Friday, July 25, 2014

why i stand with gaza

I think it's hard to deny that this current round of violence between Israel and Hamas began when Israel accused Hamas of abducting and murdering three Israelis in the West Bank and started its crackdown of Hamas. Many were skeptical that Hamas had anything to do with it, and Hamas itself denied any involvement, which has recently been confirmed by an Israeli police spokesman who said that "a lone cell not operating under Hamas leadership was responsible for the abduction and killing of three Israeli teens last month." Nevertheless, Netanyahu was quick to place the blame squarely on Hamas, saying, "Hamas is responsible, and Hamas will pay."

So despite Hamas' denial of involvement, and little-to-no proof that they were involved, Israel initiated a crackdown of Hamas anyway, with Netanyahu declaring that they "knew 'for a fact' that the kidnapping was Hamas’ work." Numerous arrests of Hamas members took place (including members released during the 2011 prisoner exchange), and both commercial and pedestrian crossings into Gaza were closed. As the crackdowns were intensifying, Hamas began firing homemade rockets into Israel in retaliation. Israel responded in turn with 6 airstrikes in Gaza, followed by the shooting death of 15 year-old Mohammad Dudin by the IDF during a search of his home for three other teens in the West Bank, further intensifying outrage.

The violence escalated from there, with more rocket fire from Hamas, more Israeli airstrikes, and the murder of a 16 year-old Palestinian boy, who was found "burned alive in a Jerusalem forest, the day after the burial of the three Israeli teens," presumably in revenge. Cue more rocket fire from Hamas (which the US condemned), hundreds of airstrikes by the IDF (which the US said nothing about, of course), and an eventual ground invasion of Gaza by the IDF, culminating thus far in 850 Palestinian casualties — mostly civilians according to the UN — and 5,200 injured (again mostly civilians).

In addition to instigating this round of violence, Israel claims it's not intentionally targeting civilians despite the vast majority of casualties being noncombatants, that they're warning people to leave before attacks come and blaming Hamas for hiding behind civilians. But Gaza in an open-air prison, and there's nowhere for people to go. Israel has bombed almost every part of Gaza, including beaches, hospitals, mosques, sports arenas, fishing boats, and schools, many without any warning at all, like the UN Relief and Works Agency school that was converted into a make-shift shelter for Palestinian families. They're basically shooting fish in a barrel with Gaza. Yes, there have been Israeli casualties as well, approximately 35 soldiers and 3 civilians (one of which was delivering provisions to soldiers), which are just as tragic as those killed by Israeli forces. But I have a hard time feeling sympathy for Israel's position.

What's happening, and has been happening, to the people of Gaza is a horrible crime—it has to be condemned as well as discouraged, especially by the US, Israel's closest ally. Unfortunately, that's not likely to happen; and I can only conclude from the recent unanimous Senate vote in support of Israel that our politicians are so blinded by money, political ambition, and/or a clearly one-sided narrative that not one is willing to stand up and say this is wrong and that we need to immediately withdraw our monetary, diplomatic, and military support until Israel ceases this carnage, halts its continued settlement expansions, and ends its apartheid-style treatment of Palestinians.

That, plus the fact that Israel is essentially an occupying power, is why I stand with the people of Gaza and the West Bank. We need to put pressure on Congress and the President to actively put pressure on Israel to loosen its chokehold of Gaza and the West Bank and negotiate a one-state solution, seeing as how I don't think a two-state solution will work given the history and logic of settler states. Our fervent support of Israel and its policies (including monetary and military support), as well as our fairly aggressive foreign policy in the region over the past 60+ years, is part of the problem, and I think both of those things need to change for there to be any hope of a peaceful end to these conflicts in the foreseeable future.

Friday, July 11, 2014

gentrification, how do I hate thee?

Gentrification, how do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.

This is a development going up near SE 28th and Burnside. Aesthetically, most of these developments are eyesores. They tower above everything else, homes, apartments, and businesses, obscuring views and even the sun. This one, for example, dwarfs Chopsticks Express II and almost completely obscures their sign. I don't hate all developments, but these kinds of money-hungry developers don't care about the surrounding community at all, from their impact on rents and local businesses to ways they physically and aesthetically alter our communities. It's ridiculous how little fucks they give, and how little we can legally do about it.

Even worse, however, was the apartment complex on the corner of SE 28th and Taylor that I walked by tonight, where I overheard two of the tenants talking. Apparently, the owner had recently evicted everyone in order to remodel and the deadline to GTFO was at hand. The one was asking the other whether he'd found somewhere to stay yet and he said no. He's basically living out of his car. The lady who asked shook her head and said that a lot of the other people hadn't either, some staying with friends, some in motels, etc., and then made a comment to the effect that, 'There should be a law that the owners of these places have to wait until everyone has found somewhere else to live before they begin construction.'

I couldn't agree more. That could be me again one day. Unfortunately, that's not likely to happen within the context of a for-profit political-economic system centered around private property rights, which is why one of the main issues I have with the institution of private property in relation to our current setup is how it essentially links private property to liberty, and through private property rights, secures the liberty of the propertied (in this case, the liberty to evict all of their tenants from their homes regardless of whether they have anywhere else to go). Consequently, the greater one's property, the greater one's means of self-determination; while no access to property means a complete lack of self-determination whatsoever.

And these are just two of the many ways I hate gentrification.

Monday, June 30, 2014

why i hate reading the news

Get home from work, check out the news, and the first thing I read is, "The Supreme Court has ruled that family owned and other closely held companies can opt out of the Affordable Care Act's provisions for no-cost prescription contraception in most health insurance if they have religious objections" (NPR).

So certain employers can now dictate whether their employees' healthcare covers certain forms of contraception based on religious objections despite the actual healthcare needs of the employees in question or facts, like the fact that contraception helps prevent unwanted pregnancies and abortion, or that emergency contraception like Plan B and ella aren't abortifacients and Plan B doesn't prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in a woman's uterus but prevents ovulation, and therefore, fertilization? The fuck?

Remind me why we still allow nine ruling-class elites to have the ultimate power to interpret our constitution and make decisions that affect 314 million people?

The Supreme Court has further solidified the longstanding precedent that corporations have the same constitutional rights as persons, and in some cases, more so. I couldn't prevent my employer from contributing money to groups that I oppose for religious or ethical reasons, but they can now dictate what my healthcare covers based on religious objections. And as narrow as this ruling is, it can easily be expanded now that the precedent is set. The employer wanted the freedom to meddle in their employees' healthcare and they won it.

Now anyone who works for them, even though they're not a religious organisation, is subject to their religious beliefs. And those who believe otherwise have the freedom to find a less bigoted employer in what's still a rather weak labour market. Yeah, liberty!

In other news, according to a recent New York Times article, in 2007, Blackwater's top manager in Iraq threatened to kill the head of a State Department probe looking into the company's operations just weeks prior to the Nisour Square massacre. The short version:

Federal investigators were taking a critical look at Blackwater's activities in Iraq. But just after the lead auditor was threatened and told that "no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq," the US embassy sided with Blackwater and sent the investigators home because they'd "disrupted the embassy’s relationship with the security contractor." (Oh, no!)

Back in the US, the lead investigator "wrote a scathing report to State Department officials documenting misconduct by Blackwater employees and warning that lax oversight of the company, which had a contract worth more than $1 billion to protect American diplomats, had created 'an environment full of liability and negligence.'" Of course, nothing was done; and only a few weeks later, Blackwater guards killed 17 Iraqi civilians and injured 20 more (and god only knows what else they did that wasn't documented).

So we invaded a country on completely bullshit grounds, reduced it to rubble, hired a bunch of private mercenaries who terrorized and murdered local inhabitants, then buried the fact that we knew about their misconduct and "a long list of contract violations" and did shit about it? I mean, is it any wonder they wanted us to GTFO?

And if that wasn't messed up enough, the author of the article is in danger of going to jail for refusing to reveal a source for information revealed about a failed CIA plan to sabotage Iranian nuclear research in his 2006 book, State of War. Because we all know imperialism is good, whistleblowing and journalism are bad.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

le tour de gentrification part deux: my second pedalpalooza experience

Arriving at Col. Sumner's Park for the second gentrification tour, there were considerably less people this time around, only about nine or ten. Many were likely at the panel discussion with Central Northeast Neighbors, North Portland Neighborhood Services, and Northeast Coalition of Neighborhoods and Southeast Uplift about demolition, residential infill, and housing affordability. But the smaller group, joined by freelance journalist Arun Gupta, was equally as engaging and allowed for more intimate discussion.

This tour was less structured, and the destinations were chosen by the participants, with organizer Hart Noecker choosing the first location, the nearby goat field that'll soon be home to approximately 84,000 sq ft of retail space, 257 apartment units, and two levels of structured parking with the hopes of enticing younger people seeking to live in this up-and-coming neighborhood of SE Portland for a mere $1,600/month—a neighborhood with a median household income of $34,130 ($24,520 for individuals), $768 median rent, 10% unemployment, and almost a quarter of its residents below the poverty rate according to Portland Monthly. (And as previously mentioned, the site is branded 'the Goat Blocks Redevelopment' in honour of the beloved goats the project itself is displacing to Lents.)

After discussing the neighborhood and the ways it's changing, we headed off towards Division, where a flurry of development has made it almost unrecognizable to many, including the tour's organizer. Pricey apartments are springing up all along Division. One, branded as an eco-friendly apartment complex, offers one bedroom apartments for $1,600/month. Where Portland's only lesbian bar once stood now sits a gaudy apartment complex with $1,100/month studios. This area has long been a popular hot-spot for SE Portlanders, with a number of bars, restaurants, and independent retail spaces drawing in people with its unique culture for years. But now, many of those places are being transformed into upscale restaurants and condos at a pretty alarming rate, scrubbing the neighborhood clean of the people and places that made it popular in the first place.

At one point, when I realized the apartment I was staring at was where the Egyptian Club/Weird Bar once stood, it struck me how fast gentrification can happen. A year or two and you hardly recognize where you live. And I never really understood until then just how much power the capitalist and rentier classes have to not only make huge profits from gentrification and the displacement of minorities and lower-income residents, but to physically alter our communities as well. They literally have the social power via money to aesthetically, demographically, and structurally shape our cities with little to no input from residents themselves, especially those most affected. It's fucked up to say the least.

From there, we rode towards a development on SE 39th/Cesar Chavez just north of Belmont, where we ended the ride. But on the way, I took them by my first apartment where, one month into a six-month lease, my girlfriend and I got an eviction notice (along with everyone else in the building) after the owners sold the property to a developer that turned them into condos. Telling everyone about what happened brought up a lot of the old feelings I had as we were being forced out of our home (our first real home together), especially the anger. Being forced from your home isn't just an inconvenience, it's a traumatic experience.

While talking about it, I also realized that my family and I were displaced by gentrification growing up in Detroit, as well. The historic apartment building where I grew up and my mom worked was sold to developers who wanted to transform into a luxury hotel and residence. While deals were being made, the building deteriorated due to lack of maintenance, and the residents suffered. The eighth floor, for example, had to be evacuated because the roof leaked so bad. Eventually, everyone was evicted, but the planned renovations never happened. Instead, the building was left to rot until it was purchased by Little Caesars founder, Mile Ilitch, who continued to let it rot until it was illegally torn down by the city and turned into a parking lot.

For me, the thing that bothers me the most about gentrification is the harm that it does to the people it displaces. Yes, it alters a community's culture and landscape, and it tends to artificially inflate housing prices making things more expensive. But it also tears people away from their homes and memories. It uproots them, and in many cases, forces them to change schools and jobs. It causes a lot of emotional stress and creates financial burdens for those directly or indirectly forced to relocate in order to make room for the influx of more trendy clientele. My mom had a lot of history at the Madison-Lenox. It was the centre of her life. It's where she worked, where she lived, and where most of her friends lived too. It was her connection to the city. It's no exaggeration to say that she loved that place and the people in it almost as much as she loved me. And when she lost the fight to stay there, she lost more than her home, she lost a part of herself.

Thinking about all the things we saw and how pervasive the influence of owners and developers are in our lives, how much they shape our community and living spaces, and how easily they can disrupt our lives with impunity and a clear conscience, I became conscious of just how much I've been affected by gentrification and it really pisses me off. To them, it's nothing personal, just business. But to me and the countless others who live in the world they manipulate, it's nothing but personal.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

le tour de gentrification: my first pedalpalooza experience

Gentrification. That was the theme of Le Tour de Gentrification, a Pedalpalooza bike tour of areas affected by gentrification led by lawyer and former city council candidate Nicholas Caleb and Rebel Metropolis writer/editor Hart Noecker. Arriving at Col. Sumner's Park early Monday evening, about 100 people were already gathered for the event. At around 6pm, after waiting for a few more stragglers and a brief talk defining what gentrification is and covering bike safety, we set off en masse to our first destination, Cartopia.

Cartopia, a beloved late-night community gathering place with a variety of food carts, sits on the northeast corner of SE 12th and Hawthorne. On May 22nd, however, the Oregonian reported that, "Plans submitted to city development officials describe a four-story apartment building with ground-floor storefronts on the site." If things go as planned, Cartopia will become yet another high-rent apartment complex along Hawthorne, displacing all the carts and a southeast community space that local residents have come to know and love. (Two massive complexes have recently popped up on SE 30th and SE 26th, as well.)

Proponents of development projects such as this argue, quite ironically in my opinion, that these new apartment complexes will provide living space for the increasing number of people migrating to Portland moving here in part for the kinds of places and culture these development projects are themselves displacing or even destroying. The same happened at our next stop on the tour, the old location of Spunky Monkey, a local, independent coffee shop and roaster that was displaced when the building they were in was sold for, you guessed it, condos. And an aesthetically uninspired ones at that.

Part of the discussion at this point was the difficulties involved in stopping gentrification, which is essentially developing an area for the 'gentry' (i.e., upper class) to move in. One difficulty is that there's little to discourage gentrification. Laws favour landlords and property owners, not tenants. In addition, cities often give incentives to developers to build expensive apartments and office buildings, and both developers and city leaders prosper—developers make money from flipping properties (especially if they convert them into more profitable enterprises for wealthier individuals/families) and local officials make the rentier and business communities happy (which are big contributors).

Another issue raised was how developers and city leaders cleverly brand gentrification, co-opting the language and culture of the communities they seek to gentrify, just as they use green washing (i.e., using green terminology) to promote new developments as being environmentally friendly, increasing their market value and pacifying local opposition at the same time. At the old Spunky Monkey location, for example, the new condos have a plaque with a bicyclist on it, invoking Portland's bike culture while it displaces one of the few local coffee shops with a bike window.

The next stop was in the Albina neighborhood, highlighting the historical aspects of gentrification in Portland. In the 50s, this area was home to a vibrant community despite disinvestment by the city, primarily due to the large black population funneled there by economic segregation. But because of the lack of investment, the properties in Albina were devalued and relatively cheap; and by the early 60s, gentrification drove in like a bulldozer (literally), sweeping the jazz hot-spot into the obscurity of history. Much of the area became home to Memorial Coliseum and the Lloyd Center. And where we stood, at the intersection of NE Russell and Williams, there was nothing but an empty lot, vacant for 20 years. The spot was intended for an expansion of Emanuel Hospital during the flurry of urban renewal that never materialized.

One of the things that came up was the changing nature of gentrification. In the past, gentrification primarily targeted and affected communities of colour and immigrants, racism being both a motive and a tool. People of colour were often forced into certain areas and out of others. A teacher named Hyung, for example, brought up the practice of 'redlining' (a policy whereby investment to certain areas, mostly black neighborhoods, was restricted, artificially devaluing the properties within these areas), and noted that in Hillsdale, where he teaches, deeds often still have overtly racist language in them, though now defunct, forbidding the sale of the property to non-whites. Although gentrification is arguably less overtly racial today as it's increasingly being filtered through the market, targeting and affecting the poor in general, race is still an issue since many living in poorer areas are people of colour who continue to suffer the effects of institutional racism.

Just a few short blocks away, in another empty-lot-soon-to-be-expensive-condos, was our next stop. One girl who lived a couple of blocks away related how she recently received a 30-day notice after her landlord decided to sell her house to developers, starting a discussion about affordable housing. One of the problems with gentrification is that, while it may result in additional eco-friendly high-density housing, which can be good from an environmental perspective (i.e., concentrating people into tighter areas and with closer amenities, cutting commute time/encouraging the use of public transit and biking, freeing up other land for community spaces/farming, etc.), many of these places are financially out of reach for the people who are displaced. And Caleb even went so far to say that it's a form of violence, both physically and financially forcing people out of their homes and communities.

As if this isn't bad enough, gentrification alters the cultural dynamic, and not necessarily in a good way. In Albina, gentrification destroyed a vibrant community and the heart of Portland's jazz scene, leaving behind the Rose Quarter and its surrounding dead zones. The popular and bike-friendly Spunky Monkey was replaced by what's likely going to be $1,200-and-up apartments that pays lip service to Portland's bike culture. A much-loved community space filled with Portland's nationally-known food carts is soon to be yet another shitty, overpriced apartment complex. And a few blocks away, the nearby goat field is also being displaced by, according to KATU, "a residential and retail development to be called the Goat Blocks Redevelopment." (Well, at least it has 'goat' in the name.)

The final stop was the controversial spot at NE Alberta and MLK where a Trader Joe's was slated to be built until Trader Joe's backed out due in large part to the efforts of the Portland African American Leadership Forum. The land, which was valued at $3 million, was sold by the Portland Development Commission to Majestic Realty for a measly $500,000 to spur development in the majority black neighborhood, who then tried to set up an $8 million deal with Trader Joe's. But PAALF was concerned about the growing displacement of black residents in the area, and demanded that the project be halted or else include some form of affordable housing. Although Trader Joe's backed out, and the lot remains empty, it's a victory of sorts in that the community was able to have their voices heard. (PAALF's letter, part of which was read by Caleb, is worth reading, by the way.)

Overall, it was a really educational experience that highlighted what gentrification is, how it's branded and camouflaged by PR, and the ways it negatively impacts communities. It's discouraging to see the effects of gentrification and how it's unfolding at an increasingly accelerated pace (and not just in Portland), especially when you realize that there's little anyone can currently do legally and politically to stop it. But it's also encouraging that so many people came out and are interesting in doing something about it, like trying to build a movement to counter this trend and help give people more of a say in what happens to their communities.

Monday, June 9, 2014

get ready, robots are going to steal your job

An article from CNBC about the role technology is playing in displacing workers:

Get ready, robots are going to steal your job

To illustrate the insanity of our economic system and the logic underlying it, we tend to view machines that free us from labour as a bad thing because they 'steal our jobs' and screw us out of an income. At the same time, capital invents new jobs to retake up that time and replace said income rather than working towards reducing hours of labour and moving away from a reliance on wage-labour altogether.

Money is social construct that enables a few to accumulate vast amounts of wealth and power while giving the working class just enough to reproduce itself. At this stage of development, it's entirely superfluous to satisfying our needs. People don't starve because there's not enough food in the stores. People don't live in the streets because they're aren't enough empty homes and apartments to put them. They go hungry and are forced to sleep on the streets due to a lack of money.

And ironically, technological advances and increases in efficiency only make matter worse by creating a mass of unproductive capital and labour (hordes of cash and unemployment respectively), and causing the rate of profit to fall and a shrinkage in the absolute mass of profit created, meaning less money in the form of wages for the working class as a whole. Hence, we have to work even longer and harder to afford just the basic necessities, let alone anything more. It's completely absurd.

The way we view the necessity labour (economically, morally, etc.) is outdated and counterproductive. Our productive capacities are such that we no longer have a material necessity for capitalist wage-labour or social relations, but the demand for profit creates an political-economic system that consistently depresses our productive capabilities and produces artificial scarcity, limiting the production and consumption of commodities to only that which can realize profit, among other things.

We have reached an epoch of material abundance via the technological advancements and innovations of the past, but the old masters, who must increasingly rely on the state (so much so that the two are almost indistinguishable, with the state essentially acting as the national capitalist), are refusing to let go of their death grip on wealth and power, their ownership of the means of production, finance, etc., stalling our transition to a post-capitalist society.

What's worse is that most of us follow suit, fearing that society would drift into chaos and crisis and economic barbarism without them, without capital, wage-labour, profit, and even money itself, when the reality is that we're actually descending into chaos and crisis and economic barbarism because of them, because we refuse to let these relics of a past epoch go, because these things are holding us back and we lack both the imagination and the motivation to conceive of a future without them.

We've reached a point where, even with vast reductions in hours of labour and/or employment, we consistently produce more than can be productively consumed in the capitalist production process (i.e., in a way that produces surplus-value for the capitalist) despite no shortage of need and yet we're worried about robots taking our jobs without realizing that 'we' don't need those jobs anymore, capital does.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

dark afternoon

Today I had what you might call a dark afternoon of the soul. It was a really hard day. I was bitter, emotional, angry. I lashed out at everyone and everything. There was no compassion or patience, just unbearable frustration. Worst day I've had in a long time. Part of it was my job. Another was something more, something deeper within. A midlife crisis, perhaps?

I'm getting old. I don't have a very fulfilling career, and it doesn't pay very well, either. I don't have any worldly goals or passions, so I don't really have a direction to go in. I like to work, but it's hard finding a decent job these days without a college degree (especially a rewarding one that pays well). I like learning, but I'm hesitant to put myself into tens of thousands of dollars of debt pursuing an education designed to make me more marketable rather than a better person.

The world seems so contradictory to me; you either have to be a participate or a renunciate. There's no middle ground, really. You're expected to study what you need to get a job, then work until you're old and grey, life being more of a soul-sucking experience than an enriching one. My heart yearns for something more, but the world crushes those dreams with an invisible hand; and religious monasticism seems more and more the only escape. Brings to mind Marx's words in his introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

Deep down, I know that I'm a good person. At least I try to be. But it's hard and I know that I could be better, happier. We have such potential as a species, but as a society we tend to value all the wrong things. And I'm torn. Torn between wanting to be a part of the world and wanting to renounce it, devoting myself instead to a contemplative life. I appreciate aspects of everyday life, but they're just not satisfying in a way that's difficult to explain. Kind of like the things that I find pleasure in also seem fleeting and trivial compared to a truth more profound and immutable that I intuitively feel exists.

And yet I wonder. Maybe I just want there to be something more because I look into the abyss and I'm afraid, afraid that life is ultimately an endless cycle of grasping at shadows to fill a primordial void that can't psychologically or physiologically be filled—a gaping emptiness that consumes all and out of which nothing escapes. Maybe what we see is all we get.

I don't know. I guess I'm just trying to find my place in the world, to find my calling as they say, or whatever it is that'll give my life the direction and meaning it's lacking. I'm tired of feeling lost and fragmented and like I'm running out of time.