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Showtime! The Theater of Politics

SAN FRANCISCO — Thursday, July 12, 7 a.m. Arrived from Newark three hours ago. I should be thinking about politics as theater. Again? Is it three hours earlier or 15 years ago? Did I ever believe the medium was the message? Consider spectacle (authoritarian, hierar­chical, scripted) versus spontaneous show (free spirited, multifocus, improvisatory). Consider Nuremburg rallies and fascist total theater. May Day rallies and Stalin­ist total theater? Jet lag is turning me into a Sontagite: aesthetically correct but no good. Yippies casting dollar bills into the Stock Exchange? Still no good, that was for the media. Everything is for the media? Back to sleep and troubled dreams of Wagner and Abbie Hoffman, Reagan and Jane Fonda.

My press credentials neatly clarified matters: for the “perimeter” only. The fringe, the outside, the spectator’s seat. The front-of-the-book men ferret out and analyze issues; Munk watches demos and parades. Base and superstructure, slight­ly muddled by the fact that the serious stuff is a performance, and the sideshows are serious.

At noon the National March for Lesbi­an and Gay Rights held a press confer­ence in City Hall directed at Jerry Fal­well’s descent on the city with his two-day training conference for the Moral Majority leadership. It was pious, proper, and moving. Harry Britt, the gay socialist member of the Board of Super­visors, denounced Falwell as a man whose words are spiritual but whose content is hate and divisiveness; the other speak­ers — Catholic, Episcopal, and Presbyteri­an religious, city officials, a gay father, the president of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — talk about hospital­ity, tolerance, St. Francis, God’s family, the Family, and the-values-that-made-­this-country-great. The scripts were tac­tically sound, maybe a bit obvious, yet right and true. One speaker, Miriam Ben-­Shalom, hit another note, demanding to talk to Falwell, outraged, using impolite words.

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I wondered what tone the Sunday pa­rade would stress, made an appointment to talk with Britt, walked back down Market Street past a raucous picket line in front of Macy’s, another in front of the Emporium. Union Square was filled with gaggles of people yelling at each other, sectarians selling newspapers, a couple of punk types telling the sectarians that Hitler was your typical socialist, delegates and tourists walking purposefully looking, so to speak, neither left nor right.

A Falwell man said, “We will lose cer­tain freedoms by allowing homosexuality. If I have total freedom I can do anything to anybody. Roman society fell apart …” That’s their public style. A gay man proclaimed to the air, “Why, he’s Jerry Falwell’s husband!” An amoe­ba-faced suited man shouted, “Make it a felony,” but the Falwell fellow came back right away with “I don’t believe in that.” No one believed him.

I got press credentials at the Falwell conference and moseyed around the “New Traditional Woman” panel. Chil­dren sleeping on laps, on the floor. Speaker believes men should be true heads of household, women should have jobs if they must, but not careers they love. Everything was low-key, slow, bor­ing. Down in the lobby everyone peered out at a little demo and debated whether to go watch it. “I was on the other side in the ’60s, man, I don’t have to go see them.” “I hate confrontation, I’m a paci­fist at heart.” “I know a fellow who makes little bumper stickers saying ‘kill the gays’ and sells them. I mean, if you start talking like that …”

When I got back to Union Square, it was filled. No arguing. The crowd looked orderly, but then I could hardly see it through the masses of cops lined up like Rockettes, gripping their nightsticks, maneuvering skittishly on horseback.

The slogans moved from “women unite to fight the right” to “the only good pig is a dead pig.” Time warp. The cops moved from their rigid, fixed-face lineups, push­ing the horses right into the crowd on the sidewalk. Piles of garbage covered an in­tersection: looked like debris from a car­rot-juice maker, squeezed-out half or­anges, vegetable matter from a health food store. “It’s Chicago!” “It’s Buffalo, ’63, stupid.” I wanted to know what on earth happened in Buffalo, ’63, but some­one started setting off earsplitting fire­crackers. “What’s happening?” said a lady tourist to a lady cop. “It’s the moral majority versus the unmoral majority.” Of the latter, seven were arrested, at least one beaten, and the nurse who tried to help her was clubbed.

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I walked through Chinatown to North Beach, where I lived more than 20 years ago, and stood for a while in front of the old house on Powell. It looked the same. The rest of the neighborhood has gone neon tacky or genteel. Back near Union Square a circle of candles had been set up on a sidewalk by religious gays, men and women, singing Christian and Jewish hymns. One woman quarreled politely with me because my colleague Nat Hen­toff was going to address the Falwell con­vention tomorrow. When I walked back to my hotel, the cops were quietly trot­ting their horses toward their stables.

Friday, July 13. Called Britt’s office at nine to confirm interview. When I told him I wanted to discuss the class, gender, and race issues that are left in the gay community after gross discrimination had been eliminated by power in local politics, he said he’d give me half an hour. Ten minutes later, just as I was leaving, the phone rang. “I’m not willing to be part of a story on the splits and divisions in the gay community when you guys aren’t doing the job about us. Sorry about that.” Slam.

I walked off, muttering gloomily about the end of dialogue, to the Falwell confer­ence, to see what Nat was telling them about medical ethics. He was being intro­duced: “Nat Hentoff, who fancies himself an atheist …” Nat recapitulated his ar­guments (you’ve read them in the Voice) about infanticide and euthanasia. He had some good digs at Reagan and at profes­sional omertá, some friendly self-deprecation (“I’m the handy, ubiquitous athe­ist in this matter”), and an argument, which would have been fine had the seamlessness started a few months far­ther along the way.

Midspeech, two young women, neatly dressed like Moral Majoritarians, stood up in the audience and embraced each other. First like friends meeting after a long absence, then sexily. The spectators were appalled, in a repressed kind of way, murmuring and shifting. After a minute or so, the pair was quietly escorted out, chanting, “We are everywhere. We are your daughters and your sisters. Our daughters will be here and our daughter’s daughters.” Nat waxed sarcastic, “Today?”

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Maybe the women should have been more to the point and brought a poor, single mother with a severely handicapped child. Still, Nat wooed the audi­ence back to himself at the women’s expense. I was too angry to concentrate on the rest of the talk; my mind was on the company he keeps. So I left this confer­ence on “Being My Brother’s Keeper,” and went back to Union Square.

Where the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence — six men in giddily S/M nun drag — were exorcising Jerry Falwell. Sis­ter Boom-Boom (who, as Jack Fertig, ran for supervisor in 1982 and got 23,000 votes), sang “Your son will come out tomorrow,” and made terrible jokes. “The Moral Majority is here with Hell n’ Damnation! Hi Helen!” Falwell was stripped down to a black merry widow and stockings, and got it on with Jesus, in a Counter-Reformation loin cloth. There was something odd about an anti-Fein­stein song which seemed to say that her problem was female machismo, and something odder about a purification rite for Phyllis Schlafly by holding her down and tearing a rubber snake from under her dress. But what the hell.

A couple of hours later I went to Glide Churches’ “Celebrating the Poor” festi­val. Here the only question was whether the Reverend Cecil Williams was just putting on a show or doing good works and putting on a show. The church is a short walk and a different world from Union Square. An enormous line — 3000 people in the course of the evening­ — waited for food. I talked to a young woman out of work who said the food’s not just for the convention-time cameras; there’s a special meal once a week, and all the food’s better than the other soup kitchens. Williams gave the press lots of rhetoric while people with trays of food jostled around. At one point he stopped for a minute and yelled, “I wanna ask you, everybody, is anything better than Reagan?” And everyone shouted, “Yes.”

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Upstairs in the church proper, a multi­colored disco wheel turned among the stained glass windows, while the Glide Memorial Gospel Singers sat on the altar steps. The press milled around, waiting for a senator, a supervisor, a delegate, a Lefty, Godot (sorry). Vietnam vet Ron Kovick and Assembly Speaker Willie Brown came, Harold Washington and Dianne Feinstein didn’t show. I had to go see some theater. On a stage.

Duck’s Breath Mystery Theater was doing a “convention special” — apparent­ly the only topical work among the estab­lished theater groups. They promised it would be biting satire, sharp, strong, political. Maybe a Dying Pet Sale — “the misfortunes of my pets mean a bargain for you” — or the Piece and Pizza Coali­tion, or “Shop Without Guilt, Vote Without Fear,” are funny. They are as funny as it got. I left plunged in gloom, striding again through the wreck of my old haunts.

Saturday, July 14. Every community organization, union local, sect, countersect, and groupuscle was huddled in doors planning for the big parades tomor­row, so I walked around Golden Gate Park. A sign pointed me to Peacequake ’84: a rock band was playing in a dell for a smallish, friendly, stoned crowd that seemed frozen in time. Who’s Afraid of Thomas Woolf?

The San Francisco Mime Thoupe was doing their new show, based on A Christ­mas Carole, and propagandizing for voter registration. I don’t recall the SFMT ever taking a stand for the Democratic party before. I’ve seen a lot of Revolutionary Commmunist posters around town urging the People not to vote, and perhaps they represent a chunk of the radical commu­nity, but it was hard to believe that this nice young audience, mostly white and not particularly militant looking, was dis­affected from the electoral process.

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The plot concerns Ebeneezer Jones, an extremely upwardly mobile black lawyer in his thirties who’s too cynical to vote. Nixon appears, untwining tapes from his bulging pockets and shows Ebeneezer’s past (college radicalism), the present (Marcos, Pinochet), and the future — not a nuclear one, but the Supreme Court, convicting Jessie Jackson of terrorism and proclaiming that “Freedom Is Security.”

Some of this was funny, but it seemed a little flat and heavy-handed and with­out much physical pizzazz, though the music was good. I hope the Mime Thoupe hasn’t lost it’s dramaturgical verve by adopting sensible politics.

Spent the evening at a spectacularly catered party on a spectacular hill, a fundraiser for the Lesbian and Gay Pa­rade given by Lia Belli, who’s running for state senate. It was full of rich homosex­uals, which meant, of course, that there were three times as many men as women. I ate my fresh lichees wrapped in raw snow peas, and paté and brie and nectar­ines. I talked to a black lesbian activist mother, who’s running for the board of supervisors, and was tending bar. I was bemused. I went to a lot of other parties. They were not theater.

And nobody talked about anything. The spectacle was still to come; so was the substance. ■

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From The Archives NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Showtime 1984: Inside the Political Theater

Inside the Political Theater
July 24, 1984

SAN FRANCISCO — With the excep­tion of Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson, the big-name Democrats parading on TV here sound like third-rate sellers of soap. The Democratic Party remains the large­ly unimaginative political organization that began to lose its New Deal base years ago. But for the first time in recent memory there are signs of life within it, and stripped to its essentials, the fight pits the women and minorities, symbol­ized by Ferraro and Jackson, against the still-dominant conservative wing.

The question is whether Jackson and Ferraro will be consumed by the conser­vatives or stake out fresh ground. Just as the Republican Party was refreshed in 1980 with the raw energy of the New Right, the Democratic Party, buoyed by the feminist surge and black voter regis­tration, could begin to find itself this year.

Ferraro is best known as a team player, disciple of Tip O’Neill; unlikely to stray far from his beck and call. Mondale al­ready is flooding her with his own staff, but while Ferraro may appear to be a political pawn, the forces behind her as­cendancy are not so easily controlled.

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Since Jackson’s arrival in San Francis­co, he has sounded a note of reconcilia­tion. He pledged himself to resolve ten­sions between Jews and blacks and offered a public apology: “… if, in my low moments, in words, deeds, or atti­tudes, through error or temper, taste or tone, I have caused anyone discomfort, created pain, or revived anyone’s fears, I sincerely apologize.”

For weeks now, Jackson has been hold­ing secret meetings with Bert Lance. Lance and Jackson are negotiating the terms of the minority planks, and concocting the southern strategy for Mon­dale’s campaign. Jackson is thankful to be cut into the ruling party councils, and with his help Mondale gets a shot at an expanded black vote.

At first, Jackson negotiated with Lance over delegate questions. More recently, Lance sent his advisers to brief Jackson on the economy. Much pleased, Jackson responded by making Lance’s major pro­posals the centerpiece of his convention speech, at least in early drafts.

Thus, stuck incongruously into the midst of Jackson’s powerful, poetic rhet­oric, were Lance’s corny ideas about U.S. banks being in hock to foreigners. It is Lance’s theory that Reagan, in running up the deficit, has made the United States dependent on foreign bankers from whom the country must borrow to keep going.

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Roll Call of Shame

Consider the record of this party over the last four years — what Tom Hayden called neo-Reaganism. The list is telling:

Support for the MX; refusal to oppose the deployment of Euromissiles in any serious way; Democrats in Congress, in­cluding those with liberal credentials, re­peatedly declining to oppose Reagan on Central America, with the result that American-backed contras have laid siege to Nicaragua; standing with Reagan in El Salvador in the face of mounting civilian murder. Even as this convention opened, the party leadership is preparing to back President Duarte, under whose rule the terror in El Salvador has mushroomed.

The Democratic leadership stood with Reagan on the 1981 tax bill — legislation which transferred wealth from the middle class to the rich, and in the process virtually ended the corporate income tax. The neo-liberal wing of the party has, under Gary Hart, mounted a vigorous at­tack on the labor movement as a “special interest” — at a time when the unions rep­resent the only buffer between workers and the aggressive policies of corporate business.

Most recently, the House Democratic leadership created the umbrella beneath which the Republicans successfully pushed through Simpson-Mazzoli, which, among other things, would establish a “guest worker” program for foreign agri­cultural workers. This re-creation of the bracero program — which another era of Democrats fought to eliminate — threat­ens to wipe out the Farm Workers Union, and amounts to one of the most vindic­tive, punitive, racist measures in Ameri­can history.

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The New Democrats

Despite the choice of Ferraro, the Democratic Party has persistently fought the rise of women within its own ranks. Nevertheless, Ferraro’s emergence and the Jackson campaign represent a broad challenge to the rampant neo-Reaganism in the party.

For the women who have had to fight, kicking and screaming, to the top of the Democratic Party, Ferraro’s selection represents an immense victory, and the opening of what surely will be a wider struggle for economic equality.

Ferraro is much more than a feminist candidate. The daughter of an immigrant working mother, she speaks directly to the disenfranchised base of the Demo­cratic Party, the working women who have been most hurt by the recession and placed under savage attack by Reagan’s policies — the last hired and first fired who now populate the irregular work­force and are now a critical factor in American labor.

These women play a major role in the expanding lower middle class, which now consists of 72 million Americans — 30 per cent of the population. They come come from households with earnings between $6000 and $18,000 a year. Since 1978, the lower middle class has grown by a third. An increasing percentage of this class is made up of households headed by wom­en, most of them minorities. It includes millions of young people who have never held a full-time job; people who once held factory jobs and now work for less than $6 an hour in service jobs; and old people living on fixed incomes.

There are within this group enough people to elect a Democratic president, but until Jesse Jackson began his cam­paign in predominantly white New Hampshire you’d hardly have known they existed. It is absolutely true that without Jackson, Ferraro’s nomination would never have been possible. The feminist movement owes a great debt to Jackson, a debt that many women seemed incapable of recognizing in the early moments of this convention.

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Tough Talking Ferraro

Ferraro is a person of progressive polit­ical instincts. Here are a few points she made in an interview with the Voice ear­lier this year:

On the MX: “I have supported re­search and development. I have not sup­ported deployment because it is destabilizing.”

On Nicaragua (asked if she thought it was a Cuban or Soviet satellite): “They are a Marxist government. There is no doubt about that. I think our problem is, frankly, that we expect it to be a democ­racy the way we define democracy, and I don’t think that’s possible.”

On El Salvador: “I would insist that the U.S. government let the people know we expect them to get their own act together, within their own units, to put someone in charge of the government. And probably the most important thing is that they do something about the amount of killing that is going on there. I would exert pressure on them to clean up their act, or they would be without economic aid.”

In one speech this year, talking about the concept of comparable worth, which fundamentally seeks to redefine the so­cial utility of work (the most potentially profound economic subject the feminist movement has taken up), Ferraro de­clared: “A woman with a college educa­tion can expect lifetime earnings equal to those paid to a man who never finished the eighth grade. Groundskeepers are paid more than nurses. Parking lot attendants are often paid more than experi­enced secretaries. We entrust our chil­dren — our most precious resource — to teachers who frequently earn less than truck drivers.”

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A New Feminist Era 

Geraldine Ferraro is not just a sym­bol. Her nomination, as Frances Fox Pi­ven puts it, is a “signal,” a tremor from within. Ferraro’s nomination opens a new era of feminist politics, for the first time placing the genuinely radical perspec­tives of the feminist movement in a far broader national arena.

Comparable worth, for example, en­tails a restructuring of the American economy and could precipitate a struggle of serious proportions with the business community. It is because Ferraro is asso­ciated with these ideas that her candida­cy will in all probability undergo formi­dable challenge.

The vice presidency would be more than a symbolic job for a woman, It offers a forum of real power and, if gained, could spark a political groundswell.

The feminist movement has so far succeeded in spanning class divisions. Things are now apt to change. Its future political course will, in all likelihood, de­pend on how successfully it deals with potentially divisive splits — the extent to which, for example, white middle-class women reach out to include black wom­en, and the measure of cooperation shown to poor working women.

The Republicans already have begun to play on these potential divisions to split the gender gap vote and open a seri­ous attack on the feminists.

As with the environmental movement a decade ago, it is certain that the modern feminist movement will focus increasing­ly on basic economic issues — equal pay for equal work, redressing inequality in the workplace, the social purpose of work in general, the feminization of poverty. In short, Ferraro’s nomination should result in a bold, new opening for feminist poli­tics, and a new radical lens through which to view the economy. ■

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BLACK LIKE WHO? What Price Unity?

For two decades, an honest exchange of ideas in black America has been discour­aged in the name of something called unity. Public disagreements have been perceived as providing ammunition to “the enemy,” that amorphous white “they” that works with a relentlessly evil intent against blacks. Thus, during the 1984 presidential prima­ries, Jesse Jackson accepted the public sup­port of Louis Farrakhan in the name of black unity. This proved fatal to Jackson’s campaign because when Farrakhan’s anti­-Semitic utterances became too much of an embarrassment, Jackson was faced with the impossible moral task of upholding unity without repudiating Farrakhan because such repudiation would have given “aid and comfort to them.”

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Not only was free speech suppressed in black America over the past two decades, but the suppression of dissent and differ­ence in the name of unity evolved into a form of social fascism especially on college and university campuses. In some in­stances, black students were harassed and ostracized for having white friends. One was supposed to associate only with blacks, sit at the black tables in the dining halls, sit with other blacks in classes, and to present, always, a common front for a common cause — blackness. Thinking black took pre­cedence over thinking intelligently.

But American black history had never elevated racial unity above debate, dialogue, difference, or intelligence. In the first part of the 19th century, Negro National conventions were held where black leaders debated and disagreed bitterly and bril­liantly with each other over slavery and freedom, abolitionism and separatism. Frederick Douglass, the first national black leader, and Martin Delaney, the first black separatist, were political adversaries and friends.

Dissent and disagreement have been the hallmark of black history. Though Booker T. Washington, the most politically powerful black in American history, sought to control the minds of black folks with that power, W.E.B. Du Bois, the preeminent intellectual and a founder of the NAACP, fought publicly with him over whether the minds and souls of black folks were better protected by protest and the vote or accommodationism and economic nationalism. Later, Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, the ideological father of today’s black separat­ists, would not even pretend that they liked or respected each other.

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No era in black history presents a better model for public discourse than the ’60s. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Whitney Young of the Urban League, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Congress of Racial Equality had fundamental differ­ences on goals and tactics. These were not denied in the interest of something called unity. The differences were acknowledged and asserted while the leaders and organi­zations tried to find a common ground from which they could work for the com­mon good. That good was the social, eco­nomic, political, and moral health of Amer­ica, not just black America.

What is especially significant about the ’60s, at least the first half, is that whites were not excluded from public discourse on racial affairs. Whites had to be included in the public discussion because the souls of white folks were at stake, too. How could they not be?

The ’70s and ’80s saw a narrowing of concern. Black America was not vaccinated against the “culture of narcissism” that in­fected white America. Blacks looked into the pond and became paralyzed by a beauty that was in their eyes only. What they be­held were images of African warriors and princes, the Afrocentric origins of all cul­ture, all knowledge, all civilization, and themselves as legatees. (Today the slogan is “It’s a black thing. You wouldn’t under­stand.”) In short, what they saw were fanta­sies induced by their own sense of inferior­ity, and they fell in love.

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Paralyzed by the passion of self-love, any semblance of intelligent thought and ques­tioning vanished from the politically liberal and radical segments of black America. Jackson mistook cleverness for thought, statistics for knowledge, and slogans for discourse in his efforts to flog life into the faded memories of the ’60s.

However, a new generation of black intel­lectuals were beginning to be heard, intel­lectuals who owed nothing to the black li­beral/radical political establishment, intellectuals who dared question the authority of that establishment to speak for black America. Glenn Loury, William Ju­lius Wilson, Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, Stanley Crouch, Randall Kennedy, and Stephen Kennedy are too varied and independent to be safely dismissed as con­servative, though some of them are. What they are returning to black America is an intellectual integrity the ideology of race is too impoverished and feeble to bestow.

The intellectual and spiritual health of any group is secured only to the extent that its members are permitted to be themselves and still be accepted as part of the group. Black America is far from evidencing that kind of health, but at least the disagree­ments over Judge Clarence Thomas’s Su­preme Court nomination may indicate a return to the political maturity blacks ex­emplified 140 years ago.

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Unity cannot be an end in itself. The emphasis on it in the past two decades has been a sign of the intellectual and moral chaos in which black America finds itself. Only the weak insist on being agreed with.

Unity comes from respect for difference ind love of dissent. Unity does not come from agreement on a racist principle (and blackness when put forward as the overrid­ing moral principle is as racist as whiteness when put forward in the same way). Unity comes from a concern for and caring about the common good. And the common good must include those who do not belong to my group, racially or ideologically.

Whether black America will be morally capable in the near future of such a unity remains to be seen.

Next: “Love and the Enemy” by Greg Tate

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Blacks and Jews

The Tragedy of Jackson, the Logic of Coalition

What Jesse Jackson said is a tragedy: for him, for black-Jewish rela­tions, for champions of compromise in the Mid­dle East, and for the noble concept for a rain­bow coalition of the re­jected. What Jesse Jack­son said will profit and please all the little dema­gogues who feed off fear and hate.

All we can do now is try to convert this calamity into something positive, by learning from it, by searching our souls, and by becoming more sensi­tive to each other’s pride, pain, and even to each other’s paranoia.

What is needed now is the courage to transcend our automatic loyalties to our own tribe. We need Jews who can see — and say — the truth about Ed Koch, or any other mem­ber of our tribe, who prac­tices discrimination, group stereotyping, scapegoating, or system­atic disrespect for any mi­nority in our society. And we need blacks who can see — and say — the truth about Jesse Jackson, or any member of their tribe who does the same thing.

I know this is not easy. When I wrote a series of articles almost 10 years ago exposing Bernard Bergman, an Orthodox rabbi, as a corrupt exploiter of the elderly, I was accused of anti-Semitism by some Jews. They said I was in­juring all Jews and Israel. What I was writing was true, and faithful to my ideas of justice. But the attacks hurt, and made me feel misunderstood.

Only by creating loyal­ties to something more universal than our im­mediate tribe — to ideas and values like com­munity, tolerance, plural­ism, and equality — can we begin the process of reciprocity and reconcil­iation between blacks and Jews. And this process is the only way out of the present antagonistic pre­dicament that has the people who hate both blacks and Jews laughing and celebrating.

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When Ed Koch lied about Basil Paterson, first in interviews, and then, more maliciously, in his book, some Jews did speak up, as best they could, including Rabbi Balfour Brickner, Haskell ­Lazerre of the American Jewish Committee, union leaders Jacob Sheinkman and Victor Gotbaum, Sol Stern, Victor Kovner, and Letty Pogrebin.

When Jesse Jackson lied, and then admit­ted his bigoted “Hymie/Hymietown” slur against Jews, some black leaders did speak up, as best they could, including Basil Paterson,­ the Amsterdam News, Julian Bond, Reverend Calvin Butts, col­umnist William Raspberry, Denny Far­rell, David Dinkins, Carl McCall, and Al Vann.

These leaders, reaching out beyond the tribe, suggest the reciprocal model for future reconciliations. I wish more Jewish politicians would agitate against the abomination of apartheid. I wish more black politicians would crusade against the scandal of Soviet anti-Semitism. I wish Jews focused more on the fact that there is not one black person among this nation’s 100 senators or 50 governors, and that there is no black (and no Latin) on this city’s Board of Estimate, even though New York City’s population is 50 per cent nonwhite. And I wish more blacks who tend to see Jews as powerful would focus on the fact that there is not one Jew in Ronald Reagan’s cabinet, and there is not one Jew on the Supreme Court.

I wish more Jews understood that it was black votes, mobilized by Al Vann and Major Owens, that elected Elizabeth Holtzman district attorney in Brooklyn. I wish more blacks understood that it was Jewish votes that helped elect Harold Washington mayor of Chicago against a Jewish opponent, and that it was Jewish votes that helped elect Bruce Wright to his judgeship in Manhattan, also against a Jewish rival.

In this city, in this time, reconciliation between blacks and Jews — as difficult as it surely will be — is the only practical path from community empowerment to suc­cessful electoral coalitions for blacks. And for liberals and labor, it is the only avail­able road from futile opposition to power-­sharing with minorities. And this time it must be done with self-respect, mutual respect, and complete honesty.

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Jesse Jackson is a polarizing figure because he is perceived so differently by blacks and whites. There is no doubt that he is seen as an inspirational hero by most blacks, especially by poor and younger blacks. But most whites either fear him, or disagree with him. Nevertheless, most of the whites I know who support his candidacy are Jewish.

Until his “Hymie/Hymietown” slur, Jackson’s campaign was having a positive effect. He was forcing the white can­didates to deal with important issues like enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, a response to apartheid, and the unfair Democratic Party delegate-selection rules. His eloquence on behalf of the powerless was stunning. He made the most sense on Central America and the military budget. He was a stimulus to voter regis­tration. He spoke for compromise in the Middle East. He was at 16 per cent in the polls in New Hampshire and gaining momentum.

Then, in a conversation with a re­spected black journalist named Milton Coleman, he used the disgusting insults, Hymie and Hymietown, and everything changed.

At first, Jackson lied. He denied he had said it. On February 19, on CBS’s Face the Nation, Jackson said:

“It’s simply not true, and I think the accuser ought to come forth.”

Three days later, in New Hampshire, Jackson said: “I won’t deny, nor at any level will I admit it.” A few minutes later, he added: “From my point of view it’s a denial.”

Seven days later, Jackson finally ad­mitted he had said it, describing his slur as “an off-color remark that has no bear­ing on religion or politics.”

That was a minimalist apology. The fact is that what Jackson said was an expression of bigotry, not very different from the well-known ethnic insults by Spiro Agnew, Earl Butz, and Abraham Kauvar, the former New York Health and Hospitals Corporation president who used the slur “nigger” — and was not fired by our mayor, who has a double standard in most matters involving blacks and Jews.

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Probably the most sensitive analysis of Jesse Jackson’s retreat from deception to evasion to confession was written by a non-Jew — Murray Kempton, in the March 4 edition of Newsday. Until that column, Kempton had all but endorsed Jackson in several prior essays.

“And then [Kempton wrote] Jesse Jackson was heard speaking of Jews as ‘hymies’. When this charmless lapse came to the public’s attention, his first reaction was to treat questions about it as a worse offense than the one he had committed. He began by pushing failures of recollec­tion to the extremes of the border between truth and falsehood, and, when evasive action finally failed him, he conceded that he had been ‘partially at fault.’ There are few more graceless apologies than those suggesting you were only a minor actor in a trespass that had been exclusively your own.

“If anyone except Jesse Jackson were responsible for indulging in a spot of Jew­baiting, then who else was at fault? The Jews?

“In any case, Lally Weymouth’s portrait of Jackson in the current [March 5] New York magazine, most tellingly sug­gests that ‘hymie’ is a word of art that comes to his lips not so much from care­lessness as from habit.”

Habit is the heart of the matter. It’s habit that makes the remark indefensible. Jesse Jackson has a history of saying things that hurt Jews, that stereotype Jews, that are insensitive to Jewish his­tory, that lump Jews together, that see Jews or Jewish influence where none exists.

This is different from Jackson’s substantive policy statements about Is­rael and the Palestinians. There is noth­ing anti-Semitic about wanting to see a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza while supporting secure interna­tionally recognized borders for Israel. This is the view of Israel’s peace move­ment, George McGovern, Anthony Lewis, Nat Hentoff, Irving Howe, and many other people of conscience. Even mainstream Jewish organizational leaders like Nathan Perlmutter have recently ap­peared on television to say that Jackson’s position on a Palestinian state “is not anti-Semitic.”

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The problem is habit and history. Jackson has too often made references to “Jewish slumlords,” to “Jewish re­porters,” to “Jewish businessmen,” that inappropriately single out Jews for attack. He said he was “sick and tired of hearing constantly about the Holocaust.” Bill Singer, who was cochairman with Jackson of the Illinois McGovern delegation in 1972, says Jackson called him “the little Jew” and that he believes Jackson “har­bors a great deal of prejudice.” Habit and history.

In October of 1979, Jackson returned from his trip to the Middle East, where he embraced Arafat. Jackson said the jour­nalists who criticized him were “all Jew­ish.” He singled out David Shipler of The New York Times as one of the reporters who had been unfair because they were Jewish. But David Shipler is not Jewish, and his reporting was not unfair. (Jackson has also mistakenly claimed that Ehrlichman and Haldeman are Jews.) Shipler has subsequently written so sensitively about the deprivations of human rights suffered by the Palestinians, and so accurately about Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, that some Jewish leaders are now complaining that Shipler is biased against Israel.

The point is that Jesse Jackson was wrong to single out reporters he thought were Jewish, and to assert their religion was prejudicing their professionalism.

Jackson fails to recognize differences and distinctions among Jews, a failure which leads him to stereotype. And stereotyping can lead to paranoia. In the last month, Jackson has said that he is a victim of “a conspiracy” by Jewish organizations. He has said the criticisms of him, and the demonstrations against him, were “too orchestrated to be accidental.” He has equated the disruptions and threats of violence that come from the goons of the Jewish Defense League with a memorandum accurately documenting his public remarks circulated by the Anti­-Defamation League. To me, what the Jew­ish Defense League has done is despica­ble, while the ADL is merely doing what any pressure group should legitimately do to get its point of view across.

There is no Jewish conspiracy to “get” Jesse Jackson. The reporter who first re­vealed the Hymie remark was black. Jeff Gerth, the Times reporter who revealed the $200,000 donation from the Arab League to PUSH, is one of the best and most honorable investigative journalists in the country. I am writing this article because I believe in what Martin Luther King told the multitude on August 28, 1963: that people should be judged “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

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The JDL — and its demagogic leader, Rabbi Meir Kahane — no more represents all Jews than the Five Percenters repre­sent all blacks. When the first inflam­matory advertisement from Jews Against Jackson appeared in The New York Times, the ad was immediately condemned by leaders of both the American Jewish Congress and the American Jewish Committee. The mainstream Jewish organizations have been restrained and re­sponsible in reacting to Jackson’s can­didacy.

On September 16, 1979, Jackson ap­peared on the CBS show 60 Minutes. He said: “With all of the talk of the black-­Jewish alliance, we don’t own radio stations together, we don’t own TV stations together, we don’t own banks together, we do not share in the ownership of the in­dustries they have begun to get some hold on together.”

I fear that Jesse Jackson — and a surprisingly large number of people — ­believe in the stereotypical myth of the powerful Jew. (Ellen Willis published an excellent essay on this theme in the Sep­tember 3, 1979, issue of the Voice.) This myth can lead to a form of scapegoating about “the Jews” controlling the banks, and “the Jews” controlling the media.

The real power in America is corporate and military. C. Wright Mills taught us that in The Power Elite more than 20 years ago. Jews do not own the biggest banks, like Chase, or Citibank, or the Bank of America. Jews do not own the biggest corporations, like General Motors or ITT. Jews do not own any oil com­panies, like Mobil, Gulf, or Texaco. Jews do not control the defense industry, or the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or the CIA. Jews do not own any of the corporations that have become symbols of greed and misconduct, like J.P. Stevens, Hooker Chemical, Kerr-McGee, or Lilco.

There are no Jews on the Supreme Court. There are no Jews in Ronald Rea­gan’s cabinet. Jews do not own the TV networks. Jews do not even own the New York Post or the Daily News.

But I know from personal conversa­tions how widespread and deep-seated the myth of Jewish power is. And this mis­conception causes resentment among the truly powerless, who have less privilege than the Jews.

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There is a parallel misconception among many whites, which is that blacks have successfully made it into the middle class as a result of the gains of the civil rights movement and the war on poverty. This fallacy is effectively demolished in an essay by Paul Robeson Jr. in the Feb­ruary issue of Jewish Currents. Robeson’s essay is a review of The State of Black America, published by the National Ur­ban League. It documents that blacks are worse off now than 10 years ago, by all economic measures, including median in­come and the percentage of families living below the poverty level.

During the “Hymie” controversy, Jackson staff members and advisers were quoted several times as saying it wasn’t so serious because Jackson never expected to get many Jewish votes anyway. Marion Barry, the mayor of Washington, said this.

This response is morally blind. It as­sumes that non-Jews are not offended by a religious slur. I think they are. Most of my non-Jewish friends’ were disgusted by Jackson’s remark, and several ceased to support him because of it. Jackson’s sup­port in New Hampshire shrunk from 16 per cent to 5 per cent after the “Hymie” slur, and the Jewish vote is negligible in New Hampshire.

When Spiro Agnew used the term “fat Jap,” not only Asian-Americans should have been offended. When Abraham Kauvar said “nigger,” not only blacks should have felt violated. When J. Peter Grace said most Puerto Ricans were living off food stamps, we all should have been outraged.

Reciprocity and reconciliation.

I understand that Jesse Jackson has been the victim of some traumatic ex­periences inflicted by a few extremist Jews. His life has been threatened — no trivial matter to a former aide to Martin Luther King. Dead animals have been left on the doorstep to his office. Bomb threats have been phoned regularly to his New York campaign headquarters. His an­nouncement for president was disrupted by the JDL. Two of his campaign offices outside of New York have been fire­bombed. His family has been harassed. Some of his quotes have been wrenched out of context and misinterpreted by his critics.

But none of this can exonerate Jackson for what he — a Baptist minister and a candidate for president — said about Jews, and about New York. His choice of lan­guage, as Basil Paterson said, was “im­permissible when said by anyone, on or off the record.”

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Next year Ed Koch will try to use the memory of Jackson’s slur to destroy any black candidate who seeks Jewish votes.

But what is Koch’s moral authority in the realm of racial harmony, sensitivity, and justice? What is Koch’s habit and history?

I would argue that in some ways Koch is the white mirror image of Jackson, and that of the two Koch is the more danger­ous, because he has more power. Ed Koch controls the allocation of a $14 billion budget; Jesse Jackson can only agitate. Koch holds life and death power over the people who live in New York; Jackson is a symbolic politician and a Chicago clergyman. If we are to be even-handed we should recognize that because Koch is the mayor of the largest city in this country, he can do more harm to more people with his defects of character than Jackson can.

At this stage in history there should be little need to recapitulate all that Koch has done to injure and insult minorities, except to refresh the memory a bit. He closed Harlem’s Sydenham Hospital in 1979, even though there was a desperate need for medical care in a community with frightening statistics on infant mor­tality, life expectancy, and tuberculosis. In 1982 the TB rate in central Harlem was 10 times the national average. There were nine deaths from TB in Harlem in 1981, and 22 the next year.

Koch approved a redistricting plan for the City Council that even Ronald Rea­gan’s Justice Department found biased against blacks and Latins. He refused to fire his health and hospitals president af­ter the man used the word “nigger” in public. He has kept Elliot Gross in his job as medical examiner despite the obvious cover-up autopsy Gross performed on the battered body of Michael Stewart. He has refused to appoint civilians from outside the police department to the brutality review board. Koch endorsed Andrew Stein over David Dinkins, Alfred DelBello over Carl McCall, and Fred Richmond over Bernard Gifford, in a pattern of re­jection of superior black candidates. Koch supported the legally unqualified Robert Wagner for schools chancellor over two better-qualified minority applicants. Koch has failed to provide adequate municipal services to Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville, Harlem, and other poor, black neighborhoods, while hoarding a $500 million budget surplus, and giving millions of dollars in tax abatements and tax exemptions to mid-Manhattan landlords.

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And then there is Koch’s comment on blacks and Jews which first appeared in Ken Auletta’s profile in The New Yorker in 1979, and which Koch, incredibly, in his new book, says he still believes to be right and true. What Koch said is this:

“I find the black community very anti-Semitic… My experience with blacks is that they’re basically anti-Semitic… I think whites are basically anti-black.” Think about this remark for a moment. Think about the values behind it. Think of it as a window into the mind of Ed Koch.

In the secrecy of Ed Koch’s mind lurks the belief that black people are “basically anti-Semitic,” and this justifies treating them unequally, just as the belief that whites hate blacks justifies appealing to that hatred to win elections.

Curiously, Koch confuses religion and race. He says blacks are biased against Jews, but he doesn’t say Jews are biased against blacks. He says whites are biased against blacks. Koch’s hate equation is unbalanced.

Koch says “my experience with blacks…” But Koch has no experience with blacks. He has not had one black personal friend since I met him, which was in 1962. Koch has no intimate, personal knowl­edge of what blacks really think and feel.

Our mayor’s bigoted generalization about blacks has no basis in fact. The available evidence points in the opposite direction. In 1979, Kenneth Clark took a poll of blacks to discover their attitude toward other racial and ethnic groups. The poll showed that blacks feel more sympathy with Jews than with any other white religious or ethnic group. In 1983, The Washington Post and ABC took two polls to measure the attitude of blacks toward Israel and the Arab nations. The poll revealed that blacks feel more sympa­thetic to Israel by a ratio of 3 to 1 — ­roughly the same ratio as the American population as a whole.

For the mayor of New York City — the greatest port of refuge in all history for every persecuted immigrant group — to proclaim that blacks hate Jews and that whites hate blacks is demented. And for him to govern on this false and cynical assumption is poison.

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The logical morality of black-Jewish coalitions is overwhelming to me. Blacks and Jews share a history of persecution. Slavery and the Holocaust should demon­strate to everyone what intolerance and racism can lead to. Toleration must be a special concern for both blacks and Jews.

Blacks and Jews have a shared history of struggle in the civil rights movement. There is no more haunting symbol of that collaboration than the buried bodies of Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner — two Jewish activists from New York and a black activist from rural Mississippi ­who were murdered together by Ku Klux Klansmen outside of Philadelphia, Mis­sissippi, 20 years ago, during the freedom summer of voter registration.

The reason the FBI bugged and wire­tapped Martin Luther King was King’s friendship with a Jewish adviser — Stanley Levison.

But memory, sentiment, or moralism by themselves, are not enough to re­fashion this coalition of conscience. There has been too much pain inflicted: because of the 1968 school strike, because of Bakke and Defunis, because of the firing of Andrew Young, because of the rise of Koch, because of the habit of Jesse Jack­son.

But realism can help rebuild this coali­tion. Mutual self-interest can help. And I think maybe the most helpful glue can be facts. Simple facts.

A most significant fact to understand is that Jews are still, by far, the most liberal group of whites in this country, and in this city, and the most likely coalition allies with minorities. Despite the images of Podhoretz, Koch, and Kahane, Jews are twice as liberal on race as Italians, the Irish, the Poles, or any other white reli­gious or ethnic grouping. Consider these facts:

• In May 1983, in Chicago, Harold Washington, competing against a Jewish Republican, received 35 per cent of the Jewish vote. This was greater than the vote by any other white ethnic group. And it was twice as high as the overall white vote for Washington, which was 18 per cent. If liberal Jews had not risen above tribal loyalties, and had voted for one of their own, Harold Washington would not be mayor of Chicago today.

• In April 1983, Wilson Goode won the Democratic primary for mayor of Phila­delphia against Frank Rizzo with 23 per cent of the white vote. But Goode received 50 per cent of the Jewish vote.

• In November 1982, Tom Bradley, the black mayor of Los Angeles, was de­feated for governor by Republican George Deukmejian by less than 1 per cent of the vote. Bradley won 42 per cent of the total white vote, but he won 75 per cent of the Jewish vote. And Bradley received more support from Jews than he got from Mexi­can-Americans.

• In 1980, Bruce Wright defeated Jack Dubinsky for the civil court in a borough-­wide Democratic primary in Manhattan. Wright ran much stronger in Jewish neighborhoods than he did in Italian or Irish districts, even though his opponent was Jewish. And this was only a year after the Andrew Young firing, which increased tensions.

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Across the country the pattern of statistical evidence is consistent. Jews are twice as willing to vote for a black can­didate like Harold Washington or Bruce Wright as the rest of the white population.

There is other evidence, as well, of the strong, philosophical liberalism of Jewish voters.

According to an ABC nationwide exit poll, Jews voted 77 per cent for Demo­cratic congressional candidates in 1982. Except for blacks, who voted 84 per cent for Democrats, this was a substantially higher proportion than any other group of whites.

One of the best tests of the liberalism of the Jewish community — and of the willingness of Jews to vote for values be­yond the tribe — came in the Mario Cuomo–Lew Lehrman race for governor of New York in 1982. Lehrman was Jewish. He ran in favor of the death penalty and in favor of Kemp-Roth-style tax cuts. He outspent Cuomo by 3 to 1. Yet Cuomo, the Italian, won 64 per cent of the Jewish vote with his pro-labor, pro-poor people plat­form.

And blacks have repeatedly demon­strated their commitment to vote in grow­ing numbers for white candidates who show sensitivity to black interests and a black agenda. Blacks were not apathetic or indifferent when Frank Barbaro, Rob­ert Abrams, Liz Holtzman, and Mario Cuomo ran. Blacks voted for these white candidates in numbers that astonished the pollsters and power brokers. Blacks also voted in vast numbers for Howard Metzenbaum in Ohio, and Carl Levin in Michigan — both liberal Jews.

The rainbow coalition that elected Mario Cuomo and the similar coalition that elected Harold Washington are the hope I see for the future. These are the models we must try to replicate to retire Reagan, replace Koch, and to change the direction of America from Charles Darwin to Martin Luther King. ■

 

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Lorraine O’Grady’s Hair Stare Fare

Lorraine O’Grady, a performance pioneer, is herself a character more interesting than almost any she could invent. Born in 1934 of mixed Caribbean and Irish background, she graduated from Wellesley in 1954, worked as a government economist, lived in Scandinavia, volunteered for Jesse Jackson, did translations for Playboy, and penned some pioneering rock-and-roll criticism (including for The Village Voice)—all before deciding to become a visual artist in the turbulent post-conceptual New York of the late 1970s.

These days, O’Grady is having something of a renaissance. The inclusion of her work in a survey of feminist art at P.S.1 a few years ago led to a surge of fresh activity, inspiring, among other things, her current show at Alexander Gray Associates, which centers on a new video—a relatively new medium for her.

Why the interest now? O’Grady has lived between a heck of a lot of worlds, which probably makes her work resonate with the polymorphous sensibility that is the contemporary vogue. On the other hand, her art has an underlying honesty and social intelligence that makes it refreshing in the present context of easy nihilism.

Two works have become her signatures. The first, a guerrilla performance series that began around 1980, had her assume the fanciful persona known as “Mlle Bourgeoise Noire.” Clad in a dress stitched together of white gloves and carrying a cat-o’-nine-tails, she would crash openings at the New Museum, then still a kind of alternative space catering to the mainly white downtown set, or the then-thriving Just Above Midtown gallery, dedicated to the African-American avant-garde, and issue cryptic, poetic rants about the parochialism of the separate scenes.

If this work seemed meant to shake up art, O’Grady’s second-most-famous piece, from 1983, deliberately sidestepped the art context almost entirely: She created a float for a community parade in Harlem, giving marchers empty gold frames so that they could frame themselves and their surroundings as artworks, thereby crossbreeding conceptualism’s rarefied “its art because I say it is” posturing with some up-with-people neighborhood empowerment.

Mixing a lyrically critical spirit and back-to-basics sobriety, the tone of O’Grady’s new video, Landscape (Western Hemisphere), falls somewhere in between this pair. A soundtrack of cicadas and bird chirps at first suggests that the black-and-white clip depicts a natural landscape, perhaps a field of blowing weeds. In fact, for close to 20 minutes, what it offers is a simple close-up of O’Grady’s own hair as she stands between two fans, the air charging her tresses with jittery, wispy animation.

O’Grady has been preoccupied with cultural identity all her life, and hair is, of course, a potent symbol of both culture and identity. Her own hair bears within it the specific evidence of her mixed ethnic background, and the idea of dwelling on its texture is a deliberate part of the piece. (An earlier pair of photo works from the ’90s on the theme of colonialism and miscegenation, also on view, hit home the theme.) Yet the video’s entire essence is to zoom in until O’Grady’s locks give up their hidden, abstract life—it really is a quiet pleasure to sit and stare at the patterns on-screen like a sort of hirsute Rorschach test. The video both is and is not about Lorraine O’Grady and her hair—the idea being that we always are and are not who we think we are or want to be, a thought that seems very contemporary indeed.

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We Want the Funk: 30 Years Later and Still Bringing It in Thunder Soul

A softer Black Power Mixtape, Thunder Soul honors the stage band of Houston’s predominantly African-American Kashmere High School, whose funky arrangements led to multiple awards in the 1970s. Director Mark Landsman intercuts scenes of vintage Kashmere—mile-high Afros and “the Super Fly look”— with reminiscing band members, who, 30-plus years after last picking up their instruments, are preparing for a reunion concert. They also hope to honor the man who led them, Conrad “Prof” Johnson, increasingly frail but still dapper and self-possessed at age 92. Footage of the band at its height reveals an exceptionally tight, precisely choreographed troupe, easily crushing the mostly white, vanilla-sounding ensembles they compete against. Landsman’s documentary doesn’t dwell long on broader historical details (Jesse Jackson chanting “I am—somebody” essentially stands in for the black politics of the decade) or on controversy (a new principal’s lack of support for the band in the late ’70s isn’t really explained). This kind of reportage would interfere with the director’s goal: maximum uplift, which he largely achieves. Sometimes you just can’t fight the funk; as much as you might resist the film’s more maudlin scenes, not succumbing to the band’s signature tune, “Head Wiggle,” is impossible.

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Les Nubians+Saigon+Hasan Salaam

With Parisian r&b sibling duo Les Nubians, notorious Brooklyn street prophet Saigon, and underground African diaspora emissary Hasan Salaam headlining, this year’s gathering of socially conscious hip-hop luminaries promises more incendiary lyrics and thought-provoking beats than Jesse Jackson could shake a stick at. In order, the sisters’ 2010 release Nu Revolution is a love-filled riposte against more combative methods of social change; the Yardfather’s long-awaited The Greatest Story Never Told sounds off on trigger-happy teens, absentee dads, and benign neglect; and Salaam’s streetwise Mohammad Dangerfield offers a “no respect” dialogue on institutional racism. These artists speak for you, even if they do so over the lower frequencies.

Thu., Aug. 25, 8 p.m., 2011

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Mass Transit Cuts Leave Passengers Stranded

Mass transit is democracy on wheels. It is the great equalizer that lets lawyers and waitresses, messengers and professors enjoy equal-opportunity jostling aboard buses, subways, and trains.

It is the backbone of every great American city, the lifeline upon which jobs, commerce, and education all depend. It is the surest antidote to global warming, a long-term remedy for that sinister oil gusher now fouling the Gulf Coast. And right now—just when we need it the most—mass transit is taking a nationwide pounding the likes of which has not been seen in a generation.

Already this year, San Francisco has cut its service by 10 percent; Chicago by 18 percent; Atlanta sliced 30 percent of its buses and trains; Detroit slashed almost a third of its entire system. Here in New York, we are losing two entire subway lines and a couple dozen bus routes. Some 1,300 station agents and cleaners are due to be laid off. They are even giving pink slips to bus stops these days: Last week, bright pink signs appeared along many city streets. “This is no longer a bus stop,” they read.

Buried in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s service reductions is a change to what is called “Maximum Loading Guidelines.” This is transit-speak for the number of riders that can be squeezed aboard trains. The guidelines are being hiked from 100 percent of a “fully seated load” to 125 percent during off-peak hours. Translation? Fewer trains, with some 10 to 18 more people standing in each car, are coming your way.

The MTA’s $800 million deficit has met with helpless shrugs in both Albany and City Hall this year. Mayor Bloomberg, who once cast his congestion pricing plan as a moral crusade on behalf of children strangled by asthma, has said only that we are lucky the transit cuts aren’t worse than they are. More than a half-million city schoolchildren are looking at the loss of transit fare subsidies. This rates more shrugs of the “What do you want from me?” variety.

Jesse Jackson was in town last week to talk about what’s happening to the nation’s transit systems, the second trip he’s made here in recent weeks. He has been traveling around the country, trying to pump up the volume on this central urban issue on which so many, like our mayor, have been silent. On Tuesday, Jackson spoke to a rally of 1,500, most of them transit workers arrayed along Eighth Avenue just south of Penn Station. The rally drew scant attention from the media, which viewed it as just another volley between the unions suffering the brunt of the layoffs and the MTA.

But Jackson put the fight in a bigger context, voicing the kind of arguments that we should be hearing from every big-city leader. He talked about the lopsided split in federal transportation funding, where 82 percent goes to highways, the skimpy remainder to mass transit: “Building more highways means more cars, means more gas, means more oil, means more congestion,” he told the rally. “Fifty people on a bus, rather than 50 people in cars, is a green movement. You are the heart and soul of a green jobs movement.” The crowd roared.

Then he reminded them about another neat trick that Newt Gingrich and his then-Republican-controlled Congress pulled on urban America more than a decade ago. That was in 1998, when a law was passed putting a cap on the size of cities receiving federal mass transit operating funds. Any city with a population over 200,000 became ineligible for operating money from the feds. Capital funding for new trains and buses? Yes. Operating money to help run them? No.

Jackson spelled out the obvious politics of this maneuver. “Republicans put on the cap to choke the cities. Democrats must take off the cap to relieve the cities. Remove the cap,” he cried in the singsong poetry that has always marked his speeches. “Save the cities.”

Standing behind Jackson at the rally was a small mountain of a man with a reddish goatee named Larry Hanley. A former city bus driver from Staten Island, Hanley, 53, has been finding creative ways to push for mass transit since the early 1980s. As president of his union local, he once hired a horse and buggy to clop along city streets, out-pacing stalled traffic. One way to un-jam the roads, he said, would be to reduce fares on the island’s express buses to lure more riders, while giving the buses their own dedicated highway lanes. He rented a helicopter to take photos of how well such bus-only lanes were already working in the Lincoln Tunnel. Then he put the picture on a flyer with the names and numbers of elected officials and had his members hand them out to riders. After politicians were sufficiently prodded to give the idea a shot, ridership more than doubled in two years.

In 2002, Hanley was named an international representative of the 200,000-member Amalgamated Transit Union. Two years later, he was elected vice president. The job has given him a bird’s-eye view of the world of hurt that has been settling on the country’s mass-transit systems as the Wall Street collapse hit Main Street. He watched as 25 percent of his union’s members in Detroit were laid off in a single day. He saw local union leaders in Chicago summoned to hear demands by city officials to roll back their contracts. “It was a perp walk,” said Hanley. “The press was there snapping their pictures, with all the blame for the crisis on their shoulders.”

Meanwhile, top officials of his own union remained aloof. “Our union president went to Australia to make a speech, but he never went to Detroit when we were getting hammered,” said Hanley. When local union leaders asked him if he had any ideas, Hanley decided it was time to launch a movement. In late February, he invited leaders of transit unions around the country to meet in New York to try and hatch a plan going forward.

“There was a blizzard, 18 inches of snow, I thought it would be a bust. But 60 people showed up, most of them on just three days’ notice,” Hanley said. The strongest support came from John Samuelsen, the new president of Transport Workers Union Local 100, which has been under siege by MTA cutbacks. The result of the day-long session was a new national organization. Dubbed the Coalition to Keep America Moving, it hooked up with consumer groups like Transportation for America, which has been mapping the crisis. The plan was to kick-start federal support for mass-transit operating funds. Hanley reached out to his friend Bill Lynch, the lobbyist and former organizer who managed Jackson’s presidential campaigns in New York back in 1984 and 1988, to contact Jackson. “Jesse understood exactly what was going on. He got it,” said Hanley.

With Jackson as the keynote speaker, the coalition held its first major rally in Washington last month with 3,000 people. A major part of the pitch is aimed at the White House. “We are waiting to hear from Obama on this,” said Hanley. “He’s been painfully silent. There’s money to buy new buses and trains, but no funds to pay anyone to drive them.”

For his part, Hanley has decided to run for president of his own international union. “Enough is enough,” he said. “The bankers had a party, and the bus drivers are having to pay for it.”

trobbins@villagevoice.com

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A Day Without White People

A bit of revolution hit the streets on May Day in New York as immigrants left jobs and schools across the five boroughs then converged on Manhattan’s Union Square Park. Folks will debate the size of the crowd that jammed Union Square and beyond yesterday afternoon. People filled sidewalks along side streets, searching for a way into the rally. By 3 p.m. the park was full; by 5 it was bursting—so much so that police pulled back the metal barricades blocking 14th Street and let the throngs spill down Broadway an hour before the rally inside the park was supposed to end.

When the front of the march, led by Reverend Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and Transit Workers Union president Roger Toussaint, reached Foley Square downtown, the back of the march was still waiting to step off.

Exuberant organizers put the turnout in the hundreds of thousands, noting that the march, which stretched for about 26 blocks, felt thicker than Saturday’s peace march, and appeared bigger than the 125,000 or so who came out for the union-backed immigration rally at City Hall on April 10.

It’s hard to know for sure, because on Monday the cops segmented the masses to let crosstown traffic through, so that marchers were leaving Foley Square as others were still arriving. The cops seemed taken aback at times by the scale of this spirited, largely nonwhite crowd and were far more controlling than they’d been in dealing with Saturday’s spirited, largely white peace crowd.

The radical part was just how grassroots this “Day Without Immigrants” was. For once, May Day in New York wasn’t just a throwback holiday for black-clad anarchists and preachy sectarians.

Instead, Mexican day laborers and landscapers from New Jersey and Connecticut marched alongside Senegalese street vendors, Chinese waiters, Puerto Rican independistas, Bangladeshis shop owners, Caribbean nannies, Uruguayan musicians, Dominican busboys, and revolutionary Filipinos.

Lefties from the Troops Out Now Coalition (a spin-off of Ramsey Clark’s International Action Center) may have helped pull the event together with immigrant groups on a shoestring budget of $10,000. But the bulk of the crowd was brought in by word of mouth and flyers printed up by neighborhood activists in Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Russian, French, Creole, and Urdu.

Whole families marched together, mothers pushing strollers and older kids who skipped school to link up with their parents (attendance was down by about 10 percent in city high schools). The majority of protesters were Mexican, but there were many other Latin Americans, Africans, Asians, Carribbeans, Muslims, Hindus, and a smattering of Europeans.

If there was a demographic slice missing it was the corps of white peaceniks who’d paraded down Broadway on Saturday. That protest felt a bit like a roving street fair with colorful signs and the habitual entertainers–Billionaires for Bush, Missile Dick Chicks, big puppets–along with a group posing as Muslim detainees in prison garb, dragging a guy in a cage.

By contrast, the immigrants marching on Monday were peaceful yet defiant, and loud. All down Broadway they drummed, blew whistles, and chanted, “Bush, escucha, estamos en la lucha!” (Bush, listen up, we are in the struggle!) And unlike the costumed anti-warriors who revel in their moral righteousness then go home to their blogosphere, these people really seemed to mean it.

Across the city, hundreds of immigrant owners shuttered their businesses and many thousands more gave up a day’s pay to join the protests. Though many got their employers’ blessing, others risked their jobs, and the undocumented braved fears of being detained and deported by authorities, amid pervasive rumors of workplace raids.

“White Americans don’t know what it’s like to live every day without papers,” said Carlos, an undocumented construction worker from Washington Heights who took the day off to march with his wife and 13-year-old daughter, out of school for the day. (They did not want to give their last name.)

“We’ve been working here eight years. We’ve been paying taxes. Our children are going to school. Now we have to pay more to send our other daughter to City College because we are not ‘residents.’ We have been applying for papers, but it’s impossible. You get a sponsor for work but then they tell you the [Green Card] program is closed, and you can’t do anything. You get a lawyer and you never know if they are real or not. They steal your money and then disappear.”

“The only right we have is to work hard and not demand anything,” Carlos added.

Many of the demonstrators waved signs demanding “full amnesty” that were printed up by the knee-jerk anti-imperialists of ANSWER (who seem to adopt their positions just to oppose whatever the U.S. does). But the marchers on Monday weren’t anti-American. There were as many American flags waved as there were Mexican and South American ones.

It’s just that many Latino marchers define American patriotism a little differently.

“The way I see it, 500 years ago, they tried to get rid of our people,” explained Alvaro Andrade, an Ecuadoran Indian who works as a carpenter in Long Island. “When Columbus and then the pilgrims came, they put us down with disease and made us slaves. Now they’re all freaking out because they look at it as the browning of America. But it’s not. It’s the re-browning of America. Because we are the true Americans. We’re the future of America. So now you say you’re going to build a wall along the border? So who’s gonna build it? ”

“Bush messed up by making a war for oil,” added Frank, a fellow Ecuadoran and former U.S. Army specialist from Washington Heights, who also declined to give his last name. “Now he’s pointing at the Mexicans and Latinos and making people believe that we’re the problem with the economy. But we are just the scapegoat.”

“We are the new black men of America,” Frank charged.

Jesse Jackson too sought to dispel efforts to pit Black Americans against immigrants. “Immigrants aren’t sending good jobs overseas, corporations are,” he told the crowd.

There’s an obvious alliance waiting to happen between the broader anti-war movement and the immigrant-rights struggle, if activists on both sides can look beyond their most immediate demands.

While the Minutemen and their allies talk about how immigrants steal jobs and drain the economy, it’s really the war that’s siphoning tax dollars and sending the deficit upward at a frightening rate.

One common focus could be to expose how the Bush administration’s Iraq venture is eating into pensions, education, and social services—putting the squeeze on American workers and their standard of living—because those threatened workers, blacks and whites, are now turning the blame on immigrants.

The competition for money becomes apparent when you consider that Senate Republicans voted last week to divert money from the troops in Iraq to pay for more border security.

Linking the anti-war and immigrant rights movements could also expose how the war on terror is dovetailing into a war on immigrants, with affects for all our civil liberties. Consider the title of the House bill HR 4437: “The Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005.”

Although the so-called “compromise” legislation being debated in the Senate isn’t quite so draconian, it still calls for building a highly policed 700-mile border fence, using domestic military bases to detain immigrants, and enabling Homeland Security agents to expel foreigners without hearings.

“After 9-11, the war on terror became a silencer for the immigrant community,” says Carolyn D. Hermogenes, a Filipino organizer with CAAAV and member of Immigrant Communities in Action, a coalition of 20 groups representing various nationalities that formed to oppose HR 4437. “But this legislation became a wake-up call that if we don’t speak up now, we’re going to lose our rights. So people are seeing now that they need to fight against the war too, because they are using the war on terror to silence communities of color.”

At Monday’s march, many immigrants said they would have liked to attend Saturday’s anti-war march but couldn’t afford to take time off for both.

Among them was Salvador Ardon, who came to the U.S. as a teenager to escape the war in El Salvador and is still without citizenship 24 years later. He marched with a placard displaying pictures of his sister, a staff sergeant in the army who is now on her second tour in Iraq. Also pictured were his two nephews in the army, one of whom just returned from Iraq.

“I gave my country what I love the most, my children,” Ardon wrote on his sign, referring to his sister’s family. On the back he added: “We love USA.”

But even Ardon said he opposed the war in Iraq and wants his sister to come home. “It’s just too dangerous over there now,” he says, shaking his head.

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Sharpton Chronicles

It got really hot last week on Hot 97, the popular hip-hop station, when a caller identifying herself as Samantha came on “to get funky with Reverend Al.” Claiming that she worked at Sharpton’s National Action Network for seven years, Samantha said he’d “brought his jump-off down to NAN headquarters on a continuing basis”—a reference to Marjorie Harris—and praised the Voice for “outing him.”

Saying she was “glad” the Voice exposed the Rev for being a “philanderer” and a “hypocrite,” Samantha said: “How could you out another leader [Jesse Jackson] and then you got dirt too? You took her from her husband.” All the money, she said, that “was going to support you and her habits” could have been used for “outreach in the community.”

Sharpton called the show, insisting, “I fired you because you didn’t do your work.” But Samantha stayed on message, contending that the Harris affair was going on for four years and that Harris was “the least present person in the office.” The Rev shrieked: “All comers come on, because I’m ready to deal with you.”

In an appearance on WWRL, Sharpton vacillated between denying the Harris relationship and conceding it, saying, “I’ve never heard of an extramarital affair when you’re no longer married.” But his attempt to conflate four years into the present tense didn’t work, with one host noting: “You’re a reverend, sir.”


Research assistance: Eric Cantor, Deborah S. Esquenazi, and Daniel Ten Kate