Tag Archives: activist

Remembering Tom Hayden as activist who helped shape the 1960s

When news broke that Tom Hayden had died, many remembered him as the Vietnam War protester, former husband of Jane Fonda or the California legislator. But classmates and fellow activists at the University of Michigan still think of the impassioned and eloquent student who more than anyone shaped a signature document of the 1960s: the Port Huron Statement.

“He was intensely alive, hardworking, indefatigable and courageous,” said Todd Gitlin, who later wrote “The Sixties,” “Occupy Nation” and several other books about activism. “He exhibited this capacity to put a name on things and invoke the possibility of changing the world.”

Completed in 1962, the Port Huron Statement was the manifesto of the Students for a Democratic Society, one of the leading youth groups and representatives of the New Left for much of the decade. The statement’s language had an urgency and historical consciousness that recalled the Declaration of Independence and other foundational American texts, beginning with its opening statement: “We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit.”

A 25,000-word rejection of the so-called silent generation of the 1950s, the statement captured the hope and anxiety of the new decade, the awareness of material comfort and the distress over a society the students viewed as complacent, unjust and misguided. The Port Huron paper linked the civil rights movement to the nuclear arms race and other causes and advocated participatory democracy, whether through voter registration, peaceful protests or through candidates who would challenge political machines.

“When we talk about the ‘spirit of the ‘60s,’ you have to think of the Port Huron Statement. It was idealistic and aspirational, but also practical. And one of the extraordinary things about it was its elevation of political language,” Gitlin said.

Authorship of a group statement is often disputed, but friends of Hayden, who died Sunday at 76, agree that his was the essential voice and liken his role to that of Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. Both documents were critiqued and altered by quarrelsome peers, but both needed an individual capable of synthesizing and making poetry out of collective ideals.

“He was the best writer among us and was able to articulate so well all the ideas and philosophies we had been debating,” said Sharon Jeffrey Lehrer, another University of Michigan student who worked on the Port Huron Statement.

“A lot of work was done on that statement after Tom first wrote it,” says former SDS member Robert J.S. Ross, a research professor of sociology at Clark University. “There were a lot of sentences pulled out, and others pulled in. Everybody had a hand in it. But Tom was channeling us all.”

The statement was widely circulated and championed, but it was tested as the decade’s traumas accumulated, from the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., to the growing and seemingly endless U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. By the mid-1970s, the SDS had broken apart, and many young people had despaired that peaceful change _ or any change _ was possible.

But Hayden’s friends say that he never gave up on civic engagement and that the document remains vital, even if few current students have read it.

“I was on a panel with Tom once that was well publicized and had about 70 there. And half of them were old,” Ross said with a laugh. “But I think the statement really speaks to democracy being an active, not a passive process. And in that regard I see it as a living document.”

Lehrer, who became a leadership coach and co-owner of an art gallery in Northern California, said Hayden was deeply committed to democracy.

“What stands out for me about Tom, fifty plus years ago, was his commitment to a lifetime of participatory democracy,” she said. “I remember him getting up and saying he wasn’t only going to be in activist for this period (as a student). I can still see him saying that, and I remember saying, ‘Right on.’ “

Defender of dwindling forests in Cambodia wins Goldman Prize

The latest crackdown on illegal logging in Cambodia is “just a game” and big timber traders are winning, says Leng Ouch, a former government official who has spent two decades helping poor villagers fight poaching of precious tropical forests.

Leng’s tenacious and perilous crusade to stop illegal logging and stop land concessions from forcing Cambodians out of their homes has won him a Goldman Environmental Prize, which honors grassroots environmental activism.

The award follows recent announcements that Cambodian authorities plan to expand protected areas of the Southeast Asian country’s forests by about a third. Long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen, whom many consider a backer of the biggest logging group, Try Pheap, recently said he had authorized rocket attacks on illegal loggers.

But Leng and other critics say reports of raids and other high-profile shows of force against illegal loggers belie the lack of arrests or prosecutions of those cutting and trading in illegal timber.

Asked if the crackdown is for real, he said, “It’s just a game.”

“Nobody was arrested. The media was set up,” Leng said during an interview. “The Ministry of the Environment doesn’t care. They never go inside the jungle to patrol or arrest illegal loggers.”

Much of the timber trade is protected by military units that profit from deals with the loggers, and the stakes of fighting it can be deadly. At least five deaths in Cambodia have been linked to illegal logging since 2007, including that of Leng’s fellow environmentalist Chut Wutthy, who was fatally shot in 2012 while showing journalists a logging camp in the southwest’s Koh Kong province.

It’s a risk shared with other environmental crusaders defying powerful companies and government backers around the world. Honduran indigenous leader and environmentalist Berta Caceres, a winner of a 2015 Goldman Prize, was killed by assailants who broke into her home last month. She had received death threats from police, soldiers and local landowners for her efforts to block construction of a dam.

Leng said he accepts the risks as part of his mission.

“I don’t expect the government to allow me to live long,” he said.

Leng wins $175,000 for this year’s Goldman Prize, as do five other winners.

 

The other winners

  • Zuzana Caputova, a lawyer who led a campaign to shut down a toxic waste dump in Slovakia.
  • Maxima Acuna, a Peruvian farmer fighting major mining companies’ efforts to take her land for a gold and copper mine.
  • Destiny Watford, a Baltimore, Maryland, student who helped prevent construction of a trash incinerator in her area.
  • Edward Loure, a Tanzanian communal land rights leader.
  • Luis Jorge Rivera Herrera, who campaigned to create a nature peserve in Puerto Rico to protect endangered leatherback sea turtles.

Leng travels into the forest armed only with a camera and a GPS locator, tracking illegal loggers. At times he works undercover by cooking for loggers, hauling cargo on docks or posing as a tourist.

Showing determination early on, Leng excelled in his studies in mostly rural Takeo province. When his village chief denied him a permit to travel to Phnom Penh to take university exams, he says he hid on a sugar cane train to get to the city. After studying law, he was assigned to the Foreign Ministry, and later to the Ministry of Planning. Drawn into politics, he moved to a nongovernmental organization and began investigating illegal logging.

Marcus Hardtke, a German environmentalist who lives in Cambodia, says the prize is well-deserved.

“Ouch Leng is one of a handful of people fighting to stop forest destruction in Cambodia,” Hardtke said. “It is up to activists like Leng and affected local communities to make a stand against the short-sighted, greed-driven policies of the Phnom Penh elite. They are doing just that, often at great personal risk.”

Lately, Leng’s attention has focused on a conflict between local villagers and a Chinese company that is developing a massive resort on a choice swath of coastland near the Thai border in Koh Kong province.

Residents complain they were forced off their land and lost their main livelihood of fishing when they were relocated inland after the government granted a 99-year land lease to China’s Tianjin Union Development Group Co., which has built a golf resort and plans a yacht club, casino, villas and other luxury facilities.

“Before, those people could earn $2,500 a year, or about $100 a night fishing. Now they cannot fish because the Chinese company grabbed everything. They have nothing to eat,” Leng said.

The United Nations says land rights conflicts have become Cambodia’s No. 1 human rights issue. Land concessions have forced villagers to make way for plantations and other projects. Meant to promote development, such arrangements often have left communities worse off, critics say.

They’ve also accelerated the loss of precious, diverse forests of increasingly rare tropical timber, as loggers push ever deeper into protected areas and also clear-cut land of less valuable wood that is sometimes sold as fuel for factories.

Cambodia remained heavily forested until relatively recently, thanks in part to lingering battles with Khmer Rouge guerrillas and massive use of land mines during the Vietnam War.

As the economy opened in the early 1990s, investment from China poured in. Forest cover dropped to 48 percent in 2014 from 57 percent in 2010 and 73 percent in 1990, a loss of nearly 3 million hectares of tropical forest. Rosewood, known as “hongmu” in Chinese, is especially prized, and loggers can get $5,000 for a cubic meter of the brightly-hued timber.

Leng, who chairs the Cambodia Human Rights Task Forces organization, says the Goldman Prize money will help support forest patrols and community-level efforts to combat illegal logging.

Like many in Cambodia, he views the government’s record with skepticism.

“The poverty-reduction policy of the government seems to be just to kill the poor people,” Leng said.

“Their ‘master plan’ to improve living standards is set up very well and looks very beautiful. To provide jobs with fair competition and construction of schools, roads, bridges. … To provide land for the people and conserve their houses,” he said. But he added that such talk is generally not put into practice by private companies or the government.

Still, Leng believes he is making headway in convincing the public to resist the loss of their livelihoods and homes.

“Many political parties, government officials, students and monks are involved in forest issues,” Leng said. “The revolution will come from the land and from the forest.”

Slain environmental activist buried in Honduras

A large crowd in Honduras accompanied the body of Berta Caceres to its final resting place on March 5 amid calls for justice in last week’s killing of the indigenous leader and environmental activist.

Many of those carrying Caceres’ coffin on their shoulders through the dusty streets of La Esperanza were Lenca indigenous people for whose rights she had fought. Drummers pounded out Afro-Honduran rhythms as mourners chanted “The struggle goes on and on” and “Berta Caceres is present, today and forever.”

The crowd marched more than six miles (10 kilometers) from Caceres’ mother’s home to a chapel where a Mass was celebrated in her memory Saturday, and to the cemetery in La Esperanza about 190 miles (300 kilometers) east of the capital. Her four daughters and her ex-husband were among the procession.

“Forgive me, Bertita,” said Salvador Zuniga, Caceres’ former husband. “Forgive me for not understanding your greatness.”

The previous evening, Austra Flores said she hoped that her daughter’s murder will not go unpunished and that international attention will pressure Honduran authorities to find those responsible.

Caceres, 45, who was awarded the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize for her role in fighting a dam project, had complained of death threats from police, the army and landowners’ groups. She was slain early Thursday by gunmen who broke into her home and shot her four times.

“My mother died because she defended the land and rivers of her country,” Caceres’ daughter Olivia said.

Mexican human rights activist Gustavo Castro Soto was also wounded in the attack. After gunfire grazed his cheek and left hand, Castro pretended to be dead as he lay on the floor so the assailants would not finish him off, according to Security Ministry Julian Pacheco. He is considered a protected witness whose testimony is key to solving the killing.

Pacheco said two suspects have been detained for questioning, including a neighborhood private security guard. Authorities have not said what role they may have played in her killing.

President Juan Orlando Hernandez says authorities are investigating Caceres’ killing with assistance from the United States.

“We have asked for a rapid and exhaustive investigation so the full weight of the law is applied to those responsible,” U.S. Ambassador James Nealon told reporters at the funeral.

Foreign Minister Arturo Corrales vowed Friday in a meeting with diplomats that justice would be done, saying that “there is abundant information to solve the case.”

According to the website of the Goldman Environmental Prize, Caceres “waged a grassroots campaign that successfully pressured the world’s largest dam builder to pull out of the Agua Zarca Dam.”

It said the project threatened to “cut off the supply of water, food and medicine for hundreds of Lenca people and violate their right to sustainably manage and live off their land.”

Sanders in Congress: He arrived in Washington an activist

Bernie Sanders arrived in Washington as an activist, not a legislator.

The Democratic presidential candidate has preferred rabble-rousing to the schmoozing required to get bills passed. So it’s not surprising that his 25-year congressional career is defined by what he’s opposed — big banks, the Iraq War, the Patriot Act, tax cuts for the wealthy — rather than what he’s accomplished.

But Sanders has chalked up his share of victories as a congressman and senator. His successes in shepherding legislation into law involve less sexy stuff such as emergency funding for veterans’ health care, help for dairy farmers and securing money for community health centers after giving up on his “single payer” health care plan.

A Vermont Independent who says he’s a democratic socialist, Sanders often has found himself on the outside looking in. Republicans controlling the House set the agenda for 12 of his 16 years there. He did, however, display a knack for prevailing, albeit temporarily, on floor votes despite the odds.

Sanders has had a greater impact in the Senate, where Democrats were in control for eight of his nine years.

A look at his legislative record:

VETERANS

Probably Sanders’ biggest accomplishment in Congress came in 2014 while chairman of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. He worked with his House counterpart, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., on legislation to improve a veterans’ health care system scandalized by long wait times for patients and by falsified records that covered up those delays.

Sanders, Miller and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., hammered out a $16 billion agreement after weeks of sometimes testy talks. At one point, Sanders and other senators refused to attend a public bargaining session called by Miller.

Eventually, the mismatched pair of Sanders and Miller, who represents Florida’s GOP-leaning Panhandle, agreed on a compromise that required the Department of Veterans Affairs to pay private doctors to treat qualifying veterans who could not get prompt appointments at VA facilities, or who lived far from those centers.

Sanders and Miller had their disagreements, but they had little choice but to find common ground. The VA crisis was generating headlines in every congressional district as problems emerged at VA hospitals and clinics nationwide. In an election year, doing nothing was not an option.

Both men acknowledged that the bill was not what each would have written on his own. Miller wanted the VA to be able to fire senior executives without an appeal to ensure greater accountability. Sanders was wary of allowing private doctors to treat veterans, fearing it could be the first step to privatizing the VA.

Republicans say their concerns about the appeals process negotiated by Sanders have come true with the reversal of several high-profile firings and demotions by VA leaders.

The Merit Systems Protection Board, an independent agency that handles appeals by federal workers, reversed demotions of two VA executives accused of gaming the department’s hiring system for personal gain and the firing of an Albany, New York, medical director over patient safety concerns.

HEALTH CARE

Sanders was, and still is, a proponent of a government-run, single-payer health care system patterned after Medicare. He proposed the idea in 2009 as an alternative to the health care measure developed by President Barack Obama with Democratic leaders.

Sanders was forced to abandon the effort for lack of support. He regularly complained during the writing of the president’s health overhaul that it wasn’t progressive enough.

Instead, with his support needed to pass the measure, Sanders turned his sights upon procuring money for community health centers that provide primary care to millions of people for free or at a reduced cost. In the end, he played a major role in getting more than $12 billion for community health centers, particularly in rural areas.

DAIRY FARMERS

Sanders was instrumental in the 2009 fight to deliver money to dairy farmers struggling because of low milk prices. As the Senate considered a routine agriculture spending bill, Sanders offered an amendment to provide $350 million in emergency aid. He won a surprising 60-37 vote with help from four Republicans. Other dairy state Democrats embraced the proposal and Obama signed the measure into law.

AMENDMENTS

In the House, despite a GOP stranglehold, Sanders displayed skill in winning votes on amendments to legislation, often spending bills. These included increased funds for low-income heating assistance, weatherization help for the poor and funds for rural schools.

In most instances, however, they were temporary victories; GOP leaders reversed the outcome later in the legislative process. One exception was an amendment Sanders authored with Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., to prohibit the Pentagon from reimbursing defense contractors for costs and job cuts associated with mergers. The proposal was accepted and signed into law as part of a Pentagon spending bill.

“At a time when people are scared to death about whether or not they are going to have their decent paying jobs, they do not want to see their tax dollars going to large multibillion-dollar corporations so that these companies can then merge and lay off American workers,” Sanders said. 

Proposed hog farm prompts Bayfield County to tighten regs

UPDATED: With a proposed factory farm threatening to foul Wisconsin’s “Crown Jewel,” the citizens of Bayfield County are not turning away from the stink or running from the fight.

State law prohibits the local jurisdiction from saying “no” to the proposed “concentrated animal feeding operation” in the town of Eileen, but the county on Jan. 26 adopted ordinances intended to tighten regulations and protect the health and safety of the area’s residents and the environment.

Bayfield County supervisors voted unanimously for an ordinance to create an operations permit for large-scale CAFOs and also for an ordinance to create an animal manure permit. The approach, creating local regulations on operations, is like the strategy local jurisdictions employed to control frac sand mines.

The grassroots Farms Not Factories  encouraged people to attend the meeting to show their support for stricter control and their opposition to the siting of the factory farm. The votes brought a standing ovation from opponents of the project, who are concerned with air emissions, odor impacts, water pollution, the release of pathogens and inadequate regulatory oversight.

The proposal

About a year ago, Reicks View Farms filed an application with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources seeking a permit to discharge annually about 6.8 million gallons of liquid manure — to be produced by 26,000 hogs at a planned breeding and feeding operation in Bayfield County. The manure would be stored in pits under covered barns and then injected into soil on about 1,300 acres in the Lake Superior watershed. Reicks wants to move the operation from Iowa because of the porcine epidemic diarrhea virus that’s so devastating to suckling pigs. Animals would be raised at the Wisconsin Badgerwood CAFO and then shipped to Iowa.

An application filed with the state indicated the operation would create 27 new jobs, but didn’t say whether the positions would be permanent or what salaries they might pay.

Farms Not Factories says a document provided to county officials and prepared by Reicks stated the business selected Eileen because of “its natural seclusion” — referring to the area’s isolation from hog farms in Iowa, Illinois and other parts of Wisconsin.

The response

Wisconsinites who care about the state’s outdoors know about a different type of “natural seclusion” in the region, which is home to the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest, Iron River National Fish Hatchery, North Country National Scenic Trail, St. Croix National Scenic Riverway and Whittlesey Creek National Wildlife Refuge.

Wisconsinites familiar with the state’s geography also know that Eileen is in the Fish Creek Watershed and less than 8 miles from the Chequamegon Bay and Lake Superior. One of Farms Not Factories’ slogans is “10 percent of the world’s fresh water is more valuable to this planet than cheap bacon and pork tenderloin.”

Wisconsin already is home to about 270 large-scale CAFOs. The number has skyrocketed from about 50 in 2006, when Gov. Jim Doyle signed legislation setting basic state standards for CAFOs and removing local control over siting the farms. “That legislation was put in place to provide regulatory certainty for Big Ag,” said Mary Dougherty of Farms Not Factories.

The Badgerwood CAFO would be the first such operation in Lake Superior basin and the largest hog farm in the state. Farms Not Factories said the hogs at Badgerwood would produce as much waste as a city of 50,000 people.

A moratorium on the development of large-scale farms was enacted in both Bayfield after plans for Badgerwood emerged.

Since then, the project and possible responses have been under review.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said it is looking at the project, in part because of concerns about pollution raised by the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, whose reservation is east of Ashland on the Lake Superior shore, and the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, whose reservation is north of Bayfield.

The DNR agreed to do an environmental-impact statement and has collected a lot of public input — hundreds of suggestions and statements from citizens, scientists and advocacy groups. A draft of the EIS is yet to be released. Public comment would follow, then any revisions before the publication of a final EIS, which may or may not influence the state’s decision on the application for Badgerwood.

Meanwhile, the reviews seem complete in Bayfield and Ashland counties. 

A committee established by the Bayfield County Board of Supervisors studied the issue, guided by the dual goals of “having a thriving agricultural community and maintaining the public’s health and safety and a healthy environment,” according to its final report.

The committee studied issues relating to ground water, surface water, microbiology and air quality and recommended the adoption of the Large-Scale Confined Animal Feeding Operations Ordinance to require new or expanding livestock operations of 1,000 animals or more to obtain a county operations permit and meet any conditions attached to the permit.

The committee made some other recommendations, including the adoption of the Bayfield County Animal Waste Storage and Management Ordinance requiring new or expanding CAFOs to obtain a permit for storing and managing manure.

“We can’t legally say ‘no,’” said Dougherty, “So, as a result, we came up with this — because we have to do something.”

A poll recently released by Northland College’s Center for Rural Communities shows 63.3 percent of residents oppose the farm and there’s strong support for the county ordinances.

Nearly three-quarters — 72.5 percent — of households support the tighter local regulations at the county level. 

Residents’ top five concerns for factory farms are water quality, smell, divisions in the community, air quality and health risks.

These concerns are shared elsewhere in Wisconsin, which is why activists are developing a statewide coalition.

“We have to have this as a mass movement and say this type of agriculture is not Wisconsin,” said Dougherty.

Activist Grace Lee Boggs dies at 100, leaves lasting legacy

Activist Grace Lee Boggs, 100, died on Oct. 5 in Detroit, leaving behind a long history of humane, revolutionary activism aimed at transforming U.S. society. Her vision of social justice and universal human rights inspired admiration and emulation.

As an activist and writer, Boggs worked closely with husband James Boggs, an African-American autoworker. Their unabashed advocacy of the Black Power movement drew them to Malcolm X, who stayed at their home when he visited Detroit.

The vision of Grace Lee and James Boggs, who died in 1993, was never restricted by race, gender, sexual orientation or class. They focused on building a tolerant, multi-racial society founded on economic and social equality.

In the eyes of the powerful, including the FBI, which compiled an 884-page file on her, Grace Lee Boggs was a dangerous revolutionary. But she was untroubled by the “subversive” label with which she was branded.

“She never, never backed away from the idea of an American revolution,” said Rich Feldman, a board member of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership in Detroit. “For her, revolution meant more creating power than taking power. It meant self-transformation toward becoming broader, more cooperative human beings. She saw people moving from being workers and consumers into becoming self-governing citizens.”

Boggs spread her message through her writings, lectures, extensive and probing conversations with a wide range of people and an indefatigable energy in launching projects to create what she called “a beloved community.”

Boggs was especially noted for her bottom-up efforts to rebuild Detroit — which was devastated when the giant automakers moved many jobs to Mexico and China and then robbed of democracy by Gov. Rick Snyder, who installed his hand-picked “emergency manager” Kevyn Orr to displace elected officials and run the city.

Boggs thus found herself operating in a city stripped of its right to democratic self-rule and beleaguered by high unemployment, rampant crime, a falling population, decaying housing stock and collapsing infrastructure.

At the same time, corporate planners sought to impose their vision for the city’s future, stressing gentrification and massive public subsidies for projects like a new arena for the Detroit Red Wings hockey team. Privately owned by billionaires, the arena will be built with $450 million in public funds.

Boggs responded by initiating and consolidating a number of grassroots projects that represented a vastly different vision of Detroit’s future. She promoted urban agriculture on the vast acres of land left empty by torn-down factories and housing. That effort provided meaningful, community-building work and a plentiful supply of healthy food to residents, who otherwise lived in “food deserts” where fast-food restaurants and corner groceries supplied limited diets.

Her experiments in urban agriculture helped reinforce similar efforts in other cities, such as Milwaukee’s Walnut Way and Growing Power project, led by Will Allen, said longtime Milwaukee activist James Godsil.

Boggs also spawned annual Detroit Summer programs involving teenagers and other young people in art, music, dance, rebuilding homes and urban agriculture. Godsil recalled Boggs’ remarkable rapport as she circulated among discussion tables filled with teenagers talking about the possibilities of a new Detroit rebuilt from the bottom up.

Godsil remembers being impressed by Boggs at a 2006 conference, where “she broke down complex ideas simply.” Always insistent on re-evaluating and rethinking the goals of those seeking to radically restructure America, “She quoted Martin Luther King on the ‘bitter but beautiful’ struggle for the new world we’re conceiving.”

Boggs continued her outspoken advocacy throughout her life. In poor communities, she aided in fighting the “crack houses” proliferating in vacant, abandoned homes. She was prominent in fighting the widespread water shut-offs of poor people imposed by the municipal water authority at the direction of Orr, who at the same time let major corporations rack up massive overdue water bills.

Boggs saw her activism and community projects as building a “beloved community” that represented a radically different version of the new Detroit promoted by Snyder, Orr and corporate interests. In her eyes, she was creating on a small scale a new society within the shell of the old.

Boggs spread her influence with her writing, as well as activism. She and James Boggs co-authored Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century. She wrote Living for Change: An Autobiography (1998) and The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century (2011) with Scott Kurashige.

Boggs’s staying power eventually produced widespread recognition and fame. She became a much sought-after lecturer across the nation and abroad because of the energy and imagination she displayed even as she grew older. She was the subject of a memorable 2007 interview by Bill Moyers and was featured in Grace Lee’s (no relation) PBS documentary  American Revolutionary: Grace Lee Boggs.

Boggs 100th birthday was marked by numerous celebrations, with the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center sharing 100 of Boggs’ most memorable quotes, one for each of her years.

In recent years, Boggs accumulated honorary degrees from a number of major universities. But she was at her most joyful, said Rich Feldman, when she saw young people from Detroit’s mean streets take part in community efforts and transform their lives.

“Her greatest honor ever was speaking at the graduation of the Freedom Growers, a group of young people working on an urban farm,” Feldman said. “She’d spoken at graduations at the University of Michigan and other prestigious places, but giving the graduation speech to these young people really made her smile.”

On the Web

To learn more, visit www.boggscenter.org.

Artist rendering U.S.-Mexico border fence ‘invisible’

Armed with sky-blue paint, artist Ana Teresa Fernandez began to “erase” the border fence that splits up Mexico and the U.S. near Nogales, Mexico.

Fernandez, who was born in Mexico but raised in San Diego, is leading an effort to paint the border fence in Nogales, Sonora, so blue that it blends with the sky, rendering it nearly invisible. Nogales sits on the border with Nogales, Arizona.

Fernandez solicited the help of about 30 volunteers who helped paint.

“This wall has become a symbol of pain, a symbol where we lament the lives who have not been able to cross it,” Fernandez said.

The artist wants to use her painting as a visual platform of migrant and human rights on an international level.

“For me, the border, the border wall, is like a tombstone,” she said.

Neither the Mexican or U.S. authorities interrupted the painters as they covered a little over 30 feet of fencing with blue paint.

“It’s not erasing the border, it’s pulling the sky down to us,” the 34-year-old said.

This isn’t the first time Fernandez “pulls down they sky.”

She painted the border fence on a beach in Tijuana in 2012, saying the border fence mostly exists for Mexicans, not Americans.

This week’s project attracted the attention of Luis Guerra, an immigrant who was deported two years ago. Guerra lived in the U.S. since he was 13 years old and has U.S.-born children. The 36-year-old said he can’t enter to the U.S. to see his family.

Guerra volunteered to paint.

“It gives me strength. It makes me feel like I’m strong,” Guerra said. “Now I don’t feel like I’m in jail. It looks nice.”

Susannah Castro, of Border Community Alliance, invited Fernandez to take on this project. She said Mexican authorities were made aware of the project and didn’t object.

“We’re not doing anything illegal. We’re an humanitarian organization and we’re not gonna shy away from these topics,” Castro said.

Added Fernandez: “The role of an artist is to make sure people don’t become compliant.”

Monument to Mother Jones rededicated in Illinois

The monument to “the grandmother of all agitators” in Mount Olive, Illinois, has been rededicated.

Mary Harris “Mother” Jones requested burial among the rank-and-file workers in the Union Miners Cemetery when she died in 1930. 

More than $76,000 was collected to restore the 22-foot pink Minnesota granite obelisk erected in 1936. A state grant and donated labor helped spruce up the rest of the site.

Visitors to the Saturday ceremony included U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, a Springfield Democrat who has suggested Mother Jones replace Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill. 

Jones was a labor activist who organized strikes and co-founded the Industrial Workers of the World.

Mount Olive is planning a Mother Jones museum in a building housing city offices.

Indiana’s religious freedom law inspires pro-pot advocate to create a temple to weed

By Louis Weisberg

Staff writer

The same day that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed the state’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Bill Levin filed paperwork with the Indiana Secretary of State to open a new church — The First Church of Cannabis. His application was approved and, thanks to the state’s new religious freedom law and a flurry of publicity that brought in thousands of dollars in donations, practitioners of his faith soon should be lighting up with the same impunity as a nun saying her rosary.

It appears that Indiana lawmakers were so focused on preventing evangelical Christians from being forced to bake wedding cakes for lesbians that they left a loophole in the RFRA. Although the RFRA has been amended to add that the law can’t be used to deny services to gays, it says nothing about other exceptions, including sacramental marijuana. 

Speaking from his home in Indianapolis, where a recalcitrant pet cockatoo kept interrupting the conversation by banging its metal dish, Levin told WiG that his church application and the RFRA created “the perfect storm” for him. A lifelong advocate for legalizing pot — he even ran for public office once on a pro-cannabis platform — Levin is a co-founder of the political action committee Relegalize Indiana PAC, a pro-pot lobbying group.

“I have looked for five years for people to debate me on a public forum about cannabis and not one person in this city will go into a public debate with me,” Levin said.

But the RFRA and the acceptance of his filing as a nonprofit religious corporation changed his approach.

Levin said: “I thought they should burn that piece of shit bill (the RFRA) before it ever left the senate or house, but the dumb bastard signed it and I thought, ‘If you’re going to sign it baby…’” Unfortunately, he was interrupted by the clanging cockatoo, but his meaning was clear: Levin intends to take full advantage of the law, which prohibits anyone from being forced to do anything that flies in the face of their religion. He’s creating what he calls a “house of hemp” for its worshippers.

Indiana attorney Abdul-Hakim Shabazz agreed that the RFRA should make pot smoking perfectly legal in a religious context. “As long as you can show that reefer is part of your religious practices, you got a pretty good shot of getting off scot-free,” he wrote on Indypolitics.org.

Shabazz noted that marijuana consumption is part of faith traditions practiced by Hindus, Buddhists and Rastafarians.

“All the religions I know are out of date,” Levin said. “They came around 4,000 or 5,000 years ago and got translated into things that people misinterpret. We’re not going to have any magic books.” 

Levin said his church’s “good book” is The Emperor Wears No Clothes, by Jack Herer. Published in 1985, “it was the first book to break the cherry of cannabis,” Levin said, by explaining the numerous benefits of the marijuana plant.

The First Church of Cannabis also involves promoting 12 steps to live by. There’s no association between his 12 steps and a well-known recovery program for alcoholics and other addicts.

For instance, Levin’s 11th step exhorts believers to “laugh often, have humor and be positive,” he said. 

“Everyone else is sharing guilt, shame and sin,” he said. “I’m saying, ‘You go out and have fun—be positive in life.”

“We’re trying to stay away from karma and alter egos,” he added. “And costuming. We’re just building our own religion based on love, understanding — simple things.”

Wisconsin fights back against ‘Citizens United’

Jan. 21 marked the fifth anniversary of Citizens United and Wisconsinites are fighting back against that awful U.S. Supreme Court decision as never before.

In the 5-4 decision, conservatives on the court ruled that corporations are persons and money is speech, and therefore corporations, unions and other associations can spend as much as they want on their candidates.

The results have been disastrous for our democracy. Outside spending in federal races quadrupled in 2012 to a staggering $1 billion. And get this: About 60 percent of that came from just 195 individuals and their spouses.

It didn’t even come from the top 1 percent. It came from the top 0.01 percent.

This is not democracy. This is plutocracy.

Here in Wisconsin, we’ve seen the pernicious effect of Citizens United as the Koch brothers have spent $5.5 million in our state, not only helping Scott Walker but knocking out two Kenosha school board members.

The school privatizers spent $850,000 to elect Republicans to the state Legislature last fall.

And mining company Gogebic Taconite sent $700,000 to the Republican Party of Wisconsin during the recalls. It was a good investment, since the Republicans subsequently rammed through a bill that was partially written by GTac and gave the company all it wanted.

This is blatant corruption. We all pay the price when the environment that we treasure gets wrecked, when our public schools get destroyed and when unions get busted — pushing down wages and workplace safety.

There’s a scene in the documentary As Goes Janesville in which Diane Hendricks, the billionaire co-founder of ABC Supply in Beloit, urged Walker to make Wisconsin a “right-to-work” state. She gave the Republican Party of Wisconsin $1 million last fall after Judge Rudolph Randa, relying on Citizens United, threw out the $10,000 limit that any individual could give in one political season. Randa’s decision also prompted a liberal Milwaukee philanthropist to give $1 million to the Democratic Party of Wisconsin.

Citizens United has reduced the vast majority of Americans to mere bystanders.

But Wisconsinites are not standing for it. In 54 villages, towns, cities and counties, they have voted by overwhelming margins to overturn Citizens United and to amend the U.S. Constitution to state, unequivocally, that corporations are not persons and money is not speech.

From Douglas County to the city of Elkhorn, from Eau Claire County to the city of Waukesha, Wisconsinites have been rising up.

And we are not alone. Citizens have made this happen in about 600 places around the country, including 16 states.

Wisconsin has a chance to join that list of states.

Two weeks ago, state Assemblywoman Lisa Subeck introduced a bill to bring a statewide referendum to the people, asking Wisconsinites whether we want to amend the U.S. Constitution to get rid of the falsehoods that corporations are persons and money is speech.

As Subeck said, “The Supreme Court effectively sold our democracy to the highest bidder.”

We need to take our democracy off the auction block and return it to the people. Amending the U.S. Constitution is the way to go.

Matthew Rothschild is the executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign at wisdc.org.