Days of Revolt: Company Town
In this episode of teleSUR’s Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges discusses the corporate takeover of Salinas, CA by a multi-billion dollar agricultural industry, and the ways in which a radical city councilman and a civil rights attorney have been able to fight against it.
CHRIS HEDGES: Hi, I’m Chris Hedges. Welcome to Days of Revolt. We’re filming this segment in New York City, and we’re going to be discussing the effects of the agricul–the agricultural corporations, in particular in Salinas, California. What they have done to communities, to grassroots democratic movements, and how in this microcosm of Salinas they are reconfiguring the city along the lines of neoliberalism in a way that, of course, communities and cities across this country are being reconfigured.
Joining me in the studio is Jose Castaneda. He is an independent radical city councilperson who big business has made war against. And Anthony Prince, an attorney who has been working with groups in Salinas to fight back against the power of big business, and all the ways that they are distorting life within the city, including of course going after what has become a large homeless population. Thank you, Jose, and thank you, Anthony.
SPEAKER: Thank you, Chris.
HEDGES: So, Jose, let’s begin by talking about what’s happened in your city. You are home to some of the largest agricultural corporations, not only in the country but in the world.
JOSE CASTANEDA: Yes. We have, it’s an $8 billion industry, just to put it into perspective.
HEDGES: You’re talking about nationally.
CASTANEDA: Well, this is locally. This is the latest Business Journal that came in the last quarter. And [we] are an international market, now. What we have experienced is a lot of low wages continue to be the case.
HEDGES: What do they produce, primarily?
CASTANEDA: This is lettuce, iceberg lettuce. We have strawberries, as well.
HEDGES: Driscoll is there, right, which is huge.
CASTANEDA: Driscoll’s one of the major ag-business as well, Taylor Farms, Tanimura and Antle. There’s a long list of these agriculture–what I call agriculture empire within the county. And it’s an international market, now.
HEDGES: Whole parts of your city have, in essence, been destroyed by these corporations. Perhaps you can give us a picture of what’s happened and what it looks like.
CASTANEDA: I can tell you, the $8 billion industry has controlled, directly and indirectly, the politics. We can go into history. For example, John Steinbeck’s writings of In Dubious Battle, The Grapes of Wrath, Mice and Men, Tortilla Flats, just pick any novel and you’ll see how the, the Depression, as well as oppression in regards to the worker–.
HEDGES: We should be clear that Steinbeck was based in Salinas, right?
CASTANEDA: That is absolutely right. Until Steinbeck was banned, and his books were burned and he had to come to New York, as well, and finish a lot of his work there. That same lineage has continued to control the, the governance system as well, as a state. And it continues to be the case in 2015. I have experienced that myself, even running as an independent.
HEDGES: We should be clear, when you were elected, it used to be under the old rules that any city council member could bring an issue to be discussed at the council. And because they knew that you would be bringing issues that they did not want discussed they just rechanged–changed the rules. Perhaps you can explain what happened.
CASTANEDA: Sure. You’re absolutely correct. And the last time there was any type of rule change it was 1994. Once I defeated two candidates that were part of the status quo horses in this race, we had a 30-day waiting period, which was a certification of election results.
So one week before I took the oath of office at the city council, those rules were already being changed, with the action of the old council. And that’s implemented as rules of the quorum. It was a buddy–so-called buddy system, where you needed at least two council members at a minimum to agree to put any item on the agenda. Of course, what has affected, historically, my district area, which is considered the East Salinas, or the Alisal, as drawn and depicted in John Steinbeck’s books, where you have more–half of the major–half of the population in a concentrated five-mile radius. And that’s where you have the housing issues, water issues, crime.
HEDGES: And let’s, let’s talk a little bit about the role of automation now within fields–and perhaps you can describe that, and how that has now created this huge homeless population.
CASTANEDA: Well, it’s no secret what happened with Detroit and automation, and with the auto worker industry, and then the effects of the economy, as well. In Salinas we have a large labor–again, going back to the salad bowl of the world. Iceberg lettuce, for example, one of the biggest commodities that’s being imported. And now you can go ahead with this ag technology, with agribusiness, where you have rows of lettuce, hundreds of acres, and you have the technology now to shoot out a laser jet water stream to precisely cut this lettuce.
What does that do to the farm worker that’s been there for generations, family after family, and what does that do to communities that I serve and that I have to look at [their], the best interest, as well? We’re in, in fear of what has happened in Detroit, and we’re already feeling those effects because of what happens with homelessness. When the day laborer self-medicates with alcohol after a 12, 14 hour workday, from sun-up to sundown, and then their livelihood is taken from a, a machine, what is to be expected? Again, we are the second–considered to these magazines, Forbes, considered and has put out a list of least-educated cities in the nation. Behind [Beaumont], Texas, we’re the second, Salinas, California being the second-least educated city in the nation.
So education’s a major factor. The farm, the farmworking industry as well. And when automation comes in, they’re not developed to go anywhere else other than homelessness and all these other microcosms.
HEDGES: And I think before I talk to Anthony, one of the things that you were describing is how, in this kind of reconfiguration of the city, it becomes more and more like the third world, where you have obscene amounts of wealth concentrated in corporate headquarters, in a kind of small, gentrified area of affluence, and then huge sections of the city living in substandard conditions, or of course, homeless camps. And I think you’ve described one of these, was it Taylor Farms or something, building what you called a Taj Mahal? Or–.
CASTANEDA: It’s a luxury building that was built in the heart of, of Salinas, the old town part of it. So of course anyone that is up in the top floor, and if your panoramic view happens to be across from the railroad tracks, tent city, which is one of the home–in Chinatown, to be more precise. Which is the only Chinatown between San Francisco and Los Angeles, is in Salinas. That becomes blight to them. And of course you would have to look for some other efforts to, to, what they would call cleanups, in their humane way. I call them eradication efforts, of homelessness. This goes back to the, Steinbeck’s writings exposing big agriculture companies and writings of In Dubious Battle, which was one of the first uprisings in the Salinas Valley, of, of homelessness organizing and mobilizing themselves in creating a revolt in regards to the big boss, or the big ag companies, the employer.
HEDGES: So, Anthony, I know that you’ve been working as an attorney on this issue of the rights of the homeless in Salinas. Perhaps you can talk a little bit about the campaign against the homeless, and you know, your struggles to kind of bring some kind of restitution.
ANTHONY PRINCE: Well, Chris, I would say that what’s happening in Salinas is emblematic of what’s happening in many cities across the United States, where it appears that in response to this deepening economic crisis–here in California, for example, there are 8 million people in poverty, at or below the poverty line, and the ranks of the homeless are expanding at an accelerated rate. Especially the establishment of these homeless encampments, where, as opposed to a single individual out there in the woods, we have tent after tent after tent, established communities where there is at least some modicum of safety, of community, self-supporting efforts of mutual assistance.
And what we have in Salinas is an all-out attack, war has essentially been declared on the homeless. We see this in a number of other cities as well, but what’s unique about Salinas is that a resistance has been organized. The homeless community, in particular the encampment that Jose mentioned, has been a longstanding community of–.
HEDGES: How large is that encampment?
PRINCE: Well, the total number of homeless in Salinas is somewhere around 2,000, perhaps more.
HEDGES: Out of, out of a population of what?
PRINCE: 155,000. But that’s, it’s deceptive, because the actual count of homeless–again, I’m using figures that are the official, so-called, count. But we would think that the ranks of the homeless also include those that are staying, have no home of their own, and are sleeping on a floor.
I would say that the ranks of the homeless are, are far in excess of the statistics. But even still, the statistics, the admitted numbers are, are staggering. So what they’ve essentially done is all but declared war. The, the city of Salinas issued, or enacted, an ordinance which essentially enables them to deprive the homeless of their property, to give them notice, which is ineffective. No opportunity to contest a seizure. The police roll up on these encampments. They usually make their raids when people are at the few kitchens and, and food outlets. They make their raids during breakfast time and lunchtime, so that the homeless are, are physically not able to even defend their, their tents and their meager possessions.
So we filed a, a lawsuit in federal district court. We’re seeking to restrain the city from going forward with the enforcement of these unconstitutional ordinances. But more important than the lawsuit is the fact that the community itself is organizing. The homeless leadership itself is organizing. And that’s what the city fears most.
HEDGES: Can you talk a little bit about that, that grassroots organization? Which you are kind of a [inaud.]–you didn’t run with a political party, you ran as an independent.
CASTANEDA: Right. It’s, it’s a base set up–it’s very important to speak in, on this part here, Chris, because it can be done. And that starts immediately by being connected. Not disconnected, but connected to your own community, to the workforce, as well. What are the, the major issues that are, that are pressing? And that’s what I’ve been doing for about 14 years that I’ve been in elected office. Eleven years on the school Board of Education, and now going into my fourth year, finishing my third year here on the city council.
By the way, that I need to share, because this is an important factor as well and has helped me become a true representative and elected official, as well, that 3 out of 58 counties in the state of California happen to currently still fall under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It’s a federal protected jurisdiction. Kings County, Yuba County, and Monterey County, which the city of Salinas resides in, being–and Salinas is one of the largest cities, is the largest city in the county, and that’s what has given us district elections. So I represent the district election–with the grassroots movements we have been forming coalitions. Coalitions around education, around housing, around water rights, and now it’s going to homelessness.
HEDGES: So explain to us, you know, through this neoliberal project, what’s happened in the city. What’s happened to utilities like the water service. What’s happened in the school system, which makes the kind of resistance that you’ve done an imperative? What’s, what’s going on there?
CASTANEDA: Well, the, the water company, that is one of the major things they have pressed us to, to form our base. We have a local water company, it’s called the Alco Water Company. Alisal Water Company. ALCO is the acronym. For the history of the Alisal, before it even annexed into the city of Salinas in 1963, they have major water violations. It was even a federal takeover, a receivership, of 90 percent of their water company. To this day–.
HEDGES: Violations. What were they?
CASTANEDA: They were fraudulent records. There was high nitrates in the water. Pesticides is a major thing, around our schools, around, around our communities. Keeping in mind that we are around agriculture, all over us. We’re surrounded with agriculture.
And, and the list ranges on. It went to federal court, a federal judge put sanctions on this water company. The water company–and a better explanation of this, Chris, is they should have disappeared from our community. To this day they remain in power. Even though 90 percent of the water company was taken away, they remain with 10 percent of it in the highest and most-dense populated part of the city, which is East Salinas. That’s 80,000 people out of 155,000, living in a 5-mile radius.
So what we did is we started doing public forums, educational and informational forums. And then we found out this is not only affecting our farm laborers as well, but it’s affecting our schools. And we’re continuing paying premium water rates, something of what Beverly Hills would pay, or even Monte Sereno-Los Gatos up in the Silicon Valley. And that was just not–it’s a major injustice, as well. So we needed to go ahead and get into the school district, because the school district had power to bring law, or any legal action against the water company. Or any other entity that was abusing their power.
And that’s what led us to not use–to, to go from speaking at the podium for two to three minutes, and then to be cut off and wait for your school board meeting to come back around the next month. You can do that twelve times out of the year and still get nowhere in the one-year period. So we said, the power’s not at the podium. The power is to sit up there. But how do we get there? We need to remove, we need to cause a major interruption. We need to organize and mobilize that action.
The quality with schooling is what, is another prime example of what happened. We were faced with low academics. We’re faced with all of the other major stressors that are around the poor performance of students. You look at the subgroups, English–English-language learners, special education that’s already designated with 10-15 percent of your student population, as well as overall Hispanic students.
So when you’re looking at three subgroups already, and that’s according to the state contributed to low academics, we said, no. we don’t agree with that. We have an $80 million budget. There’s no reason why we should even accept that. So we can start making our own local decisions. First we’re going to take over the school district. And that’s what led to the recalls, and then running for election. [We were] outspent 20:1. We were successful. Some school board members resigned.
But we didn’t expect the next move. The next move happened to be that the state came and did a–for the first time in the nation, in any school district, there was a takeover not for, of fiscal mismanagement. It was done because of politics. And we were the first school district, the Alisal [Union] School District, to be taken over by the state board of education in California, the California Department of Education. And we had a receiver for about two years, a state trustee was appointed there. And that was a complete stripping of our power and authority because of these revolutionary type of actions.
HEDGES: Let me ask Anthony, I mean, from a legal perspective. Especially since within the court system, you know, whole sections of our court system are kind of wholly-owned subsidiaries of the corporate state. I mean, you have grassroots organizing, but then you have the misuse of the law on the part of the elites who are beholden to the big ag companies and large corporations. What are going to be the successful tactics by which when people rise up, as they did in Salinas, and then essentially have the law used against them to revoke the power that they have organized to gain. What, where do we go?
PRINCE: Well, I’ll give as an example what is happening with the issue of the voting rights. As you were discussing a moment ago with Jose, when he was elected to the city council, even before he was sworn in they changed the rules and created the buddy system. Well, that has been in effect for almost three years, and it has effectively prevented Jose from bringing to the city council for formal consideration the host of issues that we’re speaking about today.
So what we’ve done is we filed a federal voting rights claim against the city of Salinas. Our theory is that by stripping their elected representative of his ability to actually represent his constituents, 25,000 people in District 1 have been disenfranchised. And this was the approach that was taken going back to the Reconstruction period in our history, where after the Civil War, with the Reconstruction governments, many former slaves were elected to office. And at that time they were physically obstructed, these representatives, from going into their legislative chambers. They were beaten, they were threatened. Well, those tactics are, are not used. But the tactic of stripping the elected representative of their ability to discharge their function is being used.
So we have signed up 22 clients. I have 22 people in the city of Salinas, District 1 and other parts of the city, who are prosecuting–we want to file and expect to file our claim in federal district court this year. This is the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, and so we intend to celebrate that anniversary by filing what I believe and what I’ve been told by other experienced civil rights attorneys is the first lawsuit of this type, of a backdoor disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of voters by way of stripping their representative of authority.
The other thing we’re doing in terms of a response to how they used the law is that they are coming back with, as I said, this ordinance which is unconstitutional, depriving people of their property, forcing homeless people to walk around all day with their possessions on their backs, which they cannot do. So they can’t move. Well, that’s a violation of the constitutional right of freedom of travel. So we’re hearkening back to some of these cases. We’re saying that fundamental human rights are at stake here, and we have recourse in the courts as well. So we’re going forward with these lawsuits. The civil rights front, the voting rights front, the human rights front.
If I could say one more thing, Chris, that just emblematic of, of what we’re doing here. Jose talked about this new advanced method to cut the lettuce, displacing [hypo]–theoretically thousands of workers. Well, one of the people who was killed, one of the young people that were part of the victims of the Salinas police department–.
HEDGES: We should also mention that like other depressed communities, police violence, lethal police violence, is rampant in Salinas.
PRINCE: It is. And every one of these killings, there were five individuals killed in a space of 14 months. This was before Ferguson. There was absolutely no effort by the city council to independently investigate these killings. Every one of them was whitewashed, and the police exonerated by the Monterey County district attorney.
One of the victims was a lettuce worker. He was on his way home with his knife, his lettuce knife, the tool of his trade. And he was killed. So the knife is being rendered–the lettuce knife is being rendered superfluous. And the worker is being rendered superfluous.
HEDGES: And I think you told me that there was a, a person who did landscaping, who was also killed coming home with his shears.
PRINCE: He was on his way home with his shears, his garden shears, which the press–stories in the media–and of course the media is completely controlled by, for the most part, by agribusiness. The leading television statement, KSPW, stands for Salad Bowl of the World. These, the general manager of that station has come on the air and editorialized seven times against Councilman Castaneda, because Castaneda is standing up against agribusiness.
But yes, he was cut down by the Salinas police, and the media characterized in both cases, the lettuce knife and the garden shears, as being arms. The paper said these men were armed. Well, armed is a verb. It means that you’ve taken a weapon in order to do harm. These were the tools of the trade of these workers. And so what we’re seeing in Salinas I think is a microcosm of the devaluation of life, because from the standpoint of the system, the economic system, these lives have no more value.
HEDGES: You or Jose had mentioned about how now these agribusinesses, because they’re worried about organizing, are building these encampments inside their enclosures for their workers.
CASTANEDA: Yes. Yes, I can elaborate on that. Recently–which, by the way, it’s difficult to get anything moving, either through the city or through the county bureaucratic process. This was done in record-breaking time. It was an expedited item on the agenda at the county level, through one of the major ag empire businesses. And they built a 800 all-male facility, which they called–it was a smokescreen approach–as true farmworking housing. Well, it’s–if we’re going to be frank of what we’re going to call it, it’s a modern-day plantation. And that is 800 males coming in through a work visa, a worker visa program, into Monterey County, to create and sustain that production that has been lost. Immigration, the major federal discussion on immigration reform and however we want to go ahead and stand on that, these businesses are losing billions of dollars.
So they wanted–this is the new approach. And this is what we need to keep an eye out for. And that’s what the grassroots efforts is very helpful in as well. Now they’re looking at building these plantations on their private property. And to ensure that the workforce is not going to go anywhere else.
HEDGES: Right, they’re completely segregated.
CASTANEDA: They’re completely segregated. A community organizer like myself will never have the time or day or to be allowed to step on, foot on a private property. You can imagine the restraining order process would be granted from the judges that are already controlled by the agriculture empire and the court systems in the local courts there, as well. What about the health and welfare of these–after a long day. And of course the county and the city process over–we have an oversaturation of alcohol licenses within the culture here. You don’t have the time or money to go see a medical physician. So alcohol abuse becomes one of the major stressors in our communities. And next thing you know, if you have an injury, you can’t get a, a labor attorney to represent you. You can’t even step foot into the grounds there.
So most likely, that person will end up in Chinatown, in the homeless encampments. Which, by the way, there were 51 encampments that were eradicated within a short eight-month period. And the city continues to cover themselves by saying they invested $1.5 million in helping homelessness with shelters and other services that were rendered to them. Which is a farce.
HEDGES: Right. Thank you, Anthony. Thank you, Jose.
PRINCE: Thank you, Chris.
CASTANEDA: Thank you, Chris.
HEDGES: And thank you for watching Days of Revolt.
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