Posts tagged New York Times

Death by Homeland Security #3: The Disappeared

From Nina Bernstein and Margot Williams, The New York Times (2009-04-02): Immigrant Detainee Dies, and a Life Is Buried, Too:

The hand-scrawled letter from a New Jersey jail was urgent. An immigration detainee had died that day, Sept. 9, 2005, a fellow inmate wrote in broken English, describing chest pains and pleas for medical attention that went unheeded until too late.

Death … need to be investigated, he urged a local group that corresponded with foreigners held for deportation at the jail, the Monmouth County Correctional Institute in Freehold. We care very much because that can happen to anyone of us.

Yet like a message in a bottle tossed from a distant shore, even the fact of the detainee’s death was soon swept away.

Inquiries by the local group were rebuffed by jail officials. Complaints forwarded to the Department of Homeland Security were logged, then forgotten. And when pressure from Congress and the news media compelled Immigration and Customs Enforcement to produce the first list of people who had died in their custody, the Freehold case was not on it.

The difficulty of confirming the very existence of the dead man, Ahmad Tanveer, 43, a Pakistani New Yorker, shows how death can fall between the cracks [sic! —R.G.] in immigration detention, the rapidly growing patchwork of more than 500 county jails, profit-making prisons and federal detention centers where half a million noncitizens were held during the last year while the government tried to deport them.

… Even now, most questions about Mr. Tanveer are unanswered, including just who he was and why he had been detained. The rescue of his death from oblivion took a rare mix of chance, vigilance by a few citizen activists, litigation by the civil liberties union and several months of inquiry by The Times. Even as the newspaper confirmed Mr. Tanveer’s death with jail officials, and tracked his body’s path from a Freehold morgue to the cargo hold of an airplane at Kennedy Airport, immigration authorities maintained that they could find no documents showing such a person was ever detained, or died in their custody.

Not until March 20, in response to a new request by The Times under the Freedom of Information Act, did the agency release an internal e-mail message acknowledging that the death had been overlooked. It issued a corrected list that now includes him — his first and last names transposed — among 90 people who died in immigration custody between Oct. 7, 2003, and Feb. 7, 2009.

… In Mr. Tanveer’s case, efforts to draw public scrutiny were exceptional, yet went nowhere. The scrawled note by his fellow detainee, a Nigerian who garbled the dead man’s name as Ahmed Tender, reached citizen activists at the New Jersey Civil Rights Defense Committee, who were unable to confirm it. Other complaints that Mr. Tanveer did not receive proper care separately reached a former member of the group, Jean Blum, a disabled Holocaust survivor who had continued corresponding with dozens of detainees from her home in Paterson, N.J., even though she could barely afford the postage.

I am very, very aware of the issues that involve displaced people, said Ms. Blum, 73, who was a child when she and her parents, Polish Jews, fled the Nazis. I could not turn my back, because that is my history.

Ms. Blum forwarded a packet of correspondence about the death to the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general by Sept. 20, 2005, seeking an investigation. But within weeks, documents show, the matter was simply passed for internal inquiry to the immigration agency, which is part of Homeland Security, with the notation that it need not bother to report back its findings.

Years after Mr. Tanveer’s death, the scrawled note about his heart attack came to the attention of the A.C.L.U., and its lawyers noticed that no such name appeared on the first government list of 66 people published by The Times in 2008. The union added the name to its lawsuit, and eventually obtained the paper trail on what Ms. Blum had sent the government.

The union learned that the inspector general’s office had written up a synopsis of the allegations for investigation by the immigration agency, saying that Ahmad Tander, a Pakistani detainee housed at the Monmouth jail, had died from a heart attack whose symptoms were obvious, severe and ignored until it was too late, amid conditions of neglect and indifference to medical needs.

But when the A.C.L.U. pressed for more, government lawyers said no further records could be found.

Early this year, The Times called a spokeswoman for the Monmouth County Sheriff, who confirmed the death and gave the name as Tanver — later correcting the spelling to Tanveer.

In names transcribed from a foreign alphabet, such variations often pose a problem of identification. But the facts matched: Mr. Tanveer had arrived at the jail in immigration custody on Aug. 12, 2005, and on Sept. 9 was taken by ambulance to CentraState Medical Center in Freehold, where he died, the spokeswoman, Cynthia Scott, said. Under the jail’s federal contract, she said, nothing more could be disclosed.

A CentraState spokesman initially denied that such a patient had died at the hospital. Later the medical record was found misfiled, and the spokesman, James M. Goss, confirmed the man’s death at age 43. But, citing privacy laws and policy, he declined to answer other questions about the case, including what had happened to the body.

In New Jersey, as in many states, autopsy reports are private. But the county morgue confirmed that an autopsy had been performed. Eventually, two details were shared: the name of the Queens funeral home that picked up the body for burial on Sept. 12, and the fact that the autopsy report was sent two months later to Mark Stokes, an official in the New York office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Yet for more than three years since, the tallies and testimony that the agency submitted to Congress about detainee deaths have not included the Tanveer case.

In January 2009, equipped with confirmation, The Times again requested documents in Mr. Tanveer’s death. President Obama had just directed federal agencies to err on the side of transparency in releasing records to the public. But a Freedom of Information officer soon said she was stymied: Immigration record-keepers told her no documents could be located without the dead man’s date of birth or eight-digit alien registration number.

And the body? The director of the funeral home, Coppola-Migliore in Corona, Queens, said Mr. Tanveer’s New York relatives had it flown to Pakistan for burial, using Pakistan International Airlines. But the funeral director declined to identify the relatives without their permission and said they had not returned phone calls. And the Pakistani Consulate had no record of the case.

Also futile was a search for witnesses among fellow detainees, many since deported. The Nigerian detainee who wrote the urgent letter, an ailing diabetic, was later released pending a deportation hearing. According to social workers at the Queens-based charity that was his last known contact, he is now a homeless fugitive, lost in the streets of New York.

Victoria L. Allred, chief of staff in the financial office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, wrote in an internal e-mail message March 4 that the death had not been discovered until after the chart omitting it had been submitted to Congress for the latest subcommittee hearing, March 3. I apologize for the discrepancy, she wrote.

Yet as of Thursday, immigration authorities still have not released records on Mr. Tanveer’s detention or death, which they attribute to occlusive coronary atherosclerosis, nor have they addressed the complaint that his heart attack went untreated in the jail for more than two hours.

On the expanded list, he is the only detainee with no birth date. And in the e-mail message acknowledging the death, his alien registration number has been redacted — to protect his privacy, the government said.

— Nina Bernstein and Margot Williams, The New York Times (2009-04-02): Immigrant Detainee Dies, and a Life Is Buried, Too

Ahmad Tanveer was abducted, caged, deliberately denied medical care and left to die in jail, and then disappeared by the United States federal government’s bordercrats and their hired thugs, who have gone up and down the chain of command denying, declining, misfiling and deliberately blocking disclosure of information about the case at every turn. They haven’t done a damned thing to investigate this man’s murder and they’ve did their best for years to make sure that nobody ever found out much of anything about it. The Times deserves a great deal of credit for doggedly investigating, and ultimately exposing, what has been going on in la Migra’s special prison system. But there’s a deep problem with passing it off as a matter of some poor shmoe falling between the cracks of a patchwork system of government immigration jails — as if this were a matter of disorganization or bureaucratic inefficiency — rather than what it is, an act of administrative murder, followed by a campaign of repeated stonewalling and cover-ups, under the excuse of Homeland Security, or on the outrageous claim that they are doing it out of concern for the privacy of their own victim. Not just in this one case, but over, and over again, to God knows how many people:

We still do not know, and we cannot know, if there are other deaths that have never been disclosed by ICE, or that ICE itself knows nothing about, said Tom Jawetz, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, which has been battling in court for months to obtain government records on all detention deaths, including the Freehold case and those named on the first government list, obtained by The New York Times under the Freedom of Information Act and published last year.

We believe we have accounted for every single detainee death, Kelly Nantel, a spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, said last week, adding that a death in March was promptly reported to Congress under a policy directive from Dora Schriro, the new administration’s special adviser on detention.

Yet even the latest list, which Ms. Nantel called comprehensive, thorough, is missing a known death from 2008: that of Ana Romero Rivera, a 44-year-old Salvadoran cleaning woman who was found hanged last August in an isolation cell in a county jail in Frankfort, Ky., where she was awaiting deportation. Federal officials now disagree whether she was legally in their custody when she died.

There are unverified reports that other detainees may have died unnamed and uncounted. At the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center in Miami, for example, directors cite a letter in late July 2007 from a detainee who described an 18-year-old Haitian woman, Mari Rosa, coughing up blood for hours without medical attention at the Glades County Jail in Moore Haven, Fla. The letter said she fell to the ground, had no pulse when she was finally taken to the medical unit and was never brought back, adding, The detainees think she is dead.

The center has been unable to confirm what happened to that woman, said Susana Barciela, its policy director.

… As Congress and the news media brought new scrutiny to the issue, several detention deaths have highlighted problems with medical care and accountability. In one, a Chinese computer engineer’s extensive cancer and fractured spine went undiagnosed at a Rhode Island jail until shortly before he died, despite his pleas for help. In another, records show a Guinean tailor who suffered a skull fracture in a New Jersey jail was left in isolation without treatment for more than 13 hours.

— Nina Bernstein and Margot Williams, The New York Times (2009-04-02): Immigrant Detainee Dies, and a Life Is Buried, Too

Representative Zoe Lofgren of the state of California, is shocked — shocked! — to find that such a thing would be going on in the government’s special immigration prisons:

How can you overlook a guy who died in your custody? asked Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat who has presided over two subcommittee hearings dealing with care and deaths in detention, battling unsuccessfully for full disclosure from immigration officials. Did they forget other people? Was it an isolated, single error, or was it something more sinister?

— Nina Bernstein and Margot Williams, The New York Times (2009-04-02): Immigrant Detainee Dies, and a Life Is Buried, Too

But the answer to these questions are easy. This case — all these cases, and more — happened because of a single error. But not an isolated one. The system itself is the error — there is no possible way to enforce immigration controls without creating special, parallel systems of imprisonment and administrative courts in which basic civil liberties and basic principles of due process are eliminated. There is no possible way for the government to go around trying to detect and exile undocumented immigrants without reversing basic components of due process, like the presumption of innocence. Any system of immigration documentation necessarily places the burden on the documented person to prove to the government’s satisfaction, by producing their documentation, that they have a right to exist where they do — rather than putting the burden on the government to prove that they do not. (The government will no doubt object that they can’t prove a negative. Of course they can’t, which is why they can’t implement a system of border laws within the bounds of anything resembling due process. Which is an argument against border laws, not against due process.) Any system of border laws whatever will always produce special prisons and special courts for the administration of the federal Fugitive Alien Acts, in which those imprisoned and judged will be stripped of basic privileges or immunities, and denied any realistic hope of recourse for crimes committed against them.

When Anarchists speak about a society based on consent, and when we say that we can settle any genuine issue of socio-economic coordination and community life through consensual, grassroots processes of negotiation and free association or dissociation — without government armies, government borders, or government prisons — we are constantly accused, by some sanctimonious know-it-all who presumes that repeating statist chestnuts amounts to hard-nosed realism and some special expertise in history and in the problems of life, of being utopians, whose ideas have no hope of practical workability. But as a matter of fact, we Anarchists have nothing on those who imagine that there can be some right way to run statist institutions, with the right policies in place and with virtuous and competent people to administer them, that will somehow avoid the predictable results that have happened in every other government institution like it. It takes the most naive sort of utopianism, and the cruelest sort of killing negligence, to go on pretending, in the face of both logic and historical evidence, that there is some possible way for government to construct systems of special tribunals in which people are treated as legal non-persons, without bringing along what this sort of thing has always and everywhere produced — effectively unchecked power by the government over its prisoners, who are granted no rights and given no recourse, and, what always follows unchecked power, rampant brutality, negligence, lying, death, and disappearance. There is no way to do it, no way at all. You cannot enforce border laws without constructing a system like that, and you cannot construct a system like that without, eventually, to a greater or a lesser degree, repeating every brutality and every horror that has always come along with every system of legal black holes, special security courts, and concentration camps that the world has ever known.

See also:

Counter-Economic optimism

Several months ago, Bill Patry created quite a stir when he shuttered his blog, where he’d spent four years promoting copyright law reform. One of his two chief reasons for the shut-down was despair at the state of copyright law:

2. The Current State of Copyright Law is too depressing

This leads me to my final reason for closing the blog which is independent of the first reason: my fear that the blog was becoming too negative in tone. I regard myself as a centrist. I believe very much that in proper doses copyright is essential for certain classes of works, especially commercial movies, commercial sound recordings, and commercial books, the core copyright industries. I accept that the level of proper doses will vary from person to person and that my recommended dose may be lower (or higher) than others. But in my view, and that of my cherished brother Sir Hugh Laddie, we are well past the healthy dose stage and into the serious illness stage. Much like the U.S. economy, things are getting worse, not better. Copyright law has abandoned its reason for being: to encourage learning and the creation of new works. Instead, its principal functions now are to preserve existing failed business models, to suppress new business models and technologies, and to obtain, if possible, enormous windfall profits from activity that not only causes no harm, but which is beneficial to copyright owners. Like Humpty-Dumpty, the copyright law we used to know can never be put back together again: multilateral and trade agreements have ensured that, and quite deliberately.

It is profoundly depressing, after 26 years full-time in a field I love, to be a constant voice of dissent. I have tried various ways to leaven this state of affairs with positive postings, much like television news shows that experiment with happy features. I have blogged about great articles others have written, or highlighted scholars who have not gotten the attention they deserve; I tried to find cases, even inconsequential ones, that I can fawn over. But after awhile, this wore thin, because the most important stories are too often ones that involve initiatives that are, in my opinion, seriously harmful to the public interest. I cannot continue to be so negative, so often. Being so negative, while deserved on the merits, gives a distorted perspective of my centrist views, and is emotionally a downer.

— Bill Patry, The Patry Copyright Blog (2008-08-01): End of the Blog

In one sense, it’s hard not to sympathize. Existing copyright law has been more or less fully transformed into an openly wielded tool of perpetual corporate monopoly. The horizons of allowable debate over copyright policy, within the Beltway, stretch from one end of Disney’s boardroom to the other. Neither political party questions that the primary purpose of copyright law is to protect copyright-holders’ monopoly profit margins, and no serious politician would ever consider spending a dime of political capital on a suggestion that perhaps we should contain — let alone roll back — the hyperaggressive efforts of copyright monopolists to protect their broken business models, by using litigation and legal coercion to cripple every advance in digital technology, and locking down every last decibel of free speech in a corporate copyright containment field. Even if a politician did choose to stand up for the freedom to peacefully exchange, adapt, and redistribute ideas, it could hardly matter; she would be immediately drowned out by a chorus of Endangered Capitalist preservationists on both sides of the aisle. And even if she could be heard, any attempt she might make at a run towards reform would be promptly tripped up by the knotted tangle of multilateral trade agreements (NAFTA, CAFTA, the WTO), which (in the name of free trade and private property rights—ha, ha) actually lock all the participating governments into a relentless commitment to granting and defending effectively perpetual government-granted monopolies, as part of their treaty obligations. There is no real hope of extricating U.S. government copyright law from this situation in any significant way; the pols and the Intellectual Protectionist lobby crossed that bridge a long time ago, and they made sure to burn it once they got to the other side.

Like I said: it’s hard not to sympathize. In fact, since my own views about copyright restrictions are far more radical than the ones Patry advances — I want them abolished immediately and completely; I think that any dose of intellectual monopoly is a dose of poison — you think I’d be far more depressed than he is about the state of affairs. But the truth is that I’m not pessimistic at all about copyright. One of the main things that struck me, back when I first read Patry’s farewell post, is how much of a disconnect I felt between his picture of the legal scene, and the actual situation on the ground when it comes to copyright restrictions. In fact, even though everything Patry says about the legal situation is true, there’s never been a better time for being able to freely access the art and literature of the world. As a recent New York Times feature points out:

On the day last July when The Dark Knight arrived in theaters, Warner Brothers was ready with an ambitious antipiracy campaign that involved months of planning and steps to monitor each physical copy of the film.

The campaign failed miserably. By the end of the year, illegal copies of the Batman movie had been downloaded more than seven million times around the world, according to the media measurement firm BigChampagne, turning it into a visible symbol of Hollywood’s helplessness against the growing problem of online video piracy.

The culprits, in this case, are the anonymous pirates who put the film online and enabled millions of Internet users to view it. Because of widely available broadband access and a new wave of streaming sites, it has become surprisingly easy to watch pirated video online — a troubling development for entertainment executives and copyright lawyers.

Hollywood may at last be having its Napster moment — struggling against the video version of the digital looting that capsized the music business. Media companies say that piracy — some prefer to call it digital theft to emphasize the criminal nature of the act — is an increasingly mainstream pursuit. At the same time, DVD sales, a huge source of revenue for film studios, are sagging. In 2008, DVD shipments dropped to their lowest levels in five years. Executives worry that the economic downturn will persuade more users to watch stolen shows and movies.

Young people, in particular, conclude that if it’s so easy, it can’t be wrong, said Richard Cotton, the general counsel for NBC Universal.

People have swapped illegal copies of songs, television shows and movies on the Internet for years. The slow download process, often using a peer-to-peer technology called BitTorrent, required patience and a modicum of sophistication by users. Now, users do not even have to download. Using a search engine, anyone can find free copies of movies, still in theaters, in a matter of minutes. Classic TV, like every Seinfeld episode ever produced, is also free for the streaming. Some of these digital copies are derived from bootlegs, while others are replicas of the advance review videos that studios send out before a release.

TorrentFreak.com, a Web site based in Germany that tracks which shows are most downloaded, estimates that each episode of Heroes, a series on NBC, is downloaded five million times, representing a substantial loss for the network. (On TV, Heroes averages 10 million American viewers each week).

A wave of streaming sites, which allow people to start watching video immediately without transferring a full copy of the movie or show to their hard drive, are making it easier than ever to watch free Hollywood content online. Many of these sites are located in countries with lackluster piracy enforcement efforts, like China, and are hard to monitor, so media companies do not have a clear sense of how much content is being stolen.

— Brian Stelter and Brad Stone, New York Times (2009-02-04): Digital Pirates Winning Battle With Studios

Of course, the New York Times has mistaken this for a problem; but if you recognize that the Intellectual Protectionists’ restrictive business model is the real problem, what we’re now seeing is the solution. Not because the copyright laws have become even a little more liberal, but rather because they have become irrelevant to people’s daily lives. Even though everything Patry says about the legal situation is true, it becomes easier every day for me to find freely-shared copies of just about any song I could care to hear, or to find any number of supposedly copyrighted essays, available for free on the web, or to find any movie I could care to watch, whether it’s an old classic from the film-monopolist’s vaults, or a new release that just hit theaters. And because so much is so freely available, even officially-sanctified copies of copyrighted material are being dropped in price (typically below US $1.00 a pop) and DRM user-control schemes are being dropped one after another. Even though everything Patry says about the legal situation is true, the practical situation on the ground is remarkably good, and it’s getting better every day. Of course, things are far from perfect. Of course, lots of copyright-holders are still looking for a fight with people trying to exchange ideas without paying a premium for a license. And of course, the legal situation is such that they can get pretty nasty, if they scout you out come after you on the legal battlefield. But first they have to scout you out. First, they have to get you to fight them on the open ground. And every day, they are finding their efforts more and more impossible. No matter how many big guns they may bring to bear, when they try to fight us, they find that they are fighting a Myrmidon army that renders those weapons increasingly useless.

So why Bill Patry’s despair? If you want to see copyright restrictions liberalized, then it may be true that the words on a page in Washington are worse than they’ve ever been; but the facts on the ground are perhaps better than they’ve been at any other time in the history of the United States. And while there is no hope for revising those words for the better any time soon, the facts are changing for the better every day, all their lawyers and their lobbyists and their intergovernmental treaties notwithstanding — they are improving daily as technical problems are solved, as new sharing networks emerge, and as the problem of even identifying the competition, let alone shutting them down, becomes more and more overwhelming for the copyrightists’ rear-guard legal strategy.

Why despair, or even care about the legal situation at all, if the practical situation makes the law irrelevant? A law that cannot be enforced is as good as a a law that has been repealed, and that is where we’re headed, faster and faster every day, when it comes to the intellectual monopolists and their jealously guarded legal privileges.

Statists constantly accuse anarchists of being naive, or utopian, or infantile, because we so often question the value of playing the game and working within the system. But if this is supposed to be a strategy based on the empirical prospects for success — and not just on some kind of felt need to come off as properly Serious and Grown Up to the right sort of people — then let’s look at the facts, and let’s see what kind of activity actually offers proven results, and realistic hope for success in the future.

If you put all your hope for social change in legal reform, and if you put all your faith for legal reform in maneuvering within the political system, then to be sure you will find yourself outmaneuvered at every turn by those who have the deepest pockets and the best media access and the tightest connections. There is no hope for turning this system against them; because, after all, the system was made for them and the system was made by them. Reformist political campaigns inevitably turn out to suck a lot of time and money into the politics—with just about none of the reform coming out on the other end. But if you put your faith for social change in methods that ignore or ridicule their parliamentary rules, and push forward through grassroots direct action — if your hopes for social change don’t depend on reforming tyrannical laws, and can just as easily be fulfilled by widespread success at bypassing those laws and making them irrelevant to your life — then there is every reason to hope that you will see more freedom and less coercion in your own lifetime. There is every reason to expect that you will see more freedom and less coercion tomorrow than you did today, no matter what the law-books may say.

Counter-economics gets the goods.

See also:

How to be social while staying civilized

The latest issue of The Freeman (January/February 2009) — is now available online at their new and glossy revamped website. I mention this partly for its own sake, but partly also because, one of the things that you will find in that new issue, at the new website, is this:

Individualism Clashes with Cooperation? It Just Ain’t So!

By Charles Johnson • January 2009

Individualists get a bad rap in politics these days. That should come as no surprise; politics these days is dominated by electoral politics, and electoral politics is an essentially anti-individualistic enterprise. With free markets and other forms of voluntary association, people who can’t agree on what’s worthwhile can go their own ways. But the point of government elections is to give people in the political majority a means for forcing through their favorite laws, projects, and rulers over the objections of people in the political minority, and making everybody obey those laws, fund or participate in those projects, and acknowledge those rulers.

Still, even if it is unrealistic to expect individualism to get much respect from people who are deeply invested in electoral politics, it’s not too much to ask them not to try to score political points by totally distorting our position. In any case, if they do, it’s worth taking the time to set things straight.

For example, consider The Social Animal by neoconservative New York Times columnist David Brooks (September 12). He begins by quoting Barry Goldwater’s argument (from The Conscience of a Conservative) that Every man for his individual good and for the good of his society, is responsible for his own development. The choices that govern his life are choices that he must make; they cannot be made by any other human being… . Conservatism’s first concern will always be: Are we maximizing freedom?

Brooks says that Goldwater’s ideas seem to come from a vision of human life based on solitary, rugged individuals—the stout pioneer crossing the West, the risk-taking entrepreneur with a vision, the stalwart hero fighting the collectivist foe. Brooks protests that a tide of research in the human and social sciences has demonstrated that Goldwater’s old-fashioned individualist notions aren’t supported by the latest empirical evidence because, Brooks tells us, human beings are social creatures by nature, closely intertwined with each other in the fabric of a shared social life.

. . .

Maybe Brooks is right that Goldwater’s legacy is holding Republicans back politically. Individualistic ideas can be a tough sell, particularly since the obsessive focus on electoral politics as a panacea for every social ill ensures that genuinely individualistic ideas are almost never presented in the media or discussed in public forums. But whether he’s right or wrong about the best way for Republicans to fully modernize, I don’t care much about the Republican Party or its political prospects, or about Barry Goldwater’s reputation. I do care about the prospects for individualism and truly freed markets. And Brooks’s case against them commits a series of serious and misleading errors….

— Charles Johnson, The Freeman (Jan/Feb 2009): Individualism Clashes with Cooperation? It Just Ain’t So!

Read the whole thing.

The title of this post, for what it’s worth, was the original title of the column, and will make some more sense once you’ve read the article (the current title is based on the fact that it appeared in the regular It Just Ain’t So! department).

As always, I’d like to thank Sheldon Richman for the (very flattering) invitation, and for his very helpful editorial work. I’m especially happy to get the chance to put a distinctly Tuckerite understanding of individualism, complete with a cheer for wildcat unionism, and a reference to William Gillis’s freed markets, into an official publication of the Foundation for Economic Education.

See also:

On intersections

(Via stuff white people do 2008-12-07.)

From Suzanne Vega, Measure for Measure (2008-12-03): Which Side Are You On?

The last verse was inspired by a real-life discussion I overheard at a bar in Baltimore. A black man and a white woman were discussing a recent sports event. He called her baby playfully. She called him stats boy, meaning, I guess, someone well-versed in statistics. The conversation escalated quickly into a loud yelling argument, as he did not feel he was a boy of any kind and that word had racist overtones. Maybe the recent election means my song is on its way to being obsolete. I hope so.

— Suzanne Vega, Measure for Measure (2008-12-03): Which Side Are You On?

I singled this passage out because I wanted to note something about how the use of diminutives plays out here — what kind of lines get noticed here and what kind of lines get ignored, and what kind of words get a remark and what kind get a free pass. Of course, whatever the white woman may have intended — and I’m sure she didn’t think of what she was doing, and I’m sure she used that as part of an attempt to defend herself, but it’s actually part of the problem — racist overtones is a really mild way to describe the cultural freight that accompanies calling a grown Black man a boy. The man she was talking to was not a boy. And there’s a history there that makes it important not to forget certain things. But neither is she, a grown woman, a baby. And if you think there isn’t a history there that makes it important not to forget certain things, well, you need to think harder.

We don’t know what the man and the woman said in their fight so I have no way of knowing whether she allowed herself to be upset about that; I do know that if she did, Suzanne Vega didn’t think it was worth recording the fact that she did in retelling the story. I think it’s interesting what gets singled out as worthy of remark, what gets singled out as the sort of thing that somebody might be upset about and that might be imporant to understanding how a conversation could end up as a fight. And what gets dropped as beneath that sort of attention. I think that’s interesting. And I think that’s sad.

The Ludlow Massacre

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., speaking to assembled Colorado miners, September 20, 1915.

We are all partners in a way. Capital can’t get along without you men, and you men can’t get along without capital. When anybody comes along and tells you that capital and labor can’t get along together that man is your worst enemy. We are getting along friendly enough here in this mine right now, and there is no reason why you men cannot get along with the managers of my company when I am back in New York.

John D. Rockefeller, Jr., June 10, 1914.

There was no Ludlow massacre. The engagement started as a desperate fight for life by two small squads of militia against the entire tent colony … There were no women or children shot by the authorities of the State or representatives of the operators … While this loss of life is profoundly to be regretted, it is unjust in the extreme to lay it at the door of the defenders of law and property, who were in no slightest way responsible for it.

From the New York World. Reprinted in Walter H. Fink, The Ludlow Massacre (1914), 7–21.

On the day of the Ludlow battle a chum and myself left the house of the Rev. J. O. Ferris, the Episcopal minister with whom I boarded in Trinidad, for a long tramp through the hills. We walked fourteen miles, intending to take the Colorado & Southern Railway back to Trinidad from Ludlow station.

We were going down a trail on the mountain side above the tent city at Ludlow when my chum pulled my sleeve and at the same instant we heard shooting. The militia were coming out of Hastings Canyon and firing as they came. We lay flat behind a rock and after a few minutes I raised my hat aloft on a stick. Instantly bullets came in our direction. One penetrated my hat. The militiamen must have been watching the hillside through glasses and thought my old hat betrayed the whereabouts of a sharpshooter of the miners.

Then came the killing of Louis Tikas, the Greek leader of the strikers. We saw the militiamen parley outside the tent city, and, a few minutes later, Tikas came out to meet them. We watched them talking. Suddenly an officer raised his rifle, gripping the barrel, and felled Tikas with the butt.

Tikas fell face downward. As he lay there we saw the militiamen fall back. Then they aimed their rifles and deliberately fired them into the unconscious man’s body. It was the first murder I had ever seen, for it was a murder and nothing less. Then the miners ran about in the tent colony and women and children scuttled for safety in the pits which afterward trapped them.

We watched from our rock shelter while the militia dragged up their machine guns and poured a murderous fire into the arroyo from a height by Water Tank Hill above the Ludlow depot. Then came the firing of the tents.

I am positive that by no possible chance could they have been set ablaze accidentally. The militiamen were thick about the northwest corner of the colony where the fire started and we could see distinctly from our lofty observation place what looked like a blazing torch waved in the midst of militia a few seconds before the general conflagration swept through the place. What followed everybody knows.

Sickened by what we had seen, we took a freight back into Trinidad.

New York Times, April 21, 1914.

The Ludlow camp is a mass of charred debris, and buried beneath it is a story of horror imparalleled in the history of industrial warfare. In the holes which had been dug for their protection against the rifles’ fire the women and children died like trapped rats when the flames swept over them. One pit, uncovered [the day after the massacre] disclosed the bodies of ten children and two women.

Fellow Workers,

Today is the 94th anniversary of the Ludlow massacre—April 20th, 1914. The United Mine Workers of America led a massive strike in Rockefeller’s Colorado coal mines from 1913 to 1914, demanding an eight hour day, an increase in wages, the removal of company-hired guards from the coal pits, and freedom for workers to arrange for their own housing, choose their own doctor, and receive pay in cash instead of company scrip. Tens of thousands of workers — over 90% of the miners in the coal-pits — went on strike. When the miners went on strike, they lost everything, because they all had to live in company towns, with company landlords. They lost their money; they couldn’t shop at the stores; and they were thrown out of their homes. So they set up shanty-towns on land that the union leased for them, and lived in tents high in the hills through the long winter months of a bitter strike. The company hired guards from private detective agencies, and they got the governor to call up the Colorado National Guard on their behalf. On April 20th, the National Guard and the company thugs pretended to negotiate with Louis Tikas while setting up machine-guns in the high-points around the camps. They fired down into shanty-town and, after many of the strikers dug into the ground for cover, they torched the tents. By the end of the night 45 people were dead—32 of them women and children—shot, smothered, or burned alive. They were murdered by company death squads and by agents of the State, in order to defend John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s laws and his legally-fabricated claims to property that he never worked, and had barely ever seen.

Howard Zinn, Declarations of Independence.

As I read about this, I wondered why this extraordinary event, so full of drama, so peopled by remarkable personalities, was never mentioned in the history books. Why was this strike, which cast a dark shadow on the Rockefeller interests and on corporate America generally, considered less important than the building by John D. Rockefeller of the Standard Oil Company, which was looked on as an important and positive event in the development of American industry?

I knew there was no secret meeting of industrialists and historians to agree to emphasize the admirable achievements of the great corporations and ignore the bloody costs of industrialization in America. But I concluded that a certain unspoken understanding lay beneath the writing of textbooks and the teaching of history: that it would be considered bold, radical, perhaps even communist to emphasize class struggle in the United States, a country where the dominant ideology emphasized the oneness of the nation We the People, in order to…etc., etc. and the glories of the American system.

An anonymous proletarian. First printed by the Industrial Workers of the World in 1908.

We have fed you all for a thousand years
And you hail us still unfed
Though there’s never a dollar of all your wealth
But marks the workers dead
We have yielded our best to give you rest
And you lie on crimson wool
But if blood be the price of all your wealth
Good God we have paid in full

There is never a mine blown skyward now
But we’re buried alive for you
There’s never a wreck drifts shoreward now
But we are its ghastly crew
Go reckon our dead by the forges red
And the factories where we spin
If blood be the price of your cursèd wealth
Good God we have paid it in

We have fed you all for a thousand years
For that was our doom, you know
From the days when you chained us in your fields
To the strike a week ago
You have taken our lives, and our husbands and wives
And we’re told it’s your legal share
But if blood be the price of your lawful wealth
Good God we bought it fair.

Further reading: