Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Romance is Over : President Obama’s Silence on Troy Davis Execution Gives Young Progressives License to Launch Their Own Fight for A Just Society

Mark Naison
Fordham University

The refusal of President Obama to commute Troy Davis’s death sentence, or even ask local authorities to postpone his execution, brings to a decisive end the faltering romance with the President among young Americans, freeing them to lead much needed justice movements on their own.

It would be a mistake to regard young Americans of this generation as politically passive. It was their energy and idealism that drove the remarkable and unexpected victory over Hilary Clinton in the Democratic Primary, and the history making campaign that made Barack Obama our first African American president.

It was understandable, given the atmosphere of that campaign and the idealistic, activist rhetoric candidate Obama employed to excite hopes of an American Renewal
( “Yes We Can”) that many young people relaxed after the election, assuming their future was in good hands and that the vision of a just society which drove them to participate in the campaign would drive the President’s policies.

Over the last three years, that expectation of moral leadership has been disappointed on many fronts. The huge expenditure to bail out the banks, the failure to mount an effective jobs campaign, the refusal to fight for a public option in the health care plan, the continuation of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and most recently, the acceptance of a budget compromise which eviscerated programs ranging from student loans, to public radio, to environmental projects made the President seem as though he lacked a moral compass, or worse yet, was unwilling to challenge policies which might jeopardize his election chances or hurt the interests of his Wall Street donors.

The President’s compromises and evasions, coming at a time when poverty rates were growing, the racial wealth gap was escalating, and young people, whether educated or not faced the worst job market since the Depression, left many young people confused and demoralized. Many could not believe what was happening to them economically; they were still hoping that the economy would correct itself, or the President they had placed so much hope in would find some way of righting the ship that was sinking around them

But while disappointment with the President was growing, the political warfare waged against him by the Republicans, particularly after the 2010 Congressional elections, left him with a residue of credibility. Weren’t the President’s opponents responsible for the tepid and ineffective policies coming out of Washington. Didn’t Republicans try to obstruct every positive initiative he tried to launch, from asking the wealthy to pay their fair share of taxes, to rebuilding the crumbling American infra structure.

Enter the Troy Davis case. Here was a defendant who had been on death row for twenty years, insisting on his innocence, while the witnesses against him were steadily recanting their testimony. The thought of executing someone with this much doubt surrounding his conviction had created a worldwide protest movement involving millions of people around the world, not just because of the cruelty of capital punishment and the injustice of this particular case,, but because of the disproportionate application of the death penalty in the US to poor people and people of color.

To many young people in this country, and elsewhere, the execution of Troy Davis was a moral wrong of startling clarity, and given the hopes they had invested in Barack Obama when he ran for President, they expected him, at the very least to speak out against Troy Davis’s execution, and if possible, to use his power to stop it.

When the President did neither, and Troy Davis died, Barack Obama’s image as a visionary leader died with it.

But in this case, the cloud had a sliver lining.

While Troy Davis courage in the face of state murder inspired young people to fight harder against injustice, Barack Obama’s silence freed them to lead themselves. No longer could they expect someone in a position of power to stand up for the weak and powerless, to confront deeply entrenched patterns of racial and economic equality, or even insure that young people in this country would have a secure economic future

If there was going to be a fight on all those fronts, it would have to be led by young people themselves, in the streets as well as in the political arena, and they would have to fight harder than they had ever fought in their life.

The Wall Street occupation currently taking place is a sign that more and more young people have gotten this message

While they may- or may not- give their vote to Barack Obama in 2012, they most important thing they will be doing will be acting collectively to change the course of American and world history, and in doing so they will have lots of solidarity and support from young activists around the world facing similar problems

\Mark Naison
\September 25, 2011

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Bloomberg School Legacy: Flawed Policies Poisoned by a Fatal Arrogance

The Bloomberg School Legacy: Flawed Policies Poisoned by a Fatal Arrogance

Mark Naison
Fordham University

It should surprise no one that only 34 percent of New Yorkers approve of Michael Bloomberg’s education policies, the policy area within which the Mayor most hoped to create a legacy. The Mayor not only introduced numerous questionable initiatives- ranging from school closings, to preferential treatment of charter schools, to attempts to rate teacher performance based on student test scores-he did so with an arrogant disregard not only for the most experienced teachers and administrators in the system, but of parents and community leaders and elected officials who tried to make their voices heard in matters of educational policy.

This top down approach to reorganizing the City public school system not only reflected the ideology of the national School Reform movement- which viewed public schools as corrupt institutions in dire need of the kind of competition and accountability allegedly characteristic of the private sector- but an egotistical effort to reproduce the success of Bloomberg LP by importing its management techniques into the Department Education.

Within weeks of taking office, The Mayor put his mark on the school system by insisting the central headquarters of the NYC Department of Education, as well as all of its district offices, look exactly like an office of Bloomberg Inc, with cubicles replacing offices.

This astonishing reorganization, done without the input of anyone in the system, was designed to show that this Mayor was determined to put his own personal stamp on the system down to the smallest detail, and a penchant for Mayoral micromanagement has been a characteristic of the New York Department of Education ever since.

Among the highlights of Mayoral Micromanagement have been

Replacing four members of the Panel on Educational Policy, the major policy making body governing the Department of Education, when it refused to determine the promotion of third graders exclusively on their performance of standardized tests.

Publicly denouncing principals who questioned the school grades issued by the Department of Education after it became clear that the formulae used to compute those grades produced results that defied common sense, as well as school performance on state and national tests.

Appointing publishing executive Cathy Black as School Chancellor without the advice or input of anyone
In the Department of Education, including outgoing Chancellor Joel Klein

Showing favoritism to charter school advocates who were personal friends of the Mayor, such as Harlem Success Academy director Eve Moskowitz, giving them license to seize facilities from existing public schools and discourage the enrollment of students who might lower their institution’s test profiles

It is one thing to try to convince educators and the public that schools , administrators and teachers should be evaluated regularly on the basis of student test scores, and that public schools would benefit from competition from charters, it is another thing to implement those policies unilaterally, from the top down, while stifling public discussion and trying browbeat and intimidate opponents.

Lost in the process were not only principles of democratic governance, but any kind of institutional way to subject Mayoral policies to external oversight, critical evaluation, or adherence to the most basic rules of evidence. Among the most damaging results have been, favoritism, cronyism, and corruption in the awarding of Department of Education contracts, and the creation of evaluation systems, first of schools, now of teachers, that are wildly inaccurate, and counterintuitive to what parents , teachers and administrators believe.

When you have a system without checks and balances of any kind and without any institutionalized or marginally respected input from the major stakeholders in the system- parents, students, teachers and administrators- don’t be surprised if you generate tremendous opposition.

What we have now in New York is a school system filled with teachers and administrators working under extreme duress, convinced the Mayor is their enemy, of students whose school experience is defined by one test after another, and of parents who feel their voices don’t matter.

This is Mayoral Control Michael Bloomberg style.

Many people in this city-teachers and principals foremost among them- will breathe a huge sigh of relief when his third term is finally up.

Mark Naison
September 8, 2011

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Communalism and Cooperation in Park Slope in the 1970's and 1980's

Communalism and Cooperation in Park Slope in the 70’s and 80’s: Lessons from a Forgotten Era in the City’s History

Mark Naison
Fordham University

The year Liz and I moved to Park Slope, 1976, was a tough time in New York City. The city had just been saved from bankruptcy by an Emergency Financial Control Board that just mandated draconian cuts in all city services, especially parks, education, fire and sanitation, a policy, which, coupled with the wave of arson and abandonment that had swept through the city’s poorer neighborhoods, created the atmosphere of a city under siege. Buildings and neighborhoods which could afford it hired their own security forces, others, like ours on West 99th Street created volunteer security patrols to protect residents during evening hours

The Park Slope we moved to was hardly immune from these ills. Portions of the neighborhood, which contained a few wealthy people , but was still mostly middle class and working class had been hit hard by the arson and abandonment cycle. Abandoned buildings lined the neighborhoods main commercial strip, 7th Avenue, from 9th Street to 15th Street, and on the North side of Garfield place between 7th and 6th Avenue; 2nd street between 5th and 4th Avenue was virtually uninhabited. Drug activity dominated large stretches of 5th Avenue, exacerbated by racial tensions between Italians, Blacks and Puerto Ricans in the blocks adjoining Union Street.

Liz and I took note of these problems, which were no different from what we experienced on the Upper West Side, but we also saw opportunity in the neighborhood because of the large group of 60’s activists who had moved to Park Slope and were creating new institutions and new living arrangements based on communal ideals that had emerged from the Sixties Counterculture, given new relevance by the economic hardships that surrounded us and the collapse of basic government services

The cooperation began at home. When we bought half a brownstone ( for around $40,000), we ran it as an informal cooperative with our upstairs neighbors the Menashes. We not only shared all building expenses equally, we ate dinner together two to three nights a week and created joint child care arrangements for our daughter Sara, and their son, David, who were born within three months of one another. Next door was a commune created by two families and a few unattached adults, with whom we shared dinners on a regular basis, and when our son Eric was born, we did the same kind of shared child care with the Archer/ Rosenthal family next door, whose daughter Dana was born around the same time as Eric. These family/house hold based arrangements to share child care and food were reproduced –on a larger scale by two major institutions- the Park Slope Food Cooperative ( which still exists) and the Park Slope Child Care Collective. Many people we knew used these institutions- some as a supplement to private child care and food shopping- others as the organizing principal of their personal and family lives

Those institutions and arrangements, it should be emphasized, largely served those Park Slope residents with Left wing or countercultural politics. But there were many places where ex-Sixties activists made common cause with long time working class residents of the area. One of these was building block associations, the other was in creating recreational opportunities for neighborhood youth.

One of the major activities of the Block associations was security. Street crime, especially muggings, and house break- ins were a huge issue in Park Slope in the late 70’s into the 80’s, and the Block associations dealt with them through cooperative action. On 6th Street, where Liz and I lived, we not only had regularly meetings about security with police and elected officials, we organized our own Block patrols and Block watch arrangements during moments of peak crime activity and on Halloween, when bands of young people roamed the neighborhood with boxes of eggs and shaving cream.

But the Block associations did more than prevent crime. They organized Block parties to get neighborhood residents to know one another better and participated in a wonderful neighborhood softball league in which teams from more than ten different blocks participated. This was an activity bringing together old and new residents, and in which women and children were welcome, although the playoffs and league championships, when things got “serious,” tended to be dominated by those men and women who were ex high school and college athletes.

But the most impressive example of cross class, cross race community building may have come in the area of sports and youth services. Park Slope contained two remarkable organizations, Camp Friendship and Project Reach Youth, which provided education , recreation and counseling to neighborhood youth irrespective of their ability to pay, and which had close working relationships with local public schools and church based neighborhood sports leagues. Two of the latter, St. Saviour’s Youth Council and St Francis Xavier Youth Sports, grew into huge diverse community sports leagues in the early and mid 1980’s, enrolling thousands of young people from diverse religious backgrounds and filling neighborhood parks and gymnasiums with ball games twelve months a year. Both of these organizations depended entirely on volunteer coaches and organizers through the 80’s and thus were able to keep entry fees low, often giving scholarships for young people unable to pay.

The result was a neighborhood transformed. By the middle and late 1980’s, Park Slope was the site of an extraordinary array of activity in public space, from Block parties, to street fairs, to soccer, baseball and basketball games, bringing together people from a wide variety of backgrounds, and in the process, making the neighborhood a much safer place for all its residents

None of the activities I have mentioned came as a result of private investment decisions, or activity done in the pursuit of profit. It was done by people who believed that enlightened self interest, in a difficult economy, required people to act cooperatively, not only to reduce the expense of food and child care and house maintenance, but to improve the quality of life for everyone who lived in a particular area. Not everyone joined these activities out of ideological commitment, but the spirit of cooperation ultimately crossed every line of race and class and religion, creating a neighborhood were young people of all backgrounds had opportunities in sports, recreation, and the arts which matched what was being offered in the wealthiest suburbs.

In the next twenty years, private investors would “discover” Park Slope, restoring abandoned buildings, transforming business districts into sites of upscale restaurants and boutiques, and raising house prices and rents to astronomical levels, ironically driving out many of the neighborhood residents whose hard work had made investments possible.

But for ten or fifteen years, Park Slope was a place where cooperative and communal principles proved their efficacy in creating safe, viable communities for people of a wide variety of backgrounds.

That experience needs to be examined closely as we enter another era of economic hardship and political retrenchment.

Mark Naison
September 14, 2011