Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa.

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.

On Women’s Day, who sings for Brenda Sithole? And tomorrow?

Brenda Sithole

August 9, 2017. It’s Women’s Day in South Africa, a national holiday that commemorates the 1956 women’s anti-pass march on the Union Buildings in Pretoria: “Now you have touched the women you have struck a rock: you have dislodged a boulder: you will be crushed.”Wathint’ abafazi, Strijdom! wathint’ abafazi,wathint’ imbokodo,uza kufa!” The women, 20,000 strong, sang that song on that historic day, and it has inspired, and continues to inspire. Inspirational as it is, it is a song of survivors, of those who lived to attend. Two weeks ago, in Gauteng not too far from Pretoria, 17-year-old Brenda Sithole committed suicide, or was killed, because she didn’t have proper papers to attend school, and so … she’s dead. She was not a rock. No boulder was dislodged. Brenda Sithole is dead. There was little notice at her death, and, today, August 9, 2017, who sings for Brenda Sithole?

Brenda Sithole’s personal story is brief. When Brenda Sithole was three months old, her mother left. Her mother died before registering her daughter’s birth. Brenda Sithole was raised by her aunt, Terry Sithole, and her father. Only recently was it discovered that Brenda Sithole didn’t have a birth certificate. When they were about to sort things out, Brenda’s father died. Brenda Sithole returned to school, explained the circumstances, and the school replied. According to Terry Sithole, “When school opened last Monday, she was told that the school wanted a birth certificate by the next day or she shouldn’t come back.”

That night, Brenda Sithole, by all accounts a happy child, a good student, a young girl with dreams for the future, went home, cut a piece of paper into the shape of a heart, wrote a note on that heart, and ended her life. The note reads: “”Am sorry. I do not mean to hurt anyone. Am sorry. I had loved and respected you all. I give my best to everyone but I felt like I did not belong here with you. I am only an embarrassment to you my family. I did not have a future even [though] I had big dreams that I wanted to see them come true but that was not going to happen because I was going to go to be kicked out of school because I did not have the rights like having an ID to show where I belong. I was just a normal person living my life at the [mercy] of God but yet that didn’t pay up. Am just useless.”

This is what happens in the state of abandonment. The State says that students must have birth certificates, and if a student doesn’t, she’s out. That’s it. Brenda Sithole was seventeen years old, a child. She had big dreams. For her, there was no rock, there was no boulder. Today, on Women’s Day, who sings for Brenda Sithole? And tomorrow?

(Photo Credit: News24) (Image credit: SA History)

Three years on, still no justice for Ms. Dhu, her family, or Aboriginal women generally

Ms. Dhu, who died in police custody, August 2014

In Australia, for Aboriginal women and their families, the wheels of justice do not turn at all, but they do try to grind the people into dust. On August 4, 2014, a 22-year-old Aboriginal woman, called Ms. Dhu, died in custody in Western Australia. She was being held for unpaid parking fines. Ms. Dhu screamed of intense pains and begged for help. She was sent to hospital twice and returned, untreated, to the jail. On her third trip to the hospital, she died within 20 minutes. Reports suggest she never saw a doctor. Her grandmother says she “had broken ribs, bleeding on the lungs and was in excruciating pain.” That wasn’t enough. In her death, Ms. Dhu joined a long line, actually a mob, of Aboriginal women who have died in custody in Australia. Ms. Dhu’s family joined a longer line of Aboriginal family members seeking justice. Three years later, Ms. Dhu’s family still struggles for peace and something like justice concerning the circumstances of their loved one’s death. To make matters worse, the statute of limitations is running out soon, and so Ms. Dhu’s mother, Della Roe, and her brother, Shaun Harris are preparing to sue the State, not because they want to but because the State has pushed them to this moment. As Della Roe explains, “I want justice and someone pay for what they did to my baby. They need to be accountable for it.”

The State did its own accounting, and that’s why, and how, Ms. Dhu died. Like the United States, Canada, and others, Australia has invested heavily in the devaluation of Aboriginal women’s bodies and lives. The rising rates of incarceration married to the plummeting budgets for assistance say as much. So do the women’s corpses, decade after decade, year after year. For Aboriginal women, the histories and lived experiences of colonial occupation and violence not only continue to this day. They are intensifying.

A contemporary postcolonial, anti-colonial politics begins and ends with the State murder of Aboriginal women’s bodies, which runs from lack of services and assistance, from cradle to grave, to mass incarceration to dumping into the mass graves of historical amnesia. Another world is possible, and it requires more than an endless cycle of “discoveries” followed by commissions.

Della Roe, Shaun Harris, and the spirit of Ms. Dhu are represented by George Newhouse and Stewart Levitt, prominent human rights attorneys. According to George Newhouse, “It’s three years since her death and time’s up. Time’s up. These reforms need to take place and I’m hoping that the case will lead to real reform in WA.” Stewart Levitt adds, “It’s been like hell. How else can I explain it, you know? No-one’s been accountable for it, it’s terrible. The last three years has been like hell.”

Ms. Dhu was murdered by State systems of accounting. She was in jail for $3,622 in unpaid fines. The jail staff and the hospital staff decided she wasn’t worth believing or treating. She wasn’t worth the bother. And so Ms. Dhu died and remains dead. No amount of accounting will bring her justice. And her mother and uncle and kin and community are left to struggle with the State systems of accounting that value their lives as beneath assessment. What would justice for Ms. Dhu mean today? To begin, stop sending Aboriginal women to jail and prison. Stop the slaughter now.

Ms. Dhu’s mother, Della Roe

(Photo Credit 1: ABC) (Photo Credit 2: Huffington Post Australia)

In Virginia, Lipton Tea workers prove there is power in a union

Lipton Tea worker leaders celebrate their first union contract. From left are Corey Hicks, Paul Garrison, Anita Anderson, Philip Surace, Ricky L. Gregory Sr., Juanita Hart and Paul Perdue

On Monday, July 24, workers at the Lipton Tea factory in Suffolk, in the so-called right-to-work Commonwealth of Virginia, voted 109 – 6 to approve their first union contract. The contract covers 240 workers in the plant. It also covers all Lipton Tea factory workers in North America, since the Suffolk plant produces all the Lipton tea bags sold in North America.

The story of workers taking charge began last year. For the preceding ten years, workers had seen their benefits shredded, the pace of work accelerated, their positions rendered increasingly precarious. Sick leave, including unpaid sick leave. was reduced to the barest legal minimum. Insurance coverage became prohibitively expensive and, simultaneously, less expansive. Particular to Lipton was something called “drafting” in which workers were forced to work overtime, often 12-hour shifts for 13 days before getting a day off.

In 2013, Lipton Tea, owned by Unilever, announced it would invest $96 million to “upgrade” the factory. That meant new machinery. Production stopped temporarily. When production resumed, all the workers were forced to re-apply for their jobs. As mechanic Robert Davis explained, “I had been there 23 years, but I had to reapply for the same job, turn in a resume and everything.” Davis was turned down the first time he applied.

With speed ups, no sick leave, workplace injuries and illnesses, workers began leaving. When they left, they were not replaced. The factory workforce decreased, as the amount of work increased. This is known as “lean production.” Last spring, workers decided they had had enough, and called the United Food and Commercial Workers. According to UFCW Kayla Mock, “From the beginning, they took so much ownership and responsibility for building their union. They held full-on organizing conversations with their co-workers, identifying other leaders in the plant and bringing them on board, talking and assessing the other workers.” Mock added, “The workers were the ones who took ownership of it from the very beginning. They very clearly understood that their union was something that they needed to build, almost like a tangible thing, and they built it from the ground up—they just owned it.”

Lipton Tea workers called Hellman Mayonnaise workers in Chicago. Unilever owns Hellman Mayonnaise, and the Chicago plant is unionized. The workers in Suffolk learned that their brothers and sisters in Chicago had better working conditions, including better and more immediate pay for overtime and a far superior, and much cheaper, health care plan.

Anita Anderson, who has been with Lipton Tea for ten years, explains, “You had a choice to make. You call out sick and get one incident, or you come to work and pass germs around … If you got hurt on the job, it’s never unsafe conditions. It was never that you were fatigued from working so many hours. It was always, the employee did not do something right. So if you get hurt, then it’s an incident, it’s a strike in your personnel file … We decided we deserved more than what we were getting. Once we got a write-up comparing the benefits of the Hellman plant compared to our plant, a lot more folks came on board.” Anderson started talking with her colleagues, “I told them about how the Verizon workers had a union, and when they were threatened with their jobs going overseas, they went on strike, they fought, and they won and kept their jobs.”

August 26, 2016, the workers of Lipton Tea voted 108 – 79 in favor of joining the UCFW. Juanita Hart has worked 25 years at Lipton Tea: “I was crying like I had won the lottery. I was so glad and I was so happy because I’ve been told for all this time, all these years, that it would never happen. And when it happened, I had so much joy that all I could do (was) cry.” Anita Anderson added, “Everyone is excited. Even the ones that were naysayers about the union are asking about the next union meeting so they can speak up and talk about the issues in the plant.”

Yesterday, Lipton Tea workers voted for the first time in the 60 year history of the factory, and they approved a contract that would save them more than $4000 a year in health care costs. Yesterday, Lipton Tea workers – with Anita Anderson and Juanita Hart among the leaders –  voted for workers’ dignity, respect, and power. There is power in a union.

 

(Photo Credit: Suffolk News Herald)

Florida’s special hell for women, the Lowell Correctional Institution, ran out of water

Florida built a special hell for women, the Lowell Correctional Institution. In 2015, Lowell housed, or better caged, 2696 women, surpassing the Central California Women’s Facility and thus becoming the largest women’s prison in the United States. From the start, in 1956, to today, the place has been a nightmare: overcrowded, rampant with staff abuse of prisoners and institutional abuse of staff, severely under resourced, violent, toxic and lethal. In 2014, Michelle Tierney, Latandra Ellington, Regina A. Cooper, and Affricka G. Jean died “under suspicious circumstances.” They did not die; they were killed by the institution. From the outset, death-in-life has been the everyday norm for Lowell. Last week, Lowell hit a new low, no water for days. The Lowell Correctional Institution, hellhole of inhumane practices, became the Lowell Correctional Institution, hellhole of `subhuman’ conditions.

Here’s the official version: Lightning struck a water pump on Saturday, July 8. It shut down water and a geothermal line, which meant no water and no `air conditioning’. On Monday, July 10, the Florida Department of Correction released a statement: “Storm damage over the weekend caused maintenance issues that effected the well pumps and geothermal line at Lowell Correctional Institution. Institution maintenance staff responded immediately and have been on scene trying to resolve the issues with assistance from the local fire department and contractors. The geothermal line has been repaired and a replacement pump for the well is expected to arrive today. All inmates have access to drinking water. Toilets and sinks are operational using non-potable water being brought in to the institution.”

On Thursday, July 13, The Miami Herald reported that drinking water was still unavailable, and would be unavailable for at least another three days.

Lowell Correctional Institution doesn’t have air conditioning. Instead it relies on geo-thermal cooling. The State admits that the system is faulty, at best. Prison staff say the system doesn’t work at all in a number of the dormitories. Now, it officially doesn’t work anywhere. Meanwhile, Lowell has been cited repeatedly for unhygienic conditions, including worms and mold in the showers and sinks. Last week, for at least three days, the showers and sinks were officially shut off. Toilets were also `inoperational’, which prisoners explained means toilets overflowing with feces.

One staff member said, “It’s a disgusting mess; the women are living in subhuman conditions.” Another added, “I don’t understand why the health department doesn’t get involved. There’s been a constant problem here with sanitation. Toilets that don’t work — sometimes only one works for 160 inmates.”

Florida maintains that the situation in Lowell Correctional Institution is under control and just fine. Florida can make that claim because the situation in Lowell Correctional Institution has been subhuman for years, and who complained? Prisoners, their families and friends, staff members, and the occasional activist. Where’s the hue and cry over the abysmal conditions in the nation’s largest women’s prison? Florida built a special hell for women, Lowell Correctional Institution, and really, who cares?

 

(Photo Credit: Miami Herald / Emily Michot)

Who’s your boss? Two South African courts decide in favor of workers

A specter is haunting the global economy: the specter of workers organizing. All the powers of the old and new global economy have entered into an unholy alliance to exorcise this specter, but it just keeps coming back. Actually, it never left. In South Africa this week, organized and organizing workers received encouraging decisions from two separate tribunals. In one case, workers hired through labor brokers, also known as temporary employment services, were told that if they are employed by someone for three months, that makes them employees of the contracting company. In the second case, Uber drivers were adjudicated as employees of Uber, rather than as `self-employed contractors.’ Both decisions will be appealed, but the decisions clarify the status of laborers as they affirm that workers know who they are and they know who their bosses are. Additionally, the decisions have clarified the lines of antagonism. Aspects of class struggle may change, but the essence, exploitation of workers’ labor time, has not.

The case concerning “temporary” workers involved the National Union of Metalworkers, Assign Services and Krost Shelving and Racking. Assign Services provided Krost with workers. Many of them worked for more than three months. The decision by the Labour Appeal Court in Johannesburg means that workers can’t be summarily fired, they have the right to appeal mistreatment, they have collective bargaining rights, and that they qualify for benefits, including retirement and health benefits. In other words, they are permanent workers, no matter what the terms of client to labor broker contract claimed.

This is a victory for workers considered by many to be among the most vulnerable. It also regulates temporary employment services to actual temporary employment status. Once the three months have been hit, the temporary employment services are no longer needed. This also means that workers who have fallen into this double bind, and they are many, can now begin organizing, and litigating, in response to previous damages.

That decision was handed down on Monday, July 10. On Wednesday, July 12, the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration, CCMA, ruled that Uber drivers are employees of Uber, and so are protected by South African labor laws. In this instance, former Uber drivers, who had organized into something called The Movement filed a complaint concerning unfair employment practices. In particular, they protested having been summarily dismissed by Uber, without cause, reason or possible appeal. They explained that being fired by Uber happens when Uber simply turns off their app. No warning, no process, no nothing. Just silence. Their appeal gained further weight when Uber claimed the CCMA couldn’t hear the case because the drivers are “partners”, not employees. The CCMA didn’t buy that, and so now, Uber drivers have the right to all protections afforded employees: collective bargaining, due process, strike.

Neither case is definitive, and further appeals are already in process, but the cases, individually and taken together, matter. Workers know who the boss is, and they also know the terms of workplace and workforce engagement. Both cases happened at all because of workers’ organizing and organizations raising a ruckus, finding good attorneys, and then raising more of a ruckus. Workers know the difference between temporary and permanent, and they know that permanence, such as it is, is only secured through collective action. The workers also know the entity that fires workers is the employer. Who’s the boss? Ask the workers.

 

(Photo Credit 1: Business Day / The Times) (Photo Credit 2: Quartz / Reuters / Siphiwe Sibeko)

Tomorrow Scotland finally demolishes Cornton Vale, its only women’s prison


This morning, Nicola Ferguson Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party, wrote, “Tomorrow sees a major milestone in the transformation of our justice system. We will begin the demolition of Cornton Vale women’s prison, a move that marks the next stage in our plans to ensure Scotland’s penal policy doesn’t just punish people who’ve committed crimes – important though that is – but helps deliver safer communities in the long term.” Cornton Vale is Scotland’s only women’s prison, and it has been a toxic hot mess for decades. Its destruction is welcome and long overdue.

Cornton Vale has been called the “vale of death”, due to its regularly high rate of suicide. Between 1995 and 1998, eight prisoners hanged themselves. Yvonne Gilmour hanged herself in 1996. So did Angela Bollan. Outcry and inquiry ensued. In 2001, in the span of a single week, Frances Carvell and Michelle McElvar hanged themselves. Outcry and inquiry ensued. In 2012, Sarah Mitchell was “found dead” in her cell. Outcry and inquiry ensued.

Outcry and inquiry, outcry and inquiry, the same drumbeat for more than twenty years. During that time, commissions found that the prison was overcrowded. Report after report decried the rising rate of women’s incarceration. Everyone seemed to agree that too many women were being thrown into prison. Meanwhile, Scotland’s women prison population rose by 120% since 2000. As of last year, Scotland “boasted” the second highest rate of female imprisonment in northern Europe. Spain’s number one.

Last year, a commission found that women at Cornton Vale were forced to use their cell sinks as toilets at night, because they had no access to proper toilets. It was just the latest scandal to mark the dismal history of Cornton Vale. Various commissions have described Cornton Vale as “not fit for purpose”; “wholly unacceptable in the 21st century”; “in a state of crisis”; “Victorian”; “a significant breach of human dignity”; “an unacceptably poor establishment”; “disgracefully poor”; and, as always, notorious.

After all the reports and deaths and harm, Scotland finally decided to shut Cornton Vale down. The first plan was to replace Cornton Vale with a larger prison, but cooler, evidence based heads prevailed, and that plan was dropped for another, an 80-bed prison, five regional 20-bed facilities, community sentencing and service, and much greater funding for mental health, drug abuse, counseling and more.

Cornton Vale is more than a “vale of death”, although that would have been enough. It was the vale of women’s slow and painful death and deaths. For the past two decades, Scotland  criminalized women’s lives and bodies and then, by unequal funding within the prison system, ensured that no one would leave unharmed. Tomorrow is a milestone. Cornton Vale will be demolished. Which women’s prison is next?

What happened to Manjula Shette? The routine torture of women in India’s prisons

Manjula Shette

Manjula Shette spent about ten years in prison, in India. By all accounts, she was a model prisoner. Most of her time, Manjula Shette spent at the notorious Yerwada Prison, located in Pune, in the state of Maharashtra. There, she worked as a jail warden, which meant advocating for fellow prisoners and keeping the peace. This year, she volunteered to be moved to the notorious Byculla Jail, in Mumbai, where, among other issues, she found she was forced to work round the clock. According to family members and inmates at Byculla, Manjula Shette was very popular with the other inmates. On the morning of June 23, Manjula Shette complained that two eggs and five pieces of bread were missing from the morning rations. She was taken to an office, beaten up, deposited back in her cell, there further beaten and tortured in the presence of other prisoners, taken to hospital, and died. Later reports suggest she was already dead before she was taken to hospital. Byculla Jail prisoners erupted and occupied the jail, taking control of the rooftop and calling for justice. All 291 women have been charged with rioting and assaulting officers. Six officers are under investigation. While some are shocked, many say that what happened to Manjula Shette is an average day in India’s women’s prisons and jails. In other words, nothing really happened. No one, in this instance named Manjula Shette, was murdered by the State.

In March 2017, the Mumbai High Court formally declared that Yerwada, Byculla, and Arthur Road Jails were hellholes, and that they had to be cleaned up … by May. This decision came as part of a three-year inquiry into the conditions in these three notorious Maharashtra jails. No positive changes emerged from the High Court pronouncement. Further, those prisoners who were prominent advocates were targeted for retribution.

And Manjula Shette is dead.

According to Raja Bagga, of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, or CHRI, “Every three days, there is a death in a Maharashtra jail.” Death stalks Maharashtra’s women’s jails and prisons, as does custodial rape, extreme overcrowding, lack of adequate food, and a generally toxic environment and living, and dying, conditions. Byculla is supposed to have maximum 165 women. Currently 291 women are housed there, and that offsets the overcrowding at the Arthur Road Jail. Discrimination against women is common, and for women of various minority groups, the treatment is worse. The vast majority of women in jails are awaiting trial, and many have been for a long time.

Sanjoy Hazarika, the director of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, added that Shetye’s death reflected the “internal rot and impunity” that characterizes India’s prisons and jails. The CHRI is calling for immediate measures to open the prisons to monitoring, as a first step. While that first step would be welcome, it does not address the calculus of rot and impunity. In India, prisoners are treated viciously because they are viewed as rot. That’s why a popular prisoner, a prisoner advocate, must be eliminated, and the elimination must be visible and spectacular. What happened to Manjula Shette? Absolutely nothing. What will happen to the prison system, as distinct from the individual prison guards? Absolutely nothing. Why is India’s women prison and jail population growing at astronomical rates? To grow the national economy. The increased and intensified torture of women in India’s prisons and jails is a key element of national development. Who will remember Manjula Shette a year from now? Her family and the women prisoners who, for a brief moment, took control of the Byculla Jail. That’s it. What is the market value of a woman prisoner’s life? Two eggs, five pieces of bread.

And Manjula Shette is dead.

Byculla Jail women prisoners occupy the roof, demand justice

 

(Photo Credits: The Hindu)

In Tanzania, as everywhere, pregnant girls deserve an education!

Jackie Leonard Lomboma and her daughter Rose

At a rally last week, Tanzania’s President John Magufuli declared that pregnant school girls would never be allowed to return to school. The President’s statement sparked a heated debate, in Tanzania and elsewhere. For the past two days, Kenyans have weighed in, using the hashtag #StopMagufuli. Yesterday, Tanzania’s Minister for Home Affairs, Mwigulu Nchemba, threatened NGOs who “support” pregnant school girls returning to school and those “supporting” homosexuality with decertification. Commentators noted the dire consequences of excluding pregnant school girls from education while others discussed the gross, and patriarchal, unfairness of the policy, and others invoked tradition and nation.

President Magufuli’s declaration emerged after a months’ long debate in Tanzania’s Parliament over the budget. That debate included a move to fund policies and structures that would help pregnant school girls stay in school and return to school after giving birth. While Members of Parliament were divided, a sizeable group favored this idea.

For decades, activists, researchers and others have organized to end child marriage and the exclusion of pregnant school girls from education. A recent study reported, “In Tanzania, …  school officials conduct pregnancy tests and expel pregnant students. Nineteen-year-old Rita, from northern Tanzania, said she was expelled when she became pregnant at age 17. `Teachers found out I was pregnant,’ she said. `I found out that no student is allowed to stay in school if they are pregnant … I didn’t have the information [sexual education] about pregnancies and what would happen.’”

Researchers have long shown that Tanzanian school girls experience pregnancy and early school-leaving at exceptionally high rates. Access to reproductive health and to sex and sexuality education are limited, especially in the rural areas. Further, the policy of exclusion violates the Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania as much as it does the aspirations and autonomy of young Tanzanian girls: “The Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania recognizes the right to education to every child, … denying pregnant schoolgirls’ re-entry to school after giving birth infringes the right to equal access to education and … the infringement of the right to education by denying pregnant school girls’ re-entry to school after delivery has great harm.” What harms the girl harms the Constitution harms the Nation harms the future.

Two years ago, when this current President and current Parliament were elected, some wondered if 2015 might be the year of the girl child in Tanzania, the year in which child marriages would be abolished and in which the girl child would be respected. It wasn’t.

Jackie Leonard Lomboma directs a center for teenage mothers in Morogoro, Tanzania. She became pregnant while in school. Orphaned at three months, raised by her grandfather, she managed to finish primary school, but there was no money for secondary school. A young man offered her money for school if she would “be with him.” They met once, and she became pregnant. She never saw him again. Her grandfather kicked her out, and the village ostracized her.

She began work as a house maid, and moved to Uganda to work for a Tanzanian family there. When the family moved to another place, the mother asked the young woman what she would want as a “goodbye gift”, and Jackie Leonard Lomboma answered, “I told her I wanted to go to school …  I knew it was only through education that I could make a positive step in my life and give a better life to my child … Eventually she agreed to take me to school.”

Jackie Leonard Lomboma completed secondary school in Uganda, and then returned to Tanzania. Today, she is disappointed: “It is a big disappointment to hear the president say that girls who get pregnant should not be allowed back to school. I am very disappointed because Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world and in order for us to overcome this we need to empower underprivileged groups like teenage mothers with education … I was empowered through education, that is why today I am supporting other girls to stand up again.”

When Jackie Leonard Lomboma talks of secondary school, she talks of the dream, as do school girls in Malawi, India, the United States, South Africa and everywhere else. They all have a dream that someday we will all have gone to school, together, and will all have flourished there, and that that day must be now.

 

(Photo Credit: BBC / Jackie Leonard Lomboma)

Maria Puga, widow of Anastasio Hernández-Rojas, haunts the borderlands everywhere

 

Maria Puga

Tomorrow, June 23, is International Widows Day, established in 2010, the year of Anastasio Hernández-Rojas’ death. This is the story of Maria Puga, his widow, who said, “No, justice must be served.”

On May 2, 1968, Anastasio Hernández-Rojas was born in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. At the age of 15, he moved north, to San Diego, to find work and send money home. At 21, he met Maria Puga. Over the next 20 years, the couple had five children, all born in San Diego. The eldest was born in 1990. The youngest, twins, were born in 2006. Anastasio Hernández-Rojas worked in construction and demolition, until the housing market crashed. On May 10, 2010, Anastasio Hernández-Rojas was arrested for shoplifting groceries. On May 24, he was deported. On May 28, he and his brother tried to re-enter the United States. They were detained at the border. Then Anastasio Hernández-Rojas was brutally murdered by Custom and Border “Protection” officers. The San Diego coroner determined that Anastasio Hernández-Rojas’ death was a homicide. The State tried to have Anastasio Hernández-Rojas’s story end there, just another `unfortunate incident’ in the borderlands, but Maria Puga began a mighty campaign demanding justice for her husband, her children, herself, and all who migrate across the borderlands. Seven years later, Maria Puga’s campaign continues.

Anastasio Hernández-Rojas was murdered in the open, in front of witnesses, and cameras. Otherwise, we would never know his story. We would not know that Anastasio Hernández-Rojas was tortured for an extended period, during which he howled and begged for help. We would not know the depth and extent of viciousness and cruelty that passes for “protection” on the United States southern border.

But we do know. We know because Maria Puga said NO to silence. She pressed for information and pushed for answers. At each step, she was stonewalled.

In 2012, the Public Broadcasting Service aired “Crossing the line at the border”: “Eight people have been killed along the border in the past two years. One man died a short time after being beaten and tased, an event recorded by two eyewitnesses whose video is the centerpiece of the report. Both eyewitnesses say the man offered little or no resistance … The report raises questions about accountability. Because border agents are part of the Department of Homeland Security, they are not subjected to the same public scrutiny as police officers who use their weapons. It also questions whether, in the rush to secure the border, agents are being adequately trained. And it raises the question: why aren’t these cases being prosecuted?”

The officers who tortured Anastasio Hernández-Rojas to death were never charged with any criminal offense. In 2015, the Justice Department decided there wasn’t sufficient evidence to prosecute. Upset but undeterred, Maria Puga called on President Obama to “conduct an administrative investigation to punish the agents who were involved in Anastasio Hernández’s case.”

Maria Puga also continued to pursue a civil lawsuit. In February 2017, the Federal government agreed to pay $1 million to Anastasio Hernández-Rojas’s five children. While that was welcome news, Maria Puga still demanded an admission of guilt. Maria Puga responded to the news of the settlement: “The settlement isn’t justice, but it is a badge of shame. No amount of money can bring back Anastasio. No family should ever have to go through this. We don’t want to have more cases like that of Anastasio.”

In 2016, on the eve of another agency internal review, Maria Puga directly addressed the Customs and Border “Protection” agency: “My name is Maria Puga, wife of Anastasio Hernandez, who, five years ago, was brutally killed by Customs and Border Protection agents. We, along with other families, have been struggling for more than five years, in search of justice. We’ve been together, I’ve spoken with families, and I know the great pain they feel, which is the same as mine, from having lost a loved one and being unable to find justice. Now the CBP Internal Affairs will review the case of my husband Anastasio. We hope that this time the review will be transparent and just, that they recognize the truth, what really happened to my husband.”

Nothing came of the review.

In 2016, Maria Puga filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. The Commission recently agreed to hear the case. As Maria Puga explains, when the Justice Department decided not to prosecute anyone for the death of her husband, “In that moment, I said, ‘No, justice must be served,’ and that’s why we’re here. There are other cases and similar circumstances that must be solved. We want justice for all the families who have been victimized by Border Patrol.”

Maria Puga is Anastasio Hernández-Rojas’s widow. She is part of the Borderland of Widows, produced by State policy of militarized and securitized borders. Militarized borders mass produce widows. That’s their goal. From Australia to England to the European Union to the United States, militarized, securitized borders create borderlands in which largely poor women of color are deemed to be so much detritus. The living dead of the new world order, widows are meant to wrap themselves in mourning, slink off into the shadows, whimper for a bit, and die. Maria Puga said, “No, justice must be served.” The struggle continues. The widows demand justice.

 

(Photo Credits: Fusion / Sharis Delgadillo)

Grenfell Tower: Do not come to us now dressed in the sackcloth and ashes of repentance

A Grenfell Tower apartment today

The Grenfell Tower went up in flames, quickly, and many lives were lost, or better sacrificed. At first, the reports were of the spectacular fire itself. Then they were of those who had lived in the building, a public housing tower, and the many, like Khadija Saye, who died in the inferno. Others reported on the firefighters who risked their lives to save others. Then the reports were of the cladding, the material that covered the building, material which we learn tonight was already banned in England, but really who cares? The residents were working poor, largely immigrants, largely people of color, and majority women and children. The Queen visited the site and talked to residents, while Theresa May dithered, yet again. Now people are writing of the spatial apartheid of London, but where were they, and where we, when this slow-moving quickly erupting massacre was in process? Nowhere to be seen, and nowhere to be seeing. You know who saw all this and described it in detail? Friedrich Engels, in Manchester, almost 150 years ago.

Walking the streets of Manchester, Engels explained why and how Manchester was a great city: “The town itself is … built, so that a person may live in it for years, and go in and out daily without coming into contact with a working-people’s quarter or even with workers, that is, so long as he confines himself to his business or to pleasure walks. This arises chiefly from the fact, that … the working-people’s quarters are sharply separated from the sections of the city reserved for the middle- class; or, if this does not succeed, they are concealed with the cloak of charity.  Manchester contains, at its heart, a rather extended commercial district … Nearly the whole district is abandoned by dwellers, and is lonely and deserted at night … This district is cut through by certain main thoroughfares upon which the vast traffic concentrates, and in which the ground level is lined with brilliant shops. In these streets the upper floors are occupied, here and there, and there is a good deal of life upon them until late at night. With the exception of this commercial district, all Manchester proper … are all unmixed working-people’s quarters, stretching like a girdle … around the commercial district. Outside, beyond this girdle, lives the upper and middle bourgeoisie … The members of this money aristocracy can take the shortest road through the middle of all the labouring districts to their places of business without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and the left … Anyone who knows Manchester can infer the adjoining districts from the appearance of the thoroughfare, but one is seldom in a position to catch from the street a glimpse of the real labouring districts …  I have never seen so systematic a shutting out of the working-class from the thoroughfares, so tender a concealment of everything which might affront the eye and the nerves of the bourgeoisie, as in Manchester.”

In the end, writing of the attitudes of the bourgeoisie towards the proletariat, Engels commented, “The English bourgeoisie is charitable out of self-interest; it gives nothing outright, but regards its gifts as a business matter, makes a bargain with the poor, saying: `If I spend this much upon benevolent institutions, I thereby purchase the right not to be troubled any further, and you are bound thereby to stay in your dusky holes and not to irritate my tender nerves by exposing your misery. You shall despair as before, but you shall despair unseen, this I require, this I purchase with my subscription of twenty pounds for the infirmary!’”

In the late 1880s, Friedrich Engels studied the greatness of Manchester and discovered contemporary London, and every other real estate and service economy driven global city, and he saw the inevitability of the Grenfell Tower massacre. Grenfell Tower was wrapped in illegal materials and toxic policy as “so tender a concealment of everything that might affront the eye and the nerves of the bourgeoisie.” So, do not come to us now, dressed in the sackcloth and ashes of repentance. You did start the fire and then kept it burning, and so did we all. Grenfell Tower resident-survivors demand justice. What is justice in a world where humanity is reduced to ashes, where a massacre of innocents has been part of the urban planning of great cities for over 150 years? What is repentance in that world?

 

(Photo Credit: The Guardian)