"As long as we are not chased from our words we have nothing to fear. As long as our utterances keep their sound we have a voice. As long as our words keep their sense we have a soul." -- Edmond Jabes, from The Book of Yukel, Return to the Book

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Deportation = Separation: On family (de)unification

Clemente Pacaja lights the stove as he begins preparing his daughter Keyle's breakfast.

I have a story today at NJ Spotlight on the difficulties faced by families with "split" immigration status -- families in which at least one person has legal status (as a legal resident or citizen) and one lacks legal status. They struggle with the immigration bureaucracy, and live in constant fear that their families will be split up -- that a parent, a spouse, a child may be deported, or that the entire family might be forced to live in exile.

My story today leads with Clemente Pacaja, a naturalized citizen whose wife is essentially trapped in Guatemala, where she returned as part of an effort to regularize her immigration status. Essentially, the family -- Clemente, his wife Zonia and their daughter Keyle -- are being punished for their attempt to comply with federal law.

Current immigration law in the United States is family based -- meaning it gives preference to reuniting families over most other motivations. Most immigrants, if they are to come legally, must prove family connections or have a family member petition for their entry.

Is this the best approach? I don't know, but it is the approach we've been using, which makes the story of the Pacajas and others so incomprehensible to me. Unifying families has been our goal, but then we create situations in which families are fractured, even those who are otherwise law-abiding residents.

There is a larger debate to be had about immigration -- I tend to believe we assume freedom of movement as a human right and that restricting it can only be defended for very specific and delineated reasons. (David Miller discusses it here, though I think some of his reasoning is incomplete). Those reasons can and should be debated and might include safety and economic concerns, on both sides -- i.e., protecting the safety and economic security of the United States, but also recognizing that immigrants often are fleeing from unsafe and economically insecure nations.

Comprehensive reform has been stymied by immigration hardliners in the Republican Party, and with the election of Donald Trump we can assume that, rather than debating comprehensive reform, we will be arguing over deportations, a border wall, religious and national entry bans and so on.

In the meantime, I want to give Clemente Pacaja a chance to speak in his own words. The video is in Spanish, and a translation (done by Maria Juega of the Latin American Legal Defense and Education Fund) is provided below:

Good morning and good afternoon.
Thanks to all those people who will be watching me on the internet or on television. I am a husband who has petitioned for his wife in Guatemala. Unfortunately, there was a question she could not answer and she remains in Guatemala.

I ask God that this problem can be resolved soon. Sincerely, we are suffering; my daughter and I; I miss her and my girl misses her mother and sincerely her health is getting worse and she asks me every day “where is my mommy?”.And I hope in God that everything is resolved soon.

I want to give thanks to all the people who are helping me. Especially, Mrs. Sara Batres, and my Congresswoman Mrs. Watson-Coleman. May God bless and protect them wherever they are. And also, the journalist who interviewed me, I wish them all the best.

I hope that my story is heard by people who have a similar case to my wife’s so we can be in contact with one another and figure out what we can do with the immigration officers in Guatemala, who are coming down hard, by questioning people who are led to believe that all they are going down for is to get their visas legally and come right back. But it actually does not happen like this. So now you have to think twice whether to trust that your loved ones can rely on the waiver that supposedly they were given, so I am really asking that if there are other Guatemalans with similar cases let’s get in touch with one another and raise our voices so that this doesn’t keep happening. And I am very sincerely grateful and may God help you and protect you.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Throwback Thursday: Talking Occupy Wall Street blues

The anger at elites -- from both sides of the aisle -- is not new. Here is a piece I wrote back in 2011 about traveling Occupy protesters.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Success, failure and Donald J. Trump

I want to offer a short rebuttal to an argument that's been making the rounds. Here's an example, from President Barack Obama:
“We now are going to want to do everything we can to help you succeed because if you succeed, then the country succeeds,” Obama told Trump.

John Oliver deconstructed the argument on Sunday, saying it normalized Donald Trump.

Oliver is right, but doesn't go far enough. When dealing with presidencies, it is important to recognize that success is relative and dependent upon how we define the term. There are a number of ways the nation can move forward, even grow economically or win on a battlefield, but not all of them should be deemed successful.

In the case of Trump, it is important to remember what he proposed on the campaign trail -- deportations, bans on Muslims, attacks on the press, etc. If he follows through and makes even a portion of those things happen, he might be viewed as successful. We, as a nation, however, would have failed.

So, if success is deportation of 3 million, a border wall, overturning Roe v. Wade, expanded libel laws, a return of stop and frisk, preventing entrance of Muslim immigrants and refugees, then we cannot allow Trump to succeed. That is what people are protesting about. That is why we can't sit back and see what he does. There is far too much at stake.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Notes on 'Guns of Brixton'

I wrote this about two years ago -- I think -- as a standalone essay for a friend's publication. It didn't run. I am now working it into a longer essay, but thought I'd share it.

Notes on 'Guns of Brixton'

Few songs capture the current American zeitgeist better than a 36-year-old, reggae-influenced punk song by an iconic English band with a fetish for American and Jamaican roots music.

The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” -- with its themes of desperation and fear, with its sense that the government or some other ominous threat might arrive at any minute and “kick at your front door,” with its expectation of “no future,” as Johnny Rotten screeched with the Sex Pistols just a few years earlier -- is a song of its time and place to be sure.

But it also is a song of our time and our world, reaching beyond the United Kingdom in the late-‘70s to the wider world. From an American perspective, it is a song that captures post-9/11 paranoia and the intrusiveness of the surveillance state in a few lines. It sums up our post-crash economy, one of haves and have-nots, of lost housing, lost income, lost savings and, most importantly, lost faith. In its thumping, ominous bass-line, you can hear the anger of the American street, of Baltimore and Ferguson and Cleveland and so many other American cities as Paul Simonon sings,

Shot down on the pavement Waiting in death row His game is called survivin' As in heaven as in hell

It is a song that has been covered several times – by Kurt Vile, Nouvelle Vague and others – but never as powerfully as by reggae legend Jimmy Cliff, who issued it on a 2011 EP Sacred Fire and then on his masterful 2012 comeback album, Rebirth.

Cliff’s version opens with an acoustic guitar strumming the baseline, percussion adding counterpoint. Cliff enters, his voice softer than Strummer’s, the anger tempered – a sense of mourning, perhaps, but the voice is clear, the diction precise, ominous in its own way. Consider it a warning. Or reportage. Cliff is recording an homage to The Clash and Joe Strummer, but also offering a statement on what was happening in contemporary Great Britain.

“While I was recording the song,” he told NME in 2012 after the release of Rebirth, “there were some riots going on here in England, too.”

It seems obvious now, Cliff covering “Guns of Brixton.” After all, the Simonon-penned track is a nod to the reggae great, a noir-inspired story of a hustler in working-class England that echoes the story told in the film The Harder They Come, even name-dropping the film and the character Cliff played.

Cliff told NME he recorded the song as a tribute to his friend, Joe Strummer, who died in December 2002. The Clash’s front man had performed on Cliff’s uneven 2004 record Black Magic.

Rebirth is Cliff’s best album since the 1970s, mostly because he goes back to his roots, grounding the record in an earlier reggae sound. Produced by Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, it is devoid of the techno-accoutrements of reggaeton or the toastmaster school, but it is not a nostalgia trip (aside from the brilliant “Reggae Music”).

In many ways, “Guns of Brixton” is the defining track – as I think, in retrospect, it is on London Calling. It is a British working-class anthem turned on its head, written at a time when unemployment and prices were approaching post-World War II highs. Energy shortages were the norm, strikes were rampant in England, and American industry was beginning to ship manufacturing jobs overseas. There were riots in England, the hostage crisis in the United States and the ascension of new conservative governments in both countries.

London Calling addresses this, both musically and lyrically, mixing post-punk anthems with reggae- and ska-inspired tracks that capture the changing racial demographics as well as anything that would hit the air waves. While the title track and songs like “Lost in the Supermarket” and “Train in Vain” received the radio play, it was “Guns of Brixton” that offered the most pointed nod to the economic discontent. The Clash version opens with Simonon’s snaking bass line (noir that you can dance to), followed by the drum, scratching vinyl and a guitar that sounds like the echo of a rifle shot. Simonon, making his first lead vocal appearance with the band, enters, menace in his voice, and raises the existential question:
When they kick at your front door
How you gonna come?
With your hands on your head
Or on the trigger of your gun
It is a question that repeats, addressed to the prisoner, to the victim of police violence, always punctuated by an insurgent’s message:
You can crush us
You can bruise us
But you'll have to answer to
Oh, the guns of Brixton
“Answer to” – a phrase indicative of a time of uprising, of rebellion, of the goals of the Occupy movement, of the Arab spring, of a roiling discontent that flared into violence in Ferguson and Baltimore and threatens other cities. Cliff was aware of this, as he said, when he entered the studio. The album, while not as expansive or eclectic as London Calling, mines much of the same thematic turf.

“Basically,” he told the Boston Globe, “I’m motivated to write about sociopolitical issues as well as relationships. I think those themes have stayed with me throughout my life.”

Rebirth opens with a statement about the economy, war and the environment -- “World Upside Down” – and continues with songs proclaiming not just a right to speak, but the need to do so, and to fight back, to rebel (including a rewrite of his classic anti-war anthem “Vietnam” as “Afghanistan”).

“Guns of Brixton” sits near the center of the record and follows the very Clash-like “Bang,” a song with a snaking guitar line and screams a la “Know Your Rights” that is a paean to independence, to personal growth, to protest. “Take your stand and make your bang,” Cliff sings above the guitar and noirish bass, before giving way to the Clash cover, to a matter-of-fact warning – “you’ll have to answer to” – set atop an acoustic guitar, a saxophone breaking in like the police, or like Ivan in The Harder They Come.

In Cliff’s hands, the song is freed from the ominous claustrophobic feel of the original and is reborn, to borrow from the album’s title, as an anti-anthem for a new era.

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Friday, November 11, 2016

Perilous times predicted

I don't agree fully with Chris Hedges in this column -- he is correct about the dangers and the damage done to our institutions, but then ignores he mechanics of the system in assuming that third-party candidates do anything more than syphon votes away from the two majority parties.

I share this, though, because of this Noam Chomsky quotation -- an eerie prediction made six years ago:
“The United States is extremely lucky that no honest, charismatic figure has arisen,” Chomsky went on. “Every charismatic figure is such an obvious crook that he destroys himself, like [Eugene] McCarthy or [Richard] Nixon or the evangelist preachers. If somebody comes along who is charismatic and honest, this country is in real trouble because of the frustration, disillusionment, the justified anger and the absence of any coherent response. What are people supposed to think if someone says, ‘I have got an answer, we have an enemy’? There, it was the Jews. Here, it will be the illegal immigrants and the blacks. We will be told that white males are a persecuted minority. We will be told we have to defend ourselves and the honor of the nation. Military force will be exalted. People will be beaten up. This could become an overwhelming force. And if it happens, it will be more dangerous than Germany. The United States is the world power. Germany was powerful but had more powerful antagonists. I don’t think all this is very far away. If the polls are accurate, it is not the Republicans but the right-wing Republicans, the crazed Republicans, who will sweep the next election.”