Hate Crime Visits Pittsburgh, again.

April 28, 2000. I’m sitting in the lobby of the Gatwick Airport Hilton having a cup of coffee with colleagues. It’s early morning— it would be early afternoon back in my hometown of Pittsburgh. A co-worker walks over to me and says, “you need to call home right now”. I looked puzzled. She continued, “someone just shot up your synagogue. I just saw it on CNN”. What she heard was very much true. A white supremacist named Richard Baumhammers had gone on a shooting spree, driving to various locations around the city and killing people— a Jew, an African-American, two Indian-Americans, and two Vietnamese-Americans. On his very methodical and mapped out tour, he took time to stop at our little shul in the Borough of Carnegie and shoot out all the plate glass windows in the building entrance. No one was in the shul at that time of day. (Note: I prefer to use the Yiddish word “shul” instead of “synagogue”)

I have always held an opinion that this kind of crime was not really predictable or preventable (Baumhammers used a hand gun and had no prior interactions with police). To me they were like lightning striking. These horrific events were random in nature, occurring at various places around the country at various intervals. They’re horrific when they visit your doorstep, but you have no choice but to deal with it and move on. I subsequently argued against locking down the shul during services or having an armed guard. I’ve never wanted to live in a cage or avoid public life out of fear. After all, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. But. But. But. In just the past week we’ve had pipe bombs sent to 14 people including two former presidents, two African-Americans were murdered for no other reason than they were black, and 11 Jews were murdered here in Pittsburgh at Tree of Life Congregation. (Tree of Life is in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, not in my borough). White nationalist violence now clearly has a green light from President Trump and the Republican Party is solidly behind him. I’m afraid the violence is just getting started. Because the Tree of Life shooting occurred just two days ago, I don’t have a coherent message about what I expect in the future (other than more building security). But here are some thoughts that were going through my head this weekend.

  1. The shooter, Robert Bowers, didn’t just pick Tree of Life at random. He got the name from HIAS’ list of congregations participating in a special program to welcome and assist refugees. In one of his online postings, Bowers actually thanked HIAS for giving him a list of targets. HIAS is an old organization that does noble work. Living nearby to me are a young couple with a small child who are Syrian Kurd refugees. They are grateful to be here in America. I am a donor to HIAS and will continue to be.

2. Leaders of our neighboring Muslim community reached out to me immediately after the shooting. I value their friendship and camaraderie. Pittsburgh Muslims and Jews have a mutually supportive relationship. That might seem strange to some, but there are a lot of white supremacists in Western Pennsylvania. Jews and Muslims have learned to look after each other. Watch this clip to the end.

3. Too many Jews are under the impression they are white. Can we just stop that please? Just stop. If you know your history, then you know that “whiteness” was invented by the klan to establish the white power structure that we still live with today. Jews are not included, no matter how white your skin may appear. Robert Bowers obviously doesn’t think you’re white; that should be a clue.

4. Trump says he’s coming to Pittsburgh. I’m not sure that a white nationalist president will be welcome at a Jewish funeral. And Israeli PM Netanyahu says he’s sending Naftali Bennett to Pittsburgh as an outreach. I don’t think Israeli Trumpsters are any more welcome than Trump himself. But we’ll see.

5. The Tree of Life shooting reminded us that if you see news reports like, “active shooter. officers down. suspect under arrest.”, that means the shooter is white. Brown or black people do not survive shooting a police officer.

In peace and solidarity.

Addiction is not a Crime

As Schumer and Sanders promote federal legislation legalizing marijuana, the newsletter from the Eugene V. Debs Foundation appeared in my mailbox. One item in the newsletter included Debs thoughts on addiction based on his observations when he himself was in prison. It reminds us that drug addiction is not new, nor is the debate about how to treat addicts. The amount of money we have wasted over the past 40 years on the War on Drugs is itself criminal. But the number of lives destroyed is the bigger issue. If that money had been directed toward treatment and eradicating the causes of addiction, just think of how much better off America would be today.  Debs wrote the following words 100 years ago, and yet we are stuck in the same paradigm.

“One of the most harrowing aspects of the prison hospital is the drug addict whom I learned to know there in a way to compel the most vivid and shocking remembrance of him to the last of my days. It is incredible that a human being mentally and physically afflicted should be consigned by a so-called court of justice in a civilized and Christian nation to a penitentiary as a felon, there to expiate his weakness; and yet, hundreds of these unfortunates were sent to Atlanta prison while I was there, and ofttimes I had to bear witness to the horror of their torture when they were summarily separated from the drug they craved.

“Blame them as one may, how is it possible in good conscience to punish them for their awful affliction with a prison sentence as if they were common felons. They are sick people who require special treatment, and not vicious ones to be sent to the torture chamber of a prison, and it is nothing less than a reproach to society and a disgrace to our civilization that this malady is branded as a crime instead of being ministered to as an affliction, which it most assuredly is.

“It would be quite as rational and humane to send men to the penitentiary
and make them slaves of the galleys because they happened to have cancer or consumption as it is to sentence and treat them as criminals for being addicted to the use of drugs.”

Fascism’s new day in America

Good morning,

To my fellow veterans: On this Veterans Day I thank you, brothers and sisters, for your devotion to our country. To my fellow Marines: happy birthday! To my fellow social democrats: our failure this week is an opportunity for us to gather our strength and resolve, and set a course for the next two years. Do not let your remorse paralyze you; we have much to do.

It is a beautiful sunny day here in Pittsburgh. The fall colors are brilliant, even as they portend the coming cold winter. As the leaves fall, so did Leonard Cohen, and one could imagine that he scripted it that way. Despite the disaster of the election, we must remember that every day is new opportunity to do good. It is also important to remember that as leftists, we believe in the inherent goodness of people. We recognize that most Americans are not evil. Most Americans are good hearted people who love their family, neighbors, and country. Despite that, we have have been reminded once again that “Fear Trumps Love”. This week some bullies took over our country by tapping into fears and frustrations of Americans who see the two major parties doing absolutely nothing to stem the growing economic inequality in America. They did that the way fascists always do— by identifying scapegoats and then inciting violence against them. It’s an old formula and it works. We need to respond rather than wallow.

We know that protest is important, but by itself is ineffective. On Nov 19 we have an event planned in Buffalo which will bring together activists from labor and the broader left. See the story here. This could be a model for future events in your community. But even that type of activity does not necessarily translate into electoral action. Our members are split on our relationship with the Democratic Party; one that we have held since 1960. That may be the biggest issue that we have to address as a result of this election. I know our stance has become controversial with leftists, but election law in many states restricts the success of third parties. See this story on WFP. The goal of electoral action is to win elections. Protests are protests, elections are elections. Will Labor and the Left walk away from the Democratic Party after this stunning defeat? We will talk about that more in the weeks ahead.


We’re with Her

hillary-clintonNext week it will have been one year since SDUSA endorsed Bernie Sanders for president. A lot has happened in the intervening 12 months. Bernie went from zero name recognition to being a real threat to the status quo within the Democratic Party. Although he had never run as a Democrat, the 75 years old Sanders captured 43% of the Democratic vote nationwide. And whether we cry foul over DNC partisanship or the inconsistencies in state primary vote tallies, the reality is that Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee. At the convention, realizing that Hillary wanted his endorsement, Bernie was able to negotiate platform planks that his constituency demanded. Those included: $15 minimum wage, a public option for the ACA, a “21st Century Glass-Steagall Act” to reform Wall Street, paid family leave, elimination of private prisons, expansion of Social Security, and end of the death penalty. After the negotiation of the platform, which Sanders called the “most progressive” in Democratic Party history, he gave his endorsement to Clinton. And we should do the same.

I understand that disgruntled Berniecrats may wish to vote for Jill Stein or even Gary Johnson. But in the words of Bernie himself, “This is no time for a protest vote”. While the presidential campaign may resemble a tv reality show like America’s Got Talent, the hard work of winning a campaign means assembling a coalition of various, sometimes divergent, constituencies. In his 1965 essay From Protest to Politics, former SDUSA Chair Bayard Rustin wrote, “We need allies. The future of the Negro struggle depends on whether the contradictions of this society can be resolved by a coalition of progressive forces which becomes the effective political majority in the United States. I speak of the coalition which staged the March on Washington, passed the Civil Rights Act, and laid the basis for the Johnson landslide—Negroes, trade unionists, liberals, and religious groups”. As an SDUSA member, you must work to build a progressive coalition that becomes the MAJORITY in electoral politics. Otherwise, you’re just a protester.

The National Committee of SDUSA endorses Hillary Clinton for president. We also ask that you vote for a Democratic majority in the House and Senate. And we further ask that you support Democratic candidates down ticket at the state and local level. Building a coalition starts in your neighborhood. But it does not stop there. After we elect Hillary Clinton, we must hold the Democratic Party to its new platform. Electoral action is work, and that work never ends.

SDUSA and the Democratic Convention

SDUSA marches at the DP Convention in Philly

SDUSA marches at the DP Convention

No SDUSA members attended the Democratic National Convention as delegates, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t present. SDUSA was represented among the thousands who gathered at FDR Park in Philadelphia to mount various rallies and protests. Our Vice Chair Michael Mottern (in the photo, on the left) tells me about the experience.

Rick: It sounds like FDR Park was the rallying point for all the various protest groups. Tell me about that.

Michael: Actually the meet-up location was City Hall. All the visiting groups were coordinated through philly.fyi. The field organizer was Jamhar James and he did a great job. The big march was on Sunday, from City Hall to FDR Park. FDR Park is across the road from Wells Fargo Center where the Democratic Convention was held. It was about a 3 ½ mile parade down Broad Street. The march included many different groups: socialists, environmentalists, black lives matter, legalizing pot, etc. Black Men for Bernie surprisingly had a very large presence. Altogether, I don’t know how many people were there; I’m no good at estimating crowds, but many thousands of people were there. The newspaper would give a better estimate.

Rick: The press liked to focus on some of the outlier groups, like the ones burning the US and Israeli flags. What was the general tone of the rallies?

Michael: I didn’t see any flag burning. It may have been a small group. There were so many people there, it would be easy to miss something. Overall, it was very peaceful. The police were very good. Polite, easy going. Based on what I saw at FDR Park, I would even say many of them were supportive.

Rick: We heard that hotel rooms were costing into the thousands of dollars during the convention. Protesters don’t have that kind of money.

Michael: I stayed at a cheap hotel on the other side of the river in Camden. Not a very safe area. But the hotel was full of protesters and we traveled on a bus to and from the hotel to Philly each day. We didn’t have any trouble and I met a lot of great people. Philly.fyi had bottled water to keep everyone hydrated and they had porta-johns everywhere. Maybe the city gave them the money to take care of the protesters? Philly.fyi did a great job. There were a lot of people that were trying to overnight in the park, but they weren’t allowed. Police had to evict them, but I didn’t hear of any violence or serious incidents. There were lots of food trucks for people to get something to eat, and Food Not Bombs was giving away hummus sandwiches and fresh vegetables. I and everyone else appreciated it.

Rick: How were your interactions with other socialist groups?

Michael: I spoke with some DSA people. They are kind of “cliquey”. They think highly of themselves. One said to me, “You guys are still around?” in a smart ass way. I also spoke with a member of Socialist Alternative. She asked me how we could have a Hillary voter as a member. I said, “We’re a democratic organization. We try to influence how our members vote, we don’t mandate how they vote”. She smirked and walked away. Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of democratic centralism on the left.

Notes: Here is the website for philly.fyi.

Michael with the traditional rose of the left

Michael with the traditional red flag and rose of the left

protesters assembling at City Hall

protesters assembling at City Hall

Optimistic marcher

Optimistic marcher

Michael, our endorsed candidate Bernie, and the SDUSA torch

Michael, our endorsed candidate Bernie, and the SDUSA torch

Lots of signage

Lots of signage

More signage

More signage

Bernie supporters in large numbers

Bernie supporters in large numbers


Global warming was a hot topic

Assembly at FDR

Assemblage at FDR Park

Red rose, red flag, alongside American colors says it all

Red rose, red flag, and American colors