Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 Year in Review

What a year: 2008 will certainly be remembered as a significant moment in American history, but the exact meaning and significance of this last year's events is far from clear.

On January 2, the price of a barrell of petroleum hit $100. Oil remained a key political issue. Republicans notoriously chanted "Drill, Baby, Drill" along with "USA" at rallies, and the high price of gas created more public interest in renewable and green energy sources. With the deepening of the recession, gas prices have collapsed dramatically, despite attempts by OPEC to stabilize prices. Whether the era of three dollar gas created any sustained interest in promoting a more energy-efficient and less fossil fuel dependent economy remains to be seen. The Obama Administration has promised to make "green collar jobs" a major part of its jobs program; what political and substantial viability these proposals hold will be seen in the coming year.

On January 23 Palestinian militants blew a hole in the wall separating the Gaza Strip from Egypt. This event marked a shift in focus of the Palestine-Israel conflict to Gaza from the West Bank, and also a debilitating division amongst Palestinians, with Mahmoud Abbas leading the greatly weakened PLO and the Palestinian National Authority in the West Bank and a resurgent Hamas in power in the Gaza. After Hamas won elections in 2006, the United States and the European Union instituted an embargo against the Palestinian Authority, with no more effect than to prove that the United States only accepts democracy when its results are favorable the the foreign policy goals of the State Department, and to further undermine the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority and the Arab client states that have gone along with the United States or remained silent. The internal civil war between Hamas and the PLO has emboldened Israel to unilaterally push for a "two state" solution that would amount to apartheid like oppression for the Palestinian people. We also learned this year that Israel's conservative Likudd would not support forcing its Arab citizens to leave after the creation of an Palestinian state. As the year closes, we witness a sickening sequel to the barbaric Israeli assault on Lebanon in 2006. Beginning on December 27th, Israel launched an all out offensive against Hamas in the Gaza strip in a war that only forces Israel evermore into the status of an international pariah. Where are the Israelis who can defeat these bellicose regimes? What happened to the principles of the Israeli center and left? As the death toll mounts, we can only conclude that the Bush administration has left the Middle East peace process in utter shambles, with any possible progress completely obliterated.

After Barack Obama won the Iowa caucuses, and John Edwards took second, the inevitability of Hillary Clinton's nomination began to look less certain. On Febraury 5th, the so called "Super Tuesday," left John McCain as the clear front-runner for the Republican ticket, while the Democratic race was left a virtual tie between Clinton and Obama. Obama was able to survive a divisive primary battle with Clinton that turned particularly nasty with the attacks on Obama's association with Reverend Wright. Although Obama's handling of the situation probably showed more shrewd political calculation than principled defense of his past, he was able to survive a remarkable challenge, and in some ways, the early focus on Wright made it a non-issue in the general election cycle, with McCain forced to resort to Obama's alleged connection to William Ayers, and even for a moment, to Columbia's own Rashid Khalidi.

After long illness, in February Fidel Castro resigned from the Presidency of Cuba. Whatever one's position on the Cuban revolution, Castro's death marks an impending struggle over Cuba's destiny. Neo-liberal free marketeers will be eager for a crushing session of "shock therapy" to awaken the Cuban people to the great gifts of the free market. If the future of the Cuban revolution is left to the Cuban people themselves, it will be in good hands and the gains of the socialist revolution can be preserved. If the traitors in Miami succeed in dictating Cuba's future, we may soon witness the punishing end of an attempt by a desperately poor and and threatened people to provide a humane and equitable existence for all its members. If Cuba was never a socialist paradise, it at least was an important reminder that human beings have real choices about the type of society they live in. Despite his many shortcomings, and the many failures of his regime, Castro will ultimately be remembered as a great champion of human liberation and equality.

August saw war between Russia and Georgia over the break-away Georgian republics of South Ossetia and Abkhazia that Russia had unilaterally recognized. Both Russia and Georgia recognized that in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq, force was back on the table in pursuing foreign policy goals. Seen in Russia and Georgia, and even more so in Israel, the Bush doctrine of unilateral invasion has destabilized and fundamentally weakened the basic assumptions of international law and diplomacy. Around the world, the disastrous effects of the invasion and occupation of Iraq continued. A world in which force and violence are seen as acceptable means of achieving goals for powerful states is one of the longest lasting gifts of the Bush Administration and a Democratic Party that had to be dragged into an even modestly oppositional stance.

In September, the world began to see the full scope of a major economic crisis. Lehman Brothers was allowed to collapse, after Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were given federal support. Merrill Lynch was absorbed by Bank of America, and AIG received a massive support loan from the Treasury. Washington Mutual was taken over by JP Morgan Chase, and Goldman Sachs and and Morgan Stanley ended their status as investment banks and became bank holding companies, subject to more strict regulation but with greater access to federal support. This has marked a major restructuring of Wall Street, and perhaps a major development in the structure of advanced capitalism. The state was forced to step in and administer capitalism for the very survival of the capitalist system itself in a way not seen since the great depression. Although the American people now essentially own the banks and the financial industry, all have stressed the temporary and emergency nature of these interventions, and how much of a break with free market ideology will emerge from the crisis remains unclear. While the financial crisis has created great challenges for the incoming Obama administration, these challenges at the same time mark opportunities to make major shifts in the economic and system and the political climate in the United States. Even some of the most trenchant free marketeers have confessed their sins, but the die-hard defenders of the Chicago school remain unchastened, if slightly uncomfortable with their new situation in which their ideas are debated and criticized, and no longer accepted as gospel truth. If the cracks in the neo-liberal mythology are signs of hope, it is certainly disappointing to see how few within American political discourse have raised big questions about the fairness, viability, justice, and premises of the American economic system. Barely a whisper of real anti-capitalist rebellion has been heard, and proposals for moving forward have remained securely center-left. This seems like a moment when Americans would be open to radical challenges to corporate authority. The initial rejection of the financial bailout was a wonderfully healthy democratic impulse. Commonsense anger at the Banker's Bailout and the CEO's and fatcats of Wall Street was impressive in its power, but the technocratic administrators eventually pushed through the bail out despite the healthy democratic rebellion. These broader impulses rejecting the current political economy have remained largely subterranean, undirected, and sporadic.

Finally, the election of Barack Hussein Obama as president of the United States was a remarkable event. The election of a black president has restored many Americans' and much the the world's faith in the American political system. How much will substantially change remains to be seen. Obama's cabinet appointee's reflect a tendency towards a so called "pragmatism" that is moderately center left and purports to be "non-ideological." The business community has already made its peace with much of Obama's program, with the striking exception of the "Employee Free Choice Act," which would allow card check union authorization and thus eliminate the ability of employers to intimidate workers while the delay NLRB elections. Whether Obama fights for and wins a card check unionization bill will be a major test, and the revitalization of the American labor movement could be a major step of transformation with lasting consequences. Also critical will be the substance of any health care reform; "universal healthcare" could mean nothing more than a universal subsidy to the insurance companies. These companies are universally unpopular, and the institution of real, single-payer health care is a remote, if real possibility in the coming years. Fighting for workers rights to join a union and for real health care for all will be major battles. Also critical will be making sure Obama follows through on his pledge to end the war in Iraq. Directing troops into Afghanistan is not a solution either. We must end ALL occupations, not get bogged down in Afghanistan and increasingly Pakistan, where the political situation will only be worsened by further American involvement. Fighting for a real end to the war and ending all occupations in the middle east will be critical. Liberals who benefited from anti-war outrage will be less likely to listen to less popular (at least at this point) critiques of further involvement in Afghanistan.

There is little doubt that in ways 2008 was a pivotal year. What will come can only be speculated at, but activists can have an important role in shaping the future. Those on the left will face inner divisions, as moderate play defense for the centrist policies of the government, others engage in constructive criticism in an attempt to move the administration to the left, while others are left with the difficult task of mobilizing for more radical visions of justice, equality, peace and freedom. Having the center left in power is always difficult, fraught with both possibilities for meaningful transformation but more frequently, giving us little but empty rhetoric and betrayals to the corporate interests that will continue to dominate politics. An election will not bring change. will not bring us democracy. The Democratic party remains at the very best an ambiguous vehicle for meaning social transformation. The coming year will offer challenges rooted in the past eight years, but at the same time we face a radically changed terrain of political strategy and conflict. Bush was an easy target to unify disparate elements, as was the Iraq war by 2006. The left now faces the challenges of defining itself in positive terms, rather than "Anybody but Bush." It can only be taken as heartening that a black man, who expressed his desire to "spread the wealth around," whose middle name is Hussein and last name is Obama, and who was ruthlessly blasted for being a Socialist, a Muslim and an associate of terrorists was elected President of the United States. The symbolism is striking; the substance is now the terrain of political battle against the arrayed corporate interests. Let the lines be drawn and the struggle continue.

-Rudi Batzell, December 31, 2008

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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Reminder: TODAY, December 30: National Day of Action Protest in New York City at the Israeli Consulate

The ANSWER Coalition, Muslim American Society Freedom, Free Palestine Alliance, National Council of Arab Americans, and Al-Awda, International Palestine Right to Return Coalition are calling for Tuesday, December 30 to be a National Day of Action to show solidarity with the Palestinian people in Gaza and to demand an immediate end to the attacks carried out by the Israeli military against the people of Gaza.

In New York City this evening, there will be a demonstration at the Israeli Consulate at 5pm.

Tuesday, December 30, 5pm
Israeli Consulate: 800 2nd Ave (b/w 42nd and 43rd Sts)
Contact: 212-694-8720,

Sponsors for NYC rally: ANSWER Coalition, Muslim American Society-NY, Adalah-NY, Al-Awda-NY, and New York City Labor Against the War

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Paul Shanklin Parodies: "Star Spanglish Banner"

Top political operative Chip Saltsman's recent distribution of a collection of songs by Paul Shanklin brought some unwanted attention to the GOP for its inclusion of a track titled "Barack the Magic Negro." Here's another gem from Shanklin, just proving once again how racist the Republican party remains.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Day Two of Massacre in Gaza

The death toll is quickly approach 300, and again the stark imabalance of casualties that became so appalling during Israel's attack on Lebanon is reappearing. All of this for a Hamas rocket attack that killed on Israeli. The Palestinian people are being collectively punished, and Israel is getting away with it again. 

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Saturday, December 27, 2008

ANSWER Coalition Call for Action

Stop the Massacre of Palestinians!

Tuesday, December 30: National Day of Action
Emergency Demonstrations on Tuesday, December 30 and other days (listed below)

The ANSWER Coalition, Muslim American Society Freedom, Free Palestine Alliance, National Council of Arab Americans, and Al-Awda, International Palestine Right to Return Coalition are calling for Tuesday, December 30 to be a National Day of Action to show solidarity with the Palestinian people in Gaza and to demand an immediate end to the murderous attacks carried out by the Israeli military against the people of Gaza.

In Washington, D.C., there will be a demonstration at the State Department at 4:30 pm. Demonstrations will also be held in cities around the country. 

Hundreds of Palestinians in Gaza have been massacred and wounded today as Israel has launched a massive bombing campaign against the people of Gaza. The bombing rampage took place as thousands of Palestinian children were in the streets on their way home from school. Palestinian parents were running frantically in the streets looking for their children as U.S.-provided F-16s and Apache helicopters rained down more than 100 bombs and missiles on Gaza. 

The U.S.-backed Israeli Occupation Force destroyed every security station in Gaza. AFP reported: "There was no space left in the morgue and bodies were piled up in the emergency room and in the corridors, as many of the wounded screamed in pain."

Because of the U.S.-backed Israeli blockade and strangulation of the people of Gaza for the past 18 months there is little or no medicine to treat the wounded, electricity for hospitals, or food or clean water for much of the population. 

An Israeli military spokesperson said, "The operation is ‘only just beginning’." The Israeli Defense Ministry said in a statement: "The action will continue and will widen as much as is demanded according to the evaluation of the situation by the high command of the army." 

Take Action:
- Demonstrations Across the Country
- Send a letter to the State Department and Congress

Washington, D.C.
Tuesday, December 30
4:30 pm
State Department: 22nd St & C St NW
Contact: 202-544-3389 x14,

San Francisco
Tuesday, December 30
5:00 pm
Israeli Consulate:456 Montgomery St.
Contact: 415-821-6545,

Los Angeles
Tuesday, December 30
4:30 pm
Israeli Consulate: 6380 Wilshire Blvd.
Contact: 213-251-1025,
*   *   *   *   *
In Anaheim, CA (Orange County):
Sunday, December 28
2:00 pm
512 S. Brookhurst St. (between Orange Ave. & Broadway)
Initiated by a coalition with a large number of groups

New York City
Tuesday, December 30
5:00 pm
Israeli Consulate: 800 2nd Ave (b/w 42nd and 43rd Sts)
Contact: 212-694-8720,
*   *   *   *   *
Sunday, December 28
2:00-4:00 pm
Gather at Rockefeller Center
March to the Israeli Consulate: 800 2nd Ave (b/w 42nd and 43rd Sts)
Initiated by Al-Awda New York

Fort Lauderdale, FL
Tuesday, December 30
5:00 pm
Federal Building: 299 E. Broward Blvd.
Contact: 954-707-0155,

Details to be announced
Contact: 773-463-0311,

Details to be announced
Contact: 857-334-5084,

Saturday, January 3
12:00 noon - 2:00 pm
Westlake Park: 4th and Pine
Initiated by Voices of Palestine

Sunday, December 28
2:00 pm
Israeli Embassy Consulate: 180 Bloor St. West
Initiated by a number of local organizations


 Click this link now to send a letter to the State Department and elected officials in Congress.

Free Palestine Alliance Statement: To read a statement from the Free Palestine Alliance, click here.

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Israel Massacres Palestinians in Gaza

More than 200 Palestinians are dead after brutal Israeli air strikes, supposedly targeting Hamas militants.  Many had expected an escalation after the end of a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, but few were prepared for the chaos that the Israeli Air Force brought to Gaza. 

The BBC provides an interesting collection of world reaction to the Israeli offensive. 


"Hamas' continued rocket attacks into Israel must cease if the violence is to stop. Hamas must end its terrorist activities if it wishes to play a role in the future of the Palestinian people.

"The United States urges Israel to avoid civilian casualties as it targets Hamas in Gaza."


"We are very concerned at the events in Gaza. We call for an immediate ceasefire and urge everybody to exert maximum restraint."


"We are facing a continuing spectacle which has been carefully planned. So we have to expect that there will be many casualties. We face a major humanitarian catastrophe."


"Iran strongly condemns the Zionist regime's wide-ranging attacks against the civilians in Gaza.

"The raids against innocent people are unforgiveable and unacceptable."


"Hamas is a prisoner to a logic of hate, Israel to a logic of faith in force as the best response to hate.

"One must continue to search for a different way out, even if that may seem impossible."

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Friday, December 26, 2008

Top Republican Defends "Barack the Magic Negro" Song

It appears that some Republicans are hoping to ride a racist backlash after the election of Obama. A top candidate for the Republican National Committee has come under fire for sending out a "Christmas CD" featuring a song titled "Barack the Magic Negro," first made famous by Rush Limbaugh during the election cycle. 

This is the song

This is Rush defending his use of the song: 

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Support the International Immigrant Awareness Day Vigil

Thursday, December 18, 4:30-6:30
Location: Kossuth Place & Bushwick Avenue
(the corner where Jose Sucuzhanay was attacked)

On Dec. 7, Ecuadorean immigrant Jose O. Sucuzhanay was brutally beaten with a bottle and baseball bat in Brooklyn by men shouting slurs. He died five days later in the hospital. The attack comes just weeks after another Ecuadorean immigrant, Marcelo Lucero, was brutally beaten and stabbed to death by a mob of teens in Suffolk County.

In recent years, media pundits and politicians have whipped up anti-immigrant hysteria as a way to turn U.S.-born workers' frustration away from the country's elite and towards the most defenseless sectors of society. Just last year, Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy campaigned on an anti-immigrant platform, calling for the local police to take on the roles of immigration agents. Is it any surprise that this atmosphere would eventually produce such a hate-crime?

Come out this Thursday to stand with the immigrant families and communities that are suffering through this recent rash of hate crimes. Stop the anti-immigrant hysteria! Stop the hate crimes! Full equality for immigrants now!

Supporting Organizations / Organizaciones que Apoyan:
Juventud Ecuatoriana, Latin American Workers Project, ANSWER Coalition

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Saturday, December 13, 2008

UFCW Unionize North Carolina Plant

The media has enjoyed bashing the UAW for the problems with the auto-industry in Detroit, and little has been said about the recent victory of the United Food and Commerical Workers at Smithfield pork packing plant in Tar Heel, North Carolina.  With 5,000 workers, the plant in the largest meat-packing plant in the world, and the victory for the UFCW marks one of labor's major victories.  Although the struggle and occupation at Republic was important for the way it galvanized attention, perhaps this victory at the Smithfield plant will be remembered in the future as a crucial victory in which workers began to re-organize and re-assert themselves at work.  

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Comprehending the Financial Crisis

Two articles from the last year of the New Left Review provide the clearest explanation of the long-term causes of the financial crisis. In current American political discourse, both the right and the left have failed to make a clear public analysis of what is admittedly a very complex situation. While the right's claim that it was over-eager borrowers who took loans beyond the limits of their income is utterly vapid and ignores the real structural transformations of the finance industry, in ways the left's railing against "de-regulation" provides little more insight. Robin Blackburn and Robert Wade are worth reading in order to gain a good sense of the real structural and historical implications of the current crisis.

Robin Blackburn, "The Subprime Crisis," New Left Review 50 March-April 2008. 

While you will have to wade through some jargon of the financial industry "collateralized debt obligations (CDOs)," it is important to get a more than superficial understanding of the current destablization of the capitalist economic system.  The failure of the pricing mechanism which emerged from sub-prime crisis has interesting implications and an interesting historical legacy.  With property becoming ever more abstract and divorced from social reality, with markets and "instruments" of accumulation built up upon each other in ever more abstract ways, how long can this house of cards stand.  I am reminded of the warning of the political economist Joseph Schumpeter who wrote that the abstract forms of property that corporate capitalism would produce could never draw out the emotional and spiritual allegience that the personal accumulation of the entreprenurial capitalism of the nineteenth century produced.  

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Inept Imperialists: Official History of Reconstruction in Iraq

Though not yet released, the federal government's own history of reconstruction in Iraq over the last five years reveals the gross mismanagement, fraud and lies. The report also reveals how insiders and lobbyist manipulated funding for the war to meet political demands for Bush's re-election in 2004. While all of these revelations should surprise no one who has been paying attention, the level of detail that the inside report offers should be interesting when it is released, and it is fascinating to see how those within the military have become bitterly divided over a reconstruction effort many in the Pentagon opposed from the outset. The New York Times story can be read here.

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Wednesday, October 29, 2008

ELECTION SPECIAL: Volume 1, Issue 5

Before the election on November 4th, the editors of el participante thought it would be a good idea to examine the state of action and thinking on campus relating to presidential politics.  We are very happy to present you these different voices from campus politics on the upcoming election. 

Jake Grumbach, "Democracy After the Election"

Sarah Leonard, "Obama vs. Reagonomics" 

Johanna Ocana, "The Election and Third Parties"

Destin Jenkins, "Obama and American Racism"

Daniela Garcia, "The Apathy of Columbia Political Activism" 

Jake Matilsky, "Why Leftists Should Vote" 

Amanda Torres, "Immigration and the Election" 

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Volume 1, Issue 4

The September Issue of el participante is now being distributed. This issue features several issues relating to the emerging controversy over the presence of the ROTC on Columbia's campus, as well as articles dealing with activism and politics in general. The alternative Core Curriculum for radicals goes back to the origins of American radicalism in the writings of Thomas Skidmore, a critic of inequality during the era of the Workingmen's parties in the 1830s.

Volume 1, Issue 4 features:

Yadira Alvarez
Summer Experience: National Mobilization Against Sweatshops

Paco Martin Del Campo
Black Panther, Brown Beret Speak at Panel

Iliana Feliz and Johanna Ocaña
Lucha: Committed to Struggle

Wyatt Ford
Th e Myth of the G.I. Bill

Olivia Rosane
9/11, Service and the War

Rudi Batzell
Responses to the ROTC

Malena Arnaud
Th e Poverty of Micro-credit

Thomas Skidmore
Core: The Rights of Man to Property

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Thursday, September 4, 2008

War in Georgia - War in Iraq

Salon has an excellent article by Juan Cole emphasizing how George W. Bush and the American invasion and occupation of Iraq set the stage for Putin to have a free hand intervening in Georgia. Indeed, the precedent of the United Nations sanctioning the American occupation as an established fact indicated to the world that those with power could use it, even in ways that violated international law, and if successful, the institutions of international relations would cloak this violations in a veil of legitimacy. The article is definitely worth a read.

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Immigrant Detainee Dies while in US Custody

A man from Hong Kong, Hiu Lui Ng, died while imprisoned for overstaying his visa. The American state and police do not just brutalize Latinos and Blacks along the borders and in our cities, all who are poor, weak, and defensless are subject to be swept up. Hiu Lui Ng should be remember with other casualties like Sean Bell and Amadou Diallo.

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John McCain calls Vietnamese 'Gooks' - Racism in the Campaign

And why has Obama's supposed "arrogance" become such a feature of Republican attacks? As Terry M. Neal writes, "when Camp McCain says he's arrogant, they're playing to those who think he's another black man who doesn't know his place" In other words, arrogant is the the new uppity.

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Open Letter to the Hispanic Scholarship Fund

Association of Raza Educators

Summer 2008

Dear Hispanic Scholarship Fund,

The Association of Raza Educators (A.R.E.) applauds your efforts at providing scholarships to Hispanic students across the country. We recognize the pre-eminent role the Hispanic Scholarship Fund plays as one of the major funding sources available to students seeking higher education in the Hispanic community. As educators, we share in your dream of "doubl[ing] the rate of Hispanics earning a college degree" and by means of various community-based efforts, we also seek to ensure that dream is realized. Unfortunately, many otherwise qualified students, through no fault of their own, are currently excluded from your scholarship fund by virtue of their citizenship status. The Association of Raza Educators implores you: open your scholarships to all students of Hispanic descent regardless of citizenship.

There are an estimated 65,000 undocumented students that graduate from U.S. high schools each year, the bulk of whom have lived in the country for more than five years and are of Hispanic descent. Federal funds are denied to them, as are the majority of private scholarships. Moreover, under your current application requirements, these Hispanic students, despite being in desperate need of funding, are ineligible for your scholarships. Undocumented students are, however, permitted to attend colleges and universities and are doing so in increasing numbers. Usually they support themselves by working long hours in low-wage industries, demonstrating the very same hard work ethic and determination to succeed that has been a source of pride to Hispanics for generations.

In spite of such formidable barriers and numerous difficulties, we have observed in our own classrooms that many of our brightest and most hardworking students come from the ranks of the undocumented. Under current conditions, namely increasing animosity toward the Hispanic immigrant community in general, and a paucity of any source of funding for higher education for which such students may qualify in particular, denial of private scholarships such as those provided by HSF, is paramount to denial of higher education and the benefits that such education brings to those fortunate enough to pursue and achieve it. While we recognize that it may be legal to deny noncitizens access to such scholarships, exclusion of these students is not only morally objectionable but harmful to the Hispanic and American community as well.
And here is the rest of it.
Immigrants, both documented and undocumented, continue to comprise a significant percentage of the Hispanic community in this country. As one of the leading organizations serving Hispanics, HSF cannot ignore the pivotal issue of immigration and its impact on Hispanic families and students. The federal government has not passed comprehensive immigration reform for over a decade. The process of naturalization has only become more onerous with current waiting periods lasting longer than 15 years for families already in process. In thousands of Hispanic homes across the country, families are split across citizenship lines where husbands and wives, parents and children, even brothers and sisters, may fall on either side. Recent immigration debates highlight the grim reality that passage of a more humane immigration policy is a remote possibility. While local and national politicians fail to resolve myriad immigration problems, tens of thousands of Hispanic youth, educated and living in this country, are falling through the cracks.

While the path to citizenship continues to be fraught with obstacles, the path to higher education should not be. As a private organization, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund not only has the power, but the responsibility to take leadership on this issue and provide industrious and persevering, undocumented Hispanic students with the tools and opportunities to realize for themselves the three-fold dream that we all share: an advanced education for Hispanics that "transforms" the individual, while benefiting the Hispanic community in general, and finally "strengthen[ing]" this nation as a whole.

Since the inclusion of undocumented students clearly meets these goals, the Association of Raza Educators beseeches the Hispanic Scholarship Fund to lift your current citizenship requirements and open your scholarships to all Hispanic students eligible to attend colleges and universities in this country. Only by integrating all members of the Hispanic community, will HSF truly be on the path to fulfilling its momentous and urgent mission.


—Association of Raza Educators

To endorse this campaign email:

For information: 626-617-0401, or online at

Endorsing Organizations: SURGE, California State University, Los Angeles; Student Advocates for Higher Education, San Jose State University; Dreamers in Action Standing, Fresno State University; AB540 Student Group, UC San Diego; Student Immigrant Movement, Massachusetts; Comité de Mujeres, Patricia Marin; T4SJ, San Francisco, Calif.; NYCoRE, New York; AMAE, Calif.; FUEL, California State University, Long Beach; Espiritu de Nuestro Futuro, California State University, Dominguez Hills; LULAC, Los Angeles and Orange County; Mothers for Justice, Santa Monica, Calif.; Children of Chiapas Foundation, Los Angeles, Calif.; Willie C. Velasquez Institute, East Los Angeles, Calif.; Community Coalition, South Los Angeles, Calif.; FCR, Frente Contra Las Redadas, South Central Los Angeles, Calif.

Summer 2008

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Thursday, July 31, 2008

White Students Beat Undocumented Worker to Death

In Shenandoah Pennsylvania, Luis Ramirez was beaten to death by a group of white high school students who had been out drinking, discovered him on the street, attacked him. The full story is available from CNN here, and is posted below. Although this kind of racist violence occurs everyday in much subtler forms, this incident brings out the violent racism of whites in economically depressed areas such as these former coal regions of Pennsylvania. One has to wonder how many undocumented workers have been beaten and have remained silent for fear that filing a complaint with police would lead to deportation and broken families. Groups like the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund can assist, but most remain helpless, silent victims of racist violence and structural exploitation.

The full CNN story is posted below:

Town struggles with fallout from immigrant's fatal beating

By Emanuella Grinberg

SHENANDOAH, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- By the time help arrived, Luis Ramirez lay convulsing in the middle of the street, foam running from his mouth.

And here is the rest of it.

Blows had struck the 25-year-old illegal Mexican immigrant with such force that they left a clotted, bruised impression of Jesus Christ on the skin of his chest from the religious medal he wore.

His attackers were white teenagers, including star students and football players, witnesses told police.

After a night of drinking, the teens taunted the undocumented worker with racial epithets, pummeled him to the ground and then kicked him in the head, court documents charge. He died in a hospital two days later.

It took almost two weeks for arrests to be made. But on July 25, Colin J. Walsh, 17, and Brandon J. Piekarsky, 16, were charged as adults with homicide and ethnic intimidation.

Derrick M. Donchak, 18, was charged as an adult with aggravated assault and ethnic intimidation and an unnamed juvenile was also charged with assault. The U.S. Department of Justice announced Wednesday that its civil rights division has opened a criminal investigation.

Defense attorneys for two of the teens say Ramirez responded to the name-calling with his own insults, which escalated the confrontation into to a fight that got out of hand.

The words allegedly hurled at Ramirez, and the perceived sentiments behind them, led prosecutors to label his death a hate crime.

Without the ethnic intimidation charges, many in Shenandoah believe the case would not be drawing attention to this depressed northeastern Pennsylvania coal town of 5,000. Residents question whether the attack was racially motivated or just an alcohol-fueled confrontation among kids.

Ramirez had spent July 12 with friends Arielle and Victor Garcia in their home. About 11 p.m. he asked them to drive him and a 15-year-old girl home, a probable cause affidavit says.

They got as far as a dusty park on Vine Street when Ramirez asked the couple to drop them off so they could walk. What happened next depends on the narrator, but everyone seems to agree that the first comments were directed toward the girl and Ramirez.

"Isn't it a little late for you guys to be out?" the boys said, according to court documents. "Get your Mexican boyfriend out of here."

Racial slurs followed, and Ramirez responded. Punches were thrown, and Ramirez fell to the ground. Then Ramirez used his cell phone to call Arielle and Victor Garcia for help.

The fight seemed to be over by the time the Garcias responded. But in an instant, the taunts resumed.

It is unclear who threw the first insult. Ramirez was knocked to the ground again and kicked in the head. He went into convulsions, said Arielle Garcia, who witnessed the second part of the fight. Garcia, 17, told police she knew some of the assailants from school. Video Watch Arielle Garcia's eyewitness account »

By this time, Eileen Burke, a retired Philadelphia police officer, had stepped out of her home after hearing Arielle Garcia's pleas to stop the beating.

Burke recalled hearing one final, ominous threat as the teens ran. "They yelled, 'You effin bitch, tell your effin Mexican friends get the eff out of Shenandoah or you're gonna be laying effin next to him,' " she told CNN.

Piekarsky and Donchak are also accused of meeting the next day to plan how to cover up their involvement. Read the court affidavit (pdf)

Ramirez was taken off life support two days after the fight. His body was flown back to his mother in Guanajuato, Mexico, with donations from parishioners from Annunciation Church in Shenandoah.

"There's outrage among Anglos and Latinos over what happened, and I think that's representative of the attitude here," said the Rev. George Winne, who is in charge of Hispanic ministries at Annunciation.

Others in town pull over their cars at the sight of a stranger and recite a litany of attacks allegedly perpetrated by Latinos against Anglos. They refuse to give their names but acknowledge that Ramirez did not deserve to die. They say violence has been brewing between the races for some time.

Attorneys for two of the teens deny Ramirez was targeted because of his race.

"Let's call it what it was it was -- a street fight, a chance encounter with a tragic outcome," said Frederick Fanelli, who represents Piekarsky.

Fanelli told CNN he plans to investigate whether Ramirez has a criminal background. He also questions why the engaged father of three was walking on the street with the girl, and the nature of their relationship. Ramirez' fiancee says he was walking her younger sister home.

A lawyer for Walsh said he is equally skeptical about the ethnic intimidation charge. "They called each other names. The victim was calling them obscenities, vulgar names, and they said things back to him that would hurt him," Roger Laguna said. "It just means it was a foul-mouthed argument, not ethnic intimidation."

Ramirez died just as things were falling into place for him and Crystal Dillman, 24, the woman he planned to marry.

They met in Shenandoah in 2005 through the Garcias, had two children, Kiara and Eduardo, and Ramirez assumed the role of father to Dillman's daughter from a previous relationship, Angelina.

By May, Ramirez had settled permanently in Shenandoah, working two jobs after spending six months picking berries in Georgia.

"He worked hard so his kids would have more than he had growing up," Dillman said. "He talked a lot about how we take so much for granted here."

His diamond-encrusted religious medal, which cost him $300, now hangs over the fireplace in the three-story home on Main Street where Dillman and the children live.

"I just don't understand how you can beat someone so badly when you don't even know them," Dillman said. "People here are just ignorant. They think life begins and ends in Shenandoah." Video Watch Dillman talk about her fears for the future »

A court affidavit identifies Walsh and Piekarsky as the teens who delivered the fatal blows: Walsh punched Ramirez in the face and knocked him to the ground. Piekarsky then allegedly kicked Ramirez in the head.

Michael Walsh is struggling to comprehend how his boy -- a straight-A student who juggled track, football and school -- could stand accused of killing another person when he should be starting his senior year in high school.

"It's very stressing because you just don't expect it. If you had a child that's constantly in trouble, you'd say, hey, well, this is coming any day," he told CNN.

"Colin was a great kid and fell into a bad situation. He never really gave me any trouble," he added. "I feel sorry for the families and anyone who cares about Mr. Ramirez." Video Watch Walsh describe his family's 'nightmare' »

"You would be proud to have any of these kids in your classroom, and any of them as your children," said Fanelli, Piekarsky's lawyer. "To this point in their lives, they have done everything right."

Besides his academic achievement, Piekarsky worked part-time at Sears and made the varsity football team as a sophomore. He is a National Honors student.

His mother postponed her wedding to a Shenandoah police officer because of the incident.

Walsh and Piekarsky are being held in solitary confinement in an adult jail in nearby Pottsville. They are awaiting a preliminary hearing.

Donchak was the team's quarterback last year and graduated in May. He planned to attend Bloomsburg University in the fall. He is out on bail.

The racial spotlight falls on the region nearly a year after a federal court struck down proposed anti-immigration laws in nearby Hazleton. City officials had passed a law to fine landlords and employers who dealt with illegal immigrants. The city is appealing.

While Schuylkill County is 96 percent white, Shenandoah has taken pride in its ethnic diversity. European immigrants came to work anthracite mines in the late 19th century. Pizza joints, German bakeries and Polish grocers on Main Street serve as reminders of that time.

The town hit hard times after World War II and saw its population tumble from 20,000 to about 5,000, leaving about one in three homes vacant.

Latinos began to arrive about 20 years ago, heading to the fields and distribution centers that have become the new economic base.

Jose Calderon, a Puerto Rican who has lived in Shenandoah for two years, says he's not fearful. "These are the problems of the youth," he said.

On Main Street, where people gather on benches in front of the remaining storefronts, some members of the Anglo community are also outraged.

"The young guys around here are racist because they think they're so much better than everyone else," said Jessica Lane, 18, as her 2-year-old son, Damien, squirmed in her lap.

Shenandoah officials now acknowledge a racial element of Ramirez's death, after initial denials.

Regardless of perception of tension, many Latinos and Anglos have formed interracial relationships, like those of Dillman and Ramirez, and their friends the Garcias, who have a son.

Mixed couples and their offspring sat among other Latino couples at Annunciation Church's Sunday Spanish-language mass. As the service began, a white woman approached Dillman and hugged her.
"I have such survivor's guilt," she confessed.

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National Park Service and Immigration

Who knew that when travelling in Coranado National Park you would be enlisted in the fight to militarize the border. A tipster informs el participante that while making his travel plans, he came across this advice on the National Park Service website:

People in distress may ask for food, water or other assistance. It is recommended that you do not make contact. Report the location of the distressed people to the Visitor Center, other park staff, or the Border Patrol
Now, "people in distress" is clearly an euphemism for those in the park who are allegedly illegal immigrants. Anyone who looks Latino would be presumed to be such a person, while anyone with Anglo features, even if they were a "person in distress," would surely not be considered under this heading. The clear lesson, if you are Latino, expect to find racial profiling by the National Park Service in areas close to the Mexican border. Our tipster has decided to boycott Coronado National Park.

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Left Media

Here is the latest from the New Left Review and the Monthly Review:

In NLR, Columbia professor Charles Armstrong provides an interesting analysis of Korean politics under the "center-left" in an article called "Contesting the Peninsula"

Also noteworthy, given the recent court ruling on the constitutionality of the (Justice and Development Party) AKP in Turkey, this issue of the NLR features two articles looking at Turkey, one dealing directly with the politics of the AKP, while another looks at the growth of urban Islamism in a rapidly expanding Istanbul.

In the Monthly Review, the July-August issue is specially dedicated to the theme "Ecology: The Moment of Truth," and features articles on global warming, "oil imperialism" and the "political economy of biofuels." For those who say the "red-green" coalition is fraught with misunderstanding and conflicting interests, perhaps this can be a starting point from which to build coalitions.

Also, the June issue of the MR had several very good articles dealing with immigration and the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela:

No Human Being Is Illegal: Moving Beyond Deportation Law
by César Cuauhtémoc Garcí Hernández

The Only Road Is Practice: After the Venezuelan Referendum Defeat
by Michael A. Lebowitz

Please post thoughts on these articles, and links to additional articles of interest.

. And here is the rest of it.

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New Semester

el participante online faded off last semester, unfortunately. We are back for a new semester and committed to making this publication and website a critical center for dialog and debate on the left at Columbia. As always, if you would like to contribute, either online or to the print edition, contact

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Times Editorial on Immigration

iPeople are starting to notice how federal policies and local anti-immigrant scape-goating are creating a functional synthesis. The New York Times provided this surprisingly incisive analysis of the rise of Sheriff vigilantes in Maricopa County, Arizona:

Not content to botch immigration policy all by itself, Congress has handed large parts of the job to others to mishandle. It gave the homeland security czar the czarist powers to overturn any law and ignore any court to seal the border. Now Michael Chertoff is clear-cutting a forest of regulations to wall out Mexico by the end of the year. And through the program known as 287(g), his agency is parceling out duties to a growing number of local police and sheriff’s departments, raising an army of junior deputies in the war on illegal immigrants.

To see how unhinged things have become, it pays to zero in on the squalid doings in Maricopa County, Ariz. It is home to Phoenix, the country’s fifth-largest city, and the largest 287(g) program anywhere.

It is run by the county sheriff, Joe Arpaio, who has built a national reputation for toughness through years of cruelty to prison inmates and an insatiable appetite for publicity. Where most departments have only handfuls of officers trained to enforce federal immigration laws, Sheriff Joe, as he is known, has 160. Their efforts are supplemented by what the sheriff says, without apology, is a 3,000-member “posse.”

For months now, Sheriff Joe has been sending squads of officers through Latino neighborhoods, pulling cars over for broken taillights or turn-signal violations, checking drivers’ and passengers’ papers and arresting illegal immigrants by the dozen.

Because he sends out press releases beforehand, the sweeps are accompanied by TV crews and protesters — deport-’em-all hard-liners facing off against immigrant advocates. Being Arizona, many of those shouting and jeering are also packing guns. Sheriff Joe, seemingly addicted to the buzz, has been filmed marching down the street shaking hands with adoring Minutemen.

If this doesn’t look to you like a carefully regulated, federally supervised effort to catch dangerous criminals, that’s because it isn’t. It is a series of stunts focused mostly on day laborers, as Sheriff Joe bulldozes his way toward re-election.

The sheriff says he is keeping the peace, but it seems as if he is doing just the opposite — a useless, reckless churning of fear and unrest. Mayor Phil Gordon of Phoenix has denounced him, saying the raids are interfering with undercover city police officers and federal agents. The mayor of Guadalupe implored him to leave her community alone. State and county officials have pointed out that Sheriff Joe has ignored tens of thousands of outstanding criminal warrants while chasing day laborers and headlines. They say he has grossly violated the terms of his 287(g) agreement — which calls for federal oversight of local police — and have called on Washington to rein him in.

“Do you think I’m going to report to the federal government?” he said. “I don’t report to them. If they don’t like the contract, they can close it up. That’s all.”

“By the way,” he said, “we do have a 3,000-person posse — and about 500 have guns. They have their own airplanes, jeeps, motorcycles, everything. They can only operate under the sheriff. I swear ’em in. I can put up 30 airplanes tomorrow if I wanted.”

The federal government so far seems unconcerned.

“He has stayed within the bounds of the agreement,” Matthew Allen, special agent in charge of immigration and customs enforcement in Arizona, told The Arizona Republic. Jim Pendergraph, an I.C.E. official from Washington, told the paper that after driving to Guadalupe to watch Sheriff Joe in action: “I saw nothing that gave me heartburn.”

It’s past time for Congress to hold hearings on these agreements, starting with a subpoena for Sheriff Joe.

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NYRB: Military Recruitment

An interesting article from the New York Review of Books about the strategies military recruiters are using, targeting the growing group of minority students who wish to pursue a college education and selling the military as a means of getting this education. As a Defense Department report put it:

The most dramatic social force affecting military enlistment is the interest in college attendance. Youth are focused on education and work, with the Military as an afterthought. The percentage of minorities completing high school is increasing, and college is becoming a reality for a greater proportion of the minority population. This increase in college aspirations and college attendance should be expected to continue.

. And here is the rest of it.

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Saturday, March 8, 2008

el participante, volume 1 issue 3

Read this doc on Scribd: elparticipante-1-3


Malena Arnaud Participantes, Not Spectators
Paco Martin Del Campo The Wire
Thai Jones Yanqui, Go Home
Neha Nimmagudda Post-Apartheid African Politics

the core Huey P. Newton, 10 Point Program of the Black Panther Party


MALENA ARNAUD is the secretary of Lucha. She is a first-year at Barnard considering majoring in anthropology. ILIANA FÉLIZ is the vice president of Lucha and the secretary of the Chicano Caucus. She stud-ies political science and anthropology.

DANIELA GARCÍA is the treasurer of Lucha. She is a first-year at Columbia College considering majoring in philosophy and political science.

DAVID JUDD is a member of the International Socialist Organization and Columbia Coalition Against the War. He studies computer science at the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

THAI JONES is a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department. His research focuses on early twentieth-century radical movements. Thai is the author of A Radical Line: From the Labor
Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family’s Century of Conscience

NEHA NIMMAGUDDA studies Sociology and Political Science at Columbia College. She is currently in South Africa studying the politics of recognition, resistance, and representation.

PACO MARTIN DEL CAMPO is the campus liason for Lucha, and political chair of the Chicano Caucus. He is a first-year at Columbia College and considering majoring in history and anthropology.

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el participante, volume 1 issue 3

Post-Apartheid South African Politics

Many charismatic leaders emerged out of the fifty-year struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. African National Congress (ANC) icon Nelson Mandela is perhaps the best known, but student leader Steven Bantu Biko, Walter Sisulu of the ANC, Pan-African Congress party leader Robert Sobukwe, and South African Communist Party secretary-general Chris Hani were equally important in the anti-apartheid movement. Over the four trying years that immediately followed the end of apartheid, these leaders of the former liberation movement and their groups, particularly the ANC, achieved decisive political ascendancy.

Ever since its victory in the 1994 elections, the ANC has been relatively unchallenged. It has been able to maintain this success is largely due to the nature of its “historic compromise.” Once in power, the ANC immediately sought to institutionalize the political voice of its partners in the anti-apartheid struggle, creating an alliance between itself, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), and the South African Communist Party (SACP). The Tripartite Alliance has generally endorsed the ANC candidates in national elections, thereby consolidating the vote of the left and internalizing political debate.

The Alliance’s early successes rested on an extremely progressive Constitution and the Labour Relations Act, which established a high level of worker’s rights, although it did not provide for centralized bargaining across industries and sectors. The subsequent passage of the Redistribution and Development Programme similarly affirmed the social democratic spirit of the Alliance. Popularly seen as the “people’s programme,” it guaranteed redistribution first and set forth a model of a developmental state, with an extensive social “safety net” based on its people-centered and “basic needs” approach.

Soon after its victory in 1994, however, the ANC began to rethink its economic policy. It inherited a state facing increasing debt, unemployment, high interest rates, and a tradition of protectionism. South Africa was a new nation in an increasingly hostile international environment of globalization. Fearing capital flight from South Africa, and eager to sooth the concerns of foreign investors, the ANC made an economic policy shift. The social democracy that had been at the heart of the anti-apartheid movement and the Alliance quickly eroded with the adoption of a new macroeconomic policy, Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR).

The ANC thus began to concentrate on externally driven, globally competitive growth through a neo-liberal agenda that stressed macroeconomic stability rather than internal development. It was a self-imposed structural adjustment program, similar to those imposed on developing nations by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. GEAR was supposed to create up to 270,000 new jobs, however it actually resulted in the loss of 125,000 jobs. Although strong labor laws have made it difficult for employers to hire and fire workers, the major winner of this shift was big business. Nationally, the GEAR policy has lowered the budget deficit, public debt, and inflation. It has also increased poverty and inequality and limited foreign direct investment.

This new capitalist agenda championed by the ANC have led to high growth rates but have also further entrenched the class divides in the post-apartheid state. Mandela left office in 1999 after one term with most promises of the ANC unfulfilled, including rights to free education, free housing, and access to basic services, problems which persist today. South Africans wait years for government housing and students protest the expensive fees and mounting debts for their education.

Today, South Africa ranks as one of the most unequal societies in the world, right behind Brazil. High growth rates of GDP have been accompanied by even higher unemployment, resulting in a “jobless growth.” The primary benefactors of the shift to majority rule has been the black middle class, yet what remained in the wake of an incredible political transformation was an extremely economically and socially divided society. This exacerbated the existing conditions of violent crime, HIV/AIDS and lack of access to basic services such as water and electricity for a large percentage of the country’s population—especially those in rural areas.

Consequently, frustration and disillusionment, especially among those who have remained in poverty through the transition, have permeated the national mood and created internal rifts within the ANC and the Tripartite Alliance. In the past, the COSATU and SACP—whose class-consciousness and mobilization of the black working class was crucial to the large-scale social change that the anti-apartheid movement created—had often encouraged the sloganeering of the ANC and supported the Mbeki administration in order to maintain broad support. However, after GEAR the two groups became increasingly critical of the ANC, particularly when Mbeki excavated his socialist rhetoric when it was politically advantageous.

Many members of the ANC became similarly disillusioned with Mbeki and his standard aloofness. These tensions erupted last December, when the ANC elected Jacob Zuma over incumbent South African President Thabo Mbeki as its party leader, and thus the most likely ANC presidential candidate in the April 2009 elections.

Well before the December vote, Mbeki had gathered a reputation for being an alienating figure, within the ANC and within the country more generally—never able to emulate the charisma of his predecessor. His peculiar stance on the HIV/AIDS pandemic—that HIV does not lead to AIDS—has elicited debates in a country that faces some of the highest HIV prevalence rates in the world. Furthermore, Mbeki has staffed his cabinet and ministries with supporters of his brand of denialism. Critics accuse him of corruption and centralization within his administration. He has sharply dissented with his left-wing allies in SACP, antagonizing its current leader Blade Nzimande, and the workers of the COSATU. They have in turn thrown their weight behind Zuma.

Zuma is the only significant opposition candidate. Many news outlets have focused on the personality of Zuma in their coverage of the December election. A former houseboy, Zuma rose through the ranks of the anti-apartheid movement, eventually making a name for himself as a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed branch of the ANC. The former secretariat of the COSATU, Zuma has campaigned on guaranteed incomes for the poor and advocated the nationalization of basic industries. Zuma has garnered support from the COSATU, the SACP, and also the youth and womens’ leagues. Zuma has amassed considerable support in the province of Kwa-Zulu Natal, a traditional Zulu stronghold. Zuma is an ethnic Zulu himself, yet many argue that people from Kwa-Zulu Natal identify more with his populist message and similar background, growing up in poor rural area, than with his ethnicity.

Zuma has portrayed himself as distinctly anti-Mbeki. His populism contrasts significantly with the elite intellectual image of Mbeki. This populist image, however, contradicts his previously moderate stance within the ANC. There is no evidence to suggest that he intends to actually implement his populist agenda. He has called himself a socialist at times, but he has also moved to ensure the protection of foreign investments, even going so far as to meet with Western and Asian donors to allay their worries.

Zuma, like Mbeki, has also courted controversy. Mbeki himself dismissed Zuma from his position as Vice President, after charges of corruption and bribery (for which he was convicted), and rape (for which he was later acquitted). In that highly publicized trial, he was ridiculed for his odd views on sex, which included assertions that he did not contract HIV because he showered after unprotected intercourse with an HIV-positive woman. Regarding Zuma, Mbeki has argued that “the ANC must not elect someone the country will be ashamed of.”

Almost as soon as his victory was announced in December, Zuma was hit eighteen charges of corruption for a $4 billion weapons deal. The maneuver is seen by many in government as Mbeki’s last attempt to deter Zuma’s candidacy in next year’s general elections and to hold rank.

The constitutionality of these charges are currently being assessed by the country’s highest court. If they are affirmed and he faces trial and is convicted, Zuma’s ability to stand as ANC candidate for presidency will evaporate. Zuma’s conviction—which seems more than likely, given the fact that Zuma’s financial advisor has already been convicted—would seem to augur the end of the Tripartite Alliance, as SACP and COSATU would almost undoubtedly endorse another candidate. Having been so far exemplar of one-party politics, it appears that after fourteen years, young South Africa is finally witnessing the first real test of its democracy.

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el participante, volume 1 issue 3

Yanqui, Go Home

I arrived in Cuba with a guilty conscience. When I landed at the Havana airport, I was the only passenger detained by security. This was fine, I knew I had it coming to me. Two hostile guards rifled my bags, watching me with the suspicious glares that I deserved – I was a representative, after all, of the great Imperialist peril to the North. These sentries could not be expected to know how sympathetic I was to their nation’s achievements. I was more than happy to allow them this speck of revenge.

I celebrated New Year’s Eve with a family of exiled Basque separatists. In their kitchen, we smoked romeo y julieta cigars, drank anejo rum, and debated revolutionary theory until long past midnight. Then, the conversation stopped and the singing began. We sang epics from the Basque lands, peasant hymns, and anarchist fight songs. The older generation knew the verses. The rest of us shouted the refrains, beating our glasses on the table. When the last one ended I stood and offered a song of my own: a ballad about Americans who had fought in the Spanish Civil War. I remembered most of the words, and everyone joined in for the chorus. Singing about the Abraham Lincoln Brigades to Basque revolutionaries in the socialist capital of the world—this was a superabundance of forbidden political delights. If only the airport guards could have seen me then.

This was six years ago. Like most American leftists, I had been raised to idealize the Cuban revolution. Fearing that Castro would not be around much longer, I wanted to see a socialist state when I had the chance. Last week, after fifty years in power, Fidel, 81, transferred authority to his brother, Raul, who is 76. Though this was just a half-step toward a post-Castro Cuba, the change renewed concerns about the consequences of that eventual transition.

Cuba’s fate is not a recent concern for American leftists. My family’s involvement is typical of the connection many have felt with the island. My grandparents visited the country just one year after the revolution. They returned home to found the Brooklyn chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Then, when Fidel came to New York in 1960, they wrote to Havana and asked him to stay with them in their house near Prospect Park. The Cubans thanked my grandparents for their “generous offer,” but said they had made other arrangements. In 1969, my mother traveled to Havana with a group of SDS activists. She met with Cubans, as well as South Vietnamese guerrillas, to coordinate a global strategy for the antiwar movement. The Vietnamese were quiet and awe-inspiring; some had walked for weeks along the Ho Chi Minh Trail before flying to the conference.

For fifty years, Cuba has embodied American leftists’ dreams and frustrations about their own country. Before Castro’s revolution, the Soviets had served this purpose. In the 1920s and 1930s, radical students in the United States saw their own ambitions in the successes of Lenin and Stalin. Long after the Soviet reality had destroyed its initial possibilities, American leftists clung to its example. Stalin’s reputation among leftists here survived better than it did among his own citizens.

Critics might see this as a sign of radical naiveté, but in fact the idealization of the Soviet Union was perfectly practical. In order to reform the United States, leftists needed to find a model with which to compare it. The Russia of their imagination had nothing to do with Stalinist realities. Instead, it symbolized their hopes for their own country. As such it was a powerful ally to invoke in domestic struggles. In the 1930s and 1940s, American leftists continually compared U.S. government policies—on racism and the rights of labor—with their imagined conception of how the Russians behaved. When the evil of Stalinism became impossible to ignore, many pinned their hopes on China. In the 1960s, Vietnam and Cuba became the beacons for American radical ambition.

Only Cuba retains a system that can be construed as really existing socialism. This is partly because Cuba had no choice. It has none of the explosive potential of the Asian nations, and thus investors have had less of an incentive to interfere in its economy. Likewise, the US government’s hostility to the Castro administration plays a significant role. The embargo, as well as continuous diplomatic tension, has prevented Cuba from loosening its domestic policies. It is the United States, ironically, that keeps Cuba socialist.

The island, to be sure, is not completely isolated. It participates in the global economy, but does not trade with the United States. These days, the cars in Havana are equally divided between the classic Detroit models for which the nation is famous, Polskis, Ladas, and other Soviet-bloc imports, and late-model Japanese or European imports. Of all Cuba’s exports, the most important is its people. Several generations have been trained and brought up by the Revolution—they are its greatest achievement. But these educated professionals have no opportunity to pursue their careers at home. In recent years, they have been forced to leave the country to find work in Canada or Spain.

The American Left is not the only group concerned with Cuba’s future. Its hope that the revolution will continue to serve as the last redoubt for fading twentieth-century ideologies may be a bit self-involved, but it is positively altruistic compared with the vulturine ambitions of the White House, or the anti-Castro lobby in Miami. In the next few years, things will change, and the only constituency that really matters is the Cuban people. They neither want to serve as sacrifices to the sentimentality of American leftists, nor do they want to usher in the inequities of unalloyed capitalism, as happened in China or Russia. They want to maintain the gains of the revolution, and to improve upon them. They want the ability to travel and stay in hotels, to have internet access and cable TV. If Cubans can achieve these concessions, and find the opportunities they seek at home, then the Revolution will no longer be an abstraction onto which foreigners can inscribe their hopes and fears. It will once again be a model of a global alternative to capitalism.

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el participante, volume 1 issue 3

The Wire

“It all matters,” Sergeant Ellis Carver says in season 5 of The Wire. “I know we thought it didn’t, but it does.”

Sergeant Ellis Carver’s observation about institutional neglect speaks to the success that the series has enjoyed. The Wire isn’t getting the attention at the Emmy’s or in the Nielson ratings, but critics are hailing it as the best show in television history this side of Roots. More importantly, it is very popular among the demographic it depicts: residents of the inner-city. Low ratings and accolades aside, the resonance of The Wire among urban-dwellers reveals that the gritty realism of the show captures something elemental about the violent, corrupt, and conflict ridden life of American cities.

The Wire’s low ratings indicate a disturbing truth in America. “Reality” television remains popular, but a program that portrays the harsh realities of our country is not what people seem to want to see. As The Wire demonstrates, we are all individually woven into a complex social fabric. The visceral nature of The Wire throws mainstream America’s complacent cognitive dissonance back in its face, and apparently most Americans would rather ignore systems of oppression that implicate themselves as participants. Sergeant Carver’s quote could be applied to privileged America’s overall attitude of willful neglect of “the other America.” It does indeed matter, but the media, political leaders and infrastructure, and “middle-class” Americans all act as if they think it doesn’t.

The Wire began its first season as a deceivingly simple cops-and-robbers narrative. It traced the efforts of Baltimore city detectives to infiltrate the West Baltimore drug trade monopoly using telephone-surveillance, or a wiretap, hence the series’ name. However, this was never a typical one-dimensional cops and robbers story. Avon Barksdale, the drug kingpin, was portrayed as a modern-day black “Godfather,” a family-man who simultaneously was ruthless and provided support for his entourage. Two detectives, Bunk and McNulty, are alcoholic womanizers, especially McNulty, who is a belligerent and irresponsible father and husband. Some cops commit blatant police brutality. One of the most popular characters of the show, Omar, makes a living by robbing drug-pushers and generally creating chaos for narco-traffickers. He is also homosexual. These are only a few examples of the ways that every character in The Wire is humanized and quite multifaceted.

Each subsequent season expanded in focus, incorporating other elements of the American city beyond the narrow drugs and detectives storyline. Season two incorporated the longshoremen’s unions and the dock-workers, portraying the cruelties of modern capitalistic enterprise and its detriments to the working-class. Season three brought in city politics, depicting how the mayor and city council’s personal political ambitions trump actual reduction of crime in the city. Season four dealt with the failing school system, with specific emphasis on schools’ blatant refusal to acknowledge the traumatic socialization facing black males. Season five, the current and last season, depicts the inner-workings and pitfalls of the media, as represented by The Baltimore Sun. The “wire,” then, was no longer a simple reference to wiretapping, but became a metaphor for the interconnectedness of all these institutions and how they affect and relate to each other.

There are too many complex themes in The Wire to fully discuss, but a few specific themes can help explain the show’s popularity among both critics and certain dedicated viewers. Painful relationships, such as a teenage boy who has to keep the DSS (welfare) card from his crack-addicted mother, strike a chord with anyone who has known a “crack baby.” Indeed, the line “I’m not paying you to be my mother,” is at once powerful and heartbreaking. The effects of repressive conditions on the human psyche are another common theme. A silent foster child, traumatized in ways left only to our imagination, stares blankly with no recognition of his social surroundings. His silence speaks to the silence imposed on the oppressed every day. The homeless veteran of the Iraq War, recounting the story of watching his commander lose his hands and laugh insanely during an attack in Fallujah (“It’s the laughing that I can’t stand. No hands: whatever”) speaks to the insanity war, both in foreign countries and the more intimate war on the streets of Baltimore. All these resonate deeply with those who have seen and lived these tragic circumstances.

Of course, the critics’ adoration of The Wire has more to do with the observations that the series makes about the structural failures of city infrastructure. When the schools are failing, the mayor takes money from crime-fighting units to compensate, but he, along with the rest of us, will ignore them again as soon as the media no longer has a story to put on the front page. Budget distribution is a teeter-totter of lies, pandering momentarily to the political winds, only to be taken the moment people stop caring. Perception and power are two other themes that are very prominent in The Wire. Political ambitions, whether they are to become a city prosecutor or the governor, dictate every action. Politicians and careerists are only concerned with public perception.

Even the drug traffickers are conscious of perception. If he (they are mostly men) shows any weakness or doubt, he opens the door for insubordination and competition, usually coming in the form of gun shots. So drug dealers must be cruel and heartless in their actions. Seasons four and five deal with this theme explicitly, observing a well-intentioned city councilman running for mayor with the earnest intention of changing Baltimore who, one year later, is “juking the crime stats”—altering the statistics so the are misleading, emphasizing quantity of arrests over quality—in hopes of a gubernatorial bid. Officials wielding political power do so for personal gain, not for the greater good of Baltimore. Even when a corrupt official is prosecuted, he becomes a pariah that falls to preserve the system, not end it.

But The Wire does more than observe the structural problems facing American cities. It also raises interesting questions, such as who actually has power. The police commissioner has direct control over investigations and resource distribution, and the mayor is mostly just briefed about crime-fighting. Careerist bureaucrats, more interested in numerous low-level arrests than the few leaders of the crime organizations, decide how crime is fought. It’s not just about who has the power in the political systems. The local drug lords have much more influence over youth than any local leaders or law enforcement, and young, intelligent black males (and some females) are more likely to end up on the corner, working for the drug kingpins, than in college (or even high school for that matter). Drug dealers hold sway over urban youth far more so than any political organization or detective unit. The drug trade is depicted as more efficient and rational than the bureaucratic mess downtown. They make more money, and even provide more money for youth in Baltimore, than the police can even conceptualize. The drug-pushers are, of course, ruthless, oppressive, and dehumanizing on their own and are not to be emulated, but The Wire suggests that the political, economic, and educational institutions in power hold less influence over the hearts and minds of urban denizens than the drug dealers they label as criminals. Those social institutions are simultaneously enforcing the dehumanizing conditions and are almost powerless to stop it.

The creators of The Wire, David Simon and Ed Burns, know the city of Baltimore quite intimately. Simon was a police reporter for The Baltimore Sun, and Burns is a former police detective and teacher in Baltimore. Most of the events and themes in The Wire are based on their own experiences working in Baltimore, and Baltimore is indeed the heart of the show. The language and culture in The Wire is uniquely “B-More,” but the themes of The Wire are universally shared by urban communities, and the series provides a powerful argument for why American cities remain poor, corrupt, and dehumanizing places for their residents.

The themes in The Wire touch on problems that face every American city plagued by racist political and economic systems, the stark inequality of the post-industrial economy, and institutional failures to meet these crises. Creator David Simon himself said that The Wire is about how we are subject to institutions—political, educational, governmental, media, narcotic—that consistently fail us. There probably has never been a fictional show with more sociological and political significance than The Wire. Despite American’s preference for the farce of “reality” television, The Wire’s unprecedented broadcast on a popular network like HBO enables a large audience to finally see the inequities of American life and what is happening our cities. Perhaps more importantly, it gives a voice to people who have been silenced in America, like the foster child, the corner boys, the single mothers, crack babies, and everyone else on the block.

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