Saturday, October 11, 2014

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace



A brilliant young man who left Newark for the Ivy League

By Jeff Hobbs

A review

In his biography of Robert Peace, Jeff Hobbs’ goal was to give a comprehensive view of this young man’s life.  He has done much more than that.  Hobbs’ biography gives us a better view of the world we live in, than we see in the mainstream media today.

Robert Peace’s childhood

Robert grew up in Orange, New Jersey.  Orange is one of several towns in the Newark metropolitan area.

Robert’s mother Jackie, worked in hospitals and nursing homes serving food in area cafeterias.  She made a special effort to raise her child, reading to him at night and refusing go parties after his birth.  Jeff Hobbs’ had the following dedication to his book: “Dedicated to Robert DeShaun Peace and to his heart, Jacqueline Peace.”

Robert’s father, Skeet Douglas sold cocaine. 

Malcolm X, in his autobiography explained why some African Americans might be tempted to live a life outside the law.  When he was a student in school a teacher asked the young Malcolm what type of work he might want to do.  At the time Malcolm was thinking about being a lawyer.  His teacher responded, “. . . you’ve got to be realistic about being a n-(word).  A lawyer--that’s no realistic goal for a n-(word).  You need to think about something you can be.  You’re good with your hands--making things.  Everybody admires your carpentry shop work.  Why don’t you plan on carpentry?”

Malcolm X would become one of the most influential leaders of working people in the history of the United States.  However, before he made this transition he had an occupation similar to that of a corporate lawyer.  He was a thief.

Skeet Douglas appeared to know everyone in the neighborhood.  He introduced his son to his friends, and cultivated young Robert’s curiosity about their lives.  Douglass also was an educated man and gave his son the fundamentals of how to develop the discipline to study.  For these and other reasons, Robert had a deep bond with his father.

When Robert was seven years old, Skeet Douglas was accused of murder.  The police argued that they found a murder weapon on Douglas when they arrested him shortly after a murder.  Clearly, had Douglas been guilty of murder, the first thing he would have done would be to loose this weapon.  Jeff Hobbs showed how there was a witness willing to testify that Douglas had no weapon when the police arrested him.  This witness died before Douglas’ trial.

In this country, judges do not allow defense attorneys to present evidence showing that police departments have a history of abusing the rights of citizens who are accused of crimes.  In fact, during the summer of 1967 Newark exploded in a rebellion that was sparked by police abuse. 

One of the goals of Robert Peace’s life was to spend time with his father in prison, and to find a legalistic way to reverse his father’s conviction.  These efforts were met with almost total indifference from the state authorities of New Jersey.

St. Benedict’s

Robert’s mother Jackie felt that the best way to raise her son was to provide a private school education.  This required a great sacrifice, especially since his father had no income as a prison inmate.

Robert went to high school at St. Benedict’s Preparatory School.  St. Benedict’s happens to be located across the street from Arts High.  This is the art and music high school that I attended.  While Robert graduated from St. Benedict’s in the early 1990’s, I graduated from Arts High in 1971.

Robert became the outstanding student in his class.  His grade point average was near perfect.  He excelled in water polo even though he didn’t know how to swim when he started school.  He was also seen as a leader who assisted his classmates in their studies.  These efforts earned him the most prestigious award at St. Benedict’s. 

Charles Cawley was a graduate of St Benedict’s.  He was also the CEO of MBNA bank and had a salary of tens of millions of dollars per year.  Cawley looked at Robert’s record and decided that he would pay for most of Robert’s college education.  This was the only time Cawley made this kind of contribution that would about $140,000.

Yale University

Robert was accepted at Yale University.  Here Robert majored in one of the most challenging fields of study, molecular biochemistry.  While many students in this field struggled to absorb their lessons, Robert routinely aced his examinations.

Jeff Hobbs, the author of this book was Robert’s roommate at Yale.  There were two experiences Robert had at Yale that caught my attention.

Robert worked in Yale’s cafeteria in order to pay some of his bills.  One day he asked three students “politely” to bus their trays.  They refused and left their mess for Robert to clean up.  Robert was enraged at the attitude of these students.  Part of this rage might have been because he knew that his mother might have experienced this same kind of humiliation working in the Newark area.

Robert had a habit of smoking marijuana.  Given the stress he experienced in his life, he felt that smoking marijuana helped him relax.  He also learned that it was easy to sell this product on the Yale University campus.

Here we might think about the fact that a few states have legalized marijuana and others have made this product available for medicinal use.  However, the authorities at Yale called Robert into their office informing him that selling drugs was against school policy. 

These administrators understood that they had absolutely no intention of denying Yale students from getting high.  These administrators probably had used marijuana themselves.  Everyone in this room understood clearly that the reprimand Robert received was merely a show.  Robert learned from this meeting that he needed to be more careful.  In his years of selling this product, he was never apprehended by the police.         

We might also think about the fact that Yale University is a place where graduates work in top positions of the government.  Presidents George Bush Senior and Junior graduated from Yale as well as the Secretary of State John Kerry.  Many officers of the Central Intelligence Agency graduated from Yale.  The CIA has a long record of working to overthrow democratically elected governments all over the world.  Millions lost their lives because of the wars against the people of Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Clearly, these administrators at Yale would never dare reprimand those graduates about the horrendous crimes they have committed.  No, they only had the courage to bring a young Black man into their office to chastise him about selling a product that they all probably used.  

After graduation Robert had a dream of travelling to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil.  After studying for eight years in school he felt he needed a break.  Robert felt that the time he spent in Rio was the best time of his life.  Before travelling to Rio, Robert worked at a lab at Yale doing cutting edge research in an attempt to find a cure for cancer.

Back in Orange N.J.

Upon returning to Orange, New Jersey, Robert discovered that his immediate plans had fallen through and he needed to get a job.  He worked for a few years as a biology teacher at St. Benedicts. 

Then, he decided to work in real estate.  He quit St Benedicts and got a job at Continental Airlines as a baggage handler.  This job enabled Robert to travel the country, where he might find properties that he could purchase at a low price, and sell, making a bit of money.

Robert attained a license to do these transactions and had an understanding of the market.  The problem was that Yale University, one of the most prestigious in the nation, had political reasons for not teaching students the reality of the capitalist system.  Because people were ignorant of this reality, almost all economists were completely surprised when the housing market went bust.  This event ended Robert’s career in real estate.

Eventually Robert planed to attend graduate school, but he needed some money before making this transition.  He made a diligent search for a job, but found none.  Around this time, I was also looking for work.  It took me about eight months to find a job.

We might consider that President Obama argues that one of his major accomplishments was to reduce the unemployment rate.  Obama says this because he doesn’t count the number of people who have given up looking for work.  When we take these people into consideration, the unemployment rate has not changed since Obama has been president.  This is the largest percentage of people unemployed since the depression of the 1930’s. 

Robert felt that the only way for him to make this money would be to have one big score of marijuana.  Assassins murdered Robert Peace while he attempted to make this one last score.

What were Robert Peace’s options?

Reading this book, we can speculate that Robert Peace might have made different choices.  This could have allowed him to live a relatively prosperous life.  We can look to a few of Robert’s fellow graduates at Yale to get a better picture of what his alternatives were.

One graduate worked about 120 hours per week attempting to build a career at the Lehman Brothers investment firm.  This was before Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and their assets, in effect, vaporized.

Jeff Hobbs, the author of this book, had a problem finding work with his degree in English.  For a while he relied on his wife’s income and stayed at home caring for their children.

Ty Chantey graduated at the top of Robert’s class at Yale.  Initially he wanted to be a research scientist.  Then, he discovered that he would need to pay back $350,000 in student loans.  Because of this debt, he decided to become a dermatologist.  He and his wife were resident doctors and they never saw each other.  They worked on opposite shifts because of the need to care for their children.

A few months before Robert Peace’s murder, Ty Chantey called his friend.  He told Robert that, “I’ve always looked up to you.”  With all the stress Chantey was experiencing, he remembered the good times he had with a friend who made him feel at ease.  400 people came to Robert Peace’s funeral because Robert had this same kind of effect on their lives.

We might also think about Robert’s friend Ina who joined the military and spent time in Afghanistan.  After returning from her combat mission she called Robert and said she worried about him.  This statement surprised Robert thinking that she faced a dangerous time when in Afghanistan. 

Ina responded, “I was there for a year.  And no one I knew was killed or even hurt.  Back home, though, a lot of people were killed.”

Thinking about these words we might also think about the former Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Corey Booker.  Booker was also a Yale graduate and argued that his main accomplishment was reducing the crime rate in the city.        

This is not the story of someone who made bad choices in their life.  This is the story of an extremely talented individual with leadership abilities who did his best.  This is the story of the political economic system of capitalism that was completely indifferent to these efforts.  This is a story of how the people who support capitalism are only interested in outstanding efforts when it is about generating super-profits for the wealthy.


       

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Payouts and Cutbacks - Philly's city government dumps money on the affluent



Recently a new boardwalk opened in Philadelphia.  The boardwalk runs along the Schuylkill River between Locust Street and South Street.  The boardwalk extends the pedestrian and bicycle path that also runs along the Schuylkill.  Recently, I rode my bike about sixteen miles to see what the finished boardwalk looked like and took the photo included in this blog.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the cost of this boardwalk was eighteen million dollars and the project took a total of eight years.  The Inquirer had political reasons for not reporting on many of the other costs that made it possible for this boardwalk to be built.

The priorities of city government

For this boardwalk to be built, those people who had the resources made a few decisions about what their priorities are.  We can see what these priorities are by looking at where money has been spent in Philadelphia. 

1) Sports stadiums and convention centers were built at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

2) The Philadelphia City Charter requires that the first item that needs to be paid in the city budget is for city bonds.  Some of the owners of these bonds are, no doubt, some of the most affluent people in the area.  Tens of millions of dollars, that is paid out by the city is interest payments on these bonds.  So, in other words, affluent individuals reap millions merely by lending the Philadelphia government money.

3) Philadelphia has the largest tax abatement program in the nation, amounting to about $500 million in tax credits for new construction.  The owners of many of the buildings in the above photo received tax abatements and pay no taxes for ten years. 

The tallest building in the above photo is the one billion dollar headquarters for the Comcast Corporation.  The owners of this building pay no taxes.  Brian L. Roberts is the CEO of Comcast and he is the highest paid executive in the Delaware Valley.

Recently the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an article that showed how the people of this city benefitted from all these investments.  The article states that Philadelphia has become the poorest of the ten largest cities in the nation.

Goods and services that working people need

Yes, when the plans were made to invest in this new boardwalk, basic services that working people need were consciously neglected.

1) In this country, the agriculture department estimates that one out of every six people doesn’t have enough food to eat.

2) Last year the Philadelphia city government closed twenty-three public schools and the cutbacks in education are just beginning.  The city government has actually made a decision to violate the contract they have with the teachers union.  They are doing this attempting to force teachers to make financial contributions to their health insurance.

We might consider that the teachers of Philadelphia have already lost 3,000 support personnel.  This has meant that teachers need to have overcrowded classes in run down schools.  Sylvia Simms of the School Reform Commission had this to say about the efforts teachers are making under these difficult conditions.  She argued that teachers are “playing games on the backs of our children.”

Ms. Simms neglected to mention that the above evidence shows that the city government has been a literal cash dumping machine.  As we have seen the city has been dumping millions of dollars on some of the most affluent people who live in this area. 

The other government action program for dealing with these problems has been to spend trillions of dollars on war, as well as making the United States the nation with the most prisoners in the world.

Cuba

The U.S. government has consistently argued that their actions serve all the people who live in this country.  The island nation of Cuba has shown that it is possible for a government to have a different set of priorities.

Since the revolution, two of the main priorities of the Cuban government has been health care and education.  Today, Cuba has more doctors and teachers per capita than any other nation in the world. 

Recently, Cuba sent about 400 health care workers to Africa to treat patients who have the Ebola virus.  The World Health Organization argues that Cuba today is sending more health care workers to fight this disease than any other nation in the world.

The World Bank has also argued that Cuba has the best educational system in all of Latin America.

Conclusion

I found the new boardwalk in Philadelphia to be an enjoyable place to stroll or ride a bike.  With all the wealth in this country, there is no rational reason why poverty is not being eliminated.  Clearly there are also enough resources to make more projects like this boardwalk possible. 

However, if I had to choose, I would prefer that money be spent to eliminate poverty, and hunger.  I would also like it if the Constitution in this country was more like the Cuban Constitution.   Cuba guarantees every citizen the right to a lifetime of free education and health care.


Thursday, October 2, 2014

A Tale of Two Cities – Bagdad & Detroit

Bagdad

Detroit


Recently I viewed two different stories.  One was an article in the Washington Post by Saif Al-Azzawi titled I despised Saddam’s police state, but the Islamic state would not exist under his rule.  The other story was Anthony Bourdain’s hour long program on the city of Detroit.  Both these stories reported how once relatively thriving cities have been nearly destroyed.  Understanding the history of these two cities, we can see a certain similarity as to the cause of their demise.

Bagdad

Saif Al-Azzawi reported that up until he was aged ten, he lived an uneventful childhood.  His parents were middle class.  Iraq was a largely secular state.  His mother wore western clothes and never covered her hair.  People from Arab countries came to Iraq for its university and its health care system.  Then, Iraq invaded Kuwait and the United States went to war.

The U.S. military deliberately bombed the infrastructure of Iraq.  This meant that Al-Azzawi’s family no longer had access to water.  A water tank was placed on the roof of their home, and this was the family’s new source of water. 

The Iraqi weather can be swelteringly hot.  Without electricity there was no air-conditioning.  Yet at night windows were closed to keep out the mosquitoes. 

In 1990 before the war a flat of eggs cost two Iraqi dinars.  By 2003 these same eggs cost thousands of dinars.  Al-Azzawi’s job as a pharmacist paid him 50,000 dinars per month.

Al-Azzawi’s conclusion from his experiences was that “All these people­–both Americans and Iraqis who have died since 2003–died for nothing.”

Certainly Al-Azzawi considered Saddam Hussein to be a tyrant.  However, the United States government has a routine policy of supporting ruthless dictatorships.  In fact, the U.S. government supported Hussein for about thirty years.

The standard of living improved in both Iraq and Iran when those nations nationalized their oil reserves.  The United States used the C.I.A. in both these nations to overthrow the governments that nationalized the oil.  In Iran the Shah came to power, and in Iraq Saddam Hussein became the dictator.

When a popular revolution overthrew the Shah, the U.S. government gave support to Saddam Hussein in his war against the revolutionary Iranian government.  I’ve read estimates that as many as one million people died as a result of that war.

After the United States armed forces defeated Saddam Hussein the soldiers in the armed forces of Iraq lost their jobs.  Today the United States is waging war against the organization ISIS.  This organization is made up largely of former Iraqi solders who lost their jobs when the United States took over Iraq.

Detroit

The story of Detroit is different.  In order to begin to understand what happened to this city we need to look at a bit of labor history.

We might say that the labor movement started in this country in the year 1877.  This year marked the end of the relatively democratic reconstruction governments in the former confederate states.  This date also marked the defeat of the Native American nation known as the Nez Perce.  This defeat marked the near end of about 100 years of genocidal warfare against Native Americans.

1877 also saw the great rail strike that erupted in that year.  For almost sixty years the labor movement waged numerous strikes against employers.  The large majority of these strikes ended in a defeat for the workers.  Then, in 1934, during the middle of the depression, three strikes won union recognition.  These victories paved the way for millions of workers to be organized in unions.

During the Second World War, the United States government demanded that workers forget their labor demands and join the war effort.  This meant that corporations would reap windfall profits while the wages of workers were frozen. 

During the war years the United Mine Workers Union violated the governments no-strike laws.  Also, Black workers continued the fight against the institutionalized discrimination they faced.

After the war, working people continued their fight against our real enemy.  The largest strike wave in the history of the United States erupted all across the nation.

Outside of Detroit in Dearborn, Michigan, the Ford Motor Company built their River Rouge plant.  Henry Ford pioneered the idea of an assembly line to manufacture automobiles.  Before the assembly line the production of autos was highly skilled requiring blueprints for each vehicle.

Many workers in Michigan didn’t want to do the monotonous, dangerous, and stressful work on the assembly line.  Black workers, who had escaped the Jim Crow segregation in the South were looking for any work they could find.  This is why Henry Ford began a deliberate policy of hiring Black workers.

Under these conditions, the United Auto Workers Union needed to fight against discrimination in this country.  By doing this they demonstrated to Black workers that the union supported their interests.   Eventually the United Auto Workers Union became one of the largest in the nation.  The union as well as auto production was centered in the Detroit area.

U.S. government assistance to auto corporations

The original method of mass transportation in the United States was rail.  Rail transport is much more fuel-efficient than automotive.  Rail can also run on electricity that doesn’t need to be powered by oil.  Oil reserves in the world will begin to run out in the next fifty years.  Ever since 1945 there have been over 30,000 deaths due to auto accidents every year.

With this kind of record, one would think that the government would have made it a central priority to promote rail transport.  This would have especially been effective in cities where the entire population could be supported on rail transport. 

However, this did not happen.  Politicians in this country took money from all the corporations associated with the manufacture of autos.  In turn, the government promoted the idea of building highways, roads, tunnels, and bridges for auto transport.  The money spent on these efforts must have amounted to trillions of dollars in government spending.

Without these roads, automobiles have little value.  In other words, the automotive corporations may have had some of the biggest government handouts in the history of the world.

The results

Because of these government handouts and the labor of workers in the auto industry, the auto corporations became the largest in the world.  Because of the union, workers began to have benefits they never had before.  Workers won the eight-hour day, and many could afford a home, a car, and even college education for their children.

Then, with no vision of the future, the auto companies manufactured eight cylinder gas gulling cars en mass.  This appeared to be all right while the price of gas was about thirty cents per gallon.  During these years the quality of new cars was not a major concern.  When I grew up, they used to call a FORD a, “Fix Or Repair Daily,” or a “Found On the Road Dead”

The Japanese auto manufacturers saw how they could take advantage of these problems.  Japanese workers began to produce quality cars that were fuel-efficient.  The result was that the Japanese auto companies took about twenty-five percent of the auto market away from the big three U.S. auto corporations.  Today, Toyota is the largest auto manufacturer in the world.

Detroit today

The population of Detroit has declined from nearly two million in 1950, to about seven-hundred-thousand today.  All social services have been cut, including the fire department.  Abandoned homes have been used for selling drugs.  The speculation is that neighbors dealt with this problem by burning abandoned houses down.  These fires keep the fire department extremely busy.

The auto corporations not only shut down entire facilities, they didn’t have the decency to properly demolish the buildings where these corporations reaped super-profits.  Anthony Bourdain likened the auto factory ruins to the ruins of ancient cities in Europe.  These ruins are also monuments to the effects of massive government support to the auto-manufacturing corporations. 

Yes, this is the story of two cities.  One city was nearly destroyed by war.  The other was nearly destroyed by development.  The United States government needs to be held accountable for the destruction of these two cities.

Havana, Cuba

After the Cuban Revolution, the new Cuban government made a decision not to prioritize the modernization of the city of Havana.  The priority was to develop the rest of the island that had been neglected due to imperialist exploitation.

The development of Cuba has been hampered by the fact that the government only had a single crop economy to work with when they came to power.  Another problem has been the embargo by the United States government.

However, with all these problems, today every Cuban has a lifetime right to health care and education.  With its extreme limitations Cuba has made the needs of the people its top priority.  Recently, Cuba has sent 165 health care workers to Africa to aid in the fight against the Ebola virus. 

As a result, today Cuba has an infant mortality rate that is equivalent to some of the most developed nations in the world.  This infant mortality rate is much lower than that same rate in the urban centers of the United States.


The reality of Cuba today demonstrates how the tale of two cities doesn’t need to be the future of humanity.