Saturday, September 21, 2013

Reprint from the OWS era: Corporate Personhood And The Case For Reparations

Prefatory Note:

In the fall of 2011, while I was still teaching at Laney College, many students in my Foundational Skills classes wanted to debate about Occupy Wall Street, which started a few weeks after the semester did, and appeared to be growing into a full-fledged movement. There was both enthusiasm and skepticism expressed by my under-served, largely disenfranchised, and mostly black, students. Many were skeptical about the strategies and tactics of the local “Occupy Oakland,” and for many of the same reasons I was—but I tried to direct their attention to the original national vision proposed by Occupy Wall Street itself. Originally, OWS’ “Virtual Presence” on the web, and through writing, was as much the front-lines as setting up a tent by Oakland City Hall was, if not more—working on both fronts is what made the movement so effective in the beginning. There was even a plan for a proposed convention in Philadelphia on July 4, 2012.

Since this was a writing class, and we had already been talking about manifestos (including the Black Panther Manifesto), before OWS began, I handed out copies of the various demands OWS was inviting people nationally to debate and vote on in hopes of proposing ONE SINGLE SHARED DEMAND to the federal government that would be a rallying point to unite its various factions, and bring even more people into movement. As Oakland Police Department helicopters circled above my classroom, my students collaborated on coming up with one-common demand.

In coming up with my own proposed demand, I wrote for at least two different audiences: 1) Those who primarily identified with the OWS movement, and 2) those who were skeptical of a latent Racism they found in the direction the movement was taking: I found common ground in the 14th Amendment. I hoped to educate many of the newly politicized white 99%ers, but also speak to, and even for, many of my black colleagues and friends well aware of the history of institutional racism—many of whom were reluctant to make the demand for “reparations to slavery” public---for the very justifiable reason that they saw what happened to most people who spoke out in the past.[i]

I thought that, in this newly politicized climate of 2011, I would be able to use my relative advantage as a white male, and professor, to educate and further galvanize the movement. I had the privilege of teaching in the same community college district that had begun the nation’s first “Black studies” program in the 1960s, which educated many of the Black Panthers. The school was very proud of its legacy, and my department chairs encouraged such debates in classrooms, as long as they were engaged in the spirit of Critical Thjnking.

Due to state budget cuts, I lost my job in 2012 and became homeless. OWS was defeated,by both external and internal forces, and it’s difficult for me not to look back at this time without a tinge of nostalgia, and bitterness. I choose to make this essay public again, in the fall of 2013, because the essential argument has not become dated in the last two years. I invoke the hope many of us had during the time, as well as the work we did, and the discussions we had—not just as a memorial of what we could have done better, but in order to restart the debate.

Corporate Personhood and The Case For Reparations (11/11/2011)
--in memory of Gil Scott Heron (1949-2011)

The core of the Occupy Wall Street and 99% Movement is expressed in the proposed demands #1 and #2 at
These demands are essentially the same as proposed demands #3 and #8 at Another version of this demand exists at Dylan Ratigan’s

For discussion and debate, I propose a hybrid version that combines the essential wording of all three, as my candidate for the ONE COMMON DEMAND—since every other proposed demand ultimately depends on swift federal enactment of this one:

Congress Should Enact Legislation for Publicly Financed Elections And Reverse the Effects of the Unconstitutional Citizens United SCOTUS decision by passing an amendment to prohibit any private financing of elections and ELIMINATE "PERSONHOOD" LEGAL STATUS FOR CORPORATIONS, and restore the 14th Amendment to its original purpose.

The Citizens United decision itself is but an extension of the broader demand to revise the interpretation of the famous 1886 case where the U.S. Supreme Court supposedly ruled that corporations are "persons" having the same rights as human beings based on the 14th Amendment. As the Occupy Wall Street website sums up this genesis of corporate “personhood.”

As most lawyers know, the Supreme Court made no such decision. In the case in question - Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company, the court itself never rules on personhood. A court reporter by the name of J.C. Bancroft Davis (a former railroad president) snuck that "ruling" into the books. The 14th amendment was supposed to give equal rights to African Americans. It said you "can't deprive a person of life, liberty or property without due process of law". Corporation lawyers wanted corporations to have more power so they basically said "corporations are people." Amazingly, between 1890 and 1910 there were 307 cases brought before the court under the 14th amendment. 288 of these brought by corporations and only 19 by African Americans. 600,000 people were killed to get rights for people and then judges applied those rights to capital and property while stripping them from people. It's time to set this straight.”

The stripping of these rights from people goes even deeper than this. The 14th Amendment, in addition to guaranteeing personhood status, with full voting rights, to former (male) slaves, also included provisions for the long deferred economic compensation of the former slaves without which such ‘freedom’ could mean even greater servitude: “neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay…any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.” (14th Amendment) Thus, all claims by plantation owners for “losses” (incurred from partial back payment to the their former slaves) are illegal and void.

The 14th Amendment also authorizes the United States government to incur whatever costs it needs by seizing the assets from the former antebellum slave-owners to emancipate the former slaves. Reconstruction cost money, and the 14th amendment provided the legal mechanism to fund the transition from a slave economy to a “free economy.” Lincoln knew that no true freedom could exist for the 99% of us without providing economic compensation for the former slaves: “Necessitous men are not free men.” The rights were human rights--both civil and economic; “freeing” the slaves required monetizing millions of people who had been property so that they could now compete on a level-playing field with their former “owners.”

In 1865, after the Confederacy was defeated, Union General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Orders, No. 15, a temporary plan granting each freed family forty acres of tillable land in the sea islands and around Charleston, South Carolina for the exclusive use of black people who had been enslaved. The army also had a number of unneeded mules, which were given to settlers. Around 40,000 freed slaves were settled on 400,000 acres (1,600 km²) in Georgia and South Carolina. However, President Andrew Johnson reversed the order after Lincoln was assassinated and the land was returned to its previous owners. Reparations, in the short term, would have hurt the former plantation owners, but it would have helped the poor white farmers who did not own slaves during the antebellum period, especially after the rich whites raised the price.

The economic grounding needs to be recognized. The failure to deliver on the promised reparations destroyed this natural alliance of poor whites and blacks as the rich northern (Republican) industrialists realized it was more profitable to side with the former plantation owning Dixiecrats against the working poor. If the founding crime of the Democratic Party was the refusal to free the slaves after the Revolutionary War, the founding lie of the Republican Party was to renege on the promise of reparations made at the end of The Civil War. No slaves were truly freed; they were abandoned. The slave was, legally, only 3/5 of a person, but the personhood granted in the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments was now abridged by the creation of the “Corporate Person.” When the corporation first became a “person,” the rest of us became less of one; they didn’t even need numbers like 3/5 anymore.

Bancroft Davis exploited the amendment’s wording that protects “the pursuit of property,” rather than the “pursuit of happiness” to quantify values. The newly- freed slaves, who had been property themselves, were much more interested in freedom than in owning property. The theft of the African American community and working class in general after Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad just continued the plantation owner’s theft under a different name. In retrospect the Civil War was fought to free the corporation from the jurisdiction of The United States more than it was to free the slave from the plantation owner. Enter Jim Crow, and a new class of wage slaves: black and white; Citizens United is simply the latest manifestation of this founding crime. Thus, Corporate Personhood and Reparations are, at root, the same issue. This explains why it was a central plank in the Black Panther Ten Point Platform:

We Want An End To The Robbery By The Capitalists Of Our Black Community.
We believe that this racist government has robbed us, and now we are demanding the overdue debt of forty acres and two mules. Forty acres and two mules were promised 100 years ago as restitution for slave labor and mass murder of Black people. We will accept the payment in currency, which will be distributed to our many communities. The Germans are now aiding the Jews in Israel for the genocide of the Jewish people. The Germans murdered six million Jews. The American racist has taken part in the slaughter of over fifty million Black people; therefore, we feel that this is a modest demand that we make.

The “mule” is the start up capital needed when the banks out price long term residents and deny small business loans. Once this one-time payment of reparations is determined, it will be used to set up the infrastructure for self-determination. In their current formations, neither of the proposed Occupy Wall Street or 99% Declaration demands speak of reparations for slavery, at least under that name. The platform for A New Revolutionary Party, written by ex-Panthers Kiilu Nyasha and Larry Pinkney, which is clearly influenced by the Panthers, replaces the demand for reparations with the demand for:

Social Security, unemployment insurance, and the safety net: In a country as wealthy as the USA, every person should be guaranteed an adequate income during hard times, illness, disability, and aging infirmity.

The lessened expectations, or even hopes, evident in the new party’s demand shows just how much America’s material base has deteriorated since 1966. While certainly Social Security should remain off the table, this demand could be included in the demand for repeal of corporate personhood and reinstitution of reparations. The Panthers tried to elevate the discussion and raise the stakes by bargaining from a position of strength: if you DEMAND reparations, maybe you can SETTLE for social security and Medicare for all, but if you only demand social security, you may have to settle for dying under a bridge. If the demands for reparations were met, the positive effects on the economy would be almost immediate. If the government will take care of its unfinished business, and finish what it started in 1865, the reparations could even render the crumbs of social security un-necessary.

In this sense, the demand for reparations is closer to the demand for a new WPA, to create full employment to work on America’s crumbling infrastructure. Since repealing “personhood” status for capital and property, if enforced, will ensure that corporations pay their fair share of taxes, these taxes should be used to create an economic stimulus program that pays the long-denied reparations to the African American community, in the spirit and the letter of the 14th Amendment. In order for this one time payment to do anything, however, the investment banks must be closely monitored so they don’t devalue the currency as they’ve done in the past when regulations are not enforced. However the demand is worded, it’s important to recognize this history when we convene in Philadelphia on July 4, 2012.

While the phrase “reparations for slavery” apparently still makes many people queasy, the 99% Declaration uses the word once, but in connection with Education Reform. This comes dangerously close to what Jared Sexton calls: “The metaphoric transfer that dismisses the legitimacy of black struggles against racial slavery while it appropriates black suffering as the template for non black grievances.” This illustrates where my biggest hope for the OWS movement can turn into the biggest fear: that this movement will turn into more of a 60s white youth-culture movement rather than a 30s worker based movement.

10. Implementation of a student loan debt relief forgiveness program. Our young students are more than $830 billion in debt from education loans alone with few employment prospects due to financial collapse directly caused by the unbridled and unregulated greed of Wall Street. Interest on these debts should be reduced and deferred for periods of unemployment and the principal on these loans reduced or forgiven by using a Wall Street corporate tax surcharge as reparations for their conduct leading to the economic collapse of 2007-2008 and current worldwide recession. 
While Education Reform is crucial, this demand should be secondary to the primary focus on repealing Corporate Personhood and returning the 14th Amendment to its original purpose, since the latter demand must be met in order for the former demand to be funded. Furthermore, the short term focus---charge Wall Street to bail out the students--should not be called “reparations” unless we’re also willing to argue for the reparations for slavery that have not been paid. Otherwise, this seems like a very partisan demand. If one is going to bail out students because their degrees are devalued, what about those who couldn’t even make it into college?

I can understand while many of my students feel disenfranchised from the 99% movement, why some object to the use of Oscar Grant’s name for the plaza, and why others carry signs that say: “Blacks have always been the 99%” and “there’s racism in the 99%.”I will address the demand for education reform (which I have a deep personal stake in as an underemployed professor) in another proposal, but in the meantime we must acknowledge that racism in America is first and foremost an economic war. We must ensure that this movement does not lose its economic grounding and inclusive focus.

Otherwise, we may very well repeat the mistakes of the 60s that moved from a “Civil Rights” movement to an increasingly segregated youth culture movement, as “stop the wars got distorted into a mere “stop the draft” and some of the more overzealous white students would spit on African-American soldiers coming back from the war, while applauding themselves because a statue made by Chinese slave labor is erected to Martin Luther King.

[i] I posted a version of my proposal on facebook on NOV. 11, 2011, and some of the comments I received helped generate “backchannel” conversations on this issue.
      I                   Kiilu Nyasha So far, there are simply not enough folks ready for a new revolutionary party. So now I'm thinking, perhaps a revolutionary united front (an umbrella group similar to that of So. Africa that united all the various organizations to end apartheid) might be the best idea. What do you think?

                          Chris Stroffolino Kiilu--I like your idea. Are there any meetings coming up soon?          
                          Jameelah Larkin If we will be all protected, I am sure a lot more will stand up

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