Bowling Green and Massacres.

Unknown

John Wayne — the acting name of Marion Morrison. Name and character designed to emulate ‘Mad Anthony Wayne — commander of a massacre outside of Bowling Green, Ohio,  1794. 

An excerpt draft from my forthcoming book Turtle Road about a 12,000 mile bike trip.  Talks of Bowling Green (Ohio ) and a history of massacres — among other things…

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CHAPTER 5

… We had begun to feel every new town, field and wood belonged to us; our memories our deed of ownership. Now we owned the dewy morning on the Michigan/Ohio border. Despite my internationalist heart, I found myself humming, Oh beautiful for spacious skies. For amber waves of grain. “Amber, yes,” I thought, as we passed endless fields of wheat and hay. “And gold, orange, rust, even purple.”

The rural peace ended at the Ohio border as we hit the edge of the Toledo metropolitan region. We almost ate breakfast at a cafe in Sylvania, but the giant poster — a grinning cartoon Indian repelled us.  It was still a beautiful morning, not yet hot, so we sat under a tree and ate granola bars, clucking to each other, “how can Ohio be so racist?”

At a busy Sylvania intersection, a hardy woman in a bike jersey pulled up beside us. Before the light turned green, she had offered to be our escort, around the outskirts of Toledo.

Though I struggled to keep up, riding with Cheryl was a great relief. We just followed. No arguments. No getting lost. No decisions. She was fast, efficient, eager to show off her bicycle skills, which she came by the hard way. “At age 41, I had back surgery. Biking was my therapy.  When I started I could only make it around the block. Now, 14 years later, I do sixty mile rides around Toledo.” She had set herself a biking goal to last a lifetime, making herself a quilt with fifty panels. “Each time I have a vacation, I bike another state and fill in another panel — 27 so far.”

Cheryl wanted us to appreciate her homeland. She pointed to a field. “Underneath every thing you see, is the wealth that make this region unique. Black dirt. Back in the 1880s, European settlers drained the wetlands of this black swamp, creating some of the richest soil in the world.”

Cheryl left us at the Mall in Waterville. As we got ready to say our good byes she noted, “This may look like any other mall, but it’s historic — named after the Battle of Fallen Timbers that happened here in 1794.”
I was exhausted from keeping up with Cheryl. We found plush seats in the Barnes and Nobles and looked up “Fallen Timbers.”

The United States army, led by a “Mad” General Anthony Wayne, defeated a regional alliance of Indian nations. One of the indigenous leaders in the battle was Tecumseh, who continued building his pan-Indian force until he died fighting on the British side in the war of 1812. The year before the Confederation had proposed a generous compromise to the land-hungry United States:  keep the money you are using to bribe us and kills us and give it your poor settlers. Just leave us a piece of OUR land to live in peace.

But the United States was making a bigger calculation. After their triumph in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, U.S. authorities force-marched Ohio tribes to Oklahoma, opening a settlement path from Ohio to Wisconsin for Europeans immigrants.

I wondered as we passed a rack of Cleveland Indian T-shirts on our way out of the mall, if there was a connection between this removal and fact that Ohioan’s embraced this racist cartoon caricature. Today there is no large organized population of Native Americans in the state to fight back. Perhaps another factor is the way the history of U.S./ Indian relations are told here. The U.S. General Mad Anthony Wayne is celebrated in Toledo with a bridge, statue, and even an annual “family-friendly” bike ride. Leaving the mall, we crossed the Maumee River where Mad Anthony Wayne burned Shawnee and Miami villages.

We didn’t get far before we were desperate to get out of the sun. The road following the river was pretty, but lacking in public spaces. The Riverby Hills Golf Club had a Public Welcome sign. In the icy dark of the clubhouse, drinking over-priced tomato juice, we watched men in white shorts flirt with the woman bartender.

I thought about how this trip brought us into contact with people outside our circles. The day before we shared a park shelter with Cecil, a small white man who worked construction for 40 years. He was sixty, living on disability, already old. He told us about his divorce; after 32 years still a fresh wound. “We had ten kids” he said. He lowered his head. “One was murdered last year.” Cecil was fascinated by us. “This is a first for me, meeting people like you.”  It was a first for us, sharing intimacies with Cecil.

And now another first. I had never been inside a golf clubhouse, though in high school in Wisconsin, I lived down the hill from the Blackhawk Golf Course. Chief Black Hawk’s war in 1832, like Ohio’s Battle of Fallen Timbers, involved a massacre committed by U.S. forces. Both misnamed “battles,” were crimes of racial violence and land theft that opened the way for statehood and white settlement. Ohio, 1803. Wisconsin, 1836.

A man with hair like John Kerry’s interrupted my thoughts, loudly ordering another round. We left the blessed cool, hoping to be far gone before the men got back in their cars.

A flat tire slowed our get-away. Changing it the shade of the chalet, we were glad to see some leave before us, not wanting to meet them on these narrow hilly roads to Haskins.
Ten more miles and the landscape pancaked.
I first discovered this fertile Ohio plain in the fall of 1975 when I rented a bicycle to escape freshman loneliness at Oberlin College. A few pedals and the bike rode itself, away from the college I would soon leave for good. On this particular Friday guys in pick-ups gathered at the Sonoco in Haskins, eating pizza, buying 12-packs. I watched one young man place a can between his legs under the steering wheel, eleven more on the passenger seat. We joined them on the pizza. I regretted it as the last bite went down. I was painfully constipated. We had been on the road for over two weeks and my body was letting me know it did not work well on gas station food.

When we arrived in Bowling Green I insisted on splurging at an upscale vegetarian place where waiters describe each ingredient and water glasses were constantly refilled. It was dark by the time we left the restaurant. With the image of man, car and beer still lodged in my head, I ruled out biking to the campground five miles down the road. Bowling Green State University was hosting a marching band contest at their football stadium and hotels had jacked up their prices for the occasion. Dave was ready to pay $130 for a foul-smelling Best Western. I was not. We headed through town to the soundtrack of drums, horns, and cheering crowds, searching for a place to put up our tent.
Dave was looking for a place to hide. I thought we should stake a claim, act as though we belonged. I spied a 32-foot RV parked in a campus lot. “Let’s do an Arlo Guthrie.”
“What?”
“In Alice’s Restaurant, he saw a pile of trash and decided to add his garbage to the heap. We’ll put up our tent here and call it a campground. Settler’s rights.”
Of course Arlo got arrested for littering, but like him, I wasn’t thinking this through and Dave didn’t remember the movie.  So we set up next to the RV, in the spotlight of a parking lamppost. By 2am I had to pee. Imagining getting arrested for indecent exposure, I grabbed a plastic bag and squatted by the door. The squatting encouraged the vegetarian spinach and eggplant dish to dislodge the pizza.
I crawled into the spotlight to look for a place to empty the bag. Back in the tent, fully awake and more unclean than ever, I resented the man sleeping sweetly beside me, for being anatomically equipped, for being right about finding a dark place, for being right about taking the hotel, for being able to sleep without a shower, for focusing on the best outcome while I imagined every possible wrong turn.
At 4:53am we broke camp. As I strapped the tent to my bicycle, a campus cop rode up.
“Are you the ones who were in the tent last night?”
Underneath me was a square imprint of smashed grass. I nodded.
He looked at me: disheveled, pungent, old enough to be his mother. “How far you come on those bicycles?”
I looked at my odometer. “762 miles.”
“That’s something…. You need anything?”
“Huh… a bathroom?”
He raised his eyebrow and arm in a gesture I translated as, “That’s obvious.” He paused a moment longer, making a decision.  “Follow me.”
He rode slowly. We followed, snaking through campus to the stadium where thousands cheered their young musicians the night before. He got out of his squad car beckoning to us, then hesitated.  “Are you two married?”
We nodded.  He unlocked a stadium door, led us into the women’s locker room. “Roll your bikes in here so no one will mess with them. When you leave make sure the door is closed. It’ll lock after you.”

As a middle-aged white woman of short stature, I was used to being considered unthreatening. With Dave, the added aura of heterosexual respectability surrounded me. Now, wandering across lines of legality, we leaned unthinkingly on various forms of privilege, never knowing the extent to which our demographics protected us. But we were becoming aware that without showers and laundromats we could lose unwarranted assumptions of innocence. Officer Friendly trusted us enough to leave us with keys to the store. His gift of showers erased our growing scent of indigence.

Bowling Green co-ed athletes had posted collages with inspiring quotes and pictures of people they admired on the hallway wall. The bicycle lady in her fifties, cleaned, dressed and feeling new, posed in front of the wall of fame.

 

Lunching at the New China Town in Huron, I read the headline: The Tribe is not doing well. On an inner page a smaller article caught my eye. New program for Sandusky homeowners: mow foreclosed lots and the land is yours.

Homestead Act 1862 — sow to own stolen land.

Homestead Act 2011 — mow to own the dispossessed.

Would another Bracero Program Protect the Interests of Mexican and U.S. Workers?

26porter-1477430330831-master768Photo by Frank Q. Brown/Los Angeles Times, appeared in the New York Times October 25, 2016, Business Day section.

In If Immigration Can’t Be Stopped, Maybe It Can Be Managed the New York Times  touted a “new” temporary worker scheme created by the Center for Global Development, matching Mexican workers with U.S. employers.

The CGD patterned their plan on the 1942 Bracero Program. They argue it will address labor needs and end undocumented migration. It is shocking to see this shameful old chapter in U.S. labor history resurrected as shiny immigration reform.

The Bracero Program began as a temporary provision, sold to a xenophobic population as a necessary measure to address a war-time labor shortage. However it outlasted the war by two decades, and actually expanded during peace time, cresting in the mid 1950s and enduring until 1964.

The United States/Mexico low-wage temporary labor system did not begin with the Bracero Program.  It developed sixty year earlier, with completion of the Pacific Railway and passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Chinese workers recruited to build the railroad became the first “illegals” when their usefulness to railroad tycoons was over.

The new rails made it possible to connect southwestern products to global markets and new irrigation techniques spurred the desire  for a new army of temporary workers  to plant and harvest.  Newly discovered copper, silver and oil mines also needed workers to unearth its treasures. Peasants in Mexico, displaced by these same railroads, mining companies and factory farmers operating on both sides of the border, became that labor army, displaced and forced into a migrant stream that continues to this day.

U.S. employers became dependent on this bilateral labor system for workers they could recruit when needed, super-exploit and remove when no longer required. The system has depended on and helped ensure the continued impoverishment of Mexico and the seasonal resurrection of anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican racism in the U.S.

Far from removing the most exploitative aspects of this bilateral labor system, the Bracero Program of 1942 codified and justified it.  Braceros were denied the right to build families and communities in the United States. They were tied to employers like slaves, unable to take their labor elsewhere. They were treated like cattle, subject to naked inspections and sprayed with poisons at the border.

The Bracero program withheld a percentage of the worker’s wages until they returned to Mexico. Most workers never received those wages. Despite the success of recent law suits some workers and their heirs have yet to recover those stolen earnings. It is the definition of hubris, that the Center for Global Development’s “new” proposal includes the same wage-withholding provision.

The new proposal, (like its predecessors) promises to be kinder and gentler. For example, it will not tether workers to employers.  It is best not to ask how this would actually work, because such a question thrusts us into the minutiae of a proposal that is rotten in its premise.

We need to answer the new Bracero Program proposal with a transnational labor plan that seeks to END that super-exploitative labor system begun 130 years ago – not shore it up!  Workers on both sides of the border need living wages,  benefits and protections, environmental regulations.  We need to enforce the inalienable right of all workers to stay home OR roam.  We need regulations that force large employers on both sides of border to investment in local, sustainable economies.

Instead of resurrecting a 1942 system of labor dehumanization, lets dump free  trade and fast-track a transnational bill of workers rights.

In designing such a bill we can look to the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Article 13 states: Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country. and Article 23 declares:  Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work. Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

 

School Days. Minneapolis Project interviewees in conversation.

img_1656-2Excerpts from the first 22 interviews of the Minneapolis Project, contemplating  school experiences. The interviewees are ages 17- 85.  Click on the first words in each paragraph to see who said what and read the whole interview.

Kindergarten

In 1969 my mother walked me to the corner before kindergarten and said (using the terminology of the time) “You are a Negro. Hold your head high and remember not to let anyone tell you they are better than you.” Who would know I would remember those words and gather strength from them my entire life?”

In kindergarten my teacher told me I didn’t have to pledge allegiance to the flag because she knew we were from the Nation of Islam. It kind of alienated me because I sat there while the other kids stood up, but it set me apart in a good way too.

Elementary  and middle school

In 8th grade the nuns announced to the religion class, “Kendrick’s Dad is going to hell.” Dad had quit going to Church. He wanted to find a way to stay but he couldn’t. This was the last straw for me. I have found it very difficult to take Catholic teachings seriously ever since.

Four Winds Schools was an amazing experience. I was the only Black kid in the school.I learned about the four directions, Indian flat bread, pow wows and sage. Next to Black people — I don’t have a list but — I really feel in my heart like there has to be Native blood in me because my heart goes out to my Native brothers and sisters. What they have been through, I couldn’t even fathom. I am always grateful for my Four Winds experience, even though I got kicked out of there too.

High school

West high school — on 28th and Hennepin — had a lot of stoners. Rich kids from liberal families, heading for college. The boys wore loafers with no sox. We were probably the worst athletic school in the district. I was different from them. People mistook me for an adult in the school because I wore women’s work clothes. I never had friends over to my house. My house was too small and shabby.

My freshman year in the All Nations program there were 200 Indian students in my class. The second year, 75, the third 15. I graduated with six Indians — and a bunch of others who were from another schools but wanted to graduate with us at South. I still have the picture of us sitting there.

My education was much better in Mexico. I didn’t speak English. I remember so clearly my first day of Home Ec. The teacher was giving out a quiz. When I asked a girl who spoke Spanish to help me, the teacher yelled at me. To the whole class she said, ‘I don’t know why people like her come to this country.’ When the girl told me what she said, I felt a pain I never felt before. I began to cry like a little girl, but I also asserted my dignity. I told that teacher: “You think I made the decision to come here? I actually don’t want be here.”

For our people down south, you know, we weren’t treated fairly. My parents and grandparents and great grandparents before them didn’t get much opportunity to get an education, denied equal opportunity. Hand me down stuff. They said separate but equal, but it was a whole lot of different baby — they passed that outdated stuff to us. They had better schools, better educated teachers….My parents were sharecroppers…. I was drafted into the military out of high school.

I was born in Decalb, Mississippi, the sixth of nine children. My dad was a school teacher, 8-12 grades. I was fortunate that I was not in his classes. My dad had a reputation for being mean. He wasn’t mean, just strict. He wanted the students to learn, not play. It was kind of hard on my social life when I was a teenager, having him as a teacher. I remember once when there was a church revival. The whole community came out. When they started passing the platter me and my friends left together. When my dad came out of the church tent, my friends said ‘I don’t want the teacher catching me around his daughter’ and they left me.

I live in Southwest Minneapolis and go to South High School which isn’t in my school zone. I disagreed with my parents decision to send me to South and I still do. My parents thought I would have better Special Ed. supports. I have ADHD, depression, anxiety. Teachers always say I m great, I’m smart but I don’t finish assignments. In Middle School I had a tough time and hopped school. .. All of them were White schools except for Folwell. So it was pretty amazing at South to see people who looked like me. We have a Native American program that is incredible. Beautiful. I have friends in it. I grew up in a very different neighborhood than where South is. My neighborhood is 95% Caucasian. 95% two parents, two kids, a dog and a cat. I feel really safe. So it is interesting to go to South. I see people on the streets. There is a bus line that people actually use. Going to South has made me realize that people don’t all live in the fantasy world I live in. I think it has made me a better person. Being at South has broadened my perspective but it has also isolated me socio-economically. It’s hard to switch over

I went to a Wayzata district school from kindergarten until 6th grade. Very wealthy and White. Good academically. Very isolating socially. We moved to Bloomington in 1991. They put me in remedial classes so I didn’t learn anything. But I liked it because I was with other kids of color. I went to Kennedy High School. I skipped class, smoked weed, got kicked out of school for fighting, but I graduated.

I started drinking and taking drugs around the time my sister entered the household — 12 or 13. I still did OK in school so I got away with it for a while, and I was a wrestler. That allowed me to pass. Even though I was using drugs and smoking a pack of cigarettes, I was still a good athlete. But it caught up to me eventually. I started using cocaine…

I began Washburn High school in 1970. It was about 10 % Black. There were lots of fights between White and Black kids. We had police dogs in the hallways, paddy wagons outside the school. You could sense the tension when you walked into school. Some of the Black kids were really militant and organized. One of the leaders, Ronald Judy,* was in my homeroom. I had a high regard for him. They demanded and won a Black Studies course. That was progress. I was not involved. I used the fights as way to convince my mom to give us excused absences from school. I played the flute and had two friends who played the violin. We would skip school together, make tuna sandwiches, smoke pot and play trios.

I grew up in a community North of Houston that was much less diverse, but spent a lot of time in Houston with family. There was a lot of racial conflict where I lived and went to school. The Mexican and Black kids cliqued together for protection, and it was common to face racial epitaphs from students, be harassed and criminalized by teachers and police officers. I think that is why I study the history of race. To make sense of my childhood experiences.

 

Post secondary

Coming out of high school I didn’t know what I wanted to be. I didn’t take the ACT or SAT. I took advanced classes, but no AP classes. They had prep tutorials for those courses, but you had to pay. I had nine other siblings and limited means. That wasn’t going to happen. My foster parents were not supportive of me going to college. Neither of them had ever gone. They wanted me to get a job. ‘Degrees are for snobby people.’ they said. ‘Work hard and you will move up.’

Hundreds of students were killed that day. After that there were no classes. The University closed. There was also no student movement. It just ended it. It was so depressing.

I got more and more determined not to let him have my college. It is so tempting to leave places where things have happened to you. Spaces can hold trauma and they can hurt with you…. But these Twin Cities have also seen me through. They are where I learned to be a survivor. Leaving will not fix anything. The Twin Cities are mine. The man who raped me can’t have them.

I had just started studying for my engineering degree in 1979 when the Iranian Revolution happened. During the Revolution, they closed all the schools. Shortly after the revolution, my University closed again for “cultural revolution.” They didn’t like that our classes were taught in English—the “language of Satan.” After a lot of “cleanup,” my university finally reopened and I went back. Because of all this, my five year program took 8 years.

The Somalis who came to Minnesota spent years in refugee camps. Many never had a chance to finish high school. We suffer from the trauma of war. I was nine years old when a gun was put to my head. My brother was killed in Mogadishu 1990. I saw as many as 200 dead people lying in a field. These experiences stay with you. When we came everyone had four goals: get an education, own our own businesses, practice our faith, and go back home. Now 30 years later very few plan on going back home. There is little for us back home. We are staying here, and putting down roots. We are getting college degrees —60% of Somali women and 30% of Somali men in Minnesota have college degrees.

Working downtown I was meeting people who called themselves artists. They were adults and my parents weren’t happy I was hanging out with them, so I moved out ,got an apartment near Loring Park. Laurel Apartments. They were scummy. They still are. But it was $200 a month and I was on my own.At Edison they had a trades-in-the-schools program. I signed up for cosmetology. It was the only thing I liked about school. I was able to continue that program at Minneapolis Community College.

After my stint in the army I got a degree from the U of M and then landed a job as a bilingual case worker in Stearns County, while completing a Masters at St. Cloud State. Through a confluence of circumstances I became homeless after my job ended. It sucked. I had been working with homeless clients for 8 years, so I understood the system very well. Now I saw it from the other side.

When I came to Minneapolis, I lived in the Centennial Hall dorm at the U. I felt isolated at first. But soon enough, I found other Spanish speakers at the dorm, mostly Latin American. We’d get together for dinner, taking over two or three tables in the cafeteria. The language drew us together, but that wasn’t the only commonality. There was culture, traditions, history. . . I was surprised at how easy and natural it was to have an immediate link, a strong connection, with other fellow Latin Americans: Chileans, Argentineans, Uruguayans. . . people born and raised thousand of miles away from my hometown. We had many heated political debates about what was going on in Central America in those years, in particular Nicaragua and El Salvador, and especially about the U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America.

Teresa Ortiz. Mapping Injustice from Tlatelolco to Lake Street; Mapping a Mother’s Heart.

 

 

… We requested permission to interview Zapatista women. At first I was overwhelmed by the project. My mentor said “You need a map. You are all over the place. Decide where you want to go and what you want to learn.”…

 

Mexico City Student Movement, 1968.

We are entering the first world! Things are so cool now, because we are going to have the Olympics. That was the government facade when I entered college at the National University in Mexico City (UNAM) in 1968. But in reality, things were pretty bad. The one party system — the PRI — had been in power for fifty years.

There was very little dissent in Mexico in the 1950s, but by the time I went to college, teachers, railroad workers, farm workers and oil workers had begun to engage in strikes. It was really an exciting time. There had been a couple student marches downtown and the police beat people up. There was a lot of discontent.

The Mexican Student Movement had started when I enrolled as a freshman in June 1968. I came from a middle class background, but it did not take me long to become aware and active. In July the Student Movement erupted. On September 19th the army took over the University to quell the protests. The Olympics were set to start in mid-October and the government wanted the student movement subdued before the whole world came to Mexico City. The army held the University until September 30.

On October 1st, student leaders held a meeting and decided to call a mass demonstration for the next day — the famous rally in Tlatelolco — held at the Plaza of Three Cultures. I went. It was huge. It was not just students. There were whole families there. Kids. The army started shooting from the balconies of buildings. I and my friend ended up in a basement apartment until 9pm. It was really scary. I got a taxi and went home. My friend stayed there because his sister lived in one of the apartments.

When I got home and watched the news it was full of lies! They said students were fighting one another. At 2AM I got a call from my best friend’s mother asking if I knew where he was. Finally she found out he was in jail. He was there for about a week. He told me later that he was running, trying to get into a church. He fell on top of a young girl. They arrested him. They filled trucks with people and took them to jail. The leadership of the movement were incarcerated.

Hundreds of students were killed that day.

After that there were no classes. The University closed. There was also no movement. It just ended it. It was so depressing.

In 1969 the University was reopened. I went back. I had an internship in a high school that had been taken over by the students. The University wanted to reincorporate them into the system so they sent students to be teachers. It was wild and crazy. I taught ethics and aesthetics (I was a philosophy major) and English. I was also a tour guide at the University. Tourists would come and I would explain the meaning of the murals at the University.

I was “paid” for that work with an opportunity to come to the University of Minnesota — part of a group of Mexican students who came up in the Summer of 1969.

Border Crossing 1969 – 1999

I met Luther ‘Tomas’ Johnson in Minnesota and we ended up getting married. He came back with me to Mexico while I applied for a U.S. visa. It took 18 months. We came back in the 1973 — Watergate scandal time. It was difficult to find a job here. We painted houses, my husband and I, for a long time, and then started a little business selling artisan products from Mexico and Central America. We would spend the winter in Mexico.

We got a farm in Southwest Minnesota, six miles from the South Dakota border, lived in a cabin without indoor plumbing. I got my degree from South Dakota State University, teaching Spanish and English. I had never lived in a rural area. It was always windy, no shade — but the prairie was so beautiful. It was new to me.

My son Gabe was born there. It was a difficult birth. He was premature. Then we had Aaron and Carmen.

We moved to St. Paul after I got my degree. We wanted the kids to go to Spanish immersion school there. I started teaching Spanish at Anoka senior high school and Tesseract, but then we found out about a position at the Center for Global Education at Augsburg. My husband and I got the job. We lived in Guatemala for about five years, 1990-95 conducting political travel seminars and semester programs for Augsburg students, teaching about the civil war, U.S. complicity and grassroots resistance movements. It was an amazing job. You get to know a country really well when you work with political and community organizations, and teach their realities to visitors. The kids went to school in Guatemala.

In 1995 we decided we wanted to go to Chiapas, Mexico, to be a part of what was happening there — the Zapatista movement standing up against NAFTA. The Center of Global Ed would not move us there, so we quit our jobs and moved to San Cristobal. I became involved in a women’s literacy project and got a grant to write a book about the Zapatistas woman organizers. We started an organization — Cloudforest Initiatives — which would support development projects — artisans and fair trade coffee. We also did delegations, political tours. The kids finished middle school there and started high school.

I conducted interviews for the book in 1997. I had a year to complete them. I wanted to know how people organized. My mentor, Mercedes Olivera, was an anthropologist from Mexico, in charge of the women’s literacy project. We requested permission to interview Zapatista women. At first I was overwhelmed by the project. My mentor said “You need a map. You are all over the place. Decide where you want to go and what you want to learn.”

She facilitated one of the first interviews I did in a community called Emiliano Zapata, (named after the Mexican Revolutionary) in the jungle very close to Guatemala. I met a woman who set the stage for what the book was about. She told me that for years they were farmworkers and had horrible lives. Then in the 1960s the government began “giving” indigenous people plots of land in the rainforest. The government thought this was a great way to dispose of the problem of landless peasants. She and her family literally walked across the Chiapas Highlands to the jungle and were one of the first families to obtain this land — to colonize the rain forest. Her husband was an agrarian leader negotiating with government offices to get land for a community of families — using the communal ejido system. They started organizing cooperatives, lending institutions.
All the books I read about this said it was like a garden of Eden. They were organized way before the Zapatistas. That became the point of my first chapter.

When we were living in San Cristobal we started hearing about paramilitaries made up of community members supported by the military attacking their neighbors who had joined or sympathized with the Zapatistas. I was able to interview people from northern Chiapas who had been evicted from their villages, who were now in the capital of Chiapas. These paramilitaries were stealing coffee from cooperatives. People forced from their homes were fleeing to the mountains. On December 22, 1997 there was a massacre of men, women and children by paramilitaries. I interviewed someone from that region and a Catechist who went to rescue survivors. Those were my last interviews — documenting that horrible event.

It took me several years to finish writing the book.

We were invited by a community — Magdalenas — not far from San Cristobal, in the highlands to facilitate the creation of an iron works cooperative. This artisanal iron work was common in San Cristobal, but it had always been made by urban non-indigenous people. Indians were not allowed to do it. Now they do it all the time.

The Magdalenas community was mixed politically. We met with the entire Zapatista half of the community. We presented our proposal and then they said, “Now you have to go out.” They voted “Si” and invited us back in. We trained four guys, they trained other people. Pretty soon we began to get funding for a clinic and a place for them to do their artisan work. And coffee cooperatives, sold in the U.S. as fair trade.

Our time in Chiapas was really good for all of us, but it was also very hard. Tomas and I separated. The boys came to Minnesota with their father to finish school. Later on I came with Carmen. All of them finished high school here. Carmen finished as quickly as she could and went to college in L.A. and then went back to Mexico.

Calle Lago

When I came back I started to work with the Resource Center of the Americas doing a project called Centro de Derecho Laborales — Center for Workers Rights with Jorge Flores. I was there for about five years, until the Resource Center closed. It was an exciting job — an exciting time. Minneapolis was a totally different place.

I remember in 1969 thinking I was the only person here with dark hair and eyes. I had very few Latino friends. In the 1980s I was in a group. Gilberto Vasquez Valle and Rafael Varela were in that group. Just a few of us. I met a few people while supporting the hunger strikers at the St. Paul Cathedral after the Jesuits were killed in El Salvador in 1989. Roy Bourgeois, Rene Hurtado, Jorge Flores and Jorge Montesinos. Those are the people I knew. A handful of people.

When I came back and I worked on Lake Street in 1998, the whole landscape had changed! There were so many Latinos! In the 1990s there was a bubble of jobs here and people flocked to Minnesota. Then the bubble burst and people could not afford to go back. In Mexico meanwhile — in 1994, immediately after NAFTA — people started losing their jobs. The government started disinvesting in agriculture, cutting social services, not spending money on infrastructure, so of course, people started leaving.

At the Resource Center, Derechos Laborales I had plenty of work. We had many volunteers, students mostly. We had an open door. We trained volunteers to do intake. Anyone could come who had a work issue. If they came with other needs we helped them find support elsewhere. I was shocked at the stories I heard from our clients. Stories of racism, wage theft.

Looking back I think, the way CTUL is doing the work is brilliant, because we didn’t organize workers. We were helping them one by one. Very time consuming. We would call the employer and say “Juan Perez hasn’t been paid for two months.” Next step was to go to court. Small claims court. It was easy to get in. We would win. Many times the employer would just pay.

I remember one case — this woman came to the office. She was working at a laundromat, with those big irons. She burned her arm. Her employer said just put this cream on. It got infected. So first I took her to the clinic. Then we filled out forms for workers compensation and sent it to the employer…. The employer wanted to avoid workers comp and just settle. We told her that is not how the law works. People think they can get away with murder!

We got a grant to teach a course that simultaneously taught English and worker’s rights. We also started working with a group of women trying to start their own cleaning company. Later on we became involved in immigration reform issues.

Even after the Resource Center stopped getting funding we continued to get financial support from various foundations. The day I found that the Resource Center had closed we had just hired a new organizer, new teachers. I had to call them back and say, we are not going to do it.

That was a tough time. All of the sudden I had no job.

I taught for a while at a middle school, but by that time I was too far away from that. I didn’t like it. I started working part time at CLUES. It eventually became a full time job. I love it. I have been doing it for six years. I began working with CLUES in St Paul, but soon moved to their Minneapolis site which is much bigger.

This whole area from Hiawatha to Uptown is Latino. It is also becoming Somali which is exciting. I am getting more Somali students, learning English. Things are changing constantly.

The spirit of survival and resilience among my students is amazing. There are those success stories that keep me going. I have a class “English for Employment” — helping people create goals and then achieve them, go to college, whatever steps they need to take. Education issues are complex. I have students who were displaced by war in Central America who never went to school until now. They come here and they are trying to learn English and they don’t know how to read or write in Spanish. Or Somali students who spent years in refugee camps. Some times the success story is learning how to read and write, as an adult, in a second language.

I am so happy about the $15 an hour campaign. That would make a huge difference for the people I work with.

Palabristas

I started writing poetry in Guatemala.* I wrote in English – as a way to getting away from the war. In Chiapas I began writing in Spanish. When I was at the Resource Center, Emmanuel Ortiz invited me to perform with the Palabristas. That is how we started. We are still around. Some have left. Some are famous now. We have invited young people. I also helped found the Calibanes — Latin Americans in the Cities writing in Spanish. I was invited to do a program at Intermedia Arts, working with young people.

I used to write fiction. In recent years — more poetry. This years have been taking a class with David Mura at the Loft, writing short stories, and I’m working on a memoir of the 1960s in Mexico. I am really committed to my writing now.

Gabriel

I have three kids. When it was just the two boys I thought: “can two people be so different – night and day!” Then I had Carmen — three opposite paths! But they are also very similar. Gabriel and Aaron political activists for social justice; Carmen and Aaron, talented artists; all three of them have wonderful hearts.

Gabe was, is, my first born. It was a difficult birth. He almost didn’t make it. He was in intensive care for three months and then he came home and started growing! He was developmentally delayed. We wanted to bring him up like the other kids — mostly because he was like “I am just here, like you.” Growing up on a farm, in the Twin Cities, in Guatemala and Chiapas — my three kids have that eclectic upbringing in common. It taught them each to be their own person.

Gabriel always had it tough. He never complained about it. Sometimes he was bullied. It didn’t stop him from working and learning. School was hard for him. Especially in San Cristobal he went to study at a rural school, but it closed. He ended up volunteering at the Women’s organization where I worked.

In Minneapolis he went to Century College, working and going to school. He got run over by a car and ended up in the hospital a few days. He got a job at a hotel and became involved in the union. He never stopped.

He went to live with his brother in Illinois, because he was having trouble here.That is when he started complaining about headaches. It was a couple years after the car accident. He went to a clinic. They sent him to the hospital for an MRI and found a tumor. His brother brought him to the University of Minnesota hospital and he was operated on immediately. He had to have two operations because when you operate on the brain you have to be very careful. You can’t do everything at once.

He was not doing too well for a while. Chemo. Radiation. For about a year. But then he started doing recovering! He tried to get a job, but he had a hard time keeping it. Worked at Goodwill. Lost that job. Then he started getting sick again. We went to Naperville for special radiation treatment that made him a really crazy. But he never complained. He was just up all night long, listening to music.

I get a little annoyed when people complain. I think, “Well yeah — you should have seen my son — he didn’t complain!”

He always wanted to go to Cuba, so two years ago he went. The three kids and I spent the Christmas in Yucatan, and afterward Aaron and Gabe went to Cuba from Cancun. That was his special trip.

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Carmen, Teresa and Gabe

When he came back he got worse and worse. He started losing a lot of weight, being tired, disoriented sometimes. He died January 17, 2015.

He had so many friends. He knew EVERYBODY. When he was three years old we would go to a restaurant and he would disappear. We would find him talking to the staff in the kitchen. Or we would go to a concert and he would be up there dancing with the performers. He was like that. He had friends in Guatemala, Chiapas, here, everywhere in the world. He would tell me about his friend in Chicago and how he was going to go see her. I thought he was making it up but he wasn’t. Everyone was his best friend. “My very best friend” he would say. I would say “How many best friends can you have?”

He was deeply committed to a better world. He couldn’t understand why anyone would not spend all of his time as an activist, because it was so important. Of course he grew up with this — but it was him. Gabriel would be at five different events in a day. He didn’t drive but he would get there. He was human. He would drive me crazy sometimes. He was a really special person.
I feel so lucky to have had him as my son. I miss him like crazy. Everything reminds me of him. I learned so much from him about enjoying every moment of my life.
Sometime’s I think, “Why did it happen?” I wish he was still here. He’s not.

I feel so very honored that I was with him when he died. I was holding his hand, talking with him. I looked up and it was like he was sleeping peacefully. I see young men getting killed and I think how lucky I am that he died the way he did. Because it could have been him. He was everywhere. He was proud to be a person a color. He was in solidarity with so many social justice issues.

I do get annoyed with people don’t support Black Lives Matter. These are our children who are being killed!

I am so blessed to have two other wonderful children. Carmen and Aaron are so committed to what their art, to helping people, to making this a nicer world.

I am so proud of my children. All three of them.

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Lucila Dominguez of CTUL, Teresa and Aaron.

Altar de Muertos by Teresa Ortiz

Corazón de los Cielos, Corazón de la Tierra
Corazón de las Aguas, Corazón de los Vientos
Bendícenos

Orange… pink… yellow… rojo… yosh!
Shinning circles of color cover the heaven, competing with the sun
November is the windiest month in the Guatemalan mountains and the round barriletes
Take off with extraordinary force,
Peleándose unos con otros por llegar más rápido,
To reach the souls up above,
To remind the spirits to come down to party with us
Children run up and down the hill, holding tight to the kite strings,
Looking up the sky, bumping into each other,
Tripping with rocks and bushes in their race,
Trying not to fall on the gravestones,
Not to step on the food lay out on grassy plains, on tombs
While their parents are eating, and drinking,
And having a merry good time and sharing it all with the souls
Of those already gone
Come our loved ones, come to celebrate!
With music and canciones,
With posh
Baskets and baskets of bread have been baked for you today
Candles are lit to bring warmth to your dead spirits
Copal smoke reaches the heavens, calling you to come down to play with us
El cementerio in San Antonio Aguascalientes is having una gran fiesta
Crowded with the living and the spirits of the dead
Every cementerio in Guatemala is sharing with their dead
So many visitors are coming today!
Thousands and thousands of people were assassinated in Guatemala
Four hundred villages disappeared from the Heart of the Earth
Corazón de los Pueblos, Corazón de la Gente
Recuérdalos
So we may never, ever forget
In San Cristóbal de las Casas, in Chiapas, México,
Across the border to the north (or west)
There are weekly funeral processions in front of my door
They walk slowly, solemnly, dressed in black behind their dead
Hay tantos muertos en Chiapas todo el tiempo,
Y en Oaxaca, en Veracruz, en Guerrero, en México,
En Juárez, en la frontera, en el desierto de Arizona…
En las calles de las ciudades de los Estados Unidos…
Hay tantos muertos every day
So many muertos de la pobreza,
So many muertos de la violencia
But come November, people celebrate,
The market is busy with shoppers
Buying candles, incense, flor de muerto
Tamales de chipilin, gourds elotes, calabazas
La plaza está llena de fiesta, mil colores decorada, con los altares de los niños
People spending three days and three nights con sus muertos en el panteón municipal
Every cementerio in Mexico is sharing with their dead
So many visitors are coming today!

In Acteal, a village in Chiapas,
Where forty five people were massacred while praying, while fasting for peace
The Dia de Muertos celebration takes place outdoors, on a mountaintop
Overlooking the shrine where the martyrs lay
The procession has arrived with the sacred carved tortuga for the altar
And the coro is singing “Bienvenidos, Bienvenidos”
Sounding even sweeter when they sing it in Tzotzil
We all pray to the heavens with our feet during the mass
To remember, to never ever forget
Tcha, ah tcha, ah tcha, ah tcha…
A home altar for our parents and grandparents
Para los tíos, para el primo, y para mi hermano
Don’t forget the cigars and chocolates for Papi Mingo
Don’t forget the fancy earrings for mama
Bring the pictures de los abuelitos
No te olvides de poner una veladora con la Virgen
Did you buy the flowers y el pan de muertos?
A la tía le gustan las uvas, don’t forget
Y las calaveritas de azúcar with their names
On the table over here, we lay the offerings
For the ones who passed away
We start with yosh in the middle
Azul cielo, verde campo
With a candle, with a cross, with a tree of open branches
We go round and round and round
Like the circle of life, like the circle of death
Yellow corn to the east, and black corn to the west
White corn to the north, and red corn to the south
We fill the circle with beans and squashes and orchids and cocoa seeds
With salt and oil and refrescos and posh
With golden flowers, zempuazuchil, all around
And then we pray:
Corazón de los Pueblos, Corazón de la Gente
For we have rejected the killings
For we have rejected the violence
We honor our dead
Corazón de la Vida, Corazón de las Almas
Acompáñanos
Come to us and celebrate
Que es Día de Muertos
Everywhere!

Teaching the Universe: Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA

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How often do you see the diagram of a Jim Crow segregated dining room arrangement, in a book about Space and Math? How often do you read a book that discusses Civil Rights  and Halley’s Comet; the history of Black Colleges and the history of Human Computing; the evolution of aircraft and the evolution of government hiring policies?  How often do educators have one tool that teaches Science, Math, Social Studies and English — with a Black and female lens?

How often are Black women at the center of curricula?

Hidden Human Computers: The Black Women of NASA by Sue Bradford Edwards and Duchess Harris tells the story of the Black Women Mathematicians hired during World War II to compute the mathematical calculations NASA needed before the age of mechanical computers.  For decades they were literally left out of the picture NASA History. (The image of Annie Easley — picture above — who worked, along with  five White women, as a human computer, was actually cut out of a group photo used for a display at NASA.)

 Hidden Human Computers, provides a peak at the science of air and space craft, and can be used to encourage further STEM research. It is also untold history and can be used by social studies teachers to show that history is about everything, including many stories yet uncovered, inspiring students to go looking for more such treasures. It is the real story of  real people, and could be a launch pad for an oral history project.  It will build enthusiasm for math, especially among Black and female students. When children see themselves in school curricula, they thrive.

This is the second book Macalester Professor, Duchess Harris  has co authored for youth, that makes me both cheer and scream. (The first was an introduction to the origins of the Black Lives Matter Movement, written expressly for middle school students.) 

I cheer “hooray!” for a book that refuses a box — that is — like life — complex and not compartmental.

I also scream “Why isn’t there more of this?” There is too much empty space on the shelf where this volume belongs,  standing with other works that allow children to dream big, without sugar-coating real race, gender and economic barriers to success.

More please.

 

 

Gilberto Vázquez Valle. Mexican Folk Musicologist Finds Poetic Justice in Minneapolis.

 

Gilberto at KFAI - 1

All my education in Mexico was in public schools, and, since I was a teenager, I was conscious of the moral responsibility I had towards working people of my country, who paid for my education. But I have learned … the concept of nationality can be relative. There is another Mexico and another Latin America within the United States. One can be ideologically and morally congruent without having to be in a particular place.

Coming to Minneapolis

I was born in Yurécuaro, in the State of Michoacán, Mexico. When I was 14, my family moved to Guadalajara. I went to college there, at the Facultad de Ciencias Químicas of the Universidad de Guadalajara, which had a relationship with the University of Minnesota. Students and scholars would come up to Minneapolis to do research and to study. I came in the 80s for some research projects and then to go to graduate school. So I was unusual – I wasn’t part of a migrant stream like so many of my relatives. I had nothing of the experience that my uncles or father had.

My father spent chunks of time here in the U.S., starting when I was about four, until I was thirteen. At that time it was easy to come if you were sponsored by relatives, as he was. In Mexico he was a tailor all of his life. In the U.S. he did agricultural work in California until he found more lucrative work in the steel industry in Chicago.

Today — even though I like that city and have relatives there — “Chicago” is a sad word for me. In my childhood it meant my father was going to leave us again.

When I came to Minneapolis, I lived in the Centennial Hall dorm at the U. I felt isolated at first. But soon enough, I found other Spanish speakers at the dorm, mostly Latin American. We’d get together for dinner, taking over two or three tables in the cafeteria. The language drew us together, but that wasn’t the only commonality. There was culture, traditions, history. . . I was surprised at how easy and natural it was to have an immediate link, a strong connection, with other fellow Latin Americans: Chileans, Argentinians, Uruguayans. . . people born and raised thousand of miles away from my hometown. We had many heated political debates about what was going on in Central America in those years, in particular Nicaragua and El Salvador, and especially about the U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America.

I was very critical of the United States government. I felt hypocritical coming and staying in the U.S. to work at the University of Minnesota —a little like José Martí: inside the entrails of the beast. All my education in Mexico was in public schools, and, since I was a teenager, I was conscious of the moral responsibility I had towards the working people of my country who paid for my education. But I also learned — both through my own family history and through simple observation — that the concept of nationality can be relative. There is another Mexico and another Latin America within the United States.

I made myself available to talk to groups about the role of the U.S. in Central America. We would have events at the University — educational forums on what was happening. I wanted to give U.S. students some historical background and a radically different perspective, to get them to question what they heard in the media.

One can be ideologically and morally congruent without having to be in a particular place.

La Raza Student Cultural Center at the University of Minnesota

In the early 90s I met the late Guillermo Rojas, faculty in Chicano Studies, and he asked me if I wanted to be a faculty/technical adviser for La Raza Student Cultural Center. It was going to be something temporary, just to clean up the place (there were accusations of financial mismanagement) and to reorganize it. The activist mission of La Raza’s creators in the 1970s, had disappeared and it was run by a cohort of students from wealthy families —-mostly from Central America —people with whom I would never have had contact in other circumstances. They couldn’t care less about activism and social responsibility. For them, La Raza was a social club.

Also fighting to regain control of La Raza , were a number of mostly Chicano students from throughout the United States —mainly women — determined, courageous, hard­-working, and politically aware. Most of them were of Mexican descendant, frequently first generation Americans and the first ones in their families to get to college. They regained control of La Raza.. and it became a place for community, activism, consciousness and a vibrant cultural center.

When the Zapatista uprising happened in Chiapas, Mexico, on January 1st 1994 (the same day that NAFTA was implemented), we began having educational and political events every week focusing on the uprising and indigenous issues in Mexico and Latin America, the poverty, the discrimination, the cultural genocide still happening. Zapatista Sub­-Comandante Marcos sent communiques through the internet, and we were getting them a day after they were published in Mexico City — which was amazing at the time. La Raza became a sort of unofficial Zapatista resource center in town.

One of the sad parts of that uprising is that many of the issues that the Zapatistas were talking about, Ricardo Flores Magón was talking about in 1908 at the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. But on the positive side, there was a new respect and interest in the struggles of the Latin American indigenous peoples and a new understanding of the social and political movements in Mexico and the whole of Latin America. For the first time the word neo-­liberalism was used to understand what was happening on a global level. That was meaningful and refreshing. The Zapatistas had a global view, connecting their uprising to the struggles of workers in Bangladesh, Chicago and elsewhere.

The beauty, poetry and eloquence of the language of the Zapatista communiques also inspired and moved everyone, including myself. I remember reading the communique “¿De qué nos van a perdonar?”, in a coffee shop in Dinkytown and openly crying. Because of the Zapatista Movement, I saw many formerly apolitical young people in La Raza beginning to show an interest in the social and political movements in Latin America — and making connections with patterns of oppression and resistance in the U.S. That was the richest moment of my experience in La Raza —seeing that awakening, not just in others, but in myself.

My activism was focused on the U of M. I was trying to stay behind the scenes, keeping a low profile. At that time, my immigration status was as an international student. I knew my legal status was vulnerable. So I was trying to frame all the events I was involved in as academic. I was invited to speak at some rallies in front of the Federal Building in Minneapolis, and I had to decline.

When the energy around the Zapatista movement diminished, I still continued being involved in La Raza, providing continuity in the organization as students came and went. There were many more first generation Mexican American students, in the late 1990s and their stories of immigrant struggle and resistance inspired me. Even though they spoke English among themselves, they enjoyed speaking Spanish to me. I have a fascination with Spanish language proverbs and know thousands of them. Those young students would come to the office and ask me “so, what’s the proverb of the day?” They enjoyed the wisdom, earthiness, sparkling quality and sense of humor present in the proverbs.

In spite of the age difference, with those young students I had a feeling of prodigal sons reunited.

Youthful obsessions: comic book super heroes and Latin American folk music.

When I was little in Yurécuaro, my hometown, I was so much into comic books that my father went around to all the barber shops and asked them not to let me in because they had comic books there and he thought I was reading way too many of them.

There used to be a system where you could buy comics for a peso or sit on a bench and read them for ten cents. I was so obsessed with the characters and the stories being told, that I got to the point of stealing money from my mother in order to rent them. One day she found me at the rental bench and asked me to come with her immediately. When she saw me pay for 13 comics, she immediately knew who had stolen her money. Back at home, I got such a monumental spanking that, many years after, it still mortified her to the point of tears.

The comic books I read avidly were made in Mexico— “Chanoc”, “La Familia Burrón”, “Kaliman”, “El Payo”, “El Diamante Negro”, “Memín Pinguín”, “Fantomas”, “Tawa”, etc. —even, to my father’s mortification, “Lágrimas, Risas y Amor”. There were also many American comic books, translated, of course, which never got my interest. It wasn’t only that I was indifferent to them: I openly disliked them. Perhaps it was the language: They were probably translated in Spain and the dialogs always felt contrived, silly. So, I was totally oblivious to “Superman”, “Batman”, “Los Cuatro Fantásticos”, etc. There was, however, one of those American characters and comic books for which I’ve always had a soft spot: “El Hombre Araña” (Spiderman).

When I was fourteen I gained a new obsession. We had just moved to Guadalajara, which, at that time, was a town of about 2 million people. Almost immediately I discovered the radio stations, one run by the Department of Fine Arts, the other by the Universidad de Guadalajara, that played some folk music. I’m immensely grateful to both of those stations. They enriched my life beyond measure. The music I heard there for the first time, sounded strange yet familiar. In a primal, visceral way, I knew that it was my own. It was like hearing an ancient tune apparently long forgotten but in actuality always present within me.

By the time I was 18 there were already a few places where Latin American folk music was played live. Some were small venues related to the local Department of Fine Arts the others were “Peñas” (coffee houses) that appeared in Mexico City, Guadalajara and other large cities throughout Mexico. Most of the performing groups were local and non-professional. Through college, I met two brothers and their uncle who, together with two other friends, formed one of those groups: “Los Cachicamos”. They took me with them everywhere they played: Schools, Peñas, labor union halls, music festivals, small villages’ festivities, public plazas. They were really good and played not only folk music from the Andes but also from Argentina and Mexico, which, amazingly, few of the Mexican folk groups at the time played. They even traveled to South America to get music and instruments, and they lent me recordings that were impossible to get in Guadalajara.

From their trip, they brought back several “Charangos,” a string instrument with five double strings (similar to a mandolin) that is fundamental in the Andean music tradition. The back of its box is made from the shell of a small furry armadillo that lives in that region.

My friends got their Charangos directly from a legendary Bolivian charango maker, Sabino Orozco. This man introduced my friends to his son who was chosen to continue the Charango making tradition. His name I can not forget: Clark Kent Orozco.

Bringing Latin American Folk Music to Minneapolis through KFAI radio.

In Minneapolis my Latin American friends were often surprised that I knew old folk songs from their countries. They would give me names of genres, groups and performers they thought would interest me. They would also give me tapes. My collection grew.

KFAI, the local community radio station, was one of the first stations I heard in the U.S.  I also listened to obsessively to the classical music station of Minnesota Public Radio (MPR). The whole concept of a public community radio station struck me as both beautiful and powerful.

One Saturday morning, a couple of weeks or so after I had arrived to the U.S, while listening to KFAI, I  heard “Las Mañanitas,” the traditional Mexican celebratory song used in Birthdays and Saint Days. I was moved to the point of tears. I had discovered Willy Dominguez’ show, “Sábados Alegres” —one of the longest running shows at KFAI, that plays Tex-­Mex music. Soon afterwards I discovered the Latin American music program run by Rafael Varela, from Uruguay, as well as shows centered on American folk music (which was one of my “discoveries” upon coming to this country).

After a few years volunteering and subbing at the Station, I applied for and got my own radio program, “Encuentro” —now airing Thursday nights 8­-10 pm. The show aired first on July 29, 2007; so I have been doing my program for nine years! I explore the cultural history and traditions of our continent, and to tell that story, folk music is fundamental.

I put in six hours every week just preparing the show. Sometimes more. My program is never improvised; it always has a defined order and structure, a theme or themes to explore for the day. I believe that to improvise implies that I don’t take it seriously and that would be a disservice to my community, to the station, to the listeners, to myself. I usually explore a composer, a genre of music, a country in particular, or certain themes or historical events that can be talked about or explained through music, like “The Music of Liberation Theology” and “The Music from the Life and Times of Frida Kahlo”.

I think I would never be able to find space on a commercial Latino radio station for my program. Those stations are all about business, commercial interests and commercial music. My program, proudly, doesn’t fit that model at all. At first I was disappointed that the people calling in to my program were mostly White, or not from the Latino communities. I would have been happier hearing from Latin American communities from South Minneapolis, and youth like those I worked with in La Raza. It was with them that I witnessed first-­hand, the power and inextinguishable relevance of language, history, culture and traditions.

Changes in Latino Minneapolis in the 1990s

Before the mid 1990s, if I wanted to buy a hint of home I had to go to West St. Paul and the options were very limited. It was rare to hear somebody speaking Spanish in the bus or in the street .

Lake Street had historically, been a sort of entry zone for immigrants in town. In the 1990s it was the front line, the border where demographic changes were most visible and tangible. Small Latino restaurants, stores and bakery shops started opening up there, seemingly out of nowhere. Latino communities revitalized that area, not only Lake Street but that whole part of South Minneapolis.

Visiting some of those Mexican and Latino stores on Lake Street was a lesson for me in the perseverance of memory and traditions. I found the same brand of laundry detergent (“Roma”) and bar soap (“Zote”) that Mexican working class families have used for generations; I found healing herbs and teas that, in Mexico are available only in a special store or market. I saw “leche de burra” soap — a product I heard about from countryside people from my parents’ generation, but never actually saw until the late 1990s, along Lake Street in Minneapolis!

And the food!

Food is a living manifestation of memory and tradition. It is also a noble, fundamental thread that, along with language and music, provides some the most immediate and visceral links between immigrants and their country of birth, their family history, their ancestral memories. Food is also a savior. Selling cooked food is frequently how a struggling family can get back on its feet; a means available to immigrant families to aspire to a measure of economic independence and one of the precious few venues available to them for upward mobility.

The traditional Mexican “refresco” (bottled soft drink) “Jarritos” —especially the tamarind flavor is easier to find in Minneapolis (you can even find it in Cub foods!) than in Mexico, where, in conventional stores, the only “refrescos” you can get are Coke, Pepsi and such. I see a measure of poetic justice in this.

Living in Seward/Surviving Assaults/ Growing  impoverishment in Minneapolis 

I don’t know how to drive. I walk, I bike and I use the bus. These observations, below, are the perspective of one who has been riding the bus and walking in the city for more than 20 years now.

When I first moved out of the dorm, I lived in Marcy Holmes near the University Campus — a fairly transient neighborhood. Then I moved to Seward, also near to Campus, where I have been ever since. I really like living in Seward, even though I have had some bad experiences. I was assaulted twice. Because of those incidents I have become much more watchful and alert of my surroundings.

I do not think these assaults necessarily reflect Seward. It is just part of living in an urban place, within the inner city, especially when you walk alone at night. Both times, those who assaulted me were Native American youth. That is only incidental— a reflection of other underlying factors, among them the growing impoverishment in Minneapolis and the ever-growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots throughout the U.S.

When I first came to Minneapolis I wrote home saying that everyone here seemed to be well­-off. But I have seen a noticeable and continuing growth in poverty since then — more homeless people, for instance.

I see it on the bus and in the streets: Everything from more clothes and shoes that are not appropriate for the weather or that don’t fit, to obvious signs of poor health, especially in people’s teeth. This might be considered only anecdotal evidence but the fact is that data and statistics confirm it.

I have noticed an increase in the body language of sadness. In the early 1990s I used to travel by bus to go to Madison, Wisconsin. For me it was fun and convenient, but I saw that those who traveled by bus seemed to always be sad and down on their luck. Now I see the same sadness every day in the city buses and in the streets.

I also see more conflict, more tension. Twenty years ago or so, it was the sort of conflict that normally happens within a crowded urban space. Now I see more signs of confrontation —in racial, social and economic terms.

Of course, there has always been some grumbling about immigrants. But the resentment now seems to be greater, more openly belligerent and confrontational. Two examples that have happened recently:
— In downtown Minneapolis there were two East African youth waiting for the bus. An African-American guy stopped by, just to cuss at them, to say he hated Somalis. When he left the girl said to me, “They are always hating us.” I told her “He is probably struggling —maybe he doesn’t have a job.” She said “You know, I didn’t see it that way…. but… this happens to us all the time.”
— A Native American man, complained loudly to the whole bus about how the immigrants have come and taken all the jobs, the resources.

I think that when I was assaulted those two times, I was a victim of this growing poverty, exacerbated by a massive housing crisis and a recession, and that ever-growing social and economic disparity. Before at least there was a feeling of hope in a not too distant future. Now even that is gone. And people are taking it out on each other.

Disparity and Hope. 

But there’s something else: mounting disparity,  long-­lasting hopelessness, and the closing of venues to upward mobility are by themselves a form of inflicted violence and, as such, it have been detonators for community activism.

In the 1990s there was little evident signs of activism among new Latino immigrants. People went to work, and, on a Saturday afternoon, perhaps to Mercado Central to eat some tacos, menudo or tamales with champurrado. People just stayed in their corner, making as little waves as possible. That has changed significantly in response to the desperate immigration situation, the constant political backlash, lack of upward mobility, and limited, low-paying and frequently exploitive job market for people in our communities. Recent restrictions on driver’s licenses (since 2001), have brought into the streets many immigrants who, because of fear, would never have been active in the political process. People now have the boldness to be directly involved in different stages of political activism, even if it implies taking significant risks, including being deported.

In that sense, I’m hopeful. I see different community organizing efforts going on locally at different levels: grass-roots, faith-based, workers’ centers, etc., and the growing consciousness that comes with these efforts. I particularly admire the work done by CTUL (Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha) a local workers’ center that is doing amazing organizing with retail cleaning workers.

Something else: These movements also plant a seed for future generations. A tradition of consciousness and community organizing doesn’t happen overnight, it is nurtured and that is what all of these community organizing movements are doing.

One thing immigrants from Mexico  know quite well is that they are very valuable to both the U.S. economy and the Mexican economy. The U.S. economy desperately needs the cheap, vulnerable labor and their remittances are absolutely essential for Mexico. There is power in that.

We saw an assertion of that power on May 1st 2006 when millions of Latino workers and their families throughout the United States rose up and marched through the streets —40,000 here in the Twin Cities — who marched to the State Capitol wearing t-shirts that proclaimed:  “Undocumented and Unafraid”.

May First, the International Workers Day is, of course, rooted in the rich, proud, obscured and ignored, U.S. labor history. It was celebrated in nearly every country in the world except the United States where it originated — until 2006, when the most marginalized exploited immigrants of this nation, rescued it, dignified it, and brought it back to its place of origin. Poetic Justice.

A final thing: I had my own stereotypes when I first came to the U.S. — about the “average” White U.S. person. I did not know there were people here concerned and aware about the policies (both foreign and domestic) of the U.S. government, that there were so many people committed to change things, doing so out of solidarity.

And that’s the key word: Solidarity —not empty, self-gratifying charity, not condescending attitudes, but understanding and solidarity. I meet people all the time, many times young, who are active and committed, to achieve and build a more just economic and political system; people who talk the talk and walk the walk, as the saying goes; not out of empty romanticized notions, but out of solidarity. I think that Minneapolis is special in this way. It has a rich local history of solidarity movements and I constantly see that tradition not only being kept alive but also moved forward.

 

Racism and the Labor Movement. From $15Now to Philando Castile. Which Side Are We On? An historical view.

IMG_1656 4 On July 19, 2016, educators at the American Federation of Teachers’ national convention marched through downtown Minneapolis shouting “Black Lives matter”, “Justice for Philando,” and “We want justice, we want peace, in our schools and in the streets.” Leaders of the Minneapolis and St. Paul Federations sat in the street in their union colors as an act of civil disobedience aimed at local banks that fund prisons over schools, and local police that brutalize and even kill communities of color with impunity.

The Police Federations of St Paul and Minneapolis were quick to chastise the teachers for showing a lack of solidarity with their union brothers and sisters in blue.

This schism in the labor movement is nothing new. From its early years the labor movement moved along two opposing paths, capitulating to racist divide and conquer tactics of the bosses, or organizing against them.
One of the first victories of the nascent labor movement was a major capitulation. As the primary proponents of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882,  labor committed it’s original sin —  criminalizing  brethren paid the least, using racism as a tool.  It is a sin echoed over the decades, crystalized in the cry THEY  take OUR jobs. 

It is a sin we continue to commit  when we allow immigrant workers  to be criminalized, dehumanized, denied citizenship and basic human rights. Today  there are union leaders in SEIU and UFCW, among others — who are championing immigrants and undocumented workers. In nearly every local ,when it comes to immigration, there is an opportunity for workers to decide which side they are on.

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In that same era that the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, the Ku Klux Klan had its first major success when it divided and conquered tenant farmers, sharecroppers and cotton textile workers who had organized unions made up of Black and White workers in the South. Some White people, like the Georgian Tom Watson, actually went from leadership in  biracial labor movements to leadership in the Klan— so great was the victory for southern factory bosses and the old plantation elite.

In the early 1900s the still new American Federation of Labor set about organizing “skilled” white, male, workers into separate trades.  The Industrial Workers of the World on the other hand, flourished by doing the opposite — uplifting those on the bottom of the pay scale and organizing women and non-whites –which at the time included workers now considered white. (The race idea, made up by elites, proved so flexible, so divorced from science, that it could turn a person white over night, or vice versa.)

IWW members were no less prone to bigotry than their AFL siblings, but they had that motto, an injury to one is injury to all.  In the 21st century that sentiment is echoed in the words of Paul Wellstone We all do better when we all do better.  

In the first half of the 20th century, some workers of color formed their own unions– Black sleeping car porters, left out of the white train conductors brotherhood, and Latina Pecan Shellers in Texas and New Mexico. Likewise today some workers of color, are organizing outside of the AFL-CIO. Some, like CTUL in Minneapolis, have since been embraced by the union federations they out-organized.

In the 1930s The New Deal’s National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) left out farm workers and domestic workers at a time when opportunities for African Americans and Latino workers were limited to jobs as maids, janitors, garbage pick-up and farm work. Unfortunately some leaders of the AFL helped to make sure those workers remained unorganized, and helped keep the unionized plant door closed to people of color.

In the 1960s — the Teamsters — that beloved union that made Minneapolis a union town in the 30s — showed up in the fields in Northern California where Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez were struggling to bring farmworkers into the AFL-CIO fold. Instead of picket signs and solidarity banners the Teamsters brought billy clubs, to beat up the striking workers.

Likewise, today some union members are protecting their fellow members when they commit race crimes. The Police unions are the worst, the most egregious, but they are also the canary in the coal mine — forcing us to look at how unions can operate as white clubs, keeping people of color out.  This labor activist Cathy Jones’ recent experience is indicative of an attitude we must fight:

On the day that Philando Castile was murdered by a police officer in Falcon Heights, people gathered at the Minnesota Governor’s mansion in St. Paul. One of those who spent that first night in front of the Mansion was Cathy, a postal worker  who recently helped organize People of Color Union Members, (POCUM) through the Minneapolis AFL-CIO. Cathy  called in sick and and filed her day off as an emergency. When she came back to work management had approved her absence. The next day her Union steward told her she might be in trouble with management since she was on the news.

“He did not realize management had already approved my absence”Cathy told me. “The union was trying to get me in trouble because they don’t like Black Lives Matter and my work with the movement. In this instance, thank goodness the union doesn’t have the authority to discipline. Only management can do that. I’m glad my employer had my back.”

Cathy’s experience is shameful and indicative. We need a principles to guide us as union members that don’t allow a union brother to do that to a union sister; that don’t allow a union to cover up the high crimes and daily harassments of people of color, be they union members, or the public we serve as workers.

And we need to look at our solidarity. Are we out there for those who are most oppressed, singing their song? The fast food workers — predominantly workers of color, are demanding $15 minimum wage. It is time for the rest of the labor movement to follow their lead. In Minneapolis right now that means pressuring City council DFLers who have or seek union backing, to allow the voters to vote on a $15 minimum wage for the city, or pass a $15 minimum wage ordinance for the city. No council person who rejects the petitions of thousands,  (and the sweat equity of  dozens of labor activists to collect them) should receive a union federation endorsement.

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To paraphrase the old  miners union anthem: Which side Are We On? 

 

Labor activist in Minneapolis recalls her 40 years of struggle.

FullSizeRender (1)I interviewed this Minneapolis union activist on July 2.  When I sent her the  draft of this essay she held on to it for two weeks. She finally decided to allow me to publish it, but did not want her name or photo attached, for fear of reprisal.

My parents met at Wayne State University in Michigan and moved to Minneapolis so my dad could go to grad school. They bought a house on 55th and Fremont. It cost $15,000. Four bedrooms. Two car garage. It was a working class White neighborhood. Still is I think. 

We lived with my mom after my parents divorced. I was about 10. Mom got a job as a Machine and Tool designer. The “Grandma” next door took care of us during the day. That was when you walked to elementary school and came home for lunch.  One day she made us sardines on crackers. We didn’t like food with spines, so we threw them against the wall. We went off to school and “Grandma” had to clean them up. I still feel guilty about it. 

All the neighbor kids ran around together. We performed plays for our mothers. Mom was the best costume designer. She made halloween costumes for the whole neighborhood. A tube of Colgate toothpaste, The Quaker Oats man,  Big Ben clock, Mr. Peanut. We made periscopes out of milk cartons, mirror and the bottom and top, and use them in the garage to spy on people.

We spent summers in Detroit with my Aunt and Uncle. Mom would take us up there on the train. We’d pack bacon and peanut butter sandwiches and Tang. The last week we’d spend at Dad’s parents. Dad was second-generation Lebanese, fully assimilated, but at his parents house we ate kibbe, cooked or raw stuffed grape leaves, tabouli.  Dad did go to Lebanon in 1970 with grandpa. He died very young, in 1976. He would have been a sheik if they were back in Lebanon.

I went to Anthony Junior High. In 9th grade I skipped school to attend an anti war rally. We took the bus downtown. We chanted “Hell no we won’t go!” We were excited to be saying a swear word.

I began Washburn High school in 1970. It was about 10 % Black. There were lots of fights between White and Black kids. We had police dogs in the hallways, paddy wagons outside the school. You could sense the tension when you walked into school. Some of the Black kids were really militant and organized. One of the leaders, Ronald Judy,* was in my homeroom. I had a high regard for him. They demanded and won a Black Studies course. That was progress. I was not involved.  I used the fights as way to convince my mom to give us excused absences from school. I played the flute and had two friends who played the violin. We would skip school together, make tuna sandwiches, smoke pot and play trios. 

I had my first boyfriend in high school. He was abusive. He’d hit me, say he was sorry and he’d never do it again.  Then he would hit me again.  When he came at me with a gun I tried to hide under a bed to get away from him.  I think that is why I hate guns to this day. The last straw for me, however, was when he came at me downtown when I was coming back from the library to pick up some music. I had my flute with me. He took it and threw it on the ground. All the pieces on the street.

That is how much my flute meant to me.

I never allowed a man to hurt me again, but when I hear about women who stay with abusers, I understand it.

At 18 I got a job in Dinkytown at Sammy Ds. I lived in the apartment over Grays Drugs Store that Bob Dylan had lived in. Mama D had this great community reputation. Police would come in and eat for free. She would have free meals twice a year and people would line up around the block. People didn’t know she would make us work the meals for free. She was a strict boss. We had to clock in to get paid. Sometimes I would forget to clock in and I would have to go up to Mama D’s son and get my time card adjusted. He threatened that the next time we forgot to punch in we wouldn’t get paid. It happened to me and he refused to pay me. I called the department of labor and they said “You must be paid for every hour you work.” That was the end of them giving us a hard time about our time cards.

That was the first time I stood up for myself at work. 

Soon after, I got a job at the Radisson downtown. It was a union shop, but I still didn’t get it. All I knew about unions is they deducted dues. I didn’t pay any attention. One day when I was in line to get a paycheck I was handed a ballot. It said, 5 cents, 5 cents, 5 cents, Yes or No. I asked the waiter in front of me how I should vote. He said ‘Do you want to go out on strike? If not you better vote yes.’ So I did.

I left that job to follow a boy out to Vancouver. When I got there he treated me badly so I left. I called a friend in Minneapolis — a gay man I worked with at the Radisson. He joined me and we hitched our way down the coast to San Fransisco, bought a week of rooms at the Y for $12. We ran out of money, went to the mission for a meal, standing in line with the homeless folks.

After my trip out west I got a job at Radisson South. HR signed me up with the union. That was wrong. It should be union person who signs you up and explains the benefits.

I worked in the Tiffany Room with women that were in their 40s and 50s. We had these uniforms — a polyester cranberry skirt with a velcro waistband. In the back of the dining room  we had silverware, coffee pots, and our ashtrays. We all smoked while we worked. We’d take a puff and then go back and serve the food. My first day I was walking back to get a coffee pot with one of the bus boys and my skirt got caught on the handle of the silverware drawer and it came right off. I learned to pin it after that.

A few months in there was a notice about a union meeting in the union newspaper. At the bottom it said people who do not go will be fined. My friend showed me the article. He had highlighted the last line in yellow. I didn’t want to be fined so I went. So did 3 or 4 other people. They showed us the film, With Babies and Banners, about the 1936 Ford Sit-Down Strike. I was so moved by it. At the end of the meeting they appointed me and my two coworkers to be stewards at the Radisson.

That is how I became a union activist.

We went out on strike in 1980, demanding major medical insurance. We were out for three weeks. The union ran a full page ad about a woman of color, a single mother who worked full time in a hotel downtown, but was paid so little she qualified for food stamps. The ad was very effective.

When the business agent called me to say we were on strike I was working.  The manager had left early, leaving us the keys so we could lock up. He often did this. We took all the water pitchers and silverware and locked them in cupboards. I took the keys with me.  When I was on Highway 62 driving home, I threw them out the window of my car — a big ring of keys. When we returned to work, the doors of the cupboards had been taken off.

I was the picket captain on the graveyard shift. The trucks that brought food to the hotel would come at night. The hotel was next to an Embers and the hotel would shuttle scabs in through the restaurant parking lot so they didn’t have to cross our picket line. A teamster trucker would come with produce every night. He would stop the truck and a scab would drive it into the parking lot. Then he would take me out for breakfast at the Embers and we’d talk union.

Our hotel was the first to go out. Every day another hotel would join us. My friend was working the Radisson downtown as a waiter. He and a few friends used some creative tactics. At the Sheraton Ritz they poured dish soup in the fountains and stuffed the toilets with toilet paper so they overflowed.

There was an arcade between the Radisson and Daytons and the hotel got an injunction so that we couldn’t run a picket line on the arcade. Scabs used the arcade to get to the Personnel office without going through our picket line. My friends went one night and glued the doors to the personnel offices — 20 tubes of crazy glue. So then the scabs had to cross our picket line. They didn’t get the door open for three days. 

When we went back the scabs left quickly because none of us would talk to them. They would get their dishes on a plate that was so hot they’d burn their fingers. One guy stuck it out. He was Lebanese. I finally started talking to him, got him to join the union.

We had this young whippersnapper of a manager. He really rode us. Wrote people up all the time. One night we were really busy.  He was at the front desk, standing up at the podium and he turned around and said “I am fucked.” We wrote him up. We posted it on the union bulletin board behind glass so he couldn’t take it down. He quit writing us up.

In the ’80s a number refugees from South East Asia worked at the hotel. They put them in the back of the house— the dish room, housekeeping. We heard the  employers would get subsidies from the government for hiring refugees. Around that time a group of us from various hotels — union activists — organized ourselves into a rank and file group we called Workers for a Strong Union — WSU. We would we write educational flyers to distribute to the workers in the hotels. For each flyer we would chose a section of the contract or a labor law. They were  know-your-rights flyers. We translated them into Vietnamese, Spanish, and Hmong.
To get them to the housekeepers we had  people in room service slide the flyers under the door of the maid’s closets. 

One of the bus people in the dining room was from South East Asia.  Other workers made fun of his name —  called him “cow.” I asked him about his name. He told me it was Mai Khao, so that’s what I called him. One of the waitresses said “why are you calling him your cow?” He invited his coworkers to come to his place for dinner, to feed us the food of his homeland — made a huge feast– seafood dishes, beer. I was the only one who showed up. It was terrible. I sat there and ate as much I could.

We had a friend who worked for a graphic arts company on Stinson Boulevard. The graphic arts workers — GCIU — went out on strike. We went to the picket line. The company got an injunction stipulating that only a certain number of people could stand on the driveway, so we would line up on the curb. When the scabs came we threw rocks at their cars. When the the light turned red we would run into the street and gather all the rocks.

Around that time Minneapolis taxi drivers union had a strike. All the companies. Yellow, Blue and White. They lost that strike. Shortly after that Mpls cab drivers became  non-union.

I knew someone who was at a Paint manufacturing company. The workers were trying to organize a union– the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union — OCAWU. He was making good money, but the conditions were hazardous.  No matter what he did he reeked of chemicals. He would breath them out! He was fired for union activity. The Union took his case and he prevailed. The NLRB put him back to work.

When I got a divorced I needed higher pay work. My mom saw a notice in the paper about women working in the trades. I decided to go into Heating and Air conditioning. For two years I waitressed at night and went to school in Eden Prairie during the day to get my trades license. My mom took care of my kids.

By the end of the first year I had these new skills. I put a new compressor in my neighbors refrigerator, a new motor in my brother’s dryer, a new compressor in my own air conditioner. It felt good.

I got a job at the U and was a pre-apprentice in the pipe fitters union. The U was considered easier than working for a contractor. All the guys were near retirement and their bodies were shot. There was only one other woman in the fitters union and she also worked at the U. The only younger man there was Native American.

I worked in the refrigeration shop. All men. Every day Jim, the guy I was paired with, would say to me “You shouldn’t be here. You should be home with your children.” Finally one day I said to him. “Shut up. I have to make a mortgage payment just like you do” and he never said it again.

We drove the truck around campus, Jim in the drivers seat. We would do the chillers in the basement of Coffman Union down where the floor was dirt and the centipedes hung out. One day instead of stopping at Coffman, Jim kept riding. He  wouldn’t tell me where we were going. He took us to a diner and we had breakfast. I was a nervous wreck because I knew we could get fired in a heart beat, but we never got caught. He paid for my breakfast and told me to save the money for my kids.

On my child’s first day of kindergarten I told the shift leader I wanted to come late so I could put my kid on the bus. He said “You are not going to start that — kids and busses, coming in late and all that shit are you?” But he said OK and he punched me in so I wouldn’t lose time. It was nice I guess, but  every Friday I would have to punch the guys’ time cards so they could leave early to go up to their cabins. They’d leave at noon. They told me I had to do it because I was the junior person. I was always scared of losing my job because of it, but we never got caught.

I was assigned to work in a shallow tunnel with “Doug”. The other guys all warned me about Doug. They said ‘Remember four things 1. Don’t talk to him. 2 Do what he says. 3. Stand back from him when he is working. 4. Make sure he takes his medication.

Doug didn’t shower. He was very fragrant. A trucker would come and pick us up and take us from one area of the tunnel to another. The drivers would complain about how he smelled….

They had removed asbestos from the tunnel the summer before. It had dirt floors. It was hot down there so Doug ran a fan, kicking up dust. I had friend in Canada working in Health and Safety. He said the standards in the United States for asbestos safety were really low, that I shouldn’t be bringing that dust home on my clothes. So I went to administration and told them I wanted full asbestos gear. They told me I didn’t need it. I told them I wanted it. They gave it to me.
Doug was mad. He said he “kicked asbestos off the boiler and sat down for lunch and nothing happened to him.”

I left work for a week to go to my brother’s wedding. When I came back I wasn’t assigned to the tunnel anymore. Doug had complained about me. They put me back in refrigeration. Later this guy who was a welder was assigned to go down with Doug. Doug went nuts and tried to strangle him. I was glad I wasn’t working with Doug anymore.

I got laid off in November. They had a big union meeting. I introduced myself to the guy next to me. He wouldn’t shake my hand. I tried to tell him where I worked.  He interrupted. “I know everything about you. You better watch your step. When you start union school you will see its one night a week. You need to be quiet about that when you are with the fitters’ wives because they think its three nights a week. You tell and you will be lucky if you get out with your life.”

When the hall called me about positions a few months later, it was all the worst jobs — like drilling holes in concrete for a parking ramp. Finally I said ‘will you guys let me collect unemployment?’ and they said yes.

I soon got a job as a labor union business agent. Been doing that ever since. I negotiate and administrate collective bargaining agreements. Many of my bargaining units are public schools. Recently one district tried to outsource bus drivers. All the workers showed up at the school board meeting and talked about how most of them went to area schools. They knew the kids, the families, they watched the kids grow up. We won. That one. 

When I was working for OPEIU Local 12, the clerical workers who worked in union local offices went out on strike. A male business agent negotiated their contract. It was insufficient. Most of us who worked for the union, staffed the picket lines and did work at home. We would not cross their picket line. The international union was furious. Turned out it was illegal to have your employer also be your union…

Union reps are not always on the right side. I have seen labor officers cross picket lines. Postal workers union officers crossed the line once. We picketed his union meeting. They called the cops.

Some unions today are willing to move beyond their industry and strict labor issues. Take stands on the environment, Black Lives Matter. They organize the organized. They are working to expand beyond the old white boys network. Some unions have learned to reach out to immigrant populations.

A few years ago I went to Riverside Clinic for a mammogram and one of the people that I represented at Local 12 checked me in. He told me about the Twin Cities Labor Chorus and encouraged me to join. I did so reluctantly. At first I didn’t go every week, but it grew on me.  The members are my friends. Union activists. We sing for everybody. We do picket lines and union meetings, picnics and union parties. We bring the lighter side to events. I want us to get more young people, to recruit more People of Color in our choir.

These days I get my energy from the Twin Cities Labor Chorus. I want to spread that energy.

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*I looked up Ronald Judy. He is a professor of Critical and Cultural Studies in the Department of English at the University of Pittsburg.  I asked for an interview.As luck would have it, he was coming to Minneapolis to see family.  We talked on July 18th.  The result of our conversation will be published here soon.

“The city is ripe for taking over.” Educating Youth, Organizing Bryant Neighborhood to Transform Minneapolis. Marjaan Sirdar

Marjaan Sirdar Age 37.  Minneapolis Project.

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I interviewed Marjaan on June 11, 2016, during the two weeks between the death of Muhammad Ali and what would have been the 45th birthday of the late Tupac Shakur. He was thinking about them both as we talked and then edited this piece.

I was born in Chicago in 1979. We were essentially homeless – although I didn’t realize it until I worked with homeless youth in Minneapolis thirty years later. My father, an immigrant from Pakistan, was struggling to find work. My mom was busting her butt working at a Department Store, but it wasn’t enough. Mom, my older brother and I lived with my grandma for a while. I was one years old when we first went to stay with my grandfather in Minnesota.

My grandfather ended up in Minnesota because he was sent to Federal prison in Sandstone. He was a minister in the Nation of Islam. He opened up the first Mosque in Kansas City in the late 60s. According to him his conviction was an FBI set up. I’m not sure the real story. His wife moved to Minnesota to be near him when he was incarcerated and when he got out they settled in Bloomington.

We moved nearly ten times before I was five. My mom and dad were trying to work it out but my mom was determined not to have us grow up in Chicago. She grew up in the Nation of Islam in a Black middle class bubble on the south side . She watched as Chicago grew more violent from the 60s to the 70s and she didn’t want her children to end up dead or in jail. My father left permanently, a month before I turned four, back home to Pakistan. We finally settled in Plymouth, MN when it was time for me to go to kindergarten. I went to a Wayzata district school from kindergarten until 6th grade. Very wealthy and White. Good academically. Very isolating socially.

We moved to Bloomington in 1991. They put me in remedial classes so I didn’t learn anything. But I liked it because I was with other kids of color. I went to Kennedy High School. I skipped class, smoked weed, got kicked out of school for fighting, but I graduated.

The thing that saved me when I was a kid was hip hop —NOT the 1990s commercial stuff but the late 1980s artists. They – and my mom — instilled in me a sense of self-pride.

I went to Inver Grove Heights for college for a couple semesters. Didn’t get much work done. I lived with other college kids and we hung out and partied a lot. I hardly worked, just sold drugs mostly. I began going out with a girl I’d know since junior high and eventually I moved in with her back to Bloomington. I started working at a warehouse in Edina. I was making good money. I knew people with college degrees working at Perkins.  I decided college made no sense.

My coworkers were working class conservative white men. There was one guy there who was kinda radical and he turned me on to Democracy Now. For the nine years that I worked at the warehouse I listened to Democracy Now, everyday, Monday through Friday, while I was at work. And I argued politics with my coworkers, customers and my boss. It politicized me. It was there that I learned how to argue, debate and hold my ground, arguing against people listening to conservative talk radio. We argued about the news of the day, on 9/11, through the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, when Barak Obama ran for president….

In 2007 I bought my own house in the Bryant neighborhood, a historical Black community in South Minneapolis, where Prince lived and went to school as a kid. I was 28 years old. I was eager to get out of the suburbs and be in a Black neighborhood. To get away from conservatives. To meet liberals. Boy was I in for a surprise.

I got a six-week job working in Keith Ellison’s 2008 relection campaign. I canvassed and door knocked.It was exciting. I loved the people working on his campaign. Multicultural, multiracial, Muslims, Christians, Jews, old and young, Ellison was bringing them together. At that time I was drinking Obama’s Koolaid. I related to his life story. My father was an immigrant like his.

It was a bittersweet time in my life. In 2008 my brother was diagnosed with cancer. He had his leg amputated at Mayo clinic the day before Obama’s first inauguration, just days before I turned 30. I stopped looking for work because my brother was getting sicker and sicker. He died April 18, 2009. I grieved for a while. Not working.

When I started to look for work in non-profits I discovered most of them required a college degree. I applied for a job at a welfare-to-work agency in St. Paul. I killed the interview and they hired me. I was dressing up to go to work, learning new skills and getting good feedback. It felt good. Until one day, they told me I was fired for “lying on the job application about my criminal record.”

But I didn’t lie.

I had told them about the DWI and drug offense, neither of them felonies. What happened was the courts had my criminal record mixed up with my brother’s— my brother who had just passed.

They wouldn’t even check to see if I was telling the truth. It was then that I saw another side of them. I was the only black man working there. I knew if I was a white woman — like most of them — they would have listened to me and checked my story. I would’ve been innocent until proven guilty. Their attitude was: “I knew you were too good to be true.” That was my intro to social services.

I enrolled at MCTC the following year. I was 31 years old. It was the greatest thing I ever did. The professors were great and so were the students. Soon after I got a job working with homeless youth. My education into the world of liberal social services continued. My coworkers and bosses were all white folks, most of whom grew up in small towns, went to college and wanted to do good. Their first experience with people of color was in this position of power. They embraced the social service charity model and ignored systemic racism. They’d say “we can’t change the world’ Almost all of our clients were black.

I ended up arguing with them like I did the warehouse workers. I learned that I preferred the conservatives. Racism among liberals comes out in bizarre ways. Micro-aggressions. They would never admit their racism. At least the conservatives were honest.

It is a crime that in this rich liberal city, people who look like me are struggling, youth are homeless.

The youth I worked with were some of the most talented and brilliant people. Some were high school educated, some were not. The majority were Black, almost all people of color, the same system that controlled their ancestors under slavery, Jim Crow was still keeping them down. Poverty and homelessness are completely intertwined with the history of racism.

The system is fucked up. It keeps people in poverty, gives them just enough to make deals to find a place to stay. $200 in food stamps is not enough for anyone to survive. $200 dollars in cash assistance – those are death wages.There was a white homeless population who traveled across the country, from the west coast, who chose a hobo punk rock lifestyle, but the folks of color were not choosing it. They became homeless because a they were in section 8 housing and they turned 18 and were kicked out of their family homes because the system did not allow that many adults to live in one apartment. They may have trouble getting on the lease because of a criminal record.

They didn’t want hand outs. They wanted to work. Some were unable to work due to mental illness. Some ended up homeless because their families couldn’t deal with their mental illness but others acquired mental illness as a result of the trauma associated with homelessness. None of them asked to be there.
These youth experienced so much trauma: one night in the shelter, the next on the streets getting raped or selling their bodies for a place to stay, then back in a shelter, acting like nothing happened. Young men as well as women, selling their bodies for a place to stay. A couple bags of groceries was useful to them because they could barter food for a place to stay. They get thrown in jail for the crime of being homeless. The city of Minneapolis was always trying to get rid of them so they could bring white suburban dollars and attract well-off buyers of new condos downtown.

In addition to racism these experiences helped me to reflect on my own complex class background. I grew up in low-income housing with other poor Black, Native, Asian and White people but surrounded by a middle class White community with all its resources. I had access to the education, within walking distances of everything we needed even if we couldn’t afford it all. My father came from one of the poorest countries in the world but his family was rich. They lived in gated communities with servants. My mother grew up in the Nation of Islam, socially well respected people. She went to a private Nation of Islam school named after her grandmother she lived in a Black middle class bubble. She was a good kid who never drank or smoked. Her kids on the other hand, grew up in the Twin Cities suburbs and were exposed to drugs and gangs at the age of 11- 12 — stuffed she was shielded from growing up.

My mother had middle class values she passed on to us. She would say “Just because we are poor doesn’t mean we have to act like it. We hold our head high with dignity. We come from great people.” Those values helped me out in life, but I recognize them now as classist in nature. Today I am very much middle class but I identify as working class. That is where my allegiance lies.

My neighborhood is historically black. I am surrounded by small African American churches. But if you go a few blocks west you are in Kingfield — all white, supposedly progressive – but not many people look like me. Go ten blocks south and you have those big mansions on the parkway. I hate it. I really hate Minneapolis.

But I am attached. I don’t know anything other than the Twin Cities. I feel an obligation to change it. At the same time its a big burden to put on anybody. Especially people of color. We didn’t create the problem. How many of my white peers wake up feeling an obligation to change their city? Those who do are friends of mine. I have managed to create community with them.

I hate and am attached to America in the same way. I hate this country because this country has always hated us. I idolized Muhammad Ali as a kid for standing up to White American racism. His values are alive inside me today . My story is very American.

In kindergarten my teacher told me I didn’t have to pledge allegiance to the flag because she knew we were from the Nation of Islam. It kind of alienated me because I sat there while the other kids stood up, but it set me apart in a good way too.

There was always an anti-imperialist sentiment in my household. My mother’s second husband was Ethiopian. Her best friend was Palestinian. At ten years old we were in solidarity with Palestine. In 6th grade current events class I was the only one who knew who Yasser Arafat was. We have always been internationalists.

So I organize. Listening to Democracy Now in my 20s, I romanticized organizing. When I moved into Bryant Neighborhood I assumed my house would be worth less over the years. I never thought white people would be moving to the neighborhood. I never saw white people there. Until the bike paths came. Black and Brown people have been riding bikes for decades, but when white people start doing it — because gas prices are rising, because they want to lower their carbon foot print — we get bike paths in the street, Park-and-Rides in the suburbs and bike lanes cutting across Black and Brown communities.

Now the White people are moving in, running, biking, walking dogs, pushing strollers. Now we have the coop, the yoga studio. A Spanish immersion day-care where the Urban League office was for 40 years. I want Black people to have organic food, yoga, and Spanish immersion, but they can’t afford it. Its pricing people of color out of their neighborhood.

You ask, am I a gentrifier? Growing up in the suburbs I craved a black community to be a part of. I wanted this to be my community. I didn’t join one of the churches that surround me because I’m not a Christian. (I was taught that Christianity was the white man’s religion. Until I took Keith Mayes Black history course and learned about the Revolutionary role of the Black church in Black liberation movements.) Now I am slowly building relationships, to organize with those Black churches right outside my door. So yes ,in many ways I am a gentrifier. But I like to think I did not come to the neighborhood and ask it to change for me. I challenge White people who say to me they have a right to live wherever they want to live. Because Black and Brown people don’t have the right – the access to live wherever they want to live.

I like to push back on people. They don’t realize when they come into a community they come with a lot of social capital. They might not intend to change the community but they do. When white people show up in waves, those communities change to accommodate their white families.

I joined the Bryant Neighborhood organization when I heard about the coop coming in. Now three years later I am the chair the Bryant Neighborhood Organization. We have a big pot of money , $500,000 . It has been used for home loans, home improvement loans. It has not been used to protect people from foreclosure. We want to recruit Black and Brown people to buy homes by creating a first time home buyer loan. If they live there for ten years the loan is forgiven. We want people to stay in the neighborhood. We don’t want people flipping homes. We have an emergency fund for people with very low-interest, but unfortunately most of the people who use it are white. So getting the word out is important. Our neighborhood organization has operated like a social club for many years. We are finally hiring staff. Radical organizers. We are creating a land use committee to making decisions about new development. We have talent in the community that we can use to build the development the people want and need.

There is a difference between white organizers and organizers of color. Whites organize to organize. We organize around issues that directly impact our lives. Sick Pay. $15 minimum wage, restore the vote, drivers licenses for the undocumented. But it is harder to get Black and Brown people to mobilize. We are struggling with survival. We don’t have time. And now I do. I feel powerful as an adult. I’m learning how to step up and use my power.

In my 20s I wanted to be Che Guevara or Malcolm X. Eventually I got this idea of teaching. I’m not going to be the next Che Guevara but I could teach the next generation of freedom fighters. I’d rather be working with youth than going to meetings with adults.

I want to indoctrinate kids to teach them to believe in themselves. I know indoctrination is a controversial word but you need to realize the kids are already indoctrinated with White supremacy. We need to challenge that dominate message. The Black Panthers when they had their free breakfast program, they were indoctrinating kids, teaching them Black love, pride and Black History. They had them singing songs the kids didn’t understand but eventually they would.

I want to be the teacher who teaches kids how to destroy education. The government created Education to grow an obedient citizenry with a false nationalist identity. A false sense of unity when in reality you have all these marginalized groups. There is nothing more critical than to teach kids to question nationalism, to question patriotism, to question the education system.
So that is why I am in school. To get a master’s degree in education. We’ll see how much I like teaching . I may hate it.

If you are committed to changing the system you will probably have to hate some of it. But then, just like the city you hate and the neighborhood you love… there will be the kids….

Yes. Direct service is my passion — working with kids. Teaching high school history. Teaching kids about the history of resistance. But I will have to challenge the administration, organize faculty, like I have done with every other job.
Because there is so much wealth here and so many poor people we are in some ways ground zero in this new movement. The new Montgomery. And that is why I need to be organizing here. It is where the struggle is.

Here is a predication. There is going to be a power shift in this next few local elections. The young activists in Black Lives Matter, NAACP, Immigrant rights are going to be moving into positions of political power. The city is ripe for taking over.

All these things I was ashamed of growing up – being poor, Black, Muslim, son of an immigrant, I have learned to find power in those things. I think that is the definition of being an adult. Owning your past and using it to be who you want to be.unnamed

Celebrating Kirk Washington Jr. Day

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Today, May 9, 2016, is Kirk Washington Jr. Day in Minneapolis. Today is his 42nd birthday. There is an event at the Capri theater this evening. There is a gofundme site to continue his work and support his wife and daughters. How else can we celebrate? I suggest going to the core with someone. Maybe it is someone you just met, someone you work with, someone you’ve known all your life. Skip the niceties, or move beyond them quickly, and move to the heart, using any communication medium at your disposal, — to find out how that person is living on the planet.

Because that is what Kirk did, and it is why people who just met him, who worked with him a few months, and those lucky enough to be connected to him for a life time feel such a deep connection to this man who left this realm in April.

I met Kirk in the fall of 2015 when he entered my classroom. Disappointment at the sight of me was written on his face. He sat in the back most corner seat, turning his attention away from the white woman at the front who had the audacity to think she could teach about race, and toward the other students.At the middle of the second session however, after the break, he moved up to the first row — where I could clearly see his eyes drift closed if I turned down the light for video. When he got up to leave he shook my hand and said “Thank you. I like what you are doing here, Anne.”

The class was filled with people well beyond 18-21, with intense life stories and strong personalities. Tears and anger were not uncommon. But love developed, in large part due to Kirk, who was not afraid to get collectively intimate. He would say “Love you all” as he left the room. The first time he did it I felt a perceptible adjustment in the room. Love? Well, yes!

Kirk broke through the atomization that is college these days, especially at commuter institutions. His interactions were intense, as if to say, we have precious work to do, lets not waste time. He got angry when conversation moved to a shallow realm. He took a young student who was skeptical, under his wing, encouraging him to speak his doubts. He was in LA (or San Francisco?) on the day of a group presentation so we skyped him in: Kirk, larger than life, sipping coffee, studying a menu, ordering a meal, and riffing on the New Jim Crow with his group.

The last day of the semester I invited the class to my home. The agenda was to share race autobiographies. Although every classmate had a beautiful and profound statement to make, there was a collective decision made half way through, that Kirk should be the last to speak.

Group, choreographing its own final moments together.

I saw Kirk a couple weeks before he died, when he read a poem at the Loft Literary Center — words that seared and soared. Afterward I introduced him to my husband David — also born on May 9. He asked if it was OK if we hugged. We planned to have coffee in the next weeks.

May 9 is a big day in my life. In addition to Kirk and Dave, it’s my grandmother’s birthday. She would be 125 today. When I was little she used to take me aside and say “who loves you the most?” and I was supposed to answer “Grandma.” In truth, our relationship was not close. She lived to be 99 1/2. The only time I remember sharing real intimacy with her is when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and I was her caregiver for a few days while my parents moved her. She was agitated and scared. I decided to draw her, to see if that would calm her down. I have no drawing skills, but the process of sitting quietly at her feet for several hours, talking admiringly about her face as I penciled it, was just the right medicine.

Thinking about love and art. Hoarding it. Sharing it. Making connections that are real. Happy Kirk Washington Jr. Day to you

Clinton Pass-over

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Biking across West Texas along the Mexican border, I saw an Israeli flag. The owner of the flag was a cotton farmer whose land abutted the Mexican border. The owner of the farm and the flag was an evangelical Christian who believed that Israel would play a central role in the second coming, the rapture, and Armageddon.

The Israeli flag on the U.S. Mexican border was a startling sight, but in some other-than-theological ways it made sense. The blue and white banner, emblazoned with the Jewish Star flew along the infamous U.S./Mexico border wall. Thousands of miles away, another wall — this one between Israel and the West Bank — was resurrected for much the same purpose.

The two walls are, in many ways, distinct installations of one project. That they look alike, is not surprising. In 2014 the U.S. hired an Israeli company to install security technology along its wall.

Unlike the Berlin Wall which they are sometimes compared to, the Israeli and U.S. barriers do not separate populations completely. Instead they are physical representations of a host of policies that seek to criminalize and dehumanize those who cross. Like the gates that surround an elite housing development, these walls do not stop the flow of people. Like Sundown towns and migrant camps, these walls reserve, control, and demonize the targeted groups who pass in and out. Like reservations and colonies, they circumscribe those who are the victims of land theft.

The U.S. wall monitors the flow of workers into the United States, assuring U.S. access to cheap food and services. When children from Central America began crossing in large numbers recently, fleeing violence at home, their presence did not serve the needs of capital, and so, despite revealing the audacious cruelty of U.S. policy, they were detained in prison-like quarters and deported.

When the United States treats children on its border as a criminals, it announces to the world it is a nation without a moral compass. Such a nation might well see an Israeli administration that bombs schools and refugee camps as a worthy of aid. Immoral equivalents.

The process of dismantling these walls is complex but it certainly does not begin with Trump and his Mexican wall fixation. Nor does it begin with Hillary, as she made clear with her Passover  message.  Such ugly uses of religious stories to justify physical and metaphorical walls, are rife. Clinton is not the first one to find vindication for U.S. and Israeli policy in this old story. She is not the first to conflate Jews with the state of Israel. I have fled synagogues this time of year where such stories are told, and such allegiances required.

Bernie Sanders’ measured criticism of Israel, and his willingness to speak it in a space filled with Jewish voters, showed — not so much an ability to boldly lead — but a willingness to follow behind those more courageous and outspoken than he. It is those social movements he follows, on both borders, that give us hope.

This year when my group gathers for Passover we will exchange stories of overcoming adversity and oppression as we usually do in our untraditional way. This year we will also pause with more purpose as we pour that cup of wine and that plate of food for the empty chair, for the stranger who might knock — a reminder to tear down walls – not build them up – in the coming year.

Creating a world without walls may or may not be the way to rapture – but it is surely a requirement of a sustainable world in this globe-shrinking climate-crisis era. Let the walls come a tumbling down.

Lost in Dallas tracking the Daughters of Tabor..

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You learn the most about a place when your travel plans go awry and you  are hungry,  lost, and treading where no other tourist would ever go.

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We started out reasonably enough,  climbing in the airport shuttle to find breakfast and catch the train into Dallas. But the shuttle driver— a kind man in his late sixties who works 7 day weeks and 12 hour days, (including Easter morning)  offered  a short cut. He would drop us at the transit station where buses run straight into town.

As we rode the driver acted as our tour guide, as though we were driving through an area of interest and not the ugly backside of an airport/hotel nexus.   He pointed to a pile of sheet rock in an abandoned field.

“More construction.”

We passed a raft of empty town houses. “New structures  going up everywhere.”

He pointed to the other side of the street.   “See that palace? New Senior Housing.”

In the middle of all the new developments was an older run down housing project, and beyond that, a bit of  wild land — a gorgeous spring-green piece of East Texas thicket.

“This guy refuses to sell. He’s got a bunch of goats in there and a black donkey that herds them — protects them better than any guard dog. Once a feral hog tried to attack his goats.  The donkey killed him!”

We should have known.

The parking lot at the bus stop was empty, save for one lone bike. But the driver insisted the bus would come. He had already disappeared by the time we read the sign: no services on Sundays.

On the two mile walk back, we passed the thicket, hoping to get a glimpse of the donkey.
“Look like you are hungry enough to eat a goat. Maybe the donkey will come out to shoo us away.” I said.
I AM hungry enough to eat a goat. Been hungry since we got on the plane 15 hours ago.” Dave said, trying not to sound irritated.

“Hey this is just like the bike trip.” I said.  “Look out for a good story.” We laughed,  showing each other good humor that was part real and part feigning. The tickets for this impromptu trip to Dallas were cheap, but still a luxury. We were feeling an obligation to HAVE FUN.

As we passed an older run-down housing development we noticed something improbable. Something we had not see in the van. Something the driver had not mentioned.

Shelton’s Bear Creek Cemetery the historical marker read.

African Americans came to this area as slaves of white settlers …

After the civil war [they] stayed in the area and formed a large settlement. In 1879 Minnie Shelton purchased 80 acres including this site and the Shelton family donated the land for use as a cemetery. …. Buried here is] Elizabeth Lawson…   Her stone bears the insignia of the Fraternal Organization of the Knights and Daughters of Tabor.

According to  Portland, Oregon, blogger Jasper Wilcox, The Knights and Daughters of Tabor began as a militant Black underground anti-slavery organization. After the Civil War they  funded Black hospitals and encouraged their members to buy real estate to build Black capital.*  The daughters of Tabor in Texas bought real estate in downtown Dallas and saw to it that the Black community had a dignified final resting place.  However..- as the historical marker notes:

Access to the burial ground has often been restricted and regular maintenance was difficult in the 20th century. A Cemetery survey in 1970 found that there were 12 legible headstones and over 200 burials on the site….  

The historical marker was put up at the cemetery in 2001 – a demand of local activists. In 2013 that new senior housing palace was built,boxing in the cemetery.

The struggle for access and preservation of  the cemetery continues.

 

*Mississippi Knight of Tabor  Theodore Roosevelt Howard was a friend and mentor of Medgar Evers. He founded PUSH — that organization that came to be associated with Jesse Jackson — in 1971.

After Obama Returns from Cuba, Who Will Listen to our Dissidents?

IMG_0850 (3) This morning, I stared for a long time at the photo of President Barack Obama meeting with Cuban dissidents.  I wondered: who decided who would be invited to the meeting?  Do the gay activist and the Catholic lay leader often seek audience together?  To whom can I — dissident of the United States — appeal?

This evening, the poem, APPLYING FOR CITIZENSHIP — read by author Ruben Medina, who has lived in the United States for forty years and is still considering becoming a U.S. citizen — spoke to the spirit of my morning questions. He read his poem to a crowd of eight at the Loft Literary Center.  You need to buy the book to see the proper format and read it all – but here is a taste:

Here, my fellow citizens are my conditions. 

English-only speakers should pay higher taxes

The welfare system should be abolished for big corporations

America should be dropped from the name of this country

Absentee ballots should be allowed for undocumented workers only …

The White House should be moved to Puerto Rico, The Congress to Harlem, the United Nations to Wounded Knee….

Half  of the billboards in the country should be given to poets or anyone who wants to imagine the nation, the other half to children. 

People who say this is the greatest country in the world should do volunteer work for the homeless, sing the national anthem backwards or attend every death sentence carried out in the nation….

Commercials on TV should be limited to one minute every hour ….

The Cuban National baseball team should play in the  major leagues…. 

All military forces in foreign lands should return within 30 days. 

This morning I voiced my dissent by tossing the morning paper, yelling at my radio.  This evening I listened, and felt  vindicated.

You should have been there.

* Ruben Medina, Nomadic Nation / Nación Nómada – Cowfeather Press, 2015.

 

 

 

 

 

Pivot Toward Asia. Chris Rock, Military Bases, and Slave Labor.

 

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Posts about Cris Rock’s offensive Asian jokes and news of a  U.S. military base  in Okinawa ,showed up in my facebook feed at the same moment on this Super Tuesday afternoon.

The Obama/ Clinton policy, dubbed Pivot toward Asia, began in 2009. One could say it combined a focus on free trade and military expansion, or one could say trade and the militarism were one policy, the guns needed to protect the expansion of U.S. economic supremacy in the region.

When Chris Rock made the comment about kids making phones... there was nothing funny about it. His delivery – using three children– was despicable.  There is also nothing funny about the expansion of child labor and sweat shops through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, -( a free trade policy pushed by the Obama administration, endorsed by Republicans and Hillary Clinton, and opposed by Bernie Sanders) throughout Asia.

Children making phones is not a stereotype,  but a geopolitical reality bolstered by  free trade policies.

A few days ago Obama made U.S. purchase of goods made by slave labor illegal.

My first thought was “good”. My second thought was compare it to  Hubert Humphrey’s Democratic Party plank against lynching in 1948. Well duh, I sure hope so! My third thought was to thank movements for labor rights everywhere. This is what they mean by leading from behind — but we will take it.  My fourth thought was to wonder how slavery will be defined ( what about workers with no other options, paid less then promised, child workers, wage theft?). My fifth thought was to wonder how the ban will be enforced.

Not with another military base in Okinawa/Jeju Island.

Military bases on foreign soil.

Slave labor, child labor and sweatshops.

Any policy that denies labor’s right to organize.

Racists jokes, and the erasure of whole peoples by Hollywood.

I vote against them all.

 

 

 

Documenting Struggle, Inhumanity, Hope. Then Downton Abbey.

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Honor killing in Pakistan. Ebola in Liberia. Death penalty, racism, militarism and PTSD in the United States. Agent Orange birth defects in Vietnam. The Shoah.

I saw the five 2016 Oscar-nominated documentary shorts at the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis. Seen together, they tell a stories of systematic violence,  war, racism, poverty and resilience.

One could start with any of these movies and find connections to the others.

The cartoon Last Day of Freedom is about Manny Babbitt, a Black man executed on death row in  1999, told from the perspective of his brother.  Manny, Vietnam Vet, PTSD sufferer, was having an episode when he murdered a stranger who happened to be in the way. He receives the Purple Heart while on death row, and a military funeral after he is executed.

Chau, Beyond the Lines, is also a story about the aftershocks of the Vietnam war..

Chau, is one of several million children born with severe birth defects from Agent Orange, dropped by U.S. soldiers onto Vietnam fifty years ago.

Specter of Shoah, like Last Day, is also about traumatic stress that disorders the lives of survivors. Shoah filmmaker Lanzmann documented what it is like to relive trauma, creating the conditions that force the story and the emotions of a barber who cut the hair of women before they entered the gas chambers.

 A Girl in the River is about a young Pakistani girl whose father attempts to kill her because she chose her own husband. Like Manny in Last Day, she  is the victim of a judicial and social system that criminalizes victims and  perpetuates violence.  In both cases the individual stories illustrate the need for systemic change.

Body Team 12, is about the Ebola epidemic in Liberia from the perspective of a woman who removes the bodies from homes and neighborhoods. Ebola victims and those like Manny who suffer from war-related PTSD in the United States both face  systems that have not prioritized health care.  In both cases poverty and inequality leading to needless suffering. In both cases racism multiplies societal neglect.

Despite their heavy subjects, the movies all provide inspiration.

  • The young woman, Garmai Sumo, who works on Team 12, removing the bodies of Ebola victims, to rid her country of the epidemic.
  • The art work of Chau, who makes a beautiful life for himself.
  • The Pakistani woman who agreed to have her story told,  is pregnant at the end of the movie — hoping for a girl who she will teach to be strong.
  • Shoah is full of people-doing the painful work of not forgetting.
  •  Bill Babbitt, in Last Day of Freedom, and  Dee and Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman, who draw and film his story, refuse to let Manny die in vain.

I was glad I went, but instead staying with my heavy heart and writing  inspiring thoughts (as I planned) I confess I plopped on the couch to see: would Mary and Edith marry? Thomas Barrow find acceptance? Could the family could save Mrs’ Patmore’s B & B?  Escape into a rosy  past when all were happy to know their place.  

Pure fiction.

 

Feeling Half a Bern in Iowa.

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Me and my partner took a weekend trip across the southern border, to escape city winter doldrums and indulge a morbid fascination with the political campaign, one week before the Iowa caucus.

We had a fun time. Saw wild turkeys and pheasants, pine trees encrusted in ice, black Amish buggies and white fields barely discernible from grey sky.

In Mason City, Iowa — a border town, off of Highway 35 ,in the flat central plains — there was little indication of the impending caucuses — one comment about the idiocy of Trump, one massive red lawn sign for Cruz. We joined hundreds congregated at the YMCA on Saturday morning. The contest on their minds was playing out by their youngsters on the basketball courts.

But in Decorah — another border town in the hilly east — the masses gathered at Luther College to see Bernie Sanders.  The crowd was clearly feeling the Bern; loving talk about single payer health care, free tuition, $15 minimum wage, expanding social security, a trillion dollar investment in infrastructure and renewable energy jobs and a promise to transfer priorities from mass incarceration to education.  They also cheered for choice, gay marriage, and equal pay for equal work.

The crowd spanned the age spectrum. The couple in their sixties sitting in front of me shouted out when he talked about people on social security trying to live on 13,000. “That is us!”

Bernie took on his detractors – those who  say he can’t win, and the naysayers who claim he is promising the moon but has no way to pay for it. For the latter he cited polls, for the former he promised to tax billionaires and the banks.

My partner was enthusiastic – picking up a lawn sign. I told him it might have to go on his proverbial side of the lawn — for now.

I felt half a Bern. I didn’t hear anything I did not agree with. I shared the relief expressed in people’s faces as they heard real problems and solutions from a politician who — as he said — thinks Americans like it when you don’t treat them like they are dumb. I was grateful not to be pandered to with patriotic pablum about American exceptionalism – rhetoric that Obama has made his own.
I was glad he mentioned race disparities in unemployment – but wished he had showed more courage with this white Iowa audience to push for police accountability. In a state that increasingly relies on immigrant labor for food processing industries, I wished he would taken  the opportunity to include undocumented people in his calls for equal rights.

Indeed, it was what he did not say that had me holding back.

Other than his vote against the Iraq war, there was no mention in his address about endless wars or military drones, or U.S. bombing hospitals. Indeed his social programs could all be paid for if we chopped the bloated pentagon budget. Why didn’t he say that? I know the weapons manufacturers and military bases in every state are even more capable than big pharma, oil and the NRA,in cowering politicians. But Sanders could role out a plan for turning weapons factories into water filtration and mass- transit manufacturing, without job loss, reversing FDR’s speedy transformation of domestic plants during World WAR II.

From my experience — talking to students and strangers on my 14 month bicycle trip around the U.S.— I found that across the rural/ urban, left/right spectrum people are sick of war. Heck, Obama knows that. “War weariness,” he calls it.
For the current President war-weariness is a problem, but for the next president, with a vision for a sustainable world, it could be a great asset, something to build on.

Hillary Clinton’s attacks on Bernie’s foreign policy acumen should be seen as an opportunity by his campaign, to shout back that with the former Secretary of State, we get more of what the world can not afford – more American super power bullying.

Look, it is not just that I want more. If so, I’d settle for the half glass. Reform is good for real people. But if Bernie’s domestic revolution stops at our borders, I fear it won’t work . We are one small vulnerable planet. The political borders we erect are not just artificial from a moral perspective. They don’t exist economically, climatificially, militarily. The United States has to adopt a global allegiance as we act locally, or we will all go down, destroyed by inequality, endless war,pollution and rising seas.

Let me repeat. Without a global plan, I fear Bernie’s domestic plan will go down as another beautiful list of empty promises. I fear only a fascist could fill the void that disappoint would elicit.
Unlike me, the crowd at Luther College in Decorah were as wildly enthusiastic about their candidate as midwesterners get. The post-rally conversation at the Water Street Cafe and Java coffee shop, were positively giddy. Given the Democratic and Republican alternatives, that is great news. Indeed the supporters of Bernie Sanders are the best part of his campaign.  That is why the corporate -owned media, here in Iowa and nationwide, have accelerated their anti- Sanders vitriol. They know they must put out the  Bernie fire.

As Sander’s said, “this is about more than me and my candidacy.”

Amen to that.

 

“Be Reasonable. Demand the Impossible Now!”

 

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On an industrial lane in Burlingame, California, radical songsters from across the planet spent three January days  at the Western Workers Labor Heritage Festival raising a tuneful ruckus.

In California and D.C.,  radical songsters have been singing forward the century-old radical music tradition of the Industrial Workers of the World, fused with more recent peace, Black liberation and feminist movements for nearly four decades. This was my first year attending, as a member of the Twin Cities Labor Chorus . It was heady stuff, singing at the same conference with  troubadours of fame like Pam Parker,  Charlie King,  Avotcja,  Anne Feeny, Francisco Herrera, Dave Lippman, and Robb Johnson.  It was just as thrilling to meet and hear other labor choirs from D.C., Vancouver, San Francisco.

New songs told stories of pipelines overcome, Black Lives that Mattered, and  Trumping dirty politicians. Old tunes retold struggles for bread… and roses too. For three days we sang our fists at the militaristic, capitalistic, racist, sexist, inhumane noise that surrounds us. The tunes made our spirits soar and lodged words in memory. The words changed our brains – giving us reason to hold our heads high and the strength to rise up and speak out.

Maybe you think I’m being a little too schmaltzy here. Guilty. But in my defense, I ask you to imagine Sound of Music part 11.  After the Von Trapp family escapes fascism, they meet the Freedom Singers, wobblies,  and other occupelistas from across the world to build that other world that is possible — in seven-part harmony.

Wouldn’t you be a little emotional too?

Organizers had figured this was to be their last gathering, as too many of them were dying or getting too old to travel.  There were many tunes offered up to the memory of those who have passed. But on the last day a small cadre of  labor organizers in their 20s announced their intention to start planning for next year, to continue the tradition of–  being reasonable and demanding the impossible, now. 

 

 

Hey, Bundy boys, I’m mad at the Feds about land rights too.

 

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The Bundy boys and their ilk holding a federal outpost in Oregon hostage, are right about one thing.  When it comes to land and the U.S. government there is a long history of criminal injustice. The Bundy boys are using their guns to demand reparations to a couple ranchers and a free-up of federal land.

I’m using my blog to make some demands about land and reparations too.  My demands are in bold, pistol-punching italics. 

  1. For wars,  massacres, poisoned blankets,  forced marches on tear- filled trails,  broken treaties,  Homestead acting and Dawes allotting, I demnd  Land Reparations to Native Americans. Start by returning the Oregon Malheur Wildlife refuge, currently occupied by those gun-toting thugs, to the Paiute people.
  2.  For three hundred years of stealing African American labor I demand, Pay up on those  forty acres and a mule!    
  3. For those government land give aways to corporations, from railway tycoons to airport franchises, sport stadiums and malls; for bailing banks that foreclose on homeowners, I demand we Tax corporations and billionaires who have profited from these federal subsidies, to pay for demands 1 and 2. 
  4. I demand the military/ industrial complex turn over the millions of acres of land and hundreds of bases, transforming that land  for people, plants, and animals, not bombers!  As for the estimated 1,000 U.S. military bases outside the U.S. borders occupied by the U.S. military, I demand we give bread, not bombs to the world. When it comes to land use anywhere, we must put food first.  
  5. Remembering  80 years of Asian exclusion, internment camps, land restrictions.  and seeing history being repeated, as stolen Cuban land is used to intern people without trials or convictions, I demand we end the historic cycle of demonizing races and religions to deny land and rights, and Give back Guantanamo! 
  6. To reverse the long history of informal empire, gunboat diplomacy and unequal exchange in Latin America that robs our southern neighbors of their land, their  labor, and their right to stay home, I demand:  We end the current raid on Central American refugees in North Carolina, Georgia and Texas.   Make deportation, not migration, the crime. Institute fair, not “free” trade.  Provide legalization for 10 million undocumented immigrants.

Yes, those guys with guns in Oregon are right. We need to drastically rethink and redo how the United States distributes and controls the use of land within and outside of its borders.

 

Related post: Child refugees of U.S. foreign policy.  http://turtleroad.org/2015/11/03/child-refugees-of-u-s-foreign-policy/

 

Minneapolis City Council Public Hearing: Ugly/Beautiful Truths Revealed.

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As I witnessed the Minneapolis City council Public Hearing on the 2016 budget on December 9, 2015, I kept thinking about another place and time.

In May 2010 the Governor of Arizona, prodded by her education commissioners, signed a bill banning ethnic studies in K-12 schools in her state. The object of her  wrath was a Mexican American studies program in a primarily Mexican American high school in Tucson.  In doing so she revealed the ugliest truth.  She   did NOT want to close the so-called “achievement gap.” She did not want Chicana/o students finishing high school, going to college, becoming  empowered, self -motivated learners who could ace standardized tests without ever  studying-to- the-test.

At the Minneapolis City council Public Hearing dozens gathered, with two hours notice, to speak out against a $605,000 amendment to fortify the 4th precinct building. Like the Ethnic Studies ban in Arizona, the amendment — not to invest in North Minneapolis, but to protect a building and the police –– revealed that the “equity” Mayor did not really want to see people empowered.

When Jamar Clark was killed by the police, people mobilized to take on the  rotten- to-the-core injustices of the city’s criminal justice system.  Through the occupation of the 4th precinct they addressed immediate needs of people like food and a place to sleep.  They broke down divisions among Minneapolitans struggling economically.  Some non-profits dedicated their resources to aid the mobilization. Religious institutions stood up. People were teaching each other how to build a movement, maintain self care, support each other across racial, gender, neighborhood and gang lines. People were empowered.

The response?  Bulldozers and a secret amendment to fortify a building!

I am relieved the amendment went down but I don’t think we should exaggerate that win. That $605,000 in found-money should immediately be allocated on the North Side for the children. (If we want to bolster ethnic Studeis programs for the K-12 public schools on the North side I know some people in Arizona who could help out…. )

The Minneapolis budget remains misdirected with a bloated police budget and the police department that  (as the people testified at the hearing)  terrifies the people — especially African Americans and Native Americans — and is wholly incapable of assisting people experiencing domestic violence. The 605,000 was for the police to protect the police!  That should be an outrage to every taxpayer   in this city. The K-12 schools on the North side and other low income areas of the city need that money, for trauma therapy, for the arts, for recess, for programs that validate histories and experiences of People of Color….

The real win at the City Council  Public Hearing was the testimony – now on Youtube, an invaluable historical archive, a witness to empowerment and solidarity. Take it in segments.    Be inspired. See how the movement, despite bulldozers, is still building.

The Arizona ban in 2010 spurred a movement that has led to the spread of Mexican American studies and other ethnic studies programs across the U.S.  I believe that we can win. 

4th precinct Occupation Built Community in Ways that Can’t be Bulldozed

 


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Photo on the march from the 4th precinct to City Hall in Minneapolis on November 24, 2015.

 In the early hours of December 3rd the city destroyed the occupation of the 4th precinct in Minneapolis.  But they can’t bulldoze a movement .

People  lived outside of the 4th precinct North Minneapolis police station for 18 days, breathing campfire smoke, eating whatever was offered as an unusually mild Minnesota November has turned into a wintry December.

It was an intense protest — like fasting, or marching hundreds of miles — illustrating a deep and unmoving commitment to uprooting an unjust status quo.

The injustice here is a system that sanctioned the killing of an unarmed Black man– Jamar Clark — by police. The protest demanded — and won — a federal investigation and release of the names of the police officers.  A key demand — release of the video tape of the killing — has not been met.  Other demands for deep structural changes, including an end to grand juries, removal of  Police federation President Kroll and investigation of his and other officer ties to white supremacists groups, and reclamation of the 4th precinct site to rebuild the community center that once was there,  are developing as people are continuing to imagine and plan how to move to justice. 

The subsequent criminalization of protesters by police and the mayor; the silence of police officers not involved in the shooting; the light charging of White men who shot protesters;  added dimensions to the struggle for justice.

The 4th precinct occupation itself, uncovered the depth and breadth of the criminal injustice system.

One of the strengths of the occupation was  its ability to engage people near and far with many different abilities and resources.

  • There were daily requests for food, wood, hot water, social media support.
  • Activists held diverse events at the site: a vigil, march, church service, Thanksgiving dinner, concert, daily meetings a funeral. East African and Latino communities and organized labor held support rallies on site and middle school students from nearby Anwatin public school marched to the precinct.
  • Support actions offsite allowed thousands of people to play a part, including those far from Minnesota who have  bought a meal, or sent a message of solidarity.
  • Marches connecting Minneapolis, Chicago with local struggles have taken place in New York City, Buffalo, Tampa and many other cities.
  • The National NAACP came and led a vigil.  A Hip Hop legend stopped by to lend his support.

Every one of these connections big and small  built community.  This is the  immeasurable strength of the occupation, evidenced in stories that need to be gathered.  No wonder the powers that be wanted the occupation to end.

I spent one day at the 4th precinct, the day after White terrorists shot five protesters.  I arrived at 7:30 AM.  It was quiet — a half dozen people awake, an equal number still sleeping in sleeping bag lumps.  Seagulls– an unusual sight in Minneapolis — hovered together outside the cement blockade, apparently attracted to smells of food.

Three men who witnessed the attacks the night before stood around the fire reciting reasons why they believed the shooters had to be connected in some way to the police — They noted the lag time of police response to a crime taking place in front of their noses, and to the fact that they maced the  protesters  when they did arrive –criminalizing the victims of the attack.  A young woman who’d been there all night said when they heard the shots and screams they thought their friends had been killed.  “We sat in a prayer circle for an hour.”

By 9AM people began to come.  From 9 to noon this is what I saw:

  • Black men holding down the fort, staffing food tables, feeding fires.
  • People of all races dropping off food.  Four dozen bagels and cream cheese.  Hot cereal in a huge pot.  Egg sandwiches.
  • Four people on a sleeping bag down on the sidewalk meditating.
  • Two women singing in perfect gospel harmony, and a group swarming around them.
  • A woman in her fifties cornering a man wearing a green Mad Dads shirt. “I’m trying to stay peaceful, but I’m getting angry” she said again and again.  She had come down to get help channeling her anger.
  • Two young men, Black and White, talked history. One traced the road from  slavery to the old and then new Jim Crow. The other talked about Chinese workers who died building a railroad.   “We don’t learn about that.  That’s what whiteness is — an erasure.”

By 12:30 it was a different place — full of people, cameras, national  media.    Testifiers were now using megaphones.  A statement was read to the press.  A march was scheduled to begin at 2pm.  By 1:50 there were already too many people to hold in one place so we  marched around the precinct, through alleyways.  Neighbors came out on their stoops and joined in chants.  The back of the precinct was filled with cop cars and cops.

When the march began to move down Plymouth Avenue, it swelled in size, covering one block…  then two blocks… then more than three.

We marched all the way downtown, causing the shuttering of federal and local government buildings.  Over a thousand people.  Plus three hundred who stayed at the precinct, and another several hundred students around the city who walked out of their schools in protest.

When I returned to the precinct I could barely stand up, but the concert for Jamar in front of the precinct had begun and the music, the children picking out winter hats and mittens from the gigantic box of donations, the free dinner for three thousand, the singing and dancing, were intoxicating. As the Sounds of Blackness sang their movement anthem Black Lives Matter, I leaned on my husband who had joined me, managing to stay upright for another half hour, my awe at the stamina of those living at the 4th precinct growing by the moment.

When we walked back to our car, passersby greeted us on the side-walk.  Instead of “hello” they said,

“Black Lives Matter.”

“Black Lives Matter” we replied.

 

The occupation is over. The  movement continues. The Rally at 4pm  December 3 at Minneapolis City Hall  filled to the rafters 

 

Hy Berman. Build on his Legacy through College Access, People’s History and Erasing the Town/Gown Divide.

 

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Hy Berman, who died today at age 90, was part of a generation whose parents were factory workers, who gained access to college after WWll.  Some — like Professor Berman — brought their working class lives into the academy, transforming our knowledge.

There was no such thing as labor history when Hy was a student. He was one of a tiny group who moved the U.S. history narrative beyond wars and Presidents in the early 60s.  His students — many of whom gained access to  college because of affirmative action — created African American and women’s history, Chicano and Asian American studies in the 70s and 80s. They, in turn,  opened the door for Queer and disability studies in the 90s.

I have sweet memories of Hy’s labor history course. I can still remember how my brain felt, crackling with new ideas after each class.  He  said he studied labor history so he would not have to labor. As his TA, I laughed. There were times when we disagreed, when he chose not to speak out about labor issues on campus.

The academy today is a place of labor struggle like it was not when Hy’s tenure as a professor began in 1961.  At the University of Minnesota,  campaigns for labor rights and faculty representation are building currently. Administrative salaries have ballooned, staffs face salary freezes. Nationally, 75% of us who teach today, work as adjuncts for poverty wages, without the security Hy had.

In Professor Berman’s memory we need:

  1. Secure decent jobs for higher educators who, while not facing the conditions of miners,  do, in fact, engage in important labor –especially if, like Hy, they commit to asking the questions that emancipate.
  2.  Free college tuition and access that begins at preK, so that working class people, like Hy was, can advance our understanding of how the world did, does and could work.
  3. A blossoming of departments and hires that transform our knowledge of the non-elite experiences.
  4. Finally, in honor of  Hy’s work as a public historian, let’s open ivory tower resources everywhere, to benefit the common good.

Telling people’s histories is an essential part of our struggle for an equitable sustainable future.  Our current understanding of historical trauma deepens our responsibility to do as Hy did: ask new questions and tell non-elite stories. One of those stories is the tale of the young son of immigrant textile workers who went to college.

RIP Hy.

Love,

Your grateful student.

#Jamar Clark, David Carr and two Minneapolis nights.

 

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A storied past. If we live long enough, we all have one, full of ups and downs.  As the story of Jamar Clark’s life and death emerges, as the best forces in my city fill the streets to demand justice for a man murdered by police, as sources gather to piece together what happened on one Minneapolis street on one Minneapolis night, I keep thinking about another Minneapolis story.

I keep thinking about David Carr, a man, who unlike Jamar Clark, lived long enough to tell his story.

Carr told  of one Minneapolis night when he wanted a drug fix so bad he left his two infant children alone in a car in the winter while he went into an apartment and got himself high. Carr went on – just months later — to become a parent advice columnist(!) and then later celebrated journalist and writer, whose death from sudden illness was mourned by millions.

We all deserve second chances, chances to tell our side of the story; for people to know the complexities of our realities; to heal.   David Carr had that chance.  I am so glad he did. I was one of the readers of his advice column who took strength from his stories as a new parent.  Carr had a louder megaphone than most of us can ever dream of having. Jamar Clark was killed and then his killers were given the megaphone to tell his story!  

In the tales of these two men, on two Minneapolis nights, is the story of a city divided by race and class, without equal justice.  Only in the streets,  united, our numbers multiplying the amplification, do we have the possibility of telling a true tale of a Minneapolis night of tragedy; of changing Minneapolis’ storied past of deep structural injustices; of building the One Minneapolis we seek.  As new details of Jamar Clark’s story emerge, it is up to his survivors — ALL OF US —  to create a healing end.

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Refugee. Dad.

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My dad ( shown here as little boy with his older sisters, circa 1936) was a child refugee. He and his two sisters and mother fled Hitler in 1939, ended up in a Refugee camp in Havana Cuba and eventually the United States.

They were lucky. Many refugees were refused entry. My Aunt Maja, Dad’s older sister remembered standing on the Havana shore, watching the ship the MS St. Louis come into harbor so close she could touch the outstretched hands of excited children hanging on the railing. She watched in horror as the ship of German refugees was turned away by Cuban authorities. The United States and Canada also refused them harbor and the boat sailed back to Europe, sending passengers back to battlefields and concentration camps.

In the 1990s my dad used to go speak to elementary  school children, sharing assimilation stories with new child immigrants. He told the kids about being new to the country, not speaking English, trying to figure out how to make friends. One day he saw a popular kid throw his lunch bag away. He threw his away too, hoping to impress the other kids, but they just ignored him. Now he was lonely and hungry.

Dad has been dead 15 years. He left this earth before  three of his grandchildren were born. He missed seeing his granddaughter Emily (shown below in 1991) grow into a beautiful woman.  He missed lap tops, cell phones and Facebook. He missed 9/11 and the endless “wars on terror,” the Patriot Act and Guantanamo detainees,  Abu Ghraib and Drone warfare.

This week he is in my heart more the usual as I try to imagine his reaction to demagogues posing as governors all trying out populist fascism to see if it suits them. No Refugees in MY state. Only Christians in MY country… 

 

When I was 22, Dad and I visited the concentration camp where his five-year old best friend was incinerated. In the guest book everyone wrote “Never Again.” At the time I was involved in the Central America movement. I knew that my own government was funding and training an army in El Salvador led by Roberto D’Aubuisson, who considered Hitler his mentor. For the rest of the trip Dad and I discussed the meaning of “Never Again.” How do we make sure one terror does not lead to another retaliatory terror? Does the slogan mean anything if we only apply it to “our” people?

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Never Again.

 

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#RefugeesWelcome

See yourself, Be yourself.

 

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Shannon Gibney Speaking  about Her new Young Adult Novel  See No Color.

 

For the last week I have been doing everything I can to avoid writing answers to  what should be a couple of easy questions: Who am I? and  What is my book about?

Instead I wrote about Kmart, (!) washed five loads of laundry,  folded  AND put them away, graded all my papers, searched in vain for cheap last minute tickets to NYC to see my daughter perform, had tea with two students, made and ate two from-scratch soups, raked leaves, walked, checked Facebook and  turtleroad.org,  Facebook and turtleroad.org, Facebook and turtleroad.org.

I also attended two talks. Historian Peniel Joseph  addressed students at Macalester, putting Black Lives Matter in the context of civil rights and Black Liberation History. Shannon Gibney read from her new  YA  novel See No Color.

Joseph said we make a mistake when we put too much emphasis on legal changes, like the Voting Rights Act, or Brown V Board, or focus on the rise of an individuals like MLK andBarack Obama.  When we do that we see these events and people as some sort of resting spot, instead of staying in the struggle.

Black Lives Matter youth are the progenitors of SNCC (Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee)- young people aiming to transform the system, Joseph argued. “For Black people, History is sustenance.Without it we die. With knowledge of those who struggled before us we know who we are, and what we need to do. If we read and write our truths everyday we don’t need drugs and alcohol. The knowledge will keep us healthy.”

Shannon Gibney, whose book gives voice to young transracial adoptees — said essentially the same thing at the Loft Literary Center.  “Something happens when you don’t see yourself in literature.”

She was told by editors to focus her narrative – to which she replied “my life is multilayered.” It was exactly that complexity that she needed to write about.

One of Gibney’s strengths as a writer is that she is a truth teller – something she said does not always work for her in life, but is essential to writing.  Part of telling truth in See No Color was to create Alex, a 16 year old  biracial girl adopted by a white couple — who tells lies as she struggles to create a face for the world.

Her goal as the story progressed was for her character and her readers to learn to be comfortable with themselves and with the diversity they encounter as they proceed toward adulthood.

When I was 17 trying to maneuver my first semester at Oberlin College (a few weeks before dropping out) I came home from a world history class and wrote in my notebook:

“I am a product of history.”

Now, 40 years later, I wish that instead of paragraphing who am I and what is your book about — I could just repeat those six words … I am a product of history…  and the reader (and publisher) would say,

“Interesting. I’ll come along for the ride.”

End mass incarceration, but ….

 

 

In the 1980s President Ronald Reagan defunded mental health programs AND shut down mental institutions.  As a result a new word entered the U.S. lexicon: homelessness. About one quarter of those released ended up on the streets, many others were re-instutionalized in unfunded and inappropriate institutions rife with abuse.   Thousands of mentally ill people ended up in jail.

The Reagan fiasco happened when the movement for the rights of the mentally ill was subverted by those wanting to decrease federal and state budgets allocated for human needs.

In a similar situation, progressive calls to integrate children with mental and physical disabilities into public schools continue to be subverted by budget cutters.  Without funding, integration programs are set up to fail, to  dehumanize and restigmatize.

So when I hear President Obama has started the process of de-incarcerating low level drug offenders, I am cautious in my enthusiasm. We must end mass incarceration, AND  fully-funded wrap-around programs to reintegrate people. We have to eliminate housing and job discrimination and provide counseling to help people make the transition, this could be another frying-pan-to-fire presidential decree with a Reaganesque legacy. 

Recently enthusiasm has grown among tax cutters, to end mass incarceration. Compromises with these forces that dissolve reintegration programs are no compromise at all.

Incarceration does something to the human psyche. Poverty post-prison only intensifies those issues. Racism adds another layer. Without addressing these issues we will create an open air prison for the de-incarcerated.  Without housing and job assistance, homelessness will increase, as will re-institutionalization. If we think the insanity of mass incarceration can not get worse we need to remember what happened to mental patients in the 1980s.

The fact that Obama is talking about banning the box for federal employees is a good sign. The fact that he is deporting 1/3 of the tiny portion of those he is de-incarcerating  is an indication that — so far — this new policy, like the old one it seeks to change,  continues to dehumanize.

 

Keith Ellison’s Affordable Housing Forum Stirs the Pot.

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Today, October 30th  2015, Congressman Keith Ellison sponsored a public forum in Minneapolis on Affordable housing, featuring United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Julian Castro and local stakeholders.  Together they addressed:

Urban neighborhoods and Suburbs

Do we build up what Castro calls the old urban neighborhoods or create housing in suburbs?  And what about there first ring suburbs getting all the affordable housing and second ring, more affluent suburbs  not getting their fair share.

Segregation and integration 

Both were mentioned as problems and solutions. People need to live in communities that provide social supports and often those tend to be places where one finds  people of one’s own racial, ethnic and religious group, but we can see a correlation between segregated communities and concentrations of White wealth  and People of Color in poverty.  Community Organizer Nelima Sitati talked of the community she created in an apartment building in Brooklyn Park where she and her neighbors, all single mothers, supported each other, took care of each other’s children, and helped each other get through college.  There was nothing wrong with them, — Satita said — what was wrong was the lack of investment in their neighborhood.

Racism 

Sitati noted that every housing advocate has to be an advocate of racial justice.

Racism is a huge problem in housing, affecting who gets access to homeownership, (24% of African Americans — we learned — own homes in the Twin Cities — one of the lowest rates in the nation), and who gets access to decent rental property, affordable or not. Gentrification — when white people and their resources move into low income neighborhoods of color — leads to residents of color being priced out of rentals and property-taxed out of homes.

Looking forward and backward. 

Everyone was interested in looking forward but Yusef Mgeni of the St Paul NAACP said, we also have to look backward to see how we got to this place. I wish he had pushed further to talk of reparations for past injustices. Done correctly that could provide a substantial pot of money for those neighborhoods  and communities that need it.

My Thoughts: 

People in poverty have a right to live in all places,  but that is not enough. Audience member Chaun Webster asked why the panelists did not talk about poverty. In one of the wealthiest metropolitan areas in the wealthiest nation we need to move the above words around and demand that Peoples in all places have a right not to live in poverty.

Before I am accused to not being pragmatic enough, not addressing issues facing people today,  without much time I can think of a dozen things we could do policy-wise immediately to decrease poverty, fight gentrification in neighborhoods and increase affordable housing. All of these things are being done somewhere.

  • Immigration reform. Immigration issues were neglected by the panel but addressed by audience members. We need legalization. In the mean time – end discrimination in housing for all people residing in the Twin Cities  regardless of immigration status.
  • The Working Families Agenda of living wages, ($15 minimum) regular schedules and sick time.
  • Rent control and property tax control to protect People of Color and other low income people in neighborhoods experiencing gentrification.
  • Community Benefits Agreements to make sure businesses and public funds entering low income neighborhoods address  needs delineated by the community. This goes for housing stock as well. The fact that the Twin Cities has seen  a phenomenal growth in both new housing and  people without housing illustrates the problem.   
  • Move from banning the box to making it illegal to discriminate against former felons in hiring and housing.  An audience member noted there is a discrimination against parent renters ,whose children are picked up by law enforcement. They lose their housing — something that does not happen to homeowners.  Such discriminations make it impossible for people to create a stable household.
  • Begin a public works program to fix infrastructure and provide union jobs.
  • Increase corporate taxes. Eliminate corporate welfare and use all public funds for the common good. No more money for malls, stadiums and airports unless that means subsidies for low-income consumers.  If we subsidize sports and make the games free then I’ll support it. Otherwise that money should go to schools, parks, libraries.
  • Reverse the current funding disparities and put  our common resources into schools where kids are currently poor, fund culturally relevant curriculum,  field trips,  summer and evening programs, we will have both access and equity.
  • Free pre-K and college tuition.

But we need to think bigger too. Castro’s final remark illuminated a basic problem: there is not enough national funding for affordable housing to meet the needs. We can be creative — as he suggested — but unless we change national budget priorities, the people needing safe stable inviting and affordable housing will only continue to grow.

Keith Ellison’s forum was packed to overflowing with people passionate about affordable housing. There was  not enough time for audience feedback.  Hopefully there will be another event just focused on collecting ideas from the people.

Short-term memory and the fight for Working Families in Minneapolis

 

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I am old enough to have started my work life in Minneapolis at a time when sexual harassment on the job was not a phrase, just an everyday nothing-you-can-do-about-it reality. Gender discrimination in hiring and wages were just how people did business. Racial discrimination was rampant in both the the workplace and in unions. Race and gender discrimination was illegal, (I’m not that old!) but our ability to litigate, as individuals or in class action suits were limited and small businesses were basically untouched.

In other words it was not the good old days. However, for the half-dozen crappy food service jobs I had in the 1970s and 80s,  I always received a schedule – part or full time. Working more or fewer hours was offered as an opportunity to me, not a requirement. So when businesses large and small cry that they can not possibly survive if they give workers a regular schedule they can count on, they are counting on us having short-term memories.

In fact flexible scheduling is an “innovation” of the 1990s,  an outgrowth of  globalization, free trade, and the rise and reification of business education.

I remember one corporate winner-of-the-year I heard on the  radio in the 90s  use the analogy of a boat in the sea  without  allegiance to country or workforce, able to pick up and follow the cheapest labor source. Genius! These were the people that everyone who wanted to make a million overnight, sought to be like, They were the ones in the limelight.

I am also old enough to have started college at a time when there were no temples to business on University campuses overshadowing liberal arts, as they literally do on the University of Minnesota west bank campus.  Inside those new buildings experts in the early 1990s with lots of letters after their names explained the joys of free trade — a happening  post-cold-war innovation.  The  North American Free Trade Agreement, inaugurated on January 1 1994, would be the template for all global and local trade relations.

 

Until a band of indigenous farmers from Chiapas interrupted the celebration on the eve of the inauguration of NAFTA.  The barely armed Zapatistas interrupted the party.  They used the brand new internet to build solidarity across the globe.  Ever since, workers and small-scale farmers have been crossing borders to fight the vagaries of so-called free trade and the boomerang dislocation of workers at home.

If you are a boss, no question, flexibility in scheduling and hiring and firing is good. Which is why it has been adopted by every kind of industry — from hospitals to universities, trucking to restaurants, warehousing to mining. And if you are a worker it sucks. There is no middle ground, just an ocean between the two. The only way workers can make it worth it to an employer to pay decent wages,  provide decent schedules, and time off for sickness and family needs is when workers agitate and labor peace becomes a cheaper way to go.

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In Minneapolis a coalition of groups including CTUL, NOC SEIU and the Minneapolis AFL-CIO and Fight for $15  have been organizing around the Working Families Agenda that includes living wages, regular scheduling, and sick time — conditions that allow us to care for children and elders, build lives and careers.  Such across-the-board legislation would allow those businesses who want to do well by their employees, to thrive, evening out the playing field.

So when businesses in Minneapolis cry out that there is no way for them to survive without flexible scheduling  — a little historical perspective is in order. As for city politicians trying to play both sides, there needs to be a moment of reckoning .  Employers sitting in their flexibility boats are feeding workers to the sharks. Will you send us a lifeboat or not? The voters want to know.

But we aren’t waiting for politicians to act. In the next two weeks workers in Minneapolis are taking action to #reclaimourcity. 

 

Black Lives Matter, the Middle School Edition!

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On October 26, 2015  Duchess Harris,launched Black Lives Matter, a book she coauthored with Sue Bradford Edwards aimed at students grades 6-12.   The reader, written at an 8th grade level, just makes one hungry for more. Suddenly we can imagine school library shelves filled with books for children dealing with issues that matter to them.

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Professor Harris teaches courses on civil rights, race and the law at Macalester college. In a comment I could relate to as an instructor of Race and Public Policy, she  noted that when she teaches first year college students she is starting from scratch. “Imagine” she said to a colleague who teaches math, “Imagine teaching college algebra to students who never had math in their K-12 years. That is what is like teaching about race.”Harris’ hopes that her book’s wide use in the nation’s middle schools, will make her job as a college instructor easier.

 

It is an unusual thing to read a book about current events of any kind, let alone a book about race.  Black Lives Matter doesn’t fill a gap — it magnifies it  while dropping a pearl in the bucket.

The book — published at lightening speed — begins with Micheal Browns’s story, the unarmed youth murdered by Ferguson Missouri police officer Daryl Wilson in August of 2014  and then steps back and provides two chapters of  historical context beginning with slavery and Dred Scott, moving to Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. It then includes more individual case studies of recent criminal injustice:  Travon Martin, killed by an acquitted neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford Florida in 2012,  Oscar Grant killed by transit police at a Bay area train station in 2009,  Renisha McBride, shot by a homeowner when she sought help for after a car accident in Detroit in 2013, Eric Garner the New York father smothered to death by a gang of cops for selling loose cigarettes on a New York Street corner in 2014; Tony Robinson the distressed unarmed young man shot by police in Madison Wisconsin in 2015; and Freddy Gray the Baltimore man who died after a ride in a police van in April 2015. Six police officers have been charged in Gray’s death.

The book was finished a few days before Sandra Bland, a Black Lives Matter activist and student at Prairie View A&M University,  lost her life in Waller county Texas after she was stopped by an officer for a frivolous traffic violation and hauled to jail, so the book does not say her name. That is our job, until justice is done.

There are chapters that put these stories into the larger context of ajudicial system, from policing to sentencing.  Sections on the social movement leave this reader wanting more, with less emphasis on government action and more on the work of social activists.

A pearl begging for more pearls.

Harris and a colleague with expertise in K-12 curriculum will be creating a lesson plans for teachers, which they hope to publish as early as January. Perhaps more personal stories of activists can be included there.

Black Lives Matter, the book and forthcoming companion curricula are a  beautiful beginning. Let’s go forth, activists, academics, educators and authors, and multiply!

(PS. Here are a couple places to look for other  K-12 Ethnic Studies resources: Rethinking Schools, and Teaching Tolerance.  Write in about other individual or collective sources!)

RELATED POSTS:  End the Foreclosure of African American History

A Single Story    Black History Matters

BACK TO THE FUTURE. Appropriation and the Power of History Part 2.

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If history is written by the victors, can we change who wins by changing the stories we tell about the past?

David Mura  asked the above question in the context of a discussion about lies in textbooks and public history displays, cultural appropriations and distorted and offensive depictions of Indigenous and Latino people.

It is a wonderful question, one that is central to arguments about reparations and stopping the patterns of repression.

Resistance to colonization and imperialism past and present are central themes for Latina writer Teresa Ortiz.   Rhiana Yazzie sees history as circular– the repression of the past happening today. Emmanuel Ortiz addressed Mura’s question of history and victors, noting that “our definition of victory is not the same.”

Mura brought up the recent effort to secure apologies and reparations for the deportation of Mexican Americans —  U.S. citizens — during the Great Depression.  An example that illustrates the danger in making corrections for the past with without explaining the hierarchies they upheld,  documenting the struggle that led to change, and recognizing recurring patterns, like the uptick in deportations following the 2008 recession.

As  R. Vincent Moniz, Jr. talked about monstrous  depictions of Native Americans painted on the walls of the capital and offered himself as a subject of  replacement portrait, I imagined a painting of him pointing at the old depiction, and his words speaking truth to the history of misrepresentation.

In Detroit, someone laid a tomahawk in the forehead of Columbus on October 12, of this year.  A permanent display like that, vilifying St Paul’s Columbus statue, and explaining the history of it erection is better I think, than taking it down and pretending it was never there.

Minneapolis’ Lake Bde Maka Ska, was for 180 years called Lake Calhoun after John C. the slave holder, Mexico invader and Indian killer. Now it needs only the Dakota name, but on each sign there should be a plaque explaining how it came to be named Calhoun, why that was offensive, what people had to do to change it back to its original name. That history includes people like Bree Newsome who climbed a flagpole in South Carolina to remove a confederate flag this past June, accelerating the push to de-confederate Minnesota as well.

The days after  Mura’s panel, I had two conversations with African-American students questioning their majors in Ethnic Studies “because the information is too depressing.” I took those conversations as a challenge to spend more time in my classes exposing the human determination and struggle undergirding all social progress.

We go back and tell truths, not to live in the past, but to change the future.

Maja Gorland, my beloved 92 year old Aunt, sharing refugee stories. Rest in Peace.

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My Aunt Maja, sister of my father, just passed away. She was 92 years old. Below is a draft of my account of  visiting  her during my perimeter bike trip in 2011/2012 when she was still living in Miami Springs, Florida.  

Warnings about biking in Miami traffic, accumulated. We decided to take them seriously, caught the monorail in Hallandale, then walked into Miami Springs to stay with my Aunt Maja in the home she had lived in for 70 years with her husband and four children.  There was not room inside for us, so we put our sleeping bags out on the porch. I spent the next afternoon in the living room, Maya in her wheelchair and me on the couch, talking about her mother — my grandmother.

I was eleven when grandma died. Maja, with her lilting German accent, is my connection to her. She also inherited grandma’s authoritative personality – kindness and firmness intertwined.

“My mother was a nurse during World War One” Maja reminded me, then added a detail I had never heard. “The radiologist she worked with was killed. She took his place. Eighteen years old and no medical schooling. She was incredibly proud of her military service.”
Despite her loyalty to Germany, Grandma somehow knew before many of her Jewish neighbors, that to survive they had to leave the country. “She sent your grandpa away a year before,” Maja explained, “so when the Gestapo came looking, he was already gone.”

Dad had told me about Nazi soldiers tearing apart their home, looking in closets, under the bed, in drawers for his father. Dad was five years old at the time. He remembered thinking  these places were much too small for his father to fit. The  apartment was always dark after that, shades drawn.

Grandma snuck the children out of the country assuming someone else’s identity. She left parents and siblings, knowing she would probably never see them again. They tried to get into Switzerland but were denied entry, a fact I discovered in 2005, when I received reparations from the Swiss government.

Maya was ten years older than my Dad and their memories reflect their age gap. On the ship to the Americas teenage Maja flirted with young men, meeting the one she would marry. Dad hid under his mother’s skirts, watching Orthodox Jewish ladies in the women’s room take off their wigs, revealing bald heads. They landed in Havana and lived in a refugee camp there. Dad remembered his mom had a job pulling the heads off chickens. Maja remembered standing on the Havana shore, watching the MS St. Louis come into harbor so close she could touch the outstretched hands of excited children hanging on the railing. She watched in horror as the ship of German refugees was turned away by Cuban authorities. The United States and Canada also refused them harbor and the boat sailed back to Europe, sending passengers back to battlefields and concentration camps.

To get from Havana to Miami where my grandfather was waiting, my Grandma went regularly to the embassy to see if her name was on the list. When another woman whose name was called did not show up, she claimed to be her. She sold her jewelry to the Havana synagogue to pay for their passage to Miami. In 1987 I visited that synagogue in Havana. They had a display case of the jewelry refugees exchanged for passage.

In Florida, Dad and his other sister Helga started school. Dad remembered first grade, the sting of mispronouncing “h is for hatpins” so the last syllable sounded like “penis.” Maja got a job to help provide for the little ones.

When the family moved to New York City, Maja and her husband stayed in Florida and bought the home along the canal in Miami Springs, where on hot  November morning in 2011, we ate sweetbreads with cousins.

I asked Maja what kind of music grandma liked.

“She had no time for music.” she said shortly.

Then for some reason I asked, “What would the soundtrack for grandma’s life sound like?”

She did not hesitate. “Da Da Da Dum.  Beethoven’s 5th.”

I wish I had asked Maja what her own soundtrack would be. I would imagine it would be something equally strong and embracing.