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March 22 - 26, 1999

Tuesday, March 23, 1999

Acting locally

Has the Cookie Lady been visiting City Hall during the past few months? I can see her now, skipping happily down the newly polished halls, swinging a basket of scrumptious-looking pastries laced with some unidentifiable and probably illegal substance. Little embossed labels invite: "Eat me!" Alice would have felt right at home in this looking-glass world, where official pronouncements distort reality like mirrors in an old-fashioned funhouse.

The subject of homelessness seems to inspire the most inventive imaginings. Some of the Brown Twins' hallucinatory ramblings sound rational at first, but a careful review of their content reinvests them with thought processes worthy of Humpty Dumpty. Take Willie Brown's comment in a recent exhortation entitled "We Must All Work Together to Help Those Living Without Homes." After acknowledging the problem's prevalence in urban America --- "because of the complexity of causes of homelessness and because of the diverse population that make up the homeless in our cities" --- he unveiled his own particular analysis of the situation: "Some are homeless because they simply can not afford a home and fear living in shelters."

Such fears may indeed justified. Even more frightening, however, is the logic that lies beneath the sentence, quivering like an exotic mushroom aspic. Some people are homeless, Brown adjudges, because they won't live in shelters. A shelter is not a home, according to the federal McKinney Assistance Act. Nor does a shelter qualify as a home in human terms. The suggestion contains uncomfortable overtones of 19th-century poorhouses and Dickensian degradation. As well as a rich fantasy concoction about life in the city of St. Francis.

It's wonderfully invigorating to crawl out of the rabbit hole and breathe the musty atmosphere of real shelters, to listen to the people who reluctantly inhabit --- or refuse to inhabit --- them, and to eavesdrop on the discussions of people who take responsibility for them. In search of such fresh air, I dropped in at Boedekker Park last week where representatives from the San Francisco Local Homeless Coordinating Board were soliciting advice on the needs of local homeless people. They got an earful, just as they had at similar meetings in Bayview--Hunters Point, the Mission and the Haight.

This winter Boedekker Park has been fitting itself out with a new, more wholesome image. Every day Tenderloin residents gather for a cornucopia of programs --- bingo for seniors, arts and crafts for kids, basketball for teens --- designed to give some varied company to the area's less reputable denizens. As I joined about 40 people in the Rec Center, a painter was working high overhead. A multicolored dragon curved across one wall, chasing a whole parade of cheery furry and feathered creatures.

The comments of the audience were thoughtful and practical, tailor-made for the TL's special style. (I later discovered that the other three forums exhibited the same neighborhood specificity.) Give us, pleaded a middle-aged Caucasian widow, a place where we can go in the middle of the night, in case of a medical emergency, or just to get out of the rain. Give us, said an African-American grandfather, a place where our children can visit us. Give us, begged a Latina in Spanish, a place where non-English speakers can get information about housing and jobs.

Michael Bennett, from the board, attended this meeting as he had the other three. In a gray suit and thick dreadlocks, he hovered near the front of the room while other members carefully inscribed the public's suggestions on a large pad of paper. They filled one page, then two, then three. A pale plump woman recounted the difficulties of transsexuals in need of electrolysis or voice therapy as they applied for secretarial jobs. A writer in black constructed an imaginary artistic gateway that could lead out of mental illness, in contrast to the conventional marijuana gateway leading toward hard drugs. Several heads nodded in agreement as a European social worker described the public shower and laundry facilities she had known overseas --- "Even the mayor could no longer complain of dirty smelly people in the parks."

But the smiles at her suggestion gave way to caution born of experience, as speakers remarked that even the smallest improvement in lifestyle could quickly set one person apart from formerly supportive street-culture compatriots. An image flitted by of disastrous "civilizing" experiments conducted by burdened white men, who extracted "barbarians" from their nurturing native habitat, taught them a few social graces and then abandoned them to their own devices, leaving them doubly bereft. The Boedekker advisers would have nothing to do with colonizing charity that would take them nowhere. Foremost on their list --- reiterated as a nonnegotiable demand --- these homeless or near-homeless people placed the need for permanent housing. Unlike the mayor, they know that a shelter is not a home.

These animated hearings were no mere exercises in navel-contemplating self-expression, but part of a painstaking process that will allow the Local Board to identify its priorities in applying for next year's McKinney grant. A few days later, the scene shifted slightly down the road, to the fourth floor of City Hall, where the full board considered the lists its fact-finders had compiled. On each of them, permanent housing ranked first --- followed by real jobs, not just job training. The mood in the elegant hearing room was down-to-earth, as befits people accustomed to tackling life-and-death problems. It was patient, as befits people accustomed to disentangling bureaucratic regulations. It was also faintly optimistic.

In 1987, when Congress passed the McKinney Act and Ronald Reagan begrudgingly signed it into law, poor people's advocates regarded the measure as a stopgap that would bring immediate necessary relief. They despaired at its failure to address the causes of homelessness. But in the decade since, HUD seems to have learned something, if only because our booming economy hasn't dissipated what appeared to be a temporary crisis. Someone in Boedekker Park must have had a direct line to Washington, because next year's grants earmark 39 percent of the nationwide funding for permanent housing.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

Wednesday, March 24, 1999


Yes we have no bananas: The U.S. has embarked upon a trade war with Europe over the latter's discrimination against imported bananas from Central America, and has imposed 100 percent tariffs on European luxury goods. The primary grower in Central America is Chiquita Brands, whose chairman, Carl H. Lindner, contributed $500,000 to the Democrats in 1996. On March 30, the company's 100th anniversary, activists throughout Europe will use the occasion to persuade Chiquita to improve working conditions and respect the basic rights of its workers and suppliers. Let's scan the company's record since we last reported on it (Flier, 1/20/99).

Two weeks ago the Coordination of Latin American Banana Workers Unions (COLSIBA) announced its dissatisfaction with Chiquita's actions since the meeting between them and Chiquita on November 12, 1998 in Guatemala City. The unions state that the company has failed to deliver on promises to rehabilitate plantations damaged by Hurricane Mitch.

In Guatemala, the conflict at the Arizona and Alabama banana plantations remains unresolved. Workers were illegally fired more than a year ago for organizing a union in response to low wages and poor working conditions at these two long-time suppliers for Chiquita. The plantations are owned by Victor Morales Haeussler, who stopped production after firing the workers in February 1998. Chiquita says that it has attempted to resolve the conflict, offering to take over the plantations, but that the owner has refused the company's offer of direct intervention. Local union leaders say little work has begun in rehabilitating other Chiquita-supplying plantations damaged by the storm.

In Honduras, negotiations between Chiquita's union (SITRATERCO) and the company have not yet been concluded. At issue is the pace and scope of Chiquita's rehabilitation of plantations in the wake of Mitch. In a February 1 letter to Alistair Smith of the European Banana Action Network, Chiquita Banana Group President Robert Kistinger stated that the company would begin by rehabilitating 2,300 hectares, with the first harvest expected to begin in January 2000. Chiquita owned 7,000 hectares when Mitch struck. The company added that it will take three years for full production to return, but that it eventually expects to export at pre-Mitch levels, although apparently with fewer plantations and workers. Chiquita has made it clear that it is seeking to install new production methods on the Honduran farms, which workers say will result in significant job losses.

Given the desperate situation of an overabundance of workers who need to return to work as soon as possible, the union is clearly negotiating from a position of weakness. COLSIBA reported on March 3 that about 1,000 workers have quit Chiquita plantations and are moving to the cities looking for employment. Union leaders charge that Chiquita is attempting to obtain concessions that it could not win prior to Mitch, and cite a Chiquita official's threats to abandon Honduras entirely. The December 1 agreement the union wrested from the company not to fire plantation workers apparently did not extend to the workers fired at Chiquita's railroad operations. And the company's assurance that it would require salvage operators to use union members in restoring the plantations made no provision for guaranteeing working conditions and site security, especially with respect to health and safety issues, since union members working for salvage operators are not covered by a collective bargaining agreement.


* * *

The canary don't respire: Workers at the Cananea, Sonora mine, the world's third largest, ended their bitter three-month strike and returned to work on February 15 after the Mexican Army threatened to use violence against them, as it had in 1989 when 5,000 soldiers occupied the town to stifle resistance to plans to privatize the facility (Flier, 2/5/99). The miners went out on strike last November 18 to demand a halt to the projected 1,000 layoffs demanded by the Compañia Mexicana de Cananea, owned by billionaire Jorge Larrea and his Grupo México.

The laid-off mineworkers were promised the full severance package stipulated by their collective bargaining agreement. Soon after the strike ended, however, the company reneged on its promise, offering them less than 25 percent of the severance pay and benefit package they were entitled to.

The company then blacklisted 120 workers on the grounds that they were strike "organizers," thereby denying them the right to return to their jobs. These workers were not in units slated to be closed under the company's downsizing plan. Those workers who did return to their jobs were paid less than $2 per week, after the company discounted large sums from their paychecks for "damages and costs incurred during the strike," an open violation of Mexico's labor laws.

On March 9, in retaliation against the townspeople of Cananea who ardently supported the strikers, the Compañia Mexicana de Cananea cut off all water distribution to the town. On March 11, the Women's Front of Cananea, together with thousands of town residents, occupied the two water plants and reopened the valves. Within a few hours, the Compañia Mexicana de Cananea shut down all electrical power to the plants. As of March 16, the town was still without water and residents voiced concerns about outbreaks of hepatitis and cholera from unflushed toilets and contaminated drinking sources. All other conduits, including those to the mines and processing plants, remain dry.


* * *

They brought you Agent Orange: A bill has been introduced in the Ohio state legislature that would require registration and state-level regulation of anyone who cleans or conditions self-pollinated seed. The proposed legislation is part of the Monsanto Corporation's strategy to police rural communities and intimidate seed-saving farmers.

According to the Ohio Seed Improvement Association, the proposal to amend Ohio's seed law originated with agribusiness giant Monsanto last year. Monsanto is the world's largest seller of genetically modified seed (Flier, 11/18/98). Under U.S. patent law it is illegal for farmers to save patented seed. To enforce its exclusive monopoly, Monsanto has aggressively prosecuted farmers for what the company calls "seed piracy." But seed saving is illegal only if the farmer is saving or reusing patented seed. Farmers who grow soybeans and wheat, for example, typically save seed from their harvest to replant the following year. An estimated 25 percent of North American soybean seed is farm-saved seed.

Monsanto has waged an unrelenting campaign against seed-saving farmers in North America. The company has hired Pinkerton investigators, and is using radio ads and telephone "tiplines" in farming communities to identify and intimidate farmers who might save or reuse seed. Under Monsanto's gene-licensing agreement, the company reserves the right to come onto a farmer's land and take seed samples to insure that the farmer is not violating patent law.

"It appears that Monsanto's newest strategy is to shift the expense and burden of policing rural communities to the seed cleaners and state governments," explains Pat Mooney, Executive Director of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). "If the bill becomes law, Monsanto's 'gene police' will ultimately become state regulators who are working on behalf of Monsanto."

--- Copyright John Hutchison 1999

Friday, March 26, 1999

Talk to me, baby

Ever since American troops pulled out of Vietnam, we've been locked inside the reels of a bad World War II flick. Reagan's most important legacy may have been the establishment of Planet Hollywood in the District of Columbia, for we seem doomed to endlessly rehearse a military version of Groundhog Day until --- until what? Until we get it right? Until we undo the uncertainty of the unresolved conflict in Southeast Asia? Until we get that warm fuzzy feeling we had, or we think we had --- or we think our parents or even our grandparents had --- when we were all in it together, fighting side by side for the cause of righteousness during the early 1940s? Or perhaps we're destined, like the Flying Dutchman, to roam the earth forever, never reaching that long-awaited "until."

The details differ the each time around, but the script remains the same. And remakes rarely succeed. If once is tragedy and twice is farce, thrice is deadly monotony, making it difficult to summon up the scenario's obligatory passion. If only the action was not also very deadly to some members of the cast, we might be able to settle into a familiar pattern of repetition, transforming our mini-wars into a state ritual to be performed at regular yearly intervals.

In any case, here we go again.

On Wednesday evening, waves of airplanes took off from NATO-allied bases in Germany, Italy, England, and the United States, headed for targets in Yugoslavia. The invasion included the B-2 stealth bomber, never before tested in combat. Shortly after they left --- about midday, East Coast time --- President Clinton announced the assault. Grim-faced, he denounced the dastardly deeds of this version's designated villain: "President Milosevic...has chosen aggression over peace. He has violated the commitments that he himself made last fall to stop the brutal repression in Kosovo." (Because post-Vietnam conflict subscribes to the Great Man theory of history, the enemy no longer consists of anonymous hordes of "Japs" or "Gooks." According to a cardinal convention, we must now identify the devil, pronouncing his inevitably difficult name with great care as we  reiterate his barbarous acts.)

No sooner had the president established the purity of our principles and their place in history --- "to prevent a wider war, to defuse a powder keg at the heart of Europe that has exploded twice before in this century with catastrophic results" --- than bombs began to light the night sky of numerous Yugoslavian cities and bases. (In the interest of preventing casualties, sanitized modern warfare reverses the long-held custom of fighting during the day and resting at night. The practice also makes for dramatic camera shots, suggesting to viewers at home that the rockets' red glare has turned to green.) Serbian TV immediately donned its own traditional costumes and came on the set, devoting prime time to patriotic music and an old movie where heroic Yugoslavians bravely fought off the Nazis. The Bad Guy himself appeared, defending the purity of his country's principles and denouncing the attack as the beginning of a wider war to "steal away our freedom."

Pretty stirring stuff, although I suspect that Oscar voters who rejected Saving Private Ryan aren't likely to think much of it.

Beyond the rhetoric, of course, a real-life drama has been unfolding, with all the glorious complexity that is generated by the collision of contradictory domestic dreams. It's much more interesting than the celluloid replay coming out of Washington. Imagine the pain of Russia, watching like a mangy old bear as its cubs, the countries of Eastern  Europe, join forces with the hunter known as NATO. Nearby, the United States hovers like an anxious eagle, worrying that the bear, its cave shaken by internal unrest, may threaten the emerging European political-economic arrangements that form the basis for many American commercial plans. Imagine the eagle's alarm when it remembers that thousands of nuclear warheads have been stored inside the Russian cave. Then step back a little. Imagine the perturbation of China, a restless dragon, as it lifts its mighty head from the morass of its own problems and realizes that it, like Yugoslavia, might be vulnerable to foreign incursion.

This is all beyond our ken, grumble many Americans. Sheltered by an ipsocentric press so that even the curious few cannot easily learn what is transpiring beyond their borders, they must depend on the president's pabulum --- delivered after the fact --- to help them understand. Air strikes to change a proud dictator's mind? No use of ground troops to supplement the attacks? To many listeners, the words don't make sense. Nor should they.

But that's part of the scenario, too: the president explains, and the ignorant public acquiesces. And that's where this remake departs from the jingoism of the previous ventures, because polls show that less than 50 percent of the American people support it. Chalk up part of the dissension to political factionalism, a residue of the recent party-line impeachment proceedings. Chalk up part to the destruction of popular trust in executive wisdom, a result of the president's recent foolish behavior.

But it's not just Post-Monica Syndrome. Americans are tired of being left out of the loop. Their inquiring minds want to know before something happens, not afterward. Whether the result of a PR gaffe or genuine obfuscation, shutting people out creates suspicion. The same kind of resentment was present in San Francisco when the Giants tried a fast-and-dirty removal of lead-laden soil from PacBell Park. Nearby residents complained that they --- the people whose lives were most directly affected --- should have been notified beforehand. So did residents of the Tenderloin when the city decided to offer long-term "supportive housing" for new tenants at 520 Jones Street, in an area already overloaded with substance abusers.

Two hundred years ago, a revolution erupted when angry colonists insisted on representation before taxation. Today's slogan might not be quite so succinct, but it's catchier: Do nothin' till you hear from me.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

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