Homeless LA Families Reclaim Vacant State Houses

'Reclaimers' occupy vacant homes owned by Caltrans ...

Shelter in Place: LA’s Fight for Housing in a Pandemic

Al Jazeera (2021)

Film Review

This documentary reports on the Los Angeles Reclaimers movement. The latter has supported 20 homeless families in illegally occupying vacant homes owned by the California Department of Transportation (CALTRANS). The state agency bought hundreds of of homes thirty years ago because they were in the path of a planned Interstate expansion. The new freeway, which was never built, was officially scrapped in 2018.

The squatting families occupied the homes last year during a statewide lockdown order making it illegal for them to stay with extended family or friends. Thanks to massive community support, the state government eventually legalized their tenancy by leasing the homes to Los Angeles county. The county, in turn, charges squatters 25-30% of their income for rent. Only one family was forcibly evicted by police.

Given the extremely high rate of homelessness in Los Angeles, homeless advocates raise the legitimate question why the state government fails to open the remaining CALTRANS (vacant) homes to the city’s homeless. At present one-fifth of homeless Americans live in Los Angeles.

The film can be viewed free at https://www.aljazeera.com/program/fault-lines/2021/5/19/shelter-in-place-las-fight-for-housing-in-a-pandemic

Amazon’s CamperForce: A New Twist on Elder Abuse

Books About RVing And Workkamping: Nomadland Book Review

Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century

By Jessica Bruder (2017)

W W Norton

Book Review

This book is about America’s new underclass, elderly middle class Americans who (after losing their jobs, pensions and savings in the 2008 global economic crash) work at minimum wage jobs and live in vans, RVs and sedans. Spending a total of three years researching this subculture, author Jessica Bruder lived in her own van for awhile and worked as an Amazon CamperForce employee get to know some of the individuals she profiles.*

While Bruder identifies a number of industries that deliberately exploit older Americans, Amazon is clearly the most hated by elderly “vandwellers.” To avoid hiking wages, Amazon annually recruits homeless seniors to staff their warehouses in the three to four months leading up to Christmas. The program, which pays $11.50 an hour plus mandatory overtime, requires them to work ten hours a day or longer and walk an average of 15 miles, in temperatures ranging up to 90 degrees (100 degrees in some warehouses). Stress injuries are so common in CamperForce employees that the company installs vending machines dispensing free over-the-counter painkillers in many warehouses.

Ironically taxpayers subsidize this exploitation, as Amazon receives Work Opportunity Tax Credits for every employee they hire receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or food stamps.

While Bruder acknowledges the warm fuzzy feelings that can occur from helping each other out during a crisis, after three winters it became hard to ignore the genuine hardships faced by this exploited underclass. These include the struggle to keep warm in a van or camper in sub-freezing temperatures, vehicle breakdowns they can’t afford to pay for (in some cases while still paying off vehicle loans), coping with illnesses and work injuries with no health insurance coverage,** difficulty renewing renewing a drivers license with no permanent address, a growing number of local laws criminalizing homelessness and new US Forest Service policies that discourage people with no fixed address from “camping” free in federal forests.

Last, but not least, is the troubling question of where elderly vandwellers go when they become too frail to work. With most of them earning a monthly average of $424 Social Security income (following their $100 Medicare deduction), they have no hope of paying rent anywhere in the US.


*The book seems nothing like the Academy-award winning movie, at least according to a review I read. See The Amazon Warehouse as Disneyland

**Vandwellers who spend their winters in southern California, Arizona and New Mexico frequently go to Mexico for dental procedures, pharmaceuticals and eye glasses that are a fraction of what they would pay in the US.

 

 

 

 

Post Lockdown Poverty in New York

Poor in New York: Survival and the City Lockdown

DW (2021)

Film Review

This documentary profiles two New Yorkers who lost jobs as a result of the Covid lockdown, as well as volunteers at local charities that provides regular meals to new unemployed workers struggling to make ends meet.

The first worker, a single mother of four, lost three of her four prior cleaning jobs. Because the single job is insufficient to support her kids, she spends most of her time collecting bottles and cans to sell to recyclers. Emigrating to the US 34 years ago, she is one of 0.5 million illegal immigrants presently living in New York City. She has paid income taxes regularly, thinking it would help her qualify for a residency permit. Although New York state has newly created a $2 billion fund to provide Covid relief to its illegal immigrants, she now plans to return to Mexico as soon as travel restrictions are lifted.

The second individual profiled is a former x-ray technician who lost his job and home during the lockdown. At the time of filming, he was in a temporary hotel placement, as most of New York’s homeless shelters closed during lockdown. He gets free take-out meals at the Bowery Mission,* which is mainly staffed by volunteers. Their dining room is closed due to distancing restrictions.


*Founded in 1879, the Bowery Mission is the oldest Christian rescue mission in New York City. It is well-known for its history as a soup kitchen and men’s shelter located .

Plutocracy V: America’s Brutal Treatment of Its Working Class

Plutocracy V: Subterranean Fire

Directed by Scott Noble (2017)

Film Review

This documentary provides a comprehensive labor history of the United States, involving the most violent history of union repression in the world.

Largely owing to inhuman pay and working conditions, American workers first attempted to organization soon after the birth of large scale industrialization in the US. Prior to the passage of Roosevelt’s National Labor Relations Act, most worker strikes were suppressed violently by the National Guard, the US Army or private armies hired by factory owners.

The initial era of radical unionizing (1870-1914) abated with World War I and brutal government repression via the Red Scare and Palmer Raids. (1) Despite massive profits Wall Street businesses amassed during the so-called “Roaring” Twenties, more than 60% of US families were earning less than $2,000 a year (with $2,500 the minimum income necessary for a family four).

With the 1929 Wall Street crash came the Great Depression. Unemployment surged to 25% and skyrocketing poverty led to a resurgence in union organizing and strikes. Pay cuts and worsening working conditions would give rise to the “sit down” strike, in which striking workers occupied their factories. Loathe to damage their valuable machinery, employers refrained from launching violent attacks on sit down strikes. In this way workers at many companies (including GM, Chrysler and Ford) won the right to form unions.

In 1935, John L Lewis formed the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO), which unlike the American Federation Labor (which only represented skilled workers), represented all industrial workers regardless of sex, race or national origin.

The same year Roosevelt, courting the union vote in the 1936 election, introduced the National Labor Relations Act. The Act gave all Americans (except for domestic and agricultural workers) the right to unionize.

A typical politician, following reelection, Roosevelt ordered the FBI to “monitor” radical unions and other groups, including the CIO, United Auto Workers, United Mine Workers and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP).

With the approach of World War II, federal forces of repression overtly suppressed union organizing, via the Smith Act (2), and the formation (in 1938) of the House on Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). In 1939, the US Supreme Court would declare sit-down strikes illegal.

Following World War II, the 1947 Taft Hartley Act (4) would deal the single biggest blow to trade unionism in the US. This law. combined with fanatical anti-communist hysteria promoted by HUAC (3), the CIA, the US State Department and the mainstream media would lead to top down trade union organizing that discouraged strike action in favor of a bloated trade union bureaucracy and sweetheart (5) deals with management.

The end result would be one of the lowest levels of union representation in the developed world.


(1) The Red Scare was a campaign of anti-radical hysteria launched under Woodrow Wilson. Its goal was to promote the irrational fear that a Bolshevik revolution was imminent in the US. The Palmer Raids were a series of raids the Wilson administration conducted between November 1919 and January 1920 under to arrest suspected leftists, mostly Italian immigrants and Eastern European immigrants, and deport them (without trial).

(2) Passed in 1940, the Smith Act set down criminal penalties for advocating the overthrow of the US government. The Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional (for violating the First Amendment) in 1957.

(3) The Taft Hartley Act banned wildcat strikes, solidarity or political strikes, closed shops, union donations for political purposes and the election of communists and other radicals to union leadership. It also permitted states to pass Right To Work laws (under right to laws, there is a ban on union contracts forcing non-union members to contribute to the costs of union representation).

(4) Although Hollywood celebrities received the most publicity when they were subpoenaed for being suspected communists, most of the individuals summoned before HUAC were union organizers.

(5) A sweetheart contract is a contractual agreement inappropriately advantages some parties over others. The term was coined in the 1940s to describe corrupt labor contracts unduly favorable to the employer. They usually involved some kind of kickback or special treatment for the labor negotiator.

 

Privilege, Poverty and the US Justice System

It's Criminal - Women Discuss Privilege, Poverty, and Injustice in America

It’s Criminal: Women Discuss Privilege, Poverty and Injustice in America

Directed by Signe Taylor (2017)

Film Review

This documentary concerns an innovative program at Dartmouth University in which  Dartmouth English students collaborate with female prison inmates to put on a play. The main goal is to acquaint the Dartmouth students with their privileged standing.

All the inmates in the program were arrested for drug-related offenses. One woman pleaded guilty because she couldn’t afford bail and faced an indefinite period of detention before going to trial. Another, who couldn’t make bail, was still waiting for a court date.

All the the prisoners reported a history of severe trauma, both in their family of origin and from abusive partners.

The interactions between the two groups became quite strained when two male Dartmouth students are busted for dealing cocaine (like several of the inmates), have their charge reduced to a misdemeanor (owing to their privileged position as Dartmouth students) and receive community service (in lieu of prison) as a sentence.

The film can be viewed free on Kanopy with a public library card.

 

New Zealand and the Tragedy of Neoliberalism

New Zealand – In a Land of Plenty

Directed by Alister Barry (2002)

Film Review

This documentary provides a blow by blow account of the advent of “neoliberalism” [1] to New Zealand in the 1980s and 1990s. The feature films of British filmmaker Ken Loach document the tragic consequences of Margaret Thatcher’s brand of neoliberalism (Thacherism). I have yet to find similar films tracking the brutal effect of American neoliberalism (under Reagan, Bush senior and Clinton).

In 1984, the assent of Labour Prime Minister David Lange (and Finance Minister Roger Douglas [2]¬† to power resulted in a sudden shift from New Zealand’s 40-year commitment to full employment to a regime in which jobs and living wages were deliberated sacrificed to a brutal campaign to quash inflation.[3]

The film traces the stepwise process by which Douglas collaborated with the Reserve Bank of New Zealand to increase unemployment by massively increasing interest rates. With no access to credit, businesses quickly began shutting down and laying off workers \.

This move was followed by cutting public sector employment (in the government owned railroad, state energy companies and post office) and the elimination of farm support by way of price stabilization and crop subsidies. Squeezed between prohibitive loan rates and loss of government support, thousands of families lost their farms and livelihood. Unemployment skyrocketed as cheese factories and freezing works depending on the agricultural sector shut down.

At the end of 1984, the Lange government also ended protective trade barriers that protected New Zealand manufacturers, immediately flooding the domestic market with cheap imports from China. The move effectively killed New Zealand’s home grown manufacturing sector (mainly auto, shoe, garment and home appliance production).

During its two terms in government, Labour persisted with these draconian reforms despite massive public protest and open rebellion by rand and file Labour Party members. During the 1990 election, Labour voters stayed home, and the conservative National government took over the neoliberal agenda.

by the mid-90s, more than half of New Zealand’s unemployed (many of whom were over 55) had been out of work more than six months. The National government responded to the chronic unemployment crisis by slashing unemployment and welfare benefits. Despite a big increase in free food distribution at schools, foodbanks and other charities, resulting malnutrition levels resulted in an epidemic (which persists to the present day) of rheumatic fever, meningitis, asthma and other illnesses of poverty.


[1] Neoliberalism is a model of extreme free market capitalism that favors greatly reduced government spending, deregulation, globalization, free trade, and privatization.

[2] It’s unclear how Roger Douglas, a right wing conservative, became Finance Minister under a Labour Government. He later helped form the pro-corporate ACT Party and served as an ACT list MP between 2008 and 2001.

[3] Inflation hurts bankers far more than it hurts workers, especially those relying on credit cards to pay for basic survival needs. In reducing the value of money, it simultaneously reduces the value of debts owned to banks. See Who Does Inflation Hurt Most

 

 

 

Ken Loach: A Filmmaker Speaks Truth to Power

Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach

Directed by Louise Osmond (2016)

Film Review

My favorite for many years, Ken Loach is the only filmmaker anywhere to unflinchingly portray the exploitation, oppression, injustice and physical and emotional abuse endured by working class women. In doing so, he is one of a tiny handful of directors to speak up for society’s voiceless.

He first announced his retirement in 2014 at age 74, only to come out of retirement two months later to make his “final” film I, Daniel Blake, released in 2016. Then in 2019, he released Sorry We Missed You.

Loach was born in Warwickshire England to a working class Tory family. He became interested in theater while studying law (which he never practiced) at Oxford. When the government launched BBC 2 in the early sixties, Ken and his working class mates were hired to write, direct and produce working class dramas for the new network.

Loach first received worldwide attention for his TV drama Cathy Come Home, about a woman who loses her three children to social welfare when she becomes homeless. His 1969 feature film Kes (about a working class boy who raises and trains a kestrel hawk), won a British Film Institute. In 1971 he released Rank and File about the betrayal of grassroots union members by trade union bureaucrats and the Labour Party.

Unable to release any films with Thatcher in power, he mainly directed TV commercials during this time. Distributors initially refused to release his 1990 Hidden Agenda, produced in 1990 – until it won the Special Jury Award at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is a political thriller film about British state terrorism in Northern Ireland.

Other films highlighted in the film include:

  • Riff Raff (1992), about the misery of British working life following the massive deindustrialization that occurred under Thatcher.
  • Raining Stones (1993) about a man who turns to petty crime to his daughter a First Communion Dress.
  • Ladybird, Ladybird (1994) about a battered woman who loses her baby to social welfare.
  • Land and Freedom, 1995, about the people’s army that fought in the Spanish Civil War
  • My Name is Joe, (1998) about an unemployed former alcoholic
  • The Angel’s Share, 2012, about a working class Glaswegian who narrowly avoids prison when he helps smuggle Scotch whiskey out of a distillery (Angel’s Share refers to the portion of whiskey lost to evaporation during aging).

In his pursuit of genuine authenticity and intimacy, Loach frequently casts working class actors with no prior acting experience. To make their responses more spontaneous, He typically films them one scene at a time without letting them see the rest of the script.

For example, in Land and Freedom a brilliant and charismatic (female) evolutionary is shot and killed in the middle of the film. The rest of the cast have no idea this is coming, and the shock and distress they manifest is surreal.

 

 

Social Media: A Wake-Up Call for Parents

Childhood 2.0 The Living Experiment

Directed by Robert Muratore and Jamin Winans (2020)

Film Review

This documentary is intended to warn parents of grave dangers social media poses to children. It features researchers, child psychiatrists and psychologists, Internet activists and teenage focus groups.

Nearly all parents are less familiar with the newer social media sites than their kids. In fact, most view the physical world (in terms of rape, child molestation, kidnapping, etc) poses the most life threatening dangers to their children. In reality, however, the virtual world is far more dangerous.

Recent studies show that nearly all children haves smartphones by age 12 and spend an average of seven hours a day on their phone. Mark Zuckerberg and other social media barons admit to engaging brain dopamine reward networks to keep users on their sites longer. Young people under 20 are most susceptible to this effect, as frontal lobe functions responsible for self-regulation don’t develop until the early twenties.

Other studies show a direct correlation between the amount of time kids spend on phones and delayed development of social and other coping skills. Studies of teen suicide rates show a 56% surge since 2010, when smartphones and access to social media became widely available. Moreover psychologists and school counselors report a big increase in anxiety, depression and self-harm behavior linked to the steady increase in teen phone use.

Girls themselves report a significant increase in anxiety levels when their posts receive a lower number likes as their friends.

Even more alarming is the pressure girls feel to post sexualized images on sites such as Instagram and Snapchat. And the ubiquitous of presence of sexual predators who use social media to groom and hopefully meet girls as young as 12, the potentially lethal effect of cyberbullying. And the ease with which boys as young as eight are accessing hard core pornography on-line.

Disaster Capitalism: New Orleans Abandons Its Low Income Residents Post Katrina

Getting Back to Abnormal

Louis Alverez and Andy Kolker (2013)

Film Review

This documentary looks at the changing ethnic demographic in post-Katrina New Orleans through the fractious re-election campaign of city councillor Stacey Head. Head is the first white person to represent District B (which is 60% Black) in over thirty years. The 2010 election also led to the election of New Orleans’ first white mayor in 30 years.

The catastrophic flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina (2005) caused a mass exodus of New Orleans’ poorest (mostly Black) residents, as it was mainly their housing that was destroyed. As of 2010, 50,000 of them hadn’t returned, owing to a deliberate decision not to rebuild the low income buildings that housed them. In fact, the most contentious issue in Head’s 2010 campaign was a unanimous city council decision to demolish four low income housing facilities that survived Katrina.

They would be replaced by Columbia Park, a “mixed” income building, that left many low income New Orleans residents with nowhere to live.

The film mainly focuses on the vivacious African American woman who served as Head’s chief of staff and campaign manager. It also examines New Orleans’ longstanding refusal to address pernicious poverty. In doing so, it allows an essentially class issue to manifest through extreme racial tensions, and then papers over those tensions by hosting community-wide parades, festivals and athletic events.

Anyone with a public library card can view this documentary free on Kanopy. Type “Kanopy” and the name of your library into your search engine.

Call Me Intern: Modern Indentured Servitude

Call Me Intern

Directed by Lee David Hyde and Nathalle Berger (2019)

Film Review

This documentary is about a young Kiwi who takes an unpaid internship with the UN because he can’t find paid work. The main qualification he needs is adequate finance to pay all his housing and food costs (for a year). He decides to make a documentary about his dilemma and moves to Geneva, where he lives in a tent and puts on a suit everyday to put in 8+ hours of unpaid work.

According to Hyde, there has been an explosion in unpaid internships in the past 40 years. At present, 2 1/2 million interns receive no pay for 40-60 hour a week jobs, in the hope that interning will improve their chances of getting paid employment. Research shows it offers little advantage in getting paid work.

Studies show that only 5% of 18-30 year-olds can afford (ie cover their own living costs for a year) to do unpaid internships. It’s a reality that only exacerbates growing wealth inequality.

After he leaks his story to the press, Hyde and the tent he lives in make the front page of the Geneva Tribune. When the story goes global, the UN cites a General Assembly resolution that prevents them from paying interns. This despite a clause in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guaranteeing all workers “the right to just and favorable remuneration.”

The film also documents the equally deplorable experiences of two US interns. The first, a musician, works 12-hour days as an unpaid Warner Brothers intern until he loses his apartment. He fails to qualify for homeless accommodation because the internship makes him ineligible for public assistance. He eventually leads a class action lawsuit on behalf of all Warner Brothers interns.

The second works as an unpaid intern for the Obama campaign until she’s terminated for making a sexual harassment complaint.

The press coverage Hyde received in making his documentary would lead to the formation of the Global Intern Coalition and a Global Intern Strike they organized in February 2017.

Public library members can view the film free on Kanopy. Type Kanopy and the name of your library into your search engine.

https://pukeariki.kanopy.com/video/call-me-intern