Oct 052012
 

Satisfied with promises the City of Detroit made to Detroit sewage-plant employees, the union that represents them ended its five-day strike against the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department, AFSCME Local 207 said in a news release.

“The courts, the mayor, the Water Board, working in concert, could not defeat this strike,” Local 207 president John Riehl said in the statement.

The tentative agreement with city officials included reinstatement of the 34 fired workers who walked out on Sept. 30, a promise by city officials to discuss the issues the workers struck over, and a promise to reopen their labor contract for renegotiation if the union wins a federal appeal, according to Riehl.

The appeal is on the Oct. 9 docket in the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati. The appeal has three different case numbers that are listed for the same hearing.

The union is appealing rulings in September and November 2011 by federal district court Judge Sean Cox, who also ordered the Oct. 1 temporary injunction against the Local 207 strikers. Cox’s 2011 rulings ordered the City of Detroit to meet 1977 EPA findings under the federal Clean Water Act. Also in November 2011, Cox denied the request of Michigan Council 25 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees to intervene in the case. Local 207 is part of AFSCME Council 25.

Cox denied the city’s request to dismiss. But he also ruled that in reorganizing to comply with the EPA findings, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department and the city don’t have to observe city ordinances, the city charter, and union and labor contracts.

Shanta Driver, an attorney representing Local 207 in the negotiations with the city, said in the statement that the tentative agreement shows that the people of Detroit can fight off privatization or a takeover by the suburbs surrounding Detroit. The Detroit water department provides water and sewer service to cities and towns within an approximately 1,000-square mile area.

Riehl ‘s statement said Local 207 will continue to negotiate with the city and members will vote on any final contract.

 

Oct 032012
 

With everything on the line, Detroit wastewater workers stayed out on the picket line despite a temporary federal-court injunction ordering them to go back to work. In Michigan, it is illegal for public employees to strike.  The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department workers are among approximately 950 represented by Local 207 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. About 450 of them work at the sewage treatment plant.

The Detroit water department recently announced it plans to cut 81% percent of workers’ jobs over five years, leaving on the payroll only about 400 of its nearly 2,000 employees. It also said it plans to shave 10% off all workers’ paychecks. The wastewater plant serves 35% of Michigan’s population in Detroit and 76 other towns and cities over about 950 square miles. The city provides fresh water to about 40% of Michigan’s population in Detroit and nearly 130 other towns over nearly 1,000 square miles.

AFSCME Local 207 is part of Michigan AFSCME Council 25, which on Tuesday called for the strikers to go back to work. Still, a headline on the council’s online letter to the strikers described the strike as a “walkout caused by frustrations felt by good people doing dirty, dangerous work without the most basic tools.”

 

On the third day of the strike, Detroit police parked a bus at an intersection a quarter mile from the strikers’ picket line. According to Local 207, the bus disgorged dozens of tactical police.  It was one tactic the city used to get many strikers  and other union members to cross the picket line. Photo by Terry Hall

 

 

John Riehl, president of AFSCME Local 207, holds up the press release announcing suspension without pay of the 34 strikers who first walked out on Sept. 30. The DWSD chief sent each a certified letter that also said they’ll be fired  in a week on Wednesday, Oct. 10. The suspended workers have until Friday to appeal their firings. Photo by Terry Hall

 

 

AFSCME Local 207 members inform truck drivers that the strike is still on. Another tactic the city is using to break the strike is a promise that no strikers who cross the line will be disciplined, and that those who didn’t want to cross could use sick days unless they stood in the picket line. Photo by Terry Hall

 

 

The Detroit Wastewater Plant is the nation’s largest single-site sewage treatment facility. It opened in 1940.  Photo by Terry Hall

 

Aug 252012
 

There are two reasons Occupy the Midwest chose to hold its second conference in Detroit: despair, and hope.

Detroit is one of the cities hit hardest by the ongoing Great Recession, triggered by the 2007 collapse and bailout of the banking system. Mortgage foreclosures and evictions are still adding empty houses to an alarming stock of abandoned buildings and crumbling neighborhoods.

From Tanzania to This Hood of Ours. Cocoloco Photography

But activist Detroit is also an internationally watched urban laboratory. Its self-sustaining, DIY projects, such as growing fresh food on vacant lots and rebuilding dilapidated houses, work largely outside of government, corporations, and the consumer-based economy. 

“We want to show that even in the worst conditions, we can make positive change,” in part by equipping people with the right skills and knowledge, said Occupy Chicago’s David Olorosso, one of the organizers of Occupy the Midwest.  The conference geared up on Thursday and runs through Sunday, Aug. 26. 

Made up of Occupy groups from a growing list of states including Iowa, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Indiana, Occupy the Midwest started as an idea within Occupy St. Louis,  which hosted the first conference last spring. 

This weekend’s conference is really two running simultaneously, sometimes intersecting. The sessions at Occupy Detroit hub 5900 Activist Center center around government and political strategy. The schedule at the This Hood of Ours encampment is more hands-on, focused on providing basic needs, protecting the environment, and property-use strategies. The conference program presents attendees with some difficult choices. 

Here are a few:

  • Tar Sands — When This Spills, It’s a Whole New Monster: Meet the whistleblower who exposed cover-up of 800,000-gallon oil spill in Kalamazoo River.
  • Creative Living and City Survival: Blueprints for sustainable communities using natural energy, surviving climate change, gathering wild edibles.
  • The Role of Banks in the Destruction of Detroit: How the foreclosure crisis created Detroit’s fiscal deficit; Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac’s role in foreclosure crisis.
  • Reclaiming Abandoned Houses: Necessary steps for reclaiming and securing property confiscated by banks and government agencies.
  • Another World is Possible:  Peoples’ right to choose their own food, farming, livestock and fisheries systems versus international market-force control over most food.

Also looming large: Michigan’s disputed emergency manager law, Public Act 4; (foreclosure) eviction defense; urban farming; new self-government ideas; and the Occupy movement’s first year. The list of participating activist and community organizations is a map of regional  cooperation.

Detroit is part of a nationwide race to save as many communities as possible as fast as possible, said Jasahn Larsosa, chief organizer for This Hood of Ours. The Detroit-based organization is a campaign started started three years ago to help reshape local economies from consumer-based to self-sustaining, from valuing money and convenience services to cooperating to provide basic needs. This Hood of Ours also operates in Cleveland and in Anderson, Indiana. 

Use the land. Cocoloco Photography

“It never occurs to us that an abandoned home is an asset to a neighborhood, or a vacant lot,” he said. “Use the land, grow your own food. Move into the houses.” 

Larsosa said it’s insulting that residents pay taxes for public services they’re not getting, buses that don’t run, trash that’s not collected, neglected schools and parks. Property taxes make up three quarters of the city’s budget; a third of Detroit land space is empty, abandoned, and unused. So when the city confiscates a house for unpaid taxes, he said, leaving it empty and vulnerable, “take it back.”  

Detroit’s patchy victories and grim failures make it the perfect host for Occupy the Midwest.

–Janet Braunstein

 

Aug 242012
 

Taxpayer-owned mortgage institution Fannie Mae agreed Friday to continue negotiating with Jennifer Britt, who is fighting her family’s eviction from their foreclosed home, according to Steve Babson of People Before Banks.

Britt has been struggling to save her home since her husband’s death six years ago.

On Aug. 14, Fannie Mae offered to let Britt lease the house for two years at $785 a month, less than half of what Britt paid before the foreclosure. At the end of the proposed lease, Britt and her family would have to move out of the house, and Fannie Mae would sell it.

On Tuesday, Aug. 21, Britt responded with a counter-offer that would allow her to eventually own the house. Her attorney provided no details.

And on Friday, Aug. 24, Fannie Mae told Britt’s attorney that it will continue to negotiate on her counter-offer. It will conduct a formal walk-through appraisal of the property, according to Babson. The formal appraisal might be a tiny step toward shaping settlement terms that would let her keep the house after the lease.

Britt’s battle was originally with Flagstar Bank, which foreclosed on the house in 2010. When Fannie Mae bought the mortgage from Flagstar, Flagstar recovered most of its money. Fannie Mae refused to negotiate seriously with Britt’s supporters, including the Southwest Housing Solutions non-profit. Southwest Solutions offered to buy the house back from Fannie Mae for its market value: $10,000.

Fannie Mae wanted $100,000; Britt and her late husband had already invested that much. Britt had spent her life savings trying to satisfy Flagstar. Fannie Mae sought and won an eviction order against her in July 2012.

Britt’s many supporters mounted a high-visibility eviction defense. On July 19, neighbors and community activists began a determined vigil on her lawn and street to block any attempt at removing Britt, her family, or her possessions.

After more than three weeks, Fannie Mae bent under the pressure and sent Britt an offer. She remains protected by a coalition of activist and community groups.

–Janet Braunstein

For more on the Jennifer Britt vigil, see Terry Hall’s journal of the weeks leading up to Fannie Mae’s first offer.

 

 

 

Aug 122012
 

Day 1: Jennifer Britt’s supporters start vigil. Photo by Terry Hall

On Wednesday, July 18, a district court judge signed an order evicting Jennifer Britt from her Detroit home, ending for now a complicated legal battle to save her house that began in 2006. On Thursday, July 19, protesters and supporters began a vigil to bar anyone from removing Britt, her family, or their possessions.

“We’re going to be there every day until Fannie Mae agrees to drop the eviction attempt and negotiate a fair deal,” says evict-defense activist Nancy Brigham.

So what’s it like to join a vigil during the long hours and days between rallies, press conferences, and the cameras they attract? ODFP photojournalist Terry Hall shares his experiences.  

Week 3, Tues., Aug. 14

Everyone’s excited at news that today, Jennifer Britt finally received a mortgage-resolution offer from Fannie Mae. Attorney Bob Day brought the news. Day is one of the many activist lawyers working with groups like Moratorium NOW!People Before Banks, and the Sugar Law Center.

The proposal: Jennifer would rent the home from Fannie Mae for 2 years. At the end of the two-year rental, she’d have to move out of her home, and Fannie Mae would sell it. Since Fannie Mae just made the offer, it’s too early to know whether Jennifer will consider it as presented.

It’s easy to see how Fannie Mae would benefit: it would avoid further negative attention of an unpopular eviction, establish Jennifer Britt as a renter rather than owner, and provide a caretaker (Jennifer) for the house. Hard to see how Fannie Mae could lose under those terms. When Jennifer makes her decision, the eviction-defense team will be ready to fully support it.

Jennifer Britt talks about Fannie Mae offer with supporters at a potluck on her lawn.          Photo by Terry Hall.

 

Week 3, Mon, Aug. 13

There’s a laid-back potluck dinner scheduled for tomorrow evening on Jennifer’s lawn, starting at 5pm. It’s for everyone who supports her and her cause, including those who stand vigil to protect her house.

Weekend, Aug. 11-12

As the vigil protecting Jennifer Britt’s house continues, it’s important to remember that foreclosure-eviction cases like hers often go on long after courts withdraw eviction orders and banks say they’ll (finally) try to work o.ut something homeowners can afford. The vigils may end, but supporters, activists and neighbors will come back if they need to.

This Thursday, Aug. 16, activist supporters of paraplegic Jerome Jackson plan to rally at the Inkster 22nd District Court, where a judge will hear his  eviction case again. At a previous hearing in early June, the court gave Jerome a 60-day stay.

The bank, as usual, is Fannie Mae, which bought the mortgage; a second player, a dysfunctional Wayne County assistance agency, caused the mess to start with. During the two-month stay, negotiations fell apart, largely, according to anti-eviction coalition Moratorium NOW!, because the same county agency wouldn’t cooperate.

People in Jennifer Britt’s position, despite all the physical support, legal assistance, and media attention, don’t get solid deals for months or longer. How would you feel if someone were trying to legally force you out of your own house, to back a dumpster up to your door so they could hurriedly clear out your possessions? When would you feel secure and safe again?

These cases aren’t over until every possible document is signed and witnessed; every piece of state, county and city red tape is satisfied; and every imaginable loophole is closed. Only then could you walk in the door, plop on the couch, and sigh in relief. Am I right?
Janet Braunstein

Day 16, Friday, Aug. 3

It’s been a long week. Thankfully, others are relieving us for the weekend. It’s quiet after the drama of the last few days. Talk moves to other current events. A caregiver who grows medical marijuana talks about related appeals court decisions.  During the day, the Michigan Supreme Court rules that the question seeking appeal of Public Act 4, the state emergency-manager law, will appear on the November primary ballot, ending a long battle. Click here to see decision. Big news.

Next up: a controversial proposal for the state to take over management of Detroit’s Belle Isle. For decades, the city’s recreation department hasn’t had the money or workforce to keep up the island. The prized Detroit gem has great views of downtown Detroit on one side of the Detroit River and Windsor, Ontario, on the other. The 982-acre island park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park in New York City. Belle Isle’s larger than Central Park; in fact, it’s the largest island city park in the nation. Many of its famous attractions were designed by globally recognized architects Albert Kahn, Eero Saarinen, and George Mason, who designed the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. Some of the attractions have closed or are declining.

We don’t talk about the Britt family’s eviction today. We know we don’t know what will happen next. Instead of fear, I feel reassured that we’re here together to take whatever action becomes necessary. I can feel a shared sense of determination.

The last line of defense: blocking the driveway. Photo by Terry Hall

Day 15, Thursday, Aug. 2

For a while this morning, I’m the lone watch guard. The sleep deficit from standing vigil in the early morning, often at lunch, and in the evening after work, along with making entries here, is starting to get to me. I can hardly keep my eyes open, so I grab my camera, lean on the trunk, and watch the street.

I think only about the importance of saving another person’s house and of saving energy for winning this long struggle.

For the moment, my mind is free from frustrated anger over banks’ arbitrary foreclosure practices, their toxic responsibility for the devastation of the economy, and the bonuses they walked away with. I’m not thinking about Edward DeMarco’s decision not to let government-owned Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac provide debt relief to people whose mortgages are underwater.

DeMarco, a Bush holdover and acting head of the Federal Housing Finance Agency, told Congress today that loan forgiveness (aka principal reduction) doesn’t benefit taxpayers, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and it doesn’t change borrower behavior enough. DeMarco’s decision is a refusal of an Obama administration request.

My mind is too tired for such heavy weights.  The banks want us to believe that they are in control, but we choose to believe in ourselves instead.

Day 14, Wednesday, Aug. 1

One advantage of serving in the vigil is getting to know the people I see almost every day and others who join the watch as their schedules permit. Between the core people and the others, someone is always covering the vigil. Today we talked hopefully about an imminent deal.

Jennifer Britt sits with us, drinking in reassurance that she’s helping others as well as herself and her family. Few people are as brave as she is. Many suffer in silence and walk away from their homes. This eviction defense is both crisis intervention and an outreach to people who don’t know where to turn when their banks say “no.”

Day 13 , Tuesday, July 31

Early morning and noon are quiet. After work, I learn that Steve Babson of the People Before Banks coalition asked Jennifer Britt whether she thinks the vigil should continue or break for a few days to see kind of offer Fannie Mae comes up with. 

Babson says he fears that the defense might dwindle because people are getting tired. All of us there agree that the vigil continues. We can’t risk the work we’ve invested here, let alone the work of people like attorney Joe McGuire and all the groups supporting Jennifer. 

Day 12, Monday, July 30

BAMN’s Tristan Armand Taylor with Jennifer Britt. Photo by Terry Hall

 

 

 

 

 

 

Early morning: There’s a bigger crew, about 15 people. I catch up with Tristan Taylor from BAMN. He says U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow has told Fannie Mae representatives that Jennifer Britt isn’t moving out, that she’ll have to be dragged out publicly in front of the cameras — which would make Fannie Mae look bad and the eviction-defense movement look very good. Word is that the eviction remains on hold, but nothing official yet. The vigil continues.

Swiss public television crew. Photo by Terry Hall

 

 

 

 

 

 

Noon: A small crew from Swiss public television is here to shoot some footage of the eviction defense and vigil. The crew, from SRG SSR was already filming in Detroit, a subject of international fascination. 

Keeping watch, with sign. Photo by Terry Hall

 

Evening: Last watch of the day, five people here. I talk to Jennifer, who agrees that while resolution may seem close, we haven’t reached the end. We stow the chairs in the garage for the night. 

Days 10-11, weekend of July 28-29

Terry takes the weekend off, but a skeleton crew keeps watch.

Day 9, Friday, July 27

Early morning: Another skeleton crew preventing any attempts to evict 49-year-old Jennifer Britt, her 74-year-mother, 77-year-old uncle, and two children. The watchers don’t just walk the walk; they’re talking the talk. I join the others’ discussion on the economic and social theories of philosophers Karl Marx, Ptolemy, and Noam Chomsky; on the similarities and differences among capitalism, Marxism, communism and anarchy. 

How would revolution work down-to-earth? How many chickens will I need to trade for a Nikon camera? After some chuckles, talk turns to the Vietnam War, the era’s protests against ROTC presence on school campuses, and the deep mental toll Vietnam vets suffered and suffer today.

Wow. One of us works at the same company (name withheld) as I do, and another used to. Small world. 

Back to my “wage slave” gig. All’s quiet, but word is we’re gearing up for possible dumpster-truck attempts Monday and Tuesday unless Jennifer has a signed deal in hand. As long as Jennifer waits, we wait. 

Day 8, Thursday, July 26

Early morning: It’s raining lightly. I join four men under the tent-canopy, chewing over tactics for moving forward with eviction defense; occasional, generational communications gaps within Detroit’s broad activist community. Good conversation. Getting here in the morning is worth it. No matter how worthless my work day might seem, I know I’m doing something very important. It keeps me going. 

Noon: The subjects have switched to mortgage-principal reduction and debt forgiveness. The weather’s nice, the neighborhood’s quiet. The only real noise is from larger trucks passing a block up on Grand River. The discussion’s a good break from my daily routine. 

Evening: Not long after I get here, another meeting starts, focused around Occupy Detroit participation. This one’s being run by Dianne Feeley, a Detroit-based editor and longtime contributor of Against the CurrentShe calls herself a socialist feminist. The weather has cleared. Jerome Jackson, whose own eviction order was stayed in early June for two months, shows up with pizza and chicken wings. 

Meeting at Jennifer Britt’s home. Photo by Terry Hall

We hear some encouraging information, off the record for now. After a few shots, I pack up to go catch up on personal business that built up over the last week. I leave Jennifer Britt’s house knowing it’s well guarded. No one’s going to drop the ball. People keep showing
up, including new people at the meeting. It looks like the word is getting out.

Day 7, Wednesday, July 25

Early morning: It’s quiet today, cool and sunny in Rosedale Park. There are seven of us here, chatting about Jennifer Britt’s case and eviction defense. I’ve heard the same thing at other eviction defenses: Jennifer’s fought hard for years, but if she’d known to get legal help earlier, it likely would have been much easier to stop the eviction. And how shame sometimes immobilizes and isolates people facing foreclosure or eviction, leaves them feeling powerless.  

Just before I leave for work, we get a visit from some people in a local group they call Y.O.U.T.H. Inc. The group is based in an old bakery not far from the Britt House. It’s good to see more community involvement.

     Y.O.U.T.H. Inc. visitors. Photo by Terry Hall                                            

Noon: The few people in Jennifer’s yard are cleaning up, gathering trash and recyclables, putting the yard in order. It’s still quiet. We get some curious looks from passersby. 

     James Hunter. Photo by Terry Hall

Evening: I walk into a surprise meeting. James Hunter, from the Sugar Law Center for economic and social justice, is giving a talk about today’s hearings in Lansing about Public Act 4, the emergency manager law. He was there. He tells us it looks good for getting a referendum on repealing the law on the November ballot; he expects a decision within a week. The justices were tough on the attorneys for both sides of the issue, Democracy Now (in favor) and Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility (against). It’s a good sign, he says. The justices will have solid legal basis to rule in favor of putting the question to a public vote. As a progressive, I’m cheered by Hunter’s impressions.

As I head out, it feels good to look at people I stood guard with and once again say “see you in the morning.”  

Welcome to Rosedale Park. Photo by Terry Hall

Day 6, Tuesday, July 24

6 a.m. Another hot, muggy morning. Two people are standing at each corner of the block as look-outs. Tense defenders turn their heads every time they hear the air brakes of a truck. I’m one of them. There’s no sign of the truck carrying the dumpster before I leave for work.

Truck lookouts Mark Anderson and Curtis McGuire.      Photo by Terry Hall

Noon. BAMN organizer Tristan Taylor and Occupy Detroit’s Joe McGuire, the attorney representing Jennifer Britt, tell me that Fannie Mae has apparently halted the eviction for two days while someone there reviews Jennifer’s mortgage and the long history of her case.


Steve Babson on vigil status. Video by Erik Shelley, Occupy Detroit

Joe’s still waiting for confirmation from the court that ordered the eviction or Fannie Mae lawyers. It looks like Fannie Mae is bending under pressure from Michigan’s representatives in Washington: Senators Debbie Stabenow and Carl Levin, and 13th District Rep. Hansen Clarke, who was here yesterday.

Nick Pohl provides the music. Photo by Terry Hall

Evening. I’m back after work. The mood’s upbeat. Everyone’s eating barbecued chicken and corn on the cob off the grill while listening to a one-man blues band. He’s playing everything: guitar, drums, harmonica. Until Jennifer Britt and Fannie Mae sign a solid deal, there’ll be people standing watch here. 

I’ll be back in the morning. 

Day 5, Monday, July 23

4:30 p.m.: It’s been a long, hot day. Everyone gathers in the shade on Jennifer’s front yard, working out plans for the morning and the expected arrival of the dumpster truck. They are ready.

3:22 p.m.: Steve Babson of People Before Banks just issued an urgent warning to expect a dumpster truck tomorrow. The warning urges every supporter, activist, and witness available to join the vigil and keep the dumpster away from Jennifer’s house. 

Noon: Clarke expresses his support for Jennifer and his frustration with lack of housing-market oversight. “Foreclosures are devastating our neighborhoods.”

video by Erik Shelley, Occupy Detroit

6:00 a.m.: Today’s vigil starts under a cloudy sky. It’s hot and muggy. There’s a steady pulse of excitement and determination beneath the calm faces of the 40 or so people in front of the well-shaded house. 

2:19 a.m.: Today Michigan U.S Rep. Hansen Clarke is scheduled to hold a press conference here at noon. He has proposed a law to halt mortgage foreclosures and evictions, make banks cut mortgage principal to a home’s real market value, and save neighborhoods like this one.

Jennifer Britt with Hansen Clarke. Photo by Terry Hall

 

From the first day of the eviction-defense vigil, Terry Hall has joined Jennifer Britt’s defenders from 6-8 a.m. weekdays before going to his full-time day job. He returns daily, whenever he can, to participate, watch, and listen. These are some of his impressions and photos from that first morning. Starting on the fifth day, Monday, July 23, he began keeping a daily journal.

Day 1, Thursday, July 19

It’s very hot. People are taking turns going out into the bright sun to catch the attention of drivers on Grand River with signs protesting evictions from foreclosed homes. When they retreat to Jennifer Britt’s lawn for shade and water, they’re getting caught up in discussions. One is about what it means to win a case like Jennifer’s.

Holding protest signs  for traffic. Photo by Terry Hall

Does a homeowner win when a bank agrees to modify a mortgage by lowering payments but stretching out the length of the mortgage? Or when a bank lowers payments temporarily? Or is it only a real victory when an embarrassed banker agrees to sell a foreclosed home back to its owner at current market value? 

Another subject getting a lot of interest: Who’s responsible for homes losing so much value? How did it happen?

Everyone’s watching out for the truck that could come at any time hauling a large dumpster. If the truck gets through the defense line blocking the street and drops the dumpster next to the Britt house, Jennifer and her family will have just 24 hours to clear out their belongings. After that, a work crew will toss out anything left behind. 

Another shift on sign duty. Photo by Terry Hall

Detroit police aren’t getting involved in enforcing evictions because they’re civil cases, not criminal. So far, so good.

Like other battles to stop foreclosures and evictions in Metro Detroit, the effort to save Jennifer Britt’s home is the work of a coalition of groups including People Before Banks, Moratorium NOW!, BAMN, and Occupy Detroit.

 

Jul 042012
 

While a not-so-small army of police officers barred members of the 2012 Occupy National Gathering in Philadelphia from crossing a street to enter a free, public concert, Occupy Detroit live-streamer Diara Lo caught this unusual discussion. In it, a Philadelphia police liaison and several articulate Occupy members, some from New York, engage in a thoughtful, wide-ranging conversation about the interactions between police and the Occupy movement since its birth in September 2011.

Shes save the impromptu, hour-long in discussion in the two videos below on July 3, 2012.

[bambuser id="2801251"]                  [bambuser id="2801273"]

Jun 182012
 

Protest: a disorganized and chaotic reaction by activists and other people to political or economic actions extremely likely to affect their lives negatively. To the uninitiated, this definition might make sense. But now that I’ve participated, I realize that a successful demonstration is neither disorganized nor chaotic.

Lucianna Sabgash, event organizer, debriefs media.  Photo by Terry Hall

Here’s one case: On January 16, 2012, a large turnout from numerous activist groups marched from Washtenaw Community College in Ann Arbor to Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s personal residence, a house in an exclusive gated community outside the city.

I reached the rendezvous point with my wife and two fellow activists well before the march started. I was marching that day not just to observe and photograph, but to participate alongside other demonstrators. When the TV news crews brought out the cameras, I saw protesters evaluating the need to mask their identities. The choice was largely driven by fears their employers might use their their participation against them at work, or by fears the government might use it against undocumented people seeking U.S. citizenship.

As the crowd grew, I started taking shots, trying to capture the determination of free people exercising their right to free speech. I watched as more and more people arrived, until the last protesters climbed down from several large tour buses full of marchers.

I saw well-crafted signs with words and images displaying anger and contempt at Snyder’s policies, including the controversial emergency manager bill that became Public Act 4 of 2011 when Snyder signed it in March that year. The emergency manager law allows a governor to hand over control of  insolvent or financially distressed cities, towns and school districts into the hands of powerful managers he appoints.

An emergency manager can restructure debt, slash budgets, sell city assets, re-negotiate or void contracts with public-employee unions, and fire or dis-empower elected officials. Since the emergency manager isn’t publicly elected, the appointment nullifies the citizens’ votes that elected their leaders and representatives. People who live under control of emergency managers have no say in decisions that seriously affect their lives.

I moved toward the front of the march to find a good place in the column that was forming. In the faces of activists already lined up, I saw signs of nervous excitement, determination, and defiance focused on the attitude Snyder expressed during his gubernatorial campaign. Snyder was frequently quoted saying Michigan should be “run like a business.”

As with similar campaign promises, Snyder already was trying to justify the means he planned to use for an end no one asked for in the first place.

Marching toward Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s privileged subdivision. Photo by Terry Hall

The column started moving. We were marching. I felt a determined calm among the battalion of protesters, who chanted quietly, saving energy. We passed TV cameras; helicopters buzzed over our heads. I saw that a bend leading the road up a hill was approaching fast.

I jogged hurriedly up the turn to find a convenient vantage point for capturing the marchers. With a wide lens on my camera, I turned, focused, and took a few shots.

It wasn’t until I pulled the camera away from my face that I realized how massive the crowd really was. It was the largest protest I’d ever participated in. There’s a feeling of empowerment that comes when so many common voices merge into one. It’s not easy to describe, but I felt our fear slip away and our hope return with that visibly palpable unity.

After a brief rest and protest rally at a public park along the way, the march continued to the governor’s neighborhood. His front lawn was safe from any threat of occupation. The march stopped at  iron gates apparently intended to protect the inhabitants inside from any dangers outside.

Those gates were a perfect symbol of the 1%. The rest of us, the 99%, could only peer over but not cross into the privilege on the other side. At that moment, the protest ignited. The restraint was gone, the voices angry and loud.

Police, protesters converge at the gates guarding Snyder’s private community.   Photo by Terry Hall

Police exchanged nervous looks, unsure what would happen next and how far the protesters would go to make their point. At times, protesting groups seemed to be competing with each other. A youth-activist group, BAMN (By Any Means Necessary) planted themselves in front of the gates, shouting their chants without budging, refusing to go “to the back of the bus,” words from one of the chants.

Meanwhile, a large group faith-oriented protesters, led by pastors, struggled to be heard singing “We Shall Overcome.” The few conflicts between participants were easily contained. Children and parents from the other side of the gates came out to gawk at the protest through the rails. They seemed strangely amused. Their faces and posture showed the familiar superior attitude and indignant annoyance of the well-to-do forced to face people in lower classes.

From behind the gates, a middle-aged woman told us she knows someone who’s serving in the military to give us the rights to “do this” — expresses ourselves in protest marches. I think I responded “precisely,” but maybe “thank you” would have been better. Some people just don’t get it.

Later that night, we saw newscast about the demonstration. At first we hoped the masks would obscure our identities. But as we watched ourselves marching, a sense of elation quickly replaced any worries.

Masked protester hides identity from employer.               Photo by Terry Hall

Protests, marches, and demonstrations don’t create change by themselves. They raise the wide-spread awareness that leads to change. Even members of the media, watching from afar, see their concerns rise up the political agenda. After all, they are workers, employees of vast corporations. By protesting, all Americans can exercise the freedoms guaranteed under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. All I can say: This is an experience you can’t afford to miss. It won’t cost you anything unless you fail to do it.

Terry Hall

Jun 172012
 

Michigan’s controversial emergency manager law was signed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder on March 16, 2011, effective the same day. It enables a governor to appoint an emergency manager to take control of local governments and school districts found insolvent by a review board. The review board is appointed by the governor, and, yes, so is the emergency manager.

The emergency manager serves at the pleasure of the governor; only the governor can fire one. The act allows an appointed EM to break labor contracts, make sweeping budget cuts, fire elected officials, and sell city assets, among other powers, without the consent of the public or the people the public elected to serve them. Why? According to the following excerpt from the law, officially called Public Act 4 of 2011:

“The legislature hereby determines that the health, safety, and welfare of the citizens of this state would be materially and adversely affected by the insolvency of local governments and that the fiscal accountability of local governments is vitally necessary to the interests of the citizens of this state to assure the provision of necessary governmental services essential to public health, safety, and welfare. The legislature further determines that it is vitally necessary to protect the credit of this state and its political subdivisions and that it is necessary for the public good and it is a valid public purpose for this state to take action and to assist a local government in a condition of financial stress or financial emergency so as to remedy the stress or emergency by requiring prudent fiscal management and efficient provision of services, permitting the restructuring of contractual obligations, and prescribing the powers and duties of state and local government officials and emergency managers. The legislature, therefore, determines that the authority and powers conferred by this act constitute a necessary program and serve a valid public purpose.”

In other words, the state believes control of selected cities, towns and school districts in financial trouble should be transferred to state-appointed managers with powers that would be unconstitutional for elected officials to use. The state decides which cities these are.

Activists across Michigan continued protesting after the signing of Public Act 4, which strengthens and broadens powers held by an “emergency financial manager” under a previous version of the law.

In fact, activists collected 228,000 signatures, more than enough, on a petition to put repeal of Public Act 4 to a vote on the November 6, 2012, Michigan statewide ballot. If the repeal stays on the ballot, the law will be suspended.

But the Michigan Board of State Canvassers challenged the petitions’ validity on grounds that the three-word headers were printed in the wrong font size: 12-point instead of the required 14-point. It was acting on a complaint from Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility, a group formed by members of the politically conservative and partisan Michigan Chamber of Commerce to oppose ballot petitions they disagree with.

To decide whether the font was the right size or not, the board of canvassers called experts to testify. In this video,  expert witness Michael Migrin, who retired after 22 years as a printer for the state, says the font size is correct and describes with some amusement his view of the partisan pettiness of challenge (don’t miss his tie):

Chris Corneal, a Michigan State University professor, also provided expert testimony finding the font size correct.

Made up of two Republicans and two Democrats, the board  split the vote. The Democrats voted to accept the petition while the Republicans voted to deny it, despite the expert testimony.

To break the tie, the question went to a three-judge Michigan Court of Appeals panel. The judges, all Republicans, acknowledged that a 30-year-old precedent that required them to accept an imperfect petition if it substantially complies with the law. Still, they asked that a panel of seven special judges consider it further, delaying the petition again. The full appeals court voted to refuse and ordered the board of canvassers to put the question on the November ballot.

It’s not difficult to imagine why all of this effort, time, and cost was exhausted around a trivial technicality, in fact, a false technicality. Desperate measures wasted taxpayer money in a partisan attempt to block a ballot measure restoring power to the citizens. Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility likely knew the conclusion but hoped to create a delay long enough to keep the proposal off the November ballot. Justice has prevailed, this time. Republicans learned valuable lesson: size doesn’t matter.

The question remains whether the case will go to the Michigan Supreme Court and, if it does, whether the court will hear it. Citizens for Fiscal Responsibility plans to appeal, according to a spokesman for the group. Hopefully, their appeal won’t be delayed by paperwork submitted in the wrong font type.

– Terry Hall

 

Jun 042012
 
The sudden, self-inflicted collapse of US Rep. Thaddeus McCotter’s reelection campaign, while unprecedented, was not unforeseen. The yawning chasm between McCotter and his constituents is legendary. I should know. I’ve spent the last 5 years documenting his legacy. (If you’d like to see for yourself, I’ve created playlists on Youtube/erox07 called McCotter & Me and McCotter & Me: Season 2.) It’s too late for him, but perhaps his successor can learn something from his folly.

I set out to set up an appointment to meet with McCotter for a few moments to discuss the limits of executive power and privilege. When that proved more difficult than one would expect, I tried to find out what upcoming events he planned to attend in hopes of catching his ear for a moment, only to discover that his office does not release that information. Next, I worked my way up the chain of command, trying to schedule a public town hall meeting with him and found that he doesn’t even accept such requests. Finally, I circulated a petition requesting he revise his policy on town hall meetings so that constituents can make a formal request for one. All together, I collected far more than the 244 signatures McCotter legitimately gathered for his own reelection effort. I know this because I still have photocopies of them. I gave him the originals. I’m no lawyer, but I know that’s how it works.

Without the aid of his staff, I was able to track him down to a Livonia chamber of commerce breakfast this past winter. The petition must have seemed alien to him because when I presented him with it, he declined to even touch the paper let alone read it. His district director, Paul Seewald stepped in to file away the document in his coat pocket. I told McCotter what the petition requested, and he asked. “What gives you the right to speak on behalf of my constituents?”

“The signatures,” I explained. “And not just from constituents, but from your supporters in the Tea Party.” 

“Oh, those people,” he snarled.

Rep. Thaddeus McCotter was fond of proclaiming his reverence for the “Sovereign Citizen” as a way of pandering to “those people.” Citizens are not sovereign. They are subject to the laws of the land. The laws are made by legislators like him and he derives his power from the will of the people. McCotter may  believe that he was the victim of a clerical error, but ultimately this was his undoing. He handled the will of the people the way Madame Currie handled radium, with similar results.These petitions were more than mere formalities; they were the source of his power and should have been handled with the utmost respect.

Whoever steps in to fill his shoes would be wise to remember this.

– Erik William Shelley.

Shelley, a constituent of McCotter’s 11th Congressional District until redistricting last year, details his past efforts to contact McCotter directly and ask him some basic but vital questions in “How John Conyers and Thaddeus McCotter inadvertently drove me into the streets,“ a piece he wrote in December 2011 for occupy-detroit.us. The piece is studded with links to videos of his efforts.

Ed: U.S. Rep. McCotter dropped his campaign to run in the Aug. 7 Republican primary as a candidate for re-election to the U.S House seat he held for 10 years. The Michigan Secretary of State’s office rejected him from the primary ballot because it found that almost all of the 1,830 signatures were fraudulently duplicated and that the dates were changed on some of them. McCotter initially said during the past week that he would run as a write-in candidate. He announced a change of mind a few days later, over the June 2-3 weekend.

 

Jun 022012
 

A young filmmaker who stumbled into a job at the New York Times spent the last three years making a documentary about what he saw there: a corporate newspaper industry trying to rescue sinking profits by cutting labor-intensive journalism, particularly  investigative reporting.

Now he needs less than $8,000 for stock-footage licensing fee and costs for final post-production. He has less than a month to raise it through donations on the Passer.by site, and he’s asking his fellow Occupiers for help.

Adam Chadwick decided to make ”Fit to Print” when he started working as a Times copy editor in 2007.

“I had a front-row seat for what was going wrong in those years — 2007, 2008, 2009,” he says. “I saw empty desks, more empty desks, and then more empty desks.”

For more than two decades, the newspaper industry tried and failed to meet shareholders’ expectations by laying off reporters, editors and photographers. The faster subscriptions and advertising dropped, the more editorial employees the newspapers laid off — and the more newspapers were shut down altogether. According to Chadwick’s tally, more than 15,000 newspaper staffers lost their jobs in the last three years alone. There are half as many newspaper reporters working today as there were eight years ago.

In “Fit to Print,” Chadwick focuses on the loss of investigative reporting through the personal stories of three star investigative reporters, all industry casualties whose work was cut short when their papers closed: Stephen Janis, Baltimore Examiner; Laura Frank, Rocky Mountain News; and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner Andrew Schneider, Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

When his paper closed in 2009, award-winner Stephen Janis was covering shady behavior in the Baltimore, Maryland, police department, including tactics that led to tens of thousands of false arrests. Laura Frank was investigating some 3,000 workers’ exposure to lethal radiation at the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Facility in Colorado and the strategies the federal government used to avoid paying workers’ compensation benefits to them and 175,000 other federal employees when her paper closed, also in 2009. Andrew Schneider, a specialist in food safety and public health, was investigating extensive corporate cover-ups in Libby, Montana, when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer stopped print publication and went internet-only in 2009.

Chadwick follows their fight to continue their investigative work without their former papers’ money, resources, or reach.

“Essentially this is a labor film about the erosion of an industry due to greed, mainly Wall Street greed,” says Chadwick, a New York occupier. “There is no greater victim of corporatism than the newspaper industry. You can’t tie journalism to capitalism.” He plans to screen “Fit to Print” at Occupies across the country when it’s finished, a reminder of the importance of a free press and respect for labor.

The film includes frightening and violent footage from the 1995 Detroit newspaper strike, which was forced on workers at the Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News by the union-busting Detroit Newspaper Agency — a joint business operation of two corporate journalism giants, the Gannett Company and Knight Ridder. Knight Ridder, then the second-largest newspaper publisher in the country, disintegrated in 2006.

Chadwick, 29, studied film-making at the University of Colorado, tramped around southeast Asia, worked on projects for NFL Films, and landed in New York in 2006 with a duffel bag and $1,500. Unable to find video work, he took temp jobs including a two-week stint entering data at Goldman Sachs. “That was so eye-opening. I could see how miserable people were.”

He spotted a mediabistro ad for a copy-editor at the New York Times and answered it. After three rounds of interviews, he got the job. He was laid off in 2009 when his work — translating print copy for online publication — was outsourced to Florida.

To pay his bills, Chadwick’s doing contract work preparing the news feed for an online medical journal. “I went to a major university. I’m drowning in debt. I went to get a degree. I got it. Is it necessary? Nope.” In addition to student loans he can’t pay, he hasn’t had health insurance for three years. Like so many others of his generation, he has no idea what the future holds.

His own surreal experience made him wonder what the decimation of newspaper jobs means to the reporters who lost them and how quality journalism is finding a new home in the digital universe.

From the 1940s through the 1960s, the American newspaper industry consisted of thousands of local, often family-owned papers that were vital to their towns and cities. Their staffs watched, reported on, and shaped the behavior of politicians and business owners, police and judges, school boards and sports clubs. And they made money doing it.

Together, Chadwick says, newspapers were the constitutionally guaranteed free press, the watchdogs and protectors of our democracy and civil rights.

As the nation prospered and grew in the post-World War II boom, so did the newspaper industry.

“It was pure growth, the golden era of journalism,” Chadwick says. By the late 1970s, local, regional, and national newspaper chains were consolidating into a handful of publicly traded corporations, including Gannett, which launched USA Today in 1982. The corporations also bought up TV and radio stations; cross-ownership became common.

And then, like the auto industry and others of the era, the newspaper industry sat back and let technology move forward without it.

“It was all about quarter-to-quarter profits. They would not invest in the future of the industry,” says Chadwick, referring to digital technology. “They had every opportunity to be all over online classifieds.” Instead, they let Craigslist move in and build a nationwide service. They ignored the potential of the developing Internet. The Washington Post turned down an offer to buy a quarter of Google Inc. for $10 million before the now-$186 billion tech giant incorporated in 1998. “They said Yahoo’s already out there.” (See additional promo trailer)

Unlike other industries, the newspaper industry hasn’t recovered, no matter how many employees or papers it shed. “It all came crashing down because the owners got greedy.”

Chadwick and producer Nancy Wolfe spent three years researching “Fit to Print,” filming interviews of people involved with papers including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Newsday, Rocky Mountain News, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and San Diego Union Tribune.

Chadwick and Wolfe interviewed current and former newspaper staffers, media executives, and journalism watchers, including linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, documentary-maker and former newspaperman Michael Moore,  Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen,  Craigslist found Craig Newmark,  USA Today founder and Gannett executive Al Neuharth, and Washington Post associate editor and senior correspondent Robert  Kaiser.

– Janet Braunstein