Category Archives: Politics

The Party

Che Guevara India Kerala Communism
One of many street art Ches around Kerala

After I had made all my arrangements to go to Kerala, I found out something fantastic: it has an active communist party (or two)!  Does communism find me or am I chasing communism?  Either way, I find it fascinating, especially to see how it works in a unicameral parliamentary democracy.  Kerala prides itself on being the first place where communism came into power via peaceful elections, a tidbit no one lost any time in telling me.  The Communist Party of India (Marxist), which leads the Left Democratic Front (which includes the currently-impotent Communist Marxist Party), is still very active, generally winning elections on alternating 5 year terms.

communism socialism kerala india
It is common to see little offices like this one, as well as sponsored bus stops.

The Kerala Land Reform Act (which originated in 1963 with several notable amendments),  gave land rights to tenants, ending the feudal system (except for cash crops) and giving thousands a home of their own for the first time.  The reform completely altered the state and set it on a trajectory for relatively little economic stratification.  Redistribution of wealth (and land in particular) is a hallmark of communism, often lamented by wealthy landowners, and beloved by hardworking farmers freed of their peasant status (unless they’re just random people who you forced to be farmers.  That doesn’t go over to well.)  People commonly referred to Kerala as a state made entirely of the middle class, and I think the land reforms were a key factor in this.

Communism in Kerala hit a turning point in 1967 with the Naxalite uprising, and other ensuing violent acts.  Elements within the party wanted a more anarchic stance, and used violence to that end, which drastically changed public opinion.  The communists, who at the time were one party, were forced out of government and had to clean house.  Naxalites and other destabilizing elements split from the party, and the purged CPI(M) returned to the national discourse,  Naxalites are still active (and violent) in India, although deaths have decreased in the last few years.

Idian National Congress Kerala India politics
An ad (or street art?) from the party that leads the other coalition in Kerala, the Indian National Congress

The acceptance of religion and ignoring class differences are major departures from classical communism.  That did not go unnoticed.  Eventually, the powers that be in Moscow and Beijing decided that Kerala communism wasn’t communist enough, and turned their backs.  Honestly, from the standpoint of human rights, efficacy, corruption, and common sense, having communist leaders in China and the USSR say you don’t make the grade is a bit of a compliment.

Another manifestation of communism is the bureaucracy in Kerala, though to be honest I think that’s a hallmark of governance.  The Nazis had bureaucracy and they were fascists, on the complete opposite political pole.  Both liberal and conservative politicians in the US have put forth bills that embellish our already strong bureaucratic tradition.  Basically, bureaucracy = government jobs, so it’s in the government’s best interest to keep itself (and its friends) in business.  While several different Indians blamed the bureaucracy of Kerala on communism to me throughout the trip, I’m not sold.  Convince me in the comments, guys!

Advertisements for Kingfisher, the most popular beer.  While the beer itself isn't nationalized, all alcohol sales in Kerala are public.
Advertisements for Kingfisher, the most popular beer. While the beer itself isn’t nationalized, all alcohol sales in Kerala are public.

What did make me think of communism was the state-run liquor distribution.  Obviously nationalizing industries is a hallmark of communism, but so is standing in lines for basically no reason.  If it were a sport, people in communist countries would win the world cup of queueing every time, and their governments would be champions of creating high numbers of needless lines, usually in inconvenient locations.  Stay tuned for a post on alcohol in Kerala because it’s fascinating there.  And delicious.  Just kidding, Indian wine was terrible, but the beer and whiskey were passable.

I think it’s interesting how many pockets of communism there really are left.  The American view is that it’s all gone–except for our own president, of course.  All kidding aside, people do seem incredulous that Sweden’s Third Way exists, or that Cuba is not actually a barren wasteland.  Which leads many people to argue that all of this isn’t really communism.  In some cases that’s true–Kerala isn’t a purely communist state, more like a liberal welfare state with an extra dose of paternalism and solidarnosc–but I’d also argue many capitalist countries aren’t purely capitalist anymore, including the US.  And thank god for that–the Gilded Age was the worst.

mundu lungi kerala che guevara communism socialism india
Kerala’s Che wears a mundu.

Kerala certainly embodies an overall egalitarian quality, with stronger workers’ rights, high levels of education and healthcare, less prominent caste system (it’s still there though, more on that in a later post), overall religious tolerance, and a high sex ratio (that is, XX fetuses aren’t being selectively aborted as they are in much of the world, including other parts of India.)  It is also quite developed compared to the rest of India,  with the highest life expectancy, lowest homicide rate, and lowest corruption in the whole of India.  Kerala also has a strong focus on environmentalism and recycling, which we saw in hotels and public campaigns everywhere we went in the state.  Globally Kerala does quite well in regards to development, with an HDI of 0.79, which translates to “High Development” (the only Indian state to do so) compared to India as a whole, which scored 0.554, or “Medium Development”.  (I cannot tell you how excited I was when our tour guide, Manoj, brought up the Human Development Index!)  Basically, Kerala is my kind of communism: take away all the censorship (newspapers for days!), corruption, and human rights violations, and add religious tolerance and a high standard of living.  Of course, do the same thing to capitalist countries and I’m all in as well.

These successes are not purely a credit to the CPI(M), but also to the United Democratic Front (the opposition, led by the Indian National Congress), the virtues of coalition governance, Kerala’s matrilineal history, the educational and cosmopolitan influences of outsiders, including the church, and the people of Kerala for voting for progressive parties and measures, and holding their government accountable.   There’s certainly still a lot of work ahead of Kerala, especially in terms of sewage and water treatment, waste management, a high reliance on remittances, and lingering class and gender issues.  It really depends on what you compare Kerala with, the rest of India, other parts of the Global South, or the Global North.  Sewage, water treatment and remittances are major issues in the Global South, whereas waste management, class and gender issues need work worldwide.

Disclaimer: This post was made possible by Kerala Tourism, who sponsored my trip to Kerala, India.  They had no input on the subjects or views of my posts.  The opinions contained are completely my own.  I am open to sponsorships and advertising as long as they are relevant to my subject matter and I experience the product, service, or location myself. For inquiries, please e-mail harrington.delia@gmail.com

Does Voting Even Matter?

Okay, so full closure: for the last month, I’ve been a one-woman Get Out The Vote campaign.  I helped my UK/US dual citizen intern register for her first ever Presidential election.  I made sure my ex-expat coworker was properly registered.  It has gotten to the point where people have blocked me on facebook, and people have told me to stop speaking and have walked away from me mid-sentence.  I’ve even stooped to rewarding friends and family with food for their political participation.  And it all started with my near-nervous breakdown when a friend told me he had never voted.

So yeah, this matters to me.  But is that a surprise?  I watched the entirety of West Wing in real time (if you know my age, you know that’s a little strange) and many times since then.  My dad and I made a tradition of watching election returns together.  I signed my first petition and wrote my first letter to a member of congress before I could drive.  I’ve been to political rallies on three continents.  I worked for Amnesty International.  I’ve devoted thousands of hours to Model-Whatever, AKA a very elaborate game of political pretend.  I have spent years studying this stuff formally, and I spend my leisure time reading what other people would consider textbooks.

So yes, when you tell me, “It’s just politics,” I do take it a bit personally.  Not just because of my years invested thus far, but also because of what is at stake.  No matter what side of the issues you fall on, the two mainstream candidates have (or have had) differing opinions on gay marriage, reproductive health (including rape and sexual assault), the economy, the tragic deaths in Libya, how to handle the crisis in Syria, the automotive bailout, unemployment benefits, and healthcare.  These are all major issues, regardless of what you believe about them.  My physical body (and that of all women) is quite literally up for debate.  People’s rights, whether they be to have less government intrusion or to have government validate their partnerships, are at stake.  So yeah, this matters.

When I read an article like Alice Chen’s, I think it ignores these facts.  Whether we “give permission,” by voting or not, the federal government still has the ability to make it much harder for me to receive medical treatment that I need or may need, at a price I can afford and at an availability that is reasonable to my time and budget.  Moreso than her ignorance of this, or her belief that Social Security is a program for “poor people,”  I feel like her broad strokes of the anti-vote attitude does a disservice to my intelligent, kind, intentional, politically active friends who feel that this presidential election is not inclusive to their needs.

Legitimate arguments against voting in the Presidential election:

  • 3rd party candidates aren’t included in the televised debates, or most mainstream media coverage, despite being on so many ballots
  • Campaign finance makes things a mess, and especially affects 3rd party candidates and many people who could more realistically represent America
  • Electoral college
  • Pursuant to that, living in a Red State or Blue State is pretty disenfranchising
  • Voter ID laws in some states have disenfranchised some voters
  • Gerrymandering has disenfranchised some voters (to be clear: both sides do this.  It is despicable either way.)
  • For many impoverished or elderly Americans, getting to their polling place is not realistic.  Reliable, affordable transportation can be a problem, and while it is illegal, many jobs will find a way to punish a worker who misses time to vote.  This is also despicable.  Can we have elections on Saturdays?

These are all legitimate grievances.  As someone who cares about politics, yes, this pisses me off.  I am of the belief that we should all have easy access to polls and accurate information, and it should be incredibly easy for us all to vote.  We should all have a voice, and every voice should matter.  (Incidentally, that’s part of why dismantling the electoral college is more complicated than it first appears–but that’s for another post.)

That being said, here’s a list of ways you can make your voice heard in American politics and American political thought if you feel like the Presidential Election isn’t serving you well:

  • Vote for local ballot questions
  • Vote for state and local political races
  • Vote in mid-term and local elections
  • Write to your state and local politicians about issues that matter to you
  • Visit your state and local politicians to discuss issues that matter to you
  • Get as educated as you can about the issues
  • Educate others about the issues
  • Write op-ed pieces for local and national publications
  • Donate money to a reputable organization that will represent your voice (not all lobbyists are bad!)
  • Become a local politician
  • Attend political rallies and carry out actions
  • Volunteer with an organization that represents your values
  • Sign a petition that represents your values

I realize that many people do not have time for these commitments, such as the people working three jobs to feed their family, just trying to scrape by.  To them I say, god bless you for doing your best.  I hope it gets better for you.  To all of us with enough time to be able to read what I’m writing, to have enough time to comment and be on facebook and twitter and go out to bars, I say step it up.  Because if you have enough time for those things, but not enough time for these things, then you’re not politically disenfranchised.  You’re just not prioritizing politics.  And that’s your choice.  I disagree with it, but it’s not my life.  But not prioritizing politics is not that same as feeling disenfranchised by the Presidential Election.  So please stop pretending it’s someone else’s fault that you’re not involved.

When I think about the people I’ve met, the people with no right to citizenship in any country, or the people risking their lives to vote, or the people who have suffered physical violence because they attempted to make their voice heard, I just think how despicable and how privileged it is for someone to choose not to be involved in any way.

Why should you prioritize this?  Well, if you’re in Massachusetts, we are voting on medical marijuana and the issue of physician-assisted suicide.  Those are super controversial.  Very few people have a “whatevs,” sort of attitude toward those.  I think if you really took the time to look, you would see that so many of the issues at stake in this, and every election, are personal and controversial.  If, when and how anyone has a child is so personal and such a huge commitment, that it deserves a lot of thought.  What we do about this wretched economy of ours will affect everyone in this country, much as it already has.

I hate the dismissive sound of someone telling me, “it’s just politics.”  The sound of someone telling me not to cause a problem, not to stir the pot.  I suppose if you’re someone whose rights have never been threatened, someone who can afford to weather every storm, someone who doesn’t have a target on their back right now, someone who isn’t bothered to care about how we treat other countries, or the prisoners in our own, then yes, you have every right to not care.  To tell me to sit down, shut up, go along with the status quo, and just let everyone have a good time.  But not everyone is having a good time right now.  Not everyone in America, or the world, of even in our little state of Massachusetts.  And whether I’m that person whose rights and whose livelihood is at stake or not, I will always be that person who cares.  I will always be that person who speaks up.  And regardless of whether I choose to vote in the presidential race or not, you can bet your ass I’ll be that person finding a way to affect whatever change I can, no matter how minuscule.

So go ahead.  Tell me to shut up.  Let’s see what happens.

Happy Election Day.  Happy Democracy.  Make your voice heard, whatever that means to you.

 

‘Ta Luego a la Tarjeta Blanca: The Exit Visa is on its Way Out

Today a pretty amazing thing happened: Raul Castro made good on a promise to abolish the dreaded exit visa, or Tarjeta Blanca.  Cubans will be able to leave (starting “before January 14, 2013” or as I like to call it, January 13) without acquiring an exit visa.  The exit visa was an excellent way for the state to maintain control not only by denying dissidents the right to leave, but also by rewarding demonstrated loyalty to the state and its one and only political party.

Once Cubans have left, they will now be able to stay 24 months instead of 11 without effectively losing Cuban citizenship.  Cubans will also be able to apply for an extension while abroad.  Prior to this change, not returning after 11 months would result in loss of property, loss of the right to return home, and even if a Cuban in this position did manage to get back in, they would be ineligible for the ration card, housing, use of schools, health care, and any other benefits of being Cuban.

That being said, and this being Cuba we’re talking about, I still have some reservations.

Doctors, military and some other professionals will likely still not be able to leave as they are considered valuable “human capital” in Cuba.  This is an effort to prevent brain drain/the Imperialist US from stealing people that Cuba desperately needs.  I get the argument, as every developing country has to fight brain drain.  But in most of the developing world, promising students go abroad for their education.  In Cuba, the state has educated these people for free, and thus feels a bit more entitled to their talents.  Not to mention, lending out their medical professionals is one of the Cuban government’s chief means of achieving diplomatic goals.  Losing that supply would greatly reduce options for trade and other negotiations.  All that being said, I 100% agree with the UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights), which includes the right to freedom of movement, and while I understand why Raul and co. want to do this, it is not in keeping with international human rights law.  And for that matter, neither is almost anything about “Camp Justice” or those fun hearings they’re having in semi-secret this week.  I would recommend creating incentives for Cuba’s highly educated population to return, rather than bans on them leaving in the first place and penalties if they deviate from the schedule for a government-sponsored trip.

Another potential problem with the legislation is that there’s no specific mention that the fees will be gone (as pointed out by the NYT), and a normal human would assume that if a visa is no longer necessary, the accompanying fees would also disappear.  But we’re talking about Cuba here, so I wouldn’t be shocked if the cash shortfall is made up in some other asinine charge.  The Guardian estimates the fee to be 150 USD, as does CNN who adds that obtaining the requisite invitation letter from the host country can tack on another 200 USD. Adding to that are the ominously vague “changes” to the legal requirements to obtain a passport as a Cuban that are forthcoming, according to el Granma, the state newspaper of Cuba.

Another concern is that if this works as the Cuban government would like it to, a system of remisas, or remittances, will be strengthened.  Sending money back to Cuba is good for those in the country needing access to everything from food basics like meat to luxury goods like ipads.  But this creates a huge strain on those sending back the remittances, as the standard of living differs greatly in the US, a place where citizenship does not entitle anyone to food, housing, or a college education.

Finally: there is the other side of the equation.  Us.

I absolutely believe that the US is going change its famous Wet Feet, Dry Feet policy.  For those unaware, as soon as Fidel, Raul, Che and Camilo came crashing down from Las Sierra Madres on New Year’s Day 1959, the United States started the Two Wet Feet policy.  This meant that the US would offer legal residency after a year to any Cuban, whether they made landfall, swam to the other side of Guantanmo Bay or were plucked out of the Florida Straits.  During the Special Period (after the Soviet Union fell in 1989 up until very recently), many Cubans took advantage of this.  As a special love note to the US and their open arms, Fidel encouraged the dregs of society to make the journey and allegedly opened the prisons so they could join them.  In 1994, when the US realized this was getting a bit nutty, they compromised (AKA were terrified of the numbers as well as the political implications) with the Two Dry Feet policy, which means that those found in the water go back to Cuba, and those who make it to land can stay.  They US government has also limited entry to 20,000 Cubans a year, and offers a much simpler political asylum process for Cubans (which involves no incarceration.)  This is also around the time when the US bulked up their defenses to Guantanamo.  Not to defend themselves from the Cuban military mind you, but rather to make it more difficult for swimmers to show up with those dry feet of theirs.

While a policy change of that nature would be rough on Cubans, I have long felt the policy was wildly unfair, especially to Caribbean neighbors in Haiti.  As a country we are totally moved by the nation’s plight after the earthquake, but our government remains unmoved in its immigration policy.  And let’s not forget that Haiti was the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere even before the quake.   The US (and the rest of the West) has certainly played a role in that, from day 1 when the world felt so threatened by the “First Black Republic” that we took our sugar interests to Cuba and eventually the Dominican Republic (and Puerto Rico post-1959), right up to turning the other way through Papa Doc, Baby Doc, and a run of corruption, violence and oppression that would make Saddam Hussein blush.

Anyway, my hope is that if the US revokes or significantly alters the Two Dry Feet policy, the world will hold our government to task on this, and it could force the issue of el bloqueo.

What do you think?  Can we trust Raul?  Will the US step up to the plate or get slimey?  and of course, there is the fun guessing game of who will win the US presidential election in November and what they will do about Cuba once they are sworn in.

Oh and hat tip to Kade for catching this first thing today.

In the Time of the Butterflies Review

At its heart, In the Time of the Butterflies is a book of historical fiction about the four Mirabal sisters of the Dominican Republic. They went up against the dictator Trujillo and each woman became a revolutionary in her own way. This all happening in the 1930s-1960, at a time when Haitians had been massacred by the 100,000s and anyone (or the family of anyone) who disagreed with Trujillo was subject to jail time, disappearance, loss of property, torture and even death.

in-the-time-of-butterflies

Historical fiction is one of my favorite genres. It’s how I learned about Apartheid, China’s One Child Policy, and racial reality in the pre-Civil Rights South. In fact, for a long time I thought writing historical fiction was going to be the small way in which I would attempt to save the world. I know the history and I have seen the movie. But that doesn’t make it any less depressing when the Mirabal sisters die. Well, all but Dede, doomed to be the one who lived. And the husbands all die. And the mother dies. And the father died years ago, likely after-effects of going to prison rather than giving his Minerva to that goat of man.

I love that Alvarez shows these women as women first, even when they couldn’t admit that to themselves. They were sisters and daughters and lovers and mothers and friends. It’s not like they grew up saying how they were going to be martyrs destined for Dominican currency and to be the founding example for the UN’s Day Against Violence Towards Women. They grew up as the Mirabal Sisters, and the capital T in “The” came later. The perspective shifts from one sister to the next throughout time, giving each the time to illuminate the exaggerations and omissions of the others. Each chunk of their lives is separated into sections, and the overall effect is that you miss each sister as soon as you leave her. By the time you get to the stuff that’s already been in the papers, you no longer are unsure how asthmatic baby Maria Teresa could be the bold gun-runner who was tortured in prison after she refused a presidential pardon.

Minerva is the natural heroine, for myself as well as a less argumentative general audience. It isn’t hard to see the opinionated, authority-questioning, boundary-pushing Minerva as a revolutionary. After all, once you ask the president (whom you slapped) for permission to be the first woman in your country in law school, hiding explosives in the garden is no bit thing. But Ms. Alvarez did a rare thing with Minerva: she showed how a brave and boastful woman could be so totally broken and vulnerable inside, without losing an inch of her bravery and old self. I have no doubt that Minerva couldn’t always see it, but it is something powerful to see a powerful woman break down as much as she can without losing herself.

I highly recommend In the Time of the Butterflies to anyone who knows anything (or wishes to know) about Dominican or Caribbean history. Also, I think it is our duty as Americans to learn the bits of history that we collectively lie about to ourselves every night so we can fall asleep. While America is only peripherally referenced in the novel, it’s not hard to realize how we fit into the martyrdom of Las Mirabals. Our inaction jumps off every page, as do the allusions to our eventual occupation of the DR.

PS the film starring Salma Hayek as Minerva is also lovely. I watched it while sick one night in the DR, and I think I freaked out whoever it was who came to check on my and found me crying alone in a dark room with my teddy bear. Sorry!  It’s just a really heartbreaking story, made all the more so by it being more or less true.

A final note on gender: this book has often been expressed to me as being perhaps too focused on women. It was once a requirement for Shaugnessy’s DR trip I took last year, and apparently the discussions of menstruation, marital woes, and motherhood proved too much for some male readers. Under the category of “sorry I’m not sorry,” I don’t think a book about four women, written from their perspective, needs to explain why there are so many women in the book and why they get so many pages. Also, is it actually emphasizing women that much? Or are we just so not used to female protagonists (and especially ones of such complexity and depth who refuse to be reduced to our usual tropes or to being the props of the men in their lives) that we can’t handle good ones? And finally, I think as a whole we have gotten too comfortable with white, attractive, able-bodied men as our blank protagonists, and the concept of blank protagonists in general. If we want worthwhile minds then we need to read challenging literature, and that requires characters, whether real or imagined, that push us beyond our comfort zone. So stop feeling bad for all the men of the world who do not receive nearly enough coverage in history books, news channels, daily conversations and literature, and push yourself to see the value in the lives of these women, even the parts of their lives that are “icky.”

Slacktivism

“Slacktivists don’t raise money”

“Slacktivists aren’t informed”

“Slacktivists aren’t connected to the cause”

“Slacktivists aren’t real activists”

“Slacktivists don’t accomplish anything”

I have some SERIOUS issues with KONY 2012, but this is still interesting information. Click through to enlarge

I’ve heard and read these complaints a million times over.  How many times do we need to see a campaign like the one launched to restore Planned Parenthood funding when Susan G. Komen Foundation pulled out?  Over $400,000 were raised rapidly, Komen went back on their decision, and at least one board member was fired/resigned.  That strikes me as a lot of money and accomplishment for a bunch of people who, “don’t care,” and “can’t accomplish anything.”

I would like to point out that the TOMS Day Without Shoes (which appears to have accomplished nothing more than clogging my inbox) is considered “activism,” while buying something BOGO is “slacktivism.”  I have an inherent problem with the term slacktivism, but I also have issues with how we define it. I don’t thinkwe have to choose between one or the other, and I think there is far more overlap within these groups than is usually portrayed.  How often do I have to go to protests to maintain my credibility?  How many times can I tweet about a cause before I shift into “slacktivism” territory?

Traditionally, buying BOGO, purchases where a percentage goes to a cause, signing an online petition and donating via “like” or text message are all considered Slacktivism.  Isn’t my money just as good if it comes via text?  In the paraphrased words of my friend Eduardo, we all have to wear clothes, so they may as well mean something and do some good.  Isn’t my slacktivist clothing accomplishing more than your sweatshop-produced, unsustainable stuff?  Isn’t my support for a petition just as good online as in person?

Not only are these things as good, but I think they’re better.  Change.org can gather way more signatures than I can on foot.  People are more likely to donate when it is convenient, and a text or like is nothing if not that. I’m buying clothes and other products anyway, so shouldn’t everything I buy go to some good cause, whether its breast cancer research (which has mobilized this method quite well), AIDS medication in Africa or university apparel made by a unionized workforce earning a living wage.

Then there is the other category of Slacktivism.  The “likes” that aren’t attached to a donation. The shirts that say “Occupy” and serve only the profit of an individual.  The act of sharing a video like Kony 2012.  This isn’t armchair activism, this is not really giving a shit.  Can’t we please just separate the two?

I think it’s unrealistic to expect people to take hundreds of hours out of their time to go to rallies and protests and knock on doors and gather signatures.  But why should we?  I think about the schedule of someone like my mother, who works full-time and is involved with her family and community.  There are several causes about which she is passionate, including MS research, Breast Cancer and women’s rights.  Sites like change.org allow her to be informed and to inform her online network about the causes that matter to her.  She can post the link and recruit signatures while she makes dinner.  She can shop for my Christmas present and support small businessnesswomen in Africa at the same time.  Why shouldn’t we harness the power of caring yet busy individuals?  Of course we still need the employees at NGOs, advocacy groups and in public policy, and we need the weekend warriors to make a powerful, physical statement for news cameras.  But my mother’s donation to Planned Parenthood is just as good as those of “real” activists.  To ignore the power of modern media and a busy but empathetic public is foolishness.  If online and in-person activists work in concert and organizations harness that power and direct it to the proper systems of power, I see this as a gain for activists everywhere.

So please, banish the term slactivist from your vocabulary.  How about we get back to the causes instead of trashing on other people who just want to help advance them?

Today, I am Not Proud to be an American

When I was in Tahrir Square and a gun went off, I remember being afraid of the cops.  I instantly knew that the gun was not from a civilian, and it crossed my mind that the scariest thing in the world may just be the feeling of living in a place where you can’t trust the people whose job it is to protect you. Certainly the scariest thing about that day, for me, was knowing that if I were in trouble, no one in uniform was going to help me or anyone else.

Last night, I read the moving open letter from Nathan Brown, a member of the UC Davis faculty to  Chancellor Linda Katehi, calling for her resignation.  The chancellor called in cops to break up peaceful protesters, and the cops came wearing full riot gear and beat the defenseless protestors with batons.  A week later, students and faculty came together to protest this brutality, and again the chancellor called in those same cops.

A few images stick out in my mind from the videos I’ve been watching, and one of them even made me cry.  A professor holds out her wrists for a zip-tie arrest, and instead a cop grabs her by the hair and drags her to the ground.  After, a young woman hides in the bushes and every cop who passes her jabs her at least once with a baton, but several due it more than that.  When a young man tries to stop them, he is put in a headlock, and goes limp, but is then hit repeatedly with a baton.  While he is incapacitated.

One of the more disturbing clips is of a cop intentionally pepper spraying students who are sitting crouched on the ground, their arms linked and faces blocked.  He even does it with a flourish, presumably for the crowd of students watching.  They have no weapons, they aren’t even standing up or in any way in an offensive position.  They are just sitting there, and they take it.  The cops use this moment of physical pain to try to drag students apart by their clothing and limbs.  When they do separate them, the cops lean on them with what appears to be their full weight, knees in their back and yelling at them to get on their stomachs, even when they already are.  One cop even l;laughs and smiles as students are lead away. If a person has no weapons, is on their stomach and can’t use their arms or legs, what danger do they present?

Later in that same video, cops slowly back away from protestors.  They are in full-on riot gear, with their pellet guns drawn (which, as we all know, are horribly named and can in fact be deadly).  How can they possibly think that they are the ones in danger here?  They are wearing thousands of dollars in protective gear, armed with weapon, some of which they have already used (pepper spray and batons).  Their opponents are shouting, “You can go,” and, “We will give you your moment of peace, we will not follow you.”  Their opponents are armed only with their voices and their cell phones, cameras and ipads, trying to capture this for the world.

I dislike the way crowd control weapons have been named.  And yes, they are weapons.  The LRAD has been more aptly referred to as a sound cannon, for the way its frequencies are aimed at crowds they then debilitate.  A pellet gun sounds like a fun toy you could perhaps buy at a dollar store, not the object that killed a college student in Boston in 2004.  Pepper spray sounds innocuous and fun, and we see it as a joke so often in movies and television that it seems like a mild inconvenience and an entertaining story afterwards.

I don’t want to live in a country where we must fear the people who enforce our laws.  I want law enforcement professionals to live in fear of breaking the laws that define their roles and existence.  Aren’t we supposed to be better than countries like Egypt?  Isn’t that what we keep telling ourselves all through our economic crisis, and as we sing that we’re proud to be American, where at least we know we’re free?

In the final video, at least seven cops can be seen hitting students repeatedly with batons.  The students are unarmed and have their arms linked together.  The students are peacefully protesting on their own campus.  The Berkeley cops keep hitting them, and even after they stop, two in the corner of the video keep beating the same woman who was stuck in the bushes before.

I don’t care what the students were protesting.  I don’t care what they said to the cops.  I don’t even really care what their orders were, or what you think about politics in general or the Occupy movement.  Patriotism means being proud of your country, and making sure your country stays a place you can be proud of.  Our tax dollars pay for police brutality, while students, union members, academics and parents are subject to this kind of behavior we look down upon around the world.  I’m not proud right now, are you?

Protest

I knew that if there were any demonstrations while I was in Egypt, I was going.  Absolutely, 100%.  So when

Ever wonder how everyone has face paint on for the news?

Sarah got the call to cover a march to the Maspero Building, where 27 people were killed and about 300 were injured just a week and a half ago, I was excited.  We started at Tahrir Square, somewhere I went a lot back in 2009, and a place that became the epicenter of the Egyptian Revolution.  I photographed some demonstrators and signs, and Sarah conducted a few brief interviews. She annotated the entire thing for me. translating a speech here, or pointing out the photo of a martyred blogger there.

We came upon a Salafist demonstration.  I was surprised by how many families I saw, and the carnival-esque atmosphere.  People were selling food and painting faces.  I was embarrassed to admit it, and maybe it was just all the years of training from Western media, but when I saw so many people jumping up and down chanting “Allah u Akhbar” it made me nervous.  And the more Sarah told me about the Salafists, the more comfortable I became with that reaction.

At Sarah’s direction, we (Sarah, myself and her brand new intern Hayden) walked toward the Maspero building.  What was happening at Tahrir was interesting for me to see, but was not newsworthy.  Sheff says there are protests and demonstrations every friday, and that they’re overusing Tahrir.  It took a lot of waiting for Maspero to heat up, but it did.  Music, chanting, and watchful law enforcement.  In Sarah’s attempts to get interviews, we suddenly found ourselves between the Egyptian version of swat (2-3 large vans) and the protestors.  It’s weird the way a crowd takes on a life of it’s own, and moves in fits and starts.  I was glad our position made Sarah nervous, because it made me nervous too.  She was very protective the entire day, holding my hand in crowds and shepherding me around.  I kept getting lost in my lens and not noticing the crowd movements around me.

Joey and Manarcalled and we decided to meet up for dinner, somewhere downtown.  Joey reported through

At the Maspero Building

the Lebanese civil war in 2006, and had war reporter training in DC.  He started Bikya Masr, which makes him Sarah’s boss.  Manar is an Egyptian and also writes for Bikya.  She reminds both Sarah and I of our beloved Alex Chapman, with their calming demeanor and purposeful nature.  We waited in Tahrir for them, and I snapped a few more pictures.  Suddenly Sarah yelled, “do you have your camera?” and we were all running, but only a short distance.  I didn’t even know what I was getting; I just kept clicking the shutter.  An ambulance went past, and apparently the coffin of Essam Atta, but I didn’t see it.  By the time we met up with Joey and Manar, Joey had texted again because he heard someone was shot.  Sarah and Hayden asked around but everyone just kept explaining how Atta died (he was tortured to death by the Egyptian military using water hoses.)

Back at Tahrir, Essam Atta’s coffin passes by for the first time.

After that everything went quickly, but with big lulls in between.  At some point I came to know that someone had been killed, but not right in Tahrir.  He had argued with a cop, and the cop had just shot him. He was 19.  The coffin came back around and with it came crowds and chanting.  We were at high ground, on the edge of the grass in the middle of the square (which is really a circle), but we were still surrounded on all sides by over a thousand people.  After going around the square with the coffin again, the crowd headed off, but no one understood their aim.  We eventually set off on foot, and realized they were going toward the American Embassy.  Just the night before I had been to the Halloween party there, drinking Western alcohol and watching adults make fools of themselves.  As we followed behind, Joey kept checking to make sure we had escape routes, and were at a safe distance.

We were crossing another, smaller square when we heard gunfire.

I think it was just one shot, but I read after that there were multiple.  My heart went double-time and I moved away while looking in the direction of the noise, without thinking.  All five of us were, although Joey and Manar seemed entirely in control of the situation.  The weirdest thing is that we were the only ones doing this.  When we realized we were far from the gunfire, it had ceased, and no one was moving toward us, we stopped to watch Egyptians run toward the sound of a gun at top speed.  I think it takes a lot for a person to run toward the sound of a gun at top speed.  I have a feeling they know by now that if they don’t go investigate something for themselves, they will likely be lied to about what happened.

It turns out the Egyptian military shot into the air, probably blanks.  We got closer, and watched protestors try

Atta’s coffin

to climb over the barricades to get onto the street where the US Embassy resides.  Did I mention we oddly ran into several members of the Egyptian army the evening before, marching in formation down the (closed-off, barricaded) street of the US Embassy?  Strange days.

I was thoroughly nervous and uncomfortable at this point, which is when Sarah started telling me Joey’s credentials and asking if I was alright.  Manar spoke a lot with an older woman, and filled us in on what was going on.  Apparently, this portion of the demonstration was in solidarity with Occupy Oakland, which is in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street.  For those who don’t know, the police in Oakland took violent action against protesters a few days before this, arresting some and using batons and tear gas to break up the peaceful camp.  Joey seemed to also be a bottomless pit of knowledge.  He shared such gems as, “don’t rub your eyes if there’s teargas; use coke,” and, “it was just like this with Maspero, but then out of nowhere the army killed a couple dozen people.”  Smart guy, but not the best for quieting nerves.

Onlookers from an office building as we followed the crowd toward the US Embassy

Eventually it became clear that nothing more would happen that night.  We went to an internet cafe so the reporters could upload and post.  I felt all jangled, and jumped about a mile when the men behind me cheered the soccer game on tv.  I couldn’t believe that just a few streets over, children were laughing and playing with toys.  Someone had been shot, a 19 year old was killed, and Cairo didn’t even blink an eye.

Manar went back to listen to Atta’s mother speak, but we couldn’t find her.  We went to find where the man (boy, really) had been shot, but we deemed it a long walk for no pay out.  Just before we turned around, though, we saw young men running as fast as they could back toward the square, dragging the metal barricades with them.  They opened up the square to cars, making the hundreds of people gathered there vulnerable.  We were all a bit stunned by that move, and kept looking back over our shoulders, waiting for screams or scattering.

In the end, we went home, feet aching.  I was keyed up, but for Sarah, Joey and Manar it was another day at the office.  For Hayden, it was the first of what will be many days at a rather unusual office.  The three journalists went to work spreading truth, and I drank tea and checked facebook.  Later, we put on Halloween costumes and drank beer and partied by the pyramids like nothing ever happened.  I updated my status, like that was the most important thing I could do with what I saw–turn it into and experience on a list, a fun fact, bragging rights.

It was strange being with journalists.  They were much more calm and controlled than I was.  They didn’t raise their voices or pick up signs, and they didn’t allow anyone to paint flags on them.  I was with Sarah, so out of respect for her I followed suit.  To some extent, I had this weird thought that my camera would protect me, that being a journalist would protect me.  I know that’s not true, but it felt like a pretty good get out of jail free card, the way my little blue book used to make me feel.  I also know that I’m not a journalist, not even close.  I put myself at the center of every story.  I apply motivation when I don’t necessarily know it to be true.  I am not in any truly dangerous situations.  I don’t write on any kind of deadline, and these days I don’t write at all.  I don’t even particularly write about anything that matters.  Watching Sarah work made me feel small and incompetent. She compartmentalizes her thoughts and opinions, she is thorough and efficient.  Her Arabic has improved greatly, and the articles she writes get the facts out to a population of Americans who would otherwise not read the truth.

Through it all, I saw so many little acts of civic duty.  People directed traffic, or helped us and others to cross the street.  They protected each other, like the man who stood in front of an open man-hole so no one would fall in.  That’s what he did, he just stood there while we all rushed past, nervous and following the growing, quickening crowd.  Any one of us could have easily fallen in and snapped an ankle at the very least.  People helped each other up onto structures and walls for better vantage points, and so many Egyptians beckoned for me to take their photos.

I’m glad I went to Tahrir.  I’m glad it all became real to me, instead of a liberal pet project, one that is so easy to support from a safe room thousands of miles away.  Feeling the terror of just the noise of one single gunshot, and then feeling the insignificance of that compared to those who have witnessed murder in the street, those who have heard hundreds of gunshots with live ammunition, those who were at the Maspero building and those who suffer in the prisons.  It’s so easy to say that there are things worth dying for, that we should stand up for democracy and freedom no matter what.  But to see a minuscule fraction of what “no matter what,” can really mean magnified for me the true courage of Egyptians and freedom fighters all over the world.