Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Night at Sylvia’s Place

New York -- Dwayne became homeless last year when his mother and stepfather lost their apartment in Long Island, NY because of their drug addiction. The 22-year-old black man tells his story with a distant look, while playing with his long straightened hair, in his extra-small sleeveless tee shirt and tight flared trousers.

Kerrond started living on the streets after his adoptive father found out about his homosexuality. “He wanted to kill me,” he said. He had no one to turn to: his mother passed away a long time ago and his biological father is in jail. He has tried to find his way back to school in Harlem, but “it’s sometimes hard,” he said. He is only 18.

With her shaven head, 22-year-old Zahra D. has been homeless since she left her native Virginia almost a year ago. For a while, she stayed at her girlfriend’s apartment in New York, but it soon became too complicated to “sneak in and out,” the girl’s mother not being aware of Zahra’s presence.

The three companions in misfortune have found refuge at Sylvia’s Place, a food pantry and emergency shelter for homeless gay youths in Midtown Manhattan. It is housed inside the Metropolitan Community Church—a gay Christian church—and was named after Sylvia Rae Rivera, a civil rights activist and transgender woman. The shelter is a private organization funded by the church, grants and private donations.

At Sylvia’s Place, homeless gay youths can wash their clothes, take a shower and have a warm meal. They can also get counseling, help to find jobs, get back into school or find places of their own.

The center is on the first floor of the church, in a long, narrow room that looks like an old garage. Four big aluminum tables in the middle with big plates of food on them, several metallic chairs… And blaring pop music. Many of the residents spend time dancing together when they get there at night, a way to “take their minds off of their condition,” said Kate Barnhart, the director. The volunteers readily use the word “chaos” to define the place. Barnhart prefers to describe it as a “giant gay slumber party,” as she explained jokingly.

To be admitted, potential residents have to be between 16 and 23 years old and identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT), or “at least somewhere on the LGBT spectrum,” Barnhart said. They can come in between 8 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. and have to be gone by 7:45 a.m.

“The rules are simple: no violence, no homophobia, no stealing and no sex within or around the premises,” explained Geoffrey Ream, a volunteer social worker. Before coming in, if they have weapons, they have to give them to staff members who hold them for the night.

The living conditions are rudimentary: residents sleep in the same room on camp beds or on the floor in sleeping bags. Every once in a while, you can see a mouse scurrying about. But as one of the residents pointed out, “This is the shelter, not the Ritz.”

Sylvia’s Place is one of few shelters for gay youths that have opened in the country in the last decade. There are about thirty of them nationwide today. The number of homeless gay youth currently roaming the streets of American cities is hard to evaluate and there is no official count. One thing is for certain, the 70 beds that are available for them in New York are not enough, as Ream explained.

Barnhart said that gay youths cannot go to “regular” shelters because they get harassed by other residents there, and “sometimes even by social workers.” They usually arrive at Sylvia’ Place “traumatized by the shelter experience,” she added. In theory, they can stay for a maximum of 90 days at Sylvia’s Place but in reality, they remain in the shelter “until they really can go somewhere else,” Barnhart said.

The residents’ backgrounds vary widely. Some of them were thrown out of their homes while others fled abusive parents or caregivers who mistreated them because of their sexual orientation. Others had to leave households torn by poverty, illness (a number of them have parents infected with AIDS), and drug addiction. “Many of them are the children of the crack era,” Ream pointed out.

Meeka is a 21-year-old transgender woman. She left Tennessee in November to escape her abusive boyfriend and her parents, who rejected her. “They don’t associate with me,” she said. She is addicted to crack and prostitutes herself to buy it. “I’ m just my mama’s child [her mother is a prostitute]. It’s the only thing I’m good at,” she added. She gets her hormones on the black market because she does not want to go through the therapeutic process that the law requires for sex change. “I’m a rebel,” she said.

“We’re not going to kick them out for prostituting themselves,” Barnhart said. “We want them to feel like they can talk to us about it. We just provide a path out of it,” Barnhart said. “No matter how they make their money, we try to make sure they budget it,” she added.

The atmosphere sometimes gets tense at the shelter. One night, a fight breaks out between Tiffany, a transgender female, and Anthony, a young man. Very quickly, the volunteer pull them apart, with the help of some residents. “On a scale of 0 to 10, this is not even a 4. There was no real blow, no blood… We’ve had worse,” said Shawn Martella, a volunteer.

“We have learned to predict conflicts in advance and we try to intervene as early as we can to avoid the worst,” Barnhart added.

18-year-old Djia defines as a transgender woman. Her real name is Eric. She ended up at Sylvia’s Place after spending some time at New York St Vincent Hospital to treat her bipolarity. When she was discharged, she quickly ended up living on the streets. She admits that she does not know where she would be if she had not found Sylvia’s Place. “This shelter doesn’t look like much, but it’s a wonderful place,” she said.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Viability of 3rd Party Candidates

It's no secret that I root for the blue side of Washington's divide. But, in truth, I'm a third party candidate kind of guy. In 2000 (my first participation in American democracy), I voted for Ralph Nader. In 2004, assured that Kerry would carry my home state of Illinois, I voted for Green Party candidate David Cobb. My justification was simple; in addition to the inherent attraction of the underdog, I believed that neither the Democrats nor Republicans would bring about the magnitude of change America really needs. I still don't.

But, here in 2008, I cover the Colorado senate race for my website, The Seminal, and in doing so I've focused on Democratic candidate Mark Udall and Republican candidate Bob Schaffer. I've ignored the 3rd party candidates; Buddy Moore (independent) and Bob Kinsey (Green Party),

As you can gather from my voting history, the exclusion is not ideological. In fact, I fall closer to Kinsey and Moore on the political spectrum than I do Udall. Some illustrative quotes:

From Bob Kinsey's website
The major issue of this race is "Respect Life!" Not in the simplistic sense employed by those who use this motto to make abortion the litmus test for their vote. My chief value is about respecting all Life. Government should be about setting policies that insure we have life on this planet to the "7th Generation". Respecting life requires us to exercise judgment and discipline concerning the vehicles we drive, the housing patterns we build, the new jobs we create. Uncontrolled growth is the ideology of a cancer cell.

From Buddy Moore's website
The idea that there will always be a hungry, principled, independent media to watch over and protect our freedoms has been corrupted. While it appears that there is vast and varied media working hard to keep the public informed, the majority of information presented is tainted by commercial interest. Not only do the mega corporations like big oil, the insurance industry, defense industry, pharmaceutical industry and consumer electronics want to influence the media, they have taken over and own the media. Much of the news we receive over the television, in print, over the internet and on radio is fashioned by the mega corporations. They dictate much of the news reporting to their profit and future designs.

In my ideal world, Colorado would choose one of these two candidates, not Democrat Mark Udall. So, why am I not covering them?

The situation is a catch-22; if I focus on my first two choices Buddy Moore and Bob Kinsey, I'll be hurting my second choice, Mark Udall, and strengthening the candidacy of sweatshop-apologist Bob Schaffer. Additionally, I've only so many hours to devote to writing, so when I get around to a Co-Sen post it makes more sense to support the more viable candidate.

But that answer isn't very satisfying -- one of the reasons 3rd party candidates can't win is because they get little media attention, they get little media attention because they have access to fewer resources, they have fewer resources because they get little media attention, and so on and so forth.

Third-party candidates are the butt of jokes here in the United States, but Ross Perot's success in 1992 is nothing to laugh at. He received just under 20 million votes, nearly half Clinton's 44 million. And that 20 million would've been higher, perhaps considerably higher, if Perot hadn't sapped his own momentum by reconsidering his bid. Contrary to popular opinion, there is room for a 3rd, even a 4th, party in the United States. We just have to decide if we're willing to make room for it.

This year, I'm not.

9/11 Effects

by Mike Weiss

“I wasn’t even supposed to be there. I was on hiatus up in Albany at Governor Pataki’s office trying to get funding for breast cancer research. So when I got the call I said I wasn’t going to respond to this,” said Minna Barrett. “Lucky for me on the way home I went through the tunnel, and ran into the deployment center right there.”

At 9/11 Barrett worked for the Red Cross, serving as the night coordinator for the at first 750 mental health workers who were deployed in the first week, a number which would soon swell to 1,500-2,000. Her workers were there at Ground Zero around the clock, at every rescue.

“We had workers falling and tripping over dead bodies at the deployment scene. Bodies with eyes popped out, heads off, arms. We had people who experienced bodies cut in half, heads lopped off and hundreds and hundreds of people falling. One construction worker picked up a steel girder and there was a body twisted up inside the girder.”

When not on duty with the Red Cross, Barrett works as a psychology professor at the SUNY Old Westbury campus. Soon after 9/11 she helped set up the WTC Family Center, a counseling resource for WTC responders, survivors and family members as an adjunct to the South Nassau Communities Hospital. The center works out of a storefront in Baldwin, Long Island.

It was for this work that she won the Sarah Haley Memorial Award from the International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies, presented to her in Toronto in 2005.

“There were thousands of people effected,” Barrett said of 9/11. “It took them eight and a half months to close the place. No one knows how many people worked the site. They estimate somewhere between 45,000, 50,000 to 125,000 people worked that scene.”

Nearly seven years later, Barrett is still seeing new patients coming into her center for the first time. She knows full well the different faces of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with its depression, substance abuse and anxieties. She’s also gotten angrier listening to their stories, hearing again and again how the government failed to warn workers of the health risks, how city agencies often treated their workers as criminals when their only crime was trying to defend their country.

“You don’t know the stress these guys are under,” she said. “Straight-up, blue collar guys, honest hard-workers, like out of the 1950s. All they wanted to do was their jobs and now they feel betrayed – by Giuliani, Bloomberg. They didn’t understand what was happening to them.”

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Whole is Even Worse Than its Parts

Lately, the courageous, hard-hitting anchors at ABC have been criticized for their questions during the Pennsylvania debate.

Even the normally bovine audience turned against Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos and booed them for cutting to yet another commercial. I'm sure they felt the same as me--"Good God, let it end!"--and they couldn't even switch over to sports.

I feel sorry for the anchors, the pair are only cogs in a much larger wheel. A wheel that started rolling in 1980 when Ted Turner founded CNN. Eventually, 24 Hour News would become a central part of American's lives, and the soundbite would evolve into the preferable method for transmitting information.

This is certainly unfortunate, having been in academia for the last seven years I prefer my information spiked with a shot of prolix. But, in the information age everything needs to fit into a search bar.

Type in "Bitter, Obama" "Hilary, sniper fire" or "McCain, 100 years," you'll get all the information you could ever need. Essentially, those eight words sum up the campaign coverage on the 24 hour news networks for the last month.

But, apparently, Gibson and Steph figured we could all use a little more and the all important issue of lapel pins and radical acquaintances reared its ugly head yet again.

To many people these non-issues seem to be just what they are-a total waste of time. But I have actually heard people say "Ah just cain't vote for no man that don't wear a flag" and "I ain't gon vote for no Muslim."

The first rule of TV with high ratings is play to the Lowest Common Denominator, and you know Gibson and Steph had this in mind when they unleashed that barrage of stupidity on Obama.

No vote, no voice, no election coverage

The first two times that Yessica Ramírez tried to cross the border between Mexico and the United States, she and her child ended up in an American holding cell with nothing more than a couple of blankets between them and the frigid floor. Border Patrol guards gave her ugly looks and ignored her requests for food and water. Her baby boy became sick.

On her third try, she walked right in, slipping across the 2,000-mile long border and into the Texas desert. Eventually, Yessica and her son made their way to New York where they joined her husband, a busboy, also undocumented. Her name has been changed to protect her identity.

But for all that she found in this country—a job, an apartment in Staten Island, a new life above the poverty line—Yessica aches for what she left behind: the mild winters, her parents and siblings, a friendlier way of life. Most of all, however, she misses her voice.

Like many undocumented immigrants in the U.S., Yessica is terrified that speaking out or even attending a protest will lead to her deportation. Her life consumed by fear, she is haunted by the possibility that she and her children will be grabbed and taken back to Mexico, away from her husband and six years of hard-earned savings.

Yessica’s story is by no means uncommon. Of the more than 12 million undocumented immigrants estimated to live in the U.S., a majority is Hispanic. Hispanics now make up the largest minority group in the country, edging out blacks at around 15 percent of the total population. New York, a city of roughly eight million, is home to more than half a million undocumented immigrants and three million total immigrants.

Yet, after flaring up in 2006, immigration and immigration reform have once again fallen into the shadows of American politics, obscured from view by the personalities and personal defects of the “big three” presidential candidates: Senators Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John McCain. When the American media does address policy differences among the candidates, the nascent economic recession and the war in Iraq receive top billing. Immigration reform is becoming a problem indefinitely deferred.

For undocumented immigrants like Yessica, already reticent to engage in political debate out of fear of recriminations, this national silence over immigration has left them in a dangerous limbo, unrepresented and afraid.

When asked if she joined the hundreds of thousands of Americans and immigrants who demanded the reform of immigration policies in 2006, Yessica shook her head.

“Just look what happened to Señora Elvira,” she said, alluding to Elvira Arellano, an undocumented immigrant who took refuge in a Chicago church for a year to avoid separation from her U.S.-born son. Arellano, who became a national symbol for the need for reform, was deported in 2006, without her son.

In this sense, Yessica’s story is typical of Mexican immigrants to New York and elsewhere in the U.S. Vulnerable to exploitation by their employers and others, their “illegal” status means that they often have little legal recourse available.

Instead of protesting, Yessica dedicates her life to working and saving money. She stomachs the discrimination towards Hispanics that she sees from time to time—the occasional leer or insult on the bus, a suspicious look—afraid that complaining would only bring attention to her, instead of the problem. She lives “between her job and her house,” afraid that even joining a march for immigrants’ rights will result in her deportation and separation from her family.

Many undocumented immigrants focus on the small things they feel will lead to citizenship: paying taxes, saving money, and raising a family.

“I have two children, I don’t take food stamps, no welfare. I don’t want to depend on the government,” said Sergio P. Sergio grew up in a small town in the state of Puebla, Mexico, before coming to the U.S. at age 15.

“That’s how I am. I don’t want to become a citizen only for them to say, ‘oh, you took this, you took that,’” he said. He takes English and computer skills classes, hoping to leave his job in a pizzeria and become a computer repairman.

In New York, immigrants’ rights organizations are drawing increasing attention, often to the residency status of their members.

José Gutiérrez, a member of one such organization, said that he worries that things will get more dangerous in the months to come, as the organization shifts its criticism from abusive landlords to city officials who fail to regulate them. His name has also been changed to protect his identity.

Unable to vote, life offers undocumented immigrants a choice between silence and controversy. Unless one of the presidential candidates takes up the issue of immigration reform before this fall, the voices of millions of the newest Americans will remain unheard.

Coyotes of the Legal System

Many have heard about the infamous border “coyotes” -- informal guides that bring immigrants illegally across the border for a fee –- yet few know about the malicious “coyote” of the legal system –- the notario publico.

In Mexico and countries in Latin America, a notario publico is a legally recognized lawyer. In the United States, "notario publico" is just a notary public -- a person that can administer oaths and be a witness for signatures. It is simply the literal translation of "notary public" into Spanish.

For a spring break reveler in Mexico with limited Spanish, adding “el” before and “o” after English words is a shortcut to at least poor Spanish as many words are similar in both languages. For the Latino immigrant who arrives at the doorstep of “el notario publico”, these similarities can be catastrophic.

Notary publics masquerading as "notarios publicos" present themselves to Spanish-speaking immigrants as immigration lawyers. They offer their alleged connections and expertise to help guide their unknowing clients in obtaining legal residence for them and their families. Of course this information has a price that is usually in the thousands, according to the Legal Services of New Jersey. But the money is not all immigrants have to lose.

According to Christina Baal of Cabrini Immigration Services, the notario publico may also file an application for legal residency for that person--even if there is no chance of obtaining it. The state creates a file on the applicant and a court date is set up.

“Sometimes the immigrants don't know what the NTA (“notice to appear”) letter means, and they show up in front of the immigration judge and end up barred from the country,” said immigration lawyer Tom Shea.

These notario publicos operate with impunity knowing that, as immigrants, the clients have little legal recourse, even if the victims are brave enough to contact the authorities.

Sometimes the fraud isn't revealed until after the client's application has been rejected.

“Many agencies won't touch them (the applicant's cases) because it is often complicated to re-open a case with a removal order,” said Shea.

Criminal notary publics in the U.S. often have their offices in latino neighborhoods where Spanish dominates the billboards and shop windows. In Texas, it is illegal to literally translate the phrase “notary public” into Spanish because of the widespread fraud resulting from the difference in definition.

“The saddest part is that the notario is usually someone who was an immigrant themselves, and they knowingly deceive people, sometimes from the same area that they come from,” said Shea. For a Latino immigrant in an unknown country without connections, a friendly, Spanish-speaking, immigration lawyer who knows the ropes can be a godsend –- or just a coyote in a lawyer's clothing.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Nuclear Energy is Not Our Methadone

I don't think it melodramatic to say the fate of the world hinges on our ability to ween ourselves from an oil addiction. Nor do I think I embellish when I say that the political, social and environmental consequences of this addiction are biblical in their magnitude. The seven angels with seven plagues have nothing on the consequences of not finding a clean alternative to oil.

President Bush and like-minded individuals have been pushing nuclear power as our methadone for years; a clean, safe, autonomous, zero-emission form of energy production, they assure. Well, if the fact of Bush's support isn't enough to dissuade you, a sober analysis of the reality of nuclear energy should be.

First, the cheerleader-ing:
Nuclear power is one of America's safest sources of energy ... all without producing a single pound of air pollution and greenhouse gases. -- June 2005

Nuclear power generates large amounts of low-cost electricity without emitting air pollution or greenhouse gases. Yet nuclear power now produces only about 20 percent of America's electricity. It has the potential to play an even greater role -- February 2006

I believe that it is essential that we have a comprehensive energy policy to be able to deal with the challenges we are going to face in the 21st century - whether that be energy independence, or economic security or good environmental policy. And at the core of that policy must be electricity generated from nuclear power -- June 2007

I strongly believe the United States must promote nuclear power here in the United States. Nuclear power, if you're interested in economic growth and environmental stewardship, there's no better way to achieve both of them than through the promotion of nuclear power. Nuclear power is limitless. It's one existing source that generates a massive amount of electricity without causing air pollution or any greenhouse gases. -- March 2008

The Not-So-Friendly Skies

On Friday I hopped on the Metro North for an hour long ride to Newburgh Airport to take advantage of a dirt cheap flight to Greensboro, NC. My airline was Skybus, a discount carrier that sold seats for as low as $20. For some reason that I never quite understood, they had chosen my hometown as it's headquarters. I must have had the honor of flying one of the last Skybus flights, because that night they declared bankruptcy. All of a sudden I was out a return flight home.

Skybus is only the latest airline to file Chapter 11. Three others went out of business this week as well. Aloha, ATA and Champion Airlines also won't be taking to the skies any longer. It seems that it is hard for discount airlines and small carriers to break even when oil prices have held steady over $100 since February.

Skybus had increased traffic at Greensboro's airport by 30 percent in January and February of 2008 compared to the same time last year. Now the airport is back to being the type of place where the TSA security agents have nothing better to do than measure all your liquids and search every bag you have. It's a shame, they used to be busy enough that every once in a while I could get away with sneaking my water bottle on board.

My beloved town of Greensboro, with a population of 225,000, has been experiencing a boom recently. By "boom" I mean that the city has successfully embarked on a project to remove all trees from the area. Outside of downtown, which has turned into a trendy area after being a ghost town for all of my childhood, the city looks like one big suburb. Greensboro has some of the worst urban sprawl in the country--meaning that developers keep expanding outwards instead of upwards. FedEx is opening a large hub there that has already brought 500 new jobs to the area in construction alone. When it opens they plan on hiring 1,500 employees. FedEx deserves some sort of award in efficiency for leveling 165 acres in what seemed like two or three months.

Who knows, maybe this economic slowdown will mean I'll still be able to find a few places around town where I can let my dog run around without a leash.

Back to Brazil

NEW YORK—It was business as usual last Thursday at the Throckmorton Fine Art gallery in midtown. The chairs were made of scrap metal, the air kisses smelled of wine, and everyone, miraculously, just loved the art.

The photos of waterfalls that lined the walls were taken in various places in photographer Valdir Cruz’s native country, Brazil. Not surprisingly, many of the patrons milling about, gesturing with their plastic wine cups, were his compatriots. Despite the beautiful pictures, and the Brazil vogue that has led to a proliferation of night clubs, salon treatments and compilation CDs in New York, Cruz’s countrymen were less than enthusiastic about their patria.

Though she is Brazilian, artist Márcia Grostein’s website is available only in English, and she is very clear that her home is New York. Peering through cat’s-eye glasses, Grostein says that in New York, general opinion towards things Brazilian began to warm about 10 years ago. “I helped change a lot of things,” she said, in Portuguese, “because when I came here ‘Brazilian’ was curse word.” In spite any struggle she has faced in New York, Grostein is ambivalent about her home country. Rolling her eyes, she stated, “I never want to live in Brazil ever again."

Aristides Sergio Klafke has been a Brazilian for every one of his 55 years, but he believes his 22 as a New Yorker have been the most important. When asked about the ties to his home country in New York, he shrugged noncommittally, saying “I don’t have many Brazilian friends.”

An artist, Klafke has never shown his work in Brazil because he says he lacks strong
connections there, preferring to focus on his work in his chosen city. He explains that his art is not quintessentially Brazilian “in the sense of showing parrots and boa constrictors, coffee and Pelé,” referring to the famous Brazilian soccer star. Running a tattooed hand though his gray hair, Klafke furrowed his brow, adding, “of course, you never lose your touch.”

Klafke’s girlfriend, Italian Matilde Damele,
was very enthusiastic about the country, like the majority of the non-Brazilians at the gallery. Of course, she has a personal stake in the people of Brazil. When Damele mentions her Brazilian paramour to her friends, she said, they get very excited. Making a perfect red “o” with her mouth, Damele mugged: “Oh! A Brazilian!”

Damele has been living in New York for 8 years, and works as an artist. Shaking her miniskirt-clad hips back and forth, she winked, saying “there is an aura—and it’s not an accident!”

Are Invisible Eyes Watching Neoliberalism's Invisible Hand?

The map in the waiting room of Upwardly Global, an organization that provides job training and resources to immigrants in the United States, has been cut into small squares and rearranged at random.

The map represents the way in which globalization and economic foces send workers, factories, and products to all parts of the world—separating and intermixing according to today's neoliberal economic rules—often presented to us by the Bush administration as “natural” law.

However, with the current recession and the recent, massive government bailout of private investment bank Bear Stearns, it may be time to reassess just how “natural” these economic forces really are.

The Federal Reserve Bank used $29 billion in taxpayer dollars to save Bear Sterns, a move that flies square in the face of a self-correcting, free market-based economic policy.

In an LA times blog, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said, “If you want to say we bailed out the market in general, I guess that's true.”

This would be a worrying turn of events if it weren't for the warm, soothing air in the palms, the beautiful 1950's Fords cruising by, the perfectly rolled Havana...wait! We're still in the United States you say??

The government buying out a private enterprise is textbook socialism, like Chavez's recent move to nationalize Venezuela's cement industry, or President Evo Morales purchase of Bolivia's gas production.

However, the US Senate approved the buyout of Bear Stearns with a 94-1 vote. Because of the financial ties of so many companies to Bear Stearns, allowing it to fail “might have caused global markets to collapse,” reported the Economist.

Which raises the question, what does it mean when the free market fails us? Should we forge boldly ahead, purifying our free market strategy with even less regulation, or should we finally question our dependence on the invisible hand of the market?

In an editorial for the Christian Science Monitor, professor of economics James W. Brock sees a solution in the increase of antitrust laws.

“The consolidation process has raged through most major American industries, from telecommunications and oil to pharmaceuticals and defense weapons. In the banking and finance sectors, the urge to merge has spawned the very behemoths that the Fed is now compelled to prop up.”

As the two terms of George W. Bush come to a close, it is becoming apparent that complete deregulation can be harmful, just as harmful as Soviet-era governments relying on inefficient, state-run companies. Whether it is Clinton, Obama, or McCain, the economic policies under the next president will help us determine just how “natural” neoliberal economic policy ever really was.

WTC Crusader

-Mike Weiss

New York, April 4 - “Nearly 1,100 people remain missing - not one piece of DNA, not one piece of remains, in and around Ground Zero. Some of those remains are in the Fresh Kills dump on Staten Island,” said Sally Regenhard. This is an issue she knows all too well, because some of those remains belong to her son, 28-year-old firefighter Christian Regenhard.

Sally Regenhard is the founder and chairperson of the non-profit Skyscraper Safety Campaign (http://www.skyscrapersafety.org/) and she visited an NYU journalism class last week to describe her experiences and reactions soon after the attack on the World Trade Center.

“No elected official, nobody, said we needed an investigation. Not one person was questioning how this could happen in this city, the greatest city in the world.”

She was in shock soon after 9/11, both with the loss of her son as well with the incomprehension that nothing was happening on an official level to discover why the towers fell, why so many people were trapped inside, why so many firefighters had to die. So it was with relief that a month after 9/11, in October 2001, that she read an article in the Daily News by Joe Calderone. He was one of the first to describe the mismanagement of the rescue efforts and the need for an investigation. In opening up the topic and confirming her own feelings, the Skyscraper Safety Campaign was born.

Nights would follow camped out at Ground Zero protesting the building, and as the SSC started to form Regenhard met with victim’s families, relatives of firefighters, EMT and other workers at the site. She would meet with engineers, lawyers, attend government committees (“Listen, if you ever want to really suffer, join a code committee!”), organize demonstrations in Albany and protests in Washington and over the next six and a half years started pealing back the layers of secrecy to learn just exactly how government really works.

“9/11 was not only a massive failure level at the federal level but at the state level, the city level and especially the Port Authority level,” she said.

Regenhard criticizes the Port Authority for acting above the law in building towers that didn’t comply with local building and fire codes – codes which would have required each tower to have four stairwells instead of three. But this is just the tip of the iceberg of the glaring building code violations she would find.

She publicized the lack of preparation and planning at FDNY, who on 9/11 were still using antiquated radios which had proven to have problems at the first WTC bombing in 1993.

But her harshest criticism is reserved for Mayor Giuliani, who refused assistance from sources outside city government which not only delayed the rescue of possible survivors, but even hampered recovery efforts. Regenhard pointed out that there is an established US military agency called JPAC (Joint Prisoner of War and Missing in Action Accounting Command http://www.jpac.pacom.mil/) that has the expertise and facilities to recover the bodies of American servicemen anywhere in the world, but they were restricted from operating at the WTC site.

“They needed to make human remains a priority and they never did,” she said tearfully, one of several times during her presentation when she broke down and had to stop to recover herself.

“I was an innocent person, I believed in the system – a good Catholic school girl,” she said. “But at some point in your life you have to step out of your comfort zone to go after what is true, what is right.”

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Falsely imprisoned in Guantánamo: Murat Kurnaz’s story arrives in New York

- Michael E. Miller

New York, April 6 – Murat Kurnaz spent five years in a cramped cell in Guantánamo, an innocent man sold into captivity for $3,000. His story, one of circumstance and mistaken identity in the “war on terror,” bears all the marks of a tragic novel.

Sadly, however, there is nothing fictitious about it.

Kurnaz’s story was the subject of a panel discussion at the New York Public Library on Friday. Though freed in 2006, Kurnaz is still considered an “enemy combatant” by the United States—a label that his lawyers reject but that nonetheless bars him from the country.

The approximately two hundred people that attended the ticketed event heard actor and playwright Wallace Shawn read passages from Kurnaz’s newly published memoir, “Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantánamo.” Interspersed with comments by the panel’s five other discussants—including Kurnaz’s lawyers and the Muslim chaplain from Guantánamo—these passages traced the arch of Kurnaz’s ordeal.

Shortly after September 11, 2001, Kurnaz, then only 19 years old, left his native city of Bremen, Germany, to study Islamic scripture in Pakistan. He had just been engaged and wanted to learn more about his responsibilities as a husband and a Muslim. But shortly before leaving Pakistan, Kurnaz was pulled off of a bus and thrown into a secret U.S. prison in Afghanistan. Two months later, he was sent to the U.S. detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where a guard later told him that U.S. authorities had paid $3,000 for him.

He spent five years in Guantánamo, most of them without access to a lawyer. In his memoir, Kurnaz says that his guards routinely abused him, using electric shocks, sleep deprivation, and beatings in an effort to draw information from him. They pried him with questions, such as “Where is Osama?” before determining, as early as 2002, that he was an innocent man. Kurnaz was not released until August of 2006.

One of Kurnaz’s lawyers, Baher Azmy, called his imprisonment “absurd enough to make Kafka blush.”

“He was unable to see the evidence that was the basis for him being labeled an ‘enemy combatant,’” he said. “It’s impossible to shake that designation.” To this day, the U.S. government will not admit that it “released” Kurnaz because to do so would be to admit his innocence, and their mistake, Azmy said.

Azmy and Kurnaz’s German lawyer, Bernhard Docke, described the tremendous difficulty of freeing a man who had been disappeared into Guantánamo.

“All the legal means which ought to be self-evident for a state based on the rule of law were denied,” Docke said. “He was kept incommunicado for years” with no idea of the charges against him.

Philippe Sands, an essayist and professor of international law, also spoke on the panel. In “The Green Light,” an exposé in this month’s Vanity Fair, Sands shows how the Bush administration’s legal reasoning allowed for the abuse of Guantánamo inmates, including Kurnaz.

“Murat Kurnaz arrived at Guantánamo at a very crucial moment,” Sands said. His transfer from Afghanistan to Cuba coincided with Bush’s presidential order “that none of the detainees would have rights under the Geneva Convention,” he said.

The result was that the “rulebook was wiped clean” as far as detainees’ rights.

Michael Ratner, President of the Center for Constitutional Right and the event’s moderator, pointed out that approximately 275 detainees remain in Guantánamo, “with the U.S. still planning death penalty charges against a number of them.” Around 600 Guantánamo detainees have already been released, in large part due to the Center’s efforts.

The panelists were quick to point out that all Guantánamo detainees, regardless of guilt or innocence, deserve a fair trial—something Kurnaz never received. It was not until 2004, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the detainees had the right to see civilian lawyers, that Kurnaz met with Azmy. It took two more years for Kurnaz to be set free, despite the holes in the evidence against him. American authorities accused him of being the friend of a suicide bomber. His friend, it turned out later, was alive and well.

“In Guantánamo, the only decisions that ever mattered were those made by the military,” Azmy said. “It’s an enormously arbitrary process.”

Docke, the lawyer hired by Kurnaz’s mother in Germany, said that Germany was also responsible in his client’s wrongful imprisonment. German interrogators visited Kurnaz in Guantánamo in September of 2002 and decided, like the Americans, that he was most likely innocent.

“The door was half open in the fall of 2002 to get him back,” Docke said. Instead, the German administration at the time canceled Kurnaz’s right to stay in Germany. Born in Bremen to Turkish parents, Kurnaz is nonetheless a Turkish citizen under German law.

A recent Seton Hall study found that the Bush administration’s depiction of Guantánamo detainees clashes with U.S. military records. According to the study, only six percent of the detainees were captured by U.S. forces; 90 percent of them were turned over to the U.S. by the Aghani Northern Alliance, often in exchange for money. Only eight percent were alleged to be members of Al Qaeda.

In an interview after the event, Docke said that the Military Commissions Act, signed into law by President Bush in 2006, barred Kurnaz from seeking compensation from the U.S. government. His case looks more promising in Germany, though Kurnaz’s Turkish citizenship complicates things.

“In my mind, Germany bears a political and moral responsibility for his time in Guantánamo,” Docke said. “We are now considering a lawsuit.”

When Kurnaz returned to Germany after his release, he discovered that his fiancé had left him and that his country had deported him while he was in Guantánamo.

“He is doing pretty well, considering the hell he went through,” Docke said. But having lost five years of his life to a case of mistaken identity, having suffered beatings and electro-shocks on a daily basis, Kurnaz’s readjustment to freedom is no easy task. His story is a reminder of the dangerous ambiguities involved in the Bush administration’s “war on terror.”

Kurnaz may need counseling to overcome the years of abuse, Docke said.

“Somewhere in his body or brain, you have this dark history of Guantánamo.”

Forty years after Prague Spring, all that’s left of communism is a babushka with an ominous overbite. Or is it?

Renting its space from McDonalds on one of the busiest streets in Prague is Museum of Communism. It shares a beautiful, Baroque building with a casino.

Haphazardly thrown into the corners of its rooms are artifacts – pieces of Soviet airplanes, propaganda posters, a time card puncher with a proletarian slogan– that bear witness to decades of communism in Czechoslovakia (today's Czech Republic), now almost 20 years gone. Huddled on the floor, the busts of communist leaders command neither fear nor reverie – nor praise for a great aesthetic achievement.

Aesthetics may not have been the primary concern of the museum’s owner, American restaurateur Glenn Spicker who came to Prague in the early 90s, following the fall of communism. There was excitement in the air, Spicker remembers, and his thirst for adventure and a knack for business led him to open Bohemian Bagels in the city’s center. But a decade into it, the increasing expenses made him look for new ventures: the Museum of Communism.

“The idea was to create a museum that would be an expression of how Czech people feel – simple, objective and historical,” said Spicker who hired a Czech documentary producer Jan Kaplan, to help him with the set-up. Together, they scavenged the city’s antique shops for much of the museum’s paraphernalia. Several Czech historians and journalists wrote the text for the exhibition, which is divided into three thematic parts: “dream, reality and nightmare.”

Yet objectivity seems to be a relative concept. While the museum may be a helpful introduction to those who are not familiar with communism, for those more thorough students such as Sophie Schasiepen from Vienna, the approach appears polemic and irresponsible, peppered with commentary that has little to do with an objective look at the ideology.

“I was already shocked by the very sarcastic posters they are using as advertisements and that are printed in the guidebooks without any comment,” Schasiepen said. “The manner in which the presumably neutral texts in the exhibition where talking about Karl Marx, Lenin and communist ideas in general was outrageous. Calling Marx a ‘bohemian and intellectual adventurer, who started his life career as a romantic poet with an inclination towards apocalyptic titanism’ - I really don´t even know what to say to that.”

For a middle-aged couple from Hamburg, Germany, the museum was a reminder of a time they witnessed. “The museum was informative,” said Klaus Dernidinger, but the text, while trying to be objective, contained a “Western bias,” he added.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Prague Spring, a period of several months in 1968 when the new leadership of then Czechoslovakia's communist party headed by Alexander Dubcek attempted to introduce mild economic and social reforms. The Soviet Union, fearing the rebellion of its satellite state, sent troops in August of the same year. About 100 people died in the demonstrations that followed. In the protest of the clampdown, two youth Jan Palac and a month later, Jan Zajic, set themselves on fire and burned to death on Prague’s Vaclav Square.

The museum’s portrayal of the every day life under communism 

in Czechoslovakia left Mrs. Card from St. Louis in the United States grateful for “having been blessed to live in America.” The most effective displays were a bleak lineup of a few cans on the store’s shelf and the eerie echo of the telephone ring in the model of an interrogation room where potential dissidents were often tortured.

While Spicker was hoping that many Czechs would visit, he had no illusions. “I knew that tourists would be the main people to come – Czechs are not that excited to talk about the past.”
Marian J. Kratochvil of Institute of Contemporary History in Prague disagrees.  "The Czechs do not mind discussing things that happened during those 41 years of Communist rule, most of us are proud to have contributed to the resistance; others were, at least, 'non-belligerent." But, he added "the Museum is a damned pseudo-capitalist venture and no Czech would ever visit it."

The Velvet Revolution– a series of mass demonstrations in 1989 – brought communism in Czechoslovakia to an end. According to Spicker, unlike some other former Soviet satellite states that took pride in some of communism’s legacies –its monuments and artwork, for example – Czechs were eager to sever the connection, destroying many public markings.

However, the relationship to the time is not that clearly cut. In the aftermath of Velvet Revolution, today’s communist party in Czech Republic – Czech Republic’s Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia – is the only former ruling party of the Eastern Bloc that has not dropped “communist” from its title. It has consistently won an average of 12 percent of the votes in each parliamentary election since 1989.

According to Kratochvil,  "the Communist electorate consists mainly of pensioners, born in 1920s -1930s, who witnessed the Nazi occupation and Communists were a smaller evil for them.  Now, they lost their 'social securities' guaranteed by the state in the Communist era; they mutter, they are against everything, but they cannot present any solution."

Remnants of communism are in people’s attitudes, adds Spicker. “People still behave with innate cultural oddities. Arrogance in restaurants and bad customer service, for example – that all stems from communist background,” he said.

Kratochvil agrees that traces of that time "are present in our hearts, the way people think, how shop assistants present their goods to their customers - mostly unwillingly, reluctantly, knowing their wages are under average." But the new generations have welcomed the changes, he adds.  Most of them support either the Civic Democratic Party or the Social Democrats.  "The Communist Party is predestined to die out, sooner or later, or merge with Social Democrats just as soon as their electorate would die out."

Chris Card, 17, of St. Louis, United States sees very little of that time in today’s Prague. “Prague is really capitalist – you have to pay for everything, even to go to the bathroom.  It’s so un-American to have to pay to pee.”

Monday, March 31, 2008

Black Church Politics

New York, March 31—Standing before his congregation on Easter Sunday, the Rev. Dr. Thomas Stiers thanked the choir; he admired the bright flowers that adorned the pulpit; and he told the story of the resurrection, speaking slowly and deliberately, his voice filling the warm air within Riverside Church.

Then he started talking politics.

“How do we live after last Wednesday, a day that marked the fifth anniversary of that terrible, costly war that never should have been waged?” he asked. Stiers then spoke of Jeremiah Wright, the much-maligned pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ and friend of presidential hopeful Barack Obama. It was wrong, he said, for the American media to reduce “a loving pastor” to 60-second video clips. Stiers then turned his attention to Obama.

“He stood before the nation, he addressed the issues, and he showed a path out of the darkness,” he said of the Illinois Senator.

Speaking for only five minutes, Stiers, who is white, addressed the political firestorm surrounding Wright’s sermons and reinforced a point largely missed by the television news stations lambasting the Chicago pastor: for many Americans, blacks in particular, politics and church have always been one and the same.

“Church has always been that one place were blacks could go and feel like they were in control,” said Sarah Cunningham. At 82 years of age, She watched the number of black churchgoers at Riverside rise as both the church and Morningside Heights—a neighborhood near Columbia University on Manhattan’s Upper West Side—were swept up in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Cunningham, who is white, has seen five senior ministers in charge of Riverside. The last permanent one, the Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, was the first and only black man to hold the position.

“Black churches have always talked as much about politics as religions,” Cunningham said. A retired writer for religious publications, she said she first came to understand this overlap of politics and preaching as a child in rural Tennessee, where whites and blacks attended separate churches. After moving to New York, she watched Riverside’s congregation grow more diverse as the civil rights movement led to a broad shift towards integration. During Rev. Forbes’s tenure, the congregation was roughly 60 percent black, though now it is more evenly balanced, she said.

Stiers and Cunningham’s comments centered on the controversial sermons made by Wright, sermons which threaten to impugn Obama just as he looks to secure the Democratic presidential nomination. On March 18, Obama gave a speech in which he condemned many of Wright’s views.

“We’ve heard my former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, use incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike,” Obama said in his speech.

But Obama also sought to frame Wright’s fiery sermons within the context of the black church, a place unfamiliar to a majority of Americans where the hardships of life as a minority sometimes give way to anger and politics. “Like other predominantly black churches across the country, Trinity embodies the black community in its entirety – the doctor and the welfare mom, the model student and the former gang-banger,” Obama said. “The church contains in full the kindness and cruelty, the fierce intelligence and the shocking ignorance, the struggles and successes, the love and yes, the bitterness and bias that make up the black experience in America.”

By linking Wright’s sermons to the lingering of serious inequalities in the U.S., Obama’s speech went beyond the debate over whether or not video clips of Wright on news programs and the Internet have been taken out of context, deliberately framed to misrepresent the underlying message. But by condemning Wright’s “profoundly distorted view of this country – a view that sees white racism as endemic, and that elevates what is wrong with America above all that we know is right with America,” Obama refused to condone either Wright’s indignation or his linking the war in Iraq to racism in the U.S.

Obama’s carefully qualified relationship with Wright has, therefore, revealed the Senator’s unwillingness to cast himself in the mold of the black preacher-turned-politician. Obama may attend Wright’s sermons, but he does not share his political views or his rhetorical style. Obama may, as Wright himself said in one of his sermons, know “what it’s like to live in a country controlled by rich white people,” but as a presidential candidate, he has yet to fully embrace the sharp-edged oratorical style of Jessie Jackson, Malcolm X or even Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Like Wright, King spoke at Riverside on a number of occasions. On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, King gave his famous “Beyond Vietnam” speech, in which he called the U.S. “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” He also linked U.S. militarism abroad to the abuse of civil rights for minorities at home, and argued that the U.S. was “on the wrong side of a world revolution.” Though he argued in the speech that his opposition to the war in Vietnam stemmed from the same non-violent principles as his crusade for civil rights, King was roundly criticized for enmeshing moral opposition to segregation with foreign policy.

It is, ironically enough, Wright, not Obama, the leading anti-war candidate, who most closely echoes the style and content of King’s anti-war speeches. In a speech shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Wright worried that the U.S. would respond to the attacks by lashing out at the world. The U.S. was, he argued, caught up in “the insanity of the cycle of violence and the cycle of hatred.”

In his weekly sermons, Wright has been a fierce critic of the war in Iraq. In a speech entitled “War on Iraq IQ Test,” he asked: “Which country do you think poses the greatest threat to global peace: Iraq or the U.S.?” and quoted King’s statement that “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

No Time For My Weight, I'm Watching ESPN

By ordering with a days notice, customers of Mallie's Sports Bar and Grill in suburban Detroit can sit down to enjoy a 134 pound cheeseburger. The Absolutely Ridiculous Burger is now the largest burger commercially sold in America, reports the AP. It comes on a 50 pound bun, takes 12 hours to cook and at least three people to flip. Would you like fries with that? Owner Steve Mallie is waiting for the results to know if he is now the vendor of the largest hamburger in America, topping the 124 pound burger served last year by Denny's Beer Barrel pub in Clearfield, PA.

Down south in Mississippi, another record was broken this year—the first state with over 30% of its population officially obese. Not overweight, but obese. In fact, according to the Trust for America's Health, not a single state reduced its percentage of obese residents during 2007. While the Center for Disease Control is calling obesity in America worse than any plague or epidemic of the Middle Ages, a 134 pound burger is reported with humor—just another crazy record for Guinness. Because they know this is not just a novelty, many news reports also add protocol on ordering the beef feast—24 hours in advance, please. Popular culture appears dangerously disconnected from reality. What's that you say? You have the You Tube clip of Joey Chestnut eating 66 hot dogs in 12 minutes to win the annual ESPN Hot Dog Eating Contest? Finally, Nathan's Yellow Mustard Belt is back in the United States.

Competition is fierce in the United States, and what can be made into a sport often is. Over-indulgence is a time-honored battleground with determined Americans trying to out drink, out buy, and out sex all competitors. However, those competitions are mostly held in the movies and are sporadically mentioned on television. Food, appears to be a different matter. ESPN is the largest cable sports network in America, and the annual contest is held on Independence Day. But eating too many hot dogs is killing us in record—and growing—numbers. What other major cause of death in this country is a nationally televised sport? When was the last cigarette smoking competition? Why haven't the good doctors, government workers, nutritionists and Oprah hammered an aversion of food-binging into our heads like that which we would probably feel if we watched Joey Chestnut smoke 84 Newports in 15 minutes? Gross, right? Right??

Monday, February 25, 2008

Conspiracy weary

Spend a couple of hours with conspiracy theorists and you will have plenty to think about. My opinions haven't moved in to the realm of the obscure, but I have reexamined some of my thoughts about September 11.

No, I don't think the World Trade Center was blown up by a "controlled demolition," I don't think that the Pentagon was struck by a missile, and I don't think that the plane in Pennsylvania was shot down by a US jet. All these claims have been clearly refuted by Popular Mechanics, a group I have more confidence in than any of the eclectic-and often eccentric-mix of "experts" that claim to know the truth.

But I have come to think that this group's desire to convene a new 9/11 Commission is justified. The original commission was completely bogged down by a crooked executive director who met in private numerous times with Karl Rove during the investigation, underfunding (compare its budget of roughly 10 million with the budget for the Lewinsky scandal of 40 million), and a lack of cooperation from government agencies-the most recent example being the discovery of the CIA torture tapes.

Why shouldn't heads roll for the incompetence in the lead up to 9/11? How come Condoleeza Rice can admit in front of the world that a report came across her desk entitled "Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the United States" in August of 2001 and not face any sort of consequences?

It may turn out that I've been too immersed in the conspiracy world and need a week or two to get back to reality. Emotions tend to run high. When talking to the theorists it is clear that the trauma from the day remains evident. The last guy out of the North tower said yesterday in a speech that "we still are an open wound, we need closure."

On the street, some are filled with suspicion and outrage when they consider 9/11 and get in a heated discussion with the conspiracy theorists (one of those discussions when there is agreement but everyone is yelling anyway), other passersby look at the theorists on the street and just hang their heads down, communicating that resurrecting all those emotions is the last thing they could ever want.

Elan- new Muslim magazine

The title debuted last week on February 22nd. When you read and talk to any member of the team you soon realize that it was launched out of frustration, a frustration with the image of Muslims in the U.S.

Sarah Malaika, a managing editor of Elan, says there is a lot of negative news about Muslims and it’s easy to understand why she and many other Muslims don’t feel represented. “That is why Elan was launched. We feel that there is more out there. We want America to see us as we are: teachers, musicians, physicians, artists.”

E’lan in Arabic, Urdu and Farsi means “announcement” and Sarah Malaika explains that the magazine wants to deliver positive announcements about Muslim-American communities. She also believes the Muslim-Americans are ready for the magazine. “We had a photo shoot last week and people that came were totally excited. We see they are ready for us.”

Elan is written by, for and about young 20-35 year-olds, professional Muslims of both sexes. The magazine subtitle is “Rethink Muslim.” It wants non-Muslims to reconsider their stereotypes about Muslims, “We want them to rethink what they think,” Malaika says.

It is not, however, only about American public opinion, it is also about Muslims themselves. “We also want Muslims to rethink their identity,” Sarah Malaika said. She noticed that since Muslims are such a diverse group, often they don’t know about others from outside their ethnic group.

Starting a new magazine is never easy. Elan already received criticism from more conservative Muslims who accused the magazine of not being religious and modest enough. The magazine is still setting its boundaries. “We have many discussions in the news room about how far we can push boundaries, “ she says in terms of appropriate clothing and writing, but she immediately added, “What we are trying to do has never been done before. We are a magazine for both secular and religious Muslims.”

Sarah Malaika complains that many people, both Muslims and non-Muslims, don’t understand that Elan does recognizes religion and is not necessarily trying to declare itself as a secular magazine. “Islam influenced our culture and we don’t condemn any religious representations. Elan is all-inclusive. We don’t tell people how they should practice their religion,” Malaika says. The magazine ambition is to create an open space for discussion to everyone.

The publisher, Wahid Media Venture, describes its publication as, “a magazine of contemporary Muslim culture”- and it is. The first cover story in the glossy magazine is about Reza Aslan, the Teheran born Muslim American author of “No God but God: The origin, evolution, and future of Islam”. It expresses his vision for the new Muslim American identity.

Elan is produced quarterly and is available at the biggest bookstore chains.

Elan- a new Muslim magazine

Sunday, February 24, 2008

If the Chinese Can Do It ...

After shooting down a rogue satellite that went haywire shortly after its launch, Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the good people of America to rest easy; George Bush's vaunted missile defense system works.

Ostensibly, the operation was a $60 million means of keeping the world safe from the "potentially toxic" contents of the satellite's fuel tank. In reality, the move was a chance for the Pentagon to test George Bush's version of Star Wars. New toys are hard to resist, especially when other kids are flaunting their own. Back when the Chinese blew up their own satellite, you could hear the Pentagon pouting, 'How come all the cool toys come out in the far east first?'

But, now that they've showed off their toy a bit, the Pentagon's strutting. "The operation speaks for itself," said Gates. Problem is, it doesn't.

Gail Collins' Op-Ed in the New York Times, a nice lampoon of the whole adventure, raised doubts over whether or not this bit of muscle flexing proved anything, writing:
Before it fired at the satellite Wednesday night, the military was hesitating about making a shot, citing the possibility of “choppy seas.” Cynics who asked whether this means the nation’s quadrillion-dollar missile defense system only works when the weather is calm were told to stop being ridiculous.

Offering a possible alternative to the original toxic gas excuse (gas which “If you stay very close to it and inhale a lot of it, it could in fact be deadly" -- Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), Collins suggested another:
The Pentagon is afraid the supersecret satellite will fall into the hands of our enemies, revealing the sophisticated new technology that conked out shortly after leaving Earth and utterly failed to accomplish its mission.

Touché, madame.

Adding to the childish nature of the affair, both China and the U.S. have accused the other of treading dangerous ground, risking an arms race in outer space.

It doesn't take a Harvard man to see that an arms race is already underway. I'm pretty sure spending billions of dollars every year on a missile defense system qualifies. As if there wasn't enough nonsense on earth, the U.S. and the Chinese are taking it extraterrestrial.

If a Dem gets elected, missile defense should be among the first programs to get the axe. A debtor nation in a recession, hell, even one in good economic health, can find better ways to spend its coin.

Cindy McCain's America is not Michelle Obama's, and it's Probably not Your's

An essential component of effective leadership is the ability to step outside of your own viewpoint, if only momentarily, to better understand the position of another. This is what is referred to as being "open-minded." Of course, being open-minded doesn't mean that you have to adopt the view of the other, but you need to be able to understand the roots of that other party's actions and views.

An anti-example of this open-mindedness is found in the reaction of many U.S. citizens' to suicide bombers. Rather than try to understand the life circumstances of these desperate individuals -- exploring the role poverty, political repression and foreign intervention played in their decisions-- closed-minded individuals attribute it to a religion and culture which they do not understand, and do not attempt to understand. Dismissive terms like "satanic," "barbaric" and "bloodthirsty" are attached to Islam and that, for many people, is explanation enough; suicide bombers = evil believers in an evil ideology.

That sort of thinking, most often displayed by the right in U.S. politics, extends beyond the "War on Terror," and pervades issues both domestic and international. In its zeal to defend America against its "enemies," both internal and external, it latches onto the quickest, easiest interpretation. A recent comment made by Harvard Law alumnus and model U.S. citizen Michelle Obama, and the subsequent reaction to it, offers a domestic example of this closed-minded approach, substituting political opportunism and jingoism for rational thinking.

The comment from Michelle: "For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country. Not just because Barack is doing well, but I think people are hungry for change."

The reaction was hostile, with many right-wing pundits denouncing Michelle, and by extension her husband, as unpatriotic. The implication is that no true America-loving, God-fearing individual could ever be anything less than proud of America.

Cindy McCain affirmed that when she stood before the cameras and said "I have, and always will be, proud of my country."

Cindy McCain, born into affluence, helped finance her husband's first successful bid for congress, in 1982, with money from her trust fund. In other words, she was born into the (white) world of power and has rested comfortably within it since her birth.

Michelle Obama is an African American female, and based on that alone her relationship to her country is a more complex one. Without a doubt, the roots of Michelle's comment went far beyond the government's treatment of African Americans, but that alone would be grounds for righteous indignation. Should she be incessantly and automatically proud of a government that only in the last 40 years has begun to move towards the self-evident truth that all men are created equal?

The obvious answer is "absolutely not," and that extends to any individual, regardless of their heritage. Those who unquestioningly accept that "U.S. government = Good" not only show an inability to open their minds beyond a narrow world view, they reveal the incompetence of their mental processes.

If Cindy McCain has always been proud of the country, it's because she doesn't know the country. She knows the U.S. that George Bush knows, or that Ted Kennedy knows. The difference between her and Ted, however, is that she is unable, or unwilling, to put herself in the position of others who may not have enjoyed the same privileges. Her life's trajectory has presented her with one side of America, the sunny side, and she either A) hasn't thought to look around the corner, or B) looked around the corner and processed nothing of what she saw.

Anyone who deals in absolutes is either naive, or lying. With Cindy's recent statement "I have always been proud of my country," , and John's promise "I will never, ever let you down," we know that they both fall into one, or both, of those categories.

What I want in a leader, a first lady, and in each and every citizen, is a critical mind, one that does not accept party lines and national mythologies. I want someone who is able to transcend their race, their religion, their political ideologies, if only briefly, in order to get a better understanding of the situation at hand. Our misguided foreign policy over the last 8 (last 150?) years shows the need for exactly that.

Broken Skulls and Bullet Wounds: Violence Returns to Chiapas

New York, Feb. 24 - Ernesto Ledesma Arronte pointed carefully to where the peasant's skull had been fractured by the police: a divot of bone clearly visible to the hundred audience members fixated on the x-ray overhead. As if this were not evidence enough, he showed a photo of a Mexican peasant shot by police while protesting the government's destruction of local farms and houses.

Arronte's point was clear: war has returned to Mexico, reigniting the lives and politics of rural and indigenous Mexicans long subjected to state-led violence and political repression. Using a host of maps, photos, and documents, Arronte argued that Chiapas and other poor, agricultural states in southern Mexico are once again being consumed by the bloodshed and land seizures that drew international attention to the region in the early 1990s.

“Youths cut up by machetes, robberies, aggressions, evictions, arbitrary detentions, and the cutting off of water” have once again become commonplace in Chiapas, he said in Spanish. Arronte should know: he and his colleagues at the Center For Political Analysis and Economic and Social Investigations (CAPISE) have been documenting human rights violations committed by state police and federal troops for years.

But as Arronte and other activists have pointed out, things are spiraling out of control, even by Chiapas’s bloody standards. Beginning last year, Mexican President Felipe Calderón has added more than 24,000 soldiers to local police forces in what his government calls a new drug war offensive. But there are growing signs that this massive troop deployment is affecting rural, indigenous communities just as much as drug cartels on the U.S. – Mexico border. According to Arronte, the government has begun a “war on the indigenous” stacked in favor of government forces: 55 of the 79 military bases in Chiapas are on indigenous lands, every one of which has recently seen a build-up of troops and equipment. Twelve years after the Acteal Massacre, in which 45 indigenous townspeople were murdered by paramilitaries, the specter of violence once again haunts the lush farmlands and forests of southern Mexico.

Arronte was one of several speakers at “Repression in Chiapas,” an event hosted by New York tenants’ rights organization Movement for Justice in El Barrio (MJB). The evening also featured “One Big Train Called the Other Campaign,” a documentary on an international campaign for indigenous land rights and autonomy in Mexico. The Other Campaign is led by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), a group formed in 1994 to fight for peasants’ lands threatened by the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Since renouncing violence shortly after its inception, the EZLN now enjoys a great deal of international support and counts MJB among its sister organizations.

This time around, the reasons behind the government’s repressive tactics are again economic, argues Arronte.

“The Calderón government has begun to transform thousands of hectares of indigenous land into protected nature zones,” he said, adding that these “nature zones” are really eco-tourism projects run by private companies.

“No indigenous families are involved in these projects,” Arronte said, explaining why the government’s quest for tourist revenue is synonymous with an offensive against the indigenous in Mexico.

The Zapatista uprising in 1994 shattered the image of Mexico as a mestizo, or racially-uniform, nation. Today, deep inequalities persist in Mexico, often along ethnic lines. In Chiapas, a state that produces 13 percent of the nation’s corn and 54 percent of its hydroelectric power, poverty rates are much higher than the nation average and almost half of the population does not speak Spanish.

The rising number of federal troops and human rights abuses threatens to reverse what little gains indigenous communities have made in Chiapas and elsewhere in rural Mexico. Lands appropriated by the Zapatistas and their supporters in the mid 1990s are being systematically stripped from the indigenous, often through violence, Arronte said. In the valley of Agua Azul alone, 1,235 families face eviction from their homes and a return to the starvation of earlier years.

“In Mexico and Chiapas in 1994 there were still slaves,” Arronte said. Today, these former “slaves” are fighting to keep the lands they won in the 90s from many of the same landowners for whom they used to work.

Suicide Views

“We all know one of these guys, right? Intense. They worry about taking a test, and then they get a 96 and they’re like, ‘where’s my four points?’!”

I’m sitting in a meeting of LUCHA, a Latino-based student club at New York University, and the topic this Wednesday night is suicide. There’s about twenty, twenty-five students seated in front of two discussion leaders, Mark and Stephanie. Mark just has just told his own story about pressure in high school, and gotten a laugh. But the topic is serious, and Mark knows this. That’s why LUCHA is having this meeting.

There have already been two suicides on the NYU campus in the first term of the 2007 -2008 year, Allan Oakley Hunter and Pranay Angara. Yearly surveys from the American College Health Association say that the average suicide rate for college-age kids is seven in 100,000. If you consider the number of students currently at NYU (college and graduate) there should be two deaths per year, every year, from suicide.

Not to let schools off the hook, keep in mind that the rate for kids not in college is double this, about fourteen out of every 100,000 non-students in the U.S.

The LUCHA meeting tonight followed a presentation by three women from an organization called The Icarus Project. Icarus is non-profit group that has presented on campus before, and tries to stress the creative and life-affirming aspects of what the mainstream psychological world would call mental illness. By taking this view, Icarus tries to provide a forum for openness and support for people with mental health issues, and recognizes that a lot of the fear a person has in asking for help is the feeling that their doctor will try and provide this “help” by taking away their personality. The Icarus viewpoint is that mental problems are not always a disease that has to be eliminated, but can be an important part of a person’s self that they should try and embrace. The real problem is with how mental illness has been stigmatized, and they mean to change this.

Whether you agree with them or not, their overall message is openness and we couldn’t need this more. After the Icarus group left for another function, the LUCHA meeting continued with people voicing their reactions about The Icarus Project, the reasons for campus suicides, and the NYU administration’s response. One person felt the University was doing the right thing by installing jump-proof Plexiglas around the Bobst atrium balconies. Some felt it was weird that the University hires a guard who sits in a chair on the top floor of their Palladium dorm, doesn’t talk to anyone, is cranky, and now has the job of watching the door to the roof (which needs to be unlocked for fire regulations).

But should the University be more open about the suicide problem? By not holding public forums where students can voice their concerns to administrators, and administrators can openly voice their own fears, you have a bizarre situation where someone dies, no one from the NYU administration is allowed to say a word, and a new piece of Plexiglas is installed. Sensing the dead student’s desperate need to communicate and seeing the school’s fear of acknowledgement, only makes the disconnect problem more palpable.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Earnestly important

The plot is simple: Love and marriage. Two gentlemen, one of them with title but no money (David Jack’s Moncrief), and the other with money but without a title (Christopher Michael Todd’s Worthing) are facing a crucial decision in their lives-getting married. Moncrief does not realize his fate yet, he is a beautiful dandy who believes that marriage is such a disaster that he would try to forget it at once if it happened to him, as “three is company, and two is none”. David Jack presents a man who say “my duty as a gentleman has never interfered in my pleasure.” Still at the end, he commits the most popular mistake; he falls in love and eagerly decides to get married.

But this simple plot is just an occasion for Oscar Wilde to create a cynical social satire against marriage, the hypocrisy of the English upper class, and against optimism. It is also a glorious hymn for hedonism. Many believe that The Importance of Being Earnest is the most sparkling comedy in Oscar Wilde’s repertories, and it is difficult not to agree.

Humor cynism, and the addressed issues, along with Oscar Wilde’s witty remarks, is what make the play a live issue, more than a century after the author’s death in 1900. The cast also probably helps to enjoy the show. A brilliant Cristiane Young’s Lady Bracknell, an English Victorian matron stating bluntly, “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.”

In this play we have all what we need for a stage success: drama- Miss Prism loosing lord’s child in the dark past, romance, humor, and words of harsh criticism to family and society at large. It is no wonder that the director Judith Jarosz decided to work with the script. And she does it well, although, to be honest, not breathtakingly. Recommended but not a must.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST, by Oscar Wilde; directed by Judith Jarosz; set design, David Fuller; lightening design, Hajera Dehqanzada; costume design, Lydia Gladstone; technical director, Aaron Diehl; stage manager, Lauren Arneson; Presented by the Theatre Ten Ten, at 1010 Park Avenue.

Algernon Moncrief…David Jacks

Lane…David Fuller

Jon Worthing, J.P. …Christoper Michael Todd

Lady Bracknell…Cristiane Young

Hon. Gwendolen Fairfax…Vanessa Morosco

Miss Prism…Talaura Harms

Cecily Cardew…Sheila Joon

Rev. Canon Chasuble, D.D. …Greg Horton

Merriman…David Fuller

Hospital Journalist

Sunderam Srinivasan or “Shrini” as his friends call him, is a permanent resident of Coler Hospital. Coler is a long-term health care facility, part of the New York City public hospital system, located on Roosevelt Island in the middle of the East River. Shrini, 62-years-old, has been here for seventeen years, some of it spent attached to a ventilator, all of it confined to a wheelchair.

“In ‘82-’83 I was in the Middle East, this was my first real experience with how the Mid-East attracts laborers to build their countries,” Shrini relates. Looking at him now in his motorized wheelchair in an anonymous hospital corridor, it’s hard to picture him as the active reporter he once was. It was complications from polio he contracted as a baby in his native India that has plagued him his entire life, but this was not enough to dissuade him a career in journalism. His most memorable position was writing for the India Express where he worked covering the 1975 state of emergency under Indira Gandhi’s leadership. It was there that he witnessed first-hand the government’s crackdown and the ensuing loss of freedom of the press.

“I was always fascinated with the power of journalism and how democracy functions,” he said. “Elections give people a voice, they come to elections to express their voice and what they really are expressing is freedom and hope - hope is the most important part of life. Hope leads to service, and service leads to society.”

Polio has given Shrini a small body which in no way reflects his stature in the hospital. He is the president of the residents council, a state-mandated position where he represents the interests of the roughly 800 patients at Coler. In this role, his most noteworthy accomplishment is perhaps the initiation of the hospital’s own radio station, the first of its kind in the country.

“There were three things we were trying to accomplish,” he relates. “It’s a place where patient residents can come to talk, but it is also therapeutic – it allows patients to do something. But then it’s also about networking with other long-term health care facilities – there’s a lot of human interest stories there.”

Warming to his subject, Shrini recounts, “if you really look at health care in America, there’s so much wealth but there’s very little health, which is a paradox,” he says, smiling. “The reason I say that is because the health care industry is controlled by a few people and they’re trying to set policy for the whole country.”

“Why don’t you ask me about the flags,” he questions me, suddenly. Attached to the back of Shrini’s wheelchair is a collection of new-looking colorful flags from nations all over the world, all on wooden poles like those sold at parades. When I comply he delivers the simple explanation while beaming, “because if you love the world, the world loves you.”

Conventional Wisdom

What Conventional Wisdom Says, or…What it Doesn’t

By Merry Pool

New York—On February 2nd supporters for Barack Obama pulled together an impromptu rally in East Harlem. Known also as “El Barrio”, the organizers hoped to raise awareness about the candidate with ‘lesser name recognition’ in the neighborhood with a large Hispanic population. Holding signs that read, Latinos for Obama, the group of no more than 50 marched from 103rd street up to 116th street.

Nathan Feinberg and Davion Marcus, who were volunteering at Saturday’s event, said they were getting a great response from people in Harlem.

“I came with a stack of fliers and I have one left,” said Feinberg.

“Generally immigrants do not tune in to politics,” said Marcus. “It’s not political apathy; they aren’t able to identify with the candidates—we’re trying to get people to participate in the political system.”

Campaign volunteers for both Senators Obama and Clinton have been reaching out to “immigrants,” (frequently alternated with “Latino”) helping them identify with their candidate—(known in some circles as courting the Hispanic vote.) Yet there is mixed speculation about which candidate will be more successful.

Aristide Zolberg, a professor at The New School, said that based on the “conventional wisdom” he doubted that Latinos would vote for an African American.

“Latinos aren’t too happy with Obama, they will go for Hillary,” he said in a phone interview.

In an interview on the radio program, To the Point, Robert Suro, former director of Pew Hispanic Center, discounted the ‘conventional wisdom’ about race relations between blacks and Latino voters as unsubstantiated. Mr. Suro said that based on the exit polling that has been done, “there is not strong evidence that Hispanics are unwilling to vote for an African American Candidate.”

Take for example, Laura Richardson, an African American Congresswoman recently elected in California’s 37th district, with approximately 25 percent African American and 21 percent eligible Latino voters. In a recent Time magazine article, by Jay Newton, Ms. Richardson said that “race does exist, but more than that people are concerned about he issues…people care about whether they have a job.”

Emphasizing this point, Newton says that “the former first lady [Hillary] represents an era prosperity that many [Latino] women would like to see returned. Not surprisingly, the issue of economic security takes the precedent over race.”

When asked how he intended to address the high unemployment rates and declining wages in the African American community that are related to the flood of immigrant labor, Senator Obama replied:

“Well, let me first of all say that I have worked on the streets of Chicago as an organizer with people who have been laid off from steel plants, black, white, Hispanic, Asian, and, you know, all of them are feeling economically insecure right now, and they have been for many years. Before the latest round of immigrants showed up, you had huge unemployment rates among African-American youth


And, so, I think to suggest somehow that the problem that we're seeing in inner-city unemployment, for example, is attributable to immigrants, I think, is a case of scapegoating that I do not believe in.”

Neither Nathan Feinberg nor Davion Marcus had any conventional wisdom about race and the Latino vote. But, Mr. Marcus, an African American, did acknowledge a tension surrounding the subject of immigration and the economy.

“I know that some African Americans feel like immigrants are reaping the benefits of this country and the Blacks aren’t getting anything,” said Marcus. “If Obama is the next leader, it will be difficult for him. There are so many issues and people will expect him to fix everything.”

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Living Without Heat in East Harlem

New York, Feb. 10—This morning, like every other for the past month, Jorge Martínez woke to find his small apartment freezing cold. Having slept in two sweaters, he threw on more clothes, gloves, and a hat before making his way to the kitchen. As he turned the dials on the oven, the stovetop burners slowly breathed warmth back into the room, and into his 68th birthday.

Mr. Martínez is one of more than a dozen tenants at 153 East 105th St. that have been left without heat or hot water for over a month.

“The biggest problem is the old people and the children,” he said. “It’s terrible. Once they stop the heat, the old are becoming frozen.”

Martínez and about twenty others gathered outside the East Harlem apartment building this afternoon to protest their living conditions. With help from Movement for Justice in El Barrio, an East Harlem tenants’ rights organization, the protesters chanted, beat pots and pans, and held up signs in English and Spanish denouncing both their landlord and the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD).

Sadly, their complaints are not uncommon in a city known for high rents and cold winters. But this year could be worse than usual, both in New York and across the country. As fears of a nationwide economic recession have grown more serious, and as the price of oil has gone up, many Americans have begun to wonder if they will be able to pay their heating bills this winter. Meanwhile, critics of the economic stimulus plan President Bush is expected to sign on Monday argue that it does little to make this winter any easier, or warmer, for America’s poor.

For Mr. Martínez and his neighbors, things couldn’t get much colder.

“The heat is only in the morning, a half hour, then you wait until the next day again,” he said, standing in a coat and hat in his kitchen. “When the temperature outside is 40 or 45, we don’t get heat for four days.”

But the frigid rooms aren't caused by a broken boiler or unpaid bills. Instead, tenants have been living without heat and hot water because their landlord, Ramón Durán, says heating oil is too expensive.

“I’m not a million dollar guy,” he said. “I have tenants living over here that are paying $300,” he said. “And you know what? $300 isn’t even enough for oil for one or two weeks.”

“I’ve got my children too,” Durán said, referring to the tenants’ worries for their children. Durán does not live in the building. As for the allegations that there is no heat or hot water, he replied: “That’s what they say, but it’s not true.”

Durán and his tenants also disagree over the role that HPD has played in the dispute. By city law, if tenants report being without heat during the winter and nothing is done within 24 hours, an HPD inspector can force the landlord to fix the problem.

According to Durán, his tenants abuse the law. “I’ve got a problem with one or two tenants,” he said. “They call HPD all the time for no reason. They call HPD before they come over to me, or give me a call.”

“HPD is doing their job,” Durán said, sitting at a table in the back of his restaurant, in the same building as the tenants' homes. “They come over here all the time. They inspect this place all the time.”

Durán’s tenants feel otherwise.

“They don’t come to check on the tenants, to see how they’re doing,” said Iris Vargas, referring to HPD. Her stepfather lives in the building. She pointed out cracks in the walls, tape around loose windows, and the steel girders that were put in place five months ago to keep the building from collapsing.

According to Juan Haro from Movement for Justice in El Barrio, HPD inspectors have yet to show up since the tenants began calling in their complaints almost two weeks ago.

“They’re accomplices to the crime,” he said.

As for Jorge Martínez, he spent his birthday protesting in the February cold. But, for the first time in weeks, he came inside to find his apartment warm.

“Now we got the heat at this time now, that’s because you are here,” he said, referring to the journalists covering the protest. “But once you leave, believe me, they’re going to cut it.”