An OBcean’s 2018 Summer Notebook of Teachers, Labor and Travels Across America

by on July 18, 2018 · 5 comments

in Ocean Beach

Author in front of Joe Hill mural at Ken Sanders bookstore, Salt Lake City, Utah.

By Brett Warnke

As I’m a San Diego teacher and active in my union, in the summer of 2016 I was attending a National Education Association (NEA) conference in D.C.  After resolutions condemning the Confederate flag failed and the body endorsed Hillary Clinton for president, I rented a car and drove to a rain-soaked Philadelphia to cover and participate in the protests at the Democratic Convention. I wrote an article called “Storm Clouds Over Philly” for another media platform and offered some impressions on the terrible squall over the Democratic Party.

I saw lanyard-wearing convention-goers jeer, mock, and dismiss protestors on their way into a convention that raised up a future failure who blew the election and brought the country into the grip of the most loathsome clutch of thieves and crooks since Faulkner’s Snopes clan.

Now two years later, on our heels from a crushing blow to unions by the Supreme Court, I returned to the NEA convention, but this time in the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Teachers are a strange sort in high numbers. Most in attendance are rule-obsessed, earnest, scrupulous, and many enjoy the melodious tones of their own voices.

In a democratic union this can be both an attribute and detriment at the microphone with thousands sitting in a captive audience.  But, amazingly, the NEA’s business was completed and the acrimony was nearly absent. (NEA President Eskelsen-Garcia literally opened the meeting singing “All You Need Is Love.”)

A stirring speech by American Federation of Teachers’ Randi Weingarten and others reaffirmed what we knew:  American labor is fighting for its life in a post-Citizens United corporate America.

While some of the NEA’s boldest resolutions were voted down – one written by local San Diego activist and teacher Shane Parmley which would have called upon the NEA to help advertise civil disobedience to raise awareness about “zero tolerance” child detention efforts  – other progressive resolutions passed, including a report acknowledging white supremacy culture and calling for action to “eradicate institutional racism.”

Not bad at all.

And despite the order during the conference and impressive concern for students–always palpable in a room brimming with the sincerest do-gooders in the country–the mood at the assembly’s opening has never been more somber.

After years of onslaught by the Koch brothers (whose paid stooges spam teachers’ school emails encouraging them to leave unions), a massive school board loss in Los Angeles, more school shootings, terrible defeats in the 2016 elections, the Supreme Court’s Janus decision was like death–predictable but still shockingly unwelcome.  The 5:4 decision, with the help of the pretender Neil Gorsuch’s stolen seat, will inevitably shrink the union coffers by allowing free-loading members to get union benefits while skirting dues.

John Rogers, a UCLA professor recently crystallized the problem unions face:

 “A handful of billionaires who are advancing their vision of education reform is very different than having 200,000-some odd teachers across the state representing their understanding of public education through their union representation.”

Yet, the political left is a politics of initiative.

For example, nothing had to change in the Jim Crow South or when laborers living in Mr. Pullman’s Illinois tenements received rent increases and pay cuts. They could have shrugged and grumbled.

The author marches in Minneapolis.

But instead, they seized the  initiative –  they struck and marched, people organized and acted. As Cornel West has said–we don’t need to have hope, we need to be the hope.

This is why the current plague of executive scandals and corruption doesn’t cause me much personal despair. We truly are the ones, in this moment, who can organize people to change the country. Or not. It’s just that simple.

Watching MSNBC and tweeting outrage in our free hours is a consoling choice. Continuing to support Democratic deadwood in Congress is an option, too. Voting and organizing to push politicians toward popular positions is quite another. And 2018 will be another political year to remember.

Much talk at the NEA convention involved The “Red for Ed” campaign, an encouraging rash of mass red state actions in Koch-captured right-to-work states.  No one, for example, expected in January of 2017 during Agent Orange’s meager inauguration that months later a rash of teacher actions would be erupting in states that overwhelmingly voted for a far-right Republican candidate.

Similarly, the #Me-Too movement could not have been imagined even in 2013 when Barbara Walters chided Corey Feldman as “attacking an entire industry” by calling out sexual abuse.

Over 7,000 people marched in Minneapolis, many of whom were in the NEA, protesting the administration’s “zero tolerance” policy of splitting up families.  Organizers said they wanted three things:

  • ending family separation,
  • ending family detention, and
  • a reversal of the zero tolerance policies.

Braving the midday head, thousands listened to mostly millennial speakers discussing their own detention and immigration stories.

But then I realized that political power will either be in the streets or in the halls of power.

For example, everyone told me to go see the St. Paul cathedral. It’s tall and beautiful, but like the Sacre Coer cathedral in France, it has a dark history.  Reading American City: A Rank and File History of Minneapolis by Charles Rumford Walker, Jim Hill, local railroad baron, gave $50,000 for the Catholic cathedral to keep Catholics in line.

“Look at the millions of foreigners pouring into this country,” he said.  “What will their social view and political action, their moral status, if that single controlling force should be removed?”

I left the NEA convention impressed with the union’s efforts  The banning of labor unions was a key and early feature of European fascism in the 1930s.  Organizing and educating working people are not in the interests of the moneymen who have financialized our economy and corporatized our politics.

Indeed, extirpating unions was in President Buzz Windrip’s 15 points, as he and his “Minute Men” storm troopers took control in America in the novel It Can’t Happen Here by the little remembered Minnesota writer, Sinclair Lewis.  Considering this work and sore from the ramshackle Trump-era (and needing my literature fix), at the end of the NEA assembly, I drove north to Sauk Centre, Minnesota – Sinclair Lewis’s hometown.  Lewis is likely that author you’ve heard about but haven’t read. (Sadly, his museum’s docent said Lewis has even been plucked from Sauk Centre’s public school curriculum.)

While in Minneapolis at the excellent May Day Bookstore, a welcoming radical trove, I bought Lewis’s novel Elmer Gantry, which exposes the swindling phonies in America’s religious-businessman tradition and their meglomaniacal plans for earthly (rather than heavenly) authority.

Sinclair Lewis is a writer we need to dust-off:  he won the Nobel Prize for his social novels on the dangerous contradictions of small town America, scoldingly rejected the Pulitzer because of the literary establishment’s love of patriotism over truth, and wrote It Can’t Happen Here, about a fascist American leader.

In one passage of the novel someone says fascism can’t happen in America because it is a “country of freemen.”  The hero Doremus Jessup replies:

The answer to that…is ‘the hell it can’t!’

Why, there’s no country in the world that can get more hysterical–yes, or more obsequious!–than America.  Look how Huey Long became absolute monarch of Louisiana…Remember the Ku Klux Klan? Remember our war hysteria, when we called sauerkraut “liberty cabbage” and somebody actually proposes calling German measles “Liberty measles”?

 And wartime censorship of honest papers? Bad as Russia! Remember our Red scares and our Catholic scares, when all well-informed people knew that OGPU wee hiding out in Oskaloosa, and the Republicans campaigning against Al Smith told the Carolina mountaineers that if Al won the Pope would illegitimize their children?  … Remember the Kentucky night-riders? Remember how trainloads of people have gone to enjoy lynchings?

Lewis’s home, bought by his coldly methodical physician father, is beautifully preserved – but like most American home museums with scarce resources, (I’m thinking of President James Polk’s home in Columbia, Tennessee or President James Buchanan’s home Wheatfield in Lancaster, Pennsylvania) as the docent’s interpretation was thin and the understanding of the historical figure and his work was minimal.

But the wooden floors, decorous wallpaper, writing desk, lovely china, and old iron stove does give the literary junkie a bit of a thrill even if most visitors concern themselves more with the oddities of old furniture.

I plotted a path to drive from Sauk Centre to San Diego, threading a path through the plains, the national parks, the Black Hills, and the baking deserts.  But even as I sought the quiet dog days on the open road, I couldn’t ignore that America is everywhere roiling from the effects of our corroded systems.

Bridges from Pierre, South Dakota to San Diego appear old and beaten, frontier farms collapse on the back roads, and the rusted vehicles flying their Independence Day flags look more beleaguered and their operators more hostile than in my previous travels.

While I was driving, on July 5 temperatures were predicted to hit 118 degrees in San Diego County. I couldn’t even rejoice at being out of California as the Dakota farms I drove through were eerily empty and dry.

The cattle industry, through the North Dakota Stockmen’s Association, fights government action on climate change (and even enforcing regulations from the Clean Air Act). But the ranchers themselves still suffer the effects even if they deny the causes. Will they concede after every cow is sold and every leaf of grass has withered into dust? By July of last year, two-thirds of pastureland in the Dakotas was in poor condition. Hot temperatures and low rains have been the reward for their climate change denial.

And so it goes.

My right-wing aunt in Indiana once told me that she wanted to see Mt. Rushmore before President Obama carved his face on it.  It was paranoid babble from someone who receives government checks by mail, of course. (Does every American have people like this in their family?)   But the turning over of public land for private profit by Department of Interior Secretary Zinke is not a paranoid illusion, it is a cold fact.

In 2017, Zinke falsely stated that their was “not much” potential for gas and oil potential.  And then he claimed Bears Ears “isn’t really about oil,” just like his awful boss, producing empty words in a confusing string with no coherent meaning.  In fact, according to a 2017 Interior Department memo, the Kaiparowitz plateau, located within the monument, contains 11.36 billion tons of technologically recoverable coal, one of the largest deposits in the country.

One point of interest that encourages solidarity with the movement to keep corporations out of the gorgeous Bears Ears monument was in Salt Lake City, a small progressive puddle in the Mormon hive of conservative Utah.

The Ken Sanders Bookstore is an impressive antiquarian bookstore that specializes in the literary West, Utah, Mormons, as well as radical labor history, postcards and ephemera.  Inside, there are rare volumes ranging from Mormon heresies to the incredible poetry of Robinson Jeffers.

Outside, are two grand murals.

The first mural, denounces the exploitation of Bears Ears.  The second is an excellent rendering of the radical Joe Hill staring ahead beside the words “”Fire Your Boss,” “Abolish the Wage System,” “Murdered by the Capitalist Class” and other phrases from some of his protest song lyrics.

Hill, an itinerant IWW mineworker and songwriter, was executed in a 1915 after a show trial where he was convicted, then denied clemency by Democratic President Woodrow Wilson and the Supreme Court.

The same mural was painted over with an American flag after complaints from conservatives in the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Union. The Ken Sanders bookshop proudly accepted the “amazing and popular” mural which was again defaced in February, 2017 by a white power group.

It reminded me of a critique one NEA member cried out in discussion this month over a contentious “white privilege” vote:

“Two years ago we voted down a resolution condemning the Confederate flags. What happened? Activists and citizens around the country toppled those statues.  We could have been in the front of that movement. Instead, we were comfortable standing pat. How many opportunities are we going to miss this year?”

From Minneapolis to San Diego, along the rolling prairies and light-dappled hills that rise up beneath dramatic mountains–all of these scenes comprise the grand interior still astonishingly preserved in this unhappy, deep-fried country.  And the astonishing beauty of what remains still makes this place worth fighting for.

Summer storm and ash at sunset over Salt Lake City Utah, July 2018.

For all the times that low-information types will scold you for caring, shouting their “love America or leave it” piffle, you should remember not only the original sin of the Native American genocide (and the reservation homelands of some of the great activists alive today), but you should also remember the beauty and wonder of this vast continent–a land that needs our protection and attention as the climate crisis worsens and as lawmakers subsidize the monopolies of the super-rich.

Future victories –on climate and various realms of social justice–require that we understand, see, and love what we hope to preserve and achieve in the warring politics we endure and the fraught conversations we experience.

Without urban eyes on the beauty of the interior of this country, the renewed civil conversations with its various peoples – however we might fervently disagree – must ask ‘how can our hearts demand the changes we so earnestly long to forge together?’

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

rick callejon July 18, 2018 at 3:40 pm

Excellent piece. BTW, I love mid-day head.


Geoff Page July 20, 2018 at 10:04 am

I second Rick’s comment, beautifully and thoughtfully written Brett.


Brett Warnke July 25, 2018 at 10:25 am

I really appreciate that, Geoff. Many thanks.


Earl Cunningham July 23, 2018 at 6:44 pm

Well written neighbor. “heat instead of head and more instead of sore”. Autocorrect is overzealous. Tell the fam I said hello. Keep up the fight!


Brett July 25, 2018 at 10:23 am

Thanks, Mr. Cunningham! I appreciate you reading this! (And I bought a scooter like yours for future travels!)


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