Thursday, November 19, 2009

94th anniversary of labor hero Joe Hill's death by firing squad.

The Man Who Didn't Die
Thursday 19 November 2009
by: Dick Meister,

It's November 19, 1915, in a courtyard of the Utah State Penitentiary in Salt Lake City. Five riflemen take careful aim at a condemned organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), Joe Hill, who stands before them straight and stiff and proud.

"Fire!" he shouts defiantly.

The firing squad didn't miss. But Joe Hill, as the folk ballad says, "ain't never died." On this 94th anniversary, he lives on as one of the most enduring and influential of American symbols.

Joe Hill's story is that of a labor martyr framed for murder by viciously anti-labor employer and government forces, a man who never faltered in fighting for the rights of the oppressed, who never faltered in his attempts to bring them together for the collective action essential if they were to overcome their wealthy and powerful oppressors.

His is the story of a man and an organization destroyed by government opposition, yet immensely successful. As historian Joyce Kornbluh noted, the IWW made "an indelible mark on the American labor movement and American society," laying the groundwork for mass unionization, inspiring the formation of groups to protect the civil liberties of dissidents, prompting prison and farm labor reforms, and leaving behind "a genuine heritage ... industrial democracy."

Joe Hill's story is the story of, perhaps, the greatest of all folk poets, whose simple, satirical rhymes set to simple, familiar melodies did so much to focus working people on the common body of ideals needed to forge them into a collective force.

Remember? "You will eat, bye and bye/In that glorious land above the sky/Work and Pray, live on hay/You'll get pie in the sky when you die."

Ralph Chaplain, the IWW bard who wrote "Solidarity Forever," found Hill's songs "as coarse as homespun and as fine as silk; full of laughter and keen-edged satire; full of fine rage and finer tenderness; songs of and for the worker, written in the only language he can understand."

Joe Hill's story is the story of a man who saw with unusual clarity the unjust effects of the political, social and economic system on working people and whose own widely publicized trial and execution alerted people worldwide to the injustices and spurred them into corrective action.

It's the story of a man who told his IWW comrades, just before stepping in front of the firing squad: "Don't waste any time in mourning. Organize!"

Hill's comrades aimed at nothing less than organizing all workers into One Big Union regardless of their race, nationality, craft or work skills, calling a general strike and wresting control of the economy from its capitalist masters. The revolutionary message was presented in the simple language of the workplace, in the songs of Hill, Chaplain, and others, in the street corner oratory and in a tremendous outpouring of publications, including a dozen foreign-language newspapers, which were distributed among the many unskilled immigrants from European nations where unions had similar goals.

Workers were told again and again that they all had the same problems, the same needs and faced the same enemy. It was they who did the work, while others got the profit; they were members, all of them, of the working class. To aspire to middle-class status, as the established labor movement advocated, would mean competing against their fellow workers and chaining themselves to a system that enslaved them.

Organized religion also was a tool of enslavement, to keep the worker's eye on that "pie in the sky" while he was being exploited in this world. Patriotism was a ruse to set the workers of one nation against those of another for the profit of capitalist manipulators.

IWW organizers carried the message to factories, mines, mills and lumber camps throughout the country, and to farms in the Midwest and California.

The cause of radical unionism to which Joe Hill devoted his life was lost a long time ago. The call to revolution is scarcely heard in today's clamorously capitalist society. Labor organizations seek not to seize control of the means of production, but rather to share in the fruits of an economic system controlled by others. Yet, Joe Hill's fiery words and fiery deeds, his courage and his sacrifices continue to inspire political, labor, civil rights and civil liberties activists.

They still sing his songs, striking workers, dissident students, and others, on picket lines, in demonstrations, at rallies, on the streets and in auditoriums. They echo his spirit of protest and militancy, his demand for true equality, share his fervent belief in solidarity, even use tactics first employed by Hill and his comrades.

Hill emigrated to the United States from his native Sweden in 1902, changing his name from Joel Haaglund, working as a seaman and as an itinerant wheat harvester, pipe layer, copper miner, and at other jobs as he made his way across the country to San Diego, translating into compelling lyrics the hopes and desires, the frustrations and discontents of his fellow workers.

In San Diego, Hill joined in one of the first of the many "free speech fights" waged by the Industrial Workers of the World against attempts by municipal authorities around the country to silence the street corner oratory that was a key part of the IWW's organizing strategy.

Not long afterward, Hill hopped a freight for Salt Lake City where he helped lead a successful construction workers' strike and began helping organize another free speech fight. But within a month, he was arrested on charges of shooting to death a grocer and his son and was immediately branded guilty by the local newspapers and authorities alike. Ultimately, Hill was convicted on only the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence.

Hill had staggered into a doctor's office within an hour after the shootings, bleeding from a chest wound that he said had stemmed from a quarrel over a woman. The prosecutor argued that the wound was inflicted by the grocer in response to an attack by Hill, although he did not introduce into evidence either the grocer's gun or the bullet that allegedly was fired from it. He did not introduce the gun that Hill allegedly used and did not call a single witness who could positively identify Hill as the killer. But he easily convinced the jury that the murders were an example of IWW terrorism and that since Hill was an IWW leader and had been arrested and charged with the crime, he was guilty.

As Hill's futile appeals made their way through the courts, Gov. William Spry of Utah was swamped with thousands of petitions and letters from all over the world asking for a pardon or commutation. But he would not even be swayed by the pleas for mercy from the Swedish ambassador. Not even by the pleas of US President Woodrow Wilson.

The governor paid much greater attention to the views of Utah's powerful Mormon Church leaders and powerful employer interests, particularly those who controlled the state's dominant copper mining industry. They insisted that the man they considered one of the most dangerous radicals in the country be put to death.

Joe Hill's body was shipped to Chicago, where it was cremated after a hero's funeral, the ashes divided up and sent to IWW locals for scattering on the winds in every state except Utah. Hill, with typical grim humor, had declared, "I don't want to be caught dead in Utah."

Even in death, Hill was not safe from the government. One packet of his ashes, sent belatedly to an IWW organizer in 1917 for scattering in Chicago, was seized by postal inspectors. They acted under the Espionage Act, passed after the United States entered World War I that year, which made it illegal to mail any material that advocated "treason, insurrection. or forcible resistance to any law of the United States."

The envelope, containing about a tablespoon of Hill's ashes, was sent to the National Archives in Washington, DC. It remained hidden there until 1988, when it was discovered and turned over in Chicago to the men who presided over what little remained of the Industrial Workers of the World, shrunken to only a few hundred members.

The post office apparently had objected to the caption beneath a photo of Hill on the front of the envelope. "Joe Hill," it said - "murdered by the capitalist class, November 19, 1915."

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A legacy of incarcerating the innocent

Crusading Calif. D.A. retires, leaves painful wake

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — The molesters drank blood, the children said, and hung them from hooks after forcing them to have sex with their parents. They murdered babies, prosecutors told jurors, and snapped photographs as the horror unfolded.

Ed Jagels, renowned as one of California's toughest district attorneys, built his career on the Kern County child molestation cases of the 1980s, putting more than two dozen men and women behind bars to serve decades-long sentences for abusing children.

Appellate judges now say most of those crimes never happened.

Still, generations of voters have embraced the crusading prosecutor's tough-on-crime agenda in this blue-collar basin just a mountain range north of Los Angeles.
Now, as Jagels prepares to retire, the get-tough laws he championed are being criticized in a state crippled by soaring prison costs. And some of those he put away are going public with stories of wrongful conviction in a documentary film narrated by Sean Penn, one of his most ardent critics.

The Bakersfield trials — and half a dozen similar cases that rippled across America during the hysteria of that period — are widely acknowledged to have punished the innocent. Most convictions relied solely on children's testimony, and the state attorney general ultimately found county investigators coerced their young witnesses into lying on the stand and that the probe "floundered in a sea of unproven allegations."

But the silver-haired prosecutor maintains that justice was done in the cases that made him a darling of California's conservative movement.

"Innocent people may have been accused at one point or another, but what I really fear is that perfectly legitimate convictions have been overturned," Jagels said, sitting in his wood-panelled office among portraits of himself with Ronald Reagan and other Republican leaders. "How the people of Kern County feel about what I've done is much more important than what anyone else might think."

Such stunning setbacks might have derailed other elected officials, but Jagels, 60, has thrived amid the oil fields and orchards surrounding Bakersfield. He holds fast that he was right to form a special task force to investigate alleged molestation rings, right to assign his young attorneys to the cases and he has fought the release of those convicted.

He has been re-elected six times, is leaving office on his own terms and hopes to leave the reins next year to a handpicked successor.

That brings little comfort to Brandon Smith, who grew up without his parents after they were sentenced to prison for gruesome sex crimes he and his younger brother described on the witness stand. Smith said he only repeated what he heard during weeks of group therapy, and had no inkling his false statements would mean he would be separated from his family and assigned to live in foster homes for nearly a decade.

"They basically coached me through my whole testimony, and told me that I had to say that my parents had sexually abused me," said Smith, whose parents Scott and Brenda Kniffen served 12 years on molestation convictions before they were reversed by an appeals court. "We've all put it behind us, but the one thing I would love is a verbal apology from Ed Jagels for tearing my family apart."

Since the late 1980s, all but one of 26 convictions Jagels secured have been reversed. Kern County has paid $9.56 million to settle state and federal suits brought by former defendants and their children.

Penn, who met Smith through the film, says the Bakersfield cases struck a chord because he did a short stay in a Los Angeles County jail cell next to a man accused in a major Southern California child abuse case.

Raymond Buckey and his mother, who ran the McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach, ultimately were acquitted of 52 child molestation charges in 1990.
"There is no question that we have to take these kinds of questions very seriously, but in these cases a pretty good system was used really corruptly," said Penn, who also executive produced the film "Witch Hunt," which has been airing nationally on MSNBC. "Jagels orchestrated the rape of these children emotionally, not to mention the illegitimate prosecution of the adults."

Jackie Cummings fled Bakersfield with her husband and two sons in October 1984, when plainclothes police started casing their house looking for members of molestation rings. The family moved from campsite to campsite for a year, terrified that sheriff's deputies would arrest them because they knew a couple on trial for alleged child abuse.

When investigators tracked down the Cummings at a motel, they seized the children, arguing the couple were devil-worshipping molesters. After a year in foster care, their sons were pressured to testify against them in custody hearings.

"He's destroyed hundreds of people's lives," said Cummings, who was never charged with a crime, and whose custody case ultimately was thrown out. "We came back to Bakersfield and the jails were just filling up with people. We knew all those people were innocent, because we were innocent, too."

Since the 1980s, Jagels and county law enforcement officials have made major reforms to their investigative procedures, and now assure all interviews with child witnesses are videotaped and do not include suggestive questioning.

Jagels also has cut a wide swath through California politics in the last 30 years, leading a voter-driven campaign that unseated three liberal justices from the state Supreme Court, and fighting for California's stringent three-strikes law. He was once contemplated a run for state attorney general, but now says he plans to spend his retirement hunting elk. Conservatives praise Jagels' persuasive advocacy for victims' rights and tough sentencing laws, and his record of putting more people behind bars per capita than almost all other California counties.

"Anybody who has spent any time as a prosecutor knows Ed Jagels because he's had such a massive impact on the criminal justice system in California," said Steve Baric, secretary of the California Republican Party.

Now, however as California and other cash-strapped states face dire budget crises and prisons bursting at the seams, officials are rethinking whether it makes fiscal sense to keep locking up so many people for so long.

"As the economy has tightened, policymakers from both parties are asking much tougher questions about whether this tough-on-crime agenda is producing enough of a return for public safety," said Adam Gelb, a public safety policy expert at the Pew Center on the States in Washington.

Scott Thorpe, who leads the California District Attorneys Association in Sacramento, called Jagels a "prosecutor's prosecutor" who helped to popularize support for the death penalty.

Jagels remains adamant that putting more criminals in prison has kept a tight lid on crime in his rural pocket of the Central Valley, and says he'll retire assured that he used his power to keep his constituents safe.

"One thing we know for sure is criminals can't commit felonies when they're locked up," Jagels said. "If California prisons are overcrowded it's not because we have too many people in prison. It's because we don't have enough prisons."

Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Friday, November 13, 2009

"Going Rouge" Takes On the Palin Nightmare

"Going Rouge" Takes On the Palin Nightmare

Thursday 12 November 2009
by: Maya Schenwar, t r u t h o u t | Interview

Next Tuesday, when Sarah Palin's already-bestselling memoir, "Going Rogue: An American Life," hits shelves, another much-anticipated look at the Palin phenomenon will also debut: "Going Rouge: Sarah Palin - An American Nightmare" (available exclusively at The book includes both new and classic essays by the likes of Max Blumenthal, Eve Ensler, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Jessica Valenti, Juan Cole, Jim Hightower, Robert Reich, Naomi Klein and many more.

I interviewed Richard Kim and Betsy Reed, the editors of "Going Rouge," about Palin's place in the American political landscape, her influence on the tenor of Republican politics, and why they did not choose to make Levi Johnston a focal point of their anthology.

MS: Although your book is being released the same day as "Going Rogue" and has a similar cover, it doesn't seem like you intend to trick readers into buying the book when they mean to buy "Going Rogue." What was your aim in compiling this anthology?

Betsy Reed: We want to emphasize that although the cover has an element of satire, the book is not a parody. Our goal was to present a serious appraisal of Sarah Palin's record and an assessment of her role in American politics - and her future in American politics. She is a very well-packaged celebrity at this point, so we felt it was important to show her beneath the gloss.

Richard Kim: "Going Rogue" has already printed 1.5 million copies, and it has been number one on Amazon for weeks. We can assume that it's going to be painting her in the most generous and heroic light, and it's really important to tell the other side of her story, about her record in Alaska as governor, what she did on the campaign trail and what her politics are, and not to fall prey to the Sarah Palin branding machine.

BR: We're seeing this argument take shape where anyone who's critical of Sarah Palin is portrayed as launching unfair personal attacks on her. Our book is not personal at all; it's about who she is politically. There's really nothing about Levi Johnston in the book.

MS: That's refreshing.

RK: He only enters in there once or twice. There's no full-frontal nudity in the book, either.

MS: I'd like to know how you settled on the title of "Going Rouge," besides the play on words?

BR: Well, we can readily admit the play on words was a large part of the appeal, although we suggest in a cheeky way in our introduction that any similarities are purely coincidental.

But we also argue in our introduction that Sarah Palin represents something interesting and new in Republican politics, in that she is very much presented as a woman - a mother, a hockey mom - and her pedigree as a beauty queen was a very explicit part of her marketing as a vice-presidential candidate. This is highly suspect coming from a party that's been against every major agenda item for the women's movement. The title allows us to comment on that phenomenon: the Republican Party "going rouge."

Why do you think Sarah Palin remains so widely accepted by conservatives as a viable national politician, despite her obvious shortcomings?

RK: A part of that is definitely the narrative she sells; being a mom from Alaska. Also, she also does share the views of 20 percent of the electorate: the far right. And it's clear that they are not actually thinking in this moment of winning national elections. They're not even trying to hold onto a seat in New York's 23rd district, which has been in Republican hands since the 1850s. That was the race where Sarah Palin intervened and hacked out the moderate Republican. So that's a big question that's unknown: Is the Republican Party going to follow Palin into basically suicidal territory in terms of a national election?

BR: I think she does have quite a strong following among a certain cohort of Christian, conservative, white, married women. The Republican party is a mostly male phenomenon, but I think Republicans recognized that they needed to do better with women when they picked her.

RK: Going back to what Betsy said earlier, the narrative that she sends out of being persecuted is actually deeply resonant now with that portion of the Republican Party, which is out of power in the White House, out of power in Congress, and seeing the policies of the Bush years being rolled back. She constantly says, "I'm not being recognized by the national media, so I'm going to go rogue and tell you the story directly." In that way she can bypass Washington and bypass the media world.

BR: It's nothing new - The American right has always felt itself to be aggrieved. They always present themselves as fighting against a liberal elite. During the Bush years, obviously, they controlled everything. But now with Obama, there's a receptive audience for Sarah Palin's line of being the victim of this liberal conspiracy.

MS: That sense of victimhood can make it difficult for the media to cover Sarah Palin at all. If you had to map out a strategy for the progressive media in confronting the phenomenon of Sarah Palin over the next couple of years, what would you include?

RK: The best thing progressives did during the election was stick to record record record; facts facts facts. When you line those up, you see what a disaster she was as governor and what a disaster she would be as vice president.

That should be the strategy going forward. When she posts on Facebook that Obama's going to have "death panels" that execute her Downs Syndrome baby, we have to point to where he actually talks about optional end-of-life consultations. When she talks about how "In God We Trust" has been taken off the dollar coin, implying that it was an Obama plot, progressives have to point out that in fact, this was passed by a Republican Congress and George W. Bush.

So, there's going to be a portion of the electorate that believes whatever she says, but the results of the election and the results of the summer health care debate have shown that if we stick to the facts and the record, she's usually debunked.

MS: So, what kind of impact do you hope the book will have on Palin's probable presidential campaign?

BR: In some ways, Sarah Palin represents very bad news for the Republican Party. So part of us just wants to say, "Go for it!"

RK: But then, look at what she did with Betsy McCaughey's "death panels," which were just a little thing in the New York Post and no one on the national stage was paying attention to it. Then Sarah Palin blasted it on her Facebook page, and for the entire month of August, instead of discussing the public option or single payer or any of the other health care proposals out there, we were stuck fighting that garbage.

BR: So, we're probably not going to see President Palin in 2012. The larger effect we're looking at is that Sarah Palin is warping our political debate.

MS: Criticisms of Sarah Palin always seem to contain this combination of outrage and humor. That's a hard balance to strike, and I'm interested in how you dealt with that balance in compiling the anthology.

RK: Some of the humor in the book just comes from quoting Sarah Palin. She's funny enough just on her own. There's a piece in the book that puts Sarah Palin's own words into verse, in haiku form.

So, some of the writers have a lot of fun with her. She has a sort of comic element, but then there are also terrifying elements to her, like the ignorance that she exposed in her interviews with Katie Couric or with Charlie Gibson.

That balance is represented in the book. The appeal of her youth, her wardrobe, her charm has been used to evade the hard political questions of her record and her knowledge.

MS: Is Sarah Palin a "rogue" phenomenon, or does she represent a trend in the Republican Party?

RK: What we see in Sarah Palin's continued political relevance, even though she holds no office, is that in some ways she's doing what Newt Gingrich and Dick Armey and all these other former Republican politicians are doing - using their status as media figures to push an agenda. They don't have to actually govern, or face the consequences of their actions at the polls. So, what she represents is actually the takeover of the Republican Party by these non-governmental actors - and you can throw Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck in there - this cabal of people who are not beholden to any electorate. Those are the people in the driver's seat.

BR: There's not anything inherently wrong with a person who's a media personality being influential in politics. We have that on the left, too. But Paul Krugman makes a good point in his [Nov. 9] column: These people don't have to worry about governing, so they can be as irresponsible as they want in their rhetoric, and could potentially make the country ungovernable for Democrats.

RK: Even Arlen Specter and Joe Lieberman and Michele Bachmann have to come home and face their constituency. Sarah Palin doesn't need to do that anymore, and that's one of the things that makes her a great danger in the next few years.

"Going Rouge: Sarah Palin - An American Nightmare" can be purchased at