November 19, 2016

Funeral for a friend

I got some sad news this week. A friend of mine I hadn't seen for years died after a long illness. We met over 20 years ago in the midst of a huge struggle between the Ravenswood Aluminum Corporation (RAC) and the 1,700 union members and their families who were locked out of the plant.

RAC used to be owned by Kaiser Aluminum but its ownership had been kicked around over the years. The management at the time was eager to get rid of the union, even though the workers agreed to continue working under the terms and conditions of the old contract.

At midnight Oct. 31,1990 they were informed that they would be locked out of their jobs and permanently replaced.

The average age of a union worker was over 50 with over 20 years of service at the company.

What followed was a fight that lasted nearly two years and bitterly divided the community.

I visited the area with a union  miner friend shortly after it started. We had some experience in that kind of thing and offered solidarity, but nobody seemed interest. It was around a year later that I got a call from inviting me to come and meet with some steelworkers and members of the women's support group.

We met above a place called Ike's and it was there that I met my friend Sue. She was active in the support group but was the most unlikely labor militant you'd ever meet. She was a devoted homemaker and mother of three, active in her church and community. Neither she nor any of the other people impacted by the lockout ever imagined they'd be in this kind of situation.

We met regularly with folks for several months, trying to think of things to keep morale up while events took their course. I worked a lot with the women's group. This may not be a surprise to anybody, but I found they were more concerned with how everyone was doing and were more likely to follow through. No one seemed to look out for others as much as Sue. She was part of the glue that held people together at a critical time.

Eventually and against all odds, they won the lockout, thanks to unsung heroes like Sue. After two years of living dangerously, folks readjusted to a "normal" life.

No victory is permanent, but the plant stayed open and stayed union for until 2009. It's now closed.

It was a good fight, and the best part for me was meeting and standing together with people like Sue.

When you're in a struggle like that, people often swear to stay in touch. Sometimes you do, but often the tides of life cause us to drift apart.

I had lost contact with Sue until I got the news and it  hit me pretty hard. I guess a lot of the people I knew from that fight have passed. And I'm not getting any younger.

I guess the main thing is to do what we can with the time we have. She did anyway.

November 17, 2016

Want to do something?

So if you are one of the millions of people out there who are wanting to do SOMETHING now, here's a simple step for those who live in West Virginia: sign this petition asking the president elect not to turn his back on nearly 180,000 West Virginians from working families who benefit from Medicaid expansion. When you've done that, share the link with others on all your social media.

Once you've done your good deed for the day, you can jog a victory lap and reward yourself by listening to the latest Front Porch podcast.

Is this a full service blog or what?

November 16, 2016

A little good news on police community relations

This op-ed of mine on recent positive news about police/community relations in Charleston came out in yesterday's Gazette Mail.

The ancient Chinese sage Confucius (aka Kong Fuzi) was once asked what a kingdom needed to survive. He answered adequate food, armaments and the trust of the people. When pressed about which he would give up if necessary, he said he’d first part with armaments and then food.

His reasons still make sense: “Death has always been the lot of humanity; but if the people have no faith in their rulers, then the state cannot exist.”

It’s as true today as 2500 years ago that the greatest protection for people in positions of authority is to be seen by citizens as legitimate and worthy of trust.

That’s especially true for those charged with maintaining public safety, especially police officers who put their bodies on the line every day.

Unfortunately, that trust has been damaged in many parts of the country by the tragic killings of African Americans, particularly young men, by police officers. These have eroded public trust, outraged many people, created civic unrest and even contributed to the killings of police officers.

This is sad in so many ways. Ironically, many of the communities most in need of legitimate law enforcement are those in which trust has been damaged.

Incidents like this can happen anywhere and quickly spin out of control, leading to situations where no one wins in the end.

That’s why I think it’s great that the Charleston Police Department, in partnership with many community organizations, has taken major steps to get out in front of this issue.

For more than a year, police officials under the leadership of Chief Brent Webster, met and partnered with groups such as NAACP-Charleston, Black Ministerial Alliance, Our Children Our Future, American Friends Service Committee, American Civil Liberties Union-WV, Kanawha County Public Defender’s Office, East End Family Resource Network, RESET, the Tuesday Morning Group and the WV Coalition Against Domestic Violence to hammer out some real solutions to these problems.

What they came up with could well be a model for the nation, but getting there wasn’t always easy or pretty. The complex bundle of issues involved weren’t unique to Charleston and certainly didn’t begin here. Over time it became clear that both community members and the police were caught up in much larger systems and a long and often ugly historical process.

My co-worker Lida Shepherd described it like this:

“The first meeting with Chief Webster with the Charleston Police Department was slightly tense. We were sitting around the table to discuss the fact that the arrest rate of blacks in our small city of just over 50,000 people was more than double that of whites. Before getting into the problem at hand, we all shared why each of us personally thought it was important to address racism, a dialogue that highlighted how the problem we were meeting about was not about singling out the Charleston Police Department as an offending racist institution, but like all the institutions with which we affiliate, are all part of a broader problem of systemic racism.”

After a lot of give and take, the group came up with a comprehensive program. To promote transparency, the department will begin publishing monthly arrest statistics broken down by age, race, gender and reason for arrest and will implement state of the art body camera technology and best practices.

To reduce the likelihood of unfortunate incidents that could endanger civilians or police, promote better understanding of larger issues, and improve community relations, the department will implement de-escalation training, require training on the dynamics of race and racism, and hold roll call presentations so that officers and community members can hear from each other.

The coalition will also launch a Youth Advisory Council to be composed of a diverse group of at least 10 young people aged 18-25 which will which will plan on-going dialogue and events between youth and officers, and make annual recommendations to continue to improve the relationship between youth and officers.

In addition, the department will offer annual community service awards which to recognize officers who demonstrate their commitment to community policing and have engaged in acts of compassion and caring.

Finally, the Charleston Police Department has pledged to cooperate with other community leaders to advocate for policy changes that reduce recidivism and improve the chances for ex-offenders to successfully re-enter the larger society.

If steps like this had been implemented around the country a few years back, black and blue lives would have been saved and all kinds of trouble would have been avoided.

After this was announced at a recent press conference, there was some inevitable trolling on the internet (I’ve come to regard feeding internet trolls as a form of Christian charity). But there was quite a bit of positive support across the political spectrum.

A Daily Mail editorial said “By building mutual respect and cooperation, police officers and the community can successfully maintain order in Charleston and become a model for the rest of the nation.”

Conservative broadcaster Hoppy Kercheval wrote “The Charleston Police Department and community leaders deserve credit for being foresighted. Their efforts do not guarantee the state’s Capital City won’t have its version of a Charlotte, Baton Rouge or Baltimore, but they do reduce the possibility, while simultaneously strengthening relations between the police and citizens.”

I agree. And I love it when West Virginians lead the nation in something positive. It doesn’t happen every day. But it happens.

November 14, 2016

Want to do something?

If you live near the Charleston WV area and want to do something, please consider coming to the West Virginia Welcomes Refugees rally tomorrow Nov. 15 at 5:00 pm at the corner of Court Street and Kanawha Boulevard.

You can find news about the event here. There's also this op-ed by Rabbi Victor Urecki and this Gazette editorial.

This won't take care of everything, but it might help "break the freeze" some of us have been feeling.

November 13, 2016

On the porch

The latest Front Porch discusses the recent election and whether the president elect, whose name escapes me at the moment, and the governor elect Jim Justice will be able to keep their promises. Or should.