Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Republican Party's Assault on Freedom

George Orwell would love the way Republicans proclaim themselves the party of freedom while making a sustained attack on individual freedoms.

Republicans work feverishly to protect their wealthy and corporate benefactors’ freedoms from taxes, industry freedom from the regulations designed to keep some relative purity in our air, water, and food, freedom for Big Pharma from stringent regulation of experiments and labeling, banks’ freedom from regulations limiting dangerous financial manipulation, and freedom for oil drillers from worrying much about what they do to our land and water.

Meanwhile the Republicans are attacking on all fronts the rights and freedoms of women, laborers, and poor folks.

Women have a constitutional right to protect their health and decide when and whether to have children.

But abortion implicates strong emotions on both sides, and runs counter to most religions. Republicans use and abuse religion to induce voters to vote against their own interests. They make abortion a major issue, outshining trivial concerns such as the economy, wars, joblessness, and global warming.

Citizens have a constitutional right to vote.

But that right is troublesome for the Republican Party, when exercised by those who traditionally vote Democratic.

Republicans are attacking those rights in novel ways.

On the abortion front, the most current and vicious example is the Texas law that requires that in order for a woman to exercise her right to an abortion, she must first let the state put her through an invasive, highly unpleasant, and wholly unnecessary medical procedure. Some have analogized the forced procedure to rape.

The Texas requirement is vile and intrusive – and potentially quite effective in discouraging the exercise of a constitutional right. Obviously I’ve never had a vaginal sonogram, forced or otherwise. However, I’m pretty sure that if New Mexico said that men who wanted to vote in elections would first have to undergo a colonoscopy while listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio,a lot of us would choose to play golf on election days.

(Two recent bills by female Democratic legislators fight back. A Georgia bill would prohibit vasectomies, aping language used in an anti-abortion bill: "A vasectomy may only be performed to avert the death of the man or avert a serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function." Virginia State Senator Janet Howell proposed amending an ultrasound bill to require that men be forced to undergo a digital rectal exam and a cardiac stress test before being prescribed medication for erectile disfunction.)

Meanwhile in almost every state in which Republicans have taken control of state government, they have tried to make it tougher for poor folks to vote.

The most obvious is the requirement of a picture ID. That seems innocuous. Don’t we all have drivers’ licenses? Most of us do; but the folks who don’t are most likely to be poor, particularly the urban poor. Requiring folks to make a special trip to DMV and wait there to get an I.D. will effectively diminish the Democratic vote. Some folks won’t hear of the new requirement, some folks won’t be able to spare the time from work, some folks (renters) won’t have what the state requires in order to grant an identification card. It isn’t merely showing up and waiting an hour or two at DMV. It’s writing away for a birth certificate, figuring out whom to write away to, knowing which hospital you were born in, maybe even paying a fee . . . oh, nuts – I think I’ll pass.

Other new steps in the Republican program to curtail voting include decreasing numbers of polling places (so that folks have to travel further, a problem mostly for those who lack a car or can’t be away too long from work or child-care).

I’m not saying the citizen who declines to jump through the various new hoops to vote is right.

I’m saying that Republicans are consistently making it harder for poor folks to vote.

I’m saying that their reason isn’t "voter fraud," which is extremely infrequent, but penalizing the people most likely to vote against them.

Meanwhile, drug-testing for welfare applicants is another wonderful example of misplaced priorities. Despite the deficit, Rep. Steve Pearce wants us to shell out for drug testing of all welfare applicants. He makes it sound fiscally sound . It ain’t. In Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott pushed for such testing, claiming it could save $77 million; but 98% of those tested passed.

Scott’s program will save about $3,400 to $5,000 per year that would have been paid out to applicants now rejected because of the test; but a year of testing all applicants will cost $178,000. If Pearce thinks that’s good government, I’m glad he doesn’t teach math to my kids.

Pearce recently filed two house bills that would require arbitrary drug testing as a condition of receiving unemployment benefits and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

For the pleasure of kicking needy people when they’re down, Pearce would sign us up for expensive drug-testing likely to cost much more than it saves. We’d spend a bunch more on lawyers to defend a Constitutional challenge to this pointless testing – and probably lose. In October, a federal judge temporarily blocked the Florida law; and a 2006 lawsuit in Michigan overturned a similar law in Michigan. Further, unemployment is money a formerly employed person has already earned.

There’s a certain meanness to many of these Republican maneuvers. Yeah, the point is to con "average" folks into voting Republican even though Republican policies favor the wealthy and corporations; but these political games could have serious impact on people’s lives – and on what’s left of our democracy.


[The column above appeared today, Sunday, 29 April, in the Las Cruces Sun-News.]

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Great Conversations

"Talk is cheap."

"A picture is worth a thousand words."

Both are familiar sayings; and as a visual artist I’ve said the second, I hope less tritely.

Nevertheless, something called "Great Conversations" is well worth a look.

Dael noticed something about it in the Mesilla Valley Co-op news; then realtor Kevin Wilson (son of poets Keith and Heloise Wilson and grandson of poet Bessmilr Brigham), urged us to go, saying it was both fun and interesting. A varied group of people would meet to talk over some issue.

Sounded good. It also seemed to me that great conversations used to take place in town squares and villages, in churches and pubs, but that maybe they don’t happen quite as frequently anymore, or are limited to a certain age, sex, religion, or ethnic group. Great Conversations aren’t limited. They’re open to everyone.

Looking into Camp Hope increased my interest in Great Conversations. A few sessions of sitting around in a circle got a group of somewhat untrusting homeless folks talking (and listening) to each other, then working together to build something.

Community of Hope staff said these talk sessions were essential to the creation of Camp Hope. One Community of Hope board-member called it "one of the most mind-blowing things I’ve ever seen." Volunteer Bob Hearn pointed out that the homeless were particularly untrusting after years of living on the street, carefully watching their meager possessions at all times.

Randy Harris, the man behind (or, he might say, beside) Great Conversations disagrees. He says the homeless weren’t particularly untrusting, or otherwise much different from any other group of citizens.

I finally got to gab with Randy at Milagro’s recently, and enjoyed it.

Randy very carefully deflects praise or credit for Great Conversations, which celebrates its second anniversary today.

"We don’t describe ourselves as facilitators or moderators, but as stewards," he says. At another point he described himself as "a janitor. I arrange the room and set out the chairs." In a gardening analogy, he said he could arrange proper soil for a seed, and do some watering and weeding, but "the magic that happens inside the seed, what’s in it, that’s not got anything to do with me."

Great Conversations do, however, satisfy Harris’s lifelong "passionate curiosity about the varieties of the human experience." For the community, they offer a forum in which fellow citizens can discuss issues in a candid but courteous way, with diverse points of view encouraged.

I asked whether Great Conversations was just a local thing or was part of some larger group. It’s local. "It’s an idea that evolved. It’s value is that it’s real people in a real circle," without bells and whistles. "It’s a phenomenal process, I think because it’s dirt simple," he added.

"Because it’s not therapy, it’s highly therapeutic. Because it’s not an educational program, it’s richly educational," said Harris, who also referred to Great Conversations as "a living entity I serve."

The first Great Conversation was at the co-op, two years ago. It was a trial balloon with about ten quite varied people along for the ride. The subject was "What is truth?" (I neglected to ask him what truth turned out to be.) There have now been close to 250 Great Conversations.

The evening before we talked, they’d held a Great Conversation at NMSU as part of a campus interfaith event. Because of numbers, they held two conversations simultaneously, with a total of 60 people participating.

Harris has also held Great Conversations in a senior community and with middle schoolers. "It really blows your doors off to listen to what those little guys have to say."

"Each conversation is different," says Harris. They also vary in the interest they generate. A Great Conversation on mental health care in Doña Ana County filled the room to overflowing with professionals, clients, and other citizens. At the other extreme was his idea to have one on "What is Love?" the evening of February 14. "I learned to love solitude," Harris says. "I sat here alone." Whatever love is, people evidently found something to do on Valentine’s Day other than talking about it.

Recently, a group of retired professionals got together to make sure the Great Conversations would continue. "That brought tears to my eyes," said Harris. Great Conversations is now sponsored by the Community Foundation of Southern New Mexico. Harris is grateful. "This is getting to be too much for a broken-down old rain-barrel merchant to do alone, out-of-pocket." (Harris sells rain barrels at the Farmers Market on Saturdays. His booth is near Las Cruces Avenue, and sometimes there are free goodies just baked in one of the solar ovens he also has for sale.)

There’s even a second anniversary fund-raiser today (Sunday) from 5-11 at 125 Main St., with live music, dancing, and a silent auction.
, Sunday
If you’ve enjoyed a Great Conversation, or think it sounds like a pretty good idea for our community, maybe you’ll feel like helping a little.

[ The foregoing column appeared today, Sunday, in the Las Cruces Sun-News. ]

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Camp Hope

Add Camp Hope to the reasons Las Cruces is a pretty good city. It may also prove a useful model to other cities facing the national problem of homelessness.

Camp Hope began in November 2011 as a last-ditch effort to protect homeless people from the ravages of imminent winter weather and sporadic violence by vandals against them. .

Interestingly, Camp Hope quickly developed some semblance of self-government: a Leadership Council that meets weekly, a Safety Council, and something of a grounds crew. There’s a world of difference between being told what to do and feeling you have some say. People started taking some responsibility.

Second, people got through the winter without getting beat up or getting their tents burned.

Some who qualified for disability or other assistance managed to get paperwork started, while others found at least temporary work. Being able to shower, wash clothes, or browse Internet job postings (and receive responses) not only made life healthier and more comfortable but helped folks seek employment or accommodations. Without those amenities, employable individuals had a hard time convincing anyone they were.

Some were even able to help others. A fellow who got a painting contract at NMSU got several other homeless people hired on.

Many of these folks are not employable. Many are old, physically disabled, and/or mentally or emotionally disabled. But others became homeless the way many of us easily could: an unforeseen medical expense or layoff, plus insufficient financial reserves to keep paying rent or mortgage. (I spoke with a licensed carpenter and a laid-off United Auto Worker.) Once you’re on the street, amassing enough money to pay first and last months’ rent plus a security deposit is nearly impossible.

Camp Hope also provided just what the name suggests: hope.

Matt Mercer and James von Behren were instrumental in starting Camp Hope.

Matt had been somewhat closed and anti-social, perhaps because of some unfortunate events including a hate crime. He was beaten up very badly – and then ostracized when, quite a bit later, he reported it. Then here in Las Cruces vandals burned his tent – with him in it. He barely escaped.

Matt said his work with other homeless people has been so rewarding that he hopes to go back to school and develop credentials to help people, perhaps as a social worker. James, who also helped initiate Camp Hope, is in the process of transferring college credits from another state to NMSU, to enhance his ability to help others. (Matt also keeps a Camp Hope blog:

With others, progress is more measured. We saw one lady sitting on the ground, her back against a small building. Staff had tried to get her to sleep indoors, but she refuses because she’s employed by the CIA, and the CIA doesn’t permit it. She trusted no one, and rarely spoke. Then she adopted the cat that lives under the building. "Now she talks and smiles and discusses her cat," we were told. Whatever progress is made toward re-integrating her with the world, or helping her feel safe, has to be a good thing.

At the recent council meeting to approve extending Camp Hope, the first homeless person to speak had obviously been crying. He said, "I had a speech written, but I’m not sure I can even deliver it. I’m sorry for being so damned emotional." He added, "I’ve seen what happened when citizens didn’t take responsibility" and commended the City. "I hope you don’t let this light go out."

The council voted – unanimously, I think – not to let the light go out.

But how did this happen? How did a group of vulnerable, unruly, and untrusting people become a community working together with trust and respect?

A key factor was getting the homeless folks talking to each other – and listening. "Great Conversations" meetings in October 2011 were a breakthrough, and Randy Harris has continued holding regular Great Conversations sessions with these folks. As Community of Hope board-member Bob Hearns describes it, "The first meeting no one spoke, a few people came in grudgingly. These were people who had lived really years alone, in a situation where it really didn’t pay to trust other people. The second meeting a few people spoke. Then suddenly after three or four meetings staff were saying, ‘I’ve known that guy two years, and he’s never said a word, but he’s in there talking and making sense.’"

Community of Hope was willing to rosl extending the homelessness some degree of self-government.
In a generally progressive municipal government, people cared enough to take a chance.

Presented with a chance to let the city play landlord to a bunch of homeless people because there have been deaths and violence and rapes, councillors had to see that if they approved some tent city, the public would see any deaths or violence there as the council’s fault. So it took a bit of backbone to approve the idea of Camp Hope.

Once the council approved the idea, police, fire marshals, and zoning folks immediately raised quite appropriate practical questions. According to Hearn, City Manager Robert Garza’s "unqualified support" made the difference. "He was the rock that we built this whole thing on at the outset. He stuck his neck out." City Councilors Nathan Small and Olga Pedroza were also key supporters.

Finally, our community responded with donations of money and needed items. People showed up with food, church groups had cookouts, etc.

Councilor Pedroza calls it "an astounding social experiment." Hearn says he’s "amazed by how it’s turned out." Several homeless people told me they’d never seen anything like it.

But it’s still a work in progress, and you can help. Visit – or call Community of Hope – to see how.
[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News today, Sunday, April 1st. ]

Community of Hope is a non-profit organization, not religiously affiliated.  Folks reading this who may wish to donate to it -- or specifically to Camp Hope -- can do so by mailing a check to 999 West Amador, Las Cruces, NM 88005, or on the Netowrk for Good web-site, or, I think, at the Community's own web-site,  They're also looking for volunteers, notably at the El Caldito soup kitchen, which feeds folks in need every day.