Wednesday, July 27, 2011


21st-Century Slaves: How Corporations Exploit Prison Labor

21st-Century Slaves:
How Corporations Exploit Prison Labor

By Rania Khalek, AlterNet
Posted on July 21, 2011

There is one group of American workers so disenfranchised that
corporations are able to get away with paying them wages that rival
those of third-world sweatshops. These laborers have been legally
stripped of their political, economic and social rights and
ultimately relegated to second-class citizens. They are banned from
unionizing, violently silenced from speaking out and forced to work
for little to no wages. This marginalization renders them practically
invisible, as they are kept hidden from society with no available
recourse to improve their circumstances or change their plight.

They are the 2.3 million American prisoners locked behind bars where
we cannot see or hear them. And they are modern-day slaves of the
21st century.

Incarceration Nation

It's no secret that America imprisons more of its citizens than any
other nation in history. With just 5 percent of the world's
population, the US currently holds 25 percent of the world's
prisoners. In 2008, over 2.3 million Americans were in prison or
jail, with one of every 48 working-age men behind bars. That doesn't
include the tens of thousands of detained undocumented immigrants
facing deportation, prisoners awaiting sentencing, or juveniles
caught up in the school-to-prison pipeline. Perhaps it's reassuring
to some that the US still holds the number one title in at least one
arena, but needless to say the hyper-incarceration plaguing America
has had a damaging effect on society at large.

According to a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research
(CEPR), US prison rates are not just excessive in comparison to the
rest of the world, they are also substantially higher than our own
longstanding history. The study finds that incarceration rates
between 1880 and 1970 ranged from about 100 to 200 prisoners per
100,000 people. After 1980, the inmate population began to grow much
more rapidly than the overall population and the rate climbed from
about 220 in 1980 to 458 in 1990, 683 in 2000, and 753 in 2008.

The costs of this incarceration industry are far from evenly
distributed, with the impact of excessive incarceration falling
predominantly on African-American communities. Although black people
make up just 13 percent of the overall population, they account for
40 percent of US prisoners. According to the Bureau of Justice
Statistics (BJS), black males are incarcerated at a rate more than
6.5 times that of white males and 2.5 that of Hispanic males and
black females are incarcerated at approximately three times the rate
of white females and twice that of Hispanic females.

Michelle Alexander points out in her book The New Jim Crow that more
black men are in jail, on probation, or on parole than were enslaved
in 1850. Higher rates of black drug arrests do not reflect higher
rates of black drug offenses. In fact, whites and blacks engage in
drug offenses, possession and sales at roughly comparable rates.

Incentivizing Incarceration

Clearly, the US prison system is riddled with racism and classism,
but it gets worse. As it turns out, private companies have a cheap,
easy labor market, and it isn't in China, Indonesia, Haiti, or
Mexico. It's right here in the land of the free, where large
corporations increasingly employ prisoners as a source of cheap and
sometimes free labor.

In the eyes of the corporation, inmate labor is a brilliant strategy
in the eternal quest to maximize profit. By dipping into the prison
labor pool, companies have their pick of workers who are not only
cheap but easily controlled. Companies are free to avoid providing
benefits like health insurance or sick days, while simultaneously
paying little to no wages. They don't need to worry about unions or
demands for vacation time or raises. Inmate workers are full-time and
never late or absent because of family problems.

If they refuse to work, they are moved to disciplinary housing and
lose canteen privileges along with "good time" credit that reduces
their sentences. To top it off, the federal government subsidizes the
use of inmate labor by private companies through lucrative tax
write-offs. Under the Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC),
private-sector employers earn a tax credit of $2,400 for every work
release inmate they employ as a reward for hiring "risky target
groups" and they can earn back up to 40 percent of the wages they pay
annually to "target group workers."

Study after study demonstrates the wastefulness of America's
prison-industrial complex, in both taxpayer dollars and innocent
lives, yet rolling back imprisonment rates is proving to be more
challenging than ever. Meanwhile, the use of private prisons and now
privately contracted inmate labor has created a system that does not
exactly incentivize leaner sentencing.

The disturbing implications of such a system mean that skyrocketing
imprisonment for the possession of miniscule amounts of marijuana and
the the expansion of severe mandatory sentencing laws regardless of
the conviction, are policies that have to potential to increase
corporate profits. As are the"three strikes laws" that require courts
to hand down mandatory and extended sentences to people who have been
convicted of felonies on three or more separate occasions. People
have literally been sentenced to life for minor crimes like shoplifting.

The Reinvention of Slavery

The exploitation of prison labor is by no means a new phenomenon.
Jaron Browne, an organizer with People Organized to Win Employment
Rights (POWER), maps out how the exploitation of prison labor in
America is rooted in slavery. The abolition of slavery dealt a
devastating economic blow to the South following the loss of free
labor after the Civil War. So in the late 19th century, an extensive
prison system was created in the South in order to maintain the
racial and economic relationship of slavery, a mechanism responsible
for re-enslaving black workers. Browne describes Louisiana's famous
Angola Prison to illustrate the intentional transformation from slave
to inmate:

"In 1880, this 8000-acre family plantation was purchased by the state
of Louisiana and converted into a prison. Slave quarters became cell
units. Now expanded to 18,000 acres, the Angola plantation is tilled
by prisoners working the land­a chilling picture of modern day
chattel slavery."

The abolition of slavery quickly gave rise to the Black Codes and
Convict Leasing, which together worked wonders at perpetuating
African American servitude by exploiting a loophole in the 13th
Amendment to the US Constitution, which reads:

"Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment
for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall
exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction."

The Black Codes were a set of laws that criminalized legal activity
for African Americans and provided a pretext for the arrest and mass
imprisonment of newly freed blacks, which caused the percentage of
African Americans in prison to surpass whites for the first time.
Convict leasing involved leasing out prisoners to private companies
that paid the state a certain fee in return. Convicts worked for the
companies during the day outside the prison and returned to their
cells at night. The system provided revenue for the state and profits
for plantation owners and wasn't abolished until the 1930s.

Unfortunately, convict leasing was quickly replaced with equally
despicable state-run chain gangs. Once again, stories of vicious
abuse created enough public anger to abolish chain gangs by the
1950s. Nevertheless, the systems of prisoner exploitation never
actually disappeared.

Today's corporations can lease factories in prisons, as well as lease
prisoners out to their factories. In many cases, private corporations
are running prisons-for-profit, further incentivizing their stake in
locking people up. The government is profiting as well, by running
prison factories that operate as multibillion-dollar industries in
every state, and throughout the federal prison system, where
prisoners are contracted out to major corporations by the state.

In the most extreme cases, we are even witnessing the reemergence of
the chain gang. In Arizona, the self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff in
America," Joe Arpaio, requires his Maricopa County inmates to enroll
in chain gangs to perform various community services or face lockdown
with three other inmates in an 8-by-12-foot cell, for 23 hours a day.
In June of this year, Arpaio started a female-only chain gang made up
of women convicted of driving under the influence. In a press release
he boasted that the inmates would be wearing pink T-shirts emblazoned
with messages about drinking and driving.

The modern-day version of convict leasing was recently spotted in
Georgia, where Governor Nathan Deal proposed sending unemployed
probationers to work in Georgia's fields as a solution to a perceived
labor shortage following the passage of the country's most draconian
anti-immigrant law. But his plan backfired when some of the
probationers began walking off their jobs because the fieldwork was
too strenuous.

There has also been a disturbing reemergence of the debtors' prison,
which should serve as an ominous sign of our dangerous reliance on
prisons to manage any and all of society's problems. According to the
Wall Street Journal more than a third of all U.S. states allow
borrowers who can't or won't pay to be jailed. They found that judges
signed off on more than 5,000 such warrants since the start of 2010
in nine counties. It appears that any act that can be criminalized in
the era of private prisons and inmate labor will certainly end in
jail time, further increasing the ranks of the captive workforce.

Who Profits?

Prior to the 1970s, private corporations were prohibited from using
prison labor as a result of the chain gang and convict leasing
scandals. But in 1979, Congress began a process of deregulation to
restore private sector involvement in prison industries to its former
status, provided certain conditions of the labor market were met.
Over the last 30 years, at least 37 states have enacted laws
permitting the use of convict labor by private enterprise, with an
average pay of $0.93 to $4.73 per day.

Federal prisoners receive more generous wages that range from $0.23
to $1.25 per hour, and are employed by Unicor, a wholly owned
government corporation established by Congress in 1934. Its principal
customer is the Department of Defense, from which Unicor derives
approximately 53 percent of its sales. Some 21,836 inmates work in
Unicor programs. Subsequently, the nation's prison industry – prison
labor programs producing goods or services sold to other government
agencies or to the private sector -- now employs more people than any
Fortune 500 company (besides General Motors), and generates about
$2.4 billion in revenue annually. Noah Zatz of UCLA law school estimates that:

"Well over 600,000, and probably close to a million, inmates are
working full-time in jails and prisons throughout the United States.
Perhaps some of them built your desk chair: office furniture,
especially in state universities and the federal government, is a
major prison labor product. Inmates also take hotel reservations at
corporate call centers, make body armor for the U.S. military, and
manufacture prison chic fashion accessories, in addition to the
iconic task of stamping license plates."

Some of the largest and most powerful corporations have a stake in
the expansion of the prison labor market, including but not limited
to IBM, Boeing, Motorola, Microsoft, AT&T, Wireless, Texas
Instrument, Dell, Compaq, Honeywell, Hewlett-Packard, Nortel, Lucent
Technologies, 3Com, Intel, Northern Telecom, TWA, Nordstrom's,
Revlon, Macy's, Pierre Cardin, Target Stores, and many more. Between
1980 and 1994 alone, profits went up from $392 million to $1.31
billion. Since the prison labor force has likely grown since then, it
is safe to assume that the profits accrued from the use of prison
labor have reached even higher levels.

In an article for Mother Jones, Caroline Winter details a number of
mega-corporations that have profited off of inmates:

"In the 1990s, subcontractor Third Generation hired 35 female South
Carolina inmates to sew lingerie and leisure wear for Victoria's
Secret and JCPenney. In 1997, a California prison put two men in
solitary for telling journalists they were ordered to replace 'Made
in Honduras' labels on garments with 'Made in the USA.'"

According to Winter, the defense industry is a large part of the
equation as well:

"Unicor, says that in addition to soldiers' uniforms, bedding, shoes,
helmets, and flak vests, inmates have 'produced missile cables
(including those used on the Patriot missiles during the Gulf War)'
and 'wiring harnesses for jets and tanks.' In 1997, according to
Prison Legal News, Boeing subcontractorMicroJet had prisoners cutting
airplane components, paying $7 an hour for work that paid union wages
of $30 on the outside."

Oil companies have been known to exploit prison labor as well.
Following the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig that killed 11
workers and irreparably damaged the Gulf of Mexico for generations to
come, BP elected to hire Louisiana prison inmates to clean up its
mess. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate of any state in
the nation, 70 percent of which are African-American men. Coastal
residents desperate for work, whose livelihoods had been destroyed by
BP's negligence, were outraged at BP's use of free prison labor.

In the Nation article that exposed BP's hiring of inmates, Abe Louise
Young details how BP tried to cover up its use of prisoners by
changing the inmates' clothing to give the illusion of civilian
workers. But nine out of 10 residents of Grand Isle, Louisiana are
white, while the cleanup workers were almost exclusively black, so
BP's ruse fooled very few people.

Private companies have long understood that prison labor can be as
profitable as sweatshop workers in third-world countries with the
added benefit of staying closer to home. Take Escod Industries, which
in the 1990s abandoned plans to open operations in Mexico and instead
moved to South Carolina, because the wages of American prisoners
undercut those of de-unionized Mexican sweatshop workers. The move
was fueled by the state, which gave a $250,000 "equipment subsidy" to
Escod along with industrial space at below-market rent. Other
examples include Ohio's Honda supplier, which pays its prison workers
$2 an hour for the same work for which the UAW has fought for decades
to be paid $20 to $30 an hour; Konica, which has hired prisoners to
repair its copiers for less than 50 cents an hour; and Oregon, where
private companies can "lease" prisoners at a bargain price of $3 a day.

Even politicians have been known to tap into prison labor for their
own personal use. In 1994, a contractor for GOP congressional
candidate Jack Metcalf hired Washington state prisoners to call and
remind voters he was pro-death penalty. He won his campaign claiming
he had no knowledge of the scandal. Perhaps this is why Senator John
Ensign (R-NV) introduced a bill earlier this year to require all
low-security prisoners to work 50 hours a week. After all, creating a
national prison labor force has been a goal of his since he went to
Congress in 1995.

In an unsettling turn of events lawmakers have begun ditching public
employees in favor of free prison labor. The New York Times recently
reported that states are enlisting prison labor to close budget gaps
to offset cuts in federal financing and dwindling tax revenue. At a
time of record unemployment, inmates are being hired to paint
vehicles, clean courthouses, sweep campsites and perform many other
services done before the recession by private contractors or
government employees. In Wisconsin, prisoners are now taking up jobs
that were once held by unionized workers, as a result of Governor
Scott Walker's contentious anti-union law.

Why You Should Care

Those who argue in favor of prison labor claim it is a useful tool
for rehabilitation and preparation for post-jail employment. But this
has only been shown to be true in cases where prisoners are exposed
to meaningful employment, where they learn new skills, not the
labor-intensive, menial and often dangerous work they are being
tasked with. While little if any evidence exists to suggests that the
current prison labor system decreases recidivism or leads to better
employment prospects outside of prison, there are a number of
solutions that have been proven to be useful.

According to a study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, having a history
of incarceration itself impedes subsequent economic success. Pew
found that past incarceration reduced subsequent wages by 11 percent,
cut annual employment by nine weeks and reduced yearly earnings by 40
percent. The study suggests that the best approach is for state and
federal authorities to invest in programs that reconnect inmates to
the labor market, as well as provide training and job placement
services around the time of release. Most importantly, Pew says that
in the long term, America must move toward alternative sentencing
programs for low-level and nonviolent offenders, and issuing
penalties that are actually proportionate with real public safety concerns.

The exploitation of any workforce is detrimental to all workers.
Cheap and free labor pushes down wages for everyone. Just as American
workers cannot compete with sweatshop labor, the same goes for prison
labor. Many jobs that come into prison are taken from free citizens.
The American labor movement must demand that prison labor be allowed
the right to unionize, the right to a fair and living wage, and the
right to a safe and healthy work environment. That is what prisoners
are demanding, but they can only do so much from inside a prison cell.

As unemployment on the outside increases, so too will crime and
incarceration rates, and our 21st-century version of corporate
slavery will continue to expand unless we do something about it.

Rania Khalek is a progressive activist. Check out her blog Missing
Pieces or follow her on Twitter @Rania_ak. You can contact her at



Restaurants Where You Only Pay What You Can Afford?

Restaurants Where You Only Pay What You Can Afford?
A Visionary Way to Bring Good Food to the Poor Is Taking Off

By Kelly McCartney, Shareable
Posted on July 21, 2011,

This story first appeared on Shareable.

If you were to only judge the world by watching the news, you'd think
we had collectively lost all of our humanity, our intergrity.
Neverending wars, devastating environmental disasters, punishing
austerity measures... all of which impact the poorer among us more
than the richer. Rare is the voice that speaks for the
underprivileged. But, if you listen hard enough, you might just hear
a little whisper out there in the distance.

Among those voices, Panera Bread founder Ron Shaich might well be the
loudest. Last year, Shaich began an experiment in Clayton, Missouri.
He opened a Panera Cares pay-what-you-can café and it has been an
unqualified success, so much so that he has since opened two more
locations – in Dearborn, Michigan, and Portland, Oregon. The goal,
now, is to open one per quarter in diverse communities around the
country – the geographical logic being that the folks with more means
can help offset those with less.

And that logic has been borne out. Using the slogan, "Take what you
need, leave your fair share," the cafés are doing just fine. Shaich
claims that an estimated 60 percent of customers pay suggested retail
price, 20 percent pay extra, and another 20 percent pay less or
nothing. The net average comes out to approximately 80 percent of
suggested retail price and the shops generate revenues well above
their costs. Interestingly, there are no cashiers and cash registers
to tally humility or generosity, only greeters and donation boxes to
preserve dignity and collect offerings. Further still, some of those
who can't contribute monetarily offer their time and effort instead
which, in turn, lowers operating costs for the business.

And it's all because Shaich gets the bigger picture: "The vision for
the Panera Cares cafe was to use Panera's unique restaurant skills to
address real societal needs and make a direct impact in communities.
Thus, the Foundation developed these community cafés to make a
difference by addressing the food insecurity issues that affect
millions of Americans." More than 50 million, to be exact.

Though some might brand the effort as socialism, Panera Bread – what
with its $4 billion market cap and 60,000 employees – is more an
example of conscious capitalism in action. And, with the Panera Cares
Foundation, Shaich spreads the wealth one step further in an almost
commons-based venture where food is a right, not a privilege. Here,
the stakeholders are valued alongside the shareholders. But that's
not all. Shaich also aims to triple-leverage Panera's resources by
feeding people who can't feed themselves, training and funneling
at-risk youth back into the mainstream, and setting an example for
other corporations to do more than simply write a check. As a result,
both private (funding) and public (people) assets are brought to bear
in a successful partnership rooted in sharing.

The idea came after Shaich and his family spent some time
volunteering in soup kitchens, food pantries, and bread lines – a
regular occurrence for the Shaich family. What he found there was not
good. He recalled, "Standing in line outside in a bread line is
dehumanizing and robs the people of any dignity they have. And for
what? The meal they receive is terrible. ... My idea was that you
should be able to eat a nutritious meal with the same dignity as
everyone else, in the same place as everyone else. It would let you
hold your head up high, and rebuild a bit of your confidence."

Now that he's proven the model works, Shaich fields a multitude of
phone calls from business owners wanting to know his secret. His four
pillars are:

1. Make it non-profit – With this set-up, customers get that whatever
extra they pay goes back into the community to support those in need.
It gives them not only a certain ease, but a sense of participation
in the cycle of sharing.

2. Make it real – If the customers know the real value of the items
on the menu, they can feel comfortable paying full price or, perhaps,
a bit more when they can. Shaich keeps it simple with soups, salads,
and sandwiches.

3. Make it human – By putting a welcoming face out front, it's harder
for customers to try to score a free meal just to "screw the man," as
Shaich puts it.

4. Make it authentic – Don't just talk the talk of a do-gooder. By
also walking the walk, the customers and employees will take it
seriously and actively support the venture.

Though it may well be the most successful and prolific, Panera Cares
was not even close to being the first pay-what-you-can café on the
scene. Shaich cites the SAME Café in Denver, Colorado, as providing
some inspiration for him. Like Shaich, Libby and Brad Birky, the
founders of SAME – which stands for So All May Eat – got to the idea
by way of volunteering at food banks and shelters. Here, patrons can
exchange an hour of service for either a meal or a gift certificate.
Of course, they can also contribute cash or other in-kind donations
to the cause. Libby Birky explained, "No matter their means, we treat
people with dignity. They return the favor." According to Brad, that
dignity encompasses the food itself: "We cook simple, high-quality
food. We reject the notion that only an elite deserves to eat well."

At the forefront of the pay-what-you-can action stand Denise Cerreta
and her One World Everybody Eats Foundation whose motto is to offer
those in need "not a handout, but a hand up." In 2003, she opened the
One World community kitchen/café in Salt Lake City, Utah, from which
the broader foundation blossomed. In those footsteps, other community
kitchens with a pay-it-forward policy have followed, such as the
Karma Kitchen in Berkeley, California, and The Forge in Abilene, Texas.

Flash forward to 2011 and, in addition to having helped SAME and
hosting the annual One World Everybody Eats summit in Santa Fe, New
Mexico, Cerreta has advised more than a dozen eateries in Alabama,
New Jersey, Missouri, Texas, Michigan, Oregon, and Washington state,
each with their own unique circumstances. Just as Shaich outlined,
the volunteer element is key to the formula because it both provides
a way for people with limited funds to contribute and a way for
people with limited work experience to gain ground there. Cerreta
said, "When a paid staff slot opens, we go straight to our volunteer
list and hire from that roster."

The community restaurant movement got a little extra oomph recently
when rock star Jon Bon Jovi opened his Soul Kitchen in Red Bank, New
Jersey. Sure, the suggested donation and volunteer option are both
present. But, with a focus on more than just food, Soul Kitchen also
emphasizes conversation and community as part of its mission which
includes "eliminating hunger, building relationships, celebrating
community action and unity, promoting sustainability, and extending
encouragement and opportunity to those in need." Part of the
restaurant's manifesto explains the name: "At Soul Kitchen, a place
is ready for you if you are hungry, or if you hunger to make a
difference in your community. For we believe that a healthy meal can
feed the soul."

In Santa Rosa, California, Evelyn Cheatham took the reverse route and
got to a slightly different place. The first step was setting up
Worth Our Weight, a culinary apprentice program for at-risk youth.
"Developing great lives through good food" is the order of the day
there. The tuition-free, volunteer-run program accepts young people
between the ages of 16-24 "who have faced major challenges in their
lives, including foster care, difficulties with the law,
homelessness, and significant family disruption." Though Cheatham
offers training in the culinary and restaurant management arts,
imperative life lessons are gleaned, as well, including team work,
accountability, mutual respect, and responsibility. Basically, WOW
changes lives in deeply tangible ways.

Though they ask for a fair donation in exchange for the food they
serve, the café, which is open a limited number of hours each week,
operates at a net loss. Still, it provides an invaluable service as a
community outreach tool and more. According to Cheatham, "The café is
a natural component of the program. It sets the program apart from
being a school. It is the natural extension of a vocational training
program. The feedback from a customer provides us with an instant
learning experience." So popular are WOW's weekend brunches,
celebrity chef Guy Fieri featured them on his Diners, Drive-Ins, and
Dives – the first non-profit restaurant ever showcased on the Food
Network show.

No matter what the means, the end goal is the same in each of these
cases: feeding people as a community service. And, when nearly 15
percent of households in the U.S. are faced with food insecurity,
that's no small goal. In fact, it's bigger than any one person, any
one project. But, considering the fact that Americans waste upwards
of 25 percent of their food, it's not hard to formulate an equation
where everyone gets to eat. It simply requires using an algorithm
rooted in the common good or, perhaps, springing from the undeniable
reciprocity of the Golden Rule. That is exactly what is happening
here. These folks at the heart of the movement understand the
momentous task at hand and are intent upon doing their part to keep
things moving forward. As Cerreta observed, "This is spiritual
franchising. I want to create a big enough snowball that it keeps
going without me."


Community kitchens, cafés, and restaurants to support around the U.S.:

A Better World Café - 19 South 2nd Ave., Highland Park, New Jersey
Café 180 - 3315 South Broadway, Englewood, Colorado
Comfort Café - 3945 Tennyson Street, Denver, Colorado
Community Table Café - 418 Cerrillos Road (in the Design Center),
Santa Fe, New Mexico
Karma Kitchen - at Taste of Himalayas Restaurant, 1700 Shattuck Ave,
Berkeley, California
Karma Kitchen - at Klay Oven Restaurant, 414 N. Orleans Street,
Chicago, Illinois
La Cocina - 2948 Folsom San Francisco, California
One World Salt Lake City - 41 South 300 East, Salt Lake City, Utah
One World Spokane - 1804 East Sprague Ave., Spokane, Washington 99202
Panera Cares Community Café - 22208 Michigan Avenue, Dearborn, Michigan
Panera Cares Community Café - 4121 NE Halsey Street, Portland, Oregon
Potager - 315 South Mesquite St., Arlington, Texas
Ransom Café - 7485 Airport Blvd., Mobile, Alabama
SAME (So All May Eat) Café - 2023 East Colfax Ave., Denver, Colorado 80206
Soul Kitchen Community Restaurant - 121 Drs. James Parker Blvd., Red
Bank, New Jersey
St. Louis Bread Company Cares - 10th Central Ave., Clayton, Missouri
Table Grace Café - 1611 1/2 Farnam Street, Omaha, Nebraska
The Forge - Abilene's Community Kitchen 2801 S. 1st Street, Abilene, Texas
Three Stone Hearth Community-Supported Kitchen - 1581 University
Avenue, Berkeley, California
Worth Our Weight - 1021 Hahman Drive, Santa Rosa, California


Sunday, July 17, 2011


‘Dying Isn’t Enough’: A Young Hit Man in Michoac án

‘Dying Isn’t Enough’: A Young Hit Man in Michoacán

by Rossana Reguillo,

I found Beto by chance. For several months in 2007, I had been searching for the so-called child soldiers of Michoacán, the southern Mexican state that is home to La Familia Michoacana, a notoriously violent drug-trafficking group that had reportedly begun recruiting young hit men. These young killers had been mentioned in the press, and their existence was confirmed to me by María, a 16-year-old girl from Michoacán who was involved in the Luz y Sombra nightclub events of September 2006, when La Familia managed to draw attention to all of Mexico by dumping five severed human heads onto the club’s dancefloor.

María told me that in the Tierra Caliente region of Michoacán, La Familia has a small army of youth who are variously used as fee collectors, messengers, and lookouts. Others, who are paid, serve as drug couriers and assassins, she told me. I tried in several ways to locate a member of this “army,” but without success. Each question, each attempt was met with a wall of silence and evasions. Then Beto appeared.

For now the circumstances of how Beto and I came into contact cannot be disclosed. We met three times for three hours each, and if at first tension and mistrust predominated, by the end Beto’s words gushed forth like the springs of his native Michoacán. He wanted to talk, to share his story, and to see reflected in the eyes of another person the things he had felt in his short life of 16 years.

Beto, whose name has been changed for this article, was born in Turicato, a municipality of Tierra Caliente in Michoacán, on February 15, 1994.

“A good Aquarius,” I told him. “Like my oldest son.” I’m not sure now if I said that just to break the tension or because I was moved by his fragile body and scared eyes.

“No, psss, where I come from, we don’t believe in those things,” he said with fake indignation. He asked curiously, “What are Aquariuses like? Are they cool?”

“Oh, yeah, they’re artists, creative, very sensitive,” I said. “They really like people and people really like Aquariuses because they’re very peaceful and helpful, and they have a lot of dreams. And besides, they get along really well with Libras.”

“I’m a Libra,” I added, trying to get through to this young man with a shaven head and lost gaze.

“Oh,” he said. And he remained silent for a couple of seemingly never-ending minutes. I was wrong, I thought. Now I’m going to have to start all over, from somewhere else. But suddenly he took out an old, beaten-up medallion of the Virgin of Guadalupe from his pants pocket. He handed it to me.

“It was my mother’s,” he said. “She believed in those things, that people have a purpose and a destiny, and she would always hide from my dad when she read those things in the magazines, you know those things—horoscopes, they’re called, right?”

He is the fourth child in a family of seven, and the second-born of the sons. I came to understand that he didn’t like that. Being the second of two brothers took away his right to be named after his father, the right to follow in his footsteps, and to be his heir in a way that I didn’t manage to fully comprehend. It was as if he felt uncomfortable facing an incomplete inheritance.

“My cabrón brother was always in good with my dad,” Beto said, now relaxed and lost in his memories. When he told me that his Apá—as he always called his father when he spoke of him as an admirable figure—was a native of the town of Los Espinos and about how he met his mom, who was born in Turicato, his eyes clouded a little and he spoke of them as if in some far-off past.

“Why do you speak of them in the past tense?” I asked him. “Are they dead?”

“No, they’re alive. They left for Morelia, because the town just isn’t a livable place anymore. They grabbed my three little siblings who were still around and they left. None of us stayed in the village.”

Then he told me that his older brother, “the one who was always in good with his father,” and who was named after him, was taken away one day, whether by the army or the Zetas, a rival drug cartel, he did not know. In any case he never reappeared, and his dad, Beto told me, had become “smaller, older, since then.” One of his sisters, he said, went to the United States with her husband, “and nobody ever heard from her again,” and another sister “shacked up with a puto narco, one of those from Mexico City, and we never heard again from her either.” “And then there’s me,” he said. His eyes became teary, and a kind of sigh left him breathless.

“Why can’t anyone live in your town anymore?” I said, interrupting his train of thought to give him a little space to compose himself.

“Um, you mean, you don’t know?” He gave me a challenging look.

“No,” I said. “Tell me.”

“It’s a big mess,” he said. “It got really hot over there. People killed from one day to the next. The other side killed one of our guys to send a message, and we had to return the favor. Lots of action, but it wasn’t clear who won. The bosses were all nervous and ready to kill anyone over anything.”

“Explain that to me,” I said. “I don’t understand.” Beto looked at me with eyes that said, “You just had to be a pendeja, you dumb old lady,” but I stayed quiet and didn’t give up my position as awkward student. He felt strong, in possession of knowledge that I didn’t have, a teacher and a guide in a world where I was completely ignorant.

He explained that the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel arrived in town, but La Familia didn’t have good weapons or enough of them. “We all had to be good and ready,” he said. Then Beto paused in a long silence. “And then, well, that was when I started. But we can talk about this more later, OK?”

And so we did.

“I don’t know anything about my parents or my three little siblings. And I think that they don’t know anything about me, either, but it’s just as well. One day I had to accompany my boss in a really tough job. I had to shoot a guy from a little store who was going around saying things he shouldn’t have. He was a friend of our rivals, pointing fingers at our people. And that, you know, you just don’t do. ‘Go ahead, Beto, grab the machete and the cartridges and get in the truck,’ my boss told me.”

“What was your boss like?” I asked.

“Oh, he’s a really awesome guy,” he said, using the present tense. “Very tough. I think he’s about 25 years old, and he can recite the Bible to you by memory. I’ve learned more from him than from a priest. El Mero Mero [the top leader of the cartel] gave a lot of jobs to my boss.

“Once,” Beto said, his eyes squinting like those of a purring kitten, “I got to hear a really good conversation: that everything was messed up because nobody believes in God anymore, that men were needed, that now El Mero was going to take over the mountains and the coast, and fight everyone in his way, and they would know the Bible. I was really excited and I wanted to recite to them the Bible verses that I had learned by heart, but, I mean, I was barely a pendejo. But that’s OK. I had a desire to progress and to give my homeland what it deserved, to get rid of all of the hijos de la chingada who didn’t believe and . . . things like that.”

“And what happened on the day of the truck?” I asked him. “Will you tell me?”

Beto looked at me with sadness from an unreachable place.

“Well, OK, seeing as we’re already into this and you seem like a good person. I killed my first three people; I blasted off faster than I was ready for. I took down the guy from the store, his brother, and a friend of his who ran with them and sometimes with us. Honestly, I didn’t feel anything. I used an AK-47 rifle like I knew what I was doing, and my boss just laughed, saying, ‘How brave you turned out to be, my Beto,’ and he made the sign of the cross and said, ‘The Lord is my shepherd.’ And the honest truth is, I was happy that my boss was happy. The bad part came later.”

Beto was silent and took out the Virgin medallion again. “My boss told us, we’re going to take the El Mero a gift. He took out a machete about the size of his leg, and slash, slash, slash! He cut off all three of their heads the same way my godfather used to cut them off the hens on the ranch. My legs went numb. This was no laughing matter. But everyone in the truck was really happy and, well, whatever. I said, ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ while I put one of the heads in a dark black bag, so that we couldn’t see them . . . that’s how I remember it now. Really, we’re not like the bad people. Here only those who deserve it are punished.”

My silence must have been uncomfortable, because Beto was trying to meet my eyes with his, in search of understanding not forgiveness. And so he explained his violent past—two bodies here, three heads there, one leg, one tongue, mutilations, adding up to 18 lives of “bad people” on his secret track record. I was finding it hard to breathe. Sixteen years old, 18 deaths, mutilations, a shattered future. Narcotics, religion, and power: a trinity that is very hard to understand.

We smoked one last menthol cigarette together. Beto thought they were awful, but considering the lack of other options, he put up with it. We looked at each other for quite some time through the smoke.

“How do you imagine your death, Beto?”

He took out his medallion, looked at it with a light smile, took a drag, and said:

“If I’m going to die, I’d like it to be from a large bullet that knocks out my brain so I don’t feel anything. Or,” he said, reconsidering, “let them cut me up into pieces, to save my mother the pain of having to mourn me. The thing is, in this business, dying isn’t enough anymore.”

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From protest songs to revolutionary anthems

From protest songs to revolutionary anthems

by Mark LeVine,
July 14th 2011 6:38 AM

"My music may be soft, but I'm a warrior on stage."

So explained Tunisian folk rock singer Emel Mathlouthi as we sat in the restaurant of the African Hotel after almost eight hours of rehearsal for a concert she performed at the Museum of Carthage two days later. It was a defiant remark, coming in response to a discussion of the much-celebrated role of hip hop in the Tunisian revolution, and Mathlouthi certainly had a point.

Rappers like Tunisia's El General have received hundreds of thousands of YouTube hits and repeated international attention for writing their songs supporting the revolution. But watch Mathlouthi's rendition of "Kilmati Houra" (My Word is Free), which she performed on the street on amidst the crowd on Bourghiba Avenue on a chilly winter's evening in the middle of the revolution, and the power of a simple voice, without drum machines, effusive anger and the other aspects of hip hop, becomes clear.

On the Street, but not of the Street?

There are many reasons Arab hip hop has become one of the defining cultural motifs of the revolts of the last eight months. It's gritty, angry, and evokes the kind of urban imagery - poverty, unemployment, police brutality, lack of life chances - that were at the heart of hip hop culture before it was taken over by bling. Today, Tunis, Cairo and other Arab capitals have, in one sense, inherited the mantle of Compton, Oakland or Brooklyn, where much of the most famous political American rap emerged.

In contrast, Mathlouthi's songs recall the generation prior, reminding us of folk music's powerful role in the American civil rights and anti-war struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. And so it was not surprising that as we talked about the evolution of her music, she turned to singers like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan before I could mention them.

"At first, I had rock band and we played covers of hard bands like In Flames, the Dark Tranquility, The Gathering and Italian gothic group Lacuna Coil. But then I switched to softer music after listening to Baez and Dylan, and realised what you could do with just a guitar and voice. My music became more revolutionary as it became softer."

Mathlouthi's insight about the power of softness struck a chord with me, as it mirrored precisely the experience of Egypt's Ramy Essam, another metalhead turned acoustic singer who became one of the main voices of Tahrir Square.

Already sold on the importance of hip hop to the Tunisian revolution, when I first heard Essam's version of his soon to be famous song "Irhal" ("Leave Now!" the Egyptian equivalent of the ubiquitous slogan "Dégage!" In Tunisia), featuring just him singing over his acoustic guitar, I immediately called a producer friend to work on a hip hop remix with drums and bass. To my ears, they would help turn a great protest song into a revolutionary anthem. But as soon as I watched the crowd react to him performing it live in Tahrir a few days later it became clear that the extra instrumentation were superfluous.

Reinventing tradition

A generation before either Essam or Mathlouthi were born, legendary Egyptian singer Sheikh Imam and his oud, often joined by his reknowned poet Ahmed Fouad Negm, inspired Egyptians with their highly charged songs that railed against state violence and the sufferings of Egypt's - and by extension the Arab world's - poor and working classes. Negm's famous "The Donkey and the Foal", which has long been understood as an allusion to Mubarak and his son and would-be successor Gamal, was also set to music by Essam, w

ho, like Mathlouthi and just about every other singer or rapper I know, has been strongly inspired by Sheikh Imam.

Another generation of traditional musicians today carries the mantle of Sheikh Imam and the still very much alive Ahmed Fouad Negm, whose devil-may-care attitude and humorous and poetic style of attacking Mubarak in the final years of his rule became a template for the artistically rich protests at Tahrir.

But it wasn't just Negm's poetry that brought a traditional feel to the Tahrir protests. One of the main musical highlights of the 18 day protests was the performance by celebrated folklore group Tanboura. They brought a tradition of protest music from the Suez Canal region that has taken on Nasser, Sadat and the Israeli occupation with equal vigor. For their actions members have, like Imam and Negm before them, faced prison and worse at the hands of the regime.

For Zakaria Ibrahim, founder of Tanboura and director of El Mastaba Center for Egyptian Folk Music, Tanboura's popularity is inseparable from its dual role as a voice of protest and a regenerator of traditional styles of music that recently were in danger of disappearing completely.

"I started Tanboura," Ibrahim explains, "as a response not merely to local oppression, but to the penetration of a commercial aesthetic that almost destroyed traditional music in Egypt, and the mentality and authentic values that existed with it."

Scholars might blanche before such a seemingly rose-colored view of "tradition" and "authenticity", given that so-called traditional and authentic Egyptian culture is certainly not free of prejudice, oppression and violence. But Ibrahim's focus here is on music, not society as a whole.

"Before it was just our traditional music in the street. People shared it because it expressed their hopes and needs. We sang against repression, against longing to go home after the Israeli conquest of Sinai, we had the same desires to ask for democracy and holding the government accountable, and just like today we went to prison for it. But then with the commercialisation of music songs changed completely. Instead of people sharing, now it became just commercial, without art, while the remaining traditional groups had to play for Mubarak and be controlled by his system to survive. They lost their freedom."

Of course, the plight of musicians was no different than the plight of Egyptians more broadly. What's interesting is that the same forces of neoliberalism - strongly associated with Gamal Mubarak and his cronies - that many analysts believe ultimately turned the old guard of the military-economic elite against the Mubaraks also drove traditional musicians like the members of Tanboura onto the streets.

"Mubarak was using the opening to the West to flood market with Western music," Ibrahim explained, "but offered no support for traditional music. Now at least we can hope for support."

Tradition and hybridity

The popular protests that toppled Ben Ali and Mubarak succeeded in good measure because the dictatorial regimes they confronted were unable to stop the uncontrolled flow of information, whether through social media or satellite networks like Al Jazeera (which in fact made unprecedented use of social media in its coverage of the protests).

The ability to share knowledge unbound by once powerful government censorship regimes both linked activists and protesters together and brought the realities of government repression and lies into clearer public view than ever before.

Among the most powerful forces for encouraging the unrestricted spread of knowledge and culture through the internet and its multifaceted forms of social media is the Creative Commons movement, of which, not surprisingly, Al Jazeera has been a major supporter.

As an academic and musician I have long felt that encouraging unrestricted, and as important, free circulation of knowledge and cultural products enabled by the use of Creative Commons' legal mechanisms is crucial for the future of both art and scientific/academic knowledge in the global era.

At the beginning of July, Al Jazeera and Creative Commons joined together to sponsor the 3rd Creative Commons Arab Regional Meeting and Concert, fittingly held in Tunis. As many of the participants at the meeting, from Creative Commons Chairman Joi Ito to Tanboura member and one time Sheikh Imam disciple Yasser Shoukry, explained to Al Jazeera journalist and tech expert Bilal Randaree, there is a strong affinity between the principles of Creative Commons and those of the Arab Spring.

Coming to the meeting I already had first hand experience of the activist and political implications of the kinds of circulation of knowledge enabled by Creative Commons. What I could not have imagined, however, was how the community created by CC could bring together traditional and contemporary forms of artistic production in ways that produced truly powerful and innovative hybrid forms of music and art.

For the meeting and concert we brought together well over a dozen artists from Tunisia, Egypt, Palestine, Morocco, and the US. Free of the pressure of creating a commercially viable product, our traditional singers from Egypt, Yasser Shoukry, and Tunisia, Alia Sellami, brilliantly teamed up with Tunisian rap groups Armada Bizerta and Lak3y and Gazan rapper Ayman Mghamis, to write two songs that epitomised the ongoing struggles faced by the young people who have led the Arab revolutions.

This includes the difficulty young Arabs face merely to travel outside their countries (many of the invited Gazan participants couldn't get visas, while those that did waited three days at the border to get out. Ramy Essam was not permitted to leave Egypt), and the need to continue the revolutionary impetus even as the urge to return to "normalcy" grows by the day.

Blending the poetry of Negm and Abdel Rahman al Abnudi, Shoukry and Sellami provided the vocal foundation over which the rappers could let fly with some of the most intimate yet powerfully delivered truths of the struggles they have faced, and their peers continue to face, whether in Tunis, Cairo, Gaza or beyond.

For our part, the musicians brought together traditional Moroccan guimbris with acoustic guitars, distorted and multi-affected electric guitars and some incredibly funky bass guitar and percussion players thanks to the willingness of members of the other groups who participated in the concert to join our Creative Commons jam.

After only a few hours of rehearsing we had developed two powerful songs that gave our rappers and singers a unique sound which they used to collaborate over with a joyful vengeance. The rappers spat ou

t in angry stacatto the realities of the moment in which we found ourselves; while Shoukry and Sellami offered voices of beauteous, calm tradition to remind us of where we've been and how to move beyond it to the next level.

And through it all, musical direcor and Moroccan metal pioneer, Reda Zine, focused on the Gnawa rhythms and melodies which have linked West African not only to southern Africa, but east across the entirety of North Africa and the Middle East. All guitarist/bloger Kerim Bouzouita and I had to do was add few choice guitar riffs and we had officially created a new genre of world music that has yet to be named.

The collaboration was a great success by the closing concert, and the musicians have pledged to complete writing and recording the songs so that they can be proplerly released via a CC license - which would allow other artists to build on our foundation to craft new and even better versions of the song. Two art workshops also joined the creative process, producing several wonderful videos that will be worked in more definitively once the songs are completed.

It is clear, from our experience, that among the greatest challenges facing artists in particular, and especially those particpants in the ongoing struggles for social and political change, is the difficulty of actually creating the physical spaces for them to meet and collaborate. This meeting and concert showed that however important new media and hi tech communications have clearly become, they are still no substitute for face to face interaction (a point equally well proven in the success of the revolutions once they actually moved from facebook to the streets in collaborative action).

At the same time we will continue to try to reach out to those who couldn't meet with us through these forms of social media. We will bring them into the musical and visual dialogue as much as possible with the hope, always, that at the end of the day we'll all be sharing the same real stage - whether at Tahrir, the Carthage Museum, or hopefully in the near future, the Damascus Citadel or rebuilt Pearl of Bahrain.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at the University of California: Irvine, and author, most recently, of Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the soul of Islam (Random House 2008) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books, 2009).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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Arrests are worth it, ‘Food Not Bombs' founder says

Arrests are worth it, ‘Food Not Bombs' founder says

by Cindy Swirko,
July 9th 2011 9:20 AM

Keith McHenry recently spent 17 days in jail in Orlando, but it's not the first time a cell has been home to a founder of Food Not Bombs.

The organization began in Boston in the 1980s, and since then McHenry has been jailed throughout the U.S. and in various countries. But he told a crowd at the Civic Media Center on Saturday night that the arrests of him and other Food Not Bombs supporters are worth it.

“While we are getting brutalized, at least we have been stopping this current wave of anti-homeless and anti-meal laws,” McHenry said, citing several Florida cities that have dropped planned laws. “If we had not put up resistance in Orlando, there were going to be limitations on sharing free meals with the hungry all over the United States.”

McHenry's visit comes as a coalition of local groups is working to convince the Gainesville City Commission to end meal restrictions here. Several Gainesville residents joined in the protests in Orlando as well.

Food Not Bombs has three principles: the food it hands out must always be vegetarian or vegan and must be free to anyone, the organization has no leaders and no headquarters, and its actions must be non-violent.

McHenry gave a detailed history of the organization from its first activities near Harvard University. “Reagan had just been elected, so we didn't have an overwhelming number of homeless yet,” he said of the president who took office in 1981.

The next stop was San Francisco, where Food Not Bombs supporters often were arrested for feeding people in public places. Among the volunteers stopped by police were priests and nuns.

“The nuns were patted down because, of course, nuns with guns are dangerous,” McHenry said.

Eventually he traveled throughout the world visiting Food Not Bombs chapters and participating in their activities. There are about 1,000 chapters.

Food Not Bombs got a welcoming response in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina when it was the only organization to provide food there for months after the 2005 storm, McHenry said.

McHenry said he was drawn to Florida because a number of cities have been enacting or considering laws to stop or limit the serving of free meals.

Orlando's restrictions were appealed but upheld. Arrests followed when activists continued to serve meals, a practice that McHenry said will continue.

“We are trying to get more and more people to go down. Some of you have been in Orlando,” he said. “It's been a struggle and we have lots of court dates coming up.”

The local coalition is trying to convince the City Commission to lift the current limit of 130 meals that can be served daily at the St. Francis House homeless shelter on South Main Street.

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011


The strange silencing of liberal America

The strange silencing of liberal America | Jul 7th 2011

How does political censorship work in liberal societies? When my film Year Zero: the Silent Death of Cambodia was banned in the United States in 1980, the broadcaster PBS cut all contact. Negotiations were ended abruptly; phone calls were not returned. Something had happened. But what? Year Zero had already alerted much of the world to Pol Pot's horrors, but it also investigated the critical role of the Nixon administration in the tyrant's rise to power and the devastation of Cambodia.

Six months later, a PBS official told me: "This wasn't censorship. We're into difficult political days in Washington. Your film would have given us problems with the Reagan administration. Sorry."

In Britain, the long war in Northern Ireland spawned a similar, deniable censorship. The journalist Liz Curtis compiled a list of more than 50 television films that were never shown or indefinitely delayed. The word "ban" was rarely used, and those responsible would invariably insist they believed in free speech.

The Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe, New Mexico, believes in free speech. The foundation's website says it is "dedicated to cultural freedom, diversity and creativity". Authors, film-makers and poets make their way to a sanctum of liberalism bankrolled by the billionaire Patrick Lannan in the tradition of Rockefeller and Ford.

The foundation also awards "grants" to America's liberal media, such as Free Speech TV, the Foundation for National Progress (publisher of the magazine Mother Jones), the Nation Institute and the TV and radio programme Democracy Now!. In Britain, it has been a supporter of the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, of which I am one of the judges. In 2008, Patrick Lannan backed Barack Obama's presidential campaign. According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, he is "devoted" to Obama.

World of not-knowing

On 15 June, I was due in Santa Fe, having been invited to share a platform with the distinguished American journalist David Barsamian. The foundation was also to host the US premiere of my new film, The War You Don't See, which investigates the false image-making of warmakers, especially Obama.

I was about to leave for Santa Fe when I received an email from the Lannan Foundation official organising my visit. The tone was incredulous. "Something has come up," she wrote. Patrick Lannan had called her and ordered all my events to be cancelled. "I have no idea what this is all about," she wrote.

Baffled, I asked that the premiere of my film be allowed to go ahead, as the US distribution largely depended on it. She repeated that "all" my events were cancelled, "and this includes the screening of your film". On the Lannan Foundation website, "cancelled" appeared across a picture of me. There was no explanation. None of my phone calls was returned, nor subsequent emails answered. A Kafka world of not-knowing descended.

The silence lasted a week until, under pressure from local media, the foundation put out a terse statement that too few tickets had been sold to make my visit "viable", and that "the Foundation regrets that the reason for the cancellation was not explained to Mr Pilger or to the public at the time the decision was made". Doubts were cast by a robust editorial in the Santa Fe New Mexican. The paper, which has long played a prominent role in promoting Lannan Foundation events, disclosed that my visit had been cancelled before the main advertising and previews were published. A full-page interview with me had to be pulled hurriedly. "Pilger and Barsamian could have expected closer to a packed 820-seat Lensic [arts centre]."

The manager of The Screen, the Santa Fe cinema that had been rented for the premiere, was called late at night and told to kill all his online promotion for my film. He was given no explanation, but took it on himself to reschedule the film for 23 June. It was a sell-out, with many people turned away. The idea that there was no public interest was demonstrably not true.

Symptom of suppression

Theories? There are many, but nothing is proven. For me, it is all reminiscent of long shadows cast during the cold war. "Something is going to surface," said Barsamian. "They can't keep the lid on this."

My 15 June talk was to have been about the collusion of American liberalism in a permanent state of war and in the demise of cherished freedoms, such as the right to call governments to account. In the US, as in Britain, serious dissent -- free speech -- has been substantially criminalised. Obama the black liberal, the PC exemplar, the marketing dream, is as much a warmonger as George W Bush. His score is six wars. Never in US presidential history has the White House prosecuted so many whistleblowers, yet this truth-telling, this exercise of true citizenship, is at the heart of America's constitutional First Amendment. Obama's greatest achievement is having seduced, co-opted and silenced much of liberal opinion in the US, including the anti-war movement.

The reaction to the cancellation has been illuminating. The brave, such as the great whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, were appalled and said so. Similarly, many ordinary Americans called in to radio stations and have written to me, recognising a symptom of far greater suppression. But some exalted liberal voices have been affronted that I dared whisper the word censorship about such a beacon of "cultural freedom". The embarrassment of those who wish to point both ways is palpable. Others have pulled down the shutters and said nothing. Given their patron's ruthless show of power, it is understandable. For them, the Russian dissident poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko once wrote: "When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie."

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The genesis of bleeding-heart liberalism and heartless conservatism

The genesis of bleeding-heart liberalism and heartless conservatism

by Daniel Johnso,
July 1st 2011

Liberals and conservatives are more made than born; but once made and passed into adulthood, they are, like the leopard, unlikely to change their spots.

(CALGARY, Alberta) - The natural world has perils to which humans must adapt or die; but the perils of the social world exist only because humans have both created those perils and maintains them. Animals are born into species-specific worlds but humans are not—we must create our own world. The Great Depression, as only one example, was a man-made disaster, not a natural disaster. It was the consequence of humanly-distorted economic laws—not significantly different from the 2008 crash.

We live in an ungentle world (I personally prefer the term savage society)—something upon which both liberals and conservatives can probably agree—although prompting conflicting action plans from each. There is now hope for understanding and perhaps correcting this antisocial situation.

Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen has written a new book, The Science of Evil: On empathy and the origins of human cruelty which I think not only sheds light on this unwholesome reality, but his research points out the key psychological difference between liberals and conservatives. It’s about empathy—too much for liberals and not enough for conservatives. Put another way—liberals care about people in general, conservatives do not.

This is at the root of man’s inhumanity to man. The rich and the powerful throughout history have usurped the task of societal design and construction. Today, says economist Jared Bernstein in the preface to his book, Crunch: Why Do I Feel So Squeezed? (And Other Unsolved Economic Mysteries):

“Economics has been hijacked by the rich and powerful, and it has been forged into a tool that is being used against the rest of us.”

Even democracy is essentially unworkable because politicians—most but not all—end up governing on behalf of the rich and powerful. There’s an old joke (but not very funny) that defines an honest politician as one who, when bought, stays bought. There are many honest politicians by that definition. A few other politicians who are honest about their role in society, end up as outliers, fighting insurmountable odds.

This is nowhere better demonstrated, than in the current government shutdown in Minnesota. Both legislative chambers are controlled by Republicans. The governor, Mark Dayton, is a Democrat. It’s a typical Republican imbroglio. Over the next two years the state is expected to take in $34 billion and the state budget has a $5 billion deficit.

To close this budget gap the Democrats want to increase the taxes on the state’s highest earners. This, of course, is unacceptable to the Republicans who have taken millions of ordinary Minnesotans hostage to their demand to protect their wealthy benefactors.

The state’s parks, historical sites and the Minnesota Zoo will close; hunting and fishing licenses will not be issued; the state’s lottery system and racetracks will be shut down; Minnesota’s 84 major rest areas along highways will close; thousands of state employees will be furloughed without pay; and contractors will have to abandon hundreds of road construction projects in progress.

This is one battleground between liberals and conservatives.

Another battleground is in Orlando, Florida where there is a homeless problem (again, not a natural situation). A group calling themselves “Orlando Food Not Bombs” is, illegally helping to feed some of those homeless. In response to complaints from the business community about the twice-weekly feedings in Lake Eola Park, in 2006 the City passed a law requiring anyone who feeds more than 25 people in a public park to have a permit. The kicker is that no group may have more than two permits per year per park.

Another unconnected group, calling themselves Anonymous is made up of hackers who disrupt, deface and bring down Orlando websites in retaliation for this anti-human law. In a news release posted on YouTube they say:

“Anonymous believes that people have the right to organize, that people have the right to give to the less fortunate and that people have the right to commit acts of kindness and compassion. However, it appears the police and lawmakers of Orlando do not.”

Acts of kindness and compassion, indeed! Outside of their immediate circle of family, friends, relatives and wealthy benefactors these are not Republican/conservative values. If a plague, along the lines of Stephen King’s The Stand were to hit the country, conservatives would set global and historical records for crocodile tears.

The enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in his novel Emile:

“The universal spirit of laws in all countries is to favour the stronger against the weaker, and those who have against those who have nothing; this disadvantage is inevitable and without exception.”

Rousseau was a contemporary of the Founding Fathers (he died in 1778) and while some may have met him, they would certainly have read Emile. Rousseau’s political philosophy influenced both the French, and the American Revolutions. This is where the Founding Fathers failed. They would have known of this political inevitability but, being believers in the power of reason, would surely have expected that such an anti-human tendencies could be surmounted by reasonable men.

What is empathy?

Empathy, says psychologist Uta Frith, is “our most precious social resource. Lack of empathy lurks in the darkest corners of human history…” Evil, from this vantage point, says Baron-Cohen is essentially the complete lack of empathy.

In her book The “I” and the “Not-I”, psychoanalyst M. Esther Harding said:

“Our awareness of the world around us is extraordinarily limited. We are all simply unconscious to an unbelievable degree. And not till we have undertaken a psychological analysis do we glimpse the extent of our unconsciousness. We simply take things for granted. On the objective concrete plane we assume naively that things are as they appear to our senses to be; and on the psychological plane our reactions are frequently based on assumptions rather than on the reality of the objective situation.”

This state of unconsciousness, she says, is the source of most asocial behaviour and of man’s inhumanity to man. She continues:

“An individual who is not aware of the ‘other’ as also a sentient being will behave towards him in an unfeeling way but, if he becomes aware of the other, it is quite likely that his attitude will change.” She is alluding here to the condition of empathy, which leads us to the current research conducted by Baron-Cohen and reported in his book.

Liberals, it turns out, have too much empathy and, as a result, end up morphing into socialism. From this excess of empathy comes the conception of bleeding heart. Liberals come across as, compared to hard-hearted conservatives, too soft.

Conservatives, on the other hand, have too little, approaching no empathy at all for anyone outside their immediate circle. The evidence of conservative’s overall lack of empathy is easily found. They exhibit mind-blindness—a difficulty, or impossibility in understanding the thoughts, feelings and intentions of others.

The greatest accomplishments of liberal-empathy were in response to the Great Depression—social security, unemployment insurance, minimum wages, progressive labour legislation, to only name a few—all things that conservatives have been trying to undo or repeal ever since.

The liberal’s response was to the needs of the American people, overall. The conservative’s continued reactivity has been to meet the needs of their corporate and wealthy benefactors.

There is a continuum with autism on one end of the spectrum, and extreme empathy on the other says Baron-Cohen. People on the autism end are systemizers, with superior pattern recognition skills, but lack the ability to perceive and appropriately respond to the mental and emotional states of others—think Rainman, or Malcolm in the Australian movie of the same name.

A real life example is Richard Borcherds who, in 1998, was awarded the Fields Medal, which for mathematicians is equivalent to the Nobel Prize (he has specialized in lattices, number theory, group theory, and infinite-dimensional algebras—pretty high end stuff). But his connection to other people is very limited. He knows other people have thoughts and emotions, but is unable to understand what they might be. To a very limited extent, he can tolerate one on one conversations, but groups, even a few people at his home, are confusing. He cannot understand jokes and small talk is beyond his limited social abilities. He says he doesn’t understand the communication aspect of telephones. What is he supposed to say? Whose turn is it to talk? Where was a conversation supposed to go? When are you supposed to hang up? He has very limited powers of self-reflection. Here is a man who could fathom any mathematical problem you could throw at him, but who was unable to work out the basics of friendship or how to have a phone conversation.

His mother reported that, as a teenager, he was out unusually late one night and she became worried. When he came home, she asked why he hadn’t phoned to let her know where he was. “What for?” he said to her, “I knew where I was.”

This is the end of the scale where conservatives coalesce. Like Borcherds, they know that other people have thoughts and feelings, but cannot connect to them.

As big promoters of freedom, conservatives, are unable to understand that this concept is a chimera. As Harding said in her book:

“The extent to which we are motivated and controlled by unconscious attitudes is unbelievable. We are quite unaware when we are taking a collective attitude, believing it to be individual. An individual who goes to live in a foreign country may get a little glimpse of his own unfreeness. He discovers that collective assumptions enter into the smallest details of daily life and influence his every reaction. His expectations and psychological attitudes are challenged at every point, from table manners to political opinions. He begins to realize that his attitude rarely rests on his own judgment of a particular situation but that in everything he is influenced by all sorts of overtones of meaning that may not be shared by his hosts.”

This is one of those concepts that is so obvious that it hardly needs mentioning. That obviousness is also routinely invisible. You know this yourself from observing, from an outsider’s point of view, any family dynamic which can be even a source of great frustration to you. You look at a dysfunctional family dynamic and see the conflict, as only one example, between parents and their same-sex children. It’s so obvious to you, but so unobvious to them. Children swim in their parents' unconscious like fish in the sea, but neither is aware of this psychological control over their lives and their actions.

If a person is free this means, in theory, that they can do anything they want. The key word, here, is want. Does a conservative want, from his perspective of limited empathy, to help others in general. No.

Where does empathy come from?

Empathy, I suggest is a mix of innate and learned. What makes me think it is largely learned is that, culturally, Americans are far more conservative than Europeans or even Canadians. If it were more innate than learned, the conservatism elsewhere would be comparable to America’s conservatism. Even here in Canada, conservatism exists in a far milder form. We have a socialist party, The New Democratic Party which, from the point of view of American politics, could not exist in any significant form. The NDP, however, is the official opposition in Parliament, holding the second largest number of elected seats (103 out of 308). Canadians have even elected one member of the Green Party. While the NDP is talking about the possibility of forming the next government in four or five years, I don’t really see that as a possibility—but a even week is a long time in politics. Still the party has enough elected members to hold the conservatives’ feet to the fire. It’s the opposite in the U.S. where it’s the conservatives who are holding the liberals’ feet to the fire.


Liberals and conservatives are more made than born; but once made and passed into adulthood, they are, like the leopard, unlikely to change their spots.

It's not that conservatives are bad people; they are just psychologically unable to be good people.

Conservative lack of social empathy promotes a rigidity and inflexibility that enhances their mind-blindness so that, analogous to Borcherd above, they simply cannot see or understand how someone can think differently than they. They believe they possess the truth in an absolute sense. But, as the philosopher Lewis Mumford said in his book The Pentagon of Power:

“If the history of the human race teaches any plain lessons, this is one of them: Man cannot be trusted with absolutes.”

He could have said, more meaningfully, that it is conservatives who cannot be trusted with absolutes. Liberals seem to know, intuitively, that there are no absolutes and that man makes his own society.

As Ronald Aronson wrote in “The Left Needs More Socialism”, (The Nation, April 17/06):

“Living in a capitalist world, we can't get far thinking and talking about alternatives and new directions without acknowledging that many of our key values and starting points are drawn from a common historical source: the socialist tradition. We have not reached the end of history as long as the spirit of solidarity animates antisweatshop movements, as long as a root sense of fairness motivates our efforts for a living wage, as long as the belief in equality nourishes our demand for a national healthcare system, as long as we embrace the democratic social provisioning embodied in Social Security. The next left will have to acknowledge, and even celebrate, the socialist spirit. Socialism's values continue to nourish community life. Much of our world continues to be organized collectively, democratically and socially, operating according to need and not according to profitability--in schools and cooperatives; libraries and nonprofits; local, state and federal government programs. September 11 and Hurricane Katrina showed the undying need for extensive and intensive structures of community. The socialist standards of fairness, democracy, equality and justice are as much a part of daily life as are capitalism's values of privilege, unequal rewards and power.”

Even though conservatives believe they are winning, it’s temporary, as they continue to fight uphill against the historical grain.

Douglas Benson July 3, 2011 6:34 am (Pacific time)

RM that is correct and my point exactly. When you interact with those that you find so offensive and find that they arent the bogey man its hard to keep your prejudice. Let me point out that if I were to attend the family church and spout the rehtoric I would be more than welcome in my family circle . But I dont and wont . That makes me a problem ,it puts a real face to those that they and you would like to remove from society .
By the way ,unless you know me personally you used your LEO credentials to get that info .That my friend is a big no no . Get ready to have a little talk with your CO and a citizen complaint . Tim when you read this would you please give me a call ? I will need this posters info .Thanks

Tim King: Doug, I have a new phone but the same number, however I can't access my contacts, so if you can call me we'll be in business. I am tempted to just pull this aspect of the post. For the record, Doug is a steasfast individual who has worked with and was particularly helpful working as security during Ken O'Keefe's visit last summer. A minor conviction for possessing an herb that God placed on this earth does not make a bad person. Doug, I look forward to catching up.

RM July 2, 2011 8:44 am (Pacific time)
Douglas Benson July 2, 2011 8:02 am (Pacific time)
Ralph E. Stone July 2, 2011 7:22 am (Pacific time)

There is an old saying: "If you're not liberal when you're young, you have no heart. If you're not conservative when you're older, you have no brain." I wish you had defined what you mean by "liberal" and "conservative." We all want freedom; we want the chance for prosperity; we want as few people suffering as possible; we want healthy children; we want to have crime-free streets. Some would say that liberal policies generally emphasize the need for the government to solve problems while conservative policies generally emphasize empowerment of the individual to solve problems. Or are you equating "liberal" and "conservative" to the left and right wings of the American political spectrum. This would be unfair to both liberals and conservatives. Perhaps, you should have used different terms than liberal and conservative to make your point.

Thanks for your comment.

I agree that the terms liberal and conservative can be slippery. My definitions tend to be by pointing out examples. If you are like G.W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Michelle Bachmann, and so on, then you're a conservative. The list of public liberals is a little harder to produce, but I would put people like Paul Krugman ofPrinceton/NYT who calls himself a liberal. Not any more notable examples off the top of my head, but if you agree, overall, with Krugman's writing, then you'e a liberal.

Yes, liberal usually does equate to government doing something but that's the only way a lot of things can get done. The private sector will only do things for profit and profit always trumps people. Milton Friedman covered the basic concept in an article simply titled: "The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits".

So it's the people in the community/state/nation who must do things for themselves through elected representatives. Nice in theory, anyway.

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Monday, July 04, 2011


Citing Homeless Law, Hackers Turn Sights on Orlando

Citing Homeless Law, Hackers Turn Sights on Orlando

June 30th 2011

MIAMI — The hacker group Anonymous has declared a cyberwar against the City of Orlando, disabling Web sites for the city’s leading redevelopment organization, the local Fraternal Order of Police and the mayor’s re-election campaign.

Volunteers from Food Not Bombs were arrested at Lake Eola Park in Orlando, Fla., last month after feeding homeless people without a permit.

Anonymous, a large yet loosely formed group of hackers that claimed responsibility for crashing the Web sites of MasterCard and the Church of Scientology, began attacking the Orlando-based Web sites earlier this week.

The group described its attacks as punishment for the city’s recent practice of arresting members of Orlando Food Not Bombs, an antipoverty group that provides vegan and vegetarian meals twice a week to homeless people in one of the city’s largest parks.

“Anonymous believes that people have the right to organize, that people have the right to give to the less fortunate and that people have the right to commit acts of kindness and compassion,” the group’s members said in a news release and video posted on YouTube on Thursday. “However, it appears the police and your lawmakers of Orlando do not.”

A 2006 city ordinance requires organizations to obtain permits to feed groups of 25 people or more in downtown parks. The law was passed after numerous complaints by residents and businesses owners about the twice-weekly feedings in Lake Eola Park, city officials said. The law limits any group to no more than two permits per year per park.

Since June 1, the city police have arrested 25 Orlando Food Not Bombs volunteers without permits as they provided meals to large groups of homeless people in the park. One of those arrested last week on trespassing charges was Keith McHenry, a co-founder of the first Food Not Bombs chapter in 1980 in Cambridge, Mass. He remained in the Orange County Jail on Thursday awaiting a bond hearing.

This week Anonymous offered a “cease-fire” if no volunteers were arrested during Wednesday evening’s feeding of the homeless. But the police arrested two volunteers, and on Thursday morning Anonymous disrupted the Web site Downtown Orlando, which promotes redevelopment there and is run by the city. An organization spokeswoman confirmed the attack but declined to comment, referring questions to the mayor’s office.

A spokeswoman for Mayor Buddy Dyer, whose re-election campaign site was disabled on Tuesday, called the attack on the Downtown Orlando site an “inconvenience.” She said the city would not change its policy of arresting volunteers who feed homeless people without a permit.

“We will continue to enforce the city ordinance,” said the spokeswoman, who asked not to be identified out of a concern she would become a target of Anonymous. “We must continue to focus on what our Orlando residents want and not the desires of others from outside the community.”

The attack on the Orlando Web sites was the second on a city or state government in two weeks. Last week, hackers gained access to the computer system of the Arizona Department of Public Safety and released law-enforcement records.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Orlando Police Department are investigating, officials said.

Members of Orlando Food Not Bombs condemned the cyberattacks. “We have absolutely nothing to do with Anonymous or any other group that is doing this kind of thing,” said one member, Ben Markeson. “And what Anonymous is doing is a distraction from the real issue at hand.”

Mr. Markeson said the Orlando mayor and City Council members had attempted to “criminalize poverty” by passing a series of ordinances intended to “hide the homeless.”

“Mayor Dyer wants to hide the poor and the hungry people living in our community,” he said.

The mayor’s spokesman denied the allegation, saying: “Nothing could be further from the truth. The city has a strong relationship with our region’s homeless providers and will continue to dedicate resources and services that assist our homeless population.”

Anonymous has become known for prominent denial-of-service attacks on high-traffic Web sites. A denial-of-service attack takes place when an overwhelming crush of Web traffic is intentionally sent to a Web site until it is incapacitated and knocked off line.

Anonymous members rallied a call-to-arms against the city as part of a campaign it dubbed Operation Orlando. Its members promised that future arrests of volunteers helping the homeless would be met with fresh attacks. “For every arrested person,” the group said on Twitter, “Anonymous will deface or assault TEN websites in Orlando.”

Nick Bilton contributed from New York.

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Revolution in America

Revolution in America | Apr 21st 2011

This is a sincere call for an American Revolution against the decadent, vile plutocrats driving our nation into the ground. Super-consumers, sinister bankers, celebrity whores dine on foie gras and truffles while more than 25 million Americans are unemployed and 2.8 million homes are in foreclosure. A cabal of greedy bastards has turned America, the pioneer of modern democracy, into a corporatocracy where a handful of nonhuman megacorps own our government, political parties, courts, schools and media. The opulent one percent are sucking us dry even as they push us, debt-ridden and redundant, over the precipice. Only an insurrection against their monied despotism can save us now.

Making the case for the overthrow of the American corporatocracy is a serious matter. From the perspective of the plutocrats in power, it is a criminal, seditious, treasonous act punishable by a lengthy prison sentence. Therefore we must be absolutely certain that ours is a righteous rebellion. We must be confident that although our revolution may be illegal from their perspective, it is supremely legitimate, commendable and obligatory from the perspective of universal, natural law. And so that we may guard against recklessness, we must be judicious and put the actions of the American government on trial before deciding if the sentence of execution by popular revolution is necessary and just.

Our case for a forceful disbanding rests on the charge that the American regime is illegitimate and antidemocratic because it is a danger to Americans as citizens, to America as a nation and to Homo sapiens as a species. Acknowledging that insurrection is only warranted when there is no other avenue to fully removing the corrupt from power, we will contend that all other tactics have already been tried unsuccessfully.

Every politician in office today, Democrat and Republican alike, accepts corporate bribes and is therefore corrupt. Their election is perverse evidence that they groveled before corporate lords and do not serve the will of the people. We know this because on January 21, 2010, the US Supreme Court told us who runs the nation by granting corporations the freedom to donate unlimited amounts of money to political candidates. As it is already an established statistical fact that the candidate who spends the most money wins in 9 out of 10 races, it is undeniable that we live in an era where anyone genuinely opposed to the corporate takeover of America, and unwilling to compromise, will never be elected. That makes the government a dangerous enterprise that is a hazard to individual freedom.

Not content with stripping us as citizens of our sovereignty, our corporate-backed rulers have instituted a foreign policy that delights in permanent war and international instability. From cynically squandering billions of dollars of taxpayer money each year in gifts to the apartheid state of Israel or in military support given to keep Arab tyrants in power, everything about America’s foreign policy is wrong, pro-war, anti-freedom and unjust. Two preemptive wars in the last decade … ongoing occupations with new war crimes daily … secret drone attacks on civilians … military bases encircling the world … a nefarious, unelected military-industrial complex sows discord abroad and guarantees that our nation will never live in peace.

And then there is the deepest charge of all: America’s corporatocracy is committing a crime against humanity. Nature is dying, sentient species are disappearing, catastrophic climate change threatens us all. And yet the ideology of rampant consumerism reigns supreme in America. Ecocide is the official policy of these mammon worshipers who use their military might to keep the oil flowing and industrial pollutants pumping. Glaciers are melting, oceans are acidifying, climate wars are looming. If America is not overthrown, the cancerous growth of capitalism will not end until all life on Earth is extinct.

Everywhere we look there are signs of moral decay, political corruption and fascistic tendencies. However, activists have not been passive. For decades, since the end of democracy in America first became undeniable, we have tried every tactic to avert catastrophe. We have voted, written letters, donated money, held signs, protested in marches, clicked links, signed petitions, tweeted websites, written books, taught classes, knitted sweaters, learned how to farm, turned off the television, programmed apps, engaged in direct action, committed petty vandalism … All this has been for naught. Popular revolution remains the only reasonably viable tactic remaining.

In the 18th century, America’s founding fathers were in the same situation as we are today. They also sought justification to start a rebellion against a despotic empire that claimed to be their rightful government. They knew that what they intended to do was illegal from the king’s perspective, but they found solace in a higher law, a universal law that takes priority over temporal authority. The thirteen colonies made the case for insurrection in the Declaration of Independence of the United States and thereby permanently enshrined as inalienable “the Right of the People to alter or abolish” the government. The precedent of our own history grants us the right to revolt. Further, the seriousness of corporate America’s threat to the world puts us under obligation to act. Now we will sweep the parasites out of power and reinstate the rule of the people.

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Housing Activists Occupy Vacant Mission Building

Housing Activists Occupy Vacant Mission Building

by Bay City News,
July 4th 2011 7:56 PM

At least 50 people occupied a vacant building in San Francisco's Mission District this afternoon to call for the community to reclaim what housing activists said was a "waste of housing."

The squatters collective Homes Not Jails organized the rally, march and occupation that began at Dolores Park at 4 p.m., said Matt Crain, a self-identified squatter who was one of the dozens of people occupying a 43-unit building near the corner of 20th and Mission streets.

Crain said that the building, once the Sierra Hotel, has sat unused for almost two decades. The same space was occupied by activists almost a year ago, when activists from Stop the Cuts Bay Area demonstrated at the long-vacant residential hotel.

"It's the most egregious waste of housing resource in the Mission," Crain said. "It's been vacant more than any of the other housing that's being converted," he said referring to the Dolores Hotel, a 59-unit residential hotel on Woodward Street.

As of 5:25 p.m., Crain said that there were about 100 people still outside at the ongoing rally but that police had yet to make an appearance, which was "a little unusual."

Crain said that Homes Not Jails was reclaiming the vacant property for homeless families and individuals. Organizers are outraged that on any given night approximately 10,000 San Franciscans are sleeping on the street.

The activists cited 2010 Census data indicating that some 32,000 housing units remained vacant.
"Personally, I'd like to see the community occupy the space, take it over and use it," Crain said. "It's the community that's sleeping on the street in front of these 43 units."

Photo of the occupation: Steve Rhodes

Patricia Decker, Bay City News

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