Actually, Satya Nadella’s selection as Microsoft CEO isn’t great for Indians

When Indians glow like a proud parent at a new CEO or billionaire, they reject millions who suffer for that wealth.

Satya Nadella. Photograph: Microsoft/Reuters

Satya Nadella. Photograph: Microsoft/Reuters

by Arun Gupta The Guardian February 5, 2014

Growing up near Washington DC, in the 1970s, one of my few pop cultural references for an Indian was Johnny Quest’s Hadji: “a well-spoken … orphan who picked up his smarts on the streets of Calcutta.” It was embarassing, like the urine-drinking Indian prime minister, or the teacher who explained to my classmates that the reason I was tardy in returning from a trip to India was because I “may have gotten married” at the ripe age of 10.

Indians take pride when one of their own scales the pinnacles of western success – Pulitzer Prizes, Miss America, governorships and business titans – partly because they are prickly about being viewed as the monkey-brain-eating other. Individual success is proof of the nation’s collective intellect, work ethic and merit.

The selection of Satya Nadella as the new CEO of Microsoft is one such moment. Hyderabad-born, Indian-educated, cricket-lover, Nadella is pure Desi, bringing the essence of thousands of years of culture to cutting-edge technology. The reaction back home was ecstatic. The Hindustan Times crowed, “India raises toast as Satya Nadella named Microsoft top boss.” Infosys CEO Narayana Murthy declared, “This is how India’s brand will be enhanced.” One analyst touted Nadella as an example for all Indians to put aside their “caste, religion and regional” differences and “start helping one another”.

For Indians who do raise a glass of the national drink, Johnny Walker Black, to Nadella, they’re not affirming a shared achievement. They’re affirming their status in America’s winner-take-all system. Their definition of success is limited to business executives, Hollywood stars, US attorneys, television physicians, and White House officials.

This empty boosterism is often tinged by a chauvinism as crude as any Tea Party reactionary. Many Indian-Americans praise Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana solely for his heritage. If they paid attention to his policies he might have acquired the sobriquet of “Gunga Jindal” for seemingly changing his name and religion as part of his effort to pander to racists.

Ethnic pride also tends to be marked by childlike cravings for normalcy to mask shame. Each success is another sign India’s greatness will erase images of a land of female infanticide, ethnic cleansing, gang rapes and slave labor.

Now, what would be an accomplishment for these Indians is to mature beyond such dubious conceits. For one, what is there to celebrate in Microsoft? Many see it as a company with mediocre products wedded to Robber Baron monopoly practices headed by a billionaire whose pastimes include destroying public education from Kindergarten through college and bankrolling apocalyptic geoengineering schemes.

More significant, few of the 140 million Indians who lack clean water or the 400 million who live on less than $40 a month will toast Nadella. They are not indifferent to his success. They pay for it in homes bulldozed, waters stolen and land fouled by proliferating IT campuses and gated communities.

Exalting Nadella conflates the few with the nation. It’s similar to the nationalist orgy after India exploded a nuclear device in May 1998. Arundhati Roy wrote at the time, “The bomb is India. India is the bomb. Not just India, Hindu India. Therefore, be warned, any criticism of it is not just anti-national, but anti-Hindu.”

Her critique exposed the double-edged sword of ethnic pride. After writing The God of Small Things, “beaming” Indians would stop Roy and declare, “You have made India proud,” referring not to her novel that digs into India’s afflictions of caste, class and gender violence, but to her receipt of England’s Booker Prize. But that pride curdled. Her loyalty, background, and Indianness were questioned after she tallied that the embrace of nuclear weapons, “the most diabolical creation of western science,” cost India freedom and imagination for fear and insecurity.

Since then nuclear terror has been superseded by India’s embrace of the free market and the digital revolution. It’s created 65 billionaires, but the cost is being borne by the still majority agrarian population who are being pushed off ancestral land for factories, mines and dams. So when Indians glow like a proud parent at a new CEO or billionaire of their own, they are rejecting millions who suffer for that wealth. If Indians want their own to venerate, they should look to those like Roy who embody the best of their heritage, the thirst for universal ideals and justice.

In the United States, there’s Kshama Sawant, the new city councilmember in Seattle, around the corner from Microsoft’s home, who’s reviving socialism in a country floundering in capitalism. Or Bhairavi Desai, the unlikely organizer of tens of thousands of New York City cabdrivers. Or immigrant-rights organizer Harsha Walia in Canada.

In fact, there is an astonishing number of South Asians in North America whose activism is inspired by the vast tableau of social justice struggles in their home countries and communities. They are working across cultures, languages and communities for a better world, and are far more deserving of their compatriots’ attention than some head of a corporate behemoth.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Race

The Story Behind America’s Fast Food Worker Uprising

Fast-food workers and their supporters picket outside a Burger King in Los Angeles on August 29, 2013. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP

Fast-food workers and their supporters picket outside a Burger King in Los Angeles on August 29, 2013. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP

The unions, especially SEIU, are backing this campaign for $15 wages. Some worry the workers are being used like pawns.

By Arun Gupta theguardian.com November 11 2013

The sight one year ago of scores of fast-food workers walking off their jobs and marching through the streets of New York City demanding $15 an hour was like a defibrillator to a dying American labor movement. If poverty-wage workers demanding that the federal minimum wage be doubled and they be allowed to unionize free of retaliation could win against fast-food giants like McDonald’s, KFC and Subway, then unions might finally begin to reverse a 60-year-long decline that’s seen its share of the private sector workforce plunge from 35% percent to 6.6%.

The top 10 employers in fast food alone account for 2.3m US jobs (pdf). Add in discount retailers, drug stores, clerking and material moving, and the number of workers soars to the tens of millions. The growth of part-time low-wage jobs has become a battering ram against the last citadels of unionism in heavy industry and the public sector, crushing wages, benefits, and workplace rights. That’s led organized labor to make a stand with organizing drives such as OUR WalmartDomestic Workers UnitedWarehouse Workers for Justice and the fast-food worker campaign commonly known as “Fight for 15″.

Unlike the other campaigns, however, it was unclear who organized the November 2012 walkout in New York and repeated one-day strikes this year in cities like Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, and Seattle. Various news reports portray Fight for 15 as a bottom-up effort in which community groups canvassing workers in Chicago and New York found low wages was the chief concern, so they reached out to unions for organizing help. But word was the 2.1 million-member Service Employees International Union was providing the know-how and money. For their part, SEIU leaders claim they’re more servant than shepherd of fast-food workers, saying, “We don’t yet understand the scale of it … [we're] amazed at the degree to which it spread.”

In reality, a months-long investigation published today by In These Times, a Chicago-based magazine, indicates SEIU has been directing the campaign since early 2012 as part of its plan to pressure the biggest fast-food companies to strike deals to unionize workers and increase their wages.

Interviews with 40 low-wage workers, labor organizers, SEIU officials, media strategists, and analysts reveal that behind the scenes, there is widespread unease with how the campaign has developed. Workers and organizers are troubled by what they say is a lack of respect for workers, resistance to worker control, a rubberstamp decision-making process, and the overall direction of the campaign.

Insiders say that’s why SEIU is trying to downplay its role. “Brooke”, a former organizer in Chicago, says SEIU leaders tell the media Fight for 15 is “spontaneous [and] the workers came to us” because they want “to get people to stop asking questions”. (All the workers and organizers asked to remain anonymous out of concern of harming job prospects or relationships within the organizing campaign.)

“Carlos”, a former organizer on the New York City campaign, says he suspects SEIU is being coy because its “name has a lot of baggage, so they don’t want it out there. They want to funnel it through smaller organizations so it looks like more of a grassroots effort”. Labor reporter David Moberg describes that SEIU baggage as “coziness with big employers, limits on internal democracy, [and] excessive deference to Democratic party leaders”.

There is one question in particular SEIU is probably not keen to address: is Fight for 15 about organizing a long-term social movement of low-wage workers or is it a “march on the media”? Workers and organizers across the country emphasize that they back the campaign for providing space for workers to build solidarity, share knowledge and assist shop-floor organizing. But they add that SEIU is pouring resources into a PR and legal strategy that they consider dubious and which comes at the expense of building a militant workers movement within the fast-food industry.

“Rose” works with an SEIU-backed drive focused on fast-food workers in federal buildings like the Smithsonian in Washington. She says organizers are mainly “training [workers] as spokespeople, gearing them up for these one-day strikes and training them to appear on camera, and return to work without any follow-up for a unionizing effort”. Rose charges that “propping them up as media spokespeople without guaranteeing any sort of long-term protection … is very irresponsible and very hypocritical” as it puts them at risk of retaliation from their managers.

According to sources and internal SEIU documents obtained by In These Times, the union does try to protect striking workers by having community leaders and elected officials accompany them back to their jobs the day after a strike. “Jason”, a worker in Chicago, says in the event workers are fired for union activity, which is illegal, SEIU vigorously defends them by picketing the employer and filing unfair labor practices. However, the preoccupation with the media undermines this aspect of organizing as well. Jason says at least in Chicago the union has not helped workers develop skills to prevent retaliation as

The strategy is to wait until [bosses] actually fire you because they can get more publicity. But it’s easier to keep your job instead of fighting to get it back.

Some observers say this is a result of fast-food organizers being pressured to “instrumentalize their relationship with workers” by having to meet quotas for workers to sign petitions, attend meetings, fill out union cards, and go on strike. Workers say this can discourage involvement as it leaves little space for worker input or control. “Victor”, a fast-food worker in Seattle, says at meetings organizers go around the crowd, get them “amped-up” and have them rubber-stamp “some decisions that are already made”. Victor says, “It feels like there’s not very much respect being paid toward the workers and it feels childish.”

A sore point for workers is strike “votes”. At a national convention of fast-food workers held in Detroit in mid-August the decision was made to launch a one-day walkout across the country on 29 August. Workers who attended say their input was limited to being presented with a prepared statement to endorse when they showed up at the hotel after a day of travel. “Sam”, a worker from Chicago, says:

If it’s been decided at some level that there will be an action on a given day, then it’s going to happen. It’s just a question of going through the motions of getting people to come to the decisions that they want them to.

At the same time, workers in Chicago say union organizers were responsive to demands for more input, resources and control. Sam says, “At the shop level we control the messaging, we control the tactics, we decide what we want to organize around, we motivate the strikers.” Jason says workers now have a newsletter to help “tighten organization between the stores”. There’s a women’s caucus where women strategize about “sexual harassment at work and unsupportive husbands who don’t want them to be involved”, and workers also discuss how managers use racial discrimination to divide and control workers.

Outside of Chicago, however, there’s little evidence of worker-to-worker organizing. In Seattle and Washington, sources say active workers number a dozen or less, about the same as the number of paid organizers.

Workers’ main concern right now is that SEIU’s strategy will leave them out in the cold. It appears that SEIU is pursuing several strategies simultaneously. One effort is living-wage laws in Seattle, Milwaukee and Washington. Two sources say SEIU is also supporting fast-food worker centers – workplace advocacy organizations that are not formal unions – such as a new branch of Restaurant Opportunities Center United in Seattle.

But SEIU also has a comprehensive national plan centered on the two public demands of $15-an-hour pay and the right to unionize free of intimidation. If successful, the multi-stage strategy would allow SEIU to secure collective bargaining agreements and gain thousands of new union members. One SEIU official admits this is a primary concern because “the money going into this is a gamble. These workers aren’t paying dues; they’re not financing this right now”.

SEIU’s first step is to challenge the legal distinction between a corporation and its individual franchises. Take McDonald’s: Ninety percent of its 14,000 U.S. restaurants are franchises and are solely responsible for employees, but the corporate parent micromanages key aspects of the business—menus, promotions, insurance, software, advertising, cleaning and so on. Based on this, SEIU aims to hold corporations liable for their franchises’ actions.

Second, SEIU is compiling data about wage theft in the fast-food sector. Sam says researchers come to worker meetings and state: “If your register is short and that difference comes out of your paycheck, come talk to us. … If you get your paycheck on a debit card and there are fees associated with it, come talk to us.” In May, Fast Food Forward, the New York chapter of the fast-food organizing campaign, released a survey finding that 84 percent of 500 fast-food workers reported at least one form of wage theft.

SEIU’s third planned step is to use legal liability for wage theft to pressure fast-food companies into accepting “neutrality agreements” that allow employees to unionize without management interference. Finally, insiders say SEIU hopes to enlist unions in other countries to mount protests and possibly use pension funds to pressure fast-food chains with global operations, which is they it’s focusing on corporations with extensive overseas operations.

Jason, however, calls this “a strategy for failure”. He says even a prominent company like McDonald’s has little to fear from a PR campaign as their customers who consume burgers of unknown origin are less interested in the conditions of workers slapping them together.

In an email, one long-time SEIU staffer summed up the ambivalent feelings toward the campaign, enthused by a new generation of labor organizers, while fretting about the union’s checkered record. “SEIU still does not have a clear picture of what to do with Fight for 15, where to take it. Some staffing here is frustrated with the very heavy and somewhat manipulative ‘media moment’ approach that ignores the voices and the democracy [and] development of the natural shop floor leaders who have emerged. How to begin a bottom up process is a big challenge, especially as the SEIU leadership is not fixed on that as a goal at all. … Retreat is very possible, leaving militant organizers high and dry.”

• For the full report, go to In These Times.

 

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Labor

How I Called the Cops and Almost Got Shot: the Politics of Being a “Threat”

2013_0910gun_

On this national day of protest against police brutality, Reporter Arun Gupta recalls an incident years ago in New York City when he stared down the barrel of a police gun because he “looked like a suspect.” 

By Arun Gupta  September 10, 2013 truth-out.org
It was night. I was winding down, watching “Star Trek” in the living room when Irene yelled in panic from the back of our railroad flat in Brooklyn. A few seconds later, she emerged half-dressed and red-faced. “Some guy tried to climb into my bedroom from the fire escape. But I screamed, and he ran off,” she panted in her Irish brogue.

Grabbing the phone, I dialed 911 and said a guy had tried to break into our apartment but had fled. “They’re in your apartment?” the dispatcher asked. “No! It was an attempted break-in. They’re gone.” I emphasized, “Attempted, attempted. They are long gone.” I walked toward Irene’s bedroom and from her window adjoining the fire escape blue-and-red lights flashed in the dark as a police cruiser rounded the corner.

We shouted to the cops that someone tried to break in but hightailed out because of the commotion. They asked where the prowler was. “I don’t know. They’re probably nearby.” The cops remained in the car, seemingly uninterested in searching for the suspect.

As Irene gave the cops more details, there was pounding on the front door. “I’ll get it,” I said, striding down the hall. Fists hammered on the door. “Who is it,” I asked. “Police. Open up!” I peered through the eyehole, but the figures were obscured. “Step in front of the peephole,” I said. “Open the fucking door,” a male voice bellowed.

Well, I figured, I was the one who called the cops, so who else could it be? I swung the door open and to my side was a black female cop with her gun drawn, pointed upward, and in front of me was a white male cop standing on the stairs in a two-handed shooting stance with his gun resting on the banister pointing directly at my head. As I stared down the barrel of his nickel-plated revolver, the warning from my friend Greg, a born-and-bred Texan, flashed in my head. “Always be wary of a cop who has a nickel-plated revolver. It means they spent $500 on their own gun, and they’re eager to use it.”

“Put your guns away,” I blurted at the African-American cop. With a head shake, she shot back, “Don’t tell me what to do.” Meanwhile the male cop yelled, “Step out of the fucking apartment.”

It dawned on me that they thought I was the suspect.

But they didn’t consider that I was unarmed, barefoot and wearing only underwear and a T-shirt – or why an intruder would open the locked door when there were plenty of windows to escape from in the apartment. I hollered, “I was the one who called 911. I told them the guy fled.” The male cop kept baying, “Get out of the fucking apartment,” and I countered, “This is my fucking apartment.”

At that point Irene entered the three-way fray and exclaimed, “What in Christ’s name are you doing? He’s my roommate.” The cops lowered their guns, and as we continued yelling they looked at each other and then bolted.

“Jesus Christ, they thought you were the burglar,” Irene said as we closed the door. I rolled my eyes, “Fucking pigs.” This is the point in the story where I’m supposed to say I started shaking when I realized my brains were almost turned into modern art on the wall behind me. But I didn’t because I was unscathed. I did figure they flew the coop quickly because they were about to execute some street justice on me and didn’t want us to get their badge numbers.

I was pissed they assumed I was enough of a threat to warrant the possible use of deadly force. I was pissed that what saved my South Asian ass was my female Irish roommate. (And I was pissed I missed the end of “Star Trek.”)

If the cops had killed me, it would have been the word of New York’s finest against my corpse. The story would have been they were responding to a break-in. I was a suspect who was being uncooperative, belligerent, even threatening. In the unlikely event they were charged with a crime, the cops would have been acquitted because their perception was I was a threat. That perception was based mainly on the fact I’m a dark-skinned, broad-shouldered male. I would have been another Trayvon Martin or Amadou Diallo, who was plugged with 19 bullets in 1999 after four cops stopped him in his Bronx apartment building because he “looked like a suspect.”

Like Martin’s, Diallo’s killing spurred a movement against racial profiling, which led to a court order in 2003 forcing the NYPD to release data on stop-and-frisk practices every three months. But my death would have been a footnote, because it would have happened right before Rudy Giuliani became mayor in 1993 and aggressively expanded stop-and-frisks. Back then, few people were aware of the lax protocol for police stops. I was certainly clueless in 1990 when I felt the humiliation of a police stop in a subway station because they said I “looked like a suspect.”

The problem with stop-and-frisk is the wide discretion given to cops’ perception, cops whose views are shaped more by centuries of social prejudices than a few months in the police academy. Cops, soldiers, even armed vigilantes can get away with murder by claiming they felt threatened. The law takes stereotypes like black criminals, Mexican gangsters and Muslim terrorists and transforms them from subjective irrationality into objective criteria. George Zimmerman would never have been acquitted if he had gunned down a 17-year-old blonde cheerleader. That’s why I could have been on the roll call that includes Diallo, Martin, Sean Bell, Ramerley Graham, Oscar Grant and hundreds of others.

Stop-and-frisks are known as “Terry stops,” referring to the 1968 Supreme Court case Terry v. Ohio, which carved out an exception to the Fourth Amendment. It was the first time “the Court allowed a criminal search and seizure without probable cause,” and subsequent case law further loosened the standards for a stop. The court ruled police need only “reasonable suspicion” to stop someone, and the “sole justification” for a frisk is “to discover guns, knives, clubs, or other hidden instruments for the assault of the police officer.”

Terry was shaped in an era of “social upheaval, violence in ghettos and disorder on campuses,” and handed down right after the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The liberal Warren Court was under attack from the right for “coddling criminals,” and Richard Nixon’s “law and order” presidential campaign fanned the flames to such a degree that ” ‘Impeach Earl Warren’ signs appeared along highways in most parts of the country.”

The justices capitulated to the law-and-order climate by asserting police conduct involved the “necessarily swift action predicated upon the on-the-spot observations of the officer” drawing on “his experience.” The high court made this explicit 12 years later in United States v. Cortez when it “directly instructed lower courts to defer to the judgment of police.” Given the historical antagonism between an overwhelmingly white police force and ghettoized communities, it made racial fears central to policing. In Cortez, the justices also implied police actions were beyond public scrutiny: “A trained officer draws inferences and makes deductions … that might well elude an untrained person.” So if the police decide inner-city blacks and Latinos are violent or prone to crime, then the courts should defer to the police as the most capable of making and acting on those judgments.

This is why it took 14 years to take a bite out of stop-and-frisk. Of the 4.8 million stops conducted by the NYPD in the past decade, five in six of those stopped were black or Latino. They were more likely to be frisked than whites but less likely to be found with a weapon. Digging into the 685,724 stops in 2011, the New York Civil Liberties Union uncovered two astonishing facts: the “number of stops of young black men exceeded the entire city population of young black men (168,126 as compared with 158,406), and in six precincts where blacks and Latinos make up 14 percent of the population or less, they accounted for 70 percent of stops. Independent studies have determined “race predicts stop-and-frisk patterns even after controlling for variables like crime rates, social conditions and the allocation of police resources.”

Since 2003, of the 570,000 people arrested or given a summons, nearly 90 percent are black and Latino, creating a circular logic. It’s reasonable for police to stop, frisk and arrest black men and Latinos because they are more likely to be involved in criminal activity because police are arresting so many of them.

That’s the logic of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who claims cops “disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little.” Because of Terry, Bloomberg and top cop Ray Kelly have to say they’re taking guns off the streets to justify ratcheting up stop-and-frisks sevenfold since 2002. But cops have had to stop an average of 833 people in recent years to find one illegal gun, and stop-and-frisks are so inefficient that they produce fewer arrests than what police typically achieve at random checkpoints.

Bloomberg’s attitude flows down the command chain and reinforces prejudices that blacks and Latinos are more prone to crime. It’s also codified in the law where reasonable suspicion exists for anyone in a “high-crime area” and who moves away from police. In the 1.62 million stops from 2010 through June 2012, the three most cited factors lack individual specificity: high-crime area at 61 percent, “furtive movements” at 54 percent and time of day at 43 percent. (Multiple factors are usually cited, and the nebulous categories of “evasive response,” “proximity to crime scene” and “changed direction” account for another 65 percent.) But expert analysis finds 86 percent of these stops can still be justified, an additional 10 percent could not be categorized and a mere 4 percent were “apparently unjustified.” So with a few tweaks, the NYPD can still profile entire communities.

This does not detract from the dogged grassroots effort against stop-and-frisk in conjunction with the legal strategy pursued by the Center for Constitutional Rights since 1999. It has won landmark victories like US District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin’s August 12 ruling that the NYPD is engaged in “indirect racial profiling,” which the “city’s highest officials have turned a blind eye to” in violation of the Fourth and 14th Amendments. Scheindlin appointed an independent monitor to “end the constitutional violations in the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices,” and the City Council passed a bill authorizing “an outside inspector general with subpoena power to study and make policy recommendations to the department.”

Bigger battles lie ahead beyond the hostility the NYPD likely will mount to many reforms. The next step is to wipe away the stained legacy of Terry, which is essential to the New Jim Crow that consigns many African-Americans to the bottom of the barrel. Since the 1963 March on Washington, the relative status of blacks compared with whites is virtually unchanged in terms of poverty, earnings, wealth and unemployment. When it comes to imprisonment, the rates are worse.

The drug war and an eightfold increase in the prison population since 1970 have forced millions of blacks and Latinos into a shadow workforce. I’ve encountered the results in Niles, Ohio, where striking steelworkers told me the factory owner was using ex-convicts as strike breakers, and in the Chicago warehouse industry, where workers say about half the workers have criminal records and are desperate for any employment, which allows management to force down wages and deny workers basic rights.

I know what it’s like to be a problem. The police have stopped and interrogated me; cops pulled guns on me in my own apartment, and I regularly win the Homeland Security interrogation lottery when entering the United States. But in general my social status affords me protection.

My daily life is not defined by a system that conflates race with danger. My school was not patrolled by scowling cops packing heat. My job options were not limited to flipping burgers or slinging rock. My friends didn’t cycle between prison and parole. My neighborhood isn’t swarming with so many cops that kids lift their shirts to indicate, “There’s no reason to stop and frisk me.”

Yet that night in my apartment, my background didn’t matter: The clichés about a clean record, a good background, an upstanding citizen. The cops didn’t know that, but they knew I willingly opened the door, I was unarmed and in my underwear, I explained I called 911, but I was guilty. I got a nickel-plated taste of how policing reflects social prejudices.

Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama aside, there’s a desperate need for a new Reconstruction today as much as there was 50 years ago, when the tide shifted against America-style Apartheid. The much-needed judicial and legislative victories against stop-and-frisk do not address how individual fears harden into iron bars of segregation. And while the race line has blurred into class, we are still two countries, separate and unequal.

1 Comment

Filed under Gun control, Inequality, Labor, Race

A Brief History of Squatting

On Avenue A on New York's Lower East Side, a couple shares a futon under Old Glory. (Courtesy of MoRUSNYC)

On Avenue A on New York’s Lower East Side, a couple shares a futon under Old Glory. (Courtesy of MoRUSNYC)

The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space chronicles decades of Lower East Side occupations.

by Arun Gupta August 1, 2013 In These Times

He had warned me about showing up unannounced, but it’s easy to rationalize such things when you’re jonesing. It was 1999. I stood outside the Lower East Side squat bellowing, “Laaaarr-rreeee.” Making myself a nuisance earned me admission into the building, though the squatters clustered out front looked at me with expressions that read: “Who is this idiot?”

Larry was livid when I stepped into his apartment. “Don’t ever fucking do that again!” he roared. But in an instant his eyes were smiling and he sweetly inquired, “Now, how may I help you?”

Chagrined, I conducted my business and exited. Striding past the German beer garden, I mentally savored my spliff while lamenting the disappearance of the storefront dealers who peddled dime bags with the convenience of a 7-Eleven. That’s routine for denizens of the Lower East Side: to wistfully recall what once was.

Before Rudy Giuliani became mayor in 1994, the neighborhood was alluringly feral. The withdrawal of public services, crime epidemic and abandonment of housing decades earlier had spawned a multiracial movement of neighborhood associations, building takeovers, community gardens and thriving institutions such as the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, the punk-centric ABC No Rio and the housing-rights organization Good Old Lower East Side.

No one misses the muggers, street dealers hawking smack, or addicts openly sticking needles in their arms. Social pathologies were the last line of defense against capital, until Giuliani used his “quality of life” campaign against the homeless, potsmokers, bicyclists and the poor to also sweep away Bohemia.

The transformation from heroin shooters to oyster shooters is now complete, but the past still pokes through the present landscape of faux speakeasies, fin-de-siècle bistros and bucolic gastronomica.

The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS), located in a storefront of C-Squat, is one of 11 surviving squats that have made peace with the city. The mini museum, a tribute to local activism, contains a photographic journey through decades of squatting, gardens, Critical Mass, Reclaim the Streets and Occupy Wall Street. Co-founder Bill DiPaolo calls it “living history,” and it faithfully evokes decades of resistance to a hidden market and its visible fist.

The tone is set by one of the first photos, an image of an armored police vehicle with tank treads deployed to evict two squats in 1995. As the photos progress, a changing cast faces off against the police: homeless people living in Tompkins Square Park in the early ’80s, their expressions defiant or pleading; the street punks and squatters of the late ’80s; Reclaim the Streets’ impromptu dance-party protests and community garden defense in the ’90s.

Artifacts are grouped thematically. An egg carton of seed bombs ($12 a dozen), designed to be thrown into fenced-off vacant lots for guerrilla greening, ac- companies photos of the campaign that saved scores of gardens from Giuliani’s bulldozers. The stairway chronicles the history of Critical Mass, which popularized bicycling in New York City by drawing thousands of pedal-pushers into the streets for monthly rides before being smashed by the cops in 2004. The banister is built from wooden blue police barricades that were a fixture in the neighborhood until the mid-’90s and the fuel for riotous bonfires. The Occupy Wall Street section features a sign liberated from Zuccotti Park listing activities now banned—skateboarding, camping and lying down. Helmets and dark-blue uniforms emblazoned with “Squat Team” patches hang in the front window.

The focus, says DiPaolo, is “groups, causes, spaces and places,” not art or individuals. But the most captivating images are of art and people: Gardening pioneer Adam Purple standing above his “Garden of Eden” of trees and edible plants arrayed in concentric circles around a blooming yin-yang symbol; a half-dressed black couple on Avenue A lying on a futon under an American flag; an abandoned car plastered with graffiti in a vacant lot carpeted with foliage.

Even allowing for the museum’s space constraints, there are curious omissions. Housing was the central struggle, but there is little explanation of how bankers and landlords used finance and zoning to initiate disinvestment, then gentrification. The museum selects the Green Guerrillas in 1978 as the starting point, and, aside from a section honoring the work of Chino Garcia and Armando Perez, excludes the Puerto Rican activists of the ’60s and ’70s who staged the first building takeovers and created gardens, tenants associations, an arts revival, and community and environmental organizations. Some of that is covered in MoRUS’s guided tours of the neighborhood, but the exhibit appears to reflect DiPaolo’s own history. He is the founder and director of Time’s Up!, “a direct action environmental organization” that spawned Critical Mass, participated in Reclaim the Streets and Occupy Wall Street, and engaged in nonviolent direct action that preserved the gardens. (DiPaolo also homesteads in Umbrella Squat down the block.)

Try though it may to present a picture of protest springing eternal, the museum reveals the shifting dynamics of the Lower East Side. As the photos tick off the years, the people become whiter, the reclaimed spaces narrow from houses to gardens, from street occupations to sidewalk protests, and the protesters grow older and middle class. In the end, the visionaries who proclaimed, “We will build a new society in the vacant lots of the old,” defend fragile stands of bohemia by adapting to the invasive monoculture of condos, clubs and cafes. MoRUS pays $2,000 in rent, a token sum compared to the $15,000-to-$20,000 payment a landlord is demanding of the nearby Yippie Café.

Unfortunately, MoRUS glosses over daily life. Lawless creativity and politics attracted youth fleeing a consumer society for a hotbed of radical writers, artists, musicians and poets, studios and playhouses, punk shows and underground newspapers, squat parties and park festivals. This political culture nurtured space for everyday wonders that have been stomped out: from all-night gatherings in gardens to youth launching cannonball-sized fireworks in a Chinatown schoolyard to locals making carrion of abandoned cars, taking months to strip them of salable parts.

But real-estate speculators sealed the Lower East Side’s fate by pouncing on the marketing potential of its distinctive culture. Then again, efforts to preserve the uniqueness were undercut by those punks and anarchists who opposed efforts to tame excesses because that’s “fucking authoritarian, man,” enabling loudmouths, slackers and self-destructive drug use to alienate potential allies in local communities and movements.

The Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space captures the duality of a movement that saw its struggle as the only struggle, limiting its vision and audience—yet against all odds it triumphantly managed to scratch out reclaimed space in the heart of the 1%.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

How Barrett Brown shone light on the murky world of security contractors

Barrett Brown, former Anonymous spokesperson

Barrett Brown, former Anonymous spokesperson

Brown is not a household name like Edward Snowden or Bradley Manning. But after helping expose a dirty tricks plot, he faces jail

By Arun Gupta, guardian.co.uk, Monday 24 June 2013

Any attempt to rein in the vast US surveillance apparatus exposed by Edward Snowden‘s whistleblowing will be for naught unless government and corporations alike are subject to greater oversight. The case of journalist and activist Barrett Brown is a case in point.

Brown made a splash in February 2011 by helping to uncover “Team Themis”, a project by intelligence contractors retained by Bank of America to demolish the hacker society known as Anonymous and silence sympathetic journalists like Glenn Greenwald (now with the Guardian, though then with Salon). The campaign reportedly involved a menagerie of contractors: Booz Allen Hamilton, a billion-dollar intelligence industry player and Snowden’s former employer; Palantir, a PayPal-inspired and -funded outfit that sells “data-mining and analysis software that maps out human social networks for counterintelligence purposes”; and HBGary Federal, an aspirant consultancy in the intelligence sector.

The Team Themis story began in late 2010, when Julian Assange warned WikiLeaks would release documents outlining an “ecosystem of corruption [that] could take down a bank or two.” Anticipating that it might be in Assange’s sights, Bank of America went into damage-control mode and, as the New York Times reported, assembled “a team of 15 to 20 top Bank of America officials … scouring thousands of documents in the event that they become public.” To oversee the review, Bank of American brought in Booz Allen Hamilton.

Days later, Bank of America retained the well-connected law firm of Hunton & Williams, which was reportedly recommended by the Department of Justice. Hunton & Williams promptly emailed HBGary Federal, Palantir and Berico; they, in turn, “proposed various schemes to attack” WikiLeaks and Greenwald. In fact, Hunton & Williams had first contacted the three tech firms in October 2010, at the behest of the Chamber of Commerce to find out if it was being attacked by labor union-backed campaigners.

The final cast member, Aaron Barr, then CEO of HBGary Federal, started creating personal dossiers on Hunton & Williams employees to display his prowess as a social media ninja – his way of convincing the law firm that he could train them in the perils of social media. Barr was anxious to generate income for his struggling subsidiary.

According to the Team Themis proposal, its partners suggested creating false documents and fake personas to damage progressive organizations such as “ThinkProgress, the labor coalition called Change to Win, the SEIU, US Chamber Watch, and StopTheChamber.com”. According to reporting by Wired, the three companies hoped to bill the Chamber of Commerce for $2m a month. But while (as leaked emails showed) the parties in the plan went back and forth over how to apportion the spoils, nothing was forthcoming.

Then Hunton & Williams submitted the Bank of America proposal, and HBGary Federal, Palantir and Berico swung into action. On 2 December, just three days after Assange’s warning, Aaron Barr crafted the plan to launch “cyber attacks” on WikiLeaks.

The tech companies’ emails – which Anonymous hacked and Barrett Brown helped publicize – listed planned tactics:

“Feed[ing] the fuel between the feuding groups. Disinformation. Create messages around actions to sabotage or discredit the opposing organization. Submit fake documents and then call out the error.”

They also proposed “cyber attacks”, using social media “to profile and identify risky behavior of employees”, and “get people to understand that if they support the organization we will come after them”, implying threats. There was also email chatter about attacking journalists with “a liberal bent”, specifically naming Greenwald. Some aspects of the Team Themis proposal were reminiscent of a leaked 2008 Pentagon counterintelligence plan against WikiLeaks.

In early January, email messages from HBGary Federal show plans for a meeting with Booz Allen Hamilton, apparently regarding Barr’s plans against WikiLeaks and Anonymous. At this point, no one was buying Barr’s scheme – even as he bragged to the Financial Times, on 4 February 2012, that he had used Facebook, Twitter and other social media to identify the “leaders” of Anonymous.

Barr believed that had piqued the interest of the “FBI, the Director of National Intelligence, and the US military”. In fact, it had merely made him a marked man: two days later, as Wired reported, Anonymous “took down [HBGary Federal's] website, stole his emails, deleted the company’s backup data, trashed Barr’s Twitter account and remotely wiped his iPad.” For his part, Brown created Project PM, “a crowd-sourced wiki focused on government intelligence contractors” to delve through the tens of thousands of emails taken from HBGary Federal’s servers.

A critical element in the story concerns the fact that, according to one of the leaked emails, the companies were hoping that “if they can show that WikiLeaks is hosting data in certain countries it will make prosecution easier.” The hacked emails also revealed, Forbes reported, that Barr was hoping to sell the information on Anonymous members to the FBI. The fact that Barr was stoking interest among security agencies with a dossier of supposed Anonymous members containing incorrect names meant that innocent people might have been jailed if he had succeeded in his scheme.

Barr resigned and HBGary Federal was subsequently shuttered. But the story doesn’t end there. In July 2011, the Anonymous-linked “AntiSec” raided Booz Allen Hamilton and made off with 90,000 emails. One allegation that emerged from the cache was that BAH had been working with HBGary Federal “to develop software that would allow for the creation of multiple fake social media profiles to infiltrate discussion groups and manipulate opinion on the sites and discredit people, as well as to match personas online with offline identities.”

Within days of the Team Themis scandal, Palantir issued a statement announcing that it was cutting ties with HBGary Federal and issued an apology to Greenwald. Its reputation was at stake: in 2011, it scored $250m in sales and its customers included the CIA, FBI, US Special Operations Command, army, marines, air force, LAPD and NYPD. Tim Shorrock, an intelligence industry analyst, believes that with an immigration bill working its way through Congress that will provide billions of dollars for border enforcement, Palantir is also well-positioned to win new clients like ICE and the DEA. Along with Booz Allen Hamilton, Palantir is reportedly being paid by the government to mine social media for “terrorists”.

They are just a few of the nearly 2,000 private companies involved in the US counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence apparatus. Even as HBGary Federal has disappeared, the privatized surveillance state continues to expand. The privatized intelligence budget alone is estimated at $56bn.

Given the revelations about domestic surveillance, Brown could speak volumes about the nexus between corporations and the state – except that he’s been cooling his heels in a jail outside Dallas, Texas, for 290 days, awaiting two separate trials that could put him on ice for more than 100 years. The US government has slapped Brown with 17 counts that include identity theft, stealing thousands of credit card numbers, concealing evidence, and “internet threats”.

Ahmed Ghappour, attorney for Brown, calls the charges “prosecutorial overreach”, and maintains most are related to legitimate journalistic practices, such as cutting-and-pasting a link and refusing to give the FBI access to his sources on a laptop, “a modern-day notebook”. In contrast to the FBI’s aggressive pursuit of Brown, no probe of the Team Themis project was launched – despite a call from 17 US House representatives to investigate a possible conspiracy to violate federal laws, including forgery, mail and wire fraud, and fraud and related activity in connection with computers. Ghappour asks:

“What length will the government go to prosecute journalists reporting on intelligence contractors? Brown was one of the first to report on the plan to take down Glenn Greenwald.

“It was clear Booz Allen Hamilton [whistleblower Edward Snowden's former employer] was consulting with the NSA, at least supporting their mass-surveillance program, and this was one of the leads Barrett was chasing at the time of the arrest.”

Team Themis also demonstrates that HBGary Federal tried to ramp up official fear of leakers and freedom of information activists for commercial ends. And it’s hardly the only one. Recent episodes involve Wall Street banks encouraging police forces to target Occupy Wall Street activists, private security firms earning money by hyping threats of environmental activists, and chemical companies plotting to intimidate scientists and public officials. Because corporations lack public oversight, privatizing critical public functions allows government to conduct dirty tricks with less scrutiny, while businesses can warp the very fabric of society by manufacturing threats in order to boost revenues and profits. As Ghappour asks again:

“Who’s policing the corporations? Who’s holding them accountable to the same standards as our government? And we need to question those standards given incidents like the Obama administration seizing the phone records of the AP.”

On Christmas day 2011, the intelligence-analysis firm Stratfor, which Anonymous accused of running a wide-ranging spying operationwas hacked. Brown was the one who alerted the mainstream media to the hack: among the millions of files released were thousands of credit-card names and numbers. Like many, Brown posted a link to the files; it was this that the government would seize on to indict Brown for credit-card theft. According to Ghappour:

“That link was accessible to anyone in the world with an internet connection. That link was shared hundreds or even thousands of times that day but Barrett was the only one that was indicted.”

On 6 March 2012, the FBI raided Brown, looking for among other things “records related to HBGary [Federal]“. Under growing pressure, Brown posted a YouTube rant in September 2012, in which he spoke of his opiate use and made reference to the Zetas, a ruthless Mexican drug cartel. Speaking to his computer screen, Brown warned that “any armed officials of the US government, particularly the FBI, will be regarded as potential Zeta assassin squads and … I will shoot all of them and kill them.” Clearly, Brown felt persecuted, but it was an ill-advised statement, which has led to jail without bail for nine months and a harsh list of indictments.

Ghappour asserts there is a logic why the government is keen to prosecute private contractor whistleblowers and activist journalists like Brown:

“The problem is you have companies doing very sensitive intelligence work for the government. It follows that the enemies of those companies are your own [enemies]. And it would be in their interest to silence or prosecute journalists investigating those companies.”

Because of his role as a muckraking reporter, Brown has attracted defenders like Glenn Greenwald and Rolling Stones’ Michael Hastings, who died last week in a car accident. Yet, perhaps because he wasn’t as high-profile as Bradley Manning or as unassailable as Aaron Swartz, Brown hasn’t attracted the type of support that can effectively pressure the government. But with the light thrown on the privatised national security state by the leaks from former BAH contractor for the NSA Edward Snowden, there is renewed interest in Brown’s plight and the campaign for justice in his case.

 

1 Comment

Filed under Occupy Movement, U.S. surveillance state

Moshed in the Pit of Capitalism

by Arun Gupta, truth-out.org, op-ed, June 16, 2013

Delighted attendee Gupta opines that while the Coachella music and arts festival “may be the zenith of hipster culture” – with extraordinary food choices, music, flamboyancy and release, drugs and friendliness – “It’s all Walmart economy.”

Fans listen to a set by Nicky Romero at the Sahara Tent during the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., April 12, 2013. (Photo: Chad Batka / The New York Times).

Fans listen to a set by Nicky Romero at the Sahara Tent during the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif., April 12, 2013. (Photo: Chad Batka / The New York Times).

Within 20 minutes I had been clocked in the face, pummeled by flying bodies and stripped of clothing. It was the best mosh pit of the day, and I wanted more. Hundreds thick of body or reckless by nature were circulating in a blender of whirling arms and legs propelled by the freneticism of The Descendents. It was exhilarating not knowing if I would be the bat or ball next. There was little risk of death or injury that led the Smashing Pumpkins and Fugazi to ban moshing at their concerts. When I fell down, hands pulled me up, backslaps were exchanged, and the good times rolled.

Bill, my companion at Coachella, remarked as another surfer was catapulted on top of the crowd, “It’s a great way to let out your social aggression.” I grinned in agreement as we dove into a wave of slam dancers surging and crashing.

After scoring a free ticket to the three-day Southern California music-and-arts festival, I cruised to the desert town of Indio with scant knowledge of the 175 acts rotating through eight venues, hoping I wouldn’t be bored. As I entered the 2.4 million-square-foot polo grounds, my anxiety vanished because it was an ADD delight. I wandered from one act to the next, people-watched, self-medicated, and tripped out on colossal mechanical insects and wind-sculpted balloon chains painting the sky.

Star power like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Nick Cave attracted a record 90,000 pilgrims each of two weekends in April, but the real draw was the crowd itself. In the digital age, unlimited music is on tap anytime, anywhere, and music-discovery services have reduced the search for the new from prowling obscure clubs and rifling stacks of unknown albums to opening a browser. It’s the shared live experience and the chance to star in your own social media firmament – by posting obsessively to Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr – that’s elevated Coachella to the Superbowl of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

It’s revived the music-festival genre, along with events like Austin City Limits and Bonnaroo, for fans who treat concerts like iPods, shuffling from one act and genre to the next. Today’s festivals are far removed from the first rock concerts of the ’60s that were “beachheads of a new, ecstatic culture meant to replace the old repressive one,” notes Barbara Ehrenreich in Dancing in the Streets.

Now in its 15th year, Coachella is the highest-grossing festival in the world. For the region it’s a quarter-billion-dollar revenue generator, which outstrips Jamaica’s GDP on an annual basis. Tickets run up to $800, luxury Safari tents top out at $6,500, and everything costs: parking, water, showers, even charging phones. The dominant tribe is money-flush youth with the will to endure three sleepless days of being mashed in a delicious sound taco of Indie rock.

But Coachella is also the modern incarnation of medieval carnivals that revealed “another way of life that stood in stark contrast to the austerity and fixed hierarchy of the official order,” notes Al Sandine in The Taming of the American Crowd. We may imagine festivals like the original May Day, that celebrated the return of spring, to be as timeless as nature, but they are inventions, like Labor Day, Independence Day and Armistice Day.

Late 18th century French revolutionaries “invented a series of public events intended to furnish the novel and exciting world that had fallen into their hands with a revolutionary culture,” writes Sandine. These were solemn affairs with “maidens dressed in white” and ceremonies “marking brotherhood between rival villages,” but the desire for carnival could not be suppressed. On the first anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, the orderly military parade in Paris turned into a days-long celebration with “parties, dances and parodies.” In the town of Saint-Andéol, Sandine quotes a contemporary describing a “love-feast,” where ” ‘wine flowed in the streets, the tables were spread, provisions placed in common,’ and people joined hands in an enormous dance extending outward ‘into the fields [and] across the mountains.’ “

Libidinous festivals still exist in the global south, such as Rio’s Carnival and India’s Holi. Our public parties, Halloween and St. Patrick’s Day, are associated with frat-boy culture or are sanitized like Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Libertine exceptions remain, such as Mardi Gras, Pride and Burning Man, but they have survived by adapting to the market. Radical noncorporate celebrations such as Rainbow Gatherings and Critical Mass tend to be squashed.

Because unplanned festivals are rare, they can be wildly popular. Tens of thousands joined Occupy Wall Street as it was a spontaneous outburst of history and living theater. Democratic, free, participatory, dangerous, unpredictable and open to all, Occupy was unlike the gated festivals that have colonized public space with pacified crowds.

While the elite used to fear the frenzy of the crowd, mega-festivals profit from assimilating the defiance and aggression of rock music. Coachella has successfully enclosed the ancient dance of joy and aggression around a bonfire. Bottling youthful rebellion draws devotees from Sydney, London, Tijuana and Hollywood for nostalgia and novelty, eros and excess. And it’s filling a primal need for mass, spontaneous revelry that’s largely disappeared from America.

Rob, 24, an expressionist artist who jetted in from New Zealand, said, “It’s the best music festival in the world.” Jane, a schoolteacher from Burbank had been dying to attend because her friends deemed it “epic.” “Was it epic?” I asked. “It was epic,” she replied with a delirious grin. “Teddy Bear,” a 20-something bro outfitted in more digital media than clothing, wondered how to optimally balance his intake of Acid, Mollies, and Sassafras with alcohol.

Cynics sneer at the vapid self-indulgence. Desperate-to-be-cool attendees gush about fake bands. Lindsay Lohan delayed her court-ordered rehab to after the festival, a smart move for the Adderall and Xanax-popping train wreck as drugs are cheaper and easier to score than food. There’s little nostalgia for rock’s muddy, tie-dye, bad-trip roots. Today’s hippie chicks buy fake flower headbands; music stars outsource their beats; and the 40,000 campers herded into the tent Serengeti eye the air-conditioned VIP quarters with envy.

But criticizing the base desire misses the point. Excess is the goal, and everyone is participant and spectator in the swirl of drugs, performance, fashion, art and above all, flesh. It could overwhelm, like the two sweaty groundskeepers who stood frozen with beer in hands as a flood of pecs and boobs, abs and butts coursed around them. One of the most popular spots was where the water guns were spraying overheated crowds dancing to DJ sets behind the motor-home-sized psychedelic snail oozing a foamy mucilaginous trail. Under the cooling jets, hundreds gyrated in slippery polyamorous frottage like wriggling spermatozoa building to a crescendo.

Without sex and drugs, attendance would probably dwindle to that of a minor-league baseball game. But there’s more to it than that. By feeding the need for human connection, Coachella’s revived the festival scene. The promise of an interconnected world on demand has turned out to be two-dimensional and alienating. Iron-fisted policing has scared most Americans away from political crowds. Shared intimacy is elusive – even though every form is on sale from baby making to funeral mourning. That leaves bars, shopping and sports, all of which lack genuine community.

Coachella is so immersive, it feels like its own universe, which makes it hard to imagine another way of life beyond its utopian consumerism, sustained by austerity. We were all atomized consumers whizzing in a giant particle accelerator to explosive energies, unable to escape the electromagnetic spectacle. If Coachella is a universe, the dark energy holding it together is the free market.

There’s little space for politics. Reggae and dub pioneer Lee Scratch Perry chanted, “I am a Black Man” and “Burn IMF.” Flea declared, “We don’t like guns, and we don’t like drones,” and the Sparks crooned the biting crowd-mocker, “I am a Suburban Homeboy.” The words felt out of place because political music is a product of social struggle by the poor, peasants and workers, not West LA stoners.

Moments did defy cynicism. For her finale, a white-clad Janelle Monáe paddled across a sea of hands. She hypnotically drew us in with our eyes and hands reaching skyward to form the surf to buoy her. After Monáe passed overheard, not before timidly clasping my left hand – which I eventually washed – the crowd returned to earth. With faces aglow, we hungered to share the joy. But the fire dimmed when I caught the eye of a stranger rather than a friend. Like a good drug it was transcendent, but not transformative. Collectively we created a fond memory, but we couldn’t connect to each other.

Coachella may be the zenith of hipster culture – food choices included Kogi BBQ, wood-fired pizza, espresso bars and a farmer’s market – but it’s all Walmart economy. Its sustainability program encourages carpooling, not to save the planet, but to help it pare parking and personnel costs. It extracts unpaid labor from concertgoers by providing a free bottle of water for every 10 empties turned in. The youth who worked the water stands pleaded for tips, explaining they were unpaid, apart from free admission. Two leathernecks from Camp Pendleton, who had ditched their security guard posts, also claimed they were unpaid, with their Marine Corps battalion receiving their wages. Other guards said they were paid less than $10 an hour to work fully clothed in 100-degree weather and dust and pollen so intense that many people acquired “Coachella cough.”

Coachella Valley is one of the “poorest, densest areas” in the country, with farmworker families contending with “arsenic-tainted water, frequent blackouts and raw sewage that backs up into the shower.” Latinos at the festival were more likely to be low-wage manual laborers than well-heeled partiers at the Rose Garden bar. The workers are hired through layers of subcontractors, notorious for skimping on benefits while violating labor rights.

On Monday, a few dozen workers cleaned one of the vast fields that had corralled tens of thousands of partiers. Ron, a security guard who works the festival circuit, gave me a glimpse of the underbelly. He indicated the official attitude toward drug use was “I know nothing!” While festival workers diligently advised, “Make sure to stay hydrated,” there was no attempt to curb the pervasive and open drug use. Ron claimed one camper, arrested after stabbing a man in the groin and neck after finding him with his girlfriend in his tent, was found with 5,000 doses of ecstasy to sell. “What about sexual assaults?” I asked. “That’s not a problem,” Ron said. “But some of these girls are asking for it.” He paused. “I mean, no one’s asking to get raped, but have you seen the way they dress?” Security’s main concern was jumpers hurdling fences to get in for free and busting rings peddling counterfeit wristbands. Ron said violence was minimal compared to Stagecoach, the country music festival the following week. He explained many guys would get hammered drinking all day and then “wail on each other.” Unlike Coachella, Stagecoach’s web site is blaring with warnings about excess drinking, violence and public sex.

At that point, Ron’s partner dragged him away. A backhoe had struck a water main and a geyser was turning the road into a lake. A gaggle of workers exited the cleaned field; the only remaining evidence of Coachella was rows of thousands of square patches of grass yellowed by tents. The workers grabbed a patch of shade, and each one foraged through a clear plastic bag, examining hauls of T-shirts left behind. After a few minutes they were rounded up to clear the next field. One worker was absorbed in examining his stash – nearly as big as himself. He looked up, grabbed his bag and struggled to run after his crew as they disappeared in the distance.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Labor, Occupy Movement

Little Baghdad, California

by Arun Gupta
May 2013 issue
The Progressive

NABEEL USED TO WORK FOR the Americans in Iraq. He was a security team leader for the Research Triangle Institute, a U.S. contractor that was paid more than half-a-billion dollars to run “local governance programs” throughout the country. He survived three car-bombing attempts. “I was lucky,” he says nonchalantly.

But as GIs began to exit Iraq in 2011, he knew that his luck would not last. Nabeel says that some guys threatened him: “We will kill your son. We will get revenge when the Americans leave Iraq.” Nabeel didn’t need much more encouragement, given the collapse of public services that had made life arduous, so he applied for a special immigration visa for Iraqis employed on behalf of the U.S. government. With his family, he immigrated to El Cajon, California, in July 2011.

He expected a warm welcome and a decent standard of living for helping the war effort.

“When I came to the United States, I thought I would be better than the prime minister in Iraq,” recalls Nabeel. “Now, I am jealous of the street cleaner.”

Six friends of his nod in agreement. They are sitting in a sparsely furnished office in El Cajon, a city of 101,000 residents east of San Diego. The door says Babylon Design and Printing, but they jokingly call it the “Babylon coffee shop.” Outside, palm trees stand still in the damp night air. Inside hang oil paintings of Middle Eastern marketplaces and rural life.

All seven knew each other in Babil province, south of Baghdad. All worked for U.S. contractors. All escaped Iraq because of threats and the collapse of public services. Now, however, all are unhappy, most are jobless, and some wish they had never left Iraq despite the violence and chaos.

Also in the office are Ahmad Talib and Huda Al-Jabiri. They fled Iraq in the late ’90s, and spent five days walking without food to the Iranian border while Huda was eight months pregnant. The couple is employed as social workers resettling refugees. Ahmad says he is aware of five families who came to El Cajon recently and returned to Iraq.

“Many of the older generation want to go back,” Ahmad says. “This is not their culture. They have friends, families, memories in Iraq. One said, ‘If I am killed by a suicide bomber, I die once. Here in America, I die every day. I struggle with rent, I struggle with language, I struggle with work.’ ”

By one measure, the seven friends are fortunate. Out of a sea of four million Iraqis displaced since 2003, a relative trickle of 85,000 has been admitted to the United States. From 2003 to 2006, the United States accepted a mere 735 Iraqi refugees. Only after the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act became law in January 2008 did the United States start letting in a significant number of Iraqis.

While Michigan has a larger population of Iraqi descent, El Cajon is the top destination for this round of refugees partly because the State Department has discouraged refugees from settling in the economically depressed Detroit area. Professor John Weeks, a demographer at San Diego State University, estimates that the Iraqi population in San Diego County has swelled by an average of 400 a month since 2008, and El Cajon is now almost one-third Iraqi American.

But new refugees often encounter a rude awakening. The city’s poverty rate is 23 percent, and the unemployment rate at the end of 2012 was 11 percent. Moreover, El Cajon is still trying to live down its tag as the “meth capital of the world,” and it retains a hard-bitten feel evidenced by a robbery rate 50 percent above the national average.

Nonetheless, refugees say the warm, sunny weather is a welcome reminder of home, and for decades El Cajon has become a magnet for many of Iraq’s persecuted. Thousands of Kurds started arriving following a failed revolt in 1976. After the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein crushed a Shi’a uprising encouraged by the senior Bush Administration, and some 1,500 Shi’a who escaped found their way to El Cajon. There are also Mandaeans, whose 2,000-year-old Gnostic culture is in danger of extinction, and Yezidis, practitioners of an ancient syncretic religion. But far and away, it’s the estimated 30,000 Chaldean Catholics in El Cajon who have enlivened the city with Iraqi culture, many having first settled there in the 1950s. Main Street is nicknamed “Little Baghdad” for the proliferation of Arab-language signs and Iraqi-owned restaurants, markets, jewelry stores, auto shops, and cultural centers.

Everyone who has contact with the community says the number one problem is the lack of jobs. Khattab Aljubori talks proudly of the $4,000 a month he earned in Iraq as an IT specialist. He fled in November 2010 because of threats to his family and now gets by on welfare and whatever computer work he can scrounge.

According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study on the health of Iraqi refugees who settled in the United States after 2009, 67 percent of adults are unemployed, including 85 percent of those over 45 years old.

Suhail Putras is one of those who has found a job in El Cajon. He works as a cook at Ali Baba restaurant, which is decorated like an Arabian tent, with plush blue and white fabric covering the walls and ceiling, and beaded entrances shaped like arches. As Suhail talks, waiters hustle silver platters heaped with yellow rice, chopped vegetables, pickled radishes, glistening kebabs, and fresh-baked flatbreads the size of hubcaps. He left in 2008, and makes no bones that he’s glad to be gone. “Iraq was the paradise, now it’s the hell,” he says. The Mahdi Army, a Shi’a militia, bombed his family’s liquor store in Baghdad. “I was shocked that people I’ve been living with thirty years came with a knife for my back,” he says. He says his future, and more important, that of his children, is in the United States. But he tears up when asked if he misses Baghdad. “I was born there, I was married there, I have happy and sad memories there,” he says.

Every refugee confronts these contradictory forces. Nabeel says he’s landed work as a security guard, but it’s not enough.

“This is not a better life for me, but for my family, yes,” he says. “We sacrifice for our family. I want a better future and education for my kids.”

Mohammed chimes in. A civil engineer who bolted from Iraq in October 2011 after two of his co-workers at the Cooperative Housing Foundation, a U.S.-based NGO, were gunned down in the street, he is frustrated at being unable to support his family.

“I worked with Americans in my country, but I have no experience to work in America,” he says. He has a simple solution: “So give us a job,” he says, referring to the government. “If they keep Saddam Hussein, we will never be here.”

Ahmad says some Iraqis in El Cajon believe they deserve welfare. They think, “This is our money, they took our oil.”

“These refugees are a direct consequence of our decision of having invaded Iraq,” adds Professor Weeks. “Some of these refugees, not all of them, come with the attitude that you ruined our country, you owe us.”

It’s not hard to understand why. Farah Muhsin, who came to San Rafael, California, in 2008 to study political science, says her family decamped to Syria in May 2003 after her mother, a journalist in Iraq, appeared on “death lists issued by the Badr Brigade and the Da’wa Party.”

“If you go to Iraq today, they say America has destroyed our country and allowed criminals and warlords to become politicians, take control of our government and imprison and torture thousands of people,” Muhsin says. “As harsh and cruel was life under Saddam Hussein, it was much better than today.”

Estimates of the number of Iraqis killed during the last decade range from 150,000 to one million. Trauma among Iraqi refugees in Syria, with 90 percent suffering from depression and 68 percent from post-traumatic stress disorder, far outstrips that suffered by civilians in Kosovo and Afghanistan.

The moment Iraqis land in the United States they face new struggles. First, Ahmad explains, they are usually in debt to the International Organization for Migration, which provides an interest-free loan for the airline fare to bring them over. “A family of five might owe $6,000, and they have to start making payments in three months,” he says.

Social workers say each refugee receives a “reception and placement” grant of $1,100 for rent, security deposit, furnishing, bedding, food, and other essentials. But for a childless couple that may not be enough to secure an apartment. “When you come here,” says Ahmad, “you get the worst apartment, the cheapest one they can find, and donated furniture.”

Salam Hassan, a thirty-seven-old-year computer engineer living in Berkeley, who served as a fixer in Baghdad for journalists like Naomi Klein, Dahr Jamail, and Christian Parenti before escaping mortal danger in 2005, says single male refugees in the Bay Area wind up in West Oakland, “famous for its violent history, because it’s poor, and the rent is cheaper.” A number of refugees in Oakland have been robbed and assaulted, and Farah Muhsin says, “One Iraqi man was mugged and was shot five times, and is now permanently disabled.”

Hassan, who has taken so many refugees under his wing that his apartment was dubbed “the Iraqi Embassy,” says they are packed “three to four people per one-bedroom apartment. They get four months assistance, then are switched to a program that just covers their rent and $200 a month for food stamps.”

It’s an expensive and difficult process to make it to the United States—one refugee, a nuclear engineer, said it cost him $40,000—so adults tend to be professionals with advanced degrees in fields like medicine, engineering, and accounting. But the pressure to find jobs is relentless, and getting recertified is a laborious process. In the meantime, Ahmad says, “We find them jobs that no one else takes—fast food, housecleaning, parking-lot attendants.” Huda notices the change in their demeanor after they arrive: “You look at their faces. They are so proud of their degrees and their experience, and then they are told to clean sixteen hotel rooms a day.”

Ahmad is cynical as to why the United States lets in refugees: “They’re cheap labor.” But he’s quick to add, “They are survivors.” They confront obstacles at every corner—navigating a byzantine health care system, living in substandard conditions, learning how to use credit, taking crowded ESL classes with overwhelmed instructors. “But they will get up at 5 a.m., commute two hours, work a full day, get home at 7 or 8 p.m., and do it again the next day.”

Mark Lewis is mayor of El Cajon. Now sixty-four, he’s been in office since 1998 and grew up here. If he is any indication, cultural misunderstandings are abundant. He says single women have complained to him about not being served in Chaldean-owned establishments, and he’s warned them they must serve women. He says, “In our society the female is the same as the male. They haven’t got that through their heads yet.”

Lewis says some Chaldean schoolchildren who receive free lunches are “being picked up by Mercedes Benzes.” He adds: “First time, they come over here, it doesn’t take them too long to learn where all the freebies are at.” This, he says, causes “a lot of resentment in regard to veterans,” who ask, “Why can’t [the federal government] support veterans like they support minorities coming over here?” Lewis says this is creating “white flight.”

Advocates say that not enough is being done for Iraqi immigrants. “They need more educational programs,” Huda says, dismissing as laughable the four hours of cultural orientation some receive as their entire introduction to American society. Ahmad adds that adults need more activities “so they’re not just wandering the streets,” which is a common sight in El Cajon. Then there’s the issue of transportation, with many relying on a bus system that’s costly and inadequate. Most important, says Huda, “They need time for recovery and to learn the language and culture. Don’t put them to work right away.”

For many Iraqi immigrants in El Cajon, the adjustment to the United States is just too much. “I’m a nation to myself,” Salam Hassan says, explaining that he doesn’t feel at ease in either America or Iraq.

Leave a comment

Filed under U.S. Foreign Policy