Category Archives: general news

How Quickly We Forget

I had the opportunity to speak at last weekend’s Left Forum (formerly the Socialist Scholars Conference), on a panel called “Doing Independent Reporting: A Tribute to Brad Will.” Given that frame, in preparing my remarks I considered the reporting on Oaxaca, where Brad was killed, and the recent coverage of popular uprisings in Mexico. I also wanted to offer a critique of the independent media, and think through what we can be doing better. And that brought me to thinking about Atenco.

Like the mainstream media, the independent media is episodic. We focus on the breaking news, the arrest, the murder, the riot. I like to think that at Wakeup Call, the morning news program for which I am a producer, and at other independent media outlets, we dig deeper into the root causes of these flareups. But even when we manage to do that, we rarely follow up on a story until the next big flareup. Atenco is a case in point.

On May 3rd of 2006, there was a confrontation between flower vendors in Texcoco and the police – the police wouldn’t let them sell their flowers in the town square. They called for help from their neighbors in Atenco, who blocked the road the runs along Atenco and leads to Texcoco. The police came to move the blockade, and couldn’t, despite intense violence. A fourteen year old boy was shot and killed by police.

The next day, May 4th, allies flooded into Atenco, along with reporters from the mainstream and independent press. So did more than 3,000 police. After a second day of intense police violence against reporters and protesters, there were some 300 plus arrests. At least five women were raped by police, on the busses where the arrestees were being held, in front of their fellow protesters and reporters.

Allow me a momentary side note. Some news reports say that 5 women were raped, some news reports say nearly 50. In talking to people who were at Atenco, and others who are close to the story, they say that this disparity in numbers comes from a difference between how the women on the ground define rape, and how it is defined by human rights organizations. Not all of the nearly 50 women in question were penetrated by a penis. Dozens were stripped naked, beaten and touched and penetrated by fingers – to me, and to the women in Atenco, this is rape. Anyhow, quibbling about the numbers is asinine. I just wanted to preempt any doubts about the validity of the stories from Atendo, in case you investigate the story further, as you should.

As the news started to filter out from Atenco, about the arrests, beatings, hospitalizations, and rapes, there was an outcry from the independent media, in the US and all over the world. From NarcoNews to Wakeup Call to Democracy Now! to the BBC, the story of the murder and the rapes spread through the internet and the airwaves.

The attacks at Atenco raised the consciousness of people in the US, at least, about the diversity and continued struggle of the popular uprisings in Mexico. Of course, many people on the US left were familiar with the Zapatista movement. The beautifully written declaraciones, and the glamour of the masked rebels in the jungle, fed the North American need for inspiration. The Zapatistas do what most of the US left has not managed to do; they are creating their own systems and alternatives, fighting for self-determination, for the right to be left in peace. Their example has sparked some much-needed reflection in the US left about our work, and its often reactive tendencies.

It also sparked a lot of Zapatourismo, young and idealistic people visiting the revolution on summer break. Some great work has come out of that exchange, and so have a fair number of problems. I’m not going to go too far into that now. Point being, the attention on Atenco raised awareness about groups besides the Zapatistas that stand in opposition to the government, including the Frente del Pueblo en Defensa de La Tierra in Atenco. Essentially, Atenco reminded people in the US about Mexico.

And then attention shifted from Atenco to Oaxaca. The Associacion Popular del Pueblo de Oaxaca, or APPO, was fighting a pitched battle of ideas, and battle in the streets, seeking the ouster of Governor Ulises Ruiz Ortiz. The conflict in the streets drew many independent reporters, including Brad Will, an American videographer and friend of mine who was killed by paramilitaries in Oaxaca. Professor Emilio Alonso Fabián and Esteban López Zurita were also killed in Oaxaca that day, October 27, 2006. Brad’s murder brought an astonishing amount of media attention to Oaxaca. It was also used as a pretext for an invasion of Oaxaca by the PFP, or Federal Preventative Police, and rachetted up the repression of organizers, activists, peasants and journalists living and working in Oaxaca.

Now, it’s nearly a year since the attacks in Atenco. There are 9 women, arrested at Atenco, five of whom were raped by police, still in jail in Santiaguito. Last May, the attention of the global activist community, the global independent media community, was focused on Atenco. And in Santiaguito, people were protesting outside the jail every day. But the prison is far from town, and the visitors have dwindled away. Now, the 9 women prisoners from May 4th are essentially alone, and feel forgotten. And it pains me to say it, but they mostly have been.

The conflict in Oaxaca continues. Journalists and organizers are living underground or in exile, moving from house to house with their children in the dead of night. The people who continue to work and speak and fight are doing so at great, very real risk to their lives. And they too have been forgotten.

Why? I could say that it’s a question of resources. Because there are relatively few progressive, independent media outlets, we often feel as if we have to tell every story, and that doesn’t allow for much follow up. I could say that it’s a question of time. We talk at Wakeup Call about doing a regular segment called That’s Old News, following up on what we were covering last year, or six months ago. It’s a good idea (if I do say so myself), but we don’t have the staff to make it happen. But more than anything, I think, its a question of habit, the gut urge to cover the breaking news. That’s important, to cover the breaking news that most media outlets ignore. But we also need to teach our audience to stick with a story. Speaking as a newsmaker, I hope you ask that of us, and push us to give you the consistent information needed to stay with a story and demand change.

——

On May 4th, it will be a year since the nine women arrested at Atenco will be in prison. They have yet to be sentenced, and are essentially still awaiting processing. When they are given the rare opportunity to go before a judge, the very police officers who raped them are in the room. In October, Amnesty International condemned the sham investigation into the rapes and violence at Atenco, and demanded a federal inquiry. We are all still waiting, and our nine sisters are waiting in prison.

As of today, it has been more than ten months that they are in prison. Think of what your life was like ten months ago. Think of all the people you have met, the conversations that have changed your life, the places you have been, the meals, the walks, the dreams. Now imagine that you spent all those months in one room.

At the Left Forum panel, Brandon Jourdan said that we as independent media makers must learn to fight the battle of the story, and not just cover the story of the battle. We are not doing that well enough. We report from a different perspective than the mainstream media, and often cover different stories, but we too often fail to construct a narrative that we choose, rather than one dictated by the dates on which our people die or disappear.

I don’t want to be like most of the press and leave you without a job to do or an action to take. I am waiting for friends closer to the Atenco story to give me information on:

  • government officials to whom you can write;
  • how to donate funds to their case and their commisary, and;
  • the addresses of the prisoners so you can write them and let them know we remember their names.

While you’re waiting for those action points, you can come out on Thursday March 15th to a night of videos, discussion and food:

In honor of the March 15th international day of action against police brutality the Amor y Resistencia and In Our Hearts Collectives, present videos and speakers featuring:

Maka, an activist from Mexico City who was involved in media projects in Oaxaca during the uprising.

Videos about the Uprising in Oaxaca, and the seizing of the media by Oaxacan Radical Women in 2006.

Legacy of Torture: A documentary about the case of the “Panther 8”, eight former Black Panthers arrested January 23rd, 2007 on charges related to the 1971 killing of a San Francisco police officer. Similar charges were thrown in 1973 when it was revealed that police used torture to extract confessions.

Representative from “Friends and Family of Daniel McGowan” speaking about the recent FBI crackdown on Environmental Activists known as “the Green Scare”.

Vegan Mexican Food and home brewed soft drinks, courtesy of the ‘Brewing up Trouble Action Faction”.

$5.00 Suggested Donation. (money raised will go to mexican anarchist collectives supporting political prisoners in Oaxaca no one turned away for lack of funds)

Come early for food and drinks!
Thursday, March 15th, 6pm at:
Ad Hoc Art space,
49 Bogart Street, Brooklyn, NY.
(‘L’ to Morgan Ave. Bogart Exit)

www.adhocart.org (for directions)

Like the Zapatista sisters say, abajo y la izquierda, con todo el corazón.

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Hustling Backwards

Because I spend a lot of my evenings working at home and reading up on the day’s news, I watch a fair amount of TV. Or rather, I hear a lot of TV in the background of my room, staying half tuned in to the sitcoms and news shows. The other night, I was half-watching a special on Hurricane Katrina, and while it was nothing I didn’t know already, it hit me hard.

Working in the news media, I’ve been pretty acutely aware that the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina was approaching. Like every other media outlet, my show has been planning its coverage for the big day, although I do think we haven’t covered it the way others have. We have reports from around the world, comparing the earthquake in Gujarat to the flooding of New Orleans. We have the voices of evacuees displaced by the storm mixed with stories of street vendors displaced by the World Trade Center bombings. I think these illustrate the idea that Katrina and its mismanaged aftermath, to borrow a phrase, was an extreme example of the current disaster we’ve been in for decades – the disaster of racism, classism, and environmental mismanagement.

But as the TV flickered in the background, I was pulled away from work to the screen by the images that hit me so hard a year ago. The desperation. The mothers begging for water to give their thirsty babies. The old people sleeping on the baggage carousel at Louis Armstrong airport. The thousands sleeping pell-mell on the floor at the Superdome, the clogged toilets and mountains of garbage and sheet-covered bodies outside what was supposed to be a safe haven.

And while I’ve been planning our reporting on the hurricane, I had managed to forget the feelings I had watching those images a year ago. The shame, anger, despair, and devastation – those had faded.

And that’s an outrage. I suppose we can’t live in a constant state of shame, despair, and fury. But a year on since the Hurricane, the “national conversation” about race and class that we were supposed to have? I’m still waiting, and if Katrina wasn’t going to spark it, I don’t want to be around for whatever disaster will finally make America face up.

The NBC special had Brian Williams saying “When you walk by a body lying face fown on the street outside the Superdome, you know that something has come unravelled.” Oh, that’s when you know? You didn’t have a hint when all the faces drawn and desperate at the Superdome were black. You didn’t get a clue when the schools were failing, when the unemployment rates are through the roof, when working people can barely make enough to survive.

The NBC special aired the 28th, the day before the storm hit. On the actually Katrina anniversary, I was really struck by the near-total lack of coverage on the major TV networks. That day being a Tuesday and thus a work-night, I tuned into PBS, which was showing a new documentary not on Katrina, but much more topically, on the current disaster. It’s called Waging A Living, and its about how impossible it is for working people to live in America. And it profiles three women and one man, living not on the brink of poverty but well underwater, despite their superhuman efforts to survive.

It particularly killed me that these were women, all with children, all so proud and strong and fierce, and so damn familiar. They are the women who follow the rules, love their kids, work ungodly hard, even make time for school. And all they get for it is massive credit card debt, high blood pressure, and deep, deep grief at not being able to hold up the sky.

One woman is raising five kids; she works for child services, and she herself was sexually and physically abused as a kid. When, after four years at $8.25 an hour, she gets a raise to $11, she loses food stamps and Medicaid benefits. One child is sick; she can’t afford his $191 prescriptions (for 2 drugs) with her new salary. Her rental is subsidy is cut, raising the rent by $149 – more than the total amount of the raise. As she says, the harder she works, the harder it gets. Hustling backwards.

Another is a waitress, going through a divorce. She’s losing her home, her car, and her kids are losing it too from the stress and the crisis. You see the direct line between the financial precarity and the family breakdown. Family values is economic justice, plain and simple.

I know this isn’t the most radical position, but I do actually believe in the promise of America. For all its terrible flaws, for its slave-holding origins, America was founded – even if just in name only – on the whimsical notion that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental right. Brian Williams didn’t specify just what had come unravelled when he saw the body in the street, but it’s something very fundamental – it’s America’s own idea of itself. For the people dying in the streets, on their roofs and in their attics, the pursuit of happiness was irrelevant; it was the pursuit of life itself, and the American government failed them. But as Waging a Living illustrates so intensely, that failure did not by any stretch of the imagination start late last August.

Much has been made of the media coverage of Katrina and its aftermath. And I could join the chorus and go on forever about the media’s misrepresentations and obfuscations of who is responsible for the abuse of New Orleans’ residents. But that’s a straw man. It’s like saying Survivor is bad because it split people by race. No. Survivor is bad because its a ridiculous waste of our public airwaves that too rarely make time (or funding) for riveting human relevant stories like the one on PBS tonight.

The women in this movie are so goddam cheerful and strong, and there are millions of them all over the place, and the closest we’ve come to showing them on TV in the last 15 years is Roseanne and then the Katrina coverage. I used to work on economic policy issues, and sometimes I wonder whether I should have stayed there, because working in the media feels far from the real world sometimes. But then I see TV programs like this, and I remember why the fights for a media justice matter the hell out of the damn thing. It’s because with a just media, we would not be able to hide from the current disaster.

One woman in this movie says that the best part was when she got evicted, and then social services came through for her, her adult daughter with cancer, her four grandkids, and her own young child. The best part, she said, was that someone finally heard that I needed help. Just to be clear, she is saying that the best part was when her whole family lost their family home. Yeah.

For thousands in New Orleans, no one heard the requests for help – during the storm, before, or since. And I say requests on purpose. It’s not a plea, it’s not a desperate wail. These requests for help, from the people in New Orleans and the working poor all over the country – they’re a demand of people who believe in themselves, a battle cry of people fighting hard to live.

The waitress mom in Waging a Living encapsulated in four words the way I feel about life in America right now. “I’m independent. I’m not free,” she says. I certainly consider myself to be strong and independent. But with our rights to communicate, control our bodies, live in a half-affordable home, and earn enough to feed our families all under attack, this doesn’t look like freedom. It’s more like we’re all hustling backwards.

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