A People’s Hearing: Bringing the Public’s Voice to The Middle Fork Coal Ash Decision

Middle Fork of the Vermilion River: IL’s only National Scenic River

by Pam & Lan Richart, co-directors of Eco-Justice Collaborative

Eco-Justice Collaborative is a Champaign-based non-profit that uses education, advocacy and action to address urgent environmental issues, while integrating its work with ongoing struggles for social and economic justice.  

 

“If the IEPA will not hold a public forum, we will”

Later this year, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) is likely to decide on a proposal by Dynegy Midwest Generation that would leave 3.3 million cubic yards of coal ash immediately next to the Middle Fork of the Vermilion River, Illinois’ only National Scenic River. Its decision will be made without any public input. We think a determination by a state agency that leaves behind a legacy of toxic waste without hearing from the affected public is unconscionable.

The concept of incorporating stakeholder input into decision making for major public actions is not new. It is an essential part of the process outlined by the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act covering significant actions by federal agencies, and is a principle enshrined in the Rio Declaration of 1992. On its most basic level, the principle of public participation holds that those who will be most affected by a significant governmental decision have the right to participate in the decision-making process.

The people of Vermilion County and others who use and rely on the river for recreation, tourism and economic development deserve to have their voices heard. Unfortunately, the statutes that will guide the IEPA’s decision-making process do not provide for public participation. The Governor and IEPA have so far declined to hold a hearing, stating that only technical comments related to Dynegy’s groundwater violation can be forwarded to the agency for their consideration.

If the IEPA will not hold a public forum on the long-term impacts of the proposal, then we will. And we invite you to join us.

The Problem with Dynegy’s “Cap and Leave” Plan

It Won’t Stop the Pollution – Capping the coal ash pits will reduce infiltration of rainwater and floodwaters into the ash from above. However, covering the pits will not separate the ash from the groundwater, nor prevent the lateral flow of groundwater through the ash from the west toward the river. The IEPA will review Dynegy’s groundwater modeling after it is completed in June to determine whether a cap will reduce pollution below Class I Groundwater Standards. But Dynegy won’t be required to stop the discharge of coal ash contaminants—just to reduce them to acceptable levels.

Erosion is Worse than Expected – Riverbank erosion continues to move the river channel toward two impoundments that hold 2.8 million cubic yards of toxic coal ash. A November 2017 report by one of Dynegy’s consultants says erosion is happening at the North and Old East pits at rates that are 2.5 to 9 times greater than previous estimates.

According to that report, 775 feet of the 1,700 feet evaluated have already eroded to a point where there no longer is room to accommodate construction equipment required to stabilize the banks. Another 550 feet may be inaccessible due to deteriorating gabions (wire baskets filled with rock) installed by Illinois Power in the 1980s. The natural forces of the river shredded these gabions in just 30 years.

Reinforcing the bank will offer some medium-term protection, but it is not likely to permanently stop erosion. This is because the bluffs and topography near the coal plant direct the river toward the ash pits. When the river is at high flow, boulders, downed trees, and ice flows forcefully scour the banks. There is no other route for the river to take.

Not Compatible with the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act – Emergency riverbank stabilization was required in 2016, when the protective bank next to the New East Pit eroded 20 feet in just six years, threatening its stability. At that time, the National Park Service (NPS) explained in its Evaluation and Determination Letter that they believed the emergency stabilization was necessary “until such time as the fly ash storage ponds are removed.” The NPS concluded that the stabilization now in place is not consistent with Section 10(a) of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, and that the three coal ash pits present a water quality hazard and obstruction to the free-flowing conditions of the Middle Fork. It recommended removal and relocation of all of the coal ash.  Dynegy hopes to be able to install the same design on up to 1,700 linear feet, upstream from the New East riverbank stabilization project. 

Has an Alternative for Moving the Ash been Considered?

Dynegy submitted costed proposals for closing the ash pits in December 2017. All but one are variations on their proposal to cap the pits, stabilize the banks with rip-rap, and leave the ash in the floodplain of the Middle Fork. Their analysis for ash removal comes with a $192 million price tag. This is four to six times higher than costed options for their “cap and leave” proposals, but no details are provided to assess the reasonableness of the estimate—including the ultimate destination of the coal ash. In fact, no backup has been provided to the IEPA for any of Dynegy’s cost proposals.

River advocates have been calling on Dynegy to move all or part of the coal ash away from the river to a lined, onsite location, away from the river. Recent conversations between Eco-Justice Collaborative and IEPA representatives indicate that the IEPA does not intend to ask Dynegy to pursue this option, even though its September 11, 2014 letter to Dynegy included the agency’s request to evaluate both feasibility and costs of relocating the ash on its property.

If IEPA Won’t Hold Public Meetings or a Public Hearing, We Will!

The IEPA said that they will not hold a public hearing. Eco-Justice Collaborative is now making plans to host a People’s Hearing in Vermilion County, later this spring.

This forum will include testimony from experts on the risks of leaving the ash in place, and from residents affected by the TVA and Duke Energy coal ash spills. We will provide opportunities for the public to testify, and will invite Dynegy. Comments collected will be hand-delivered to the IEPA and Governor’s office. Read more on our website (www.ecojusticecollaborative.org), including how to support the forum financially.

What We All Need to Do

Now is the time to get involved in the campaign to relocate Dynegy’s coal ash. Visit our website for campaign updates and a comprehensive FAQ document.  Click on the ACT NOW tab to send customizable electronic letters to local and state officials, the Governor and IEPA Director, and the National Park Service. Use these letters to insist that the IEPA give due consideration to a plan that moves the ash from the floodplain of the Middle Fork onto its property.  And be sure to attend the People’s Hearing, planned for April (date to be determined)!

Residents of Vermilion County have a right to be informed about and comment on a decision that could leave them with the risks associated with a toxic waste dump in their backyard. A People’s Hearing will help provide an important bridge between a scientifically defined solution and the values and rights of those most affected.

Posted in Environment | Comments Off on A People’s Hearing: Bringing the Public’s Voice to The Middle Fork Coal Ash Decision

FAIR TAX NEEDED in ILLINOIS NOW!

by Germaine Light

Germaine Light is a retired high school biology teacher, Illinois Education Association-Retired member and activist, and member of the Responsible Budget Coalition, who lives in the woods on the Vermilion River in Vermilion County.

The state income tax system in Illinois is antiquated, unjust, and regressive: antiquated in that we are among only eight remaining states in the United States that still have a flat income tax rate, and only four states that are constitutionally required to have a flat tax; unjust in that it puts the biggest tax burden on the people who can afford it the least, the working class; and regressive in that it taxes those at low income levels at the same rate as those at high income levels. It needs to be changed, and soon! Citizens should put pressure on their state senators and state representatives as soon as possible to create a graduated state income tax system.

Illinois has two major problems with its flat income tax: 1) citizens are unfairly taxed, and 2) it doesn’t provide enough revenue for Illinois’ budget needs. The change that is being proposed will greatly alleviate both problems. Illinois income tax should be changed from its current flat-rate system, where everyone pays the exact same rate, now 4.9%, to a graduated income tax system, where those with high incomes pay a higher income tax rate than those with medium and low incomes. With a graduated tax, the lower 80-90% of taxpayers will not have a raise in tax payments. It is only the wealthy that will experience a tax hike.

A flat tax is known as a regressive tax because it burdens lower income citizens unfairly. A graduated tax, on the other hand, is known as a progressive tax because it burdens the people who can best afford it, the higher-income citizens, more. Some argue that a flat tax is fair because the wealthy pay a higher total tax amount since their incomes are larger. But even so, it still is unfair to the working class since it leaves them with the biggest tax burden. An economy won’t be healthy if the working class cannot afford to buy products and services. An economy will grow more if the majority of the consumers, the working class, are thriving and can truly be consumers. Thirty-three states in the United States and the federal government have a graduated and progressive tax. Why not Illinois?

Here is an analogy for the flat tax: if a person on low income gets a speeding ticket of $75, that can be a sizable penalty for a person that is living paycheck to paycheck, and now has to give up buying food or paying utility bills in order to pay the ticket. But if a wealthy person gets a $75 speeding ticket, it’s virtually a drop in the bucket! They don’t even notice a difference. Well, it is similar with taxes. 4.9% is a considerable amount for a low- to medium-income family, but to the rich, it’s easy in comparison. They have so much to spare, they don’t have to give up necessities.

Further, it is the upper-income citizens that have enjoyed the biggest economic growth in Illinois in the last several decades, while the working class has lost financial ground in wages and benefits when adjusted for inflation. A flat tax does not take much advantage of the large economic growth of the higher income citizens. A graduated tax would make much better use of this potential source of revenue, thus providing much needed services for the state.

Everyone knows the state of Illinois has been in financial trouble. Public schools at times have had to wait for months and months for state payments, and, as a result, many school districts have really been hurting financially and have had to cut education programs, hurting our children. What kind of society are we, that we can’t keep essential programs for students? Poor! The young are the future of our state. They must have only the best. We need a better source of revenue.

Medicaid payments have been so slow that in some cases doctors have had to drop patients or not accept new ones. And all kinds of human services for the disabled, the elderly, and the mentally ill have been compromised. State parks have been shut down and even the Illinois State Museum was closed. We need a better source of revenue!

Legislators turned toward public pension funds as a temporary but foolish source of revenue. They reduced and put off required payments to public pensions more than once, calling these episodes “Pension Holidays.” This ratcheted up the state’s debt to dangerous highs. So then the legislators looked at the public pensions again and drooled. They tried to reduce promised pension payments to retired employees and were finally shut down by the Supreme Court on the grounds that this is unconstitutional, thanks to a suit filed by the public sector unions like the Illinois Education Association, Illinois Federation of Teachers, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, and the Service Employees Union.

Meanwhile, there have been several attempts by visionary citizens through the last several decades to obtain a graduated tax in Illinois. Ralph Martire, Director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a not-for-profit organization, has been touting a graduated income tax literally for decades! In his efforts Mr. Martire has spoken at public events and for organizations all across the state over and over again. He has spoken to governors and both houses of the General Assembly. Two former state senators in the Urbana-Champaign area, Republican Senator Rick Winkel and Democratic Senator Michael Frerichs, worked hard for a progressive income tax. In the early 2000s, there existed a Committee for School Funding Reform which consisted of teachers, administrators, school board members and parents, mostly from Urbana, Champaign, and Mahomet schools, and also Farm Bureau members. They worked for a graduated income tax because they knew it would generate more revenue for schools. Farm Bureau members were also concerned that, as the state reduced its payments to public schools from 51% of the schools’ expenses down to less than 30%, the burden for school funding through the years was pushed more and more heavily onto property taxes—which, by the way, are regressive.

Finally, after all these decades of struggle, sweat, and tears, a bill may be introduced during the 2018 Spring Session of the General Assembly that will direct us toward a progressive income tax for the State of Illinois. Finally this state that has greater wealth than most of the states in the United States and greater wealth than many countries of the world will have its chance to be brought up to date and to have a dependable, just and progressive system for collecting revenue for all of its many needs.

It is time now to call your state senator and your state representative and ask them to support such a bill. Even better, ask them to be leaders in the effort and co-sponsor this bill. Meanwhile, talk to your family, friends and neighbors and convince them to do the same. Bring up the topic at clubs and organizations and places of worship. Spread the word!

We need a fair, graduated income tax in the State of Illinois now!

For more information about a Fair Tax for Illinois, and other ideas to keep our state running without cutting vital services, see responsiblebudget.org, and The Responsible Budget Coalition Facebook page.

 

Posted in Community Forum, Economy, Illinois taxes | Comments Off on FAIR TAX NEEDED in ILLINOIS NOW!

Turning Lemons Into Lemonade! Attacks on Unions & Fighting Back

Turning Lemons Into Lemonade!

Attacks on Unions & Fighting Back
Sun. Feb. 18 at 1 pm
Champaign Public Library
200 W. Green St., Champaign
Speakers from Wisconsin join local discussion about the
devastating impact of legal changes to workers’ rights,
soon to be nationwide,
and how our communities can fight back.
All are welcome. Free admission. Refreshments served.
Sponsored by Central Illinois Jobs With Justice.

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Our County Nursing Home for Sale

(Belden Fields is the Chair of Friends of Champaign County Nursing Home)

At its January 9, 2018 meeting, the Champaign County Board decided to put the Champaign County Nursing Home up for sale. All the Republicans voted in favor, and they were joined by three Democrats: Patsi Petrie, Shana Jo Crews and Board Chair Pius Weibel.

Many Republicans have pushed for the sale of the nursing home as far back as 2002, when there were two referenda, one to fund the construction of a new building and an additional tax for its operation. Both of those referenda passed. Unfortunately, during the construction of the building wood was exposed to rain, resulting in a mold problem that cost about $3 million to remedy. Only $1 million was recovered from the contractor. The other $2 million was levied by the Board against the nursing home itself! Of course, the nursing home and its management had nothing at all to do with that loss. So when one reads in the press that the nursing home owes “more than $2.4 million … to various county funds” (Tom Kacich, News-Gazette, 1/9/18), the $2 million is due to the Board’s decision to make the home pay for the construction deficiency that was the fault of the contractor and county officials who were supposed to oversee the construction.

It is true that among the problems the nursing home encountered were an ineffective administrator for several years, and then a less-than-stellar private management firm that was brought in to guide the home. But the big financial hit came when the state of Illinois fell so far behind in accepting and processing Medicaid claims. The county home has a disproportionate number of Medicaid patients who either came in with no financial resources or spent down all their finances as they resided there. That prompted a serious cash-flow problem for the home, putting it in arrears in paying vendors, and necessitating its borrowing from the county to fill in the state payment time gap. It is only recently that the state has hired about 1200 more people and opened a new office in Chicago to accept and process downstate applications. So there has been positive movement on that front, which was probably part of the reason that the home showed a $30,000 profit in November 2017, the last month for which figures are available as of this writing. Another reason is that last summer the county hired a different management firm, SAK, that has brought in more efficient management and financial practices.

Onslaught Against the Home

While some of us in the county have had direct experience with the home and prize it as a public asset with a very long history of caring for the most vulnerable and destitute, there has been an onslaught of negativity from the Republicans, the News-Gazette and County Board Democrat Patsi Petri. In April 2017, there was another referendum on the home. Voters were asked to raise the property tax rate, the proceeds of which were to go to the nursing home, but also to give the County Board the authority to sell the home. This was not a mandate to sell, just giving the Board the ability to sell without going to the public again for permission. Unfortunately, the property tax increase failed. It did so on an urban/rural split. Voters in Champaign/Urbana supported the tax, while rural voters opposed it in sufficient numbers to kill it. There was also an urban/rural split on the authorization to sell. A large majority of the urban voters opposed the authorization to sell (69% in Urbana), while 67% of the rural voters, overwhelmingly Republican, supported it.

There was a more recent attempt by Gordy Hulten, the Republican County Clerk who is now running to become the newly created County Executive, to demonstrate that opinion in the mostly Democratic districts had shifted since last April in favor of selling the home. So he commissioned a telephone poll in which people who answered were told:

“As you know from published reports, the Champaign County Nursing Home is losing hundreds of thousands of dollars every month, and two residents died this year due to alleged negligence. To remedy the situation, the county board must now decide between cutting services—such as laying off police officers and eliminating some early voting locations—or selling the home to a privately funded company prepared to provide better care. We’d like to know whether you support or oppose the sale of the Champaign County Nursing Home in an effort to solve the problems?”

According to Hulton, about 53% responded that they favored sale. Note that this is a push-pull poll, one in which you first feed responders a lot of good or bad information and then ask them to respond in a way that you want them to. Moreover, those cuts might not be the choices that would be made if there were no sale. And why privilege a private company over a nonprofit one? Indeed, the sale of the public Vermillion county home to a private firm has not resulted in better care. That home has a one-star Medicare rating, lower than the two-star rating of the Champaign County Nursing Home. That did not stop Tom Kachich from devoting a full-length article in the News-Gazette (11/12/17) to Hulton’s push-pull poll. Indeed, between Kacich’s reporting and the News-Gazette’s anti-public nursing home editorials, it would be hard for people who rely on this as their news source to avoid feeling that the sky is falling on the nursing home and that privatization is the only savior, despite all the research findings that not-for-profit nursing homes are better than private ones.

Stipulations for the Sale

The County Board has been advised by its broker that it can reasonably expect $11 million for the home. That is the base price in its request for proposals to buy. But money is not the only stipulation. There are others, including that the purchaser must agree to maintain a skilled nursing facility with 220 beds until 2028, a set-aside for 10 years of 50% of the beds for Medicaid residents, and some employee retention provisions. Another provision is that the buyer would assume the existing collective bargaining agreement with AFSCME until the contract terminates at the end of 2018, but with no obligation for union recognition after that.

It would be preferable if the county would also (1) seek out, or give priority to, non-profit buyers because of their better records nation-wide; (2) exclude from consideration corporations engaged in “related property transactions” that do business only with their own separate companies for services (according to Kaiser Health News, quality of care is worst among this kind of private company, New York Times, 1/7/18); and (3) exclude from consideration any buyers, private or public, whose nursing homes average less than a 2-star rating, which is the rating of our nursing home now.

We have to consider the welfare of the residents of our nursing home. Whatever the problems our home is presently confronting, we cannot in good conscience deliver the residents to a worse situation as a result of a sale. Fortunately, an actual sale would require affirmative votes by 15 board members, two more than just approved putting the home up for sale. If we reach a point where we advocates cannot prevent a sale, then at least we can pressure members of the board to act in the best interests of present and future residents.

Posted in Champaign County, Nursing Home, social services, the elderly | Comments Off on Our County Nursing Home for Sale

Announcement

[DAVE-please put this announcement on the same page as the article on the artist Nika if possible]

ART THROUGH THE GENERATIONS

ART EXHIBIT AT CHAMPAIGN COUNTY NURSING HOME

500 S. Bartell Road, Urbana

SUNDAY, FEB. 25, 1-5 PM

Come to an exhibit by 13 talented local artists, as well as poetry readings, beer and wine tasting and making by Riggs Brewing and Wildwood Cellars, snacks, and music by Dorothy Martirano and the Almost “A” Trio.  All free!  For more information, call Kay at 708-417-2911.

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Poland: Following in Hungary’s Footsteps

Second of two parts.

On December 20, the European Commission—the executive arm of the European Union (EU), consisting of one representative from each of the 28 member countries—launched the “nuclear option” of EU politics against Poland: a proposed formal warning that “fundamental values” of democracy were at risk because of actions by the ruling Law and Justice Party government (PiS in its Polish initials). If corrections were not made within three months, it could lead to the deprivation of the country’s EU voting rights—never before attempted—under Article 7 of the basic EU treaty. The immediate trigger for the action was new laws facilitating government control over the Polish judiciary; but the European Parliament vote the previous month initiating the process was also based on moves against the independence of the media and the civil service.

New Polish Prime Minister Mazowiecki (R.) meeting Hungarian PM Orbán in January in Budapest, with backdrop of ceremonial “Hussars.”

In early January, the new Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki—who had taken office several weeks earlier as part of a PiS cabinet shake-up—made his first bilateral visit abroad, to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. He was looking for assurances that Orbán’s government would block any final Article 7 vote, which could be foiled by just one dissenting country. But the visit, greeted with great fanfare, including a Hussar band (the Hussars were legendary light cavalry soldiers, prominent in freedom struggles over the centuries in both Hungarian and Polish history and memory), also had strong symbolic importance. Since winning a “supermajority”—one large enough to make constitutional changes on its own—in the 2010 elections, Orbán’s conservative nationalist party, Fidesz, has gained and consolidated complete power in Hungary. Since then, with the help of a massive and virulent anti-immigrant campaign (see my article “‘Anti-Refugeeism without Refugees’ in Eastern Europe” in the November 2016 Public i) and constant propaganda against the EU’s allegedly anti-national, anti-Christian, even “anti-European” bias and policies, he was reelected in 2014, and is almost certain to be elected again this spring for four more years. PiS, elected by a narrower plurality of voters (37%) in late 2015, aspires to match that example of power and control, as well as securing a solid ally within the EU.

There is growing fear, in Brussels and across the Bloc, of what one observer has called an emerging “Authoritarian International.” Such a formation would be anchored in Hungary and Poland, but also potentially extend to Slovakia and Croatia, both sites of increasingly nationalist governments; the Czech Republic, where a Trump-like businessman, Andrej Babis, recently became Prime Minister and the fiercely anti-immigrant Milos Zeman was just reelected President; and even Austria, where the hard-charging conservative 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz took over as Chancellor in December. Orbán’s conception of “illiberal democracy,” with Turkey, Russia, Singapore or even China as models, rather than Germany, France or Scandinavia, has gained credence on the populist Right. He has been working through the Visegrad Group, a regional policy grouping that includes Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, to consolidate and strengthen anti-immigrant, “pro-(Christian) European identity” forces within the EU. But many doubt that the EU machinery, already confronting Brexit and the rise of the extreme Right outside of government (for the time being) in its core member countries, is up to the task of disciplining a determined member-state government, no matter how far it goes against “European values.” (Exhibits A and B are the failure to act effectively against the entry of the far-Right Austrian Jörg Haider into his country’s governing coalition in 2000, and against Orbán since 2010.)

A map of the Visegrad countries overlaid on the EU flag.

The concerns of the Eurocrats and Western punditry about the rule of law, media independence, democracy and all the rest are valid: in Hungary, over the past seven-plus years, I have seen the deterioration of public culture, cherished institutions, the educational system, and even individual freedom, in the case of, for example, teachers and nurses afraid to speak out or organize. But what they miss is the sense of dislocation and disappointment among many European citizens, not only in “the East,” who feel left behind and without a voice in the neoliberal “democratic consensus” of EU institutions.

Poland was the site of perhaps the most massive and dynamic union movement in history, Solidarnosc (Solidarity), which mobilized 10 million workers, out of a total population of 35 million, against a repressive and exploitative state within a few months in 1980. Jaroslaw Kaczinsky, the powerbroker within PiS, and his late twin brother Lech were both active in the movement; when the (US-made) “shock therapy” program of the 1990s devastated much of rural and working-class Poland, especially in the southern and eastern regions, and splintered the Solidarnosc forces, the brothers were able to reap the benefit by purveying a politics of cultural resentment to those many losers in the transition to capitalism. The Great Recession, though less severe in Poland than elsewhere in the region, only deepened this discontent, with the neoliberal orthodoxy, including labor concessions and government austerity, coming from Brussels and both Western and local elites. Over two million Poles, and hundreds of thousands of Hungarians, especially young college graduates, have left their home and families for better wages—working mostly in service, retail and construction—in Western Europe (an ironic development, given both governments’ hostility to economic migration from Asia or Africa). PiS’s measures against economic insecurity, including substantial child support payments, the bolstering of welfare payments and wages at the bottom, and the rollback of a previous raise in the retirement age, have been popular and strikingly effective. There is thus a surprising amount of union support, for example among steelworkers, for this program (less astounding is its wide support among farmers).

 

Political scientist and Poland expert David Ost has looked back to the politics of the 1920s and ‘30s for models of the PiS phenomenon, calling it “Left fascism”: ultranationalist and authoritarian, but also attentive to the needs and insecurities of its core, grassroots constituents. Both PiS and Fidesz have successfully channeled legitimate resentment against the EU, and Western European domination of it, against a multi-culturalism and “political correctness” that they say threatens national traditions and identity, and leads to terrorism and never-ending migration crises.

Polish women demonstrating in 2016 against proposed new abortion law.

Although the party-level liberal political opposition, in Poland as in Hungary, is discredited, divided and weak, there are signs of hope at the grassroots. Massive protests and a daylong women’s strike in late 2016 by what became known as the “women in black” movement—mourning their loss of rights—managed to turn back an attempt to harden Poland’s abortion laws, already the most restrictive in Europe, into a total ban. Last summer, after more large protests, President Andrzej Duda, though he had been PiS’s candidate, declined to sign into law two of the most damaging measures against the judiciary (although he did sign equivalent laws in December). Counter-demonstrators to the November 11 rightist rally (see part 1) marched under the historic slogan “For Your Freedom and Ours,” showcasing the universalist side of the Polish independence movement. There is, according to Ost, a “small but growing new left in Poland,” exemplified by the new party Razem (Together), which gained 3.6% of the 2015 parliamentary vote despite having been founded only a few months prior.

Razem activists take to the streets.

But in order to really turn around the ship of state, PiS’s opponents will have to go beyond defending liberal causes and the rule of law. They need to recognize those left behind by the imposition of neoliberalism—by liberal elites, ex-Communists and EU institutions from the mid-‘90s on—on Poland. Resistance to PiS’s rightist consolidation must incorporate an economic vision—and a broader sense of inclusion—that reaches beyond the EU status quo.

Counter-protesters at the November 2017 nationalist demonstrations; their banner reads “For Your Freedom and Ours. History is Happening Today.”

Posted in International, Poland | Comments Off on Poland: Following in Hungary’s Footsteps

ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: Nika Lucks

“Inspiration” by Nika

Local photographer Nika Lucks

A column curated by staff of the Urbana Public Arts Program

Nika Lucks is a local photographer originally from the Chicago Southside. Her most recent work, People of Speech: Part I, draws inspiration from parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and so on. In this photography series, subjects were invited to embody the parts of speech that exemplify who they are. People of Speech: Part I is a series of images of Black and Brown people expressing the words that represent their unique identities. The People of Speech series will premier parts II and III in 2018.

For this issue, Public Arts Coordinator Rachel Lauren Storm met with local artist and photographer Nika Lucks, to learn more about her artistic process.

R: Tell me a little about yourself and your past creative work.

N: Well I’m from Chicago—the Southside. I went to four different high schools when I was younger. Which sucked! I was always the new girl. We moved a lot. Just being poor, we couldn’t afford things. I’ve always been into creative things. Art has been an outlet for me. It started with poetry in 5th grade. I was an odd kid and didn’t really have friends, so I read and wrote my own poems.

I did spoken word here in Champaign-Urbana at Speak Café [the poetry open mic at Krannert Arts Museum]. It was a great outlet for me. I still write but my poems can be too happy sometimes. Sometimes it feels like people don’t really want to hear about the happy life or the good times. I feel like I need to find another audience.

R: What inspires you as an artist?

N: Because we moved a lot we lost a lot. Baby photos, photos of the past, and things that really mattered. It really bothered me. I saw Sabrina, with Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart. It changed my life! I saw myself in the main character. We had so many things in common. These two experiences inspired me to become a photographer.

R: What do you hope your work inspires in others?

N: I like to call what I do photo art. Not the “sit still, look pretty” kind of work.

With this collection People of Speech: Part I, my goal is to see more people of color and elderly people represented in art. And not in a “homeless,” “poor,” “depressing,” “thug life” representation. It sends a message that that is all there is to us.

 I want to do more upbeat, fun artwork—sort of like my poetry. There is sadness and depression all over the world and I’m not saying we shouldn’t acknowledge this, but this isn’t all we are.

R: What can we expect from you next as an artist?

N: Well, next you will see People of Speech II and III. The second series will feature Asian and Pacific Islanders and the third will feature people 60 and over. I’m working on photo greeting cards from the first installment of People of Speech.  

I’m definitely a Nerd girl! I volunteer at conventions, horror cons and comic cons—and I’m getting into it more. I think in the future that I’ll also make horror art!  I love the fake blood and gore and cosplay photos.

To view more of Nika Lucks’ photography work visit @NikaLucks on Instagram.

Editors note: Nika’s work is currently exhibited at the Independent Media Center at 202 S. Broadway, Urbana. Nika will also be one of the 13 artists exhibiting at the “Art Though the Generations” exhibit at the Champaign County Nursing Home on Sunday, February 25, 1-5 pm. Her work is also currently exhibited at the Independent Media Center.

 

 

Posted in African Americans, Arts | Comments Off on ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: Nika Lucks

Cooperatives and Socialism

The last two years have given us plenty of reason to grow weary of “politics” and lose faith in the political structures around us, but as a cooperative, Common Ground is inherently a political organization as much as it is an economic one, and, in my opinion, it’s high time that we engage politically with our owners.

As we look toward a new year amidst political and economic turmoil, I want to look back to our cooperative roots. Common Ground is a cooperative, but what does that really mean? Let’s start with a simple question with a not-so-simple answer.

Are Cooperatives Socialist?

To get an idea of what answers this question might have, I’ll provide a little bit more context. What is a cooperative? When and where do cooperatives come from? And how are co-ops related to socialism?

There are many kinds of cooperatives, rooted in several traditions, but I’m going to focus on the lineage that Common Ground and most co-ops come from.

For this purpose, I’m going to start right around 1800. Revolutions in nearly every aspect of human life marked the turn of the century as the Industrial Revolution, the dying years of monarchy and feudalism, the rise of capitalism, liberal democracy and the enlightenment dramatically transformed society.

While developing capitalism and technology were able to create an abundance of material goods, they also created their own new forms of oppression and suffering—artisans’ guilds (and skilled trades generally) lost a great deal of agency as human skills were replaced with automation, mass manufacturing and low-skill repetitive labor, and, at the same time, working conditions became more and more dangerous as working hours drew out ever longer in order to maximize the profits of factory, mine and mill owners.

At the same time, enlightenment era idealists, philanthropists and philosophers saw this suffering, and a few tried to do something about it. This gets me to the intersection of socialism and the cooperative movement.

Robert Owen

Born in Newtown, Wales in 1771, Robert Owen came to manage textile mills in Lincolnshire, and eventually to co-own the textile mill in New Lanark, Scotland in 1799-1800. Working in and managing textile mills, Owen developed his own spiritual, social and economic approaches to labor and community, which ultimately led to reducing working hours, providing free education to all workers and their families and emphasizing the needs and well being of labor when he gained the power to do so.  Owens came to describe himself as both a socialist and a proponent of the cooperative movement, and later went on to found a planned utopian socialist/cooperative village in New Harmony, Indiana in 1825. This later experiment ultimately failed economically, in 1827, but the legacy Owen left continued into the Rochdale movement, and this is where socialism and the cooperative movement in Britain begin to part ways.

The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers

In 1844, a group of 28 people who were largely displaced skilled tradespeople founded a cooperative enterprise known as the Rochdale Society. In the beginning, it was a very small worker-owned and -managed retail business which carried only a few bare essentials such as butter, sugar, flour and candles. Over just a few years, business boomed, and their selection expanded to include most consumables, and even tobacco and tea. From such humble beginnings, they’d built a business that became renowned for its high quality, unadulterated goods.

What the Rochdale Society also produced was a set of guiding principles which has evolved into the Rochdale Principles that we still hold to this day. To put this into historical perspective with the development of socialism in the sense we know it today, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels published the Communist Manifesto in 1848.

This is not to say that Marx and Engels held wholly positive views toward the emerging cooperative movement—indeed, both offered tremendous criticism of both “utopian socialism” and emerging cooperatives as largely out of touch with material history and as isolated experiments in a sea of capitalism which did not directly challenge the structure and order of the prevailing mode of production in their day. All of this aside, Marx and Engels did rightfully credit Owen and the Rochdale Pioneers  for their developments and recognition of the material conditions of the working (or proletarian) classes.

Okay, so what does all of this mean?

The cooperative movement and socialism are distinct from each other, but they are close cousins. Socialism demands a wholescale transformation of society’s productive forces, and to immediately end capitalism. Cooperatives are a little different: they seek to do the best they can democratically within whatever economic system is present. So, cooperatives aren’t necessarily socialist, but they share a common root and are, in some cases, fully compatible with a socialist society.

Cooperatives come in many different forms—from worker co-ops and consumer co-ops to producer-, secondary- and hybrid co-ops—but each form shares critical features laid out in the principles by which they operate and the general structure of decision making and governance within and between co-ops. For example, Common Ground does not have “shareholders,” but “stakeholders,” and decision-making power is ultimately rooted in a democracy of consumers. That means you, as the consumer/stakeholder, are in charge.

If you’d like to learn more about how to exercise power as an owner of Common Ground or how to become an owner, reach out to the Common Ground board of directors (board@commonground.coop) or marketing team (marketing@commonground.coop ). The co-op belongs to its consumer-owners, and their participation keeps our collective faith in a better business model alive.

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RED HERRING VEGETARIAN RESTAURANT CELEBRATES ITS 50TH ANNIVERSARY

The Red Herring Vegetarian Restaurant, a project of the Channing Murray Foundation, is celebrating its 50th Anniversary with a Golden Birthday Party on Feb. 17th.  The event will include live music, local food, storytellers, a memorabilia exhibit (LPs, poetry books, posters, etc.), a raffle, and musical performances by Paul Kotheimer, The Merry Travelers, Dewclaw, and other local folk and jazz groups. Founding participants Bill Taylor and Vern Fein are among the scheduled storytellers. The event runs from 4:30 to 10:30 pm at the Channing Murray Foundation, 1209 E. Oregon St., Urbana. There is a $10 suggested donation at the door, but the organizers will accept “more if you can, less if you can’t.”

The Golden Birthday Party is just one of a week-long series of activities running from Feb. 16 to Feb. 22, including contra dancing, cooking classes, and an open mic night.  For more information, call (217) 367-2340 or see www.channingmurray.org.

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The Honduran Crisis: Not Quite Your Father’s Oligarchy…

 At first glance the political crisis in Honduras seems depressingly familiar: a military coup against a left-leaning President in 2009, continued repression of opposition groups, and now a Presidential election so full of irregularities that demonstrators refuse to leave the streets. But the crisis in Honduras is much more than a reprise of past injustices; it’s a new story of globalization in all its uncomfortable contradictions:  environmental and indigenous rights activists, War-on-Terror advisors, eco-tourists, miners, and tilapia farmers. This election scandal is a thoroughly 21st century event.

Days after the November 26 election Honduran protesters demanded the resignation of President Juan Orlando Hernandez

An “Irregular” Election Rooted in a Military Coup   

The protests that have engulfed Honduras since the November 26, 2017 election really began back in 2009, when the army deposed President Manuel Zelaya. His unanticipated turn to the left had alarmed his opponents. And it was that same Left that marched on and blockaded key highways, demonstrated in public squares, and sometimes was shot at or disappeared in the months and years after the coup.

Zelaya hadn’t created this movement so much as it had created him. During the early 2000s, activists in Honduras concerned with working conditions in maquiladoras, environmental degradation, and the loss of indigenous control over collective lands began to share concerns with a worldwide network of organizations fighting similar campaigns. Social media allowed them to share strategies for forcing investor and government compliance with community demands.  

The Honduran business and agrarian elite were themselves feeling the effects of a changing world. Older paths to wealth, like exporting coffee, were facing increased competition. Then, in 1998, Hurricane Mitch killed thousands, displaced more than 2 million, and destroyed 80% of crops. Mitch’s devastation led to a profound transformation of rural life and politics, as those with capital diversified into new fields such as tilapia, shrimp, palm oil, and mining ventures. Unfortunately, the regions they proposed to develop were held by communities resistant to the environmental degradation and land alienation that would result. Activist campaigns to attract international attention to the land grab also attracted Zelaya to ally himself with this new political base.

Land Grabbing in Post-Coup Honduras

The coup which removed Zelaya in 2009 moved quickly to reverse the environmental and community protections he had enacted. The moratorium on new mining concessions was lifted; aid for education, fuel costs, and food was reduced; and utility companies were privatized. Roads were carved across indigenous land, opening the way for export agriculture and mining investment.

One of the most insidious new developments was that of Charter Cities, legalized in 2011. Charter Cities were designed to spur investment by attracting foreign investment to undeveloped regions. They offered the familiar tax and trade incentives often found in Special Economic Zones, but also promised legal and regulatory incentives in the form of streamlined paperwork. Investors would be able to avoid onerous paperwork related to environmental impact statements, indigenous land tenure, labor conditions, and even the Honduran judicial and security systems. In short, investors could cease worrying about investing in Honduras because the Charter Cities would effectively be removed from Honduran government control.

While Charter Cities haven’t yet rolled out as expected, since 2009 the landscape of Honduras has become a battleground where land grabs by investors are met with community resistance. Mining, tourist enclaves, hydroelectric dams, and commercial agriculture ventures are all protected by legal structures that disenfranchise the traditional residents. Company paramilitaries abound: the Honduran NGO, Observatory of Violence, estimates there are 700 private security companies in the country. The units don’t just safeguard sites from vandalism, they also evict populations newly demoted from residents to squatters.

After the coup many activists gave up on formal politics and instead invested their energy in attracting international attention to Honduran human rights, labor, and land access issues. They opposed the 2014 U.S.-Honduran initiative to reduce gang violence, narcotics trafficking, and emigration to the U.S., in part because it relied on developing rural areas without consulting local views. Activists also publicized the danger of the plan’s reliance on the militarization of police in a country with a poor human rights record. The campaign to protect the Garifuna people of Honduras’ northern coast from the expansion of shrimp farms and eco-lodges is a good illustration of the contradictions in this era: connections with the global indigenous rights movement helped protect a local community from the global expansion of the tourist and food industries.

“A Death Trap for Environmental Activists”

Not surprisingly, violence skyrocketed after 2009, and Honduras is now one of the deadliest countries in the world. While the government blames the violence on narcotics-linked gang violence, Human Rights Watch notes that many victims have been opposition activists or farmers who were simply inconvenient to these new land grab initiatives.     

The 2016 assassination of well-known Honduran activist Berta Caceres shocked the environmentalist community around the world.  

The March 2016 murder of Berta Caceres, recipient of international awards for her work opposing the construction of a hydroelectric dam in the territory of the Lenca people, was the most famous example of the lethal conditions activists face. In frustration, Amnesty International called Honduras a “death trap for environmental activists,” and Global Witness lamented that Honduras was “the most deadly place on the planet to defend the environment.”

Global Witness recorded 120 murders of environmental activists in Honduras since the 2009 coup.

The Surprisingly Competitive 2017 Election

The indignation following Caceres’ murder contributed to the unexpected outcome of the 2017 presidential election. The opposition candidate, Salvador Nasralla, ran on an anti-corruption platform and pledged to shut down Charter Cities and defend community land rights. Nasralla is charismatic, but expectations were low and few expected the incumbent, Juan Hernández, (a key architect of the 2009 coup) to permit a serious challenge to his reelection.

And then, on election day, Nasralla unexpectedly pulled ahead with a five-point lead. The election committee suspended the count completely for 24 hours, and after two weeks of irregular updates declared Hernández the winner with 42% of the vote to Nasralla’s 41%.

By the time the results were announced, several protesters had already been killed. The government imposed a curfew but it did little to calm the situation, and two months after the election opposition groups continue to face off against riot police in the streets. Several countries joined the OAS in calling for new elections, but the U.S. congratulated Hernández on his victory instead. The U.S. State Department had already certified on November 28th (in the midst of the election scandal) that Honduras was compliant with anti-corruption and human rights requirements, clearing the way for continued U.S. security assistance to the same units confronting the ongoing protests.

Protesters have been confronted by Honduran police and military units who have benefitted from U.S. financial assistance and training.

An Environmentalist Spring?

Overall, the political crisis in Honduras does sound familiar, but it’s firmly grounded in the inescapable globalizations of the 21st century. Environmental activists are using new technologies to access like-minded groups across the globe and share strategies for preserving community control against outsiders. The chaotic streets of Tegucigalpa resemble scenes from the Arab Spring for similar technology and strategy reasons. The globalization of food has made Honduran land suddenly desirable for those who would farm shrimp or tilapia for U.S. consumers, while the ease of travel allows outsiders to vacation in scuba villages that advertise proximity to exotic local culture while simultaneously dispossessing it. And the military aid that allows Hernández to keep his administration afloat? It’s a byproduct of the U.S. pursuit of security from refugees, drugs, and extremists through the militarization of far borders.  

Hernández, with his ham-handed election fraud, may try to resurrect the ghost of an older oligarchical world, but his opponents are as globalized as he is now, albeit with different visions of the future. What kind of world will be built, and who will control the corners of it, is something that won’t be determined in the aftermath of one election, but it’s clearly something Hondurans are willing to fight for.

Posted in Economics, Environment, Honduran Election 2017, Human Rights, International, Land, military | Comments Off on The Honduran Crisis: Not Quite Your Father’s Oligarchy…