Tuesday, January 30, 2007

What new immigrants learn on arrival...

Skin color scale used by researchers.

A new study from a Vanderbilt University scholar seems to prove that skin color is a very strong, maybe the strongest, predictor of how much money immigrant workers in the U.S. make.

Joni Hersch, a professor of law and economics at Vanderbilt University, looked at a government survey of 2,084 legal immigrants to the United States from around the world and found that those with the lightest skin earned an average of 8 percent to 15 percent more than similar immigrants with much darker skin.

“On average,” Dr. Hersch said, “being one shade lighter has about the same effect as having an additional year of education.”

...Dr. Hersch took into consideration other factors that could affect wages, like English-language proficiency, education, occupation, race or country of origin, and found that skin tone still seemed to make a difference in earnings. That meant that if two similar immigrants from Bangladesh, for example, came to the United States at the same time, with the same occupation and ability to speak English, the lighter-skinned one would make more money on average.

“I thought that once we controlled for race and nationality, I expected the difference to go away,” Dr. Hersch said, “but even with people from the same country, the same race, skin color really matters.”

Although many cultures show a bias toward lighter skin, she said her analysis showed that the skin-color advantage was not based on preferential treatment for light-skinned people in their country of origin. The bias, she said, occurs in the United States.

Pretty straightforward; in this country, immigrants are taught, painfully, that Black is means being lesser. What's amazing is not that there are tensions between African-American and newcomer populations, but how commonly African-Americans recognize immigrants as just people trying to make their way through a system stacked against both groups.

Our mission -- and we have no choice

Like the line says, first do no harm. And for the United States as a country, right now, that means doing everything constitutionally, legally and politically possible to limit the president's and even more Vice President Cheney's free hand to shape and execute American foreign policy. Sift it all out and it's that simple. Stop them from doing any more damage. All the rest is commentary and elaboration.

Joshua Micah Marshall

King George by Ann Telnaes

Monday, January 29, 2007

She knows who she wants with her

This morning the feisty seventy-six year old co-founder of the United Farm Workers Union, Dolores Huerta, got off a great quip at an interfaith labor breakfast:

If you were on that TV show -- Survivor -- who'd you want there along with you? I'd want a farm worker -- or a service worker! Wouldn't you, if your life depended on it?

The event rallied religious support for the Service Workers Rising campaign of UNITE HERE. The campaign is promoting a "code of conduct" in Silicon Valley where thousands of low wage service workers toil
for big name high tech companies and don't get decent wages or benefits. The Palo Alto Daily News explains their predicament:

Genentech's professional employees command six-digit salaries, regularly get free time to work on pet projects, and enjoy perks such as gym memberships and weekly parties.

But a cashier in the company's cafeteria, Milarose Oriel, 53, said in a Wednesday teleconference she can't afford health insurance and is denied time off to refill her prescription for blood pressure medicine, without which she runs the risk of a fatal stroke.

The catch is that although Oriel works at Genentech, she doesn't work for Genentech. Her employer is Guckenheimer, the contractor that provides the company's food service.

In a survey of more than half of the 150 Guckenheimer workers at Genentech, [a new] report found that a quarter rely on government-funded health insurance or are uninsured because they can't afford the company's plan. The report notes that almost half of the county's residents spend more than a third of their income on housing. Food service workers on average earn 69 percent less than the median income for the area.

Silicon Valley companies say they aren't responsible for the conditions of these essential workers; they blame the contractors. Leaders from a couple of dozen Peninsula congregations who listened to Huerta this morning think these companies can do better. They are asking the companies to extend their good treatment to thousands of mostly overlooked, often new immigrant, workers whose labor makes their "campuses" such attractive places for white collar employees.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Structural barriers are Republicans' last best hope

Tamar Lewin reported in the New York Times Friday on the results of Ward Connerly's crusade to end affirmative action. Connerly has killed affirmative action by initiative votes in California (1996), Washington (1998) and Michigan (2006). He aims to spread his poison to 10 more states in 2008.

And what has happened in state higher education systems when affirmative action has been banned? The Times reports:

In California and Texas, the first two states to ban racial preferences, underrepresented minorities at the flagship universities declined -- even though both states, and Florida, adopted plans giving a percentage of top high school graduates guaranteed admission to state universities. ...

A decade after the California ban, only 2 percent of this year’s freshmen at the University of California, Los Angeles, are black: a 30-year low. Hispanic representation at U.C.L.A. has dropped, too. At Berkeley, the number of blacks in the freshman class plunged by half the year after the ban, and the number of Hispanics nearly as much.

Systemwide, blacks make up only 3 percent of U.C. freshmen, although about 7 percent of the state’s high school graduates are black.

It's simple: under a ban on intentionally valuing racial diversity in admissions, Blacks and Latinos won't be attending the major public colleges covered by the rule. Mission accomplished: state higher education systems cease to be part of the aspirations of masses of young people who might go to college.

Connerly's attack on affirmative action is an attempt to preserve the crumbling white supremacist underpinnings of our society that are about to be swept away by demographic change. By 2050, whites will cease to be the U.S. majority. We'll be a demographic group alongside others, as whites already are in California, Hawaii and New York City.

So long as this country is something like a democracy, these changing demographics mean that people who aren't white (and also people who are white but have learned that their neighbors are not strange threatening creatures) will become the elected government. However, poor people and uneducated people don't make their weight felt inside the system in anything like their numbers in the population. For example, in 2000, over 80 percent of eligible people who had the highest 20 percent of U.S. incomes voted, as opposed to 51 percent of eligible people in the lowest fifth. Since educational attainment correlates with income, keeping a population out of higher education pretty well guarantees less of them will vote.

Of course, some students of color will find a path to higher education in the private institutions that are still legally allowed to value racial diversity in their student bodies. Private schools able to affirmatively weigh race in admissions and offer scholarship money to back up their choices will cherry pick smart, better prepared applicants of color -- and be known for offering a more welcoming atmosphere than the state schools. Many of those students of color will get good educations and do great things. But they'll also largely leave behind the expectation that government institutions have an affirmative duty to provide opportunities to all of us.

Ward Connerly, an African American developer who aims to pull the ladder of success up behind him, is helping to create structural obstacles to wider participation in our democracy -- and thus helping to keep his Republican buddies in power. Former California Governor Pete Wilson was his mentor and the key to his advancement; Wilson's Republican friends are getting a good return on their investment in Connerly. Connerly's crusade is about keeping people outside the system who might change the rules to the detriment of those who now have an inside track. It's that simple and that brutal.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Escalation brings out the peace movement

I took my own advice and attended San Francisco's antiwar march and rally today, despite not being sure I endorsed all the organizers. Who cares? I certainly endorsed the cause we all marched for: an end NOW to the US war in Iraq. The San Francisco Chronicle says there were 3-5000 of us on a dreary, drippy day on lower Market St. I would lean toward the higher number, perhaps even more. This was not some little demo -- there was a good, diverse, mostly serious crowd.

Protestors coming up the escalator from the BART (subway) station were met by this gentleman. His sign reads: "We are over your lies and tired of your bullshit, Bush."

Some thought it was time that for their votes to start making a difference.

Others took a very dim view of what party politics will do for us.

Mostly people milled around, finding the others they felt comfortable with. Powell and Market Streets is a lousy intersection in which to gather a crowd. There is nowhere for any large number of people to stand, so people spread out. That did have one advantage -- nobody could hear the speeches from the loudspeakers.

Eventually we got moving.

There were enough of us to fill Market Street.

Organized defenders of immigrants were out in force.

These young women look to be students.

Plenty of vets, some from this very war.

Various religious traditions walked together.

Peace marches are hungry work.

Friday, January 26, 2007

If wondering whether to march ...

in a protest organized by some strange faction who you suspect might not represent your views, consider these suggestions from hilzoy:

My presence at a march is not normally a sign that I endorse the people who are organizing it; it's a sign that I endorse whatever people are marching for. This has limits: I would not, for instance, participate in a march put on by the KKK or the American Nazi Party. On the other hand, since I do not normally spend huge amounts of time researching the sponsors of marches, it's perfectly possible that I might turn up at some march sponsored by an organization that's dreadful, but that I'm not familiar with. In this particular case, the American Friends' Service Committee is a member of UFPJ, and they're good enough for me.

I suspect that if I were to read through the list of member organizations (I started, but gave up; it's too long), I would probably find some that I really dislike among the many that I admire. But I'm not going to bother. I dislike the idea that before I can engage in any form of public political action, I have to investigate all the people involved in it for ideological purity; and besides, life is short.

My emphasis. If you can be in D.C. tomorrow, be there or be square.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Baghdad: "the real battle"

I really don't much like YouTube. I don't much like the Tube either, so I don't usually want it on my computer screen. Online, I'm often skimming, while video imposes its own pace. I want to be in control of how much time I invest in particular information; hence, I avoid video.

However -- very occasionally I'll play one of the things. The British Channel 4 news report below is long for a YouTube -- over 8 minutes I think. And worth playing all the way through.

If you had any questions, now you've seen why Bush's escalation is a failure before it begins. And more, why we shouldn't put any more U.S. soldiers into that meat grinder to destroy their moral bearings.

Thanks to Booman Tribune for pointing to the video.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Jimmy Carter:
Israel, Palestine; amplifications, denunciations

Jimmy Carter has gone and spoken the unspeakable. By titling his new book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, he has put the simple truth that "zionism is a form of racism" back out in public view in the United States. For many years that notion was locked away in closet along with other unmentionables (think "George W. Bush is a narcissistic sociopath"), but Carter has sprung it amid great wailing from those who thought they'd staked it firmly in oblivion.

"Apartheid" is not a terribly specific or meaningful term in U.S. consciousness, especially now that majority rule in South Africa has been a fact for over a decade. I suspect it connotes, vaguely, an evil system of racist discrimination enforced by a bad government, nothing more precise. So to the casual consumer of U.S. culture (and it doesn't matter how much of a best seller Carter's book becomes, most will know of it only casually), the former President has said that Israel is a racist state.

Bravo, I say, as a citizen of another racist state still locked in a struggle to overcome its racist origins. Carter is really only restating what was the international consensus throughout the 70s and 80s according to U.N. resolutions approved by a majority of nations. Since Israel came into being as a nation at least in part because of U.N. resolutions designed to end the British mandate over Palestine in 1948, having its nationalist ideology labeled "racism" by the United Nations was profoundly threatening to Israelis and their supporters. In 1991, U.S. pressure forced the U.N. to rescind its statements. I suspect that the underlying belief remains the world's majority position.

So what does Carter actually say in this controversial book? Not much that is novel. The guts of his argument is as follows: the current situation in Israel/Palestine is

a system of apartheid, with two peoples occupying the same land but completely separated from each other, with Israelis totally dominant and suppressing violence by depriving Palestinians of their basic human rights. This is the policy now being followed, although many citizens of Israel deride the racist connotation of prescribing permanent second-class status for Palestinians. As one prominent Israeli stated, " I am afraid we are moving toward a government like that of South Africa, with a dual society of Jewish rulers and Arab subjects with few rights of citizenship. The West Bank is not worth it."

An unacceptable modification of this choice, now being proposed, is the taking of substantial portions of the occupied territory, with the remaining Palestinians completely surrounded by walls, fences, and Israeli checkpoints, living as prisoners within the small portion of land left to them. ...

The United States is squandering international prestige and goodwill and intensifying global anti-American terrorism by unofficially condoning or abetting Israeli confiscation and colonization of Palestinian territories. [pp. 215-6]

He arrives at this summary through a narrative of his many years of involvement in peace efforts, including the Camp David Accords signed on during his term of office, and his gradually expanding understanding of how Israelis have victimized Palestinian residents of the occupied territories. I agree with Helena Cobban:

it's a sweet and haunting book, in which he gives an intimate portrait of how he came to learn about many aspects of the Palestinian-Israeli issue, and much well-presented information about the nitty-gritty of the Israeli-Palestinian encounter in the occupied territories. But really, I wish he'd done a bit more with that title of his.

And like Cobban and many other reviewers, I wish he'd admitted that Arab citizens of Israel, though much better off than Palestinians behind the Wall in the West Bank and Gaza, are also less than full citizens of "their country". Even to this distant observer, simply reading some English-language Israeli press, it was obvious last summer during the Lebanon war that Arabs in Israel felt their lives were expendable; bomb shelters for this population were simply not a priority. Ali Abunimah ran down the situation of Arab residents of Israel in a Wall Street Journal article (sub. req.)

They have nominal Israeli citizenship, and unlike blacks in apartheid South Africa, they do vote for the country's parliament. Yet this is where any sense of equality ends. ...

Discrimination against non-Jewish citizens both informal and legalized is systematic. Non-Jewish children attend separate schools and live in areas that receive a fraction of the funding of their Jewish counterparts. ...

Much of the land of the country, controlled by the quasi-governmental Jewish National Fund, cannot be leased or sold to non-Jews. ...

A 2003 law stipulates that an Israeli citizen may bring a non-citizen spouse to live in Israel from anywhere in the world, excluding a Palestinian from the occupied territories.

The current Israeli cabinet includes Avigdor Lieberman who recently "called for Israel to become 'as much as possible' an all-Jewish country without an Arab minority" according to the Scottsman. (Via the Christian Science Monitor.)

What about the situation of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, literally beyond the Wall? Chris Hedges, author of War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, urges us to pay attention to what is happening in Gaza after purported Israeli unilateral withdrawal.

Israel has spent the last five months unleashing missiles, attack helicopters and jet fighters over the densely packed concrete hovels in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli army has made numerous deadly incursions, and some 500 people, nearly all civilians, have been killed and 1,600 more wounded. Israel has rounded up hundreds of Palestinians, destroyed Gaza’s infrastructure, including its electrical power system and key roads and bridges, carried out huge land confiscations, demolished homes and plunged families into a crisis that has caused widespread poverty and malnutrition.

Civil society itself—and this appears to be part of the Israeli plan—is unraveling. Hamas and Fatah factions battle in the streets, despite a tenuous cease-fire, threatening civil war. And the governing Palestinian movement, Hamas, has said it will boycott early elections called by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, done with the blessing of the West in a bid to toss Hamas out of power. (Remember that Hamas, despite its repugnant politics, was democratically elected.) In recent days armed groups loyal to Abbas have seized Hamas-run ministries in what looks like a coup.

The stark reality of Gaza, however, has failed to penetrate the consciousness of most Americans.... [Truthdig.]

Let's hope that Carter has opened the way for slightly more people in the United States to pay attention.

There are many people who want very much to shut Carter up. Though noisy, they are not doing that well, being up against both the megaphone of a Nobel Peace Prize winner ex-President who makes himself accessible -- and reality on the ground in Israel/Palestine. Here's a sample from the Detroit News.

The problem is Carter has always displayed an animus for Israel. ...

In every conflict with the Palestinians, Carter has always blamed Israel; thus the book is hardly a revelation. During the most recent war in Lebanon, he chastised Israel for bombing the "entire" country.

It is actually sad to witness Carter, once the most powerful leader of the free world, write what amounts to nothing but propaganda.

Little argument, no references to different sources of information, just denunciation.

The leader of the Carter denouncers is Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz. I'll be blunt about this one. He forfeited any credibility he might ever have had with me when he advocated for torture by U.S. authorities after 9/11. He's obviously lost any moral compass he ever had, though he gets a lot of press. Boston has been rocked by a kerfluffle about whether Carter would debate Dershowitz before a student audience at Brandeis University. They ended up speaking the same night, in orderly sequence. Ellen McNamara, a Globe columnist and part time journalism teacher at the school reported:

No such civility would have prevailed if Carter had shared the stage with Alan Dershowitz, whose low opinion of Carter is matched only by his high opinion of himself. The Harvard Law professor wrote an op-ed piece in this newspaper last month calling the former president a hypocrite and a coward and a bully. Carter's sin was not so much writing a book that Dershowitz didn't like. It was Carter's refusal to debate him about the merits of that book that rankled the smartest man in Cambridge. Dershowitz delivered a rebuttal after Carter left the building last night. ...

Carter's refusal looked more like common sense than cowardice to anyone who remembers Dershowitz's debate with Noam Chomsky of MIT about Israel at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, an exchange that degenerated into personal attacks that Chomsky later characterized as infantile.

Carter's critics are clearly afraid that if he gets a hearing, somehow Israel, the Jewish people, will suffer, despite Carter's professed concern for Israel's future. Philip Weiss of the New York Observer watched a similar campus kerfluffle (not involving Carter) and came away with an insight (my emphasis).

It was one thing to have [an Israeli war resister] give a talk inside Israel, [a zionist speaker] said. "Outside of Israel, you're playing with fire."

This chilling statement was a candid expression of the goals of the Israel lobby. A member of a Jewish organization was saying that it's OK to have a wide-open discussion of these issues in Israel, but it's dangerous to have such a discussion here. Why? Because America is the mainstay of support allowing Israel to continue its policies in the Occupied Territories. The Israel lobby fears that Americans, if left to their own devices, will abandon Israel, out of indifference, or anti-semitism. So Americans must be influenced—in this case by having the information they get about Israel/Palestine vetted...


Has Carter's book encouraged any really interesting commentary? Fortunately, yes. Tony Karon, a Jewish South African who was part of the anti-aparthied struggle and is now a Time magazine journalist, has written a couple of moving and sensible blog essays about Carter and Israel/Palestine.

Carter’s contribution has been to remind Americans why they ought to be having a discussion on their responsibilities in respect of, as he put it, seeking peace for Israel and peace and justice for the Palestinians.

Definitely "read the whole thing" material.

Israeli historian Tom Segev, writing in the newspaper Haaretz calmly mulls the long and the short of Carter's book.

One reason the book is outraging "friends of Israel" in America is that it requires them to reformulate their friendship: If they truly want what's good for Israel, they must call on it to rid itself of the territories. People don't like to admit that they've erred; therefore, they're angry at Carter. But the belief that a withdrawal to the Green Line will bring peace has been around ever since the Six-Day War. What else is new?

Israel has remained in the Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights mainly because the United States has not compelled it to withdraw. As optimistic as only a God-fearing person can be, the former U.S. president also essentially only propose that we all try to be nice to one another, in the spirit of the ... Christmas holiday. He has no new ideas to offer and thus his book is something of a let-down, though this does not justify a rebuke.

Not to Carter. We owe him for the peace with Egypt.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Bush speaking tonight

Photo via Rubicon.

A friend calls this a "President=Commander in Chief" meld:

George W. Bush as a president, Mr. Snow said, is not somebody who is going to cease to be bold because there has been -- because right now people are concerned about the progress of the war. Instead he understands his obligation as commander in chief is to go ahead and address forthrightly big problems and come up with solutions that not only are going to have political appeal, but they’re also going to be effective in making life better for Americans.”

"Bush, at Low Point in Polls, Will Push Domestic Agenda"
New York Times
January 23, 2007

There is something kind of sick, and dangerous to democracy, when a guy who ducked his military service and gets off on parading around in weird uniforms encourages his flack to present him in the Commander in Chief role.

Maybe he'd like to kick things around with these guys. Of course, things didn't turn out so well for the last two.

Monday, January 22, 2007

The Work Game

No one really understands how discrimination works until it happens to them. That's the idea behind "The Work Game," a teaching exercise about how employment opportunities and life chances are influenced by race, gender, immigration status, educational attainment and sheer dumb luck. Rebecca Gordon, Sara Clarke Kaplan (now at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign), and I cooked this up about seven years ago for use in a course on gender and race for community organizers. Last spring Rebecca revived it for her ethics classes. In honor of the new semester that began today, here's a photo essay from that experiment.

Just like much of U.S. life, the object of The Work Game is to win. Winning means getting the most points. Students are randomly assigned an identity, then sent off to visit various three work stations -- Paid Work outside the home, Paid Domestic Work, and Unpaid Domestic Work -- which award them "work points" based on sets of rules that differ with the identity each person is assigned. Here are some of the identity cards:

How it plays out depends on who you are.

Here's a man of color -- he won't get as many points at Paid Work as a white man, but he did go to college which may help him amass slightly more points.

This woman of color has more complicated work demands to meet than the fellow above. She must do Unpaid Work in the home as well as Paid Work outside the home to earn her points -- but necessity dictates that the work outside has first claim on her.

Several students got the job of staffing the various stations at which points could be earned. Their cheat sheets told them how many points they were allowed to award when visited by people of each identity.

Once students received their ID cards, they rushed off to get in line to start getting points. They could visit the various tables as many times as they could reach the front of the line -- but how many points "getting the job" (reaching the front) got them was determined by their assigned identities.

Pretty quickly, most students figured out that the way to get ahead was to move quickly, find the shortest line they were eligible for and collect, collect, collect.

As in real life, some students went looking for more instructions.

After about 10 minutes of semi-organized chaos, Rebecca explained that the rules had changed.

"We are experiencing an economic boom!" Now white women, who in the first half of the game had to collect at least 80 points for unpaid domestic work, and white men, who had to collect at least 40 points for unpaid domestic work, can hire a person of color to do the work for them. This is done by signing each other’s pass-cards. With a signed pass-card, a white person no longer needs to fulfill the domestic work requirement. A person of color with a signed pass-card gets 10 extra points for each visit to the Paid Domestic Work station.

After another 10 minutes of semi-controlled, competitive chaos, and much card signing, Rebecca called an end and tallied up the points various students had accumulated.

Since the game is rigged to work like life, students who had been the women of color (WOC) had the hardest time getting lots of points and white men (WM) got the most. Some individuals beat the odds, scoring better than average for their identities, but most couldn't rise above a glass ceiling.

The winning "white man" with the highest point total was jazzed.

After everyone tallied up, Rebecca asked if anyone had cheated -- perhaps cut in line or forged points on their tally sheet? Just about everyone who was not assigned the identity of a white man had done something that wasn't quite within the rules. The "white men" had just played the game as they were told to -- they didn't feel as if they had to cheat.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Technology is not sufficient, but it can help

A message to the Speaker from her constituents. In this era of the corporate mass media and the internet are wall posters still a medium for transmission of alternative culture?

Over at Hullabaloo, poputonian makes the point that resistance against the U.S. imperial project is winning the culture and especially young people, even if there are not thousands of protesters in the streets.

The culture battles are playing out in the schools and I believe the side of reason has the edge. Though it might not hold the visual drama of a street protest, per se, it is the rejection of bad ideas and beliefs. ...

As I see it, protest is still there, but it's perhaps a bit more efficient, subtle, and less obvious to those we're protesting against. Hopefully, this way leads to a greater gathering of numbers, and more sustainability as the precision-memory of digital reporting, coupled with smart governance, leads to a better world. I think the kids will figure it out.

aimai followed up with some very pertinent observations based on political experience both in the U.S. and in the remote mountains of Nepal.

The first question to ask when we start talking windily about the political activities of individuals, young or old, is what context those activities took place in technologically and socially. ...

Political action that takes place outside, or in parallel to, regular machine politics is very hard to organize. All those things that we associate with political or economic change simply can't run on the same rails as the status [quo] they are attempting to change. All those contacts, all those interactions, take time, and are highly dependent on very small and often almost autonomous groups of people. ....

In a place like Nepal, for instance, farmers and workers had to rely on someone walking literally days to tell them something that had happened in a neighboring village. ...

The internet, a largely literate populace, the existence of internet connections in libraries, stolen wifi, home computers has meant that at one stroke of the electronic key information about what is happening, where, and who is doing it has become democratized. I don't have any illusions about the ease of the translation of ideas into political action--nothing replaces a committed, energized, politically active populace and the internet is as much a source of deadening, anomie inducing "mass entertainment" as TV. But it is also a source of connection ....

I agree with aimai -- just because lots of people know that something is wrong isn't going to change it unless organized forces are built to impede the forces that like it just fine. We won the culture in the 60s too -- far more obviously than today. But we didn't turn that cultural victory into effective power.

To be specific, U.S. wars in the Middle East will go on unless overwhelming political forces are built to turn the actions of the U.S. state around. Just knowing they lied to us and that their whole project is a murderous sinkhole won't do the trick. I hope all who can will be turning out to the demonstration in Washington next Saturday and to the lobby days that follow.

If we want to change things, we have to do it all: find out as much truth as we can and build effective democratic power that can make the world more secure, more sustainable, more equitable and more peaceful. The internet offers opportunities -- and like any technology, it can be coopted by those who would lull us into comfortable compliance. Technologies don't determine whether we can make change: a mix of necessity, grit, luck, smarts and willingness to sacrifice underlie all successful organizing for progress.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Border woes, north

A Peace Bridge design favored by Canadians, according to the Buffalo News.

This made me laugh out loud, so I should share.

For many years, certainly beginning well before the last time I spent a chunk of time in Buffalo, New York in 1999, civic leaders have been mumbling about replacing the "Peace Bridge" across the Niagara River to and from Canada. This was a fairly sleepy span in my youth. But NAFTA increased the amount of truck traffic (if not local economic well-being) through the area and the bridge simply can't handle the volume.

According to the Buffalo News, the latest hold up with the Peace Bridge, lasting since 2004, has been a dispute with Canadian authorities about how to solve what the U.S. Homeland Security Department insists is a very important problem: how to handle drivers on the Canadian side who approach and then decide at the last minute to stay in Canada. The U.S. authorities want to send them to a clearance station and make them go through a fingerprint scan. The Canadians have balked at this requirement.

U.S. Congresscritter Louise Slaughter (D-NY28) met recently with the Canadian Ambassador and the Canadian minister for Public Safety to try to get the bridge project unstuck.

Slaughter said Canadian officials tell her their laws would prohibit [the fingerprinting requirement], unless there's some probable cause.

"It's against their law," Slaughter told The Buffalo News. "In all my life, I thought it was against ours."

You go, Ms. Congresswoman!

No resolution was reached. There may be no bridge -- because someone who changes his mind can't be fingerprinted by those legalistic Canadians. Wonder how the existing bridge will hold up when, in a few months, everyone crossing it will be required to have a passport? Maybe shutting it down altogether is the solution?

So much for the remnants of the "world's longest undefended border."

(This post is not a slam at Buffalo, in case any of the people who've previously accused me of such things happen to read this. I live in a city part of whose essential bridge collapsed in the 1989 earthquake. We won't see the re-engineered replacement finished until 2013, if the various authorities and contractors stay on schedule. Yes, I've had years when I crossed the still unreinforced structure everyday for work. I know all about interminable bureaucratic bridge projects!)

Friday bird blogging
Wild things in the city

You never know quite what you'll run across in downtown San Francisco.

This penguin family is at least of recognizable ancestry; it's an unmistakable Benny Bufano. Writing for the California Parks Department, which has ended up with lots of Bufano sculptures, E. Breck Parkman caustically describes the artist's ambitions:

From an early age, Benny Bufano believed in peace, but he was not the typical peacenik. Benny was eclectic, suspicious, egotistical, perhaps mildly suicidal, occasionally hostile, and often given to exaggeration if not outright lies. People either loved him or they hated him. San Francisco’s beloved newspaper columnist, the late Herb Caen, was quite fond of Benny, and regularly featured him in his daily columns. The exposure helped elevate Bufano to celebrity status.

While it is no secret that Bufano was seriously flawed as a family man, his celebrity assured him an almost saintly position as a revered member of the family of man. Benny’s friend, Henry Miller, once said of him, ”He will outlive our civilization and probably be better known, better understood, both as a man and artist, five thousand years hence.”

Bufano wanted his creations to survive forever, and it is quite possible that some of his monumental sculptures will outlive our civilization. Benny’s stainless steel, concrete, and granite constructions will slowly deteriorate over time, but unless they are intentionally removed or destroyed, remnants of them will likely survive the millennia, just as ancient monuments remain today in places like Athens, Rome, and Mexico City.

Bufano was a fine specimen of a San Franciscan.

Leaving the Bufano, I wandered into a little park in the shadow of Rockefeller Center West (Embarcadero Towers), and saw this:

I'd never before seen the famous Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. They really do exist, for all to see, not far from the foot of Market St.

They apparently are fond of apples.

And also seem fond of people who feed them. I am pleased to report that a parrot landed on my head while I was getting these pictures.

If you have a spare afternoon in San Francisco, you might look in on them off Drumm between Sacramento and California Streets.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Surveillance in San Francisco

Apparently I am going to have police spy cameras around the corner from my house. The Police Commission voted 5-0 last night to install to 25 new cameras at "high-crime street corners." They call it a "pilot program" but how often do cops turn in high tech toys once they get them?

The City Hall hearing seemed to be a scripted circus in which people played rather predictable roles.

News media set up their wand trucks in Civic Center Plaza, ready to do their live stand ups. "Breaking News at 10 pm!"

Citizens waiting to speak out, on both sides, filled the City Hall hearing room and an overflow room down the hall. I have to admit to a fondness for Room 400: in that place, during Gulf War I, the District Attorney and a bevy of pro bono corporate associate volunteers attempted to prosecute several hundred of us for having been arrested in antiwar protests. A city judge threw them out on their ears insisting they'd have to prove each individual had done something to break the peace besides having been arrested. The SFPD was unable to produce any evidence.

I was glad to see old friends there to stick up for civil liberties and privacy protections...

and not surprised to see the Chief of Police herself, along with a gent who seemed to be one of the organizers of the police-sponsored neighborhood anti-crime "community organizations." These groups had done an excellent job of turnout, plastering their community supporters with "no mas crime" stickers. There was no doubt about the sincerity and commitment of the large crowd, on both sides of the issue.

The crowd kept spilling out into the hallway.

For many of us, pushed into the overflow room, the hearing looked like this -- not a pleasant sight. I have to admit that I bailed early on. Don't think I missed anything novel.

So what was the show really about? San Francisco politicians of all stripes are under a lot of pressure to "do something" about crime. Not having any solutions, they posture.

The Board of Supervisors had passed, and passed again over a mayoral veto, a plan to put more cops on foot patrol. The Mayor and his Chief of Police, not to mention the cops' union, want to substitute high tech tools for expensive police officers, hence the camera scheme.

Since the city has no money for cameras, it would have to get the cash from the Feds. That rings more than a few alarm bells for me, since San Francisco currently has a a blogger/journalist, Josh Wolf, locked up for refusing to turn over his tapes from a little demonstration that ended with a burning police car. In state courts, he would enjoy the protection of a shield law. But the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force went after him on the grounds that the Feds paid for the police car. If the Feds pay for the cameras, does that mean they have right to whatever footage results?

The ACLU pointed folks attending last night's hearing to some evidence that surveillance cameras simply don't do the job they are promoted to do.
  • In the U.K., the average citizen is caught on film by a surveillance camera 300 times a day. Yet a study showed no decrease in crime in 13 of 14 areas filmed.
  • According to the Washington Times,

    "Generally, the [Maryland] State's Attorney's Office has not found them to be a useful tool to prosecutors," office spokeswoman Margaret Burns said. "They're good for circumstantial evidence, but it definitely isn't evidence we find useful to convict somebody of a crime."...

    "We have not used any footage to resolve a violent-crime case," she said.

    Miss Burns said police sometimes misidentify suspects because the cameras produce "grainy" and "blurry" images. "We have had that happen more than once," she said.

  • In addition to being not very useful, the cameras have multiple potentials for abuse. Police and their friends have been known to sell information that they had collected which was not, in itself, incriminating to interested third parties. In San Francisco, we had the under-reported story of the policeman and the fantasy spy who sold stolen data on community groups to the ADL.
So there's a lot wrong and not much right with putting up surveillance cameras to "fight crime."

But the real issue goes beyond wasteful "security theater" that politicians and cops practice to blunt citizen criticism. Technical consultant Bruce Schneier spelled out what I think are the real issues in a recent op-ed:

Wholesale surveillance is fast becoming the norm. Northern California's FasTrak toll-collection system tracks cars at tunnels and bridges. We can all be tracked by our cell phones. Our purchases are tracked by banks and credit-card companies, our telephone calls by phone companies, our Internet surfing habits by Web-site operators. ...

...What we need are corresponding mechanisms to prevent abuse, and that don't place an unreasonable burden on the innocent. Throughout our nation's history, we have maintained a balance between the necessary interests of police and the civil rights of the people. ...

Wholesale surveillance is not simply a more efficient way for the police to do what they've always done. It's a new police power, one made possible with today's technology and one that will be made easier with tomorrow's. And with any new police power, we as a society need to take an active role in establishing rules governing its use. To do otherwise is to cede ever more authority to the police.

I think he's right. There will be no preventing technical fixes like these cameras. But so far, we do still live in at least a pseudo-democracy, and so we need to force our politicians to regulate, inhibit, and punish any abuse of the new power that new technologies give the authorities.