Thursday, January 29, 2009

Seattle's Slimy Underbelly Gets A Good Licking

You know things have been crazy busy for me when I go nearly a week without posting anything at all. The stakes at work and home have been unusually high lately. Added to that is the recent notion that regular sleep, or at least making the attempt, may lead to higher productivity. I have not, however, been without ideas.

Last Friday, for instance. I was in my favorite coffee shop talking to my favorite barista on the planet when we got on the topic of drug stories. I shared that the last time I did hallucinogenics was in 1989, and that a small round piece of white quartz pulsed with life in the palm of my hand. The experience was much more than that. On that day, I achieved the Holy Grail of drug experimentation: a bona fide inexpressible moment of mystical insight that stayed with me the rest of my life.

But I had coffee to get and things to get back to and didn't go into all of that. I let it go at the quartz.

In return, my unnamed friend told me about a time she was at a Vashon Island Fair and met some hacky-sack playing moccasin-making hippy named Yum. She sat gazing intermittently into Yum's gorgeously dilated pupils as he put the final touches of turqoise on her new footwear. He asked if she'd like to try some shrooms. "Yes," she said. "Why ... yes!"

As soon as the bits of dried fungus hit her stomach, she thought of something, and it went kind of like this: "What the hell have I done? I'm a mom! I have a seven year-old running around here!"

I tried to imagine myself in that position. Scary. "Shit," I ventured. "If you don't do too much, at least mushrooms are a high where you can kind of maintain. What happened?"

"I hoped so too," she said. "But then I started getting these kind of waves coming in." She moved her palms back and forth beside her head to illustrate. I kind of knew what she meant, but not really. It didn't matter. I was hooked into the story.


"I went with my kid to this fenced in area where there were trees and other kids and things for him to play on, where he couldn't really get into trouble, and just outside of that was an exhibit booth on biodiesel fuel. I cornered the lady there and had the most intense conversation about biodiesel you could ever imagine."

"So, basically," I laughed, "you found the straightest, most boring person in the vicinity, and had her talk you down without her even knowing it."

"Yeah," she said, "that's exactly what I did. After awhile, I felt better and things were OK."

When I walked back to Real Change I dropped in on our editor, and he said something about how when he rides his bike in, the homeless camps in certain parking areas underneath certain overpasses were getting huge.

"I wonder," he said, "what the people in those expensive cars who want to park there think when they can't get a parking space because people live there instead?"

"Who knows," I said. "Most of them probably don't think anything, if they even notice. They're oblivious. They probably just get annoyed and park somewhere else. They're in their little comfort-bubble, and are more worried about the state of J-pod or the size of their carbon footprint."

"It's the slimy underbelly of Seattle liberalism," said Adam.

"Mmmmm," I drooled. "Slimy underbelly."

"Maybe," I continued, getting inspired, "they're licking the thing! And the slimy underbelly is like one of those psychoactive toads! And it changes how they see everything. Mayor Nickels transforms from repulsive pig who kicks around the poor to being a noble environmentalist in a hybrid SUV, and all the people in tents and on the streets start to look like recreational backpackers. And whenever that good feeling starts to fade, out comes the toad, and they lick it again and again until they feel better."

"Yeah," laughed Adam. "It's just like that."

I went back to work, visualizing toad-licking men in nice cars, expensive shirts and designer eye-wear, and thought that maybe it isn't that big of a stretch.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Warning: I-100 Filed, Democracy May Ensue.

When I called Ari Kohn of the Post-Prison Education Project Thursday to say our initiative, run by a group of community activists known as Citizens for Efficiency and Fairness in Public Safety, was about to be filed with the City Clerk, he insisted on capturing the great moment for posterity. So here it is: Real Change organizers Danina Garcia and Natalie Novak, at the City Clerk window, with copy of said petition firmly in hand. We now await a ballot title from Tom Carr for what will be Initiative 100. Here's what it says:


Section One: Title and Subject.
A. This measure shall be titled the “Efficiency and Fairness in Public Safety Act.”
B. For Constitutional purposes, the subject of this Initiative is “public safety.”

Section Two: Preamble and Statement of Facts:
A. Seattle's decision whether to build a municipal jail for the first time represents an expensive commitment during a time of diminishing public resources. This choice for Seattle's future has long-term consequences, and deserves a thorough and public decision-making process.

Through this Initiative, voters exercise their right to be involved in this public safety decision by mandating that the decision consider cost effective alternatives and racial justice. Voters are also to have a final vote on this critical issue.

B. Citizens of Seattle hereby find that in deciding whether to build a new jail, important factors to consider include: public safety, alternatives that may be more cost effective, and issues of racial justice and fairness. Citizens further find that voters should have a final say on whether to build a new municipal jail.

Section Three: Policies and Process for Deciding Whether to Build a Municipal Jail.
A. Prior to deciding whether to build a new municipal jail, the City of Seattle shall take the actions and/or conduct the evaluations described in this section and publicly report on the same. These actions and evaluations and their outcomes shall be fully considered in the City's decision whether to build a new municipal jail, in addition to other considerations that may be deemed appropriate.

1. The City shall negotiate openly, publicly and in good faith with King County to explore alternatives to a municipal jail, including extending the existing City-County contract for jail services. Currently the City contracts with King County for provision of jail services, under a contract that expires in 2012. The City is considering a municipal jail to replace such jail capacity, despite the possibility that such contract may be renewable under State Law, RCW 39.34.180. Continued cooperation with King County may provide the most cost-effective and progressive public safety option. King County offers nationally recognized model programs for decreasing incarceration rates and recidivism, and already has the infrastructure in place to handle a regional justice system.

2. The City shall conduct a rigorous, public analysis of how incarceration rates could be decreased in the short and long term while increasing public safety and positive outcomes. The City shall analyze how a proactive investment in social service programs, including shelter, supportive housing, early childhood education, drug and alcohol treatment and mental health care, will lower crime and arrest rates in the future. Avenues that should be explored include alternatives to incarceration such as treatment and day monitoring, changes in sentencing guidelines at the misdemeanor level, and a commitment to law enforcement diversion programs that provide better outcomes for less public money in drug cases.

3. The City shall develop and make publicly accessible a strategy to address racial disparity issues in arrest and incarceration rates. Disproportionate incarceration rates among certain communities of color deepen inequality and poverty and are a form of structural racism. A new jail may perpetuate and deepen these inequalities.

B. The City shall place the matter of the new municipal jail before the electorate in a public vote. Voters shall have the final decision on whether to build a new municipal jail. Prior to making a final commitment to build a municipal jail, the matter shall be placed before the voters for approval or rejection. Prior to the vote, the City shall inform voters of the outcomes of the actions and evaluations set forth in Subsection A of this Section. This paragraph does not require voters to be consulted on any siting decision relating to such proposed facility.

Section Four: Definitions.
A. “Municipal jail” means a municipal jail facility that is or may be built and/or operated by the City independently or jointly through an interlocal agreement with other cities, but does not include facilities built and/or operated by King County.

B. A “decision whether to build” a municipal jail means a decision by the City on whether to commit moneys towards the construction and/or operation of a municipal jail, either independently or jointly through an interlocal agreement with other cities. Neither that term nor any part of this Initiative addresses decisions and/or commitments of moneys relating to potential sites, environmental review, and/or any component of the site selection process. Such term also excludes any decisions and/or commitments of moneys relating to facilities operated by the County.

Section Five: Construction.
A. This initiative is to be liberally construed to ensure that the City's major public safety decisions are based upon principles of cost-efficiency and fairness and subject to democratic oversight.

B. Nothing in this Initiative shall be construed or interpreted to influence or constrain the City Council's decision on where to site a municipal jail. If the City and its voters decide that a new municipal jail should be built, the City Council shall have the authority delegated to it under State Law to determine the location of such a facility.

Section Six: Severability.

The provisions of this ordinance are declared to be separate and severable. The Citizens of Seattle declare that they support each of the provisions of this Initiative independently, and their support for this Initiative would not be diminished if one or more of its provisions were to be held invalid. Specifically, Citizens would support this initiative even if it did not apply to jails developed through interlocal agreements. Thus, if any one or more of the provisions of this Initiative is declared to be contrary to law, then such provision or provisions shall be null and void and severed from the rest of this ordinance, and all other provisions of this Initiative shall remain valid and enforceable.
So, running an initiative campaign is an enormous amount of work. Why do it? Speaking strictly for myself, here's my take.

Initiatives are the citizen's tool for when other democratic processes fail. Despite the overwhelmingly negative reception this facility has received in community meeting after community meeting, the Mayor's office has consistently characterized the new municipal jail as inevitable, with the only question on the table being one of where to put the thing. The narrow majority that was attained by Councilmember Nick Licata for a review of alternatives that includes community input is a weak brake at best on what has thus far been the Seattle process equivalent of a speeding locomotive.

A challenging economic environment makes prudent use of public resources that much more important. City plans to pay for construction of a $220 million facility with a bond issue is the household equivalent of putting an expensive but unnecessary remodel on the credit card when you're down to eating rice and beans and not sure you can still afford health insurance. A bond issue isn't free money. You pay later, with interest. In addition to construction, the facility will cost $19 million annually to run. That's about half of what Seattle spends each year on homelessness and housing. The economic outlook is bleak. Yesterday, Boeing announced a layoff of 4,500. Today, Microsoft announced a layoff of 3,500. The shit storm is here and no one knows when it will end. Let's use our limited resources where we need them most, and where they'll do good instead of harm.

The existing alternative of continued cooperation with King County is more than viable, but the City has spurned this option. Capacity exists to extend the current contract past 2012. The offer has been made and ignored. The County is a national leader in programs that reduce recidivism and minimize unnecessary incarceration. King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg is an enlightened public servant who gets that locking people up when better alternatives exist is a huge budget suck that does not improve public safety. Seattle City Attorney Tom Carr has turned out to be a punitive law and order dickhead who is on the wrong side of this issue. Who do we want to empower here?

Unnecessary incarceration deepens and further racializes inequality. A black male high school drop-out has a two-in-three chance of being imprisoned by the age of thirtyfive. The Seattle high school graduation rate for Blacks is 52%, and the schools slated for closure right now are mostly in communities of color. The extreme racial disproportionality that exists in incarceration deepens poverty in Black, Latino, and Indian communities by further reducing the economic prospects of those who are already economically disadvantaged. When people who have lousy alternatives sometimes make bad choices, the best way to make a real difference is to invest in creating better alternatives.

Emergency shelters, prisons, and jails are the dumping ground for those who can't make it in this economy, and their numbers are growing. Even a crappy minimum wage service job needs a high school diploma and a relatively clean police record. Those who lack these things, however inconvenient it may be for the rest of us, generally insist on living anyway. Low-level drug dealing and other forms of street crime are the inevitable result, and locking more and more of them up doesn't make the crime go away. There are many, many ways in which public resources can be put to the use of rebuilding lives. During the current budget cycle, King County's one drug and alcohol treatment center for indigents may well be forced to close. General Assistance - Unemployed, the $339 a month benefit for those certified as too disabled to work and having no other income, may well be eliminated. An expensive, unnecessary new jail isn't going to improve anyone's life prospects or make anyone safer, and the money is better spent elsewhere.

Attend the forum next week and find out how to get involved. "Question Inevitability: A Community Perspective on Alternatives to a New Jail" will take place at Seattle University's Pigott Auditorium from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Jan. 28. This forum by the Real Change Organizing Project will include a broad panel of respected and committed activists and experts on incarceration and its effect on communities.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Ding Dong The Witch Is Dead

Here's Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen backed by beautiful gospel singers at the Obama Inaugural celebration, doing This Land Is Your Land. Watch Pete's eyes gleam when he does the private property verse. A moment worth watching again and again. Looking at that gorgeous crowd, I'm feeling something like, what, can it be ... hope! Definitely hope.

As for Obama's speech speech? Perfect pitch. The sea of tear streaked faces said it all.

No blues skies everything-is-fine, no-sacrifice-necessary bullshit that we've heard for years on end. The assessment of the American moment was as real as real gets and came just moments into the speech:
That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land - a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many.

And then, the soaring announcement of a new day:
On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord. On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

He affirms America's strengths and calls upon us to put aside narrow self-interest in the pursuit of a vision of hope, action, and change:

We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act - not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

Obama calls us to "a new era of responsibility," and invokes the values that we all share when we are true to our higher selves.
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.
And then, beautifully, he quotes George Washington to again say that we are in great crisis and danger, and that our hope and virtue are our greatest assets.
"Let it be told to the future world...that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."
This is leadership and this is greatness. This is a man who speaks truth about our moment in history and articulates a vision to match. Obama calls us to personal and collective greatness, to set aside our narrow self-interests for the collective good, to accept sacrifice, and to rise to the many challenges before our nation. Obama inspires us to become our best selves, and to find meaning in struggle and sacrifice for the common good.

History has turned the page.

Meanwhile, The Onion's gleeful fantasies of a series of gruesome Presidential accidents is at an end: George W. Bush has died peacefully in his sleep.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Is Nickels Running This Town As A Police State?

Yesterday, as we are all aware, was ObamaDay. Unicorns with rainbows shooting out their asses grazed on the Whitehouse lawn to herald the new dawn. OK, I'm being facetious. I'm happy. Very, very happy. But my sense of elation is balanced by an competing sense of doom.

Tuesday morning, as I drove to Trinity United Methodist to join my friend Rich's flock in catching the festivities on TV, a dense fog limited visibility to around 200 yards. I was again struck by how the world always seems to offer up the right metaphor at the right time. The economy's gone to hell and local and state governments appear poised to balance their budgets on the backs of the poor. The feds are no better. The Mid-East situation seems perfectly calibrated to the Mayan Calendar, and I just know my transmission's going to go one of these days. I can see about a block in front of me. Beyond that? Who knows? Might be blue skies. Might be a twelve car pile-up with me in the middle.

The good news, I recently read, is that the US prison population only rose by a mere 2.5% last year, which is what passes as progress these days. Crime, by the way, fell by 4%. More good news.

In the afternoon, I made my way to Westlake Center to speak at an Inauguration Day student march and rally that was making its way down from Seattle Community College. I arrived before the march to find the police prepared for virtually any terrorist scenario one might imagine.

A black Command Vehicle, which looked like a cross between a tank and a semi, was parked near the Starbucks. About ten riot-gear clad cops — half of which had ominous black knit gear on their heads that revealed eyes and nose only and made them look like ninja gym rats — stood casually shooting the shit, awaiting The Threat. Plainclothes cops were everywhere as well, and not trying real hard to be inconspicuous. As the march made its way down Pike, a phalanx of police motorcycles came before and after. Bicycle cops diligently hemmed in the sides to ensure public safety. There were maybe 100 marchers. It was a sad spectacle. I estimated the overall student to cop ratio at around 2-1.

Democracy, apparently, scares the shit out of these guys.

I joked about this when I spoke. "What?" I said. "Were they afraid you were going to loot the Starbucks for their herbal teas?"

My speech was about Real Change's campaigns against the homeless sweeps and the new municipal jail. The root issue here, I said, is surplus people in a global economy, and a system that writes off the less skilled and educated as a form of human waste that just can't compete and therefore needs to be dehumanized, criminalized, and eventually imprisoned.

I don't really expect this problem to be on the Obama Top Ten issue list, but then, he's only been in office for the better part of an afternoon.

I congratulated them for "taking it to the streets," but said they needed to up the student to cop ratio to around 10-1 next time to make a more respectable showing. Taking it to the streets matters I said, because poor people only get taken care of when one or two conditions are met.

The first is when there's an expectation that the market will once again need the very poor for their labor. Under these circumstances, their stock rises, and they get to live.

Noone really expects this to happen, I said, so scratch that.

The second is when people are organized to the extent that they actually offer some sort of a threat to the system, which is why we really need better than a 2-1 student cop ratio. It might be ObamaDay, but the cops and the prisons are ready for us nonetheless. We shouldn't kid ourselves. The bar for organizing has been set rather high. Are you up for the challenge?

— Photos by Revel

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

See A Show. Support Real Change. Febuary 7.

KEXP is doing a bunch of on-air PSAs for Real Change this month and a big benefit show on February 7. They tell me the line-up kicks ass. I wouldn't know. I'm old. But I believe them. I'll be there. Hope you can make it.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Homelessness, Incarceration, and the Future

For more than two decades, I’ve struggled with creating an approach to homeless advocacy and organizing that does the issue justice. Over this time, there are four truths that have become more than obvious.

One: Homelessness is about the problem of surplus people in a global economy. The collapse and overseas exportation of most American manufacturing has hit the market for less educated and relatively unskilled labor hard. Communities that face racial discrimination have been hit hardest. This clear fact of our economy goes largely unacknowledged.

Two: The bottom 10-20 percent of those who struggle to survive in our economy have been more or less permanently marginalized. There is little expectation that a demand for their labor will ever return. There is an historic pattern of erosion of government support for those at the bottom. As a result, the past three decades have seen an exponential growth in incarceration and emergency sheltering. In times of growing economic desperation, even the most minimal supports that presently exist will increasingly come under attack.

Three: Homelessness and incarceration are fundamentally dehumanizing. Those who endure life at the outer margins of the economy are stigmatized and rendered invisible. They are a frightening reminder of the systemic failures of capitalism, and our response, all too often, is to distance ourselves through victim-blaming and denial. The conditions of the incarceration industry and mass homelessness erode feelings of self-worth and diminish our own capacity to regard those who endure the conditions of these institutions as beings who are fully human.

Four: Approaches to “ending homelessness” that ignore these realities cannot succeed. Until we acknowledge that America has a growing and largely permanent class of throwaway people, and make the connections between structural unemployment, racism, criminalization, and the erosion of even the most minimal safety net for the poor and disabled, “homeless advocacy” will, at best, continue to win the occasional battle while the war rages on. Despite our well-intentioned best efforts, the casualties will mount.

Since the advent of globalization, inequality in America has radically widened, and the trend is accelerating. Class war is being waged upon the very poor by the very rich, and the frontiers of this conflict are expanding to create new levels of vulnerability for an eroding middle class.

The realities of regressive taxation, unsustainable military spending, and government priorities that reflect the capture of democracy by corporate interests mean that the middle class and those who struggle at the margins have a common interest in systemic reform that places the realities of race and class front and center.

Bureaucratic, siloed approaches to ending homelessness, while necessary, are insufficient. We must look toward the more imaginative and holistic organizing opportunities that, all too often, are hidden in plain sight.

Here in Seattle, city plans for the creation of a new municipal jail brings together issues of race, class, a failed education system, economic marginalization, and misguided government spending priorities in a rather neat package. Thus far, public discussion of this issue has been mostly limited to the problem of where this facility is to be located. The larger question of a renewed civic commitment to a failed policy of expanding incarceration has gone largely unaddressed. This reflects a sad failure of moral and political imagination by Seattle’s homeless advocates and, more importantly, the broader progressive community.

The city’s unwavering commitment to expanded incarceration comes when we can least afford it. During a time of increasing economic uncertainty and large deficits at every level of government, the new facility will cost $220 million to build and $19 million annually to operate. Meanwhile, Seattle schools slated for closure are located mostly in our city’s communities of color.

The Department of Justice’s own statistics on incarceration are a travesty, and speak to the role of incarceration as a form of economic containment. One in 99 Americans are presently behind bars, and one in 33 live under the supervision of the penal system. An African American high school dropout has a two in three chance of winding up behind bars by the age of 35.

The Seattle school system’s high school graduation rate for African Americans is a mere 52 percent.

This reality of incarceration being a rite of passage for males who live in economically disadvantaged communities is a relatively new phenomenon, resulting from 30 years of war on crime and drugs. Incarceration rates bear little apparent relationship to crime rates, and are driven by the politics of fear and race.

Such racialized rates of incarceration feed a downward spiral of economic opportunity within already disadvantaged minority communities.

Meanwhile, according to the city’s own statistics, the demand for incarceration has abated. The jail population has declined by 38 percent while overall population has risen by eight percent.

Why, then, the rush to build?

Real motivations, given the opacity of city planning processes, are unclear. Perhaps the promise of new jobs in construction and incarceration play some role. Perhaps the increasingly repressive approach to immigration and limited Immigrations and Customs Enforcement facility space is in the mix somewhere. Perhaps the projected increase of community emphasis policing in Seattle, which focuses on low-level drug and poverty crime, anticipates new demand for misdemeanant jail beds.

A glance at the current environment offers an ominous look at the future. State level budget cuts threaten the closure of King County’s one drug and alcohol treatment center that serves the very poor. The governor’s budget threatens to zero out General Assistance - Unemployed. The GAU program offers a paltry $339 a month to around 9,000 people who have successfully navigated the challenging process of documenting that they, one way or another, are too disabled to work and have no other sources of income.

This barbaric approach to economic hard times will, unavoidably, create more instances of poverty crime and will undermine public safety for all of us. The primary victims of increased crime will be the very poor.

At the same time, homelessness in Seattle and King County is growing and becoming more racialized. The 2008 One Night Count documented a 15 percent increase in homelessness over the previous year. During this snapshot early morning January 2008 count, 5,800 people were in emergency and transitional shelter, and another 2,300 were found surviving outside on a night when the shelters were full. The count also documents that although Blacks make up just five percent of county residents, they make up 40 percent of King County’s homeless. This number is up four percent from just two years prior.

It’s been said that the definition of insanity is to continue doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. Seattle’s new municipal jail is a bricks and mortar commitment to continued structural racism and the economic marginalization of the most poor. It’s time to stop the insanity. Attend the Real Change forum on the new municipal jail and commit to being part of a new solution to poverty, homelessness, and structural racism in Seattle.

"Question Inevitability: A Community Perspective on Alternatives to a New Jail" will take place at Seattle University's Pigott Auditorium from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Jan. 28. This forum by the Real Change Organizing Project will include a broad panel of respected and committed activists and experts on incarceration and its effect on communities.

Panelists include:
Silja J.A. Talvi , noted essayist and investigative journalist and author of Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System.

Aaron Dixon, co-founder of the Seattle Black Panthers and 2006 Senate candidate for the Green Party.

King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, active on issues of social and economic injustice for over 40 years.

Alexes Harris, who has worked with the highly successful Clean Dreams pre-arrest diversion program, a real alternative to incarceration.

Tim Harris, executive director and founder of Real Change

Jesse Hagopian, a middle school teacher in Seattle Public Schools and a co-founder of Educators, Students, and Parents for a better Vision of the Seattle schools (ESP Vision).

Saturday, January 17, 2009


Tonight I decided to do Lou Reed's anthem to opiate abuse. Having known about 500 junkies in my life and ingested just enough poppy tea to get a good idea of the attraction (think Ray Charles), this song has always hit deep for me. I think I nailed it. The first time I listened to the playback I had tears running down my face. But then, a few days ago I was crying over Charlotte's Web too. I'm just like that these days. Recorded in an eleven and a half minute trance at my kitchen table into my laptop, with a live performance effect added to give it that appropriately echoey feel.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Mr. Natural

My friend Revel suggested today that the last two songs I uploaded would sound better without any Garageband effects. It turns out she was right. Here's Juggler and Midnight Jam, unplugged.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Find And Use Your Rage

Henry Rollins pleads with an Israeli audience to stop the war. Amazing, moving, and ballsy as hell. "Go through the ashes," he says, "find that jewel of rage, and use it for the civic good."

Rollins on America, "Coolness," and Complacency


Henry Rollins Is My Mentor

Dating. After a few decades, it feels kind of weird. So I'm looking for advice and think I've found my mentor. Mister Henry Rollins comes through with some solid advice.

Up Too Damn Late Again

I called this one midnight jam, for obvious reasons. I am not in control.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Revolution Will Not Be Inaugurated

This week brings the Inauguration of Barack Obama as President of the United States. Over the past few months, I’ve seen a great deal of angst among my progressive friends. Obama’s cabinet appointments reflect political reality, and this, apparently, comes as somewhat of a disappointment.

Let’s take a moment to reflect on where we are. The past thirty years have been defined by conservative laissez-faire economics, racist law and order politics, increasingly regressive taxation, growing inequality, and a militarized approach to foreign policy that has left America broke and going it alone. This ship won’t turn on a dime.

The Obama Administration’s promise of Change You Can Believe In cannot be realized from the top down. Social transformation arises from grassroots movements that are inspired by hope and the real possibility of progress. All of our presidents since Kennedy have known this and have lowered expectations. “Can’t win,” they’ve said, in so many words. “Don’t Try.”

This President has done the opposite. At the moment, that’s all that matters. If we do our work, the change will follow.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Just Fucking Because, OK?

Were I to follow conventional wisdom, I'd be running about three different blogs now. One on homelessness and politics, another to document my personal musings along with my cartoon obsession and favorite music videos, and finally, a third to post the little music projects that no one wants to listen to. The thing is, three blogs would be intolerably geeky. And I don't mean geek-chic. I mean geek-I-clearly-have-no-life. So it all goes in the same pile, niche blogging be damned. Love me love my blog. So there. Here's something I recorded on guitar the other night when I was feeling low that turned things around. I banged the fuck out of the rhythm part, topped it off with a fuzzy lead, and wa-la, suddenly I'm feeling 100% better. Music saves.

Monday, January 12, 2009

America Must Not Be A Nation of Onlookers

This morning's inspiration came in the form of an email from my friend and kindred spirit in outrage in action, Ari Kohn of the Post-Prison Education Project. As the Washington State Legislature kicks off the next 115 days of work — work that will either increase or mitigate the misery of those who suffer the most during hard economic times — he has asked us to remember the lessons of history on the question of silence. Toward that end, he sent a link to the 1963 March on Washington speech of Rabbi Joachim Prinz. The rabbi, who was expelled from Germany in 1937 for speaking out against the Nazi threat, followed Odetta onto the stage to speak just prior to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr's iconic "I Have A Dream" speech. While his words are not nearly so famed, the content is just as relevant to our times, if not more so. The link to a recording of the speech is here.
As Americans we share the profound concern of millions of people about the shame and disgrace of inequality and injustice which make a mockery of the great American idea.

“As Jews we bring to this great demonstration, in which thousands of us proudly participate, a two-fold experience -- one of the spirit and one of our history.

“In the realm of the spirit, our fathers taught us thousands of years ago that when God created man, he created him as everybody's neighbor. Neighbor is not a geographic term. It is a moral concept. It means our collective responsibility for the preservation of man's dignity and integrity.

“From our Jewish historic experience of three and a half thousand years we say:

“Our ancient history began with slavery and the yearning for freedom. During the Middle Ages my people lived for a thousand years in the ghettos of Europe . Our modern history begins with a proclamation of emancipation.

“It is for these reasons that it is not merely sympathy and compassion for the black people of America that motivates us. It is above all and beyond all such sympathies and emotions a sense of complete identification and solidarity born of our own painful historic experience.

“When I was the rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not '.the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.

“A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder.

“America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. Not merely black America , but all of America . It must speak up and act,. from the President down to the humblest of us, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community but for the sake of the image, the idea and the aspiration of America itself.

“Our children, yours and mine in every school across the land, each morning pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the republic for which it stands. They, the children, speak fervently and innocently of this land as the land of "liberty and justice for all."

“The time, I believe, has come to work together - for it is not enough to hope together, and it is not enough to pray together, to work together that this children's oath, pronounced every morning from Maine to California, from North to South, may become. a glorious, unshakeable reality in a morally renewed and united America.”

Thursday, January 8, 2009

A Coffee Chat On Class

Felice Yeskel — a co-founder of United for a Fair Economy and long-time educator and organizer on issues of class — is in town this week conducting a training on classism. We had a chance to get to know each other a bit this morning and then sat down for the Real Change interview.

When an hour-long interview gets edited down to 1,800 words or so for the paper, questions get cut to a few sentences and responses get reduced to pithy highlights. There's room for less than a fifth of what gets said. One really has enough after half an hour, but if you're having a good chat, why stop?

Felice was interested in a copy of the recording for a possible podcast from her website. I said sure. As a result, I think I've learned a few things.

First, if you're going to do a podcast, don't do the interview in a noisy coffee shop. The second thing is this: if one must record under these conditions, do not do so on a $30 micro-cassette recorder. While, I was able to filter out some of the background noise, this is not exactly a studio quality recording.

Still, if you're interested, have the hour, and don't mind wading through a little mud here and there or noticing how we occasionally get lost in our own thoughts, you're welcome to listen.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Porky Pig Gets Very Surreal

The surrealist 1938 Porky in Wackyland, with its Dali-esque landscapes and opium dream inspired humor and storyline, has become my new favorite cartoon of all time. Porky Pig flies to darkest Africa in pursuit of a four sextillion dollar bounty on the last dodo bird and encounters along the way a black duck doing an Al Jolson impersonation, a freakish Three Stooges monster, and a dodo — who sounds remarkably like Daffy Duck — that bounces in from the vanishing point from behind a Warner Brothers shield to bop Porky on the head. All of these scenes were removed in the Cartoon Network version of the 1949 Merrie Melodies re-release, a cinecolor version entitled Dough for the Do-Do. In 1994, animators voted Porky in Wackyland #8 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of All-time. The film is richly representative of that early period of animation when the rules of the medium were still up for grabs, and cartoonists were drunk with possibility.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Inspiring Bravery vs. Just Mailing It In

Being one of those no-TV people, I'd managed to miss this footage until I went looking. Three things, for me, are striking. The first is Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi's amazing aim. The first throw was dead on, and the second, performed under extreme duress, was a little less forceful but largely on target as well. It looks to me that velocity was slightly sacrificed on the second throw for accuracy.

I've tried throwing a boot a similar distance, and it's not easy. That's the thing about terrorists. They have discipline. Even more impressive was the simultaneous verbal delivery, which the video censors.
"This is the farewell kiss, you dog!" as he threw the first shoe, and "This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq" with the second.
Obsessive effort went into this. I'm visualizing Travis Bickle alone in his apartment, getting ready to kick some pimp butt.

The second is the President's remarkable reflexes. He's like one of those guys on the Matrix who sees bullets coming at him in slow-mo.

Finally, there's the fact that the man waited until Bush was looking at him. Just a moment before, while Bush was turned to the side, the shoe would have firmly connected with Presidential ear. But that would have been a sucker punch and comparatively cowardly.

This man didn't want ear. He was after nose.

The video footage clearly reveals this to be the action of a lone shoe-thrower. Had at least four shoes been thrown, possibly from varied trajectories, the outcome may have been different. We'll never really know.

This Saturday, at 1402 E. Pike from 11 am - 1 pm, you may join others in mailing your own shoes to President Bush as a parting gift. It's not as brave, nor nearly as satisfying, but you probably won't get both your hands broken and then face at least two years in prison, so, it's a trade-off.

This guy's my hero. Is it illegal to say that? I don't even know anymore.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

You Talkin' Ta Me?

Obviously, I have too much time on my hands.

Countrified Tom and Jerry

Pecos Pest, the 96th Tom and Jerry, made in 1953 and released in theaters two years later, was the last of this cartoon to be produced by MGM's Fred Quimby before his retirement. The singer is Shug Fisher, an Okie who was born in 1907 and enjoyed a long career as a comedian and country musician before turning to the screen in the 60s, appearing in Ripcord, Gunsmoke, and as "Shorty Kellums," a regular on The Beverly Hillbillies.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Great Program Threatened by Ugly Reality

Q13 did a strong piece on the Post-prison Education Program, one of my favorite organizations, run by the fiery Ari Kohn. One day, this mild-mannered man is going to explode, and I along with him. Ari received the Change Agent of the Year Award at the 2008 Real Change annual breakfast. One of the reasons I admire prisoners advocates so much is that they almost never win, but the whole time, their faces are pressed up against the glass. As bottom-up perspectives on America go, theirs is a breathtaking view.

State Senator Adam Kline, who appears in this news story speaking in favor of Ari's program, is the exceptional legislator who understands that policies which constantly grind the poor into the dust often produce blow-back and are not in society's best interest. But most lawmakers are cowards, driven by fear and responsive to their fearful, ill-informed, constituencies, and as any amateur psychologist knows, fear is the root of hate. That's politics in America: ugly as a monkfish and twice as dumb.

Friday, January 2, 2009

28 Years Of Right-Wing Hegemony Explained

Underdog, which began, strangely, as part of a promo scheme to sell cereal for General Mills, is clearly one of the best things to come out of the 60s. The show always came in four parts, the third beginning with the epic Underdog theme song, which occasionally gets the alternate verse:

When criminals in this world appear,
And break the laws that they should fear,
And frighten all who see or hear,
The cry goes up both far and near
for Underdog! Underdog! Underdog! Underdog!
Speed of lightning! Roar of thunder!
Fighting all who rob or plunder!
Underdog! Underdog!

While in this world the headlines read,
Of those whose hearts are filled with greed,
Who rob and steal from those who need,
To right this wrong with blinding speed
goes Underdog! Underdog! Underdog! Underdog!
Speed of lightning! Roar of thunder!
Fighting all who rob or plunder!
Underdog! Underdog!
In this episode, evil mad scientist Simon Barsinister ventures into electoral politics by inventing a tickle machine that makes people too happy to care about voting, thus securing his election as dictator of the world. Sweet Polly Purebred's Bongo Congo song in Part 4 is a beautiful metaphor for the general state of the mainstream media. Maybe it's a reach, but I think I see a tribute here to the 1967 Chilly Willy Mukluk Bop.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

The Invention of Boredom

Watching cartoons with the girls today I looked for the stuff that did it for my dad when I was a kid: Bullwinkle and Rocky, The Underdog Show, Dudley Dooright, Peabody and Sherman, and Fractured Fairy Tales. They were all from the early sixties and ran for longer in syndication. They're all great, but Fractured Fairy Tales stands a cut above in terms of the cool early 60s mod art and clearly adult humor. This was my favorite from today. A lovely princess steps on a witch's toe and gets turned into a bore. This episode features the best cartoon witch incantation ever:
From my magic medium come ennui and tedium
dreary dreary dull and bleary Beauty's voice will make them weary
ordinary people sleep while Beauty now is just a creep!