Waging Nonviolence

The whole world should be watching

by Judith Mahoney Pasternak

If you follow the Western media, the news from Iraq is almost always bad. A quarter century of war, including 13 years of brutal sanctions, invasion, war, a no less brutal eight-year occupation, an externally imposed, undemocratic and repressive government, and now the attempt by the Islamic State to remake Iraq in its image — all have resulted in millions of deaths, and the toll keeps rising. “Such a bruised country,” declares Indian journalist Vijay Prashad in his foreword to “Against All Odds: Voices of Popular Struggle in Iraq.” “No society can withstand such pressure.”

Yet there is another side to the story of Iraq, one that has been rendered all but invisible in the media, which seem to have no room for the words “hope” and “Iraq” in the same sentence. In February of 2011, in the wake of the Arab Spring, the hunger for a better future for Iraq — a hunger that had been repressed but never suppressed — arose again in force in cities across the ravaged country, in the form of a decentralized mass nonviolent protest movement. “Against All Odds” is the story of that movement, told in part by War Resisters League organizer and writer Ali Issa, and in part by eight leaders of different segments of that movement.

Issa’s reports cover the first, intoxicating re-awakening of protest in Iraq, beginning with weekly sit-ins on Fridays, dubbed Iraq’s “Days of Rage.” Demonstrators had a wide-ranging list of goals, from better government services, like reliable electricity, to release of political prisoners. But constant and over-arching were the demands for an end to the U.S. occupation — which had been promised for the end of the year — and the Iraq people’s rejection of both the artificial and undemocratic structure of the U.S.-imposed government under then-President Nouri al-Maliki and the handover of Iraq’s nationalized oil industry to foreign (read U.S.) corporations that the government proposed. The grassroots groups that emerged during the protests were diverse as well, from trade unions, which were not legal at the time, to the Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq and the Popular Movement to Save Iraq. Prominent in the Popular Movement were the al-Zaidi brothers, organizers Uday and Thurgham and journalist Muntazar, known worldwide as the man who threw a shoe at then-U.S. President George W. Bush in 2008.

The government used every means at its disposal to halt the protests, including — but not limited to — tear-gassing and shooting into the crowds, but with no success. In June, Thurgham al-Zaidi was seized and held incommunicado; the irrepressible movement responded by calling demonstrations specifically demanding his freedom. A week later, he was released, alive if not quite unharmed; his brother Uday quoted him as asserting that he would bring his young son to the next Friday protest to prove to President Maliki that, “if you kill the big ones, the little ones are coming after you.” In November 2011, the Organization of Women’s Freedom sent a moving message to Occupy Wall Street, declaring that Iraqis “eagerly follow your progress … as our enemy is one … Long live the struggles of the 99 percent, and down with the 1 percent!”

The first interview of the eight that make up the main part of “Against All Odds,” with Uday al-Zaidi, reflects the optimism and energy of that moment. On June 9, 2011, he told Issa, hopefully, that the sit-ins called for June 7-10 would mark “the end of Iraq’s present period, the reign of the occupation and its enablers.”

The occupation ended, at least formally, more or less on schedule, and the oil re-privatization proposal was repeatedly voted down by the Iraqi parliament. But Iraq’s crisis was not over. A year later, Hashmeya Muhsin al-Saadawi, president of Iraq’s Electrical Utility Workers Union, talked about the ongoing fights for true legal status for unions, as well as for reliable electric power for all Iraqis — and for an end to the U.S.-imposed sectarian government structure. Journalist Greg Muttitt made it clear that multinational corporations were still — albeit illegally — operating the country’s oil industry.

Mass protests surged again late in 2012. Again, they were met with attacks by government forces. By 2013, Iraq had “disappeared from public discourse,” declared journalist Ahmed Habib, “buried under the rubble of its own destruction.” But people continued to work for more democracy and even to save Iraq’s environment. “Our civil society is taking baby steps, but it is stumbling,” Nadia al-Baghdadi of the Save the Tigris and Marshes Campaign told Issa, but she went on to describe a well-coordinated and at least partially successful effort to block construction of a dam across the border in Turkey.

And then came another blow: the rise of the Islamic State, which several of those interviewed here blame on the sectarian government imposed by the occupation. In September of 2014, Jannat Alghezzi of the Organization of Women’s Freedom, said, at that moment, “Government militias control half the country, and men with a hyper-reactionary religious vision control the other half. That leaves us, the secular ones, the civil society organizers, trapped between … [T]he future is looking bleak.”

Yet Alghezzi’s presence in this book, along with other voices from the Organization of Women’s Freedom and al-Saadawi, testifies both to the vitality of the popular movements and to the blindness of the outside world to what is really going on in Iraq. Women are working side by side with men to free their country.

That’s just one of the lessons of “Against All Odds.” There are many, although the book would have benefited greatly by including a clear chronology of Iraq since the Gulf War.

That said, what hope is there for the movements documented here? It’s hard to say, but as this review was being written, two startling photos appeared on the front page of the New York Times, along with an equally startling headline. Both pictures showed immense crowds in Baghdad’s Tahrir Square, and the headline declared, “Premier Haider al-Abadi, Facing Protests, Proposes Iraqi Government Overhaul.” The story went on to explain that al-Abadi was planning at last to dismantle Iraq’s undemocratic government structure, just as the popular movements have demanded since 2011.

Yes, what the future holds for beleaguered Iraq remains an open question, and the fight for a better one remains a struggle “against all odds.” But what is certain is that that future will be better if more of the world is watching the effort. This book is a good and much-needed start.

When the next crisis comes, which movements will seize the opportunity?

by George Lakey

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You, too, could be caught in a situation where people are ready for an alternative, yet your group has none to offer.

It’s understandable. We who work for change seem years away from convincing a critical mass of people that it is both stupid and wrong to have a school-to-prison pipeline, or a rate of carbon emissions killing hundreds of thousands of people, or a “national security strategy” that mainly breeds insecurity.

Historic change does not always have the gradual-then-accelerating curve shown by the LGBTQ movement. At times, a system goes into crisis. In 2007-2008 financial sectors in many countries skidded toward the cliff; Iceland’s even went over the cliff. Crisis equals opportunity, for those who are ready to use it.

I asked a Washington, D.C., friend who works among progressive Democrats what he heard after the Wall Street disaster. Did people in his circle discuss organizing the strong, grassroots anger into a push for major reform? He knew of none. As it turned out, that anger was organized by the right and became the Tea Party. Polls show that even today many people identifying as Tea Party members express hostility to Wall Street.

All this missed opportunity should be seen in the context of Barack Obama’s presidency, since it was he who said, during his candidacy, that the Swedish solution to its own banking crisis had been correct: Seize the banks rather than bail them out. (In a recent New Yorker article on Greece, former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis said President Obama told him that the U.S. bailout was against his personal politics.)

Presidents do what they do, given the existing power realities they face. The lesson for us in the United States is: In 2009 we lacked a powerful movement that had a vision, and was willing to mobilize direct action on behalf of that vision.

The crisis might come around again. According to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, “The biggest banks are collectively much larger than they were before the crisis, and they continue to engage in dangerous practices that could once again crash our economy.”

Even Republican Sen. John McCain wants to bring back the Glass-Steagall Act because of what he calls “a culture of dangerous greed and excessive risk-taking.” Glass-Steagall was passed after the Great Depression to separate banking functions, but repealed by President Bill Clinton, setting the stage for more mischief. Bringing back the Glass-Steagall Act has no chance of passing Congress. After all, since 2008 even more U.S. wealth has shifted to the super-rich. The role of housing in the crisis has also meant shifting more wealth from black people to white people. For those who own the political parties, the prospect of another crash is not so bad.

Individual senators like Elizabeth Warren cannot express the fuller vision of economic justice that they may hold privately, given the constrictions of U.S. electoral politics, just as the young Sen. Obama who believed in the Swedish banking solution could not implement that policy once he became president. Politicians in our system are limited.

Social movements have far more freedom, although they may not use it. The labor movement has had the most experience standing up to the economic elite. By 2009, however, labor had lost so often, and was so habituated to being on the defensive, that it had lost its capacity for vision.

Unlike the working class, middle class people are generally not in the trenches of the class war. Even so, they often fail to use their schooled-up brains to generate visions that can be fought for when a crisis arrives. It’s easier for them to root for the Elizabeth Warrens than to think for themselves and imagine alternatives that are more fundamental than those a politician can advocate.

One example of our vision failure was the General Motors crisis, an opportunity for environmentalists to push for the motor company to convert to making windmills, solar, geothermal and other hardware for renewable energy. The entire auto industry massively converted for World War II, rolling out tanks instead of cars. Large-scale conversions can be done. People also knew that General Motors was a corporation in decline. Why weren’t we ready with a vision for GM’s crisis so we could fight for it? Had we been ready, our ally in the White House, clearly blocked on major climate change legislation, would have an alternative to the GM bailout he duly executed.

This same question exists for the gun control movement, for Black Lives Matters, and for all the groups that know that a crisis will come related to their issue.

When crisis comes, who is ready with what vision?

Occupy Wall Street meets the 1968 Paris Spring

The U.S. finally generated a left-wing direct action movement against Wall Street’s “dangerous greed,” in 2011. In a recent interview about his book “The End of Protest,” Micah White argues that the Occupy Wall Street’s protest model should not be repeated. While I agree with that point, I disagree with several others — especially White’s assumption that the Occupy movement represented the best that mass protest can do.

The Occupy movement showed little sign of having learned from careful analysis of previous movements’ experience. One source the Occupy initiators could have learned from to increase their power is the student-initiated campaign that sparked a 10-million-strong mass insurgency in President Charles de Gaulle’s France.

I did interviews to bolster my study of the 1968 French movement, which challenged the economic elite far more than Occupy did. De Gaulle reportedly doubted that his army in France would carry out sufficient repression to maintain his and the 1 percent’s power. He checked with generals of the French army of occupation in Germany to see whether the French troops there would be reliable if they returned to France to repress the movement. I shared several key lessons from France relevant to Occupy in earlier editions of my book, “Toward a Living Revolution.” The campaign is also in the Global Nonviolent Action Database. For this article, the most important lesson is the French movement’s lack of a coherent picture of a just society.

Because the students and workers were largely united against the unjust status quo, the sector in play was the large French middle class. A reasonable question for small business, middle managers and professional people was: “What will be our role in the new society that this movement wants to create?” Students held all-night assemblies in theaters to come up with a vision that could answer that, and many other, questions. Understandably, they failed to unite on an instant vision.

At the same time, the movement added to its occupations, strikes and other nonviolent tactics the unnecessary ornaments of revolutionary tradition: street-fighting with police, barricades aflame with cars seized at random from the streets. Without a vision for reassurance, the middle classes were left to make their judgments based on the incendiary evidence. Of course, they sided with de Gaulle.

Contrast May-June of 1968 with that of the Swedes and Norwegians who created their vision over years through wide discussion including study groups, often led by university students and experiments like coops. With the crisis of the Great Depression, the movement took the opportunity for maximum disruption. When workers and farmers with middle class allies made those societies ungovernable by the economic elite, everyone knew the movement’s vision.

Nonviolent mass action opened the space for democracy. Democratic socialists could then implement what we now envy as the Nordic model, which facilitates more equality and individual freedom than most of us have in the United States or any other country I know.

Dancing with history

The Occupy movement was visionless and often resistant to making, or sticking to, positive demands. It also remained small, considering the size of the United States. The movement was unready for the heavy lifting of forcing structural change.

Still, the movement did respond to a crisis and people brought their passion to the streets. The good news is that we can relate to history with more than one dance. When vision-led mass insurgency is not available, we can in the meantime get ready by breaking off a specific piece of vision and wage a campaign to win that piece.

Such a campaign doesn’t often result in a power shift, true, but if waged well the campaign builds skills and may result in a meaningful victory. Further, if campaigners are willing to invest in community, they can build a culture of resistance and the solidarity that supports courage. Micah White calls for a diminishing of fear among activists. Healthy campaigns help participants learn how to handle fear.

However, in addition to campaigning, I would add another building block: Try empowering the visionaries you know to do homework. We’ll need their vision work — in concert with wide discussion — for the next crisis.

Black Lives Matter protesters commemorate Michael Brown in New York City

by Ashoka Jegroo

Black Lives Matter protesters marching in the Bronx on August 9, the one year anniversary of Michael Brown’s death. (WNV / Ashoka Jegroo)

Hundreds of protesters hit the streets of New York City, along with cities across the United States and overseas, for multiple actions on August 9 in memory of Michael Brown, who was killed one year ago in Ferguson, Missouri by police Officer Darren Wilson.

Brown’s death at the hands of Wilson last year sparked riots, protests and the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement.

To commemorate the death of Brown, multiple U.S. cities, including the town of Ferguson itself, held rallies and marches. Activists in New York City held three separate actions, ensuring that streets from downtown Brooklyn up to the Bronx would see protesters taking them over. And in addition to remembering Brown and the town of Ferguson, the protesters used the occasion to draw attention to the city’s police problems and other incidents of police violence against people of color since Brown’s death.

“This protest will not only remember Michael Brown, but will demand an end to the racist police terror that the black and brown communities face each day, as well as salute the brave uprising that moved many into action,” the Peoples Power Assemblies, one of the groups that helped organize an action in Brooklyn, said in a statement. “The demand to an end of police terror will include an immediate stop to the daily brutality and deaths at the hands of police — whether at traffic stops, during broken windows harassment or in jail cells.”

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New York City’s first action, put together by multiple activist groups collectively known as the Black Summer Coalition, was held in Brooklyn at 12 p.m. in front of the Barclays Center. Two large banners reading “Stop Killing Black People” and “Black Lives Matter” were held as various speakers addressed the crowd.

Anita Neal, the mother of Kyam Livingston who died in a Brooklyn jail cell in 2013, held a sign with Sandra Bland’s face on it and addressed the crowd about women of color who have died in police custody. Other speakers spoke about Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Police Department Commissioner Bill Bratton’s policing policies and the major news outlets’ reluctance to cover many other protests that have happened in New York City. After a die-in and a 4.5 minute moment of silence, hundreds of protesters took over the streets of Brooklyn chanting and marching towards a nearby courthouse, while shutting down traffic along the way. Two people were arrested during the Brooklyn action (including the writer of this piece).

After arriving at the Brooklyn courthouse, many of the protesters then hopped on the subway and made their way to Harlem for the second action of the day. The Harlem march was organized by copwatcher Jose LaSalle and the Copwatch Patrol Unit, or CPU, along with other groups that emphasized the importance of people filming the police and documenting any brutality they witness.

“Some of these stop-and-frisks that [the NYPD] is still doing, the only documentation that exists is the one that CPU has, and we send it to everybody,” LaSalle said to the crowd in Harlem. “We send it to whoever, everybody and their mother, so they can see what we see. And that’s what we have to continue to do.”

Protesters linked arms while taking the streets of Harlem on Sunday. (WNV / Ashoka Jegroo)

Other speakers, like Shannon Jones of Why Accountability, echoed the need for filming the police and emphasized that superficial attempts at placating communities of color are not the kind of change they want.

“Remember the NYPD is not a social justice group. They are not a social service provider. I don’t care how many times you see the NYPD doing the Nae-Nae with your children,” Jones said, referring to a recent viral video showing an NYPD officer doing the popular dance with some kids. “They will lock up your child. They will arrest your child. They will criminalize your child. They will disrespect your child and come out here and do the Nae-Nae on you.”

After the speakers were done, the protesters then took the streets of Harlem and marched uptown towards the Bronx. The NYPD had a heavy presence, but had little luck keeping protesters on the sidewalk. Once they reached the Bronx, the marchers held a speakout at 149th Street and Third Avenue. The NYPD continued trying to keep protesters on the sidewalk, which led to the protesters continuing their march, while being cheered and joined by onlooking Bronxites at various points. They passed by the Horizon Juvenile Center, where many young people who are arrested get detained, and then made their way to the front of the NYPD’s 42nd Precinct building. Once there, police called in NYPD Captain Andrew Lombardo — known for his brutal tactics against Occupy Wall Street — and the infamous “Strategic Response Group,” who then brutally began repressing the march. There was even an NYPD helicopter hovering above the marchers.

More arrests were made, including LaSalle himself, with the seemingly-obvious goal of arresting organizers and crowd leaders in order to strike fear into other protesters. Some marchers left and made their way to Union Square for the final action of the day. Many others kept marching in the Bronx despite the Strategic Response Group’s tough tactics.

View image | gettyimages.com

The rally in Union Square, organized by the Stop Mass Incarceration Network, was smaller and quieter than the two other marches, with only about 100 people in attendance. Various speakers, many of them parents who had lost children to police violence, talked about the need to drastically change the criminal justice system and hold police accountable for their violence.

Meanwhile, the protests in Ferguson were well-attended, with doves released and a silent march through the town led by Brown’s father, Michael Brown Sr., that began at the spot where Brown was killed and ended with a church service. Violence broke out later in the night with arrests being made and gunshots being fired by police and protesters. Protests in other cities were peaceful with activists using the occasion to remember the incident that started a new movement, as well as to re-state to the public and to the authorities that the protests will not cease until there is justice for Brown and all victims of police violence.

“We’ve been doing this for 13 months and we will not stop. That’s our message to the mayor,” Jones said before the march in Brooklyn. “And as we celebrate and commemorate the ending of the complacency, the ending of the ignorance, the ending of the get-down, we’re standing up and rising up. And it will not stop.”

Obama’s climate plan won’t save the planet, but it’s the result of a movement that will

by Kate Aronoff

Greenpeace activists formed a human net below Portland’s St. Johns Bridge to stop the Shell Oil icebreaker Fennica from leaving to support drilling operations in the Arctic. (Flickr / Twelvizm)

In Thursday’s marathon prime-time Republican debates, climate change was not at the top of the agenda. Aside from a few mentions of “the energy revolution,” a buried and affirmative reference to the Keystone XL pipeline, and some broad-strokes jabs at regulation, the GOP’s candidates for president — with the help from the Fox News moderators — stuck to more familiar conservative talking points like ISIS, Obamacare and defunding Planned Parenthood.

For climate activists, this might have come as a surprise given how keenly Republicans focused their energies on carbon this past week. After President Obama unveiled his Clean Power Plan on Tuesday, conservative pundits and candidates worked themselves into a frenzy. Rush Limbaugh, a man not known for his subtlety, chided the administration for “destroying the planet, folks. You are worse that Al Qaeda.” One Wall Street Journal op-ed named the plan a “Climate Change Putsch,” referencing a German word that means to violently overthrow the government. Marco Rubio called it “catastrophic,” while Jeb Bush said it was “irresponsible and over-reaching.” The plan also came with renewed calls to gut the Environmental Protection Agency and is expected to face myriad legal challenges. In a phenomenon organizers and policy-wonks alike refer to as polarization, the Clean Power Plan is clearly making the right people angry.

So what exactly is it? Taking their job to its logical extreme, news explainer site Vox distilled the 1,560-page report down to one paragraph. “The EPA will give each state an individual goal for cutting power-plant emissions. States can decide for themselves how to get there,” writes Brad Plumer. “They can switch from coal to natural gas, expand renewables, boost energy efficiency, enact carbon pricing…it’s all up to them.”

The goal of all this is to reduce power plant emissions by 32 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. As Plumer explains, the EPA is embarking on an exhaustive process to calculate 47 states’ power-plant emissions and then set goals around them, exempting Washington, D.C., and Vermont, where they don’t have fossil fuel-fired power plants, along with Alaska and Hawaii, where grids — unsurprisingly — work a little differently. States will have until 2016 (or 2018, if they’re special) to submit proposals on how to meet those goals.

Ruffling conservative feathers, the EPA holds final authority on whether or not the plans states arrive at are likely to make the designated cuts, and can send drafters back to the drawing board. David Roberts did a great job laying out the various stumbling blocks which could keep the Clean Power Plan from implementation, including lawsuits, state-level boycotts, the climate negotiations in Paris this December and the results of the 2016 election — a stumbling block of special concern given the plan’s reliance on federal oversight. But there are a few pieces of the Clean Power Plan that should catch the eye of climate organizers.

Certainly, this should be celebrated as a serious victory for the environmental movement. It’s hard to imagine the plan would exist without the confrontational urging of green groups here in the United States and the world over. Still, it doesn’t go nearly far enough. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, power plant emissions account for 38 percent of the country’s carbon emissions — a sizable chunk, to be sure. But the plan holds only indirect bearing on continued fossil fuel extraction from the demand side of the equation.

Theoretically, under the Clean Power Plan, every state could transition its power generation to renewables and away from coal, oil and natural gas, leaving those industries free to keep digging fuel sources out of the ground and polluting into the low-income communities and communities of color that are generally adjacent to sites of extraction. They can keep selling their wares to other sectors and parts of the world — so long as they aren’t being used to turn on our lights. As Michael Levi noted, the plan’s “building blocks” model means that plants don’t even necessarily need to switch over to renewables, so long as they’re promoting clean energy somewhere in the state. “If a state wants to use only solar to meet its targets, it can do that,” he explained. “If it wants to use only natural gas or nuclear, it can do that too.”

Creating more renewable energy does not keep carbon in the ground, and certainly neither does fracking. There’s a dangerous amount of flexibility built into the carbon plan around this point, and a central trouble with it is in treating solar and wind generation as a direct means through which to bring down emissions. Another is its reliance on the market.

Under the EPA’s charmingly-worded model of “cooperative federalism,” states take a choose-your-own-adventure style approach to meeting the EPA’s goals. One alluring options allows them to join or set up carbon markets, whereby plants can earn pollution allowances, or “credits,” by driving down emissions. These “credits” can then be traded on an open market to utilities who weren’t able to do the same, thus giving plants a financial incentive to become at least marginally more sustainable. So, if a given plant doesn’t bring down emissions at all, it can buy credits off its higher-achieving colleagues and the EPA will call it even. If states fail to comply altogether, the EPA will place them into a mandatory cap-and-trade system similar to the one proposed by the ill-fated Waxman-Markey Bill. In its market-creating function, the Daily Beast aptly dubbed an earlier version of the Clean Power Plan “Obamacare for the Air.”

Obamacare hasn’t fixed America’s healthcare system, and the Clean Power Plan won’t fix the planet. The U.K.-based Tyndall Center, one of the world’s leading research centers on climate change, estimates that overall emissions in mostly Global North (“Annex 1”) nations need to be cut by 8 to 10 percent each year to avert a 2-degree celsius rise in temperatures and, with it, catastrophic global warming. Tyndall Center Deputy Director Kevin Anderson also points out that such a reduction is “incompatible with economic growth,” meaning that market-based quick fixes like carbon trading and clean energy subsidies won’t exactly do the trick. Intertwined with the science, too, is a broader concern about leaving the future of the planet to the whims of the market. Matt Taibbi warned about the dangers of cap-and-trade back during the Waxman-Markey climate and energy bill debates of 2010, saying, “Goldman wants this bill. The plan is 1) to get in on the ground floor of paradigm-shifting legislation, 2) make sure that they’re the profit-making slice of that paradigm and 3) make sure the slice is a big slice.”

Simply put, this is exactly the kind of government action that big banks and republicans love: the kind that helps them make money. “Instead of simply imposing a fixed government levy on carbon pollution and forcing unclean energy producers to pay for the mess they make,” Taibbi added, “cap-and-trade will allow a small tribe of greedy-as-hell Wall Street swine to turn yet another commodities market into a private tax collection scheme.”

The comparison between cap-and-trade circa 2010 and today’s Clean Power Plan is hardly a one-to-one. That said, the takeaway for activists should be similar: Don’t let up.

Combined with the collapse of climate negotiations in Copenhagen in 2009, Waxman-Markey’s defeat triggered a crisis of confidence within the environmental movement. It proved that the inside game wasn’t working, and neither were individualized efforts to eat less meat or villainize bottled water. One year later, Occupy Wall Street and two weeks of sit-ins against the Keystone XL pipeline provided an answer: collective, anti-corporate action. They illuminated for many the connection between the financial crisis and the one facing the planet. From bridge-sitters stopping Shell in Portland, Oregon to college students urging their schools to divest from fossil fuels, organizers around the country have already taken this lesson to heart. The fact that Obama sees his own legacy as tied to the fate of the climate is a truly remarkable testament to their success. Now, the movement is at a stage where it needs to start defining what meaningful “climate action” really means — and if the last few years are any sign, that definition will include steering clear of Wall Street and its priorities.

Murder of Mexican journalist threatens press freedom, prompts protests

by Ashoka Jegroo

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One man has been arrested in connection with the July 31 murder of Mexican photojournalist Rubén Espinosa, social activist Nadia Vera, their two roommates and their housekeeper. They were all beaten, tortured and shot in the head in their apartment in Mexico City. Two other suspects are still yet to be found.

Espinosa’s death adds one more to the dozens of journalists killed in Mexico over the last few years. Depending on who is doing the counting, between 88 and 127 journalists have been killed in Mexico since 2000.

Espinosa worked for the magazines Proceso, Agencia Cuartoscuro and AVC Noticias in the Mexican state of Veracruz, though his murder occurred outside the state. The state’s governor, Javier Duarte, has so far seen 14 journalists killed in Veracruz during his tenure. According to press freedom groups, Veracruz is one of the most dangerous states for journalists in Mexico and about 90 percent of journalist murders in Mexico go unpunished.

Journalists from outside the state have also recently been murdered or reported missing. Meanwhile, Vera — a member of the student movement #YoSoy132, who was killed alongside Espinosa — had told local television stations that if she was killed, it would be Duarte’s fault.

On August 2, Duarte gave a statement declaring that he “lamented” the murders and that he supported a full investigation into the deaths. However, on June 30 — in a meeting with reporters in Poza Rica, Mexico,— Duarte seemed to threaten any journalists involved in reporting on criminal activity.

“We all know which of you have links or are mixed up with criminals. I ask you to behave yourselves,” Duarte told reporters. “We will shake the tree, and many rotten apples will fall.”

This slew of missing and murdered journalists has spurred protests and huge rallies around Mexico, Spain, the United States and the rest of the world about the threat to freedom of the press posed by these killings. They have also drawn the attention of human rights organizations and press freedom groups like ARTICLE 19 and the Committee to Protect to Journalists, or CPJ.

“The violence of which Espinosa was victim is publicly known of by the authorities charged with protecting journalists in Mexico,” said Darío Ramírez, ARTICLE 19’s Director for Mexico. “This homicide puts the situation in Veracruz, and the negligence of local authorities in providing protection, sharply into focus.”

Espinosa was well-known for his work on protests and resistance movements, including protests against media repression and the 2012 murder of Regina Martínez, another journalist killed in Veracruz. At one of these protests, state officials reportedly told Espinosa to “stop taking photos” if he didn’t “want to end up like Regina.” In February 2014, Espinosa shot the cover photo for Proceso magazine, which included Duarte accompanied by the headline “Veracruz, lawless state.”

In June, after photographing students being beaten by masked men during election protests, Espinosa moved to Mexico City, a common place for journalists to seek refuge. He claimed that he was being followed by armed men with cameras, but thought he’d be safe upon leaving Veracruz.

“I had to leave due to intimidation, not because of a direct threat, per se, but out of common sense,” Espinosa told news outlet Rompeviento in his last interview. “There had just been an attack on students, who were brutally beaten with machetes and everything, and so we cannot, in this situation, do less, with any kind of threat or intimidation, because we do not know what will happen. In Veracruz, there is no rule of law.”

Shortly after the move, though, Espinosa was murdered in what many thought was a safe place for threatened reporters to go.

“Rubén’s murder is a clear message to all journalists: There is nowhere safe to go in Mexico — impunity reigns,” Felix Márquez, a fellow journalist and close friend of Espinosa, told The Guardian. “Journalists in Veracruz reporting the truth are being slaughtered. Eighty percent of journalists in the state have been co-opted; the remaining 20 percent of us are at risk for doing our jobs.”

Despite claims that the murder had nothing to do with Espinosa’s work as a reporter, many journalists and activists insist that their colleagues were murdered precisely for their journalism and activism. They are now protesting in various cities and demanding that an independent investigation be done into these killings.

“We don’t know what will happen next,” Laura Carlsen of the Center for International Policy told Democracy Now. “There’s a lot of fear that the government will try to sweep this under the rug. But there will be a constant pressure from civil society to make sure that these political factors are given primary importance in the investigation and that the investigation goes as high up as it needs to go in terms of responsibilities.”

Despite their colleagues’ unfortunate death, many Mexican journalists insist that the threat of being killed will not stop them from reporting the facts.

“I am scared, we are all scared, but I won’t put down my camera,” Márquez told The Guardian after Espinosa’s funeral. “Rubén’s death has made sure of that.”

Cincinnati’s experiment with an economy that works for everyone

by Geoff Gilbert

Community members gathered for an owners meeting at Apple Street Market in February. (Facebook / Apple Street Market)

With the 2016 presidential campaigns underway, economic populism has taken center stage. Bernie Sanders, calling for a $1 trillion investment in a sustainable infrastructure jobs program along with publically funded health care and college education, has forced Hillary Clinton to offer vague support for similar measures, while even some Republican candidates, like Marco Rubio, have asserted the need to stop the “fall of the [American] worker.” Not content to wait for national politicians to follow through on non-binding proposals, 1worker1vote — a joint venture launched in 2009 by the United Steelworkers, or USW, and Mondragon USA — has been pursing a grassroots agenda to move populist discontent beyond protest and toward the building of new institutions.

The 1worker1vote network has developed and is beginning to implement a “union co-op” model, which calls for a business structure that combines worker, and sometimes community, ownership with union representation. With the model, 1worker1vote hopes to demonstrate the viability of a democratic economy, both in terms of ownership and management, capable of eventually replacing the corporate-managed economy that generates astounding wealth for those at the top while leaving nearly a quarter of the country living in poverty and half the population stuck in a debt trap with zero net assets.

“Profit should be for people, not for profit’s sake, and capital, while important, is subordinate to labor,” explained Ellen Vera, a founding member of both 1worker1vote and one of its member coops, the Cincinnati Union Cooperative Initiative, or CUCI.

The claim conjures images of the clashes between labor and capital of a bygone era, and, more recently, growing grassroots protest for a democratic global economy that began in 1994 with the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico and have continued during the first years of the new millennium with the global justice and Occupy movements. Although protest can bring people together and demonstrate popular support for addressing problems, only new, or reformed, institutions can deliver lasting solutions. Situated within a broader movement for a “new economy,” the CUCI and 1worker1vote are beginning to move beyond rhetoric and protest to explore what can and should happen after the protesters inevitably return home.

Founded in 2011, the CUCI, a Cincinnati-based network of cooperatives, hopes to bring what it calls “family-sustaining jobs,” with livable wages and hours and full benefits, to Cincinnati — a city that exemplifies our country’s long-term, corporate-driven economic decay. Beginning in the 1960s, American investment capital has increasingly financed the globalization of multinational corporate operations, a practice made possible by the ongoing logistics revolution fueled by rapid innovation in transportation and communication technologies.

Cincinnati, along with the rest of the deindustrialized American rust belt, has born the brunt of this globalized corporate economic management. The city, which now has a poverty rate exceeding 30 percent, possesses our country’s second-highest citywide childhood poverty rate of 53.1 percent (currently, one out of three children in the United States live in poverty).

This crisis, without an end in sight, inspired the CUCI’s founding.

“Inequality, widespread poverty, underemployment and unemployment [have brought] the CUCI into being,” explained Kristen Barker, the CUCI’s president and a co-founder and key operational member of 1worker1vote. “Since 2011, the CUCI has been incubating, educating and launching an integrated network of worker-owned businesses that can sustain families, with a goal of breaking the cycle of poverty, and creating an economy that works for all.”

So far the CUCI has launched two worker-owned cooperatives, Our Harvest, a local farming and food distribution network, and Sustainergy, a construction company that installs renewable energy technology and improves the energy efficiency of commercial, industrial, institutional and residential properties. The two co-ops currently employ just over 20 people, a number the CUCI plans to increase significantly in the coming years as the existing co-ops attain scale and others are seeded and begin to operate.

A third co-op, Apple Street Market, is in late-stage development — it will open grocery stores in two local food deserts, in the communities of Northside and Avondale, and will be owned by both workers and the surrounding communities.

Additionally, two Cincinnati-based non-profits — the Sarah Center, a women’s jewelry making and education center, and Yucky Cookies, a cookie bakery — will convert to CUCI co-ops. A third non-profit, Renting Partnerships, which helps low-income people build equity through affordable housing rental, works closely with the CUCI network.

The network has received support from labor unions — including the USW, the United Food and Commercial Workers, or UFCW, and the AFL-CIO. Experts in alternative economic enterprise — the Ohio Employee Ownership Center and the Ohio Cooperative Development Center — national social justice organizations, such as the NAACP and the Center for Community Change, and progressive Ohio politicians, like Senator Sherrod Brown, have also worked with the co-ops. And the CUCI is embedded in Cincinnati’s civic community, as it works closely with the Cincinnati AFL-CIO labor council and faith and community organizing groups associated with the Ohio Organizing Collaborative.

Mondragon headquarters in Basque Country, Spain. (Flickr / Mondragon)

The CUCI traces its origins to 2009, when co-founder Phil Amadon, a retired railroad mechanic who had been an active union member, heard media reports of the agreement between the USW and Mondragon USA. Amadon had been exposed to Mondragon in the 1980s through report backs from Cincinnati delegations sent by the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center, or IJPC, to the Basque region of Spain, where Mondragon had begun to grow from a small collection of worker-owned cooperative in the 1950s to become Spain’s seventh-largest industrial group in 2013.

Amadon reached out to Barker, who was working with the IJPC, Ellen Vera at the UFCW’s Local 75, and Flequer Vera, then a community organizer with the Amos Project. For about a year, the group met regularly and studied the IJPC’s library on Mondragon along with the Knights of Labor’s vision for a cooperative commonwealth and the Mondragon-inspired Evergreen Cooperatives, a network of worker-owned and community-controlled co-ops that have brought economic development to Cleveland’s impoverished inner city.

At the start of 2011, the four CUCI co-founders decided to move forward with the union co-op model and solicited assistance from a group of about 35 local civic leaders. “We realized it would be worth investing our time, hearts and souls,” Barker explained. The larger group, according to Barker, divided into four groups — focusing on business feasibility, worker and strategic education, cooperative culture, and financing — to generate questions to take to the Ohio Employee Ownership Center’s annual conference in April of 2011. There they met Michael Peck, the head of Mondragon USA, who encouraged them to continue to develop their business plans.

In the following months, Peck would travel roughly every month to Cincinnati to discuss business plans for cooperatives in three chosen industries: manufacturing, construction and food. By October, the group had commissioned the Ohio Cooperative Development Center, which is housed at Ohio State University, to conduct a food hub viability study for what would eventually become Our Harvest. Soon thereafter, the CUCI filed for non-profit incorporation and established its 14-member board of directors.

The ‘union co-op’ model

The union co-op model is a reaction to uneven economic development and access to resources around the world.

The model, pioneered by Mondragon, offers a different approach to resource management, starting with radically different worker and community ownership structures and the potential for democratic economic participation that comes along with it. The network of cooperatives has developed into a sophisticated economic organization, with its own university, bank and insurance provider, and over 850 patents held by its cooperative laboratories. It employs over 80,000 people worldwide and has grown into a federation of over 110 cooperatives, with 147 subsidiary companies, eight foundations and a benefit society with total assets of 35.8 billion euros ($40.3 billion) and annual revenues of 14 billion euros. When cooperatives go out of business, workers are typically reassigned within the network. While Spain continues to suffer from the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis, the Basque region, once among the most impoverished parts of the country, experiences unemployment rates roughly half of national averages.

The organization provides an example for the 1worker1vote network of a viable economic model that explicitly puts community stability and shared prosperity as its top priorities.

“We want to create a bunch of Mondragons all over the United States,” Ellen Vera said. “Everyone who is working hard should have the ability to work full time, have family-sustaining wages, health care, benefits, and a workplace where there is respect and dignity. Seeing how successful Mondragon has been in creating that kind of model has motivated us from the beginning.”

The foundations of the union co-op model are commitments to “one worker, one vote” decision-making and to Mondragon’s 10 principles, which inform everything from the co-op’s institutional structure to its participatory culture and emphasis on broad-based worker and community solidarity. Each worker-owner possesses one vote as part of the co-op’s general assembly, which elects representation on the co-op’s three additional primary institutions: a board of directors, a union committee and a management team.

The worker-owners directly elect both the board of directors, the co-op’s primary governance body responsible for strategic objectives, and the union committee, which is meant to be affiliated with regional and national unions — like the UFCW or the United Steelworkers — and to represent the worker-owners in negotiations with management. In addition to connecting the worker-owners to the larger union, the union committee is representative of the different worker categories within the co-op. For example, within Our Harvest, farm and retail workers will be represented on the union committee in proportion to their percentage of the co-op’s workforce. The board of directors appoints the management team, which is responsible for daily operations.

The farm team at Our Harvest Cooperative. (Facebook / Our Harvest Cooperative)

Managers, like the elected officials on the board of directors and the union committee, serve terms of a length determined by the worker-owners. No worker can serve simultaneously in multiple roles. After a trial period, workers are offered the opportunity to buy into the worker-owner equity stake through different payment options. Typically, equity can only begin to be liquidated upon retirement, though it can be used as collateral to attain credit. Workers who decide not to buy equity can vote for the union committee, but not for the board of directors. So far, however, only those who have chosen to work part-time are not owners, and the CUCI is attempting to develop an equitable ownership plan for part-time workers.

Once enough co-ops within the network achieve profitability, the model calls for 10 percent of profits to be sent to a central co-op that can provide start-up capital to new co-ops. Plans for the central co-op, a cooperative of cooperatives with elected representation from each co-op within the network, call for it to provide operational and strategic support for the co-ops; to produce industry feasibility studies that can chart opportunities for the network’s expansion; to educate worker-owners, people interested in starting co-ops, and the community at-large; and, as Mondragon has developed, to deliver in-house banking and insurance that can be offered far below market rates and even a social welfare agency capable of helping worker-owners from co-ops that fail. The CUCI is not yet able to create the central co-op.

For now, start-up financing must be found in creative ways, as risks associated with new businesses and the absence of a credit history can make credit expensive. Worker-owners can pool together their own start-up capital, though outside funding is usually necessary. CUCI funding has come from many areas: landlord rent reductions for one of the grocery co-ops; grants from the UFCW, the Greater Cincinnati Foundation and Interact for Health; loans from the USW, the Cincinnati Central Credit Union, Local Loans for Local Foods and ECAP Capital; and public funding through the Ohio Energy Loan Fund, Property Assessed Clean Energy, or PACE, the Cincinnati Development Fund and the local Community Development Financial Institution.

Founders, worker-owners, and community-members can co-sign on loans to access better rates. Money can be raised by offering equity to community-owners, as Apple Street Market has done with over 600 members of the surrounding community. And direct public offerings, which offer equity stakes without voting rights, are another possible source of financing. The eventual goal, no matter how it is achieved, is to attain complete worker or community ownership.

Education, which occurs on paid time often on site, is also key to the model. Worker-owners within the CUCI undergo an ongoing weekly education program on topics spanning financial expertise, co-op business strategy, and Mondragon and co-op values. The CUCI uses education materials from Mondragon along with the Great Game of Business management curriculum. Weekly education often happens within each worker unit of each co-op, though larger groups frequently convene. Team building exercises and conflict resolution training also help to make democratic-decision making more feasible.

The model’s transformation of traditional labor organizing

Through the union committee, which is inspired by Mondragon’s social council, the union co-op model offers workers wealth-generating opportunities and well-being that far surpass those of mainstream labor demands for $15 an hour wages and union recognition.

At worst, workers earn a local living wage while they control profits and determine their hours, working conditions, and business practices and strategies. By belonging to a union, worker-owners reap the benefit of union buying power and can access more cost effective health and retirement plans. Worker-owners of Our Harvest and Apple Street Market are affiliated with the UFCW, and Sustainergy worker-owners belong to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 212 and Pipefitters Local 392.

Even more, since workers elect the board that appoints the co-op’s management, the model entirely bypasses the “broken labor laws” that Ellen Vera, an experienced labor organizer, said initially drew her to the model. “We need to be proactive, to build the kind of workplace we want to see, not just fight tooth and nail with big corporations to get a small amount that makes it possible to get by,” Vera said.

Community members gathered for a meeting in January in the space where Apple Street Market will soon open. (Facebook / Apple Street Market)

Currently the National Labor Relations Board, or NLRB, is the sole federal agency vested with the power to safeguard U.S. workers’ legal rights. The agency possesses a dual mandate: first, to prevent and remedy unfair labor practices committed by private sector employers and labor unions; second, to provide the legal framework for private-sector employees to elect to organize or dissolve bargaining units in their workplaces.

The NLRB, according to a 2009 Economic Policy Institute report, is incapable of executing either mandate. The report found that throughout a random sample of 1,004 NLRB election campaigns between 1999 and 2003 employers systematically subjected workers to illegal practices such as threats, interrogation, harassment, surveillance and retaliation for union activity.

Punitive measures available to the NLRB are restricted by a 1938 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in Consolidated Edison v. NLRB. The court ruled that the NLRB can’t sanction an employer for acting illegally. It can only require the employer to “desist from such practices” and to restore the status quo prior to the unfair labor practices through a measure like back pay for an employee who was illegally fired or whose wages were systematically stolen, as is pervasive throughout the fast food industry, where recent Service Employee International Union organizing has been most active.

Vera recalls an organizing campaign against M.A. Folkes, a manufacturing and logistics company, to restore employment for 40 undocumented workers. According to Vera, after a six-month process with the NLRB, the workers were not reinstated nor did they receive full back pay. The company, which had willingly employed the undocumented workers before the dispute, was able to get around labor laws simply because it could then prove the workers were undocumented.

A small victory for Vera has been the ability to hire, with Our Harvest, workers she has seen fired throughout her time with the UFCW. “It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve done as an organizer,” she said. The union co-op model represents a potentially far larger victory, with its potential to democratically rewrite the legal relationship between the workforce and management.

The CUCI’s three industries of emphasis

The CUCI, during its first three years of existence, has decided to focus on three industries: food, due to the founders’ connection to local food operations and Ellen Vera’s work with the UFCW; manufacturing, since the industry possesses high margins, and with them the potential to create significant amounts of family-sustaining jobs; and construction, as various board members are connected with the local building trades.

In late 2011, the CUCI, in one of its first decisions, commissioned a food industry feasibility study from the Ohio Employee Ownership Center. Our Harvest, the result of the study, incorporated in February 2012. Around the same time, the CUCI focused on attracting Danobat, a Mondragon manufacturing group, to Cincinnati. The company conducted a rail passenger industry feasibility study, but decided demand in the area was insufficient. And Sustainergy incorporated in the summer of 2013, after the CUCI participated in a citywide campaign to make available PACE funding to ease the burden of investments in energy efficiency for consumers.

The CUCI’s work with the other co-ops in development — Apple Street Market, the Sarah Center, Yucky Cookies, and the non-profit Renting Partnerships — came about after those co-ops reached out to the CUCI. The CUCI, initially focused on launching its first co-ops, is beginning to build its support infrastructure so that the network can be more proactive about expansion.

Both Our Harvest and Sustainergy have begun operations, though Sustainergy’s operations are currently paused as a key member’s son passed away late last year. The two co-ops have each developed multiple service lines and are poised for growth.

Ellen Vera worked full-time as the head of Our Harvest during its incubation stage — she has since moved to working with Apple Street Markets — and Kristen Barker has taken her place. Vera describes the opportunities regarding the absence of local food infrastructure the group was initially able to identify.

Flequer Vera (center) and Ellen Vera (right) at a 2013 volunteer day and potluck for Our Harvest. (Facebook / Our Harvest).

“We were having a local food renaissance, but we weren’t seeing local food institutions,” Vera said. “We saw there was a lack of both local production to meet demand and infrastructure to distribute local food.”

Our Harvest decided to market its local farming for both retail and wholesale, and to develop a food hub to coordinate distribution of other local farm produce. The co-op operates two farms — a smaller urban farm and a 30-acre farm within the city limits. After two seasons, realizing it needed more space, the co-op leased 100 acres from an urban farm, which it plans to soon bring fully into production. Worker-owners, according to Vera, make a minimum of $10 per hour, with full-time hours and a $450 per month health care stipend. Total annual compensation is between $26,200 and $57,400, while, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, national average annual income for farmworkers is $18,910.

The co-op sells its produce directly to consumers through it’s weekly harvest box, which essentially functions like a community-supported agriculture, or CSA, network. Over 350 families subscribed to the weekly harvest box last year.

Our Harvest’s local food hub coordinates the weekly harvest boxes, adding local produce from other farms to the mix, while also focusing on pooling together the local food production for wholesale. “A lot of stores couldn’t call 50 different farmers to get what they needed — they needed to call just one place,” Vera explained. Wholesale efforts have focused on restaurants, farmers’ markets, grocery stores and anchor institutions, like hospitals and universities, which receive public funding and spend billions of dollars annually on basic goods and services, including food. The co-op currently sells to Cincinnati State University.

Due to the relatively high costs of local food produced without scale, Our Harvest’s initial consumers are primarily affluent. Given its community-based mission, the co-op is seeking to expand to lower-income markets through a partnership with Freestore Food Bank. The food bank possesses established distribution networks that reach over 20 food pantries throughout the 20 county, tri-state area of Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana that surrounds Cincinnati. The food bank distributes primarily processed foods, which Our Harvest is looking to supplement with fresh produce.

While local food produced without industrial chemicals has its health benefits, the Our Harvest founders believe that their model for operations and decision-making provides other tangible local benefits as well. “Instead of putting a bunch of shareholders in a far away board room making decisions only about maximizing profits, worker-owners become the executives who live in the community,” Vera said. “They aren’t going to decide to pay themselves poverty wages, or to move their factory.”

Sustainergy possesses a similar social mission embedded in its operational and decision-making structures. Flequer Vera — Ellen Vera’s husband, the head of Sustainergy and vice president of the CUCI — embodies this mission. He moved to New York from Lima, Peru during high school. Then an undocumented immigrant, Vera worked in construction before moving to Cincinnati. Seeing widespread abuse of undocumented immigrants in the construction industry, he worked as an organizer with the Amos Project, a faith group in Cincinnati. Having grown up in Peru as part of a family with a small business background, he decided to go to school to study business and finance.

Flequer Vera has taken his socially-conscious business sense and financial expertise with him to Sustainergy. The co-op initially focused on industrial and commercial work, installing things like LED lighting and motion-sensor lights, to reduce property-owner energy expenses.

In September, Sustainergy partnered with Empower Gas & Electric, a unique energy utility that develops plans compatible with economic development strategies for cities, not regions, as is industry practice. Empower does all of the marketing, delivering residential clients to Sustainergy, which installs more efficient forms of lighting, smart thermostats and improves insulation. The residential market provides another unintended benefit, as the relatively simple installations allow the co-op to bring lower-skilled worker-owners into the fold. As their project load increases, Sustainergy plans to leverage its enhanced buying power within two years to work on more capital-intensive upgrades, like energy-efficient boilers.

PACE funding had been made available in nearby Toledo, where, according to Vera, there are $21 million of PACE-financed projects in the pipeline. Along with other members of Green Umbrella, a Cincinnati-based regional sustainability alliance, Vera lobbied the city government to bring PACE financing to Cincinnati. The program eliminates up-front costs for energy-efficiency investments through low-cost and long-term bond financing that is repaid as property tax assessments, beholden to the property not the owner, over a period as long as 20 years. The Port of Greater Cincinnati provided the initial capital for the PACE bonds.

Sustainergy participated in a July 4 parade in Cincinnati. (WNV/Flequer Vera)

PACE funding is just one mechanism to finance sustainable energy investments. Since the savings from energy efficiency are often large, investments often make financial sense for the consumer. If the energy-efficiency savings cover the costs of the equipment and installation within two years, then the project is considered viable. “Financing has not been a problem,” Vera explained.

The co-op currently employs three people and requires, according to Vera, roughly $120,000 of annual sales to support each additional job. Vera expects around $750,000 of sales during the first year and around $1.4 million during year three.

Obstacles to achieving scale

The CUCI faces several barriers to building sustainable cooperatives capable of supporting a significant number of family-sustaining jobs, all of which are related to the difficult path start-ups face to achieving scale.

First, the start-up capital required for capital-intensive industries, like manufacturing, is very difficult to obtain. This problem was demonstrated by the conclusions drawn from Danobat’s rail passenger feasibility study about the absence of demand needed to meet the capital-intensive production costs.

Second, large-scale buyers — like hospitals, universities or national retail chains — require low price points that are very difficult to reach until production is built up to a point where it can leverage economies of scale. This makes it very difficult for start-up cooperatives to supply basic goods like food, laundry and energy-efficiency infrastructure to “anchor institutions,” like hospitals and universities, which spend over $200 billion nationally in inner cities each year on such services. Tapping into this immense source of demand, which is rooted to geographic space, could be essential to union co-op growth and the model’s attempts to stabilize communities with “family-sustaining” jobs.

Third, large-scale buyers, including anchor institutions, often require the highest levels of third-party certification in any given industry, which can be an insurmountable expense for start-ups that must focus their capital directly on operations. Our Harvest needs Good Agricultural Practices, or GAP, certification in order to sell to large buyers like Cincinnati State University, and Sustainergy needs Building Performance Institute, or BPI, certification in order to work with Empower Gas & Electric.

Leaders from both cooperatives do not believe attaining either certification will be difficult in a relatively short period of time, but the need to do so is an opportunity cost that ties up resources that could otherwise be invested in enhancing production and employing more people. Resources must be invested in record keeping, infrastructure required to meet cleanliness and safety standards, and educating worker-owners about certification practices. Our Harvest has sponsored GAP certification for their local food suppliers and the Ohio State University Extension has hosted similar trainings.

A demolished Palestinian village comes back to life

by Melanie Nakashian

Saint Mary’s Church in Iqrit was the only structure left standing after a 1951 IDF bombing that destroyed about 100 homes in the Christian village. (Facebook / Iqrit)

Among the hundreds of Palestinian villages that were evacuated between 1947 and 1951, there is one whose descendants are actually getting close to fulfilling their right of return. In an unprecedented case, the demolished Christian village of Iqrit should soon be connected to Israel’s electricity grid. This comes just as a group of Iqrit’s young descendants mark three years, this August 5, of continuously inhabiting the church in their otherwise destroyed village.

Iqrit sits atop a hill in the Western Galilee, just a few kilometers south of the Lebanese border. In October 1948, as part of Operation Hiram, the then newly established Israel Defense Forces drove out the population of about 500 mostly Christian Palestinians living there. According to Israeli historian Benny Morris, the operation intended to create an “Arab-less border strip” along Lebanon to serve as a “security belt.” This was part of the larger ethnic cleansing that displaced hundreds of thousands and is remembered by Palestinians as the Nakba (Arabic for catastrophe). Jewish Israelis remember the same event as their War of Independence. The Nakba is marked on May 15, the day Israel was established in 1948.

Many of the millions of today’s ethnic Palestinians continue to fight to return to their families’ lands, a right first codified in United Nations Resolution 194 in December 1948. Israel has not complied with this resolution and its enforcement is a primary demand of the nonviolent Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign known as BDS. Many Palestinians around the world and in occupied Palestine are barred from simply visiting the land where their families are from, making on-the-ground organizing out of the question. Returning remains a distant dream for most.

While some Iqritis were sent north to Lebanon, the majority were internally displaced and now hold Israeli citizenship. Today, there are over 400 Iqriti family heads dispersed throughout northern Israel in cities and villages such as Haifa and Rame. The latter is where most of the villagers were brought at the time of evacuation after being mislead into believing they could return home two weeks later.

The story of the Nakba is common to Palestinians. Iqrit, however, is unique in that its villagers brought their case to Israel’s Supreme Court and obtained a decision in July 1951 that legally granted them the right to return to their homes. The IDF, however, did its best to render that impossible. A few months later, on Christmas Day, they surprised Iqritis by bombing their entire village of about 100 homes. All that remained was Iqrit’s church at the top of the hill and their cemetery near the bottom, both still there today. Yet, despite this and 67 years of various setbacks, Iqritis have not allowed Israel to sweep the 1951 ruling under the rug.

Another major legal point in their favor is a 1994 ministerial committee recommendation that further reinforces their right to return. Late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin appointed a committee in 1992 concerning the cases of both Iqrit and nearby Kufr Bir’im, pairing these two Christian villages for reasons that remain unclear. The recommendation states, “there is no reason to prevent the displaced villagers” from returning and “it is the government’s duty to assist them in doing so,” as well as to provide compensation. It was never ratified and Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli ultranationalist in 1995. The following year marked the beginning of the reign of current right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

According to Nemi Ashkar, chairman of the Iqrit Community Association, or ICA, Israel claims that allowing Iqritis to return would set a precedent for similar appeals from other villages. “But this fear of precedent is not really valid [from the perspective of Israeli law],” he argued. There is no other village possessing Israeli legal support like Iqrit does — the most significant being the 1951 ruling and 1994 recommendation. At the time of the Nakba, according to Ashkar, Iqritis “simply got good advice” to go to the then newly established court and have managed to keep themselves on Israel’s agenda ever since.

Furthermore, there has been no Israeli development on Iqriti land inhibiting their return, as is the case with many other Palestinian villages in Israel proper that have been overtaken either by Jewish Israeli villages or Jewish National Fund forests. These forests occupy the majority of the horizon looking out from Iqrit’s hilltop with Jewish villages also in sight — the nearest one being Shomera and its IDF base immediately across the road. Aside from one man in Shomera who brings his cattle to graze on their land, Iqritis have no problems with their Jewish neighbors.

“There are a lot of reasons that have proven our right to the land,” said Ashkar, who resides in Kufr Yasif, a 25-minute drive from Iqrit. “Nobody can tell us that we have no right to own the place.”

A workshop at the August 2014 Roots Camp teaching dabke, the traditional Levantine Arab dance. (WNV / Melanie Nakashian)

Every year since 1995 — with the exception of 2006 due to Israel’s war with Lebanon — the adults of Iqrit have organized Roots Camp — an educational gathering for the youngest generation of descendants, who have not yet gone off to college. Since these youths are raised in the Israeli education system, the camp fills a narrative gap that Israel’s Ministry of Education tends to neglect. In fact, Netanyahu banned the word “nakba” from textbooks, essentially banning Palestinian children from learning the history of their families’ experiences, as well as preventing Jewish Israelis from being exposed to the narrative. Netanyahu’s Nakba Bill also penalizes government bodies and institutions for commemorating the catastrophe.

Samer Toume, a 25-year-old Iqriti graduate student of biomedical engineering at the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, explained how Roots Camp combats Israel’s exertion of power through education by saying, “History books are written by the ones who can control what is taught and what is not taught. So, this camp teaches people about what nobody else teaches them,” including different aspects of Palestinian history and culture, “mainly through the story of Iqrit.” This year’s camp runs from August 18-22.

The villagers are also always open to anyone, Palestinian or otherwise, who wants to learn about Iqrit. Classes of Jewish and Arab students, as well as international tourist groups visit frequently.

Toume is part of the core group of about 15 third-generation-displaced Iqritis — mostly working students in their 20s — who decided, during their camp on August 5, 2012, that they had to return for good. They have sustained a constant presence since then, taking shifts 24/7 and sleeping in a room attached to the church or just outside of it under the stars. Many others who do not sleep there still visit frequently and are actively involved in other aspects of organizing, such as for the annual camp, cultural or political events and Christian holiday gatherings. Dealings with the government are usually handled by Iqritis from the second generation of displacement.

The annual Roots Camp also teaches about Iqrit’s natural environment, passing down knowledge about how to nurture the plants that have survived since before the demolition. This includes fig and olive trees among others, and soon they hope to grow tobacco again. “Our grandfathers were known for their good tobacco,” Toume said.

Unfortunately, even the plants of Iqrit are under scrutiny by the Israel Land Administration, or ILA, which claims ownership over the land. The villagers are prohibited from rooting anything new in or on the land. No “structures,” no plants, not even flowers. For instance, at the last camp in August 2014, one group of kids planted about a dozen trees outside of their cemetery, only to be greeted less than an hour later by a pick-up truck ready to investigate and soon uproot them.

This is a regular occurrence. Every couple weeks — or whenever the authorities hear about any sort of activity, as they somehow always do — officers come prepared with cars and trucks to remove anything diverting from the status quo.

Sometimes officers randomly stop by or a drone cruises through the air. In June 2014, three of the core on-the-ground activists were — according to other group members — arrested in an extremely unprofessional and unnecessarily violent manner. Jerius Khiatt and Walaa Sbait were kept in jail for two nights and Nidal Khoury was kept for three; Khiatt and Sbait were sentenced to house arrest and then prohibited from visiting Iqrit for several weeks. While such harassment and intimidation by authorities is not unusual, the Iqritis remain undeterred.

St. Mary’s Church is currently powered by four solar panels, but a Supreme Court Decision may soon see it connected to the Israeli grid. (Facebook / Iqrit)

Their church — still standing, but surrounded by rubble — is considered to be a symbol of their immovable presence. Right now, it is powered by four solar panels — their second set, after their first was mysteriously stolen — and a generator when needed. In April, Iqrit was finally granted a Supreme Court decision permitting them to be connected to the electricity grid.

Ashkar is one of five who has been spearheading this request for electricity. The case has been ongoing for years and he tends to it on a daily basis, but remains optimistic. “We see the progress, and we are satisfied with what is happening,” he said. They are in the process of mapping and the Israel Electric Corporation has a working plan. He expects to see more conclusive progress in the next three months.

Toume, on the other hand, is more skeptical and fears that the government won’t allow the electric company to follow-through with the court’s decision. “I won’t believe them until I see the first lamp really shining here,” he said, pointing out the lack of accountability pertaining to the 1951 decision. “Until I see electricity, I don’t believe it.”

Iqrit has been connected to Israel’s national water system since 1971, when the villagers received permission to be buried in their cemetery. Their next legal focus after receiving electricity will be to bring the cemetery’s land back under their legal ownership. This is already underway and will represent yet another step towards their eventual full return and rebuilding of the village, which they still unreservedly believe they will soon achieve.

Twenty minutes from Iqrit lies Kufr Bir’im, the one other village included in Rabin’s committee recommendation. Inspired by the return to Iqrit, activists attempted to do the same at Kufr Bir’im in 2013, but with less success, as their return only lasted about a year. They were subject to multiple raids by the ILA and were cut off from electricity, gas and water. They were eventually prohibited from visiting their own church, which is their only undestroyed building as well. Their cemetery has been vandalized several times.

Iqrit is an inspirational anomaly. Only time will tell how their case will influence the wider struggle for justice among Palestinians. Yet, despite the exceptional legal advantage that Iqrit has on paper, Ashkar said their case shows that they “are still fighting the war.” Iqrit may serve as an experimental model for other returning villages to learn about not just how to organize, but also how and when to negotiate with authorities — and to what extent they should negotiate with authorities at all, given Israel’s track record when it comes to following the law, not to mention its long list of discriminatory laws.

Samer Toume (left) and another core activist, Haytam Sbait, garden in potted plants, which are more mobile and easily hidden during ILA check-ups. (Facebook / Iqrit)

Unlike most Palestinian descendants, most Iqritis have the physical access to their village that allows for a connection with the land to be fostered firsthand. This connection is a major component underlying their struggle. Ashkar remembers his connection to Iqrit developing at a young age, spending time on the land with his family while growing up before Roots Camp was running. Toume’s interest began with hearing stories from his grandparents; it continued to grow at Roots Camps and has since evolved into something more. “After three years here, I have my own story, and I want to protect it.”

Toume discussed the challenge of keeping up such an effort on the ground despite all the powers working against them. “You have to have a lot of energy and want very much to do this for three years,” he said. “It is obvious that young people prefer to stay in Haifa and drink beer in a bar with their friends than to come here and try to do something.” He somehow finds the time to be particularly active, staying there regularly in between his studies and working on his two medical start-ups from a space in the back of Iqrit’s church. Working students are very much at the foundation of the village’s on-the-ground activism.

Ashkar believes that Israel hopes the Palestinians’ yearn to return will die with age. Within the next decade, they will be at the fourth generation of displacement. It’s as if the authorities are stalling, expecting the case to weaken with time, waiting for them to “forget [their] demands.” If this is what the Israeli government is hoping for, they are likely in for disappointment, as the Iqritis, it seems, are only gaining strength and speed with age.

August 5 marks three years since the core group declared their permanent return to Iqrit. Soon, if all goes according to plan, there should be an Israeli-powered light shining at the top of their hill. The youngest descendants are not only receiving education about their people’s history for the first time — a history that the Israeli government tries to ban them from learning — but they are also creating their own stories on their families’ land. Iqritis are clearly unrelenting in both their legal and on-the-ground organizing to hold their government accountable. Much like their church, they will not be moved.

The sacredness of working to end white supremacy — a conversation with Rev. Anne Dunlap

by Chris Crass

Leading singing at the launch of the Metro Denver Sanctuary Coalition, September 2014. (WNV/Anne Dunlap)

From the massacre in Charleston to the police murder of Sandra Bland in Texas, racist violence is being met with outrage, and a growing black-led multiracial resistance movement that is on the move. With a sustained focus on institutional racist violence in the media due to the Black Lives Matter movement, white people across the country are both coming to consciousness about the enduring reality of white supremacy and looking for ways to take action for racial justice.

To help equip and inspire white people to step up and take action, I reached out to long-time faith-based white anti-racist leader and United Church of Christ minister Rev. Anne Dunlap, who serves as a “street pastor” for racial justice and solidarity in the Denver, Colorado area. For over 25 years she has been working in freedom movements with folks across race, gender and class lines, with a focus on solidarity with black, immigrant, worker and indigenous communities. As a faculty member of Iliff School of Theology, she helps train religious leaders to not only work for social justice themselves, but to move their congregations and larger faith communities into action.

In this interview, Rev. Dunlap reflects on her anti-racist work in white communities, her multiracial alliance-building efforts, liberation theology and the guidance she received from her departed mentor, black liberation theologian, historian and visionary, Vincent Harding.

How are you working to move white people into the racial justice movement in this time? What’s working? And what are you learning from what works?

I have been a faith-rooted justice movement activist and leader for a long time — nearly 30 years if you go back to my “call” into the work at age 16 that launched this trajectory of my life. I’ve done this work in many capacities, and most often as a “bridge” between white folk/communities and marginalized folk/communities. Whether it’s racial and economic justice, police brutality, detention abolition, deportation resistance or indigenous rights, I do pastoral solidarity work, as well as constantly try to get more white folk involved. In addition, in our local United Church of Christ conference we are working toward creating a position for racial justice and solidarity in which part of my work would include resourcing our predominantly white churches so that they can be bolder for racial justice. More informally are lots of conversations with white friends and colleagues about how we can show up — and how we show up — in the work for racial justice. Resource sharing is incredibly important here, whether by social media or sending a friend my favorite Andrea Smith resource.

One thing I have noticed is that as a white clergyperson who shows up often in pretty public ways, I am finding white people seek me out for conversation to talk through how they might do that too, or that they find themselves emboldened to take action where they are because they have seen me do it. I take that to mean that white folk are longing for some white models for racial justice and solidarity, and so we need those of us more practiced at it and/or are willing to “be public” to continue to do that, and encourage more folks to try it. And here I don’t mean posting your selfie at the latest action, but more importantly being public about our questions and wrestlings, being public about our mistakes, being public about the resources we find helpful, being public about our horror at what is continuing to be done in our name. If I might channel my mentor, Vincent Harding, let people see you be fully human in this messy, magnificent work that is the freedom movement.

Presenting demands at the Denver U.S. Attorney’s office that Darren Wilson be held accountable for killing Michael Brown, in December 2014. (WNV/Anne Dunlap)

To that I would add a couple of things: 1) recognizing that I am not an expert or the model and being clear that although I have been at this a long time I am also always just beginning; and 2) being public does not mean centering myself as a white person and thus de-centering the voices, experiences and lives of black, Latina/o, indigenous and immigrant folk. That can be a tricky dance, to both not hide and also not center my white self, and I am sure I don’t always get it right.

How do you think about effectiveness and how do you measure it? Can you share an experience that helps you think about effective work in white communities for racial justice?

As a spiritual leader rooted in radical Christian tradition and informed by liberationist, feminist/womanist, and post-colonial praxis, I have to ask: How do we understand “effectiveness” in ways that are non-capitalist? Capitalism is its own theological system which I find runs completely counter to what my tradition teaches. Capitalist “effectiveness” is driven by numbers, by production as if humans were cogs in a machine, by increasing profit and consumption and by continuous extraction of resources regardless of impact, by dividing up winners (most worthy) and losers. Capitalist “effectiveness” requires, as Andrea Smith writes, perpetual enslavement of black bodies, perpetual disappearance of indigenous bodies, perpetual war against the “foreign threat” of brown bodies. I’m not interested in those definitions of effectiveness.

What is “effectiveness” that is prophetic and revolutionary, that honors the wholeness of human dignity and the tender fragility of human lives and bodies, that honors not only human life but all creatures, flora, fauna, mineral, liquid, vapor? One experience that helps me think about this is a 2007 action I participated in, a nonviolent act of resistance against the Columbus Day parade in Denver that resulted in nearly a hundred of us being arrested and being pretty brutalized by the Denver police, both in the street and in the jail. I helped organize students, faculty, staff at the Iliff School of Theology where I was a student leader at the time. We had a group of 11 students and alums who were among those arrested — and nearly 40 more were present.

From the capitalist view one might argue this action was not “effective.” We were arrested, the parade continued, and almost all of us who went to trial were found guilty of violating the city’s “parade ordinance” (put in place to prevent protests of the Columbus Day parade), resisting arrest and other charges. The Denver police were never held accountable for their brutality against us. Some of us continue to live with the trauma to our bodies and psyches from that day. The whole event and its aftermath of trials and healing took immense resources and energy.

From what I might call the prophetic view, however, this is what I see: white students at Iliff emboldened to take action on this and other justice issues, including white parents who went to their children’s schools to get curriculum about Columbus changed; healers who stepped up and identified themselves and have continued to provide for the community’s healing; relationships of solidarity, trust and fierce love that were born that day and continue; and for many white folk, including myself, the breaking apart of the veil of “legitimacy” of the “justice system” and policing, and how both of those systems actually serve to perpetuate white supremacy. I am still seeing the impact of that action to this day in our community; the city thought they had won but the result was a stronger multiracial community of resistance in Denver, and with white folks pretty radicalized by our experience (whether as arrestees, witnesses or seeing the aftermath).

This is the kind of effectiveness our tradition teaches us is possible. It turns the wisdom of the world on its head. What the Roman Empire determined as “effective” — executing the radical Jesus by crucifixion — was rendered as foolishness when the Spirit-filled community rose up in resistance with their ringing proclamation that the Empire had no power over life or death: “Christ is risen!”

What are the goals and strategies (as emergent, planned, messy, and sophisticated, basic as it is) you’re operating from?

My big goal — and I believe this is the “big goal” the Divine attests to and longs for us in our tradition — is the total undoing of white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy for a world in which all life, not only human, but creatures and the land, as well, can flourish. To get there my part is to be in deep human relationship with marginalized communities, and to work with white folk and faith communities in particular.

A delegation of clergy and supporters attempt to accompany Jeanette Vizguerra to her ICE check-in on February 12, 2015. (WNV/Anne Dunlap)

We need as many nimble tools as possible for collective liberation. Besides the organizing work and just plain showing up for actions and such, some other tools for white folk who claim to be Christian include: 1) recovering and immersing ourselves in the liberative and revolutionary sources, biblical and theological, of Christian tradition, and sharing and embodying those. This includes perpetually reminding ourselves that the Bible is not the victory handbook of the Empire, but the outcry and deeply human wrestlings of the oppressed; 2) educating ourselves all the time especially through listening to oppressed voices. And letting those voices interrogate us deeply, letting them make us confront the ways white supremacy lives inside our heads. This is the un-sexy (because it is often invisible) work of disrupting whiteness as a white person and it’s just as important as showing up publicly, because it helps us know how to show up in better, more liberative ways; 3) learning the “people’s history” of struggle and liberation, including the local history of where we live, and sharing it; and 4) knowing our limits and doing our own healing work. This is so important and must not be overlooked. Therapy, herbal practice, Sabbath, physical labor at my friend’s goat farm, and spiritual direction all help keep me going and help me bring my best, most grounded self to the work, and I publicly encourage and affirm other folks’ efforts towards self-care.

A word about spiritual direction: I find this helps me cultivate discernment, holds space for my vocational wrestlings in the face of challenge, and fosters my ability to sit in the unknown and trust there is more going on here than I am aware of; this in particular allows me to let go of control which is one way whiteness perpetuates itself.

What challenges are you facing? How are you trying to overcome them? What are you learning from these experiences?

There are a couple of main ones for me. The first is institutions. Entrenched oppressions in institutions — including and especially the church and the academy — and the institutional capacity for self-preservation rather than liberation challenge me at the deepest level and cause me the most despair. Community — both close friends and a community of solidarity — is so much help in navigating this challenge. I have also learned that if there is no space for movement, no space for Spirit to crack open something, it might be best to walk away. I have done that on occasion — not walk away from the freedom movement, but from that particular institution that will take my life in ways I am not willing to give it. Everyone must do their own discernment around this; I may leave where another person may stay, and that’s cool.

The second challenge is being overwhelmed. Constantly confronting injustice and the death-dealing powers of empire is wearying enough, and I think our saturation with 24-hour news cycles and constant social media updates can sometimes make this worse (though social media is great for connecting and expressing solidarity). I have to be sure to take Sabbath time to rest, integrate, tend to my spirit and body and home. As a white person I have struggled with this because the temptation to be the “perfect ally” who shows up to everything is very strong (and capitalist-driven). I’ve learned to remind myself that I am not the center of the movement, and a healthy me, even if I’m not at everything, is so much better for the movement than a burned-out me.

How are you developing your own leadership and the leadership of people around you to step up in these profound, painful and powerful Black Lives Matter movement times?

As I mentioned, I have been in this work a long time, though focused more on immigration and economic justice. Last year two things happened that prompted some deep vocational discernment for me: Vincent Harding died, a loss I grieved deeply, and a few months later Michael Brown was killed. These are connected for me because Michael Brown was killed not long after Harding’s memorial service here in Denver, and I began to talk to Harding every day, asking him what I should do. It soon became clear that I was being called to deepen my justice work through the Black Lives Matter movement, and to do so by leaving my prior congregational position and embracing my role as “street pastor” — as well as responding to the outcry for white folks to educate white folks — by offering myself to our United Church of Christ conference as a resource.

Invoking the presence of Dr. Vincent Harding, National Moment of Silence vigil in August 2014. (WNV/Anne Dunlap)

In these intervening months I have utilized this “in-between” time of unknown in terms of a particular job by reading everything I can, taking advantage of trainings, finding resources for working on collective liberation with white folks and white church folks, trying on some new ways of reclaiming my voice as a leader, and most importantly building relationships and showing up in solidarity with our Black Lives Matter leaders in Denver. I feel like these last eight months in many ways have been a preparation for some amazing and difficult work that is about to unfold.

Las comunidades Garífunas de Honduras se resisten a los desalojos y robo de tierras

by Jeff Abbott

Un residente de Vallecito acompaña a cantantes mientras cantan canciones tradicionales Garifunas. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

This article is also available in English.

A lo largo de la costa atlántica de Honduras, las comunidades afro caribeñas garífunas se ven amenazadas por propuestas de creación de proyectos mega-turísticos y ciudades gestionadas por corporaciones, a menudo conocidas como “ciudades modelo”. Como consecuencia de ello, las comunidades garífunas están siendo forzadas a abandonar sus tierras.

En enero de 2015, el vicepresidente de los Estados Unidos Joseph Biden propuso un plan para proporcionar a los gobiernos de Centroamérica 1000 millones de dólares – además de otras ayudas acordadas con anterioridad – para incrementar las inversiones en la zona, con el objetivo de mejorar la seguridad y generar la oportunidad de combatir las causas “raíz” de la migración ilegal.

El plan ede Bide no es mas que la continuación del Tratado de Libre Comercio con Centroamérica y el Plan Mesoamérica mediante la ampliación del mercado energético regional integrado y facilitando a las empresas multinacionales la inversión en enormes proyectos de desarrollo en toda la región que provocarán grandes daños a la comunidad. Este verano el Congreso votará este paquete de ayuda.
Sin embargo, tal y como han señalado los críticos, los planes crearán un retroceso negativo para la gente de la región, incluyendo el aumento de conflictos sociales y la destrucción del medioambiente.

“El gobierno estadounidense está financiando a nuestro gobierno para desalojarnos”, dijo Ángel Castro, residente de la comunidad garífuna de Vallecito. “No están aquí para apoyar a las personas afro decendientes, menos aún al pueblo de Honduras.”

La conexión con el modelo económico de acumulación por desposesión no se pierde en Castro. Y añadió: “Esto es parte del capitalismo y la política del neoliberalismo”.

Los mega-proyectos son sólo uno de los problemas a los que las comunidades garífunas de Honduras han tenido que enfrentarse en los seis años transcurridos desde que el golpe de estado, apoyado por los Estados Unidos, derrocó al entonces presidente Manuel Zelaya. Ahora han comenzado a organizar y defender sus tierras a través de la resistencia noviolenta.

Defendiendo la tierra y la cultura

Las comunidades garífunas llevan siglos viviendo en la costa Atlántica de Honduras y han desarrollado su propia cultura, idioma, comida y música. Son los descendientes de los esclavos africanos y de las poblaciones indígenas Arawak que fueron deportadas de la isla británica de San Vicente en 1797. En la actualidad, las comunidades garífunas abarcan la costa atlántica desde Belice hasta Nicaragua con 48 comunidades en Honduras, en los departamentos de Cortés, Atlántida y Colón.

A principios de los años 1800 el gobierno hondureño dio a las comunidades títulos ilegales de 1,012 hectáreas de tierra. Desde entonces se han encargado de estas tierras colectivamente, alimentándose de la pesca y la agricultura.

Ahora estas comunidades se enfrentan al desalojo para dar paso a la construcción de proyectos de desarrollo apoyados por políticas económicas neoliberales como la Alianza por el Progreso y la Estrategia para el Compromiso de los Estados Unidos en Centroamérica. Además, el creciente interés de los narcotraficantes y las plantaciones de aceite de palma africana han forzado a las comunidades a abandonar sus tierras.

“Todos sufrimos la misma situación,” dijo Selvyn, de la comunidad de Porto Cortez. “Todos estamos siendo desalojados de nuestras tierras. El Estado ha decidido excluir a las comunidades del diálogo nacional.”

Pero frente a los desalojos para facilitar la creación de mega proyectos, y amenazados por narcotraficantes fuertemente armados, las comunidades garífunas han decidido dedicarse a la resistencia noviolenta para defender su territorio.

Filas de palma africana para la producción de aceite de palma dan la bienvenida a visitantes de Vallecito. La palma africana se ha propagado como un virus a lo largo del territorio Garifuna y de Honduras. (WNV / Jeff Abbott)

En agosto de 2012, miembros de las comunidades a lo largo de la costa atlántica de Honduras reclamaron el corazón de su territorio de la invasión de los narcotraficantes, los proyectos de mega turismo y la expansión del aceite de palma. Fueron ellos quienes fundaron la comunidad de Vallecito en el territorio que los garífunas consideran sus tierras ancestrales, a un kilómetro y medio del mar.

Al igual que en muchas culturas indígenas, la tierra y el mar están vinculados a la identidad del pueblo garífuna y son cruciales para la continuación de su sociedad. Las comunidades sostienen que el asalto de su territorio es también un ataque a su identidad y cultura.

“El mar y la playa son esenciales para el pueblo garífuna”, dijo Guillermo, un residente de Vallecito. “Es parte de mi vida; que es lo que significa ser garífuna”.

La resistencia noviolenta que utilizan para defender su tierra es también parte de la identidad garífuna.

“El pueblo garífuna es un pueblo pacífico”, dijo Yilian Maribeth David, desde la organización de base Organización Fraternal Negra Hondureña (OFRANEH). “Nunca hemos utilizado armas o la violencia en la lucha por la recuperación de tierras, ni tampoco en las manifestaciones en las principales ciudades contra las violaciones de los derechos de nuestra gente.”

Las comunidades garífunas no han recibido clases ni entrenamientos en las tácticas noviolentas. Más bien, su dedicación a la noviolencia proviene de su religión.

“No se nos ha enseñado acerca de las luchas pacíficas”, dijo David. “Más bien, la espiritualidad garífuna es el mantenimiento de la práctica de la lucha pacífica. Esto se debe a que nuestra religión se basa en la creencia en ancestros que dan señales en sueños y visiones de cuándo y cómo llevar a cabo una actividad y también indican en qué momento hay que parar. Todo esto lo lideran los chamanes”.

Pero la situación de estas comunidades se está deteriorando y su resistencia pacífica está siendo contraatacada con violencia.

Una situación que se deteriora

En los años transcurridos desde el golpe de estado, los inversionistas han encontrado un nuevo apoyo del gobierno cuando roban la tierra de las pequeñas comunidades campesinas e indígenas. En este ambiente los garífunas se han organizado para defender sus tierras.

“Las comunidades no van a vender sus tierras”, dijo Celso Alberto, de la comunidad de Santa Fe. “Así que el gobierno ha estado expropiando las tierras.”

La industria del turismo ha ido creciendo a lo largo de la costa de Honduras desde mediados de los 90. Pero en los últimos tres años, los proyectos de desarrollo turístico se han ampliado, y también lo han hecho los desalojos. Localidades costeras de las comunidades garífunas se han visto despojadas de sus tierras para la construcción de proyectos de mega turismo.

Los proyectos forman parte del Plan de Mesoamérica, que promueve la creación de un corredor turístico de Belice a través de Honduras a lo largo de la costa. Las comunidades sostienen que estos proyectos no les benefician y sólo mercantilizan su cultura.

“Las personas sólo vienen a consumir la cultura, beber el té gifi y vernos bailar”, dijo César Leonel, un joven garífuna y miembro de la Red Mesoamericana de Radios Comunitarias. “Se hospedan en hoteles en territorio garífuna, donde puede que sólo haya dos o tres garífunas trabajando.”

Además, la ubicación de las comunidades las hace vulnerables a la invasión de los productores de aceite de palma y los narcotraficantes. Por lo tanto, la defensa del territorio también ha llegado a significar la defensa contra estas industrias legales e ilegales. Si recuperan las tierras, las comunidades garífunas podrán seguir frenando el transporte de narcóticos a través de su territorio.

Cesar Leonel toca el tambor en el centro de la comunidad de Vallecito, mientras tres soldados están sentados en a periferia de la reunión. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

Desde 2012, la comunidad de Vallecito ha evitado con éxito, a través de su presencia permanente, que los narcotraficantes locales reconstruyan un punto de tránsito a lo largo de la costa, que fue destruido por el ejército hondureño. Sin embargo, las comunidades se han enfrentado a la intimidación y la violencia por parte de los traficantes.

El gobierno de Honduras respondió a estas amenazas mediante el despliegue de un pequeño grupo de soldados para “proteger” a la comunidad garífuna. Ahora tres soldados están permanentemente en la entrada del territorio de la comunidad. Pero los miembros de la comunidad de Vallecito no ven las ventajas de la presencia de los soldados.

“El ejército es sólo la imagen de la protección”, dijo Guillermo. “Cambian los soldados cada mes, así que no se acercan demasiado a nuestro movimiento.”

A pesar de los éxitos contra los narcos, las comunidades garífunas todavía siguen siendo vulnerables al desalojo para dar paso a proyectos turísticos.

“El Estado está vendiendo nuestras tierras de manera ilegal”, dijo Leonel. “Nos enfrentamos a la expulsión sistemática de las comunidades garífunas de sus tierras para que los extranjeros compren nuestras tierras para construir enormes hoteles.”

La lucha contra la migración

Para las comunidades garífunas, la defensa del territorio y la identidad es también una lucha contra las fuerzas que les impulsan a emigrar a Estados Unidos en busca de oportunidades.

“Cuando las comunidades no tienen el espacio para reproducir su cultura, por supuesto que emigran”, dijo Leonel.

Las comunidades también han comenzado a crear sus propios proyectos de desarrollo para crear oportunidades para sí mismos, incluyendo la creación de espacios autosuficientes en las tierras recuperadas donde cultivan casi todos los alimentos que necesitan y continúan con la tradición de la pesca. Para estas comunidades, la recuperación de la tierra supone también la defensa del derecho a la soberanía alimentaria y el derecho a la subsistencia como comunidad.

Tres hombres de Garifuna salen a pescar desde la playa en la comunidad de Sambo Creek. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

“Nuestra visión no es la de comercializar nuestra tierra”, dijo Guillermo. “Más bien, estamos sembrando las semillas de los alimentos que necesitamos para comer.”

Las comunidades, junto con la OFRANEH, han trabajado para desarrollar proyectos que ofrecen oportunidades a su propia gente.

“Dado el éxodo masivo de mujeres, jóvenes y adolescentes a los Estados Unidos en los últimos dos años, la OFRANEH está trabajando en diversas áreas con el fin de proporcionar una opción de ingresos para el pueblo garífuna”, dijo David.

OFRANEH, la juventud garífuna y las organizaciones de mujeres han creado proyectos para ofrecer oportunidades. Los jóvenes se han movilizado para crear una granja de cerdos, una plantación de plátano y un criadero de tilapia. Según David, “se crearon estos proyectos con la intención de mantener a los jóvenes ocupados e interesados, y al mismo tiempo mantener las tierras.”

El grupo de mujeres se ha centrado en la siembra de alimentos como el arroz, los frijoles, los chiles y la yuca.

“La siembra de alimentos básicos ha disminuido a un ritmo alarmante debido a la proliferación de la plantación de monocultivos [como la palma africana]”, dijo David. “Por ello las mujeres se están centrando en el tema de la soberanía alimentaria y la seguridad alimentaria.”

Defensa legal de la tierra

Junto con la recuperación de tierras, las comunidades garífunas han utilizado convenciones nacionales e internacionales para la defensa de su territorio.

Las comunidades poseen seis títulos de propiedad de sus tierras territoriales; títulos de los que son propietarios todos los miembros de las comunidades de forma común por lo que es imposible vender extensiones individuales.

Pero a pesar de estos títulos de propiedad, el Estado y la agencia de la tierra hondureña han vendido sistemáticamente la tierra de las comunidades a los intereses internacionales. Las comunidades han señalado que estas ventas son ilegales.

Las comunidades también han invocado los derechos reconocidos a las comunidades indígenas en el Convenio 169 de la Organización Internacional del Trabajo. Honduras se adhirió al Convenio 169 en 1996. La convención establece que las comunidades indígenas deben ser consultadas antes de comenzar cualquier proyecto de desarrollo en sus tierras. El Convenio tiene como objetivo que las poblaciones indígenas puedan participar en las decisiones sobre el uso de sus territorios.

Sin embargo, en ningún momento se ha consultado a las comunidades garífunas sobre el uso de sus tierras. El Estado ha respondido que las comunidades no entran en los grupos protegidos por la Convención. Sin embargo, las comunidades han mantenido sus exigencias de ser consultados.

Generando puentes entre territorios

Las comunidades Garífunas se enfrentan a una situación sombría, pero han contactado con gente más allá de sus fronteras para pedir ayuda en su lucha por defender su territorio.

Las comunidades están trabajando para atraer el interés internacional a su difícil situación. Este movimiento de hondureños negros en concreto, está trabajando para crear uniones con el movimiento Black Lives Matter en los Estados Unidos.

“La relación con Black Lives Matter nació a raíz de una reunión sobre la migración y la cultura en Los Ángeles en abril de 2015″, dijo David. “Nos pusimos de acuerdo y decidimos que si las organizaciones negras se unen independientemente de nuestras fronteras, podremos lograr resultados. Cada vez que tengan un problema en su contra, nos declaramos en solidaridad con ellos. Y cada vez que nos pase algo a nosotros, ellos harán lo mismo. Estamos unificando nuestras voces.”

Traducido del inglés por Nayua Abdelkefi.

Honduras’ Garifuna communities resist eviction and theft of land

by Jeff Abbott

A resident of Vallecito accompany’s singers as they preform traditional Garifuna songs. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

Along the Atlantic coast of Honduras, Afro-Caribbean Garifuna communities are being forced from their land, as proposals for the creation of mega-tourism projects and corporate-run cities, commonly referred to as “model cities,” gain momentum internationally.

Congress is set to vote on one such plan this summer. Originally proposed by Vice President Joseph Biden in January, the plan would provide the governments of Central America $1 billion — on top of previously existing aid agreements — to bring further investment into the region. While the stated goal is to improve security and generate opportunity to combat the so-called root causes of illegal migration, Biden’s plan is essentially a continuation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement and Plan Mesoamerica and will only make it easier for multinational corporations to invest in more community-damaging mega-development projects throughout the region.

As critics have pointed out, the plans create negative blowback for the people of the region, including increased social conflict and environmental destruction.

“The United States government is funding our government to evict us,” said Angel Castro, a resident of the Garifuna community of Vallecito. “They are not here to support the people of African descent, let alone the people of Honduras.”

The connection to the economic model of accumulation by dispossession is not lost on Castro. He added, “This is part of capitalism and the politics of neoliberalism.”

Mega-projects are just one of the problems that Honduran Garifuna communities have had to face in the six years since a U.S-supported coup d’etat removed then-President Manuel Zelaya from power. Now, they have begun to organize and to defend their land through nonviolent resistance.

Defending land and culture

The Garifuna communities have called the Atlantic coast of Honduras home for centuries and have developed their own culture, language, food and music. They are the descendants of African slaves, and the indigenous Arawak populations who were deported from British St. Vincent Island in 1797. Today, Garifuna communities span the Atlantic coast from Belize to Nicaragua, with 48 communities in Honduras, in the departments of Cortés, Alántida and Colón.

In the early 1800s, the Honduran government gave the communities the legal titles to 2,500 acres of land. Since then, they have held this land collectively, sustaining themselves with fishing and agriculture.

Now, these communities are facing eviction to make way for the construction of development projects supported by neoliberal economic policies such as the Alliance for Prosperity and the Strategy for Engagement. Additionally, the expanding interests of narco-traffickers and African palm oil plantations have forced the communities from their land.

“We are all suffering the same situation,” said Selvyn, from the community of Porto Cortez. “We are all being evicted from our lands. The state has decided to exclude the communities from the national conversation.”

But faced with evictions to make way for mega-projects, and threatened by heavily armed narco-traffickers, the Garifuna communities have decided to dedicate themselves to nonviolent resistance in defense of their territory.

Rows of African palm for the production of palm oil welcomes visitors to Vallecito. African palm has spread like a virus across Garifuna territory and Honduras. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

In August 2012, members of communities across the Honduran Atlantic coast reclaimed the heart of their territory from encroachment by narco-traffickers, mega-tourism projects and the expansion of palm oil. They founded the community of Vallecito in the territory that the Garifuna consider to be their ancestral land, a mile inland from the sea.

As in many indigenous cultures, the land and sea are linked to the identity of the Garifuna people and are crucial for the continuation of their society. The communities argue that the assault on their territory is also an attack on their identity and culture.

“The sea and the beach are essential for the Garifuna people,” said Guillermo, a resident of Vallecito. “It is part of my life; it is what it means to be Garifuna.”

The nonviolent resistance used to defend their land is also part of the Garifuna identity.

“The Garifuna Village are a peaceful people,” said Yilian Maribeth David, from the grassroots Fraternal Black Organization of Honduras, or OFRANEH. “We have never used weapons or violence in the struggle for the recovery of land, or in the demonstrations in major cities against the violations of the rights of our peoples.”

The Garifuna communities have not received classes or training in nonviolent tactics. Rather, their dedication to nonviolence comes from their religion.

“We have not been taught about peaceful struggles,” David said. “Rather, the Garifuna spirituality is the keeping of the practice of peaceful struggle. This is because our religion is based on belief in ancestors who give signs in dreams and visions of when and how to perform an activity and also indicate at what point to stop. This is all led by shamans.”

But the communities’ situation is deteriorating, and their peaceful resistance is being countered with violence.

A deteriorating situation

In the years since the coup, developers have found new support from the government when they steal land from small-farming and indigenous communities. It is in this environment that the Garifuna have organized to defend their land.

“The communities will not sell their land,” said Celso Alberto, from the community of Santa Fe. “So the government has been expropriating the land.”

The tourism industry has been expanding along the Honduran coast since the mid-1990s. But in the last three years, tourist development projects have expanded, and so too have the evictions. The Garifuna communities’ seaside locations drive the dispossession of their land for the construction of mega-tourism projects.

The projects are part of Plan Mesoamerica, which promotes the creation of a tourism corridor from Belize through Honduras along the coast. Communities argue that these projects do nothing for them and only commodify their culture.

“People only come to consume the culture, drink gifi-tea and watch us dance,” said Cesar Leonel, a young Garifuna and member of the Network of Community Radios of Mesoamerica. “They stay in these hotels in Garifuna territory, where there may only be two or three Garifunas working there.”

Additionally, the communities’ locations make them vulnerable to encroachment by palm oil producers and narco-traffickers. Therefore, defending territory has also come to mean defense against these legal and illegal industries. By recuperating the land, the Garifuna communities will be able to continue to slow down the transportation of narcotics through their territory.

Since 2012, the community of Vallecito has through their permanent presence successfully kept the local narco-traffickers from reconstructing a transit point along the coast, which was destroyed by the Honduran military. But the communities have faced intimidation and violence from the traffickers.

Cesar Leonel plays a drum in the center of the Vallecito community, as the three soldiers sit at the periphery of the gathering. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

The Honduran government responded to these threats by deploying a small group of soldiers to “protect” the Garifuna community. Three soldiers now maintain a permanent presence at the entrance of the community’s territory. But the community members of Vallecito do not see the benefit of the soldiers’ presence.

“The military is only the appearance of protection,” Guillermo said. “They change the soldiers every month, so they don’t get too close to our movement.”

Despite the successes against the narcos, the Garifuna communities still remain vulnerable to eviction to make way for tourism projects.

“The state is illegally selling our lands,” Leonel said. “We are facing the systematic eviction of Garifuna communities for foreigners to buy our lands to build massive hotels.”

Combating migration

For the Garifuna communities, the defense of territory and identity is also a struggle against the forces driving them to migrate to the United States in search of opportunity.

“When the communities don’t have the space to reproduce their culture, of course they migrate,” Leonel said.

The communities have also begun pursuing their own development projects to create opportunity for themselves. This has included the formation of self-sufficient spaces on the recuperated lands. There, they grow almost all the food they need and continue the tradition of fishing. For them, land recuperation is also the defense of the right to food sovereignty and the right to subsistence as a community.

Three Garifuna men set off to fish from the beach in the community of Sambo Creek. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

“Our vision is not to commercialize our land,” Guillermo said. “Rather, we are sowing all the seeds for the food we need to eat.”

The communities, along with the OFRANEH, have worked to develop projects that provide opportunities to their own people.

“In view of the massive exodus of women, youth and adolescents to the United States in the past two years, OFRANEH is working in various branches for the purpose of providing an income option to the Garifuna people,” David said.

OFRANEH and the Garifuna youth and women’s organizations have formed projects to create opportunity. The youth have mobilized to a create a pig farm, a banana plantation and a tilapia hatchery. According to David, “These projects were formed with a vision to keep the youth busy and interested, as well as at the same time maintain the land.”

The women’s group has focused on planting foods like rice, beans, chiles and yucca.

“The planting of basic foods has declined at an alarming rate due to the proliferation of planting monocultures [like African palm],” David said. “So women are focusing on the issue of food sovereignty and food security.”

Legal defense of land

Along with land recuperation, the Garifuna communities have utilized national and international conventions in the defense of their territory.

The communities hold six titles to their territorial land. These titles are all held in common among the people, making it impossible to sell individual tracts.

But despite these titles, the state and the Honduran land agency have systematically sold the land of the communities to international interests. The communities have pointed out that these sales are illegal.

The communities have also invoked the rights granted to indigenous communities by Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization. Honduras became a signatory to Convention 169 in 1996. The convention states that indigenous communities must be consulted prior to any development project on their lands. It is aimed at allowing indigenous populations to participate in the decisions over the use of their territories.

At no point, though, have the Garifuna communities ever been consulted on the use of their land. The state has countered that the communities do not fall under the groups protected by the convention. But the communities have maintained their demands to be consulted.

Building bridges across territories

The Garifuna communities face a bleak situation, but they have reached out across borders for aid in their struggle to defend their territory.

The communities are working to draw international attention to their plight. Specifically, this movement of black Hondurans is working to build connections with the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.

“The connection with Black Lives Matter was born following a meeting on migration and culture in Los Angeles in April 2015,” said David. “We agreed and decided that if black organizations come together regardless of borders, we can achieve results. Every time there is a fight with them, we declare ourselves to be in solidarity. And every time something happens to us they will do the same for us. We are unifying our voices.”

Activists gain a temporary victory over Shell

by Ashoka Jegroo

Activists block Shell’s icebreaker Fennica from traveling under St. Johns Bridge in Portland on its way to the Arctic. (Twitter/Democracy Now!)

Activists managed to block Royal Dutch Shell’s icebreaker Fennica from heading to the Arctic for about 40 hours. And even though the ship was eventually able to weave through the activists, Shell now has to deal with some unwanted attention.

This battle between activists and the oil company began when Shell’s icebreaker Fennica ran into something around the Aleutian Islands and tore a hole in its hull earlier this month. The ship, which is needed for oil drilling in the Arctic, arrived in Portland for repairs on July 25 with the intent of returning to the Arctic once the repairs were done. Unfortunately for Shell, on July 24, activists from various groups including Greenpeace, Mosquito Fleet, 350, and Rising Tide had already begun their plan to block this ship from leaving Portland and were in the water near St. John’s Bridge, which the ship would have to pass under to continue its trip to the Arctic.

“[Fennica] couldn’t be fixed in Alaska, [and] presumably didn’t want to go back to Seattle, where there had been such protest, so it came to Portland on a very tight timeline to repair it and then get back up to the Arctic,” Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA, told Democracy Now! “And that’s why this blockade was so powerful, was that any delay that we [created] could have shortened the amount of time that Shell can drill this summer, because they have such a short ice-free window. They have to get up there, drill and get out before the winter ice returns.”

The activists say that drilling for oil in the Arctic opens up the possibility of truly disastrous oil spills in a remote, ecologically-important region where clean-up would prove to be extremely difficult.

On July 25, activists in kayaks, known as “kayaktivists,” surrounded Fennica and chanted “Shell No! Save the Arctic!” Protesters occupied the waters off Portland for days after, and then, on July 29, 13 people, attached by ropes to the St. Johns Bridge, lowered themselves from the bridge in order to block the ship from passing under it. The activists stated that they were ready to remain dangling from the bridge for as long as it took to stop the ship.

“We’re prepared to stay as long as it takes to send a message to Shell and stop the Fennica from leaving,” Georgia Hirsty, one of the protesters, told Portland’s KGW.

Fennica remained at the dock during that day, but the next day, the ship attempted to begin its trip to the Arctic. Traffic on the bridge was shut down as activists hung from the bridge and occupied the waters below in their kayaks. As the ship approached early in the morning, activists on the bridge and in the waters put their bodies directly in the way of the ship’s path. The ship soon decided to turn around and head back to the dock as activists celebrated their temporary victory.

“This morning was quite the adventure. It felt really, really great to watch the Fennica turn around and go back to port,” Kristina Flores, a Greenpeace activist, told Democracy Now! “That was just a really great, great sign that we are winning, that we are strong, and when the people come together, we can win. And we will win.”

Soon, the Coast Guard, Oregon State Police, Portland Fire & Rescue and other government agencies arrived, shut down traffic on the bridge and in the waters, and attempted to break up the protest. Authorities began to cut the ropes connecting dangling protesters to each other and pull the kayaktivists out of the way. One kayaktivist even jumped out of his kayak, refused to get out of the water, got into a fight with a cop, and was arrested for “assaulting a public safety officer.”

Shell’s lawyers also asked a judge to fine Greenpeace $250,000 each day until the protest ended. The court found the group in contempt of court and ended up levying fines on them for their protest, starting at $2,500 an hour and going up to $10,000 an hour.

“We met with the climbers on the bridge. We really felt it was their decision, first and foremost,” Leonard said. “And we all decided to stay on the bridge, that saving the Arctic was worth more than the monetary value of the fine that they were imposing. So we stayed absolutely put there.”

Shell insists that they have no problem with the protests but are very worried about safety.

“We respect the rights of individuals and groups to express their opinion,” Shell Oil spokeswoman Megan Baldino told KGW. “All we ask is that they do so within the confines of the law and maintain safety as their first priority. Safety is paramount.”

Afterwards, a mix of intense heat and the police got some of the protesters to come down from the bridge and out of the waters. This soon created a gap in the activists’ blockade which was quickly taken advantage of by Shell’s ship. At around 6 p.m. that day, hours after their initial victory, Fennica, assisted and accompanied by police, weaved through the protesters and made its way toward the Arctic.

“The Fennica is now safely on its way to Alaska and will join Shell’s exploration fleet in the Chukchi Sea — where the Transocean Polar Pioneer commenced initial drilling operations at approximately 5:00 tonight AKDT,” Shell Oil told KGW in a statement.

Despite the ship making it through the blockade, Greenpeace activists managed to bring much attention to the issue as well as worsen Shell’s already-bad financial situation. The company announced that it would cutting 6,500 jobs because of poor second quarter earnings showing their profits have dropped by 33 percent since last year. Politicians like Portland’s mayor Charlie Hales and Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer also released statements denouncing the drilling in the Arctic.

The activists vowed to “double down” on their campaign against Arctic drilling and were encouraged by all the attention and support they received.

“People just came down by the scores to just fill the crowd. People were driving across the bridge, dropping off food and water for the climbers. We got emails of support from all around the world,” Leonard said. “I got messages from Argentina and Turkey, where people said that all around their offices and homes they were gathered around the TV watching this. I have never, in my 30 years of work as an environmental activist, seen this level of support coming in from locally and all around the world.”

Across the US, activists shine light on Sandra Bland’s mysterious death

by Ashoka Jegroo

The NYC Light Brigade and dozens of supporters gathered near the arch in Washington Square Park and held up Sandra Bland’s name. (WNV/Ashoka Jegroo)

In cities across the United States on July 29, the name of Sandra Bland, a woman whose mysterious death in police custody recently made headlines, could be seen bringing light to dark city nights.

The demonstrations were part of a nationwide action to remember Bland and bring attention to her death. Additionally, a petition by the nonprofit activist organization UltraViolet is soon to be delivered to the Department Of Justice and Attorney General Loretta Lynch, seeking a federal investigation into Bland’s death.

“There is going to be a massive petition tomorrow delivered to the Department of Justice demanding an investigation into [Sandra Bland’s] death and accountability for the officers who are responsible,” said Gan Golan, co-founder of the NYC Light Brigade and member of People’s Climate Arts. “And so this action was part of a multi-city action where there are light brigades all across the country going out tonight and spelling out in big lights ‘Say Her Name’ and ‘Sandra Bland’ and other messages like ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘Unite 4 Justice’ to help amplify this call for justice and accountability.”

Bland was found dead in a Waller County, Texas jail cell on July 13, three days after being arrested by Officer Brian Encinia during a stop for a minor traffic violation. Police claim that Bland hanged herself, but Bland’s family and many activists have expressed doubts that she would commit suicide and suspect a murder and cover-up by police. Bland had just moved back to Texas in order to start a new job on August 3 at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University.

When dashcam footage of Bland’s arrest was made public, activists also expressed outrage at how Officer Encinia treated Bland during the stop and the subsequent arrest, commanding her to put out her cigarette and pulling her out of her car when she refused to do so. The released footage also included many obvious visual glitches, such as images being repeated and cars randomly disappearing, which led to claims that the video was edited and leading to even more suspicion of the police story.

The case has since put a spotlight on many other suspicious deaths of people, particularly women of color, while in police custody. Bland’s advocacy and involvement with the Black Lives Matter movement has also galvanized many other members of the movement to put more focus on police violence committed against black women. But for most people following the case, the main question remains the same: What happened to Sandra Bland?

The NYC Light Brigade, as well as light brigades in Houston, Milwaukee, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and other cities, joined up with UltraViolet to draft the petition to the DOJ.

“It’s important to come out for Sandra Bland because we have to name specific individuals,” said Athena Soules, co-founder of the NYC Light Brigade. “This is happening everywhere all the time. People of color are being mistreated by the cops, mistreated and murdered. So I believe the more we speak about specific people, the more we demand an investigation, the more progress can be made moving forward.”

But regardless of how Bland died, many activists still see the police as the ones responsible for her death.

“What happened tonight was a really moving vigil to honor the life of Sandra Bland and to call attention to the incredibly egregious and unjust death, and possible murder, of this innocent woman and to demand that there is actually accountability for the police who are responsible for this,” Golan said. “Whether she was murdered or whether she committed suicide, they are absolutely responsible for what happened to her.”

After the NYC Light Brigade and dozens of supporters gathered near the arch in Washington Square Park on Wednesday night, they held up Bland’s name and chanted “Say her name! Sandra Bland” and “Black lives matter!” Tourists and onlookers also crowded around and took pictures and discussed Bland’s case and the recent shooting of Sam DuBose by police in Cincinnati. New York City police monitored the vigil from a distance as people held up the letters of Bland’s name for as long as they could while speakers expressed their anger and sorrow over what happened to Bland. Whenever one person’s arms started getting weak, other supporters were always willing to step in and help hold up Bland’s name.

“As I like to say, it’s solidarity through light,” Souls said. “When people hold these letters, it shows that people are behind the messages. It’s not just a banner being hung. It’s people holding their arms high, getting tired because they believe in what they’re out here for.”

To succeed, movements must overcome the tension between rationality and emotion

by George Lakey

View image | gettyimages.com

When it comes to action, we are pulled by two tendencies that seem compatible but in practice are often in tension. We want our movements to be rational – that is, to strategize well, use resources efficiently, and stay nimble. Yet, on the other hand, we may also want the products of emotion: to experience solidarity, to let empathy connect us with those who haven’t joined us, and to tap the righteous anger that goes with caring about injustice.

In my lifetime social movements have increasingly turned to trainers to increase their learning curve and make actions more effective. However, a movement’s wish to draw on the power of both rationality and emotion poses a challenge for trainers, who are influenced by middle-class bias and traditional education. Class and the academy push trainers to privilege rationality and ignore the wellspring of emotion.

Fortunately, action reasserts the need for both, and training is learning to respond. The movement story in the United States shows the tension, and begins with the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The civil rights movement didn’t solve this for everyone

The civil rights movement made more breakthroughs than today’s activists have yet caught up with, but that movement’s practice is not a complete answer for us today. I was a trainer in the civil rights movement and saw brilliant use of role play and other experiential tools for preparing to take on white segregationists and brutal police. The tools were helpful in bringing emotions like fear and anger to the surface and, by normalizing them, making them easier to manage.

The fullest positive use of emotion, however, was in the South where black church culture was strongest. Black preachers were experts in mobilizing what they called soul force for the nonviolent struggle, as we can see in the movie “Selma.”

That tradition is not so available for today’s movements, and experiments by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, did not develop an integrated alternative to the preachers’ model. After the civil rights movement faded a few of its members joined others to form in 1971 the Movement for a New Society, or MNS.

In the early days we in MNS discovered “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” a breakthrough book by the best-known initiator of popular education, Brazilian educator Paolo Freire. Popular education takes sides in the class struggle and honors the wisdom of oppressed people, assisting them through dialogue to name their experience, connect the dots and encourage each other to take action. The tools reassure people who have been told they can’t think well, partly through the facilitator asking questions and showing respect, and partly through the experience of thinking out loud and noticing that others in the group are paying attention.

Our trainers enthusiastically used Freire’s approach, finding that it did elicit more fully the rationality of a group. When MNS combined popular education with the action training born in the civil rights movement, our trainers became in demand around the United States and elsewhere. MNS helped the nonviolent anti-nuclear power movement win its remarkable victory in the late 1970s.

However, a curious phenomenon began popping up in MNS workshops: emotional revolts of participants that most often were expressed at the facilitator team, but also at each other. The workshops’ empowerment tools focused on the rational dimension of the participants. In these mini-revolutions, the group’s emotional life was demanding more attention.

A group in Starhawk’s attic yearns for solidarity

The 1999 Battle of Seattle over corporate-led globalization led to a series of mass confrontations with power holders in the United States and elsewhere. Nonviolent trainers went from city to city, facilitating workshops at each convergence. After a few years, leading activist Starhawk and I called trainers together to take stock of how we were doing. We met in her attic in San Francisco.

Trainers reported multiple successes at working in the midst of chaos, as well as limitations. They also raised strategic questions about the value of mass confrontations that had no concrete or achievable goals.

We turned to skill-sharing, which was fun, and comparisons of analytical frameworks. Suddenly the amicable bunch of trainers turned crabby. We found fault with each others’ comments, but especially distrusted the person who happened, by rotation, to be occupying the facilitator’s chair at the time. Participants urged solutions to our unhappiness: “Let’s go into pairs.” “We need a break.” “We should never have left that earlier point of disagreement.” “Maybe a group song would help.”

Nothing worked. I was as lost as anyone while a storm raged within the group. The facilitator looked flattened. One of the participants lost it, dramatically. Then a respected group member expressed vulnerability. Suddenly, the sun came out, we hugged whoever was near us, we laughed and paused for tea.

Only then did I realize we’d experienced an emotional process that sometimes shows up in groups. We started with our “honeymoon” period when everyone was making nice, then began the raw conflict when people showed more of themselves while peacemakers tried the impossible: to find rational solutions to our pain. Finally, we experienced the breakthrough into community and became, to use organizational development jargon, a “high-performance team.”

I remembered that a group generates a storm when its members want to experience acceptance for the deeper layers of themselves, including differences that they have been, up until then, keeping under wraps. In short, they want closeness, because human beings happen to be social animals.

The rational model suggests that group members could state differences and negotiate common ground in order to gain the solidarity needed for action. True enough, for low-risk, low-stakes action. However, movements often have high stakes that require members to endure fatigue and high stress, execute detailed teamwork, take big risks and draw deep support from their comrades. Nearly everyone has seen this in movies, including sports and war movies, in which a team or platoon that includes members who could never get along back home have together gained a win.

Movements often state goals that require this level of struggle to achieve, and so attract participants who expect to find the support to “go there” — but do not find it. Middle-class control trumps effectiveness in those movements, having only its rationality to offer. In Starhawk’s attic those present would not have asked, in so many words, for that bonding — it would have seemed corny or naïve. Instead, we created it emotionally, by storming.

The good news is that facilitators can be trained to recognize the early signs of a storm brewing and techniques for supporting the storm when it comes. The bad news is that facilitators rarely seek that training, or the other techniques for assisting groups to access their unconscious resources. As with traditional education, popular education did not go there.

Trainers invent direct education to support solidarity-based action

The group of activists who founded Training for Change in the 1990s developed over time a training practice that could make the most of what happened in Starhawk’s attic, and harnessed other group dynamics that support empowered action. Training for Change trainers knew the tools of the civil rights movement and the popular education used by MNS, so we started there. However, we also turned to the resource of emotion, incorporating insights on group dynamics reflected in, among other places, Starhawk’s book “Dreaming the Dark” and psychologist Arnold Mindell’s book “Sitting in the Fire.” My book “Facilitating Group Learning” summarizes a decade of discoveries about both the rational and emotional life of the group, and shares methods that work best across many cultural boundaries. Significantly, this was the action training approach that attracted the widest range of groups, from religious organizations to anarchists to nonprofits to labor unions.

Direct education gets push-back from those who limit learning to the conscious, rational realm, including those who believe that social change happens through wielding abstract academic language like “code-switching” or “intersectionality.”

Our experience is that, when groups bring forth real-world conflicts in the training room, participants get the chance to go to a deeper place and experience the behaviors that abstract words were invented to represent. Supporting conflict in the moment even helps some participants to un-hook from the class-formed attachment to words and become more present to what’s really happening. Actions that flow from such a process are more likely to have an impact on the real world of injustice, because those actions come from experience rather than words.

But what about ‘triggers?’

Conflict-friendly pedagogy contradicts a current assumption in anti-oppression circles that the goal in, for example, achieving racial justice is protection. That assumption gives the facilitator the job of outlining rules to prevent conflict. In some classrooms professors are asked to give “trigger alerts” when material is coming that might in some way be experienced as oppressive.

I believe this trend is anti-liberation. It further empowers power holders, asking authorities (in this case, teachers) to take even more responsibility to monitor and control. It disempowers those who have suffered oppression, by assuming they can’t stand up for themselves when an insult appears. It excuses facilitators from the task of supporting participants to develop the muscles to fight for their own liberation.

The vision implicit in the current trend is to produce hot-house plants who can bloom only with shelter, called a “safe place.” That vision leaves me indignant: my gay and working-class self has grown in personal power in the real world where micro-aggressions abound. In fact, living in the real world helps motivate me to fight for broader change rather than retreat into yet another version of privilege where I will be insulated from the real world.

This well-meaning vision is, because of its classist roots, a version of the gated community.

Trauma survivors need and deserve support. Checking with the facilitator ahead of time might devise options that empower. Depending on the person’s own degree of healing, a particular workshop may or may not work for them. That may especially be true of train-the-trainer workshops, because new trainers need to unlearn reactivity and stay present with aggression that surfaces in a learning group.

The origin of direct education, with its roots in the civil rights movement and its use among oppressed groups that do stand up, insists on a distinction between safety and comfort. In a workshop the facilitator assists members of a group to be both safe and uncomfortable, because discomfort is where the greatest learning and growth are.

Needless to say, today’s movements need the steepest learning curve they can generate.

Communities struggling against mining win major victory in Guatemala

by Jeff Abbott

The victory was celebrated with a piñata of Darth Vader holding a sign with the name of the mine, which was enjoyed by both children and adults. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

For three years the communities of San Jose del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc have struggled against the construction of a gold mine in their communities. The La Puya resistance has maintained their opposition in the face of criminalization and violence, but they have finally won a major victory.

On July 15, Judge Angelica Noemi Tellez Hernandez, an appeals court judge, ruled in favor of the nonviolent community resistance. The judge ordered Kappes, Cassiday & Associates, or KCA, to suspend the construction of all infrastructure projects at their El Tambor mine outside San Jose del Golfo.

She found that the company was operating illegally, because it had failed to perform a proper consultation of the communities affected by the project, and that they had failed to obtain any permits for the projects. She ordered that they had 15 days to cease all projects at the mining site, and requires the municipality to take steps to ensure the end of construction of infrastructure.

The mining firm’s lawyers argued that they had obtained the proper permits, and that a consultation had occurred. But the judge saw through the firm’s bluff.

For the communities, the court’s decision gives them further energy to continue in their struggle to defend their water and environment.

“There has been a lot of struggle and pain,” said Antonio Rez, a member of the La Puya resistance. “Now we are never going to stop.”

The band Los Acordes de la Resistencia, which came out of the resistance, preformed for supporters and other members of the resistance. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

Following the court’s decision, the community and their supporters held a celebration organized by the Guatemala City based collective Festivales Solidarios, complete with piñatas and live music at the community’s permanent encampment at the entrance to the mine. It was a festive atmosphere as members of the peaceful resistance opened up their space to visitors and musicians from across Guatemala, Nicaragua, Canada, Venezuela and the United States.

“We knew we had a social reason to struggle, and an environmental reason,” Rez said. “But now, a judge has said that we are justified in protesting peacefully.”

The communities of El Carrizal and El Guapinol first filled the case in October 2014. The suit claimed that the government had failed to act in the interests of the communities by failing to hold a public referendum on the mining project, as is required by both national and international law.

During the case, the communities found an unlikely ally in the Public Ministry, which argued that the mining firm had violated the law with its project, and that the communities were right in their resistance.

The Tambor mine is easy to see from a hill just a short walk from the La Puya encampment. (WNV/Jeff Abbott)

The court’s decision is also a major victory for communities across Guatemala, which have called for the Guatemalan government to respect and comply with the requirements of public consultations prior to any mega-project as required by their constitution and the International Labor Organizations’ Convention 169 on the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples.

Since 2007, communities across Guatemala have held over 75 community-wide consultations on projects such as mining and hydroelectric dams. In every consultation, communities have overwhelmingly rejected any extractive project on their land.

This decision confirms the community’s right to prior consultation over projects, and orders KCA and the municipality to hold a proper consultation in good faith with communities affected by the Tambor mine.

The mining firm is expected to appeal the decision.

Since March 2012, the communities around the Progreso VII El Tambor mining site, which is owned by the United States mining firm KCA, have maintained a permanent, nonviolent, presence at the entrance of the mine. Communities fear that the mine will pollute their water and land.

The La Puya resistance has gained international recognition for their dedication to nonviolence. The community regularly welcomes supporters to their encampment to share with them their story.

Yolanda Oquelí stands in between the Guatemalan National Police and the entrance of the mine as the mining firm KCA arrives with machinery for the El Tambor mine on May 23, 2014. (Guatemalan Human Rights Commission)

In May 2014, the peaceful resistance was violently evicted by anti-riot police who were deployed by the Ministry of the Interior to ensure the arrival of construction equipment to the mine. Police were swinging batons and engulfed the encampment in tear gas as the company entered the mining site with their construction equipment. The community reclaimed their encampment the following day, but they have been under the observation of ever-present police since.

International supporters have launched a petition following the decision. The petition, which was organized by the Washington, D.C.-based, Guatemala Human Rights Commission, demands that the mining firm suspend their illegal operations at the El Tambor mine.

Rez and other members of La Puya resistance have stated their intention to maintain their presence at the entrance of the mine, and continue their defense of the environment. They’ve stated that they are planning new actions, but were unwilling to go into further detail.

Una iniciativa ciudadana pone en jaque a la justicia paraguaya

by Pelao Carvallo

Presentación de Somos Observadores en Madrid, españoles y migrantes en España se declaran observadores de Curuguaty. (WNV/Paraguay resiste en Madrid)

This article is also available in English.

“Condena cantada” es como en Paraguay se refieren a un juicio cuyo resultado ha sido decidido de antemano de acuerdo a intereses extrajudiciales. Contra un juicio que viene con condena cantada es que se levantó la iniciativa Somos Observadores de Curuguaty, una campaña ciudadana nacional e internacional de vigilancia al juicio oral de la masacre de Curuguaty, el cual ha sido pospuesto por tercera vez en ya casi dos años. La última fecha dada por el tribunal para su realización será este lunes 27 de julio de 2015 en la ciudad de Asunción.

En este juicio la fiscalía intentará castigar a 13 campesinos y campesinas por la masacre de Curuguaty. En la mañana del 15 de junio de 2012, en la zona de Marinakue, cerca de 350 policías fuertemente armados, en vehículos, a pie y a caballo, con un helicóptero, ingresaron a desalojar a cerca de 60 campesinos — incluyendo mujeres y niños — quienes ocupaban esa tierra exigiendo que fuera recuperada por el Estado para la reforma agraria. En medio del diálogo entre la policía y una delegación campesina se inició un tiroteo que dejó 17 muertos, 11 campesinos y 6 policías. La fiscalía investigó solo la muerte de los 6 policías caídos ese día. Los asesinatos de los campesinos no fueron investigados por la fiscalía, pese a las pruebas que indican la ejecución de la mayoría de ellos por la policía. Esa masacre fue el detonante para el juicio parlamentario que destituyó al entonces presidente Fernando Lugo. Este hecho ha sido llamado “golpe parlamentario” por la prensa nacional e internacional.

La no investigación del asesinato de campesinos y muchas otras irregularidades más han venido construyendo, a ojos de la sociedad paraguaya, esta “condena cantada.” Estas “condenas cantadas” son habituales en la vida judicial paraguaya. Las irregularidades abarcan todo el proceso judicial, desde la recolección de pruebas hasta los procedimientos de acusación y audiencia preliminar. La fiscalía ocultó evidencias, incluyendo balas de calibre de uso policial recolectadas en la “escena del crimen,” no investigó las denuncias de torturas y ejecuciones de campesinos. También fue ilegalmente añadida evidencia falsa — como una escopeta robada en una ciudad lejos del lugar de los hechos, días después de la masacre, cuyo robo fue denunciado, y que fue incorporada a las pruebas por la fiscalía, pruebas que en general fueron presentadas a bulto y sin que la defensa tuviera acceso a ellas, como la ley exige. La jueza de garantías realizó una conferencia de prensa contra los abogados defensores cuando estos le recusaron durante la audiencia preliminar del caso el año 2013.

En el mes de mayo, una serie de personalidades y ciudadanos de Paraguay –incluyendo artistas, actores, religiosos, feministas e intelectuales- propusieron a la sociedad toda ser “Observadora” del juicio, para asegurar su trasparencia, que sea efectivamente un juicio público, el cumplimiento y respeto del debido procedimiento y de las garantías a la defensa. Somos Observadores sostiene que la presencia de público, de referentes nacionales e internacionales del ámbito del derecho y los derechos humanos y en general de cualquier ciudadano de a pie en el juicio, ayudará a impedir maniobras oscuras e irregulares que hagan posible la “condena cantada.”

Una activista de la campaña, Sandra González, llegó a ella porque pensó “que no se podía dar la injusticia sin que la ciudadanía colocase que estamos pendientes, que somos más que los familiares, más que las organizaciones que acompañan desde el día uno todas las acciones, que somos más que unos abogados y abogadas … que cada ciudadana y ciudadano que crea en la justicia, puede y debe participar, conocer al caso de cerca, seguir el juicio, apelar a la independencia, a la transparencia y a la imparcialidad.”

Marcelo Martinessi es un observador de Curuguaty y un director de cine y tv. (WNV/Somos Observadores)

El cineasta Marcelo Martinessi, director de Televisión América Latina, es una de las figuras públicas que ha declarado que será observador del juicio. Como muchos de los observadores de Curuguaty, Martinessi ha publicado una foto con el logo de la campaña en las redes sociales.

“El caso Curuguaty necesita que tomemos postura” señaló. “Y Somos Observadores es una forma de hacerlo. Lo otro es permanecer indiferentes, callados, es la inercia, el ‘no te metas’ que avaló prácticas nefastas, injustas y criminales, en los momentos más oscuros de nuestra historia.”

Lanzada públicamente a principios de junio, con ya más de dos mil personas inscritas como observadoras en el sitio web de la campaña y han publicado fotos suyas con el logo de la campaña y la consigna Somos Observadores.

Somos Observadores recoge firmas y compromisos de participación observadora en el juicio mediante su página web y en las redes sociales, aunque sus actividades principales son en las calles, plazas y eventos de Asunción y otras ciudades de Paraguay, así como también ha sido presentada en otras ciudades del mundo, como Madrid, Barcelona, Buenos Aires y Rio de Janeiro. Incluso durante la participación de la selección paraguaya de fútbol en la Copa América Chile 2015, se realizó una acción de apoyo a Somos Observadores y en demanda de justicia y libertad para los y las acusadas de Marinakue en la ciudad de La Serena, lugar de concentración de esa selección.

Acción noviolenta durante visita del papa Francisco I donde vecinos de un edificio del centro de Asunción usaron sus ventanas para hacer un gigantesco cartel. (WNV/Fotociclo)

“Se ve que están activos ahí y veo que cada vez se suman más observadores,” dijo la estudiante Jeruti Bareiro, quien se enteró de la campaña por las redes sociales. “Si su propósito es presionar y hacerse presente, creo que ya lo logró de hecho, pero no creo que depende solamente de la campaña el lograr justicia para Curuguaty.”

Durante el juicio los observadores seguirán el proceso mediante las redes sociales, las que mantendrán permanentemente actualizadas. También asistirán al juicio para asegurarse de que toda la información sea compartida tanto como sea posible, para que la ciudadanía tome medidas si el juicio no es justo.

“La suspensión (del juicio) no nos ayuda, porque queremos para los 11 campesinos asesinados, no sólo para los 6 policías,” dice Diana Rivarola, una activista de la campaña. “Tengo la esperanza de que se anule este proceso.”

A citizen’s initiative puts the Paraguayan justice system in question

by Pelao Carvallo

At the launch of the campaign in Madrid, Spaniards and Paraguayan migrants declare themselves observers. (WNV/Paraguay resist in Madrid)

Este artículo también está disponible en español.

In Paraguay, a trial is referred to as a “sung sentence” when its outcome has been decided beforehand according to extra-judicial interests. A national and international citizen’s campaign called We Are Observers arose in response to a coming trial with a sung sentence. It was created to monitor the trial the massacre of Curuguaty, which has been postponed for the third time in almost two years. The last date given by the court for it to begin will be July 27, and it will take place in the city of Asunción.

In this trial, the prosecution will try to punish 13 peasants for the Curuguaty massacre. On the morning of June 15, 2012, in the area of Marinakue, around 350 armed police, on foot and on horses, and with a helicopter, entered Marinakue to evict nearly 60 peasants — including women and children — who were occupying the land, demanding that it be returned to the state and redistributed to the people. In the middle of a dialogue between the police officers and a peasant delegation, there was a shooting that ended with 17 people dead, 11 peasants and six policemen. The prosecution only investigated the death of the six police officers. The murder of the peasants wasn’t investigated by the prosecution, despite evidence indicating that the majority of them were executed by the police. That massacre was the trigger for the parliamentary trial that removed then-President Fernando Lugo. This event in Paraguay was called a “parliamentary coup” by the national and international press.

The lack of investigation into the murder of the peasants and many more irregularities are signs of a “sung sentence,” which are common in Paraguayan judicial life. The irregularities cover the whole case, from the collection of evidence to the impeachment proceedings and preliminary hearing. The prosecution concealed evidence, including bullets of police caliber collected at the crime scene. There was no investigation into the allegations of torture and the execution of peasants. Evidence was illegally added — such as a shotgun used as proof of peasants’ weaponry, which was in the hands of its owner far from the crime scene at the time of the massacre — or presented in bulk without any details. Judges held press conferences against the defense lawyers, who are currently under investigation on request by the judge that led the preliminary hearing in 2013.

In May, ordinary Paraguayan people and a group of well-known figures — including artists, actors, religious figures, feminists, academics and intellectuals — launched a campaign proposing that the whole society become “observers” of this critical trial to ensure that it is public, respectful of due procedure and transparent. We Are Observers argues that the presence of prominent individuals, who will be rotating to attend and observe the trial, will help prevent a “sung sentence.”

“Injustice couldn’t be done if the people state that we are paying attention,” said Sandra González, an activist involved with the campaign. “Each citizen that believes in justice can and should participate, get to know the case from close up, follow the trial, appeal to independence, transparency and impartiality.”

TV director Marcelo Martinessi is a Curuguaty observer. (WNV/Somos Observadores)

Paraguayan filmmaker Marcelo Martinessi, the director of Televisión América Latina, is one of the well-known figures who has declared that he will be an observer. Like many of the observers of Curuguaty, Martinessi has published his photo with the campaign’s poster on social networks.

“The Curuguaty case needs us to take a stand,” he said. “And Observers is a form of doing that. The alternative is to remain indifferent, silent. It’s inertia, the ‘don’t get involved’ mentality, that endorsed disastrous, unjust and criminal practices in the darkest moments of our history.”

We Are Observers collects signatures and pledges of observer participation in the trial through its website and on social networks. Its principal activities, however, are in the streets, squares and events in Asunción and other Paraguayan cities, as well as the international cities where the group is building support, like in Madrid, Barcelona, Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. During the participation of the Paraguayan football team in the Copa América in Chile, people gave out leaflets about the Marinakue case and We Are Observers, while they carried a banner supporting the campaign in the city of La Serena, which was where the Paraguayan national team trained between matches.

Launched publicly at the beginning of June, more than 2,000 people have already as observers by subscribing on the campaign website and adding a photo of themselves with a sign saying “We Are Observers.”

Neighbors in a building in central Asunción used their windows to make a banner about Curuguaty during the visit of Pope Francis. (WNV/Fotociclo)

“You can see that they are active and I see that more and more observers join,” said Jeruti Bareiro, a student who learned about the campaign through social media. “If its purpose is to create pressure and make itself present, I believe it actually has already been achieved. But I don’t believe that achieving justice in Paraguay depends only on the campaign.”

During the trial the observers will follow the procedures through social media updates. Some will also attend the trial to make sure as much information is shared about it as possible, so that people are ready to take action if it is not fair.

“Suspension [of the trial] doesn’t help us because we want justice for the 11 peasants killed, not only for the six policemen,” said Diana Rivarola, a key organizer of the campaign. “I hope that this process is overturned.”

Protests shine light on ALEC conference in San Diego

by Ashoka Jegroo

Hundreds of Teamsters from across California traveled to San Diego today to participate in a massive protest outside a national meeting for the American Legislative Exchange Council. (Teamsters)

More than a thousand protesters took to the streets of San Diego on July 22 to demonstrate against a conservative nonprofit’s annual meeting of politicians and corporate lobbyists.

“Today we refused to allow the actions of a group of anti-worker billionaires that push laws to make the rich richer on the backs of hardworking families go unnoticed,” Jesse Torres, a home care provider with the United Domestic Workers of America said in a statement by the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees.

Demonstrators were protesting against the yearly meeting by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, a conservative nonprofit organization known for drafting and sharing legislation amongst politicians, thus facilitating the collusion between corporations and government.

On its website, ALEC touts the values of “limited government, free markets and federalism” and describes itself as a “think-tank for state-based public policy issues and potential solutions” that “develops model policies and resolutions on economic issues.” In essence, these meetings serve as a space for right wing politicians to network with corporate lobbyists and receive pre-written legislation from them that serves right wing political and economic interests such as anti-union “right to work” laws, anti-renewable energy laws, and laws allowing pollution by big companies.

“All of us here today are committed to building the middle class and lifting families out of poverty,” Torres said in a statement, “and ALEC is here to do the exact opposite!”

This year’s 42nd annual conference is being held at the Manchester Grand Hyatt. Protesters, organizing under the hashtag #NoALECZone, began gathering on Wednesday at Embarcadero Marina Park at around 3 p.m. They then made their way north on Kettner Boulevard to the Manchester Grand Hyatt hotel and chanted outside of the building.

“This is a no ALEC zone. I mean, we don’t want ALEC in our city or, quite frankly, in our state,” Mickey Kasparian, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, told KPBS. “This is California. We fight for workers’ rights. We fight for affordable healthcare.”

Conservative politicians spoke at the meeting while local, liberal politicians spoke at the protest outside of the three-day gathering. Democrat Toni Atkins, San Diego’s Speaker of the Assembly, referred to ALEC as “E-Harmony bringing together corporate interests and legislators.” Francine Busby, the chairwoman San Diego’s Democratic Party, called on Mayor Kevin Faulconer to cancel his plans to address the ALEC event. The mayor went on to speak at the meeting, citing the fact that, as mayor, he makes opening remarks for many conferences held in San Diego. Kasparian referred the mayor’s decision as “definitely a disappointment.” The ALEC conference’s headline speakers were presidential candidates Gov. Scott Walker and former Gov. Mike Huckabee who spoke to the conference on July 23. Both Walker and Huckabee pandered to the pro-business, socially conservative crowd touting their past support for anti-union “right to work” policies.

Sen. Ted Cruz, on the other hand, was scheduled to speak on Friday but, amongst all the negative press, canceled. He’s not the first person to make such a move due to the negative press associated with ALEC. Organizations and companies like General Motors, the Gates Foundation, Google and Facebook have all withdrew funding from ALEC due to bad press associated with it.

The protesters hope that their demonstrations continue to publicly expose and shame politicians and companies who support ALEC and the anti-democratic, behind-closed-doors politics that the organization makes possible.

“They gather to do the public’s business in private, fashioning legislation that undercuts the public interest in things like clean air and water, quality public schools, economic fairness and participatory democracy,” Miles Rapoport, president of Common Cause, one of the groups that organized the protests, said in a statement. “And they do it all on the taxpayers’ dime. Every penny spent by corporations to cover the cost of legislator travel to the meeting, accommodations at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, and entertainment will be tax-deductible because ALEC is classified as a ‘charity’ for tax purposes. That’s wrong and it has to stop.”

Organized youth and top-level defections threaten Uganda’s dictatorship

by Phil Wilmot

View image | gettyimages.com

After a full day of darting around the congested Ugandan capital city of Kampala to meet with activists, civil society groups and community leaders, I gratefully swung my backpack off my shoulders and tossed it on the table. I sunk my body into the refuge of a few soft cushions and exhaled a deep sigh of resignation. My host eagerly dashed to his television to switch on the evening news, as if the physical, psychological and emotional beatings we absorbed that day had not diverted a single ounce of his energy.

“Haven’t you had enough political talk for today?” I asked him, popping the cap off a much-needed beer. “Don’t you want to rest so we can be ready to do it all again tomorrow?”

“No, Museveni must go,” he promptly replied. “The dictator is not getting any sleep. Why should we?”

He’s right. There’s no possible way President Yoweri Museveni is getting a good night’s rest with his 30-year military regime progressively imploding. When you’re a head of state for that long, no reality beyond lifelong monarchy seems safe. You have waged war upon your own people, you’ve stolen their natural resources, you’ve pillaged neighboring countries, and you’ve manufactured one of the most corrupt systems of governance in modern history. You cannot simply turn over the keys to the state house.

Internal defections cause paranoia

Dictators prefer to have a few allies they can trust, and for many years, Museveni was able to attract quite a number. His economic policies drove the Ugandan populace so deep into poverty that he was able to buy the votes and support of the masses with a mere bar of soap or a cup of water.

These days are different though. Two key long-time allies of the Museveni regime have defected since the last election cycle, causing many to question whether the three-decade ruler has the political infrastructure it takes to shield his power from the encroaching civil society movements.

According to inside sources, such as Museveni’s Press Secretary Tamale Mirundi, even the allegiance of Museveni’s closest kin — such as his wife and son — has become unreliable. However, the dictator was driven into a more severe frenzy in 2013 when General David Sejusa, the then-spy chief of the Ugandan military, decided he had enough after coming across a secret military plot to assassinate himself and other political leaders who had called for investigations into Museveni’s alleged plan to pass power onto his son.

Sejusa’s falling out with Museveni left him exiled in London, where he then established Freedom and Unity Front, a political movement provocatively abbreviated as FU. In December 2014, he returned to Uganda, which was a subject of much excitement for freedom-loving Ugandans, who were seeking a political figure not interested in occupying a high level office — an ambition Sejusa called “foolish … since Museveni has already stolen millions of votes for the upcoming elections.”

As if losing a member of the high command who knows all of the secrets behind his war crimes and political tactics was not enough to startle Museveni, his former prime minister, Amama Mbabazi, announced his intention to campaign for the presidency as the National Resistance Movement, or NRM, ruling party flag-bearer last month. Such intra-party competition is foreign to the history of the big shots in the NRM. Moreover, Mbabazi has been a driving agent of many of the most totalitarian laws passed in recent years, including the Orwellian Phone Tapping Bill and the Public Order Management Act, which renders unapproved conversations between more than three people illegal. Draconian partners are needed in a dictatorship and Museveni has lost the man who historically seemed to be his closest friend.

Youth organizing more strategically

The proverbial moat surrounding the Ugandan dictatorship’s castle is drying up, making it a perfect time for young unemployed people of the nation to launch their own offensive. Nonviolent civil resistance in Uganda is still a young phenomenon. Walk-to-work protests in 2011 pushed astronomically high food and gas prices down temporarily, followed by a successful peaceful campaign to protect Mabira Forest from deforestation by a sugar company later that same year. Teacher strikes have occurred annually to protest low wages in government schools. A few rallies and marches have been on occasion dispersed with tear gas. All of these efforts, however, have lacked continuity.

Police apprehend yellow pigs released by Ugandan youth activists in downtown Kampala on Feb. 16. (Kenneth Kazibwe)

Furthermore, actions in the past year have been mainly symbolic. A group known as the Jobless Brotherhood has been releasing pigs painted yellow to represent the ruling party in strategic locations around the country, often placing a hat that resembles the iconic one worn by Museveni atop the pigs’ heads. Other conglomerates of unemployed youths have organized marathons through Kampala in protest of corruption and life presidency. Until now, these movements have been fragmented, their actions being short-term and somewhat short-sighted. However, with the recent establishment of politically ecumenical groups, such as the Interparty Youth Platform and the No More Campaign, some much-needed synergy is brewing in the world’s demographically youngest nation.

Arrested for criticizing arbitrary arrests

On July 9, former Prime Minister Mbabazi and opposition party leader Kizza Besigye were arrested without substantial cause or charges. With the help of the youth groups, the Democratic Alliance — which consists of leaders of various opposition political parties — convened a press conference the following day to criticize the government for making politically-motivated arbitrary arrests. At this event, seven members were arrested, loaded into police vehicles, and driven from court to court (even beyond the geographic jurisdiction of the alleged crime) until the business day ended, necessitating their detainment. Both male and female activists were stuffed in the same small cell with other suspects at a rural police post.

Four visitors came that evening to deliver food to the detainees (who are not given dinner or breakfast in Uganda). Those visitors were also gathered and thrown in the cell. The following morning, an additional seven visitors were also arrested and thrown behind bars after the police officers on duty felt threatened by their large numbers and fired bullets. Altogether, 18 activists, many of them high-profile figures in civil society, were victimized by police brutality over a single incident.

Youth organizer Daniel Tulibagenyi poses at the press conference he organized to criticize the government for arbitrary arrests, before being arrested himself. (WNV / Daniel Tulibagenyi)

From symbolic one-offs to crisis-generating actions

There is clearly a fear that organized youths present a strong threat to Museveni’s interests. Now that the youths have finally strengthened their internal structures, police have been following them from meeting to meeting, cracking down at will despite the rights to assembly, association and movement guaranteed in Uganda’s constitution — something Museveni has publicly called “just a piece of paper.”

In some areas of the country, farmers who sell their products to multinational corporations aligned with the Museveni government are scheming to withhold their products and labor. Others are advocating for agricultural cooperatives in rural areas to spend a week without sending food to Kampala. Shutdowns of the transportation sector are also being planned. “We need to pin the dictator in a crisis,” noted one youth activist. “We have to present him with a scenario that hits him where it hurts and consequently undermines the assets that support his rule.”

Meanwhile, Jeff Wadulo, a civil society advocate in parliament suggested a different approach. “I think we should explore forgiveness as a tactic. Elections are just around the corner in early 2016, and Museveni is prepared for bloodshed. Is that what we want? Let’s move into the win-win quadrant. Let’s allow him to move out of power peacefully by appealing to his interests.” Wadulo acknowledged that this will necessitate appeals to bodies such as the International Criminal Court for Ugandan stakeholders to handle the terms of his exit from power. “He is a dictator, but he is our dictator,” Wadulo claimed.

“But will he keep the loot of 30 years?” asked Oyaka Makmot, one of my fellow board members at Solidarity Uganda. “Just because Mandela advocated for a flexible form of political forgiveness does not mean that such an approach should be replicated elsewhere in Africa. Reconciliation and healing is not authentic in the absence of justice.” Such comments echo the sentiments of youths throughout the country who are eager to witness an oppressive regime endure some form of payback.

Tilling the soils for war

The elephant in the room, as with many other dictatorships, is the United States’ military interests. Uganda is the key security partner in Sub-Saharan Africa for the superpower with the world’s largest military budget. The Uganda People’s Defence Force has fought proxy wars against the Al-Shabab terrorist entity in Somalia, as well as looted the mineral-rich Congo for raw materials sought by international companies that manufacture electronics and vehicles, among other products. When it comes to U.S. interests south of the Sahara, the U.S. base in Entebbe, Uganda is the jumping-off point. U.S. Ambassador to Uganda Scott DeLisi has maintained a neutral role in Ugandan political matters, though he has failed to recognize the lack of a level playing field for political candidates. As a result, activists have accused him of being complacent with the fact that his government is funding, training and equipping a military that has a terrible human rights record.

Ugandan youths are at the moment discussing a push for a freeze of military support from the United States if Museveni is on the 2016 election ballot, knowing that in the event of election violence or similar political mayhem, Museveni will be quick to turn to the Pentagon for help.

At the same time, however, it would be erroneous to insist that Museveni’s regime is solely insulated by a foreign government. He has invested national funds in his own internal security strategies, arming informal vigilante youth groups with weapons only intended for soldiers. Recent government budgets have seen the line items relating to community policing and crime prevention skyrocket, begging one to question what the country’s not-so-distant future has in store. Uganda is already overridden with armed police in public areas and at private businesses, soldiers on buses, civilian spies, and tear-gas-dispensing machines stationed in public areas. Every aspect of public life is a reminder that Museveni — and Museveni alone — is the man in charge. After all, this is the man who once said, “I own the money in Uganda.” But as we practitioners of strategic nonviolent action know, resources such as money, weapons and sanctions will ultimately prove insufficient.

Have reports of capitalism’s death been greatly exaggerated?

by Kate Aronoff

View image | gettyimages.com

Late last week, economic journalist Paul Mason, whose Channel 4 blog has been one of the best English-language sources for making sense of the ongoing Greek crisis, published an excerpt from his forthcoming book in The Guardian. It announces that the end of capitalism has begun and that (spoiler) it doesn’t look how we thought it might. The 20th century old/new leftist dream of some crisis-sparked proletarian revolt, he argues, has been battered by neoliberalism and, now, is being replaced by a steady trickle of viable, largely technology-fuelled alternatives to the current economy. “Capitalism, it turns out, will not be abolished by forced-march techniques,” Mason writes. “It will be abolished by creating something more dynamic that exists, at first, almost unseen within the old system, but which will break through, reshaping the economy around new values and behaviors.”

He contends that advances in information technology have “reduced the need for work, blurred the edges of work and free time and loosened the relationship between work and wages.” Stemming from the Wages for Housework campaign of the 1970s, feminist movements and scholars have for years highlighted the loose connection between work and pay, along with the blurry line between labor and leisure at home and in the workplace. And, as Doug Henwood rightly pointed out, there’s nothing inherent to technological innovation that means less work, especially for the market’s worst-off; in the last several years, the American economy has actually become more productive (that is, labor intensive) relative to GDP. To date, automation hasn’t so much reduced the need for jobs as it has expanded capitalism’s capacity to create more terrible ones.

Clearly, though, the economy is changing. For Mason, there are a few other factors driving this transition: an influx of abundant information at odds with capitalism’s drive to hoard scarce resources; the rise of “spontaneous production … that no longer respond[s] to the dictates of the market and the managerial hierarchy,” like Wikipedia; and, finally, the growth of alternative economic practices in the face of crisis — food co-ops, time banks, parallel currencies and other measures falling broadly under the umbrella of “free time, networked activity and free stuff.”

As austerity wears at its seams in southern Europe, all of the above are disrupting what Mason calls a “fifth long upswing for capitalism,” differentiated from the previous four by a lack of pressure from the workforce to herald in higher wages, new technology and more consumption. Increasingly, networks are replacing hierarchies and we’re all learning to share more, in cyber and real-space. In their beautiful abundance, these social and actual technologies chafe at ownership; influenced by technology, in turn, there is a new engine of change replacing the industrial worker: “the educated and connected human being.” Information technology and the networked social forms accompanying it are non-capitalist beasts just waiting to be let out of their stables to race toward a post-capitalist future.

But as Leah Hunt-Hendrix and Astra Taylor noted recently for The Nation, there’s no ready-made path from information to liberation. “Our high-tech tools are constrained by market incentives and government surveillance interests that are often intertwined,” they wrote. “We cannot think about surveillance without paying keen attention to the corporations that benefit from it and the deep inequities that result.” Not only is there a barely-hidden world of workers making the digital revolution possible, but tech itself is already being used to serve the interests of those driving our current, vastly unequal economy. It deserves noting that some of the biggest fans of decentralization — technological or otherwise — are right-wing libertarians, who would be as happy to see workplace protections stripped as they would to see a new start-up food co-op take root.

Consider Uber, the poster-child of the for-profit sharing economy now worth $50 billion. Until a landmark ruling last month, the company posited itself as a neutral technology, simply providing its army of contingent drivers with a platform through which to make their own money — and stay exempt from federal labor laws. By ruling that Uber is, in fact, an employer, the California Labor Commission confirmed what many drivers already knew: Work in the sharing economy doesn’t stray very far from the current one.

Left to its own, state-supported devices, capitalism has proven itself plenty adept at navigating crisis after crisis, and, from subprime mortgages to student debt to climate change, monetizing the seemingly priceless. As Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi wrote in 2010, banks are a “highly sophisticated engine for converting the useful, deployed wealth of society into the least useful, most wasteful and insoluble substance on Earth — pure profit for rich individuals.” Technology is just another hurdle they can ably jump over. Even against the information age’s more egalitarian impulses, tech remains firmly in the hands of the one percent — albeit a nerdier, tanner and more socially progressive one.

Conversely, Mason is exactly right to point out the incredible promise these emergent innovations hold to serve downright radical ends. But what’s going to take them there? “No doubt, the Internet opens up new avenues and opportunities for resistance,” Taylor and Hunt-Hendrix concluded. “But new technologies will not solve the problems at hand: People acting collectively will.” Tech is contested political ground. Even in the transition from feudalism to capitalism Mason references, it took a plague and, importantly, a widespread peasant revolt to lurch Europe out of stagnant feudalism. As in other historical epochs, disruptive power is necessary to drive society’s agenda away from the interests of those already in charge.

Mason’s call to “direct all actions towards the transition — not the defense of random elements of the old system,” to focus solely on building alternatives, is a false dichotomy. If Syriza’s project in Greece has shown anything, it’s that combining a broad-based solidarity economy with political power is deeply threatening to neoliberalism, the top brass of which will risk self-implosion to stamp it out. Acting alone, Solidarity for All didn’t provoke a sadistic backlash from Greece’s creditors. Syriza’s victory at the polls, its leadership’s presence at the negotiating table in Brussels, and the egalitarian populist parties grasping at state power across the Mediterranean did — but neither the challenge nor the solution could exist without the other.

Millennial-led movements from Black Lives Matter to Occupy Wall Street have already put the social technologies Mason describes into practice, and are writing new rules for how popular uprisings work in the 21st century. Podemos, Spain’s ascendant populist party, uses a sub-Reddit to make decisions among members at the national level. Thankfully, technology is changing organizing at least as much as it is the economy. Capitalism isn’t going anywhere without a fight, no matter how inventive the alternatives. If the early 20th century labor heroine Lucy Parsons were alive now, she might add an addendum on to the statement she’s best remembered by: “Never be deceived that the rich will permit you to innovate away their wealth.” Today’s movements will need to be at least as creative as the forces they’re taking on, and be building solutions that are even more so. Post-capitalism is coming, but a new and even more disruptive tradition of organizing will have to clear the way first.

What ‘Orange Is the New Black’ tells us about sexual abuse in women’s prisons — and how to stop it

by Victoria Law

Tiffany “Pennsatucky” Doggett talks with Carrie “Boo” Black during the third-season finale of “Orange Is the New Black.” (Netflix)

Trigger warning: The entire article talks about sexual assaults and abuse.

Spoiler warning: Episodes 10 to 13 are discussed in detail.

In this season’s “Orange Is the New Black,” viewers are introduced to a host of new characters, including a prison guard who claims to be in love with — and regularly rapes — Pennsatucky, the woman assigned to drive the prison van. Even if Pennsatucky were to report the rapes, her friend Boo points out, it’s her word against his. And who will the prison administration take more seriously? A woman imprisoned for a crime or a guard whom they saw fit to hire? At best, she will simply be disbelieved; at worst, she would be punished by being placed in solitary confinement and then being transferred to a harsher prison.

Meanwhile, the woman has van duty every day with the guard, an assignment that takes them out of the prison and away from any potential witnesses or watchful eyes. “He’s got you,” her friend Boo says.

This kind of scenario isn’t limited to fictional television series. We don’t know how often it occurs in real-life women’s prisons to real-life women, but the little that we do know indicates that it’s more than a once-in-a-blue-moon occurrence. In both men’s and women’s prisons, sexual abuse is more likely to occur at the hands of staff members rather than other prisoners.

I’ve written before about ways in which women who are not in prison have organized to prevent gender violence. But tactics and strategies that work on the outside don’t necessarily fly behind prison walls. Keep in mind that prisons are sites of total control. Movement is limited — and sometimes strictly controlled. So, while people on the outside can utilize tactics like banding together for safety, avoiding being alone with certain people or avoiding isolated areas, these strategies don’t work in an environment in which staff have the ability to give orders.

Those who refuse risk being charged with “disobeying a direct order,” which usually is punished with time in solitary confinement. Having such a charge on their record can also be held against them during a parole hearing, which means an even longer prison sentence. There is little to no opportunity for a person to explain that they disobeyed that direct order because they feared sexual assault. Even if there were, as Boo rightly pointed out, it’s the word of a prisoner against the word of a staff member. And physically defending yourself? In prison, that’s called “assault on an officer” and not only lands a person in solitary confinement, but garners an additional charge with the very real threat of more time in prison and, for the rest of their stay, unrelenting harassment and abuse from other prison staff.

Despite these limitations, people in women’s prisons (not every person in a women’s prison identifies as a woman) have figured out ways to try to protect themselves and others. In 1996, after the passage of Measure 11, a mandatory sentencing law, women’s incarceration in Oregon increased dramatically. Unable to handle the sharp influx of women, the state contracted with private prison company Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, to house 78 of these women. That year, Barrilee Bannister and 77 other women were transferred to a CCA-run prison for men in Arizona. When they first arrived, Bannister recalled having to walk past a line of prison staff members who gawked, whistled and made lewd comments at them. But that wasn’t the only form of sexual harassment and abuse that the women would endure.

Weeks after their arrival, Bannister said that a captain visited several women (including her) in a cell, bringing marijuana with him. They all smoked and, when he left, the captain left the remainder with the women. Shortly after, he returned with other officers, announcing that they were searching the cell for contraband. But, they said, if the women preformed a strip tease, they would not conduct the search.

Knowing that being caught with marijuana would mean an additional charge and an increase in the amount of time they had to spend in prison, the women began to strip. After that, she said that officers frequently brought marijuana and other items that the women were not supposed to have. In exchange, the women would perform strip teases.

But it didn’t stop at strip teases. Soon, officers began raping women. But Bannister and the other women refused to silently accept this new reality. Bannister contacted friends and outside organizations and told them what was happening. They, in turn, contacted media. The negative publicity led to an investigation and the women’s return to Oregon — and out of the CCA prison. The women filed a federal lawsuit against CCA, eventually winning a public apology, a promise of stricter rules to prevent sexual abuse, and the reimbursement of attorney fees.

Sexual abuse isn’t a problem only in private prisons. It’s a frequent occurrence in publicly-run prisons as well. But women in publicly-run prisons have also banded together to try and stop the abuse.

In Battered Women’s Justice, Patricia Gagne describes how women in an Ohio prison were dealing with the same dilemma. In the mid-1990s, one particular guard seemed to have it in for one particular woman. Her cellmate recalled that he constantly harassed her. He also threatened her and her friends — if they attempted to report his behavior, he would plant cocaine among their possessions. Scared, the women kept quiet. But after he assaulted the woman, her friends knew they could no longer keep quiet. They filed a complaint with the administration and testified before the grand jury, which eventually led to the guard’s arrest and conviction.

Their actions also had a ripple effect. “We could never clean up the penitentiary or never change a lot of people’s minds,” the woman stated. But, she continued, after that guard was arrested and convicted, “a lot of the nastiness and that vulgarness … was seeming to cease a little bit and to ease up a little bit, because they began to get nervous. And more women stood up, and two other officers were escorted off because the women found enough courage to stand up.”

In Michigan, sexual assault in women’s prisons was so pervasive that the U.S. Department of Justice stepped in and launched an investigation. It found that “nearly every woman … interviewee reported various sexually aggressive acts of guards,” including rape, sexual assault, impregnation, abusive pat frisks and violations of privacy. The Justice Department initiated legal action against the state in 1997 on the grounds that Michigan was “violating the constitutional rights of inmates incarcerated in Michigan women’s prisons to be free from sexual misconduct and unlawful invasions of privacy.”

But women inside the prison system didn’t wait for the Justice Department. They filed suits on their own — both individually (as in the case of Stacy Barker) and collectively. In 1996, 31 women (including Stacy Barker) in Michigan’s two women’s prisons filed Nunn v. MDOC, charging that they had been subjected to sexual assault, sexual harassment, violations of their privacy, physical threats, assaults and retaliation by male prison staff. They also charged that prison officials had been aware of this abuse, but had done little to investigate or prevent it. Four years later, in 2000, the Michigan Department of Corrections signed a settlement agreement that banned cross-gender pat-down searches, meaning that male guards were no longer allowed to pat search women, and limited the circumstances in which male guards could transport women or remain with them in medical examining rooms. The settlement also limited staff allowed in the housing units, where women might be in states of dress or undress, to female guards.

That same year, women also filed Neal v. MDOC, a class-action lawsuit. Nearly 440 women who had experienced sexual harassment, sexual assault, invasions of privacy and retaliation for reporting staff misconduct signed onto the suit. In 2007, nine years after it had been filed, the case went to trial. The jury awarded the women more than $30 million. In July 2009, a settlement was reached for $100 million to be distributed to the class members — in other words, any woman incarcerated in Michigan who had suffered any of the experiences listed in the suit — and their attorneys.

These are specific instances that have been written about. But that doesn’t mean that they’re the only methods people have used to keep themselves and each other safe. In “Orange is the New Black,” Pennsatucky and Boo come up with a creative solution that enables her to escape from her driving duties — and the accompanying sexual assaults. It’s not a tactic that would necessarily make headlines or that she would even be able to tell others without jeopardizing her own escape.

From years of talking to people who have spent time in women’s prisons, I’ve learned that stories of resistance actions — whether individual acts or collective organizing — often remain undocumented. Creative strategies may be passed down by word of mouth and the prison grapevine, but unless someone takes the time to talk with people and ask them specifically about what they did to challenge and change conditions, those stories rarely make it past prison walls.

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