Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 21, 2021

Film reflections on the opioid crisis

Filed under: Columbia University,Counterpunch,drugs,Film — louisproyect @ 7:49 pm

When a publicist sent me a press release and screener for Nicholas Jarecki’s “Crisis”, I looked forward to covering a film by a director who I acclaimed as making one of the best films of 2012: “9. Arbitrage – Don’t tell Oliver Stone that I said so, but this is much better than his “Wall Street” sequel.”

One of his personal quotes on IMDB will give you a sense of what motivated him to take aim at a fictionalized version of the Sackler family of Purdue Pharma infamy in “Crisis” as well as a billionaire arbitrageur who kept his role in the death of his mistress a secret a la Ted Kennedy/Chappaquiddick in the earlier work. “I think that people need to become more educated about money. We need to stop creating systems that benefit only the most-cutthroat sharks.”

“Crisis” is the first narrative film to tell the story of how both criminal gangs and prestigious philanthropist families worked to extract blood money from American families in recent years through the sale of opioids like Oxycodone. Set in Detroit and Montreal, it begins with the arrest of a man in a white camouflage suit dragging a sled full of pain-killers across the Canadian border.

Continue reading

August 9, 2014

When Columbia University was on the Mussolini bandwagon

Filed under: Academia,Columbia University,Fascism,Italy — louisproyect @ 6:31 pm

Casa Italiana at Columbia University: a stronghold of Mussolini support in the 1930s

Frank Rosengarten, “Through Partisan Eyes”, pp 3-4:

I should say, regarding my unfamiliarity with the material I was discovering at the Biblioteca Nazionale, that I did have a slight acquaintance with the history of Italian Fascism. It was not, to be sure, anything that helped me very much to understand the vicissitudes of Pratolini’s life and work; it was a small piece of historical evidence that had made me aware of the worldwide influence, the rayonnement, of the Italian Fascist regime. I’m referring to the extremely close, mutually supportive association that existed for close to twenty years between Mussolini’s government and Columbia’s Casa Italiana, several of whose professors were enthusiastic advocates in their youth of the Fascist regime. Two of the professors with whom I had done my course work, Peter Riccio and Howard Marraro, had strong Fascist sympathies in the 1930s, when they were themselves young candidates for Ph.D. degrees. In their early years both had written books that proposed a socially progressive, politically dynamic interpretation of what Mussolini and his cohorts were trying to accomplish. I recall reading these autobiographical writings with considerable dismay and keen interest. My personal contact with Professors Riccio and Marraro were pleasant enough. They were both friendly, approachable men, with none of the authoritarian traits that I probably expected to see in them, given their early attraction to Fascist ideology.

Nicholas Murray Butler was president of Columbia University at the height of Mussolini’s popularity in the United States. A friend of Theodore Roosevelt, an accomplished diplomat and philosopher, and a widely traveled man, like many Americans in the 1930s he was impressed by Mussolini’s grandiose plans for Italian development, which he apparently viewed as, if nothing else, good for the Italian people. But it seems that there was another more immediate and practical reason why he expressed positive views of the new Italian order. In the 1930s Columbia’s office of development was trying to cultivate relationships in the Italian-American community for the purpose of expanding the Italian program at Columbia. They succeeded in this effort: The building of the Casa Italiana was paid for in part by contributions from well-heeled Italian-American businessmen, several of whom were sympathetic to Fascism.

Stephen H. Norwood, “The Third Reich in the Ivory Tower”, pp. 89-93:

During Butler’s presidency, Columbia’s Casa Italiana, which opened in 1927 as a center for the study of Italian culture and which also housed the Italian Department, was controlled by supporters of Premier Benito Mussolini, who used it to propagandize for Fascism. The Casa Italiana also sponsored student exchanges between Columbia and universities in Fascist Italy and arranged many receptions for Mussolini’s emissaries, during which his regime was enthusiastically praised. The Mussolini government supplied most of the furniture for the Casa, with President Butler’s consent. Mussolini himself in September 1933 wrote to Professor Giuseppe Prezzolini, director of the Casa from 1930 to 1940: “I am following with interest the work done by the Casa Italiana of Columbia University and I am very pleased with what is being accomplished.” Prezzolini translated Mussolini’s letter and proudly forwarded it to President Butler. Butler responded by thanking Prezzolini for the “charming message from Mussolini” and noted, “It is pleasant, indeed, to know that he is following our work and appreciates it.”42 Nicholas Murray Butler was a longtime admirer of Premier Mussolini and enjoyed a warm personal relationship with him for many years. In 1931 President Butler startled many when, in his welcoming address to the incoming freshman class, he declared that “the assumption of power by a virtual dictator whose authority rests upon a powerful and well-organized body of opinion” produced leaders “of far greater intelligence, far stronger character and far more courage than does the system of election.” Informed listeners understood at the time that it was Mussolini with whom Columbia’s president was “conspicuously impressed.”43 The next year Butler maintained that Mussolini’s leadership of the Fascist movement had “brought new life and vigor and power and ambition” to Italy.44 Butler met with the Italian dictator in Rome several times during the late 1920s and 1930s for cordial conversations about international politics. Escorted by Mussolini’s federal secretary, Butler was received by the Florence Fascisti at their clubhouse, and he donated books to its library. As late as January 1938, Butler was pleased to inform a leading Italian-American donor that Premier Mussolini had recently asked him about the Casa and “was much gratified when I told him the work that was being carried forward.”45

Butler cultivated Mussolini’s friendship despite his suppression of opposition parties and newspapers (completed by 1927) and elimination of academic freedom in Italian universities. In 193 I Mussolini enacted a law requiring all professors in Italian universities to join the Fascist party and take the Fascist oath. Public schools indoctrinated students to promote “national aggrandizement [and] power . . . the spiritual essence of fascism.” The Fascist government made the teaching of Catholic doctrine the “foundation” of public education, and compulsory in the schools. It introduced standard textbooks for the elementary grades that included passages very hostile to Judaism. As early as 1923, opponents of Mussolini voiced fear that the Fascist educational reforms would drive Jews from the schools, both teachers — because they could not “impart Catholic doctrine” — and students.46

Giuseppe Prezzolini, director of the Casa Italiana from 1930 to 1940, and Dino Bigongiari, head of the Columbia Italian Department during the 1930s, were members of the Italian Fascist party (Prezzolini formally joined in 1934). Bigongiari was also a founder in 1923 of the Fascist League of North America and translated the works of leading Italian Fascist theoreticians like Giovanni Gentile and Alfredo Rocco. Prezzolini proudly declared to President Butler in 1935, “I have been for thirty years a friend and admirer of Mussolini.”47

The other leading members of the Italian Department, Howard Marraro and Peter M. Riccio (whose appointment was at Barnard), were also ardent Fascists. In 1927, Marraro published a book entitled Nationalism in Italian Education that proclaimed, “Fascism is the exaltation and ennoblement of all the elements concurring to form and assure the greatness of Italy,” and he praised the Fascist program of education instituted by Mussolini’s minister of public instruction, Giovanni Gentile. President Butler contributed the book’s foreword, which “cordially commended” the work. Upon his return from a 1934 trip to Italy, Marraro declared, “The labor situation in Italy should be a model for the world.” He claimed he had not seen in Italy the “distress and suffering” that then prevailed in the United States.48 Professor Peter M. Riccio’s Columbia dissertation, “On the Threshold of Fascism,” sought to establish Prezzolini as a leading intellectual progenitor of Italian Fascism. Italian anti-fascists charged that Riccio’s work was “one of the worst and most disgraceful dissertations ever written,” a crude Fascist polemic that did not meet even “elementary standards of scholarship.”49

In the fall of 1934, Professor Riccio had a leading role in bringing a delegation of 350 Italian Fascist university students to the United States for a tour of Eastern and Midwestern campuses, and he served as secretary of the committee in charge of the visit.50 President Butler made Columbia University one of the thirty American colleges and universities sponsoring the tour. The Italian students considered themselves “official ambassadors from Mussolini.” The Nation, a prominent national liberal weekly magazine, charged that the Italian student tour was “a propaganda move designed to win the friendliness of American university students to the fascist cause.” 5I

Docking in New York in September 1934 singing the Fascist anthem “Giovinezza,” the Italian student delegation made Columbia its first American university stop. Columbia College dean Herbert E. Hawkes officially greeted the Fascist students on President Butler’s behalf at the university’s McMillin Theatre. Dean Hawkes declared that Americans had “much to learn” from the Italian delegation.52 When the Italian students encountered pickets from anti-fascist Columbia student groups, they raised their hands in the Fascist salute and sang the “Giovinezza.” 53

About a month later, the Italian consul-general in New York, at a Casa Italiana ceremony, bestowed on Professor Riccio a medal for his devotion to Italian “culture and ideals.” As she introduced the honoree, Dean Virginia C. Gildersleeve of Barnard dismissed the concerns of pickets outside the Casa protesting Riccio’s statements in the press that Fascism was the best system of government for Italy. She declared emphatically to the audience, “I don’t care what Professor Riccio is.”54

In November 1934, The Nation charged in a series of articles that Columbia’s Casa Italiana was “one of the most important sources of fascist propaganda” in the United States. It claimed that the Casa, dominated by Fascist professors, worked closely with Italian government officials to present a favorable image of Mussolini’s regime in America. The Nation accused the Casa of regularly sponsoring lectures by Fascists, while denying opponents of Mussolini the opportunity to speak, and even forbidding “student gatherings for discussing aspects of fascist rule.” It claimed that Professor Arthur Livingston, the only member of the Italian Department opposed to Mussolini, had been transferred to the French Department. According to the Columbia Spectator, the reassignment had occurred at the insistence of a Fascist donor.55

President Butler angrily denied The Nation’s charges, labeling them a “hodge-podge of falsehood, misrepresentation, and half-truth,” and assured Casa director Prezzolini that he considered them “nonsensical and untrue.” He insisted that the Casa was “without political purpose or significance.” Butler praised the Italian Department faculty as “distinguished scholars, so recognized on either side of the Atlantic.”56

Butler had presided over, and participated in, many events at the Casa Italiana and elsewhere featuring Italian Fascist speakers. He gave the welcoming address for Mussolini’s official biographer, Margherita Sarfatti, at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, in which he hailed her as a “second Columbus.”57 Butler officially received at the Casa such emissaries of Mussolini as Foreign Minister Dino Grandi (who also spoke at Columbia’s Institute of Arts and Sciences); Ambassador Augusto Rosso, who visited Columbia several times between 1933 and 1936; the director of Italians in foreign countries, Signor Parini; and the Italian consuls-general, along with Fascist scholars like Sarfatti and Marchese Piero Misciattelli.58

In an effort to discredit The Nation’s charges, officers of Columbia’s Graduate Club of Italian Studies announced that the club was inviting Gaetano Salvemini, a distinguished historian exiled by Mussolini who was teaching at Harvard at the time, to speak at the Casa Italiana. Salvemini replied to the Graduate Club that, considering The Nation’s charges, he would accept the offer only if Professor Prezzolini, as the Casa’s director, personally agreed to invite him. He also asked that the Graduate Club inform President Butler of his request, so that he could not dodge responsibility. But Prezzolini refused to invite Salvemini. He explained to the Graduate Club that Professor Salvemini was a “political trouble-maker” whose only purpose in lecturing at Columbia was “to stir up some trouble.”59 As a result, Salvemini, the leading Italian spokesperson for anti-fascism in the United States during the 1930s, never spoke at the Casa Italiana.

Butler shared Prezzolini’s desire “to maintain good and friendly rela-tions” with the Mussolini government, which had the support of wealthy Italian-American businessmen whose financial donations to the Casa both men valued highly, and he made no effort on Salvemini’s behalf. Prezzolini stated to Butler that had he permitted “anti-Fascist political agitators of the type of Mr. Salvemini” to speak at the Casa, he would not have been able to host Fascists like Margherita Sarfatti and Piero Misciattelli, whom he had invited, he noted, at Butler’s own request.60

The Columbia Spectator, stating that Columbia stood “gravely indicted” by The Nation’s charges, demanded that the administration launch an investigation into Fascist control of the Casa Italiana and accused President Butler of evading the key issues. Protesting Butler’s refusal to discuss the matter with campus delegations that asked to meet with him, students began picketing his mansion and Low Library, where his offices were located.61

In the midst of the controversy, the Casa Italiana sparked more furor when it held a lavish reception to honor Dr. George Ryan, president of the New York City Board of Education, who had just returned from Rome, which he had visited as guest of the Mussolini government. Dr. Ryan arrived in New York “full of enthusiasm” for Fascist Italy’s educational system. The event seemed singularly ill-timed, and The Nation suggested that Prezzolini had set it up “under direct orders from Rome.” At the Casa, Ryan’s Board of Education colleague William Carlin praised Fascist Italy as “the true successor to the glory of Rome,” whose “present educational system has the admiration of the world.”61


November 30, 2012

Columbia University President: opposition to WWI is treason

Filed under: Columbia University,war — louisproyect @ 10:03 pm

I have begun reading Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s “The Untold History of the United States” upon which the Showtime series is based. I can’t recommend it highly enough and will be posting a longer piece on Counterpunch the first chance I get. In the meantime I want to share this June 7, 1917 article with you that is excerpted on page 6 of the book, in a chapter dealing with Wilson and WWI. Simply jaw-dropping stuff.


Nicholas Murray Butler

New York Times June 17, 1917
Tells Alumni Columbia Rejects All Who Resist Government

President Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia University, in an address at a luncheon of alumni held in the university gymnasium at the close of the commencement exercises yesterday, denounced members of the university who resist the Government in time of war.

“Virtue and valor are so general among American youth,” he said, “as to be in danger of becoming commonplace, while vice and cowardice shriek out their horrid heads in ways that, at least for the moment, attract and often enchain public attention. For every instance of failure to rise to the high plane of patriotic duty and loyal service there_ have been here a hundred, yes, a thousand, instances of a splendid and a contrary sort.”

“So long as national policies were in debate we gave, as is our wont, complete liberty of assembly, of speech and of publication to all members of the university who, in lawful ways, might wish to influence and guide public policy. Wrongheadedness and folly we might deplore but were bound to tolerate. So soon, however, as the nation spoke by the Congress and by the President declaring that it would volunteer as one man for the protection and defense of civil liberty and self-government, conditions sharply changed. What had been tolerated before became intolerable now. What had been wrongheadedness was now sedition. What had been folly was now treason.

“I speak by authority for the whole university—for my colleagues of the Trustees and for my colleagues of the Faculties—when I say, with all possible emphasis; that there is and will be no place in Columbia University, either on the rolls of its Faculties or on the rolls of its students, for any person who opposes or who counsels opposition to the effective enforcement of the laws of the United States, or who acts, speaks, or writes treason. The separation of any such person from Columbia University will be as speedy as the discovery of his offense. This is the university’s last and only word of warning to any among us, if such there be, who are not with whole heart and mind and strength committed to fight with us to make the world safe for democracy.”

Ambassador James W. Gerard of the class of 1890 also made an address at the luncheon in which be brought the alumni to their feet with applause as he said: “Nothing this country has in life, property or honor will, be worth while if the German Empire wins this war.”

November 1, 2012

Will Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion be the victim of the next Frankenstorm?

Filed under: Columbia University,Ecology — louisproyect @ 2:16 pm

Counterpunch November 01, 2012
Frankenstorms, Climate Change Denial and the Consequences of Neoliberalism
New York Was Warned

“Oh Great Lord of the Almighty Dollar”, the panicked voice cried out, its Wall Street owner realizing he was indeed in truly deep-water, “how could you have forsaken your devoted and faithful?” But though this poor soul lifted entreaty after entreaty to what had become his sacred deities — those of Narcissism, Hubris and Greed — reality swept in like the hurricane it was, flooding Wall Street and much around it.

The Ancients knew what happens when one worships false gods, and today many are hopefully learning a lesson long forgotten, forgotten even though the biblical proportions of Sandy’s flooding were predicted a year earlier.

In 2011, a report by New York State upon the impact of climate change had described the potential for the flooding news media have now allowed the world to witness. New York was warned, and even warned again just this September.

In September, an article in The New York Times — ‘New York Is Lagging as Seas and Risks Rise, Critics Warn’ – contained comments by Prof. Klaus Jacob, lead author of the transportation section of the state study, Jacob quoted as observing that if the storm surge from Hurricane Irene had been about a foot higher, “subway tunnels would have flooded, segments of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive and roads along the Hudson River would have turned into rivers, and sections of the commuter rail system would have been impassable or bereft of power”.

Hmmm, it seems Prof. Jacob had the right idea, especially as he went on to note that some of New York City’s (NYC) under-river subway tunnels “would have been unusable for nearly a month, or longer, at an economic loss of about $55 billion”. The study outlined NYC needed to invest between ten and twenty billion to avoid such calamities; though, it didn’t. Not a good decision.


Village Voice, Wednesday, Oct 1 2008
Columbia Ignores Peril
When Klaus Jacob talks, important people take action. Except the important people paying him.
By Elizabeth Dwoskin

Columbia geophysicist Klaus Jacob is such a highly regarded expert on urban environmental disasters related to climate change that governments and scientists all over the world take him seriously, revising building codes and altering the construction of dams as a result of his warnings

Except, it turns out, at his own place of employment, where he’s spent almost 40 years as a research scientist.

Jacob tells the Voice that he’s repeatedly been given the brush-off by Columbia officials regarding his specific and detailed warnings that their ambitious development plans in Harlem could lead to a wide-scale disaster.

Much has been written about the university’s plans to spread northward across 17 acres of developed land—but Jacob is concerned less about the school’s move outward than he is about something that’s garnered less attention: Columbia’s intention to dig deep into the ground.

Expansion plans call for the largest underground complex in the city, a massive, 80-foot-deep basement that will extend only a block from the banks of the Hudson River. That’s an underground space large enough to hold an eight-story building, lying only a few hundred feet from water that’s susceptible to storm surge.

Imagine this scenario, based on Jacob’s research: It’s the year 2065, and Columbia University’s 17-acre West Harlem expansion is abuzz with activity. Students hurry through rainfall along a tree-lined promenade overlooking the Hudson. In a biotechnology lab nearby, scientists are engineering lethal pathogens to respond to the next generation of infectious diseases and bioterrorist threats. Deep down below, engineering majors use the future version of Facebook to instant-message their friends.

Warnings, meanwhile, are steadily being broadcast about an oncoming storm. A Category 2 hurricane with 110-mile-an-hour winds is barreling down on the city—a more frequent occurrence than in decades past. New Yorkers have become familiar with the drill: They evacuate to local shelters set up by the city’s Office of Emergency Management. Over several hours, the Hudson rises 10 feet, flooding the waterfront promenade and the rest of the campus. Many, but perhaps not all, have heeded warnings to leave the deep basement. Damage will be extensive and exorbitantly expensive. And some of the sprawling labs that contain biohazardous material may become another kind of floating threat to the city.


March 29, 2012

Who is John Galt?

Filed under: Academia,capitalist pig,Columbia University,mafia — louisproyect @ 6:25 pm

If you’ve read Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”, as I did as an enthusiastic high-school rightwinger back in 1960, that’s a no-brainer. Galt was the hero of Rand’s novel who symbolized her own reactionary beliefs by leading a “strike” of creative, free-market geniuses against a regulation-burdened system that was controlled by the grasping, needy 99 percent of society.

It is also the name of the corporation that did the demolition work on the Deutsche Bank tower that was rendered uninhabitable after the 9/11 attack as a subcontractor to Bovis Lend-Lease, the huge multinational in charge of Columbia University’s Manhattanville’s expansion. On February 20, 2008 the NY Times reported:

Federal safety regulators have accused the contractors who were taking down the former Deutsche Bank tower in the summer of indifference or intentional disregard for dangerous conditions that led to a fatal fire there, and of a host of other serious safety violations, officials said on Tuesday.

The regulators cited the project’s general contractor, Bovis Lend Lease, an international construction management company, and its former subcontractor, the John Galt Corporation, for 44 safety violations, and proposed fining them nearly half a million dollars.

A year earlier (8/23/2007), the Times provided its readers with some background on the company obviously named after Ayn Rand’s regulation-hating hero:

The  John Galt Corporation of the Bronx, hired last year for the dangerous and complex job of demolishing the former Deutsche Bank building at 130 Liberty Street, where two firefighters died last Saturday, has apparently never done any work like it. Indeed, Galt does not seem to have done much of anything since it was incorporated in 1983.

Public and private records give no indication of how many employees it has, what its volume of business is or who its clients are. There are almost no accounts of any projects it has undertaken on any scale, apart from 130 Liberty Street. Court records are largely silent. Some leading construction executives in the city say they have never even heard of it.

That may not be as surprising as it seems. John Galt, it appears, is not much more than a corporate entity meant to accommodate the people and companies actually doing the demolition job at the emotionally charged and environmentally hazardous site at the edge of ground zero.

The companies and project managers who have been providing the expertise, the workers and the financing for the job are Regional Scaffolding and Hoisting Company, which is not in business to demolish skyscrapers, and former executives from Safeway Environmental Corporation, a company that was already removed from one contract at 130 Liberty because of concerns about its integrity…

In the 17 months since Galt took shape — and as problems mounted at the demolition site, including repeated safety violations — city and state officials have made announcements about the work and problems at 130 Liberty referring to John Galt as if it were a fully established corporation, and never mentioning by name the more controversial and less than perfectly qualified people and companies doing the work.

(John Galt, by the way, is a central character, an engineer, in Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged.” The book begins with this line: “Who is John Galt?”)

John Galt’s stationery puts its headquarters at 3900 Webster Avenue in the Bronx, near Woodlawn Cemetery, the same address as Regional Scaffolding’s. The two companies also share many of the same officers…

Safeway first surfaced on the scene at 130 Liberty when it, along with Regional Scaffolding, won a $13 million scaffolding contract in 2005 for the bank building.

But Safeway, its former owners, Harold Greenberg, 61, and Stephen Chasin, 56, and another company they long operated, Big Apple Wrecking and Construction Corporation, had a troubled history.

Mr. Greenberg, of Staten Island, has gone to federal prison twice for crimes related to the industry.

Identified by federal investigators as a Gambino crime family associate, he was convicted in 1988 of bribing a federal inspector to overlook asbestos-removal violations while Big Apple was demolishing Gimbels department store on East 86th Street in Manhattan. Three years later he pleaded guilty to mail fraud in a bid-rigging scheme involving other contractors.

Safeway’s failure to disclose his criminal history and the accusations of mob ties led the authorities to bar the company from working on city schools in 2003. School investigators contended that Mr. Greenberg and his partner in Big Apple and Safeway, Mr. Chasin, sought to disguise their roles in companies in order to obtain public contracts and other work from which his convictions would bar them.

(Safeway Environmental was one of the subcontractors used in the development of a new headquarters for The New York Times, across Eighth Avenue from the Port Authority Bus Terminal.)

Although I was aware of the Deutsche Bank tragedy and the pattern of neglect that led to the death of firefighters there, I had no idea that Bovis Lend-Lease was held responsible.

History seemed to be repeating itself last Thursday when I arrived at my office on W. 131rd Street to encounter a small army of police cars, fire engines and television reporters gathered there on account of a building collapse across the street from where I work. Earlier that morning a partly-demolished building had collapsed on some workers, killing one.

The workers were employed by Breeze Construction, whose president Toby Romano was convicted in 1988 of bribing inspectors investigating health violations on asbestos-removal jobs. As opposed to Greenberg’s Gambino affinities, Romano was tied to the Luchese crime family. When I brought this fact to the attention of Robert Kasdin, a powerful officer at the university in charge of the “back office”, later that day when he was addressing our staff on the accident, he assured us that Breeze is now run by Toby Romano Jr. and not his criminal father. Anybody who is familiar with how the mob does business will not be assuaged by this, especially in light of another report that surfaced the next day in the NY Daily News:

THE TRAGIC death of a hardhat who was demolishing a building owned by Columbia University came after the school and its contractors racked up a slew of safety complaints, the Daily News has found.

The Ivy League institution has been hit with 59 code violations and has been forced to shut down work 13 times since launching its controversial campus expansion two years ago, building records show.

The complaints were spread across the 64 properties located on the 17-acre site, which runs from 125th to 133rd Sts., and between 12th Ave. and Broadway.

My guess is that Bovis Lend-Lease and Breeze will pay no penalties, either in cash or jail sentences, based on the outcome of a criminal trial related to  the Deutsche Bank fatalities: all those charged were found not guilty. In cases such as these, it is very difficult to establish guilt given the often highly problematic nature of the physical evidence. The Times reported:

The prosecution theory revolved around one pipe in a maze of pipes in the toxic tower’s basement. Mr. Alvo was accused of ordering cut a standpipe that provides water to a high-rise in an emergency. When the blaze struck, firefighters could not get water on it for more than an hour.

Prosecutors argued Mr. Alvo and his co-defendants knew it was a crucial pipe for firefighters, that it shouldn’t have been cut and that they did nothing to repair it.

This sounds very much like the kind of defense that Breeze would adopt if its officers were ever brought to trial, as the Columbia Spectator reported on Monday:

Century-old beams, and not safety oversights, led to the death of a construction worker when a Manhattanville building collapsed on Thursday, according to the contractor responsible for the building’s demolition.

The building—which was being torn down as part of Columbia’s expansion into Manhattanville—was built about 100 years ago, and it collapsed when demolition workers from Breeze National cut a structural beam. Breeze National said in a statement that while most structural beams that run horizontally are joined together at a vertical column, the beam that the workers cut had an “unknown, unusual, latent condition.”

The beam, Breeze said, “carried past the column and was joined to the other horizontal beam by a splice with bolts” that was encased in two feet of concrete. Breeze said that because the building is so old, no available structural drawings revealed this unusual structure, and the bolts failed when the beam was cut, causing the collapse.

Even under the best of circumstances, demolition is a very dangerous business like firefighting, coal-mining or lumberjacking. Unlike firefighting, which is not subject to the dictates of the market, the other job categories operate under a very tight logic of time = money. Whether or not the accident would have occurred last Thursday, Columbia University has an obligation to make sure that Bovis and Breeze are kept on a tight leash. Given the school board of trustee’s domination by real estate developers and hedge fund managers, there is probably no reason to be optimistic.

The building collapse at Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion and the criminal past of Bovis and Breeze are reminders of the deep tentacles of the construction industry penetrated by the mafia. And as was the case with Deutsche Bank and Columbia’s expansion, time equals money. If shortcuts must be made at the expense of human life, so be it. This was the verdict of another construction “accident” that occurred on East 91st Street in 2008 just a few blocks from where I live. Last month, when the manslaughter trial began, the prosecutor used words almost the same as those used in the Deutsche Bank trial, as the NY Times reported on February 21. The article also pointed out the difficulties faced in rendering a guilty verdict:

A tower crane collapsed and killed two men on the Upper East Side in 2008 because the crane’s owner put profit ahead of safety, prosecutors said Tuesday as his manslaughter trial began.

An assistant district attorney, Eli Cherkasky, said the owner, James F. Lomma, had hired an unqualified Chinese company to do a critical repair that predictably failed, an “outrageous” departure from industry standards that was “criminal in every sense of the word.”

Mr. Cherkasky said repeatedly that the low price and quick turnaround by the Chinese company, RTR, had driven Mr. Lomma’s decision-making, causing the deaths of Donald C. Leo, who was operating the crane when it collapsed on May 30, 2008, and Ramadan Kurtaj, another construction worker.

“They were killed because of one man’s greed,” Mr. Cherkasky told Justice Daniel Conviser, who is hearing the case without a jury in State Supreme Court in Manhattan. “He was content to risk other people’s lives so he could collect $50,000 a month in rental fees.”

Mr. Lomma’s lawyers presented a different story in their opening remarks. They said that a heavy “headache ball” on the crane’s line was hoisted into the boom, ostensibly by the operator, causing the line to snap, and that the heavy ball fell straight down, forcing the suddenly unbalanced crane to tip over backward.

James Kim, a defense lawyer, said the risk of such an event was well known and referred to as “two blocking.” But he said officials had missed the true cause of the accident because they had focused on RTR’s welding work early in their investigation.

Mr. Kim also said that Mr. Lomma, the owner of New York Crane and Equipment Corporation, was not unduly concerned about the repair cost and lost revenue from the crane’s being out of service because a contract required the renter, Sorbara Construction, to keep paying the monthly fee during the crane’s repair, and insurance covered the cost of the repair itself.

The collapse of the crane at East 91st Street and First Avenue was the second fatal crane accident within a few months at the end of a tremendous cycle of building in the city. The acquittals from the earlier crane collapse, as well as from the 2007 blaze at the former Deutsche Bank building, show the difficulty of prosecuting such cases.

What the article does not mention is the role of the DeMatteis Corporation, who happens to be my landlord and also like Bovis not above doing business with mob-related outfits. I invite you to read what I wrote about all this back in 2008.

Finally, some words on John Galt. Back in 1960, when I was an Ayn Rand (and William F. Buckley) fan, I really had no idea what was going on in the world. My rightwing beliefs were mainly a reaction against the Kennedy liberalism that was popular at my school. In some ways I was no different from Charles Bukowski who used to talk up Adolph Hitler in his Los Angeles high school in the 1930s just to piss other students off.

Facing the draft and working for the welfare department in Harlem in 1967 was a cold glass of water thrown in my face. Not only was I averse to Ayn Rand-style libertarianism, I would have no use for Democratic Party liberalism of the sort that was ready to send me to Vietnam to kill or be killed. My last vote for a Democratic Party politician was for LBJ in 1964. That was that, as far as I was concerned.

My ideals clashed with the brutal reality of a criminal war and the criminal treatment of Black Americans. Perhaps I am just naïve, but as long as corporations like Bovis, John Galt and Breeze bend or break the law, they must be shunned. I will not forsake the ideals of my youth that were pumped into me by the teachers and journalists who never tired of reminding us how wonderful democracy and good government were. If their lectures turned me into the dirty commie that I am today, there’s not much I can do about that. It is the rulers who must be changed, not me. And that’s that.

June 17, 2011

Battle for Brooklyn

Filed under: capitalist pig,Columbia University,Film — louisproyect @ 5:45 pm

Opening today at the Cinema Village in New York, “Battle for Brooklyn” chronicles a struggle that resonates strongly with me. It pits a community group against real estate developer Bruce Ratner who intended to remove home-owners and businesses from the very spot upon which he sought to build an enormous complex. Ratner eventually used eminent domain to push through his project, just as Columbia University has done in Manhattanville, a neighborhood in West Harlem. About four years ago I moved into new offices as part of the university’s initial expansion into this area. Both Ratner and Columbia University have powerful connections in state and local government that allows them to steamroll over opposition and both like to see themselves as bastions of liberal culture and friends of the Black community.

“Battle for Brooklyn” holds Ratner’s pretensions up to close scrutiny. The documentary is directed by Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky, the same pair responsible for “Horns and Halos”, a documentary about the battle mounted by Soft Skull Press’s Sander Hicks to publish J.H. Hatfield’s scorched earth biography of George Bush after White House pressure convinced St. Martin’s Press to bail out. Sander, who would eventually become a 9/11 truther, is obviously the kind of Quixotic figure that Hawley and Galinsky are drawn to since “Battle for Brooklyn” features Daniel Goldstein in the role of David to Ratner’s Goliath. Unfortunately, in this instance Goliath prevailed.

Daniel Goldstein lives in a remodeled building on Pacific Street that is similar to many in New York City’s five boroughs. Priced out of the Manhattan market (I am only making a guess that this was the case for Goldstein, a graphic artist), they settle in working-class neighborhoods like Williamsburg, Long Island City and elsewhere to enjoy a roomy apartment or loft with the latest amenities. When Ratner offers the occupants of Goldstein’s building a million dollars each to move out, they take the money and run. Goldstein, a 30ish young man with a rebellious streak as pronounced as I have ever seen, decides to remain and fight. After joining Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn (DDDB), he begins to spend more time organizing people than on his career. His passion for the cause (and perhaps other incompatibilities) leads to the break-up his engagement. But all is not lost. He finally hooks up with and marries Shabnam Merchant, an Indo-American woman who is as dedicated to the cause as he is.

Arrayed against them and their neighbors are an enormously powerful and ruthless bloc consisting of Ratner, his top executives, and a rogue’s gallery of politicians, including the buffoonish Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz. They portray the project’s benefit in such glowing terms that you would think that they were on some kind of social uplift mission rather than a typical real estate boondoggle. Ratner is a truly despicable figure, who naturally enough became a member of Bard College’s Board of Trustees. Leon Botstein has a particular flair for recruiting limousine liberals such as Ratner, who will be sitting alongside Stuart Resnick at board meetings. Resnick is the owner of a number of “enlightened” New Agey type products like POM juice and Fiji water that put profits over sustainable development.

The film exposes a dirty trick used by Ratner that I had not been aware of. Formed to oppose Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn, a group called Brooklyn United for Innovative Local Development (BUILD) claimed to speak on behalf of the Black community. Its publicity tried to exploit racial and class differences, claiming that DDDB was a bunch of white yuppies trying to prevent Blacks from getting good-paying jobs. Eventually the film reveals that the group was funded by Ratner, as this N.Y. Daily News article by Juan Gonzalez reported on October 18, 2005:

Forest City Ratner paid BUILD $10,000 earlier this year to distribute copies of a promotional newspaper about the Atlantic Yards project called the Brooklyn Standard.

Then in August, the developer donated an additional $100,000 to the group to pay its salaries.

That was two months after BUILD and seven other Brooklyn neighborhood groups signed a so-called Community Benefits Agreement with Forest City Ratner that promised up to one-third of the housing built would be “affordable” and set aside jobs for local residents.

Ratner provided an entire building rent-free for BUILD headquarters on Pacific St. and supplied all of the group’s office equipment. The developer also is paying for a public relations firm to represent BUILD and the other neighborhood groups that support Atlantic Yards.

Last weekend, Ratner issued another $28,000 contract for BUILD to hire 100 neighborhood people to distribute a second copy of its promotional newspaper, said the developer’s spokesman Joe DePlasco.

The latest issue of that newspaper – 300,000 copies were printed – has a big front-page photo of Mayor Bloomberg, who is a strong supporter of the project, next to developer Bruce Ratner.

Although I strongly recommend this film, I wondered if there was a failure to include experts on the project who could have provided some background. For example, the film says very little about Frank Gehry’s participation in Ratner’s project (he was eventually dropped as part of a belt-tightening exercise). I think that his participation says volumes about his own questionable status as architect of our generation, being put forward as a latter-day Frank Lloyd Wright. It would have been good to hear architectural historians weigh in on the overall value of the project from an esthetic standpoint. As a long-time New Yorker, I have grown very dubious of mega-projects that lack any kind of organic link to the surrounding community. While I of course mourn the loss of innocent lives, I shed no tears for the demolition of the WTC on 9/11. Perhaps if the terrorists had waited until after midnight when the buildings were unoccupied, like the SDS Weathermen used to do, then the razing of the towers might have seemed more benign.

All that being said, “Battle for Brooklyn” has a kind of credibility that might have been undercut with the interviews of anti-Ratner experts. The goal of Hawley and Galinsky is to allow each side to make its case, obviously allowing people like Marty Markowitz to hoist themselves on their own petard. An audience will respect the directors for not tipping the scales through bias, even though their sympathy for Daniel Goldstein is obvious. In many ways their approach is similar to “Crude”, the documentary about the law suit against Chevron’s despoliation of water and soil in Ecuador. After a while, you’d like to throw a tomato at the television or movie screen when some oily (pun intended) Chevron executive pleads innocence. As is the case with “Battle for Brooklyn”, you have no doubts about who the bad guys are.

Interview with the directors: http://www.wnyc.org/shows/lopate/2011/jun/09/battle-brooklyn/

My last article on Bruce Ratner is here: https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2009/05/24/ratner-botstein-and-gehry-birds-of-a-feather/

And on the Columbia expansion: https://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2006/04/28/columbia-expansion/

October 5, 2010

Henry Kravis and Columbia University: a match made in hell

Filed under: Academia,capitalist pig,Columbia University,economics — louisproyect @ 7:14 pm

This morning I spotted some good news on the Columbia University website, at least for the powerful men who run it:

Henry R. Kravis ’69, cofounder, cochairman, and co-CEO of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. (KKR) and cochair of the School’s Board of Overseers, has pledged a gift of $100 million to Columbia Business School. It is the largest gift in the School’s history.

The gift will be used to support the construction of the School’s new facilities, which will be part of Columbia University’s expansion into Manhattanville, just north of the University’s Morningside Campus. One of the School’s two new buildings will be named The Henry R. Kravis Building in recognition of Kravis’s extraordinary generosity. The search for an architect is currently under way…

Columbia Business School’s expansion into Manhattanville will elevate the School’s role as a source of global business innovation and economic policy. “Our new home in Manhattanville will reflect the fast-paced, high-tech, and highly social character of business in the 21st century,” said Dean Glenn Hubbard. “Further, it will allow students, alumni, and neighboring communities to collaborate and develop new ideas that not only transform business practice, but also reinforce the potential for the application of business principles to solve multifaceted problems and improve the world in which we live.”

As you may be aware, I have been working at the university for 20 years and am part of a forward detachment colonizing the Manhattanville property that has just come under Columbia’s control through eminent domain. The owners of a gas station and a household goods storage company in the neighborhood are hold-outs against the land grab and who are taking their case to the Supreme Court. The NY Times reported that it is unlikely that the court will even hear their case.

You may remember a reference to Glenn Hubbard in my review of Charles Ferguson’s must-see Inside Job that opens on Friday. Hubbard and Kravis are cut from the same cloth. Kravis has made billions out of corporate raiding at the expense of fired workers, while Hubbard has gotten rich from consulting payments made by the kinds of companies Kravis operates.

Kravis runs a firm called KKR that gets its name from him and two partners, George R. Roberts and Jerome Kohlberg, Jr. KKR was involved in the takeover battle for the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Company that was chronicled in “Barbarians at the Gate”, one of the best books ever written about these slugs. It has the memorable quote from Warren Buffett, a principal in the fight: “I’ll tell you why I like the cigarette business. It costs a penny to make. Sell it for a dollar. It’s addictive. And there’s a fantastic brand loyalty.” And Buffett has the nerve to posture as one of the world’s great philanthropists.

In a typical KKR operation, the firm will buy a company and strip its assets while forcing the workers to take pay and benefit cuts or lose their jobs. Robert Greenwald, whose documentary “War on Greed” is excerpted above, explains how one company was victimized by Henry Kravis from the same film.

Kravis is a long-time major donor to the Republican Party. As the operator of a private equity firm, he has been on the front lines pressuring politicians not to raise their taxes. In 2007 Washington tried to eliminate the “Henry Kravis loophole” that allowed private equity billionaires to pay less taxes (15%) than the servants who wait on him in his 26 room mansion on New York’s Upper East Side. A new tax bill was passed by the House, but nixed by the Senate as David Sirota reported:

However, when the bill hit the Senate, The Washington Post reported that “a sprawling, big-money lobbying campaign” stopped it cold.

In the first nine months of 2007, the private equity industry spent about $20 million on campaign donations and lobbying. That kind of cash is barely a fraction of what just one executive like Kravis saves each year thanks to the tax loophole. But it was more than enough to convince a bipartisan group of senators to block the loophole-closing bill, thus creating today’s hostage situation.

These are people who will never be satisfied until they are paying zero taxes, even if beggars are roaming the streets like in Victorian England.

Kravis is currently married to Marie-Josée Drouin, although it might make more sense to describe it as a geopolitical pact rather than holy matrimony. Drouin is a high-profile economist originally from Canada who has a position at the Hudson Institute, a powerful righwing think tank, and who was previously married to conductor Charles Dutoit. Back in 2001 she wrote an op-ed in Conrad Black’s National Post newspaper. Black is even more evil than Rupert Murdoch, as hard as that is to believe. Drouin/Kravis was hoping that the Bush tax cuts for the rich would be passed:

As President George W. Bush ponders education reform and abortion funding, Congress is about to debate a tax-cutting bill introduced by Republican Senator Phil Gramm of Texas and Democratic Senator Zell Miller of Georgia that might be bigger than the tax plan advocated by candidate Bush. Bipartisanship may be bearing fruit after all, although the Democratic leadership has, predictably, vowed to scale the proposed package back substantially.

Like her creepy husband, this is a woman who can’t seem to get enough. Like a latter-day Marie Antoinette, she would urge the poor to eat cake.

In addition to handing out fortunes for Columbia to bolster its business schools, so as to turn out a new generation of Henry Kravis’s and Glenn Hubbard’s, Kravis maintains a high-profile on the boards of some of N.Y.’s premier cultural institutions. He’s on the board of the Metropolitan Museum, alongside Bruce Ratner, the real estate developer who also occupies a seat on the Bard College board of trustees. Like Columbia, Ratner used his political clout to ram through a huge development project in downtown Brooklyn using eminent domain over the objections of the community. Someday, there will be day of reckoning for such thieves and it won’t be pretty.

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