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Quite the World, Isn't It?

Colorado, and a looming centennial

In late July 1913 – 100 years ago today – union organizers in Colorado were laying plans to extend an ineffective three-year-old strike in the northern coal fields to the southern district, hoping that in broadening the strike they could force the coal operators to the negotiating table. Leaders of 20 different unions rallied in Trinidad 100 years ago this weekend to demand the coal operators fire the brutal Baldwin-Felts detective agency they had hired to infiltrate the union, and to keep organizers out of the mines. The coal operators, not surprisingly, ignored the demand.

Everyone expected violence, but none could have seen the future: Beginning in late September, seven months of gunfire, arson, beatings and deprivations in which at least 75 people were killed, and in which at its peak the striking coal miners held military control of the Front Range from just south of Denver to the New Mexico border.

It was guerrilla warfare between the miners and the Colorado National Guard, which had been taken over by the coal operators’ private guards. The miners were winning the insurrection, which didn't end until President Wilson sent in the U.S. Army as a peacekeeping force. Yet few history books include much in the way of details on what was likely the nation’s bloodiest labor struggle (several showdowns that began as labor actions morphed into white-on-black race riots, with, in some estimates, higher death tolls). The central moment of the Colorado strike was the Ludlow Massacre when, after a daylong gun battle between strikers and the militia, a strikers' tent colony was torched by the soldiers. Eleven children and two mother suffocated in their hiding spot beneath a tent. Their deaths became a rallying cause for union sympathizers, and launched ten days of brutal reprisals. It was class war, and the subject of my first book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West.

You’ll be seeing more posts from me over the coming months about these events, as that long-ago strike reaches its 100th birthday. I know there are commemorations being planned in Colorado, and I'm hoping the centennial will bring fresh - and national - attention to this forgotten moment in American history.

Well, forgotten by some.

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Florida, and a law that protects racism and criminals

Like most others, I awoke this morning with a sense of outrage over the Florida verdict in the George Zimmerman trial, and his acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Social media, as you might imagine, has been buzzing over this, and it’s chilling to see how some of our fellow citizens view the case, and the verdict.

Two lines of thought have emerged from some of the conversations. First, that the prosecution booted the case and didn’t provide the necessary evidence to counter the provisions of the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law. The second is an undercurrent among some whites best summed up by a comment posted on a friend’s page responding to a statement of confusion and desire to hear some of the jurors explain their thinking. The response included:
Truthfully, I had no horse in the race myself, and speaking of race I can't stand how people make everything about race. There's how many black boys killed in cities by senseless violence like Chicago every wkd and no one says a peep? I just think you don't convict a man just because people want him convicted. The charges of Manslaughter and 2nd Degree Murder weren't proved and reasonable doubt was all over the place in this incident. I'd rather live in a country a man/woman walks free any day than in one which we convict an innocent man/woman of charges they aren't guilty of. The law is the law, whether I like it or not, I can't stand some of the laws we have on the books in our great country but I must learn to live with them, and under them. I hear you though. I will say though you can't go attempting to kick the %$#& out of the neighborhood watch guy and expect him to roll over and cry Uncle. So, we ought not act like the kids an angel... it's a shame he was killed. I was 17 and had I done that at that age I woulda expected trouble if I were messing with a man with a gun.
One can defend this verdict only from the bizarre perspective that "stand your ground" is in some way a defensible law. Which in itself is a perversion of the concept of freedom, and justice. That a person with a gun can chase down someone and then claim self-defense in the subsequent confrontation is Kafkaesque. And to defend the verdict as just is the result of intellectual acrobatics. To say "I can't stand how people make everything about race" misses the point (and evidences a racist world view) that this case was all about race. That was what made Zimmerman "suspicious" of Martin in the first place. Suspicious of an unarmed black teenager who had every right in the world to walk unmolested down that street that night. The central issue: Do we as American citizens have a right to walk the streets without being provoked and attacked by fellow citizens?

In Florida, the answer is, "no." Especially if you’re a black man spotted by a self-appointed, gun-toting neighborhood guardian.

The chances are slim that the federal government will intervene here by charging Zimmerman with violating Martin’s civil rights. But it should on the grounds that Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law is vague enough to grant legal cover to the antagonist in a confrontation, and ultimately is a license to kill. Read More 
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On an anniversary, and a test of integrity

Eighteen years today I was on a family vacation, sitting in my in-laws’ house in Rochester, New York, when I got a call from colleagues in Detroit that the long-anticipated strike had finally begun at The Detroit News and Free Press. It was an acid test for a lot of us. Journalists as a rule must remain disengaged, but there we were thrust into engagement by circumstances over which we had little control.

The non-journalists in the strike – there were six unions involved, only one comprising journalists – were remarkably strong. But about half of my fellow Newspaper Guild colleagues ultimately crossed the picket line, a capitulation to fear, career, arrogance, and insecurity that to this day taints my perception of many of those practicing my trade. To me, the strike was a test of will, and of belief. Many colleagues who had voiced support for collective bargaining and collective action (the members voted overwhelmingly to strike) then boldly crossed the picket line, an act of betrayal that was also an indictment of their character.

The strike became a lockout and lasted some six years. Fellow striker Daymon Hartley captured some of the violence on his website, and academic Chris Rhomberg wrote a book about the strike within the context of labor laws. I lasted 18 months on the picket line before taking a job at the Los Angeles Times, and moving west with my wife and our two young sons. In some ways, I still view it as a failure that I didn’t stick it out for the duration. But the actions of the papers during the strike led me to conclude that I would never work for them again (journalistic principles were abandoned by the editors in unscrupulous fashion), so it made no sense to stay on. We got on with our lives, and I enjoyed a 12 year-career at the LA Times before the industry, and the paper’s corporate owners, fell off a cliff, and my job was cut. So I moved on again into this new mix of writing books, doing freelance journalism, and teaching college journalism classes (adjunct), while my wife teaches elementary school.

So 18 years later I’m sitting here at my in-laws’ house, on a family vacation, and now watching Facebook posts from fellow strike veterans. Many of them I barely knew before the walkout, but they have since become close friends. A shared experience like a protracted labor struggle reveals character for good and bad, and blows up some friendships, but it also creates new and deep bonds with others. We all learn about ourselves when crises hit, even something like a labor strike.

That strike also was formative for some who watched. Our son, Michael, is in China in the early weeks of a two year-plus stint with the Peace Corps. He posted the following status update this morning, and I repost it here with pride:
I am reminded that today is the 18 year anniversary of the start of the Detroit Newspaper Strike. I was pulled into it without choice (since I was a 5-year old) and didn't fully understand what was happening around me, but as I grew older and Scott Martelle and Margaret Mercier-Martelle started to fill me in on what I had missed, those few years early in my life provided me with an immense amount of inspiration as I tried to decide what kind of man I wanted to be. And here I am now, in the Peace Corps. To all those who served on our domestic front lines in defense of our freedoms: Thank you for standing, and thank you for inspiring. Barbara Ingalls, Kate DeSmet Kulka, Paula Yoo, Marla Dickerson, Liz Seymour and everybody else I don't know on facebook.
Happy anniversary to us all. Read More 
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