Sunday, February 21, 2016

Beyond race hatred

    
Attorneys Eric E. Vickers, W. Bevis Schock and James Schottevickers teamed to fight injustice in St. Louis City.
 Fourteen years ago this time I was over seven thousand miles from my native land, America, performing the Islamic pilgrimage known as Hajj in the city in Saudi Arabia regarded by Muslims as the holiest place on earth, Mecca.  I think about this as I watch this country being put to the test from within by the Black Lives Matter awakening, and from without by a religion perceived as an existential threat.  If the two forces - black consciousness and Islam - ever joined, America might find the racial reconciliation Malcolm X  witnessed over five decades ago:
     "There were tens of thousands of pilgrims, from all over the world.  They were of colors, from blue-eyed blonds to black skinned Africans.  But we were all participating in the same ritual, displaying a spirit of unity and brotherhood that my experiences in America had led me to believe could never exist between the white and the non-white. America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem."
     The problem of race has been an issue in my life for more than a half century now, like a cloud that never goes away, despite all the days of sunshine.  It is as American as television.  And my enduring challenge - and I think that of most black people - is to not hate white people.
     "You may be shocked by these words coming from me.  But on this pilgrimage, what I have seen, and experienced, has forced me to re-arrange much of my thought-patters previously held, and to toss aside some of my previous conclusions."
     I don't know from whence came the hatred.  I vividly recall as a kid, growing up in East St. Louis, me and my friends throwing rocks and shouting racial epithets at a car full of white people, who had apparently gotten lost and ended up driving through our neighborhood.  I also remember my parents, teachers, and other black adults constantly stressing that it was wrong to hate people because of their color, though I could sense their struggle to contain their animosity towards the white race.
     "Each hour here in the Holy Land enables me to have greater spiritual insights into what is happening in America between black and white.  The American Negro never can be blamed for his racial animosities - he is only reacting to four hundred years of the conscious racism of the American whites."
     Moving from the almost exclusively black and impoverished world of E. St. Louis to the virtually all white and affluent suburb of University City in my sophomore year of high school did little to alter my feelings about whites.  For although it was true that some neighbors greeted us with pastries as the first blacks on the block, it was also true that our windows were shattered before we arrived, and "for sale" signs immediately began popping up.
     And while it is also true that genuine individual friendships that I formed with some whites gave credence to my being taught that "all whites are not bad," it came during the time of the Black Power movement, a period when my intellect was awakened to the sordid history of America's racism and the systemic race discrimination still in existence.  My now sharpened and mature mind was telling me one thing about the evil from the white race, while my heart was speaking another about my white buddies, who were like brothers.  
     "During the past eleven days here in the Muslim world, I have eaten from the same plate, drunk from the same glass, and slept in the same bed (or on the same rug) - while praying to the same God - with fellow Muslims, whose eyes were the bluest of blue, whose hair was the blondest of blond, and whose skin was the whitest of white...We were truly all the same (brothers) - because their belief in the one God had removed the 'white' from their minds, the 'white' from their behavior, and the 'white' from their attitude."
     The black power and pride movement - crystallized in my junior year by James Brown's "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud" anthem - only seemed to complicate race relations.  Whites, even friends, felt put off and threatened by our asserting love for our blackness.  They sincerely embraced equality, yet somehow felt this meant our being equal as humans - one color blind human family - rather than equal as different races.
     When years later in law school I decided to become a Muslim, race was not the factor.  Instead, it was a spiritual craving for a purpose beyond the materialist world and lifestyle for which I felt I was being programmed.  It was then that I understood Malcolm's metamorphosing into El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
     "But as racism leads America up the suicide path, I do believe, from the experiences that I have had with them, that the whites of the younger generation, in the colleges and universities, will see the handwriting on the wall and many of them will turn to the spiritual path of truth - the only way left to America to ward off the disaster that racism inevitably must lead to."
Letter from Mecca, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X)

     The lesson of Hajj:  You can't be Muslim and not love God, and you can't love God and hate a race. El-Hajj Eric Erfan Vickers.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

News Flash: NAACP Declares MSD in Default of CBA

On Tuesday, February 8, 2016, the President of the St. Louis Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Adolphus M. Pruitt, II, delivered a letter to the Metropolitan Sewer District declaring that MSD was in default of the Community Benefits Agreement, to which the NAACP was a Signatory along with seven (7) other community organizations, stating in pertinent part that:

"this is to provide MSD Notice of Default for its breach and repudiation of the CBA, more particularly as follows:"

The letter then specifies six (6) provisions of the CBA that MSD has breached, including stating that:
"MSD has breached Article III of the CBA by:
     (a)  failing to achieve the percentage goals for hiring minorities and women and for contracting with MWBEs set forth in the Disparity Study; and
     (b) failing to make a good faith effort to implement the percentage goals set forth in the Disparity Study."

The letter concludes by stating that:
"Per Article XI, MSD is hereby advised that it has sixty (60) days to cure this default.
As a Signatory we are willing and prepared to meet and confer with the Board of Trustees to discuss a manner in which the default may be cured."


Sunday, February 7, 2016

Metropolitan Sewer District Inclusion Campaign

The Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) is planning to spend $4.7 billion over 20 years to cut sewage overflows into area waterways per a 2012 Consent Decree with the Environmental Protection Agency.   In December 2013, following the completion of a disparity study, which identified historical discriminatory contracting and hiring practices by MSD, and negotiations with several community groups, MSD and those groups entered into a Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) that was to extend to 2033.  The eight (8) community groups that are signatories to the CBA are the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), Metropolitan Congregations United (MCU), the Construction Prep Center (CPC), the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), MOKAN, the Metropolitan Clergy Coalition (MCC), and the Universal African Peoples Organization (UAPO).
In 2015, the Signatories began publicly questioning and criticizing MSD for, among other things, failing to meet the 30% minority and 7% women hiring goals that had MSD had committed to under the CBA.  In December, one of the Signatories asked me to attend a couple of meetings being held with MSD’s management and board to address the controversy, and the following is an email I sent to the Signatories. 

To: Community Benefits Agreement Signatories
    After attending the last two meetings of MSD concerning its minority and women inclusion program, including today's three hour meeting, I would like, while it is fresh in my mind, to share with you my thoughts and perhaps the benefit of my experience in this area.
    First, I commend you for forming such a coalition and obtaining an agreement with MSD for inclusion on this billion dollar construction initiative.  And I commend you for your thoroughness and professionalism in seeking to hold MSD accountable for inclusion through the Community Benefits Agreement ("CBA"). However, the meetings I have attended leave me with some concerns.
I.  Countering MSD Propaganda and Institutional Inertia
    It is in the nature of institutions like MSD to propagandize their inclusion efforts by presenting paperwork and power point presentations that shows them/data in a light most favorable to them, that negates or minimizes their shortfalls, and that creates an impression of steady progress.  MSD's staff maintained this posture throughout their presentations the past two meetings, notwithstanding the facts and figures, paperwork, and power point presentations provided by the CBA signatories demonstrating that MSD's efforts to date have been, as one signatory stated, "ineffective."
     I point this out because it is my experience that organizations advocating for inclusion cannot out paperwork or out power point institutions like MSD.  And I advise you to be wary of falling into this trap of playing by their institutional rules because it will compromise your greatest weapon - action.
     Institutions like MSD are by their nature comfortable with their inert action; they have no inborn sense of urgency unless confronted with a crisis that forces them to activate.  Consequently, whatever MSD will do for inclusion will depend on your actions causing them to act, and it would be a mistake to think that they will ever act - or act right - without pressure.
II.  Keep the Focus on the Three Essential Elements for Inclusion Success.
    1.  Commitment by the Owner of the Project.  Inclusion flows from the top down.  If the owner of a project demands inclusion, then the general contractors and unions will fall in line. I have not seen the leadership of MSD communicate in stern and unequivocal terms that MSD has virtually a zero tolerance for contractors who do not meet the inclusion goals. One of the best examples of this kind of commitment to inclusion by leadership that I ever witnessed was the manner in which Bob Baer directed the Sports Authority when it was building the dome stadium.  He was firm and hard nosed in making it clear to the contractors that he expected them to meet the minority goals.
     With MSD, I see almost the opposite from the leadership.  At the previous meeting the MSD Director publicly stated - and gave written handouts stating - that the CBA signatories were "dysfunctional."  He further stated that the criticisms of MSD's inclusion efforts that were stated in the CBA signatories' power point presentation were "absurd" and "not based on reality."  These words - and the tone and tenor with which he has attacked the CBA signatories - send a clear signal to the contracting community that MSD is tolerant of non-compliance and even resistant to inclusion. Contractors seeking to circumvent or evade the inclusion requirements will feel they have an ally in the Director.
     There is an ingrained historic resistance to inclusion built into the construction industry here, and though it has markedly improved from some years back, that legacy persists and pervades, and the owner of a project has to send a clear and unmistakable message that that will not be in any way tolerated.  I do not think that MSD is currently communicating this message, and the very fact that MSD is now involved in this strenuous fight with the CBA signatories over inclusion reinforces the notion there is a lack of strong commitment to inclusion by the MSD leadership.
2.  Good Faith Defined.  From a legal standpoint, the good faith requirement is the key to inclusion. Because quotas are unconstitutional, "goals" is the terminology used in the inclusion industry.  However, bear in mind that goals are mandatory requirements absent a contractor demonstrating that he cannot meet the goals, in which case they must obtain a waiver from having to comply with the goals.  For a contractor to obtain a waiver they have to show that they have made a "good faith" effort to meet the goals and been unable to do so.  
     However, good faith is not an abstract concept.  Under the federal regulations, for example, there are about 16 factors - like a checklist - that are used to determine whether a contractor has in fact made a good faith effort.  From what I observed, MSD has no real definition or criteria for determining whether a contractor has made a good faith effort in order to obtain a waiver.  What I heard at the meeting today was that MSD would determine whether a contractor has made a good faith effort to comply with the minority workforce goals by asking the unions and SLATE if they had available minority workers.  That is wholly insufficient to determine good faith.  Consequently, the CBA signatories need to have MSD tighten up and rigidly enforce the good faith element.
 3. Monitoring.  Frankly, I have been astounded that in neither of the meetings I attended was the third party monitor present.  Their role in this process is integral and indispensable.  I think the project should also be monitored by the CBA signatories, and I think they should be resourced to perform this function.  
III.  From Rhetoric to Action.  
The rhetoric of the CBA signatories about the importance of inclusion to the black community and the history of racism is vital to provide context, sensitivity, and energy.  However, without action the rhetoric is not only meaningless, it becomes counter-productive to bringing about the change sought.  The continuation of meetings criticizing MSD will become self-defeating.  MSD's objective with the CBA signatories is, as one trustee stated, to "continue the dialogue."  The signatories objective, on the other hand, should be closure on the points of contention and criticism.

     The mechanism for this lies with the CBA.  If MSD's efforts are as ineffective as the signatories have repeatedly stated in the meetings, then under the CBA, the signatories can and should notify MSD that, per Article XI of the agreement, MSD is in default.   Not only does that then demonstrate to MSD the seriousness of the situation, it sets a 60 day timetable for them to cure the default.  Or alternatively under Article XI, the signatories can waive the default notification and proceed immediately to court to enforce the agreement by showing that MSD's failure to abide by the agreement is causing irreparable injury.
     This provision of the CBA provides the signatories with a means to transform the dynamic of the discussions with MSD by taking action.  Too often during the meetings I heard the signatories say to MSD that  they were "asking" for or "requesting" changes, when I think the signatories have the power to demand that MSD comply with the CBA.

Just my thoughts.  Thank you.

Eric