Poems for April 30: Tomorrow is May Day

[Celebrate May Day with Jack Hirschman, a poet unlike any other, one of America’s foremost poets, a poet and revolutionary committed to the word and the deed of social transformation. [This post was originally published in advance of Jack’s visit to Chicago in 2010.  The poem is just as relevant in 2017, which is one way of saying Jack’s always with us, always visiting us with his words.]

  1. Jack is the subject of a biographical film documentary called Red Poet which [was] screened at Mess Hall, 6932 N. Glenwood, Sunday May 2, 2010, 7:30 pm.
  2. Jack [did]appear in person at Jane Addams Hull-House, 800 S. Halsted, along with Kevin Coval and outstanding poets from the Louder than a Bomb Chicago youth poetry festival. This [was] Monday, May 3, 2010 at 7:30 pm.
  3. Jack Hirschman [did] appear in person at Mess Hall at 6932 N. Glenwood at 7:30 pm, [and read] from his work and discuss[ed] his poetry and politics.

Jack Hirschman is a recent poet laureate of San Francisco, an author of more than 50 books of poetry, translator from 8 languages, editor of the remarkable collection of essays on politics and art, Art on the Line.

Jack Hirschman‘s visit to Chicago [was] rare opportunity, not one to miss at any time, but even more significant in tandem with this very important May Day.]


MAYDAY 2008 by Jack Hirschman

On May Day, tomorrow, sometime in the course of the day,
I’ll take your hand, sister, I’ll take your hand, brother, and
lift our arms all together in honor of the workers’ holiday,

and the Internationale we’ll be singing tomorrow will also
remember that today Shitler blew his brains out 63 years ago
like that criminal in the White House should at any moment,

and that today 33 years ago the great people of Vietnam won
an unforgettable victory for socialism over the same brutal
machine that beat Rodney King of Los Angeles 17 years ago

and set off actions in states like Washington, Nevada, Illinois
because the hunger for justice that’s coming, that’s already
manifesting for food in Haiti, Egypt, Nicaragua, Pakistan,

the hunger that’s joined to the will of that deathless invincible
Union of the spirit of revolution, that hunger which has already
given birth to fourteen years of Mayan resistance and which

defies the mass production of outright lies about how delicious
life tastes with individual choices and forgets about the children
dropping dead of starvation, even here in the other America—

O if ever there was a time to get off the left side of our asses and
go to the bottom of the pot, and see that it’s empty and the kids
needs food. O if ever there was need for Revolution, it’s now

—Jack Hirschman

[note that “that criminal in the white house” referred to above is a reference to George Bush]

May Day 2010: 130 years of Working Class Immigrant Struggle

[We celebrate May Day as an international workers holiday throughout the world.  Until four years ago,it was common for us, particularly in Chicago where it all began, to hang our heads because May Day seemed all but forgotten.  Then the immigration rights marches overwhelmed the old and relatively isolated commemorations by people who had been long keeping the spirit from being extinguished — so overwhelmed that it was easy to call this some other phenomenon.  There is, however, a direct line from the days in 1886 when the police fired on demonstrators and galvanized the eight hour movement.  That direct line starts with the composition of the original haymarket martyrs, the ones imprisoned in Illinois on the charges of instigating a riot, some of whom were executed.  Immigrants led the support for striking workers, immigrants were arrested and executed, immigrants continue to raise the banner of justice which has immense significance for the rest of the working class.

Four years ago, when the May Day march in Chicago swelled to a million people, the demonstration — on a week day, when so many workers took off work and virtually stopped the city — responded to draconian legislation proposed to control immigration.  Now the recent Arizona legislation has generated a similar response.  Saturday promises to be another important step in breaking down barriers between sections of the working class that have opposed each other.  Below is the lead article in the current Tribuno del Pueblo that comments on the situation confronting the immigration rights movement.  There is also a story about how Colombian singer Shakira responds to the Arizona law.

Remember the demonstrations taking place tomorrow; remember also that the arts have always played an important role in participating in the working class struggle, as we have tried to demonstrate on this blog, not only in the daily poetry contributions you have seen here in the month of April.  Today’s contribution is Jack Hirschman’s May Day poem you will find in a separate post. — Lew Rosenbaum]

Editorial: ¡Si se puede!
A just immigration reform now!
from the Tribuno del Pueblo

On March 22, 2010 more than a quarter of a million marched in Washington D.C. chanting, ¡Si se puede!, letting Congress and the Democratic Party know a just immigration reform is long overdue. As we move forward celebrating the fourth anniversary of the first immigrant rights marches, it’s time to also assess where the immigrant rights movement is at as a whole.
Immigration reform has been stuck. Considering the high hopes and spirited enthusiasm of the massive immigrant rights marches, the election of the first minority president in U.S. history and a Democrat controlled Congress, there has been no meaningful progress toward legalization and amnesty. Instead, there are even more security measures such as tighter border surveillance and enforcement and workplace identification checks such as e-verify.
Despite the recent passage of major national health care reform in this country, undocumented and even legal resident immigrants have been to a large extent excluded from coverage. They were victims of backroom political deals designed to insure passage of the health reform measure, ignoring the fact that immigrants pay taxes and contribute to this country. Their exclusion occurred despite the fact that Latinos and other immigrants compose the group with the lowest rates of health care coverage in the country. Several states such as California had already dropped undocumented immigrants from health coverage due to state budget deficits. Now, in response to further deficits, the California Governor is proposing to deny health programs even for legal residents.
Some in the immigrant movement will be quick to blame President Obama. For sure, many on the far right are already attacking “Obamacare” as they call the national health care legislation, but not for the same reason that immigrants are unhappy with it. They call it “big government,” socialized medicine, or communism, as they hurl racial epithets and incite violence against Democratic congressmen who voted for the legislation.
How does one make sense of this morass? Is it racism? Is it betrayal by our leaders? Is this the America of our dreams of democracy, fair play and equal opportunities?
One thing is for sure, and it is that the Democratic Party is not delivering even for U.S. citizens, let alone immigrants. It is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish the Democratic Party from the Republican Party. While banks and General Motors were bailed out, foreclosures, job losses, and social service cuts are affecting even formerly comfortable and securely employed U.S. born workers. Congressmen of both major political parties receive major contributions from interests that keep the insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies in control of health care, even as immigrants and U.S. born workers die from lack of health care. Those who strive to control this country behind the scenes are bigger than just one man and will utilize whichever party, movement or fringe group they need to do it.
So, as the May Day marches approach, it is important to see who our enemy is and who our friends are. Many immigrants are instinctively moving in this direction already, ignoring the calls to be patient and wait for a better immigration proposal. As an integral part of the workforce and social fabric of this country, immigrants are affected by the same social destruction that is occurring to the rest of the U.S. working class. We are united with the rest of the U.S. working in our mutual need to struggle to survive. We must also become united with them in unmasking and exposing the extremists who threaten the democratic ideals that also attracted us to this country.
It is in defending ourselves and demanding our full rights, while looking for what we have in common with the broader American working class which is also being hurt, that we will defeat the weapon of “divide and conquer” that our mutual enemy has historically used. That will be the beginning of political independence for the American working class, of which we as immigrants are an integral part.


Shakira attacks Arizona immigration law

Reprinted from The Guardian, UK. Colombian singer protests controversial legislation allowing police to detain anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant

Shakira protests Arizona immigration law Controversial legislation … Shakira protests Arizona immigration law in Phoenix. Photograph: Joshua Lott/Reuters

Shakira has joined the chorus of opposition to Arizona’s new immigration law. President Obama has questioned its legality, Linda Ronstadt has called for its repeal, the band Stars have called for a boycott, and now the Grammy award-winning Colombian singer has visited Phoenix to discuss the controversial legislation with the city’s mayor.

Civil rights activists are furious about bill 1070, signed into law by Arizona governor Jan Brewer on Friday. If police suspect anyone of being an illegal immigrant, the bill directs officers to ask about their immigration status – and if they are not carrying proper papers they will be committing a crime. Critics have called this state-supported racial profiling.

“Shakira is deeply concerned about the impact of this law on hard-working Latino families,” said Trevor Nielson, the singer’s “political and philanthropic adviser”. “She is coming to Arizona to try to learn more about how law enforcement is reacting to this and how we can ensure that people in the state of Arizona are not being targeted because of the colour of their skin.”

While Shakira is best known for hits like She-Wolf and Hips Don’t Lie, she is also a long-time activist. The singer received a medal from the UN’s International Labour Organisation last month, and she is also a global ambassador for Unicef. Shakira is particularly involved with groups that are active in Central and South America.

According to Nielson, Shakira cancelled other commitments to visit Phoenix yesterday, where she met with mayor Phil Gordon, who opposed bill 1070, and the local police chief. Although she also hoped to speak with Governor Brewer, her staff said she was too busy.

Appearing on the radio show On Air With Ryan Seacrest, Shakira described her questions for officials. “Are they really willing to enforce [a] law [when] they know it is going to crush the dream of so many immigrants who would like to have a shot at the American dream, like so many minorities in this country have in the past? We all know how America has been forged by the dreams of those people, and by their passion, and by their contribution to the economy – by working really hard.”

Three Arizona cities are considering lawsuits to block the new bill, and the legislation may be challenged at referendum in November. At least one state sheriff has called it a “stupid law” and said this week he would not enforce it in his county.

• This article was amended on 30 April 2010. The original referred to Arizona governor Jan Brewer as ‘he’, when in fact she is female. This has been corrected.

Poems for April 29: Meridel Le Sueur and Tom McGrath

Fierce for Change is a cinematic portrait of writer Meridel Le Sueur, whose works for over 60 years have been informed by her political history and beliefs, and colored by her connectedness to the midwestern land and environment. On this site you will find her NY Times obituary,  a link to four short essays byMeridel, and other relevant information. The form of this selection is prose.  But the lyrical use of language and the vivid imagery are extraordinary:

Cows and Horses Are Hungry
by Meridel Le Sueur

Publishing Information

Originally published in American Mercury (September, 1934). Republished in Ripening by Feminist Press (1980)

Ripening: Selected Work, 1927-1980


When you drive through the Middle West droughty country you try not to look at the thrusting out ribs of the horses and cows, but you get so you can’t see anything else but ribs, like hundreds of thousands of little beached hulks. It looks like the bones are rising right up out of the skin. Pretty soon, quite gradually, you begin to know that the farmer, under his rags, shows his ribs, too, and the farmer’s wife is as lean as his cows, and his children look tiny and hungry. . . .

read the rest of this essay here.


I Light Your Streets by Meridel Le Sueur

I am a crazy woman with a painted face
On the streets of Gallup
I invite men into my grave
for a little wine.
I am a painted grave
Owl woman     hooting for callers in the night.
Black bats over the sun sing to me
The horned toad sleeps in my thighs

Meridel Le Sueur reads at the opening of the Guild Complex, May 1989 (Nelson Peery at right, Lew Rosenbaum at left)

My grandmothers gave me songs to heal
But the white man buys me cheap without song
or word.
My dead children appear and I play with them.
Ridge of time in my grief –remembering
Who will claim the ruins?
and the graves?
the corn maiden violated
As the land?
I am a child in my eroded dust.
I remember feathers of the hummingbird
And the virgin corn laughing on the cob.
Maize defend me
Prairie wheel around me
I run beneath the guns
and the greedy eye
And hurricanes of white faces knife me.
But like fox and smoke I gleam among the thrushes
And light your streets.

from Ripening: Selected Work, 1927-1980 (Feminist Press)


Blues For The Old Revolutionary Woman by Thomas McGrath

for Mother Bloor
Mother Jones
Meridel Le Sueur

Tom McGrath

A tick of time that stones the heads of kings
And drops its pennies on a thousand eyes
Unreels the gaudy shroud of history
And transmutes all statistics into pain.

What is simple virtue can never be denied,
Explained, or canceled. Still, it is not
Enough to love a world that must be changed.
This was the earliest thing they learned.

Neither Weehawken Ferry nor a flower,
The world was love and work — we could become
Human. Across the cruel geography
Of strike and struggle, hitch-hiking, riding freights

They sought the boundaries of that possible world
Where statistical death can never cancel dream
And history is humanized. Their blazoning voyage
Points toward the Indies of our mortal wish.

from Selected Poems 1938-1988 (Copper Canyon, 1988)


by Thomas McGrath

How could I have come so far?

Selected Poems 1938-1988

(And always on such dark trails?)
I must have traveled by the light
Shining from the faces of all those I have loved.

from Selected Poems 1938-1988 (Copper Canyon, 1988)

[From the biographical material on the Poetry Foundation website:

For some fifty years, the late Thomas McGrath produced a prolific array of titles, encompassing poetry, novels, books for children, and several documentary film scripts, including uncredited work on the eloquent and exhilarating Smithsonian film about the history of flight, To Fly. But McGrath is primarily a poet, and although “important contemporary poets . . . proclaim him as a major voice in American poetry in the last three or four decades,” according to Frederick C. Stern in Southwest Review, McGrath‘s work has been critically neglected for years. “He’s one of those poets who should be known but isn’t, who is constantly being rediscovered as if he were some precocious teenager who just got into town,” declared Mark Vinz in North Dakota Quarterly. “If he’s been honored, even revered by a few, he’s also been ignored by most.” To quote Terrence Des Pres in TriQuarterly, “Thomas McGrath has been writing remarkable poems of every size and form for nearly fifty years. In American poetry he is as close to Whitman as anyone since Whitman himself, . . . read more and listen to audio recordings here. ]

Secret History of Chicago Music

The Secret History of Chicago Music info-strip runs every two weeks in the free weekly The Chicago Reader, which comes out every Wednesday. The musical segment/show

Just one of the images and text in the secret history

runs the following Sunday eve on the Nick Digilio show on WGN 720 at midnight (technically Monday, but you get the idea). A book collection is in the works of the strips…cross yer fingers… Check out the images and the web site here .

Poems for April 28, 2010: Michael Warr, Tony Fitzpatrick, Jack Hirschman praise heroes

Gravitas  In Three Movements

Written by Michael Warr and performed in 2005 at the memorial of Fred Fine to music composed and performed by Mitar Mitch Covic.

Michael Warr

In memory of Fred Fine

In the immortal mind
of this Worldchanger
bottom line was humanity,
Breadlines for subsistence
not enough without beauty
riveted into the beams
of our being
offered to all in reach of his
brilliant, encompassing, light
where would-be Worldchangers
were taught to slay
the golem of cyclical crisis.


Firebird soaring underground.
Entrenched scholar on frontlines.
Bronze-Star soldier, profound.
Mobilizer of each one of us.
Gardener of consciousness.
Scientific shaman. Maven.
Mentor to masses. Agitator.
Code Breaker. Mensch.
Frail enough to fly.

We Are All The Black Boy (Tia Chucha)


Freedom Fighter. Father.
Immense enough to leave
an imprint on our communal stone.
Today the theory of chaos is true.
The flutter of a butterfly’s wing
can equal the force of a hurricane.
© 2005, Michael Warr

[“Michael Warr’s literary awards include a Gwendolyn Brooks Significant Illinois Poets Award, a NEA Creative Writing Fellowship for Poetry, a Ragdale Foundation US – Africa Fellowship, and The Beat Museum Poet of the Month. His first book of poems We Are All The Black Boy, was honored by the Illinois Library Association. He is a co-editor of Power Lines: A Decade of Poetry From Chicago’s Guild Complex.” taken from the spoken word website where a number of his poems can be read and/or heard, including his evocation of Tony Fitzpatrick (see next entry) in this poem: My Father’s Favorite Pastime.]


Crazy Horse Collages by Tony Fitzpatrick

[Tony Fitzpatrick has earned his position as a visual artist and a wordsmith poet. In a number of works, such as Bum Town, his brilliant evocation of south Chicago’s blue collar past, he combines the two arts with his visceral prints and words. Note that Tony has also done book covers:  his own for BumTown of course, but also for Michael Warr’s book featured above, and for PowerLines, which Michael co-edited.  And if you listen to Steve Earle’s music, look again at the album covers and you’ll recognize the work there too.  In the work represented here, his visual art itself becomes a form of poetry, and the prose reflections that accompany them evoke the tragic past of Crazy Horse, someone to be admired even if the tragic end is not to be emulated. The following is from the text accompanying number one of the collages:

“I think I keep thinking about Crazy Horse because of the sad trajectory of his life — he’d lost his wives , his brother, his father, and his dearest friend, Hump; and in his lifetime he would also lose the ferocious landscape of the Badlands to the white man and the RailRoads. His, was a life of furious loss, despite fighting mightily to hang onto some semblance of his history and ancestry– these things too, were lost to him.
His only solace was in nature. Being on the wrong end of history’s loaded gun, relegated him and millions of other indians to the shameful footnote of White America’s own genocidal manifest destiny.
I guess the idea of belonging to a place is something I’ve always considered an idea worth fighting for.” ]


Homage to Ben Moloise, South African Poet by Jack Hirschman

The Bottom Line (Curbstone)

When a poet
in revolutionary struggle
is hanged by the evil his every breath had fought
his words
unleash the lynched
unchain the fettered
turn every pen into a javelin
when a poet
is murdered for being
truth’s messenger
the government of his executioners
chokes on its own tongue
and aparthate crawls on maggot belly
while the words of the poet
enter the peoples’ ears
like the unbroken neck of the rainbow
that will be South Africa’s sky
for every pair of eyes
when the reign of death is over
and the flood subsides.

from The Bottom Line (Curbstone Press)

Rap Video Responds To Arizona Immigration Law — from Rock And Rap Confidential

Coyote vs the Roadrunner-Arizona Rap Artist Swindoe Drops Hard Hitting Video About New Immigration Law


Thanks to Rock and Rap Confidential

More on May Day Rallies, 2010

Arizona immigrant law energizes Hispanics, Democrats

Wed Apr 28, 2010 7:08pm EDT in Reuters
People hold signs as they protest against Senate Bill 1070 outside the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix, Arizona April 25, 2010. REUTERS/Joshua Lott

People hold signs as they protest against Senate Bill 1070 outside the Arizona State Capitol in Phoenix, Arizona April 25, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Joshua Lott

PHOENIX (Reuters) – U.S. Hispanics and Democratic lawmakers furious over Arizona’s harsh crackdown on illegal immigrants expect huge weekend rallies across the United States, piling pressure on President Barack Obama to overhaul immigration laws in this election year.


Protest organizers said on Wednesday outrage over the Arizona law — which seeks to drive illegal immigrants out of the state bordering Mexico — has galvanized Latinos and would translate into a higher turnout for May Day rallies in more than 70 U.S. cities.

“The marches and demonstrations are going to be far more massive than they otherwise would have been,” said Juan Jose Gutierrez, a Los Angeles rally organizer who runs an immigration assistance company.

The backlash began on Friday after Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed into law a measure that requires state and local police to determine a person’s immigration status if there is “reasonable suspicion” they are undocumented. Critics say it is unconstitutional and opens the door to racial profiling.

Republican backers of the law say it is needed to curb crime in the desert state, which is a key corridor for drug and migrant smugglers from Mexico.

A Rasmussen Reports poll on Wednesday found that almost two-thirds — 64 percent — of voters in the state favored the measure.

The crowds on the streets, from Los Angeles to New York, could be the biggest since 2006, when hundreds of thousands of marchers urged former President George W. Bush to overhaul of federal immigration laws. He tried, but failed in Congress.

“With what’s going on in Arizona we see renewed energy for folks to fight for immigration reform,” said Marissa Graciosa, of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, an organizer of rallies and vigils on Friday and Saturday.

In Washington, a diverse group of more than two dozen lawmakers — Hispanics, blacks, Asians, whites — held a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday to denounce the Arizona law as a violation of civil rights.

“What Arizona has done is that it has galvanized, united, fortified, focused our immigration movement,” Democratic Representative Luis Gutierrez declared at the news conference.  Read more here.


Web site for the Illinois Coalition on Immigrant Rights


Illinois Labor History Association has two events set, including a rally scheduled in Haymarket Square:

See this link for Festival events including May Day events.


See also this story by Eduardo Galeano about May Day in Chicago.

Teachers March For the Future in California — Along the Prison Town Road by David Bacon

Down Prison Road

Tuesday 27 April 2010

by: David Bacon, t r u t h o u t | Report

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: tricky ™, seantoyer)

Chowchilla, California – High in the mountains overlooking Bakersfield and the south end of the San Joaquin Valley is a piece of California’s past, the California Correctional Institution, or as inmates know it, Tehachapi.

It was one of the state’s first big prisons, built at the height of the Great Depression in 1933 to contain the unraveling social fabric of Hoovervilles, high unemployment, a vast influx of Dust Bowl refugees, and left-wing political movements spreading like wildfire.

The penitentiary spreads across 1,650 acres of a remote desert valley. Designed for 2,785 inmates, it now holds 5,806 – 200% of an already inhumane standard. And while it was built as the original California Institute for Women, today its only inhabitants are men.

Jazzman Art Pepper, son of a Los Angeles longshoreman, lived in its cells for four and a half years in the 1950s. Like Pepper, today’s prison inmates are mostly there because of drugs. Pepper would have recognized them for another reason. Tehachapi’s inmates are almost all Black and Latino, like the rest of California’s prisoners, and have been since the prison system began. And poor.

While Tehachapi was mentioned in “The Maltese Falcon,” people like Hammett’s middle-class grifters don’t normally wind up there. Having no money is practically a requirement for residence.

When teachers and home-care workers rallied down below in Bakersfield on March 5, and kicked off the March for California’s Future, few had more than a vague idea of the kind of presence Tehachapi and its fellow institutions would cast over them as they walked up the San Joaquin Valley to Sacramento. They then spent 48 days in a traveling protest over the extreme budget cuts that have cost the jobs of thousands of California teachers, and threaten those of thousands of other public workers.

Teachers, students and public workers walk through the southern San Joaquin during their 260-mile, 48-day march from Bakersfield to Sacramento.Teachers, students and public workers walk through the southern San Joaquin during their 260-mile, 48-day march from Bakersfield to Sacramento. The march protested cuts to education and social services, and was initiated by the California Federation of Teachers. (Photo: © David Bacon)

But while its participants may not have intended it, the March for California’s Future became a march through California’s prison towns. The explosive growth of communities based on incarceration also offers a vision of what California could become. It’s not the vision of the marchers, clearly, who want social change that makes prisons a lower priority than schools. But it is surely a vision of what life will become without that change – California’s prison future.

In their first week on the road, the hardy group, drawn mostly from the state’s schools, walked by Kern Valley State Prison and North Kern State Prison in Delano, the first holding 5,013 inmates, and the second 5,390.

Delano was the birthplace of the United Farm Workers in 1965. Marchers celebrated the strike, started by Filipinos that September and joined by the Mexicans led by Cesar Chavez two weeks later. A year afterwards, in 1966, the first great farm workers’ march left Delano for Sacramento, writing the grape strike into the nation’s history books, and pulling together a union that eventually overcame the state’s corporate growers in the seat of their power.

The symbolism of those past events, and the profound effect they had on California’s future, wasn’t lost on today’s marchers. “I think about what those marches did for the farm workers, in terms of insisting on basic human dignity,” recalls marcher Jim Miller, a San Diego community college teacher. “So I think in that sense, we’ve chosen the perfect place to do this. Access to affordable education is a civil right. The purpose of this march is to make that more evident to the public.”

For years the UFW was headquartered at the Forty Acres outside of town, before it moved its offices into the mountains above Bakersfield, just a few miles from Tehachapi prison. The union still keeps its original hall on Garces Highway, but just a couple of miles away are the two new prisons, built in the 1990s.

Every day in Delano 3,176 people go to work in the prisons. Almost as many of the town’s families now depend on prison jobs as those supported by year-round field labor. Thousands of former farm workers now guard other Latinos and blacks – inmates just as poor, but mostly from the urban centers of Los Angeles or San Jose rather than the rural communities of the Central Valley.

Delano’s population is 49,359. The two prisons hold more than 10,000 people. A third, smaller prison run by the city, the Delano Community Correctional Facility, contracts with the state to house an additional 600 inmates. Almost none can vote, so they’re no threat to the political establishment that profits from their presence. But they do count when it’s time to calculate Delano’s population, and therefore its share of state revenue. At the same time, although hundreds of prisoners may come from Compton, for instance, one of California’s poorest cities in heavily black and Latino south central Los Angeles, Compton can’t claim them as residents in calculating its piece of the state pie.

Prison-building places poor communities in competition with each other, and Delano gains an advantage from housing Compton’s lost souls. But it’s competition over a pie that’s shrinking quickly.

The Kern Valley State Prison and North Kern State Prison have a combined annual budget of $294 million. By comparison, the town’s 2010 General Fund was a tenth of that, and the budget of its public schools a twentieth. Delano’s median family income is just over $29,000, with almost 30% of its residents living below the poverty line.

Wasco State Prison is just up the highway, incarcerating 5,989 people, and employing 1,688, at an annual cost of $201 million. Wasco’s population is 25,665. Across the wide valley to the west are two more prisons. Avenal State Prison holds 6,577 people, with a staff of 1,517 and an annual budget of $144 million. To the north, Pleasant Valley State Prison houses 5,188 inmates and 1,388 guards, spending $195 million every year. These are even smaller towns. In the 2000 census Avenal boasted a population of 15,689, but had counted the 7,062 inmates at that time as residents. The census count in Coalinga, home of the Pleasant Valley prison, was 11,668.

In nearby McFarland, marcher Jenn Lasker, a continuation schoolteacher from Watsonville, talked to a fellow teacher about to lose her job. “She worked three jobs to put herself through school,” Lasker reported. “She’s in her second year, which means that on the first day of next year she’d have had tenure and couldn’t have been laid off. So she’s being laid off this year instead. Her family’s lived in McFarland for five generations – her father’s been a custodian for the district there for 23 years. Without a job there won’t be anything to keep her in the community where she grew up. The closest place to look for work is Bakersfield, where they just issued 200 pink slips, and many highly qualified teachers are fighting for the same job.”

That McFarland teacher is the victim of cuts in the state’s education budget. Another $18 billion will be sliced from it this year. California is one of only three states with a requirement that two-thirds of the legislature approve any budget. Even more important, any tax increase takes a two-thirds vote as well. So even though urban Democrats have had a majority for years in both chambers of the legislature, a solid Republican bloc can keep the state in a continual economic crisis until Democrats agree to slash spending. With huge deficits from declining tax revenues, and a recession boosting state unemployment over 12.5%, a budgetary crisis is not difficult to create.

Nowhere is unemployment higher than in California’s rural counties, often twice as high as on the coast. Small agricultural towns like Delano and McFarland are filled with workers who can’t find jobs, while at the same time budget cuts reduce the social services for unemployed families, and shower teachers in the local schools with pink slips.

When marchers talk about the state’s future, some of them remember a time when, at least for some residents, the system had a more functional social contract. “I view myself as a legacy of the California system when it worked,” remembers marcher Gavin Riley, a retired teacher from a district on the border of Los Angeles and Orange County. “I went to school in the 1950s when our school system was ranked as one of the best in the nation. When it was my time to go to college, the state university was free.

“The theory back then was that if we had an educated electorate, they’d be more productive, more supportive of the state. People wouldn’t get in trouble. I think that worked, at least for me. They gave me a free education, and I came back and worked my entire life teaching in our schools. I think I’ve more than returned the investment. But we’ve kind of lost track of that. At one time we were a selfless society in California. We seem to have become more selfish. That’s unfortunate, because we’re losing track of the dream.”

For Maria S. the dream is harder to attain than ever. She came from Mexico to Bakersfield as a teenager, and after a terrible accident, has lived in a wheelchair ever since. Nevertheless, she got her GED at adult school while working, and then an AA degree at Bakersfield College. But when it came time to move on to California State University in Bakersfield, the free education given to Riley wasn’t even a memory. Instead, she found that budget cuts had produced a tuition fee of $1,700 for each quarter. “With a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, I’ll be the first in my family to achieve a higher education,” she says. “But I still haven’t been able to raise the funds, so I’m not going to school this winter. Tuition has become so high I can’t afford it. As an immigrant, I have to pay more, and I get no financial aid.”

Immigration reform would certainly help solve some of her problems, but as a federal issue, it’s not really in the direct purview of the marchers, even though they’re sympathetic. But the money question is. The state’s universities won’t get more funding and tuition won’t move back toward where it was in the ’50s without political change in Sacramento.

Of course, even those good memories of the 1950s are only shared by some of the state’s residents. That was also the period of Cold War loyalty oaths, when many teachers refused to denounce their coworkers for left-wing ideas, and were fired. Jazz musicians like Art Pepper went to jail, in part because they took drugs, but also because most were black artists in a black community patrolled by the Los Angeles Police Department like an occupying army. And before the Delano grape strike, growers brought in contract bracero workers from Mexico every year, sending them back across the border once the work was done.

The San Joaquin Valley has its bitter racial memories. Just north of Delano and McFarland, marchers came upon Allensworth, a town founded in 1908 by African-Americans, in the period before World War I when lynchings were common and the Klan rode high in the South. Colonel Allen Allensworth founded a utopian community in response, in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley, taking to heart Booker T. Washington’s advice to meet racism by building independence and self-sufficiency. Its streets were named for Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass and Paul Lawrence Dunbar.

The colony failed, and for years the tiny settlement it left behind lay stranded next to Highway 99. Reacting to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ed Pope, a surveyor for the California Department of Parks and Recreation, began a campaign that led in 1976 to a state park re-creating the African-American utopia.

Last year the park was closed by budget cuts. More African-Americans now live in just one of the prisons near Allensworth than ever lived in the town itself. Meanwhile, most of the 120 families residing next to the state park are Mexican immigrants, sleeping in trailers. They have no sure source of water (which helped doom the utopia long ago), and no store or gas station.

As marchers headed up the road, they passed the prison that became a national symbol for abuse of inmates – California State Prison in Corcoran (5,544 inmates, 2,322 staff, $270 million budget). A 1996 “Los Angeles Times” article by Mark Arax stated that guards there had shot and killed more inmates than in any other prison nationwide. In addition, they’d staged fights between inmates, called “gladiator days.” “60 Minutes” even showed a video of an inmate killed by guards in 1994. Finally, eight guards and supervisors were indicted, but were acquitted in 2000.

Corcoran has a second prison as well, the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility (7,628 inmates, 1,786 staff, $230 million budget.) Despite the jobs in the two facilities, however, Corcoran, like most Valley towns, has much higher unemployment than the state’s average – 19%. The general fund budget for the Corcoran schools last year was $29 million – like Delano, a twentieth of the budgets of its two prisons. The penetentiaries are giant behemoths in towns like Corcoran, with spending that dwarfs schools or city services. Yet for all the promise of jobs, they don’t make much of a dent in the joblessness endemic to rural California.

Going by prison after prison was especially heart wrenching for Irene Gonzalez, who joined the march, not as a teacher but as a worker in the criminal justice system. She looks at the institutions, and knows not just who they house but the people who work there. She doesn’t see them as enemies, or people sucking up budget dollars that should really go elsewhere.

“In the probation department in Los Angeles, where I work, we service the community in rehabilitating minors and adults, and a lot of our services are being cut, too,” she explains. “We used to give referrals, and could provide help in getting jobs or developing reading skills. But with the cuts we can’t do that any longer.”

She predicts a social explosion if the state’s priorities aren’t changed. “It should not cost us an arm and a leg to send our kids through college, or to go there ourselves. What they’re going to have is more people living on the streets,” she says. “These legislators say they’re against crime, but then they take away people’s jobs and homes. What do they expect?” She’s the angriest of the marchers. “It’s time for us to start standing up and fighting back,” she vows. “We’re going to make sure you hear us, and hear us loud.”

Chowchilla, which marchers passed a few days later, is also the site of two prisons, Valley State Prison for Women (3,810 inmates, 1,058 staff and $125 million budget) and the Central California Women’s Facility (3,918 inmates, 1,208 staff, and $153 million budget). It’s one of the main towns in the district of Assemblyman Tom Berryhill. Tom and his brother Bill represent adjacent districts in the State Assembly.

Tom, a fourth-generation farmer, lives in Modesto, home of the Gallo wine empire. Not surprisingly, he’s a law and order advocate, campaigning for the rights of crime victims and for speedier application of the death penalty. Last year the California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force named him “Legislator of the Year”.

His brother Bill, from Stockton and Ceres to the north, sits on the board of the Allied Grape Growers. Both inherited their membership in the political class here from their father, legendary Republican legislator Clare Berryhill. For the Berryhills, prison construction is an economic development strategy, and they point to its role in creating local jobs.

Bill Berryhill bemoans that Stockton’s schools have just sent out 192 layoff notices. But turning reality on its head, the budget cuts demanded by the Berryhills and their colleagues are not responsible, they say. The culprits are taxes and regulations on business. “While the state flirts with tax increases, our agricultural, trucking and educational sectors continue to decline,” he fumes.

One of their allies is state Senator Jeff Denham, whose district not only includes a large chunk of the San Joaquin Valley but stretches across the mountains to the neighboring Salinas Valley, fondly referred to by agribusiness as “the nation’s salad bowl.” The valley is also home to one of the state’s most famous prisons, Soledad, where George Jackson wrote “Soledad Brother” in 1970. It is actually two prisons, the Salinas Valley State Prison and the Correctional Training Facility. Together, they house 11,552 people, employ 3,195 guards and other personnel, and spend a combined budget of $327 million.

Denham gets an A+ rating from the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Association, architects of the tax-cutting policy that is driving the state into astronomical debt, and a 100% perfect score from the California Taxpayers Association. Neither association is worried about the tax burden of prisons, however.

Behind these legislators is the most extreme element of the state’s Republican Party, the California Republican Assembly. They only gave the Berryhills 67 percent ratings. Abel Maldonado, a Republican who voted to break the Republican-engineered budget deadlock last session, got 22 percent, lower than some Democrats. The Stanislaus County GOP, an active participant in the Assembly and part of the Berryhills’ base, lists its principles as “smaller government, lower taxes, individual freedom, strong national security, respect for the sanctity of life, traditional marriage, the importance of family and the exceptionalism of America.” It doesn’t specifically mention prisons. It doesn’t have to – support for them is just assumed.

The San Joaquin Valley finally ends in the great delta, drained and turned into farmland by Chinese contract laborers 150 years ago. At the confluence of the rivers flowing out of the San Joaquin Valley to the south, and the Sacramento Valley to the north, is Sacramento, the state capital. This was the marchers’ goal. The California Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the march’s main organizers, brought out over seven thousand union members and community activists. who marched down the Mall to confront the legislature and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in a huge rally April 21.

Before marchers got there, though, they passed two juvenile prisons in Stockton (estimated: 815 inmates, 960 staff and a budget of $132 million.) Just east of the Capitol is the prison made famous by Johnny Cash – Folsom State Prison. This also is a double institution, with a total of 7,676 inmates, 2,716 staff and a combined budget of $310 million. Deuel Vocational Institute to the west in Tracy rounds out the total San Joaquin Valley prison count. It has 3,748 inmates, 1,393 staff, and spends $189 million every year.

There are other prisons to the east and north, on the coast, and in rural areas throughout the state. But the total count for the San Joaquin Valley alone gives a prison population of 67,059 human beings incarcerated in 13 institutions, guarded by another 21,215 human beings, at a cost of $2.4 billion.

No wonder there’s no free education anymore at state universities for Maria S. or anyone else.

The problem with California’s future isn’t just a bad voting system in Sacramento. That could be fixed by an initiative that the marchers, along with teachers unions, students, other labor organizations and community groups are putting on the ballot next November. If they win, budgets and tax increases will be adopted by simple majority vote, rather than two-thirds. It will be easier to pass AB 560, a proposal by state Assemblyman Alberto Torrico to charge oil companies a royalty for the petroleum they pull from under California’s soil. California is the only oil-producing state that doesn’t charge the oil giants for what they take.

But giving more power to Democrats, and a better system for arriving at a budget deal, still won’t reverse the state’s priorities. California spends enormous sums jailing people, while finding few alternatives to incarceration, and slashing money for the education that might open other doors to the state’s youth, especially its poorest. Democrats vote for prisons too.

“We’ve seen boarded-up homes everywhere,” says Gavin Riley, describing the marchers’ journey up the valley’s prison road. “Coming into Fresno we walked through a Skid Row area where people were living in cardboard and wood shacks underneath a freeway, sleeping on the sidewalks. We’ve seen farms where the land is fallow and the trees have been allowed to die. About the only thing we’ve seen great growth in is prisons. We’ve walked by beautiful, wonderful prisons. I look at that and say, what a waste, not only of land but of people. I can’t help but think that California, a state that’s now down near the bottom in what it spends on education, is far and away the biggest spender on prisons. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to connect the dots.”

Poem for April 27: Ebon Dooley

[Ebon Dooley, born Leo T Hale, was a giant of the black arts movement in Chicago.  His published poetic output was small, but his influence within the arts community vastly exceeded his publications.  He moved to Atlanta where he was for 35 years director of the independent radio station WRFG.  He died in 2006.  His obituary in the Atlanta Progressive News is here.  The People’s Tribune carried an obituary which said in part:

Ebon Dooley, an activist, poet and revolutionary, . . .was born Leo Thomas Hale, the oldest child of Leo and Beatrice Hale of the small farming community of

Ebon Dooley

Milan, Tennessee. Son of a school-teacher and the grandchild of middle-class farmers, he went to Nashville’s Fisk University on an early entrant scholarship. Ebon’s activism might be said to have begun with his work as managing editor of the Fisk literary magazine and newspaper (which included Nikki Giovanni as a freshman reporter). He went on to further activism when, as a regional honors scholar, he entered Columbia Law School in 1963. In New York he saw two very different sides of the larger world, as a law school management trainee at Manufacturers’ Hanover Trust and as a member of the Law Students’ Civil Rights Research Council and volunteer for the Harlem community action project of Har-you-act. At the first Black Power conference in Newark, he was impressed by the Chicago delegation; unable to get a large enough scholarship to go on to graduate school in business after his 1967 graduation from Columbia, he went to Chicago as a VISTA legal volunteer.

Abdul Alkalimat wrote an appreciation of Dooley from which the following excerpt comes:

“The heart of Ebon’s Chicago experience was the OBAC (Oh-bah-see) Writers Workshop (Organization for Black American Culture), founded in 1967. It included future luminaries such as Johari Amini (Jewel Latimore), Haki Madhubuti (Don. L. Lee), and Carolyn Rodgers. The young writers were entertained regularly by Gwendolyn Brooks, whom Ebon acknowledges as one of his greatest influences. The Writers Workshop developed an aesthetic manifesto that was based on both artistic and social awareness. It particularly focused on the need to free black literature from the aesthetic criteria established for traditional Western works.. .”

The Mighty John Hancock Building or
The bigger they are the harder they fall

by Ebon Dooley

it was a normal day
in the Loop . . .

the sun was morning warm
and bounced spring sparkles
from neon billboards
above Michigan Avenue.
yellow cabhorns honked
and warned mini-skirted mannequins
away from curbs
and changing amber lights.

it was a tuesday scene
and rather quiet
for near/noon traffic sounds.
(the sharp fast sound of
high heels; and dull/worn
rubber soles
dragging on ruffled concrete)

lunch hour crowds
crowded the street.
(window shopping on the
Northern Slope) crowding
around Big John.
like millions of pink/plumb
beneath Big John
when it happened. . . .

when the mighty Hancock
roared in pain
and sprawled
down the “magnificent mile”
when smoldering powder/smells
mingled in the air
with dust and bricks
and steel and glass and
concrete balls of fire

when burning bricks
crushed crowded corners;
and silver spears of glass
shattered spines
and pinned pink bellies
to the pavement

When Big Bad John Hancock
and crumbled concrete
floated in pools of blood
it was a quiet day . . . .

it was a quiet day
when it happened . . . .

[From Nommo: A Literary Legacy of Black Chicago 1967-1987, An OBAC Anthology edited by Carole A Parks.  From http://underground-library.org/?tag=nommo The OBAC (Organization of Black American Culture) workshop was founded in 1967, initiating the greatest collective force in Chicago literary history. OBAC (Oh-bah-see) referred to Oba, the Yoruba word for king. Workshops ran from 1967-1994 and readings were staged as recently as 2007; “art for the sake of black empowerment was the principle.”]

Poem for April 26: Sterling Plumpp

Still Born Song by Sterling Plumpp

Sterling Plumpp

task is to solve my voice’s finger
tips’ extensions
for its daily languages
Where blues
is the negotiator of my songs

My diurnal moans
are survival kit
carsons exploring new
territory my voice finds
in Bessie Smith’s pig
foot and empty
bed again and again

there are no speed
limits in linguistic
voyages for self
expression of selves
lost no walkie
talkies surveying hiding
places for patrolmen with radar
guns aimed at pocket
billiards of your imagination

I come here
bound in chain
linked hostility

but weaving

language over avenues
of a thousand years
my memory has taught
seasons the geography of absent foot

Sterling Plumpp retired from teaching in 2001 to continue his writing.

my life I have
had border war
zones with authority

I am a power
forward pass in celestial
discourses with authority
where Jerry Rice argues
for slants over middle
of the road potions

And Karl
Marx drives in
side Lois
Lanes with is lef
hand finger
roll mastery over part
time lies the master
advertises as obedience

I sit naming names of nights
in their dark ward
robes of mystery in
side Hawkins’  The Midnight Tenor Man
Blues Sage  hawking  pains on boulevards of melodious
journeys through windows
of the soul Where the Middle Passage
rests in some black mother’s prayers
for delivery of her brown paper
bag of dry
bones with her still
born song’s name in it     No
body knows the troubles
I see coming down yonder’s wall

The Auction Block
club was
not about civic pride or neighbor
hood improvement    It was a gossip
column of marching thieves
ballads some
times sweep and clean house
boy’s ears for it   And Some
times I feel like a mother
less child cooked for it
Ornate With Smoke, copyright 1997 Third World Press.

[Tarvis Williams writes, in “Sterling Plumpp: A Biography” :

Sterling Plumpp was born in Clinton, Mississippi, on January 30, 1940.  He was reared by his maternal grandparents, Mattie and Victor Emmanuel.  They were sharecroppers, and Plumpp and his brother worked the fields with their grandparents (“The Characters” 1).  He and his family lived about ten miles from school, and there were no buses for them to ride.  Therefore, they did not start school until they were eight or nine years old, when they were able to walk the distance.  As a young boy, Plumpp never attended school a full year (Black Rituals 107-8).Black Rituals by Sterling Plumpp

At the age of fifteen he moved to Jackson, Mississippi, where he completed grammar and high school (Black Rituals 108).  Plumpp graduated as class valedictorian in 1960 (“The Characters” 2).  Later, he spent two horrible years at St. Benedict’s College.  He quit school and joined the Army, where he spent two learning years .  When he went to Chicago in the fall of 1962, he got a job in the main post office at Canal and Van Buren . . . read more here. ]