Monday, May 23, 2005

Wal-Mart County

Wal-Mart County, formerly known as Solano County, used to be a decent place to live, a place with rolling green hills and an occasional marsh, lagoon, or lake separating our communities strung along I-80 between the Carquinez Strait and the Yolo wetlands.

No more, I fear – not since the bullies from Bentonville rode into town, flashing their cash in the faces of small-minded small-town mayors and council members strapped for revenue. They picked them off, one by one, starting, just a mile across our Napa border, with American Canyon, population 12,000. Then came Dixon, population 16,000. And now Suisun City, a veritable metropolis of 27,000. Each will have its very own Wal-Mart Supercenter, each the size of seven football fields.

In the case, of Suisun City, that rustic four-square-mile “Gateway” (to?) whose admittedly handsome downtown development was recently touted as an environmentally-friendly wave of the future on “Bay Area Backroads,” the Wal-Mart parking lot may prove bigger than the town. But, then, the town will have to grow to accommodate Wal-Mart and the rest of the 650,000 square-foot project on the Gentry property northwest of town. In order to do that, however, Suisun City will have to annex that last greenbelt between it and Fairfield…and give up its vision of being something different in the midst of the spreading sprawl of Wal-Mart County.

That other “Gateway” – this time to the Napa Valley – American Canyon has given Wal-Mart permission to bulldoze the land east of Napa Junction, the town’s new “downtown.” That bulldozing continued until just a day or two ago despite a court order to stop, only because Wal-Mart convinced the judge to insist that its opponents in this town of maybe 4,000 families post an indemnification bond of $180,000. Well they posted that bond and a hearing is now set for June 23. If, however, Wal-Mart prevails, it will resume paving its football-field-sized parking lot, which will forever define “downtown” American Canyon.

But what about the big boys – Vallejo and Fairfield? Not to worry, Wal-Mart has “Supercenters” for us too, in both cases, right downtown.

In the case of Fairfield, Wal-Mart, according to the Daily Republic, “told” Fairfield that it planned to open a “Supercenter” at Mission Village on North Texas Street – a scant three miles from the “Supercenter” that will be built on the “windswept grassland” bordering the marshland between it and Suisun.

And, in Vallejo, another “Gateway” (Is there no “here” here?), Wal-Mart, which, as one council member warned, “does not take ‘no’ for an answer,” intends to build another “Supercenter” on the old K-Mart site at Sonoma Boulevard and Redwood Street. That’s a mere 3.5 from “downtown” American Canyon, across the street from Seafood City, two blocks from Raley’s, and maybe half a mile each from our downtown and waterfront for which Vallejoans harbor truly visionary hopes.

Does this strike you as a dream come true? There are, let me assure you, neighbors who welcome the prospect of wall-to-wall Wal-Marts and the sweet assurance of picking up the next Wal-Mart sign ahead of them before losing the last one in the rear view mirror.

Others of us, however, wake up in a cold sweat from the nightmare of driving north across our soaring Al Zampa Bridge and hitting that first sign before the toll booths “Welcome to Wal-Mart County” and, just beyond the booths, just before that first Vallejo exit, “Welcome to Cheap Town.” It’s like being caught in Rod Serling’s black and white “Twilight Zone.”

But, like the endings of those “Twilight Zone” episodes, there’s still Rod’s soothing voice – “Does it have to end this way?”

Hell, no! Not if we wake up in time to look at the green hillsides and our multi-hued, uniquely beautiful downtowns that reflect our vibrant past and even brighter future in the sunshine of the present of this spring morning.

We don’t have to accept the dull, downward-looking mantra of “Low Prices, Always.” These are our towns, our greenbelts, our lives. They are not cheap. They are a treasure we want to hand up to our children and grandchildren.

What do we have to do to ensure that we wake up in time…and still in one piece, our integrity and heritage intact?

First, we have to recognize that Wal-Mart wants us to keep dreaming our isolated, short-sighted dreams. They don’t want us to see the inter-connected big picture of their county-wide, state-wide plans. They don’t want us to see the long-term, broad-ranging consequences of the short-term, shallow gains they dangle before us.

Consider the big picture, the adverse consequences.

Jobs? Oh, Wal-Mart touts jobs, and the unemployed and under-employed are enticed. But, by what? For Wal-Mart offers only non-union, minimum wage, low benefit jobs that depress the area-wide job market and denigrate the dignity of honest labor. Their use of the patronizing term “associates” to describe their employees is but a subterfuge to deny those employees the right to organize themselves in unions. Whenever they attempt to so organize, as in Quebec, Canada, Wal-Mart closes the store and fires all its “associates.” The only union it has ever recognized is the communist front organization which works with the communist government of China and Wal-Mart to suppress workers’ rights.

Locally, Wal-Mart has publicly announced that, when it opens its “Supercenters” in Dixon, Fairfield, and Vallejo, it will close its existing stores in those communities. Thus, the 400 “new” jobs it touts for each “Supercenter” may be half that number, maybe less if competitors like Raley’s, Albertson’s, and Safeway flee the coop in the face of Wal-Mart’s predatory practices. And, what happens job-wise, when good paying union jobs are lost with the closing of competitive markets and other stores.

Tax revenues? According to the Daily Republic, Suisun’s pie-eyed Mayor Jim Spering estimates his city’s sales tax revenue of $800,000 would double once Wal-Mart’s “Supercenter” is built. Don’t hold your breath. It will probably prove a wash at best when other markets leave and worse when others shy away.

Cheap prices? Always! And always on the back of cheap sweat shop labor in places like China, Bangladesh, and Central America – American jobs shipped overseas by the folks with the red, white, and blue signs and smiling happy faces. And the goods brought in? Cheap…always! The results: lost American jobs and a ballooning trade deficit. This is not sound economics. And it is certainly not patriotism. All those magnetic yellow ribbons – you know, “Support Our Troops” – Wal-Mart peddles? Made in China!

So, what can you do? Wake up! Shake off this nightmare, learn the facts, and fight off these predators.

You can begin by attending the study session sponsored by Vallejoans for Responsible Growth (VRG) which will be held at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, May 26 in the Joseph Room of the JFK Library at Santa Clara and Georgia Streets. We will show a 10-minute video, provide an update on what’s likely to happen next, and organize our citizen opposition. Vallejo City Council Members Gary Cloutier, and Joanne Schively have already announced that they will be there to field questions.

For further information, please contact VRG at 554-0672 or or by writing us at Vallejoans for Responsible Growth, 164 Robles Drive Box #125, Vallejo, CA 94591-8039. You may also keep up-to-speed by checking regular updates on

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Be Very Afraid

Be afraid, be very afraid. Freedom of the press and, with it, your right to know is under frontal assault.

I know whereof I speak. I worked for three years in communist Poland with the United States Information Agency and some of my best friends at the time were Polish communist journalists who, despite that second adjective, sought to report truthfully, helpfully to their fellow Poles on what was happening in their country and the world.

Those journalists, struggling to be honest, shared with me their thoughts on dealing with censorship. It was a time – in the mid-1970s – when rules were being “loosened.” Prior to that time, they wrote the truth as they saw it and let the censors do their dirty work. Pieces of the truth would leak out, and they were not responsible. Afterward, however, prior censorship was removed. They were “free” to print what they wanted within the loose guidelines of what was and was not acceptable. If, however, their stories discomfited the government or party, they could be fired or jailed.

Those communist journalists, testing the limits of the system, confided to me that they preferred the old way of doing things. They could test those limits boldly with little fear of retribution. Under the new rules, however, they had to exercise judgment and be prepared to accept the consequences of any misjudgment. They became more timid, more gun shy, pulling their punches in advance.

American journalists, I fear, are now in that same uncomfortable situation and headed rapidly in the opposite direction, not toward greater freedom, but toward a priori enforced censorship. American media, as Bill Moyers said in a courageous speech May 15, is now being cowed into what he called “preventative capitulation.”

What began a couple of years ago as a drip by drip draining of the life blood of our freedom of the press has been transformed almost overnight into a life-threatening hemorrhage.

The American media, especially the broadcast media, are being transformed – before our very eyes – into a sycophantic propaganda arm of our ruling government and party.

Item: The literal drumbeat of cheerleading by the media for the Iraq war, coverage marked by the “political analysis” of colonels, breathless reports from “embedded” “journalists,” flapping American flags in the corners of your TV screens, and freedom of information requests needed to see the American flags on the coffins of our heroes.

Item: The manipulated chicanery last year of Swift Boat Vets, “Rathergate,” and the pre-election stand-down before the gates of Fallujah, giving the insurgents there months to prepare for the assault that began two days after the election.

Item: Planted stories by Armstrong Williams and planted questions by Jeff Gannon (aka James Guckert), whose White House pass has gotten a press pass.

Item: Taxpayer funded “infomercials” touting Administration programs circulated as “news” clips to small town TV stations.

Item: The Administration outing of Valerie Plame, the undercover CIA wife of an Administration critic, the recipient of the leak, Administration-insider Robert Novak, going untouched, while reporters who didn’t report the story are being threatened with jail time.

Item: Staged “town hall” meetings covered as “news” by Fox and CNN.

Item: The Pentagon Channel, a military propaganda outlet, being piped into American homes by satellite dish providers.

Item: Kenneth Tomlinson, a veteran of Charles Z. Wick’s Voice of America, now dispatched by Karl Rove to whip PBS and, now, NPR, into “preventative capitulation.”

It is against this background that the White House brow-beating of Newsweek over its story about the alleged desecration of the Qu’ran in Guantanamo Bay engenders such fear. Never mind that the story is probably true, having been reported months earlier by released detainees. Never mind that Newsweek had floated the story by the Pentagon without eliciting a denial. Never mind that the Department of State had promised to investigate the allegations. Never mind the still oozing scab of Abu Ghraib.

Violent protests erupted across Afghanistan and the Muslim world – precisely because the story, which is so in line with our already demonstrated behavior, is so believable. But, according to White House spokesman Scott McCllelan, the image of the United States, had been “tarnished” – not by substance of the allegations, but the fact that they were reported. He demanded a retraction by Newsweek. There was Rumsfeld of Abu Ghraib lecturing the American media about their “responsibility” to be “careful” and “cautious.” Never mind addressing the content of the story, attack the messenger! Beat the reporter, the respected Michael Isikoff, and his editors into submission. And so they have, shamelessly.

And, at the end of the day, Newsweek could not take the pressure. Watching Isikoff’s editor, Newsweek Washington bureau chief David Klaidman, playing back Rumsfeld’s words on Charlie Rose, my thoughts drifted back to communist Poland. “You can always be more cautious,” he said, “We will redouble our efforts to be careful.” The way in which he swallowed the lump in his throat, like a chastised child, was as instructive as his words. The chill made its way up my spine. Suddenly I was very afraid.

Friday, May 13, 2005

My Friend Lily

Last Friday Lily Heyen Withrow passed away at John Muir Hospital. Benicia and Vallejo lost an advocate, this country lost a patriotic daughter, and I lost a friend. Above all, however, Miko lost a devoted mom and Lew a loving wife. I do know how he feels today and won’t cheapen his grief with inadequate words.

But words were important to Lily and to those of us who were privileged to know her. She was the best damned writer in the county and the most aggressively honest reporter in the Bay Area. It was that honesty, that reportorial skill, and a keen sense of right and wrong that drove Lily to bring Vallejo’s LNG story to statewide and, indeed, national attention…when others were content to publish half the story or let it slide entirely. Whenever out-of-town reporters wanted to get up to speed, I always referred them to Lily’s many stories on For those stories were always accurate, thorough, and balanced. And, when, it was over, I recall saying – very seriously – that, if there were a Pulitizer Prize for internet reporting, Lily would have won it hands down.

I will also remember Lily as a solid patriot who understood that the best thing she could give her country was not unthinking acquiescence but the benefit of her critical thinking and her love. Her obituary was devoid of the little American flag that the Times-Herald reserves for military veterans. Funny, however, that flag still appeared right next to her ever-smiling face. One of my favorite sayings is: “Serendipity is just God’s way of keeping a low profile.” She – God – knew just where that flag belonged.

Lily imparted to the word “Liberal” the same respectability she did to “patriot.” To her it was not a dirty word, but a proud calling to stick up for the little guy in the face of sometimes outrageous odds.

And she practiced her politics the way she lived her life – strongly advocating her positions, always listening to the other person, always striving for win-win pragmatic solutions, and conducting herself always with her quiet smile and her often boisterous humor.

In Europe I learned an unusual salutation, not often or lightly given. It fits so well tonight. Farewell, dear friend, RESPECT.