Sunday, August 30, 2015

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina

Ten years ago, I spotted this sign in the window of the neighborhood video store. The rapper Kanye West, at a concert for storm relief, had blurted out some truths:

I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says, 'They're looting.' You see a white family, it says, 'They're looking for food.' And, you know, it's been five days [waiting for federal help] because most of the people are black. ... George Bush doesn't care about black people.

West's outrage felt a relief. What we'd all seen on the TV was so horrifying -- New Orleans drowned and so many of its people still trapped by water and the failure of our systems to provide help.

West gave us somewhere to direct our rage -- this travesty must be George Bush's fault. In 2005, we were still close in time to the 9/11 attacks, after which for awhile the national need to pull together had made it hard to voice criticisms. Of course many of us had protested the Bush administration's follies and crimes: the Iraq invasion, Abu Ghraib tortures, the absurd security theater at airports, the color-coded alerts. But West's blunt declaration seemed to open the floodgates for all of us who desperately needed to scream at the administration: "you are taking the country in a wrong direction!" Thanks Kanye.
Looking back ten years, I now have to wonder whether Kanye might have spoken more accurately if he'd raged, "America hates black people." Yes, New Orleans got rebuilt ... without many of its poor and black citizens and perhaps much of its uniqueness. Over the last decade despite an administration headed by a black man, shockingly, blacks have ceased to be an absolute majority in Washington DC, now a boom-town for the young, affluent, hip and white. There goes another enclave of black culture and some autonomy. The nation continues to push aside, lock up and sometimes simply shoot poor black people. No wonder there's a broad movement to shout "Black Lives Matter."
I sent this photo to Steve Gilliard at The News Blog and he used it more than once. Steve was a towering presence in progressive blogging in those days. He died in 2007, one more loss along the way.
I was exceptionally lucky during the days after the hurricane to find myself working in what was one of the few usefully responsive institutions in the country. At the California Nurses Association (now National Nurses United) people did know what to do. Within twenty-four hours after the levees broke, CNA staff were on the phones, organizing medical personnel to fly in, hustling resources, and shaming anyone in authority who dragged their feet. For two weeks I listened to these urgent conversations and could feel assured that someone was doing something.
Just one more point, ten years later. Amazingly, despite technological change and finding itself located in the very epicenter of the San Francisco tech-fueled boom, the video store is still alive. That little business seems to have nine lives. It's owners have been nimble, merging with a music distributor and together providing quirky non-commercial offerings. Long may they last.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Donald in the 'hood

He's available as a piñata!

The message from Bill Maher at the top of the display reads:

We have this fantasy that our interests and the interests of the super rich are the same -- like somehow the rich will eventually get so full they explode, and the candy will rain down on the rest of us. Like they are some kind of piñata of benevolence. But here's the thing about a piñata, it doesn't open on its own. You have to hit it with a stick.

Saturday scenes and scenery: Mt. Davidson park

Much of the year, the west side of San Francisco is fogged in. A cloud blows in off the ocean and blankets the area we call West of Twin Peaks. But occasionally, especially in the fall, we have clear days on which we can take in the view from our hills. Yes, that brown stuff out there is smog over the East Bay, but nowhere is perfect and this sure isn't bad.

This view is from the flank of the public park that surrounds the 103 foot tall Mt. Davidson cross.

The 40 acre park combines wooded paths with windswept ridges. Most visitors seem to live nearby; it is not exactly a destination to which many people drive.

Many of its entrances seem almost hidden.

The enormous cross was dedicated in 1934 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. I can't help wondering whether the huge concrete structure was a Depression era stimulus project?

In any case, public ownership of this gargantuan religious symbol became controversial in the 1990s. After a legal battle, the city auctioned off .38 acres of land including the cross to the highest bidder. The winner was the Council of Armenian American Organizations of Northern California which installed the plaque commemorating the 1915 genocide shown in my previous post.

Friday, August 28, 2015

The twentieth century's "first genocide"

The current centennial of World War I is also the centennial of the all-too-successful campaign by Ottoman Turkish rulers to exterminate their Armenian minority. I was raised with a vague awareness that there had been an Armenian genocide: whenever my mother, who had been a small child during World War I, wanted to cajole me into eating something I thought looked yucky, she'd tell me how she had been told when she was young to "remember the starving Armenians." It was only as an adult when I made the acquaintance of Armenian-Americans that I began to learn more about this terrible episode.

Oxford historian Eugene Rogan's The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East is largely a somewhat dry account of the political and military unraveling of the long-enduring (1299-1923!) Ottoman empire and the rise of a Turkish nation state. But his chapter on what happened to the Armenians is very accessible to this contemporary reader.

In Rogan's telling (and modern Turks still dispute much of this, not very plausibly), ethnic animosity between the many peoples of the Ottoman empire had been rising for a century or more as the Muslim state was gradually pushed out of the Balkans. In the late nineteenth century and extending up until the First World War, there were horribly painful, but relatively peaceful, transfers of Muslims out of Greece and the Balkans to what is modern day Turkey and, in turn, Greek Orthodox Christians sent west across the Aegean Sea out of what Europeans call Asia Minor.

But Christian Armenians seemed to nationalist Turks to present a special danger.
... a distinct ethnic group with its own language and Christian liturgy, and centuries of communal organization under the Ottomans as a distinct millet, or faith community, the Armenians had all the prerequisites for a nineteenth century nationalist movement bar one: they were not concentrated in one geographic area.
Spread out between the capital at Istanbul, Mediterranean coastal regions just north of what is now the Syrian border, and in far eastern Anatolia, Armenians seemed a foreign virus in their midst -- a foreign population that might appeal to their co-religionists among the time's Great Powers to extract concessions from the declining Ottoman state. There were large, but localized, massacres of Armenians in 1896. And Armenians did look to imperial Russia to perhaps carve out a Christian enclave for them in eastern Anatolia.

A military junta, called the Young Turks, took control of the Ottoman State in the first decade of the 20th century, fought inconclusive wars in the Balkans and against Russia, and sought military assistance from the Kaiser's Germany. With the outbreak of the 1914 Europe-wide war, the Ottomans join in on the side of the Central Powers, Germany and Austro-Hungary. Armenians seemed a threat to national unity in that war and some gave open support to the Allies (Britain, France and Russia.)
With the onset of the Allied attack on the Dardanelles, the Armenians [of nearby Istanbul] made no effort to hide their celebration of immanent delivery from Turkish rule.
The Turkish rulers struck against Armenians in the capital on April 24, 1915, a date since designated as Armenian Genocide Memorial Day. Meanwhile Armenians in the Anatolian town of Van, a place relatively evenly divided between about 16,000 Muslims and 13,500 Armenians, had risen up against the Ottomans, seeking to draw in a Russian army that was slowly advancing toward the town.
By facilitating the Russian occupation of Van in return for the right to govern the Van region, the Armenians had confirmed the Young Turks suspicion that they ... posed a threat to the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire.
And so, the Turkish rulers made unwritten, but clearly conveyed, plans for the mass murder of all Armenians. And they proceeded to achieve something very close to extermination of every Armenian man, woman and child they could lay hands on. This was not an industrial tour de force like the Nazi genocide in the next European war. Males over 12 were rounded up and shot or bayoneted by Turkish troops where they were taken, while the women, children and old people were sent to march across the Anatolian desert without food or shelter. Stragglers were picked off as they fell. Muslim villagers and gangs along the way were encouraged to fall upon the long columns, robbing, raping and murdering. An Armenian Orthodox priest, Grigoris Balakian, recorded what he heard on the death march.
... [he] engaged the officers accompanying his caravan in conversation. The Ottoman gendarmes were willing to answer any questions, as they did not believe the Armenians they were "guarding" had long to live. One of the most forthcoming was Captain Shukri, who by his own admission had overseen the killing of 42,000 Armenians.

"Bey, where have all these human bones along this road come from?" Balakian asked the captain disingenuously.

"These are the bones of the Armenians who were killed in August and September. The order came from Constantinople. Even though the minister of the interior ... had huge ditches dug for the corpses, the winter floods washed the dirt away, and now the bones are everywhere, as you see," Captain Shukri replied.
Historians estimate that no more than 5 percent of Armenians sent on these death marches survived; somewhere between 600,000 and 1.5 million Armenians perished as a result of "wartime measures."

After the war, the victorious Allies forced the Turks to hold trials of military leaders responsible for the killings. The Turks let most of the defendants escape, but the proceedings established a record.
Witness testimony revealed how the mass murder was organized: the official printed orders calling for deportation were followed by oral instructions to massacre deportees. Evidence was presented of convicted murderers released from prison and mobilized in gangs to serve as "butchers of men."
Most of the officers convicted by this tribunal evaded punishment in the moment -- but nearly all were hunted down in Europe by Armenian nationalists and executed in the following decade.

All this killing did nothing to save the Ottoman empire. Defeated by the Allies, the French and British empires divided up most of the Ottoman territories, drawing borders of Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine that have persisted until quite recently. Modern Turkey was consolidated after the war as an authoritarian and (temporarily?) secular quasi-democratic state and seems to still be struggling with the vestiges of its multi-ethnic, multi-religious character. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Armenians who had been part of that other rotting empire have carved out a small state of their own between Georgia, Turkey, Iran and Azerbaijan.
Weirdly, the Armenian genocide is a perennial issue in U.S. presidential politics. In general, candidates for the office, Republicans or Democrats, affirm that they'll use the G-word once elected. But, since naming the massacres "genocide" amounts to a challenge to the official Turkish narrative that Armenian deaths were just accidents of war, they back off once elected. George W. Bush followed this pattern as has Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton loudly proclaimed her awareness of the Armenian genocide in the 2008 campaign, but since then she has been Secretary of State and apparently internalized the rule that "serious" U.S. officials don't say such things about the past behavior of an ally that lends bases for our military adventures.
This commemorative plaque sits below the Mt. Davidson cross in San Francisco. Click to read.

Friday cat blogging

While walking San Francisco the other day, I found myself in a precinct where cats were unusually accommodating to a stranger with a camera. Nothing shy about this beauty. It wanted to be scratched and admired. I complied.

For this one, I was an interesting curiosity.

This leashed prize was the most suspicious of the three. Wouldn't you be if someone held you in a harness?

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Marin Democrat hasn't declared on the Iran agreement

Most California Democrats in Congress have thrown down for diplomacy not war and have promised to vote to uphold the deal. Both our Senators are on board. Minority leader Nancy Pelosi is rounding up support in the House. But the Congressman who represents Marin County and parts north is not yet among them. Some of Jared Huffman's constituents turned out Wednesday in San Anselmo to suggest he needs some phone calls.

This micro-demonstration was one of hundreds around the country stimulated by the coalition of peace advocacy groups working together to support the agreement. I must have heard about it from 5 or 6 email lists. Among these I remember Peace Action and Move-On.

It is up to us to demand better training and more treatment

When they don't know what to do ... when our cities and towns don't provide treatment facilities ... police too often shoot. There are remedies.

More than half of all suspects shot and killed by police were suffering from mental illness.

And there are over 300,000 American in prison today that have a mental illness diagnosis – this is crazy.

There is a critical and immediate need for treatment of mental health through a public health system, not the barbaric criminalization of it mental illness we currently see happening all over the United States.

Learn more.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Taking notice

That Latinos don't like Donald Trump is no great surprise. He's a blustering insult. But it's interesting that the next least popular Republican in this list is Ted Cruz. Apparently Cuban ancestry doesn't inoculate him among Latinos against disapproval of his fractious arrogance, insofar as these voters have noticed he exists.

Gallup describes its findings:

In terms of familiarity, only Trump and Bush are recognized by a majority of Hispanics. Eight in 10 have formed an opinion of Trump and about six in 10 of Bush. Familiarity dwindles to roughly 40% for Rubio and Cruz, both Cuban-Americans, as well as for Perry and Chris Christie, but drops well below that for all the others.

That +11 percent positive score for Jeb! derives from 34 percent positive ratings versus 23 percent negative. That is, a lot of people are withholding judgement on the guy. If he keeps talking, he can probably manage to lower this as more Latino voters become aware of him.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Lots to do to end police violence

Activists who are part of the movement against violence inflicted on Black individuals and communities have offered a list of remedies they call Campaign Zero. This effort is wider, more of a coalition effort than Black Lives Matter, which leads a vibrant cri de coeur that inspires Black people to come together and assert their simple right to be. Campaign Zero gives everyone who will listen lots of specific campaign objectives that might help.

An easy deflecting response to demands for change is always "what do you people want, anyway?" We've been given an extremely comprehensive list. I'll crib a summary from Molly Weasley at Daily Kos as she's done a good job of catching some details of a program that has multiple local, state and federal components.

End broken windows policing. This calls for an end to the decades-long focus on policing minor crimes and activities, especially in neighborhoods with people of color. Also addressed are the need for different approaches to those with mental health issues and an end to racial profiling.

Community oversight. This calls for an all-civilian oversight structure with discipline power that includes a Police Commission and Civilian Complaints Office. Both offices would have specific responsibilities and across-the-board power.

Limit use of force. This solution seeks to establish standards monitor how force is used.

Independently investigate and prosecute. Among other recommendations, this point seeks a permanent Special Prosecutor’s Office at the state level to investigate any police shooting.

Community representation. This calls for officers to be a more accurate representation of the communities they serve.

Body cams/film the police. This would require and fund body cameras as well as dashboard cameras. All citizens would have the right to record police interactions on a cell phone, and police would not have the right to confiscate that phone, as is the case in some states.

Training. This calls for rigorous and sustained training, especially about racial bias.

End for-profit policing. This calls for an end to quota systems and limits fines for low-income people.

Demilitarization. This seeks the end of the sale of military weapons to the nation’s police forces.

Fair police union contracts.
This seeks to rewrite police union contracts that create a different set of rules for police, and asks that disciplinary records be open and accessible.

Different pieces of this will take center stage in different localities, depending in part on who lives where and what the power relations are between various communities. Where Black people and other people of color are numerous and are able to exercise political influence (usually but not always by voting), it might be realistic to focus on police recruitment, training and community oversight issues. Where Black people have little power (almost all state level decisions), the core issues are likely to be for-profit policing, demilitarization (police don't have to acquire all that armament) and "police rights" deals that negate their duty to serve the people by protecting individual officers rights as employees.

Getting and keeping the Justice Department on the side of widespread oversight is unequivocally a political issue. Minimally, we can't afford a Republican president or an indifferent Democratic one.

Police have been substituted for a mental health system in most of our urban areas. A huge fraction of police violence happens when a mentally disturbed person confronts insecure officers with a military mindset equipped with badges, tasers and guns. Police also kill disabled personsdisproportionately. This is worst in communities of color, but our failure to fund services to the mentally ill happens everywhere.

As a fix, body cams are tricky. As police have usually done with requirements they display their badges at all times so we at least can know who did the bad deed, officers will figure out how to avoid the scrutiny they create. They will also fight to ensure that review of film is limited to their peers and it is never released to the public. Yet having the political fights over these issues seems a good way to build the struggle. It matters when majorities say "Hey -- that's not right!"

There's so much more. None of us lack for something to do.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Indicted murderer to visit

Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court from 2003 to 2012, says the U.S. should arrest Omar Hassan al-Bashir, president of Sudan, when he comes to New York to the United Nations in September. After all, there's a warrant out from the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the guy for mass killings in Darfur.

Yeah, and pigs should fly.

Under Clinton, the U.S. signed the treaty creating the ICC -- but that treaty never went to Senate for ratification. George W. Bush said no way we were going to submit to the jurisdiction of a court currently recognized by 123 nations. We're exceptional ... then he proved it.

We have company in our stance. When we withdrew our ratification, we joined two other countries that had signed the treaty but then pulled out: Sudan and Israel.

George W., Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice and their underlings should watch where they travel, as I am sure that they do.

Divided Democrats but good news for anti-nuke deal with Iran

Democratic Senate Minority leader Harry Reid (NV) has come out for the agreement. This certainly increases the likelihood that enough Democrats will stick with the President's initiative to ensure that it survives, even though Obama will have to veto a Republican vote to disapprove it. There was never any great reason to think Reid would not go along, but still the signal is a good one.

This picture of the members of the Democratic Senate leadership points to the back story. Reid is wearing his sunglasses subsequent to an eye injury. At Reid's left is Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. Durbin is the Senate point man rounding up votes for the Iran deal. He is also Reid's Assistant Leader, number two in the Democratic Caucus. On the left looking over his glasses is Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, number three in the present leadership. He is one of only two Democratic Senators so far who has come out against the Iran deal.

Reid is retiring after this term. He has endorsed Schumer over Durbin to succeed him in leading the caucus. Why should a guy who won't play with the team get to leap frog over the guy who is organizing for one of the greater accomplishments of a Democrat in power?

These guys, and Washington State Senator Patti Murray who is number four, will be jockeying for position through the 2016 election. Whoever the Democratic Senators are in 2017 will vote for which leadership they want. I'm sure constituents will remind them who was there when it counted.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Towards a new religious past

Though I'd argue that the dominant culture of the United States still derives from Protestant Christianity, an honest look around reveals that a bewildering variety of religious structures, practices, and experiences finding adherents. A May 2015 survey from the Pew Research Council of our "religious landscape" summarized these changes with the sub-head Christians Decline Sharply as Share of Population; Unaffiliated and Other Faiths Continue to Grow.

We're coming a new context; when hasn't that been true of this youthful nation? And any emerging identity requires a new history. Over the last fifty years, women's histories, African-American histories, native histories and gay histories have intruded into our stories and reshaped our understanding of the past. Peter Manseau in One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History is offering us the raw material for a new religious history just as unsettling of old verities.

The book is episodic, eighteen loosely connected chapters about various religious eruptions in what for Europeans was a "New World."

Some are delightful such as the saga of Mustafa Zemmouri. Born a Muslim in North African Morocco where some religious interaction was traditional, he was enslaved by Christian Portuguese and Spanish adventurers and carried as a servant along on the doomed trek of the Spanish Narváez Expedition across what became Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, through modern Texas, and the desert Southwest, finally meeting up with other Spaniards in California. Only four of the original members survived; Zemmouri had become the indispensable intermediary with native peoples along the way acting as translator (language skills were good for slave survival?) and religious healer. Sent back north to guide some Franciscans, he seems to have taken off to join the Zunis. The Spanish telling of what followed has the natives killing him. But Manseau reports other possible endings:

Another story recounts an event that was ambiguously remembered as either his expulsion or his forced return to the spirit world. It was said that the wise men of the village in which he sought refuge took him to the edge of their pueblo at night and then "gave him a powerful kick, which sped him through the air to the south whence he came." Still another story suggests that among the Zuni he found neither death nor exile but apotheosis. His image has been linked to one of the many divine spirits of the kachina religion of the Pueblo people, of which the Zuni were a part. In legends from native mythology enacted in elaborate dance ceremonies, the figure possibly inspired by Zemmouri, a kachina called Chakwaina, is depicted with black skin and carrying a sacred rattle -- an indication , perhaps, that his career as a god lasted longer than the time he spent as a slave.

Other chapters I'd characterize as entertaining include a depiction of 19th century women's rights activists participating in an infatuation with what they understood of Hinduism and an exploration how psychedelic enthusiasms intertwined with the anti-Vietnam war movement of the 1960s.

Of course much of the history of religion on this continent is not at all benign. Manseau characterizes the expansion of the Franciscan missions into California, the Christianizing of the "heathen," as "an American jihad" and he means to evoke something more like ISIS than interior struggle for right relationship to God. He recounts the early colonies' "Jew bills" restricting full rights to Christians, riots against Sikh laborers in Washington State, and the mixed story of Chinese exclusion and assimilation through which these workers preserved loyalty to ancestors and ancient places.

A book as ambitious as this one can be impressive; Manseau has obviously been researching for years and this does impress. But such a book leaves the reader wanting a narrative with less loose ends. That's normal when a new identity is coming into being. America the multi-religious is both old and effectually very new. We need a new past; this is a solid, necessary contribution to finding one.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Saturday scenes and scenery: sleepers in the city

Good news this week: the Department of Justice told towns and cities the obvious:

When adequate shelter space exists, individuals have a choice about whether or not to sleep in public. However, when adequate shelter space does not exist, there is no meaningful distinction between the status of being homeless and the conduct of sleeping in public. Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity — i.e., it must occur at some time in some place. If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.

Washington Post

This should block San Francisco's recurrent ballot measures to criminalize being poor and homeless. But it probably won't.

San Francisco does have far too many folks who get their rest where they can. This gentleman seems to have just put down his book before nodding off.

It's hard to tell whether this fellow is passed out or just feeling the sun. We take what sun we can get here in Fog City.

Some sleeping choices seem to make a statement.

Others just seem counterintuitive.

Not all who recline are animate.

Some sleepers might bark if disturbed.

Come to think of it, this one almost certainly would bark.

This harmonious figure smiles as the world goes by ...

... while this one embodies harmony itself.

Most photos are out-takes from 596 Precincts.

Friday, August 21, 2015

After torture, facing awful realities

Here's a heartening note: the Chilean ship Esmeralda can't take part in an Amsterdam naval festival this month without provoking protest.

The presence of Chilean school ship Esmeralda, used for the torture of political opponents under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), has brought controversy to the family event.

An association of Chilean exiles has said it would hold a vigil next to the four-master on Wednesday.

"At least 100 people were tortured or raped on board," the association said in a statement, expressing disappointment that "the boat's dark past is still taboo."

In addition to serving as a training vessel for the Chilean Navy, the Esmeralda roams the oceans acting as a kind of floating embassy for the South American nation.

I remember protesting the Esmeralda on one of its visits to San Francisco in the 1970s when its reputation for horrors was more fresh. In trying to confirm my recollection, I came across this letter published in the Baltimore Sun from a William A. Yankes:

While I was a cadet in the Chilean Naval Academy, I and everyone I knew viewed the Esmeralda as the symbol of all that was bright and good about my country. I was eagerly looking forward to sailing with my graduating class as a midshipman in 1973.

But before that happened, my family fled to the United States to avoid President Salvador Allende's Marxist regime. At 17, I was forced to leave with them.

I first heard about torture on the Esmeralda from protesters while visiting the ship in San Diego, Calif., in 1997. I dismissed the charges as absurd. I was sure it was just another attack by extremists determined to besmirch her unimpeachable reputation.

When I asked a Chilean naval officer, a former classmate of mine at the naval academy, whether civilians had been tortured on the Esmeralda, he looked straight at me and said, "We were at war." My heart sank, but even then I couldn't bring myself to believe it.

But while traveling in Chile in March [2000], I interviewed several Chilean writers, some of whom told me they had been tortured. They said that it was well known that people had been tortured on several ships, including the Esmeralda, during the dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Finally, I had to accept that it was true.

After speaking with some who were tortured, I now understand why protesters have expressed outrage against the presence of the Esmeralda at various foreign ports and why she was turned away from San Francisco in 1974. ...

Mr. Yankes chose to face unwelcome truths. As I always say about the probable course of any effort to repudiate torture, this takes time. We don't want to look, to know. But looking is how a turn away from wrong begins. Looking is hard, but necessary.
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