Why We Won’t Wait (Double participation)

Published November 29, 2014 by djlwsu

Why We Won’t Wait


Wait. Patience. Stay Calm. “This is a country that allows everybody to express their views,” said the first Black president, “allows them to peacefully assemble, to protest actions that they think are unjust.” Don’t disrupt, express. Justice will be served. We respect the rule of law. This is America.

We’ve all been waiting for the grand jury’s decision, not because most of us expected an indictment. District Attorney Robert P. McCulloch’s convoluted statement explaining—or rather, defending—how the grand jury came to its decision resembled a victory speech. For a grand jury to find no probable cause even on the lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter is a stunning achievement in a police shooting of an unarmed teenager with his hands raised, several yards away. Distilling 4,799 pages of grand jury proceedings to less than twenty minutes, he managed to question the integrity of eyewitnesses, accuse the 24-hour news cycle and social media for disrupting the investigation, and blame alleged neighborhood violence for why the removal of Mike Brown’s body from the pavement had to wait until morning. McCulloch never indicted a cop in his life, so why expect anything different now?

Some waited hoping for a miracle; most waited because they knew a crisis was brewing. The white folks in St. Louis and surrounding municipalities, as well as the state of Missouri, used the waiting period to prepare for war. Residents bought more guns and ammunition, stockpiled on plywood to cover store windows, installed alarm systems and window bars, stocked up on food and water. Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency, calling up National Guard forces from across the state and beyond, training the state militia for riot control and counterinsurgency. The federal government has dispatched FBI agents, some presumably undercover operating inside protest movements. As I write these words, all forces are being deployed against protesters and the Black community more generally, and the governor has requested more National Guard troops.

Meanwhile, as we waited for the grand jury’s decision, a twelve-year-old Black boy named Tamir Rice was shot and killed by police in Cleveland because the officer mistook his toy gun for a real one. Tamir was playing outside of Cleveland’s Cudell Recreation Center, one of the few public facilities left that provide safe space for children.

As we waited, Cleveland cops took the life of Tanisha Anderson, a 37-year-old Black woman suffering from bipolar disorder. Police arrived at her home after family members called 911 to help her through a difficult crisis, but rather than treat her empathetically they did what they were trained to do when confronted with Black bodies in Black neighborhoods—they treated her like an enemy combatant. When she became agitated, one officer wrestled her to the ground and cuffed her while a second officer pinned her “face down on the ground with his knee pressed down heavily into the back for 6 to 7 minutes, until her body went completely limp.” She stopped breathing. They made no effort to administer CPR, telling the family and witnesses that she was sleeping. When the ambulance finally arrived twenty minutes later, she was dead.

As we waited, police in Ann Arbor, Michigan, killed a forty-year-old Black woman named Aura Rain Rosser. She was reportedly brandishing a kitchen knife when the cops showed up on a domestic violence call, although her boyfriend who made the initial report insisted that she was no threat to the officers. No matter; they opened fire anyway.

As we waited, a Chicago police officer fatally shot 19-year-old Roshad McIntosh. Despite the officer’s claims, several eyewitnesses reported that McIntosh was unarmed, on his knees with his hands up, begging the officer to hold his fire.

As we waited, police in Saratoga Springs, Utah, pumped six bullets into Darrien Hunt, a 22-year-old Black man dressed kind of like a ninja and carrying a replica Samurai sword. And police in Victorville, California, killed Dante Parker, a 36-year-old Black man and father of five. He had been stopped while riding his bike on suspicion of burglary. When he became “uncooperative,” the officers repeatedly used Tasers to try to subdue him. He died from his injuries.

As we waited, a twenty-eight-year-old Black man named Akai Gurley met a similar fate as he descended a stairwell in the Louis H. Pink Houses in East New York, Brooklyn. The police were on a typical reconnaissance mission through the housing project. Officer Peter Liang negotiated the darkened stairwell, gun drawn in one hand, flashlight in the other, prepared to take down any threat he encountered. According to liberal mayor Bill DeBlasio and police chief Bill Bratton, Mr. Gurley was collateral damage. Apologies abound. He left a two-year-old daughter.

As we waited, LAPD officers stopped 25-year-old Ezell Ford, a mentally challenged Black man, in his own South Los Angeles neighborhood and shot him to death. The LAPD stopped Omar Abrego, a 37-year-old father from Los Angeles, and beat him to death.

And as we waited and waited and waited, Darren Wilson got married, continued to earn a paycheck while on leave, and received over $400,000 worth of donations for his “defense.”

You see, we’ve been waiting for dozens, hundreds, thousands of indictments and convictions. Every death hurts. Every exonerated cop, security guard, or vigilante enrages. The grand jury’s decision doesn’t surprise most Black people because we are not waiting for an indictment. We are waiting for justice—or more precisely, struggling for justice.  We all know the names and how they died. Eric Garner, Kajieme Powell, Vonderitt D. Meyers, Jr., John Crawford III, Cary Ball Jr., Mike Brown, ad infinitum. They were unarmed and shot down by police under circumstances for which lethal force was unnecessary. We hold their names like recurring nightmares, accumulating the dead like ghoulish baseball cards. Except that there is no trading. No forgetting. Just a stack of dead bodies that rises every time we blink. For the last three trayvonsgenerations, Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Stewart, Eula Love, Amadu Diallo, Oscar Grant, Patrick Dorismond, Malice Green, Tyisha Miller, Sean Bell, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Margaret LaVerne Mitchell, to name a few, have become symbols of racist police violence.   And I’m only speaking of the dead—not the harassed, the beaten, the humiliated, the stopped-and-frisked, the raped.

Meanwhile, Governor Jay Nixon, President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, the mainstream press and every state-anointed Negro leader lecture Black people to stay calm and remain non-violent, when the main source of violence has been the police. Mike Brown’s murder brought people out to the streets, where they were met with tear gas and rubber bullets. State violence is always rendered invisible in a world where cops and soldiers are heroes, and what they do is always framed as “security,” protection, and self-defense. Police occupy the streets to protect and serve the citizenry from (Black) criminals out of control. This is why, in every instance, there is an effort to depict the victim as assailant – Trayvon Martin used the sidewalk as a weapon, Mike Brown used his big body.   A lunge or a glare from a Black person can constitute an imminent threat. When the suburb of Ferguson blew up following Mike Brown’s killing on August 9, the media and mainstream leadership were more concerned with looting and keeping the “peace” than the fact that Darren Wilson was free on paid leave. Or that leaving Brown’s bullet-riddled, lifeless body, on the street for four and a half hours, bleeding, cold, stiff from rigor mortis, constituted a war crime in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. It was, after all, an act of collective punishment – the public display of the tortured corpse was intended to terrorize the entire community, to punish everyone into submission, to remind others of their fate if they step out of line. We used to call this “lynching.”

War? Yes, war. The immediate and sustained resistance to the police following Mike Brown’s murder revealed the low intensity war between the state and Black people, and the disproportionate use of force against protesters following the grand jury’s decision escalated the conflict. To the world at large, Ferguson looked like a war zone because the police resembled the military with their helmets, flak jackets, armed personnel carriers, and M-16 rifles. But African-American residents of Ferguson and St Louis proper, and in impoverished communities across the country, did not have to endure tear gas or face down riot cops to know that they were already living in a war zone—hence Mike Brown’s and Dorian Johnson’s initial trepidation toward the police.

Past and present police violence in the area gave Brown and Johnson good reason to fear Wilson. The prosecution turned what may have seemed like a reasonable act of self-defense on the part of a startled and angry eighteen-year-old kid into an “assault of a law officer in the first degree.” That Wilson feared for his life was all he needed to justify lethal force. But it is the instructions to the grand jury toward the end of the three-month-long deliberations that deserve our attention. After asking jurors to judge Wilson’s actions against Missouri statute on police use of deadly force, the assistant county prosecutors, Sheila Whirley and Kathi Alizadeh, suddenly announced that after “doing our research” they learned that the statute had been superseded by a U.S. Supreme Court decision. In lieu of the decision and the old statute, Whirley wrote up a description of how the law applies when an officer can use force when making an arrest. When a grand juror began asking questions for clarification, Whirley explains that the old law “is not entirely incorrect or inaccurate, but there is something that is not correct, ignore it totally.” She then indicates that they will rely on the U. S. Supreme Court decision in Tennessee v. Garner (1985), “not that that matters much to you. . . .   We don’t want to get into a law class.”   She went on to focus on the self-defense instruction.

But just a quick glance at the decision reveals that the ruling was intended to limit the use of deadly force, arguing that killing a fleeing suspect constitutes an intrusive “seizure” potentially violating 4thAmendment protections against being deprived of life. If a suspect is not armed and dangerous, the use of deadly force is not warranted and thus the seizure of life is not reasonable.

Whether we call it a war on drugs, or “Operation Ghetto Storm” as the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement dubs it, what we are dealing with is nothing less than permanent war waged by the state and its privatized allies on a mostly poor and marginalized Black and Brown working-class. Five centuries in the making, it stretches from slavery and imperialism to massive systematic criminalization. We see the effects on our children, in the laws that make it easier to prosecute juveniles as adults; in the deluge of zero tolerance policies (again a by-product of the war on drugs); in the startling fact that expulsions and suspensions have risen exponentially despite a significant decline in violent crime. Crisis, moral panics, neoliberal policies, racism fuel an expansive system of human management based on incarceration, surveillance, containment, pacification, lethal occupation, and gross misrepresentation.

The Black community of Ferguson and adjacent communities experience war every single day, in routine police stops, fines for noise ordinance violations (e.g., playing loud music), for fare-hopping on St. Louis’s light rail system, for uncut grass or unkempt property, trespassing, wearing “saggy pants,” expired driver’s license or registration, “disturbing the peace,” among other things. If these fines or tickets are not paid, they may lead to jail time, the loss of one’s car or other property, or the loss of one’s children to social services. The criminal justice system is used to exact punishment and tribute, a kind of racial tax, on poor/working class Black people. In 2013, Ferguson’s municipal court issued nearly 33,000 arrest warrants to a population of just over 21,000, generating about $2.6 million dollars in income for the municipality. That same year, 92 percent of searches and 86 percent of traffic stops in Ferguson involved black people, this despite the fact that one in three whites was found carrying illegal weapons or drugs, while only one in five blacks had contraband.

And yet, defenders of the status quo always deflect critiques of state violence by citing the number of intra-racial homicides in low-income Black communities. Who can forget former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s recent quip to Michael Eric Dyson on “Meet the Press”?: “White police officers wouldn’t be there [in black neighborhoods] “if you weren’t killing each other.” Racist bluster, to be sure, but such assertions have succeeded in foreclosing a deeper interrogation of how neoliberal policies (i.e., dismantling the welfare state; promoting capital flight; privatizing public schools, hospitals, housing, transit, and other public resources; investing in police and prisons,) are a form of state violence that produces scarcity, environmental and health hazards, poverty, and alternative (illegal) economies rooted in violence and subjugation.

Ironically, Giuliani’s vitriol makes a compelling case for the failure of modern law enforcement. If the police are charged with keeping the peace and protecting citizens, but instead have contributed to the “epidemic” of violent deaths, then a case can be made for the complete withdrawal of the police from Black and Brown neighborhoods. The police are trained for combat and often regard the youth in low-income communities of color as potential enemy combatants. This is why the killing of “innocent” Black men in dark stairwells, Black women with kitchen knives, or little boys brandishing toy guns are not accidents.   Cops patrol these areas with their weapon close at hand; behind every shadow lurks a suspect, and in war it is kill or be killed.

In light of Missouri’s failure to indict Darren Wilson for the murder of Mike Brown, calling for the withdrawal of the police—even temporarily—is a reasonable demand for people terrorized by state violence and feeling particularly vulnerable over their safety. They want law and order, but the police have shown a consistent disrespect for the law, flagrantly violated the Constitution, and operated with little to no accountability. Instead, the police operate as a rogue outfit, their actions create disorder and fear. Furthermore, failure to indict effectively exonerates the police force, providing a pretext for the police to ramp up violence and repression in response to the legitimate expression of anger and frustration over the government’s failure to protect Black lives and ensure justice. It is already happening in the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision, as riot police invade the headquarters of Hands Up United as well as designated safe spaces.

The young organizers in Ferguson from Hands Up United, Lost Voices, Organization for Black Struggle, Don’t Shoot Coalition, Millennial Activists United, and the like, understand they are at war. Tef Poe, Tory Russell, Montague Simmons, Cheyenne Green, Ashley Yates, and many other young Black activists in the St. Louis area have not been waiting around for an indictment. Nor are they waiting for the much vaunted Federal probe, for they have no illusions about a federal government that provides military hardware to local police, builds prisons, kills tens of thousands by manned and unmanned planes without due process, and arms Israel in its illegal wars and occupation. They have been organizing. So have the young Chicago activists who founded We Charge Genocide and the Black Youth Project, and the Los Angeles-based youth who make up the Community Rights Campaign, and the hundreds of organizations across the country challenging everyday state violence and occupation. They remind us, not only that Black lives matter—that should be self-evident—but that resistance matters. It matters because we are still grappling with the consequences of settler colonialism, racial capitalism and patriarchy. It mattered in post-Katrina New Orleans, a key battleground in neoliberalism’s unrelenting war on working people, where Black organizers lead multiracial coalitions to resist the privatization of schools, hospitals, public transit, public housing, and dismantling public sector unions.   The young people of Ferguson continue to struggle with ferocity, not just to get justice for Mike Brown or to end police misconduct but to dismantle racism once and for all, to bring down the Empire, to ultimately end war.

Robin D. G. Kelley, who teaches at UCLA, is the author of the remarkable biography Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (2009) and most recently Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times (2012). He is a contributor to Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence.


 Sweet potatoes make a bitter harvest for farm workers (Double participation)

Published November 29, 2014 by djlwsu
Labor conditions in the fields growing a favorite Thanksgiving offering have ‘stagnated or gotten worse’ in recent years

The sweet potato harvest starts in mid-September and can extend as late as mid-November. Thousands of agricultural laborers trudge through the fields, filling buckets with the tubers and hauling them back to waiting trucks. Sometimes they work as few as five hours a day; sometimes, as many as 12. One full bucket earns a worker about  $0.40 or $0.50. But the work — crouch to fill the bucket, run it back to the truck, repeat over and over until the day is done — is backbreaking.

Welcome to North Carolina, where the state vegetable is the sweet potato and the state minimum wage is $7.25. Nearly half of the United States’ crop hails from here, especially the coastal plain region. Any given Thanksgiving feast is likely to include at least a portion of that crop, harvested by low-wage workers under grueling conditions.

“Sweet potatoes are definitely one of the biggest labor-intensive crops in the state, second probably only to tobacco,” Justin Flores, vice president of the agricultural workers’ union FLOC (Farm Labor Organizing Committee), told Al Jazeera America.

Like tobacco pickers, sweet potato harvesters often don’t receive a standard hourly wage. Instead they’re paid a piece rate, meaning compensation is based on the volume they’re able to haul each day. The law says their hourly pay can never dip below the legal minimum wage, but employers don’t always comply, said Flores.

“In sweet potatoes, you get a lot of the folks who are working for the bucket,” Flores said. “And for big chunks of the season, they’re making less than minimum wage. It really depends on the yield of the farm you’re working at.”

Exact data on wages can be hard to come by, given the casual, seasonal nature of the work and the fact that many agricultural laborers are undocumented immigrants. The most comprehensive figures in recent years were probably those from the U.S. Labor Department’s 2005 National Agricultural Workers Survey, based on 6,472 farm worker interviews conducted between October 2000 and September 2002. The survey found agricultural workers’ average income to be somewhere between $10,000 and $12,499 per year.

And low wages might not be the worst of it. Last month, the Urban Institute, a public policy think tank, released a major study on labor trafficking in the U.S. that found agriculture to be among the top industries in which trafficking occurs. Many of those trafficked workers are children.

2013 survey of North Carolina agriculture workers found that roughly 25 percent “reported ever experiencing a situation that may constitute trafficking.” For example, the researchers said they heard reports of “workers who reported not being able to leave the camp, being paid less than expected, and appearing fearful.”

Many of the North Carolina farm workers who spend their autumns harvesting sweet potatoes wind up picking tobacco over the summer. Thousands of those tobacco pickers work on farms that have contracts with the tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds, and FLOC is currently attempting to push the company into guaranteeing a baseline for labor standards on all of those farms.

North Carolina tobacco travels around the world, including to the United Kingdom. As a result, FLOC’s campaign has attracted the support of two Labour members of the UK’s parliament, who earlier this month filed a report on labor conditions in North Carolina tobacco fields. The report, titled “A Smokescreen for Slavery,” was based on the testimony of FLOC President Baldemar Valesquez and the MPs’ own visit to the U.S.

“We get pesticidies sprayed near us when we work and we don’t know what they are,” one agricultural worker told the MPs, according to the report. “This season, I got sick from the chemicals and one day I was sick in the bathroom and the supervisor came and told me I had to get back to work. When I couldn’t, he told me he didn’t need me anymore and that was my last day working there.”

Documenting the plight of American agricultural workers has been something of a Thanksgiving tradition ever since 1960, when CBS first aired “Harvest of Shame,” a special report featuring the legendary newscaster Edward R. Murrow.

“One farmer looked at this and said, ‘We used to own our slaves. Now we just rent them,’” Murrow said at the beginning of the report, over scenes of migrant laborers headed to work.

Bruce Goldstein, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Farmworker Justice, said there has been some substantial progress in the half-century since that report aired — but not enough.

“Conditions for most farmworkers are still pretty poor,” he said. “So the degree of improvement since 1960 is disappointing.”

Goldstein singled out U.S. immigration policy as one major factor that continues to suppress labor standards in the agricultural industry, because the undocumented workforce is particularly vulnerable to abuse.

“Conditions have either stagnated or gotten worse over the past few years because of the broken immigration system,” he said. In his eyes, the harvest of shame continues.

This Is Black Friday in Bangladesh (Double participation)

Published November 28, 2014 by djlwsu

Relatives of victims of the Tazreen factory fire demonstrate on its second anniversary, November 24, 2014. The second sign reads, “Sumaya Khatun, a victim of Tazreen Fashions fire—where is compensation?” (AP Photo/A.M. Ahad)

This Is Black Friday in Bangladesh

Walmart marks the holiday season this Friday with deals on its Faded Glory women’s sweaters. But this time of year marks a different occasion in another corner of Walmart’s empire: In Bangladesh, survivors and families remember the second anniversary of a massive fire at the Tazreen factory on the outskirts of Dhaka.

After the fire on November 24, 2012, as families mourned over the incinerated bodies in the factory ruins, activists dug up some damning shreds of evidence: they uncovered a Faded Glory label, proving that the workers had produced Walmart-branded clothes.

Today, two years on, Walmart seems eager to put the horrific legacy of Tazreen behind it. But the victims, including 112 dead and many others left injured and impoverished, can’t move on.

The disaster left Maliha partially blind, with severe leg and head injuries, leading her husband to abandon her “to avoid taking care of me.” She recounted in a 2013 report by the Clean Clothes Campaign and International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF), “The money I used to earn at Tazreen helped me support my ill mother in the village. Now, I wonder everyday how to survive and feed my children who are so young.”

Some of the world’s largest corporations should have an answer for her, but on Tazreen’s second anniversary, labor and human rights groups have reminded the many multinationals linked to the factory that they have yet to take responsibility. A coalition led by the Clean Clothes Campaign and other labor groups declared, “Walmart still hasn’t paid any compensation to the victims nor has it engaged worker organizations to find a solution.” In addition, the workers at the “death trap” factory had “also produced clothing for Delta Apparel, Dickies, Disney, Edinburgh Woollen Mill, El Corte Ingles, Sean John Apparel, Kik, Piazza Italia, and Sears. None of these companies have paid a cent towards compensation.”

To date, activists report that workers have been left with only meager, piecemeal paymentsfrom charitable funds from the government and some local business associations.

Clothing with Walmart’s Faded Glory label was found in the burnt-out factory (AP Photo/Ashraful Alam Tito)

ILRF Director of Organizing and Communication Liana Foxvog tells The Nation via e-mail that activists have criticized the domestic compensation programs, observing that “the distribution that has happened has been nontransparent, has not reached many of the injured workers and affected families, nor has it been disbursed equally or fairly.”

Some companies have responded to public pressure to pay up. Recently, a foundation tied to the European retailer C&A announced an agreement with labor advocates, the union federation IndustriALL and the International Labour Organization, to create a formal compensation scheme to provide for victims’ lost income and medical treatment.

Still, the main challenge will be compelling the major apparel companies to actually fund the program, as corporate contributions continue to lag the toll of dead and injured.

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The Tazreen tragedy was a prelude to an even larger disaster, the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory compound, which killed more than 1100 people and galvanized international outrage. Though both incidents have led to some compensation offers (a separate program has been established to support Rana Plaza victims, with some donations from Walmart, but still underfunded), workers still face massive physical and economic hardship.

The two tragedies show that industrial catastrophes happen so routinely in Bangladesh’s garment sector, the devaluing of workers’ lives is structured into the gears of the production chain, reflected in the abysmally low wages and astronomical profits generated by high-paced overseas mass production.

Walmart has launched its own factory safety initiative, a multi-brand coalition known as the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Yet despite well-publicized efforts to “promote accountability” and “ensure that garment workers remain at the heart of our efforts,” the Alliance’s statement on the Tazreen anniversary was terse, commemorating the tragedy as “an important wake-up call about the need for urgent reforms,” without mentioning any of the companies’ links to the factories.

Of course, avoiding any hint of liability for worker deaths is nothing new. After the fire, Walmart tried to distance itself by claiming that Tazreen was not authorized to produce orders for them.

The retail giant was undermining corporate accountability in the days leading to the Tazreen fire as well. In addition to relying on notoriously weak and corporate-friendly auditing servicesfor supplier factories, the company helped scuttle an earlier proposed agreement for the retailers to cooperate on investing in safety renovations. Walmart balked at the proposed requirements, calling them “not financially feasible for the brands.”

Tazreen Fashions garment factory after the fire (Reuters/Andrew Biraj)

The corporate stonewalling continues today. To prevent future industrial atrocities, labor groups have launched a framework to administer independent factory monitoring and remedial measures, known as the Bangladesh Accord. Meanwhile, Walmart and Gap have rejected that accord and promoted its Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety as an alternative. But rights groups have sharply criticized that initiative because it allows multinationals to escape full legal liability for safety violations, rendering it comparatively toothless.

The problem isn’t simply that Walmart’s alternative scheme distracts from the broader, more comprehensive Bangladesh Accord (with about 180 signatory brands). It’s that the lack of support from North American industry giants ultimately undermines the social compact underlying the Accord’s emergent network of labor and community groups, government and industry.

If the overall culture of the workplace remains hostile to workers, they will remain unprotected in terms of both physical safety and protection of their labor rights. Kalpona Akter of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity testified to Congress in February that currently in the factories:

Their right to refuse dangerous work is denied. When I say this, I’m thinking of the workers at Tazreen who were ordered to go back to their sewing machines when the fire alarm went off and then when it became really clear that it was a real fire, the exit doors were locked and the floor managers with the keys were nowhere to be found…. This is why I fear that until the largest U.S. companies the buy from Bangladesh–companies such as Walmart, Gap and VF Corporation–join the Accord, garment workers will continue to die on the job in my country.

So past tragedies will be repeated. And Miraj, who survived Tazreen with severe injuries, will still be haunted by his ominous exchange with his boss before the disaster:

Once I asked the manager, how can we get out if there is a fire? The manager told me that they would build stairs outside, but they did not do anything. This was long ago.

Walmart can argue that it doesn’t have to be held to account for factory accidents, and it can perhaps try to make a business case for avoiding the cost of safety investments. But on the question still seared into Miraj’s memory—how can we get out if there is a fire?—there’s no excuse for the industry’s silence.

Read Next: Michelle Chen on how Walmart saves $1 billion through tax loopholes

The law may have spoken but the Ferguson verdict is not justice (double participation)

Published November 28, 2014 by djlwsu
Ferguson Protest after Grand Jury
 A woman joins the protests in Ferguson after the grand jury decision: ‘The inherent nature of the injustice was not systematic, but systemic.’ Photograph: Xinhua Landov / Barcroft Media

The law may have spoken but the Ferguson verdict is not justice

By Gary Younge

It is customary, when disturbances follow a verdict of the kind delivered by the Ferguson grand jury, for those in authority to buttress their appeals for calm with a higher calling: the rule of law. Without it there would be chaos; only through it can there be order. As President Barack Obama said on Monday: “We are a nation based on the rule of law so we need to accept that this was the special jury’s decision to make.”

The trouble is that the United States, for far longer than it has been a “nation of laws”, has been a nation of injustice. And in the absence of basic justice such laws can amount to little more than codified tyranny. When a white cop, Darren Wilson, shoots an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown, dead and then is not indicted, the contradiction is glaring. For a world where it is not only legal for people to shoot you dead while you walk down the street, but where they can do so in the name of the law, is one in which some feel they have nothing to lose. And, in the words of James Baldwin: “There is nothing so dangerous as a man who has nothing to lose. You do not need 10 men. Only one will do.”

It is through this chasm, between the official claim to an impartial legal system and the reality of endemic racial injustice, that Wilson made his escape, with the flames of Ferguson in hot pursuit. For Wilson was not exonerated. The grand jury decided there was not even “probable cause” to put him on trial. As the website FiveThirtyEight points out, this is very rare. The Bureau of Justice reveals that in 2010 US attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases, and grand juries declined to return an indictment in just 11.

The fact that most people nonetheless expected such a verdict – Ferguson was effectively under military occupation for the last week in anticipation of the disturbances that would inevitably occur when Wilson walked – simply illustrates how much of a sham the whole process has been.There is a glaring exception to these odds: police officers involved in shootings. An investigation by the Houston Chronicle discovered that a Houston police officer hasn’t been indicted by a grand jury in Harris County, Texas, since 2004; between 2008 and 2012 grand juries in Dallas have indicted just one officer involved in a shooting.

So when it comes to the lethal use of force the police do not just constitute a special category, but a protected and elevated one. In this “nation of laws” those charged with enforcing the law evidently operate above it, while the judiciary exists not to mediate between the police and the public but to defend them from the public.

And they employ these privileges with great prejudice. According to analysis by ProPublica, black kids are 21 times more likely than their white counterparts to be killed in police shootings. If white youths were killed by police at the same rate they would die at a rate of more than one a week.

Together these statistics, along with discrepancies for stop-and-search, sentencing, incarceration and execution, set police power and black life at opposite ends of a value system which is not only morally indefensible but, ultimately, socially unsustainable. The sight of a split screen – with the first black president appealing for calm on one side, and alienated black youth looting and burning on the other – lays bare the limits of what constitutes success in the post civil-rights era. Racial disparities are simultaneously so brazenly displayed and denied that the country risks imploding under the burden of its history, even as it trumpets its achievements in overcoming that same burden.

So those who misunderstand the verdict as an isolated incident are doomed to misunderstand everything that flows from it: from the riots, justifications, denials and rationalisations to the calls for calm and expressions of rage. For this was never just about one teenager, one policeman, or one verdict.

On Sunday a black 12-year-old, Tamir Rice, was shot dead by police in a playground in Cleveland after he went for his fake toy gun. Three days earlier Akai Gurley, 28, was shot dead in his stairwell in Brooklyn. A neighbour called the cops, not realising that it was a cop who shot him. The New York police department apologised, admitting the shooting was “accidental”. In St Louis alone two young black men have been shot by police since Brown’s shooting.

Nor is it a morality play in which a decent, black child is slain by a malicious, white cop. The inherent nature of the injustice was not systematic (Wilson had never discharged his gun before), but systemic. He operates in an organisation where few police are sanctioned for killing black youths; and in a culture where armed white men can cite their fear of unarmed black men as a defence. A fear so intense that they have to shoot them. Have to. Since, apparently, no other possible outcome was possible. He “had the most intense aggressive face”, Wilson told the grand jury. “[He] was like a demon, that’s how angry he looked.”

“A system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect,” wrote the black intellectual WEB Dubois. The verdict has met the low expectation of many African Americans. The law has spoken; justice has yet to make itself heard.

Race and Tips (Participation)

Published November 18, 2014 by djlwsu

Black Restaurant Servers Get Smaller Tips

 • September 04, 2014 • 8:00 AM

Among acrimonious acronyms, it isn’t as fraught with potential peril as DWB (Driving While Black). But newly published research suggests there are definite disadvantages to WTWB (Waiting Tables While Black).

In a study, both black and white patrons at a moderately priced Midwestern restaurant tipped black servers less than their white counterparts. This disparity was found in spite of the fact that patrons reported being more pleased with the black servers’ work.

Considering the fact that tips make up more than half of waiters’ income (at least according to a 2012 survey), this is more than a symbolic slight. It suggests black servers, on average, take home significantly less money than their white colleagues.

The study, by sociologists Zachary Brewster of Wayne State University and Michael Lynn of Cornell University, confirms the results of similar research published in 2008. The earlier study, however, was conducted at a restaurant in the U.S. South.

“Our results indicate that both white and black restaurant customers discriminate against black servers by tipping them less than their white co-workers.”

The establishment at the center of this new study is in the Midwest. The similar results, the researchers write in the journal Sociological Inquiry, suggest “this phenomenon is not unique to specific locales.”

Brewster and Lynn surveyed 394 people who had just eaten dinner. Patrons were asked the amount of their bill, the size of the tip they left, and the race of their server.

In addition, the diners rated their server’s “appearance, friendliness, attentiveness, and promptness,” and noted such specifics as whether he or she “made them feel comfortable and welcome” and “seemed to sincerely care about their dining experience.”

The disheartening findings: “Our results indicate that both white and black restaurant customers discriminate against black servers by tipping them less than their white co-workers.”

Furthermore, “to the degree that there are interracial differences in serving skills, black servers in this study are perceived to provide better service relative to that provided by their white co-workers,” the researchers report. “Black servers were rated more favorably than white servers across each of three unique indices measuring service skills.”

Thus, after their quality of work was taken into account, “the disparity between tips given to black and white servers was enhanced rather than attenuated.”

Demographics suggest there weren’t a lot of overt racists among the restaurant’s patrons. (The average patron surveyed was a 43-year-old, college-educated female; 63 percent were white.)

Rather, the researchers point to unconscious bias as a “sound, theoretically informed explanation” of their findings.

“Tipping decisions are not only made quickly, at the end of the dining encounter, but are also to some degree made without much thought,” they write. “Consumers tend to round up or down from the calculated tip percentage they leave their servers, and such adjustments seem to be made without much conscious deliberation. Thus, it makes theoretical sense that tipping decisions might be unconsciously influenced by implicit racial biases.”

Why this behavior extends to black customers is less clear. But the researchers point to anecdotal reports that blacks sometimes over-tip white servers for fear of perpetuating the stereotype of “blacks don’t tip well.” If so, that would contribute to the imbalance the researchers found.

“Like all social inequalities,” the researchers conclude, “the underlying causes of such disparities are likely to be multifaceted and complex.” But as this research confirms, they are also real, and they do real, if unintended, economic harm.

So here’s a tip: The next time you’re throwing down 15 or 20 percent before heading out of a restaurant, take a moment and think about how much you are leaving, and why.

Tipping perpetuates racism, classism, and poverty — let’s get rid of it! (Participation)

Published November 16, 2014 by djlwsu

A waiter works in a French brasserie ‘Le Train Bleu’, on April 11, 2013 in Paris.FRED DUFOUR/Getty

Tipping perpetuates racism, classism, and poverty — let’s get rid of it!

“Welcome to my restaurant; now please pay my employees.”

That’s tipping in a nutshell, according to Mark Ventura, a former waiter and an economics major at Miami University. Ventura was quoted last week in an article profiling the restaurant Packhouse Meats, which opened in January in Newport, KY. The restaurant has a no-tipping policy. Signs proudly announcing the embargo are on full display in the restaurant, and the credit card slip only has a place for your signature — no extra line for gratuity.

Plenty of people have written about the indignities of the American tipping system. English author Lynne Truss once compared visiting New York to visiting the Third World: “In this great financial capital … tips are not niceties: give a ‘thank you’ that isn’t green and foldable and you are actively starving someone’s children.” The Village Voice‘s Foster Kamer called tipping “an assault on fairness” for everyone involved in the transaction: “It reinforces an economically and socially dangerous status quo, while buttressing a functional aristocracy,” he wrote in “The Death of Tipping”. Meanwhile Michael Lewis, in one of the most well-known essays on the subject, argued against it from the consumer’s perspective, comparing obligatory tipping — and what sort of tipping isn’t in some sense obligatory? — to a government tax: “I feel we are creeping slowly toward a kind of baksheesh economy in which everyone expects to be showered with coins simply for doing what they’ve already been paid to do.”

And yet for some reason, the customary practice of tipping endures, and all of us who read these essays and hope they catch on continue to actively participate in the system we seem to so publicly hate. As William Scott pointed out almost a century ago in The Itching Palm, one of the first published anti-tipping screeds, “There are abundant indications of a widespread distaste for the custom but the sentiment is unorganized and inarticulate.”

Here, then, is the complete case against tipping.

1) Tipping lets employers off the hook

The first and most compelling rebuttal to any case against tipping is always BUT THAT’S HOW SERVERS MAKE MOST OF THEIR INCOME.

Yes, that’s right — and that’s the problem. Restaurant servers’ hourly wages are ridiculously low — $2.13 an hour, in fact, in most states — and they do depend on tips to account for the bulk of their income. Taking away a server’s tips would put her in a bad place financially —  unless her employer ups her hourly wage. As it now stands, the tipping model lets business owners make more money at the expense of their employees’ hard work. But rather than let their employees grovel for tips, restaurateurs ought to be required to pay their employees a living wage.

Consumers should not be responsible for paying the incomes of a restaurant owner’s employees. For one thing, it isn’t fair to the consumers. But more troublingly, it isn’t fair to the employees: a server’s ability to pay his bills shouldn’t be subject to the weather, the frequency with which he touches his guests, or the noise level of the restaurant, all of which are factors that contribute to the tip amount left by a consumer.

As the Economy Policy Institute (EPI) notes,

Tipped workers — whose wages typically fall in the bottom quartile of all U.S. wage earners, even after accounting for tips — are a growing portion of the U.S. workforce. Employment in the full-service restaurant industry has grown over 85 percent since 1990, while overall private-sector employment grew by only 24 percent. In fact, today more than one in 10 U.S. workers is employed in the leisure and hospitality sector, making labor policies for these industries all the more central to defining typical American work life.

EPI also cites research that the poverty rate of tipped workers is nearly double that of other workers (as the chart below indicates), and that tipped employees are 3 times more likely to be on food stamps.


EPI also argues it is false to suggest that “these workers’ tips provide adequate levels of income and reasonable economic security,” as 2014 reports from the White House and the Congressional Budget Officeargued. Further, they say, research clearly shows that poverty rates are reduced in those states where the minimum wage rate for tipped workers has been raised.

2) Tipping is undemocratic

“The itching palm is a moral disease,” wrote Scott in his 1916. To him, tipping was a threat to the founding principle of democracy: that all men are created equal. Allowing an American citizen (i.e. the person being tipped) to adopt the posture of a sycophant is deeply undemocratic, argued Scott, because it limits self-respect to the “governing classes” (i.e. the tippers).

According to Michael Lynn, a professor of consumer behavior at the Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, the practice of tipping originated in Europe and only later migrated to America just after the Civil War. (As for why the practice started in Europe in the first place, Kamer discusses different theories.)Wealthy Americans returning home from European vacations wanted to show off what they’d learned abroad, and so they started tipping their service workers.

Tipping, in other words, is rooted in an aristocratic tradition. It should come as no surprise that tipping took off in Europe, a continent that promoted a clear distinction between the servant class and higher forms of society. But as Scott notes, America prides itself on not distinguishing social groups bases solely on their financial means. In fact, he notes, “Tipping, and the aristocratic idea it exemplifies, is what we left Europe to escape.”

Scott isn’t the only one with this view. According to Yoram Margalioth of Tel Aviv University Law School, tipping in America was at first “met with fierce opposition as fostering a master-servant relationship [was] ill suited to a nation whose people were meant to be social equals.” The Anti-Tipping Society was founded in 1904 in Georgia, and convinced its 100,000 members to foreswear tipping for an entire year. Labor unions, too, came out against tipping, as did the president of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers. Opposition to tipping finally got codified into law, when Washington State passed a no-tipping law in 1909. Five other states followed suit, though, according to Wachter, none of the laws were enforced, and as a result, all of them were repealed by 1926.

Today, tipping continues to be de rigueur in America, while, ironically, the European custom has been replaced in its home country by a service charge.


3) Tipping doesn’t do what it’s supposed to do

As Margialoth notes, many people view tipping “as an informal service contract between the customer and the waiter, acting as a consumer-monitoring mechanism.” This informal contract reinforces the belief that customers are able to monitor the service they receive and reward it accordingly. In other words, the argument goes, tipping motivates the server to do her best work. This makes some sense at least in theory, but in reality, it’s really, really wrong.

After a qualitative study of more than 2,600 dining parties at 21 different restaurants, Lynn concluded that “tips are only weakly related to service.” As Margialoth notes, the most important factor to patrons deciding upon tip amounts is the amount of the check, not the efficiency, or inefficiency, of the server; the quantity of the food they order, not the quality with which it’s served to them. This finding, Lynn argues, “raises serious questions about the use of tips as a measure of server performance or customer satisfaction as well as the use of tips as incentives to deliver good service.” It also emphasizes the fact that tipping is really, painfully unfair: how in the world is bringing a customer a $1,000 bottle of wine any more work than bringing her a $60 bottle? If Lynn is right, and customers generally tip on amount alone, the difference between the hypothetical 20 percent gratuities would be $188 — a $200 tip versus a $12 tip.

Steve Dublanica, author of two books on the service industry, said that any server would agree with Lynn’s findings:

If you’ve waited tables, you know this is true. I learned this on the job years ago. You can give people amazing service and they’ll stiff you. You can give them horrible service, and they can give you a great tip. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. If only 2 percent of the tip is based on the service, what are the other 98 percent doing? If they’re not tipping on service, they’re tipping on psychological processes that are happening.

Jay Porter, owner of the Linkery restaurant in San Diego, said it’s “silly” to think that servers are motivated merely by prospective tips. “Servers are motivated to do a good job in the same ways that everyone else is,” he wrote in Slate, noting that they’re motivated by wanting to keep their jobs and earn raises, and because they take pride in their work. He added: “In any workplace, everyone is required to perform well, and tips have nothing to do with it.”

Not that tipping isn’t a powerful motivator. It is — just not for the employee. The thought of being able to hire labor at around two bucks an hour is probably great news to employers looking to turn profits. Again, that’s problematic. (See #1.)

4) Tipping is discriminatory … and it might be illegal

The way we tip reflects our prejudices, argues Freakonomics’ Stephen Dubner. Here’s what he told Brian Lehrer: “The data show very clearly that African Americans receive less in tips than whites, and so there is a legal argument to be made that as a protected class, African American servers are getting less for doing the same work. And therefore, the institution of tipping is inherently unfair.”

But not only are black servers making less money than white servers — black diners are perceived to be leaving less money than white diners. Data collected in 2009 from over 1,000 servers all across the US “found that over sixty-five percent [of servers] rated African Americans as below average tippers.” As a result, restaurant workers of all colors dislike waiting on black customers, studies found. The economy of tipping is so racially charged that both servers and diners are affected by prejudice.

Racism isn’t the only kind of discrimination baked into the American tipping system. Female servers, too, face routine discrimination. As Lynn told Dubner: blonde, slender, larger-breasted women in their 30s earn some of the highest tips. Granted, the decision of how large a tip to leave is up to the subjective whims of the tipper, and different people have their own aesthetic preferences. But when a server’s main source of income is her tips, and if those tips are regulated by the prejudices of the tippers, then a case could potentially be made that certain wage practices of restaurants are discriminatory.

This is the very case Kamer made (emphasis mine): “In 1971’s Griggs v. Duke Power, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was ruled to prohibit businesses with discriminatory practices against those protected under it, even if that effect is unintended. Tipping, which has been proven to be discriminatory, could be downright unconstitutional.”


5) Tipping might be psychologically harmful

In response to the question, “Do you feel pressured to tip at a restaurant even if you feel you received bad service?” 70 percent of those polled answered “yes.” Margalioth wrote, “This seems to prove the social norm of tipping is so strong that many people feel extorted to tip.”

But why do we feel such an intense pressure to tip? According to Lynn, we tip in order to prevent feeling guilty or ashamed for violating the social norm of tipping: “Perhaps [the tipper] dislikes having someone disapprove of her,” he says. Or maybe she’s “internalized some standard of fairness that leads her to feel guilty if she does not reward the server for his efforts.” Ofer H. Azar, economist and professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, agrees with Lynn: “people tip because this is the social norm and, when they disobey the norm, they suffer a psychological disutility because of social disapproval, embarrassment, and feeling guilty and unfair.”

There’s another way tipping could take a toll on our psyches. Margalioth argues that tipping is a form of “negative externality imposed by wealthy people on the rest of society.” According to Margalioth’s theory, when top earners spend more money, those who earn less feel pressured to keep up, as research has shown. In other words, she suggests, middle-class and poor Americans feel like they have to be as “visibly impressive” as wealthier Americans. This pressure might be a motivating factor in tipping, she says.

The upshot of this research is summed up by Lynn: “I think it’s quite possible that tipping norms undermine overall satisfaction or happiness.”

6) Tipping is not really charitable

Arguing that we do away with tipping seems like a mean thing to do: the world needs more charity, thank you, so you should keep tipping your server. But the problem with this argument is that leaving a gratuity is not actually charitable.

The word “gratuity” comes from a word meaning “gift.” But that word doesn’t really make sense in the context of tipping, which is, of course, a quid pro quo arrangement. You don’t gift the waiter money, you release funds to him that he, by virtue of simply being your server, has earned. He is rightfully entitled to that money, and you are ethically obligated to give him by social norms that seem to be as binding as any government law.

Scott sees tipping as “misguided generosity.” While we are right to feel gratitude for those serving us, he argues we go awry when we feel obligated to express our “appreciation in terms of money.” After all, notes Scott, “Self respect is satisfied with verbal appreciation.”

Of course, verbal appreciation won’t pay the bills of tipped workers, almost 13 percent of whom live in poverty. But rather than satisfy our consciences with trivial thoughts about how tips are really charitable, we should start holding restaurant owners accountable for their employees’ wages. If they argue that servers actually like the tipping system because they come out on top, we should ask these owners to put their money where their mouths are and cut their own pay down to two bucks an hour.

Plus tips.

Wage Theft and Restaurant Workers (Participation)

Published November 16, 2014 by djlwsu

Seattle takes aim at wage theft; first 3 years of law came up empty

The city of Seattle is exploring how to more aggressively combat wage theft, after recent efforts haven’t been successful.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The abrupt closure of Paseo this week amid news that the popular Seattle restaurant is being sued by former workers set sandwich-loving tongues wagging about wage theft, a problem local officials have been struggling to address for years.

Seattle made wage theft a crime under city law in 2011, vowing to go after employers that intentionally cheat workers out of pay. But more than three years later, the Seattle Police Department and City Attorney’s Office have yet to prosecute anyone.

“It’s been frustrating,” said Cariño Talancón, organizer at Casa Latina, a nonprofit that advocates for low-wage and immigrant workers and that helped craft the law.

The City Council on Friday will consider a number of budget actions meant to strengthen Seattle’s hand against wage thieves, while the City Attorney’s Office and cops say they are working on new strategies as they continue to pursue prosecutions.

In September, Mayor Ed Murray and the council announced a new Office of Labor Standards that will serve as a clearinghouse for workplace infractions, including wage theft and violations of the city’s new minimum-wage law, which takes effect in April.

Wage theft is a widespread phenomenon in Seattle and across the country, Talancón says. The problem is worst in particular industries, including restaurants, landscaping and construction, and many victims are immigrants from Latin America, she says.

It can involve businesses failing to pay proper overtime wages, misclassifying employees as independent contractors and mishandling tips.

The former employees suing Paseo, who were fired in March, claim they worked about 80 hours a week without being paid time-and-a-half for overtime.

Identified as “Hispanic-Mexicans” in their King County Superior Court lawsuit, filed in September, they also claim they were treated differently than non-Hispanic workers. The restaurant, which filed for bankruptcy Wednesday, has denied all the allegations.

Paseo owners have not said why the restaurant shut down.

Talancón says wage theft harms Seattle’s most vulnerable workers.

“You have people choosing between their health and their housing,” she said. “Being on the edge of homelessness, that’s the life of people experiencing wage theft.”

The city criminalized wage theft in 2011 to supplement federal and state laws already on the books and to add enforcement capacity.

Police and city prosecutors insist they’ve been doing their best to bust criminal employers but have failed in part due to a lack of complaints.

Many victims of wage theft don’t speak English and some choose to stay silent rather than risk losing work, according to the City Attorney’s Office. Some are living in the country illegally and steer clear of the cops because they’re worried about being deported, says Richard Greene, an assistant city attorney.

The police have received fewer than 100 wage-theft complaints so far, Greene says.

The cops didn’t start tracking wage theft as a separate criminal category until fall 2013, says police Lt. Greg Schmidt. Since then, there have been about 20 to 25 complaints, he says.

The city will soon formalize a new agreement with the U.S. Department of Labor whereby the feds will refer cases to the City Attorney’s Office, he says. And a new brochure in seven languages will be distributed to educate workers about wage theft.

But even when workers come forward, there are challenges to prosecution, Greene says.

“We had a couple of guys working for a janitorial service that did work at (a local restaurant) and they had what seemed to be legitimate concerns,” he said. “Then we lost contact.”

The high burden of proof for criminal cases is another roadblock, says Greene. When a worker is paid in cash without a contract, it can be difficult to collect the evidence needed to overcome reasonable doubt, he says.

The burden of proof in civil cases is lower than in criminal cases. That’s why the council, in the course of amending Murray’s proposed 2015 and 2016 budget, likely will vote Friday to create civil penalties for wage-theft violations, says Nick Licata, who chairs the council’s budget committee.

“We initially thought the criminal component would be the most effective tool, that it would be scarier,” Licata said. “We’ve discovered that the bar is pretty high.”

The council might also vote Friday to request that Murray’s office prepare legislation increasing the severity of all labor-law violations.

“We need real penalties,” said Councilmember Kshama Sawant.

“When a worker steals from his or her boss, they lose their job and likely go to jail. Why don’t we treat labor-law violators the same?”

The council may also beef up Murray’s budget to provide outreach to workers and hire more investigators as the minimum-wage law launches next year.

The Seattle Chamber of Commerce didn’t immediately return a request for comment Thursday afternoon.

Daniel Beekman: 206-464-2164 or dbeekman@seattletimes.com