Sunday, March 08, 2009

A Guam Legislature Walkout?

March 4th, 2009
Michael Lujan Bevacqua

On my blog last week I wrote that, until Guam’s political status changes, the national anthem of the island should be changed to “The Hand that Feeds” by Nine Inch Nails. This week, I think that the official song of the Government of Guam and in particular the Guam Legislature should be changed to the protest song “Federåles” by the rock band Chamorro.

In all colonies, because of the fundamentally unequal relationship between parties, there is always constant tension and sometimes conflict over the “proper” governance of the colonies. In the case of Guam, we can see this at a grassroots, everyday personal level in each of our lives (even if we chosen not to admit to it), but the place where you can see and feel it the most everyday, is in the relationship between the Government of Guam and the Federal Government. For them the Federal Government truly is the Feds or Federåles, an oppressive force thats coming down on you or always looking over your shoulder and interfering in your life. A lot of this feeling comes down to Federal-Territorial relations, or the lack thereof.

The thinking of the Federal Government at pretty much any level, in relation to the colonies of the United States can generally be divided into two “thinking” points. 1st. What territories? 2nd. Whatever is good for the 50 stars on the flag should be good for our backwater colonies too. This means that Federal-Territorial relations is a horrifying game of fighting to find or force a place for yourself in the maze of Federal laws and funding sources. As not being a foreign country or a state, you don’t have a place in that maze, you aren’t seated at the table with everyone else, nor are you provided a table of your own. Wherever you end up sitting depends on how much the Federales care or don’t care, how much they know or don’t know, and what place you try to fight for. We can see this clearly in the life of the non-voting delegates to Congress.

Without a secure political identity for your colony, your legislative life is all about fighting for inclusion on some bills/laws and exclusion on others. Its not a life I would envy, since you can never take your place for granted. You can never assume that a bill will automatically include you and you can never assume that any law is ever made thinking about the particular needs of your colony. This is why at one point during his tenure, Congressman Robert Underwood actually attempted to pass a bill with a long and frustrated title that went something like this “Whenever you Write a Bill Don’t Forget the Territories!”

So in one way, those who can most smell and feel the stench of American colonialism on Guam aren’t necessarily the crazy activists such as myself, its actually people in the Government of Guam. They are on the front line for feeling the heavy, ignorant and sometimes racist hand of the Federal Government or the military.

They are the ones who have to deal with the Federal agencies who seem to unanimously feel that Guam is the most corrupt and backwards place in the universe, a never-ending black whole of dependency, laziness and crime. They are the ones who are stuck with a government which everyone seems to feel is bloated and useless, but in actuality is not funded anywhere near the level it should be in order to provide adequate services to Guam’s population. They are the ones who on the one hand have to deal with the horrible red tape and attached-strings of Federal funds, but at the same time deal with a population who seems to think that Federal funds come like big baskets of money, soaps and shower gels put on the door steps of Felix Camacho and the Legislature every morning, with a cheery and simple note attached, “Spend it however you like, just don’t hire your pare’!”

Ground zero right now for feeling the realities of colonialism on Guam is the Guam Legislature. Unlike the Governor or the courts which may be chosen through a democratic process, but aren’t very democratic afterwards, the Legislature cannot help but always be a democratic and representative body. It is the one which is allowed to be responsive to the needs or concerns of everyday people. The Governor may be elected by the people, but the Legislature is supposed to represent, in both senses of the word, the people.

In the past year they have been pushed into a position where they have become the front line for defending Guam against rising Federal pressure. What they do in the coming months will determine much in the near future of Guam. Whether or not they can rise to this challenge, will have a huge impact on where Guam goes from here.

The two main fronts in this conflict are the closing of Ordot Dump and the building of a new landfill at Dandan and the planned 2014 military buildup. The conduct of the Federal Government in both of these issues reek of colonialism, you have to literally be getting lasik done with American flags soaked in kerosene to not see it.

On the military buildup side of things, the Legislature has been one of the few spots in the government in general where you see some fight against the military, some willingness to complain, to criticize, to make demands and to openly argue that Guam’s interests should be put first, before we begin to prioritize our lives to support the military buildup. They are voices of reason in an island which completely refuses to even think about what is going to happen to the island when it undergoes as the Pacific Daily News put it “20 years of growth in just five.” They are the voices who are cautiously reminding us that there are plenty of dangers here, plenty of negative aspects to having this increase. Plenty of ways in which property and commodity prices will rise up, that public utilities and government services will be strained, and the island will no doubt be damaged even more environmentally.

For supporters of the buildup, all the focus is on the new monies that will be coming in. To listen to some you would imagine that each Marine will bring with them a suitcase full of hundred dollar bills, and they will literally, as part of their community engagement, walk around each weekend to family barbeques, just handing out cash. And each of these Marines will bring with them a friend from the states who runs a Cracker Barrel, Besy Buy or Chili’s that they are going to set up on Guam. Because, as the late Joe Murphy prophesized what really matters is that we will be getting out of this buildup, better restaurants, better nightclubs and better movie theaters.

Proponents of the buildup love to cite the $15 billion figure as a sum which will absolutely help Guam, even if we just get a small piece of it. But as I have exhaustedly tried to tell people, NONE of that money will be spent outside of the bases, all of it is directly towards improvements within the fences. In reality, this buildup will cost GovGuam plenty, CMTF estimates vary, but they all exceed a billion dollars, with one estimate putting the total cost at $6.1 billion. Imagine how many Marines buying shishkabobs at the Chamorro village would it take to reach that figure?

The Government and the people of Guam are being asked to prioritize the needs of the military, and alter the landscape of their island, and possibly even give up 950 more acres of Chamorro Land Trust property in order to accommodate what they need, with, as of yet, no guarantees that they will receive any Federal aid to cover those costs. They are being asked to take on a massive burden in order to accommodate, what amounts to a military typhoon which will rapidly descend on the island, which they were not even included in the planning or discussions of.

Believe it or not, but the Ordot Dump and new landfill issue is tied to the military buildup. The dump was supposed to be closed more than a decade ago, and the Government of Guam has been incurring regular fines because of its inability to close it. Both the current and previous Governors and the Legislatures since as well, have all acted poorly in this regard. Either refusing to take any bold action on the trash situation in Guam in general, or attempting to skew the issue to benefit themselves. But the Federal Government for years seemed to be content to sit on the sidelines, keep giving fines and just watch. There was never any significant pressure for years, in fact the fact that Ordot still wasn’t closed seem to prove all of the racist fantasies that people in the Federal Government had about Guam. So lazy and corrupt they’d rather live in trash than take care of themselves.

But for some reasons out of nowhere, all of this changed last year, when Federal Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood appointed a Federal Receiver, Gershman, Brickner and Bratton, Inc, to take over the solid waste management of Guam and most importantly to oversee the closing of the Ordot and the opening of a new dump.

For many this act by the judge has been interpreted as a long-overdue disciplining of GovGuam. Of a swift patek gi i daggå-ña, to finally get it moving. This might be true, but the timing remains suspicious. As part of the proposed military buildup, Anderson Air Force base will soon close its own dump, and rather than open a new one in their existing foot print, they are planning to use the new landfill in Dandan. The judge’s order ensures that the military’s needs will be met, even if it means a catastrophe for the Government of Guam.

In January the Federal Receiver announced that in order for it to fulfill its mandate it would have to be paid $1 million dollars a week by the Government of Guam. The Government of Guam balked at this, asking to meet with the Receiver and work out an alternative plan. At its present levels there is simply no way that the Government would pay that amount each week. In order to accommodate that payment, the Government of Guam would either have to reduce every single office/agency by 9%, or in order not to upset the budgets or staff of essential agencies, all non-essential agencies would have to take a cut somewhere between 30-40%.

The Legislature last week, passed Bill 51, which provided three different options for paying the Federal Receiver, but prohibited the use of any funds save for those outlined in the Bill itself. It even went so far as to ban any Government of Guam official from paying the $1 million weekly payments, and prohibited the use of Section 30 money to make any payments.

Earlier today, Tydingco-Gatewood responded demanding to know why she shouldn’t place the Government of Guam in contempt for not making its first payment, and outlined five options that the Government should undertake in order to make the weekly $1 million payments. These options included, the raising of taxes, the implementation of new GRT or other commercial taxes, the using or other Federal funds (such as Federal Highway funds), the selling off of Chamorro Land Trust Property, the selling of Government assets such as buildings, vehicles.

The Government of Guam has until March 10th to file its argument, and the United States Government has until March 17th to file their response. The most interesting and frightening part of all this (as if it wasn’t crazy enough already), is that in their briefs each party is supposed to discuss the court’s powers in implementing her suggestions. Basically, if GovGuam doesn’t convince Tydingco-Gatewood about the viability of Bill 51, she, as a Federal Judge, might actually order that Guam’s taxes be raised, or force it to sell Chamorro Land Trust lands, or actually force it to mis-use Federal funds!

As a colony, this sort of abuse is always there in the relationship, even if people don’t feel it. We are, as I always find myself reminding people, the tip of America’s spear, we are something that the Federal Government feels it owns and feels it can do whatever it wants with. Every once in a while, the Government of Guam will try to find a way to resist this objectivization. There will be strong statements, court cases filed, protective or defensive laws passed, and sometimes even protests will take place. Looking at the state of affairs in Guam today, with a Legislature which is straining to find a way to prioritize Guam’s interest, against a Federal machine which is determined to interfere and force Guam to accommodate it. I am reminded of an event which took place close to today, sixty years ago. I am of course thinking of March 5, 1949 and the Guam Congress Walkout.

I won’t give you much details here, for fear that I may never stop writing this post. Guampedia has a decent article on the walkout, which you can read here. But Anne Perez Hattori’s article on it “Righting Civil Wrongs: The Guam Congress Walkout of 1949″ is a must read, and you can find it in the blue Hale’-ta book, also known as Kinalamten Pulitikat. There are also numerous writings and interviews on it from former Senator Carlos Taitano who was instrumental in the planning and the promotion of the walkout.

The Guam Congress Walkout was an act of defiance, against a greedy and ignorant military that had returned to Guam during World War II, and was determined that Guam be remade into a modern day fortress. While at first Chamorros were grateful and happy to be able to provide their land, their island and their loyalty in exchange for the expulsion of the Japanese and the return of the United States, as families saw more and more land being snatched up, and sitting often times fallow or poisoned behind tall fences, they began to question their “liberation” and what the real cost of the militarization of their island had become. This was exasperated, by the fact that Chamorros were still denied even the most basic rights and political protections after the war, continuing the colonial policies of the Navy from the prewar period.

In order to protest these issues and a number of others, the members of the Guam Congress voted to adjourn and walkout. It was an action that ended up making news around the world and shed light on the abuses of the US Navy in Guam, its ravenous landtaking after World War II and its refusal to provide self-government for Chamorros. It ended up changing the entire game, as the walkout was one of the events that compelled the United States Federal Government to create an Organic Act for Guam, which at last satisfied in some way the longstanding Chamorro desire for some political protections and rights, and also a chance to have its own government.

The Guam Legislature of today is in a similar position to its ancestors of 1949. And, if I were one of its members I would be considering my own act of protest, my own way of changing the game.

Something symbolic, yet something powerful enough to bring the eyes of the island, the nation and the world to Guam and to reveal to all the other side of American power, this colonial side that we live with and struggle under everyday.

No comments: