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.]
Viktor Frankl, the psychotherapist and author of the hugely influential book Man’s Search for Meaning, died seventeen years ago this week.
Frankl had already begun to establish himself as a prominent neurologist and psychiatrist in Vienna—heir to the legacies of Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler—when the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938. For a time, Frankl was able to maintain his practice as the anti-Semitic climate continued to grow in Austria. But in September 1942, he and his wife and parents were arrested and deported to Theresienstadt, the “model ghetto” and concentration camp where Frankl’s father would later perish. That would begin a tragic odyssey for Frankl, who was transferred with his wife and mother to Auschwitz in 1944. Only Frankl would survive.
Citizen Schools founder Eric Schwarz with students (photo by Paul Mobley)
Eric Schwarz made a lot of mistakes as a teenager. His great-great-grandfather had founded the iconic FAO Schwarz toy store in 1862, and successive generations of the family found success in New York, but Schwarz himself floundered amid a sea of opportunity—a fact he readily admits. He bounced through three high schools in three different states, faced multiple suspensions, racked up poor grades and regular “Eric is struggling” teacher conferences, and started drinking as a teen. “But every time I stumbled,” he writes, “I had a helping hand and a new chance.”
Dr. King speaking during “phase one” of the civil rights movement at the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. (Joe Chapman)
Recently, I returned to my home town and found myself flipping through a fake “yearbook” students assembled that asked students who they thought their peers wanted to be like. Someone wrote “to be like Martin Luther King” for me. It’s true that I grew up as a follower of Dr. King, though I hadn’t realized how obvious it must have been to others.
I grew up in the small town of Williamston, Michigan, where the only person “of color” I knew of was Mexican American. While I wasn’t exposed to racial or ethnic diversity, I’m grateful to my parents who taught me to be open minded, to treat others as I wished to be treated, to read and reflect—and, also, to pay attention. Like many others, I still vividly recall those images of vicious dogs and fire hoses turned on black children in Birmingham, Alabama, and troopers on horseback, riding people down in Selma. I had spent happy summers in Detroit, where my parents grew up, but not after the summer of 1967, when police brutality set off an unbelievably turbulent inner-city rebellion that makes today’s revolt in Ferguson, Missouri look tame. Detroit had experienced a horrific white race riot in 1943 and most whites in the 1960s still seemed terrified of black folks moving into their neighborhoods or taking their jobs.
To address the poverty of the inner cities like Detroit, in 1968 Dr. King started the Poor People’s Campaign. He sought to take the poor to the nation’s capitol to demand that money for war be spent instead on jobs, housing, health care, and education. As an Oakland University college student, I helped recruit a busload of people to go to Washington DC. But King never made the journey: an assassin’s bullet cut him down. I will never forget the despair my parents, Keith and Betty, and my brother, Charles, and sister, Maureen, felt at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death. My mother’s tearful comments echoed the title of his last book, Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos, or Community?
Three young black men were dead at the hands of the police. The police claimed a gun battle, but no weapons were ever found and witnesses said it was an execution. Nonetheless, the officers were not indicted—and the local newspapers were not willing to investigate or press the issue. The community was outraged; the families bereft.
This was not Ferguson, Missouri in 2014. It was 1967 Detroit and Rosa Parks was outraged by the pattern of police abuse and harassment which had led to the 1967 uprising and the lack of police accountability for their violent behavior during the riot.
Two weeks ago, fierce protests erupted in Ferguson following the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown. While there has been a great deal of criticism of the aggressive police response to the protests, there has been an undertone of concern and fear about the protesters. Many have cast the young protesters as dangerous and reckless and not living up to the legacy of the civil rights movement. Cast as a generation gap, these framings misrepresent these young protesters and the history of the civil rights movement.
One hundred and seventy-five years ago today, La Amistad and its crew of former slaves was captured off the coast of Long Island and towed to New London, Connecticut, where the story of the slaves’ revolt and subsequent trial for piracy and murder immediately became the sensation of the popular press, and a cause célèbre for abolitionists and other sympathizers. In this excerpt adapted from Outlaws of the Atlantic, historian Marcus Rediker takes us back to the first days of the ship’s capture, when the idea of “black pirates” would ignite the imagination of early America and take these fifty-three Africans on a journey from the holds of a slave ship to the halls of the Supreme Court and beyond.
The story began with a sensational headline: “A Suspicious Sail—a Pirate.” The New York Morning Herald announced on August 24, 1839, that a pilot boat had spotted a mystery ship about twenty-five miles off the coast of New York. On deck were “a number of negroes, twenty five or thirty, . . . almost or quite naked; some were wrapped in blankets, and one had on a white coat.” They were a “strange crew,” all the stranger for brandishing machetes, pistols, and muskets. One sailor “had a belt of dollars round his waist; another called the captain, had a gold watch. They could speak no English, but appeared to talk in the negro language.” Black pirates, armed and flush with plunder, were cruising the coast of Long Island.
The vessel itself was in eerie disrepair: “Long grass was growing upon her bottom, and her sails were much torn, as if she had been driving about at the mercy of the gale, with her sails set and no one at the helm.” Here, declared the Morning Herald, was the “Flying Dutchman,” the ghost ship that wandered the seas endlessly as a portent of doom. Indeed, doom seemed already to have struck the vessel, which once upon a time had been a slave ship: “It was supposed that the prisoners had risen upon the captain and his assistants and captured her.” Having murdered the master and crew, those aboard could not navigate the vessel. They “are now drifting about bound for no particular port.”
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.
With autumn just around the corner, it’s about time to think about heading back into the classroom. Whether you’re an educator, activist, administrator, parent, or socially-engaged citizen, here are five progressive education titles to put on your personal syllabus this fall:
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.”
FERGUSON, MO - AUGUST 14: Demonstrators take part in a rally on West Florissant Avenue to protest the shooting death of unarmed teen Michael Brown by a police officer on August 9.
This week’s firestorm of racial outrage—which had continued to smolder since the July 17 death of Eric Garner at the hands of a New York City police officer—seemed as inevitable as it was horrifying. The shooting death of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer is only the latest incident in a series of high-profile and unjust deaths of black men and women by law enforcement, or by civilians with a weapon and a stand-your-ground mandate. That the officer in Ferguson remained anonymous for a full week after Brown’s shooting only fueled the unrest.
We asked several Beacon authors for their take on what happened in Missouri this week. Their responses were as varied as the contributing factors that compelled this incident to boil over: the shock of a small, Midwestern suburb confronting unjust violence; the deployment of an over-militarized police force; the arrest of journalists and public observers; the close lens of social media. As Jeanne Theoharis says at the end of this piece, and as the photographs this week from Ferguson made clear, the struggle for civil rights seems far from over.
A young boy stands in the rubble of his destroyed home in Beit Hanoun, Gaza.
Cornel West recently spoke at a march on Washington in support of Palestinian civilians caught in the crossfire between Hamas and Israeli military forces. Despite a string of shaky cease-fires, yet more rockets were exchanged last night, and the future remains undecided.
“This is a human affair,” Dr. West preached. “Any human being who chooses occupation and annihilation is a war criminal, and especially when they’re killing precious Palestinian babies. A Palestinian baby has exactly the same status as a white baby in Newtown, Connecticut, as a brown baby in the Eastside of LA, as a Jewish baby in Israel.” It’s a powerful moment, a reminder of the indiscriminate nature of warfare, and a military occupation in which an estimated 80% of deaths have been civilians.
I had long been fascinated by the history of Haiti, especially its profound revolutionary self-emancipation based on the greatest slave revolt in modern history (1791-1804). The small island nation also boasts one of the world’s greatest folk art traditions—it has more painters per capita than any other place on earth. They paint sheer wonder, as André Breton, leader of Europe’s surrealist movement, discovered when he arrived in Haiti in 1945. When he saw the paintings of the vodou houngan Hector Hyppolite, he remarked that by these astonishing works he recognized his own as failures.
Protesters at a rally in support of ousted Market Basket CEO Arthur T. Demoulas (courtesy Save Market Basket)
“Every once in a while,” Robert Reich, the former US Secretary of Labor, recently wrote, “something happens that exposes the underpinnings of American capitalism.” He was calling attention, in a series of Facebook posts, to a local labor dispute with a twist that’s now gained the national spotlight. For the past several weeks, the non-unionized workers and customers of Market Basket, the small chain of New England grocery stores known for inexpensive prices, have been fiercely protesting the board’s ouster of CEO Arthur T. Demoulas. Now, aisles are going empty, registers have closed. Supply trucks full of food sit near loading docks, unable to offload their rotting cargos.
While the backstory to the current situation approaches near-Shakespearean levels of complexity and intrigue—involving strong-arm tactics, brutal grabs for power, and an intricate family feud between cousins with nearly the same name—it’s a simpler narrative that people are rallying around. Arthur T., or “Artie T.,” as he’s affectionately called, has over the years become renowned among Market Basket employees for supporting high wages and good benefits, and for offering a profit-sharing program that effectively treats workers as minor shareholders. As Reich put it, Arthur T. had been fired because “he treated his employees and customers too well.”
LOST HILLS, CA : The sun rises over an oil field in California, where gas and oil extraction using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has contaminated aquifers in a state damaged by drought. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
During summers in California’s Central Valley, an inland area that spans the length of the state from Bakersfield to Stockton, it’s not uncommon to hear a local rejoice when “it will only be 100 degrees today!” The sun is relentless and its heat is stifling, especially during a drought, and especially for the thousands of farm workers who are responsible for nearly all of California’s and much of the United States’ agriculture.
Now, a report from the University of California, Davis explains that if the drought continues for two or more years, Central Valley farmers will be forced to increasingly rely on groundwater reserves, some of which, we are now learning, may have been polluted by fracking wastewater.
Growing up in the heart of the Central Valley, whose claim-to-fame is being the “Gateway to Yosemite,” my preferred remedy for the afternoon summer heat was to frolic in the lawn sprinklers for hours on end, quench my thirst with gulps of water from the garden hose, engineer makeshift slip-and-slides, and bike to the farmer’s fruit stand down the road.
The days of moderately worry-free water consumption are long gone as California rightfully encourages reductions in residential water use during this debilitating drought. What I never imagined is that my trips to the farm stand might become a relic of the past not only due to a lack of water, but to a lack of safe water.
Ninety years ago this past weekend, on August 2, 1924, James Baldwin was born in Harlem to a single mother, the eldest of nine children, plagued by poverty, and by a deeply divided country where both his race and his sexuality were seen to be liabilities. That Baldwin, who left Harlem first for Greenwich Village and later for Paris, would transcend these difficult beginnings to become a citizen of the world—famously sparring in one instance with then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy on the necessity of civil rights legislation—was evidence of his remarkable talent, unparalleled intellect, and the sheer force of his principles. As the poet Nikky Finney put it in her introduction to Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, Baldwin would come to be regarded as “the most salient, sublime, and consequential American writer of the twentieth century.” He spoke about his early life, and of his difficult relationship with his stepfather—a domineering presence in Baldwin’s youth—in a 1963 interview with Kenneth Clark:
As the 2014 mid-term elections grind inexorably towards us, the concept of “nullification” has started to pop up with surprising frequency. As used in political circles, the term refers to the supposed ability of a state to nullify, or void, any federal law it finds too onerous or politically unacceptable. Most recently, Iowa’s Republican candidate for the US Senate, Joni Ernst, caused a stir by apparently advocating nullification to attendees of the Iowa Faith & Freedom Coalition.
“Bottom line is, as a US senator, why should we be passing laws that the states are considering nullifying?” Ernst asked. “I mean, that’s bottom line, is our legislators at the federal level should not be passing those laws.”
Martin Luther King, Jr. at a press conference in June, 1964 World Telegram & Sun photo by Walter Albertin (via Wikimedia Commons)
In July of 1964, fifty years ago this month, Harper & Row published what has often been applauded as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most incisive and eloquent book. Why We Can’t Wait recounts the Birmingham campaign in vivid detail, while underscoring why 1963 was such a crucial year for the civil rights movement. During this time, Birmingham, Alabama, was perhaps the most racially segregated city in the United States, but the campaign launched by Fred Shuttlesworth, King, and others demonstrated to the world the power of nonviolent direct action. King examines the history of the civil rights struggle and the tasks that future generations must accomplish to bring about full equality. The book grew out of ideas in first expressed in King’s extraordinary “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a passionate response to eight white clergymen who argued that racial segregation should be fought in the courts and not by protest in the streets. That famous letter, which is included in the book, was first composed on scraps of paper and in the margins of a smuggled newspaper. It would eventually bring much needed national attention to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s campaign in Birmingham, and become an essential clarion call for the wider civil rights movement.
Summer is a time for getting outdoors, listening to the birds, taking long walks in the woods or long naps on the beach. And there’s nothing quite like reading a book outside, or after a day spent basking in the splendor of the natural world. With that in mind, here are five titles to accompany your summer adventures, or inspire your next trip outdoors:
In the late 1970s, the Internal Revenue Service introduced code 401(k). Intended to supplement traditional defined benefit retirement pensions, 401(k)s have instead largely replaced them, prompting a massive shift in how retirement is funded in the United States, and bestowing enormous financial risk upon employees rather than their employers. The result, according to James W. Russell, professor of sociology at Eastern Connecticut State University and author of Social Insecurity: 401(k)s and the Retirement Crisis, has been a massive economic catastrophe, jeopardizing the financial futures of many American workers.
In a recent conversation with professors Jerry Lembcke and Ellis Jones of Holy Cross College, Russell outlined the inadequacies of the 401(k) system and explained alternatives for Americans who want to maximize their benefits and live comfortably in retirement.
If representation is homogenous, then it is inaccurate. Yet, Muslims are daily portrayed and perceived as a monolith—in spite of there being 1.6 billion Muslims spread out over 56 countries, dozens of ethnic groups, and a multitude of legal and cultural practices.