Photo / graphic by Roman.

The easy observation is that it is too late: the cultures so intermingled and context so radically changed as to make any nostalgia an act of invention and artifice. This is a hard truth that often evokes a hard denial. It is not the whole truth. For performance evokes persona. The clown dons a personality as the make-up is applied and the spirit of something enters those who are masked as gods. When viewed from that dimension, has any thing of any consequence changed?

“Toyota Man”

When I was watching this short video from Neon Indian, I realized that I had seen it before. And this time I thought it was worth sharing. There’s no memory of why I had decided not to post it before. Maybe because it’s a music video.

In any case, what’s not to like? See if you can spot all the pop references. I only know a few of them. Many others are sufficiently caricatured that they are obviously references but the originals are beyond my ken.

It Ain’t Over ‘Til the Fat Dude Sings

a rant by Bob Roman

No really, as of the January 26 – 27 weekend, the Federal Government was not entirely up and running. With President Trump’s promise to sign the legislation, Congress passed HJ 28 that pertains to spending for all the outstanding appropriations except the Department of Homeland Security. Trump has signed it, extending funding for those parts of the Federal government for several weeks. Money for the Department of Homeland Security is covered by HJ 31. Both the House and the Senate passed this bill, but the Senate had amendments that need to be reconciled with the House. These appear to be mostly proof reading changes, but it still requires legislative action by both chambers.

Beyond that, these bills place the situation approximately where it was right before Trump did his informal veto. The continuing resolutions were the final items on the 115th Congress’ agenda. When Trump humphed, Congress swore and went home. Trump must have felt this would inevitably put the blame on Congress. That it ended up splattering mostly upon him must have been an unpleasant surprise. Will he try it again?

There are some major exceptions to this status quo ante, however. One is the damage done to Trump’s political base of support, both within and outside the government. This has been much commented on, particularly with regard to the Fox News commentariat, blogs, and social media. But while Trump has been seen to jump in response to these folks, it’s also true that the House Freedom Caucus had lit their farts in support of a veto. Now that Trump has “caved”, it will be harder for Trump to assume their support. How badly does he want or need it? Depending on the answer, it may mean we will be facing a second shutdown when the clock expires on these two continuing resolutions.

Or it may mean that the House Democratic caucus gives Trump a piece of his wall. Because that is the other major change: the House of Representatives has changed from being run by the Republican caucus to being run by the Democratic caucus. What will the House Democratic Caucus be willing to give in exchange for keeping this assortment of government departments and agencies open, and how will that affect internal Democratic politics? And what shall we say of the Senate Republican caucus?

And then there is the prospect of a State of Emergency. Sounds pretty ominous, doesn’t it? With Trump in charge, you needn’t be an American lefty to start measuring the distance to the Canadian or Mexican borders. But in fact, a State of Emergency would not be anything new. These have been extensively if incompetently legislated. We’re actually living under several of them right now. This does not mean you should be any less concerned than you would be if asked to venture into a field of land mines. Congress today is potentially about as meaningful as the Roman Senate was under Caligula, and Trump is only the immediate hazard. My fellow Americans, Congressional incompetence has all our asses in the wind. If you are at all curious, I’d recommend this recent article by Elizabeth Goitein.

Keep in mind that walls and border police are in fact more effective at keeping people in than fencing people out. Gulag America?

Hail to the CreepAnd about round two? Oh, right. I’m supposed to be answering these questions, pretending to a punditry I do not possess; I’m not quite the walking definition of unhip, but the circles I inhabit are a long way from within the Beltway. Given that half to two-thirds of politics is gossip, I’m at a severe disadvantage. But the metric I’m watching (lacking, as I am, in gossip) is Trump’s approval polling, though not so much his disapproval numbers. Just what one is to make of them is hard to say as I believe it will depend on context. For example, is Trump cornered? What is the impact on Republican radicals?

An obvious strategy for Democrats is finding a way of splitting the Republican coalition. It seems unlikely that this would be fruitful in the space of a few weeks, but however long it would take, the resulting policies would not likely be thrilling for us lefties.

Yet these are just the latest battles in what will be a decades long conflict, the latest manifestation of a disease afflicting the American body politic like a recurring infestation of malaria. Trump is correct in identifying immigration as a major issue right now, though he sees it as means of mobilizing fear, bigotry, alienation and anger to his own ends. Indeed, that’s why he wants a wall rather than pursuing other policies. But I see migration and refugees as possibly a defining characteristic of much of the 21st Century. Granted, the 20th Century saw its share, but that illustrates how extreme I suspect the not-too-distant future will be. Even with Trump gone, this will remain a major issue.

If you judge that this is a thoroughly pessimistic vision, you’re quite right. People leave home for a foreign country mostly because their situation at home has become untenable in one way or another. And that’s pretty much what I see happening over large portions of the world. Historically, humans have attempted to deal with ecological collapse and climate change through military means. This is how I perceive much of what is happening along the southern and eastern Mediterranean coast, but it is happening elsewhere, too, closer to the U.S.A., with all the consequent people looking for new homes.

Would you stay, suffer and die if migrating were even a long-shot option?

Despite being a charter member of the Democratic Socialists of America, I don’t believe in uncontrolled borders for people, never mind goods and money. Regarding people, the most diplomatic way of putting it is that there is something about migrants that does not bring out the best in humans, most especially among the receiving population. The migration doesn’t have to be across international borders. Just think of the California of The Grapes of Wrath or the less than welcoming streets of northern cities during the Great Migration or the urban “hillbilly” slums that provided refuge for the Appalachian dispossessed. Nor are the newbies necessarily any more saintly; mostly they’re simply at a disadvantage.

Having said that, keep in mind that people are going to do what people want to do or feel they need to do. After a while, setting up a system of rewards and sanctions whose consequence make whatever it is (in this case, immigration) impossible, it becomes an exercise in malice and stupidity: exactly what we have with our current laws regarding immigration and asylum.

I don’t have much optimism that the left, including DSA, will come up with a workable solution to this issue. Calling for the abolition of ICE, for example, is a fine way of throwing rocks through the windows of the Establishment, but anyone governing will end up reinventing that institution. (Which could still be a step forward.) At best, along with the labor movement, I might hope for some mitigation of what big business clearly would love: some system of indentured servitude, something the current system of H-2B visas closely resembles.

If I could speculate on what a workable system might look like: allow people to come to the States under normal tourist or student visas. If they intend to look for work or if they are offered work, charge them (and perhaps their employer) a fee for a taxpayer ID number that would be partially refunded if they choose to leave. It could be paid in installments in lieu of Social Security deductions, for example. The cost for migrants would still be far less than what a smuggler would charge, these days at least. Depending on your level of bigotry, one might propose further punitive details involving criminality much like the last so-called “compromise” regarding immigration did, but I leave these as an exercise for your sick imagination.

Incidentally, don’t assume that U.S. citizens are automatically welcome and accepted elsewhere. It hasn’t become an issue, but various countries (Mexico and Costa Rica for examples) have populations of U.S. citizens resident with dubious documentation: retirees, mostly, but one could easily imagine circumstances where we come to work. I recall that some of the proposed “free trade” agreements in the past had provisions for numbers of foreign workers to come here. There really should be reciprocity in these agreements.

Refugees are a special category of migrant. Keep in mind that some of them will be U.S. citizens: think Louisiana, Puerto Rico and California as current examples. There will be more in the future. It’s time we start dealing with this in a more systematic way, and we may as well include provisions for foreigners as well.

One last word, this about conservatives: One ongoing point of conservative agitation is the charge that Democrats and the left (oddly synonymous among right-wingers) favor open borders because the migrants (Mexican and Central Americans in particular) will therefore end up voting for Democrats. In its more delusional manifestations, said migrants end up voting for Democrats long before they even become citizens.

Conservatives have some reason to worry about this, though realistically it’s mostly because of their own behavior. Such an unwelcoming political brand! But in the past, conservatives were steadfastly in favor of admitting migrants from communist countries: Vietnamese, Russian Jews, Cubans. And those groups did tend to vote Republican once they became citizens. Providing them a new home was the right thing to do even if it was also blatantly hypocritical. For example: the Haitian human rights record was far more sordid than Cuba and the Haitian economy every bit as wretched or worse than Cuba. Upon setting foot in America, Cubans could stay but Haitians go home! Since immigration policy has been so plainly political for conservatives, it’s easy to see why they’d be prone to panic and to assume hostile motivation. Asking conservatives to get over it is probably futile, but…

Get over it.

End the Shut-Down

Unions representing employees of the Federal government rallied at the Federal Plaza, Dearborn & Adams in downtown Chicago at Noon on Thursday. This was part of a nation-wide series of demonstrations protesting the budget stalemate that has shut down portions of the government, leaving some workers at home and others still at work but all without pay.

The event was probably better characterized as a press conference on steroids. The crowd was not large, considering the number of workers affected in the Chicago metropolitan area, considering, indeed, the number of Federal employees based in the immediate vicinity of the demonstration: say about 150 attendees, give or take a few dozen. As a press conference, it was highly successful with a large turnout from TV, radio and print. Better still was the opportunity for journalists to interview affected workers as nothing makes a story like putting an individual face on it.

There will be a protest at Noon in Federal Plaza (Dearborn & Adams) every Thursday in Chicago as long as the shut-down continues.

A sampling of some of the signs at the demonstration, shortly before the event. Photo by Roman.
Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., who also spoke. Photo by Roman.
Photo by Roman.
Susan Hurley of Chicago Jobs with Justice. Photo by Roman.
It was good to see Jorge Mujica: well met! Photo by Roman.
Charles Paidock, representing the Machinists’ Federal employees. Photo by Roman.
It could happen. Photo by Roman
I seriously love the hat. Photo by Roman.


What I Saw of the Family Separation Protest in Chicago

The demonstration in Chicago was part of a nation-wide protest of Trump’s immigration policies, most particularly the practice of family separation. Several dozen demonstrations took place around the country. The Chicago demonstration was large. Organizers put crowd estimates at 60,000. Police were not far behind with 50,000. I’m inclined to think those numbers are reasonable and conservative participation estimates but the crowd, at any one time, was likely rather less than that. No matter the number, it was big.

There were a very few counter demonstrators, probably no more than a half dozen anti-abortion advocates. And what did that have to do with an immigrants’ rights protest? They were clearly provocateurs as this particular demonstration would not at all been unanimously pro-choice, but they were treating it as enemy territory. Mostly, they were ignored, but eventually some of the more militant of our side surrounded them and began chanting, “Bullshit! Bullshit!” etc. I expect the counter demonstrators had been hoping for martyrdom of some kind but it was all non-violent if heated.

After a rally in Daley Plaza where almost none of the speakers were intelligible (plaza acoustics are treacherous), the rally formed up for a march down Clark Street and back up Dearborn Street. The head of the march made it back to the Plaza before the tail had left.

It was hot. The CTA had several cooling buses parked at the bus kiosk for the rally. The Chicago Fire Department had a fan driven mist machine stationed on Clark Street for the march. A portion of the crowd was clearly hydrophobic despite the heat.

Here are a selection of the photos, in reverse order, that I took before the camera’s battery gave out. Click a photo to enlarge it.

It Was May Day and I Couldn’t Stop Smiling

Originally published in New Ground 105.6, email edition 05.08.2006. This was Chicago’s largest May Day demonstration ever, I think, about a half million participants is a reasonably conservative estimate, though the crowd at any one time may have been, at its largest, somewhat less. I didn’t march but was a spectator along the route toward the end, in Grant Park. It really was necessary to shelter behind a lamppost to avoid being swept away.

by Bob Roman

It was May Day, 2006, and I couldn’t stop smiling. Nearly a half million people were in the streets of Chicago. They were demonstrating for immigrant rights and against recent conservative attempts to demonize migrants, true; and unlike many left demonstrations, it was to the point and on message, mostly. But it was also a May Day demonstration and there were an amazing number of red flags.

There were a not a few t-shirts with that classic image of Che Guevara. Sometimes it resulted in interesting juxtapositions, such as a fellow with a Guevara t-shirt carrying a cross emblazoned the name of a saint. It was a sight worthy of a smile though not so incongruous. Che had said that history would absolve him. But history did to him what it did to the saint. It dissolved the fleshy humanity of him, leaving fossilized bone representing not a life but a morality play. A good demonstration does this too.

The red flags were very much an American tradition though in a special way. May Day had its origins in the States, specifically here in Chicago as a result of movement for an eight hour work day, the 1886 Haymarket police riot and the consequent repression. Even though we’ve mostly forgotten this, and May Day celebrations even in Chicago have become a feeble, sentimental imitation of the remembrances elsewhere, this is obvious enough for even some of the mainstream press to have recognized.

But it’s very much an American tradition because migrants often come from countries where more or less ideological labor / social democratic / democratic socialist / communist parties are very much a part of mainstream politics. This was true a hundred years ago; it’s true today. The major difference is that a hundred years ago, migrants may have been more interested in politics in the “old country” but they were largely organized in affiliates to U.S. parties, the foreign language sections of the Socialist Party of America as an example. Today, it’s not uncommon for parties in the “old country” to have chapters here in the States. While it varies from country to country and party to party, many of these chapters are also very much concerned with American politics as it affects their constituencies. Campaign finance laws (here and in the “old country”) plus calculated discretion restrict how the chapters as chapters might participate in organizing demonstrations like the recent immigration rights marches and in electoral politics, but a great deal can be accomplished through informal networks, especially if integrated into grassroots civic organizations.

That “socialism is a foreign import” is an old, old half truth. The untrue half neglects a tradition of home grown radicalism that manifested itself as the agrarian socialism of the wheat growing portions of the Great Plains or as the urban “sewer” socialism of small industrial cities, such as Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Bridgeport, Connecticut, or Reading, Pennsylvania (to name a few).

So what can the left expect of this new movement? I think there are reasons to be optimistic, even though the labor movement remains terribly weak and the ideological left here in the States resembles shattered safety glass. Others are much better at political calculation and prognostication than I, so I’ll offer only two observations.

First, there will be a terrible (but typical) belief on the American left that if we can only just get our message across to this constituency, we’ll gain their support. But this movement belongs to the immigrant communities themselves, and to those organizations that are and have been in a position to make a material contribution to improving the lives of the members of those communities. Talking the talk or even being there will not be enough. (Though some marxist ­ leninist sects would consider dozens of new recruits a victory.)

Second, if the mobilization of the immigrant communities, the labor movement, and the left is an outcome, expect a counter-mobilization on the right, especially as migrants are such wonderful and universal fear objects. This counter-mobilization will be hobbled by the need of the business class for low-wage, docile employees.

An example of this split is Beardstown, Illinois. Some miles west, southwest of Springfield, it is the location of a Cargill plant where the workforce is about a third Hispanic. Cargill closed its plants on May 1, but the Mayor of Beardstown, Bob Walters, was singularly ungracious and unhappy. He sent an email to Congressman Ray LaHood “informing him that the packing house is going to close, and that tells me how many ‘illegals’ are working there. Why in the hell isn’t somebody at INS (the Immigration and Naturalization Service) checking it out?” (As quoted in the Peoria Journal-Star)

The flip side is that the immigrant community is only as strong as its members who are voting citizens. This was powerfully expressed in California, but migrants have been coming to California for many years. Who knows how this will play out in downstate Illinois, or Georgia, or nationally?

Finally, the demonstration in Chicago was probably the most photographed and recorded event in the city in recent history. It may be redundant, therefore, but below is my contribution to the record.

May Day 2006
The march ended with a rally in Grant Park. Long before the march arrived, a steady trickle of people began arriving, sometimes alone, sometimes in little groups. It was like watching a dry wash begin to fill. Photo by Roman
May Day 2006
ACORN was the avant-guard of the march, coming through separately on the sidewalks about a half hour ahead of the main march. This gave ACORN members premium seating at the Grant Park rally. Come to think of it, it also provided the foreground for camera shots of the rally. Photo by Roman
May Day 2006
What got my attention initially was the stream of white balloons in the ACORN contingent. But the couple in the foreground are actually more interesting… Photo by Roman
May Day 2006
…because it makes an almost perfect propaganda pose from 1930s Stalinism: the young couple, gazing off and up into the future, serious and determined with a red banner in the background. Except for the distinctly American twist to it. Instead of some tool or book, the man is holding a soft drink. Photo by Roman
May Day 2006
And what were the couple looking at? This! The gentleman from the Grassroots Collaborative (housed with the American Friends Service Committee, but ACORN is one of several participating organizations) had an incredible set of lungs and a great deal of energy. Photo by Roman
May Day 2006
The main march finally crosses Michigan Avenue. Photo by Roman.
May Day 2006
Another shot of the main march arriving at Michigan Avenue. Photo by Roman
May Day 2006
A shot of the front of the march from the rear as they marched over the METRA / South Shore tracks, just east of Michigan Avenue. Photo by Roman.
May Day 2006
Imagine this passing before you for 3 to 4 hours! Luckily the street light poles provided breaks where spectators could shelter. Photo by Roman.
May Day 2006
Occasionally the march would stop for a “photo op”. Typically, the front ranks would squat for a minute or so while a myriad of cameras would get a shot of the ranks receding into the distance. Then they would leap up with a yell and resume the march. Sometimes they would leap up and leap forward until they caught up with rest of the march, laughing and yelling all the while. Symbolic, I suppose, of breaking free. Photo by Roman
May Day 2006
Several unions had significant delegations in the march, such as UNITE HERE. Photo by Roman

Immigrant Freedom Ride

This was originally published in New Ground 91, November — December, 2003.

by Bob Roman

The Chicago leg of the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride hit the road from a rally held at Chicago’s downtown Federal Plaza on Saturday, September 27. Organizers claimed some 3,000 people attended on a beautiful fall afternoon. My guess would have been about half as many, but even the official number was rather less than the organizers’ original ambitions and less than some other rallies held in support of immigrant rights in Chicago in recent years. This diminished turn out seemed fairly consistent across the country though the final rally in New York drew somewhere around 100,000.

counter demonstrators
Counter demonstrators at Immigrant Freedom Ride rally. Photo by Roman.
2003 Immigrant Freedom Ride Rally
Backup crowd control. Photo by Roman.

There were even some counter demonstrators at the Chicago rally, though they were few indeed and limited to the ideological fringe: some unknown variety of Nazi and Matt Hale’s “World Church of the Creator”. Police insisted they remain across Dearborn and for good reason. Some of the Freedom Ride Rally’s ideological fringe definitely wanted to get it on.

On October 1, in addition to passing a resolution disapproving of the USA PATRIOT Act, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution supporting the Freedom Ride.

I’m not sure what to make of the turnouts because in many other ways the Freedom Ride was a success. In particular, the press coverage was large and sympathetic, a mother load of human interest stories about the immigrant experience today and yesterday, and memories of the Civil Rights movement.

This sympathetic media atmosphere makes it more difficult for rightwing demagogues to set up immigrants as hate objects. Though they keep trying. “Freeloading Free Riders”, “The Attack of the Open Border Elites”, “When Did America Lose the Rule of Law” were some of the typical web headlines on right wing “news” sites.

2003 Immigrant Freedom Ride Rally
The 2003 Immigrant Freedom Ride Rally with Alexander Calder’s “Flamingo” stabile as a backdrop. Photo by Roman

Some of this vitriol was in connection with one of the victories associated with the Freedom Rides: the Senate Judiciary Committee passed the “DREAM Act” to the full Senate for a vote. This legislation would allow undocumented children who entered the U.S. before age 16, have lived here for at least five years, have graduated from high school and don’t have a criminal record, to get conditional residency for six years. They have that time to attend colleges at the in-state rate and they become eligible for citizenship if they spend at least two years in college or in the U.S. military.

The bill has broad, bi-partisan support in the Senate with some three dozen and counting cosponsors. It stands a reasonably good chance of passing. The companion bill in the House, “The Student Adjustment Act”, remains bottled up in committee. Likewise, the two more comprehensive immigration reform bills mentioned in New Ground 90, HR 440 and HR 152, have not stirred in any way.

Chicago DSA had supported the Ride and the Rally by doing a 4,300 piece post card mailing urging members and friends to attend. Photos of the Freedom Ride Rally are posted on our web site.

2003 Immigrant Freedom Ride Rally
Headdress at 2003 Immigrant Freedom Ride Rally. Photo by Roman


Get on the Freedom Bus!

Originally published in New Ground 90, September — October, 2003.

by Bob Roman

At the very beginning of the 1960s, the legal foundations of segregation and Jim Crow were crumbling. But if segregation and discrimination were less and less the law of the land, it was still very much the practice of the land. The progress of the Civil Rights movement was, for many, just about as rewarding as waiting for water to boil. Despite two Supreme Court decisions outlawing segregation in interstate bus service (the Irene Morgan decision in 1946 and the Boynton decision in 1960), it was still not possible for African – Americans to receive equal services. In the South, regardless of the law, they still had to ride in the back of the bus.

To turn up the heat, activists around the Congress of Racial Equality planned and executed a series of “Freedom Bus Rides” through the South that did nothing more than claim the legal rights then recognized by the Supreme Court. The trail of burning buses and broken bodies may not have seemed encouraging at the time, but it was really old Jim Crow that took a beating. The Freedom Rides have become a part of history and legend, a symbol of speaking truth to fear, hatred and impunity.

The New Freedom Riders
Now a new generation of freedom activists is putting this legend in the service of a fight for freedom and equality for immigrants to the United States. With the campaign to make English the “official” and only language, with the exclusion of immigrants from benefits when welfare was “reformed”, with various and sundry gratuitous acts of hatred and robbery, with an immigration bureaucracy far more interested in exploiting the numerous “gotchas” in the law than in service, with the paranoia generated by a politically motivated “war” on “terrorism”, it is this constituency that has been branded “other”, denied access to government services, imprisoned, exploited and expelled.

Organized by a coalition of community, religious, activist and political groups, but most especially by the union movement, the Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride envisions several bus caravans from all across the country converging on Washington, DC, for a day of lobbying then proceeding on to New York for a monster rally. Along the way, each caravan will stop for rallies, photo ops and additional participants.

Many of these rallies will not be small. The Chicago leg of the Freedom Ride will depart the Federal Plaza at Dearborn and Adams on Saturday, 10 AM, September 27. The kick off rally is expected to draw more than ten thousand. The final rally in New York is expected to draw hundreds of thousands.

Power Concedes Nothing Without…
Each member of the coalition brings its own agenda to the table, but as a coalition, the Freedom Ride is organized around essentially three basic demands. The first is for a new amnesty program for undocumented, tax paying workers in the U.S. This has become a particularly urgent issue in the context of the current drive for alien registration. This demand also includes an “improved road” to citizenship. The second is for better family unification laws. The current laws are so restrictive that there is an outrageous backlog of family members waiting to come to the States. The third is for improving the rights of undocumented workers to organize. In particular, the coalition has in mind the recent Supreme Court extraordinary “Hoffman” decision that denied back pay to a worker illegally fired for organizing activities protected under the National Labor Relations Act simply because of his immigration status. The AFL-CIO has filed a complaint with the International Labor Organization over this decision as the Supreme Court appears to have violated a number of agreements to which the U.S. is a party.

While the Coalition has not promoted any specific legislation, Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez has introduced HR440, the “U.S.A. Family Act”, that addresses many of the Coalition’s concerns. At present, the bill has 17 additional cosponsors, including Illinois Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky. The U.S.A. Family Act is much more than just an amnesty program; it seeks to remove many of the “Catch 22” provisions of the current law that make applying for work permits, residency and citizenship a risky business for aliens. As a back up, perhaps, some of the cosponsors, including Gutierrez, have introduced a bill that is more simply an amnesty, HR 152, “The Immigration Adjustment Act of 2003”.

Neither bill addresses labor’s concern over the Hoffman decision. Both bills exploit the conservative fetish of judging people as “deserving” and “not deserving”; HR440, for example, requires applicants to demonstrate they have not “received public cash assistance”. Neither bill addresses the longer-term questions of immigration policy that make such amnesties desirable.