2021-03-01 Social Lenses: “Room 2806” (Part II)

“Les affaires interdits”

For the background to the following discussion, please see our previous post (“Room 2806” Part I). Below I try to isolate and classify the factors which led to the Manhattan Prosecutor’s abandonment of all charges against Strauss-Kahn, and some possible approaches to dealing with perpetrators in future.

Factors involved:

Money: Strauss-Kahn was the son of a lawyer and a journalist (the circles within which he has basically remained, both socially and matrimonially). Born in a Parisian suburb, the family moved to Morocco when he was two (1951), and thence to Monaco (1960), where his father worked as a lawyer. He moved back to France when he began university. The family was well-off, but didn’t have the funds to promote him in accordance with his boundless ambition. This only became possible upon his third marriage to Anne Sinclair. Sinclair, the daughter of French Jews who had married before fleeing France shortly before World War II, is the maternal granddaughter of one of Europe’s most successful 20th-century art dealers, Paul Rosenberg, who represented Picasso (and was a close personal friend; the two families summered together following their return to France), Léger, Braque, and Matisse among others. His agreement to sell these artists’ works came with the stipulation that he himself would have first rights to purchase, and he thus amassed a collection of art of almost-incalculable value. Rosenberg, sensing that war was imminent, managed to get some (though not all) of his collection out of the country, shipping part of it to his London branch and another part to the U.S. (under guise of the 1939 World’s Fair). Sinclair became her grandfather’s sole heir following the death of her mother Madeline, and her net worth is estimated at around $200 million. That’s serious money, and it bought Strauss-Kahn both the political career he longed for as well as protection and – ultimately – a form of immunity from his dark proclivities, which may have become more pronounced during his years as Director of the IMF when he was “economic czar of the world.”

Power: The information about “Money” above wasn’t in the documentary, but I became curious when at the bail hearing, DSK’s lawyer noted his total assets at around $2 million before adding, almost as an afterthought, that his wife had “substantially more,” which sounded like Brafman was trying to avoid naming amounts. Serious money is a correlate of serious power – whether it is direct as in DSK’s case (the Public Information officer of the NYPD notes that at the time of his arrest, Strauss-Kahn was the “8th or 9th most powerful man in the world”) or indirect, as is the case with America’s billionaire class, many of whom prefer donating to policy think tanks and political campaigns over actually running for office, although there is increasingly some cross-over. West Virginia’s richest man, Jim Judges, is Governor; the Governor of Illinois, JB Pritzker, has an estimated net worth of nearly $4 billion. And of course there is the recent example of the U.S. President.

Power can buy politicians and policies favoring the moneyed class(es) – most of Trump’s policy initiatives, implemented through Executive Orders, are of this type (rollbacks of policies which opened up federal lands to exploitation by the extractive industries, relaxation of environmental regulations favoring the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries). Trump’s sole legislative triumph was a tax measure that massively favored the rich.

Power combined with money can buy exemptions from Justice. The documentary features several former colleagues and friends (and even DSK’s second wife, Brigitte Guillemette) claiming that their colleague/friend/spouse would never have engaged in the sexual behavior of which he stood accused. But did any of them actually believe that? DSK had long been known to them; was it the case that they could acknowledge he was a “conventional” French womanizer, given to serial liaisons, but not that he was what he emerges as in the Sofitel case, the Banon case and perhaps most tellingly, the Carlton hotel case? There seems to be a line between affairs with members of one’s own social class – even extending to much younger members – and the type of sex DSK preferred with women who did not belong to his social class.

Class: Strauss-Kahn’s case reminded us of that of Jeffrey Epstein, the American financier (?). While the full case against Epstein was never presented – he committed suicide in his jail cell a little over a month following arrest in July 2019 – an extensive investigation published in the Miami Herald in late 2018 by Julie Brown and Emily Michot exposed many of the details of how his “operation” functioned, with a focus on the early 21st century (2001-2005). While in contrast to DSK, Epstein had never sought political office, his myriad connections with the American (and Anglophone) super-rich and powerful (“princes and premiers”) and his own wealth (estimated at $500 million, although it has proven hard to track down given that much of it was concealed in off-shore accounts) ensured that when he was convicted in Florida in 2008, it was on much-reduced charges (one count of procurement of a minor), and he served only 13 months in the “Stockade,” during which time he was allowed to leave the jail 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, to work at the foundation he created shortly before conviction (and which was dissolved upon his release).

Also in contrast to Strauss-Kahn, Epstein was both client and ultimate procurer (with Ghislaine Maxwell acting as recruiter/groomer) for others (Strauss-Kahn was “only” a client; others did the procuring); also, Epstein specialized in underage girls, while DSK’s preference appears to have been for young adult women.

But both men sought victims from the underclass, those without money, power, or connections. And both either transported or had transported victims from one jurisdiction and/or country to another (this explains the FBI’s involvement in Epstein’s case) – in American legal parlance, this is trafficking (the French legislation and terminology is different; although DSK was “only” a client [prostitution is legal in France], he was accused of pimping [procurement], which would be more properly applied in the U.S. to Epstein).

Thus both men sexually exploited and abused women who could not fight back – in Strauss-Kahn’s case, Diallo, a refugee from the former French Guinea; of the women interviewed in the documentary concerning the Carlton affair, one was an immigrant from Morocco, where DSK spent part of his childhood, and where he and Sinclair owned a home. These women were referred to in code as “equipment,” as “dossiers,” even as “meat” (though DSK vehemently denied he had himself employed the latter term). The men DSK used to obtain women – low-level political allies, businessmen anticipating some sort of a return on the favor – were almost certainly given specific instructions. Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, his “madam,” searched out schoolgirls in lower-class neighborhoods, or working at exclusive establishments in humble positions (the case of Virginia Roberts Giuffre, who was working at Mar-a-Lago when Maxwell spotted her). Once a girl had been recruited, she was asked to “recommend” friends.

While class played a decisive role in the selection of victims, it appears to have been more subtle – or blatant, depending on one’s point of view – in both cases. The French have a long and troubled history of colonialism, and their immigrant class from the former colonies remains even now a permanent underclass.** Strauss-Kahn spent his early years in Francophone Africa (Morocco) and would have adopted the French attitude towards women from North Africa. Epstein, a Palm Beach transplant, would have known where to recruit just the type of girl he and his clients sought: white, often from broken homes, perhaps abused, needy but not absolutely indigent (he wouldn’t have recruited girls from Kissimmee, for example), girls whom his clients would have appreciated, girls who wouldn’t have looked out of place in photographs taken at one or another of Epstein’s residences (cf., for example, photos of Prince Andrew and one of the girls Epstein trafficked to London, Virginia Roberts Guiffre; another of Epstein’s clients was apparently the billionaire hedge fund manager Glenn Dubin, who in 1994 married Eva Andersson, Epstein’s own girlfriend for 11 years).

Law Enforcement: The documentary includes commentary by a number of the men involved in the Sofitel Hotel “incident,” including Paul Browne, NYPD Public Information Deputy Commissioner, Michael Osgood, then Deputy Chief Commissioner in charge of the NYPD Special Victims Unit, as well as the hotel’s Head of Security, John Sheehan. All three – in addition to Diallo’s own attorneys, Douglas Wigdor and Kenneth P. Thompson (who in 2104 became the Brooklyn DA; he passed away in 2016) – believed Diallo’s description of what happened in Room 2806, and none showed any second thoughts about her credibility (the men all spoke for purposes of the documentary, so the footage is new).

The problems in these cases do not seem to be with those who undertake the preliminary investigation; rather, the problems start at the top of the gravy chain of law enforcement and filter down to prosecution (or non-prosecution, as often happens), sentencing (light to non-existent), and various plea agreements. In Epstein’s case, the order to go easy on him apparently came down from the “top,” wherever that was. The federal prosecutor of Miami-Dade County at the time, Alexander Acosta (who later became Secretary of Labor under Trump; he was forced to resign when Epstein was arrested in July 2019), arranged for a federal non-prosecution agreement. Acosta maintained he was given no choice about making the deal. And it was structured as a closed agreement, meaning that neither Epstein’s victims nor the judge in his case even knew its contents – which suggests what, exactly?

Something comparable occurred with the Strauss-Kahn case, overseen by Cyrus Vance Jr., the Manhattan DA. After the decision not to prosecute DSK, Vance gave a rare press conference at which he responded to questions. His answers were pure garden-variety non-answers: “not enough evidence”, and “well, we know something happened in that room, but we’ll never know exactly what because there were no witnesses.”

Remedies?

It’s easy to say “go after trafficking” or “prosecute sexual assault crimes” or “go after offenders no matter how rich, powerful, and well-connected they are.” The problem is, how do you make that happen?

  • You could change the laws to protect victims at trial, for one thing – make it illegal to try to discredit victims on the basis of their personal lives before the specific incident for which the perpetrator is being tried, the standard and nearly-infallible technique employed by the defense in rape and sexual assault cases (It even has a name: “Blame the victim”). But this is a hard sell; it would inevitably have both ramifications for how the perpetrator’s background is presented as well as how other major crimes cases are prosecuted.
  • You could abolish cash bail, like Illinois has just done. If a similar law had been on the books in New York ten years ago, the judge who released DSK on $1 million bail plus a $5 million bond would have had less leeway about releasing him to house arrest. Unfortunately, this probably wouldn’t have made a difference in this particular instance, given that the Manhattan prosecutors and Vance appear to have been unwilling to prosecute at all.
  • You could go after trafficking and procurement (“pimping”) more vigorously – not that this isn’t being done, but police departments’ special victims units are often understaffed and underfunded. A lot of lip service is paid to the need to prosecute perpetrators of rape and sexual assault, but police departments and prosecutors know these cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute and even more difficult to win convictions on – they hate them, in short. And victims know this, too: less than a quarter of sexual assaults are ever reported; fewer than 1% of cases lead to a conviction, and sexual assault perpetrators who are actually tried are far less likely than all other major crimes perpetrators to go to prison. And we must remember that most cases don’t involve men as wealthy, powerful, or well-connected as Strauss-Kahn and Epstein. [Note: For a very interesting initiative involving technology and international trafficking, see TraffikAnalysisHub.]
  • You could try to change social mores to make sexual violence and exploitation absolutely and unconditionally unacceptable, no matter who the perpetrator is. The #MeToo movement (founded 2006), which gained momentum with the cases of Bill Cosby (2018) and Harvey Weinstein (2018), is directly engaged in this effort. Perpetrators of sexual assault have been revealed in the entertainment industry, premier-level sports (cf. particularly U.S. elite gymnastics), the broadcast and print media, and politics. This movement is taking hold abroad as well – Greece became embroiled in its first international-level #MeToo case with the November 2020 revelations by Olympic sailor Sofia Bekatorou about being raped at age 22 (in 1998) by a high official in the Hellenic Sailing Federation, Aristeides Adamopoulos (who is a well-connected political player in Athenian circles). Recent revelations have rapidly spread to the Greek theater world, including the recent arrest on rape charges of the Director of the National Theatre Dimitris Lignadis, whose preference ran to underage boys, some of whom appear to have been refugee boys especially “recruited” for him.

Since 2018, there have been notable prosecutions in the U.S. like those of Weinstein (several of whose victims were represented by Douglas Wigdor, one of Nafissatou Diallo’s lawyers), Cosby, and Larry Nassar (a former Michigan State gymnastics coach associated with Nassar, John Geddert, recently committed suicide after being charged with trafficking and sexual assault).

But Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s victims have not been vindicated, and neither have Jeffrey Epstein’s (despite the arrest of Ghislaine Maxwell in July 2020). We’ll never know whether Epstein would have been tried and sentenced to the full extent of the law. Both he and DSK were “punished” in a sense – DSK after the Carlton case picked up steam and it became impossible for the French power elite to deny that he was, to put it bluntly, a sexual predator, while Epstein became a social pariah after his conviction in Miami in 2008.

But was this the best we could do? It would appear that there’s some point at which money, power, connections and influence overwhelm Justice herself. She may wear a blindfold in popular lore, but she’s not blind to money and power.

If we want to change that, we need to change nearly everything about how 21st-century society functions.

**Update: While re-editing this post, we discovered a recent interview podcast featuring the French journalist Rokhaya Diallo, published by The Intercept on 26 February (interviewer: Vanessa A. Bee). Diallo identifies the cognitive dissonance at the heart of French secularism (since 1905), referred to in French as laïcité. France declares itself “universalist” as opposed to “multicultural,” but of course the default identity is always “white, Christian and most likely, Catholic.” The whole interview is worth reading (or listening to), because it addresses the complexity of France’s colonialist past (particularly in the Maghreb, French North Africa), the ghettoization of Muslims in the banlieus, and how laïcité prevents the French elite from engaging in the sort of collective self-reflection required for them to confront – and repent of – their brutal history as colonialists. Note: the journalist, Rokhaya Diallo (who also is a regular contributor to the Washington Post; for a recent contribution, see here), identifies as French, Muslim, and Black – I looked up her surname, and sure enough, it is unique to French Guinea and the Fula; thus her ancestors immigrated to France from the same county as Nafissatou Diallo.

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2021-03-01 Social Lenses: “Room 2806” (Part I)

Les affaires interdits

For those not familiar with this blog, when it was originally planned in early 2017 (we’re approaching our fourth anniversary of going live, but were already doing dry runs by early March) it had foreseen a regular feature called “Social Lenses.” This was created to allow occasional comment on wider social issues generated by (good, preferably excellent) films or television series. Examples of early forays into this somewhat idiosyncratic genre are here (“Spotlight”), here (“The Florida Project”), and here (“Big Little Lies”).

The feature never really took off, partly because I haven’t seen that many great films since starting the blog (more reading and writing, less viewing), and partly because I haven’t felt especially moved to comment by those films I have seen in the past four years.

But I’ve just completed viewing the four-part series “Room 2806, The Accusation” (Netflix, released December 2020) as a homework assignment for a Zoom meetup every two weeks with a group of friends. It’s one of the best regular get-togethers I participate in, partly due to the conviviality of the group itself and partly due to the fact that we’ve begun identifying “discussion topics” and the latter have led to thought-provoking and lively discussion. The first of these was “The 1619 Project”; the second was “AOC,” and the third is this documentary series.

The tightly-orchestrated, sophisticated (“slick” has too negative a connotation; rather, “Room 2806” is well thought-out and executed, making use of numerous devices repeatedly throughout the 180 minutes of running time), and informative documentary details the events surrounding the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn on May 14, 2011 at the Sofitel Hotel in Midtown Manhattan (located at 45 W. 44th St., in the heart of the Theater District).

For those of you who don’t recall the details (and who does? It’s been nearly a decade), Strauss-Kahn (DSK) was then in his fourth year as Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, headquartered in Washington, D.C. He’d come to the position following a distinguished and ever-upward trajectory in French politics, advancing from Minister of Industries (1991-1993) to Minister of the Economy, Finance, and Industry (1994-1999). It was generally believed in French Socialist circles that he would be the country’s next President, given the declining popularity of Nicolas Sarkozy (President 2007-2012).

He was in NYC on May 14, and had planned to depart for France and a meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel the day the “incident” occurred. On the morning of the 14th, the housekeeper Nafissatou Diallo entered Strauss-Kahn’s room (2806, the Presidential Suite on the 28th floor – $3,000 per night, but DSK had been given a “free” upgrade and was paying the standard room rate of $525). Nine minutes later, Diallo departed the room and went in search of her supervisor. Camera footage from the employees’ work area where she was taken by hotel security after reporting what had happened to her supervisor shows her pacing restlessly, aimlessly. After about an hour (so, around 1:30 that day), hotel security persuaded her to call the police, who arrived almost immediately (the 911 call is included; Strauss-Kahn was not mentioned by name. Rather, he was referred to as one of the “big guests” and the caller refuses to give the name when explicitly asked.

In the meantime, DSK had made a hasty departure from the hotel – so hasty, in fact, that he had forgotten his cell phone – and headed for the Air France lounge at JFK Airport. The fact he’d left his phone behind led to his apprehension – he called Reception to ask about it and police, who had raced to JFK, managed to stop him before his flight’s departure.

The footage most of us remember from those days is replayed – he was arrested, taken to PSA (=Police Service Area) 5 in Harlem (123rd St.), and compelled to do the so-called “perp walk” (something European journalists found inexplicable and outrageous, insulting for a man of his stature). On May 18 he was indicted on seven charges (four felonies, three misdemeanors), including attempted rape, and remanded to Rikers Island, where he remained four days. On June 6 he was arraigned – he pleaded not guilty – and released to house arrest following payment of $1 million cash bail plus a $5 million bond. He spent the next couple months in a Tribecca townhouse which his wife Anne Sinclair rented for $50,000 a month; Sinclair also spent $200,000 a month for security guards, which the judge had required as a condition of granting bail.

Meanwhile, the NYPD SVU had ensured that Diallo was taken to a hospital, that a rape kit was administered, that samples from her clothing (semen was found on her shirt) and photos were taken as evidence (she had bruising on her neck and arms).

Once the Manhattan Prosecutor’s Office took over the investigation, Diallo was grilled over the course of days, in what can only be interpreted in retrospect as an effort not to help her case (which is the Prosecutor’s purported mission as representing “the People”), but to break her. And this they did, despite the fact that the Sex Crimes NYPD officer (Michael Osgood) who initially questioned her at the hotel was convinced her story was credible, especially when considered in light of forensic evidence found in the room’s hallway (semen discovered). Osgood, who speaks on more than one occasion in the documentary, was experienced with sexual assault victims, in contrast to the former NYPD Police Sergeant called in as an investigator for the prosecution, who was conversant with major crimes cases but had no experience with sexual assault cases.

As news began to leak that the victim’s credibility was “collapsing” under questioning by the NYPD – they determined she had lied to the grand jury and on numerous occasions to NYPD regarding the incident on May 14 – Strauss-Kahn was released from house arrest on July 1. The motion to dismiss all charges was granted on August 23 (footage of the dismissal is included). DSK and Anne Sinclair returned to Paris within 10 days, and in September he gave his first interview on French television, stating categorically that sex (in the hallway, with his semen on Diallo’s shirt) was consensual, and that Diallo had lied (implication: to extort a rich client, even though she had no idea who he was). He noted that he had no intention of paying her anything in the civil suit that followed, a suit which was settled out of court in late 2012. He did pay her damages rumored to have been in the amount of $1.5 million, of which $.5 million went in fees to her lawyers.

Nafissatou Diallo was born and grew up in Conakry Guinea, a former French colony that gained its independence in 1958. The official language of the country continues to be French, but around 24 different languages and dialects spoken. During the period when she was being incessantly interrogated by the Prosecutor’s Office, Diallo had at one point requested a Fulani interpreter. She had arrived in the U.S. as an asylum seeker in 2003; it was revealed that she had lied about having been gang-raped on the advice of a lawyer (not always the most scrupulous law-abiding citizens), although there was no reference to the rape in her asylum application. Contemporary sources indicate that she lost pretty much all credibility in prosecutors’ eyes, to the point where they didn’t think they could win the case.

On September 3, 2011 DSK and his wife (who had flown over from Paris early on to support her husband, to whom she remained loyal for another year or so) departed New York, and we were unable to find any indication that he has returned to the U.S. since then.

DSK is a free man but he is not an untainted one. Initially he maintained that what happened in Room 2806 was a set-up by political rivals in Paris who wanted to destroy his candidacy in the upcoming elections. While he later retracted this accusation, he continued to claim that his enemies were “in contact” with the hotel and ensured that the encounter was reported to the police. There is no evidence presented in the documentary that this was so.

Over the course of the summer, as Diallo’s credibility was being eroded (the New York Post played a significant supporting role in the smear campaign), accusations against Diallo went so far as to imply she was a prostitute, and that there was some sort of organized prostitution ring being run out of NYC’s toniest hotels. The NYHTC – her union – responded forcefully to these accusations (there’s a revealing interview with Peter Ward, President of the Hotel Trades Council), even arranging for a busload of hotel attendants (sometimes referred to in the press as “housemaids”) to be present at the court when DSK appeared on June 6.

Today Strauss-Kahn’s political ambitions have collapsed (when he counter-sued Diallo in the civil case she filed against him, his claim was that she had destroyed his career at the IMF and materially impacted his other “professional opportunities,” viz. the presidency). But he is by no means without resources. While his wife did eventually divorce him (they separated in 2012 and the divorce was finalized in 2013), his estimated net worth today is $25 million – quite a jump from the amount noted in the bail hearing a decade ago ($2 million). At his trial in Lille in early 2015, Strauss-Kahn stated that his 2014 earnings for “international business consulting” were 2.4 million pounds ($3.8 million), which would accord well with his net worth today. He has since 2011 continued working as an “international business consultant” for some of America’s favorite countries, including Russia (where he sits on the Board of Directors of the Russian Regional Development Bank), Serbia, Ukraine and briefly, South Sudan.

The political response in France – disbelief, shock, denial – among Strauss-Kahn’s friends and political allies (both Jack Lang and Élisabeth Guigou speak with admiration in the documentary), many of whom he had known since the 1980s, was profound. Friends and colleagues all admitted that he was a compulsive “womanizer” (“un grand séducteur” – somehow, it sounds less slimy and more worldly in French), but no one among his immediate circle could (would?) admit that he engaged in aggressive, violent behavior in the course of his many, many, many liaisons. Anne Sinclair (his third wife, to whom he was married for more than 20 years), a distinguished and successful journalist in her own right, claimed she had no idea of what her husband was (really) like – she seems to have been peripherally aware that he was a womanizer (there’s an implication that she was even a bit proud of his attractiveness to other women), but put up blinders to his other side.

The long and sordid history of that other side began to emerge after DSK’s return to Paris. This side of his personality, while it could not have been unknown (he had accomplices in Europe and Washington), appears not to have been broached in the way that his more “acceptable” seductions of women who moved roughly in his and Ms. Sinclair’s social circles or in those just beneath them were. It’s possible this side was never known to his social equals – it certainly wasn’t acknowledged. It’s also possible that some of his friends and associates did know, but that they maintained a code of silence: “we don’t talk about such matters in polite society.”

The documentary details some of these cases of aggressive sexual encounters, and there are interviews with one complainant, Tristiane Banon, who as a 23-year-old aspiring journalist went in 2002 to interview DSK in an unfurnished house where, she claims, he basically did to her what he did to Diallo ten years later. Banon, who speaks extensively in the documentary, is the daughter of a former political colleague of Strauss-Kahn, Anne Mansouret – who, it turned out, had had an affair with Strauss-Kahn herself unbeknownst to her daughter. Banon revealed what Strauss-Kahn had done to her in 2007 – saying that their encounter turned violent and that she had used the word “rape.” The footage is incorporated in the documentary and it’s shocking – not just for what Banon, who looks even younger than she was at the time, said, but for how she said it and how the other “guests” responded.

In 2015, a far more complex and insidious case, the so-called “Carlton Affair” (named after a luxury hotel in Lille where Strauss-Kahn had never  stayed, but where some of the prostitutes he used worked; his name came up in the investigation and thus he became a subject of interest and, eventually, defendant) was tried in Lille with a group of 13 other men who had regularly organized orgies in Paris, Washington, and Brussels (and elsewhere? Madrid is mentioned in one source we read) between 2009 and 2011 (the final “party,” with prostitutes flown to the U.S. by two businessmen in northern France was apparently held just before Strauss-Kahn was arrested in NYC). One of the prostitutes involved in a party in Paris in 2010, Mouna Rabou, speaks at length in the final episode; her testimony is illuminating and heart-breaking. 

At the trial held in February 2015, Strauss-Kahn was eventually acquitted (verdict received in June), because it proved impossible to tie him to direct payments to the prostitutes engaged by political cronies and underlings in the various cities where he attended such evenings. He claimed he had no idea the women were prostitutes; rather, they were just “swingers” out to have a good time with a powerful man. But he also (this isn’t in the documentary) “self-assuredly explained his appetite for group sex and how his sexual style was ‘rougher than the average man’.”

So much for the “facts of the case.” In Part II, we consider the forces at play that led to the case against Strauss-Kahn being dropped.

2021-02-25 Oh, Peoria

Peoria Disappoints Once Again

It having proved not possible to send a long-form email attachment* to the progressive mayoral candidate in our hometown of Peoria, Illinois, who came in fourth out of five candidates (9%) in the city’s local primary on Tuesday, we’re publishing our letter to her, composed over the past few days and very slightly revised for the blog.

(*I did send her a couple links, however, via her campaign “Contact” form.)

Background: For our own piece on this unprecedented candidate and her campaign, see here; for her campaign Facebook page, see here; for her campaign website, see here; for a long-form interview with a political reporter for the Peoria Journal Star and a local radio figure (90.7 FM), see here.

Our letter:

Dear Ms. St. Louis,

We’ve never met, but I followed your campaign for Mayor with great interest, and wanted to write to tell you how saddened I was by your loss on Tuesday.

Your analysis of what ails Peoria was spot-on throughout your campaign, and your four-pronged platform (economic development / participatory democracy / rethinking the justice system / community support & investment) was a strong one. The fact that you were endorsed by several progressive organizations was impressive and well-deserved.

I watched your Facebook concession remarks, and was interested to learn that you plan to speak with numerous Black leaders in the city over the coming days. I suspect you know what they’re going to tell you, and I also suspect what happened – I had a look at the Peoria Board of Elections results, and it was pretty obvious.

Here’s my working hypothesis: Without wanting to put it too bluntly, it’s seemed to me for a long time that Peoria’s Black population trends conservative, and thus a number of the community’s leaders probably united behind Dr. Ali, whom they saw as their “safe” candidate. She may even win in April – she’d be a “safe” Black Mayor, but hardly a progressive one. If anyone doubts this, we have a homegrown Exhibit A in this category in Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

As you noted, it looks like voters were frightened at the prospect of a Mayor like you – which is pretty ironic, because what Peorians should fear is the status quo, which has been stifling and depopulating the city for decades.

I don’t know what you will decide to do next, but I’ve been thinking about my hometown a lot over the past several years, and below are a few thoughts:

  • Low primary turnouts (on Tuesday, 15% – just under 12,000 people) mean that only a small percentage of registered voters is “awarding” both Mayoral and City Council seats (and others). What can be done? Local elections are far more important than most voters think they are.

I know you’re a master of organizing, and I think it’s vital to keep Peorians informed about the City Council’s activities on an ongoing basis. What about organizing “standing watch” committees in each of the five Council districts? Some members could prepare for upcoming meetings by studying the agenda and getting questions ready in advance; others could do “live reporting” as the meetings are broadcast, while others could study the minutes and match them with agenda items. And then, get the word out to everyone – not just on social media, at which you’re terrific, but through flyers or perhaps even a weekly printed newsletter (“Council Business” / “Council Matters”).

This, so everyone, not just the media-savvy, can learn more – a lot more – about what their Council is doing. When information is easily available in lots of places and mediums, and people see that what the Council does is directly relevant to our daily lives, interest tends to tick up. It’s a long process, but it could work.

  • If you can find volunteers for more in-depth work (why not reach out to Bradley University and see if you could find faculty / student volunteers and partners?), you could ask groups to carry out deep dives into some of the persistent problems facing the city. For example, one group could analyze and comment on the budget (which deserves serious, ongoing attention throughout each fiscal year); another could research the history of the Pere Marquette debacle (for the record, let’s say; unfortunately, it’s indicative); another could do the same on the history of the city’s bailouts of the Civic Center (they just asked the State of Illinois for $25 million, so that debacle is very much still with us).

There are many other recent and upcoming issues. For example, I recently saw that they’re talking about a $10 million-dollar parking lot: Does Peoria really need another parking lot? The location and description fit the bill of a “peak gentrification” project – really, building a $10 million parking lot in the middle of a health and human services crisis? Whose idea was this?

  • Do people know that the city is trying to sell off McKinley and Harrison schools on eBay? Does everybody understand that both schools – however old and in need of remediation (or demolition; it’s not clear to me what their actual state is) – are public assets which belong to us all? Who had the bright idea to auction both schools off for a song ($89,000 / $99,000)?  Inquiring minds would like to know.

What about investing that $10 million parking-lot money for the “Warehouse District” in these two schools, partnering with construction firms that specialize in rehabbing old public structures, applying for both federal and state “green – clean energy funding,” and then ensuring that Peoria’s own residents in the construction trades are hired to work on these projects and learn about green / sustainable construction methods and techniques in the process? One of the schools could be converted to affordable housing, and the other, into a community center … there are so many possibilities. Demolition of public institutional real estate stock should be seen as a last – and desperate – resort.

Note: I see they’re hedging their bets and also asking the State of Illinois to pay $4 million to demolish both schools, which the City Manager appears to be pushing for very hard. However, the chances of the state coming through with funding for demolition are slim to nil in this second pandemic year.

  • Once you have a trained construction workforce, Peoria could compete to become a regional center for sustainable development projects, including the retrofitting of our oldest housing stock (there will be federal funding for such projects once Pres. Biden’s equivalent to the Green New Deal – “Build Back Better” or whatever it’s ultimately called – passes Congress). The city could eventually host a large number of small and medium-sized businesses geared towards producing green building materials and implementing the retrofitting of the country’s housing stock. Nearly all of that stock will have to be retrofitted in light of climate change; why not start with the houses in zip code 61605? And note, this is a vision our Governor and his Clean Energy and Jobs policy experts would favor. After all, what’s the point of Peoria’s GA Rep* becoming Speaker pro temp if we can’t lobby in Springfield for ideas that make good business, environmental, and racial equity sense?  

(*Jehan Gordon-Booth, IL-92, recently promoted to Speaker pro temp in the Illinois House under new Speaker Chris Welch)

  • When the city issues RFPs for procurement purposes to vendors, is it following the State of Illinois’ regulations regarding female and minority-owned businesses/vendors? Yes, this law applies to state contracts – and there have been problems with initial implementation – but it should be applied by municipalities as part of standard good governance practices. No contracts to friends or friends of friends, and no no-bid contract should ever go unnoticed and unremarked.
  • What’s up with all those vacant properties in Peoria’s poorest zip codes? Is there a central database of registered land bank properties (There is, apparently, but I can’t find out much about it online)? Is there a public database (complete with specs and maps) that those keen on land use and rehabilitation could study and employ for proposals to the city? And shouldn’t Southside residents have easy access to land bank properties’ identity – especially when they’re concentrated in their neighborhoods?

You ran a strong grassroots and media campaign, and the fact that you didn’t come in first or second in the primary wasn’t due to any failing on your part – you and Andres Diaz came in fourth and fifth, which is just one more indication of how conservative those who actually vote in local elections are. Andres was a sincere and hard-working candidate – my favorite discussion was the long-form interviews you both had with Chris Kaergard and Marc Supreme in early February; when you were given the time to develop your platform fully, it made sense and the four “planks” cohered well with each other.

I hope you will maintain and strengthen your ties with the progressive groups which endorsed you during the campaign, and that you’ll be able to build a bigger and broader grassroots network over the next few years. Peoria may not be ready for a candidate as forward-looking as you, but that doesn’t mean Peoria doesn’t need progressive candidates like you.

Finally, with respect to the election in early April, I see neither you nor Andres have any plans to endorse either of the two finalists – that’s wise, actually. Neither finalist speaks to your own values or those of your supporters; in fact, one of the two appears to be a committed fiscal conservative. This may play well with voters, but it’s a disastrous approach during an economic crisis.  

In short: You didn’t disappoint Peoria, Ms. St. Louis; Peoria disappointed us all, and we’re going to pay a steep price for it over the next four years.

2021-02-20 He Had a Plan

The Slow Wheels of Justice

The story:

The Washington Post yesterday featured a “Lifestyle” (really, “Lifestyle”?) story about the release from prison of Joe Ligon, who was the U.S.’s longest-serving lifer – a total of 68 years in a half-dozen or so Pennsylvania prisons, several of which he outlived.

One night in 1953, Ligon and a group of four other boys in his South Philadelphia neighborhood drank a couple of bottles of wine (Ligon claimed it was the first time he’d had alcohol), and then proceeded to go on a rampage. Eight men were robbed and stabbed, and two of them died. Ligon himself stabbed one man who survived. At the time, he was 15 years old.

The way-back justice machine:

At the one-day trial in 1953, Ligon and his co-defendants were referred to as “colored.” At school, his special-education classes were designated for the “orthogenically backward.” He was incarcerated in a facility named the Pennsylvania Institution for Defective Delinquents, the inmates classified by the courts “as mentally defective with criminal tendencies.”

And consider that:

Ligon, 83, has never had his own place, paid a bill, cast a ballot, earned the minimum wage, lived with a partner, fathered children.”

Ligon is the last of the five to leave prison – one died there, the other three were released earlier.

Today there remain around 2000+ incarcerated JLWOP’s – Juveniles for Life without Possibility of Parole – and nearly one-quarter of them are imprisoned in Pennsylvania; of that group (525), 60% were from Philadelphia, the U.S.’s poorest major city. And of that group, the overwhelming majority are Black.

Today, Ligon would have received 5-10 years for what would be classified as robbery and assault by a minor. A series of SCOTUS decisions between 2005 and 2016 have gradually moved the needle on sentencing of minors – whose brains (particularly, the “control and oversight” parts of the brain in the front hemisphere) are not fully developed – and life sentences for children can now be interpreted legally as violations of the 8th Amendment (on “cruel and unusual punishment”).

In 2016, SCOTUS ruled that all JLWOP prisoners had to be given new sentences; Ligon, however, balked at the idea of “release on parole,” and insisted on serving his full term despite the prodding of his attorney of 15 years, public defender Bradley Bridges, and even the judge at a status hearing the following spring (“I don’t want you to die in jail”).  In November 2020, a judge decreed he be released – without parole – within 90 days. Ligon “won” in the sense that he is now entirely free of “the long tail” of the law.

But Ligon remained in prison as the world and jurisprudence moved on. Keeping him incarcerated didn’t come cheap to his home state; it’s estimated that it cost Pennsylvania around $3 million extra to keep him incarcerated, not counting the 37 treatments he received for prostate cancer.

Most of Ligon’s relatives have now died – his father and his brother, both murdered in South Philadelphia, his mother, his siblings apart from one ailing sister in New Jersey. But he will remain in close contact with her and with her daughter Valerie, who supported him while he was in prison.

In order to ease re-entry of someone who’d never done any of the things we take for granted as part of the 21st century (remember: he missed out on half the 20th), ten agencies coordinated services to ensure Ligon had housing, medical insurance (Medicare), identification (a Pennsylvania ID, we presume, and a Medicare card) and more. He now has a wallet – probably his first, but he will need to become familiar with handling money and a debit card.

Ligon’s supporters (“Team Joe”), in addition to his sister, niece, and attorney, include other family members as well as John Pace, a former lifer himself who knew Ligon for two decades in Graterford prison (note: Graterford was one of the prisons Ligon survived; it was closed in 2018).

His new home in West Philadelphia – he asked not to return to South Philadelphia – is in a row house owned by a couple who work with an agency that cares for the elderly. It is clean and tidy (Ligon worked as a prison custodian; clean and tidy is his thing), and has a television with a subscription to a sports channel. He has a cell phone – with unlimited minutes – and asked Bridge to get him an alarm clock, given that he hasn’t awakened on his own in 68 years. On his second day of freedom, Ligon went shopping for new clothes – pants, underwear, a down jacket. He wants to look sharp: “There are going to be a lot of ladies who are going to like me. I like good clothes that fit me. I like to smell good. I’m going to make it my business to do that. I’m going to respect women.”

Ligon’s dreams may seem like little to many: when the weather warms up, he wants to go for walks in parks and eat at good restaurants sporting actual menus; he’ll watch Philly teams on his new television, and he’s planning to work – probably as a cleaner for one of the offices of those who helped with his release. He loves his new home: (it’s) “beautiful. It’s clean. I walked in, I could smell the freshness.”

Commentary:

We cover “Justice/Injustice” at Deedspeakout, and since we hadn’t featured an (In)justice story for some time, this piece seemed like a good fit. And it has the characteristics we favor in highlighting published pieces: it’s long-form and well-researched (the writer, Karen Heller, has known Ligon since 2010, when she first interviewed him), with enough of the “big-picture” framing to craft our own post: background on JLWOP, Pennsylvania prisons, his attorney (few but telling details, of which the most salient to us was this throwaway clause: “Bridge, who has made the release of juvenile lifers a mission”).

But as we read and re-read the piece, a few details started to stand out, the chief one being the writer’s care to explain all the ways in which Ligon is functionally illiterate:

  • He left prison with 14 cardboard boxes, half of them stuffed with legal papers. They are among his dearest worldly possessions, the paper trail of his protracted confinement, though he can barely read.
  • School was never a vital part of his life. He rarely went to class in Troy, Ala., where he picked cotton and tobacco, preferring to spend time with his parents as a self-professed mama’s boy. When he was 13, the family moved north to South Philadelphia. His father found work as a mechanic, his mother as a nurse’s aide. He floundered in school. In prison, he did not take classes to advance his rudimentary reading or writing. He asked fellow inmates to type or write letters for him and to read the ones he received. [Emphasis added]

Compare these details to Heller’s short exegesis on John Pace, another juvenile lifer who, in contrast to Ligon, earned a bachelor’s degree from Villanova University and works for the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP).

And then there’s this passage, in which Heller recounts all the things that Ligon has never done: (He) has never had his own place, paid a bill, cast a ballot, earned the minimum wage, lived with a partner, fathered children.

Heller took it as a given that if Ligon had remained a free man, he would naturally have earned the minimum wage.

We highlight these because, during our first reading of the piece, our thinking proceeded along what we assume were identical lines to Heller’s: we read an incarceration story and automatically want to remake the prisoner in our own image. We recall the Ken Burns Netflix documentary “College behind Bars” on the Bard Prison Initiative, and reporter, author, and Presbyterian minister Chris Lynn Hedges, who teaches at a maximum security prison in New Jersey. “If only he’d gotten his GED, if only he’d gotten a junior college degree, if only if only” … one can almost hear Heller thinking aloud, because her thoughts were our thoughts – until we took the time to think just a little harder.

For two generations now, Americans – this writer included – have sworn by the mantra “Go to college if you want to enjoy the good life/to rise in the social hierarchy/ to make more money.” Setting aside for the moment the fact that this mantra doesn’t hold true anymore (if it ever did), we probably have enough college graduates today (35%) and we definitely have enough college grads and postgraduates so deeply immured in student debt (total: nearly $2 trillion) that they will never emerge from debt peonage, let alone jump an income quintile.

Ligon didn’t care about schooling and learning; rather, he loves a life of neatness, tidiness, cleanliness and order. These are not small things; on the contrary, they are very valuable things. He has been supported for years by people who care deeply about the injustice he was dealt by the Pennsylvania system. Thanks partly to them – but above all, to Ligon’s own indomitable will to be free one day, which kept him going for nearly 7 decades in prison – he still has the courage to live, work, go for walks in the park, and enjoy a restaurant meal with his niece or others. And – for this author, perhaps most beautiful and reaffirming of all, he wants to be with women – to dress well for them, to look good for them, to smell good for them, to respect them.

Ligon is free and he is not alone in this world. His life is precious, and now belongs to him and is his to do with as he will. That’s what freedom means.

“Check your privilege” demands that we remember – and respect – that.

2021-02-17 Texas, oh Texas

Energy Provision, Climate Change, and Structural Inequity

For years, energy experts argued that the way Texas runs its electricity system invited a systematic failure. In the mid-1990s, the state decided against paying power producers to hold reserves, discarding the common practice across the United States and Canada of requiring a supply buffer of at least 15 percent beyond a typical day’s need.”

By now, most of the U.S. is aware that the Lone Star state was forced to cut power to around 4.4 million people (total state population: 29.4 million) Sunday night into Monday (15 Feb.) as winter storm Uri wreaked havoc across the state. Originally announced as a series of “rolling blackouts,” projected 45-minute power outages turned into hours, then days. Now there are millions of Texans who’ve been without heat / power for 1-3 days, and temperatures remain below freezing.

Where shall we start our story about the causes and consequences of this energy disaster in our most energy-rich state?

General background: Texas, in contrast to all other states in the Lower 48, runs an independent energy grid – the other states belong either to “Eastern Interconnect” or “Western Interconnect,” which make possible energy sharing among member states. Texas decided that it didn’t want to be overseen by NERC (National Energy Regulatory Commission), so ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas) couldn’t “borrow” energy from its fellow states. ERCOT, which manages 90% of the state’s power supply (serving 26 million people), is under the Public Utility Commission of Texas, which is under the state legislature. The utility company which distributes energy to much of the state is ONCOR; other, smaller distributors include NRG and CenterPoint (Note: cities/counties on either Western or Eastern Interconnect did not lose power; cf., for example, El Paso)

Specific background: There was insufficient to no weatherizing of both wind turbines (which are operating just fine in Antarctica and Iowa and North Dakota, where temperatures plunged to -20 Fahrenheit in recent days) and thermal producers (mostly gas plants, which provide around 52% of the state’s power; overall, 80-90% of Texas’ wintertime energy output is still fossil-fuel generated). It was decided when the farms were built that winterizing – i.e. building in heating and de-icing functions – was too costly, i.e. it would have cut into profits. And the Texas state legislature agreed.

This, despite cold spells in 2011 and 2018 which indicated weather extremes of both types – extreme heat and extreme cold – would become more common. The cold snap in 2011 actually led to a post mortem report on ERCOT identifying as potential problems precisely what appears to have gone wrong the past several days. The report, however, was shelved.

[Note: In 2011, when the state was also hard-hit, it “borrowed” energy from … Mexico.]

What probably happened: When the weather turned very cold, consumers turned up the heat in their homes; this put an initial strain on the grid and led to requests that consumers lower their thermostats and unplug appliances they didn’t need/use. But this was insufficient (by far) to impact the collapse of the grid as the cold continued. Some hypotheses circulating as of Wednesday:

  • Some thermal plants may have been offline for servicing
  • Some plants’ controls may have simply frozen up; this includes failures to the electric compressors which push gas along (“icing over” apparently affected them)  
  • Lack of supply: here, ERCOT (and the Texas Legislature) are responsible, since they don’t hold a 15% supply of gas in reserve (an example of the just-in-time supply chain failure we saw with masks and PPE in the first wave of the pandemic)
  • Inadequate or indefinitely deferred maintenance, including cutting back trees located near above-ground power lines (we recall that this was also an issue for PGE during recent wildfire seasons in California). A lot of trees fell onto power lines and caused local blackouts – something not easily corrected in frigid weather.

Leading state Republicans – including Governor Greg Abbott, and Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn – are claiming that this is a result of the “unreliability” of wind turbines – but (a) that’s simply not the case (cf. above: wind turbines properly weatherized continue to operate at normal capacity in extreme cold) and (b) Texas gets a much smaller supply of its energy from wind in any case during the winter and had already lowered estimates of energy generation from wind to below wind’s actual performance on Monday-Wednesday.  On Monday, around 45,000 MW went offline; of these, 30,000 were thermal (gas/coal) and only 15,000 were wind-generated (i.e., two-thirds of the loss was due to thermal plants going down; one-third to wind turbines freezing up). Texas also has nuclear power generation (two plants), but the water coolant pipes aren’t weatherized and were freezing over, leading to the risk of overheating. One plant went down.

On weatherizing: “The fact that Texas deregulated its power grid in the 1990s could also be part of the problem. Electricity market incentives are currently structured in such a way that Texas’ power companies receive more money if they don’t weatherize all their plants and shut down some of them during cold weather.” (>The Daily Poster)

An interesting sidelight: When supplies are running low and demand goes up, pricing reflects this in costs to consumers (think of it as Uber-style rush hour pricing). We note that they’ve informed people to expect bills of up to five times what they would normally pay in the winter months.

Another sidelight: The Twitter threads we’ve seen have posted pics from Tuesday – Wednesday of the some of the state’s largest cities (Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, etc.) showing their downtowns lit up like normal – while residential neighborhoods have gone without power for 24++ hours. We recall that some of that high-value real estate has been standing empty or near-empty for nearly a year – and that right now, all of it is empty.

Who’s to blame? Basically, everybody – this is an example of “systemic failure”:

“The blame goes around, from ERCOT, who ran their winter reliability scenarios with extreme load and extreme outage event scenarios that didn’t encompass what we’re seeing here, to pipeline operators that didn’t prepare their pipelines to keep operating in cold temperatures, to power plant owners who didn’t weatherize their power plants and even to people, homebuilders, and building code designers that didn’t require more insulation in buildings because you don’t need it most of the time” (Jesse Jenkins, assistant professor at Princeton University, who studies energy systems).

Consequences: As is always the case, the most vulnerable among us are the most affected by these days-long power outages caused by systemic collapse. Consider:

  • The elderly: “Faced with hours without power, many residents in the state were experiencing cold temperatures inside their homes — some report indoor temperatures that are down to 40, even 30 degrees. Below normal house temperatures are a particular risk for elderly residents because they are more susceptible to hypothermia.” (Note: diabetics also suffer from hypothermia.)
  • The disabled and chronically ill: “As rolling blackouts in California have demonstrated in the past few years, people with disabilities are especially vulnerable when their homes lose power. Refrigerated medications are at risk of going bad and people who rely on electrically powered aids like ventilators risk death if they can’t afford expensive backup generators in case of emergency.”
  • The poor, who are majority BIPOC: “The Texas blackouts are also an issue of equity, some say. Texas Observer reporter Amal Ahmed tweeted that the blackouts will have a compounding effect on poor residents. ‘When pipes burst, renters will be the ones who have no options, at the mercy of their landlord’” Ahmed said. ‘Homeowners will have so many more tools at their disposal. That’s how the system is designed: privilege compounds.’
  • And of course, the homeless and inadequately housed: “What’s made Winter Storm Uri especially fatal in Texas is not only the arrival of an unprecedented cold spell, but the way the weather event is occurring in the context of preexisting social injustices like homelessness as well as how it is interacting with the state’s underdeveloped infrastructure, inadequate planning and regulation, and lack of emergency preparedness.”

More on the homeless and elderly:

Latest figures show that in 2020 there were 27,229 homeless people in Texas, a jump of about 5% on the previous year. Homelessness also significantly affects communities of color more than white communities. Of the total number some 37% of homeless in Texas were Black, compared to being just 13% of the population.” [Note: that “27,229” is doubtless a significant undercount, but it’s hard to estimate by how much.]

Warming centers and new shelters are opening, and at least one public transport system (VIA, in San Antonio) is offering transportation to such centers and shelters. Another group (also in San Antonio), Christian Assistance Ministry (CAM) has been driving around the city to bring the homeless to shelters – whose space is limited due to COVID-19 restrictions on occupancy rates. And the group is now taking in disabled and elderly persons, two further vulnerable groups.

In energy matters, energy-rich Texas has always behaved like a law unto itself. The lure of sustained high profits in combination with minimal upgrades and maintenance to the various components of its practically-independent-of-the-U.S. power grid ensured the state was grossly unprepared for Winter Storm Uri and its consequences. And it’s not just consequences in terms of power / heat / water (many areas have lost water as well); Texas was under-prepared to deal with the human crises which inevitably emerged, especially for its eldest, sickest, and poorest.

The state’s energy generators (the power plants) and distributors (the companies that buy energy and distribute it over this vast state) have seen the writing on the wall: they know clean energy is coming whether they like it or not. This means they’re no longer willing (if they ever were) to invest in infrastructure, even temporary infrastructure (like winterizing power plants’ control panels) and short-term maintenance (clearing underbrush and cutting away trees from overhead power lines). And this, of course, has always been the core philosophy of the thermal (fossil-fueled) industry as a whole: grab up those profits and then vamoose.

What would have helped Texas? The Green New Deal – which, contrary to what the state’s Republican leaders are claiming, has not been implemented or indeed even passed by Congress (and it won’t be in its original form, which would have done a great deal more good for Texas in this crisis).

One other sidelight about Texas: It’s the largest state (along with Florida) not to have a state income tax. And what that means is that its coffers are running mighty low right now, especially given decreased demand for petroleum products throughout the pandemic. And which states are weathering (sic) the financial crisis of COVID-19 combined with harsh winter storms and frigid temperatures across most of the country? Why, the ones with a progressive state income tax, with California – which has witnessed no drop in state revenues over the past year – in the lead.

Ponder on that, all thee who espouse “unregulated fossil-fuel energy markets forever”.

Further reading:

48 Hours without Power a ‘Nightmare’ as Residents Demand Answers

Texas’ Power Grid Crumples under the Cold

“‘Massive Failure’: Why Are Millions in Texas in the Dark amid Rolling Blackouts, Winter Weather?”

Texas’s Independent Electric Grid Leaves Millions without Power

A Failed State’: Power Outages amid Freezing Weather in Texas Threaten Lives and Covid Vaccines

Texas Homeless Face Limited Options for Food and Warmth amid Winter Storm

This Texas Weather Is a Chilling Reminder about our Battered Power Grid

Through Chattering Teeth, Texans Criticize Extended Power Outages

2021-02-10 Dreams of Zillow

Home Aspirations

The most recent episode of “Saturday Night Live” (6/2/21) featured a skit on what, for want of a better word, I can only call “Zillow addiction.” Now the New Yorker has joined in the fun and issued a handy list of techniques for overcoming real estate dependency syndrome (REDS). We checked them out and invite you all to do the same – in comments!

Here are their tips:

NY: What are your triggers? (They’re pretty funny).

DSO:

  • gazing around my apartment, where there are already way too many books, and  recalling there are a few thousand more in that rental place we’ve had for 15 years
  • seeing the interiors and exteriors of old classmates’ homes on FB (reminder to self: bypass all FB home interior posts henceforth)
  • happening upon “Million Dollar Listings New York City” when I’m channel-surfing at odd hours of the day and night (reminder to self: don’t channel-surf)
  • remembering my paternal home, starting to fantasize about renovating and enlarging it, which always leads me to Zillow.com searching out similar houses in the same or nearby neighborhoods (note: stop this, it’s o-v-e-r)
  • letting my mind wander while drinking coffee (Do Not Let Your Mind Wander)

NY: Start small (their example is spot-on)

DSO: Hmm. OK, we’ll try not to channel-surf and accidentally-on-purpose click over to “Million Dollar Listings”. Next, when we gaze around the apartment, we’ll try to forget the thousands of books in That Other Apartment. Will that make the problem go away, do you think?

NY: Don’t go through it alone. (Just look at all your fellow-addicts out there; did you see how many other people saved the listing for a 5-bedroom, 6-bathroom 4,000-square-foot Hudson Valley mini-estate?) (note to self: research why some houses have more bathrooms than bedrooms)

DSO: Oh wow, hadn’t thought of that. I’d always feared I was the only person ever who browsed Zillow listings on a pointless but regular basis. Now I can feel comforted by noting how many other people saved a listing. Oops.  

NY: Practice mindfulness (Not sure what the NY is suggesting here – imagining you’re there in Rockport, Maine [note to self: always remember to keep Google Maps open since you have no idea where most of the houses you’re looking at actually are] and asking yourself all sorts of questions about Life in Rockport gets you to a state of mindfulness)

DSO: Can’t we just focus on the pros and cons of knocking out a wall or two?

NY: Leave yourself reminders (The NY advises the use of sticky notes here, and we’re huge fans of sticky notes. They’re intended to discourage opening yet another browser window but they’ve never had that effect on us.)

DSO: Too similar to the previous tip, NY. Try harder.

NY: Replace your Zillow habit with a different one. (Bad suggestion ensues)

DSO: You mean, like, zipping through three non-fiction books a week? Or taking up running or the triathlon? Or going vegan? Or starting up an NGO? Or sorting the books in That Other Apartment? Or cleaning the kitchen cabinets?

There is a certain comfort in learning that millions (yes, millions) of others engage in the same secret pastime as you, touring Other People’s Homes virtually and then day-dreaming that they’re the proud occupier (and owner, together with the bank) of some or another little real estate find.

There are also millions who like to dream about renovating places that are falling apart. In fact, a Facebook page I follow rather obsessively (Illinois Abandoned Images) along with 182,000 other lost souls often features old farm houses that clearly haven’t been occupied for decades; nearly every such image garners a comment or two of the “Gorgeous! / Would love to fix that old girl up! / Wish I could afford to renovate it!” ilk. And we’re talking about big houses whose roofs have collapsed, whose foundations have sunk and taken root deep in the soil, and which are now in the middle of nowhere with nary a general store in commuting distance.

For more dedicated fixer-uppers, there is of course the long-running (since 1979) PBS series “This Old House,” which in recent years has gone “green” – energy-conservationist, insulation-and-cladding conscious –  and features high-tech approaches to converting 3,000 square-foot houses built in 1920 or 1830 into something other than money pits for heating and cooling bills. The program also features a home-improvement segment for do-it-yourself (DIY) types, among whom I do not count myself.

And then there are all those spin-off series on the various cable channels – around 100 or so, roughly – that feature homes that need a little TLC (+ $$ or $$$ or $$$$). I’ve gotten very fond of Texas Flip N Move (available sporadically in Greece), Fixer Upper (starring the Gaines family), Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and Rehab Addict, which has a young woman host with superior hammer and crowbar skills. I watch the latter programs whenever I’m visiting close friends in the U.S.; they kindly switch their very complicated system to HGTV the second I arrive to accommodate my binge-watching.

All the recent hubbub over REDS (see above, acronym explained) and millions who have recently discovered the joy of Zillow is a little unsettling, since I’m a long-time sufferer who can recall wanting to fix up every old (and frequently, decrepit) house I’ve entered since childhood. None of my fantasies came to fruition, but that’s not to say I’ve abandoned them. I can still recall the layout of my grandparents’ tiny (approx. 700 square feet) home out in “Illinois Abandoned Images” country and continue to dream up ways to make it more comfortable, cozy and of course, energy-efficient, even though it was torn down to make way for a grain elevator in 1964. I was very young when that happened, but I remember begging my Mother to keep the house in the family – well, to no one’s surprise but mine, she didn’t listen. So I continued imagining re-does of the rickety and even-smaller house of one of my Grandmother’s closest friends, who lived a good while longer and whom my Mother and I continued to visit until I went to university.

Americans – well, Americans who aspire to home ownership someday (76% white, 40% Black home ownership in mid-2020) – are a nation of individuals who in the 20th century enthusiastically embraced moving – while moving up, if at all possible. The pandemic generated a rash of buying and selling by those who already owned property, especially in the wealthiest enclaves of our largest cities. This was perhaps foreseeable in retrospect: those with a lot of liquidity (think: top 1%) purchased expansive properties outside New York on Long Island or along the Hudson River, for example; those with less (say, $1-$2 million) sold apartments in the city and purchased homes with more space – and yards – in Connecticut or New Jersey so they could work remotely in greater comfort than they could in a cramped Manhattan or Brooklyn apartment.

In the final years before the pandemic, though, mobility slowed down, at least by American standards; around 10% of Americans moved in 2019, and 85% of those moves were within the same state (the majority, within the same city). There are several reasons suggested for this slowing-down: the U.S. population is aging, and the elderly don’t move as often as the young (if you discount downsizing and moving to Florida, Arizona or Texas, of course); declining social mobility among the young (25-35), many of whom are burdened by student debt (now nearly $2 trillion) and may never own a home (both the New Yorker piece and the SNL skit refer to this explicitly or implicitly); the fact that the housing crash of 2008-2009 left millions of homeowners (those who managed to hold onto their homes at all) underwater on their mortgages; the fact that with new opportunities made possible by remote work (which have increased dramatically in the past year), many people see no reason to leave a place with affordable housing and reasonable cost of living and move to a city which is far more expensive.

One of the most interesting reasons, however, is that nearly half (47%) of Americans who chose not to move made that choice because they feel “rooted” in their communities – which seems odd, given Americans’ long-standing reputation as “rootless” and willing to pull up stakes again and again throughout their lives. But this non-mobile group has specific demographic characteristics:

A significant reason for the decline in mobility is that many of us are highly attached to our towns. Nearly half of those in the survey (47 percent) identify as rooted. The rooted are disproportionately white, older, married, homeowners, and rural. Their reasons for not moving are more psychological than economic: proximity to family and friends, and their involvement in the local community or church.”

Europeans – Greeks included – move far less often than Americans unless for purposes of immigration (hundreds of thousands of such cases in the past decade as a consequence of the general financial crisis, which affected Greeks far more than its northern EU peer countries). I have a good many friends who continue to live in the apartments they received as part of their dowry (yes) upon marriage. The rage to move out and up isn’t nearly as pronounced here.

This is probably a good thing for me. On the other hand, I admit to having gone through an acute phase of “Let’s move” last fall, when I abandoned Zillow to follow the equivalent Greek site, which for some inexplicable reason is called “House Cat” (a “house cat” in Greek = somebody who’s a homebody)

And alas, while writing this post, I was inspired to browse Netflix for “Home Improvement,” just in case. At the moment, “Dream Home Makeover” and “Interior Design Masters” are both available. Uh-oh.

Perhaps more to the point, there’s a program called “Get Organized – The Home Edit”. Maybe that will quell my all-too-American urge to pick up and move again and instead stay put – and do something about those books.

2021-02-09: Rest in Power

One Person Can Make a Difference: Karen Lewis (1953-2021)

The great Chicago labor leader Karen Lewis has passed away. Many – most – readers won’t recognize her name, but may recall seeing the vast “sea of red” that covered the nation in 2018 as teachers’ unions in states like West Virginia, Arizona (whose teachers actually adopted “Red for Ed” as their slogan) and Oklahoma rose up.

Well, Karen Lewis, who in 2010 became the President of the Chicago Teachers Union (“CTU1,” affiliated with the AFT, the American Federation of Teachers), was the person ultimately responsible for the re-awakening, re-invigoration and renewal of teachers’ unions across the country over the last decade. She had the background (daughter of Chicago teachers, native of Chicago [Hyde Park]), the education (Dartmouth ’74), the classroom experience (20 years as a high school Chemistry teacher – she had started medical school and then re-trained in Chemistry and gotten her teaching degree), and the union training (member of CTU since 1988) to give her leadership, once she attained it in 2010, hyper-authenticity.

But Lewis had more than all this; from all descriptions, she had a personality which dominated any space she was in, whether it was her classroom, her union, or a boardroom negotiating with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s team. She was brilliant and articulate; she was a polymath who spoke French and Italian and revered the opera; she was a gifted organizer who knew how to stay focused on making the union strong, making it speak with one voice, and making that voice speak truth to power.

Lewis was completely fearless. When she became President of CTU (a member of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) slate), she set to work building ties with parents and the greater community, knowing that when conflicts arose, CTU would need allies. Indeed, “Lewis’s leadership and vision turned the Chicago Teachers Union into one of the nation’s most democratic and militant unions, remade the political fabric of our city and nation, and touched hundreds of thousands of lives in the process.”

In September 2012, CTU went on strike for the first time in 25 years, ushering in a new chapter in teachers’ union activism. Her opponent was Rahm Emanuel, the city’s ultra-neo-liberal Mayor who favored education reform, i.e. closing public schools, particularly in the city’s urban core (he closed 50 at once in 2013) by implementing the so-called “portfolio” system of evaluating / ranking schools (Chicago’s program was ironically entitled “Renaissance 2010”).

The CTU model for teacher unionism has been adopted by many other teachers’ unions in a movement referred to as “social justice unionism” or “social movement unionism”. This more expansive unionism vision supports:

  • Unapologetically defend wages and working conditions of public school educators. Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.
  • Stand up for students, the teaching profession, and an equal and nurturing education that embraces the whole child.
  • Defend public education—the only educational institution in our communities that has the capacity, commitment, and legal obligation to serve all children.
  • Forge alliances with parents and community organizations to work for better schools and for social justice in the entire community.
  • Build democratic union structures that encourage members to be organizers and active participants.

Lewis, who was in the early 2010s contemplating running against Rahm Emanuel in 2015 (his second term), was forced to withdraw due to brain cancer in 2014; she subsequently suffered a stroke and became incapacitated.

She was replaced in 2015 by Jesse Sharkey (re-elected 2019), who lacks the charisma Lewis possessed but makes up for this by a wonkiness and doggedness towards the Mayor, the Board (which is appointed by the Mayor), and the CEO of CPS (Janice Jackson). Sharkey comes from a more leftist and militant background than Lewis; a native of Maine and graduate of Brown University in Rhode Island, he worked after college for the United Steelworkers in South Carolina before beginning his teaching career in Providence, where he received his MAT and was teaching in the late nineties. His wife Julie Fain, whom he met in Providence, is a former associate publisher of the progressive labor publication In These Times, and is now a publisher of Haymarket Books.

Sharkey – who taught Social Studies at Senn High School – has ensured that CTU continues its activism and organizational work along the model Lewis had adopted and implemented so successfully.  

This is clear from the course of negotiations over the re-opening of CPS schools in the past few weeks. The union’s website provides a chart of all core issues that were under negotiation (link “Bargaining Movement”), and shows what the union’s stance was prior to the start of negotiations, and what CPS’s position was; it also shows the progress of negotiations during the last 10 days in particular.  

At the start of negotiations, CPS had “no plan” at all for the following:

Health Metrics (i.e. determining when to shut down a classroom, school, or the entire system on the basis of school/City of Chicago positivity rates)

Vaccines for staff

Accommodations for remote teaching (CPS offered the option only to some staff in high-risk categories)

Testing

Ventilation

Workspaces (i.e. determining which spaces could not safely be used at all)

Remote Learning Improvements

Safety Committee

Simultaneous Instruction (the union opposes teachers teaching both in-class and remote students simultaneously)

Sustainable Community Schools (the union asked that $2 million left over for support of SCS from the 2019-2020 school year be employed for additional support / Covid relief)

Rent Abatement

The last two issues remain unaddressed in the latest form of the agreement (probably anticipated by union negotiators), but they form part of CTU’s larger social justice agenda to support students both within and beyond the classroom. They are now always on the agenda – and this is also a legacy of Lewis’ expansive and militant leadership.

Another legacy of that leadership: democratic votes on all issues pertaining to the members – and that means that CPS’ offer to CTU, which Mayor Lori Lightfoot announced on Sunday had tentatively been approved, had not in fact been approved.

It’s not over until the rank-and-file members say it is. Yesterday (Monday), the union’s 600 delegates voted (85% in favor) of recommending the agreement for a vote:  

The vote of the union’s 28,000 members is expected to take until midnight Tuesday. A vote to ratify the deal would greenlight the return of approximately 70,000 preschool and elementary school students who have told district officials they want to return to classrooms for two or three days a week.

However, rank-and-file members could reject the deal, sending the two sides back to the bargaining table.

If the 28,000 members vote to ratify the agreement, that would signal another significant win for CTU – and not only. Karen Lewis believed that what was good for teachers was good for students, and what was good for students was good for students’ families, and what was good for families was good for communities.

CPS teachers and students (approximately 20% of the district’s 350,000+ students are expected to return to classes) will be safer as a result of the union’s relentless push for metrics, vaccination schedules, better ventilation systems, PPE for all staff who need it, and school safety committees. And because teachers, staff, and students will be safer, their neighborhoods – their parents and grandparents, neighbors, cousins – will be safer.

This was an excellent outcome; in fact, it’s probably the best outcome any big city union has achieved for its members before returning to in-school teaching. It should become a model for others in negotiating with their city administrations and school board leaders going forward. And if it passes, it will pass because the members themselves have determined that it will make it safe to return to their schools.

Will the agreement protect all staff and students from becoming ill? Probably not; in fact, Chicago (and Illinois) really shouldn’t be opening up again. Most of the state is now in something referred to as “Tier 4” mitigations, which permit indoor dining. That’s a terrible idea, especially given a) the slow and highly inequitable pace of the vaccination rollout in Illinois and b) the appearance of the far-more-contagious B.1.1.7 variant and its E484K mutation. But the agreement provides for automatic closure (minimum duration: 14 days) and return to remote-only instruction should the city’s positivity rate increase by 15% over the previous week, or be higher for 7 straight days in a row than for the same day in the previous week, or if the city’s community rate reaches 10% – a sort of fail-safe.

CTU’s statement on the passing of their leader (published on Monday): 

Our union is in deep mourning today at the passing of our sister, our leader and our friend, President Emerita Karen GJ Lewis. We are sending heartfelt condolences to her husband, John Lewis, and her surviving family and friends. She will be dearly missed.

Karen taught us how to fight, and she taught us how to love. She was a direct descendant of the legendary Jackie Vaughn, the first Black, female president of our local. Both were fierce advocates for educators and children, but where Jackie was stately elegance, Karen was a brawler with sharp wit and an Ivy League education. She spoke three languages, loved her opera and her show tunes, and dazzled you with her smile, yet could stare down the most powerful enemies of public education and defend our institution with a force rarely seen in organized labor.

She bowed to no one, and gave strength to tens of thousands of Chicago Teachers Union educators who followed her lead, and who live by her principles to this day.

Karen had three questions that guided her leadership: ‘Does it unite us, does it build our power and does it make us stronger?’ Before her, there was no sea of red — a sea that now stretches across our nation. She was the voice of the teacher, the paraprofessional, the clinician, the counselor, the librarian and every rank-and-file educator who worked tirelessly to provide care and nurture for students; the single parent who fought tremendous odds to raise a family; and the laborer whose rights commanded honor and respect. She was a rose that grew out of South Side Chicago concrete — filled with love for her Kenwood Broncos alumni — to not only reach great heights, but to elevate everyone she led to those same heights.

But Karen did not just lead our movement. Karen was our movement. In 2013, she said that in order to change public education in Chicago, we had to change Chicago, and change the political landscape of our city. Chicago has changed because of her. We have more fighters for justice and equity because of Karen, and because she was a champion — the people’s champion.

Our hearts are heavy today, but it brings us joy to know that Karen has joined Jackie Vaughn, Marion Stamps, Addie Wyatt and Willie Barrow as the vanguard of Black women who have forged a heroic path of labor, justice and civil rights in our city. Karen now sits among them, still guiding our every move, and still guiding our vision for the schools our students and their families deserve.

Lewis and the union she helped re-make knew – and know – the truth of these words:

“In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of armies, multiplied a thousand-fold.
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
For the union makes us strong.”

A great woman has passed. May she rest in power.  

2021-02-06: CPS vs. CTU

Who Do You Trust?

For those who follow education and Illinois politics, the past couple weeks have been dominated by the story of Chicago Public Schools and Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s decision to force the re-opening of in-person classes. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), which represents around 24,000 teachers in the system’s nearly 400,000-student system (third-largest in the U.S.), has continued to bargain for better in-school safety measures, more frequent testing of staff and students, and better-defined (and lower) metrics for when schools/the entire system will shut down due to an increase in community spread, among others.

Those who haven’t been following the negotiations closely believe that CTU is being unreasonable, that its members are “spoiled” or “lazy” (many parents and members of the public don’t understand how time-consuming and ultimately frustrating online teaching has been for the past 10 months), and there’s now a vocal contingent of parents who absolutely demand CPS re-open immediately. In fact, this group has decided to put their grievances in writing and take CTU to court if classes don’t start pronto, benefiting from the legal support of the Liberty Justice Center, which brought us the JANUS vs. AFSCME SCOTUS decision of 2018.

As astonishing as it may seem, CPS appears not to have undertaken serious pre-planning for re-opening schools, which nevertheless began on a tentative basis on January 4 for pre-K and special education (SPED) students. It had been anticipated that around 30% of eligible students would return; in the end, only 19% did – a similar percentage to that expected to return when the other elementary grades are added to the phase-in process (20%, with 80% remaining remote). That 19% was equal to just 1% of the district’s total student enrollment pre-K through high school; the total number of teachers involved in the re-opening of pre-K through 8 is over 10,000.

Teachers not granted an exemption for health-related reasons will be required to teach onsite, even if they have no students in class; those with students will be required to teach in-class and remotely synchronously – an extremely challenging task and one that even many colleges and universities decided not to attempt last spring.

When limited on-site instruction began in early January, some teachers refused to return to their classrooms; instead, they set up outside school buildings, their laptops atop collapsible tables, and attempted to continue to teach remotely from onsite (in freezing temperatures). CPS locked them out of their electronic platforms, blocked their (school) email accounts, and docked their pay. A request by CTU to make these teachers “whole” has been refused.

CPS has rejected 75% of requests for exemptions from the on-site requirement by teachers who live with individuals in particularly high-risk groups, even if none of their students have opted for in-person instruction.

Before negotiations began, CPS had no ventilation plan – it has come round on ventilation in the past couple months, thankfully, and classroom air will be switched out five times per hour through a system of portable air purifiers. (Classrooms and other school spaces that are not deemed amenable to air purification won’t be used.)

Before negotiations began, CPS had no plan for the regular testing of faculty, staff, and students. Now, CPS has committed to testing all symptomatic staff and students, and 100% of staff working in the 134 most at-risk public schools (weekly), 50% of staff per week (so, twice a month) at other schools, testing students at the 134 schools in highest-risk districts, and more.  

Before negotiations began, Chicago had made no commitment towards a vaccination plan for teachers; now, the city is committed to 1,500 doses for teachers each week; CTU is insisting that CPS (the City of Chicago, viz. the Mayor) commit to additional vaccines as supplies increases. In addition, CPS won’t commit to a priority system for vaccinating those teachers who are required to return first, or for those who live in households with high-risk members. And they’re demanding that vaccinated teachers return to classrooms after a single dose. The Mayor and Director of the Chicago Health Department (Allison Arwady) responded that there aren’t enough vaccines for all high-priority eligible candidates in Phase 1B (currently, only about 5,700 per day for the entire city are available; the rollout isn’t going quickly in Chicago or, for that matter, Illinois).

As of Friday night (yesterday), the City was insisting schools stay open unless there were outbreaks in more than 50% of all operating schools (meaning that even with outbreaks in over 200 schools, CPS classrooms would remain open); with respect to community metrics, schools would continue in operation until the community positivity rate reached 25% (i.e. 2.5% of randomly-tested students, which corresponds to a 25% community rate).

Lightfoot keeps repeating that parents want schools to re-open, and that the impediment is CTU. In recent days, she and others in the Administration have referenced the CDC’s supposed announcement, viz. that it’s safe to open schools (although the CDC certainly wasn’t using CPS as a baseline school district)*.

*From a WH Press Briefing held on Feb. 4 (Press Secretary Jen Psaki), disclaimer: “‘the CDC hasn’t issued the formal recommendations or requirements on how all schools across the country can open. They did a report, as they do reports frequently, based on an area in Wisconsin,’ stressing the report had extremely limited applicability to urban areas such as Chicago.”

The obligation to reopen is presented as crucial for achieving education equity in a system that’s heavily enrolled by Black and Brown students. But the truth is that it is middle- and upper-middle white parents, who reside with their children in single-family homes in majority-white neighborhoods with low community positivity rates, who are demanding schools reopen. Black students’ parents are less likely to see sending their children back to in-school classes as desirable or advisable, partly because they know their children and families are most at-risk (twice the death rate of whites), partly because they don’t trust Chicago government officials, starting with the Mayor and Janice Jackson, the CPS’ CEO (Chicago doesn’t have a “Superintendent,” because it doesn’t have an elected school board; all the board members are appointed by the Mayor). This, despite the fact that these are the parents who most need their children to return to in-school classes, which appears to be a contradiction.

But why should they trust the city’s administration in a time of great risk and uncertainty, amid a health and healthcare crisis inextricably linked with economic hardship, both of which have harmed them and their community more than any other demographic group?

Consider the following charts of Chicago neighborhoods:

See those purple neighborhoods? They’re majority white and middle-to-upper-middle class. See those light pink and nearly white neighborhoods? They’re poor, minority neighborhoods. See:

As of 30 January, only 19% of vaccinated Chicagoans are Black and just 19% are Latinos v almost 50% being white.

The need is dire: despite Black people only accounting for 30% of Chicago’s population, Black Chicagoans make up 60% of all Covid-19 cases. And lack of hospitals, prominence of food deserts, and other inequalities has turned Covid-19 into an even more lethal health crisis for these communities. But even during Chicago’s Phase 1A, when only healthcare workers and longterm care facility residents and staff were eligible for vaccination, the majority of those vaccinated were from more affluent areas such as downtown and the North Side.”

Chicago has announced a special program to deliver more vaccines to the city’s majority-Black neighborhoods, but the fact that many of them do not have a CVS or Walgreen’s (they are not only “food deserts”, but “pharmacy deserts” as well) means that in-neighborhood vaccination services may be slow to get off the ground and insufficiently staffed:

Chicago’s plan to use pharmacies to distribute vaccines (vaccines are being supplied directly to pharmacies [note: CVS and Walgreen’s] via the federal government) may mean that some Chicagoans struggle with access as Chicago contains several ‘pharmacy deserts’: a term coined to describe a community with limited access to a pharmacy. The majority of ‘pharmacy deserts’ are concentrated on Chicago’s West and South Sides, correlating with the same communities hardest hit by Covid-19.”

In Chicago, only about a third of Black families have indicated they are willing to return to classrooms, compared with 67 percent of white families, and the city’s teachers’ union, which is hurtling toward a strike, has made the disparity a core part of its argument against in-person classes.” [Note: of the one-third who expressed willingness to send their children back to school, only a little over half this number actually did on Jan. 4.]

Comparable percentages hold fairly steady across the U.S., as the historical inequities separating white and Black and Brown neighborhoods – and their schools – have been heightened everywhere by the pandemic.

As of this writing (Saturday morning, Chicago time), when pre-K and SPED teachers are required to return to their schools on Monday morning, many (all?) may not return, and will instead attempt to continue teaching remotely. The Mayor has threatened – there’s no other word, it’s an outright threat – to lock them out of their online platforms / email and dock their pay if they don’t show up. At that point, it seems likely CTU will move towards a strike vote, and it’s almost certain a motion to strike will pass. The result? 100% of CPS students will be deprived of any form of instruction whatsoever.

As uncomfortable as it would have been, Chicago’s Mayor and the CPS’ CEO should have found the courage to admit what is by now obvious:  CPS schools are highly inequitable, not just in a time of pandemic, but historically. And admitting this is so doesn’t make them less inequitable, it means that we must consequently admit the corollary to this inequity, that CPS cannot safely reopen its brick and mortar schools until the population of Chicago has achieved herd immunity.

Instead, the most likely outcome of what must be considered a failed negotiation process (capped on Friday by CPS presenting CTU its “last, best and final offer” – code for “we’re through negotiating, take it or leave it”) is a strike.

Whereas, had the Mayor, her public health department, and the Governor of Illinois and state health department been willing to collaborate and prioritize CPS staff in the current round of vaccinations (Phase 1B), jumping them to the head of the 1B line – which is what you do when you genuinely prioritize education and educators, rather than paying lip service to both – in six weeks, all 24,000 teachers + support staff could have received their vaccinations (both shots) and been immunized.

CTU’s leadership and its members are not the villains in this struggle with the Mayor:

Teachers who are fighting against an unsafe return to work are acting on behalf not only of their own interests, but of the interests of society as a whole. Any rational social order would shut down schools and nonessential business until the pandemic can be contained through a combination of mass testing, contact tracing and vaccination, while providing full pay for all employees and allocating the social resources necessary to ensure that children can be educated from home.

This was a tragically short-sighted, poorly-strategized attempt by the Mayor (who feels beholden not to Black students and their parents and families, but to her largely white donors) to force schools to open in absence of the courage to pay the political price for doing what was required to render schools safe.

Further reading

Bargaining Movement Chart (CTU Website)

Mayor, CPS leadership walk away from bargaining for safe return to school buildings

Chicago Teachers Union Dismisses CPS’ ‘Last, Best and Final’ Offer for a Reopening Deal

CTU Says CPS’ ‘Last, Best and Final Offer’ ‘Cannot Stand’

Chicago Teachers Might Strike. A Group of Parents, Backed by a Right-wing Law Firm, Stands to Sue

How Chicago’s vaccine rollout is inhibited by longstanding inequality

Missing in School Reopening Plans: Black Families’ Trust

The ‘Reopen Schools Now!’ Debate is Rooted in Racism

What the science really says: Closing schools is vital to containing COVID-19

2021-01-29 The Pandemic and Housing

American Cities and the Pandemic

COVID-19 has served to bring into high relief longstanding issues involving public health, education, housing, and racial equity. Today we’ll discuss the housing crisis, concentrating on where we are now and how we got here.

What’s going on with the residential housing market? The virus has challenged our faith in large cities as the most desirable destinations for the wealthy, the young and aspiring, and those seeking the cultural amenities cities offer.

It would appear that many of the wealthy (say, the top 5% of the professional-managerial class [PMC]) have departed for their vacation homes, or have purchased second homes in desirable suburbs where they can continue to work remotely while enjoying the space – indoor, outdoor – suburban and semi-rural settings offer.

Members of this class and that directly below them (say, the next 15-20%) have been selling city apartments and using the proceeds to purchase homes in suburbs; this has been especially noted among families with school-age children, who’ve been out of school for large parts of the past year and studying remotely while their parents continued working, often also remotely. With an eye to the future and the prospect that they might be asked to return to their offices at some point, a lot of near suburbs to large urban hubs (NYC, Washington, DC) have been experiencing large spikes in sales and prices of single family residences since last summer.

Has this sell-off affected the residential real estate market in large urban cores? Not appreciably, or at least, not yet. The highest-worth individuals are hanging on to their properties in a “wait-and-see” holding pattern; those who’ve sold smaller properties (apartments and smaller condos) appear to have been replaced, at least so far, by others looking for an opportunity to move in to the city in a similar “wait-and-see” move to that displayed by the wealthiest 5%.

However: what happens if employers with thousands of office workers decide to downsize onsite operations permanently after the pandemic? Let’s say an organization had 2,000 workers pre-pandemic onsite – that’s a largish office building. The organization decides that it can function just as well with 500 workers onsite in future; does this mean that 1,500 workers and their families are free to move elsewhere, though (possibly) within commuting distance of headquarters? A lot depends on how organizations structure remote work going forward: will 500 workers be onsite for a week a month, working remotely for another three weeks in an alternating schedule (one week in-office, three weeks remote)? Such an arrangement would tether all 2,000 to the home office’s location. On the other hand, if 500 people were deemed “front line staff,” and were the only ones whose physical presence was required, that would free up 1,500 workers to depart the city in search of larger homes, better schools, and outdoor recreational amenities (large parks, athletic clubs and teams for their children, etc.).

New York City is home to around 8.5 million people (5 boroughs, not including the greater metropolitan area, which is about 18.8 million). Let’s say there were initially 1.5 million office workers – if only one-quarter return, that leaves millions of square feet of office space potentially unoccupied. Will the city’s commercial real estate market be able to withstand such a shock? Probably not, which would argue that once the pandemic has run its course and people can return to brick-and-mortar working environments, it’s more likely office workers will be required to rotate in-and-out of the offices where they’re headquartered. New York (and probably, San Francisco and Los Angeles, possibly Seattle) will inevitably lose some percentage of its population (5% would be our rough estimate), and that loss might open up some housing opportunities, both purchase and rental.

But it won’t solve the “housing crisis” in any of these cities, which will continue to bedevil us in its starkest form, i.e. as an “affordable housing crisis.” Prior to the pandemic, all the above-named cities (and many more; we could add Boston, Portland, and Miami to the list) were attracting more high-income buyers and renters than they were losing, which meant that developers concentrated on higher- and highest-end housing. Affordable housing is less profitable for investors, and without strong policy incentives (and enforcement), many have been hesitant to engage in construction projects for lower income renters/buyers.

Even developers who have shown a willingness to build affordable housing (i.e. less than “market rate” housing, or at least some percentage of new stock set aside for affordable housing) have frequently been discouraged from doing so by local zoning rules and opposition by owners, who complain that affordable housing (apartment complexes, duplex – and triplex developments) will increase traffic, overburden infrastructure, or – and yes, this is an actual example – “obstruct their unimpeded view” of x-landmark or park or vista. Well-intentioned affordable housing developers can spend years trying to get permission to build – and fail. Many have given up trying.

This phenomenon, referred to as “NIMBYISM” (Not in My Back Yard, i.e. Build It in Somebody Else’s Back Yard), contributes to persistent racial and economic segregation, and while those who espouse it now do so in words wrapped in the pretty packaging of liberal woke-ness, the result is the same as it was sixty or eighty years ago – it’s redlining by ability-to-pay, but it’s still redlining.

More recently there’s arisen a movement purported to counteract the NIMBY one; it’s called “YIMBYISM” (Yes in My Back Yard). But beware: the YIMBY movement supports the principle “Build More Housing,” meaning “Build More Market-Rate Housing”. These advocates argue that increasing the supply of market-rate housing will have a virtuous trickle-down effect on affordable (below market-rate) housing, as prosperous owners/renters abandon older, less well-maintained housing stock in favor of new market-rate stock. YIMBY advocates argue that this frees up less desirable stock to be offered at below-market rates.

But like that other trickle-down theory we’ve encountered, this one doesn’t work: what building new market-rate housing in an already-overbuilt market does is attract new owners/renters, i.e. it increases population overall. There’s little if any effect on below market-rate housing, and in fact, if new units/developments are situated nearby, they can actually contribute to the non-virtuous cycle known as gentrification.

The latter process occurs when an older, poorly-maintained neighborhood acquires new life through an infusion of cash – i.e. first a few, then many, then a flood of well-off individuals purchasing older homes requiring substantial investment to retrofit; the previous residents, who didn’t have such liquidity, watch helplessly while their neighborhood transforms itself within the course of a few years. These residents (and businesses – cafes, restaurants, cleaners, and more) are forced to sell at a fraction of what their home will be worth once the new buyer retrofits and renovates.

The roots of both YIMBYISM and gentrification are the same: demand for housing far outpacing supply in a particular market. YIMBY proponents lobby to redress this imbalance by adding to supply with new housing; gentrification’s proponents aim to change it by reinvigorating old housing that’s fallen into disrepair and is no longer – at least initially – viewed as a “good” investment.

That’s the situation right now in the U.S.’ most desirable urban centers – a lot of doubt about the future of high-end housing patronized by the top 1%, a lot of selling and buying by the next 20%, and with NIMBY, YIMBY, and gentrification fans continuing along well-trodden paths.

Now let’s very briefly consider how this housing misappropriation, with consequent downward pressure on those least able to afford it, happened.

A century ago, 50% of the U.S. population was still classified as “rural,” dispersed across the country and living on farms or in small towns which served farmers and agricultural-related businesses (feed companies, seed companies, farm machinery). There were a few well-populated cities, particularly on the East Coast (New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh) and the industrial heartland (Chicago, Detroit) where immigrants who would be employed in heavy industry would be concentrated – all this migration had begun in the 1800s, peaked starting from World War I and continued through World War II.

Following World War II, when it became obvious that people would continue flocking to large cities, creating overcrowded and in some cases, dangerous and unhealthy urban cores (which had also happened in the early industrial age of the late 19th c.), the federal government intervened by providing low-interest loans to encourage people to leave cities and move to the “suburbs,” the post-World War II era’s most important urban planning feature. With the suburbs (which were segregated) came automobile purchases en masse by American families – from one car in the fifties, most suburban families moved to two (or more) in the sixties and seventies; this made commuting possible while leaving one car at home for the “suburban lifestyle,” which involved – for women – a lot of shopping (“malls” sprang up and flourished) and chauffeuring of middle-class children to and from home and all manner of activities. Suburbia came along with a lifestyle which millions of Americans relished and which millions still aspire to experience.

Meanwhile, the urban cores in smaller American cities began to collapse; as wealthier residents abandoned them for the suburbs, their property tax bases declined and those who remained behind (the poor, POC) were left in decaying neighborhoods for which there were insufficient funds – and frequently, little inclination – to maintain properly. Such neighborhoods may in some highly-sought locations become prey for gentrifiers; if not, they are left to continue their decades-long downward trajectory of neglect and decay. These smaller cities did not actually need suburbs, but renovating their urban core had not seemed like an attractive option at the time.

Today there are a few (probably fewer than ten) major cities whose urban cores and suburbs are “full up,” in the sense that commuting to an affordable suburb has become time-consuming and costly (San Francisco, Washington, D.C., New York itself). Those once satisfied with living in the suburbs are no longer happy commuting one to three hours daily to the urban core where their offices are located. And the “near” suburbs have become extremely expensive, prohibitively so for all but the wealthiest commuters.

So what remains in these “highly-desirable” cores – where the business of the U.S. is centered (high tech, finance, commerce) – is essentially three grades of housing stock: that for the 1%, that for the PMC (20%), and whatever is left. The working middle class – non-managerial white collar workers, nurses, public servants, primarily – must commute ever-longer distances to find housing that a middle-class income can afford.

There are cities where the people who actually make them run on a day-to-day basis – city and agency employees, teachers, nurses, electricians, plumbers, waste disposal collectors, police and firefighters – can no longer afford to live anywhere close enough to be considered a reasonable commute.

This mismatch between residential housing availability and the demand for middle-cost and lower-cost options is now one of the greatest challenges of urban development.

It didn’t have to be this way, but that’s where we are, and now it’s time for the federal, state, and local governments to step up and provide the leadership, the tools – legislative, tax, regulatory – to redress this mismatch.

Remember: the federal government started this bizarre urbanization process with home loans to select (white, middle-class) home buyers; local officials and the real estate industry colluded to embed an inequitable and ultimately unworkable housing market into the fabric of our cities, and state governments have been largely missing in action.

And the working classes and the homeless are trapped in this system.

2021-01-28 A Real Deal on Climate Change

“We Know What to Do, We’ve Just Got to Do It”

On his first day in office, President Biden signed an Executive Order ensuring that the U.S. would rejoin the Paris climate accord, whose next meeting, COP26, is scheduled to take place in Glasgow (1-12 November 2021). This signaled to the world that the U.S. was back in the climate change effort to free itself and the world of dependence on fossil fuels, which account for 75% of greenhouse gases (GHG). The President’s determination to – finally – admit that climate change is upon us and we’re already far behind in confronting it was reinforced by his appointment of John Kerry as the U.S. climate envoy. Kerry will also hold a seat on the National Security Council going forward.

Yesterday was “Climate Day” at the White House, or as the President re-phrased it, “climate day, which means jobs day”. Here are some of the initiatives that he announced in his 20-minute address:

The U.S. will begin a major, concerted shift away from fossil fuels and turn, at least initially, to the large-scale employment of wind and solar energy. New leases on all federal lands will be paused for re-consideration of their environmental impact. (It wasn’t entirely clear what will happen with drilling rights with existing permits; presumably these will be allowed to move forward for at least some time). No figures or specific goals were announced, but the “net zero” timeline is pretty short – only 14 years (2035). Climate envoy Mr. Kerry will work closely with Gina McCarthy, the new head of the White House Office of Climate Coordinator, on specific targets/years to reach. McCarthy, whose office is going to become a major focus of the climate initiative for the U.S., will in turn be collaborating with the Director of the National Economic Council, Brian Deese in (we presume) the massive switch-over of the economy to clean energy in an effort to ensure that as jobs disappear, new ones are simultaneously being created. McCarthy will also chair the National Climate Task Force.

To hasten this shift, the entire federal vehicle fleet will become electric (zero emissions); this fleet currently numbers around 640,000, including over 200,000 operated by the USPS. And, to accompany this surge in electric vehicles – which, we should anticipate, will eventually affect company fleets and privately-owned cars/trucks – the government will construct and install a network of recharging stations across the country – 500,000, initially. Biden noted that it’s estimated this initiative could support 1 million jobs, good-paying, union jobs (he emphasized the “union” part).

Climate policy will henceforth become central to foreign policy and U.S. National Security Policy (thus, Kerry’s seat on the National Security Council). While this wasn’t noted explicitly in the President’s brief address, recent studies conducted by the military have indicated that at least 79 U.S. bases are threatened by drought, wildfires, heat, floods, melting of permafrost and other extreme climate events. The President noted that two-thirds of U.S. military installations and operations are threatened by one or more forms of climate change events and phenomena.

Another important aspect of the Administration’s climate change plan is its focus on the economic revival of those communities which have been, or will be, hardest-hit by the shift – so, coal-mining communities and oil-and-gas communities. McCarthy, who spoke following the President at yesterday’s announcement, emphasized that good jobs – again, emphasis on “good” – will return to these communities; people won’t have to travel hundreds of miles in search of clean energy (and other climate change-related) jobs. In other words: we won’t leave the men and women who powered our country for over a century behind.

And there will be a “climate change corps” of new federal employees – young people primarily in their twenties or thereabouts – enlisted to help the transition to a clean future on all fronts. Biden didn’t elaborate on this, but the idea is based on a proposal by the Sunrise Movement which was put forward during the transition. A few of its planks:

Climate Change Corps:

Every region of the United States faces escalated natural disasters (courtesy of climate change): fires on the West coast, floods in the Midwest, hurricanes in the Gulf and the East Coast. A renewed Civilian Conservation Corps (perhaps renamed Climate Change Corps) could create jobs working to prevent or respond to those disasters, rebuilding trust in the words Ronald Reagan maligned: “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

[Note: The Sunrise Movement also is proposing a modern-day equivalent to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) whose members would help re-build the entire infrastructure of the U.S. for the 21st century, as well as an equivalent to the REA (Rural Electrification Administration, which literally “electrified” the country – at its start in 1936, 11% of U.S. farms had electricity; when it ended, 97% did). The equivalent would be the “Rural Broadband Administration,” with the goal of bringing high-speed broadband to every locale in the U.S. no matter how remote. Given that $7 billion has already been allotted to this project, Sunrise and its allies in Congress should lobby to make this happen – again, thousands of young people could acquire high-tech skills in broadband installation and continuing maintenance/upgrades. And many of these jobs could, and should be rural-based.]

Another area where such a structure could be employed is in a modern-day version of the WPA, one that would operate primarily in urban areas (good background/summary of some of the original WPA’s achievements in the 1930s here). The 21st century WPA could employ young people in the climate-resilient construction industry. The President mentioned the planned construction of 1.5 million new homes and public housing units to address the affordable housing crisis, and for weatherization of 1 million homes – why not train a “Climate Construction Corps” of a million+ young people (men and women) in the new technologies being designed to create climate-resilient housing? After all, once their initial task is complete, another 210 million single family homes will at some point need to be retrofitted for climate resiliency and maximum energy efficiency. (And, in line with the President’s explicit commitment to environmental justice, let’s start that national retrofitting initiative from the poorest zip codes in America.)

There’s more: the President explicitly referred to the need to seal open oil and gas wells – a topic we discussed just last week, by the way. The stated goal: to seal 1 million such wells to prevent the dangerous leakage of methane into the atmosphere. It’s likely that laid-off oil and gas workers will be re-hired to seal and cap these wells, and then to monitor and repair seals into the foreseeable future. Biden mentioned that 250,000 new jobs would be created in the well-capping sector.

President Biden directly addressed environmental justice, something we had long hoped a President would have the courage to confront head-on. He referred to “brownfields” and his hope to make them “new hubs of economic growth.” And he referred to Cancer Alley, that 100-mile stretch in Louisiana from Baton Rouge to New Orleans which the petrochemical industry considers its own to exploit, degrade, and pollute. He acknowledged that communities in places like this (Biden also mentioned the Rte. 9 Corridor in Delaware) have been disproportionately harmed by industrial pollution, and promised that 40% of the benefits from clean energy, clean water, and new wastewater infrastructure projects will be directed towards such communities. [Note: not exactly reparations, but perhaps a form of restitution.]

Reaction to the President’s address in the MSM was understated to say the least – it wasn’t the leading story on either the Times or the Post’s digital edition this morning, and the Post story (see “Further Reading” below) mostly addressed complaints by representatives of the fossil fuel industry (“Job destroying,” “Can’t afford it,” “Impossible to achieve,” etc.).

One can only marvel at where these stories’ reporters place their priorities – and by extension, where the owners and editorial overseers place theirs. Don’t they read their own financial pages? In 1980, oil and gas amounted to 28% of the stock market; in January 2021, they accounted for 2.3%. The New York City Employees Retirement Fund (NYCERS) and NYC Teachers Retirement System (TRS), which control a portfolio of $168 billion, plan to disinvest from fossil fuels by the end of 2021; a third NYC fund recently followed suit. Participants in TIAA (Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association), which provides financial services to most of the college and university staff in the country, are lobbying TIAA to divest.

The era of fossil fuel-generated energy (1870-2020) is over, and it’s way past time for the mainstream media to start covering climate change like our lives depended on it – because they do.  

This was the most important address from any President in my lifetime, bar none. It officially opened the way towards adapting to the greatest crisis facing humanity, and its basic tenets are achievable.

Further reading

President Biden Delivers Remarks and Signs Executive Orders on Environmental Policy

As Biden vows monumental action on climate change, a fight with the fossil fuel industry has only begun

AOC on Biden’s Slate of Climate Justice Orders: “We Helped Shape the Platform

Biden, Emphasizing Job Creation, Signs Sweeping Climate Actions

How Not to Lose the Lockdown Generation: Lessons from the New Deal Point the Way Forward in the Era of COVID-19