Posts filed under ‘civil rights’

Sign O’ The Times: BART police sticker intervention

Hit 'em where it hurts, BART sticker intervention, July 2010

On hemmed-in ground, use subterfuge.

–Sun Tzu

Just a quick shoutout regarding a nice little intervention that’s followed in the wake the Johannes Mehserle verdict a couple weeks ago. Short, sweet, and to the point, these little gems have apparently been popping up on BART trains throughout the Bay Area. I haven’t found images of any of them in situ so if you happen to see one pasted up somewhere on your next BART ride be sure to whip out your cameraphone & document it for me. If you send me a pic I’ll post it for sure.

The Mehserle verdict was frustrating in so many ways, but even more aggravating was the mainstream media’s utterly predictable and fairly irresponsible response to it. The day of the verdict you could almost smell the anticipation on the breath of the cable news networks’ spokesmodels as they hopefully waited on the streets of Oakland for a riot to break out. Oakland residents managed to defy expectations as hundreds of people peacefully rallied for several hours after the verdict was announced, and it was only after most of those folks had gone home that a few goons trashed some storefronts and stole some running shoes. I’m not discounting the idiocy of the vandalism that happened that night but for the most part damage was contained to about 5 blocks in downtown Oakland.

Exercising constitutional rights, Oakland, July 8, 2010

It’s telling that, of the 79 people arrested that night, prosecutors only filed charges against nine of them. Even more significantly, of those arrested 75% were not from Oakland and twelve of them weren’t even from the state of California. This reflects a common pattern of police repression that’s been honed in recent anti-capitalist demonstrations worldwide, most recently at the G-20 summit in Toronto.

As Loius Proyect, aka The Unrepentant Marxist, notes in his blog, what happened in Oakland followed a well-worn scenario:

There’s a mass demonstration. A layer of people do a split from that march and then some engage in expressing their rage against the system by smashing windows and other acts. Given the world we live in, it is surprising that more of this doesn’t happen more often.
In response, the police hold back until the main march disperses. They wait for some damage to be done, and then they go on the offensive. They round-up and brutalize everyone left on the streets, including passers-by, peaceful protesters and those engaged in property damage. In Seattle, Quebec, Genoa, etc. this script has played out over and over again. The police wait until the mass organisations leave, then go after the rest. This strategy suggests that the police and the state are keenly aware of who they want—and don’t want—to provoke.

The events in Oakland suggest that, onced again, we were played both by the police and by the complicity of the mass media. If the powers-that-be have perfected the art of misrepresenting peaceful protests as riots and discouraging the average citizen from any form of dissent, then continuing to utilize creative interventionism as a revolutionary tactic is an absolute must. As 19th-century Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz famously stated, “No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.” Street protest is a venerable form of dissent, but if properly done, small, sneaky activist artworks like the BART sticker above can also pack a mighty wallop.

For a more detailed analysis of the Mehserle verdict and aftermath, go to Davey D’s blog here.

UPDATE: Nov. 5, 2010. Johannes Mehserle’s sentence has just been announced–he got 2 years, which was the minimum about of jail time he could have received. The gun enhancement charge, which could have added up to 10 years to Mehserle’s sentence, was thrown out by Judge Robert Perry. With time served, Mehserle could be released as early as February 2011, or in about three months. In my opinion there are no words to describe how stunningly wrong this is.

July 22, 2010 at 5:38 am 6 comments

People Get Ready: Iran demonstrations, December 2009

War In Tehran Streets on Ashura

Unidentified protestor, Tehran, December 2009

After several months of bubbling under, turmoil has once again exploded in Iran this weekend, with at least fifteen people killed, including the nephew of Green Movement leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, in demonstrations in support of governmental reform there. I’ll leave it to more diligent and erudite observers to compile and analyze the events as they happen but I did want to note again that the web is the place to be for the most up-to-the minute information about this weekend’s happenings. Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic has been liveblogging since Saturday nightfletcher christiansen at dailykos.com has a great roundup of news and links: the Daily Nite Owl has also been liveblogging here. And if you’re twittering, #iranelection is the hashmark to follow, with oxfordgirl also livetweeting.

youtube also has much video shot on the streets: I’ve included just one that seems particularly telling.

At 3.49 it apparently shows a member of the Basij, Iran’s paramilitary police force, removing his helmet and holding it aloft, to the cheers and cries of the crowd.

Defecting Basiji carried by the crowd, Tehran, December 27, 2009

Another photo shows a Basiji in a green scarf being carried above a crowd, arms outstretched.

Several observers including Sullivan suggest that the basiji are defecting, taking the side of the demonstrators and renouncing their support for the government. To me this seems like a very significant development. If the regime is beginning to lose the support of the military and no longer has the muscle to back up its repression, it can’t last very long.  Or at least that’s what I’d like to believe—no one can tell if the tide has turned in Iran, but at this moment it’s still possible to wish for the Iranian people to free themselves and to gain some measure of self-determination. Here’s hoping the new decade brings them positive and momentous change.

UPDATE: Further discussion here on Sullivan’s blog re: possible Basiji defections. Readers seem to think that nothing conclusive is proven by the images. Great discussion all around.

December 28, 2009 at 7:40 am Leave a comment

Clampdown: Independent Media on G-20 Protests

Independent media keeps an eye on riot police, Pittsburgh, PA, Sept. 24, 2009

Independent media keeps an eye on riot police, Pittsburgh, PA, Sept. 24, 2009

Once again the web is the place to be for up-to-the-second information about breaking news. This time it’s the G-20 protests taking place in Pittsburgh, PA today. About 500 protestors have been attacked by overzealous policemen in riot gear using tear gas, rubber bullets and other excessive force against the peaceful crowd. On twitter, one poster claims he was told, “No matter your purpose, we will arrest you.” Another tweets, “teargas, rubber bullets, 1 arrest on baum and liberty (Half of march turned one way on baum), beat people with batons, shot with rubber bullets.” Most disturbingly, another reports, “cops using#LRAD less-lethal sound rays on protestors at #g20. Never before used in U.S.” This is confirmed by another poster on the blog of the Pittsburgh Independent Media Center’s website, who states:

Likely sound weapon (LRAD) attacks G20 protesters
On the live G-Infinity Indymedia broadcast, what sounds like the distinct oscillating chirp of the Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) military technology was overheard. The Active Denial System has not previously been used by law enforcement or military personnel at major demostrations in the United States until now (An LRAD system was on the streets at the 2004 RNC but not used). LRAD type systems can be used as loudspeakers and also to create extremely high-decibel “chirping” noises — which seemed to be heard on the broadcast. The LRAD was used recently to suppress dissent at large demonstrations in the nation of Georgia.

In addition this should raise questions about the role of the US Northern Command (NORTHCOM) which is developing civil dissent repression techniques for implementation around the country. NORTHCOM and the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) have major roles in National Security Special Events (NSSE) — the NGA is providing geographic intelligence (GEOINT) to law enforcement under a special confidential agreement that gives them a “loophole” around the Posse Comitatus law restricting domestic military activity.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Active_Denial_System

posted by Dex Thu 9/24/2009 3:10 pm

Many police in riot gear, Pittsburgh, PA, Sept. 24, 2009

Many police in riot gear, Pittsburgh, PA, Sept. 24, 2009

Traditional media is running the usual nonsense about one protestor throwing a rock and another pushing trash bins into the streets as a way of justifying the extreme force used by the police. But pictures posted from protestors on site show a mostly peaceful and fairly small crowd of about 500 people marching, with a phalanx of 20 police cars and 100 police in riot gear hot on their heels.

msnbc.com and other news outlets have picked up the story, although they refuse to directly acknowledge the riot police’s flagrant civil rights violations. In msnbc’s clip the  news reporter cautiously states, “We’re not sure if the gas is coming from authorities,”  while showing footage of bleeding protesters pouring water in their eyes. Also audible on the soundtrack is the LRAD’s high-pitched chirping (see above), which indicates that the sound weapon was indeed used on protesters in Pittsburgh.

Those violent, anarchistic monks protesting, Pittsburgh, PA, Sept. 24, 2009

Violent, anarchistic monks protesting, Pittsburgh, PA, Sept. 24, 2009

Ironically, in order to watch msnbc’s newsclip you have to sit through insipid advertising for teeth whiteners, dog food, and other consumer products. The ad I endured was a commercial for disposable diapers, accompanied by a soundtrack of The Youngbloods’ “Everybody Get Together.” (I somehow doubt that Jesse Colin Young envisioned his tune being used to sell products that take up so much space in our landfills.) Yet another reason to go straight to indie media for your information—so far, there are no ads on twitter, and there’s also no corporate bias. As one tweeter says, “I think I’m going to go back upstairs to my MacBook. The news coverage is just irritating…”

UPDATE: Hot and heavy on twitter tonight. Use #g20 hash for most information. Also follow these tweeters:

@infernoenigma

@robjdlc

@iwasaround

@billpeduto

@resistg20

UPDATE 2: Scary new tweet from @robjdlc: “Just spotted police with shotguns and semi autos behind those with batons”

UPDATE 3: After a peaceful daytime march of several thousand people today, the Pittsburgh police are running wild again tonight on the Pitt campus. Taking advantage of cover of night and scanty mainstream media coverage they’ve gassed students walking home from campus events and set unmuzzled dogs on them. Independent media sources including Oakland CA’s own Davey D are tweeting from the scene, although the intrepid KPFA reporter sounds pretty freaked out, if his last few tweets (Shit I am in the middle of this the entire block is being cordoned off. Trying to be chill I just wanna get the hell out of here) are any indication.

And an on-the-spot post from swwhee on dailykos.com:

Tonight in Schenley Plaza

a large group of Pitt students and G20 protesters gathered to protest the violent tactics of the law enforcement officials. Hundreds of officers descended onto Pitt’s campus, arresting everyone who remained within the vicinity. Countless individuals were arrested merely for standing on their campus, curiously observing the ongoing mele.

Police used tear gas, dogs, a sonic gun, and full riot gear. I myself had an automatic shotgun pointed at my chest and felt as though I was running for my life. I have never been so scared in my own country. We were meant for more than this.

We simply wished to assemble to show our disapproval of the police tactics used from the night before.  On Thursday night the police used tear gas and night sticks to disperse students.  Many of the students were told to go home when home for many was a dormitory.  A dormitory that was locked down for security reasons.  Tear gas was released and confused students who were merely trying to go to a home that they were locked out of. The police trapped Pitt’s students and arrested them for not being able to navigate the various blockades and security measures.

Here’s a video of the LRAD sound cannon being used today in Pittsburgh against protestors:

Here’s a video of the Pittsburgh police in riot gear posing with a kneeling, handcuffed student for a snapshot. flickr, anyone? Sorry I can’t get the embed to work—just click to link to the site. Other good videos at the G20 tag, too.

UPDATE 4: Good firsthand accounts from students harassed on Friday night here from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

UPDATE 5: Great eyewitness account from a student who was there on Friday night at dailykos.com

September 24, 2009 at 10:27 pm 4 comments

Which Side Are You On? 2009 APALA Convention

        Sergeant-at-arms, 2009 APALA convention, Las VegasSergeant-at-arms, 2009 APALA convention, Las Vegas

Just got back from a long weekend in Vegas, but I didn’t do any gambling, see any shows or go to the Liberace Museum (though I did eat at a couple buffets). Instead I spent most of my time consorting with a crowd of fired-up labor union activists at the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) convention. Equal parts awards ceremony, strategy session, and revival meeting, the APALA convention rocked the old-school trade unionist rhetoric with more than 300 delegates from across the country. I got a crash course in union acronyms—represented at the convention were IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers), SEIU (Service Employees International Union), AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees), IFPTE (International Federation of Professional and Technical Employees), and CWU (Culinary Workers Union), to name just a few.  I met homecare workers, teachers, electricians, lab techs, hotel and restaurant workers, longshoremen, nurses, ironworkers (not to be confused with steelworkers, who were also in the house), and straight-up union organizers, all of whom were dedicated to the cause of uplifting and honoring the worker and making sure we all get paid a living wage.

John Delloro brings 'em to their feet, 2009 APALA convention, Las Vegas

John Delloro brings 'em to their feet, 2009 APALA convention, Las Vegas

Some of the convention’s most interesting aspects were the various forms of creative expression, both subtle and overt, that repeatedly surfaced during the weekend. Songs and poetry by labor unionists go way back, and one of the convention’s speakers, Johanna Puno Hestor, referenced this long history by quoting from a poem by famed Pinoy farmworker and organizer Philip Vera Cruz. Chants and unions also go together hand in glove and one of my favorite moments was when John Delloro of the Dolores Huerta Labor Institute let rip with a full-throated rendition of the old picket-line chant, “We Are The Union,” getting the whole convention to swing it with him. Several other times during the proceedings a speaker would spontaneously bust out with a rousing chant in various languages including Spanish, Tagalog, and Mandarin as well as English.

APALA convention presenter Kiwi and tats

APALA convention presenter Kiwi and tats

The connections between art and activism were further explicated throughout the convention. Rapper Kiwi, formerly of Native Guns, and Geo Quibuyen, aka Geologic, aka Prometheus Brown, blogger and a member of Seattle’s isangmahal arts kollective and one-half of the rap duo Blues Scholars, led a standing-room-only workshop entitled “Cultural Activism and The Fight For Workers’ Rights,” which looked at the work of sansei singer/songwriter Chris Iijima, Pilipino filmmaker Lino Brocka, Tupac Shakur, and writer Carlos Bulosan, linking their creative work to issues of human rights and social justice. Rick Rocamora gave a slide show of his luminous and evocative black-and-white photographs from “Filipino World War II Soldiers: America’s Second-Class Veterans,” his book about the Pinoy soldiers’ struggle to receive benefits from the U.S. government. On the filmmaking tip, Tam Tran screened “Lost And Found,” her poignant short documentary (see below) about Stephanie Solis, a UCLA undergraduate and undocumented immigrant who entered the U.S. as a child. Both Tran and Solis spoke in support of the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act, which would facilitate legal status for many young people who are, due to the peculiarities of U.S. immigration law, in permanent non-citizen limbo.

All in all the convention was pretty informative and enlightening, with much more lively speeches than the dry-as-dust presentations I’m used hearing at, say, your standard academic conference. I enjoyed the convocation being referred to as “sisters and brothers” and it was fun to hear the boos and gasps of shock when particularly nefarious employers were called on the carpet for their various transgressions (ten-hour work day! no lunch break! no overtime!). The topics discussed were particularly relevant to me since my own union, the California Faculty Association, just voted on whether or not to accept work furloughs equaling a 10% pay cut. Trade unions may seem outdated and retro but with the Republican policies of the last presidential administration resulting in the current economic meltdown, maybe there’s something to be said for fairer labor practices and a return to honoring workers instead of exploiting them. In the end, it’s all about doing right by as many people as possible instead of only looking out for yourself, which really isn’t a bad thing at all.

A few fun facts:

Only 12% of U.S. workers are union members, with only 9% of the private sector unionized.

All of the hotels on the Vegas strip save one (The Venetian, boooo!) are union shops.

It took more than six years to unionize the MGM Grand Hotel.

Here’s Tam Tran’s short about Stephanie Solis and the DREAM Act.

UPDATE: May 16, 2010: Terrible news–Tam Tran was just killed in a car accident in Maine today when a pickup truck crossed the meridian and crashed head on into a car she was riding in. I’d only met Tam once, after she showed the above video, and she was a promising young filmmaker and activist. All thoughts to her family and friends.

UPDATE 2: June 6, 2010. More incredibly  bad news–just found out today that John Delloro died of a heart attack yesterday. This is quite shocking to me since John was an incredibly vibrant person who was literally bursting with life. I’d only met him once, at the APALA convention last year, but I was more than impressed with his incredible energy, dedication, and optimism. The Asian American community has lost a a potentially great leader who has passed long before his time. We can only hope that in his memory we will all continue his work toward peace, justice, and the betterment of the world for all.

———————-

And for good measure, the lyrics to Which Side Are You On?, written by Florence Reece in 1931 during a strike by the United Mine Workers of America in which her husband, Sam Reece, was an organizer.

Which Side Are You On?

Come all you good workers,
Good news to you I’ll tell
Of how the good old union
Has come in here to dwell.

CHORUS:
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?

My daddy was a miner,
And I’m a miner’s son,
And I’ll stick with the union
‘Til every battle’s won.

They say in Harlan County
There are no neutrals there.
You’ll either be a union man
Or a thug for J. H. Blair.

Oh workers can you stand it?
Oh tell me how you can?
Will you be a lousy scab
Or will you be a man?

Don’t scab for the bosses,
Don’t listen to their lies.
Us poor folks haven’t got a chance
Unless we organize.

July 17, 2009 at 7:56 am 4 comments

Higher Ground: twitter, youtube, and the Iranian election

Unidentified protestor, Tehran, June 2009

Unidentified protestor, Tehran, June 2009

I’m tearing myself away from twitter right now to note that, since the aftermath of the disputed election in Iran last week, the much-maligned social networking site has all of a sudden become the most significant media outlet for information about the protests in that country. Search #iranelection and you get dozens of tweets and retweets every minute from Iranians on the ground reporting live in first person about the civil unrest there. Although Iranian security forces are trying to track and shut down tweeters, news is still pouring out of the country via the social media site much faster than it can be traced and eliminated. “it was a nightmare, I can barely breath & my face is burning, Masood got shot in the arm & Shayan’s brother is missing,” reads one tweet. “we ran as fast as we could in the opposite direction, at the same time basiji bastards started to hit fleeing people,” states another.

Mainstream media sources like msnbc.com and the BBC are suddenly the followers, not the leaders, of online, first-person news sources—the U.K. Telegraph, cnn.com and time.com are reporting on the latest twitter updates

Simultaneously, youtube has become the best up-to-the-minute source for raw, unmediated video from Iran. I just watched a clip of destruction of the headquarters of the Basij, the Iranian paramilitary force, which was posted almost immediately after its occurrence a few hours ago. A video of the death of a young woman who was shot by the Basij has been viewed by thousands since it was posted earlier today, further galvanizing protestors in Iran and worldwide.

Protestors with rocks, Tehran, June 2009

Protestors with rocks, Tehran, June 2009

Underscoring the influence of new media on what’s going on in Iran, embattled opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi released his most recent statement to his supporters not through a traditional news source but as a status update to his facebook page. The message reads simply, “Today you are the media, it is your duty to report and keep the hope alive,” suggesting that Mousavi is cognizant of the power of Iranians using the Internet to keep the outside world informed.

It’s impossible to predict how events will play out in Iran but it’s interesting that this is all taking place close on the heels on the 20th anniversary of the suppression of protestors in Tiananmen Square. With the world’s new ability to watch in real time and with more ready access to eyewitness accounts, will things turn out differently than they did two decades ago? Thus informed, will we be able to take action when we need to, or will we be paralyzed by our fascination with the spectacle? Will the arc of the universe bend towards justice this time?

Thanks to al rodgers at dailykos.com for the photos: many more here.

UPDATE: Go here for a list of tweeters to follow, plus much more.

UPDATE 2: New York Times article about Iran/twitter here.

UPDATE 3: Since first publishing this post three days ago some of the people I’ve been following on twitter, notably change_for_iran,  have stopped updating. I suspect this is due to increasing limitations on internet traffic from Iran; I hope it’s not a sign of something more ominous. However, there are still several good sources to be found from the list in the first update, plus a great nightly English translation of significant Farsi tweets here.

Meanwhile, #iranelection has become somewhat useless as it’s jammed with spammers and other irrelevant tweets. But it’s probably still more current than, say, cnn or the New York Times right now.

UPDATE 4: June 24–possible bad news about another twitterer I’ve been following, persiankiwi. The last few tweets have been quite frightening & as of four hours ago have ended altogether. One of the last tweets: “we must go – dont know when we can get internet – they take 1 of us, they will torture and get names – now we must move fast.”

UPDATE 5: July 17–change_for-iran is back online. still no word from persiankiwi. Go here for good updates in English.

June 21, 2009 at 8:22 am 4 comments

Body and Soul: Pahole Sookkasikon’s Art and Activism

Only For Pretend, ink on paper, 18"x24", Pahole Sookkasikan, 2009

Only For Pretend, ink on paper, 18″x24″, Pahole Sookkasikon, 2009

As of last Saturday night, I’m the proud owner of a t-shirt emblazoned with artwork by artist/activist Pahole Sookkasikon. Pahole’s solo show, Only For Pretend, opened at My Trick Pony in San Francisco last weekend, a smart little gallery space that also is a purveyor of custom t-shirts based on designs by the artists featured at the shop.

Pahole’s show is made up of several of his beautiful, impressionistic pen-and-ink drawings on paper. Delicate and dreamlike, the images flow gracefully across the page, with faces and shapes emerging amidst the swirling lines.

In addition to exhibiting the original artwork, My Trick Pony has also made up graphics of Pahole’s drawings for transfer onto nice, non-sweatshop t-shirts from American Apparel in a variety of colors and styles.

The shop’s adaptations of Pahole’s black-and-white drawings are available in several colors, including many metallic options.

Matteo in action, My Trick Pony

Matteo in action, My Trick Pony

Pahole’s pictures take beautifully to the to the t-shirt medium, with their lacy imagery gaining an added layer of feathery abstraction when rendered in metallic glitter.

Gallery proprietor Matteo is masterful on the hot-press, with a keen eye for the proper placement of the picture on each individual shirt.

At the show’s reception he whipped through the creation of several dozen shirts in the space of a couple hours, expertly applying Pahole’s ethereal drawings onto each garment.

Pahole’s exhibit continues through June. Stop by for your own custom t-shirt; visit My Trick Pony’s website for more information.

Pahole has also been tirelessly advocating for the Wat Mongkolratanaram Thai Buddhist Temple in Berkeley in its struggle for religious and cultural self-determination. For more than a year the Temple has been in conflict with some of its immediate neighbors who object to the smell, congestion, and lack of parking during the Wat’s Sunday food sharing, which has been taking place since 1994.

Part of the Buddhist tradition of merit-making, the food sharing raises operating funds for the Temple and supports the monks in residence. The Temple has made numerous concessions to the neighbors’ demands, including reducing by half the hours of the food offerings, providing alternate parking spaces for visitors, and increasing trash pickup on Sundays.

Save The Thai Temple poster, 2009

Save The Thai Temple poster, 2009

Neighbors claim that the Temple is running an unlicensed restaurant on its grounds, but the Temple maintains that the food offerings are an important part of its religious traditions. As outlined in a recent Wall Street Journal article:

Abbot Tahn Manas, who has lived at the temple for 22 years, says the event is critical to the Buddhist religious practice of “earning merit.” Monks are forbidden by their religion from earning money or accumulating earthly goods on their own. Providing for monks and temples is the religious duty of Buddhists of the Theravada school; it helps them build goodwill for later in life or for the next life. In Thailand, they earn merit by giving money to monks in the street. Berkeley Buddhists earn merit by volunteering at brunch, thereby serving the temple.

“Our Sunday activity is pretty much like Christians going to church every Sunday,” says Abbot Manas. “Without it, it would be very difficult for us to continue merit making.”

There’s also more than a bit of cultural insensitivity in the neighbors’ complaints, including the accusation that the glorious scent of Thai food is intrusive and offensive. As Veena Dubal notes in Asian Week,

“It smells like coconut milk!” Dubal said. “When I heard those remarks, I felt a tinge of pain. That kind of … xenophobic rhetoric has no space in this diverse community.”

About 20 neighbors continue to pursue their actions against the Temple; in contrast, more than 2000 people have signed a petition in support of the Temple and its facebook group has more than 1400 members.

The Temple hopes to build a new sanctuary on its site, for which it recently has received approval from the Berkeley Zoning Adjustments Board (ZAB). However, the Temple faces an appeals hearing before the Berkeley City Council meeting in July 2009, during which the Council can approve or deny the ZAB ruling. The exact time and date for the hearing will be posted on the Save The Thai Temple website as soon as that information is known.

June 18, 2009 at 7:25 am 6 comments

Blood Red and Going Down: Tank Man In Tiananmen Square, part 2

Tank Man - lone citizen vs. PLA tanks, Tiananmen Square, 1989, Jeff Widener

Tank Man - lone citizen vs. PLA tanks, Tiananmen Square, 1989, Jeff Widener

I confess to being taken by melancholy this week as I recalled the events on June 4, 1989 in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. But it’s a good opportunity to think back on those fateful days from a perspective of twenty years later.

In the six weeks prior to when things all went to hell on  June 4  two decades ago, students and workers were peacefully occupying the Square and sympathy was growing across China for their demands for reforms to China’s political and economic systems. Sometime during those six weeks I remember talking on the phone with my friend Rebecca. We thought we were witnessing a revolution in the works and that the Chinese people’s voices would surely be heeded.

Terribly, things turned out differently than we’d hoped and the insurrection was violently crushed by the tanks and guns of the People’s Liberation Army. More horribly, the numbers of the dead were never confirmed, as many bodies were burned in mass cremations, and many other demonstrators were taken elsewhere for execution. China’s official tally of those killed was a ridiculously lowball count of 241 people, most of whom were deemed by the government to be “ruffians” and “armed thugs” who weren’t actually students. The government also claimed that no one was killed in the Square itself. Other estimates by NGOs on site range from 500 to 7,000 people killed that day.

This morning Rebecca forwarded me a link to a project by artist Michael Mandiberg that utilizes the famous image of the Tank Man, the anonymous protestor who blocked a column of tanks the day after the PLA cleared Tiananmen Square of demonstrators. Four years ago Mandiberg conducted an experiment in which he sent copies of the Tank Man image to a dozen commercial artists in China and asked them to paint a replica of the picture. The responses from the artists suggest that some if not all of them were unaware of the image and its historical context, and few knew its source.

Tiananmen Square: You can add the person to painting when you get it, 2005, Michael Mandiberg

Tiananmen Square: You can add the person to painting when you get it, 2005, Michael Mandiberg

Mandiberg notes:

“Of the dozen requests I sent, most were returned with a price and the universal salutation “it is a pleasure to do business with you.” A few painters suggested I just leave the man and the lamp post out, often for unclear reasons: political or aesthetic? One person outright declared that he could not paint the image.”

In the West the image of the Tank Man is well-known, as photographs and video footage of his actions that day were widely disseminated throughout the media at the time. However, in China the image is largely unrecognized, due to the government’s attempts to erase the June 4 events from public memory.

The government has achieved this in part through its severe restrictions on Internet access. In recent days, in an attempt to prevent the Chinese citizenry from getting to online discussions of the Tiananmen Square killings, the Chinese government blocked access to twitter, facebook, and other social networking sites, as well as blogging sites such as wordpress, xanga and blogspot.

But before we go too far in excoriating the Chinese government for its erasure of June 4, let’s remember that historical amnesia is not unique to China. Many World War II Nazi concentration camps sites in Europe have been razed or otherwise obliterated. The Japanese government still hasn’t acknowledged the Rape of Nanking. And lest we start to feel too pleased with ourselves here in the U.S. let’s not forget the Bush Administration’s multiple attempts to rewrite reality, from un-defining waterboarding as torture to linking Iraq to the destruction of the World Trade Center.

So on this grim anniversary it’s vitally important to remember the untold numbers of demonstrators who were silenced twenty years ago on Tiananmen Square. But it’s also significant to note that the Chinese government doesn’t stand alone in its disregard for facts and that our constant vigilance is required to keep ignorance and the obliteration of history at bay.

UPDATE: Thanks to dleedlee for sending along the following information, which fills in some of the backstory of the Tank Man photos and video.

FYI, Frontline is rebroadcasting its The Tank Man program this week.

Also, a New York Times blog posted this interesting piece on the various versions of the ‘tank man’ photo(s).
http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/03/behind-the-scenes-tank-man-of-tiananmen/

And artist Michael Mandiberg sent me a further link to his flickr site, which contains all of the images from his series:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/theredproject/sets/72157619172370116/

June 7, 2009 at 12:00 am 8 comments

President Obama President Obama President Obama President Obama

I just like hearing, reading, thinking and saying that phrase.

44th US president

44th US president

I got up this morning to watch the inauguration today at 9am PST and I have to say that it was a pretty fun experience. Our new leader looked very presidential in his black suit and red tie, alternating between smiling and furrowed-brow seriousness. He also mixed in an occasional laugh, most notably during his sweaing-in when he and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts got tangled up in the wording of the oath, and even threw down an “Amen!” during Rev. Joseph Lowery‘s benediction.

As fantastic as this was to watch, tears for me came not during Obama’s swearing-in per se, but during two quick cutaways during the proceedings. The first was a shot of Rep. John Lewis from Georgia, the veteran civil rights activist whose skull was fractured by Alabama State Troopers on the bridge in Selma in 1965 and whose endorsement of Obama during the Democratic primary was a turning point in the campaign. The second was a brief reaction shot of a teary-eyed, anonymous elderly African American woman watching the ceremony from Memphis, TN. Both Rep. Lewis and the elderly woman personally knew the pain of living as second-class citizens in their own country, whose oppression was based solely on the color of their skin. And both had lived to see this historic day, when an African American was sworn in as President of the United States.

My two daughters watched the inauguration with me and when I explained to my 8-year-old that at one time African Americans (and by extension other people of color) were legally discriminated against based solely on their race, she could hardly believe me.  It was incredible to her that someone at some time in this country had to use different bathrooms and drinking fountains and were forbidden to eat in restaurants and ride in the front of the bus because they weren’t white, and that this had been sanctioned by law. My daughter’s innocent disbelief, together with the moment I saw Rep. Lewis and his unnamed compatriot in Memphis on television, made me realize what a a great abyss we as a country had crossed today. Not that we’ve reached the promised land by any means, but it somehow seems a bit closer than it did just a little while ago.

Konrad Ng & Maya Soetero Ng, The First In-Laws

Konrad Ng & Maya Soetero Ng, The First In-Laws

Note: It was nice to see some diversity in the television coverage of the inauguration today, in crowd shots on the street in D.C. and across the country. It was also fun to see Asian Americans represented in the First Family, with both Maya Soetoro-Ng, Obama’s half-sister, and her husband Konrad Ng sitting directly behind the new President. Cute couple–

UPDATE: Check out Danny Plotnick’s great review of the pre-inauguration party at the Lincoln Memorial that featured Stevie Wonder, Bruuuce Springstein, Beyonce, and Pete Seeger, especially his dish of the bombastic Bono.

UPDATE  2: Jay Z’s got a special version of Young Jeezy’s “My President Is Black” that he freestyled at an inauguration afterparty in DC. Looking for the full lyrics online–here’s a sample:

“My president is black, in fact he’s half white/So even in a racist mind he’s half right/If you’ve got a racist mind it’s alright/My president is black, but his house is all white!”

January 21, 2009 at 12:52 am 5 comments


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