May 27th - Honey Buckets
03 Jun 2004
Washington state: nuclear submarines, ex-soldiers, soldiers' families, brewery closure, terror warnings and portable toilets.
You can find Honey Buckets all over Washington State and beyond, not sweet-smelling receptacles of goodness but foul stinking pits of raw human waste with a note on the side specifying that they are designed for use by up to ten persons for a working week and if overused they are liable to overflow.

I say this, of course, with tongue in cheek, but if a Portaloo (or Porta-Potty, as Andy assured me they are known in North America) can be called a Honey Bucket without any apparent controversy then why should not an invasion and occupation which kills civilians and replaces the ruling Baathists with ruling ex-Baathists be called a liberation or the devastation of Falluja a ‘pacification’?

A young woman gave us directions to Fairhaven Campus and bowed. The administration at West Washington University in Bellingham tried to shut down the teachers’ union but found itself unable to do so because international as well as state laws protected the union, which was fighting, among other things, lack of funding and the drop in lecturers’ pay to less than it was a decade ago in real terms.

The Global Forums lecture series is organised outside of the normal lecture programme to allow students access to speakers from a variety of disciplines. The campus itself is multi-disciplinary, a display on the wall showing the final project of a young woman who spent a few weeks working in India with a farmers’ group, looking at the effects of the global agricultural and biotechnology industries’ efforts to control them.

One of the things I talk about is what people can do next, how they can support Iraqi people and some constructive actions generally towards global justice and human rights. On my list of useful actions is “Get rid of Bush.” Then I have to confess that I’m not sure what the alternative is. Kerry wants to send more troops to Iraq and is little better, if at all, on health, the environment, education, anything else that serves the majority of US citizens. The big difference is that, like Clinton, Kerry would shaft the US public with infinitely more charm than Bush so that most would not notice until it was too late.

There was a woman there who’s been investing enormous energy in voter registration and motivation, trying to make sure that people get out, vote for Kerry and oust Bush. She was demoralised, she said, to think that Kerry was not the answer, that it wouldn’t solve anything, that she couldn’t go home and have a rest safe in the knowledge that Bush was gone if only she could do enough to help get him voted out. She felt like giving up.

No. No no no no no. Though Bush’s re-election would seem to the rest of the world like a vote of approval, politics doesn’t begin or end with the presidential election. The citizens of the US need to be out on the streets for the Republican National Convention and for the Democratic National Convention. They need to be out on the streets the day after the election demonstrating against the unjust policies of whichever candidate gets his hands on power.

They need to know that there is not going to come a point where they can go home and forget about struggling for justice because there’s already legislation in process to reinstitute the draft, which no one’s going to talk much about until after the election but the country cannot maintain recruitment rates at the level it needs unless it starts conscripting, even with the ‘economic draft’ already in place whereby the lack of civilian jobs and the expense of higher education and health insurance forces so many into the military already.

They need to know that if they go home and wait for things to improve, they will find their savings worthless, their jobs disappearing, their schools closed, their houses repossessed. Al called it the most ‘Class War’ election in history: Yale class of 67 versus Yale class of 69. I might have the years wrong, but you know what he means.

From Bellingham we went back south a bit to Olympia, where they’re fighting the plan for a nuclear submarine to dock in the port. As you drive through, you can see where the really huge ships are, the place the submarine would dock. It’s right in town. There’s been massive local opposition to it, including many of the city council members, of whom the most active and vocal have been receiving death threats and other harassment. At the council meetings, the locals said, all those from Olympia itself were against the sub docking; those in favour were all from elsewhere.

The IOW Union dockworkers threatened to shut down the port for the entire time the sub was there and the military, fearing protests, withdrew the plan, but the locals say it isn’t won yet. A couple of other councillors have tabled a counter motion in favour of the sub docking there. Meanwhile there are moves to make Olympia a nuclear free city, like Manchester, in the UK, and a few other cities around the world, and the navy has been asked to rename the submarine something other than the USS Olympia. The nearby town of Lacey has apparently offered up its name in exchange.

We talked first in the South Puget Sound Community College. The community colleges offer two year courses, whereas the university programmes last four years and cost much more. It’s possible, although not easy, to transfer to a university later. David teaches a couple of courses, including one on Social Problems, things like criminology. For him, teaching political and social issues to a hundred people each quarter who have never heard anything like it is more productive in terms of awareness raising than anything else he’s ever done.

Eugene spent 28 years in the army, retiring recently in order to avoid taking part in a war in Iraq that he didn’t agree with. He served in Somalia, the Balkans, dozens of other places around the world. Like most people, he said, he joined because he was poor and there were not many other options available to him. In the former Yugoslavia he described being transported by bus across Hungary and into the conflict zone. They would travel into villages, deposit food and leave under fire, not able to stop and make sure it was safely distributed, immensely frustrated because their mission was never quite clear and there wasn’t the support, the equipment, the communications to enable them to do it properly.

Nick’s brother is in Iraq in the army, a truck driver based at ‘Camp Anaconda’, the base at Balad, a small town in Anbar province which is sealed off with razor wire and a fierce curfew. All his brother’s letters said was that he just wanted to come home, Nick said, asking us about Balad, where it was, what it was like. Their mum was against the war and ignores the news because it’s the only way she can deal with having her boy over there. Their dad went the other way, wholeheartedly supporting the war.

Nick’s best friend has just finished basic training. He doesn’t agree with the war either, Nick said, but is resigned to the fact that he’s going to have to go there. He joined the army because he couldn’t see any other options, no way into college, no jobs. The army recruiters promise money for college: Frank Davis, the soldier on the checkpoint going into Baghdad airport when I left, said the same. He was training to be a paramedic and needed money for that. Often, it seems, the actual money is elusive, depending on a series of obstacles, but it’s hard to get out once you’re in, even if the promises don’t come true.

The local brewery in Tomwater, the town next to Olympia, was bought by the multinational Miller corporation which immediately threatened to close it down with the loss of 400 jobs unless the local authority gave $12 million for a new water processing plant. Over a barrel, so to speak, the authority obliged but three years later Miller, having also bought the Portland and Seattle breweries, closed Tomwater and put the premises up for sale subject to an undertaking not to brew beer.

Briefly there was the possibility of a water bottling enterprise taking over, which would have provided forty jobs, but even that was scuppered when the company expressed an interest in starting brewing operations a few years down the line. The brewing equipment is all there, perfect for an employee take-over, Argentina style, though the sale condition would mean it would have to be squatted, a guerrilla brewery.

“Those politics are not here,” Nick said. I don’t suppose for a moment that Miller was in cahoots with the US military and it’s recruitment battalion when it destroyed the local industry but it might as well have been and it demonstrates yet again the inextricable connection between the military and the economy, how the same practices that destroy social well being and the environment also fuel military recruitment and wanton war-making.

So if there’s anyone out there who drinks Miller’s beer, I suggest they stop, and if there’s anyone who lives near a Miller brewery or office HQ, I suggest they go and leave a little message on the walls expressing disapproval, on behalf of the unemployed brewers of Tomwater, Seattle and Portland.

Back in the college, Heather explained that the authorities tried to ban their group, Brick, and cancel its funding because of a court ruling on balance. Brick focuses on one side of the political spectrum because it’s that kind of club, just as the Conservative Club on campus focuses on the other side. Overall, on the campus, there’s a balance. But the college interpreted the ruling to mean the individual clubs had to call on speakers from opposing political ideologies.

“The college always errs on the side of suppressing free speech rather than protecting it. Their first reaction to anything is to try and shut stuff down,” Heather explained. The reason it was irritating her so much was that the college was now discussing closing down the Christian Club, in response to an Attorney General’s ruling that a student elsewhere in the country couldn’t use his federal aid funding to pay for study in some kind of Christian institution. They interpreted it to mean that no funds at all could be given to anything Christian and nothing Christian could be allowed to exist on campus.

It reminded me of the struggle at the University of the West of England when I was studying there part time and the Students’ Union banned all mention of the war and any events relating to the war. It passed a motion declaring the Union, as an institution, neutral in the matter of the war on Afghanistan and interpreted that to mean that no one could discuss the war, or any war, on university premises.

The students had to get officers elected to minor roles on the Union committee, like Disability Officer, in order to overturn the ban on the Stop the War society and prevent posters being taken down all over campus. If Unions and universities won’t defend free speech, who will?

Some of the students and lecturers are going to the National Governors’ Association meeting which is coming up. A lot of the health and education programmes operate at state rather than federal level so the place protesters can make a difference, or try to, is in the faces of the state governors.

Meanwhile it was announced that a State of Emergency has been declared across five counties in the state of Georgia for a month surrounding the G8 meeting. The restrictions have been announced two weeks ahead of the meeting, to prevent protests outside the meeting.

A terror warning has been put out about a seven man Al-Qaeda cell which is alleged to be on the loose inside the USA, perhaps in preparation for the Republican Convention in August, to justify even more protest-suppressing measures and frighten away the people who maybe don’t normally go to protests but felt moved to go to this one.

The New York Times has apologised for it’s failure to question the claims made by the US government on weapons of mass destruction in the time before the invasion of Iraq. It’s only the second time anyone I’ve asked can remember the NYT apologising for anything like that, the first being its reporting on a man who was wrongly accused of something.

They apologised for simply reprinting the claims of the White House lot without seeking to verify the claims, which doesn’t mean it won’t happen again, most likely means they desperately need to restore some kind of credibility but at least, I suppose, underlines the effects of a super-acquiescent media for those who hadn’t noticed it.

At the end of the second talk, in Orca Books, an ordinary bookshop which gives a lot of space to independent and radical books and to talks by their writers, I told a story specific to Olympia, the home town of Rachel Corrie, the young woman murdered by an Israeli military bulldozer in March 2003 while she was trying to prevent the demolition of Palestinian homes in Rafah.

I was in Iraq when she was killed and dedicated that day’s dispatch to her. A friend in England was reading selected, non-political parts of my writing to the kids she taught in a secure unit for young people with severe emotional problems such as advanced eating disorders or repeated suicide attempts. One of the girls wrote her a letter a while later, having moved on into another place, saying that was what turned her around, realising that there was someone who had travelled miles from home and died for something really important, while she was trying to kill herself for nothing at all.

The point is that you never know: Rachel couldn’t have known that her going to Palestine would inspire a young woman she’d never met to live; I didn’t know when I wrote about it and my friend didn’t guess when she read it out. You don’t know the effects your actions and words are going to have and often you don’t find out afterwards, so you just have to throw yourself in and do what you think is right without trying to add up the results and despair if they don’t seem big enough. That’s what I think anyway.

Outside, there was a woman called Elizabeth who had decided to run for president. Her reasoning was this: Elizabeth is the name of the Queen of England. The Queen’s dad was called George. George was also the name of the former president, Washington. She and George were both the oldest of five children. Her uncle and his son both had the middle name Blair, as in Tony. Her best friend’s name was Linton, which was suspiciously similar to Clinton.

It was, therefore, only logical and my favourite conspiracy theory of all time. It makes at least as much sense as calling a portable toilet a Honey Bucket.