Fill 'Er Up

Northern California is a strange land when it comes to real estate development and agriculture. Here's two pieces on a massive terra-forming project in Sonoma County.

The short version:
Fill 'Er Up: A massive South County project has environmental watchdogs guessing

The backstory included:
Berg's Vineyard from Scratch

And in other news, CA seems closer to ditching nuclear energy after the CPUC rejects PG&E's application to pay for Diablo Canyon's re-licensing with ratepayer funds.


The Corporate Media's Counter-Counter Attack Against Occupy's Port Blockade

Hearst Corporation's NY headquarters.
In spite of a negative propaganda campaign led by the San Francisco Chronicle and parroted in much of the Bay Area's corporate media, thousands turned out on Monday, December 12 to blockade the Port of Oakland.

Organizers for the Occupy movement explained that the blockade was a coordinated counter-strike against WallStreet and its political servants. It was a nonviolent response to the vicious police assaults against most of the nation's Occupy encampments. That violent wave of evictions, carried out through the month of November, was reportedlycoordinated by city officials and local police forces working through the USConference of Mayors. Many suspect the crackdown was also facilitated with assistance from high levels of the federal government's now sprawling internal security force known as the Department of Homeland Security.

Fittingly then, just as the government's nation-wide attack against the Occupy movement began with a "shock-and-awe" style police raid in the early morning hours of Tuesday, October 25 in Oakland, the  movement's coordinated West Coast counter-strike began in the pre-dawn stillness of the same city. Hundreds gathered at the West Oakland BART station at 5am. Massing to over one thousand by 5:30, they marched in the cold and the dark of the city's industrial wastelands to the Port of Oakland, the fifth busiest shipping facility in the United States, and a crucial choke point in the global logistics system relied upon by multinational corporations like WalMart, Nike, and Starbucks.

By 9am word had spread across the city, across the West Coast, and eastward —into landlocked states where on any other day the BNSF and Union Pacific rail roads normally speed containerized cargoes from the Port on massive snaking intermodal trains— that that morning's crew of longshoremen had been notified by their union's arbitrators, the International Longshore Workers Union, not to cross the blockade's lines, ostensibly because of "unsafe" working conditions.

Word spread in spite of reports by the Chronicle and other corporate media, falsely claiming the morning blockade had garnered only only a few "hundred" picketers. Many of the ILWU rank and file gladly took the day off, even if some would have preferred to earn that day's wages.

The Chronicle had  deceivingly reported the union's position and the sentiments of longshore workers with respect to the blockade in the week leading up to the action. The paper portrayed the ILWU's rank and file as opposed to the Occupy Movement's plans.

The biggest lie of the day of the shutdown though was the Chronicle's narrative of how the action impacted port truck drivers. The sentiments of a handful of frustrated truckers idling intheir cabs outside the terminals, losing a workday because their rigs would notbe loaded on time, were accurately quoted. But the paper failed to tell the bigger truth about the struggle of these workers across the US to better their working conditions and win dignified wages and benefits.

These few truck drivers became a wedge issue in the days leading up to the Port shutdown, seized upon and enormously exaggerated by editors at the San Francisco Chronicle who sought to magnify their lost workday as an ironic example of the Occupy Movement's supposed naivete. This story also served as yet another justification for the crackdowns against Occupy Oakland, and the dismantling of Occupy San Francisco's encampment at the foot of Market Street less than a week before.

The Chronicle has betrayed a strong editorial bias against the Occupy encampments and protests from the very beginning. The newspaper stepped up its campaign to foment popular misunderstanding in the weeks following the violent police raid against Occupy Oakland back in October. Its reporters were repeatedly tasked to write stories that would emphasize property damage as "violence" perpetrated by the protestors, and to fixate on reports of crime, vandalism, and unsanitary conditions around the camp. When Oakland's business lobby, organized throughthe Chamber of Commerce, several business improvement districts, and a fewpowerful downtown real estate owners developed the narrative that OccupyOakland's encampment was harming local and small businesses in Oakland, theChronicle gladly prioritized this story.

The Chronicle itself has never been a friend of labor or working families, or of anything movements in local and state politics resembling democracy. Historian Gray Brechin's account of the newspaper's rise in the late 19th Century under control of the de Young brothers, told eloquently in Imperial San Francisco, is about as damning an account you can imagine of a media company abusing its position to amass political power, largely by scapegoating Chinese and Japanese immigrants to gain support of San Francisco's xenophobic white working class voters.

The newspaper was held by the de Young family until 2000 when it was sold to the Hearst Corporation. Hearst Corp. is of course the corporate offspring of William Randoph Hearst's barony, which began with another San Francisco Newspaper, the Examiner. While the de Young's used racism to roil popular opinion in their favor, Hearst was more openly an enemy of all workers and their unions.

When the Chronicle passed into the hands of the privately owned Hearst Corporation in 2000, San Francisco's flagship newspaper became a small part of an titanic media, real estate, and business services empire. Still largely controlled by members of the Hearst family, Hearst Corp. owns newspapers in fifteen major US cities, but these alone have mostly proven to be stagnating holdings. The Chronicle was drainedof millions over the last decade, suffering from the rise of the Internet anddeclining subscriptions and ad rates. Hearst Corp.'s real moneymakers are in different areas, in broadcast television, network media, magazines, and digital media. The company also owns vast tracts of real estate in California, including multi-thousand acre timber and cattle ranches, and rental properties in San Francisco.

A diversified corporate titan,Hearst is a quintessential defender of corporate capitalism. Its newspapers are perhaps best understood as revenue neutral tools of pro-corporate propaganda, spilling most of their hi-def., color-ink, and center-fold layouts on real estate, food, and entertainment forms of "journalism" that serve the interests of powerful business constituencies in regional markets.

Real journalism still takes place in many of the Hearst Corp. newsrooms. Some of the remaining editors and reporters there still strive to tell the truth, investigate power, and foster democratic debate. There are deeper interests, however, guiding the Hearst Corporation's generation and dissemination of information. The company's newspapers like the Chronicle may occasionally take powerful businesses or politicians to task, but it's important to keep in mind that Hearst Corp.'s earnings are more dependent on media products requiring less than objective reporting, in fact requiring incredibly partisan boosterism of local and global real estate and capital markets. For example, a good deal of Hearst Corp.'sincome derives from San Francisco's commercial real estate market where thecompany plays the role of landlord, as well as chief promoter. Another example, among many that could be used to illustrate this point, is the HearstCorporation's large ownership stake in Fitch Ratings, one of the three most powerful global credit rating agencies. Fitch is partly responsible for inflating stocks values and bonds yields, and promoting many of the bizarre financial instruments responsible for causing the financial crisis and economic depression that began in 2008.

Given these hyper-interested business activities at the core of Hearst Corporation's operations, is it any surprise to see articles touting the unquestionable goodness of corporate profits, or the beneficent impact of rising real estate prices in the Bay Area in the pages of the San Francisco Chronicle?

Then it shouldn't be much of a surprise that the Chronicle's publisher and executive editors, like its owners, have frowned upon a social movement that is deeply questioning the very foundations of capitalism, and the particular powers and benefits that the wealthy elite derive from this system at the expense of the majority.

The Chronicle has wasted virtually no ink exploring questions such as who primarily profits from the Port's activities? What corporate and financial interests operate out of the Port of Oakland? What longstanding conflicts between workers and these companies at the Port might contextualize the blockade that just occurred?

Even after the ILWU's rank and file and some of its leadership made themselves available to the media, explaining that many of the union's workers supported the blockade, the Chronicle chose to run headlines proclaiming "Port shutdownpledged despite union rejection," and "Union not keen on new Occupy Oakland port blockade."

The day of the blockade the Chronicle had largely moved on to the new narrative that the blockade wasspecifically harming the independent truck drivers, obviously members of the 99%. Headlines again hammered away with a message that actually had very little resonance among the nation's port truckers because it crassly over-simplified their concerns, and glossed over the struggles they have been engaged in for years now against the corporate masters who own the major shipping companies and dominate port operations across America. Human interest-styled articles with accompanying photographs of truckers sitting, worry-faced in their rigs, ran in the Chronicle and other papers, replete with quotes about how a lost workday would sting them.

This Tuesday, the day after the blockade, the Chronicle reported "protestors 'ecstatic' after portdisruption," (although this headline no longer seems to appear on the web) recounting the previous day's blockade in terms designed to make the movement's participants sound arrogant and un-caring for the plight of longshore workers and truckers. Accompanying this account was another article amazingly claiming that the "occupy movement fails to connect withblacks." Closing out the Chronicle's triple assault on the Occupy Movement was a column by Chip Johnson claiming that, "march organizers didn't helptheir cause by ignoring labor leaders who did not support this action. Thatmakes Occupiers about as arrogant as business owners who refuse to negotiatecontracts in good faith with their workers."

Johnson's claim is nothing short of idiotic, coming a day after the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, a national coalition that includes the ILWU, the Alameda Labor Council, AFL-CIO, the Teamsters Union, and 147 other major labor and environmental groups released an open letter signed by some of the very workers Johnson claims to be so concerned about giving voice to.

Entitled "AnOpen Letter from America's Truck Drivers on Occupy the Ports," five veteran truck drivers from America's ports completely refute the kinds of blatant divide and conquer politics Chip Johnson and his employer, the Hearst Corporation's San Francisco Chronicle have pursued with respect to the Occupy Movement's port blockade and other actions.

Their letter is so clear in explaining what the majority of these port workers feel with respect to the Occupy Movement, and what they seek to accomplish in partnership with the movement, that it is worth quoting at length. So rather than wasting any more words myself, I'll let these workers have the last word:

"We are the front-line workers who haul container rigs full of imported and exported goods to and from the docks and warehouses every day. We have been elected by committees of our co-workers at the Ports of Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Seattle, Tacoma, New York and New Jersey to tell our collective story. We are inspired that a non-violent democratic movement that insists on basic economic fairness is capturing the hearts and minds of so many working people. Thank you “99 Percenters” for hearing our call for justice. We are humbled and overwhelmed by recent attention. Normally we are invisible.

Today’s demonstrations [the December 12 ports blockade] will impact us. While we cannot officially speak for every worker who shares our occupation, we can use this opportunity to reveal what it’s like to walk a day in our shoes for the 110,000 of us in America whose job it is to be a port truck driver. It may be tempting for media to ask questions about whether we support a shutdown, but there are no easy answers. Instead, we ask you, are you willing to listen and learn why a one-word response is impossible?

We love being behind the wheel. We are proud of the work we do to keep America’s economy moving. But we feel humiliated when we receive paychecks that suggest we work part time at a fast-food counter. Especially when we work an average of 60 or more hours a week, away from our families. There is so much at stake in our industry. It is one of the nation’s most dangerous occupations. We don’t think truck driving should be a dead-end road in America. It should be a good job with a middle-class paycheck like it used to be decades ago. We desperately want to drive clean and safe vehicles. Rigs that do not fill our lungs with deadly toxins, or dirty the air in the communities we haul in.

You, the public, have paid a severe price along with us. Why? Just like Wall Street doesn’t have to abide by rules, our industry isn’t bound to regulation. So the market is run by con artists. The companies we work for call us independent contractors, as if we were our own bosses, but they boss us around. We receive Third World wages and drive sweatshops on wheels. We have never recovered from losing our basic rights as employees in America. Every year it literally goes from bad to worse to the unimaginable. We were ground zero for the government’s first major experiment into letting big business call the shots. Since it worked so well for the CEOs in transportation, why not the mortgage and banking industry too?

The more underwater we are, the more our restlessness grows. We are being thoughtful about how best to organize ourselves and do what is needed to win dignity, respect, and justice. Nowadays greedy corporations are treated as “people” while the politicians they bankroll cast union members who try to improve their workplaces as “thugs.” But we believe in the power and potential behind a truly united 99%. We admire the strength and perseverance of the longshoremen. We are fighting like mad to overcome our exploitation, so please, stick by us long after December 12.

We drivers have a saying, “We may not have a union yet, but no one can stop us from acting like one.”


A Pigovian Foreclosure Tax?

Some types of taxes are levied on things that are considered socially harmful. For example, there are alcohol and cigarette taxes, the intended purposes of which are to dissuade people from consuming these drugs in excess, and to raise funds to deal with the legal and health consequences of alcohol and tobacco abuse.

Negative externality price-demand curve
These types of levies are known as Pigovian taxes. Named after the economist Arthur Pigou, a Pigovian tax attempts to correct for negative externalities in the market. Negative externalities are costs not reflected in prices, but still born in human suffering, environmental harm, or price increases in other goods and services.

Foreclosures generate numerous and significant negative externalities that are not reflected in the cost of carrying out a foreclosure. So why not institute a tax on foreclosures to dissuade banks from taking people's homes, and to compensate communities hit hard by the housing crisis?

Foreclosure of residential homes has undeniably harmed millions of families and individuals who have lost their residences in the last three years. The dislocation, stress, and loss of equity affects more than just the family losing their home, however. Harm is spread throughout communities where foreclosures are concentrated. School districts and cities lose property tax revenues and population. Local businesses lose workers and customers. Empty homes drag down local economies and become blighted.

Solution: tax the banks when they cause harm. Prevent foreclosures by modifying the incentives and disincentives for creditors dealing with customers who fall behind in payment. Create a source of funds to compensate communities harmed by foreclosures that do proceed.

Here's how it could work. Suppose a family, we'll call them the "Morgans," bought a house for $300,000 at the height of the real estate bubble in 2006. Since the financial crash in 2008, the Morgan's house has plummeted in value to $150,000, but they're still paying a mortgage on the sale price of 300k. They're underwater and struggling.

Now let's say the Morgan family has recently been missing payments. It could be because of an adjustable rate mortgage that kicked into high gear. Or maybe a Grandpa Morgan is sick, and the medical bills have exhausted the family's savings. Or maybe Mrs. Morgan lost her job, and there simply aren't opportunities to make nearly as much income again.

Whatever the problem, this family will soon be foreclosed upon. The bank, let's call it "JP-America-Fargo," will take their home, and they'll have to move.

But now suppose there's a Pigovian foreclosure tax. We could design the tax in innumerable ways, but here's a very simple one just to illustrate the point:

When JP-America-Fargo Bank forecloses on the Morgan family, it must pay 10% of the home's last sale price, or $25,000 — whichever is greater. (Or maybe we should peg it at 27%?)

This tax payment, or "bailout" if you will, could be split two ways. 25% of the foreclosure tax could go to the Morgan family, to help them recover from foreclosure, and 75% could go to the local school district where the house is located.

So if the Morgan's lost their home, JP-America-Fargo Bank would have to pay 10% of $300k - $30k. The Morgan's get $7,500 of this, and local public schools get $22,500.

There are conceivable cases where a home's sale price is incredibly small because it was purchased decades ago, thus a 10% tax on that price would be a bargain for a bank to pay in order to foreclose on property worth much more. This is why we have the alternative minimum of $25,000.

The tax is high enough to create a massive disincentive for banks to foreclose on homeowners, pressuring banks instead to help homeowners who are underwater or who are otherwise having trouble making payments refinance their mortgages and stay put.

10%, or $25,000 might seem like an enormous tax, but keep in mind that the federal government bailed out most of the biggest banks that are carrying out the bulk of foreclosures. Trillions of dollars were spent making the JP-America-Fargo Banks of the world solvent. Little to nothing has been done to help homeowners (and what was tried earlier was geared too much to the needs of banks, not homeowners).

A Pigovian foreclosure tax could help reverse this injustice and prevent socially harmful corporate behavior such as mass foreclosures from continuing to damage America.


Who Rules Oakland?

Part 1., Corporate Directors and the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce

By Darwin BondGraham and Adrian Drummond-Cole

[Download a pdf of this article for end notes, higher resolution images and print layout.]

The Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce is a non-profit "business league" organization, chartered under Section 501 (c) 6 of the IRS Code. According to the IRS, business leagues are not organized for profit, and no earnings may directly benefit their members. However, business leagues can lobby government leaders for laws and policies in the interest of their members, and they can also engage in political campaigning for and against candidates and specific ballot initiatives. These are, in fact, the main reasons business leagues are chartered, and in this sense, chambers of commerce and similar groups are entirely about profit.

The goal of a business league is to promote political conditions in which their members can obtain lucrative government contracts, avoid local and state taxes, pass off operating expenses onto the public, and privatize public goods. Chambers of Commerce are essentially political committees of regional business leadership organized to secure favorable laws and regulations. They further serve as public relations fronts for big business, publishing propaganda, organizing promotional events, and serving as advocates for the “business community” to the media.

The membership of most chambers of commerce is split between two kinds of businesses. The first group is comprised of smaller companies, usually based in the same city as the chamber, and usually dealing in some kind of product that depends on the local business climate — think tourism, entertainment, conventions, food, sports, and real estate, among other things. The second category is comprised of larger corporations with national and transnational operations. Often though, these larger corporations have significant enough investments in a particular place to make participation in a local chamber strategically useful.

Large banks are a good example of this latter category of members in that they frequently participate in local chambers to promote local branches and ensure access to local housing, consumer, and business lending markets. Mining and manufacturing corporations are also frequent participants in local chambers of commerce. The business practices of these corporations often have negative environmental and social impacts on communities, so they utilize the public relations functions of local chambers to influence public opinion.

Another key reason why large corporations and smaller companies form business leagues is to build business networks. The concept of "networking" is so ubiquitous today that it's almost unnecessary to explain. But in the business world, networking specifically refers to the establishment of professional and social ties that advance mutual power aspirations. Business executives participate in chambers of commerce to network with their peers, building the relationships and creating the cultural cohesion that sustains and enriches their rule.

In the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, these two groups —local smaller business owners and representatives of larger corporations— overlap to some extent. It is the larger corporations, however, which hold the most power in the Chamber. Large corporations find membership in the Oakland Chamber of Commerce to their advantage because Oakland is a major consumer market, a major port of entry for goods into the United States, and headquarters to both regional government offices and peer corporations with multi-million, and in some cases, billion dollar revenues.

The following analysis is concerned with these major corporations and their membership in the Oakland Chamber of Commerce. In this report we focus on the networks created by directors of the Clorox Company and PG&E to illustrate linkages that are applicable to large corporate members of the Chamber more broadly.

Most of these companies have large dollar stakes in the Bay Area and California markets. Their membership and control of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce is just one small part of multifarious political operations intended to influence lawmakers and regulators across numerous local and state governments. This, in turn, is part of a larger national network of business lobbies and think tanks focused on the federal government and international institutions.

Finally, although space limitations here prohibit it, at the end of this report we are including a brief analysis of the other sixteen major corporations currently represented by board members on the Oakland Chamber of Commerce. Investigation into the power wielded by their directors and owners awaits further study.

Corporate Networks

How do these different corporations come to agree on a shared political program to pursue through the Oakland Chamber of Commerce? At first this would seem very difficult, as some of these companies have drastically different legal and regulatory concerns, and some are in fact competitors.

If we look at the directors and major shareholders of these companies, however, a picture of cohesive networked governance emerges. Yes, some of these companies compete with one another, and many have differing legal and regulatory concerns, but there is much overlap in both ownership and management of these companies. The following information pertains to their mutual direction and ownership by powerful board members and the private equity groups some of them represent.

Figure 1 illustrates the core network of corporate power embodied in the Oakland Chamber of Commerce. Five board members of the Chamber in this network, identified as large circular red nodes, represent the interests of five major corporations that fund the Chamber. These five corporations have the most reciprocal ties to other companies in the entire network represented in our data set.

Figure 1., Core Corporate Network Represented Through the Oakland Chamber of Commerce: Red square node positioned at center represents OMCC board. Five large red circular nodes represent select OMCC board members. Black square nodes represent corporate entities. Small red nodes represent directors or senior executives of select corporations with OMCC membership. Selections determined by deleting pendants, leaving only directors with more than one link to the network’s core corporate entities.

1. Micky Randhawa - Wells Fargo
2. Victoria Jones - Clorox
3. Nathan Nayman - VISA
4. Alicia Bert - PG&E
5. George Granger - AT&T

If we explore the network of governance and ownership through persons linked to each of these companies, we find that often, through only one or two degrees of separation, these corporations are linked back to each other in a web of mutual governance. They share some of the same directors on their boards, and some of their directors are linked to each other by third-party corporations which they also control. This is often, but not always, due to concentrated ownership of voting shares across many corporations by powerful private equity funds (i.e. hedge funds, private equity groups, investment banks, etc.). Owning large shares of each company, a powerful investment firm uses its shares to appoint its own directors to each corporate board. When this structure of ownership is viewed from a distance, we can see how powerful corporations in seemingly divergent industries are often owned by, and ultimately governed by, the same wealthy elites.

Let’s zoom closer in. Micky Randhawa represents the regional interests of Wells Fargo Bank on the Oakland Chamber of Commerce's board of directors, but Wells Fargo's board members are interested in more than just their company's fortunes. Among Wells Fargo's directors is John Chen, chairman and CEO of Sybase, Inc., a computer software company. Chen was a director of Pyramid Technology Corporation, a manufacturer of server hardware, and later worked for Siemens after the German company bought Pyramid in 1995. Incidentally, Chen is also a director of the Walt Disney Company and a former board member of the US Chamber of Commerce.

Chen is not just a director. He is a significant owner of both Disney and Wells Fargo stock. His ownership of shares in these companies is a result of his compensation as a board member. He and his peers, who together own a large share of these companies, ultimately determine the strategic goals of both.

Chen's income in 2010 as a shareholder and director of Wells Fargo and Diseny totals $505,438. Although this is by no means his sole source of income, and only a small fraction of his total net worth, this sum alone puts him in the top 1% of America's income distribution. (At the end we have attached a detailed breakdown of income distribution in the US between 1979 and 2009 in order to demystify the so-called 1%, and provide benchmarks for understanding inequality in relation to the fortunes of those discussed here.)

Alongside Chen on the board of Walt Disney Co. is Robert Matschullat. Matschullat is a board member of Clorox and VISA, both companies with direct representation on the Oakland Chamber of Commerce board.

The Clorox company is linked back to Wells Fargo by route of other directors who also sit on the board of the San Francisco headquartered McKesson Corporation, the world's largest distributor of health care systems, medical supplies, and pharmaceuticals. These links can be confusing, but by referring back to Figure 1, we can visualize them and see how this creates a cohesive network of corporate governance and ownership.

McKesson, Disney, and Sybase (a subsidiary of the giant German software company SAP AG) are all governed by directors who in turn sit on dozens of other corporate boards, but this data has been omitted from Figure 1 to keep the diagram as simple and intelligible as possible, and also to only illustrate directors who create a cohesive network of governance among the five corporations which partly control the Oakland Chamber of Commerce.

If, however, we were to map these extended linkages, we would discern an ever expanding and relatively cohesive network of corporate ownership and governance, and we would find that these other corporations cooperate with one another to operate business leagues in other cities in the United States and beyond. For example, Kim Delevett, Corporate Community Affairs Manager for Southwest Airlines, sits on the board of both the Oakland Chamber of Commerce and the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce. Similarly, Ken Maxey, Regional Government Affairs Manager for Comcast, sits on the boards of the Oakland Chamber and the Livermore Chamber.

Although Figure 1 does not show these extended linkages to other corporations and business leagues, here are a few more examples we could map if we were to plug in the data: McKesson's Chief Financial Officer is a board member of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. Disney has placed executives on the boards of many business leagues including the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. SAP AG's current CEO is a past member of the US Chamber of Commerce.

Other corporate links in Figure 1 are worth exploring in detail, so let's take a look at the networks of two companies which fund and steer the Oakland Chamber of Commerce: the Clorox Company and Pacific Gas & Electric.

The Clorox Company

The Clorox Company, headquartered in Oakland, is a multi-billion dollar business with manufacturing facilities in nineteen countries worldwide. While Clorox is most commonly associated with liquid bleach, they also own twenty brands including Brita, Glad, Hidden Valley, Scoop Away, K C Masterpiece, Pine-Sol, and Burt's Bees. Figure 2 is a network diagram emphasizing the Clorox Company's links to other corporations through its board of directors.

Figure 2., Clorox’s Core Corporate Network in Relation to the OMCC: Blue square dots represent corporate entities. Red circular dots represent directors or senior executive officers. Egonets for all corporations besides Clorox have been deleted to reduce clutter and emphasize only ties connecting Clorox directors and OMCC directors. OMCC board appears as dense cluster in upper right of Figure.

The first thing you will probably notice is that two of Clorox's directors also sit on the boards of VISA and AT&T, corporations that also fund and steer the Oakland Chamber of Commerce through their representatives on that board.

Robert Matschullat, mentioned above, is a director of VISA. Besides Disney, Matschullat is also a director of the Transamerica Corp., USA Networks, and Joseph Seagram & Sons.

Transamerica is an insurance corporation owned by AEGON, a Dutch company. It's office tower in San Francisco is internationally famous for its pyramid shape.

USA Networks is a television company owned by NBCUniversal.

Joseph Seagram & Sons was originally an alcohol distiller based in Canada, but it became a conglomerate in the 1980s by acquiring large ownership stakes in other companies, including DuPont. When it sold its DuPont shares in the mid-1990s Seagram's, under Matschullat's leadership, bought into media and entertainment companies like Universal Studios (now part of NBCUniversal — see the links and how they develop across time as companies are bought, merged, and sold?).

That Matschullat is a board member of USA Networks, now owned by NBCUniversal, and Seagrams, which used to own Universal, is obviously no coincidence. Matschulatt was a key figure in shuffling the organization of ownership and direction of these companies. Not coincidentally, Matschullat also used to be a director of the McKesson Corporation.

Clorox board members Carolyn Ticknor and George Harad are linked to one another through their past positions as a director and as CEO (respectively) of Boise Cascade, which briefly owned OfficeMax until the latter was spun off in 2004 in a highly complex corporate restructuring driven by Chicago financiers. Ticknor is also a member of AT&T, which is a corporate member of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce.

All in all, the board members of Clorox are shareholder in, or independent directors of, many additional powerful corporations and private equity groups.

Clorox director, Edward Miller, is a board member of the seemingly ubiquitous McKesson Corp.

Clorox director Donald Knauss is a director of the global construction and engineering giant URS which has innumerable major military contracts and co-manages the two US nuclear weapons labs at Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Livermore, California in limited liability partnerships that include Bechtel and the University of California.

Clorox director Tully Friedman was a board member of APL Limited, a shipping corporation that uses the port of Oakland's facilities. We'll return to APL in a moment, but first let's look more closely at Friedman.

Tully Friedman is a current and past board member of numerous other corporations that his San Francisco investment firm, Friedman Fleischer & Lowe, LLC, has bought equity stakes in. The multi-billion dollar pots of money that Friedman oversees include contributions from very wealthy individuals, many of whom sit on the boards of companies already discussed above, or who had past executive positions at these very companies.

For example, Robert Matschullat, the presiding director of the Clorox Company mentioned above, has invested part of his personal fortune in Friedman's firm. The retired chairman and CEO of Clorox, G. Craig Sullivan, is also an investor in Friedman Fleischer & Lowe, LLC. A retired CEO of McKesson, a retired chairman of Wells Fargo, and a current director of AEGON (parent company of Transamerica) are all investors in Friedman's capital fund.

Like many finance capitalists, Friedman is involved in steering national non-profit corporate advocacy groups. He is a director of the ultra-conservative American Enterprise Institute; a think tank that promotes political reforms that would further empower corporations and the wealthy.

Now quickly back to APL. Beginning as a state-owned US shipping company, APL was privatized after World War II. In 1997 it was sold to Singapore-based NOL Lines for $825 million, or $33.50 per share. Alongside Tully Friedman on the board of APL Limited were Frederick Hellman and Barry Williams.

In 1984, Frederick Hellman and Tully Friedman co-founded Hellman & Friedman LLC, another private equity firm. Although Friedman left the firm in 1998 to start his own equity group, he reportedly maintains a collegial relationship with Hellman, perhaps best symbolized by the fact that Hellman didn't drop Friedman's name from the company's moniker. Today both firms are headquartered in the same building, One Maritime Plaza in San Francisco. When APL was sold to NOL Lines Friedman and Hellman each owned more than 2 million shares.

Hellman is as blue-blooded as Californians come. He is the great grandson of financier Isaias Hellman who, among other things, created Wells Fargo Bank and occupied a seat on the UC Board of Regents for the better part of four decades. Isaias Hellman's son and grandson served as presidents of Wells Fargo, among other roles. The Hellman family's history is deeply intertwined with Wells Fargo and the UC, which are further linked together in a web of financial and political connections that deserves its own detailed analysis.

Former APL director Barry Williams is not depicted in Figure 2, but he is strongly connected to the Oakland Chamber of Commerce. Moving on to Figure 3, we will further investigate the corporate networks of power that steer the Chamber, starting with Williams.


The network of Pacific Gas and Electric, an Oakland Chamber of Commerce corporate member, is depicted in Figure 3. Barry Williams sits on PG&E’s board of directors. In addition to his seat on APL's board, Williams is a director of numerous other companies, including the Colorado-headquartered environmental engineering giant CH2M Hill, which has a major regional office in Oakland. Refer back to Figure 1 to visualize how Williams occupies power within the corporate network that steers the Oakland Chamber.

Figure 3., PG&E’s Core Corporate Network in Relation to the OMCC: Blue square dots represent corporate entities. Red circular dots represent directors or senior executive officers. Egonets for all corporations besides PG&E have been deleted to reduce clutter and emphasize only ties connecting PG&E directors and OMCC directors. OMCC board appears as dense cluster in upper right of Figure.

Blue square dots represent corporate entities. Red circular dots represent directors or senior executive officers. Egonets for all corporations besides PG&E have been deleted to reduce clutter and emphasize only ties connecting PG&E directors and OMCC directors. OMCC board appears as dense cluster in upper right of Figure.

Like Clorox, many of PG&E's board members are the owners and directors of a vast array of other major corporations. Of particular interest in terms of the cohesive network of corporate governance underlying the Oakland Chamber of Commerce is Forrest Miller. Mr. Miller is a director of PG&E, having been elected in 2008. He is also a senior executive of AT&T.

At AT&T, Miller is responsible for "corporate strategy and development." This title refers to a school of business management thinking developed over the last several decades which emphasizes the ways that companies can systematically analyze their strengths and weaknesses in their "operating environment." The "environment" here is conceived of largely as the laws and regulations affecting a corporation's behavior, but can also mean industrial competitors and external forces like broader changes in consumer preferences or the availability of resources, labor, and other inputs.

In practice, only half of “corporate strategy and development” is about making “internal” changes to a company in response to "external" factors. The other half involves changing the “external environment.” In this respect, Mr. Miller's job entails strategizing ways that AT&T can increase its power and profits by altering existing laws and regulations, eliminating potential competitors through mergers and acquisitions, preventing competition by maintaining current telecommunications laws and policies, and gaining entry to new markets controlled by foreign states. This is why Miller is a past director of the US Telecom Association, a 501 (c) 6 business league that is organized to promote the interests of its membership, large telecommunications companies (AT&T, Verizon, etc.). US Telecom is one of the largest lobbyists in Washington D.C., spending millions each year to influence lawmakers and regulators in Congress, the White House, Federal Communications Commission, and Federal Trade Commission.

To be fair to Forrest Miller, his job, notwithstanding its elaborate title, is not particularly different from that of nearly every other corporate director or executive at PG&E, or any of the other corporate directors discussed so far. They are all intensely focused on influencing lawmakers, packing bills with beneficial provisions for their firms, shaping regulations to strengthen their control of markets, and undermining environmental and labor policies.

Who Rules?

In subsequent parts to this series, we will present more network data illustrating the Oakland Chamber of Commerce's member companies. We will also give more detailed information about the directors and executives of these companies, and provide an analysis of their social cohesion, profit-driven collusion, and political influence. More broadly, we will explore networks and institutions of economic and political power in the Bay Area. Below, however, is a brief explanatory list of the current corporations with representatives on the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce:

1. Clear Channel Outdoor, an advertising company owning and operating billboards and other outdoor display faces, currently valued at $3.7 billion. Clear Channel owns and operates numerous billboards, bus shelter ads, and other display faces on both private and publicly owned properties in the Bay Area.

2. Swinerton, a private construction company based in San Francisco, builds for developers, government, and corporate clients. Swinerton projects in Oakland include the Ice Center, the twenty-story Essex tower on Lake Merritt, the twelve story Ellington Condominiums, and the famous "comic book" retrofit of the Oakland Police Headquarters. Outside of Oakland Swinerton has built casinos, military installations, and headquarters for companies like The Gap, Inc.

3. Pankow Builders, similar to Swinerton in scope, is a major construction company headquartered in Pasadena with a regional office in Oakland. Pankow built the Whole Foods in Oakland.

4. The global communications giant AT&T is valued at $162 billion. It has numerous operations in the Bay Area. AT&T's economic reach and political influence are too expansive to detail here.

5. PG&E, the region's behemoth investor owned utility, operates gas and nuclear fired power plants in California, and owns much of the state's electricity and gas distribution grid and pipeline infrastructure. Headquartered in San Francisco, PG&E is valued at $15 billion. Its profit margin is highly dependent on California state laws and regulations. Thus PG&E fields an army of lobbyists across all levels of government.

6. Securitas is a Swedish private policing company that hires out security personnel, including guards and investigators, to secure corporate property, wealthy residential associations, and high net worth individuals, among other glittery things. Securitas has a regional office in East Oakland, and is valued at $21 billion.

7. Southwest Airlines operates in the United States and is headquartered in Dallas, Texas. It is valued at $5.8 billion. The Oakland Airport is a major hub.

8. Grubb & Ellis buys, owns, and sells real estate. The company leases out several hundred thousand square feet of office space in downtown Oakland, much of this right along Broadway between 20th and 15th Streets. The company's business model is predicated on increasing land values in Oakland and other cities. Grubb & Ellis is headquartered in Orange County and valued at $21 billion.

9. CIM Group is another real estate corporation, specializing in ownership and management. It's headquarters are in Los Angeles. It's regional Bay Area office is at 1333 Broadway in the 1 Kaiser Plaza building, a 28-story office tower the company owns and manages. CIM Group owns over 1 million square feet of office and hotel real estate in downtown Oakland. The company's business model is predicated on increasing land values in Oakland and other cities.

10. Colliers International is yet another real estate company that brokers much square footage in Oakland, especially downtown on Broadway, Harrison, and Franklin Streets. Colliers leases out office space in the Wells Fargo Bank Center building on Harrison, among other corporate properties. The company's business model is predicated on increasing land values in Oakland and other cities.

11. Sunwest Bank is a business bank headquartered in Tustin, a city in Orange County, California. It's Oakland office is at 1999 Harrison in the Lake Merritt Plaza.

12. Summit Bank is an Oakland-based, privately owned bank with assets between $100 million and $3 billion.

13. Waste Management transports and disposes of residential, industrial, healthcare, and construction wastes. The company has an Alameda regional office and contracts with the city of Oakland and other regional governments to haul trash. Headquartered in Houston, Texas, Waste Management is valued at $14 billion.

14. Clorox, a consumer products company, is the largest corporation headquartered in Oakland with a market value of $8.4 billion. Located one block from Oscar Grant Plaza, the corporation's executives have long been involved in Oakland and the East Bay's politics, even though the legislative and regulatory issues the company is most focused on are federal.

15. Comcast, another telecommunications giant valued at $57 billion, specializes in cable. It counts the Bay Area among its largest markets. It's economic reach and political influence are too expansive to detail here.

16. VISA is headquartered in San Francisco on Market Street. The credit card company's entire business model is predicated on helping banks and other lenders intensify consumer debt. Visa is worth $61 billion. It's main corporate campus is in Foster City in San Mateo County.

17. Bank of America was headquartered in San Francisco until 1998 when it merged with NationsBank. The company, valued at $52.4 billion, counts California and the Bay Area among its biggest consumer and home loan markets. Bank of America absorbed Merrill Lynch during the financial crisis in 2009 and now operates Merrill as its investment bank subsidiary.

18. Wells Fargo is still headquartered in San Francisco. Valued at $123 billion, it counts California and the Bay Area among it biggest consumer and home loan markets. Wells Fargo absorbed Wachovia during the financial crisis in 2009, and retired the Wachovia brand in October, 2011.

Source: Congressional Budget Office. “Trends in the Distribution of Household Income Between 1979 and 2007.” October, 2011. http://www.cbo.gov/ftpdocs/124xx/.../10-25-HouseholdIncome.pdf


"Dr." Taser/Mr. Clorox

On November 16 about two-hundred and fifty Oaklanders convened a general assembly in the city's central square, Frank Ogawa/Oscar Grant Plaza. It was yet another experiment in direct democracy, one of many public meetings held since the city's encampment was established a month earlier. Buoyed by a massive march to UC Berkeley's campus the day before, Oakland's occupiers floated proposals to guide the movement's next steps.

A national day of action against the coordinated police crackdown on various occupy encampments around the nation received 90% of votes. An occupation of a park on 19th and Telegraph got another 90% of votes cast. Before adjourning, the assembly opened the floor to general announcements. Protesters from San Francisco spoke last. They were worried the police were coming for them again, armed with batons and pepper spray. "Please come help us defend ourselves," they asked. Taking this into consideration, the Occupiers adjourned.

Just a block away on the same day another kind of "assembly" was taking place, the CloroxCompany's annual shareholders meeting held in the corporation's office tower at 1221 Broadway. While a contractor tallied proxy votes, Clorox's executives, directors, and representatives of its major shareholders huddled to chart their future.

Clorox's board of directors was re-elected. It's directors in turn recommended a package of executive compensation for the year ahead. Chair and CEO Don Knauss was paid $9.1 million. VP Lawrence Peiros was approved for $2.9 million in pay and stock. Most of the other executives received similar seven figure packages.

It's likely that Clorox's leadership also talked about the Occupy encampment, rallies, and assemblies occurring just steps outside their building. It's quite likely they had been worrying if the protests would disrupt their annual meeting. Clorox, like other major corporations with offices in Oakland, is a member of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, one of several business organizations that had pressured the Mayor to send in the cops on amission to violently evict the movement.

On the Clorox committee making recommendations regarding compensation is one "Dr." RichardH. Carmona. Carmona has been a board member of the Oakland-based Clorox since 2007. In that time he has been paid several hundred thousand in fees, and has obtained an option on upwards of 7,000 shares in the company. Carmona is a wealthy man.

Guiding aspects of Clorox's corporate decision making is only one of Carmona's jobs, however. He's much more involved in a different company headquartered in his home state of Arizona.

Dr. Carmona joined the board of TaserInternational in the same year he joined Clorox. Not coincidentally, that was just after he left office as the 17th Surgeon General of the United States under the administration of George W. Bush. Taser International is what you think it is; the company that makes and sells the electronic guns popularly known by their most famous brand name. Taser's biggest customers are police departments. Carmona joined Taser because of his top-shelf political connections, and his longtime police connections.

According to various accounts, Carmona joined the Army in 1967, just as the Vietnam War was getting hot. He quickly became a member of the Army Special Forces known as the Green Berets, and learned medicine by treating fellow soldiers in the battlefield. After the war —in which he became a highly decorated combat veteran— he attended medical school, earning a bachelors degree from UCSF in 1979. Carmona's early medical career was spent mostly as a nurse and paramedic.

In 1986 Carmona joined the Pima CountySheriff's Office where he would become a leader of the SWAT team, and also worked as a police medic. Carmona killed in the line of duty in 1999, shooting a mentally ill man who fired at him. The deceased had reportedly killed his father earlier that day with a knife.

In Pima County, Carmona served in different management roles in the healthcare system while working as a cop. Lacking the advanced research and education that such jobs require, he obtained a Masters in Public Health from the University of Arizona in 1998. He is a professor in the University ofArizona College of Public Health, and a prior chair of the Arizona Southern Regional Emergency Medical System.
It was out of this context, somewhat out of the blue, that George W. Bush nominated Carmona for the post of Surgeon General in 2002. Physicians from the University of Arizona Medical School, where Carmona lectured, even criticized the nomination. Against Carmona's confirmation, Dr. Charles Putnam wroteto Senator Ted Kennedy saying the nominee's work as a sheriff's deputy was in direct conflict with his oath as a doctor to do no harm. Putnam noted that Carmona was a poor manager and that, "he was removed from his two previous administrative appointments [in Tucson]…. because he could not work in an effective or even a civil manner with health professionals and other constituencies of those positions." Putnam concluded that Carmona's "panache in the face of objective danger has on occasion overwhelmed his identity as a physician." 
Even so, Carmona was eventually confirmed, and by some reports was competent in office, even emerging as a critic of the Bush administration after his departure.
As a board member of Taser International Carmona sits at that table with other retired military officers and representatives of major investors, some who specialize in investing in weapons manufacturing companies. In 2010 Carmona was paid $30,000 in fees and given another $58,000 in stock options as compensation by the company. All told he owns about 25,000 shares of Taser International stock.
In the world of corporate governance Carmona is considered an "independent" director of Taser because he is not an official employee, and because his equity stake is less than 1% of outstanding shares. Nevertheless, Carmona has a stake in the company's fortunes. His compensation there is ultimately linked to how many Tasers the company sells.
It should come as no surprise to readers that the Oakland Police Department is a major customer of Taser International. According to the OPD's 2010 Training SectionReport, the department currently owns and fields 530 model X-26Tasers. The City Council authorized purchasing most of these weaponsin 2008 with $645,000, and tacked on an appropriation of another $55,000 every subsequent year for training and other costs associated with fielding them. The Oakland City Council even chose to waive the normal competitive bid process, apparently because Carmona's company, Taser International is the only authorized distributor of the weapons in California.
In Taser International's 2010 annualreport the company notes that one of its primary problems is the possibility that local governments will not buy their X-26 weapons, which account for the bulk of sales revenues. The company states:
"Most of our end-user customers are government agencies. These agencies often do not set their own budgets and therefore, have limited control over the amount of money they can spend. In addition, these agencies experience political pressure that may dictate the manner in which they spend money. As a result, even if an agency wants to acquire our products, it may be unable to purchase them due to budgetary or political constraints."
In the case of Oakland, neither the city's dire fiscal situation, nor widespread opposition within the community scuttled the 2008 Taser deal. Officers wielded Tasers during the several evictions of Occupy Oakland.
In March of 2010 San Francisco's PoliceCommission again rejected spending upwards of $1 million to outfit officers with Taser weapons.
The Pima County Sheriff's Department, Carmona's old stomping grounds, is a Taser International customer.


Oakland Chamber of Commerce Executive Board Member Charged with Committing $19.75 Million Corporate Fraud

In a case that is emblematic of the corporate chicanery and greed the Occupy movement proclaims to stand against, Todd Hansen, a former president of Posterscope, a global advertising firm, has been arrested by the FBI and charged with orchestrating a financial fraud to inflate company earnings, thereby enriching himself.
According to the FBI, Hansen and a former colleague at Posterscope, "are accused of engaging in a five-year, $19.75 million accounting fraud scheme to make it appear that the Company was meeting certain performance targets when it was not, so that they could receive higher salary increases, bonuses, and stock options."
By inflating the company's earnings with fictitious revenues the FBI says Hansen was able to boost his annual bonuses by $1.1 million during his five years at the company.
Hansen is also accused of misusing thousands of dollars of the company's funds to rent apartments, pay for country club memberships, and purchase airplane tickets for himself, his family, and friends. (Read the FBI's press release.)
Hansen was arrested on November 3 and awaits trial in the United States District Court, Central District of California. According to Hansen's lawyer, William Portanova, "this whole mess arises out of the bookkeeping practices of other people several years ago. We are working to straighten the entire situation out."  
The Oakland Chamber of Commerce recently put pressure on Oakland's City Council and Mayor to evict the Occupy encampment from Frank Ogawa Plaza, claiming the protestersare harming businesses in downtown Oakland. The regional office of Clear Channel Outdoor run by Hansen is at 555 12th Street in Oakland.
Hansen was elected to the OaklandChamber of Commerce Board in February of 2010, and according to the Chamber's web site still serves as the organization's Chair of Communications.
Over the past decade Clear Channel Outdoor has inked numerous advertising contracts with various governments and public agencies in the Bay Area, including advertising contracts with the city of Oakland, San Francisco, and various transit authorities.


First Steps: Occupation as Self Realization

Since the first days of Wall Street's occupation the question of the protesters' demands has dominated discussion. However, fixating on the lack of specific demands completely misses the significance of the moment. Nevertheless observers, and even some participants in the rapidly growing occupy moment have incessantly wondered about demands. Based on this obsession that the occupiers should have demands, many are now suggesting how to channel this nonviolent uprising into electoral or organizational muscle. Others have dismissed the growing wave of occupations because of their "spontaneous" and "structureless" nature exemplified by the absence of pre-existing demands.

Social movements capable of transforming society in fundamental ways do not begin with demands or organizational drives, however. They start with encounters. They grow from meetings. They flourish when relationships are cultivated. And they succeed when people exercise power in broad and strategic ways, across lines of difference that are only possible after you learn who you are together, and what you are capable of as a collective.

If the occupy moment is anything, its an encounter among the self-proclaimed 99% who have finally left their "personal problems" behind to find one another in a social and political setting. And they could not have picked a better setting, Zuccotti Park, which as Peter Marcuse points out "is a privately–owned space, coincidentally named after an aggressive real estate development lawyer who has been active both in governmental affairs and in private development [...] owned by Brookfield Properties, in conjunction with its ownership of One Liberty Plaza, the adjacent high-rise commercial tower, which, in Brookfield’s terms, 'is home to many leading financial and professional services firms[....]'"

The 99% is seizing space in the rotten core of capital to learn about the struggles of each and all. To discover their commonalities they have created a space of differences. Consider the words of one occupier, Yotam Marom:
"we have taken steps to define ourselves, to write documents to that affect, and to move toward a collective consciousness that is bold and uncompromising. Those documents that define us take forever to write, because we all participate in their writing (yes, it's a bit of a drag, but revolutions aren't so easy when we are fighting for the type of liberation that demands self-management). Now, to be clear, I have always been a strong proponent of clear demands. They help define our struggle, point the way to actions we want to take, give us tools for measurement, communicate with people outside of the occupation, and represent those busy struggling elsewhere. However, I do want to point out that we have been able to continue to grow and bring new communities in despite a lack of demands, and that those people and groups will bring their own. I also think our demands really aren't as mysterious as some people are letting on; I think our critics are playing dumb."
Note the fact that new communities have joined the occupation because it is sufficiently open in terms of what it will demand. It's the encounter that is the most significant aspect of the occupation moment, and everything else that has happened is a profoundly radical break full of immense potential. What matters is not what we think we want to demand prior to our gathering, but rather what we might come to demand once we collect ourselves and realize who we are together as the 99%.

Even the naysayers represent a revolutionary shift in our political trajectory. Simply consider the very obvious fact that the mass media and prominent politicians and pundits have been wondering about demands. "What are their demands?!" Just three weeks ago no one was asking such a question. The 99% was shuffling along, head down, disorganized and alone, bewildered and exhausted by the contracting economy, outraged by a very gruesome and publicized legal lynching, weary of a decade of war, and so much other hell. That powerful commentators, sympathetic and otherwise, are even asking about the possible "demands" the dispossessed might now make on the ruling class is amazing. It recognizes the radical potential that is fermenting there in the streets of America's cities. But what is the essence of this potential?

It's important that seasoned activists, organizers, and intellectuals don't jump the gun right now. We think we know what needs to happen, what the demands should be. We think we know how the occupy moment should focus the energy and outrage it has gathered up in order to become some kind of "progressive" or "revolutionary" movement that will wage specific campaigns. Wrong. We don't have the answers. How could we? You can only make demands if you have the power to fight for them.

All the tactics of movement struggle —electoral campaigns, strikes, civil disobedience, boycotts, fasts, education, mutual aid, exodus, etc.— are only possible when you know what you are capable of, when you know what forms of power you can manifest. As the collectivity grows day by day, as we meet one another, again or for the first time, as we learn about each other's struggles, as we listen to each other, only then will our demands take shape, because only then will we know who we are, what we want, and what we are capable of. The occupation is the attempt of the 99% to define itself as a political subject capable of fighting back and making history.

Consider perhaps the most important encounter had so far at Occupy Wall Street: the arrival of labor unions to meet and support the youth who sparked the whole thing. Union support was recognized by the corporate media as a sign that the occupation had become a force, but the occupy moment has drawn in a true multitude of movements. Wall Street is now teeming with thousands daily who represent the 99%, and they are joined in solidarity by dozens of other cities. Our identities and our struggles are as diverse as the quantum we have chosen to represent all of us implies. Our anger at the inequities of capital are equal, even if the means by which our exploitation occurs are different. What will we demand? Who will we make demands upon? How will we enforce these demands? We don't know yet, but in meeting one another we might find out.


Back to School, Back to Budget Cuts

School started for most this week in California. The state has been withdrawing support for higher education for over a decade now. This year the cuts are as big as ever. Meanwhile student fees are increasing to make up for budget cuts, as well as the costs of increasingly larger, higher paid administrations. Students and others have protested in recent years, mostly to no avail.

In California’s Battered Education System, More Cuts & Privatization 

Costly Units: Painful cuts continue to chip away at the SRJC


Cowboys and Aliens: The Stories Hollywood Won't Tell

As far as film genres go it's hard to find another that exceeds the racism, chauvinism and brutality displayed in westerns.  The very material upon which westerns are based is an historical era characterized by one of the world's most massive genocides, the colonization of a half continent, and the theft of even more lands from a "mongrelized" nation, Mexico.  Virtually every western flick produced before the 1970s is seething with anti-Mexican and anti-Indian racism, reflecting the reality of the day, and by the day I mean both the 19th Century frontier, and 20th Century US mediascape.  Plots are built around the irrational "depravities" of the sub-races as they rampage across the "wilderness" attacking peaceful and industrious settlers.  Virtually every early western is about the white man's attempts to defend his women and community against the "savage" red-skinned humanoids who heed no laws or honor.

Later westerns turned the mirror on the white man to some extent, showing that evil also lurked in the master race of colonizers. He was the black-hat villain, and as if to certify his criminal insanity he often consorted with dark Indians and especially mixed-race Mexicans.  The heroes remained the same, the tall white-hat gunslinger.  Sure there's a lot of variations and even quite a few exceptions to the rule.  More than a few westerns were built around the anti-hero persona of men like Clint Eastwood. But the genre's overall narrative from its earliest days, with films like The Big Trail, has been about white civilization's survival in a savage wilderness, and the justness of manifest destiny in American history. 

That archetype cowboy John Wayne explained the naturalness of this narrative best in his infamous 1971 Playboy interview: "I don'tfeel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them, if that's whatyou're asking. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just amatter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, andthe Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves."  Wayne would know.  He starred in dozens upon dozens of westerns, more than any actor before or since. In 1974 Wayne was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.

While the vast majority of westerns have been built around this kind of conscious and proud white supremacism —let's call it John Waynism— there have been a few westerns produced across the years that depict an alternative narrative.  Many show black cowboys riding alongside whites, transcending racial hatred and allowing whites to show that they're "not prejudiced." However, it's usually a cross racial solidarity reached to better kill redskins or pursue outlaws, all to more effectively protect the American imperial project. So the agenda of imperialism remains uncontested.

Other westerns go so far as to depict "good" Indians, but then isn't the very notion of a good Indian predicated on the notion that they're supposed to be bad? And even when Indians and blacks are depicted as human beings, and even when the plot goes so far as to show them as victims of grave injustice, a major problem for Hollywood has remained.  Most westerns continue to fixate on the white man, on his desires, tribulations, and quest for honor.  Dances With Wolves was the high point of this tendency. Then came the Sci-Fi that was still in many important respects a western, Avatar.  Avatar had all the trappings, from a colonization mission, to a mining venture, to the Marine Corps, to the nobel savage indigenous race and their deep spiritual connections to the earth.  To top it off the white man got to go native, screw an Indian girl, and redeem himself and his race in the process.  It was such an over-the-top western narrative that even David Brooks demolished it as a "White Messiah Fable," in which "natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration."

This gets right at the biggest problem with these revisions of the western.  Try as they might to give Indians, Blacks, Asians and other races positive roles in stories of the West, Hollywood has spun tales of pure fiction, so much so that the truth of the past is lost to the sensitivities of liberal guilt.  We've ended up, therefore, with the older Westerns that depict the reality of white racism and brutality in all its disturbing psychopathy, through a false tale of bravery in the face of attack, and the newer revisionist Westerns that in trying to give non-whites positive roles have completely drained reality from the pictures by not dealing with the white man's overwhelming thirst for blood and empire. 

The first category of westerns, the early canon, is based on racist lies.  It depicts Indians and others as savage animals that must be put down by white defenders.  But at least the racism of the narrative is apparent. This obvious white racism can't fly anymore among a mass audience, and so as the racial attitudes of whites have morphed, so has their ultimately racist narrative about themselves and the Other. 

The second narrative, the new racialism, may be worse because it masks the deeply racist reality of what happened with a fictive storyline that is about whites overcoming racism to ally themselves with Indians, Blacks, Mexicans, whoever, to fight for some greater good. This is not what happened in the West. In the process the story that really needs to be told and retold, the story of what went down as the US Army, state militias, and posses of settlers systematically destroyed a thousand nations during the stampede to California, the story of what the West really is, how it deformed white men's souls and led to genocide and the extension of slavery, has been left untold. 

Is this because Hollywood simply can't produce a film that isn't led by white people, a film in which the main character and the narrative aren't based in white experiences?  And why can't Hollywood?  Why wouldn't a film shot from the perspective of an Indian do well at the box office?  Why must a white person always find their way into native skin to create mass appeal?  What does this say about the American people today? What racial desires and fears lie in the white heart and mind?

Whatever the cause, the fact is that mainstream film has leap frogged over reality to tell tales of racial cooperation in the old west.  This is what Cowboys and Aliens seems to be about on some level.

Here's the basic plot.  Aliens come to earth to and attack a white settler gold mining town in Arizona.  (The town happens to be named Absolution, the theological word for the forgiveness experienced after sacrament and reconciliation, which under Catholicism all results in the washing away of sins -- I'll let you read whatever you like into this.) The aliens call themselves "the Caste," and like many evil extraterrestrials are bent on conquering other planets in the same imperialistic fashion that Euro-Americans actually did set out with in the Fifteenth Century. It's a funny name for the aliens given the racial undertones of the film.  The sociologist Gunnar Myrdal once used the word caste to describe Blacks in America, eschewing "race" because of its biologistic connotations which as a scientist he was eager to refute. Like many things woven into the plots of Hollywood's blockbusters there probably wasn't much of any deep thought put to this, however.

Anyway, feuding as they are amongst themselves the humans have trouble fighting back against the Caste.  Eventually however the whites band together with none other than the Chiricahua Apache Indians to defend planet earth.  The main character, Jake Lonergan, a white man played by Daniel Craig, drinks a magic Indian potion and recalls where the aliens are hidden in their grounded mother-ship - thanks magical Indian medicine man! It's assured that in any film in which the white man allies himself with Indians (or Asians, Africans, etc.) there will be a grave illness or some seemingly insurmountable impasse that can only be solved through the use of the red man's magical herbs and access to the spirit world, forces often summoned up from a dipped gourd or a hit off the old peace pipe.

After getting high and seeing things, Lonergan and company saddle up.  A great battle ensues in which all the trite and cliche reversals of fortune, bravery, sacrifices, and final triumphs occur.  If you've seen a Hollywood action flick you know the basic formula -- lots of explosions, shouting, jumping, flying horses and alien weaponry grafted onto bows and arrows, etc.

The humans eventually win.  And in a plot twist proving they're not only not racist, but in fact they're not even speciesist or terrestrialist, producer Steven Spielberg, director Jon Favreau, and the eight other producers/screenwriters (all of whom are white men, surprise?) include this plot twist: Ella Swensen, a beautiful woman inexplicably traveling alone through Arizona's shit-lands and drafted in the battle to fight the aliens turns out to be an alien herself, although of a different alien race (or is it caste?) also battling against the intruders.  She dies to save them all.  Sorry if I spoiled things for you.

The end, happy end.  But what after?  Well if it's science fiction then we're supposed to suspend our disbelief and follow the what-ifs as far as they go.  But after the aliens are vanquished there's still the question of the Chiricahua Apache, the Indian nation that up until very recently in Hollywood was naturally given the role of the alien force that could not be reasoned with, that could only be dealt with through violence.  In Cowboys and Aliens the Apache just helped the white man save planet earth, so maybe in this fantasy realm everyone signs a big peace treaty and it's all good.

Back to reality. From their first encounters with the pale-faced, bearded military men and miners "exploring" their homelands, the Apache were subjected to murderous intentions.  The Apaches resisted colonization and ruination of their homelands by the Mexican and later American militaries and were more successful in fending of invasion than most other tribes.  It wasn't until the US realized the vast wealth of minerals, gold, silver and other precious metals under the Southwest that the intention to exterminate the Apache nation was firmed.  This campaign of genocide began in the mining camps where the empire's most depraved petit capitalists, criminals, and get-rich-quickers turned their pistols and ropes on the Apache they encountered. Kidnapping and torture were commonplace, as was rape. The Apache bravely resisted.

The US military waged its official war against the Chiricahua during much of the latter 1800s, a war of attrition in which many Apaches were slaughtered resisting the invasion that had no legal or moral basis.  It all more or less ended with Geronimo's surrender in 1886 and the imprisonment of the remaining Apaches in a number of military prisons from Florida to Oklahoma. The final days of the US Army's war to exterminate the Apaches was glorified in the classic John Wayne western Fort Apache.

After their removal the homelands of the Apache were subsequently turned into vast strip mines for copper and other materials when the US Army noted recoverable deposits.  Corporations like Phelps Dodge eventually pulled billions of dollars worth of copper ore from the Apache nation's homeland, mostly from open pits that have left scars in the earth visible from space.

Perhaps the real aliens see these tears in the earth, and wonder what they are? No Hollywood narrative yet exist to explain it.