I traveled to Honduras as an international human rights observer to document rights violations during the November 26, 2017 national election.

As a labor, peace, human, and civil rights organizer in the United States, I’ve seen a wide range of elections and political assemblies.  The level of fraud, conflict, and intimidation I have seen across the United States for the past twenty years is nothing compared to the degree of political conflict I witnessed in eight days in Honduras.

After a 2009 coup de eta, congressman, Juan Orlando Hernandez or JOH, and his National Party voted to remove elected President Manuel “Mel” Zayala from office after the left learning President planned a referendum to ask voters if he should run again.  After replacing key members of the judiciary as the majority party’s leader in Congress, Juan Orlando Hernandez’ hand-picked election tribunal declared him President in 2013, an election marred by assassinations, kidnapping and disappearances, intimidation, and attacks on opponents.

JOH appointed General Julián Pacheco defense minister in 2014, the same year Barack Obama approved a Central American child refugee program after Immigration and Customs Enforcement captured over 50,000 unaccompanied young children trying to cross the border into the United States.  In 2015, gunmen assassinated internationally renowned indigenous environmentalist Berta Carceres, who had lead protests a major hydro-electric project that would displace indigenous communities.  In January this year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency charged a Honduran congressperson with international cocaine trafficking.

Despite the Constitution’s indicating otherwise, The new Supreme Court ruled that JOH could run for a consecutive term in the November 2017 elections.

On election night that Sunday, all three Presidential candidates declared victory.  Tuesday morning, with 57% of votes counted, opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla led by 5%.  But a technical delay followed by a suspiciously high margin of victory in the remaining ballots led to the incumbent’s victory.

I personally witnessed polls closing early at 4 pm with voters waiting outside and saw evidence of national party partisans paying voters to support the government.  I also witnessed military police dispersing crowds and teargassing both protesters and opposition party election observers during in the contentious vote count.  The following day after widespread protests, our human rights delegation documented dozens of cases of protesters, including children, critically injured by gunfire after soldiers used live ammunition on Hondurans who had shut down and barricaded streets and highways across the country, and watched media reports of a Catholic Priest who “disappeared,” his car found abandoned on a rural road.

Two and a half months before this election, Donald Trump announced that he would strip legal status for 700,000 U.S. residents protected under DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Two and a half weeks before the election, Donald Trump’s State Department announced the end of the Central American Minor refugee program, which had resettled 1,500 of the 13,000 unaccompanied Central American children who had applied since the program’s inception during a mass wave of child migration to the United States.  Two days after the election, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson certified that Honduras was making progress in Human Rights.

Despite the Organization of American States announcing that widespread irregularities made the Honduran elections illegitimate, the United States recognized the victory of the incumbent President in late December.  In January, the Donald Trump announced he would end Temporary Protected Status for an additional 325,000 U.S. residents of Central American and Haitian origin.  While meeting with Democratic Party leaders shortly before they withheld votes to briefly shut down the government over immigration, Donald Trump referred to the U.S. residents he wanted to strip of legal status as coming from “shithole” countries.

Since 2009, the United States has provided Honduras $115 million dollars in military aid.  The United Nations reports that cocaine trafficking in Honduras rapidly increased since the coup and has estimated that eighty percent of cocaine traveling to the United States by air passes through Honduras.

In eight days before, during, and after the 2017 Honduran elections, Chicago based La Voz de Los de Abajo, met with nine civil society organizations and traveled to seven different locations across the country to document and hear testimony about human rights violations.

La Voz de Los de Abajo has monitored human rights in Honduras for more than 15 years. After paramilitaries murdered indigenous leader Berta Carceres in March 2016, La Voz organized fact-finding missions and publicized documented rights abuses.  Berta was a leader of COPINH, the Civil Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, and she had led a campaign against the construction of Auga Zarca, a hydro-electric project whose financers, FMO, the Netherlands Development Finance Company, and FinnFund, a Finnish international sustainable development finance company withdrew after widespread publicity of her death.

The project would dam the Gualcarque river, Displacing farms of the indigenous Lenca, and despoiling the sacred river’s path.  Soldiers had killed Berta’s comrade and lover Tomas Garcia three years prior, but COPINH had continued to march, protest, and blockade roads to oppose the project.  They built a formidable national coalition, uniting farmworkers, landless peasants, Catholic priests, the urban poor, teachers, students, and indigenous communities from the highland Lenca, to lowland Miskito, and Caribbean Garifuna of African descent.

November 25, 2017

After arriving in Honduras, we first met with the political opposition; the Alliance Against the Dictatorship, or Alianza.  Left leaning political parties from across Latin America were meeting in a hotel for a conference days before the election; the hotel lobby had white chairs with wooden armrests and thick, plush white cushions.  The sound of small fountain tucked into the side of the room, with water cascading down white tile into shallow catch-basin soothed the senses.  They had gathered there to plan, coordinate, and share best practices in a year that will see major elections cross the hemisphere, from Mexico to Brazil.  Honduras was the first.

We took an elevator to the 4th floor where we entered a conference room with clear glass walls.  Gerardo introduced himself and began to tell us about the nation’s political situation.  There will be 60,300 mesas, each corresponding to a political precinct located within the various polling places, where Hondurans can vote tomorrow, he began to explain.  Polls will close at 4 or 5 pm, an hour earlier than the last election.  In 2013, he continued, we believe they stole the election when poll officials transmitted the tally—the results from each precinct—electronically to the national election tribunal headquarters in Tegucigalpa.  The data was manipulated enroute.

The Alianza expected media outlets, controlled by corporations owned by the handful of powerful oligarchical families who supported JOH, to announce that JOH was winning mid-day, to control perception and discourage people from voting.

In 2013, officials quickly certified the election and announced the victor only a few hours after polls closed, long before all the votes were counted.  After four years of election manipulation, the opposition party did not trust the transmission of precinct vote tally data.  Party volunteers had been instructed to watch each polling place, observe the vote counts at each location and take pictures to safeguard the democratic process.  He expected that they would continue to observe the manual tallying of votes into Monday, the day after the election.  In 2013, the Alianza published their report on election irregularities 2 weeks after Juan Orlando declared himself victory.

This time, their plan will be to demand to count all the ballots and strictly enforce the legitimacy and transparency by tabulating tally sheets manually.

Gerardo stopped, and picked up the phone.  It had been ringing off the hook.  He said a few words and hung up, apologizing to us.  Things are tense, he continued.  There are election observers in detention.  A contingent from neighboring Guatemala was stopped at the border, fifty Guatemalans turned away.  There is an alliance between progressives and supporters of good-government.  The left, embittered by the coup, championed labor and environmental rights, and opposed both land privatization, and dwindling government support for healthcare and education.  Good-government supporters wanted an end to the endemic bribery, corruption, cronyism and graft of government officials.

There have been threats made at schools where polling places will be housed.  We are going to make sure there are enough ballots at those locations, there has been fake information circulated as to where people can vote and where the mesas, or precinct polling locations are.  We anticipate violence around polling locations, and many party activists have faced threats.  Our strategy, Gerardo continued between interruptions of individuals walking into the room to whisper in his ear and constant phone calls, is to get all our supporters to vote early, and to hope that the people will overcome their fear, and will go to the polls to vote their hopes, for a Honduras where youth can grow up, a place where children have food to eat, where they can learn and develop and stay with their families instead of worried mothers and fathers selling them to smugglers, praying for their safety as they slip into the black of night to migrate north.

“Thank you, Vicky,” He concluded.  “I want to thank each one of you who traveled here from Chicago, and la Voz de Los de Abajo for doing this important work to observe Human Rights in our country.  It is important that you return to the United States to report back what you have seen here.”

The meeting abruptly ended, as Gerardo had another appointment next door and he returned to join the election-eve conference.

We boarded the van; the door closed, and our driver accelerated, swinging through crowded narrow streets of the evening’s traffic, passing graffiti sprayed in red and black on faded yellow stucco walls.  I caught the glimpse of an anarchist A, a sprawling No a la Repression: No to repression, and Fuera JOH, the slogan that has become a watchword for the resistance, calling for deposing the dictatorship and the narco-state.

The van stopped suddenly in the middle of a narrow street.  Horns of cars behind us honked furiously.  Someone slid the back door open, and our carload of stiff legged foreigners slowly exited.  My legs were cramped from hours in a confined airplane seat.  Outside a poster wheat-pasted onto a peeling off pastel green dirty wall read, “Abortion:  Free and Secure!”  We entered a hip coffee shop and bar where we were to meet leaders of Honduras’ public University.  We picked up several student activists and two feminist Honduran artists to meet with them at a private location.

We all sat down to hear the testimony of the students.  I was told not to video or audio record anything.  Five youth, all no more than 25 years old, sat on one side of the table, four boys and one woman.

On the left the first began to speak.  He was the oldest, and the others looked up to him.  His black grizzled facial hair had been neatly trimmed, and he wore a loosely fitting collared flannel shirt, one button undone.  He began to speak eloquently in Spanish, offering his testimony.  He had been one of a dozen students expelled from Tegucigalpa’s main public university.  He was in hiding, off the grid, underground, staying at a different place every night.  After the University identified him as a leader of the student movement, and targeted him with expulsion, masked gunmen threatened to kidnap and assassinate him.  The called it “to disappear” someone.  The police, paramilitaries, and drug cartels worked side by side.

The University students had just concluded a six-month strike that shut down the campus.  They had many grievances; the student movement was at the forefront of the nation’s fight against dictatorship and repression.  University officials had been cutting course offerings in history, philosophy, and the humanities, and raising the cost of tuition, fees, books, labs, and other incidental charges.

After student protesters occupied the administration building to protest rising fees, the supposedly “autonomous” University, a sacred space of learning, inquiry, and debate where soldiers could not enter, called in the military and police.  Uniformed officers beat and jailed student demonstrators.

The administration filed criminal charges against the movement’s supposed leaders, expelling 13 from the University.  After being singled out, these students received threats on lives and they fled their homes.  One fellow pupil was “disappeared,” his body never found.  His mother held a press conference outside the rector’s office to demand they give her back her son’s body.  The next day, the grieving mother was charged with libel for leveling false accusations against the University’s president.

The second student began speaking, a skinny lanky kid, he wore a t-shirt with broad white and blue horizontal stripes, and blue jeans.  His arms were thin and dangled off his shoulders.  His face looked smooth, like he hadn’t yet started shaving.  The University represents knowledge.  Families sacrifice so much so their children can attend.  And they have been raising prices and dumbing down the quality of education.  They don’t want youth to learn.  Repression has been fierce.  They have beaten and arrested us.  But we don’t care.  We care, but we don’t.  We will continue to protest, so that those who died did not die in vain, so that other parents don’t have to work so hard their entire lives to save to send their children to school.

The other kids, there was one woman, they were young there were three guys a woman and the older student who had been expelled.  They were just kids.  They were afraid but determined.  Was that Courage?  One was talking about the repression, the violence, his friends who had been jailed, disappeared.  He started crying.  The boy couldn’t have been over 21.  His comrade the one with the baby face and blue striped shirt got up and started rubbing his shoulders.  He was trembling.  The older student, the one who had been expelled, continued where he left off.  Repression against the student movement was fierce.  Students have always been at the vanguard of resistance.  The resistance to the coup, to the dictatorship.  The students are radicalized.  They learn, and educate themselves, and it liberates them.  They bring it back to the people, in the city colonias, the slums on the hillsides, the countryside and villages.  The bring this libratory education and it opens the people’s eyes.  That is why they are privatizing education, and dumbing down the curriculum, and making education harder to access.  It costs more, it is more career and technical vocational training then well-rounded thought.  The University teaches us to think and through thinking we can open our eyes to the injustices of this country and the world and realize that it doesn’t have to be like this and another world is possible, and we have the means to make it a reality.  The University opens our eyes and allows us to open the eyes of others.  That is why we continue to fight for public education, at the risk of being tear gassed, of shot with rubber bullets, hit by batons and them back to education, being disappeared, kidnapped, assassinated, our bodies never to be found.  This is why we continue.

The boy who started crying had regained his composure.  The kid with the blue stripes had returned to his seat.  The young woman on his right had her hand on his back.  We continue to protest, to speak out, and to fight against the privatization of the University to continue to the struggle that our friends have martyred themselves for.  We have to.  We remember them.  He began listing their names.  Erick Josué García. Marvin Israel Campos. Moisés Cáceres. Sergio Ulloa. Cesario Padilla. Jersi Francisco Aguirre Rivera. Abiezer Zabdiel López Bonilla. Engels Bladimir López Sánchez. Sergio Luís Ulloa Rivera. Miguel Ángel Mendoza Díaz. Fausto Manuel Cálix Márquez. Edwin Robelo Espinal. Ebed Jassiel. Those names.  They kept repeating them, who was it who was jailed, who was disappeared, beaten and shot.  One name escaped their memory, they stopped, and another said his name.  Roberto Gómez.  The names to remember them their lives snuffed out too young.  They had courage.  They were afraid, terrified really, but they kept going.

I asked them what the privatization of the University meant.  The woman told me they were increasing fees.  They increased the cost of labs, of books, of supplies, there were all these additional fees and costs that made it almost impossible for a Honduran family to afford to send their children to the University, even if they passed the admissions test.  The other way was that they were changing the curriculum, dumbing it down, tailoring it vocational and career training rather than providing a liberal arts education where students are taught to ask thought provoking questions and engage in critical thinking.

The group left.  Vicky called them cabs.  The three boys and the girl were headed back to the neighborhood around the University.   The older youth would go separately.  Just to downtown he said.  He was in hiding.  The military wanted to kill him.  They smoked cigarettes nervously in the corner of the hotel’s courtyard.  The cabs came, and they left.

We had one more group of speakers.  Karla Lara and Melissa Cardoza.  I was drifting off, but they began to speak about themselves, and about Honduran feminism.

Karla Lara and Melissa Cardoza traveled to the United States in the spring on 2017 to both promote and perform a theatrical rendition of their book, “13 Colors of the Honduran Resistance” that documented the love and courage of Honduran women who lived under the dictatorship.

I kicked my left calf with my right heel to stay awake and alert and listen to what these renowned artists had to say.   Karla Lara was a singer whose songs of resistance, of beauty, poetry, dignity, determination, and love stood counterpoised to the macho sexual power of the male rock and roll artist, the soldier and the strong man, the coup and its military dictatorship, the lies and doublespeak of order and faith and development.  Her rendition of the Honduran national anthem became a theme song a battle cry to the popular resistance to the coup in 2009.

Melissa Cardoza was a lesbian poet.  She spoke how the coup signified the worst cruel and dehumanizing aspects of machismo, patriarchy, and the objectification of women as “the other.”  To counter the masculine, sadistic, domination and oppression of military rule, demonstrators who spoke out and resisted the dictatorship infused their movement with  feminist practice, and interpersonal relations that respected each other, supported the validity of each voice,  and cared and loved one another.

The resistances’ slogan: “Ni Golpe de Estado Ni Golpe de Mujer,” against the coup and domestic violence – stood up against dictatorship and violence both in our interpersonal relations and on a national basis.  This cry opposed the sexualized violence of the soldiers of military boot camp indoctrination their homophobia their fetishization of dominant masculinity of power.  The prowess the resistance was a counter narrative to that ideation;  contrasted to the sexualized violence of military occupation, the movement fostered a climate of support and respect, of the dignity of each person.  In the face of low-intensity warfare where human life was cheap, feminism stood opposed to the senseless violence, proclaiming the worth of all, that we all have intrinsic value.

We were not objects to be used for sex or exploited for profit but ends in ourselves. This was Honduran feminism; it is a feminism of gender equality, of respect for humanity and for mother earth.  It is a life of balance, to tone down the aggressive anger of the soldiers obeying and commanding obedience through fear and pain.  This is a supportive loving movement, a sheltering caring family, growing, sheltering, and tending the seed of hope to bloom at night, a night of death squads, narco-traffickers, and uninspired televised politicians with civilized speeches invoking god, country, and disfiguring both.

The dictatorship was infused with the military culture of the strong man, of keeping women in their place—the dictatorship just as it raped the earth, our mother earth, diverting rivers for hydroelectric projects like the one Berta Carceres died fighting or raping the Honduran people’s psyche with the brutality of disappearances terrorism the narco-state the state violence covered in a façade of Christianity order progress and development that those who opposed state terrorism humiliating degradation and the emotional psychological and physical rape perpetrated by the military dictatorship, that we were insurgents, were terrorists, were less than human so Latin American feminism was a response to that to the brutality and rape of state terror.

Our feminist movement stands as another ideal, another set of values, for love, respect, truth, that everyone was human we have an equal voice and who’s opinion values and is given careful consideration on its own merits.  That women and men, urban and rural, mestizo, Garifuna, indigena, coastal and mountain dweller, plantation and maquila laborer, shopkeeper and peasant farmer, we are equal we are human, and we all matter.

http://ilsinglepayer.org/article/moving-not-me-courage-and-love-solidarity

Jan 27 2018

I am writing to ask you to join me in building a movement for respect and dignity and the human right to health and sanctity of life.

I moved back to LA on Labor Day weekend, after more than six years (again) in Chicago.  It was my second weekend in LA—Saturday, September 9th.  I had just left a meeting of Democratic Socialists of America’s healthcare committee when I encountered a hospital patient half naked in a wheelchair, medical bracelet strapped around his left arm, dying on the sidewalk in the late summer heat wave.

I joined the Healthcare Committee because I support the human right to health.  If we let our neighbors die, if we turn our heads to others suffering, it is only a matter of time before we become callous, hardened, cold, and indifferent.  We roll up our windows; everything is fine, as long as it happens to “not me.”  Instead of shirking from attacks on our sisters and brothers, we must meet cruel and barbaric resource deprivation, the medieval-like siege of urban minority and working-class communities, with the courage and love of solidarity.  If we don’t stop it, “not me” quickly turns into “your next.”

I had just returned from Chicago, which for the entire 21st century under Daley and Emanuel, has been demolishing public housing, closing health clinics, and shuttering community schools.  This process is what gubernatorial candidate Chris Kennedy calls a “strategic gentrification plan” to ethnically cleanse African Americans and people of color from the city by tearing neighborhoods apart and shuttering vital public services.

We had been picketing and rallying against health clinic closures for over a decade.  First it was the school based health clinics in the shadows of half demolished boarded up public housing high rises.  Then it was closing county health clinics and laying off skilled nurse practitioners.  After that, it was mental health.  In 2012, a group of patients and activists occupied the Woodlawn Mental Health Clinic before it closed. The city called a SWOT team to restore law and order.  I remember that undercover agents ultimately framed a few Florida activist kids who hung around as terrorists.  The NATO 5.  They showed up on a frigid damp morning in early April to our encampment across from the boarded up mental health clinic wearing shorts and flip flops.  They arrived in Chicago to protest NATO and support the fight against endless war abroad and austerity at home.  Some undercover agents got them high and drunk and later locked them up after goading them into talking like they were tough guy activists.  What a con.

In 2012 the city closed six mental health clinics and two non-profit providers shut down as well.  Three years later, I worked with therapists and social workers to save another clinic network from shuttering on Chicago’s north side.  Unlike the south side clinics, we were successful this time. The clinic employed 300 therapists and served 10,000 clients.

When I got to LA, I noticed homeless camped under every freeway.  There was a Hepatitis outbreak because between 50 and 100,000 homeless in the city had no access to basic sanitation, no running water, no showers, no where to piss or shit.  No one lets you use their restroom around here.

They camp out on the same streets that movie stars and media moguls would drive down in their luxury vehicles, porches, teslas, jaguars, lexuses and convertables.  There are three or four souls I see struggling to survive on the sidewalk everyday walking to my car before and after work.

After the DSA healthcare meeting on September 9th I went to the Ralphs grocery store on 3rd and Vermont.  I noticed a middle aged white man in a wheelchair near the entrance to the parking lot, his shorts around his knees, exposing himself to the general public, with only one left shoe, his right foot swollen with yellow toe nails that seemed as if they were about to fall off.  His hands and arms were also severely swollen, and what appeared to be two hospital wristbands on his left arm seemed to be almost cutting off his circulation.

After getting groceries, I approached him to give him a banana and a bottle of water—it was a hot day.  The man was semi-lucent, he said he had been discharged from a nursing home on our about the 24th of August, supposedly for fighting other residents, and had been staying on the street ever since.  He had repeatedly sought care at a hospital, but they refused to give him a social worker or care coordinator, and he was sleeping on the street.  He had social security disability, he told me, he was insured, but no one would care for him.  People had robbed him, taken his medicine, and beaten him while he sat helpless in the wheelchair all night, defenseless.  I said I had to go, but I’d be back and asked him his name, which he told me. He told me I had to come back, or he would die.

I returned 15 minutes later.  The banana was on the ground and he hadn’t touched the water.  First, I googled the nursing home.  I called them.  A woman answered timidly, and said he had been discharged to the hospital some 15 days before.  There was nothing she could do.  Call 911.  I called 911.  The operator asked me to ask the patient any health problems he had.  He said he had gout in his left hand, and suffered from seizures at night.  The LA fire department soon arrived, and I waved them down.  They thanked me for my help.  One fireman mentioned that it was the 3rd time that week that they had taken him to the Emergency Room.  He had a pained look on his face.  We’ve got it from here, he said.  Thank you for your help.

I ended up googling patient dumping that night.  I left a message on the city attorney’s patient dumping hotline.  No one called me back.  A few days later I called again in the daytime.  I ended up speaking with a lawyer who had prosecuted several hospitals.  They’ve been doing it for years.  Reimbursement rates are so low, they would rather risk killing a few mentally ill patients by abandoning them on the street than pay the cost of uncompensated care.  I went on a date with a nurse in Santa Monica.  She told me medical center in posh Beverly Hills was notorious for patient dumping.  ER Nurses are told to falsify the medical records and if someone comes, refer them to the hospital’s management.

And it turns out the hospitals do get away with it.  The lawyer referred me around, and nothing happened.  I called back several times, and wrote emails to follow up over the next two months.  The LAPD had to open an investigation, they said, but they couldn’t find the victim.  So no investigation, no prosecution, no trial, no discovery.  Nothing.  The attorney was helpful, he gave me a list of regulatory agencies, other places to report the medical center.  Shortly before New Years Eve someone from the California Department of Public Health called me.  She was going to the hospital to ask them questions and to see if they violated the law.  She would call me to let me know if she found anything.

She called me a week later.  She had gotten “their side of the story” and called to tell me no laws had been broken.  I asked if she talked to the LA fire emergency personnel who had transported the patient.  She said they were under no obligation to talk to her.  Obviously, I thought, the employees of the hospital are going to say what the hospital told them to say.

This is the brutality and cruelty of this broken system, a place where we dump mentally ill on the street to die, because our employers don’t want to bear the costs of uncompensated care.  Are we so indifferent to dehumanize and let die complicated difficult patients?  Just like Nuremberg, “just following orders” does not wash away our guilt.  We need to fix this broken system.  And we need Medicare for All.

“You may say that I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope someday you’ll join us
And the world will be as one”

-John Lennon, Imagine

I heard it on the radio driving home from my friend’s house.  It was Tuesday, September 5, 2017, the first day after a scorching labor day weekend in Los Angeles, where temperatures in the San Fernando valley approached 115 degrees.  A random spark on Friday set ablaze the dry crackling bushes and trees that within 24 hours enveloped more than 5,000 acres of the La Tuna Canyon, evacuating half of Burbank and closing the 210 freeway.  Billowing black smoke soon mixed with the usual smog to rain ash and choking particles down upon the sweltering metropolis.

President Donald Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, announced that the administration would cancel DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an executive order begrudgingly signed by President Barak Obama after he had gotten nowhere with Congress and after hundreds of undocumented students and youth courted arrest to draw attention to inaction of an ostensibly liberal President.  The Dream Act allowed young people who had been brought to the United States as children to pursue careers and education with the assurance that their arrest and deportation had been indefinitely “deferred” by an Administration that sought to put its immigration law enforcement resources to better use.  Now that assurance had been ripped away for upwards of 800,000 young men and women.

I’m a U.S. citizen, but I remember well the crisp fall day in 2011 when hundreds of us poured into the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union hall on Washington street in Chicago’s west loop for a public hearing conducted by the Department of Homeland Security.  At the entrance sat an African-American civil servant, wearing a blue skirt, white blouse, and cardigan buttoned sweater, with thick black rimmed designer reading glasses hanging from a chain around her neck. She asked attendees to put their names and information on a sign-in sheet, but the crowd of high school and college age Chicagoans from the predominantly Mexican neighborhoods of Pilsen and Little Village ignored her, whispering to each other not to sign and give out their information as they passed, filling the union’s auditorium.

On the agenda was the Secure Communities Program, which mandated that all local jails and detention facilities send copies of detainee fingerprints to ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  As soon as the meeting began, almost the entire crowd—there were more than eight hundred individuals in attendance, walked out.  These teenagers knew that law enforcement cooperation with deportation authorities would insure that no undocumented person ever called 911. Criminals would then be more likely to  prey upon the barrio, with domestic abuse, sexual assault, robbery, fraud, and battery rampant but unreported.  I walked out with the crowd, joining a group of undocumented youth who called themselves a word that was then new to us—Dreamers—because they too wanted a chance at the American Dream.  We sat at the entrance to a freeway onramp, chanting, “Not One More Deportation,” and “Undocumented and Unafraid.”  The police kept their distance and made no arrests, but I still remember the chanting, smiling faces of the young men and women; some wore ball caps, others wore knit beanies covering their ears.  Some had buzz cuts, others short hair parted on the side.  A young women had her hair pulled back in a ponytail tied with a bright purple scrunchie; another one had her hair in a bob, pinned in place with a yellow pencil.  Another young woman wore a grey hijab.  Together they held hands as they sat on the warm asphalt that brisk fall day. They risked deportation from the only country they had ever known.  Courageous and calm, they showed no fear.

I have a friend from college who is a Dreamer.  We met at UCLA.  I had just been appointed as a graduate school representative to the Student Health Advisory Committee, which sought to keep health services affordable as the University of California adopted a self-insured plan.  In those days a Democratic congress, elected alongside Barack Obama in 2008, was debating and drafting the Affordable Care Act.  My Dreamer friend – her name is Monica – had been elected by the student body to serve as a representative of immigrant students on the student government.  We hiked through campus to Covel Commons, where we met with the University administration to demand they do more for undocumented students beyond the small scholarship fund UCLA had already put in place.  Most Dreamers at UCLA had grown up in Los Angeles and attended public schools, but they were ineligible for in-state tuition, work-study programs, or government-backed student loans. What courage, I thought, to stand up and say you were undocumented, as I watched Monica, then only 21 years old, lobby a group of mostly white University administrators in business attire.

Since then, Monica’s life has been bittersweet.  She ended up pursuing her dreams, taking public health courses at UCLA where she met her husband, now a business school professor in Chicago, and later graduating with a Masters from the Harvard School of Public Health..  They bought a house in leafy Oak Park and became a citizen, and she gave birth to a baby girl, by constitutional birthright a U.S. citizen, in the fall of 2016.  Her father flew up from Los Angeles, and held his granddaughter in his lap as we ate dinner together and watched Donald Trump upstage Hillary Clinton during the third presidential debate. We were appalled as we watched him standing behind her as she spoke, swaying and shuffling, looking directly into the camera.  Months later I heard that Monica, still only in her 20s,  had been diagnosed with lymphoma.  I visited her at Northwestern’s Prentice Hospital where she was undergoing chemotherapy on a rainy spring day, her husband and father at her side.  She was weak and frail, but optimistic and cheerful, always a fighter, and always a Dreamer.

As I listened to Jeff Sessions explain why the administration was repealing DACA, my stomach began to churn.  President Obama had violated the Constitution to circumvent Congress in order to  grant executive amnesty to a group of “illegal aliens,” Sessions explained.  Illegal aliens, I thought.  He made it sound as if these Dreamers were extraterrestrials like in the video game halo, a first person shooter game where astronaut soldiers would retake shops and stations shooting up hordes of hostile space monsters.  I felt sick.  I contacted my friend Mario, who mentioned that a rally had been hastily planned that day at the Corner of Cesar Chavez and Alameda just north of downtown LA.  I was almost home, but I quickly made a U-turn, got onto the 101 and headed back to the city.

Once I had parked I ran into a group of high school students from Roosevelt High School, a massive Boyle heights educational complex where in 1968 a walkout by the Chicano Student Moratorium Against the War helped transform California’s Chicano movement from one primarily organizing rural farmworkers into a far more massive, urban, and cosmopolitan upheaval that would soon transform state politics.  I asked to take a picture of their banner, which displayed the name Roosevelt High School, a large portrait of Emiliano Zapata, and the slogan “Here to Stay.”  Smiling, the students all agreed, but soon thereafter a Latina adult wearing a United Teachers of Los Angeles T-shirt approached me, asking me what group I was with and where I was from.  She wanted  me to delete the picture of the  students, but after careful inspection let me keep the one of just their painted banner. Fear has a funny way of creeping into the most mundane aspects of daily life.

I walked around the crowd of over one thousand that began to gather in the park.  Mostly Latino youth, a few smiled and giggled as if on a field trip.  But more wore somber, stoic faces, chanting their slogans as if reciting prayers, and listening to Dreamers address the crowd.  Other supporters joined them: pastors, teachers, nurses, politicians, labor union staff, plus a few mainstream news crews, and others with cameras and microphones. On the outskirts of the rally, wearing matching t-shirts, carrying clipboards and soliciting money from the gathering crowd were a group of radicals selling an eight page  “communist” newspaper for a dollar and twenty five cents.  .  They passed out large bold font signs on sticks that read RefuseFascism.org.

Soon the march started.  The crowd of 2,000 shuffled triple file out of the park, past the plaza and down a set of stairs to fill two lanes of traffic on a crowded four lane city street. They headed for City Hall.  The crowd grew in size, as small groups arrived as they got off work, joining the marchers with their colorful signs and banners.  I grabbed a sign and walked with the crowd.  Young men wearing florescent yellow arm bands stood between the youth and lanes of oncoming traffic. They watched carefully to make sure none of the kids got mixed up in the traffic.  Drivers soon honked, waved, smiled and gave encouraging thumbs up or fist pumps as they drove past, on their way to the freeway from downtown office buildings.

But one middle aged white man, with a five o’clock shadow, dark hair, and plaid shirt stared at me from an idled car, vigorously shaking his head in opposition.  “Love you too!” I called out to him. A white gas-guzzling pick-up truck with oversized black tires gunned its engine as it passed the crowd, young white men hollering “Go Trump” as it zoomed past, only to screech to a stop a few feet later in the rush hour gridlock.  We crossed an overpass above the 10 freeway, and demonstrators pressed their home-made signs against the chain linked fence to show the passing cars below.  A light but steady stream of honks in support could be heard from four lanes of dense moving commuter traffic.  We then passed the county jail, a massive grey concrete skyscraper with long and narrow opaque black cell windows, circled in barbed wire.  Demonstrators started to look up;  we heard a rapid tapping from the floors above.  Inmates and detainees were knocking on their windows in support and solidarity, until the entire building seemed to vibrate and shake.  The crowd below waved and cheered at those entombed in that concrete fortress.

The crowd was mostly Latino, There were few whites.  They were chanting in English, “undocumented and unafraid,” and “No hate, no fear, immigrants are welcome here!”  They were high school and college students, a majority women in their teens and twenties.  Mothers and fathers pushed strollers.  Teamsters and teachers wore t-shirts with the emblems of their respective trade unions.  Nurses wore their scrubs.  An older woman was pushing a cart full of flags—American flags, Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan and others.  I bought a small American flag, and began to wave it.

Most of the youth had grown up in Los Angeles neighborhoods, attending both public and charter schools.  Unlike marches I had attended a decade before, the crowd chanted in English with no trace of a foreign accent; they were bilingual.  They sometimes  switched to Spanish, as a way to express solidarity with their parents and recent arrivals, but these marching youth, who grew up watching cable television and rooting for the LA Dodgers, were thoroughly Americanized;  Their parents were the immigrants who had crossed the border in the booming 1990s and the early years of the new century before the financial crisis and the wave of Great Recession foreclosures so badly tarnished the American dream for that generation.

We circled city hall, and I started to drift to the fringe of the rally.  A pro-Trump camera crew was there, asking to interview protesters.  A man approached me holding a microphone.  He was heavy set, wearing a ball cap, and had a large unkempt black beard with thick bushy sideburns. His blue dress shirt was unbuttoned and his baseball cap read, “I love Canters” in reference to the iconic west LA Jewish Deli. He introduced himself as Austen, and said he was a Trump supporter who was also for DACA and wanted to interview pro-DACA protesters to promote a dialogue between folks for and against the President and his policies.  I asked for his business card, and he reached into the backpack of his camera man, a tall, cleanly shaved white man in his 20’s, wearing a backwards baseball hat that read “USA,” and presented me with a card with his twitter handle.  I looked it up then and there, and  and saw he had pronounced his vigorous opposition to DACA.  For some reason, maybe it was vanity, maybe the false hope I might sway a few Trump supporters, perhaps it was the challenge of a debate and a desire to engage with an oppositional audience, I agreed to the interview.  I had a feeling my comments would be heavily edited and doctored to make me look foolish, but I agreed nonetheless.

As his camera man got to work, he asked me why I was there, and why I opposed Trump’s decision to end DACA unless Congress passed a new law during the next six months.  Addressing the camera, I said that I understood the anxiety American workers felt, with a lack of stable good paying union jobs.  His response was immediate: then why did I not support the deportation of 800,000 illegals who were taking so many American jobs.  I retorted that rather than blame undocumented immigrants, we should look to the corporations who had been outsourcing millions of jobs for decades in a quest for the lowest wages and the most flexible labor force.  I said we were all a nation of immigrants, and except for American-Indians, all of our ancestors were immigrants.  Immigrants pursuing the American dream, that was what makes America great.  I asked him who in his family had been an immigrant and he said that his grandfather came through Ellis Island, but legally.  I said mine did too, on a student visa that he overstayed after being expelled from university in Nazi Germany.

I also mentioned that those benefiting from DACA grew up in the U.S. and went to public schools, and they just wanted to take out loans to go to college, pursue careers, and contribute back to society.  In school, I mentioned, looking directly at the cameraman wearing the backwards USA baseball hat, these undocumented Dreamers recited the pledge of allegiance on a daily basis, “I pledge allegiance to the flag, of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under god, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”  He then asked if I thought Obama’s executive order on DACA was legal, or if only Congress had the right to grant amnesty.  I said that it was “deferred action”, that while I wasn’t a constitutional lawyer, but American Presidents have often selectively enforced the law.  .  The real problem, I mentioned, was a focus on foreign wars, militarized policing, and spending on border security and prisons rather than investing in U.S. infrastructure and housing—I mentioned lead tainted water in Flint, and 100,000 homeless sleeping on the streets in Los Angeles. Then my interviewer interrupted, asserting that was a reason enough to deport illegals, who were a drain on our resources. We became testy.  I said immigrants actually added enormous value to the economy, working hard and were often more entrepreneurial than the native born, forming businesses large and small.   Look at the famous Gilded Age industrialist Andrew Carnage. He came to the U.S. as an impoverished child from Scotland, but then became a railroad executive and steel baron who employed tens of thousands, both native born and immigrant.

Instead of demonizing immigrants, why don’t native-born workers focus on the corporations that get tax breaks for eliminating good paying union jobs and outsourcing and offshoring to Mexico, China, or any other place  where they can exploit a low-wage workforce.  The immigration system was broken and inhumane; he let me continue.  A special education aide I knew told me her friend had a job caring for autistic undocumented unaccompanied minors. She worked in a for-profit prison classroom, assisting a special education teacher where children were taught, and housed until being deported as soon as they turned eighteen.  That cost a lot of money, he retorted, “Wouldn’t it be better spent on citizens?”  I shook my head, thinking to myself; America is rich.  Spending money to care for orphans is the price we pay to live in a civilized society.  As we wrapped up the interview, he asked me if I supported single-payer, I said I did, that while Obamacare was a great first step—I was on it now having just moved to LA. – We should join the rest of the industrialized world and ensure the right to healthcare  for all U.S. residents.  He said, “Well what about the VA?  It’s like single-payer, but veterans are treated horribly there.”  I responded that the Veterans Administration used to work great, but Congress had let service deteriorate by not appropriating sufficient funds even as they spent lavishly on recent wars.  The answer was to improve it, not privatize it.  He was polite, he shook my hand, and he left with his camera man.

The next day I took a look at his twitter account again.  The bearded man sporting the Canters ball cap had made a name of himself in right-wing circles by interviewing and making fun of individuals protesting against those participating in Alt-Right Neo-Nazi rallies.  A few weeks before in Laguna Beach, a you-tube video he posted interviewed the craziest, most outrageously dressed protesters from an anti-fascist “Antifa” rally against Orange County white supremacists. It garnered a half million views.  For poking fun at anti-fascists in the wake of Charlottesville, he was rewarded with an interview from Fox News political commentator Tucker Carlson.

The you-tube video he posted of the LA DACA rally, heavily edited, consisted of interviews with myself and two Latinos, one reading a wild-eyed leftist manifesto, the other explaining how demonizing and rounding up undocumented US residents reminded him of what had happened in Nazi Germany.  My remarks had also been heavily edited.  In his video, it seemed that my only argument against ending DACA was that we were all immigrants, a nation of immigrants, and that I had contradicted myself by calling attention to a lack of support for infrastructure and jobs, after which my interviewer quipped that that was why we should end DACA and deport illegals who were a drain on the economy.  Six days later, his you-tube video had been seen by almost 75,000 viewers. There were over 1,500 comments, most making fun of the Latino leftist reading his revolutionary manifesto from a clipboard.  A few anonymous commentators expressing outrage that I said we were all immigrants, and the United States was a nation of immigrants.  “I was born here, I’m a citizen, so what if my grandfather immigrated,” one commentator wrote.   “We are a nation of citizens, not immigrants,” typed another.  Another popular comment with a thousand likes read, “..Nobody is against immigrants. We’re against illegal immigration. To have a strong country we need a strong borders….”

As I walked home from the rally that day, I returned to the park where we had gathered a few hours earlier.  I was still holding the American flag and the sign I had picked up that read “DACA Yes: Racism and Bigotry No”.  The homeless sat, reclined, milled about, and slept—their dusty tents, tarps, boxes, gallon jugs of water, and shopping carts strewn about within close reach.  They sat on benches, curbs, milk-crates, and on pieces of cardboard on the sidewalk.  As I walked down the street, breathing in the hot dusty air and car exhaust, a young man approached me in broken English with a thick Mexican accent- “un dolar,” he asked.  Do you have un dolar?  His face and arms were black with grime, dirt, and soot, his skin a dark brown.  He was skinny and emaciated, with the bones of his collar almost poking through his skin, and arms long and thin, the man looked like he was in his mid-20’s.  I looked at him and checked my pocket, realizing I had no change.   Looking around, I decided against reaching for my wallet.  I shrugged and said no, “Desculpe.” I didn’t have any change.  He then asked me again, in Spanish pointing at the flag in my other hand, “Su Bandera,” pointing at my flag.  I gave him the American flag, and walked away. As I looked back he waved and grinned, tightly gripping the flag’s small wooden stick,  holding on to the promise of America even as he slept among thousands in the streets of a Los Angeles’ skid row.

August 15, 2017

 

Family, Friends, Colleagues, Sisters, and Brothers:

Many of you have heard that armed white supremacists and Neo-Nazis marched and rallied in my home town of Charlottesville, Virginia, where I lived from ages nine to eighteen.

The city sits at the edge of Virginia’s piedmont in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains.  In the rolling fields of this horse country, one often finds colonial mansions, with stately white columns at the front and wooden and brick former slave quarters in the back.   A few miles west, in the shadow of the Shenandoah mountains, hills grow steeper and are forested. There the mansions often give way to trailer homes propped on stacked bricks at the end of dirt roads.  Gravel driveways are full of scattered oak leaves and the occasional rusted car or truck, guarded by large barking dogs eager to chase bicyclists like me who dared to traverse their fictive territory.

My parents moved to Charlottesville in the early 1990’s.  My dad got a good job at the University of Virginia—housing was cheaper in the south; we bought a home at the beginning of a dirt road—Gillums Ridge Road—a few miles west of town.  My mom continued to make the three hour Amtrak commute—each way—to Washington D.C., where she taught at Howard University, the historically black college.

Charlottesville is a fairly progressive college town, especially in a state like Virginia.  Eighty percent of the city voted for Hilary Clinton in the 2016 election.  There is a large black population, mostly segregated on the south and east side of the railroad tracks that run through town.  Coal from West Virginia moves to the coast on those tracks in big black open cars, with the empty cars travelling back.  There is a decent sized Jewish community, as well as an increasing number of transplants from the Northeast, attracted to good schools, low housing costs, and jobs at the University of Virginia and its affiliated medical center, the largest employer in town.  Starting in the late 1990’s a sizable Latino immigrant population began arriving in Charlottesville to work in the City’s restaurants, local construction, and in some of the food processing plants found in this part of the state.  Many came from Northern Virginia which had attracted Salvadorians who flocked to the D.C. area and its plentiful construction and service sector jobs.

Growing up, I attended Temple Beth Israel, central Virginia’s only synagogue, a reform congregation a block from the Albemarle County Courthouse, where a statue of a confederate soldier guards the entrance, rifle and bayonet in hand.  And just across the street is the larger than life statue of Confederate General Stonewall Jackson, rearing upwards on a giant horse.  A block in the other direction is the now infamous Lee Park, recently renamed Emancipation Park, with another massive equestrian statue, this one of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, the decorated United States Military Academy officer who abandoned our Union to lead the Army of Northern Virginia during the Civil War.

Until this week, Charlottesville’s claim to fame was that it was the home of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States who wrote those famous first lines in the Declaration of Independence that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights…”  His house, Monticello, perched above town on a large hill, is a tourist destination for many.  Just before his inauguration Bill Clinton visited Monticello, an event I well remember.  The New York Times reported that he would journey to the nation’s capital by making the 115 mile trek from Monticello to the Lincoln Memorial.

In second or third grade, like all Virginian elementary school children, we took U.S. History, with a focus on the history of the Commonwealth of Virginia. I remember we were learning about Thomas Jefferson.  I asked my history teacher, she looked ancient for a nine year old, “Why did Thomas Jefferson have slaves?”

She replied calmly in a thick southern accent, “He needed workers to take care of the plantation.”

“Well why didn’t he just pay people to work there?” I quipped.

She responded, clearly irked,  “They wanted to work for him, and he treated them very well,” as she quickly continued to another subject.  That was one of my first lessons of the South.

At the urging of my father, a former eagle scout, I joined Boy Scouts Troop 114 in Ivy, Virginia, part of the Stonewall Jackson Area Council, a name that remains to this day.  We went on fun hiking trips in the neighboring Blue Ridge Mountains, and at age 12 or 13, practiced shooting .22 caliber rifles.  Later, I learned my dad wrote a letter to the Boy Scouts, objecting to the memorialization of a Confederate general like Stonewall Jackson.  They replied considerately, but nothing changed.  I ended up dropping out after a few years.  I just wanted to just go on camping trips, and wasn’t too interested in all the merit badges.

I was a rebellious teenager. I didn’t quite fit in to the youth scene.  There were the preps, the jocks, the skaters, the blacks, the rednecks, the punks, the goths, and the nerds.   I joined the punks.   High school students separated themselves into cliques, just like everyone else.

I learned in my senior year about the struggle to desegregate Charlottesville’s public school.   After the 1954 unanimous Supreme Court decision, Brown vs. the Board of Education, it took twelve brave black families filing a lawsuit to integrate public education.  In the summer of 1956, outside the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church where these parents and civil rights advocates gathered to strategize, the Klan burned a wooden cross.  The Virginia General Assembly passed legislation that year, part of a strategy called massive resistance to racial integration.  Under the banner of “School Choice,” new laws, much like charter schools and school voucher programs today, allowed for parents to use state funds to send their children to segregated private schools.  After a judge denied Charlottesville’s legal appeal and ordered the integration of two schools, the Virginia governor ordered them closed until they were forced to reopen a year and a half later.  White children flocked to area private schools; almost no private schools accepted black students until the 1980’s, and then only as tokens.  School district boundaries closely mirrored class and racial patterns in a still-segregated housing market.

My first real summer job was in 1998, shortly after getting my drivers’ license.  I worked as an electrician’s helper.  The year before, my sophomore year of high school, I took night classes for electricians at the local community college and the technical school.  Other apprentice electricians were in the class.  I remember one middle aged white man was on work release from jail.  He got released to work, and take classes, and would go back to the County jail each night where he was locked up in a towering new building overlooking the freeway just outside of town.

Working construction taught me a lot about class and race in central Virginia.  We worked non-union. There were no unions that I knew of in central Virginia.  Joe, the experienced electrician I would help by fetching tools and crawling through rafters and under homes to run wire, lived in a trailer park by the river on the east side of town.  One day driving through the country, we passed a modest one story home with a neat grass yard in the middle of a large field.  Joe mentioned to me that he wanted to own his own home in the country one day, just like the one we passed, nothing fancy, just something so that his wife and two small children could move out of the trailer park.

With his co-workers, Joe liberally used the n-word either to talk about African-Americans or to color their language as they talked shit to each other to pass the time.  But they weren’t racist, they told me, because they had black friends.  We would do house calls to fix residential electrical work in Charlottesville and the surrounding areas.  Sometimes we worked on new construction, which was a lot cleaner and easier.  The company charged customers sixty five dollars an hour for labor, and an additional amount for parts and materials.  Joe would buy the parts, do the invoices and estimates, and drive to each job, scheduling work and picking up new leads directly on his two-way phone.  Every once in a while we would get dispatched to a job from the office.  He earned $13 an hour and I made $6.  I asked him once that if we billed $65 an hour for labor, who got the other $31 dollars an hour?  He said some of it paid for the rent at the office, the truck, and the secretary who took care of all the bills, but most went to our boss, the owner of the company.  Something about that didn’t quite seem right to me.  One time we serviced this old plantation.  They had their family tree on a wall and it reached back to the 1700’s.  As I entered the house after fetching a part from the truck, a black woman was vacuuming rugs in the other room.  Many of these mansions still had old slave quarters in the back, which they used for storage.  Not much has changed, I thought.

I ended up working as an electrician a few years later in Northern Virginia after high school, before I moved to Chicago.  The company I worked for was based in Norfolk.  We were wiring multi-family residential units that none of us could afford.  Our boss, a wiry redhead with a deep Southern accent, would divide our team into two crews, blacks and whites.  We would compete against each other as to who could wire an apartment fastest.  We would race, drilling holes, pulling wire, and nailing boxes for sockets and switches, from the top floor to the basement. Two co-workers of mine served in the Navy, an African American in his late 20’s or early 30’s who smoked black and mild cigars, and a bald, heavy set white guy, who kept talking about his next tattoo.  As we worked, they would talk shit to each other, the white electrician cracking racist jokes, and black one dishing it back, poking fun at his manhood, weight, intelligence, and lack of a sex life.

 

Our boss couldn’t hire and keep enough black and white electricians to do all the work at the rate they were paying us—I made $10 an hour, no benefits.  Instead they hired three Mexican families, who worked as independent contractors; they were paid piece rate—for every apartment they wired.   One family had come up from North Carolina. They had a kid my age, and two younger ones, the youngest being 14.  I helped him once with the power drill—you had to climb a ladder and drill holes through wood to run the wire— but I got yelled at by my boss, he was always yelling at us, and I was told to do my own work.  One family was fired for doing too good a job.  Their work was clean and neat, but they took too long and used too much wire, our boss said.  Each ethnic group on the construction site had its own niche–Salvadorans worked carpentry, Koreans did the siding.  One day the general contractor showed up in a white jeep.  People thought he was from Immigration, and everyone dropped their tools and scattered.

Two years earlier, after that first summer working construction, my dad asked me to jump in the station wagon.  He was involved in a living wage campaign at the University of Virginia, and they had been distributing these blue and orange eight dollar buttons to workers and students- they wanted the University to pay a minimum of $8 dollars an hour.  Most of the people involved in the campaign were undergraduate students, guided by a few professors and graduate students

We drove across the railroad tracks that separated the black and white sections of town and into a low-rise public housing project.  Knocking on the door, my dad explained that people in the living wage campaign had heard that a cashier at the University of Virginia Hospital had been sent home because she was wearing a small $8 dollar button that she refused to take off.

My dad, who was dressed in a suit and tie, told the father of the young female worker that the University of Virginia Living Wage Campaign would support her right to free speech, that she had a right to return to work wearing the button, and that they had passed the hat at their last meeting to try to cover her lost income until she could return to work.

On a bitterly cold day in February, we held a rally for living wages.  In addition to the students, professors, clergy, and a few brave workers, the local prison guard’s union an hour away in Stanton showed up with a giant American flag.

 

Dozens of us accompanied the young black woman back into the hospital cafeteria and there she returned to work, wearing her button, head held high.  Of course, we soon dispersed and later I heard she quit her job because she was being harassed by her supervisor.  The University never formally agreed to a campus-wide living wage, but personnel quietly raised the base salary for all employees to $8.00 an hour, while subcontracting out custodial and food services.

In 2000, the spring of my senior year of high school, I went with a group of high school and University students to a big demonstration in Washington D.C. to protest the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.  Frank Ix and Company, a Charlottesville textile factory had just closed, and we were going to protest free trade agreements and for global justice- so companies didn’t close other factories to set up shop in Mexico, Korea, or China, searching for the lowest wages and the fewest health, safety, and environmental regulations.  I ended up getting pepper sprayed by a water cannon attached to an armored vehicle. Our protest march was surrounded by police and I was arrested. Along with  hundreds of others I was bussed to jail.  Soaked in pepper spray, they hosed me down with cold water.  I was able to borrow someone’s dry clothes in lockup.  Hundreds of jailed protestors spent hours together sitting on cold concrete floors in large holding cells in the basement of the D.C. courthouse.  While waiting, we all decided to refuse to be released on our own recognizance, and to demand a trial by jury.  Some fellow demonstrators had been arbitrarily charged with felonies, and we decided, talking amongst ourselves and with other groups across the hall through wrought iron bars, that either we all would be released, or none of us.  By demanding all our constitutional rights, and clogging the jails and courts, we would make it impossible for the system to function.

After mixing us with the general inmate population in D.C. federal prison, some of the mostly white protestors who were lawyers started talking to the almost exclusively black inmates, who complained of poor living conditions and multi-year prison terms based on shoddy evidence for low-level, non-violent drug offenses.  The warden then moved us to a wing of the prison reserved for those serving violent offenses.  At some point we all went on a hunger strike—the food sucked anyway – and I was finally released five days later on an early weekend morning to a waiting crowd of supporters camped outside.

The living wage campaign in Charlottesville didn’t die.  Every Friday a small group, it seemed mostly older white women who attended Quaker and Unitarian congregations, would rally outside a new hotel built on Main Street to demand that all new Charlottesville hotels pay their staff a living wage.  I got involved in a few other groups before I left Charlottesville later to move in with my aunt as my parents moved to California.  I participated in an “Earth First” hiking club with some college students.  Years later, I heard that Earth First was called a terrorist group because they slept in tree houses built so loggers wouldn’t use their chainsaws to clear cut old growth forests.

After spending several years in Chicago, I returned to Charlottesville and Temple Beth Israel in early 2009 after Barak Obama was elected president, when I worked for a few months for Interfaith Worker Justice, a religious network for worker rights.  I visited Catholic, Episcopal, Baptist, Unitarian, Methodist, Quaker United Church of Christ, Jewish, and Muslim congregations to speak with religious leaders and their congregations’ social justice clubs, and to rally people of faith in support of workers’ rights.

Many congregations were also struggling with access to affordable health care, which was getting more and more expensive, as big employers cut back on benefits.  I met with a group of proponents for Single Payer Universal Healthcare who worked with the Charlottesville Peace and Justice Coalition, and we held a large forum on how the lack of affordable care impacted the lives of central Virginians in a hall in the county building.  Driving to Northern Virginia the next day after staying at a friend’s house in rural Greene county, thirty miles north of town, I spotted several large billboards conspicuously placed in the cow pastures adjacent to a winding rural two lane road.  Paid for by Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy group run by the billionaire Koch brothers, oil executives from Kansas, the signs urged the mostly white country residents to remember to vote in the 2010 mid-term elections to take back their country.

Today Donald Trump is president and Charlottesville is infamous.  It all started when the local chapter of Black Lives Matter, a multi-racial and multi-denominational coalition of religious congregations, and the town’s progressive white community won a vote in the city council to vote to take down the statue of Robert E. Lee, despite the objections of the city’s Mayor.  Several months later, Alt-right poster-boy Richard Spencer and torch wielding Nazis descended upon town in an unannounced protest.  A few months after that, earlier this summer, the Klu Kux Klan received a permit to hold a rally at the site of the Robert E. Lee statue.  They announced they would show up armed, but they were still opposed by thousands of peaceful counter-protestors.  I heard in the weeks afterwards, local police visited the residences of young black activists who organized the response to the Klan rally, and attempted to question them and their family members.

In the latest rally this past weekend, Neo-Nazi, Alt-Right, Neo-Confederate, and white power organizations and their associated militias poured into town from across the country for a “Unite the Right” rally and march.  Outfitted in fatigues, wearing body armor and helmets, equipped with metal batons, shields, pistols, and assault rifles, Nazis and White Supremacists prepared for the trouble they wanted.  A planning meeting for the counter-protest the next day and an interfaith prayer service were held at an historic stone church on the University of Virginia’s campus the night before the rally.  Torch wielding white men shouting racist and anti-Semitic slogans marched on campus and surrounded the church.  After some time, the worshipers, including a high school friend of mine who posted about it on Facebook, snuck out the back to avoid the hostile torch wielding crowd.  The police response lagged; they declared it an unlawful assembly after white supremacists had already dispersed.

The next day, as social media reports portrayed Nazis and white power protestors pepper spraying and punching counter demonstrators armed with bullhorns and cardboard signs, another high school friend of mine was working a few blocks away setting up his restaurant for the Saturday night crowd.  Speaking with him by phone later on,  he said a long, peaceful procession of Charlottesville residents were marching through downtown to oppose the out of towers hate speech, when a car slammed into them.  Many were hurt, and caught between two cars that also were hit.  My friend said her heard a rumor that a twelve year old girl was severely injured, and may have died,  as well as the young woman, 32 year old Heather Heyer, that the news had reported murdered.  They quickly closed the restaurant, concerned for their own and customer’s safety, losing a normally busy Saturday night of business.  I heard on the news that night that the murderer was a Nazi from rural Ohio, a “General” in the white supremacist group Vanguard America, who had slammed his car at 40 miles an hour into a peaceful crowd and then peeled off, trying to escape.

President Donald Trump went on national television to address the nation.  He mentioned that everyone had a right to exercise their first amendment rights, and condemned bigotry and hate on many sides, and then repeated himself again to emphasize the point, , on many sides.  The murders and victims, the Nazis and counter protestors calling for racial unity, were equally to blame for the violence.

The police and national guard stood by and refused to intervene.  I read a news article that a large group of Neo-Nazis beat a black protestor with metal pipes within an inch of his life in the parking garage next to the Charlottesville Police Station. When bystanders tried to intervene, they had pistols pulled on them.  Police did intervene however, to protect the white supremacist “Unite the Right” protest organizer, Jason Kessler, whom they escorted away from a press conference he dared to hold the day after participants in his own rally assaulted Charlottesville residents, murdering one and injuring many.

Our state institutions will not save us.  We must defend each other and enforce our rights to freedom and security.  I was heartened to learn that over six hundred rallies around the country were planned and held within a day of the Nazi terrorist attack on Charlottesville. Two days later, a large crowd knocked down the statue of a confederate soldier in Durham, North Carolina, an echo of the time U.S. troops toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein, but with much more authentic grievance and rage.

But the fascist movement in the United States is hardly dead.  Breitbart news, an organization considered the voice of the Alt-Right, was founded by a Jewish Zionist who thought that Muslims and the left, not the radical right, were the real existential threat to Jewish people.  The organization grew under the direction of the former Wall Street banker, Steven Bannon, who rose to fame after framing and ultimately destroying the community group ACORN after it registered millions of new voters in the 2008 election cycle.  Bannon is now a key White House strategist, and has cultivated a wide following among white power hate groups through Breitbart News.  Breitbart.com is the 66th most popular website in the United States.  By contrast, the New York Times is the 31st most popular website.  Jacobin Magazine, a growing online socialist publication, ranks 7,057.  The Daily Stormer, the Neo-Nazi online newspaper, is ranked 3,673.

A news story in Breitbart posted on Saturday night focused on the Charlottesville rally, condemning violence by the anarchist grouping Antifa, (short for Anti-fascist), a nebulous formation defined by their black bloc “direct-action” tactics pioneered in 1999 to disrupt the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle.  Antifa showed up at the University of California, Berkley to oppose Breitbart commentator and pedophile Milo Yiannopoulos’ hate speech.  Breitbart also criticized the infringement of the first amendment rights of Unite the Right demonstrators—police canceled their rally and declared a state of emergency as Nazis began beating peaceful counter-protestors.  By Sunday morning, August 13, 92,000 comments had been posted under the article by die-hard white supremacists.  They attacked Jews, Communists, the news-media, Pope Francis and the Catholic Church, as well Antifa.  Breitbart comments defended white nationalist militiamen who invaded Charlottesville, both their right to armed assembly, and their grievances about the decline of white power in the United States.  Commentators expressed their desire for a white nation, and to cleanse the country of racial and religious minorities.

The night after Nazis murdered Heather Heyer and terrorized my hometown, I went to a bar in Los Angeles with a high school friend who also grew up in Charlottesville.  He started telling me how Nazis in vans were still driving around town with impunity, jumping out and beating people up.  As my friend went out back to smoke a cigarette, another man overheard us.  A white guy with a neat full beard, a yellow President Barak Obama T-shirt, a skull and crossbones tattoo on his left wrist and thrasher metal band hat, sat on a bench outside, smoking a cigar.  He quietly and calmly mentioned  he was a supporter of the Proud Boys, asking, “What’s wrong with being proud to be white?”  He defended people’s first amendment rights to protest for their beliefs at rallies, and said that it was a shame there was so much violence on both sides, especially the anarchist Antifa.  He just hoped there wouldn’t be guilt by association, like when those two Black police officers were killed in Baltimore by rioters.  His voice was purposefully calming and de-escalating; he was alone at the bar.  Still, even in the heart of Los Angeles, he want’ afraid.  I asked him later what he did for a living; he said he owned an electrical supply company that catered to industrial enterprises.   Could have fooled me, I thought.  This guy was dressed like one of the linemen I worked with back home.

Even in the heart of multi-cultural Los Angeles, white power groups are organizing. My friend said that the Proud Boys had an event at that very bar a few weekends ago.  I looked at him in shock, puzzled why he took me to this place tonight, then scanned the room, glanced over my shoulder, and slammed back my beer to leave.

The other day I read a book called “Fascism, what it is and how to fight It.”  This short pamphlet written in 1932 by Leon Trotsky, a key leader of Russian Revolution, argued that fascism was a product of the decay of capitalism and the desperation of ruling elites when confronted with a militant working class.   You can read it here:

https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1944/1944-fas.htm

After World War I, the author explains, communists attempted revolutions in Germany, Italy and Hungary. Only Russia’s succeeded; the rest were crushed by the police, the army, or rightwing paramilitary groups.  In the wake of this repression, governments formed with a program of social-democracy, which involved democratic elections, legislative bodies, legal procedures, social welfare programs, and labor laws.  But with former European colonial empires and their economies in ruin after the devastation wrought by World War I, Western Europe remained in an intense crisis.  The owners of the big companies quietly supported small shop keepers and professionals anxious about their declining social and economic mobility, organizing them into paramilitary fascist organizations, as well and electoral parties.  In a few short years, these groups rapidly eclipsed social democrats, unions, and community groups, garnering a sizable minority of votes in elections.  They began to wage armed fights to destroy any organized opposition.  As they established paramilitary wings, many on the center and the left felt comfortable that the police and military, under the control of democratically elected officials, would crush these armed groups.  Instead, their size and boldness grew, and they began to assassinate union leaders, and vandalize synagogues, as the police looked the other way.

Trostky advocated armed self-defense to counter Nazi aggression.  I don’t want to repeat the tired debates of the early 20th century; in many ways we live in different times.  But looking back on the atrocities committed by and for the fascists of that era,  it seems in retrospect that Trotsky  may have been right.

My grandfather, Theodore Lichtenstein, fled Berlin in 1935 for the United States. He had a phony student visa and eventually settled in Fredrick, Maryland where he ran a 5 and 10-cent store. His own parents thought that, yes, things were bad, but they would blow over. My great grandfather had a box full of metals earned on the Eastern Front during the Great War.  But life became progressively worse even in once cosmopolitan and social democratic Berlin. In January or February 1943, the police loaded them, along with thousands of other Jews, onto box cars at Berlin’s leafy Gruenewald station bound for the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz.

Calls for law and order will not save us. Nor will the police.  The police response to civil rights compared to pro-confederate protestors is telling.  In Ferguson, Missouri, the state called in the national guard.  The government deployed armored personnel carriers mounted with machine gun turrets, assault rifles, bullet proof vests, sniper rifles, night vision goggles, and aerial drones.  Police used tear gas, non-lethal rubber bullets, sound cannons, and pepper spray on that inner suburb’s black population, as they grieved the untimely death of a young man bound for college, chanting, “Hands up, Don’t shoot!”  In Charlottesville, on the other hand, white protestors were allowed to threaten, beat, pepper spray, maim, terrorize, and even murder their opposition.  The news reported that police made only four arrests.

I recently heard that Neo-Nazi theorist and propogandist Richard Spencer attended the University of Chicago for a masters’ degree, graduating in 2003, the same year I organized, along with many classmates, walkouts of high school and college students against George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.  In the spring of 2004, after the media televised gruesome images of American soldiers torturing Iraqis at the military detention facility at Abu Gharib, outside Baghdad, our student anti-war group collected 1,000 petitions from students and faculty within a week calling on Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation.  Rallying downtown to deliver these petitions to our U.S. Senators, speakers called on those responsible for these heinous acts to be prosecuted for war crimes..  At a teach-in we held the next week, in part sponsored by the University of Chicago Human Rights Program, I remember comments from two skinhead students.  One defended torture: Israel did it, he reasoned, and we need to be tough on terror like them.  A few minutes later another spoke.  “Like my comrade said,” he gestured, “I support torture to stop terrorism.”  Comrade, I thought.  These Neo-Nazi students had been organizing quietly as we publicly held noisy rallies, teach-ins, marches, and press conferences.

I don’t remember seeing them again.

As they continued to organize quietly, we turned our attention to supporting the lukewarm candidacy of John Kerry in hopes his centrism would defeat George w. Bush.  We failed.  In 2016, many civil society organizations turned again to the center— in support of the safe known entity of Hillary Clinton.

After witnessing Nazi and Klan terror in Charlottesville last weekend, and the lukewarm reaction by the federal government, we must call out racial hatred, those that would collaborate or appease it,  and protect both ourselves, and each other.  With courage, determination, faith, and solidarity, we will prevail.  The values of human liberty and equality that Thomas Jefferson wrote of so eloquently, despite what he actually practiced, are still considered universal moral standards.  Now is not the time to be meek, silent, or to placate the center.  It is time to choose:  fascism or freedom, or as Rosa Luxemburg, the German-Jewish revolutionary put it before proto-Nazi Freikorps militiamen kidnapped and killed her,   socialism or barbarism.  Neo-Nazis today feel emboldened that their violence works; It terrorizes peace loving people, gives racist extremism a national media audience, and is protected by their President, Donald Trump.  We cannot give up and remain silent.  They are reacting with violence because we are the majority, and we are winning.  I still believe we will win, and together, yes, we can.

 

In unity and struggle,

 

Daniel Lichtenstein-Boris