Perspectives

Labor Day Message: Another World is Possible

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By Thom Haines — September 5, 2016

Happy Labor Day in the U.S.! Another World is Possible! Proud to be an AFSCME member!

International labor solidarity is a key component to realizing another world where people and the environment are more highly valued than profit. A vibrant labor movement in the United States acting in solidarity with workers around the world will create a politically effective force that has the power to change an exploitive system supported by the armed forces and military aid of the United States and other Global North countries.

Honduras is an especially clear example of what is wrong with the current system and what is needed to fix it. The Human Rights Delegation to Honduras Report — released last week by the Alliance for Global Justice, CODEPINK, and the Honduras Solidarity Network — helps us connect the dots. Abusive labor practices, militarization of police forces in the name of fighting drugs or communism or terrorism, killing journalists, killing union organizers, killing environmental activists like Berta Cáceres, trade deals like NAFTA, CAFTA, and the TPP, and knee jerk nationalism are all components of the same problem.

The global economic system does not want to change and will not until forced. In the United States, in spite of some hopeful signs such as the Sanders campaign and Black Lives Matter, we must admit that we have not yet achieved a politically effective force to change the world. While organized labor may be weaker than it has been, rebuilding the labor movement is possible and offers hope.

At a Keith Ellison Labor Day rally in Minneapolis on Sunday, Sen. Al Franken expressed pride in belonging to three unions. I’m only a member of one, but I am proud to be in solidarity with other AFSCME members. In the coming years, it is my fervent hope that unions grow and that we see beyond the next contract to the possibility of international solidarity. Another world is possible.

Thom Haines is an Assistant County Attorney in Minnesota, where he serves on the Minnesota State Bar Association Data Practices Committee. He is a member of the boards of the United Church of Christ Wider Church Ministries, the Mayflower Church Foundation in Minneapolis, and G Project, a 501(c)(3) supporting human rights story-telling in Guatemala. Thom is a former Teamster and CWA member, and current member of AFSCME Council 65.

Minnesota’s Snowbate: A View from the Indie Side

January 26, 2015, at KFAI studios with TruthtoTell

January 26, 2015, at KFAI studios with TruthtoTell

By JT Haines — February 18, 2015

Did you know that filmmaking in Minnesota is a $225 million dollar industry? Me neither, and I’m a filmmaker!

On January 26, I appeared on KFAI Radio’s TruthtoTell program with Siobhan Kierans as a local filmmaker to discuss moviemaking in Minnesota. Appearing on the program also were Ralph Matthews (Family Film Productions), and Lucinda Winter (MN Film Board). A few things stuck with me from our conversation, so I thought i’d follow up with some comments here.

At KFAI

At KFAI

First a little background about my company, Northland Films: We’re a three-producer collective and have been producing documentaries in and near Minnesota for about a decade. Our film Pond Hockey (2008) has been seen by nearly two million people, airing nationally on the NHL network, locally on TPT, and to multiple sold-out screenings at the Minneapolis Saint Paul Int’l Film Festival (among others). Gold Fever (2013), a film about transnational sulfide mining the Yes Men called “beautiful and empowering”, has been screened in over 200 cities in 35 countries. Gold Fever is still screening at festivals internationally (also having screened at MSPIFF), and recently won the International Federation of Human Rights Film Award at the Festival des Libertes in Brussels. We’re proud of our work.

As we continued our discussion of Minnesota’s film industry on TruthtoTell, talk turned to the MN Film and TV Board’s “snowbate” program. According to the website, the program rebates “up to 25% of qualified MN expenditures.” It states further: “above the line talent (non-resident) will be included as an eligible rebate cost (cap $100K per person), and a production that spends more than $1M in MN will automatically qualify at 25% and will be audited by an independent auditor paid for by MN Film and TV.” Snowbate guidelines can be found here.

I began to wonder — we’re local filmmakers with (I think) a relative level of success and experience, has any of this related to our work? We’ve not been a part of the Snowbate program to date. (We have of course applied for the limited number of grants that most everyone targets.) Perhaps Snowbate is a successful program towards its designed ends, but institutional support for our projects has been near zero, with most help being of the “friends and family” variety (thanks, gang!).

It has been a few years since we took a fresh look at Snowbate, but that said (and with no offense intended to the Film Board or Ms. Winter), so far it just hasn’t connected with our real-life local filmmaking realities. We’re a small shop, wearing a lot of hats, and we’re generally too busy trying to tell stories to get fully down with the types of reporting and guidelines that generally accompany larger projects. Indeed, our budgets start in the low six figures. It would be quite the project to even make it half way to $1M. In other words, our documentaries move forward by hook or crook, and in my observation this isn’t unusual. The Snowbate numbers are someone else’s game.

Perhaps it’s time for us to revisit whether we’re doing a good enough job as filmmakers in reaching out to programs like Snowbate. But it also seems possible, based on what we heard on TruthtoTell and elsewhere, that we’re also not being reached out to, and rather that programs like snowbate are actually designed to bring in big, well-heeled projects from outside of Minnesota, not support independent filmmaking in Minnesota like ours. (I understand that of the 70 applications to the Snowbate program over the last two years, two were docs.) If I’m wrong about this, that would be happy news to me.

I checked with Ralph Matthews for his thoughts, the other filmmaker on the show, and he seemed to share my question. “It’s been my interpretation, and one that I’ve heard echoed by many, that Snowbate’s goal is one to attract more out-of-state productions rather than aiding local productions wanting to focus on and employ MN talent,” he told me. He went on to add that “although most of us love living and working here, it becomes difficult not to question what our gains are to stay in Minnesota versus moving elsewhere.” I’ve heard similar thoughts from other local filmmakers, who have also shared with me some details about a bit of a split between Minnesota-based crew who benefit from outside projects coming in and those more focused on actually local projects.

Given all this, I began to wish I’d posed the question on the show: To what degree is Snowbate designed to support local filmmaking? And more generally, how are we doing for Minnesota filmmakers? The runners, gunners, writers, and producers. The people learning how to edit while they also learn how to shoot, put together a budget, and market. The people with a vision and a commitment to telling our stories. Should existing programs be aligned more closely with their realities?

I’ve reached out to Ms. Winter to see if she’d like to follow up with further insight — perhaps on ways Snowbate could be improved or even feedback on how local projects might be able to better and more easily make use of it. (I’ll be sure to publish her response as an update should I receive one.)

In the meantime, we work on films in Minnesota because we’re Minnesotans, and so far, right or wrong, programs like Snowbate haven’t had much to do with that. Obviously as a local filmmaker — but also as someone who takes note if public programs favor big business over small — I think it’d be great if Snowbate better aligned with the real business of local filmmaking as we experience it. Institutional support with this goal would certainly help us tell even more and better stories here at home.

And we do have a few ideas.

** Thanks to the illustrious Siobhan Kierans and KFAI’s TruthtoTell for having me on. You can hear the hour-long January 26 program here.

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“The Shadow of Crisis Has Passed”: Reflecting on the 2015 State of the Union

President Obama, VP Biden, Speaker Boehner, SOTU 2015

President Obama, VP Biden, Speaker Boehner, SOTU 2015

By JT Haines — January 23, 2015

For many, the President’s State of the Union address this year was a bit of a feel good romp. (“Where has this been for 6 years?” and etc.) Some have argued that, to the degree this year’s SOTU was improved, it has more to do with political calculations than Obama himself, but that said, he did offer more in this address than any SOTU I can remember, with a couple of potshots at the troglodytes to boot. Let’s take a look at some of what the address did, and didn’t include.

In SOTU

Here are three of the better excerpts:

Money: “To everyone in this Congress who still refuses to raise the minimum wage, I say this: If you truly believe you could work full-time and support a family on less than $15,000 a year, go try it. If not, vote to give millions of the hardest-working people in America a raise.”

War: “The question is not whether America leads in the world, but how. When we make rash decisions, reacting to the headlines instead of using our heads; when the first response to a challenge is to send in our military – then we risk getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts, and neglect the broader strategy we need for a safer, more prosperous world.”

Climate: “2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record. Now, one year doesn’t make a trend, but this does – 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have all fallen in the first 15 years of this century…The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe. The Pentagon says that climate change poses immediate risks to our national security. We should act like it.” (emphasis mine)

The President of the United States saying these things out loud is a progress of sorts to be recognized. A full transcript of the address is available at NPR.

#NotInSOTU

Not surprisingly, the address also glossed over some pretty key facts and context. Here are a few of the more important facts that I believe were not properly represented in the address:

Incarceration. With 2.2 million people in jail, the United States has the world’s highest incarceration rate. (Highest!) [Harvard Mag] Incarcerated drug offenders are up 1200% since 1980, and 75% of prisoners locked up on drug-related charges are African-American. In his book “Blowing the Roof Off the 21st Century,” Robert W. McChesney makes a compelling case that these developments are due in significant part to economic forces, including the increasing privatization of prisons. This is plainly immoral, and key information to include when one is boasting about crime rates. #NotInSOTU.

Inequality. Income inequality in the US is at its worst since 1928. [Pew Research] The top 1% of the world’s population owns at least 40% of its wealth. [Vox] This was #NotInSOTU.

Military Spending. The US spends more on the military than the next 10 countries combined [NBC], outlays which are increasingly privatized. We have military bases and operations all over the globe. We are an empire. #NotInSOTU

Planet. We have lost half of our wildlife on this planet in just 40 years due to human exploitation and habitat degradation, threatening all life on this planet. [World Wildlife Fund] This unbelievable and urgent development, tied directly to our economic system, was #NotInSOTU. Not remotely.

These are just a few examples of crucial topics I did not hear honestly addressed in the SOTU. We also heard very little if anything about drone killings, infringements on civil liberties, police brutality, and the absolute urgency and reasonability of the demands of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. (For more of what wasn’t in the address, check out Seattle City Council Person Kshama Sawant’s “Socialist Response to the State of the Union” and Ralph Nader’s “Swings and Misses“.)

Conclusion:

There was value in the President’s 2015 SOTU, and we should both appreciate his inclusion of certain matters as well as demand action to accompany the words. Obviously, even in the best of times with the best of intentions, it would be impossible and perhaps even unwise for the President to take up all subjects of concern during the State of the Union address.

We must also, though, have our eyes wide open. A mere two days after Obama declared ”The shadow of crisis has passed, and the State of the Union is strong,” the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and its 17 nobel laureates moved the Doomsday Clock 2 minutes closer to midnight, citing climate change and nuclear proliferation. [CNN] That clock now sits at 11:57.

I wonder if those guys were watching the same speech we were.

Mining Minnesota OpEd Distracts from True Purpose

Mt. Polly Tailings Breach

Mt. Polley tailings breach, British Columbia, August 2014. Photo Credit Caribou Regional District.

By JT Haines — January, 7, 2015

The Mesabi Daily News published an OpEd by Mining Minnesota Executive Director Frank Ongaro on December 20, 2014, and I’d like to take a minute to offer some thoughts in response here on Newspeak Review.

In his OpEd, Mr. Ongaro claims to break down a false choice between “the environment” and “jobs.” I believe he misses the real choice — between elevating the interests of multinational corporations and that of Minnesotans.

First, let’s be clearer than Ongaro about something that should be well understood by now: multinational mining corporations like PolyMet and its chief investor Glencore are not here to support wind turbines, build boats and computers, employ Minnesotans, spare poor people in far off lands, or benefit labor organizations and communities. They are here for profit and to further enrich the wealthy. Suggesting otherwise is a distraction.

The real question is whether we as Minnesotans would be better off with the companies here or without them. Reasonable people obviously disagree about that, so it strikes me that that’s where our focus should be.

Glossy PR images featuring windmills and cell phones do not tell the whole story. From where I sit, I see a terrible record of destruction by the sulfide mining industry, including the recent Mt. Polley tailings disaster in Canada, not to mention anti-labor practices everywhere it operates. (For a statement from United Steelworkers last month on Glencore’s labor practices, check out usw-global-allies-rally-in-london-demand-end-to-glencore-labor-abuses.)

Ongaro references “recycling our scrap metal” but I’ve heard no announcements about shortages of key metals in Minnesota necessitating major ecological risk-taking, or discussions of more comprehensive recycling programs. I observe a lack of conversation – especially from industry PR shills – about whether Minnesotans and Rangers should be better compensated for public lands and resources which some propose compromising in service of the global market.

Perhaps most importantly, I observe increasing environmental and economic turmoil, and a conversation mostly bereft of serious consideration of proposals for local economic diversification that would better serve the Range and the state. Instead, old rhetoric is used to avoid this conversation.

Ongaro’s suggestion that those who use metals (live in society) are disqualified from asserting viewpoints about how we manage public resources is reductive and insulting. We don’t need more “we use metals for stuff” puff pieces. What does “copper is useful” really tell us? Minnesotans understand that we use metals. Commenting on the production, sale, use, and re-use of those resources is not environmental hypocrisy, it’s responsible citizenship.

We all love this place. We all want what’s best for our communities. Many of us believe now is the time to discuss whether business as usual is the way to get there, especially when dealing with companies built to profit by destroying our land and water precisely to the level we allow it.

When pro-Minnesota advocates talk about sustainability, we are not, as Ongaro argues, advocating for a “utopian” vision. We are advocating for the best and healthiest possible future for our communities. And we simply don’t believe that future includes PolyMet and Twin Metals as currently conceived.

The industry, its ultimate motivations clear, wants to convince us that there are no hard choices here – that we can have it all. That just isn’t true. Distraction from the mining industry’s true purpose does us a disservice.

The Police Need to Do Better

By JT Haines, December 17, 2014

I imagine some peoples’ reaction to this headline will be, “that’s so obvious as to be borderline unhelpful,” whereas others will view it as nothing less than an affront to our entire country. In other words, we need to talk.

John Kuntz, The Plain Dealer

John Kuntz, The Plain Dealer

Earlier this month, five members of the St. Louis Rams made a powerful statement entering their Sunday NFL game, drawing a variety of reactions including demands for apologies from the police — even spawning a dispute as to whether an apology was made. This week, Cleveland Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins wore a “Justice for Tamir Rice and John Crawford” t-shirt during pre-game warm-ups, drawing a variety of reactions including, again, a demand from the police for an apology.

Hawkins’ statement, delivered without notes, captures what I’ve observed to be important and widespread sentiments. I highly highly recommend the full video. Here are a couple excerpts:

“Before I made the decision to wear the T-shirt, I understood I was putting that reputation in jeopardy to some of those people who wouldn’t necessarily agree with my perspective. I understood there was going to be backlash, and that scared me, honestly. But deep down I felt like it was the right thing to do.”

“To me, justice means fair treatment. So, a call for justice shouldn’t offend or disrespect anybody. A call for justice shouldn’t warrant an apology.”

For a full transcript, visit ESPN here.

The Cleveland Police have not, so far, appreciated the exchange. Cleveland Police Union Chief Jeffrey Follmer went on TV and said the following:

“It’s pretty pathetic when athletes think they know the law. The Cleveland Police protect and serve the Browns stadium and the Browns Organization owes us an apology.”

“They’re free to talk about it, but it shouldn’t be talked about on a football field where we are supporting the Browns by doing security.” 

“How ‘bout this? Listen to police officers’ commands. Listen to what we tell you, and just stop. That eliminates a lot of problems…”

Follmer’s full MSNBC interview is here.

After being forced by the interviewer (nice job, by the way) to admit that, yes, citizens are indeed entitled to speak on matters of law and justice, Follmer reveals – I’m characterizing — that the real reason for his response is that he’s offended that anyone would have the nerve criticize any member of the force for anything they did, no matter what it was. At the end of his interview, Follmer’s frustration appears barely contained, as if he’s holding back an impulse to scream: “We’re the police. This job is hard, so let us do what we do and never ask any questions, you ungrateful punks.” (Incidentally, the way Follmer keeps calling Tamir Rice “the male” creeps me out. I don’t know if that’s training manual-speak or what, but it presents like a militarized robot — not a quality I’d look for in a spokesperson. Or a police officer.)

I don’t hear anyone questioning the challenges faced by police*, but in any event, when I watch Follmer (and the Saint Louis police spokesperson, which I wrote about here, and the MPLS police spokesperson in a slightly different context, which I wrote about here), I see anger and defensiveness. When I watch Hawkins, and when I listen to people at community forums closer to the situation than I am, what I hear are legitimate concerns about brutality and injustice.

Of course police don’t have exclusive right to interpret the facts and the law. We as citizens and as the communities who have commissioned the police have that right, and I’d say duty, as well. I would think an absolute minimum adjustment here would be for the designated police spokespeople to at least succeed in not suggesting differently on TV. (What does the unpolished version of this sentiment look like behind closed doors?)

Perhaps people are observing something that the police, because of the position they’re in, are having trouble seeing. Perhaps there are injustices here. (There clearly are.) Perhaps refusing to acknowledge them on any level is bad not only for the community but also for police. Perhaps the real issue has more to do with change than with speech.

I’m sure there are many reasons – good or bad – why police are feeling defensive right now. But, boy, it simply needs to be acknowledged that what brave people like Hawkins are saying is not only coming from a very real and personal place, it’s also exceedingly reasonable. I can barely imagine.

A deepening divide between communities and police is obviously a problem, and exchanges like the one between Hawkins and Follmer raise the question whether, on a fundamental level, the police see themselves as dedicated more to protecting the community or to something else.

We all bear responsibility for the situation, especially those of us in privileged positions, and we need to act. In the meantime, thank goodness for Andrew Hawkins.

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For additional coverage of the Hawkins exchange, check out Salon here. For an interesting perspective on police reactions generally of late, including an example of what I think is a healthier police response, check out talkingpointsmemo.com here. For a defense of Hawkins’ right to speak, check out cleveland.com here.

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*A (modest) suggestion for the collective: People shouldn’t have to say the following every second paragraph as a precondition to speaking at all: The job of the police is hard, sometimes life-threatening, and there are police officers willing to elevate the needs of the community over the needs of the police as an institution. This is not a small thing, and no one is suggesting it is. Can we just agree that most people feel this way, whatever else they think about these incidents? I think it would aid the conversation.