Like We Weren’t Worth Saving

How the Camp Fire Was a Social Disaster

by Michael J. Coyle*


The Camp Fire, which crushed the lives and livelihoods of the 30,000 residents of the town of Paradise, California, was not just a natural disaster. It was a social tragedy rooted in inequality and injustice.

The Camp Fire is but another example in a long string of disasters that supposedly is inflicted upon us by the “nature” of things. That is how the media interpreted the 2007–2008 financial crisis: as “the cost of doing business,” with the vast majority of bailout dollars going to corporations and/or to the very culprits of the crash. It is also how the media continuously construct the “criminal” system: as a social effort “saving” us from “criminals” and the “epidemic” of “crime” (instead of what it really is, i.e., evidence of a targeting practice from a culture awash in white supremacy and class warfare, a massive denial of the ubiquity of “crime,” and one of the planet’s most iniquitous, unlawful, and disturbing collection of institutions and practices).

The commercial media generally portrayed the burning of Paradise as a disaster brought on by uncontrollable Nature, or at best, as the consequences of global warming wrought on us all.1 If one does not look closely, what took place in Paradise gets lost in a rhetoric that literally reshapes what happened. Repeatedly classified in media outlets as the deadliest wildfire in recorded California history, or as a new kind of climate-change wildfire, the Camp Fire has become the foundation of a narrative that deeply buries the truth.

Emergencies tell us a great deal about how life is valued. We learned a lot about how the federal government values communities of color, the poor, and our captives (prisoners) in the stories of Katrina and Maria. Paradise, a town of mostly small, humble houses and numerous mobile homes and trailer parks, was a place whose residents belonged squarely in the middle- and lower-income brackets. For the nearby university town of Chico, Paradise served as a reservoir of blue-collar workers and laborers. For retirees, it was an inexpensive place to make a home, an escape from the absurd price of California real estate.

The popular narrative of the fire focused on “the normal fire-scape of California,” “the results of people living in a fire-prone area,” or what the Governor called “the new abnormal of fires.” But where was the barren ring-of-land protection for Paradise? Where was the prescribed burn around the town of Paradise—which was what saved the neighboring city of Chico from this same fire? One cannot help but remember the well-known inadequate protection of the New Orleans’ levee system that in Katrina left many neighborhoods of color and poor neighborhoods below water. How could a town like Paradise, known to be extremely vulnerable to fire, and especially vulnerable to a fire that would move with extreme speed as the Camp Fire did, be left without protection? Why did only a fraction of the residents receive alerts or an order to evacuate? Why was the decision reached not to use an Amber Alert communication, a message that would have gone to every cell phone in the area? As one resident said, “They totally dropped the ball on this. Look, all these people dead, all these people missing. It’s like they decided to forget about us. Like we weren’t worth saving” (Romero et. al 2018).

As one local wrote, “What emerges, too, is a troubling sign of working- and middle-class challenges compounded by disaster: people on Social Security or disability, people with no insurance, people with nowhere else to go. In this increasingly expensive swath of California, Paradise was one of the last places where you could live on a fixed income. Hospitals, rehab centers, convalescent homes and community pharmacies dotted its main roads. Less than two months ago, the local county declared a shelter crisis” (Pape 2018).

As local fire attorney Matthew Luzaich told me, “Another problem is that insurance companies denied fire coverage to many people. In my experience speaking with clients it was almost always the case that those denied fire coverage were those in mobile homes, modular houses, and very inexpensive homes. Was it the location of these places that made them less desirable to insure? I’m told that it wasn’t a cost issue for these people, it was a matter of not being a possibility for them at any cost.”

The questions linger. Almost half of the dead from the fire are 65 or older. What does this say about how we value the elderly? How could a state main power provider, PG&E, which has already been blamed in a California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection report for being the cause of a number of previous fires, be allowed to operate dangerous electric power transmission lines that are currently the favored cause of the Camp Fire? Why are these wires, well known as an extreme fire danger when near forests, not mandated to be buried in the ground? What does this indicate about how a society decides when the interests of a corporation and its most vulnerable populations collide? What does this say about the lack of protections in place from the unhinged corporate greed and unimaginable disregard for human life and the environment from corporations such as PG&E—one that has been documented as an extreme abuser and the subject of a Julia Roberts’ Hollywood blockbuster, Erin Brockovich? When a town narrows the limited paths for emergency exits for the sake of commerce, despite warnings to widen them in a Butte County grand jury report after a 2008 fire, what does this say about the battle of humans vs. dollars?

The aftermath of the fire has exacerbated the problems of the former residents of Paradise. The first wave of evacuees took refuge in a large field adjacent to and owned by a Chico Walmart store. I was shocked by how much hostility was directed at fire refugees and how they were portrayed as potentially dangerous. In an effort to supposedly protect consumers from witnessing the unpleasantness of people in the midst of total loss, pain, and despair, Walmart hired a Texas private security firm, staffed by massive musclemen clad in intimidating military-style outfits and carrying weapons. Unbelievably, Walmart quickly erected a fence around the field and removed the refugee campers. Many of these campers, having lost vehicles and homes, had only local jobs available and needed to stay nearby to get to them; or they wanted to stay close to nearby families and did not want to move to the more distant Red Cross facilities at State Fairground spaces in neighboring counties. In addition, by displacing people in need to distant housing shelters, local activists, who were visiting, comforting, bringing supplies, and feeding people in the Walmart field and other locations, were shut out.

The Camp Fire is already becoming old news. Media accounts prefer new disasters, not reflections on events already maxed out on “empathy exhaustion.” A friend and I started a foundation that connected Bay Area food and beverage companies with local shelters needing food; initially much was given, but for weeks now we cannot even get a response from these providers. Starting very recently, residents have been allowed to return to the almost entirely burned-to-the-ground town of Paradise. A friend working in Chico as a nurse is deeply concerned about the health risks from simply staying and breathing in a town that needs years to clean up the profound toxicity of the earth, the frequently poisonous remains of homes and businesses, and even the harmful air.

But who is going to make a fuss? Where are the practices that we have in place to worry about these lives? Where are the social justice institutions we have built, entrenched, and continuously funded to protect such lives? As the man from Paradise said, who is going to think these lives are worth saving?

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1. Although Paradise suffered the largest loss of lives and homes, the Camp Fire also caused great losses in the communities of Magalia, Concow, Yankee Hill, and Centerville.

Recommended Readings

Gee, Alastair and Dani Anguiano. 2018. “Last day in Paradise: The Untold Story of How a Fire Swallowed a Town.” The Guardian, December 20.
Pape, Sarah. 2018. “When Paradise is on Fire.” The New York Times, November 13.
Romero, Simon, Tim Arango, and Thomas Fuller. 2018. “A Frantic Call, a Neighbor’s Knock, but Few Official Alerts as Wildfire Closed In.” The New York Times, November 21.

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* Michael J. Coyle, Ph.D., is Professor in the Department of Political Science and Criminal Justice at California State University, Chico, and works to highlight the social construction of discarded persons—the excluded, the homeless, those targeted as deviant, the imprisoned—as “unlike us,” “dangerous,” or “punishment-worthy.” He is the author of Talking Criminal Justice: Language and the Just Society and co-editor of the forthcoming International Handbook of Penal Abolitionism.

Brazil, an Urgent Situation

by Clifford Welch*

Demonstration against presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Porto Alegre, Brazil. 29 September 2018. By Caco Argemi CPERS / Sindicato. Source: Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0. Edited.

Image: Demonstration against presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro in Porto Alegre, Brazil. September 29, 2018. By Caco Argemi CPERS / Sindicato. Source: Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0. Edited.

The front-runner in Brazil’s upcoming presidential election refuses to debate his opponent. He prefers to generate and reproduce disinformation about his opponent without ever issuing an apology or correction. Sounds familiar? In fact, front-runner Jair Bolsonaro looks upon Donald Trump as his mentor, and Trump’s former campaign manager, Steve Bannon, has been an unofficial advisor to Bolsonaro, who sees Bannon as part of his “popular-nationalist” movement.

Unlike Trump in 2016, Bolsonaro’s candidacy is favored by the embarrassing recent record of his opponent’s party, the Workers’ Party (PT). Corruption charges have put several party leaders behind bars. The PT has repeatedly denied the charges and defended a claim of being more honest than any other political party in Brazil. It won three presidential elections with this argument and up until a month before the first-round election, polls showed the PT’s founding light, Luís Ignacio Lula da Silva, as the front-runner, even though he was in jail. With Lula definitively barred from running by the courts, the PT put forward Fernando Haddad, a former mayor of São Paulo and university professor. As his running mate, they selected Manuela D’Ávila, a popular congresswoman from the Communist Party of Brazil (PCdoB), both publicly endorsed by Lula just before he was jailed. Whereas much of the evidence against the party is credible, the current PT candidates represent a new generation of leaders untouched by scandal.

In the first round of elections, held on October 7, the voters’ top two choices were Bolsonaro, with 46 percent of the vote, and Haddad, with 29 percent of the vote. This election eliminated another 11 candidates and established Bolsonaro and Haddad as the two finalists. The final round of the process is scheduled for October 28.

Reliable polls show Bolsonaro winning with 58 percent of the vote. Many worry that a country that struggled so hard to overcome military rule is about to vote for military rule. In fact, Bolsonaro rose to rank during the later stages of the dictatorship. His vice-presidential running mate is a retired Army general, and another general is coordinating the work of some 30 study groups developing policies for governing the country. Many additional military officials run each of these groups. Military men are capable of respecting the law, but leading officials in Bolsonaro’s camp express their disdain for laws and regulations, like those controlling deforestation and protecting minorities. Just about four years ago, the country passed through a period of reckoning, involving truth commissions at every level—from local institutions to the federal government—analyzing the dictatorship and its crimes on the 50th anniversary of the 1964 coup d’etat. The current resurgence of the military in politics seems in part to be a reaction, as they have stridently denied any wrongdoing and oppose reparations for violating the human rights of their victims.

Bolsonaro, like Trump, shows little respect for democracy. During the campaign, he refused to participate in debates and proudly rejected negotiation with political leaders and parties, accepting endorsements while declaiming deals. After the first round, he accused the electoral system of fraud and said that he will not accept electoral results if he loses the final vote. In a radio interview, he reinforced his rejection of the debates. His handlers seem intent on using an assassination attempt on the candidate in September to keep him cloistered while they run his campaign through social media, where “fake news” has included absurd allegations against Haddad, such as support for incest and sex (rather than sex education) among minors.

In the meantime, Haddad and the PT are anxiously planning, negotiating, and campaigning to accumulate at least nine more points to win. He has released a plan for his government, including solutions for Brazil’s devastating economic crisis. Haddad is reaching out to Protestants and Catholics in order to counter the support Bolsonaro has received from evangelicals. (Evangelical leaders see in the thrice-divorced Bolsonaro a defense of “family values,” defined as male dominance, opposition to reproductive rights, and intolerance for the LGBTQ community.) Haddad has sought the endorsement of losing presidential candidates and incorporated the third-place candidate in his proposal for government ministers. However, many politicians and parties have expressed neutrality. Given Bolsonaro’s lead, a neutral position is actually an endorsement for the former Army captain.

With Bolsonaro’s campaign oriented by Paulo Geudes, a “Chicago boy” neoliberal trained by Milton Freidman, and staffed by military officials, the business class supports him. If elected, Brazilians can expect a reactionary transformation similar to that undertaken by Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s, whose dictatorship imposed draconian structural adjustments on Chile. These included huge cutbacks to education and health care as well as privatization and selling off of public universities and hospitals. Bolsonaro has proposed something like a flat tax that actually raises taxes abruptly on all but the poorest wage earners. Among the demands of the agribusiness sector is the further relaxation of controls on Amazon rainforest deforestation. The “lungs of the world,” as the Amazon is called, could soon be lost. Bolsonaro has also said that he will classify rural social movements as terrorist organizations. His plan for governing has not yet been released, but his statements already make clear his intention to ignore constitutional responsibilities, like agrarian reform.

Bolsonaro has used Manuela’s party affiliation to redbait Haddad and warn of Brazil becoming another Venezuela. Haddad’s poor showing in São Paulo during the first round demonstrated the ticket’s limited appeal among the middle and ruling classes. These were the groups that gave their full support to the 1964 coup. Bolsonaro’s success at mobilizing the support of poor, working-class, and Afro-descendant voters, including women, is what has surprised analysts on the left. Certainly, contradictory aspirational outlooks, especially in the context of a difficult and long recession, play an important role. Bolsonaro’s propaganda includes numerous testimonials from supposed supporters who are Black and female.

In the face of Bolsonaro’s popularity, the PT will have to struggle relentlessly to retake the presidency. It is clear that the Bolsonaro campaign is oriented by hatred. The PT would do well to adopt an anti-hatred stance. It could be geared to undermine Bolsonaro, while it indirectly provokes people to reconsider their dismay with the PT.

In appealing for a politics oriented by love rather than hatred, the PT has to emphasize its outsider status and thus the change its victory will represent. The recent elections, as well as support for Bolsonaro, demonstrate the voters’ intense hope for change. Bolsonaro and his party are new to the national political scene. The parties currently in power lost big in the election, despite their advocacy of neoliberal policies very similar to those of Bolsonaro. Their presidential candidates received little more than 5 percent of the vote.

Finally, Haddad and Manuela need to emphasize how they symbolize not the restoration of Lula—the current jingle is “Happy again” with the PT—but rather the renovation of the party. In other words, they have to make people believe in the dream the PT represented to people when Lula was inaugurated in 2003 and tens of thousands of people gathered in the capital to cry with joy. As new but politically experienced and savvy politicians, Haddad and Manuela give the party a chance to reach the presidency and nurture the growth and prosperity of a socially just Brazil. The alternative, Bolsonaro’s victory, will instead bring division, repression, and more capital accumulation for the one percent who already receive a third of Brazil’s income, making the county the world’s most unequal in income distribution.

Against hate, for love, change and renewal!

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*Clifford Welch is a former San Francisco longshoreman, ranchhand, reporter, and cofounder of the National Writers Union. He teaches contemporary Brazilian history at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP). A previous version of this piece has been published by the Latin American Perspectives blog (here).

The Mexican Breakthrough

by John M. Ackerman*


Mural de Diego Rivera, Palacio Nacional, México DF. Photo by jd (A) via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The historic victory of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in the July 1st Mexican presidential election stands out as a beacon of hope amidst the turbulent sea of contemporary global politics. The collapse of the post–Cold War political establishment has conjured up a panoply of increasingly strange and dangerous demons throughout the globe, including Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron, Rodrigo Duterte, Mauricio Macri, and Kim Jong-un, among others.

Mexico could have easily followed the same path of intolerance, elitism, and exclusion. Indeed, this was the generally expected outcome for the 2018 elections. Just as the corrupt establishment had stolen the presidential contests of 2006 and 2012, many assumed that the ruling Party of the Institutional Revolution (PRI), along with its long-time ally, the right-wing Party of National Action (PAN), would find a way to defeat, exclude, or simply eliminate López Obrador.

The playing field was significantly tilted in favor of the authoritarian coalition. The “PRIAN,” the acronym used to represent the union built over the last three decades between the two establishment parties, controls the electoral authorities and enjoys the support of the national oligarchy and international financial capital. This coalition also counted on the mobilization of an extensive network of clientelistic government programs, vote-buying schemes, and intimidation tactics to “get out the vote” on election day.

Nevertheless, against all odds, López Obrador emerged victorious, thanks to an excellent campaign and the massive groundswell of citizen participation and popular indignation with the status quo of violence, corruption, poverty, electoral fraud, institutional failure, and neoliberal policies. He received 53% of the vote, completely routing his competitors, Ricardo Anaya of the PAN, who received 22%, and José Antonio Meade of the PRI, who was left in a distant third place with 16% of the vote. The former party of the left, the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), was brutally punished by the electorate for having allied with the Enrique Peña Nieto government since 2012 and then having endorsed Anaya during the 2018 campaign. It received only 2% of the presidential vote.

The 30 million votes López Obrador received on election day make him the most highly voted president in Mexican history. Vicente Fox (PAN) received only 15 million votes in 2000, the first time the PRI was defeated at the ballot box. Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI) received 19 million in the last presidential elections, held in 2012.

López Obrador came in first place in 31 out of 32 states. His strong showing in the northern states, such as Nuevo Leon and Chihuahua, was particularly surprising, given that this more conservative region of the country tends to vote for the PAN. In the southern states, López Obrador´s victory was particularly spectacular. He received 80% of the vote in his home state of Tabasco and over 60% in both Oaxaca and Guerrero. In addition, over 60% of the votes sent in by Mexicans residing abroad, the majority from the United States, went to López Obrador.

López Obrador´s MORENA (“National Regeneration Movement”) party, in alliance with the Workers Party (PT) and the Social Encounter Party (PES), also won the majority of both federal chambers of Congress, the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, and the majority of the state governorships up for grabs, including key states such as Veracruz, Tabasco, and Chiapas. MORENA also now controls a majority of the state legislatures, which would allow the party to modify the federal Constitution if so desired.

Unsurprisingly, since the election there has been an explosion of optimism and high expectations. The peso has strengthened in international currency markets, the consumer confidence index has  risen, and recent polls show that if the presidential election were held again today López Obrador would win over 60% of the vote nationwide. Mexicans are thrilled to finally have a president legitimately elected  who has vowed to clean up corruption, bring peace, jump-start the economy, and stand up to Donald Trump.

Previously, Mexico´s political sphere seemed to have been frozen, in contrast to other Latin American nations. Over the last two decades, a majority of them had found a way, for a time, to channel social discontent through institutional politics. Today, many are in the process of political reversal, but all of these countries had demonstrated sufficient flexibility to respond through political-institutional channels to citizen frustration at the failure of “Washington consensus” policies.

Ironically, just at the moment that the “pink tide” has come to an end for the rest of Latin America, Mexico has entered onto the scene. López Obrador has represented for decades the stubborn resistance of the Mexican people to the neoliberal narrative of false “modernization.”  Suddenly, these pent up frustrations and hopes have blasted through the surface in an absolutely peaceful way, through the ballot box, and have brought to the presidency an intelligent, humble, and reasonable man determined to solve Mexico´s problems at their roots.

However, some voices have already tried to minimize the importance of López Obrador´s historic triumph. The conservative journalist and writer Héctor Aguilar Camín, for instance, writes that the July 1st vote supposedly implies a “democratic goodbye to democracy” since López Obrador is supposedly a messianic, authoritarian leader. Harvard scholar John Womack has said that López Obrador represents, at best, “the left wing of the PRI,” but that we should not expect any grand transformations from his government.

The concerns about a possible return of authoritarianism are terribly mistaken. Indeed, López Obrador´s victory implies precisely the opposite. His victory after decades of grass-roots struggles, repression, and electoral fraud means that democracy will finally have a chance in Mexico. It is the current Peña Nieto administration that put democracy at risk through its constant attack on the free press, political activists, and the division of powers. In contrast, with López Obrador Mexico finally will be able to experiment with authentic press freedom, a professional judiciary, and an independent civil society.

Ideologically, López Obrador is not a socialist and  has established a strategic alliance with an important sector of the national bourgeoisie. Nevertheless, he remains fully committed to social justice and to giving first priority to the needs of the poorest and most marginalized Mexicans. It is also important to note that in a country so profoundly ravaged by decades of neoliberal economics, institutional collapse, corruption, and violence, even seemingly moderate achievements such as establishing a functioning rule of law and ending corruption could have truly revolutionary consequences.

Some of López Obrador´s key proposals include: over two million scholarships for unemployed youth so that they can work and serve as apprentices in the formal economy; guaranteed access to free university education for all Mexicans; a vast infrastructure and development program in southern Mexico; ending corruption and waste in government by centralizing procurement and cutting top salaries for top bureaucrats; strengthening the national market for industrial goods and ending imports of oil and food; and ending the “war on drugs” and  initiating a process of “transitional justice” and poverty reduction in order to achieve peace by  addressing the roots of the problem of violence. Time will tell whether the new president will succeed in achieving his objectives  or whether the powerful national oligarchy and Donald Trump will  manage to sabotage his plans. For now, however, Mexico again stands as one of the key places worldwide to watch for innovation and hope for social justice and democracy, just as was the case in the past with the Revolution of 1910, the 1930s under revolutionary reformer Lázaro Cárdenas, and the 1994 Zapatista uprising.

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* John M. Ackerman ( is a professor at the Institute for Legal Research of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), editor-in-chief of The Mexican Law Review, and a columnist at both Proceso magazine and La Jornada newspaper. Twitter: @JohnMAckerman

“Millions and Millions of Lulas”: A Post from Brazil

by Clifford Welch*

São Bernardo do Campo SP 07 04 2018 O ex presidente Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva depois da missa nos braços do povo do sindicato dos Metalurgicos do ABC. Foto Paulo Pinto/FotosPublicas

Image by Paulo Pinto/FotosPublicas (source).

Thirty-eight years ago, in April, 1980 Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva went to jail for the first time. On April 7, 2018, the former president of Brazil, one of the most beloved politicians in the world, went to jail for the second time. Both times the metalworkers union in the industrial suburbs of São Paulo played a significant role. In 1980, Lula was president of the union. In 2018, he chose the union’s impressive headquarters as the stage for what may prove to be his final act of civil disobedience. In 1980, Brazil’s secret police jailed Lula for violating national security laws by criticizing authorities as corrupt while encouraging a strike of more than 100,000 metalworkers in factories. In 2018, Brazil’s federal police—akin to US Marshals—jailed Lula for “crimes of corruption and money laundering.” In his final public address before being jailed, delivered to thousands of supporters gathered around the union hall and broadcast live on hundreds of platforms, Lula reaffirmed his innocence and compared his current imprisonment to his former jailing. In both cases, he argued, his real crime was to have dared to fight for poor people and the oppressed.

Many one-time supporters of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Workers Party (PT) have doubted the ex-president’s claims of innocence. The charges for which he was jailed are only some among several others that the judiciary plans to level against him. Federal prosecutors and judges, including some appointed by Lula, meticulously constructed the so-called JetWash anti-corruption operation that determined Lula to be the “conductor of a grand orchestra formed to pilfer the public coffers.” In a judicial system centered on professional judges rather than juries, one such judge ruled Lula guilty of accepting an expensive beachfront condominium, its costly remodeling and additional storage space—alleged to be worth about US$1 million—in exchange for helping a construction company get lucrative contracts from Brazil’s state petroleum transnational, Petrobras. Lula consistently denied the accusations and even prosecutors had to admit the absence of written evidence documenting Lula’s ownership of the apartment.

Before she ran for election as the PT’s presidential candidate in 2010, Dilma Rouseff served as Lula’s chief of staff. Her administration continued many of Lula’s policies, but the financial crisis of 2008 hit Brazil forcefully around 2012, causing her to experiment with unpopular neoliberal policies. She won reelection anyway in 2014, demonstrating the massive support enjoyed by the PT. However, the opposition united in attacking her every action, including weekly attacks from ex-president Fernando Henrique Cardoso. In August 2016, the Congress impeached Dilma for misleading congress in her management of the federal budget. Politicians and the mainstream press associated her impeachable offenses to the JetWash scandal, but there were no links. Nearly two years later, prosecutors still had not charged her with any crimes.

The impeachment of Dilma and the persecution of Lula have been accompanied by a rapid fire campaign to replace their policies with extreme neoliberal ones, including a constitutional amendment that locks in reduced social spending for 20 years and the shuttering of the federal ministry responsible for implementing agrarian reform. Moreover, the profoundly unpopular interim president (Michel Temer, Dilma’s vice president, who has single-digit approval rating) has joined the worldwide club of authoritarian populists by claiming that Brazilians “desire” dictatorship, by using the army to police Rio de Janeiro, and by allowing a general to threaten a coup if the Supreme Court were to grant habeas corpus to Lula in the case at hand. With presidential elections coming up in October, Lula had begun his campaign for reelection and polls placed him well ahead of rivals, with the support of nearly 40 percent of the electorate. (In Brazil, voting is obligatory.)

Lula’s supporters see in these events and conditions political motives for the ex-president’s persecution. They see his jailing as extremely unjust, a rouse to repress both Lula and the PT. With the left in disarray, the right is salivating over its first chance in 20 years to compete for the presidency without the charismatic former labor leader in the game. Temer is the one who should be persecuted, they say, not only for betrayal—Temer, whose Democratic Movement Party allied with Dilma, counted on the PT’s support to get elected—but also for Temer’s corruption, which is seen as much worse than Lula’s. He is accused of accepting bribes topping US$60 million and paying millions in hush money. His use of the federal budget to buy votes in congress far outweighs similar payments allegedly made by the Lula administration. Moreover, in trading favors, Lula sought legislation to expand the federal university system, strengthen agrarian reform, fortify Brazil businesses, and create banks and pharmacies with special subsidies for the poor. Temer, on the other hand, bought support by agreeing to sign legislation to ease labor law regulations to make it easier to exploit workers in situations analogous to slavery, and he reduced fines for companies accused of damaging the environment.

For Lula’s supporters, the world has been turned upside down. They see the logic in Lula’s argument when he said in his final public address: “If being a criminal means placing higher education within the reach of poor people, Blacks in the university, poor people able to eat meat, buy cars and travel by air, poor folks farming, starting small businesses, having their own houses. If these are the crimes I committed, I will continue being a criminal in this country, because I plan to do a lot more of this.”

In choosing to hold up in the Metalworkers’ Union hall after receiving the order to report to jail, Lula sought to galvanize his image as the people’s defender. Some had questioned his commitments to the grassroots during his eight years in office. Indeed, he proved to be one of international capitalism’s greatest friends, as he paid off Brazil’s foreign debt, liberated the use of GMO seeds, invested in primary product exportation, and helped turn some Brazilian firms into transnational corporations. However, he also promoted policies and expanded federal spending for priorities like those itemized in his recent speech.

On his last day of freedom, half of his address was dedicated to an embrace of a new generation of leftist leaders. He endorsed at least three candidates for president from competing political parties. He admitted that his age, at 72 years old, left him indisposed to flee, go underground, and lead a resistance movement. He asked his critics on the left to appreciate as necessary the compromises he had made as president, comparing them to ones he had made as president of the union four decades ago.

He asked us to reflect on the lessons his life represents. He reminded us that he is the only individual in Brazil’s 518-year history to rise from the humble origins of a squatter’s son to be president of the nation, proving transformation is possible. He described how he learned politics in the labor movement, took energy from the peasant and homeless movements, and reached out to his political rivals to govern a country steeped in authoritarianism. Persecuted and prosecuted, he returned to his political birthplace to declare his immortality: “It doesn’t matter anymore to try to avoid that I wander all over this country because there are already millions and millions of Lulas. I am no longer a human being. I am an idea, an idea mixed together with your ideas.”

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*Clifford Welch is a former San Francisco longshoreman, ranchhand, reporter, and cofounder of the National Writers Union. He teaches contemporary Brazilian history at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP).

The Kerner Report’s 50th Anniversary: An Occasion to Rewrite History

by Tony Platt*

Anniversaries provide many opportunities for revisionist and wishful thinking about the past. The 50th anniversary of the Kerner Report is no exception.


The new mythology remakes the Kerner Commission as a bastion of liberal democracy and enlightened social science, betrayed by a political system, especially President Johnson, that succumbed to political pressures from the Right. In reality, the Commission itself was marked by internal contradictions and contributed to the repressive policies that brought Richard Nixon to power in 1968.

The Kerner Report, recalls former Senator Fred Harris, the one surviving commissioner, “recommended ‘massive and sustained’ investments in jobs and education to reduce poverty, inequality and racial injustice.” Conveniently forgotten are the forty pages of recommendations for improving the riot control capacities of police, National Guard, and Army.

Following several years of urban revolts, in July 1967 Lyndon Johnson appointed the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (popularly known as the Kerner Commission after its chairman Otto Kerner) that worked at a furious pace and published a memorable report a few months later on March 1st, 1968.

Unlike previous official inquiries into civil disorders, the Kerner Commission was the first federally funded, national, and Presidential-level inquiry into US race relations. The size and scope of its final report was comparable to Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma, published twenty-four years earlier. The Kerner Report provided seemingly unassailable moral authority for the proposition that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal…. What white Americans have never fully understood – but what the Negro can never forget – is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

This unprecedented statement by a government commission was followed by proposals to end discrimination in jobs, education, and housing; expand the welfare state; make policing more responsive to African American communities; provide six million low-income families with public housing; and eliminate institutionalized segregation. In other words, complete the promise of the New Deal.

Fifty years later, the promise is still unfulfilled. Public schools and public housing remain hyper-segregated in many parts of the country; the rate of poverty remains about the same, while the gap between rich and poor has increased; and mass incarceration became the new welfare.

In the search for explanations about how an incipient social democracy was derailed, there is a tendency today to reify the Kerner Commission as a united liberal front trying to hold the line against Johnson’s opportunism and what would become neo-conservatism.

The Commission itself was divided and tried to juggle reform and repression. It was opposed to the mobilization of tanks and machine guns in the immediate response by government forces to “civil disorders” on the grounds that “the indiscriminate and excessive use of force” was counter-productive. Instead, the Commission advocated more sophisticated and diversified forms of counter-insurgency, including the establishment of “intelligence systems” and “rumor collection centers,” the training of special police units to infiltrate Black communities, the preparation of police for “riot control,” the development of a variety of “non-lethal chemical agents” in order to achieve “temporary neutralization of a mob,” the increase of “riot control training” for the National Guard, and the strengthening of the Army’s ability to “control civil disorders,” including the use of “psychological techniques to ventilate hostility.”

In sum, concluded the Kerner Commission, riot control required “large numbers of disciplined personnel, comparable to soldiers in a military unit, organized and trained to work as members of a team under a highly unified command control system.”

The second myth about the Kerner Report is that social scientists writing about race in the late 1960s were a unified bloc whose politics ranged from left liberal to radical. In fact, academics, including the commission’s consultants and researchers, were deeply divided. White men administered the Commission’s internal functions, with Black staffers primarily sent out to do interviews in African American communities. “The whole thing was a racist operation,” said a field investigator.

According to Andy Kopkind’s contemporaneous critique, the contributions of leftist intellectuals were sidelined. The White House vetoed Herbert Gans’ involvement because of his protest against the Vietnam War and the Commission’s technocrats made sure that bold ideas in “The Harvest of American Racism,” a report written by progressive sociologists, were “popped down a memory hole.”

Instead, intellectuals in a private war research company, the Institute for Defense Analysis, shaped the Commission’s mix of soft and hard techniques of social control, a strategy endorsed by many leading social scientists, such as Neil Smelser and Morris Janowitz, and later by James Q. Wilson and other academics for law and order who articulated the punitive turn of the 1980s.

The Kerner Report remains an important statement about the lost opportunity of social democracy. But it is also testimony to the combination of benevolent rhetoric and repressive interventionism that characterized Cold War liberalism, and prefigured the rise of neo-liberalism. Johnson was not the only one who, in the words of Fred Harris, “distanced himself from the ‘two societies’ warning.” So did the Kerner Commission.

•  •  •

Fred Harris and Alan Curtis, “The Unmet Promise of Equality,” New York Times (March 1, 2018).
Elizabeth Hinton, From The War on Poverty to The War on Crime: The Making of Mass Incarceration in America (Harvard University Press, 2016).
Morris Janowitz, “Social Control of Escalated Riots,” University of Chicago Center for Policy Study (1968).
Andrew Kopkind, “White on Black: The Riot Commission and The Rhetoric of Reform,” in Tony Platt, ed., The Politics of Riot Commissions, 1917-1970 (Macmillan, 1971).
Nicole Lewis, “The Kerner Omission,” The Marshall Project (March 1, 2018).
National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, Report, introduction by Tom Wicker (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1968).

•  •  •

* Tony Platt is a member of the editorial board of Social Justice, and editor of The Politics of Riot Commissions, 1917-1970 (Macmillan, 1971). His latest book, Beyond These Walls: Rethinking Crime and Punishment in the United States will be published by St. Martin’s Press in January 2019.

Silenced Press: The State of Democracy in Mexico

by Antonio Martínez Velázquez*


An altar in honor of murdered Mexican journalists located outside government offices in Mexico City. The memorial was erected as part of the protests over the murder of Javier Valdez, May 2017. Photograph by Lizbeth Hernández.

In 1906 Ricardo Flores Magón, an intellectual who fought for freedom and equality during the Mexican Revolution, criticized the “venality and aggressive cynicism” of a press that was “praising the clumsiness and wrongdoings of the government […] covering up crimes, threatening virtues, spreading evil and barbarism.” Today, the situation in Mexico is not much different. Mexico has become one of the most dangerous countries in the world to live and work in if you are a journalist. Censorship, government interference, and violence make a mockery of a free press.

Statistics show the depth of the problem in Mexico: One journalist is attacked every 26 hours, and 39 were murdered from 2012 to 2017. To put this into a global perspective, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that during the same time period, five journalists were murdered in South Sudan, one of the most violent countries in Africa; six journalists were killed in Israel and the occupied area of Palestine; four in Colombia; and none in Venezuela. During the worst years of the Bosnian War (1993–94), 11 journalists were killed.

In addition to the known assassinations, 23 reporters have “disappeared” since 2003. Because of threats, both in person and online, hundreds more have been arbitrarily detained by the police, had their equipment damaged, and were even compelled to find shelter away from their homes. According to the Human Rights National Commission, impunity is rampant: 99% of cases involving journalists who have been killed remain unsolved. When this kind of violence is reported, the media gives it little attention. Their deaths might even be reduced to a tweet.

Despite the gravity of the problem, a large proportion of the population does not find the silencing of the press an urgent issue. After working as a human rights defender and as an investigative journalist with a focus on violence against the press in Mexico and Central America, I find it hard to think anyone could be indifferent to this issue. Why the apparent indifference?

First, because of the stark violence of the 21st century, our threshold regarding what is acceptable widens with each threat, execution, and murder. This problem is compounded by the general lack of appreciation for the value of journalists. The highly concentrated television market and the lack of diversity in national media contribute to the general perception that journalists have sold out to political power. Some independent journalists do exist who are gaining public trust—Carmen Aristegui, Daniel Moreno, Salvador Camarena, Daniel Lizárraga, Marcela Turati, Alejandra Xanic, and Diego Osorno come to mind—but they are a novelty within the Mexican media landscape.

Second, the tension between being an activist and a journalist remains unresolved. Activists have to be tough and informed and must put forth radical positions so they can at least get part of their demands met. The raison d’être of activist journalists is to distrust official versions of any story. We raise doubt, ask hard questions, do in-depth research, and report on the facts. In no way does this approach undermine a journalist’s capacity to work as a professional. Unfortunately, the national media only periodically publishes or broadcasts the work of activist journalists.

Mexican journalists live in the worst of two worlds: They are afraid of organized crime and of the government. In a country that is supposedly fighting a war against drug trafficking, it is difficult to differentiate whether a journalist is killed by drug lords or by public officials. We know that public servants commit five out of ten attacks such as threats, arbitrary detentions, or physical aggressions. Local newspapers are the most affected. In Nuevo Laredo, the newspaper El Mañana has stopped covering violence related to narcotraffic even though the region is one of the most affected by it. In 2012 the newspaper’s building was attacked with explosives, in 2013 they received cybernetic attacks, in 2015 the Director Enrique Juárez was kidnapped, and in 2017 the local government launched a campaign to discredit the newspaper.

The last six years have been marked by violence and political upheaval related to the 43 missing students from Ayotzinapa, corruption scandals that are not prosecuted, and government spying against its own dissidents. Now more than ever, it is essential to have a healthy media, watchful and critical of the misuse of political and economic power. Mexico has not undergone a full transition to democracy, and this is also true for the press and the mass media.

Although there are more diverse media today—we now have one more national TV chain and a growing ecosystem of digital media such as Animal Político—the relationship between owners of the written press and political power remains intact. Media democracy implies having a distance from governmental interests and a critical eye vis-à-vis an interpretable reality. In Mexico, print media is part of the governmental machinery. The fourth estate (the press) is not sovereign.

During 2016, the federal government spent over $472 million dollars on governmental advertising. This is not regulated, nor are there transparent criteria for its allocation. The money interferes with information, making it harder to distinguish the truth from pure propaganda.

For local newspapers, the struggle is harder. If we follow the money to see where editorial decisions stem from, we find that around 50% of local newspapers’ income come from official advertising: money given out by the government as a method of control and indirect censorship. In February 2012, the Diario de Juárez received a letter from the Public Security Office that asked the newspaper to change its coverage about violence in order to be able to benefit from governmental advertising. The newspaper made public the attempt of censorship and the government agency had to withdraw its threat. How many cases like this exist? How many do we know about?

On one hand, our form of crony capitalism has led to a market of highly concentrated private advertising to which only the biggest actors have access. On the other hand, uncontrolled and unaccountable governmental advertising and publicity has chilling effects at the federal and local levels.

As shown by José Merino and Darío Ramírez, “more than half of the effective space” in the front pages of Mexico’s newspapers is “devoted to notes that are based only on statements by a single person, institution or organization.” This finding undermines one of the main objectives of journalism: to seek the truth. Every day we see directors and media owners photographing themselves with politicians as a mutual self-celebratory act.

One hundred and ten years later, the words of Flores Magón are frighteningly current. We have not fully transitioned to democracy. The government is still threatening, silencing, and buying off the press. Violence against journalists means that we live in a country where we have to fight and struggle for the truth every day.

•  •  •

* Antonio Martínez Velázquez is a human rights defender and a journalist. Currently he is Executive Director of Horizontal, an independent media and cultural center based in Mexico City. For the past decade, he has worked to enable political participation through digital tools. His work has been published in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs Latin America, Rolling Stone magazine, El Universal, Gatopardo, Animal Político, and Reforma. He coauthored the books Pensar Internet ([Thinking the Internet], 2017); Recuperar la política ([Recovering politics], 2017); CiudadanosMX: Twitter y el cambio politico en México ([CiudadanosMX: Twitter and political change in Mexico], 2011).

Temporary Status Means Permanent Uncertainty: Salvadorans and TPS

by Susan Bibler Coutin*

On January 8, 2018, the Trump Administration announced that Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for Salvadorans would expire on September 9, 2019, giving rise to deep uncertainty about the future of the 195,000 Salvadorans who currently hold this status.  The stated rationale for rescinding the program is that the original conditions that led El Salvador to be designated for TPS no longer exist. This rationale is problematic because in fact there were multiple reasons for El Salvador’s TPS designation, conditions warranting the designation have persisted, and the rescission will have enormous negative repercussions for individuals, families, communities, and even geopolitical relationships. While some TPSianos, as recipients are known, will be able to qualify for residency through a relative or some other means, without legislative action, most will face a devastating choice between remaining in the United States without status and returning to El Salvador.

TPS was created through the 1990 Immigration Act as a remedy for foreign nationals who are in the United States when their countries experiences a national disaster or political conflict that makes it dangerous for them to return. If their countries are designated for TPS, then foreign nationals can pay a fee, submit an application, undergo a criminal background check, and if approved, receive permission to remain in the United States with authorization for a specified period. When this period ends, the Administration must decide whether to rescind or renew the designation. In addition to aiding affected individuals, TPS supports designated countries by preventing deportations during emergency conditions and by enabling TPS recipients to send remittances to family members who may have been impacted. TPS also imposes hardships, however, in that recipients cannot automatically reenter the country if they leave, they cannot petition for family members to join them in the United States, they are not on a path to residency or citizenship, they never know whether their status will be extended or rescinded, and it can be costly—currently $495 per person—to reapply for work authorization.

Salvadorans first received TPS in 1990, during the Salvadoran civil war, and were later authorized to apply for residency through the 1997 Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA). When earthquakes struck the country in January and February 2001, El Salvador was redesignated for TPS, and this designation was extended by every subsequent US president until Trump. Current Salvadoran TPSianos have therefore been living in the United States with documentation for 17 years. The 2001 earthquakes, while a key factor, were never the only rationale for these extensions. A recent analysis of the Federal Register notices of these extensions concluded that in issuing extensions, the United States also considered unemployment, economic health, infrastructure, and “broader conditions of violence, corruption, and impunity, as well as state capacity to combat them.”

The history of El Salvador’s TPS designation is also intertwined with geopolitics within the region. Although the 2001 earthquakes were a natural event, the United States contributed to the conditions that fueled immigration and that made recovery from the earthquake so difficult. The US government provided extensive military and economic assistance to the Salvadoran government during the 1980–1992 Salvadoran civil war, despite atrocities being perpetrated by Salvadoran authorities. In the wake of the war, the country has struggled with insecurity while the United States deported people with criminal convictions and invested in repressive, yet largely ineffective, gang suppression strategies. Cutting off remittances by deporting Salvadoran TPS recipients will exacerbate rather than alleviate the economic challenges faced by a country that is strategically important to the United States. Moreover, a temporary program such as TPS is an inadequate response to ongoing conditions of deprivation and violence.

In rescinding TPS, the Trump administration presumes that it is unproblematic to force Salvadorans to repatriate after almost two decades of absence. This presumption prioritizes national affiliation and formal citizenship over substantive belonging. TPSianos have put down deep roots in the form of homes, US citizen children, businesses, jobs, and study. Disrupting these ties can serve no useful purpose, and indeed will pose hardship not only on TPS recipients but also their employers, relatives, teachers, neighbors, spouses and friends. Moreover, removing Central Americans who are more or less part of the United States lends fuel to accusations that the Trump administration’s immigration policies simply seek to whiten the nation, as suggested by Trump’s comment that he preferred immigrants from Norway to those from “shithole” countries in Africa, Central America, and the Caribbean.

The historical precedent set by NACARA, which permitted Salvadoran TPS recipients along with certain other Central Americans and nationals of the former Soviet bloc countries to apply for US residency provides a potential solution to this impasse. When the conditions that prompt TPS designation are not temporary, then TPS recipients, like refugees and asylees, ought to be able to regularize their status. Without such pathways, TPS will continue to exacerbate the waiting and uncertainty that characterize migrants’ lives.

•  •  •

*Susan Bibler Coutin is Professor of Criminology, Law and Society and Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine. She is the author of Exiled Home:  Salvadoran Transnational Youth in the Aftermath of Violence (Duke 2016), Nations of Emigrants:  Shifting Boundaries of Citizenship in El Salvador and the United States (Cornell 2007), and Legalizing Moves: Salvadoran Immigrants’ Struggle for U.S. Residency (Michigan 2000).

Abolish the Israeli Juvenile Military Court

by Smadar Ben-Natan*


The Israeli public was outraged in December when a video of Ahed Tamimi, a 16-year-old Palestinian girl from Nebi Salah in the occupied West Bank, went viral. The video documents her and her cousin, Nour Tamimi, slapping and kicking Israeli soldiers out of their house. The soldiers’ justified restraint towards young unarmed girls was nonetheless portrayed in Israeli media as impotence, an insult to masculinity and national dignity. Little was said about the fact that shortly before that, Ahed’s 15-year-old cousin, Mohammed Tamimi, was shot in the face by an Israeli soldier, and while the Israeli soldiers positioned themselves in front of Ahed’s house he was fighting for his life. The revenge of the military was not served cold: Ahed, Nour, and Ahed’s mother Nariman, a longtime activist who filmed the incident and posted it on Facebook, were promptly arrested in the middle of the night. This is a routine procedure for the arrests of Palestinian minors, who are often brutally pulled from their beds in their pajamas.

Ahed and Nariman are still detained by the so-called “world’s most moral army.” Ahed is facing charges of assault, while Nariman is charged with incitement (for posting the video), and they will both stand trial in an Israeli military court, where detention pending trial is the default, even for minors. The arrests are being protested by a widespread #freeahedtamimi campaign. In the media and public opinion, young Ahed has already won the battle, but she is paying a dire price, celebrating her 17th birthday on January 31 in prison.

Ahed’s arrest comes as no surprise to many who know the Israeli mechanisms of arrest and prosecution of minors in the West Bank. For over 50 years, Israel has held Palestinians under military occupation. In the Israeli military courts, the army is the legislator, the prosecutor, and the judge. Palestinian minors are routinely and sometimes brutally arrested, isolated from parents and lawyers, interrogated in the middle of the night, pressured to confess and incriminate others, convicted in around 99% of cases, and sentenced to prison terms ranging from months to years.

In the United States, Congresswoman Betty McCollum, together with 19 other co-sponsors, has introduced the Promoting Human Rights by Ending Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act, HR 4391. The bill seeks to ensure that US military aid does not support these practices, which are subject to fierce human rights criticism by UNICEF, other dedicated NGOs, and foreign governments. The United States has also detained and violated the rights of children in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo. However, the Israeli military detentions and courts, affecting thousands of minors as young as 12, are still full steam ahead.

Responding to growing criticism, the Israeli army established a Juvenile Military Court in 2009, promulgating it as yet additional proof of its high moral commitment. However, the changes that the military juvenile court introduces to the ordinary military procedure are so minor that it doesn’t resemble any decent juvenile justice system. The Juvenile Military Court’s jurisdiction is limited only to the trial phase. All detention and (extremely rare) bail issues are still in the hands of the adult military courts, where detention pending trial is the rule rather than the exception. Minors thus typically arrive to trial and sentencing by the juvenile court after they have already been detained as adults for the duration of their trial. Evidence is predominantly based on middle-of-the-night confessions and incriminatory statements by terrified teenagers who have just been pulled from their beds. There are no alternatives to imprisonment, which is the default punishment. The Juvenile Military Court is thus undeserving of its deceptive title.

Israel defends its military courts by the claim that the Fourth Geneva Convention allows and even mandates military courts during belligerent occupation. Human rights advocacy accepts this claim and is thus trapped in a limbo, where only fair trial and due process are the focus of advocacy and challenge. It is time to change course: The Geneva conventions do not mandate military courts of occupation, but only allow for them. The convention never envisioned a 50-year-old occupation, and thus never intended to allow military courts that in fact replace ordinary civilian courts. The rule in human rights law is that civilians should not be subjected to military courts. At least since the Palestinian Authority had established its own legislative council and justice system in 1996, there is no justification or legal ground for the continued operation of the Israeli military courts. The Juvenile Military Court should be the first to vanish.

I propose to demand that Israel should completely renounce the prosecution of children and teenagers in military courts, abolishing the Juvenile Military Court altogether. Two alternatives are available: handing minors over to the Palestinian Authority, or, in cases that implicate the security of Israel, charging minors in Israeli civilian juvenile courts, where Israeli children, Palestinian children from East Jerusalem, as well as settlers’ children are charged. Obviously, under current circumstances, the power to decide which cases implicate Israeli security remains in Israeli hands, which use that discretion expansively to justify violence and violation of fair trial rights. But hopefully, such violations would diminish under a more inclusive juvenile justice system that is not set up only for Palestinians. Each of these alternatives is far better than the Juvenile Military Court. The oversight of civilian courts, I expect, would also reflect on detention and interrogation mechanisms. Ahed Tamimi would not have been detained beyond 24 hours by Israeli civilian juvenile courts, since in these courts, detention of minors is in fact the exception rather than the rule.

While the abolition of a court may sound unrealistic, Israel has actually already done something very similar in the past. I uncovered this untold piece of legal history in my research of Israeli military courts. From 1949 to 1966 Israel put its Palestinian citizens under a military regime and subjected them to military courts. Following the 1967 occupation, the Israeli military established another military court inside Israel. This court continued to prosecute Palestinian citizens of Israel and Palestinian residents of annexed East Jerusalem for over 33 years, until it was abolished in 2000. However, it had stopped prosecuting minors long before that, in 1978, after attorney Felicia Langer petitioned the Israeli Supreme Court, arguing that her Palestinian youth clients were entitled to due process in a civilian juvenile court. In its decision Abu Rob v. Damon Prison Warden, the Supreme Court ruled that every minor is entitled to stand trial in a civilian juvenile court. This long forgotten decision ended the sweeping prosecution of Palestinian minors in the Israeli internal military court. Minors were thus not subjected to a mock military juvenile court but actually drawn out of the jurisdiction of the military court. The US forces in Iraq also transferred minors arrested by them to face charges in the civilian Iraqi legal system. Finally, both the Israeli internal military court and the US military courts in Iraq were abolished.

With these historical precedents, there are even more reasons now to support HR 4391, Promoting Human Rights by Ending Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act, and to send a clear message to the government of Israel: Abolish the Juvenile Military Court and release Ahed and Nariman Tamimi.

• • •

*Smadar Ben-Natan is currently a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley, Center for the Study of Law and Society, and a PhD candidate at Tel-Aviv University. Her research centers on national security prosecutions in military and civilian courts. She has been a practicing human rights and criminal defense lawyer in Israel for 18 years, representing many Palestinian prisoners.

Hurricane Maria: Puerto Rico’s Unnatural Disaster

by Hilda Lloréns, Ruth Santiago, Carlos G. Garcia-Quijano,
and Catalina M. de Onís

Image source:

Image source:

Hurricanes are thought of as “natural” disasters, but the social and environmental devastation wrought upon Puerto Rico by Hurricane María last September is really an unnatural disaster resulting from a long history of colonial subjugation, economic hardship, environmental injustice, infrastructural neglect, and, at the local level, a broken rule of law. Hurricane María affected all of Puerto Rico to some degree, but in doing so the disaster also exposed the vulnerabilities created by ubiquitous socioeconomic inequality and the differential neglect of the island’s rural regions.

Faraway from San Juan’s hub of government, politics, and power, Puerto Rico’s South has developed a singular and often overlooked trajectory. The establishment of sugarcane plantations after the island’s conquest by Spain, and later by the United States, marked the South as a site of extraction and exploitation. Indeed, the legacy of the now defunct industry still characterizes this rural coast. Local residents overwhelmingly descend from both the enslaved Africans brought to toil in the fields and the indigenous Taíno who dwelled there. The plantation economic model, which benefitted the owners and dispossessed the workers, is also evidenced in the area’s historically high unemployment levels and poverty rates.

The mid-twentieth-century industrialization plan known as Operation Bootstrap marked a turning point for Puerto Rico. This plan, which aimed to modernize the island and stimulate its economy, offered only marginal gains to the citizenry and instead set it on a path of depopulation, unsustainable development, heavy reliance on imported fossil fuels, and even greater economic dependency on the United States. The steady decline of the island’s sugarcane industry and the increasing dependency on food imports meant that thousands of agricultural workers were rendered unemployable. At the same time, in conjunction with the local government, stateside industrial farms began to recruit and employ Puerto Rican agricultural workers. By the end of the twentieth century, Puerto Rican migration to the mainland—both seasonal and permanent—had become a way of life.

A Sacrifice Zone for an Extractivist Economy

Integral to Operation Bootstrap’s advancement, the mid-1950s witnessed the emergence in Puerto Rico’s South of oil refineries and the establishment of energy-generating plants. In 2002, the privately owned Applied Energy Systems began operating Puerto Rico’s only coal-powered plant. Jobos Bay, Puerto Rico’s second most significant estuary and a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA ) reserve, is home to three of Puerto Rico’s power plants. In fact, the vast amount of the electricity consumed in Puerto Rico is generated along the island’s south coast. The southeast is also home to pharmaceutical companies and to two US military training facilities, Camp Santiago and Fort Allen. Furthermore, in the last decade, over 10,000 acres of agricultural lands from Guayama to Juana Diaz have been cultivated with genetically modified seeds and are also sites for agrochemical development and testing. According to a 2017 report, several multinationals, including Monsanto, have set up operations in the region.

Residents of the southeastern coastal plain have a complicated relationship with these industrial developments. On one hand, the developments provide jobs in the formal economy; on the other, local residents are often employed only at the lowest levels of salary and managerial positions but deal with the brunt of the impact of industrial activities on local ecosystems and human health. Additionally, employment is often irregular and seasonal, leaving workers in precarious, unpredictable situations. Coupled with unjust working conditions, this situation has brought about the displacement of entire communities to make space for heavy industries in coastal areas. Respiratory health problems are common, and at least some negative health outcomes are attributable to industrial emissions from local factories. Fishers and other ecosystem resource users for decades have reported environmental degradation effects on important natural resources. In summary, local residents receive a limited share of the benefits, but most of the social and environmental costs, of industrial development.

Community Mobilizations against Toxic Coal Ash

Communities adjacent to Jobos Bay have long organized against the ecological destruction of their local environment. In the 1970s, Corporación Bahia de Jobos fought off a Monsanto pesticide plant similar to the one that wreaked havoc in Bhopal, India. Concerned about the already heavy burden of polluting industries in the region, members of Sur Contra la Contaminación (SURCO) were vocal opponents of the plans to build the AES coal plant on the Bay’s coastal wetlands. Yet the local government disregarded their concerns. In the last decade, the AES plant, which generates over 300 tons of coal ash annually, has been mired in controversy regarding the disposal of the toxic coal ash.

At the start of the 2017 hurricane season, the AES plant had accumulated a five-story-tall pile of coal ash on its premises. [For pictures of the coal ash pile at the AES-Guayama Facility, click here.In fact, just before Hurricane Irma struck, the Environmental Quality Board had ordered the company to cover the ashes. The company did not comply with this request, explaining that coal ash “hardens like a rock” when it comes in contact with water. AES was fined $75,000 for non-compliance. Two weeks later, when Hurricane María struck Puerto Rico with 155-mile-per-hour winds, the ash pile remained uncovered. The region experienced widespread destruction and flooding.

Because AES is built on a coastal wetland, when local activists went to investigate they were not surprised to find flooding on the company grounds. The coal ash pile looked smaller and cracked, leading them to speculate that the ash had been blown around and that it likely had seeped into the ground and the bay. Three months after María ravaged the island, little has been said or done about the toxic coal ash still accumulated on the premises of AES in Guayama. The company has remained silent. The national and federal governments have proved unresponsive to residents’ pleas that an investigation be conducted to study possible coal ash contamination and its effects.

Still, residents have not given up seeking answers. They demand to know whether the coal ash has spread to nearby communities, to the mangroves, or to the Jobos Bay, and whether it seeped into the ground or the aquifer. On December 10, 2017, when Philip Alston, the United Nations Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, made a fact-finding trip to Puerto Rico, he visited the southeast and heard residents’ testimony about their experiences with environmental injustice and poverty. Similarly, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is documenting the ongoing environmental injustices deepened by the hurricanes. It is unfortunate that it took a hurricane the scale of María to bring Puerto Rico’s environmental and climate injustices to international attention.

A Transformation on the Horizon

Before the hurricanes struck, 97 percent of Puerto Rico’s electricity was generated using fossil fuels, and the vast majority of Puerto Ricans had little to no knowledge about how the energy they consumed was generated or where it came from. The storms, which destroyed the neglected grid, had the effect of making energy generation and consumption central to the conversation about reconstruction. Once marginal, discussions about using renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind energy, have now become crucial. If Puerto Rico is to transform, rather than rebuild, its power system, renewable energy projects, advocated for and implemented by local residents and energy experts—not by large corporations in collusion with colonial governments—must be central to building a more sustainable and just energy future.

•  •  •

Hilda Lloréns teaches anthropology in the Sociology & Anthropology Dept. at the University of Rhode Island. She is the author of “Imaging the Great Puerto Rican Family” (2014). Ruth Santiago is a community and environmental lawyer who lives in Salinas, Puerto Rico. Carlos G. Garcia-Quijano is an Associate Professor of Anthropology and Marine Affairs at the University of Rhode Island. His scholarly interests include ecological anthropology, cognitive anthropology, and the use of mixed ethnographic methods to understand complex sociocultural categories and their effects on people’s lives. Catalina M. de Onís is an assistant professor in the Department of Civic Communication and Media at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Her dissertation, Energy Remix: Decolonial Discourses of Decarbonization, examined Puerto Rico’s energy colonialism experiences prior to the 2017 hurricane season.

Queerly Tèhuäntin | Cuir Us

by Edward J. McCaughan & Ani Rivera*

 If going home is denied me then I will have to stand and claim my space, making a new culture—una cultura mestiza—with my own lumber, my own bricks and mortar and my own feminist architecture.—Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera

The queer aesthetic frequently contains blueprints and schemata of a forward-dawning futurity.—José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia

In the summer of 2017, San Francisco’s historic Galería de la Raza showcased the work of a group of artists who engage the question of what it means to be simultaneously Mexican or Chicanx and queer—that is, to be who they are. To be queerly tèhuäntin, Nahuatl for “us.” To be queerly us. Queer—or cuir, as the term is increasingly used in Spanish—in the sense of noncoventional sexualities and nonnormative gender expressions. Cuir us.

The artwork reveals a decade-long struggle for social justice and dignity by queer communities on both sides of the Mexico–US border. The LGBTQ and feminist movements that emerged in the 1970s in Mexico and among Chicanxs in the United States faced many formidable challenges; not least of these was how to transform a cultural politics of national/ethnic identity that rested discursively on patriarchal constructs of heterosexism and machismo, narrowly defined womanhood, and rigid binaries of gender and sexuality.

Activist art proved to be one of the movements’ most effective tools for producing counterhegemonic discourses about gender and sexuality. Since 1987, an annual art exhibition has been mounted at the Museo del Chopo in Mexico City, as part of their LGBTQ pride celebration known originally as the Semana Cultural Gay. In the assessment of the late Carlos Monsiváis, these cultural mobilizations “constituted for civil society critical proof of the way in which alternative spaces have contributed to the diversity and the democratization of Mexican life.” In addition to the significance of the social space created by these exhibitions, the hundreds of widely viewed images were important in and of themselves in producing new visual discourses about the possibilities of making a home and a future in which one could be simultaneously queer and Mexican.

The year 1987 was also a pivotal one for queer Chicanxs, marked by the publication of Gloria Anzaldúa’s groundbreaking Borderlands/La Frontera that gave us an intersectional analysis of the “borders” between cultures, genders, and sexualities. It was against her own Chicano community’s sexism and homophobia that Anzaldúa asserted her determination “to stand and claim my space.” In her “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” she declared: “I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing. I will have my voice: Indian, Spanish, white. I will have my serpent’s tongue—my woman’s voice, my sexual voice, my poet’s voice.” In doing so she helped to open spaces for other queer Chicanxs. Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About, for example, was published in 1991, and in 1995 Galería de la Raza hosted Mi corazón me dió un salto: A Queer Raza Exhibition. Now the new millennium has witnessed the emergence of fierce UndocuQueer artists.

With this exhibition, Galería de la Raza celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Semana Cultural Gay (now Festival de Diversidad Sexual) in Mexico City and the publication of Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera by paying tribute to the many brave artists on both sides of the border who continue to engage the question of what it means to be queerly tèhuäntin, cuir us. The show included work by some pioneering elders—Yolanda Andrade, Ester Hernández, Taller Documentación Visual, Joey Terrill, and Nahum B. Zenil—as well as pieces by a younger generation of queer artists: Félix D’Eon, Gabriel García Román, Rurru Mipanochia, Yosimar Reyes, and Naomi Rincón Gallardo. We highlight a few of them here.

Photographer Yolanda Andrade (b. 1950, Villahermosa) received a Guggenheim for her project on Mexico City, which included photos of participants in the capital’s annual LGBTQ pride celebrations. The three we selected for this show reveal a range of Mexican genders and sexualities. We also included Andrade’s portrait of the late Nancy Cárdenas, a writer, actor, theater director, filmmaker, and lesbian rights activist who in 1974 cofounded Mexico’s first gay organization, the Frente de Liberación Homosexual. Journalist and gay rights activist Braulio Peralta wrote that Andrade’s photos give us the opportunity to experience “difference, presence, not being absent, remembering the taste of what’s real: that we are all equal because without political freedom there is no sexual freedom!”

Yolanda Andrade, La Alas del deseo, photograph, 1993

Yolanda Andrade, La Alas del deseo, photograph, 1993

Gabriel García Román (b. 1973, Zacatecas) describes himself as a Mexican-Americón, born in Mexico and raised in Chicago. He is a multimedia artist best known for his Queer Icons series, whose subjects are drawn from many facets of the gender and queer spectrum. Several of his Queer Icons were exhibited, including a portrait of undocumented trans rights activist Jennicet Gutiérrez. García Román explains: “Much like traditional religious paintings conferred a sense of safety and meditative calm on a home, the works in this series aspire to provide a similar sense of refuge that’s drawn from the inner grace of the subjects and projected outwards onto a world that might not always be safe.”

Gabriel García Roman, Jennicet, photo printed on collaged paper, 2017

Gabriel García Roman, Jennicet, photo printed on collaged paper, 2017

Ester Hernández (b. 1944 Dinuba, California), an internationally acclaimed visual artist based in San Francisco, was born in California’s San Joaquin Valley to a Mexican/Yaqui farm worker family. Two of Hernández’s iconic portraits of queer women were included in this exhibition. Renee, La Troquera is a sexually alluring female truck driver whose sleeveless shirt reveals strong arms as her tongue licks the index finger of her leather gloved hand. In Hernández’s erotically charged La Ofrenda, the Virgin of Guadalupe might be read as “Our Lady of Lesbian Desire.” La Ofrenda graced the cover of the groundbreaking 1991 anthology Chicana Lesbians: The Girls Our Mothers Warned Us About, edited by Carla Trujillo.

Ester Hernández, La Ofrenda, screenprint, 1990

Ester Hernández, La Ofrenda, screenprint, 1990

Rurru Mipanochia (b. 1989, Mexico City) received a prestigious Young Creators grant from Mexico’s Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes (FONCA) in 2016. The artist, who avoids gendered pronouns in self-descriptions, claims to be “a cyborg built in Nibiru, but discarded to the Earth by defects in its operating system, reborn in Mexico City.” Rurru’s work plays with Mesoamerican iconography representing abject deities, bodies, and sexualities. In Rurru’s images of Tlaltecuhtli, a Mexica diety traditionally represented with female characteristics despite its male name, the god is endowed with both penis and vagina. Rurru’s artwork was made available by ArtSpace Mexico.

Rurru Mipanochia, Tlaltecuhtli 2, acrylic, stylograph, and markers on amate paper, 2017

Rurru Mipanochia, Tlaltecuhtli 2, acrylic, stylograph, and markers on amate paper, 2017

In the life and art of Los Angeles native Joey Terrill (b. 1955, Los Angeles), the Chicano and gay movements are inseparable: “Since my high school student days . . . social activism and Chicano politics have played a pivotal role in my life while at the same time I embraced the politics of the Gay Liberation Movement and challenged the societal oppression of homosexuality.” His La Historia de amor turns the classic Mexican kitsch calendar image of Popocatépetl and Itzaccíhuatl into gay lovers promoting solidarity with “your bothers with HIV.” His Still-life with Viracept speaks to the ways HIV meds became part of daily life, a presence as common as striped Mexican table cloths, Catholic icons, and sliced bread. And his He Wore Ray-Ban Glasses, a Rolex Watch and He Used to Eat My Ass boldly asserts the centrality of same-sex desire even in the face of a homophobic culture and STDs.

Joey Terrill, He Wore Ray Ban Glasses, a Rolex Watch, and He Used to Eat My Ass, acrylic on canvas, 1985

Joey Terrill, He Wore Ray Ban Glasses, a Rolex Watch, and He Used to Eat My Ass, acrylic on canvas, 1985

Nahum B. Zenil (b. 1947, Chicontepec) is a painter and poet who played a leading role in establishing Mexico City’s annual LGBTQ exhibitions. Zenil gained international acclaim in the 1980s as one of the foremost exponents of a school of art that critics called “neo-Mexicanism,” which also included Enrique Guzmán, who committed suicide in 1984, and Julio Galán, who died in 2006. These gay men inserted their own body into dense fields of iconic national symbols, a queer body reclaimed from the shadowy corners of Mexicanidad. At the center of Zenil’s extensive oeuvre are self-portraits in which the artist’s body experiences the pains, pleasures, desires, and struggles of life as a gay, Catholic Mexican. In the pieces shown in our exhibition, Zenil appears as the enduring homoerotic icon Saint Sebastian, as the multitude of gay men haunted by the specter of AIDS, and as the masses demanding respect for democracy and human rights.

Nahum Zenil, El Espectro, engraving, 1994

Nahum Zenil, El Espectro, engraving, 1994

May the work of these artists guide us toward what José Esteban Muñoz called a “forward-dawning futurity.”

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*Edward J. McCaughan, Emeritus Professor of Sociology, San Francisco State University, is the author of Art and Social Movements: Cultural Politics in Mexico and Aztlán. Ani Rivera is Executive Director of Galería de la Raza in San Francisco (