Doug Glover was good enough to publish this account of our work and my own uncertainties in the February 2014 issue of Numero Cinq. Which you can read here.
Reverend James Lawson and the Power of Nonviolent Action
March 2, 2013
I am more than thrilled that much of the extensive interview I did with
Reverend Lawson back in 2007-08 has finally seen print, in this month’s issue of
The Believer. Here’s the excerpt they put on their web page. I’m waiting for the
hard copy to give to Jim Lawson who may have forgotten by now that he ever
talked to me.
Here's a link to the excerpt The Believer posted at their website.
To read the full piece, if you're not a subscriber, the magazine is available from The McSweeney’s Store.
My article published January 6 in LA Progressive:
Jorge Parra is speaking out--even though his lips are sewn shut.
Parra was a skilled trades welder when he went to work for General Motors Colombian subsidiary Colmotores. There, he developed herniated discs, severe carpal tunnel in both hands, and upper spinal tendinosis.
In a translated written statement, he explained, "I underwent three surgeries and now walk with a cane due to the injuries I sustained at GM. When I first started feeling pain in my lower back and legs...I went to GM’s medical center. They gave me injections of Oxycotin and Diclofenac and sent me back to work."
Parra, who now has several screws implanted in his spine, responded by organizing ASOTRECOL [Association of Injured Workers and Ex-Workers of General Motors Colmotores] in May 2011 and was promptly fired for "instigating resentment."
Today, he is in Detroit, his travel paid by a US-based NGO, coming up on the second month of a hunger strike as he seeks an appointment with GM's CEO Daniel Akerson to make a personal plea for GM to return to mediation with former workers who, like
him, were fired after being injured on the job and left without livelihood.
My friend Patrick Bonner, coordinator of the Colombia Peace Project, knows about hunger strikes from back in the day when he accompanied Cesar Chavez. More recently, he's been on ten fact-finding missions to Colombia with organizations including
Witness for Peace and Fellowship of Reconciliation. In Bogotá in July 2012, he met with fired GM workers who were then camped out across the street from the US Embassy, seeking justice. At the time, the US Treasury Department still owned a 32% stake in General Motors which probably gave the Embassy, along with the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, enough leverage to help induce now profitable GM to negotiate with the workers.
The talks collapsed, however, in August when the workers rejected a compensation offer so low it would not have covered medical and surgery costs or supported their families for long. Besides which, as Parra explained, the men don't want hand-outs. Except for those totally disabled, what they want is the chance to keep working. They seek reassignment to different positions, with retraining if necessary, so that men who can no longer do heavy lifting or suffer from repetitive stress injuries can be transferred elsewhere in the plant or on the Chevy assembly line.
Sympathizers across the US began to fast in solidarity--without sewing
their lips shut.
And this past Saturday, at the urging of the Witness for Peace organization, I accompanied Bonner and Maggie Peña, financial corporate consultant who was born in Colombia, on visits to LA-area GM dealerships to find out if local managers knew what was happening in Bogotá and Detroit.
Of course local dealerships don't determine corporate policy but they also don't answer to GM shareholders or benefit from CEO compensation packages. It seemed they would instead be concerned with any bad publicity that could tarnish the Chevrolet brand.
Peña, who has worked for major corporations including Disney, Toshiba, and IBM, said "Companies are very sensitive to how they look. You embarrass them and they are going to react." And so we hoped that managers would join us in asking GM to agree to renewed mediation or arbitration. Still, as we traveled through the LA basin and the San Fernando Valley, we didn't know what to
At dealership after dealership, general managers and sales managers gave us
thoughtful attention. (I won't name any, in case there might be repercussions
When Peña said US corporations do things in other countries they couldn't get away with here, and began to explain how unlikely it was for workers to reach a just solution in Colombia, where union leaders are assassinated and labor laws are rarely enforced, one manager nodded and replied, "I wasn't born here in this country. I know what you're saying."
Everyone we spoke to said they would bring the subject up with the Detroit reps they deal with. GM might respond in the same way the corporation did in an email to the Wall Street Journal: "GM Colmotores is respectful of the law and has never put the health or the well-being of its employees at risk."
GM has also released statements that almost all claims by former employees have been dismissed in court. ASOTRECOL members say their medical
records were falsified. Indeed, the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy reports that Jorge Parra's insurance carrier did indeed alter records so that his injuries would not be considered work-related. The company was found guilty for this and fined the equivalent of $16,000. However, in spite of this determination, the falsified documents remain legally binding and Parra's claim remains dismissed--exactly the kind of shenanigans referred to by Peña.
As Peña also pointed out in visit after visit, "With global communications and social media, it's instant. What happens in Bogotá is known right away in Los Angeles and Detroit." Even if the managers didn't express support for the workers, just having them raise the issue and ask questions would achieve our goal. We wanted GM headquarters to see that the struggle of the Colmotores workers cannot be kept under the radar.
Why should this matter to the average American? Due to the bailout, GM was owned by us, and the more US companies can
get away with exploitative practices in other countries, the more attractive it becomes to export jobs.
After arriving in Motor City, Jorge Parra had another compelling reason. "I have talked mostly with autoworkers from the Midwest, who have shared with me their horror stories: how the two-tier wage system gives companies an incentive to continually hire low wage workers and creates tension between workers; how supervisors forced their workers to continue working in nearly 100-degree heat; and how unions are becoming weaker and unable to guarantee workers’rights."
He heard about tier-two workers in the US who didn’t receive all the safety training they needed to handle dangerous equipment.
"I was surprised to hear that these practices were happening here...it seems to me that multinationals are testing out new systems
of worker repression in developing countries and now they are transferring those systems to the 'developed world.' GM implemented a two-tier system in Colombia before it did in Detroit. Now workers are only considered for wage increases after three years on the job, but few make it that far. It is easier for GM to dispose of its workers after they have forfeited their health and before they start to cost the company more money. ..This practice must not be allowed to continue in Colombia or the United States."
In the meantime, Patrick Bonner is planning more visits to dealerships, hoping to meet more managers like the man who said, "It's disturbing on so many levels--for humanity." While Maggie Peña explained her involvement this way: "It doesn't have anything to do with me being Colombian. It has to do with what's right."
If you wish to express your concern to General Motors CEO Daniel Akerson, please write to him at 300 Renaissance Center, Detroit, MI 48243
My article today in LA Progressive, the first of my reports from Bolivia.
You can find it in any market or supermarket. Under the brand name Windsor, it comes in boxes that look much like any box of Lipton tea in the US. I drank it in the morning instead of coffee. In the evening, I preferred trimate, the coca leaves mixed with chamomile and anise.
In Bolivia, as in much of the Andes, people understand that coca leaves are not the same as cocaine. The leaves, which are rich in vitamins and minerals, are used for tea, in candies, in flour for baking cakes, as an anaesthetic, and in beverages–as they still are in Coca-Cola, following a process that removes any detectable trace of drug so that only the sugar and nutrition-free caffeine remain as stimulants.
Bolivia’s socialist president, Evo Morales, who took office in 2006, was a coca grower and led the growers’ union. He’s also Aymara, in a country where the indigenous majority has been oppressed and discriminated against for centuries.
His election–like that of Barack Obama here–led to an often racially-based backlash revealing profound social rifts. To many people in the caste that used to run Bolivia, it’s disconcerting to see, just for one example, an indigenous woman take her place as a Cabinet minister wearing traditional garb. Morales has also lost some support among his one-time backers for promoting a new highway through the Tipnis National Park, home to three indigenous groups. But the opposition, encouraged no doubt by the US war on drugs, often uses the coca connection to demonize him. These critics don’t label the president as a socialist, or an Indian. They say, darkly, he’s a cocalero.
Bolivia’s Constitution guarantees equal rights regardless of race, language, gender, sexual orientation, or disability. There’s been backlash here too. While I was in Cochabamba offering my arts-based literacy and social justice workshops, the city lived through a Little Rock moment. Girls enrolled for the first time in the city’s most prestigious, previously all-male, public school and boys and their parents battled with police as they tried (in the end, unsuccessfully) to stop the girls from entering the building.
But coca, coca, I was talking about coca.
In the anti-Evo stronghold of Santa Cruz, coffee does seem to be the drink of choice. In the capital, La Paz, a taxi driver told me that because of Morales, the Mexican drug cartels are now slaughtering people in Bolivia–something I could not verify and does not appear to be true. What is true is that acreage under coca cultivation has expanded and the media warns of disastrous
consequences to Bolivian society if the nation were to become a cocaine producer–something that has not happened yet.
Another truth: coca is a hardy plant and can yield four harvests a year. If non-narcotic coca products could be exported to the US, imagine what a boost it would give the small farmers and the legal economies of Andean South America.
Banning coca. It’s as though a dry county in Texas banned potatoes because you can process them to get vodka. But when I said this to a Bolivian friend, she took offense: “Coca is not a potato. It’s medicine. And it’s sacred.”
I started drinking coca tea to prevent and alleviate high altitude sickness–el soroche–something that coca does more effectively and
without the inconvenient and at times life-threatening side effects of drugs like Diamox, prescribed in the US. Coca soothes the stomach and aids digestion. Not only did I stay healthy but I found I didn’t need coffee to start my day. I love coffee. But I’m an addict. At home in California, my head is foggy and pounding until I get my espresso fix in the morning.
Bolivians are not ignorant of the dangers of addiction or careless about health. While we in the US use tiny print on cigarette warning labels, in Bolivia the message comes through loud and clear, taking up half the space on the pack:
Cada seis minutos muere un fumador. (Every six minutes a smoker dies.)
On the cartons in duty-free airport shops, purchasers are warned in large capital letters in English that smoking can cause
And yes, coca leaves are sacred, as I learned when we offered them up in a ritual to la Pachamama, the divinity of Mother Earth.
Back home, my first cup of coffee in weeks upset my stomach, set my heart to pounding and my hands to shaking. I would still be drinking coca tea, if only I could.
Notes on Chicago, Latin America, snowstorms, border closings, aflatoxins, cars accidents, and AT&T
Well, I did want to post more about Chicago, about the two-faced stop signs that had me totally confused. (Glad I wasn't driving. Thank you again, Stephanie Friedman.) About the pleasure of being in buildings that unlike my apartment are heated! Walking around naked in the hotel room, feeling the warm air--ah!--on my skin. About Hector Aristizábal's performance of Nightwind. The grad student at the University of Chicago -- I wish I knew her name -- who talked about her work in Chile on theatre in Chile under Pinochet. We met at the brown bag lunch at the Center for Latin American Studies. One point she made struck me: she said during the repression, political statements were often made in theatre through very abstract devices and I wondered if that sort of
experimental abstraction has carried over into the post-Pinochet era. Specifically, I'm thinking about Andrea Lagos and her solo show Un beso es un beso es un beso which I saw her perform at International Theatre Festival for Peace in Barrancabermeja, Colombia. Her performance was strange, startling and powerful, but I really didn't understand what she meant in her commentary about it being a reflection of the continuing impact of the era of repression on her generation. Certainly, language in the piece is broken, partial, silenced. And her physicality at times grotesquely controlled. But maybe the abstract aspect is immediately understood as a political comment by people in Chile. (That's Andrea in the photo above. I still can't figure out how to insert photos in the appropriate place in the text. I use more photos--and in the right places--in my parallel blog)
I want to write about the Friday snowstorm that made roads impassable so that I couldn't make it to Or Chadash for my presentation there, and that left us all worried about whether Hector would get to O'Hare in time after his Awakening the Imagination for Social Justice workshop and whether his flight would get him to LAX for his connection for Guatemala. (I haven't heard from him so I'm assuming he arrived OK. I think someone would have heard from him if he got stuck.) (And I guess snow disruptions in Chicago are not exactly unforeseen.)
I wanted to post about the writing for social justice workshop at the Graham School--such enthusiastic and willing participants (including Stephanie Friedman and Naty Vesga) and the trip up to Barrington to work with the Barrington Writers Workshop thanks to Tamara Tabel whose work I was so happy to read and my friend, Natalie Pepa who recommended me. Someone take note and
publish Natalie's tango memoir! and her funny, sad, evocative short pieces about Buenos Aires.
Natalie's pareja (we agreed English lacks a good word for in a couple regardless of marital status) is Dennis, a scientist who works with, among other things, toxin-binding clays that protect livestock from aflatoxins, fungal infections that grow on grains, especially corn. In the fields, the aflatoxins protect the plant from being eaten, but after harvest, especially if the corn is stored in a warm and humid area, the stuff grows and spreads and can make livestock sick. For animal feed, you add specific clay to the feed. It coats the toxins so the bad stuff passes right through the animal's body and causes no harm. There are many kinds of toxins and a different kind of clay is best suited to deal with each. Even under a microscope, all clay crystals look alike, so you need more elaborate instrumentation to identify what you've got.
But right now, I'm not sure when any of this will be posted. It's been crazy here. First, a minor car accident on Wednesday en route to Moorpark, dealing with insurance, etc. Today, Saturday, turns out the border between Argentina and Bolivia is closed due to some controversy over the gas fields, so mi compa Silvana Gariboldi, with whom I was going to collaborate in Bolivia, can't get
there. Edson Quezada, of Educar es fiesta, the organization we--or now I--will work with warns me that as I'm arriving in Bolivia on Sunday, the buses may not keep to their schedule--which may affect my 8 or so hour ride from La Paz to Cochabamba. Arriving in Cochabamba, I'm to phone him. Apparently not a good safe idea to get into a taxi alone. And I'm bringing a sleeping bag and will
sleep on the floor of the office. But maybe that will mean internet access which is more than what I've got now.
Phone line dead. Internet dead. Without phone or internet, I couldn't call for service, but I saw the AT&T van in the street and spoke
to the repairman. He was working in a neighbor's apartment--apparently interrupted my service while working on hers--and agreed to see what my problem was when he finished with her. I kept going out to see how he was doing, and all of a sudden his ladder was gone and so was his van. Used neighbor Claudia's cell phone to call AT&T and went through one of their ridiculous phone trees which required me to specify either landline or internet. Of course I've lost both. But I chose landline as the internet is accessed via the landline. But the phone tree switched me over to internet as a choice. Whatever. I had to leave Claudia's as a contact # and the recorded message said a repair person would come by 6:00 on Monday.
What joy. The other party to the car accident thought I was lying about my phone number when she tried to call it and it didn't ring in my pocketbook or car. It's ringing at home, I said. She wanted the number for my cell phone and didn't want to believe I don't have one. Well, if she tries to call my phone now, she's not going to get through. I didn't plan it this way!!!! (The people at Safeco, my
insurance company, have been calm, friendly, reassuring, and very nice.)
nd I commented on our "peripecias" in an email to Bolivia and Argentina--the unforeseen sudden accidents or complications to our plans -- but now it seems that's a Mexican word and I'm not sure I was understood. Ah, one more unforeseen complication.
PS My cat, being female, I refer to her as "gata" but Natalie Pepa told me in some countries--and I can't remember which--the word means "prostitute." To avoid any misunderstanding and potential peripecias, I will transgender my Desi--mi gato--while traveling.
Beneath the Blindfold
Protesting at the gates of Ft Benning in Georgia, November 2006, I met Kathy Berger and Ines Sommer, Chicago filmmakers, who were dedicating years of their lives to making a documentary about torture survivors. Instead on focusing on the horrific acts, on the scandals, the exposés, they wanted to show the aftermath in the lives of human beings. Hector was one of the survivors whose
lives they planned to film.
We’ve stayed in touch but Jan 18 was my first chance to see the finished product, Beneath the Blindfold, at a screening at International House, University of Chicago, organized to coincide with the events planned for Hector and me. It was extra exciting because the documentary had just had a sold-out screening at the Gene Siskel Film Center, which meant an extra encore show was quickly scheduled. And we were thrilled to see the work get attention from The Atlantic, even before its real release.
Besides Hector, they profile Matilde de la Sierra, a physician from Guatemala who made the mistake of trying to provide medical care to the indigenous; Blama Massaquoi, of Liberia, forced into service as a child soldier and then forced to drink a caustic substance that destroyed his esophagus; Mario Venegas of Chile; Donald Vance, the former Navy man who was detained and tortured by US forces at Camp Cropper (same facility that held Saddam Hussein) after he became a private contractor and blew the whistle on his employer selling US arms to insurgents.
We also got to have dinner with Sarah Moberg of the University's Human Rights Program. Sarah did a lot to make the screening possible. Thank you!
It was gratifying to see the audience response to these very human stories. And I very much enjoyed seeing Hector’s kids, Gabo and Camilla as they looked years ago. (They’re all grown up now and very sophisticated teens.) And his mother, who is usually so quiet being outspoken enough to loudly argue that Hector’s performances prove his masochism. Less pleasing, the footage of me — at Ft. Benning and at the Healing Club event at the Program for Torture Victims as we celebrated the grant of asylum to Meluleki, survivor from Zimbabwe.
I hope this film gets seen!
Author, Playwright, Troublemaker