All posts by Andrea Gibbons

Afghanistan…

Bush declared Operation Enduring Freedom in October of 2001, but too often reading the news you could have forgotten entirely that we were still at war. Yet it went on, day by brutal day, the list of Western soldiers killed and mourned by name steadily growing. But it has now sprung very much into focus. WikiLeaks‘ recent release of thousands of classified documents has revealed a much expanded sense of the tragedy, the instances of friendly fire, the civilians dead, the steadily growing hatreds, the despair on both sides.

The Guardian has made it a major source for multiple stories since the news first broke, giving it a majority of space on the landing page and releasing detailed information and spreadsheets with the actual data. Der Spiegel has done something similar. The New York Times? Today there is one major story, “Document Leak May Hurt Efforts to Build War Support.” There is nothing about civilian, or even friendly fire, casualties here, rather a principal focus on Afghan and Pakistani unreliability.

I would disagree with the NY Times Op-Ed writer Andrew Exum that this is no big deal and we have learned nothing new. These documents offer an unparalleled view of what is happening on the ground and its true costs to everyone within Afghanistan’s borders. Of course, this immeasurable human cost is multiplied in the daily suffering of refugees.

The camps along the borders in Pakistan overflow with Afghans trapped in strange limbo, with very little hope of returning home, and less hope for any kind of future. And the true tragedy of Afghanistan is that many of these camps have been in continuous use since the 70s, and the USSR’s war in Afghanistan with all its parallels to Vietnam. Given a guerrilla was like a fish in water, to counter insurgency their strategy was to simply drain the water.

What wouldn’t any of us do to escape a world with so little chance for a future?

[also posted on www.brightwide.com]

Save

We are all Oscar Grant

Oscar Grant was shot in the back of the head by a police officer on New Year’s Day 2009. He was lying face down on the ground at an Oakland train station. The shooting was captured on multiple mobile phones and is all over youtube, you can see some of the footage here, though I warn you, it’s graphic.

The officer claimed he thought he was pulling his taser and not his gun. And last week the courts convicted him of involuntary manslaughter, with a sentence of two to four years, which is less than the five-year mandatory sentence for crack possession. Arnold Schwarzenegger begged for calm, and while some didn’t listen, it is saddening that the protests weren’t bigger, riots certainly seems far too strong a word.

Perhaps people just don’t believe change is possible. The names of 2000 people killed by law enforcement in the 1990’s alone are shown below as part of the Stolen Lives project.

index

Extreme cases like those of Rodney King and Amadou Diallo are well known, but there are thousands of others. Amnesty International has cited the United States for multiple violations, as has Human Rights Watch. And police brutality against people of colour is intertwined with the shocking statistics on incarceration in the United States, where 2.2 million people, over one in every hundred Americans, is behind bars. One out of every 9 African American men between 20 and 34 are in prison.

From slavery to the institutional racism and lynchings of Jim Crow to the violent repression of the Civil Rights movement, there is an unbroken chain leading to today’s ugly statistics. Self protection against police brutality was one of the organizing principles of the Black Panthers, hundreds of them were incarcerated, and George Jackson and Fred Hampton among others were killed by police. Many continue as political prisoners today, Mumia Abu-Jamal and the Angola 3 among them. But they are still fighting, we can do no less.

WallaceWilkersonWoodfox

[also posted at www.brightwide.com]

Save

Roque-Gageac, Beynac, Rouffignac

I woke up this morning to a brave calling of swallows echoing across the cliff face, greeting the dawn. It is the same cliff that forms one wall of my room, the other wall of pine sloping sharply up to meet it with a cross bracing of huge and ancient beams cut square. It is very cold. The swallows move in and out of crescendo and light comes in through the two small triangular windows.

Last night I was kept awake by the irony of a rock-pop festival in this tiny medieval village, and then I was kept awake by the cold. I wore my down vest under the covers for a while, then wrapped it around my feet. In between wakings I dreamed of James Crumley, big and shaggy and alcohol soaked, I dreamed he had hired my dad to rebuild and redecorate his record and auto-part store. I dreamed we walked in the desert and I tried to explain just how beautiful it was, just how much I loved it. But I almost never write about the desert, I don’t understand. But I suppose dreams aren’t for understanding.

Maybe it is just that I have found no inspiration beyond photos, I don’t find words hidden seamed up in time’s folds the way I do in London. So I shall work on my dissertation. It is ridiculously beautiful here of course, ancient villages of mellowed golden limestone and narrow winding roads. They are all fortified, on hilltops, castles crowning outcrops and defensible walls blocking cavern faces high up in the cliffs. It was on the edges of the hundred-years war with England, the castle of Beynac-et-cezenac in French hands, that of Castelnaud in English.

We went to see the grotte de Rouffignac yesterday as well. It is a huge cavern, huge. And regular the way most caves are not, carved out by an underground river through stone that must have been very regular. There are no stalactites and stalagmites, though my french did not quite reach to understanding why. The walls are mostly smooth, with a layer of what looks like a conglomerate just above the level of my head, strange rounded multi-armed shapes embedded whole into the walls, grey near the opening, stained a deep orange-red with iron ore deeper inside. You ride a small electric train very deep inside, following where ancient people walked with only torches. Large openings branch to either side, you wonder how they found their way. Past the hollows where ancient cave bears dug their holes to hibernate for the winter, into a rounded cavern where beautiful mammoths and bison were drawn across the roof, only a few feet from the floor, emerging from the deep hole of a cavern to the left that goes far beyond seeing…

Save

Seeds of Autonomy in Greece

While the economic crisis has hit all of us, and hit us hard, Greece is a country riding the edges of bankruptcy, even after the intervention of the IMF and the European Union.

This intervention has come at a high price, requiring Greece to slash its national debt at a brutal cost to its own citizens.

To find out more about the impact of the crisis on the lives of people and how they are responding, I recently spoke to Antonis, who is from Greece and is a fellow graduate student at the London School of Economics.

ANDREA: Tell us a little about yourself.

ANTONIS: My name is Antonis. I’m a student here in London and I’ve lived here for quite a few years. But I’m originally from Greece. Since the revolt of 2008, together with some friends, we’ve been covering what’s been happening in Greece in a blog, the Occupied London blog. We were also running a journal, an anarchist journal, called Voices of Resistance from Occupied London. But I think our project was one where the blog completely overtook the journal itself, so that’s what we’re focusing on at the moment.

ANDREA: Would you just say a few things about how concretely the crisis has affected Greece, and how it is affecting people in their everyday lives?

ANTONIS: Obviously it’s had a massive effect on every single level — the political, the social and the everyday — all around. And it’s happened very rapidly.  Its very hard to explain in a few words how big the change is because its something we are still assessing. People are still trying to grasp what has actually happened.

But to see the difference in the everyday reality in the country and in people’s mentality, even from December (which was the second to last time I visited) to March this year (which was the last time I was there) is tremendous.  To put it quickly, pretty much everyone, or at least most people I know who work in the public sector (and the public sector is huge), are facing the same sort of decrease in their wages — about 20 to 30 % of their total wages, anywhere between the two roughly.  And they probably are faced with even higher cuts in their pensions —  if you ever get to get a pension, the way things are going.

The private sector is about to go through the same kind of process and the cost of life overall has increased tremendously. Just to bring one example out of many: the cost of gas, from August 2009 to what they predict it’s going to be in a couple of months (in August 2010) has gone up by about 150%.

ANDREA: So how are people reacting to this? I know there was a general strike just a few weeks ago…

ANTONIS: Four weeks ago… There’s been a few general strikes actually; the one on May 5th was the fourth in 2010 if I’m not mistaken. Which is not that much, by Greek standards, you would usually have at least a couple of general strikes in a year anyway.

ANDREA: And so when you say general strike, is it really everything that shuts down?

ANTONIS: Pretty much. Airports completely shut down, transport is completely out. And the largest part of the public sector. Not the private sector, and of course one of the sectors where people are pretty much bullied into working is the banking sector, and that’s why the people who died on May 5th were actually in the bank working, they were forced to work, and threatened with being fired if they did not stay in the bank working. So the answer to that is yes, one reaction has been these relatively frequent general strikes. But then, the atmosphere in the country after May 5th has changed dramatically, people are very scared, they’ve been very taken aback by the level of violence on that day.

They are expecting more trouble even though this summer is probably going to be a dead period because nothing ever happens in Greece in the summer: It is way, way too hot for any kind of action! But come September … we are expecting, quite realistically, that anywhere between September and December the country is going to default; it is also most of the economists are predicting this, so of course it will be interesting to see what happens then.

ANDREA: So you don’t think that Germany will step in again, or that the rest of the European union will bail them out?

ANTONIS: It seems like it’s pretty much inevitable, that Greece’s default is something just waiting to happen and they are trying to allow it to happen in the most painless way for them, not for the people in Greece of course.

ANDREA: So what kind of alternatives are people talking about, are people thinking about long term change at this point, or that this is an opportunity to have a different sort of economy or different way of life aside from capitalism, is that being discussed?

ANTONIS: I guess there are two kind of tendencies toward which people are moving. One is individualization and a kind of despair: you hear a lot of stories, very personal stories about people going on anti-depressants after looking at the prospects of what is coming ahead. And of course this is really bad. But at the same time there is another tendency, of a lot of people trying to organize, to work collectively. There are a few projects being planned at the moment and they are going to be rolling out in the next few months, to head toward a more self-organized economy at least on a very local level. So people are talking about anything from self-organized bakeries to self-organized soup kitchens. Which on the one hand is emergency relief, but on the other people are really trying to avoid, I think, these projects taking the character of charity. We want them to be more of a solidarity thing, so it’s going to be emergency relief for now, but also a  structure that could live through the entire crisis itself and into the future.

ANDREA: So you’re going to be working in a bakery, right?

 

ANTONIS: That’s the plan.

ANDREA: So how did you set that up?

ANTONIS: I mean it’s still very much on paper, it’s just an idea we’ve been having. But we just said, you know, hell, we have to build on the ideas that we had and the experiences that we had from comrades abroad, in different projects abroad, the cooperative movement in this country but also in the States, as far as I know, it’s huge. So we can build on this experience, and build on the experience of, say, the Italian self-organizing autonomia movement. And we’re trying to combine the two, and of course many of us have seen that large part of the population is coming to the threshold of starvation, of bare survival, and so you have to kick in at that point and try to address these people and their needs. Again, like I said, absolutely not as some sort of top-down charity and “we’re here to help you” kind of attitude, but to organize with them.

ANDREA: So just one last question, if you could tell a little bit the story of December Park?

ANTONIS: This park is quite amazing, the history of this space. It’s what used to be an abandoned parking lot only a few meters away from where this kid Alexis was shot in December 2008, and of course his assassination triggered the revolt of December, so symbolically it’s very important. An abandoned ex-parking lot was lying there unused for many years, and a few months after the revolt a group of people came in, mostly local residents, and said “we are going to take over the space.” Athens has very few green spaces and very few public spaces, so they said, “we are going to turn this into one.” In a way, this is not too far from the kind of guerrilla gardening that you’d maybe see in New York and other places, but at the same time very specific to the Greek situation, a very strongly political space. So people have done a really amazing job in transforming the ex-parking into one of the nicest spots in Exarcheia, and ever since it has been very lively. Many political demonstrations start and end in this park, and of course it has attracted a lot of notice from the police: there has been at least three major raids by now. In the last raid more than 70 people, and two dogs, were detained by the police.

December Park

ANDREA: Two dogs? [laughing]

ANTONIS: Yeah. [also laughing]

ANDREA: That’s not funny at all…[still laughing]… so basically over the summer you’re going to work to build something…

ANTONIS: That’s the idea, and the main thing, and this is where I want to utilize the blog and any means of communication we’ve got with other people abroad, is to build on the experience of other people and other movements that went through something even vaguely similar to this. So Argentina is very important to us, Italy historically is very important to us, but also the States and the UK in relation to this kind of cooperative movement are important to us as well.

ANDREA: All right, so I suppose we’ll be checking back in with you in September?

ANTONIS: Sounds good.

For more on the situation in Greece, check out the Greek Indymedia website.

[also posted on Dr. Pop]

Save

Wyndham Mortimer: Organizing the UAW

I’m not saying that I know all the ins and outs now, but having just finished Wyndham Mortimer’s book Organize! My life as a union man, I have a much better idea. And I know he has been a hero to many before me, but he is ranked at the top of those I love and admire. To stumble across people like that is always an unexpected joy in a country that seems to pride itself on rubbing out their memory.

It is a beautiful, powerful, hell-raising sort of book. Mortimer started working at the age of 12 in the coal mines, went on to organize unions in coal, auto, and parts manufacturing. He wrote of the 1890’s that “It was during this era that the Nebraska farmers decided to raise more hell and less corn.” He was one of the key people in breaking the open shop in America, a  founder of the UAW, and he stood for a broad definition of syndicalism, a union led by its members for its members, an anti-capitalist vision for the future, the equality of all races in the movement and the country… And so if you want to know just what the hell happened to the union movement in the U.S., this will tell you, and break your heart while doing it.

After organizing his own auto plant, he left for Flint to build a broad-based industrial union. Here is what happened when he arrived:

Early in June, 1936, I went to Flint, the center of General Motors operations and power. I registered at a cheap hotel (The Dresden) obtaining a room costing twelve dollars a week. I had barely time to remove my coat when the phone rang, A voice said, “You had better get the hell back where you came from if you don’t want to be carried out in a wooden box!”

“How would you like to go to hell?” I shot back, but the person had hung up. I was fifty-two years old and nobody had taken me out in a box yet; I’d be damned if this was going to be the first time!

Here he is, second from your left, marching on Cadillac Square in 1937

Wyndham Mortimer

He was there of course, at the founding of the CIO. Here is the historic moment in his own words:

Hutcheson having protested the chair’s permitting Thompson to speak, Lewis observed to him, “I think it is pretty small potatoes when the President of a great international union takes advantage of parliamentary rules to prevent a working delegate from telling us of the problems confronting his people…”

Hutcheson replied sarcastically, “I eat small potatoes, that is why I am so big.”

Lewis stood glaring at him. “I would think you would be ashamed to do this sort of thing.”

Hutcheson then called Lewis a “dirty bastard.” These words were scarcely uttered when Lewis struck Hutcheson on the jaw, knocking him over a table. The Carpenters’ chief landed on the side of his face, which was badly skinned.

The convention was in pandemonium. Sitting across from me was Wharton, President of the Machinists. Picking up his folding chair, he shouted, “Kill the bastard!” … Our entire union delegation moved over to the side of the Miners, prepared to do battle, if necessary.

His feelings on labour and government, written in 1949 and long since proven true:

A ‘Labour’ government, committed to the policy of ‘gradualism’ cannot come to power. It can only come to office.

And this piece of amazing writing on race, from his Newsletter #7, 1950

The fact is–and the top leadership knows it–that the Negro will never receive recognition without pressure. When discrimination is abolished, it will be time enough to think in terms of merit, not before. It took terrific pressure to abolish chattel slavery. It required pressure to have the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to our Constitution adopted. It has required pressure from our unions before many employers would even hire a Negro…

In a white man’s world, the Negro worker has every problem of the white worker–plus one more: he has the problem of color. No person of the white majority can ever possibly understand what this means. The claim that our Negro membership is adequately represented by an all-white Executive Board is a piece of brazen, chauvinistic nonsense, advocated by those who see nothing really wrong in racial discrimination and do not understand the harm it does the American labor movement.

It is an amazing book from an amazing man. And it is the best and the worst of the American labor movement, its brilliant spark of promise before that was crushed through red-baiting, fear, and greed.

Save

Save

Reading the world through sport

The amount you can learn might come as a surprise if you don’t read the sports pages, and possibly even if you do. I (somewhat) recently went to hear David Goldblatt speak, and definitely learned a whole lot about things I didn’t really know before.

Let’s take the African Cup of Nations 2010 for starters, what did it teach us?

Now I did know where Angola was, but I did not know that there is an unconnected piece of Angola called Cabinda, and that it has been fighting for its independence for decades.

Why does Angola care? Cabinda contains a third of Angola’s oil. So to hold soccer games in this rather out-of-the-way place, miles from any other stadium, was entirely a political decision. Cabinda, we own you.

But that’s still up for rather violent debate, as rebels proved by attacking the Togolese tour bus with its Angolan military escort. Three people died in the ensuing thirty minute firefight. So wasn’t there a peace accord signed in 2006? Well, if you could call it an accord when you pull a rebel out of a Dutch prison where he has been languishing for some time and make him sign something on behalf of loads of other people he hasn’t talked to recently, and that contains nothing about disarmament or amnesty. I’d prefer to call it fraud.

And so the rebels attacked a soccer team’s tour bus. The dark side of national politics, you can read more here.

And of course, there are the direct connections between teams and politics, Goldblatt gave another example of a trip to Israel, where soccer teams correspond to different political factions. He looked particularly at Beitar Jerusalem. Over the past 70 years it has become increasingly tied to the extreme right wing, fans planting soccer club flags beside those of settlements. During half-time you will customarily see  some fans gather to pray. When asked why, the leader of “La Familia” faction said “This is my country … When I see one million Muslims praying in my country, it makes me nervous.”

The even darker side of fans, read more here.

And at the other end? The joy of football, and sport furthering positive resistance. The Mathare Youth Sports Association. Started in the slums in Kenya, it essentially began as a one man operation. He acted as a referee and lent soccer balls to youth who organized themselves to clean up a place to play.

Entire leagues run by youth themselves formed this way, so much time spent volunteering in community self-help, and then they could play. This has since spread to work on other issues from Aids to child labor. I don’t know how well it addresses structural issues, but mutual aid is always good in my book. You can read more here.

So! There’s so much more to say, so to hear the entire podcast, click here. It’s highly recommended. Another great sports blog that connects sport, resistance and politics is Dave Zirin, the Edge of Sport. And I didn’t even start on the Premiere League or hooligans or…well. There’s time.

To the claim that team sports are only bread and circuses? If you’re like me you’ll say “oh hell no,” and then think, and say, “well, some of it is.” Not the love of the game, the love of play, that feeling of solidarity with others. But I’d say we should be critical of the politics of it, and it’s probably as good a way to learn about the world around us as many others. 90 days to the World Cup, and all the world will be holding its breath at the politics and wonder.

[also posted at www.drpop.net]

Zero Tolerance Policing (in the Dominican Republic?)

It sends chills down my spine really, to know Bratton’s out there making mad money as a consultant and spreading this everywhere. I know it’s considered a controversial issue but I stand pretty squarely on the side saying fuck the (U.S.) police. You add the proven corruption and racism to a larger political program and developer and business dollars? You get Giuliani and Bratton’s policies to clean up neighborhoods not by stopping crime but by criminalizing all of its inhabitants (of color) and getting them the hell out of there so the new wealthy (white) people moving in can feel safe, that’s what zero tolerance policing means to me. Just to be clear.

Funny though, Bratton’s plan is not exactly what’s going on in the Dominican Republic according to professor David Howard, nor has he been involved. They’ve just taken the prestigious name as proof of their ‘modern’ and ‘Western’ method, and have applied a particularly nationalistic twist. Of course, throwing 16,000 armed policemen into a small area (approximately 1 for every 13 people), instituting a curfew and 24 hour surveillance, and randomly arresting anyone looking at a cop wrong…well, that sounds about right. Though the scale is a bit mind boggling.

And of course,  approximately 3,000 of those police have been trained in New York and Miami. (I was going to throw in the possible effects of America’s military occupation of the Dominican Republic from 1917-21 and 1965-66 as well, but realized it’s maybe a tiny stretch to connect these facts. Or not.)

The placas have the jargon down as well, they are sanitizing these neighborhoods, cleansing them. But generally speaking they’re not criminalizing the entire population, nor is it parallel to the gentrification and displacement sweeping New York or L.A. Essentially they’re reinventing the image of the police, making a show of dealing with crime in a media friendly way, and hunting down Haitians. I’m not quite sure if this has slowed down since the earthquake, but I’m doubtful.

So. If you haven’t read Junot Diaz, either Drown or the Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, do not even finish this, proceed directly to buy these books and read them. He writes like a razor blade about the dark absurdity that seems to lie at the heart of Dominican politics (not that they’re alone in that). But here are some choice new facts.

First the Haitian thing. (Read Edwidge Danticat too, she’s amazing.) Dominicans, very generally speaking, hate Haitians. Particularly the ones who want to move to the Dominican Republic. The law says anyone born on Dominican soil who is not in transit (ie in the airport etc) is Dominican if they have a birth certificate to prove it. Trouble is, you often can’t get a certificate if either of your parents doesn’t have one, so you have some cases of 4th generation kids (dunno if you could even call them Haitian at that point), who don’t have birth certificates. And without a birth certificate you cannot get an ID. And without an ID you can be immediately arrested, and shortly thereafter deported.

But it gets better, because they’ve legally broadened the definition of ‘in transit’ to include all migrants. It’s called fun with words. And it means a lot of people in these neighborhoods have suddenly found themselves heading back to their ‘home’ country.

So the second thing. As part of re-branding themselves the police have seen technology as a major factor. So as part of this zero tolerance thing they have bought all these new jeeps equipped with the latest and greatest in tech. First, they all have laptops. Of course, they have no computerized data on crime or criminals to bring up on those laptops, but I suppose it’s the theoretical ability that counts.

Their other new gadgets? GPS units. Of course they are policing informal settlements with no paved roads and regular flooding. You can give coordinates but that will never help anyone actually get to you. And as for using it to get anywhere, forget about it.

And still I sat through the lecture with my stomach disappearing into itself and its fear of power combined with a legacy of immense violence and corruption embodied in 16,000 officers and neighborhoods essentially on lock down.

Bruno Shulz on reading swallows…

One thing must be avoided at all costs: narrow-mindedness, pedantry, dull pettiness. Mot things are interconnected, most threads lead to the same reel. Have you ever noticed swallows rising in flocks from between the lines of certain books, whole stanzas of quivering pointed swallows? One should read the flight of these birds…

Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hourglass – Bruno Schulz

Highgate Cemetery by Night…

Well…not quite the adventure it sounds, as we didn’t precisely go for a wander. We actually sat comfortably, if not entirely warmly, in  chapel  of Highgate Cemetery (which was completely full) to listen to Dr. Brent Elliot discuss the History of Cemetery Memorials. I suppose I have a significant  photographic interest in the subject, but perhaps more so in those who make graveyards their life profession or obsession. I had only been to one cemetery briefly mentioned (que viva Glasgow!), but it exemplified many of the subjects discussed:

Close your eyes and take a moment to imagine the expert on cemetery memorials, and, there before you, you have Dr. Eliot. Tall, precise, pale, bearded, dry. Owner of a broad forehead and wide set eyes. Soberly suited. He opened by emphasizing that this talk would cover cemeteries, not graveyards, crematoria, and etc…Happily, I am now cool enough to know the important differences.

I also now know that East Anglia was notorious in its conservatism in retaining the use of body stones. The stylistic existence of muscular gothic. The fact that many of those creepily black head stones are in fact white marble, simple victims of a staggering air pollution. And I now know just how many sculptures have been stolen from cemeteries (now that would take a level of superstition-free courage I do not see within myself…)

And of course the minor scandal of Italy exporting grave sculpture wholesale, and English masons taking the credit. The angels with their come hither expressions and decolletage. The brilliance of Anselm Oddlings of Hull. The gravestone in the form of a baby grand piano. Next month is on The English Way of Death, which could be even more interesting. And of course, I now have a list of London cemeteries to visit during the daylight hours…

Seeking balance in life (and er, death), yesterday I read Gramsci all morning and then took a friend’s place in the season-ticket holder section of Arsenal v Sunderland. Fucking hell but I love football, even more than eccentrically morbid talks in burial chapels. The game was, however, much much colder. I came home, made tea, and got under the covers immediately, finding it impossible to emerge.

Save

GM destroys the American Middle Class

Well. I am as amazed as you are to actually find this stated out loud, I am rather leery of it in fact, it seems something that is far too good (well, good only in terms of my research) to be possibly true. And I can’t be the only one to have found this buried deep in a rather bad book called Why GM Matters, but here is the exact quote from Rick Wagoner, (ex) CEO of General Motors:

The toughest question I ever asked Wagoner was, Did you have to destroy the American middle class to save the company? “If you look at the circumstances we’re facing today, if we hadn’t done that, it would have been very dire for all three of the U.S.-based auto businesses,” he responded. “So, unfortunately, the answer is yes.”

So I was originally quite struck with a bit of anger…but what in the book didn’t make me angry? And then of course, a friend pointed out that as a quote it is really quite absurd, though typical of some good old-fashioned GM megalomania. And as an attitude it is stunning. So what is the greater good of such a business really, if not the jobs it provides? Apart from retaining American industrial capacity? Because surely there must be a cheaper way to do that than giving such a company billions of worker’s dollars…