Editorial Interlude – #J20

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The Blue Angels fly over Baltimore for “Fleet Week”

Hello,

I dropped off your map once the Charlotte Uprising began. I stayed up all night in Minneapolis watching it live on Facebook. Once I got to Chicago, it stole my attention completely. I came in to stay with people I knew through the movement, as I had elsewhere, and on arrival they told me that someone was shot in the head by police while protesting peacefully. I had just been in North Carolina not too long before, meeting with some of the youth who were now on the streets and highways of Charlotte.

All summer, I had been standing on top of a volcano. I will be honest with you and say I never saw Trump winning the election. I can’t say I saw Hillary Clinton winning either, but I can’t say I foresaw what happened a week ago today. I let it sit with me for a week before I decided to write to you.

After the Charlotte Uprising, I continued my work interviewing people in the field. I interviewed them in Detroit, Canada, Lexington and DC. But my writing hours were dedicated to other obligations. I was struck by the crest building beneath my feet. By the time I reached New York, I knew this was going to explode somehow, but had no idea how things would kick off.

Turns out, the prospect of a racist thug becoming President of the United States may be too much for people to bear. When I think back across the people I met during NO PLATFORM, I am most focused on the underlying theme of righteous anger building among the working class and most oppressed. Even the white woman who worked as a waitress in West Virginia had a sense of what was coming. If the powers that be think they can somehow talk down history, they are wrong. The people who were protesting against people of color being gunned down in the street, against mass deportations, those who were fed up with being poisoned, those who wanted their land back… they are not going to back down from a Trump presidency. They will grow in size and in strength.

Already, massive numbers of people are prepared to take action. The streets are full of protesters. High school students are staging walk-outs. The people are planning. We are going to Washington on January 20th.

I hope you’ll understand that the rest of the dispatches and your photographs are coming, but I hope you will forgive me if they come at a delay.

When I traveled across this country, I marveled at its natural beauty between cities. Far out there, on country roads or desolate highways, the mountains are beautifully colored and the flora can be serene. The clouds coming up off the Great Lakes are gorgeous. The skies above Standing Rock are breathtaking. The sunsets in San Antonio and Santa Fe are breathtaking. There is so much beauty, and yet there were also the private immigration detention centers and oil rigs, the nuclear waste and army bases.

In Baltimore, the last stop before I returned to New York, it was fleet week. Six F/A-18 fighter jets danced over methadone clinics and children washing car windows at intersections. Each time they tore a great sound through the sky, it dredged up more and more rage. Each plane cost $60 million dollars.

Thanks again for your support. If you want to get involved, please let me know how I can help.

Be well, and please take care of each other,
best,
Taryn Fivek

DAY 80 – COINTELPRO in 2016

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MINNEAPOLIS – Cars honk and passerby raise their fists in salute as more than 250 people protest Islamophobia, racism, and US wars abroad in the West Bank neighborhood of Minneapolis. The crowd marches amid chants of “No more wars! No more fear! Our Muslim friends are welcome here!”, holding signs that read “Stop the war on Muslims at home and abroad” and “No U.S. military intervention in Syria”. The march was sponsored by the Minnesota Anti-War Committee and Minnesotans Against Islamophobia.

Minnesota is home to more than 30,000 Somali immigrants, around ⅓ of the total number living in the United States. The majority live in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. They are targeted by racism and xenophobia, as well as Islamophobia.

Burhan Mohumad grew up in the West Bank neighborhood and decided to get involved with the community both by reading and having to deal with the racism and poverty that afflicts his community. He wears black sunglasses, cap and orange vest and tells me about life in the Twin Cities while different people speak about the intersection of racism, Islamophobia and US wars abroad on the platform set up nearby. “You start to realize that, you know, you’re not poor by the lack of hard work, you’re not poor because you’re irresponsible. So once I became conscious of that, that’s when I wanted to get involved.”

“I’m a first generation immigrant that grew up here. Muslim and black, obviously. You do become really cautious. You start to look over your shoulder.”

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He may have good reason to do so. Minneapolis is one of the three major cities implementing “Countering Violent Extremism” (CVE), a federal program that locally targets Somali-Americans in the Twin Cities area.

When I reviewed terrorist attacks in the United States since the 1980s, until a stabbing possibly inspired by Islamic State in St. Cloud that occurred the night after this march, I could not find one that was committed by a person of Somali descent. However, since the implementation of the CVE program in 2014, at least ten young Somali men have been arrested after being entrapped by FBI informants.

Three of them were convicted by an all-white jury in Minneapolis in June of this year, while five pled guilty before their trials. Their sentencing will be in November. Some of them face life imprisonment.

The rally and march today are meant to raise awareness of Islamophobia, racism and xenophobia both in the West Bank neighborhood and more generally throughout Minneapolis.  

“CVE is essentially a program that says: how can we stop people from being radicalized, how do we stop them from leaving the country,” Burhan explains. “Basically, to sum it up, to say that Muslims are a problem. You don’t target a whole population of people and not see them as a problem.”

“You’re saying that we’re all potential terrorists, potential extremists.”

The Minnesota Anti-War Committee says that the CVE program “criminalizes and spies on the Somali community in Minnesota and is a classic divide and conquer tactic using “trusted” individuals and organizations; infiltrators posing as friends, teachers in schools, and social service organizations.”

As a first-generation immigrant to the United States, Burhan finds the disconnect between what the US says and what it does to be frustrating.

“It’s concerning because you come to this country believing in these freedoms and believing in those civil liberties, and when you come here you have a program like CVE targeting you because you’re Muslim and have this [Somali] background. It is racist. It is xenophobic. It’s anti-Muslim, it’s anti-Black.”

Somali-Canadian rapper K’Naan is developing a TV series with HBO about “jihadi recruitment” set in Minneapolis. The executive director of the series will be Kathryn Bigelow, who directed the pro-US films “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Hurt Locker”, one about the fictional CIA hunt for Osama Bin Laden and the other praising soldiers who occupied Iraq. The series will be called “The Recruiter”.

Members of the Somali community and their supporters turned out to protest K’Naan when he visited the Twin Cities area last week, and were met with pepper spray and arrests from the police. While K’Naan met with protesters after to say that the show would not demonize the Somali community, many remain unconvinced as long as Bigelow is attached the the project.

“Obviously the relationship that Bigelow has to the show, the show being on HBO, him being such an inexperienced person in the industry, and the fact that he’s black and the fact that he’s Muslim, I don’t think they will give him the full range,” says Burhan. “From his own mouth he says he has full control — he’s the creator, he’s the writer, he’s the director, he’s the producer. And it’s hard for me to believe that.”

The crowd begins to march through the neighborhood, receiving supporting honks and stopping traffic. They end up in front of the Republican Party’s office on Franklin Avenue, chanting: “No Trump! No KKK! No racist USA!”

Does Burhan think anything will get better for Muslims in this country after the presidential election in November?

“To be honest with you, I think that it won’t,” he says. “You have Hillary — who has a proven record, has a proven history of her supporting policies and her saying very devastating and very problematic statements against people of color.”

Her policies at the State Department didn’t bring a lot of hope to Muslims abroad or at home, he says.

“You have Trump, who has literally spilled out the bad. He’s literally spilled out all his bad guts about his feelings about Muslims and about immigrants and where he sees this country headed.”

“I am terrified. As a black person, as a Muslim, I’m terrified. Because now, it’s like — what do you do? How do you protect yourself? How do you involve yourself in this country’s electoral process or in this democracy to raise your voice?”

“Honestly, come November, I’m gonna pray hard. I’m a Muslim and I’m a person of faith and so I’ll just pray that the people of this country, that their consciousness is raised.”

Does he think that this system will deliver justice to vulnerable people in the United States?

“Me being exposed to the literature I’ve been exposed to, I think a socialist system, something that really includes the whole body of the people… I think that’s the system that would help us. But capitalism? You know Trump’s a capitalist, Hillary is a capitalist.”

“People need to be aware of what’s going on in our country. And really protect the vulnerable.”  

Despite the steep incline of the fight ahead, Burhan finds hope in the turnout for the march today, which he says is larger than the previous rallies against Islamophobia in Minneapolis.

“Today’s rally, today’s march… this is why I sort of breathe easy. Because I see there’s a collection of people that honestly do care about this country, and do care about the future of this country. They care about the world, and they care about humanity. This is what I really take comfort in.”

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Community members gather on balconies of public housing to wave at the protesters marching past. 

DAY 78 – The Oil Comes From Upriver

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WILLISTON – Two hundred and fifty miles upriver from the protesters at Standing Rock is a major source of the oil intended to flow through the Dakota Access Pipeline. Williston, once called “America’s Boom Town”, sits along the Amtrak Empire line and on top of the Bakken Formation, a geological phenomenon that holds a sea of oil and natural gas under several layers of earth and rock.

Driving north on I-94 from Bismark, one passes through the Little Missouri National Grasslands. The sign reads: “ Land of Many Uses”, a motto this park shares with several others in the National Park Service. Indeed, the United States sits on many miles of land not just to conserve “incomparable landscapes” but also “rich natural resources”. These grasslands sit on top of a portion of the Bakken Formation untapped by oil companies. With 432,286,156 barrels of oil sucked out of the North Dakota soil in 2015, the state certainly has a lot of natural resources.

However, because of the crash in oil prices, Williston – once hailing itself as America’s Boom Town – is undergoing a bust phase. While locals claim that these cycles are regular, the numbers from Williams County don’t lie. The last boom was the most spectacular. Money poured into Williston, along with a large glut of young men who were so desperate to get their hands on single women that there were stories of them offering up to $7,000 for women to serve them beer naked.

This in mind, I book a hotel room that’s behind a front desk. While this is a national franchise, the road up to its 224 room complex is unpaved, despite the years of boom already enjoyed by Williston. No matter for most of the people who stayed there. Except for the car I arrived in, every car in the lot was a truck or SUV with large tires. Men stand out front smoking cigarettes before brushing off their boots in hotel-provided brush scrapers.

Please help us keep these rooms clean, says a slip of paper on my bed. Remove your muddy boots in the mud room.

The beer in the hotel bar is cheap, but closes at ten. There aren’t so many people there anyway. The front desk clerk tells me room occupancy is at 20%. There is a cafeteria instead of a restaurant. It’s a lot like Iraqi Kurdistan in that alcohol and cigarettes are generally cheaper than food.

It’s also like Iraq in that a glut of out-of-towners resulted in skyrocketing rent. As high as $3,500 for a one-bedroom, some people tell me. But most of all, it reminds me of Iraq because there has been a clearing-out of sorts. As oil prices plummeted, people packed up and left. No more stories of people pitching tents to look for work.

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At night, the now-empty man camps are illuminated by fields of flare stacks. The roads outside of a few square miles are unlit for hours. Minot is a two hour drive from here, Bismark three and a half. The temperatures regularly sink to below 0F (-18C) in the wintertime and there’s only one movie theater. At the height of the boom, there were two strip clubs that seemed to generate a lot of trouble, but they have been shut down, converted into an empty gay bar and sports bar. Main Street is empty except for two drunk guys on the sidewalk looking forlorn.

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A historian at the Williston Frontier Museum, who we’ll call Larry, has to drive across town in the rain to open the museum for me. He doesn’t mind, though, as he tells me only about 100 people visit each year. The rain is coming down so hard that each building he shows me is leaking water. All of them were moved here on trucks from their original positions elsewhere in town to form a sort of ersatz village a short way from the Walmart.

Williston’s history is much as other small towns in the region. The Native Americans watched as homesteaders came, then the Empire railroad line, then the army, then the oil. It was a small town with little diversity, a sort of stoic, Luthran simplicity. “There wasn’t a black family here

“Things aren’t as they used to be,” he admits. “The young people working in the oil fields nowadays, they don’t watch each other’s backs. If they have a moment to spare, they’re looking down at their cell phones instead of keeping an eye on the guy next to them.”

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Larry shows me the different buildings, all dripping from the ceiling. There’s a church, a one-room schoolhouse, a country store, and even a judge’s house that’s been outfitted with porcelain figurines and tacky glass lamps. Larry says the furnishings are the estate of a gay man who died 25 years ago. He had a boyfriend in Minot and was locally beloved. 

He describes a small town, agriculturally oriented, drawn in by a cycle of booms and busts. He tells me about his teenage years, when the boys used to drive across state lines to drink underage, about bars that straddled timezones so patrons could move across the room and keep drinking for an extra hour after last call. He tells me about friends who died driving drunk on those roads.

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He tells me about the cameras they’ve had to install at the museum to keep an eye on vandals, and older men stalking teenage girls who show up to play Pokemon Go after hours. “There’s a gym here,” he says, admitting he doesn’t know that much about the game.

Larry is frustrated with all the journalists that come through and write about Willison to make it sound terrifying, bizarre. He was born here, and grew up here. Sure, he left for about a decade, but he likes it here and wishes other people would give it a chance, too.

In true small-town style, he invites me to dinner with his friend Bill, who also happens to be tax collector for Williston. We go to a Turkish restaurant, which they tell me is new and adds a welcome flavor to the sparse offerings in town.

They’re happy that so many people have come from all over the world, offering a welcome influx to the local culture and diversity, but worry that the residents have become accustomed to burning through money whenever it hits their pocket.

“When oil hits, people go dumb,” says Bill. “Just ask the state of North Dakota. They spend money and then they create programs that all the sudden they have to fund and they don’t know how because oil has left.”

He says that’s how they got a $70m high school and a $76m recreational center for a city of about 27,000 people. But the roads are terrible and the gluten-free era bodes poorly for Williston’s agricultural sector which depends mainly on knee-high wheat. The use of genetically modified seeds, Bill tells me, means the wheat is shorter and more packed with gluten. Meanwhile, foreclosures are on the rise. They’re going to chew up this small town and spit it out when they’re through with it.

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When you’re out in Williston, the wide open plains stretching off into every direction induces a kind of claustrophobia in some people. There are overdoses here – as there are everywhere else in the United States – on fentanyl, pills, heroin and other drugs, such as alcohol. There are eight addiction centers in town, but only one movie theater. I’m told of seven overdoses in one week from a “bad batch”. Thankfully, Bill tells me, the fatalities were few as paramedics have all started carrying Narcan, a drug that immediately reverses the effects of opiates.

“It’s escapism,” I hear. “It’s boredom.”

There are other ways to escape the boredom of life in Williston. For instance, when I ask people to tell me about the biggest problems in the United States, they seem geographically far away in their thinking.

A mother of three who tends bar tells me it’s Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem.

A trucker at the oil fields tells me it’s transgenderism.

Another worker says it’s the fact that the “Indians” are lying about their sacred burial grounds being desecrated for the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Nobody thinks that the presidential candidates running for office are legitimate or represents their interests.

The major problems with the United States are things they see on television, not the ocean of oil under their feet being spewed into the stratosphere. Not the bleakness of their day-to-day, the repetition of their schedules. Not the reasons they came all the way out here in the far corner of North Dakota for a job.

One man at the bar approaches with a smile. He’s used to working overseas. He was just working with USAID in Central Africa, in fact, and has come here with a delegation to do research on bees or something. The bar is empty except for the two of us, and the view outside the window is pitch black as far as the eye can see. He says Williston reminds him a lot of an Iraqi oil town, too.

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Far away from the ocean and sailing over a parking lot in Walmart, I’m told seagulls are attracted to Williston because of saltwater byproduct from fracking.

DAY 73 (an editorial aside from occupied territory)

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RAPID CITY, OCCUPIED SIOUX TERRITORY – I’m sitting in a bar speaking to two very kind, warm and welcoming older men about the benefits and drawbacks of living in Rapid City. They tell me that it’s nice to walk everywhere, and that the weather is pretty good. They also tell me there are too many drunk Indians from the nearby reservations living on the streets. The Rapid City community believes these people choose to be drunk and homeless. When it gets cold in the winter, they figure they just all go back to the reservation.

I have this conversation in the closest thing Rapid City has to a gay bar. Not just a gay bar – a punk bar, an art bar. A bar for outcasts. Everyone I speak with is rather despondent when discussing the future of the United States. I see a few youth, the only black man I’ve set eyes on in town, a handful of men with long hair and crooked mustaches. There is a brief and fleeting bachelorette party of three. I ask if it’s always this sparse on a Saturday night, and they make a gesture signaling futility. The entire town seems empty.

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I don’t get a queasy feeling until the conversation turns towards the Lakota who live nearby. I walk back to my room alone with it and lay in bed fully clothed with this feeling lurking in the pit of my stomach. At midnight on a Saturday, the city is dead quiet except for a train whistle in the distance.

Young people walk down the streets arm in arm dressed in nice clothes and having a nice time, passing by and then back into silence. Bronze statues of every US president stand at each street corner in the downtown area, a startling presence in the middle of the night when you find yourself alone in the streets.

The door to my ground-floor motel room does not have a deadbolt. I fall asleep until someone bangs on my door at four in the morning, tearing me out of sleep and into frantic alertness. They wait ten minutes, quiet, and then lay into the door again. They say nothing, and I do not answer the door. This is the first time I feel scared in my 73 days on the road.

I shouldn’t be here.

Rapid City is in the Black Hills, a part of the continent that is so beautiful it’s unreal. Everything around is gorgeous in the light of the setting sun. The air is crisp. The Black Hills themselves look a dark purple in the twilight. The town center is well-lit and immaculate. Alleys go for blocks and blocks, spotless except for the occasional lone figure standing far off in the distance.

The Sioux nation (properly named Očhéthi Šakówiŋ – the seven council fires) claims this land as its own. The Supreme Court has ruled that it is theirs, and awarded the Sioux what amounts to $1.2 billion dollars for their loss. The Sioux refuse to collect the money, saying to do so would be to participate in a “sales transaction”. This is not the kind of place where you say, as a shrugging settler, well, it’s all stolen land. No, the Black Hills are special. They hold spiritual and national significance.

The statues of the US presidents around town seem to seem like stakes pushed into the earth, pinning Rapid City and its settler history to the map. Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln are carved into the Black Hills. The Parks Service calls this vandalism Mt. Rushmore. The popular HBO television series Deadwood is based on a town nearby, which features a “Wild West” aesthetic and therefore erases the Native Americans completely, except as a decapitated head that one of the main characters occasionally consults on personal issues.

I stopped in Rapid City for the night because I am on my way to Standing Rock, where the indigenous people are fighting to protect their water from a pipeline that the US wants to build through their land. The Dakotas are so remote from other parts of the country. It only makes sense that the US has laid such vigorous claim to exploit the incredible resources the land holds – whether the gold in the Black Hills or the oil sitting under the Bakken formation.

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It’s an 8 hour drive from Denver to Rapid City, and another 5 hours to Standing Rock. All via county roads lined with sunflowers and no phone service. The fact that there need to be settlers out here, so far from anything else, seems almost absurd, until you realize how rich these hills are in mineral wealth. It’s what drove Lewis and Clark across this part of the world to perform ethnography on their famous tour, as they documented each nation they came across. In Philadelphia, I saw their logs in the American Philosophical Society Hall as an exhibit. Under orders from Jefferson, they dutifully catalogued warrior strength, population size, language, traditional enemies and what kind of wealth they were sitting on.

DAY 69 – Facade and Reality in Salt Lake City

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SALT LAKE CITY – The Temple’s granite facade, tucked safely behind tall walls across the street from a shopping mall, gleams in the afternoon sunlight. At the top stands a gold statue of Moroni. Smiling missionaries from all over the world greet visitors with large smiles and chipper, accented hellos. The diversity here is more apparent on the edges than inside the visitors center, where the videos feature white families, and where the photos and video of the stained glass inside the Temple features a blonde Jesus. Besides the friendly missionaries, everyone I see downtown and inside the Temple complex is white.

Utah got its start in much the same way Texas and the Dakotas did. Settlers came here when they were unhappy with the US government. The Mormons were persecuted for their views on Christianity and polygamy. They moved from upstate New York to Illinois and elsewhere before deciding that Utah, then a part of Mexico, was where they would go to settle. Eventually, a war was fought to annex these areas.

Mormonism is a uniquely American religion, with its roots – like those of the settlers in Texas and the Dakotas – deeply entrenched in western expansionism and white settlerism. “The whole of America is Zion itself from north to south,” wrote LDS founder Joseph Smith.

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Despite its reputation as a missionary religion, sending youth all over the world to convert people of color, the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-Day Saints (LDS) has an extensive racist history. Joseph Smith preached that dark skin was the sign of a curse from God. Black men were therefore not eligible to hold the Priesthood until 1978, black men and women were not allowed to participate in Temple ceremonies, and slavery was allowed. One could pay tithes by leasing slave labor to the church. Miscegenation, a nasty word to indicate inter-racial love, was strictly prohibited. Heterosexual, patriarchal structures are heavily promoted by the LDS Church, and sober living encouraged. Utah calls itself the ‘Family State’.

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Alicia would disagree.

A mother of five, Alicia has suffered from 3 strokes in the last year and is unable to work as a job coach. She is 40 years old. Her husband, whose identity is not mentioned for his safety, is undocumented.

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“We have to worry about him getting pulled over with the risk of being deported because he’s the main breadwinner in the household. So yeah, it’s kind of scary.”

They met at a dance almost a decade ago. He works in construction and takes care of Alicia and her children while earning the money for the house while Alicia attends physical therapy to regain use of her hand.

“We haven’t gotten the documents yet because it’s expensive.” Alicia says the process starts at $1,500. That’s a lot of money to a family of seven with only one person working.

“Especially when he’s paying everything else, the rent, and everything. It’s very expensive.”

She lives in terror of her husband being deported. She even has nightmares. “Recently we’ve had ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] raids in this area. We’ve had a couple of them in the last couple of months. So we worry about that stuff too, because we don’t know who’s giving out information about who’s undocumented and who’s not, we don’t know where it’s coming from.”

She breaks into tears. “He’s all I got. But one day we’ll fix that, hopefully. I tell him we just have to keep praying. Because he’s such a good guy. He’s always helping people. He does everything he’s supposed to do. He pays his taxes, he contributes to society, he does everything he’s supposed to do. He’s a great father and an awesome husband. He does everything he can to take care of me and my kids. I can’t ask for anybody better than that.”

She takes a tissue and apologizes for crying. “He’s my guardian angel.”

Alicia has long been a local activist for migrant justice and has experienced harassment from right-wing groups, including the Minutemen. She and a few others who protested them earlier in the decade still live in fear of their repercussions. In the last five years, three of her friends have been deported. She does not know what happened to the children whose parents were deported.

She cannot figure why Utah has been so cruel. “If I remember hearing some stories about the past, Mormons were also segregated. They were treated poorly.”

“Utah is supposedly known as the ‘family state’. But when start separating families you’re not so much of a family state anymore.”  

“It’s terrifying because then you wonder what happens to the kids, especially the ones who don’t have family here. You wonder what happens to the kids.”

“I’ve realized people don’t care about something unless it happens to them. A lot of people – really, not everybody – but a lot of people don’t worry about something unless it happens to them personally, unless it affects them personally.”

“I think some people are tired. They’re tired of fighting, because we’re not getting anywhere.”

Does she think anything will get better after the election in November? “No.”

Alicia tells me the doctors told her she had to give up her activism, that the constant stress was causing her strokes. But living with nightmares about your husband and breadwinner being deported seems to me like it would cause more stress than organizing rallies and charity drives.

“I think we need a whole new system. Even my husband was telling me that we need to get rid of everybody. Like congress, all our representatives, start over.”

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Victoria, mother of two and an immigrant from Lesotho, is not under any illusions. “We cannot do placards for over ten years, petitions for over ten years, and expect a different outcome.”

“I was looking at the whole journey from the apartheid era. I’m [now] looking at the protests all over the country. And I said with this many protests, there’s still nothing happening? There’s nothing happening! For me, as far as I’m concerned, I feel like the time for placards and things on the street is over.”

She has lived in the US since 1998. Victoria suffered from spousal abuse and political problems in Lesotho so decided to come to Utah, since she was a Mormon. When she started to have issues with ICE and the Church was unwilling to help her, she noted that the racism the Church was distancing itself from was still alive and well.

“You know, I was talking to a friend yesterday and said sometimes I want to pinch myself and wake up to the United States that I hoped for. Because I feel like I’m on my way to the United States, and I’m not exactly sure that my initial perception of what America ought to be is even as clear as it was when I left home. When I left my country, America was this place where you could fight and earn freedom. It was a place for justice. And it was a place for people who wanted to work hard and make their lives better. I’m still looking for that place.”

What did she find instead?

“Quite the contrary. If I were to say word for word, just the reverse of what I said. You can fight hard for justice but you might not even get it. In the process you might be harmed for trying to find justice.”

Working hard towards success is out of the question for her as well. Despite having a master’s degree, she says her skin color, her marital status and her accent stand in the way of her getting a job.

Despite its reputation as an all-American, wholesome family city, almost 21% of the population lives under the poverty line. Despite 65% of the city being counted by the census as white, the Latinx population continues to grow, as well as the number of migrants like Victoria who come from overseas.

“I left the church because, well, a part of my struggle here with immigrant rights and injustices that I suffered in this state forced me to go back to revisit me becoming a Mormon. Why was a part of this community? If, in reality, in office, they don’t act out the principles they preached when they were in Africa. Love your neighbor as you love yourself?”

“As I was digging into what they believed in, I noticed that black people had the lowest status of the human race. At some point during the Mormon history, black people were not considered full human beings.”

“But I found out about all these things after the fact. They didn’t tell me about this when I was signing up. And people say, well why didn’t you read?” But in the village where she grew up, the library was sparse. There was no internet. How was she supposed to know? “Who would have books about all the world religions?”

Victoria believes that black people are oppressed all over the United States, but that there is a unique flavor to white supremacy in Utah. “The excuses change. Here, I believe whatever happens is very inundated in the Mormon culture.”

“I think that the Salt Lake City history about black people is peculiar. Whether or not the Mormon church wants to admit, from inception, the church barred black people.”

While studying for her degree, she experienced issues with her immigration status. She tells me the Church was unwilling to help her, and she began to feel like she was being pushed out. Once she discovered her Bishop was accessing her medical records against her wishes, this was the last straw.

She speaks to me about how, when she was vocal about the Church’s lack of support for her immigration status, she then received a visit from ICE. She says that the agents asked her religion.

“I said, why are you asking me about my religion? He said because sometimes we just need to make connections with immigrants and religion. I said ‘well, people back home would tell you that when I left – if that’s the connection you’re trying to make – they’ll tell you that I was a Mormon. I hope that answers your question.’ At the time I still had a picture of Jesus on the wall.”

DAY 64 – Leverage in the desert

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LAS VEGAS – Despite the makeover that came with the new millennium, the Las Vegas Strip is still what it’s always been – a seedy place to spend a weekend and blow a lot of money. You can still smoke inside the casinos, but the drinks on the Strip are now meted out to you via the loyalty card you must insert into every machine, so that the computers whirring elsewhere unseen can calculate based on your wins and losses when’s the best time to comp you a drink.

Though offering shows, theme parks, and attractions geared towards youth, 65% of Las Vegas tourists are older than 40, and the average age is 48. Only 8% of visitors are under the age of 21. 16% of tourists are from abroad, but from what I saw, this consisted of mainly young British men out for a good time, fresh off a cheap Thomas Cook flight. They complain about the heat. They are stuck in a dream world of expectations. Elsewhere, later, drunks stumble down the streets at night and chain smokers huddle at blackjack tables until the early morning hours. You can lose the shirt off your back 24-hours a day. 

The loud and flashing gambling floors in Las Vegas have been minor obsessions of Americana for many decades. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Casino, Leaving Las Vegas, and a number of other films are considered US cultural classics. There’s something about the sheer hucksterism, the futility of one’s visit, that continues to fascinate. But you know what you’re in for before you sit down at a table. You come here to get worked. No one said you would win here – read the fine print.

Labor is honest here. They are smiling and trying to make sure you have a good time. But this is a settlement in the middle of the desert. We’ve got the whole strip, one bartender tells me. If we walk, this entire city shuts down.

In a right-to-work state, the Strip enjoys almost total union density – 95%, according to Ken Liu of UNITE HERE Local 223. Downtown, the number drops to 76%. Outside of these two areas, the density drops to 2%.

While much of the country faces stagnating or falling wages, the average worker on the Strip makes $23 an hour.

Union leaders, organizers, researchers and rank and file gather on one hot Las Vegas night to celebrate the outcome of a secret ballot election at nearby Boulder Station Hotel and Casino. More than 570 employees will now be added to UNITE HERE Local 223 and 163’s membership rosters.

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Vernisha Ward came from Los Angeles originally. She is a rank-and-file organizer, and works as a line cook at the airport, which is also unionized. When she transferred from LAX to McCarran airport in 2002, she saw her wages increase by $3 an hour and started receiving free health insurance. “I thought I seriously had some type of top-secret thing going on. I literally thought my pay rate was wrong.”

What makes Las Vegas so different from Los Angeles, or any other part of the country where people have lower wages?

“I think it’s the industry,” Vernisha says. “Basically, we’re needed. Pretty much. We make this city happen.”

She is correct. Forty-one million tourists visit Las Vegas every year. Casinos inside the Strip brought in $6.3 billion in 2015.

Vernisha and many of her colleagues, while catering to the needs of tourists, are afflicted by conditions such as arthritis, back and knee pain. She has conditions that require medical care because of her job as a cook. She shows me the scars and callouses on her hands. She is 37 years old, and feeding people has been her job for decades.

“It’s war. Because of this, I feel like I should deserve to be able to eat. I’m not asking to take over the world. I just wanna be able to provide.”

Vernisha says she believes the reason why union density has dropped in the US is because of companies going overseas. “The average businessman does not think of paying a high rate of pay, plus some insurance, plus a pension. They don’t think like that. So where you have states that have laws that help corporations to move and et cetera, that’s what breaks it down.”

What does she think of people who say they choose not to vote because they don’t believe that anyone represents them?

“I strongly believe that when an abundance of human beings get together, incredible things happen. We can move mountains, if we just get together. Those that feel that it’s a broken system, that they don’t want to be involved, I tell them that’s exactly what they want you to think. They don’t want you to use your power.”

She insists that people should keep casting their vote, even if they don’t feel like it’s getting them anywhere.

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Looking out at the celebration, it’s easy to see how voting has won something in Las Vegas, for at least 570 workers at Boulder Station. This NLRB election has added to the 57,000 workers that UNITE HERE represents in Nevada. The members I speak with say that the reason why they have a strong union in a right to work state is because of strong organization and militancy, and that unions in other states can often lack these essential elements.

Yet, many union workers across the country are not allowed to strike because of “national security”. In a right to work state, unions are hamstrung as they are expected to represent workers who do not pay dues. In Las Vegas, you wouldn’t know it was a right to work state, as workers are proud of their leverage to shut down the Strip and cut into the $6.3 billion gamblers lose every year. Locals publish the names of “scabs” — members who refuse to pay dues but enjoy the benefits of a union job. There are geographical considerations. But rank and file organizers will be on point in the union hall. They are proud of their accomplishments. Their hard work has helped 570 people in the Las Vegas area gain union representation, and they will eventually receive free health insurance, a pension and a living wage.

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At four in the morning, the bartender downtown – who makes an average of $21 an hour – is less optimistic. He doesn’t think it’s so simple. Maybe it’s the hour or the stale cigarette smoke hanging in the air. He has worked as a bartender for a long time. Originally from Pittsburgh, he moved out here to make better money after the mines closed.

“Steve Wynn owns this town. He’s trying to aim for a younger crowd, but they won’t even give you free coffee anymore.”  

He speaks about the housing market, how it crashed here. Despite the 13,000 empty houses, there are at least 10,000 people without housing, leading to news stories worrying about squatters. Homeless people crowd the downtown area, asking passerby for food and money. Dozens dig through alley dumpsters on a Friday night. 

“This country — this city was built on misery in a lot of ways. I’ve seen people pack up everything and have to just leave. We’re slaves. They do what they want with us.”

He slowly wipes down the bar. A coworker offers to take the rest of his shift so he can go home early. He’s been here for more than 20 years.

DAY 59 -Women of Their Own Devising

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What to Send Up When It Goes Down (Photo credit: B Justine Jaime)

LOS ANGELES – There is a ritual underway in Pasadena as nine black actors enter the underworld, mourning those lost to racist violence. The ritual is called What to Send Up When It Goes Down.

Ariel plays a character called Made, described as, a woman of her own devising. In the vignette that repeats itself, over and over, Made works for Miss, a white woman who demands respect despite knowing she is a racist boss.

Made is supposed to be working, Miss insists, but instead she is sharpening a knife, she is cleaning a gun, she is loading a rocket launcher. Miss arrives on the back of a black man to demand, with all her Southern passive-aggressiveness, emotional labor from Made. Made is already working. She steadfastly refuses to comply, with Miss insisting to the point where Made jumps up and throws a right hook, then a left, kicking and punching her until it’s finally a furious kiss that sends Miss into conniptions and onto the floor.

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Later, Ariel sits in a classroom in South Los Angeles with other activists, mostly black and brown. They have been called together by Unión del Barrio to organize a coalition. Though there are only around 25 people present for this meeting, the dozens of flags and banners hanging up in the classroom connect them to a larger historical struggle with billions of other people. These 25 people represent their different communities and groups and have come together for a single purpose: to end police brutality through community power.

The discussion is lively, and led mainly by women. They are discussing strategies, tactics, solutions and education.

This is the coalition’s second meeting, but Ariel is eager to participate, offering her time since she is recently unemployed. She sees a relationship between the powers that be and white supremacy, police brutality, and her inability to find sustainable employment as a young black woman in the United States.

Likewise, she is an actor, and she recognizes the role that the corporate media has in reproducing white supremacy and erasing people of color.

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Across town, the Black Lives Matter movement has been camping outside City Hall since July 12th. Though it is the longest-running encampment in the United States, longer than the encampment in New York where protesters pressured the city into dismissing Police Commissioner Bill Bratton — though it turns out that he was only a year away from retirement anyway.

I asked Britany Craig, who had been at the encampment since the beginning, why she thought the national media wasn’t covering the protest, and their demand to fire LAPD commissioner Charlie Beck. “Our protests in Los Angeles have been so very peaceful,” she says. “You’ll notice when protests are mentioned, it’s always mentioned in the context of violence and looting.”

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“Los Angeles is such an important city as far as tourism goes.”

In much the same way as the Bahamas issued a travel advisory to tourists seeking to go to the US, Brittany reasons that “…if tourists find out that Los Angeles is as dangerous as it is, that could affect the economy.”

Britany hasn’t been involved with politics for a long time. The first march she ever attended was for Alton Sterling on July 12th. She was sick of seeing people who looked like her family experience the harsh realities of life in the US.

“The week that Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, the Orlando thing… all of that was happening back to back. And I found myself pretty much crying myself to sleep every night. Feeling really hopeless, not knowing what to do. It was just like a really disempowering feeling, to know that these things are happening and feel like there’s nothing that you  can do to stop it. There’s nothing you can do to protect the people who are being targeted. So when the opportunity came, there was no question.”

“A tree has roots. And the tree will always have those roots until something changes, right? The country was definitely founded in racism. In 1776, when America gained its independence, it was still a slave-holding state. So, America gained its independence and its people were free. Except for people who looked like me.”

She speaks about how both she and I probably knew people when we were growing up who used to tag – that is, to spray-paint – buildings. “The current system says that that boy should have been arrested, gone to jail, been put in an environment with people who might have actually committed crimes much more heinous than his, be mentally affected by those people, getting into fights in there, and then come out and be expected to function in society as, you know, another person who hadn’t been in that situation.”  

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She speaks to me about the 14 year old boy, Jesse Romero, who was killed by police in Boyle Heights on August 10th while he was out tagging. I am reminded of the man who laid in front of a line of police with a megaphone, screaming about the death of Tamir Rice, who was 12 years old when he was killed by police in 2014.

For perspective, after seven people were poisoned  in 1982 Tylenol issued a massive, nation-wide recall campaign on 300 million bottles of Tylenol. It bought advertisements telling the public not to consume products with acetaminophen (paracetamol) in them. The action cost the company more than $100 million and its stock crashed. But children were turning up dead, and the company knew that if it wanted to have any kind of lasting power, it would need to take immediate and drastic action. Of the seven people killed, six were adults. One of the victims was a child.

According to the Guardian, the police in the United States have killed at least 13 children this year.

Since the beginning of 2016, according to the Guardian, police have killed a total of 751 people this year. According to the website killedbycops.net, that number is actually 808.

When the NO PLATFORM project started a little more than two months ago, the number of people killed by police was was 596.

There have been no massive recalls of police. There has been no elaborate PSA campaign warning people against interacting with the police until the recall has been completed, and new, non-fatal police were on the streets.

Instead, from the makers of law enforcement, much of what you hear is silence. Much of what you see is inaction.