Tuesday, May 31, 2011
This month's book Detroit, I Do Mind Dying was an exciting read for me. Even though the books we have read are disparate in many ways, as I read this book I felt common threads come through-- namely models of action. When I took this idea to the reading group, many felt more depression than the excitement for the models. Several people felt that they had 'read this before' in the sense that these models had been offered up and implemented but racism in the workplace, and degradation of life still existed everyday. This spurred a conversation about how to live differently and proceed in life without getting too down. I am the eternal optimist in the group. Others like J have a more protect yourself and family before all else attitude, while Raphael voices a 'back to the land' approach. There are several people, Raphael being one of them, who deeply believe in the need to respect life. The way he and others talk about this is on a level that is so deep, it's hard to explain. But a conversation in this reading group gave me some insight, maybe it's a story you have heard before: for one man, before coming to prison life was cheap-- very cheap. He'd seen people get hurt, die, had taken a life himself. He lived in a culture that normalized, and even confirmed this way of living. He's spent the last 18 or more years in Youth Detention then Adult prisons where respect for life has a different dimension. He felt coming to prison was the best thing for him b.c it was here that he turned his attention to life in a new way. In turn, I saw, in new way, his constant concern for human life and environment we live in. This man and others talked very eloquently about the need to not just protect one person, one community but contiguous communities (that would of course link up to be every place, every where). Having said that, it is still surprising to me that these books have been 'depressing' for many people, as the Black Workers Congress had this kind of global rights for communities in mind. Perhaps that it did not come to fruition was the difficult part.
On a final note, many men have said that they did not agree with the politics of books we have read, or sometimes didn't like them, but they have appreciated exposure to these new ideas. They unanimously said they knew they would not otherwise have access to these histories or schools of thought and they were very appreciative for our collective effort to make it happen (and BIG thanks to AMY for her amazing coordination of it all). I think some will write letters to you all individually.
I will be out of town in June so our next meeting will be in July and I know that by then you Chicago folk will be done with your meetings. However I will post here again for the final group, so keep a look out for letters and a final report back.
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
This month's reading group had a lot of questions.
We started out with this one: What is neoliberalism? Thankfully Roberto photocopied several copies of the Wikipedia definition I'd brought in the month before; that got us started. Roberto wondered if there were new IMF/World Bank rules that protected nations from privatization that have been so destructive. I don't know-- does anyone else?
There were also questions like: Is greediness inherent? Can you run a company and have investments without screwing over others? Is there a solution to the "Goliaths" that seem to always trump the "Davids"? Then we came back to familiar places-- Rapheal (who I wrongfully stated as Ralph in my last post) continues to make eloquent statements about a culture that puts human care and relationships first. David thought about how changes have to be made on an individual level to change the culture of greed. J" and George thought that people will always just want to care for "me and mine" before taking the risks demonstrated by those in "Price of Fire". Cragg asked a great questions: "Do average Americans feel exploited?"*** and the group thought, no, they don't and therefore we don't mobilize. But after a lot of discussion on this point, people thought that gentrification is a time/place that people feel exploited and do mobilize. Some men talked about Rogers Park and other parts of town, that they knew before incarceration. They have talked to family and hear that the place "looks different now" that they "wouldn't recognize it". So we thought about parallels of the gas and water wars in Bolivia to space/place wars in Chicago.
***after the group, I thought to bring up the idea of exploitation and the rhetoric of groups like the Tea Party or others who feel exploited by paying taxes. I don't know if this is relevant, but it seems like that is the visible/publicized uprising we have here in this country now.
We came up with some questions for Ben:
1) What is he doing how-- is he still involved with people in Bolivia?
2) On page 125 a woman named Olga complained about the uprisings b.c they hurt her business. How popular was that viewpoint?
3) Now that water and gas are nationalized, what are the differences to people on the ground?
4) Roberto's question (typed and e-mailed to you all).
Finally, we are working on getting a picture made of all of us to send to all of you! Hope it happens! I've been told I can't bring a camera in, however others have been able to, so we will see. I tried to convince the artist in our group Chris Garner (who is pretty quite and therefore I haven't posted much of his voice here) to do a portrait of all of us, but he said he was pretty swamped with other work. I'll check in with him again next month. And and and, there was a suggestion to play "Inside Job" over the institutional channel. I will try to get the prison staff to do it.
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
The Danville Prison Reading Group had a another great, and sometimes frustrating conversation about poor people's movements and the role of governments. People were very interested in Jennifer's comments on EOTO, in particular, "victory is in the trying". As in many of our conversations, the book often spurs questions about, what I will call, the politics of care on the inside. Many men thought about the ways in which people they know in prison do or don't help out each other. Many people get money from family that allows them to buy food from the commissary. This is a pretty big deal b.c the food at Danville is horrible and there is even a lawsuit pending about the food situation (several years ago the state cut a deal with a soy corp. to cut something like 70% of all meat products in prison kitchens with soy). So some of the discussion focused around their own ability to eat and share their 'harvest' with others.
As for the book, there were questions, especially from Xavier and Jay about the politics of the book, which they did not like. Through conversation, Xavier's responses went from angry/reactionary to a more multi-dimensional view. We talked about potential to disentangle content, form and ideology to see the value in the MST's persistence and struggle. More of Xavier's comments are below. But I do want to say that this month and last, he got more than at an earful from me and the other men, concerning his views of 'democracy'. He tried to argue "each man according to his ability" instead of "need". Ralph and Daniel said that they lived in a human community, not a financial one, and they felt obligated to others, in a very deep way; their livelihood is bound to the health of everyone else. Roberto (aka Bottles) thought there is possibility in a capitalist society and it is done through hard work. In the end, Xavier said something like this: I sit in my cell all day and read and think about these things. So I have really thought about this. And I come here and have you all tear it all apart." He said this in a half good/half bad way. Good in that he was interested in other people's views, perhaps bad in that he has thought a lot about this and finds that others are not seeing his point of view. This is all my interpretation so please read his piece and take what you can from it.
Some folks last month said they would write review but didn't get around to it. Daniel promised to write a review for the next book-- he is about to finish up a Spanish 101 class that, he said, is consuming him. For now, here are comments again from Cragg and Xavier. I did my best to copy their texts exactly. The emphasis and bold, spelling and grammar are theirs. Any errors are prob. mine!
"After reading Landless people, I have to say the one thing I found to be the most intriguing was the M.S.T. ideology concerning the education of its' children versus that of the state sponsored model.
I will admit at first I was somewhat biased toward the M.S.T. for this decision. Growing up in America I was taught a universal class system, and education is the primary vehicle that propels an individual forward in this class-based system. The more you have, the better your financial stock is, so to speak.
So I was astonished that this group would deprive their children of this unique opportunity. My view change dramatically once I read about the first school in Anoni, and Professor Nieve explanation for the M.S.T. model, "they taught its' student that reality is something you change."
Any movement for your of people that seeks to change their condition has to start educating its members to those conditions they are seeking to change, and most importantly why they need to change them. Also they must have a goal in mind of what that change should be a reflection of.
That's why they broke away from the states traditional ideologies and customs (which were at the time that of the ruling class-large land owners) and incorporated one of their own. That model was one that: was self-sustaining and efficient to the movement (i.e. the history of the movement, its principles, the comrades who fought heroic for the cause, and he important battles won).
What I found to be exceptional was the gradualism achieved by the children due to their educational model. Like their level of organization skills, management ideals, not to mention how they mirror-imaged the structures of their schools, to that of the camps and settlements they were in. This was done politically as well, i.e. how the children dealt with their principle who made abusive and inflammatory comments about students. Not only did they vote to fire this person, they also voted on their own accord to reinstate the vice principle who was outsted but the fired principle to the position of principle.
This ideology was applied not only to the classrooms, but also in all other aspects of the camps and settlements. I believe that it was the foundation that lead the M.S.T. and kept their group together, united as they battled for survival. Education was also the main architect that guided the M.S.T. in their struggles.
Now looking at the conditions faced by the landless people in South American in parallel to that of the homelessness in North America (primarily the U.S.) I believe the constitution plays a big factor in both countries.
When groups began fighting for Agrarian Reform in South America they were met with fierce resistance format the large land-owners and military dictatorships. Through adversity they persevered and won concessions for Agrarian Reform. In some of their respective countries they had the constitution rewrote to add Agrarian reform for the landless farmer, and in others they fought for legislation for the latter.
In the U.S. the only thing that pales in comparison to this is The Homestead Act. However the majority of that land went to large plantation owners and not the landless farmers who it was designed to help.
Concerning our current homelessness epidemic in the U.S., more is done for advocacy groups and non-profit organizations on behalf of the homeless than is done for the actual homelessness, or to end homelessness altogether. Maybe we need some type of Agrarian Reform here. "
"I admire the initiative and creativity of the MST. I think they did well for themselves in struggling for the land and jobs they believed they deserved. I fully understood their argument concerning the land owned by the large agro-industrial transnational corporations. It seemed ridiculous to have an idle source of labor and unworked land simultaneously. (I must not understand the economics because I can't see how that is profitable).
What I don't like about the MST is their value-system and that they believe that it is the most just and equitable for society.
First of all they advocate a democratic model for society which I pretty much disdain. I don't care if its a capitalist democracy or a communist/collectivist democracy. I think its an injustice anytime an individual's prerogatives are subjugated to a group regardless of whether the group is right or not. Basically I don't think anyone's freedoms should be up for a vote especially an arbitrary vote. I understand why the MST would advocate it though. It is an effective way to create moral authority and superiority where none exists. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with with material gain or owning and renting out land or selling new and complicated agro-techonology. Unless you are a peasant in Brazil in which case this situation is not beneficial to you. So since the majority of people in Brazil are peasants and don't benefit from a relationship with multinational corporations the existence of democratic prejudice would give the peasants moral license to steal what belongs to the corporations.
Thus their statement on page 40 that they are fighting for a just and equitable society is a lie. They are seeking justice and equity for peasants and landless people not society as a whole since there are groups of people who are going to lose out and whose voice the MST is not concerned with hearing. Democracy in this situation, as in all situations, is a convenient implement for the poor to rob the rich.
My second problem with the MST is the values they wish to instill in people, especially their children. They make the statement on page 119 that the government shut down schools in the countryside and encouraged parents to send their kids to schools in the city. But the parents didn't want to do this because they say that the children should learn to be farmers from childhood. Their reason behind this was that peasants will exist in the future.
I would never be so presumptuous as to tell another person how to raise their children but it seems unfair to me to automatically assume that your children what to be farmers.
Also the author states that the MST considered as vices individualism, personalism, self-reliance, adventurism and spontaneousness. I have never heard of anything so totally in favor of turning a human being into a herd animal in my life. Like I said, if the MST wishes to impose these values on those who choose to live in their settlements more power to them. But that these are characteristics be considered harmful to every human being and uprooted from society to me is the equivalent of attempting to reverse 10,000 years of human evolution. It is an attempt to destroy everything noble and beautiful about humanity and I would do everything in my power to see to it that such a movement did not prevail. "
Sunday, February 20, 2011
This month's reading group started out with discussions of Egypt's uprising and comments from last month's group meeting in Chicago (thank you Lew! and whoever sent the poem). We read the comments from Chicago and thought about the ideas of 'limits' to resistance that Poor People's Movements discussed. Daniel thought that there were few limits to success in Egypt, as people really made the ouster of the president happen. Others questioned whether the 'limits' would be visible later, after who takes power and what forms of power are enacted, are shaped. Larger questions of 'democracy' came up with various responses being :
a) we don't really know what it is like to be free b.c we are always already being tracked even when we leisure (i.e. passports) b) should democracy be for everyone? what do we know about the contexts of other places/people and c) the U.S. is no more 'democratic' than it is authoritarian, for instance we do reelect new people every few years but the same interests of power are represented, thus we are no different than Mubarak's Egypt or other single-leader-for-decades nations (or put another way 'the face changes but everything stays the same').
Concerning Each One, Teach One the group discussion often came to 2 reoccurring questions: the role of government and should we 'help' people who 'abuse' the help. For the second question, Mustafa gave an example: Old man John who marches to DC with disabled feet goes and buys alcohol for everyone. I, and several others, felt that D+A issues represented in the book got in the way of the discussion--so Cassanova was not a 'model' homeless person (as in the Rosa Parks of a movement), but this should not deter our duty/desire/need to find homes for everyone who needs them. The D+A issue came up for the one group member who said he was both homeless and addicted at one time. This man felt that Cassanova was just learning the 'laws of consequences', as he did: if you spend your money on drugs and alcohol, you will not be able to pay rent. Still others found Cassanova's personality likable and his determination laudable. Here are thoughts from Cragg, who wrote a response this month:
"Each One Teach One lived up to its name. It was informative, provocative and inflammatory. Also the book helped reshape my perception of the homelessness plight in America and that of poverty as well.
I'll admit, like many of the college students that Cassonova spoke with during his speaking engagements (and the general public alike) I had a bias towards the institutions that we have in place to stand as a vanguard for the people that are homeless. I thought they did just that.
Never being homeless myself, or visiting a shelter, I was always under the assumption that it was a place that served as a temporary residence, as stepping stone to help people find low income houses, employment and overall, help them reintegrate back among the mainstream of society. Now I see that's not the case. For many of them, the bottom line is profit, filing the bed space, sometimes by any means to secure financial subsidiaries from the government. What angered me was that they promoted alcoholism (even distributed it), supported drug usage (by not banning it) and aided to a violent environment by allowing weapons on the premises. What I found sad was that some of the places Casanova described was worse than prison, or similar to them in a sense and that's unacceptable. The book also shed light on a statistical abnormality that's found in the plight of the homeless. That is, not all of the people that are homeless are unemployed. Many of them work part time, some even full time, but the pay is so low, sometimes below absolute poverty, that many find themselves homeless. What's even more staggering is that the children actually are the most disenfranchised by this abnormality.
One thing that stood out the most to me from reading this book was the distinction that Casanova made between advocate and activism. I always believed that they were one in the same. Then I defined them, advocate--one who pleads one's cause, then activist--a doctrine or practice that emphasizes vigorously for political ends, or better--to act.
I like that he found his calling and strived for the uplifting of a class of people that we ordinarily overlook or shun. I will leave with this aphorism "We are all only one check away from being homeless".
Comments from Allan Gomez of the Mess Hall reading group:
Thursday, January 20, 2011
The first reading group of 2011 was held in both locations on Jan. 20. At the prison, we had a very lively discussion. We asked, is capitalism worth keeping, with all it's flaws. The group was divided. Several men said emphatically yes. Others imagined a hybrid system that could account for people who can't get work, have disabilities, records, or other impediments to self sufficiency. The debate moved from debates of whether or not theAmerican dream was alive just needing to be embraced to who makes decision of whether one is 'worthy' of aid or how do
we as a society measure someone elses' need?
Above and below are 2 responses to the book from Roberto and Ruben. To get a closer look at these responses, e-mail Amy Partridge or I. For now I won't put the whole file on the blog b.c of size.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
Recently we read "Regulating the Poor: The Functions of Public Welfare" by Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward. This book provoked a lot of conversation and debate.. perhaps our best yet. Questions of who and when people or groups (organizations, corporations) should get assistance was vigorously debated by the group. Some men thought that the risk of abuse of the public service was too rampant and had to be curtailed. Others argued that even though the potential for abuse was there, safety nets had to be in place to help those who needed it. Sean, one reading group participant thought that the book was really well argued and gave a great history on public assistance. This book, he stated, was his favorite thus far.
Next, we'll read Michelle Alexander's "The New Jim Crow", which has been requested by a few men in the group.