Mark Rothko no-8-1952
From childhood, it seems, we are inculcated with the grand themes of Passover: freedom from slavery! Liberation! Then, in different ways, we translate those themes into usable models for our lives: just as we were liberated, so too must we work for the liberation of others. As Michael Walzer documented in his book Exodus and Revolution, the Exodus story has inspired many groups in many parts of the world to revolution, to radically change their material existence.
Sometimes however, the overwhelmingly large themes overshadow the equally important though smaller moments. Those moments are often the things that actually move the dial, make a difference in the world. There is a wonderful and very short story in the Talmud (Pesachim 115b). The story follows a detailed discussion of the intricate choreography of the seder meal, the liturgical meal that Jews celebrate on Passover eve. Food on trays is brought in and then taken out. Wine is poured and drunk, and then poured again. Foods are dipped. And so on. Continue reading
We, as a nation, are in the midst of a full blown crisis. While the carnivalesque debaucheries of the Trump run at the White House have taken much of the air out of the room, exposing a dangerous level of xenophobic hatred and racist violence in segments of the American electorate, there is another crisis which is not getting the attention it deserves.
This crisis is being acted out with the slow motion intensity of a car crash in Chicago, but also in Baltimore, in Texas, in Minneapolis, and here in Los Angeles. Though the details of the crisis change slightly from place to place, the bottom line is the same: as a result of a lack of transparency, a history of abuse, law enforcement agencies have lost credibility, and therefore a lack of legitimacy among the people and communities that they are supposed to be serving. Continue reading
Tonight we light the seventh Hanukah light.
The Hanukah lights are about the boundary—between inside and outside, between public and private, between the market and the home. Also between the past and the present, and between ourselves and others.
The Torah portion that we read today in synagogue recounts the Joseph story. It is called miketz, at the end. The portion begins at the end of Joseph’s seven years of imprisonment on the false charge of attempting to rape his master’s wife. Joseph is called to Pharaoh from his cell to interpret Pharaoh’s dream, which he does successfully. He is rewarded with the highest position in the kingdom—second only to Pharaoh himself. Joseph is given authority over all the lands and resources of the kingdom, authority to collect food and prepare Egypt for the famine to come. Continue reading
Tonight we light the third Hanukah light.
We place the hanukiyah, the Hanukah candelabrum, on the boundary between inside and outside, at the place where private meets public. The flames, except in times of great danger, must be seen from the public spaces. The public space is not nobody’s space—it is everybody’s space. It is the place in which democracy happens, in which people gather together to bring about change. It is the place in which we must play out our responsibility to everybody. Placing our hanukiyah in the window, or outside next to the door, is making the statement that the boundaries between my house and the world are permeable. I do not retreat to my house so as to shut out the injustice and pain of the world. I retreat to my house to gather my strength with my family and friends so that I can go out and make a change in the world—so that we can stand together in the public spaces, the streets, the halls of political power, and demand accountability, and articulate a vision for a more just city, and country, and world.
The public space is also, for some, a cold and threatening space. It is the only place that some folks have to lay their weary bodies down to sleep. When I place my hanukiyah on the permeable boundary between my house and the world, I also embrace those people who only have the public place, a dangerous and cold space—where our prayers are not enough, and nothing less than radical change will suffice.
A favorite saying of the gun rights absolutists is “an armed society is a polite society.” However, the essence of democracy is not politesse—it is argument and debate over core issues. The way to create a more perfect union is not by sitting politely and waiting for one to come by. The only way to perfect our democracy, to try to perfect our democracy, is by the time honored tradition of debate and dissent. None of this is polite. It is confrontational, loud, at times chaotic. It is engaged, at its best, it is educational—ideological opponents engaged in verbal and rhetorical give and take about the public good.
On the other hand, Wayne La Pierre and his NRA minions want everybody to be armed. In that way you will express your opinion only to the extent that you have more weapons. Once you are outgunned you will politely retreat to your corner. This is not democracy. Continue reading
The good news is that Los Angeles has declared a State of Emergency on homelessness. This will enable the city to focus $100 million in resources towards housing those on the streets and preventing others from falling into homelessness. The bad news is that there has been a homelessness crisis for years. In fact, for much of that time, the city was part of the problem. At the beginning of the summer, City Council passed an ordinance which allowed LAPD or other city workers to confiscate (“steal”) the private property of people living on the streets—including their ID and medicines. While the summer in the poverty and homelessness committee of City Council has been spent in an attempt to gently walk back parts of the ordinance (which our mayor didn’t sign, but did not veto, and therefore it became law), the basic idea that being homeless is a criminal activity deserving of punishment still stands.
It is therefore a positive development that the same Council members from the Homelessness and Poverty Committee, were those who were, with the mayor, announcing a state of emergency. One, however, remains skeptical. In the last budget, approximately $100 million was allocated for homelessness. However, out of that $81 million was for LAPD while only $13 million was for homeless services. Criminalizing and jailing homeless folks will not solve the problem. This morning, the mayor again promised $100 million for fighting homelessness, and again said that $13 million would be put towards housing. In Los Angeles’ insane housing market, when there is not enough existing housing stock to house all those who need housing, $13 million is woefully inadequate. Luckily, along with members of the business community (a lot of the same folks who opposed the $15 an hour wage) there was a strong showing of housing and homeless advocates at the press conference this morning, to remind the mayor and the council that we will be keeping a wary eye on where the money ends up, and whether the community has serious input into those decisions. Continue reading
Watching, reading, and thinking about Baltimore, the killing of Freddie Gray by Baltimore police, and the current nonviolent and violent reactions to that killing, I keep going back to Hannah Arendt. Arendt, in her essay on violence, draws an important distinction between violence and power.
Politically speaking, it is not enough to say that power and violence are not the same. Power and violence are opposites; where the one rules absolutely, the other is absent. Violence appears where power is in jeopardy, but left to its own course its end is the disappearance of power. This implies that it is not correct to say that the opposite of violence is nonviolence: to speak of nonviolent power is actually redundant. Violence can destroy power; it is utterly incapable of creating it. (Reflections on Violence)
The power that concerns Arendt is the power of political communities. Power is the result of people coming together for political ends. Or as Arendt says: “Power needs no justification as it is inherent in the very existence of political communities…”. However, Arendt here adds a supremely important caveat: “…what, however, it does need is legitimacy.” Power is dependent on legitimacy. This is why violence is the opposite of power. When the power of a political community is legitimate, when it is recognized as legitimate by those who form the community, then there is no need for the violence of domination. It is only when legitimacy disappears that violence takes center stage. Continue reading
I had the unique pleasure and privilege late yesterday afternoon to sit with six of the twelve powerful, brave women who were in the seventh day of a fifteen day fast. They are fasting to bring attention to the campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. It was a privilege to be brought into their circle.
They shared their challenges and their blessings. Martha Sanchez grew up in Mexico, and raised her seven siblings by herself as her mother had emigrated to the United States in order to send back money to support the family. She said that this was the first time she felt comfortable—among these women—to publicly recount the hardships of her childhood, the hunger and the abuse. She is driven by the hope that her children’s life will be better. That she and her husband won’t both have to work so much, because of low wages, that they don’t see their own children.
TJ Michaels is an organizer with SEIU 721 and the Fix LA coalition. She is fasting as a sacrifice to identify with the sacrifices of single mothers who, in her words, “make 26 sacrifices every morning before I wake up.” She spoke her frustration earlier yesterday at a City Council meeting. She pointed out to council members that 40% of Angelinos make under $15 an hour, and if they really wanted to do something about homelessness in the homelessness capital of the country, they would raise the minimum wage. (A living wage for an adult with one child in Los Angeles is $23.53 an hour. $15 an hour is a step in the right direction, but it is not the shores of Canaan.) Continue reading
We are on a journey. This period that we are now moving through, the seven weeks that start on the second day of Passover and end at Shavuot or Weeks, the next holiday in the calendrical cycle, is a journey from Egypt to Sinai. It is deeply symbolic that as the first day of Passover was waning this year, we were marking the 47th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This year that anniversary was marked amidst the outcries of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, amidst the sounds of gunshots and the cries of unarmed black and brown men killed by officers of the law, of the state.
We are on a journey—but where are we going? Continue reading
At a dinner the other night I was talking to a good friend who works in the hi-tech industry. Knowing that I blog about economic justice issues he suggested I write about the “Uber and Lyft economy.” “The whole world is Uber and Lyft,” he said, arguing that the working conditions of Uber and Lyft drivers—wherein the company controls the working hours and working conditions of the drivers, and yet considers them to be independent contractors and therefore is not responsible for paying their social security tax, health insurance, etc.—are not exclusive to Uber and Lyft. Rather, he said, corporations in general were trying to move to a model wherein all workers were independent contractors and therefore the corporations have no obligations to them beyond basic salary.
I agreed with him that this is a serious issue. When I suggested however that it was tied to the larger labor issues in the economory—wage theft and working conditions amongst low wage workers, truck drivers at the ports and other folks—he was surprised. He did not know that wage theft was such a problem. (In truth, this should be the reaction of any moral person. How could someone steal someone else’s wages? In the Talmud, wage theft is compared to “murder” (Baba Metzia 111b) ) Continue reading