“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
-Martin Luther King Jr.
Some of the most undercovered stories of 2010 were actions taken by ordinary people standing up for a more just and equitable society. People are taking to the streets on a regular basis across the country, but unlike the corporate-sponsored Tea Party — whose spokespeople can’t answer basic questions about the deficit they claim to be so worried about — those who believe in health care, affordable housing, economic justice, education, a living wage, and a better life for all rarely, if ever, get the attention they deserve. Instead, the media, even the alternative media, spent the better part of last year obsessing over the Tea Party and manufactured personalities like Sarah Palin, while ignoring people like 85-year-old Julia Botello.
Last month, Botello was among 22 people arrested for blocking the doors of a Chase Bank branch in downtown Los Angeles. Over 200 people, many of them homeowners facing foreclosure and eviction, took part in the action organized by Home Defenders League and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment.
According to the Alliance, these families have never participated in an event or protest before, but they have exhausted all other options. Imagine if over 200 Tea Partiers took part in a similar action. Imagine if an 85-year-old Tea Party member was photographed being led away by two cops, one holding each arm. Not only would this video footage be shown over and over again on the cable shows, Julia Botello would be bombarded with interview requests, but because she’s standing in solidarity with people who are losing their homes, she’s only been contacted by two other reporters.
“If we’re united, we’re a better force. We need to stand together,” she says. “I use my voice for the people. I know all of the councilmen and councilwomen in my area. I’m not afraid to speak and ask for better conditions for my community.”
Botello found her voice 10 years ago after falling and hurting her knee on a routine walk home. Her South Central Los Angeles neighborhood was usually dark because the street lights rarely worked. “We usually had only one light that worked, so I went to local council meetings and raised my voice. Why are our streets dark? We need light. My neighborhood hasn’t been dark since.” She’s been going strong ever since. If there’s an action focusing on an issue she cares about, she will do whatever it takes to be there, even if it means rescheduling an overdue eye surgery. “I still have time and I want to keep going.”
In addition to the Chase Bank action last month, several other grassroots actions failed to receive the attention they deserve. These actions, no matter how small, should not be discounted. Let’s hope these voices and demands become too loud to ignore in 2011.
— On December 9, thousands of inmates in Georgia state prisons began a six-day strike to call attention to their treatment and to demand basic human rights: a living wage for work, educational opportunities, decent living conditions and health care, and an end to cruel and unusual punishment. It was largest prison strike in U.S. history, but the New York Times was one of the few mainstream outlets to cover it.
“Perhaps there was a larger hand at play—one that did not want the deplorable conditions of the Georgia prison system to surface,” writes Death and Taxes’ Joe Weber.
For extensive coverage, analysis and interviews with inmates, you had to turn to independent outlets like Facing South and the Black Agenda Report. “They want to break up the unity we have here,” said an anonymous strike leader in an interview with the Black Agenda Report. “We have the Crips and the Bloods, we have the Muslims, we have the head Mexicans, and we have the Aryans all with a peaceful understanding, all on common ground.”
By refusing to work or leave their cells, the inmates brought attention to prison labor and the growing prison-industrial complex, two issues that rarely get covered in the national media. In These Times ran a piece about Georgia’s hidden prison labor force and The Irish Times ran a piece about what prison life is actually like in Georgia, which has the highest prisoner-to-resident ratio in the U.S. with 60,000 prisoners and 150,000 people on probation. According to the piece, African Americans comprise 63 percent of the prison population, but only 30 percent of state residents.
“Even though reports are stating that the strike is effectively over, the momentum created by the activities of these inmates cannot be understated,” writes Boyce Watkins, founder of the Your Black World Coalition. “By coming together in such an amazing way, the individuals in the Georgia State correctional system have made a strong statement for human rights around the world.”
— On December 11, a few local media outlets in Waterville, Maine reported on an action organized by the Maine Fair Trade Campaign to call attention to President Obama’s decision to bring the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement to Congress for a vote. The group, which opposes NAFTA and CAFTA, rang a bell 31 times in honor of the more than 31,000 Maine-based jobs that have been outsourced since 2000. “People all over the state have suffered because of this,” said campaign board member Sarah Bigney in an interview with The Morning Sentinel. “We know what the impact of NAFTA has been. We must say no to this madness. We know it will continue to worsen the job crisis.” According to the Economic Policy Institute, the deal will increase the deficit with Korea by $16.7 billion, and cost 159,000 U.S. jobs within the first seven years after it takes effect.
Public Citizen says it’s up to Congress to make the “right decision and reject this deeply flawed, job-killing” deal, which is an expansion of the deals negotiated under the Bush administration. “As a Senator and then as a presidential candidate, President Obama opposed the deal,” says a statement on Public Citizen’s site. “He pledged to replace the damaging NAFTA model. In June 2010, President Obama said he would start renegotiating parts of the agreement in preparation for sending it to Congress. But he only focused on some modest changes to automobile trade issues. This came after over 100 members of Congress and over 500 unions, environmental, faith and other organizations called on him to meet his commitments and really fix Bush’s old text. The deal Obama is now pushing directly conflicts with his campaign commitments.”
Congress is expected to vote on the deal in February.
— On December 15, workers, union activists, and community supporters took part in more than 40 actions at Rite Aid stores in 11 states to raise awareness about low wages and health insurance cost increases. In These Times, one of the only outlets to report on the National Day of Action, ran a piece by AFL-CIO campaign coordinator Rand Wilson. He writes that the actions were “sparked by a rash of poor decisions by Rite Aid officials across the country.”
“In Lancaster, California, Rite Aid executives stalled talks with 500 warehouse employees for nearly two years. Now officials are proposing to gouge employees by ‘marking-up’ the cost of health insurance 28 times over the increases charged by insurers. In Rome, New York, Rite Aid is closing a distribution facility that pays family-sustaining wages and benefits and provides workers with a voice on the job. Work is being shifted to a nearby location that pays low wages with few benefits and no job rights.”
Watch a video of the action in Oakland, California.
— On December 16, 131 veterans and their supporters were arrested after chaining themselves to the White House fence during a snowstorm to demand an end to the ongoing occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. According to Veterans for Peace, it was the largest veteran-led demonstration in recent years, but just like Winter Soldier, the action was completely ignored by the corporate media. Dave Lindorff reports that it was blacked out of the New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.
“None of us expected that these illegal wars of aggression would immediately stop due to our simple action, but we did hope that we would send a message — a message that there are citizens who do not support our government’s illegal wars and occupations; a message to the world that we are shamed by the actions of our government and we will do everything we can to stop it,” writes veteran and peace activist Leah Bolger. “It is our sincere hope that this action will be a spark that ignites the consciousness of others; that our refusal to obey and willingness to put our liberty on the line will give them the courage of their own convictions and they will also begin to act in resistance as well.”
In New York City, 75 veterans, members of Grandmothers Against the War, including two in their 90s, the Green Party, and other groups stood in solidarity with the activists in DC. Eleven people were arrested for blocking an intersection near the military recruiting station in Times Square. Joan Wile, founder of Grandmothers Against the War, writes, “It is hoped that the New York protest along with the big one in Washington served as a wake-up call to the American people about the tragedy of this hopeless and destructive war. Wake up, America!”
At another solidarity action in San Francisco, 26 people were arrested for taking part in a die-in and blocking the doors of the Federal Building.
— On December 20, six people were arrested for trespassing after they locked arms and climbed the steps to the Bank of America entrance in Clayton, St. Louis. According to organizers, some 80 people gathered in front of the bank to raise awareness about a pending foreclosure facing Mary and Mike Boehm. Mary Boehm says after her husband lost his job in 2009, she applied for the mortgage modification program designed to keep people in their homes. On November 8, 2009, Bank of America told her she qualified, but she needed to turn in additional paperwork in order to be officially approved. Even though the Boehms never missed a payment, they received a notice in November 2010 saying they were in default. The foreclosure proceedings began on December 26. The action was organized by the grassroots group Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment.
Watch KMOV’s coverage here. A class action lawsuit has since been filed in St. Louis federal court against Bank of America for allegedly refusing to participate in foreclosure prevention programs despite taking $25 billion in Troubled Asset Relief Program money, according to the Courthouse News Service.
Rose Aguilar is the host of Your Call, a daily call-in radio show on KALW 91.7 FM in San Francisco and KUSP 88.9 FM in Santa Cruz, and author of Red Highways: A Liberal’s Journey into the Heartland.