BERKELEY, CA - DECEMBER 08: Berkeley police officers in riot gear line up in front of protetors during a demonstration.
In the past few weeks, the justice system’s inability to hold police officers accountable for the deaths of unarmed citizens, such as 12-year-old Tamir Rice, 18-year-old Mike Brown, and the 43-year-old father of five Eric Garner, has led to protests and increasingly loud calls for reform, investigation, and review of police practices in the use of force. Such calls are not just coming from the young people, progressives, anarchists, and activists who have taken to the streets all across America to voice their outrage and close down freeways, tunnels, bridges, and commerce while decreeing #BlackLivesMatter, but also from white mainstream politicians such as Andrew Cuomo, John Boehner, and even former President George W, Bush.
In response, President Obama has recently announced the formation of a police reform commission headed by Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsey, and Laurie Robinson, a George Mason University professor of criminology, law, and society. He has given them three months to report on best practices in policing and to suggest steps that the executive branch might take to turn back the clock on police use of military grade weapons. When announcing the new commission, the President noted, “There have been task forces before, commissions before, and nothing happens. This time will be different. The president of the United States is deeply invested in making sure this time is different,” Obama said also noting that he is planning to pledge $260 million over a three-year period to pay for equipment, as well as training for the police.
I certainly hope this time will be different but I have to say that I am already skeptical given the disconnect between the calls on the part of protestors for federal oversight and the creation of federal policy and guidelines to aid in the prosecution of police officers who kill unarmed citizens, and the President’s response of forming a commission to look into ways to lessen the use of military style weapons that are not generally used to commit such murders. Nonetheless, the President is right that previous commissions have taken up these same issues. He is also right that we as a nation have previously failed to follow their recommendations. So here’s a thought, instead of forming a new commission, why don’t we take a second look at the rejected recommendations of the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (The Kerner Commission) from 1968? Sadly, the analysis and conclusions are as relevant today as they were almost fifty years ago.
TEHRAN, IRAN - 01 June 2004: An Iranian couple walk past mural paintings depicting scenes from the torture of Iraqi prisoners by US soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad, on a major highway in the Iranian capital Tehran.
Ten years ago, a series of horrific images started streaming across the internet, showing Iraqi internees at the now-infamous Abu Ghraib prison in “various poses of shame and degradation,” as writer and former soldier Aidan Delgado put it, while US soldiers leered in the background. Delgado was stationed at Abu Ghraib when the scandal broke. “I am amazed to see the depravity and variety of the abuse but I am not surprised at all that it happened,” he writes in The Sutras of Abu Ghraib, which tells the story of Delgado’s transformation from a young enlistee to conscientious objector after witnessing firsthand the brutality of the Iraq occupation and the abuse of unarmed Iraqis at Abu Ghraib:
Some dark and obscene atmosphere had built inside the prison camp, so much so that it had turned ordinary, decent men into ghoulish caricatures. Sergeant Toro’s prisoner-transport story had reinforced my impressions of the harsh and repressive environment. It was common knowledge that guards would threaten and manhandle the prisoners—such conduct was almost a badge of manhood. Being tough with the detainees was just part of being a “good soldier” and a team player. The way the younger MPs referred to the prisoners and to the Iraqis in general made this no secret. I had heard about the sexual nature of the photographs: the forcible nudity, the simulated homosexual acts, the videotaped sex between guards and prisoners, but I was taken aback by the particular intensity and sadism of the photographs. Somewhere along the way, in the midst of all the hardship, the mortars and attacks, we had become oppressors. We had become sadists. We had become torturers.
Fifty-nine years ago today, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to surrender her seat on a bus to a white passenger. The incident sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which, led by the young Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., brought a renewed urgency to the civil rights struggle. In an excerpt from The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, Jeanne Theoharis traces the aftermath of Parks’s arrest and the lead-up to the bus boycott, and shows exactly what was at stake for Parks as she made the decision to let her arrest be used as the rallying point for a new movement.
After being escorted into city hall, Parks laughed to herself. “Who would have thought that little Rosa McCauley—whose friends teased her for being such a goody Two-shoes in her dainty white gloves—would ever become a convicted criminal, much less a subversive worthy of police apprehension, in the eyes of the state of Alabama?” Upon getting to the jail, she requested her phone call. Thirsty, she asked for water but was refused; the water was “for whites only.” “Can you imagine how it feels to want a drink of water and be in hand’s reach of water and not be permitted to drink?” Parks wrote later. Finally, a policeman brought her some water.
They asked her if she was drunk. She was not. She recalled not being “happy at all” or particularly frightened but found the arrest “very much annoying to me” as she thought of all the NAACP work she had to do.That evening she didn’t feel like history was being made but felt profoundly irritated by her arrest, which seemed a detour from the week’s more pressing political tasks.
She repeatedly asked for a phone call. Finally, she was allowed to telephone her family. Her mother answered and upon hearing that Rosa had been arrested, worriedly inquired, “Did they beat you?” Both her mother and Raymond were horrified to learn she was in jail, but Rosa assured her mother she had not been beaten. She then asked to talk to Raymond who promised to “‘be there in a few minutes.’ He didn’t have a car, so I knew it would be longer.”Home making dinner, Raymond was angry that no one had informed him of Rosa’s arrest.According to Rosa, “There was one man who was on the bus, he lived next door to where we lived, and he could have if he’d wanted to, gotten off the bus to let my husband know that I was arrested. My husband thinks kind of hard of him for not at least telling him.”
The Obama administration has finally responded to the grassroots movement of marches, demonstrations, civil disobedience, and hunger strikes organized by communities around the country. For six years this movement has demanded an end to the administration's policy of mass deportations.
Relief from deportation for four to five million of the eleven million people who lack legal immigration status is a step in the right direction. But it is only a step. Deportation relief is a stopgap measure. We need permanent solutions so that those receiving deferred status are not vulnerable to a possible Republican administration and Congress that can easily reverse it, putting in danger those people who have come forward.
Thanksgiving is the favorite holiday of many US Americans; unlike the rather boring or divisive holidays that honor Columbus, Presidents, Martin Luther King, Jr., Independence, veterans and war, the birth of a religion, and a new year, Thanksgiving is centered on sharing food with family and friends. Individuals and families travel long distances at great expense to be with one another. It might be surprising to learn that the cherished tradition of Thanksgiving is, in fact, the most nationalist of all holidays because it narrates the national origin myth. The traditional meal, as we know, consists of the foods cultivated by Indigenous farmers—corn, squash, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and turkey.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a news conference in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014.
It’s hard to be enthusiastic about a plan that begins with: “First, we’ll build on our progress at the border with additional resources for our law enforcement personnel so that they can stem the flow of illegal crossings and speed the return of those who do cross over.”
Obama then claims that “Amnesty is the immigration system we have today. Millions of people who live here without paying their taxes or playing by the rules, while politicians use the issue to scare people and whip up votes at election time.” Surely the president knows that it’s simply false to say that people who are undocumented do not pay taxes. Everyone who makes purchases, pays rent, or drives a car pays taxes. It’s true that many undocumented people are relegated to work in the informal economy, where they do not have payroll taxes deducted. But this is also true of many citizens and permanent residents. And it means that their employers are also evading paying taxes. And informal workers receive none of the workplace protections that workers in the formal economy enjoy. So it’s not exactly like these workers are getting something for nothing.
We were shocked and saddened by the news that Leslie Feinberg, author and pioneering advocate for trans liberation, died this weekend from “complications from multiple tick-borne co-infections.” Feinberg was the author of two books from Beacon—Trans Liberation and Transgender Warriors—and is best known for the underground classic Stone Butch Blues. A tireless and impassioned activist for all human rights, Feinberg campaigned extensively for AIDS awareness, racial and social equality, and pro-labor causes, as well as for “trans liberation,” a term s/he coined to align the struggle for transgender rights in the continuum of other human rights struggles. As Feinberg said in a speech given at the 1997 True Spirit Conference in Laurel, Maryland, “None of us can ever be free while others are still in chains.... Trans liberation is inextricably linked to other movements for equality and justice.”
That speech is collected in Feinberg’s 1999 book, Trans Liberation, which is the last book Feinberg published with Beacon Press. We wanted to remember the remarkable energy, intellect, and spirit of Leslie Feinberg—whose last words reportedly were: “Remember me as a revolutionary communist”—by reprinting an excerpt from a different speech, also collected in that volume. It was given at the 9th Annual Texas “T” (Transgender) Party in Richardson, Texas, but Feinberg could have been talking to all of us. As one local bookstore appropriately put it, “Rest in power, Leslie Feinberg.”
After months of silence, the White House is bringing US immigration policy back into the spotlight with President Obama supposedly “nearing a final decision” on issuing an executive order. Back in June, politicians and media outlets declared that the arrival of approximately 350 immigrant children daily was a humanitarian crisis. The typical hand-wringing and calls for action seemed to explode into public discourse. Two months later all mention of the immigration crisis evaporated. For months Congress and the federal government chose to do nothing to change immigration policy, and nearly 1,000 undocumented immigrants a day are denied refugee status and deported—to say nothing of the thousands currently being held in detention facilities.
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 22: Pro-choice activists hold signs as marchers of the annual March for Life arrive in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
“You walk into our surgery center and it’s so cold and scary. There’s no art. The lights are bright, the recovery rooms smell like bleach. All the staff are wearing gowns and head and foot covers and the patients have to wear the same thing … and there’s nothing comforting about it. The warmth is gone.”
As recent events in Texas have made clear, when it comes to abortion care, the worst outcome of the current onslaught of state-imposed targeted regulations of abortion providers (TRAP laws) is the forced closing of clinics. But even clinics in affected states that manage to stay open suffer costs. The words above were spoken to me by an administrator of an abortion clinic in Pennsylvania, one of 23 states that have passed legislation stipulating that abortion clinics must conform to the requirements of an ambulatory surgical center (ASC). ASC legislation, in essence, demands that clinics conform to the physical standards of hospitals, with regulations about such matters as hallway widths, heating and ventilation equipment, and janitor storage space. Moreover, as part of the ASC regime, clinics must adopt certain hospital-like policies, such as sterile environments, that are more stringent than those pertaining to other outpatient facilities. Although the Supreme Court temporarily blocked Texas from enforcing these ASC provisions, many of the state’s clinics have been facing the prospect of shuttering under the extreme financial burden of physically enacting the required changes.
SEATTLE, WA - OCTOBER 13: People cheer during Indigenous Peoples' Day celebrations at the Daybreak Star Cultural Center. Earlier that afternoon, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray signed a resolution designating the second Monday in October to be Indigenous Peoples' Day instead of Columbus Day.
Last week after Native American activists successfully lobbied the city of Seattle to change Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day, historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz wrote an open letter to President Obama urging him to put an end to the federal holiday honoring Christopher Columbus—a man linked to the enslavement, mutilation, and genocide of the Indigenous people he encountered on his exploration and subsequent conquest of the “New World.” A corresponding WhiteHouse.gov petition has generated tremendous response, confirming that support for the idea of honoring Indigenous people over Columbus Day’s “metaphor and painful symbol of [a] traumatic past,” as Dunbar-Ortiz describes in the letter, has spread throughout the general public. Dunbar-Ortiz, whose An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United Stateswas published last month, spoke with us recently about the book and about how Indigenous people remain a dynamic, diverse, and necessary force in the world today.
Beacon Broadside: What are a couple the most enduring myths about Indigenous history?
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz: I think the myth of disappearance—the myth of not being here now, of being people of the past. That’s a kind of unspoken, unconscious genocide that takes place over and over and over again, not just in the past. But of course, genocide doesn’t mean the total elimination of a people. It can mean that but in world history it’s not meant that. There are still Jews in the world. There are still Armenians. There are still Cambodians. Even though we call each of those cases genocide. But with Native peoples it’s different. So I think that’s the main myth, this idea of eliminationism, to do away with the Indians. And it’s sort of confusing and painful for people who don’t know US history, or know only a version of it—that is the settler colonial narrative—don’t know what to do with the fact that there are still Indians because the narrative really does away with Native people.
Historian and activist Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz wrote a letterto President Obama requesting that the US end its celebration of Christopher Columbus, a symbol of colonization and genocide for Native American nations and communities. Tell the world that we should honor the many contributions of Indigenous People instead of the conquest of one man. Sign the petitionon WhiteHouse.gov to add your voice!
Protesters at the People’s Climate March, photo by Tom Hallock
Climate change is happening, and faster than scientists expected. Polar ice caps are melting faster, island nations are going underwater, the ocean is acidifying and warming. In the US, we are suffering catastrophic droughts from California to Texas, along with severe flooding in the East. The answer is to stop burning fossil fuels, but the World Meteorological Organization says that, in 2013, CO2 rates in the atmosphere were rising faster than ever. So what can we do? On Sunday, September 21st, hundreds of thousands of people from around the globe converged in Manhattan to show the world exactly how critical the issue of climate change is to them, and to demand action. Beacon’s Senior Editor Alexis Rizzuto and Associate Publisher Tom Hallock were there to bear witness. We recently spoke with them about their experiences at the march and why climate change is fast becoming one of the most important issues of our time.
Senator Maria Cantwell’s proposed bill to strip the NFL of their nonprofit status is the latest strike in the ongoing effort to pressure the Washington Redskins to change their mascot. Canwtell joins a growingchorus of opponents to the disparaging name. Back in January, the National Congress of American Indians created a powerful PSA that outlined the issue in just a few words: “Native Americans call themselves many things. The one thing they don’t...” The ad ends with a close-up image of the Washington Redskins logo. The implication is clear.
During the late seventeenth century, Anglo settlers in New England began the routine practice of scalp hunting and what military historian John Grenier identifies as “ranging”—the use of settler-ranger forces. By that time, the non-Indigenous population of the English colony in North America had increased sixfold, to more than 150,000, which meant that settlers were intruding on more of the Indigenous homelands.
This piece originally appeared in David Bacon’s The Right to Stay Home, which combines incisive reporting on the resistance of Mexican communities to the economic policies that drive migration with the voices of activists themselves as they reflect on their experiences, analyze the complexities of their realities, and affirm their vision for a better world. The Right to Stay Home is now available in paperback.
In Guelatao, the town in the Sierra Juarez where I live, our main crop is corn. It’s a very healthy life. We get up early and have coffee to get ready to work. Your machete has to be sharpened, and then you walk to your field. It can be twenty minutes or two hours away. There’s no machinery for our farms, and the hillsides are very steep. When we need help, we ask for it from our neighbors, and when they need it, we give it to them. When we finish work in the field, we gather wood on the way home for cooking.
Our main problem is that the prices of agricultural products have fallen dramatically. The price for corn doesn’t cover the costs of growing it anymore, so many people have chosen to leave to get the money they need to buy food. The prices for coffee have also fallen, and people have migrated for that reason too. [In May of 2011 coffee sold for about $2.90 per pound, and a year later, in June 2012, it had dropped to $1.55 per pound—almost in half.]
NOGALES, AZ: Detainees sleep and watch television in a holding cell where hundreds of mostly Central American immigrant children are being processed and held at the US Customs and Border Protection Nogales Placement Center.
Call it irony or call it a nightmare, but the “crisis” of Central American children crossing the US-Mexican border, which lasted for months amid fervent and angry debate, is now fading from the news. The media stories have been legion, the words expended many. And yet, as the “crisis” leaves town, as the sound and fury die down and attention shifts elsewhere (even though the children continue to arrive), the real factors that would have made sense of what’s been happening remain essentially untouched and largely unmentioned. It couldn’t be stranger—or sadder.
Since late June 2014, the “surge” of those thousands of desperate children entering this country has been in the news. Sensational stories were followed by fervent demonstrations and counter-demonstrations with emotions running high. And it’s not a debate that stayed near the southern border either. In my home state, Massachusetts, Governor Deval Patrick tearfully offered to detain some of the children—and that was somehow turned into a humanitarian gesture that liberals applauded and anti-immigrant activists decried. Meanwhile the mayor of Lynn, a city north of Boston, echoed nativists on the border, announcing that her town didn’t want any more immigrants. The months of this sort of emotion, partisanship, and one-upmanship have, however, diverted attention from the real issues. As so often is the case, there is so much more to the story than what we’ve been hearing in the news.
SAN SALVADOR, EL SALVADOR: A gang graffiti (“Devil's horns”) painted on the wall in the Mara Salvatrucha gang neighborhood in San Salvador, El Salvador.
While the country turns its attention to the civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, the crisis of undocumented Central American children fleeing gang violence in their home countries has continued to grow. What many Americans don’t understand is that these gangs—18th Street, Florencia-13, and MS-13, to name a few—first got their start here in the United States. Fueled by a cycle of arrest, deportation, recruitment, and reentry, gangs who were once local to the streets of East Los Angeles have now gone international. In the following excerpt adapted from Jumped In: What Gangs Taught Me about Violence, Drugs, Love, and Redemption, sociologist Jorja Leap explores the real origins of these Central American gangs, and reveals in the process how our current border crisis is actually the result of a history of broken immigration policies.
I want to understand the truth about gang members and the reality of their lives. I do not devise formal questionnaires. Instead, I depend on people in the streets. This includes law enforcement officers, priests, politicians, poets, and gang members—active and former. This is why, two days after meeting with the sheriff, I am in South LA talking to Kenny Green. Kenny is a former gang member who rarely speaks of his street associations. He is no longer active and works as an interventionist and case manager. I settle in for the long haul. Any discussion with a gang member or a former gang member is always a long-term commitment; whenever I sit down with Kenny, I budget a minimum of two hours. I will not leave his office until the sun has gone down. An account of any event even the smallest street altercation—becomes an occasion for a history lesson and a recitation of gang genealogy.
I ask Kenny to explain the gangs of Los Angeles to me as simply as possible. He thinks carefully, then says, “To understand gangs in LA you gotta remember it’s the blacks and the browns. And the neighborhoods are different, really different. You can ask anyone.”
A memorial to migrants who have died trying to cross the border stands in Reynosa, Mexico.
According to the US Customs and Border Protection, more than 47,000 unaccompanied minors have crossed the border in the last six months, up 92% from the previous year. The humanitarian crisis has sparked new urgency in the immigration debate, one that President Obama recently proposed to solve by increasing the speed of their deportations. Though Obama has since backed off from that plan, seeking instead $3.7 billion in funding to help alleviate the situation, how exactly those dollars will be allocated, or whether even his request will pass the crucible of Congress, remains unclear.
Meanwhile, unaccompanied immigrant children are still arriving at the border in droves. The numbers, in aggregate, are staggering but they belie the human struggle each of these children have undergone simply to reach the US. It is exactly that struggle that Margaret Regan writes about in The Death of Josseline: Immigration Stories from the Arizona Borderlands. In the following excerpt, Regan, in telling Josseline’s story, shows us the sometimes tragic and all-too-real dangers that many of these unaccompanied minors must increasingly endure.
Josseline pulled her two jackets closer in the cold. She was wearing everything she had brought with her from home. Underneath the jackets, she had on a tank top, better suited to Arizona’s searing summers than its chilly winters, and she’d pulled a pair of sweatpants over her jeans. Her clothes betrayed her girly tastes. One jacket was lined in pink. Her sneakers were a wild bright green, a totally cool pair of shoes that were turning out to be not even close to adequate for the difficult path she was walking. A little white beaded bracelet circled her wrist. Best of all were her sweats, a pair of “butt pants” with the word HOLLYWOOD emblazoned on the rear. Josseline planned to have them on when she arrived in the land of movie stars.
She tried to pay attention to the twists and turns in the footpath, to obey the guide, to keep up with the group. But by the time they got to Cedar Canyon, she was lagging. She was beginning to feel sick. She’d been on the road for weeks and out in the open for days, sleeping on the damp ground. Maybe she’d skimped on drinking water, giving what she had to her little brother. Maybe she’d swallowed some of the slimy green water that pools in the cow ponds dotting this ranch country. Whatever the reason, Josseline started vomiting. She crouched down and emptied her belly, retching again and again, then lay back on the ground. Resting didn’t help. She was too weak to stand up, let alone hike this rollercoaster trail out to the road.
Aviva Chomsky’s Undocumented: How Immigration Became Illegal is one part history lesson, one part human drama. In it, Chomsky furthers her mission to advocate for and educate on behalf of undocumented immigrants in the US, delving into their very real experiences from a legal, social, economic, and historical context. The result is as compelling as it is illuminating. As in her previous book, “They Take Our Jobs!” and 20 Other Myths about Immigration, Chomsky seeks to set the record straight, correcting common and egregious misperceptions about the immigrant experience, as well as introducing key facts (such as the ten listed below) about the impact—and importance—of immigration to the US.
In 1990, health researchers estimated that one in one hundred US women has done some form of sex work during her lifetime. And yet, despite sex work being legal in fifty nations including Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Macau, the Netherlands, Austria, New Zealand, Israel, France, Germany, and England, the United States continues to be one of the few industrialized nations to criminalize prostitution. More than that, the US has actively worked to keep sex workers marginalized, and these discriminatory practices have placed them in harm's way.
The dangers, unfortunately, are quite real. As gentrification pushed people in the sex trades and street economy out of city centers, zoning laws and “move along” ordinances have forced sex workers into isolated areas where they—and other marginalized people—are more susceptible to abuse by police and violent criminals. In the last four decades alone, more than 3,000 women who were or were perceived to be sex workers were killed by serial murderers. Criminologist Kenna Quinet identified 502 male serial murderers active in the United States between 1970 and 2009; she also identified 3,228 of their female victims. Nearly one-third (32 percent) had been engaged in sex work or street-based trades.
Children sleeping in Mulberry Street (1890) by Jacob Riis
All last week, the New York Times ran a five-part series on homelessness focusing on an eleven-year-old African American girl named Dasani (after the water), who has lived almost a quarter of her life in a homeless shelter with her mother, stepfather, and seven brothers and sisters. In Hollywood versions of such stories focusing on poverty and homelessness, like the 2006 hit The Pursuit of Happyness staring Will Smith and his son Jaden, there is a family at the center of the film for whom we are rooting because they are good people with unquestionable values and strong family bonds. The father in the story is homeless, yes, and raising his son in a shelter, but he is smart, credentialed, hardworking, decent, and a creative and compassionate parent. He ends up charming his way into an executive training program and at the end of the film is rewarded with the financial security we are clear he worked for. He was poor but noble, educated and hard working.
Dasani and her family are not like this. Her mother is unemployed and doesn’t even have a GED, much less a college degree, and she isn’t going to be in anyone’s executive training program because she doesn’t know how to use a computer. She is prone to drug addiction and was raised in much the same situation as she is raising her children. Dasani’s father is an on-again, off-again drug addict who doesn’t work either, and together their parenting skills are the type that serially put social service agencies on alert. It’s not clear that these poor people didn’t mostly bring this circumstance on themselves.