. I don’t think that’s a fair wage. The job is very heavy and the pay is really low. In one safety meeting I asked them to give us a raise. Then the manager yelled at me and called me a grossera because I said the company was greedy. Afterwards he told me I had to go apologize in the office.
They’d yell at us and tell us to get out more production but they’d never raise the wages. Our hands were hurting from what they already demanded. Once a woman said we’d go on strike and Brenda, the manager, said we’d all be fired if we did. She said, there are four doors and they’re all open for anyone who doesn’t like it here.
Then they decided to motivate us by giving us clocks as presents, but they didn’t work. When I asked why they’d give us broken clocks the company was insulted, but I see better stuff in the trash.
Even though we were asking for raises, we never knew that San Leandro had a living wage law. Of course they never said a thing about it. They would just say, there’s not going to be any raise. We learned about it when we talked with the union organizer, Agustin. We decided to file a court case to force them to raise the wages. We didn’t want to get fired – we wanted them to pay us better.
Then in February they began calling us in to say they’d started checking our papers. They said la migra had checked our papers over a year earlier, but if that was really true, why did they wait until we’d filed the suit? When I asked Monica, a manager, why, she said it was partly because we’d sued the company and partly because the company had been audited by la migra. People have worked here for fourteen or fifteen years, and no one ever said anything to them before. Now that we filed the suit, we’re getting fired.
Since I got fired I’ve been very worried about my situation. I can’t get hired and my sons lost their jobs in Los Angeles and came up to live with me. My PG&E bill is very high, $258. The water bill came — $239. The rent is $1250. We’re all living in one room and renting out the others just to be able to pay it.
I’ve been here fourteen years, and it’s impossible for me to go back to Apatzingan, in Michoacan, where I was born. But I was never sorry I came. I worked hard for three years, and brought my two sons. I may not have a job right now, but I don’t regret anything. I’m going to struggle, and continue moving ahead.
Luis Valladares, his wife and two of their children. (Valladares’ name was changed to protect his identity)
My father is a farmer in Chiapas, and grows corn, mangoes and bananas. Our land wasn’t enough to support our family, though. The little we were able to grow was just to eat. When I went to school I didn’t have any money for lunch. I’d just bring some tortillas with salt, or some beans. We always suffered from poverty. Now we just try to forget.
Poverty closes doors in your life, to what might have happened if you could have kept studying. When I was sixteen I left home and school, and went to Mexico City. Parents never want their children to leave. But we, their kids, don’t belong to them, and we can’t stay. The majority of young people in my town have left, like me, looking for a way to help their families survive.
In Mexico City I found work as a musician, because I play the marimba. On weekends we’d go out to the markets with the marimba and make enough to eat. Then I met my wife who was living in Mexico City too. I was the one who suggested to her that we come here. She had a sister who was already here. We had no money, so her sister gave us a loan to get here. I came first and found a job with this same agency. It wasn’t very stable work, but after five months I put together enough money to bring my wife.
We had a daughter we had to leave behind. She was just three when we left, and she’s sixteen years old now. She still lives in Mexico. This was very hard for us. We send money home for her, but she doesn’t want to come live here and leave her grandmother. We don’t want to force her. And now, of course, it’s much harder to come. It’s not just more expensive, but you’re risking your life. Many people have died trying to cross the border.
When I came I crossed in the desert. I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone. You just make the decision to do this out of need. When we were thinking about coming here, my idea was that we’d stay here for two or three years, save up some money and then go back and build a house. But look. Now we’ve been here 14 years and we can’t go back. My children belong here, and there are a lot of benefits for them here.
I worked at ACI for twelve years. When I started I was a sorter on the line. Then they asked me if I wanted to operate machinery, and I got off the line. I ran the packing machine. I learned to drive the forklifts and the loaders – all the machines the company has.
The packing machine packs all the material that is sorted on the line — paper, cardboard, trash, aluminum, plastic, cans – into a dense package and puts the bands around the package. Each package has to have a certain weight. My job was to watch the line, and calculate the weight of the material going into the machine. If I let too much go in, the machine would seize up. It would be a big headache. It took me time to learn, but at the end it’s like the way you know your car.
Can they take someone who’s been working there a month and have them do this? No one is irreplaceable, but it takes anyone time to learn. It’s a very responsible job. You can’t go to sleep on this machine. If you fall in you’ll wind up in pieces.
If the machine jams, to go inside you have to stop it, take out the key, and pull the electrical switch. At another company a friend of my wife reached in to free a piece of metal that had jammed the machine. The machine was still on and he hadn’t unlocked it. The machine grabbed his foot. He didn’t lose it, but he’s disabled now.
This is a very dangerous place to work. Machines are always passing by. The line is moving and other machines are moving around them.
When I started at ACI they paid me $6.75 an hour. I left in 2009 because they were only paying me $8.50. One Friday, when I saw they were still paying me that same lousy wage, I punched out and told the supervisor that if they wanted me to give me a call. The agency fired me. But the person they hired to replace me wasn’t very good at the job. After a year, the agency called me and I went back at $10 an hour.
I didn’t know about the living wage, but some women at work talked with Agustin from the union and decided to file the suit. Whatever is for the benefit of us, the workers, I support. And I continue to support it. I never imagined they would fire us for this.
I always had the idea that unions had a lot of benefits for workers. They’ve never paid us any of these things. So I thought if we filed a suit, it might lead to having a union, and eventually the company would work with it. Instead Anna and Monica called me to the agency office and said, “We want you to reverify your Social Security number, and bring us proof that you can continue to work here.”
You know, when many people come to this country, we come illegally. I’m not going to lie. When we came we had to find a way to start working. And this is the basic thing you need – a Social Security number. You have to buy a number. If we had good numbers we’d never have the kind of problems we have now. By 2001, when I came, you could not get a real Social Security number, although long ago you could.
Since that attack on the twin towers it’s been really hard. They’ve started checking Social Security numbers a lot more. Jobs also just got harder to find. A lot of companies closed, leaving their workers without jobs. Now we’re in this ocean of unemployed people.
At first I was very angry. I felt helpless. And then quickly I began to worry. I have to pay the rent, the bills. The kids have to eat. When you’re working, you only make enough just to live. Do you think with the wage they’ve been paying that we were able to save any money?
I haven’t been able to find another job. My wife is working, but only part time in a hotel. Lately I’ve been going out to work with some friends. But it’s just two or three days a week. This week I didn’t work a single day. Every penny I make I’m putting away to pay the rent.
I don’t believe that what happened to us at ACI is just. We’re looking for the welfare of our families, trying to get a fair wage so we can live better. People need to understand what happened to us, the abuse and low pay that immigrants have to live with.
Why has Brazil turned against its religion?
“Pelé is a poet when his mouth is shut”
A day before the 2014 World Cup Finals kick-off and São Paulo, the city hosting the first game, is recovering from the longest subway strike in its history. The five-day strike, which was declared “abusive” by the courts, cost the union a bit more than U$200,000.00 a day. The strikers were beaten and gassed in the streets, thirteen were arrested and forty-nine fired.
They are not the only ones taking industrial action. While traditionally militant unions like the teachers were expected to strike, the year was peppered with strikes, from security guards to trash collection to police officers. In Rio de Janeiro, defying both the State and their union, trash collectors stage a massive eight day wildcat strike starting the last day of Carnaval, one of the busiest trash days of the year, winning a 37% wage increase. Even university students had their strikes.
Although the mass protests last year gathered a lot of attention, they faded quickly when the government at first acquiesced to the immediate demand (lower the bus fares), a victory easily lost as a month later all bus fares had gone up again. Much like Occupy in the U.S., the protests were tacitly supported by a great majority of the population, but the actual participants were mainly from the middle-class – in their majority university students.
Brazil winning the Confederations Cup amidst the most violent protests helped calm down the general sense of anger and to cool the protest movement momentarily.
The slogan of the protests also gave a momentary boost to the right-wing in the country. Decrying corruption became a rallying cry of the right against the left-of-center Workers Party government. While their direct influence inside the protests was fairly short-lived, they were successful to bring their particular brand of populism to the mainstream of Brazilian society, with a mix of anti-taxation, anti-government waste and anti-crime (including calls for vigilante justice that led to a woman being lynched to death after being mistaken identified as a child kidnapper.)
Brazil’s endemic corruption, the cost-overrun in stadiums that were either doomed to be abandoned after the cup or, if profitable, immediately privatized (including Maracanã, Brazil’s most famous stadium), while hospitals, roads and other public services continued in their appalling state of disrepair. Popular anger even turned against soccer greatest, Pelé, after he said that Brazilians should wait until after the Cup to protest and that the death of a worker during the construction of Arena Corinthians was “normal.” Ronaldo, another one of Brazil greatest, also felt the popular ire when he said that “You can’t host a World Cup in hospitals” in response to people’s complain that all the spending in the Cup should be used to ameliorate the deplorable conditions of Brazil’s health care system.
One former player, however, emerged as the voice of the disaffected. Romário (The greatest striker I ever seen play), elected in 2010 to the Chamber of Deputies on the Partido Socialista Brasileiro (Brazilian Socialist Party) ticket, has become a vocal critic of the cup’s organization and management. He has gotten in a war of words with Pelé, Ronaldo, FIFA’s Secretary General Jérôme Valcke and FIFA’s President Sepp Blatter (whom Romário called a “thieving, corrupt son of a bitch” on national television). He has tirelessly attacked what he called “the worst World Cup of all times.”
Romário’s criticisms had echo both in FIFA and in those opposing it. FIFA has harshly criticized the organization and the delays of the cup (a worker was quoted in a Monday article saying that only God could get Arena Corinthians finalized before kick-off). At the same time, the criticisms against FIFA stem from the organization’s demands (no taxation in any level, the overturn or adjustment of laws that prohibited the sale of alcohol in stadiums and of for-profit organizations as defined by Brazilian law using volunteer work), and restrictions (many of the traditional items used by fans in Brazilian stadiums will be prohibited, including drums, flares and the really big flags we are very fond of).
The World Cup will happen, and it will be memorable, whether Brazil wins or loses. It has opened the wound of discontent and politicized a whole generation.
Public squares or piazzas play a central role in Italian life. When I arrived in Florence in 1972 I visited some of the small Tuscan towns on the periphery of Firenze and I was a witness to “fare la passegiata”. Literally translated this means “to make a walk”, but in practice is a public ritual in which the townspeople strut their stuff in the public square. Particularly the young engage in ritualized courtship where unattached young men and women parade around arm and arm observing members of the opposite sex. This was not something I had seen on the commons of the cities and towns of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
What happens in piazza is a reflection of the balance of power in Italian society. Poltica di Piazza has its highs and lows. Benito Mussolini was accustomed to addressing huge crowds from a window in Piazza Venezia in Rome during his glory years. Later Il Duce was strung up by his heels in Piazza Loreto in Milano by the partisans at the end of the war of liberation from fascism.
I was mesmerized by a march of 100,000 Italian workers in Rome in 1972 on May Day marching against the war in Vietnam. Workers in their Sunday best, suits and ties, wearing red carnations and carrying flags with the hammer and sickle emblazoned on a red banner filed through Piazza Navona as part of a coordinated nationwide day of protest. I saw in these marchers a physical affirmation of the possibility of radical socialist thinking among working class people. Maybe if history and traditions dictate workers could be won to visions of radical change.
Three personal experiences in “piazza” left strong impressions on a young and ingénue American.
Comizio in Piazza della Signoria – In the spring of 1972 things had intensified in Vietnam both militarily and on the diplomatic front as the talks in Paris to end the war were underway albeit haltingly. In Florence the sizable American ex pat community decided that it wanted to demonstrate publically against its own government’s criminal war. We connected with an array of extra-parliamentary political forces ranging from Grupo Gramsci to Potere Operaio and enlisted their aid to stage a rally in the main square, Piazza della Signoria where the famous replica of the David statue stands in front of Loggia dei Lanzi and the Gli Uffizi. The planning meetings were a spectacle and for us Americans kind of like being a spectator at a tennis match where we would sit and watch the Italians of all different political stripes debate back and forth the merits of including this group or that in the rally.
“I got to spend a weekend in Torino and met all of the ten Trotskyists in Italy”
Each planning meeting would open with a salute to the “Compagni Americani” and then degenerate into a heated debate over their domestic differences. It was agreed that an American should make one of the speeches in English and I was designated to speak. I found a poster on the walls of the Universita di Firenze and copied down the demands from the poster and incorporated them into my written speech. My time came and I spoke in English from the stage and looked at a Piazza full of Italians sitting in the square with the American contingent huddled in the back of the square as giant water tanks were massed with helmeted caranbinieri to deal with crowd control. I delivered my speech and arrived at my dramatic climax proclaiming the demands I had pulled off the agitational poster: No more guns, no more bombs, troops out now! There was dead silence from the crowd, which I of course attributed to language difficulties so I awaited the translator’s work and figured my punch line would yield explosive cheering and applause. Instead there was again dead silence even after my words were delivered in Italian. I was befuddled but as I was climbing down from the stage two Italian men approached me. They rushed to me and exclaimed, “Compagno de la Quarta Internazionale”! They hugged me and invited me to visit the headquarters in Torino later that month. Evidently I had purloined my punch line from a Trotskyist poster in the university and they had identified me as an American Trotskyist. I got to spend a weekend in Torino and met all of the ten Trotskyists in Italy. I also learned that the level of Italian political sophistication was way beyond anything I had heretofore experienced. Finally I learned that in public speaking it helps to know your audience.
Festa dell’ Unita – Unita was the paper of the Italian Communist Party (PCI). It was a daily newspaper replete with sports, culture and coverage of world events and local happenings. Each year in the late spring the Communist Party would hold Feste del’Unita to flex their public muscle in piazza and raise funds. That spring I was invited (my political missteps in La Signoria notwithstanding) along with another American to address a Festa event in Pontasieve, a working class suburb of Firenze. Pontasieve like many of the Tuscan towns was as stronghold of the PCI and like many of the comparable hill towns had a street named Via della Resistenza in honor of the partisan fighters against Mussolini. My American companion was asked to sing and broke out “Where have All the Flowers Gone?” I said a few words about the fight for peace. Then an Italian worker and PCI member addressed the crowd and thanked us for our interventions. He then went on to describe in detail the troop movements of the National Liberation Front (NLF) in Vietnam and the military victories they were winning over the over the Americans and the ARVN. Again I was astounded at the level of training and political sophistication and the radically different world view of these Italian workers.
Chain Gang a Roma – In June of 1972 I traveled to Rome to visit some friends who lived near the University. It was a warm Roman day and I was wearing what is referred to as a guinea tee shirt. On one side of the shirt I was wearing a large Lenin pin and I was carrying a copy of the daily paper of Lotta Continua. I was walking in the section of the University where the Law Faculty was located which I l quickly discovered later was a home base for fascist student groups. Evidently the day I found myself at the law school, a communist in Salerno in Southern Italy had attacked and killed a fascist in a street protest. This was a national event and so the fascist gangs were out for revenge. As I walked the sidewalk I was approached by a group of ten Italian men carry chains. They spotted me and began to shout derisively, “Ciao Compagno.! I hurriedly crossed street into traffic to cut off a part of the gang, but when I got to the other side of the Viale there were still five of them coming at me. One of them must have been designated for this assignment as he started to twirl a heavy motorcycle chain over his head as he moved on me. My adrenaline was rushing so I marched right at the man held up my arm and managed to block the chain and wrest it away from him. I was left there standing holding the chain as the carabinieri approached us. The fascists started to shout that the Communist had assaulted them and that I should be arrested. I will never forget watching a young Italian father with his wife and baby in a carriage rush at the police and start yelling at them to pursue the fascists and arrest them because he had been a witness to everything that had happened. The police backed off as a crowd started to gather, and the family man harangued them. I was allowed to go on my way.
My experience in the public square, my politica di piazza left me admiring the courage and potential sophistication of the working class. I was ready to go home and see whether we could add some Italian sugo to the American political mix.
Next: Living with the Lumpen and making NECCO Wafers
Yesterday’s concussion summit at the White House shows how far the discourse has shifted from 20 years ago when a “bell ringer”, a concussion causing dizziness and disorientation was deemed just a part of the male rite of passage for young players and a job hazard for professionals.
Yesterday’s NYT carries an interesting quote from Steve Tisch, the chairman of the NY football Giants who says, “What I’d like to see in 20 years from now, no NFL players, no rookies playing in 2014, experiencing any head injuries” He added, “We’re taking some of the first steps in that direction.”
The problem that the NFL and all of organized football faces at all levels is that there are no steps except the complete elimination of the helmet that will lead to a drastic reduction on head injuries and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Yes, ironically the protective equipment is the problem. It allows players to put their head in situations where brain matter is traumatized like an egg yolk floating in egg white. It is not so much the dramatic hits that ESPN shows on its highlight reels but the constant concussive activity on every play suffered particularly by interior lineman whose hands, heads and legs are constantly banging hard object on hard object on every play from scrimmage.
A celebratory head butt by a quarterback with one of his own teammates after a dramatic touchdown pass is traumatic! A hand slap to the helmet by a coach to a helmeted player returning to the sideline after an excellent play on the field is concussive activity. In 2000 I predicted that in 10 years football would become a marginal blood sport. Many looked askance at that prediction for America’s most popular and lucrative sport, but as the data accumulates and the parents get preoccupied my prediction increasingly seems less farfetched. Recently the town of Marshall in football mad East Texas outlawed contact football for students through the seventh grade.
Here for a reprise is the Stansbury Forum piece I wrote in the fall of 2012 entitled “For safety sake let’s play rugby”
In September of 1971 I showed up at the pre-designated assembly point at New York’s Kennedy Airport. All the students from the Rutgers Junior year abroad program were there with their Italian instructor who would be our program’s director in Florence. Most of them already knew each other from the campus in New Brunswick New Jersey. They were Italian American working class students from ethnic neighborhoods of New Jersey like Dumont, Patterson, Vineland and Jersey City. I was probably the only student without a vowel at the end of my name. I wasn’t in Italy yet, but I certainly wasn’t on the Harvard campus any more.
We all flew to Roma and then rode a train to Florence where we quartered in a Pensione or boarding house in downtown Firenze. Before we were to enter the University of Florence we had been assigned an Italian boot camp to sharpen our skills so we could handle the lectures and classes in Italian. That meant spending intensive time with my fellow students from New Jersey. One of them, Alfonso Gilliberto, knowing that I had played American football announced to me that he was huge fan of “La Juve” and that he would be watching every game they played on TV while in Italy. “La Juve” is short for Juventus, the soccer team owned by the Agnelli family, the founders of FIAT, the giant Italian automaker in Torino.
Sports was then and remains today a big connector for me with other people, especially other men. Some of my comrades in the labor movement have said that Marx’s famous assertion about religion, that “it is the opium of the people”, could also apply to sports. Every time I find myself in a giant stadium filled with over 50,000 people watching a sporting event I close my eyes and wish I were at a rally for workers rights or raising the minimum wage. It would be a great day to see our labor actions consistently draw the giant crowds that even a dismal franchise like the Oakland Raiders is able to pack into the Coliseum for home games. I can certainly see the dulling effect of spending one’s time rooting for the home team rather than dealing with society’s problems. I can also be critical of the rampant racism and sexism of pro sports and supportive of the courageous athletes who stand up against it. But I have chosen to make sports a way to connect with workers. I have chosen to use it as an idiom for teamwork, unity and preparation. In every organizing job that I have had, I have sought out the social networks created by soccer and softball leagues as a way to reach and proselytize among workers.
One day in the fall of 1971 I was out jogging near the Stadio Communale where the Florence futbol team, AC Firenze plays its home games. I jogged around a field where Italians were practicing a sport I recognized as rugby. I heard a voice shouting at me, “Americano, vuole giocare?” I guess they spotted me as someone who could bring some size to their team so I jumped into their practice and started to learn the basics of rugby. This proved to be a very fortunate encounter because I now had the best formula for language comprehension, total immersion among Italians in a sports venue where there is no option but to master the street idiom and even the Florentine accent.
Frontisterion G.S. was the name of the team. Frontisterion is Greek for “ a school for young males” and as its name suggests was originally a training team for fascist picchiatori, goons who were kept in good shape in between “political” assignments. The other team in Florence was CUS Firenze and their ranks were made up historically of very large marshals and enforcers from the PCI, the Partito Communista Italiano. One of the biggest players on their team was nicknamed “Bambino.”
The coach of Frontisterion was an officer in the national Italian police force, the carabinieri, and he was assigned to the political squad. However over the years the team had evolved away from its fascist origins and now all the players were members of the Italian Communist Party, their sympathizers and some students who were sympathetic to the extra parliamentary left, Lotta Contina and Potere Operaio.
I was sympathetic to the extra parliamentary forces and would often go to their rallies and demonstrations. Inevitably in the back of the plaza I would spot our coach, Sr. Bilota. He would beckon to me and I would go find out from him when the next rugby practice of la squadra was taking place. I am sure some of the Italian compagni concluded that the American “comrade” was really a police agent after seeing him consorting with a Calabrian carabiniere assigned to the red squad
“it has become necessary to partially partake in different forms of capitalist mass culture…”
But the team fully embraced me and because of my training in American football, they decided to employ me as a hit man assigned to brutally tackle an opposing team’s best players. I am not sure if I ever fully understood the rules of rugby, but Coach Bilota would give me an opposing player’s number before every game and suggest that I take care of business. I remember playing a game in Ferrara in Emilia Romagna and after a particularly vicious hit hearing the crowd chanting “Yankee go Home’ and “Fuori il codino”, or “Throw out the player with the pony tail”.
But I got my comeuppance. My rugby career ended prematurely in the early spring of 1972 when we played a game against a team of big brawny dockworkers from the Port of Livorno. I made the mistake of using my head in a collision with a large opponent and wound up lying unconscious under a cold shower in the locker room. I could not remember where I was and my Italian deserted me. That following Monday I went to see a medico in Firenze and he examined me and concluded that I could no longer play rugby because I might endanger my brain if I was involved in another violent collision. That was actually my third concussion as I had suffered two in American football. That Italian doctor is probably responsible for the relatively full retention of my faculties to this day. I imagine that medico with his sharp diagnosis and strict orders could have saved a whole generation of American professional footballers from the plague of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) that they are now facing. Viva Italia!
With my brain still intact and not yet suffering from CTE I prefer to take the 1998 perspective of the Austrian Marxist Eric Wegner on the role of sports in capitalist society: “it has become necessary to partially partake in different forms of capitalist mass culture in order not to become completely isolated and to avoid psychological breakdown. Futbol has historically not only served the distraction from political and social problems, but also the creation of collective pride and class consciousness [….] with a more than average progressive potential.”
Next Installment #6 – Politics in the Piazza
Mentally disturbed, Mujer Soy.
Words already set me up to fail.
Oh, how language and words forevermore, will never keep up.
Una mezcla de mundos, no? Una mezlca de tiempos,
construiendo mi lengua de vivir.
Ahh.. And still, I am not nearly articulate enough; And my mind races…
Infiltrating the language
my soul already carries
With the whispers that my ancestors speak, As they swim within my young blood,
My young, naive, 19 year old
American – Mexican
Chicana – Activist
Educated – Latina
And still, young, naive, 19 year old blood…
The whispers trail upstream Where my mind soars,
As if this human shell
can dare to clip my wings?
And there, My disturbance begins The internal battle of what is true and what is advertised as truth, That there, that is my madness.
My wicked Madness, My womanly Madness, My beautiful Madness.
Nevertheless, it is MY madness.
And they say I am Too Mexican for the Americans, Too American for the Mexicans.
Too bohemian for the hommies,
Too gangster for the hippies.
such as the Hummingbird Goddess of our Aztec Mothers.
Yet Too raw, Too real, Too roughened by life
Such as the piercing wisdom, the warrior spirit of our Native American Fathers.
Treating knowledge as if I am enmeshed Or madly obsessed,
Never missing the kernels of truth, Refusing to lead a misspent youth.
The appetite of curiosity inside, Hunger, that I refuse to let die.
With sight of the light waiting to ignite. And the hands of the mind,
Too politically aware for the youth,
Too grounded for the drugs,
Yet way too high on life & culture to conform, Or maybe too humanly frightened,
To let the fuck go.
Into this White Wonderland, Paradox of a Wonderland.
Such as a passing butterfly would be
As she migrates through the summer breeze, With the rays of the sun,
Shining through the fibers of her wing’s. Beaming through the whiskers of her antennas.
Just as she would be, when the summer warmth Hits
It’s first Winter Flake.
Gazing over the flawless, powdered blanket of a wonderland. And oh, what a wonder it is..
What a wonder it truly is..
Pero asi camino en mi tierra,
Cada paso lo lleno,
De las melodias de mi oscuridad. Del espiritu de mis lagrimas, Con colores de fe,
Con colores de ser humano.
Asi camino en mi tierra…
The unorthodox path that she migrates through Is Simply her bittersweet burden.
Again, this is my Madness.
My wicked Madness.
But Blessed Madness,
And oh so beautiful of a Madness.
hmmm…mentally disturbed; Is simply to be Educated. As A minority of The minority. Womanly Disturbed; Is simply to be Revolutionary Again, as A minority of The Minority.
To struggle with your political depression, academic racism,
and STILL – find presence in the present.
For this wonderland of a land, is seasonal. And carved with each colorful footprint, With each lining of your toe,
As it marks your skin’s signature -
Leading & Leaving.
Like the artist that you are. Painting & Printing.
I continue to draw on this wonderland, of a Wonderful Land.
And in my hand, My Brush. My Paper, My World.
And for my paint, My Love.
Disturbed with a beautifully tortured, humanistic soul; I will continue to paint,
I will continue to migrate,
I will continue to fuel the ember in me.
Mentally Disturbed, Mujer Soy.
And that is the butterfly soaring in me.
Whatever happened to Humanity?
Whatever happened to Humanity?
When Man’s gentle touch,
Would spark the crawling-tingling sensation of a kiss.
As it would be,
The permission already given
By my lip’s caressing embrace.
Could be entrusted
with one simple stare.
For you knew the language in which my kisses would breathe,
And even if you did not know,
such womanly ways,
or womanly language,
spoke the same.
Ahh, but it was your dominance,
that wouldn’t listen.
Whatever happened to humanity?
When it was in fact,
The melody of my voice,
That sang words you respected.
And No meant No,
meant ahh yes, yes, yes.
Because it was the word,
that you respected,
that would transmit a heart’s desire.
And my mouth,
Became more than a physical vessel
Of instant pleasure…
Taming the selfish needs of your primitive human nature.
You feast to surpass satisfaction.
My mouth instead,
Spoke the art of my soul’s language.
Because it was my existence,
you listened for.
Since the waves of my curving body,
created a siloutte of ever-lasting mystery.
In which you awed for,
Patiently waited for my blessing.
Whatever happened to humanity?
When as a human race,
We shared the same land,
the same air,
the same hand,
the same world.
You & I,
shared the same bed.
When as a human race,
To lay with one,
was only to confirm a common truth.
Oh you see,
For when she opens herself
It is as if Spring
Turns to blossom its first flower,
And with your rain,
To bring the first shower.
Just as any force in the Universe
-This shared world did not birth
From only its waters.
The love that was made
When the raindrop reached the land’s seed,
And quenched such a parched thirst.
And Equilibrium is reached.
It was your dominance that did not listen.
By one’s own self-perpetuating lies.
By one’s very own despise.
The Human thus cultivated,
By one’s very own silent cries.
What happened to Humanity?
When in being humanistically human,
Our tolerance becomes perfectly imperfect,
When living by our vile virtue,
We become legally illegal.
Whatever happened to humanity?
When Man’s gentle touch,
would spark the crawling-tingling sensation of a kiss…
As it would be,
The media is all-abuzz with the Sterling Scandal. The 80 year old attorney and real estate baron from Los Angeles, Donald Sterling appears to have been captured on tape telling a girl friend that he doesn’t want her hanging out with black people or bringing them to his basketball team’s games. He is the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers who for first time in their history may make the second round of the NBA playoffs. He has even explicitly said that he doesn’t want the revered Earvin “Magic: Johnson at his arena with her. Nor does he want her posting images with Blacks.
What to do?
The league as Charles Barkley has said is a “Black League”. 80% of the players are African American. Kobe Bryant says he wouldn’t play for an owner with those racist views. Talk is swirling about the Clipper players boycotting their games with the Warriors in the first round of the playoffs. But unfortunately it looks like “cooler” heads are prevailing. The crisis reveals the innate conservatism of the leaders of most of the sports unions who have been seduced by the myth of attorneys as the best choice for union leader. Too often the sports unions and more broadly many of the entertainment unions choose “smart” attorneys to represent them because the producers or the owners have smart attorneys. What they need instead are organizers and union leaders not attorneys. They need to break out of the innate conservatism of legal training and be willing to take the risks necessary to win. The great Marvin Miller who led the Major baseball players out of servitude in the early 70’s was formerly a leader with the United Steelworkers union.
In the case of the Sterling scandal we have the NBA Players Association seeking counsel and guidance from the Mayor of Sacramento and former NBA and Cal guard Kevin Johnson. KJ is a corporate Democrat. But there is another course of action to be taken rather than playing for the good of the league as Doc Rivers and his LA Clippers have decided to do at this juncture.
Here we go with a daisy chain boycott strategy
The Clippers refuse to play in the next game, Game 5 of the playoffs against the Warriors. What does the league do? Default the game to the Warriors? Default the series to the Warriors? Then the Warriors refuse to play in the next series and you get the idea. The other owners would quickly see to it that the daffy and racist Donald is removed by the league as an owner. This is peak season for their TV revenues and earnings. Instead we will see a “thorough” investigation and maybe fines for Sterling, but he will be allowed to continue as an owner.
This is an industry where the players are the game, and this is a moment where the crisis and public opinion would support such a daisy chain direct action approach to removing Sterling. James Earl Jones said it in the great political baseball movie. “Bingo Long and his Traveling All Stars and Motor Kings, “ WEB Dubois says we have to seize the means of production.” This is one of those situations where strategic workers through their actions can force dramatic change.
Time for action, not civility and docility!
In early May, 1971 200,000 veterans, youth and students converged on Washington DC to “Stop the Government and Stop the War” as the call to action said. Peaceful protests of millions had not changed the minds of the rulers about the Vietnam War so many felt more aggressive actions were needed. On Monday morning, May 3 we organized ourselves into affinity groups and sat down at key intersections in Washington to block morning traffic and keep the government from functioning. While at the ground level all we seemed to be doing was pissing off angry commuters it appears in retrospect that the protest had impact. National Airport was closed as an emergency precaution due to the level of traffic disruption. President Nixon called the Army’s 82nd Airborne in with helicopters and 12,000 of us were arrested-the largest mass arrest in US history.
Several of my comrades from Harvard who had been jailed together in DC decided that we should all live together that summer. We recruited other friends: a total of eight in all to rent an old ramshackle house at the end of a cul-de-sac called Fiske Place in the Central Square neighborhood of Cambridge. We had a vague sense that we would function as a community and at least for the summer share resources and chores like cooking and groceries. The “Commune” was named Lewd Moose from the Seuss story, “Thidwick the Big Hearted Moose”. One of my sister communards thought I was big like Thidwick, generally good hearted, but “lewd” in that I failed to wash my dishes and clean up after meals.
Most of us had gainful employment. My two Harvard friends Buck B and Tom F were working on the assembly line at the General Motors plant in Framingham. My roommate Nucci and I worked at the New England Produce Center in Chelsea. We rode our bicycles every night about 5 miles to work the graveyard shift unloading giant trailers loaded with fruits and vegetables. We were members of the Teamsters union, but never saw a union representative. All we saw was a weekly deduction from our paycheck for union dues. We would unload trucks in from North Carolina loaded with cucumbers, watermelons or frozen crates of corn on the cob. It was hard, hot and sweaty work, but a piece of cake for two ex footballers. Watermelons were the best cargo, because every load would have a “damaged” melon that we would be obligated to take home to the commune. In fact we kept the Fiske Place household stocked with produce all summer!
Nucci and I would arrive back at Fiske Place in time to see some of our cohabitants leaving for their day jobs. Weekends were the only time when we would all hang out together. We took trips to Maine, to the beach and to the North End for the feast of Saint Anthony, but most of the memories I have of that summer are working with Nucci in the back of an icy trailer digging out crates of frozen corn.
The FBI seems to have thought the name Lewd Moose Commune implied a deep level of political commitment. They took us seriously enough to reference Lewd Moose in some of our files, but it was more a gathering of folks who shared some vague cultural and political and personal attachments. Some of us however have remained life long friends, and we even convened a couple of Lewd Moose reunions.
The most vivid memory I have of the summer occurred late one morning after I returned from lumping freight. My lifelong friend Jeff was living with us that summer with his girlfriend M.J.. Jeff’s brother was a big shot in the Progressive Labor Party (PLP), which dominated Harvard SDS while I was there. PLP was distinguished by its rigidity and workerism. Cadres always had short hair, got married and lived the idealized and imaginary life of the workers they so desperately were trying to rouse to revolution.
Jeff’s’ connection meant that the Party was interested in recruiting our Commune. That morning in July of 1971 we received a visit from two earnest looking PLPers asking for Jeff. Buck B answered the door and without hesitation led the two cadres upstairs to Jeff and M.J.’s bedroom. He opened the door to find them in bed together. The PLPers recoiled at the door, but Buck jumped into bed and gathered his communards in his arms and exclaimed, “Don’t worry we are one big happy family here.” Needless to say that was the last recruitment visit we received from the PLP that summer!