Tag Archives: United States

Occupying Occupied Land

Four hundred years ago, the Dutch acquired the island of Manhattan for $24 according to some estimates. Over the next several hundred years, colonists from Western Europe would continue to invade the rest of the continent with settlements, lies, and force. As protesters take to the streets and occupy parks around the world, many have pointed to the fact that this land is already occupied, and some say it should be taken back.

In November of 1969, several activists tried to do just that, and in so doing they started a movement. After the prison at Alcatraz Island was closed, many Native Americans in the Bay Area wanted the island returned to natives. There were several attempts to occupy the island, and although two attempts were foiled, the activists were not prosecuted. On November 20, about 80 activists ferried their way to the island in the middle of the night and began their occupation, demanding that a Native American Studies center and museum be built on the island. They offered to pay for the island in order to make it legitimate. They offered the government $24 worth of blankets and beads.

The occupation became a community, with many living in the warden’s house and boats carrying food and supplies running regular routes. They set up a tribal council and school, and quickly began daily broadcasts on the radio. Early in the occupation, members of the American Indian Movement visited the occupation to learn more about the action. Later, AIM would use these tactics in huge actions like the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, DC.

Despite wide support, the occupation ran into trouble. The fuel, electricity, and telephone lines all broke over time. A fire broke out, destroying the warden house that many called home. And some drug addicts had moved to the island, giving it a bad image. Over the months, the population began to dwindle until government officials evicted the final fifteen activists.

The occupation had lasted 19 months, raising awareness of native rights and the movement for more recognition. It sparked a movement that eventually led to several legislative victories, even if they did not achieve everything they set out to do.

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After the Bonus Army

The political tool of occupation is becoming more and more well-known with the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement, despite having been a tactic in the U.S. for a very long time. Activists in America have had occupations in their arsenal from the Bonus Army of the Great Depression to the May Day action during Vietnam right up to California student activists over the past couple of years. Today I wanted to highlight one of the more well-known occupations in our history.

After fighting in the Great War, veterans that had suffered through years of the Great Depression decided to take action. In 1924 they had received certificates that would not be redeemable for two decades, and with the Depression hitting them hard many demanded they get paid early. Nearly 20,000 veterans and their families, the so-called Bonus Army, descended upon Washington and occupied the Anacostia Flats. What everybody knows about the Bonus Army is that they were routed by the U.S. Army, led by Douglas MacArthur. When the army attacked the camp to evict the protesters, several veterans were wounded and a baby died, allegedly due to use of tear gas. The incident is often cited as one of several final nails in the coffin of President Hoover’s reelection campaign. But what happened afterwards?

What most text books don’t cover is that the Bonus Army returned when Roosevelt was President. During the campaign, Roosevelt had also criticized the protesters, but as president he did not resort to using force to oust them. Instead, he placated them by erecting a camp in Virginia to provide them with food and shelter. He eventually made room in the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was intended for young, unmarried men, for the veterans to find work. Eventually, Congress would overwhelmingly support an authorization to pay the veterans in 1936, overriding Roosevelt’s veto.

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Take it to the White House

Last night was one of a long series of Joint Appearances by Presidential Candidates (thanks to whoever tweeted JAPCans months ago) for the GOP. There was a portion of the “debate” in which candidates were asked what they would bring with them to the White House if elected. Michele Bachmann said she would bring the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, prompting many jokes on Twitter.

It is more than just semantics to understand what an amendment is. The Constitution of the United States has been amended 27 times – the first 10 simultaneously. Each and every one of these changes is an addendum to the document. The Bill of Rights are indeed part of the Constitution. But it’s important to remember that so are the other ones.

Just because they aren’t written on old paper with a menial ‘s’ doesn’t mean that other amendments are any less important. You can definitely make your own hierarchy, to be sure, but I think the authors of the Reconstruction amendments hold a similar place to the authors of the Constitution. The end of slavery, the authority to tax income, the popular vote of senators, the definition of citizenship, the suffrage of blacks, women, and young adults – these are all as important as the right to bear arms and enjoy privacy and protest. It’s a shame that these latter amendments are often ignored in favor of the glory of the Bill of Rights.

So, if for some reason the White House doesn’t have its own copy of the Constitution – every President should print out the original with all 27 amendments and keep it in his or her pocket. Keep in mind that that means you have the founding Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and 17 other important P.S.s – even two that negate each other – all in one handy document called the Constitution.

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Why I Don’t Like the Term “Entitlements”

There’s a thing that a lot of Western liberal countries have. They use taxes to pay for services that are provided to anyone who needs them. In some countries programs include unemployment and retirement, in some there is healthcare or paid maternity leave. These have a lot of names. Welfare. Social Security. Entitlements.

The word entitlements has always kind of irked me. When I was teaching my high school government class, we broke down the federal budget and kept coming back to this word. This word that encapsulated Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid along with other welfare programs. I explained what I thought was a misnomer. Feeling entitled to something has the implication that you feel that you are owed something, without having earned it – that you are undeserving of the thing you think should be yours. Does this really describe the programs which are being lumped under the umbrella term “entitlement?”

When did we start calling things "entitlements"? The 80s, apparently.

As Americans, most of us pay quite a bit to one government or another. Between the federal government, state government, and various local forms of government, my money is spread around through a variety of taxes. That money goes to pay for things like my primary and secondary education, the roads on which I drive, the Post Office I use to mail things, and – yes – food stamps if I need them and retirement when I get to that point. All of these things are the same type of service, and it’s not me being spoiled or feeling entitled. It’s me getting my money’s worth (although not really, if you break it down, but that’s another story).

My father has worked pretty much endlessly from high school graduation until now. Being self-employed since the 1980s, he hasn’t had health insurance in years, and as he’s getting closer to retirement he’s pretty excited about medicare. Having paid into America’s Social Security Administration for over forty years, is it really a sense of entitlement to say that he wants healthcare for his remaining years?

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The Battle of the Tables in Vietnam

The Vietnam War’s history is a long one, rife with casualties and misunderstanding. One particular aspect of the war is emblematic of just how poorly leadership – from all countries – treated the war. This is the so-called “battle of the tables” which I first encountered in George C. Herring’s America’s Longest War. This skirmish of desks took place in the waning weeks of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, as he scrambled to end the war.

By 1968, Johnson was pretty beat up about the Vietnam War. While he may have passed huge legislative changes with the Great Society, he’s arguably better known for his role in escalating the Vietnam War and then being virtually destroyed by it. 1968 was a pretty rough year for the guy – after the Tet Offensive crippled public support for the war and George McGovern and Bobby Kennedy did the same to the Democratic Party’s solidarity, Johnson had already announced that he would not seek a second term in order to seek peace in Vietnam when this battle began.

Against this backdrop, Johnson was eager to end the war that he had overseen for five years. To reach peace, though, he would first have to reach out to his allies in the Republic of Vietnam, who were not quite as willing to have the Americans leaving their corner of the world. After being rebuffed by South Vietnam, Johnson unilaterally ordered a bombing halt on October 31 as an olive branch to the North. He delayed the opening of the peace talks by a couple of weeks in order to try one last time to get South Vietnam on board. With the opening of the peace talks in mid-November, the battle of the tables began.

At the outset of the negotiations, the U.S. proposed two long tables with the two sides facing each other. North Vietnam refused to recognize South Vietnam’s legitimacy since the Geneva Accord elections had been indefinitely delayed, therefore the country’s existence was in violation. North Vietnam also demanded that America acknowledge that the National Liberation Front and the North Vietnamese Army were separate and proposed a square table to represent the four-sided nature of the Vietnam War.

This is how I imagine Nixon whenever he gets what he wants.

U.S. Ambassador at Large W. Averell Harriman proposed a round table for everyone. The North acquiesced – but the South did not. South Vietnam did not want to be seen with equal power as the NLF, which it refused to recognize as anything but saboteurs sent from the North. But what is probably more important is the South’s uneasy relationship with Johnson, who had been pressing for peace. Secretly, President-elect Richard Nixon’s staff had reached out to South Vietnam, hinting that a better peace might be possible with Nixon if they could only delay negotiations. After all, Nixon had campaigned on having a secret plan to end the war, and he desperately wanted to be remembered for what would become a list of foreign policy achievements (and secret expansions of war). Nonetheless, with conventional ideas like round tables and square tables being shot down, Herring referred to the debacle thus:

Instead of drafting cables at night, the U.S. delegation sketched table designs, the two sides proposing at various times such inventive geometric creations as a broken parallelogram, four arcs of a circle, a flattened ellipse, and two semi-circles that touched but did not form a circle.

And so, after weeks of duking it out over seating arrangements, the verdict – brokered by the Soviet Union – was a round table for the two Vietnamese governments and nearby square tables for the other actors involved. The negotiations could finally begin. The problem was, they began in the last days of Johnson’s administration, and so they never really began. Nixon’s plan had won out, and the South had been able to cling to war instead of peace in hopes of a better go-around with Nixon. Ultimately, of course, this would not work. Apparently, Nixon’s secret plan for ending the war in Vietnam was to continue it while simultaneously taking it to Cambodia as well. The Vietnam War would hobble forwards for several more years.

The peace talks under Johnson probably would not have made many gains regardless of the game of musical chairs, but it’s worth noting that the war raged on while diplomats played with seating arrangements and South Vietnam played chicken with US Presidents. With this in mind, I decided to look further into how many casualties America suffered while negotiators sketched random shapes in Parisian hotel rooms. I cracked open the search feature at The Wall-USA and used their database to see how many servicemen lost their lives between the ending of the bombing in North Vietnam. While diplomats sketched out tables, 1598 soldiers and marines were lost to the Vietnam War. While the peace talks never had the best shot at ending the war right then, these weeks of potential were lost to the seating chart while 1598 lost their lives.

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“No Hoover Dam, No Phoenix.”

Last week there was a terse little post on Gin and Tacos about the big cities of the desert. I don’t have much to add to this great summary of how the federal government single-handedly built the foundations for what Phoenix and Las Vegas are today. It’s also a good reminder of how things have changed decades later. I mean, high-speed rail isn’t going anywhere right now, that’s pretty clear. Come to think of it, has there even been a big public works project since the Big Dig in Boston? Anyways, read this, and feel free to direct comments to the original blog post.

No Hoover Dam, no Phoenix. No Las Vegas. No Los Angeles. Vegas and Phoenix barely existed in 1900 because they’re in the middle of a goddamn desert. There is no water and there were no power resources. The dam brought the electricity and fresh water that allowed the growth of infrastructure, industry, and population in places that could not otherwise have any of it. Now, for a million bonus points, who built the Hoover Dam?

A) The Free Market
B) The Federal Government
C) State and Local Government

Congratulations, B is correct!

The passage of the legislation to build it took many years and was vociferously opposed by private utilities in Arizona and California (Nevada basically had no population to speak of until the Dam) because they feared competition from government electricity. They used allies in the media, particularly Hearst and Chandler, to label the project as socialism. Eventually Republicans in California realized that the overall economic growth of the state would be more beneficial in the long run than parochial concerns about the profits of Southern California Edison, and they threw support behind the bill that Calvin Coolidge eventually signed. In the long run I’d say that thousand-percent growth of population and industry in the Southwest has made local utilities more money than they lost to Socialist Electricity.

It casts the reactionary, ultraconservative politics of Arizona, Orange County, Utah, and Nevada in high relief to point out that the coyote population would outnumber the humans in the region if not for Big Government doing what private industry would not – elevate national, long term interests over short term profit. It also underscores how dramatically politics have changed over time, although much does remain the same. For example, Congress is no longer willing to elevate long term economic growth – say, the kind private industry might experience if the government took on the burden of providing health care for the population – over the limited, shortsighted interests of a small, powerful lobby.

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Air Conditioning and Politics

Summer just began, and in Arizona we’ve been feeling the heat for a great while. We’ve been sitting with triple-digit thermometers for quite a while now, and the air conditioning is fighting to bring temperatures down twenty or even thirty degrees sometimes. As I get into my summer routine of hiding indoors, I was watching “How the States Got Their Shapes” on the History Channel. The show – based on a neat book by the way – shed a little bit of light on an important thing to understand about air conditioning’s place in history.

During my student teaching stint at a local high school here in Arizona, we touched on the age of the Sun Belt. Now, the Sun Belt drew for several reasons: the Civil Rights movement had made the South a little more appealing since it was less hostile than it had been in the 60s and 70s; big industries moved south as unions grew stronger in the Midwest and Northeast during this time; immigrants flocked from Central America and Asia to the Southwest and from Cuba to Florida; the rise of suburbia had pointed many people to the less-stifling metropolises of the Northeast. And as I hide from the 110 degree afternoon, I have to think that air conditioning made the warm climates more attractive to people too.

Since the colonies were founded, the weight of America’s population has always shifted westwards. Colonists sailed west to start America before Boone pioneered through the Appalachians and then Lewis and Clarke opened the Louisiana Purchase, blazing the path for the Oregon Trail. That’s always been a part of America, but the southerly draw has been more contemporary. According to the Census, the mean center of population has shifted 101 miles south from 1900 to 2000, 79 of which were after 1950. The Sun Belt began to grow in the 1960s, and since then we’ve seen the effects of the population shift.

Map stolen from the Census Bureau

The migration – and immigration – to the southern third of the country has not only changed the population dynamics of the country, but it has also drastically changed the politics of the United States. Glancing through election data, the Sun Belt includes 134 electoral votes (if you count all of California and Nevada, along with AZ, NM, TX, LA, MS, AL, GA, SC, FL). While not a lot of these are so-called “swing states,” they constitute a sizable share of the electorate. This might be why every elected President from Johnson in 1964 to Bush in 2004 was from the Sun Belt. (President Gerald Ford, who hailed from Michigan, was appointed and never elected, courtesy Spiro Agnew and Richard Nixon). From 1950 to 2000, California has gained 23 seats in Congress and Florida has gained 19, with Arizona gaining 7 and Texas 14. Meanwhile, Illinois and Massachusetts have each lost 7, New York has lost 16, and Ohio has lost 12. And the Sun Belt is continuing to grow. If you glance at the reapportionment from 2010’s census, the Sun Belt is gaining ten of the twelve seats.

So, when you take air conditioning into a warm climate, you’ll get a lot of people coming your way. The repercussions for this are continuing to shift as the demographic in the Sun Belt changes. Yes, it’s bigger, but who constitutes that size? The Sun Belt as a whole is still generally conservative, but what began as the relocation of industries to less-unionized states is beginning to be a growing population of immigrants’ descendants. The Sun Belt changed American politics through the amount of representation it got (and continues to get), but it may still change American politics through the type of representation this becomes in the future.

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