Monday, June 28, 2010


Fired up and ready to go: Friday at the US Social Forum

by John Hill

Venezuelan democracy

I start out at a workshop on building the democracy movement in the US. This is another good one. The panel includes an indigenous woman from Venezuela. She talks about the Venezuelan experience with democracy and how peoples’ assemblies in Venezuela have been influential in bringing about a different kind of society, one in which there is a minister of indigenous affairs and the president is accessible to the people. She talks about how the United States has a false democracy and how a country whose own house is in a state of chaos cannot really help other countries.

An Alaskan Native American at the workshop talks passionately about the ongoing assault against Alaskan Indians’ way of life, and the woman (whose name is buried in a giant stack of papers in my suitcase) makes a connection with this Alaskan and says she might be able to help by telling him about her own experience.

Granny D

Another panelist is John Bonifaz, of Free Speech for His group is working for “a constitutional amendment that puts people ahead of corporations.”

Bonifaz closes his remarks by attempting to refute a participant’s suggestion that the passage of such an amendment would have “a snowball’s chance in hell” by relating the following anecdote.

Granny D, the late democracy activist, decided that campaign finance reform was so important that she walked across the country as a way to dramatize its necessity. She took this walk at age 89. Bonifaz says that during Granny D’s life, nine constitutional amendments passed.

Corporations are not people

After lunch, I attend the Move to Amend Coalition ( people’s movement assembly. Move to Amend is a coalition working for constitutional amendments that would end the status of corporations as “artificial persons.” This status was given to them as the result of an 1886 Supreme Court decision. The effect of the decision was to allow corporations, masquerading as people, to claim rights properly reserved for actual people under the first, fourth, fifth, and fourteenth amendments. Hundreds if not thousands of local, state, and federal laws that attempt to protect our elections, safety, health, environment, and right to organize have been overturned as a result of this doctrine.

The assembly is attended by about 50 activists from all over the country. It is well-organized, well-facilitated, effective, and crackling with energy. Youth is pretty well represented (people of color are not, and this shows that our still-young movement has not demonstrated to groups working on issues of concern to people of color that democracy organizing is relevant to their organizing).

There is a guy there that I saw at an earlier workshop. I had him pegged as a worn out naysayer. By the end of our workshop he is transformed. He walks up to me. He’s beaming. He says he hasn’t seen this kind of energy in years. He’s fired up. He’s ready to go.

John Hill has been an organizer, fundraiser, and activist working on many issues of social justice. Also a singer, songwriter, and musician, he now works to end corporate rule in the United States and to establish government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Friday, June 25, 2010


Practicing Democracy: More from John Hill at the US Social Forum in Detroit


Wasserman and Fitrakis on Ohio 2004 election travesty

My afternoon workshop is presented by Harvey Wasserman and Bob Fitrakis of the Columbus Free Press (, authors of a book claiming the Republicans stole the 2004 election in Ohio, a story called “most censored” by Project Censored. I haven’t read the book yet, and am reserving judgment on whether their assertion is true, although everything I have heard and what they discuss in their workshop makes this plausible to me.

In any case, they have chronicled many cases of dirty tricks, voter intimidation, mysterious “technical failures,” people in suits masquerading as officials, huge lines in poor neighborhoods, and so on. Many of their sources are mainstream. Their account is sometimes merry as they relate levels of malfeasance so preposterous that you can only laugh before maybe bursting into tears at what a mockery was made of democracy. They also relate the abject surrender of the Democrats in the face of this and the inability of some in the left press to take the story seriously while offering no compelling reason why they have not done so.

Some might consider this a dead issue now. But to me it is instructive in that it helps us see exactly some of the reforms necessary to restore integrity to our voting process.

They call for two main remedies, if I'm getting it right: publicly counted paper ballots everywhere and the universal registration of every American citizen when he or she reaches the age of 18.


The commons

Another enlightening cab ride to the forum in the morning. The cabbie says Detroit is worse than he’s ever seen it. He recounts a story of taking a desperate woman to the casino so she can try to win enough to keep from being thrown out of her house. She wins a thousand dollars to start, then loses it all. He picks her up later. She's in tears and doesn’t even have the cab fare.

But...I refer readers to Democracy Now’s coverage of the hope being brought to the city by the work of Detroit’s young activists.

My morning workshop is an interesting one about the “the commons.” This is a concept that goes back to Roman law, was in the Magna Carta, and came into English common law after that. It is the idea in part that aside from public and private property there is the commons, which consists in part of natural resources used by all, such as the air, water, and forest land. The commons provide a shared space, a resource that is shared within a community. The presenter, from the Alliance for Democracy, tells of how now, because our legislators and regulators are “compromised,” the public must often sue to gain use of these commons, which properly should be available to us as a “public trust.”

In the main hall at the Cobo Center, there are frequent cultural outbursts, enlivening the proceedings. I have seen a circle of people playing and singing traditional Mexican music (beautiful), a song and dance routine of people protesting the unfair practices of a local restaurant, and a drum troop parading through the hall and out into the street.

All's well that ends well?

My afternoon is taken up with a peoples’ movement assembly on building a nationwide progressive movement that will propose resolutions to be presented to the national peoples’ movement assembly at the end of the forum. This PMA is maybe misnamed, being mainly a discussion on what Greens and progressive Democrats and others can do together.

The workshop reveals to me a couple of enduring stumbling blocks of this segment of the movement. One is that there is still considerable disagreement among some as to whether to work with the Democrats or not, the other is that our deliberative processes in the movement are frequently chaotic, undisciplined, and not strongly facilitated. To me, this hinders democracy and weakens our effectiveness. If we’re trying to bring about democracy on a big scale, shouldn’t we be experts on its practice on a small one? To its credit, the assembly does achieve consensus on quite a few useful resolutions.

Sisterhood is powerful

Feeling a little burned out and ready for a break, I find myself accidentally at a delightful dinner with the some of the national staff of the Womens’ International League of Peace and Freedom (WILPF), a 95-year-old organization which finally realized they would get nowhere lobbying our legislators if democratic reform is not brought about. Seizing an opportunity, I write out a contribution check and hand it directly to the director of development. Now, although technically not a woman, I am a proud member of WILPF.

John Hill has been an organizer, fundraiser, and activist working on many issues of social justice. Also a singer, songwriter, and musician, he now works to end corporate rule in the United States and to establish a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Thursday, June 24, 2010


The movement to put the people back on top, where they belong - Further dispatches from Detroit

by John Hill

Tuesday (continued)

Bike caravans and drum circles

I check in attendees during the morning. I have flown in, but many attendees have driven all night, some have come in buses and caravans from various cities. I hear from another Bostonian that there was a Boston bus. Some have come from pretty far away in caravans of bikes. I notice that despite their sometimes grueling trips, everyone I check in is patient and unfailingly polite.

I finally let someone take my place and I get some lunch. Later in the afternoon the opening march arrives after completing a loop in the city. It is raucous and energetic, with local activists leading the chants. Foreclosures and utility shutoffs are big local issues and the marchers shout their protest.

The marchers file in to the cavernous main room of the center and up to the stage where the opening ceremony is taking place.

And what an opening. We are treated to a half hour of Native American drumming, song, and dance. First the drum circle begins. Five or six Indian men of different ages bend over their drums, serious, careful, and intent. They begin to sing the in the high wailing tones passed down from their ancestors. Dancers come up to the stage in their colorful costumes, a man twirling as his feathers fly about him. Three women stand center stage: a young woman, a girl, and an older woman. All tall and proud as they face forward and dance.

My appreciation of this performance comes partly out of respect for the indigenous cultures of our country today, and admiration for how Native Americans have kept their culture alive as our government continues to fail them.

I am moved because our forum has given them a place of honor, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget that drum circle, with the old men sitting by the young, teaching them, guiding them, so that they never forget who they are and where they came from (bent over their drums, serious, careful, and intent).

I’m back to my hotel room in the early evening for a little reading and to send off my first dispatch.


Voter rights, democracy wannabe

I’m out of the hotel and into a cab. I’m splitting it with a food activist with two nose rings. We talk about the connections between food issues (anything from school lunch programs to food access to community farming) and democracy issues. We’re both interested in defending our communities from rapacious corporate behavior. My mother is a water activist and I talk about her recent work. My food activist friend tells me about a big bottled water company targeting Latino consumers, playing on some of their memories of bad water in their native countries. I am struck by the contempt some corporations have for their “customers.”

The workshops at the forum are organized into “tracks” to help people make sense of the daunting list of hundreds of these workshops. I am sticking to the "Democracy and Governance" track because I am a democracy activist. What does democracy activist mean? In my own case it means someone who works for democracy because he believes that the United States is arguably not a real democracy and that many of our problems will be solved when we become one. I believe in progressive solutions, and while there is a common perception that we are a conservative country, serious public opinion polls repeatedly show that on many issues Americans are progressive in their views, and ahead of those who claim to lead us, just as the people of many nations are ahead of those that purport to lead them. So I feel that if the people can rule, progressive policies will follow.

My first workshop is on voting rights. Among the panelists is the director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, an indispensable organization defending the rights of detainees, and by extension, all of us.

The panelists talk about a voters’ bill of rights, the recent Citizens United case opening up the floodgates of corporate contributions, and possible strategies for increasing voter participation, including making election day a holiday like they do in other countries. An important point is that not only are corporations drowning out our voices with their propaganda promoting their candidates, but that we have made it almost impossible for many would-be voters to even get to the polls and pull the lever. What kind of democracy is that? Are we a proud pioneer who should be a leading light, showing the world what a vibrant democracy looks like, or a democracy wannabe, less democratic than many European and other democracies and under the thumb of private entrenched power. Guess.

Abolitionists of Detroit tour

In the afternoon I take a walking tour of abolitionist Detroit. Our guide is Sean, a recent local college graduate. He tells us how Detroit was a key stop on the Underground Railroad, with most roads to Canada leading through it. He leads us down to the "Gateway to Freedom" statue commemorating Detroit’s role. He shows us a map of the sites of Underground Railroad safe houses downtown. Along the way he tells us about leaders and sites in the struggle. I’ll excerpt from a local website:

“[There is] George De Baptiste, a black businessman and member of the Second Baptist Church in Detroit. He bought a ship, the T. Whitney, to take runaways across the Detroit River to Canada. The Second Baptist Church at Beaubien and Monroe Streets in Detroit is a 160-year-old church that helped as many as 5,000 slaves escape to freedom.

"Seymour Finney was a white Detroit hotel owner who allowed slaves to hide in his barn at the northeast corner of State and Griswold.”

We’re told that Baptiste organized armed bands that had firefights with slave catchers, sometimes snatching escaped slaves off of boats to rescue them. We’re told how Finney would entertain slave catchers in his tavern, while former slaves hid back in the barn.

I find it appropriate that we are learning about one of our great American peoples' movements (abolitionism and the Underground Railroad) as we try to bring about another great movement in that tradition, the movement to put the people back on top, where they belong.

John Hill has been an organizer, fundraiser, and activist working on many issues of social justice. Also a singer, songwriter, and musician, he now works to end corporate rule in the United States and to establish a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


Dispatches from the US Social Forum - by Boston activist and musician John Hill


Over the next couple of days I have the privilege of posting dispatches from the US Social Forum in Detroit from my friend and former colleague John Hill, a kick-ass activist and musician living in Boston.

I give you here his initial impressions, wherein he arrives and finds his way to the convention center, there pitching in to help with registration, because the Forum is short-handed and because that's just the kind of guy John is. For those of us who can't be there, it's a little taste of the superb energy and commitment percolating this week in Detroit. Read on!



When in the course...

I arrive at my hotel in Detroit in the afternoon. I want to get here early so I can settle in and prepare. In the evening I spend a good deal of time in the business center at the hotel conducting my “business,” which is to surf through the various forum sites, attempting to get my arms around the forum, which is big and sprawling.

Outside in the night there is a giant fireworks display, said to be one of the most spectacular in the world. A hotel person tells me it’s an early 4th of July celebration. I think it fitting that early-arriving forum participants are welcomed to the city with a celebration of Americans declaring their resistance to illegitimate authority. That that form of authority was quickly replaced with other forms just as illegitimate is one of the main reasons I and many other forum participants have come.


The United States Social Forum 2010

I’m off to the forum in a cab. After a quick and badly needed espresso stop we come up to the Cobo Center, a sprawling convention venue of the usual kind, which is the center of activities. Since there is an urgent need for volunteers to help with registration, I arrive a little early to pitch in. I figure it’s in the spirit of the forum to volunteer. And pretty soon I receive a comically sketchy training at the computer and I’m put to work.

As About US Social Forum online puts it: “The US Social Forum (USSF) is a movement building process. It is not a conference but it is a space to come up with the peoples’ solutions to the 
economic and ecological crisis. The USSF is the next most important step in our struggle to build a powerful multi-racial, multi-sectoral, inter-generational, diverse, inclusive, internationalist movement that transforms this country and changes history.

“We must declare what we want our world to look like and we must start planning the path to get there. The USSF provides spaces to learn from each other’s experiences and struggles, share our analysis of the problems our communities face, build relationships, and align with our international brothers and sisters to strategize how to reclaim our world.”

The forum is part of a process that began with the first World Social Forum held in Porto Alegre, Brazil in January 2001. Here there will be hundreds of workshops, as well as many “peoples' movement assemblies” where “communities, movement sectors, and regions will gather, reflect, discuss, and articulate the big issues facing our world as well as explore strategic solutions and alternative practices."

There are also cultural event of all kinds, vendor tables, work projects and work brigades, direct actions, and tours. In addition, there is space and time provided for self-organized activities, including “social plenaries” (parties).

At the registration table I start checking people in. There are quite a few glitches and holdups at first, but soon I and my fellow volunteers are humming along.

People have come from all over the country, and it’s a very diverse group by any measure. Since the waits are a little long, people gab with each other in line and sometimes have to be interrupted in their conversations so they can actually check in! Many come under the auspices of organizations: There is United for Peace and Justice, Sociologists without Borders, Philly Stands Up, Young People For (that’s it: just Young People For), the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, Wake up Walmart. I could go on, especially about the enthusiasm of the young people, but I can’t because I’m off to a workshop.

It's inspiring to see so many people (about 12,000) of so many kinds, all here to make things better, all refusing to be smoothed over and marginalized, all committed to change. As our banner says: “Another world is possible! Another US is necessary! Another Detroit is happening!

Wednesday, June 09, 2010




by Tom Hayden

Despite rhetoric about military patriots and wounded warriors, the White House, Pentagon and mainstream media have minimized attention to startling increases in deaths and casualties suffered by American troops in Afghanistan since 2008. President Obama's current escalation is expected to sharply increase the already-dramatic numbers. Death tolls have risen by 273 percent this spring in comparison to the same period in 2008. There has been a 430 percent increase in Americans wounded in Afghanistan so far this year compared to the same period in 2009. The facts are these, based on Department of Defense data: As of today, June 8, the six-month 2010 US military death toll in Afghanistan has risen to 156, surpassing the 155 total for all of 2008. These numbers more than doubled in the period January-May between 2009 and 2010: from 61 dead in January-May 2009, to 142 through May of this year.


Jan.-May 2008-2010In January-May 2008, 38 Americans were killed; 61 died in January-May 2009, an increase of 60 percent. From January-May 2009 to January-May 2010 the toll rose from 61 to 142, or a one-year 132 percentage leap. From January-May 2008 to January-May 2010 American deaths jumped from 38 to 142 in this year's first five months, a 273 percent two-year increase.


Jan.-May 2008-2010Between January and the end of April of this year, 960 American troops suffered wounds in Afghanistan, up from 181 during the same time frame last year, a 430 percent increase.Total US wounded in Afghanistan in all 2008: 793. [Between Jan-April 2008: 107]Total US wounded in Afghanistan in all 2009: 2,131.[Between Jan.-April: 181]


More US soldiers died from suicide in 2009 than were killed in either Afghanistan or Iraq. The suicide number was 334 for 2009, compared with 316 who died in Afghanistan and 149 in Iraq. The total from 2003-2009 was 923. According to the Houston Chronicle's unofficial count, there were 1,985 suicides from 2001 to 2009, including the Army, Army Reserve, Army National Guard, Navy, Navy Reserve, Air Force, Air Force Reserve, Marines and Coast Guard. At least 225 suicides have been added since the Chronicle's report of May 17, 2009. Readers should note that these totals are based on US Pentagon figures, not including the present period of May-June 2010 when fighting in Afghanistan is intensifying.


US casualty figures do not include dead or wounded private contractors. The number of contractor dead is released only through the US Department of Labor, under an insurance program known as the Defense Base Act. According to the Congressional Research Service, from September 2001 to the end of September 2009, there were 1,987 contractor deaths covered by the DBA, 73.4 percent occurring in Iraq and 14.5 percent in Afghanistan. Of the 289 deaths in Afghanistan, nearly one-third [100] occurred in the final six months of 2009, a figure certain to rise.


According to Stiglitz-Bilmes The Three Trillion Dollar War [2008], the hidden costs of American casualties in terms of total medical, disability, and Social Security Disability costs for veterans of Afghanistan alone will be $422 billion [best case] and $717 billion [realistic-moderate case].

Tuesday, June 08, 2010


The Dream the Dreamers Dream - My Piece on Words Matter

We require many role models in this work of poetry, in this work of bringing poetry into the public square, where it might challenge, comfort, disturb, imagine; where it might make a better America.

As a role model, I choose Langston Hughes, father figure, inspiration, muse.

Read the whole essay here:

It's part of Abdul Ali's terrific Fatherhood Series, in the run-up to Father's Day. Thank you for including me, Abdul!

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