this is what the worker does:
this is what the cotton truck worker does:
this is what the tobacco leaf roller does:
this is what the washer-woman & the laundry worker does:
this is what the grape & artichoke worker does:
not to mention the cucumber workers—
not to mention the spinach & beet workers
not to mention the poultry woman workers
not to mention the packing house workers &
the winery workers & the lettuce & broccoli
& peach & apricot & squash & apple &
that almost-magical watermelon
& the speckled melon & the honey-dew the workers
this is what they do:
notice what they do:
notice: how they bend in the fires no one sees
notice: their ecstatic colors & their knotted shirts
notice: where they cash
their tiny & wrinkled checks & pay stubs:
stand in that small-town desert sundry store
then walk out they do & stall for a moment they do
underneath this colossal tree with its condor-wings
shedding solace for a second or two
how they touch the earth—for you
Tocar la Tierra (una vez más)
Esto es lo que hacemos:
esto es lo que hace el chofer del campo de algodón:
esto es lo que hace el que enrolla los puros con hojas de tabaco:
esto es lo que hace la mujer de la limpiadura y la de la lavandería:
esto es lo que hace el obrero de uvas y de alcachofa:
sin mencionar los que trabajan el pepino—
sin mencionar los que trabajan la espinaca y el betabel
sin mencionar las que trabajan con aves de corral
sin mencionar las empacadoras y
las que trabajan en viñedos y la lechuga y el brócoli
y el durazno y el chabacano y la calabaza y la manzana y
esa casi-mágica sandía
y el melón moteado y el melón verde los obreros
esto es lo que hacen:
atento a lo que hacen:
atento: en cómo se inclinan en los fuegos que nadie ve
atento: en sus colores vibrantes y sus camisas con nudos
atento: en el lugar donde cobran sus chequesitos y como tienen
el cheque y talón todo arrugado.
y como esperan en esa tiendita de abarrotes en el desierto
y de ahí salen y ahí hacen tiempo
para un descansito bajo ese arbolóte con sus alas de cóndor
dando consuelo por un segundo o dos
como tocan la tierra—para ti
Juan Felipe Herrera is the son of migrant farm workers and has held positions at Fresno State University and UC Riverside. He served both as Poet Laureate of the United States (2015-2017) and was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2012 to serve as California’s Poet Laureate. He is the author of several collections including 187 Reasons Mexicanos Can’t Cross The Border (City Lights, 2007), Undocuments 1971-2007 (City Lights, 2007), Half the World in Light (University of Arizona Press, 2008), and Notes on the Assemblage (City Lights, 2015). “Touch the Earth (once again)” is a new poem, translated here into Spanish by Omar Chavez, and will be published in the forthcoming collection, I am Talkin’ to You.
We were all undocumented once, if you like to think of things this way. With no paper, none to be possessed, owned, or laid claim to so as to build upon, capitalist-style. Of course, this erstwhile situation assumes that agency (the stuff giving evidence that one has a will), cognition, and personal resolve have something to do with the matter of being documented or not; yet they don’t really, or they didn’t then, once upon a time.
The powerful forces operating on us were bigger than us, than our parents, than any state government. Our once undocumented state, however, once suggested something about the integrity of our humanity and life; like it is now, our lives were contingent, derivative by nature—life from life, and sometimes from love, even though we had no papers. But in today’s debate, life, especially the barest kind, doesn’t factor into the conversation, nor does love. The humanity doesn’t matter, nor do the stories, nor the lives. Just proper documents.
What is a document? According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the English term comes from a combination of Old French document, denoting “lesson, written evidence” from the 12th–13th c., and the Latin noun documentum, meaning “lesson, proof, instance, specimen,” or else a written instrument, a charter, or an official paper in medieval Latin. The Latin verb docēre, meaning “to teach,” suggests something of a didactic function inherent in the term, whatever relationship the term might have to a similar-sounding dokimazō from the ancient Greek, or perhaps even dikaioō, suggesting a legal cause of doing or showing justice, related to a favorable verdict or vindication.
In the English usage, which has come down largely into the U.S. consciousness today, the term ‘document’ signifies teaching, instruction, warning, or else, “An instruction, a piece of instruction, a lesson; an admonition, a warning.” These definitions give way to a use with no less commanding function, but with an increasingly penal potential: “That which serves to show, point out, or prove something; evidence, proof,” often taking the subordinate clause—a document of birth, a document of citizenship, of acceptance, etc. without which one simply cannot show, point out, or otherwise prove what might be needed to support his/her status for personal well-being.
The noun is also used for “Something written, inscribed, etc., which furnishes evidence or information upon any subject, as a manuscript, title-deed, tomb-stone, coin, picture, etc., and specifically, “The bill of lading and policy of insurance handed over as collateral security for a foreign bill of exchange.” The definition in English increasingly points out transaction and property, and thus with regard to persons: propertied people, or people as property, belonging somewhat and in some way to whatever entity issued a person their essential documents.
Again, once upon a time it was not so—there were no documents of this kind to be spoken of in the ancient world. The rhythms and ordered systems of reality were different. The inception of these things, like writing in the history of civilization, came in sometime around 3,200 B.C. with the Sumerian society, which had increased to such size that a new methods of accounting appeared to better dictate relationships in the ancient world, organizing what sociologists today would call class or estate. Rulers in the early states were seen as ‘parents’ of their subjects, and this practice of writing or documenting things “emerged first as a way of accounting and power.” Knowledge of things could be stored more accurately than with earlier forms of oral transmission, in turn giving way to writing systems. The first of these to emerge in Mesoamerica (c. 600 B.C.) came from Southern Mexico. Bureaucracy mounted through the process, especially as the divide of social classes increased with the scribal and ruling elite at the top and everyone else at the bottom—i.e., those who owed things. Yet before this, once upon a time, there was no state agency’s orderly account of things denoting with some finality what was owed or given, nor a written debt to someone or something. The earliest writing arose with this, though, on documents that established code or law.
If the above notion were all there were, then everyone is both documented and undocumented in various ways. We owe things, and are all owed things in this complicated bureaucratic system of states and state-governed bodies. But the state is not only comprised of people collectively as a body politic; the systems are also created by the people and, perhaps in our wildest dreams, even somehow for the people. Moreover, in a fundamental sense, the state simply is people and a way of people existing together.
But the state is not only comprised of people collectively as a body politic; the systems are also created by the people and, perhaps in our wildest dreams, even somehow for the people.
On a basic level, then, there are always things that we don’t belong to: particular clubs, or institutions, or organizations, or parties; sometimes this is designated by individual agency and choice, other times these things are chosen for individuals who have little to no choice in the matter. Everyone doesn’t have every particular document, and are thus left excluded from certain things, generally reflecting class and segregation, as well as religion and race. Documents are an important way of denoting this, which can also be imprisoning, excluding, or else including in different categories.
But when do humans become ‘illegal’ or ‘outlawed’? It depends.
These things really are a moving target that we’re trying to highlight with the intellectual underpinnings of what we’re trying to discuss in addressing the issue of “Undocumented California,” and the manifold arbitrary inconsistencies that our government and culture use to legitimate dominant ideologies and institutions.
The Library of Congress has continued to use the term “illegal aliens” and “alien detention centers.” The term “illegal aliens” is also used by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, especially in the recent statement from acting director Tom Homan in response to California’s SB54, declaring California a sanctuary state. But to declare individuals here illegally is not a matter that California’s governing authorities are quick to choose. Labeling and name-calling is something we’d rather leave to what our parents gave us. Immigration of any kind is always a great risk, taken with great hope, and great dreams—dreams that Californians value deeply as part of their identity. Illegal, then, is not a term we will use for Californians who choose to make their lives here.
Who would we be, should we create a kind of second-class citizen for a human being who is present in all astonishing wonder and humanness? Who would we be to create the underclass, and be happy with it, reinforcing the notion with media that underpins our identity (legal?) even if it disregards that of others?
The Associated Press recently gave a glimpse of a possible change in tone in a piece they published referring to, “undocumented citizens,” a designation fitting enough for those committed to contributing to our shared society and common good. The term used, however, was rescinded the very next day. The matter seemed to have not been entirely different from a hyper-sensitivity that the previous executive administration had together with Congress for very carefully enacting things like DACA in 2012, the cessation of which was announced by the Trump administration 5 October 2017. Both moves, however, in two different ways (from Trump and Obama administrations) showcase state power over residential subjects. Yet amid all changes that keep things consistently governmentally-controlled, with provisions doled out arbitrarily from year to year, this does not mean that cultural revolution and change cannot happen to renew our outlook.
None of this minimizes the potential existential crisis manifested in fear, destruction, loss, and seizure. One without proper documentation at any point today may be tossed swiftly to the margins, disrupting scores of lives. This is all part of the design and part of the larger story, none of which can be understood apart from the law, which in turn cannot be understood apart from worldview (or, suggestively, operative theology).
America the beautiful, the chosen, the exceptional—this vision fuels what we do with the different subjects of the U.S., most of whom will be punished at some point and in one way or another. The U.S. issues papers throughout this process to those con papeles as opposed to those sin papeles. This, too, is about power. The U.S. is not the only democracy that does this. But in this case, continuing capitalist style, the world’s elite can come anytime, especially to the coveted California: pay cash for a house, immigrate anytime. Their money will secure the documents needed.
But for those embodying any sense of the Statue of Liberty’s unfulfilled calling: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”—these aren’t really in with making America great again. But if they aren’t, then nothing is. And even yet, if America is that place of “an established culture painfully adapting itself to a new environment, and being constantly checked, confused, challenged, and overcome by new immigrations,” then in California, America’s America, to the Statue of Liberty’s call our motto is not merely “yes” and “amen”; but is always “only more so.”
We cannot pretend that this in extremis version of America that California has embodied hasn’t involved the penal documentation of the ‘other,’ which also has always been part of our narrative. The carceral undocumented are trapped in county systems, or banished to the penitentiary, or vanished into Adelanto, our private immigration detention center. For the carceral undocumented, punishment inflicted suggests the need of discipline, whatever the half-hearted determination might be from the official verdict of whether or not they truly belong. In Spanish, the rendering of Michel Foucault’s Serveiller et punir is given as not “discipline” and “punishment” as his chosen term for the English translation, but rather as Vigilar (“keep an eye on”) y castigar.
When surveilled or punished, it’s not as though forms of documentation are not involved. We document everything. While great political figures receive exile, especially the white collared ones, the less significant players are swiftly discarded. In the vigilant, punitive surveillance of the carceral state, humans were written-out with documents of exclusion, but not without punishment for having the wrong kind of documents or else none at all, relegating them for banishment. To where, it didn’t much matter, so much of which is arbitrary, affirming again ultimate state power and control, and stability for the state and its shareholders, which can be both symbolically and psychologically reinforced with a stronger, ever increasing, larger, higher, bigger border wall.
That’s not how the truest Californians roll, though. We chart a different course, collecting and affirming the world, open to far more possibilities than the world has yet seen.
How do we reenvision our California selves then, both with the undocumented, and also simultaneously as the undocumented? And what is ‘undocumented’ in the contemporary moment? This is difficult to discern. We know California’s response has not been shy to these questions, but neither are we univocal with a position. Largely in opposition to the Washington administration, our Legislature, institutional, and civic leaders have uttered many words to the effect of protection and affirmation. Have they? Will they? These things in the contemporary moment should be understood as noble, ambitious, but still aspirational, part of a dream. But dreams are worth living into, and developing, especially when looking honestly and discovering the troubling reality that the world is indeed quite troubled. For those with some modest means, will, and desire to do something about it, dreaming may be essential for survival.
The term ‘undocumented’ is quite possibly a cheap concession that, while humbly admitting “need” (need for proper documents?), also concedes: “We don’t have documents needed to remain, to abide, to be/exist.” But this is a declaration humans must not be able to make of humans. To unwrite a person, to erase, negate, subtract, to deny life—this ought not be done. It happens, and may be something, but is certainly not of California—a state of mind as much as anything—where the dreamers remain, belong, until the end of time.
It happens, and may be something, but is certainly not of California—a state of mind as much as anything—where the dreamers remain, belong, until the end of time.
Our overall position only makes sense in light of what’s possible, or at least plausible, and what we have done before to build ourselves up amid great challenges. There’s nothing new under the sun. And dreaming does not mean aspiring to a utopian society. California is surely not that, nor will it ever be. [Perhaps in fifty years Mexico may beat California to this.] But California can be a place of solidarity, mutuality, respect, dignity, and healing. We can work together, believe in each other, and re-recognize our shared humanity of wealthy and poor, and the poor in spirit—blessed as they are. And are those who mourn, and the meek, and those who hunger and thirst to be righteous (to have papers), who are merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers, and persecuted.
Californians—we hope, we believe, we assert, we confront, and we fight—but we don’t fear, even if disinherited. We’re not going to fall for rhetoric that divides families, disrupts classrooms, invades workspaces. And we can take the nation’s undocumented, the poor, the disinherited. Deport them to California, Joe Mathews argues. And more so.
Californians, we ourselves often forget our stories, and those of others around us—we know that more of the point is found looking to the future. Amnesia is often tacitly prescribed upon arrival. But we have memory, identity, presence, and know what it means to be human, documented or not. We know, or at least we’re trying to find time to breathe and reorient ourselves to figure out what it means in this moment to do justly, to love mercy, and walk humbly.
Perhaps the undocumented are the greatest examples of humility, and the very best of what the American (and Californian) disposition could dream to be. Maybe perceived as hiding in the shadows, laying low in order to not be found out, deported, sometimes self-deported, or else going underground, under the radar, opting not to remain in an official governmental capacity. Yet they are also activists—they are mothers, fathers, children—they are like us, but of course are second or perhaps third or fourth class citizens. But whenever did one’s official status constitute what’s real? What’s prescribed as ‘official’ does not constitute how life, culture, and love is ever made—the true, enriching stuff that makes life worth living. That stuff is hard to document in any proper sense, however we might try; but that’s what matters most, and is most needed right now.
With gratitude to Miroslava Chávez-García, Susan Straight, and Abel Fernando Vallejo Galindo, an undocumented Californian, for comments on an earlier draft of this essay.
 Luke Bretherton refers to this as “life excluded from participation in and the protection of the rule of law,” Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship, and the Politics of a Common Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 220. See also Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).
 Meaning, “to make a critical examination of something to determine genuineness, put to the test, examine”; or “to draw a conclusion about worth on the basis of testing, prove, approve.” William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 255.
 Robert Tignor, Jeremy Adelman, Peter Brown, et al., Worlds Together, Worlds Apart, Vol. 1: Beginnings through the Fifteenth Century (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2014), 55.
 Kevin Starr identified this as a perpetual tension in California life, historically and into the present, noting particular operative racial, ethnic, and religious covenants of exclusion, as well as the long-seated enmities that various immigrant groups to California held against each other, highlighting especially the American dilemma of race as equally a California problem, although perhaps even more so. Kevin Starr, California: A History (New York: Random House, 2005), 308.
 See Hiroshi Motomura, Immigration Outside the Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 4-5 on complexity of terms and significance of understanding these things in relation to law. See also pp. 19-55.
 See Marc Morjé Howard, Unusually Cruel: Prisons, Punishment, and the Real American Exceptionalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
 Jen Hofer, “Under the Radar and Off the Charts: Undocumentation in Los Angeles,” in Patricia Wakida, ed., Latitudes: An Angeleno’s Atlas (Berkeley: Heyday Books), 161.
 Wallace Stegner, “California: The Experimental Story,” Saturday Review, 23 September 1967, 28.
 Some native indigenous Californians were documented somewhat with names for tribes that became common, or with new names for captured individuals or those baptized or brought into missions. But early accounts of the turbulent and chaotic years of genocidal violence against Californian Indians left poor documentation not only as to name but also to tribal identity. See Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, 1846-1873 (Newhaven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006), 15. And for details listing the numbers of how many were murdered during this time period, see Appendices 1-6, pp. 363-550.
 See reasons why unauthorized migration benefits the U.S. government, Motomura, Immigration Outside the Law, 52-55.
Jason S. Sexton is visiting fellow at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Religion, and visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Law and Society. He teaches at California State University, Fullerton, where he serves as Pollak Library Faculty Fellow. He is the Editor of Boom California. For more information, please visit www.jasonssexton.com.
It’s probably no exaggeration to say that the U.S. has just been through its Prop 187 moment.
Like today, the turmoil California experienced in 1994 was triggered by broad demographic change, with a special target placed on the backs of “illegal immigrants.” It was accompanied by a broad sense of economic anxiety—nearly half of the nation’s net job losses in the early 1990s were experienced in the Golden State as cutbacks in defense spending shredded our manufacturing sector. The simmering social and economic unease was exacerbated by a politician running behind in the polls and looking for a way to make his mark.
While it may all sound familiar, the point is not to rerun the tape and point to historical precedents. More useful is asking where California is nearly twenty-five years later, and how it got there. After all, the state that once sought to deny unauthorized immigrants access to a broad range of services—including non-emergency health care and even education for children—has figured out how to extend drivers’ licenses to those without legal status and provide state-financed health care to all undocumented youth.
The story of the state’s changing attitudes and policies has a lot to do with the vibrant immigrant rights’ advocacy that changed the state’s political calculus—reflected in part in the accession of Kevin De León (an organizer who cut his teeth organizing against Prop 187) to the leadership of the state Senate. Having written about that advocacy elsewhere, my focus here is on some structural factors: the passage of time, the changing nature of the undocumented community, and the increasing “normality” of unauthorized immigrants in multiple aspects of California life.
Indeed, part of what has happened in California is the sheer ubiquity of a population once considered a bit exotic and different. While numbers are hard to come by—people don’t generally offer up their status, particularly with a presidential administration hell-bent on deportation—most estimates put the number of those without legal status in California at somewhere under 3 million. That’s about a fourth of all the undocumented individuals in the nation and about seven percent of the total state population.
It may be easy to think of that sizeable population in a way more in tune to the past—that is, when the immigration flows from Mexico and Central American were surging in the 1980s and 1990s. In that era, the vast majority of the undocumented were border-crossers fleeing economic crises and civil wars. The largest share were single males who soon showed up as workers in the fields, operatives working in factories, and day laborers posted in front of the local hardware store.
But a lot has happened since a massive uptick in unauthorized migration prompted the furor that resulted in Proposition 187.
Most important is that the era of mass migration from Mexico is probably over. The reason is partly demographic: fertility rates have fallen dramatically in what has traditionally been the largest sending country to the U.S., and this is now echoing generationally in a way that has reduced a key factor pushing people northward. Meanwhile, the disruptions caused by Mexico’s embrace of free trade in the 1990s have mostly worked their way through the system and the nation’s economic growth. While not stellar by, say, Chinese standards, this has been sufficient to cause would-be migrants to rethink the opportunity structure they face.
While advocates are less likely to acknowledge this, increased border enforcement and more effective workplace verification in recent years has also played a role: it’s simply more difficult and expensive to cross and increasingly harder to secure employment once here. And while Central American migration remains a key factor—now driven partly by the gang violence that immigrants brought back from their stays in urban California—net migration from Mexico is negative and has been for several years.
As a result, several characteristics of the population have shifted. First, the undocumented population in the U.S. has declined since its peak in 2007 and has been stable since about 2009. Second, it is now likely that the bulk of the new undocumented are people who overstayed visas rather than scrambled across the Rio Grande. Third, and perhaps most significant: while about sixty percent of undocumented immigrants had been in the country for less than ten years in the mid-2000s, almost two-thirds now have lived in the U.S. for more than a decade.
As usual, these national trends are reflected strongly in the Golden State. After all, California has the nation’s most settled immigrant population in general—and it also has the highest share of state residents without legal status. Given high rates of labor force participation (and the fact that the undocumented are overwhelmingly adults), that share swells to about nine percent of the labor force. These workers are deeply embedded in key parts of the labor market, comprising a vital workforce for agriculture, retail, and low-skill service industries.
Another matter of great significance is the fact of mixed-status families: fully eight percent of all Californians live with a family member that is not documented, the highest figure for the nation. Even more dramatic: roughly seventeen to eighteen percent of children in the state have at least one undocumented parent. In Los Angeles County, adding up the undocumented and their immediate family members amounts to about a fifth of the total county population.
Put it all together—length of time in the country, key roles in the economy, the share of the state’s children, and the percent of the population touched directly and indirectly by the precarious nature of immigration status—and a simple conclusion is inescapable: these are not illegal immigrants but undocumented Californians.
Undocumented Californians are our neighbors, relatives, friends, classmates, and co-workers. They help to grow our food and take care of our elders and our kids—and they are also our class valedictorians and future professionals. And because they are increasingly unlikely to go anywhere, the state’s future depends on their progress and the progress of their children.
As a result, the state’s central task is now immigrant integration and that includes those who lack legal status. There are many reasons why this is true, including the size and stability of the population, but one of them is political: while comprehensive immigration reform seems a long way off in the era of Trump, reform with a path to legalization is all but inevitable.
After all, demography continues to march forward, something that will be recorded by the 2020 Census and reflected in the elections of that year as well. It is those 2020 elections—which will be a presidential contest in which minorities, immigrants, and the young are more likely to participate—that will, along with the Census, determine the shape of electoral boundaries for the decade to come.
So just like the Tea Party uprising of 2010 helped to shift the nation to the right (partly because of the gerrymandering it made possible), 2020 could set the nation in a different direction. And a Congress elected in those circumstances is much more likely to finally accept the basic principles of the 2013 Senate bill: tighter enforcement, higher future flows, and a path to citizenship.
Given that, the choice for California is clear: preparing our population for that future or squandering the opportunity to be ready. The state has been taking the right steps in terms of key policies, like extending in-state tuition to undocumented students, granting the right to drivers’ licenses, and generally refusing to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Political scientists Karthik Ramakrishnan and Allan Colbern have described this as a sort of “California package” that provided de facto state citizenship.
The state has been taking the right steps in terms of key policies, like extending in-state tuition to undocumented students, granting the right to drivers’ licenses, and generally refusing to cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
It’s a start, but investing in the future—particularly with an eye toward future legalization—will require stepping up California’s game. Determining new ways to cultivate the habits of citizenship—perhaps by allowing non-citizen to vote in local school elections—could be important. Expanding job opportunities to stabilize parental income—perhaps by dramatically increasing English classes and providing community-based skill building that would be open to all—could be productive. Creating new avenues to earn a living without being formal employees—such as worker individual entrepreneurs and even worker collectives organized as limited liability corporations—is another part of a more innovative approach.
A defensive reaction is also in order. Because of the ways in which undocumented Californians are deeply rooted in the state’s social and economic fabric, any deportation or threatened revocation of DACA status is far more likely than in years past to disrupt a family, damage a business, or scar a community. The good news: California’s attorney general, Xavier Becerra, seems eager to go after federal overreach, suing to prevent the administration from denying funds to so-called “sanctuary cities.” The better news: the State Assembly and Senate passed a bill called the “California Values Act” that has further codified the state’s decision to limit cooperation with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.
It is incumbent on California to get this right. Just as we presaged the nation with our collective melt-down about immigrants, we can hopefully show the good that happens when we combine head and heart, joining fact-based reason about the new realities of immigration with a compassionate attitude to our fellow Californians. If the demographers are right—in this case, about immigrants fanning out from the traditional gateways—what the state offers up in the way of reaction, resistance, and reform will set the tone for a country that will soon need a new and more welcoming approach.
 Manuel Pastor, State of Resistance: What California’s Dizzying Descent and Remarkable Resurgence Mean for America’s Future (New York: The New Press, 2018).
This is not the life I expected to lead. But gradually you take some responsibility, then a little more, until finally you are not in control anymore. You have to give yourself entirely. Then once you make up your mind that you are giving yourself, then you are prepared to do anything that serves the Cause and the Movement. I have reached that point. I have no option anymore about what I will do. I have given myself fully.
The bomb scare that night was the least of his worries. As far as death threats were concerned, Dr. King had experienced his fair share of close calls. His home had been bombed—he’d been stabbed with a letter opener, hit with rocks, eggs, fists, and arrested over fifteen times. And, yes, there had been plenty of bomb scares similar to what occurred inside the University of Southern California’s Bovard Auditorium on the night of 16 October 1967.
Dr. King visited the University of Southern California campus to deliver a speech titled “The Negro in America.” He flew United Airlines and arrived at the Los Angeles International Airport at 6:35 p.m., appearing calm yet tired. At this stage of his life, King had become more controversial than ever to the American public. He’d publicly denounced the Vietnam War in a fiery April 1967 speech in New York, angering not only pro-war advocates but also his own supporters who believed he was moving himself away from his core cause of civil rights. He’d gained weight over the years, and grew numb to the fear of losing his life.
Dr. King’s Los Angeles visit was preceded by a similar speech delivered on Sacramento State College’s football field, speaking out on Vietnam to an audience of several thousand: “Our nation is trying to fight two wars at the same time, the war in Vietnam and the war on poverty, and is losing both.” As soon as he finished, King headed for the local airport. According to the late journalist David Halberstam, this was Dr. King’s routine: “Most of King’s life is spent going to airports, and it is the only time to talk to him.”
In Los Angeles, he was greeted by a USC committee and guided to a car. As had become his standard outfit, King wore a black suit, rumpled from the flight, with a white collared shirt and gray tie. Some, such as then Daily Trojan editor Hal Lancaster, were able to see King up close, and what affected the reporter the most was the fatigue in the reverend’s eyes:. “Any man who averages three hotel rooms a week is bound to be tired.”
After dropping off his luggage at a Hyatt, Dr. King got back into the car and headed for the USC campus. He’d started to wake up and looked out the window of the car, the city of Los Angeles passing by. Dr. King spoke to those in the car about how California and the Catholic Church had “gone backwards” in helping to enact a fair housing plan. One example of ‘fairness,’ would be an attempt to eliminate discrimination while a potential tenant’s application is being processed. As King recalled, California at one time “had an open housing act here and went back and abolished it.” To the reverend, it was simply another case of the church not taking enough social responsibility in the communities where they still held sway. “It has been a great tragedy of the church that this has been considered secondary. The church must be concerned with the total man, his physical as well as spiritual being.”
At 7:45 p.m., Dr. King entered a room inside USC’s Bovard Auditorium. He wanted some time to himself before he went out. As he collected his thoughts, around eighteen hundred people filled the auditorium, eager to see the reverend in the flesh.
He spoke with an urgent vitality—the kind that can perhaps come only after hearing a knock on death’s door—and the crowd was sent to a higher plane of thought.
Just after eight, Dr. King, after an introduction, walked up to the podium. At 5’7” he was not an imposing presence on stage, but this setting had become his second home. Unassuming and mellow off stage, King had a knack for bringing himself to life as he spoke to a crowd. On this night, he started slowly, deliberately, his slow southern drawl allowing everyone to follow his every word. The longer he spoke, the quicker his words came—emotions bubbling to the surface….
But around 8:30 p.m. as Dr. King retold the history and plight of the black American, the L.A. Fire Department received an anonymous phone call from someone who said there was a bomb inside the Bovard Auditorium, and that it would detonate “in fifteen minutes.” With the fear planted, the crowd evacuated Bovard, and Dr. King was taken by campus police to a conference room. Just before leaving the stage, Dr. King wanted to reassure his listeners to “please return because there are some very important things I still have to say.”
They returned, and when Dr. King once again stepped behind the podium, he’d grown somewhat. He spoke with an urgent vitality—the kind that can perhaps come only after hearing a knock on death’s door—and the crowd was sent to a higher plane of thought. Dr. King told the now active audience (many of them students) to deny the ‘myths’ halting the progress of African-Americans.
One of the myths involved time. Just give the cause enough time, and everything will work itself out. But King had no interest in being patient. To him, “time is neutral, and can be used either constructively or destructively.”
Another myth rested in the notion that legislation was unnecessary, and all that was needed was for the general public to have a change of heart.
With his voice booming off the auditorium walls, Dr. King disagreed:
I’m a Baptist preacher, and I’m in the heart-changing business… but while morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated, and while the law can’t make a man love me, it can restrain him from lynching me.
The biggest round of applause came from his comments on the war in Vietnam. Dr. King surely knew there were hundreds of students anxious of being drafted, and furious over the fact that American soldiers, some family and friends, were being killed every day. Dr. King demanded that America “stand up and say to the world we made a mistake in Vietnam… justice is indivisible, but injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
The bomb scare had sadly caused Dr. King to leave without what had been a pre-planned question and answer session. He had another plane to catch. A rally in Houston was next, along with two smoke bombs. Immediately after that, King, his brother A.D., Wyatt Walker, and Ralph Abernathy were to report directly to a Birmingham, Alabama prison, obeying a Supreme Court order regarding a long-appealed ‘contempt’ offense that occurred in 1963. Such had been his life ever since giving himself “entirely” to the movement. On the college campuses in Sacramento and Los Angeles, he’d found support among the younger anti-war generation, but these events were few and far between. The appeal of ‘black power’ had taken hold, and King’s message of nonviolence had started to lose its authority over his own supporters.
Fifty years later, the general American public now annually remembers the triumphs of Martin Luther King Jr.—the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott, the 1963 March on Washington, the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize—and we have chosen to idolize him with memorials and statues, and given dozens of schools and highways his name. But these honors are empty if we choose to ignore the sacrifice and message of a man who, according to Christine Farris, King’s sister, was an “ordinary and average man.” Perhaps sociologist Charles Vert Willie, one of King’s friends and college classmates, said it best: “By idolizing those whom we honor, we fail to realize that we could go and do likewise.”
Photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inside Bovard Auditorium around 8 p.m., 16 October 1967. Courtesy of University of Southern California, on behalf of the USC Libraries Special Collections.
Header image of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inside Bovard Auditorium around 8 p.m., 16 October 1967. Courtesy of University of Southern California, on behalf of the USC Libraries Special Collections.
 Coretta Scott King, My Life with Martin Luther King Jr. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), 163.
 Stan Metzler, The Daily Trojan, 16 October 1967.
Long Beach Independent, 17 October 1967, A2 and San Bernardino County Sun AP Report, 17 October 1967, where it appears King delivered similar speeches in Sacramento and Los Angeles on that same day.
 David Halberstam, “The Second Coming of Martin Luther King,” Harper’s Magazine, August 1967.
 Hal Lancaster, “The Calm Martin Luther King,” The Daily Trojan, 17 October 1967.
[O]nce those convictions were erased, the presumption of their innocence was restored.
– Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Maurice Atwone Caldwell was released from a California prison over six years ago, but he doesn’t feel free. Hobbled by back pain and suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from years in prison, he spends many days in his suburban Sacramento apartment. He feels most relaxed sitting alone in his favored spot on the couch: “I’m secluded here. In prison, you are secluded. You go to your cell, you are separated from everybody. When you have people around you, you’ve got to have a sense of trust. I don’t have no sense of trust.” Looking back on his life, Caldwell doesn’t see much reason to have a sense of trust.
In the summer of 1990, twenty-two-year-old Caldwell was living in San Francisco’s Alemany housing projects. “Little Twone,” as the 5’4 Caldwell was known on the streets, was in a situation shared by many young people today—a few years out of school, working at whatever jobs were available, hanging out with friends and trying to get established in the adult world. In that era of rampant crime and crack cocaine, any young black man with only a high school education would struggle. But Caldwell faced extra challenges.
“To me, my case was personal. My case falls back to my last name—my father.” Donald Ray Caldwell was convicted of killing a San Francisco police officer during a robbery and served nineteen years before being released in 1988. As Maurice sees it, the San Francisco police resented the fact that the elder Caldwell was alive and walking the streets, and they were more than willing to settle the score at Maurice’s expense. In 1989 and 1990, Maurice was arrested more than a dozen times; in every case the charges were eventually dropped.
A botched drug sale in the early hours of 30 June 1990 changed Caldwell’s life. Around 2 a.m., after an evening of drinking, four men drove up Alemany Blvd. looking to buy crack cocaine. They found a dealer, but as the buy was being completed something went wrong and shots were fired from a handgun and a shotgun. The four friends scattered, but one man, Judy Acosta, died from gunshot wounds. Caldwell, who was in bed with his girlfriend in a nearby apartment, heard the shots and ran outside to find out what was happening, but only saw an acquaintance walking away carrying something that looked like a shotgun.
The initial police investigation didn’t turn up much since in the midst of an epidemic of drugs and violence, Alemany residents generally deemed the police more likely to harass a witness than arrest a killer. But several weeks after the murder, neighbor Mary Cobbs identified Caldwell as one of the shooters. He was arrested 21 September 1990. Caldwell’s family scraped together money to hire a lawyer who had never tried a capital case before, but assured Caldwell that “this case is a slam dunk.”
The initial police investigation didn’t turn up much since in the midst of an epidemic of drugs and violence, Alemany residents generally deemed the police more likely to harass a witness than arrest a killer.
The prosecution’s case against Caldwell did have problems. None of the survivors of the shooting were able to positively identify him, and several witnesses testified that Caldwell was indoors when the shooting occurred. The police failed to follow accepted procedures while taking Cobbs’s statements, which cast doubt on the reliability of her identification of Caldwell. However, at trial Cobbs was steadfast in her assertion that she saw Caldwell at the scene of the crime with a shotgun. The jury found Caldwell guilty, and he was sentenced to a term of twenty-seven years-to-life in prison. Cobbs, who claimed Caldwell threatened to kill her if she testified, was proclaimed a hero and awarded the Medal of Merit by the City of San Francisco.
Throughout his twenty years in prison, Caldwell strenuously asserted his innocence. He wrote letters to anyone he could find who might help him. Finally, in 2009 the Northern California Innocence Project (NCIP) took up his cause. The NCIP followed leads that Caldwell had given the police and his attorney, but which neither Caldwell’s attorney (who was later disbarred) nor the police ever pursued. Marritte Funches, serving time in a Nevada prison, admitted he shot Acosta and swore that Caldwell was not involved. Investigators demonstrated that Mary Cobbs could not have seen the incident from her window, and talked with acquaintances who testified that Cobbs lied about Caldwell.
The NCIP filed a petition for habeas corpus in state court claiming that Caldwell’s conviction was based on perjured testimony, that he received ineffective representation by counsel and that he was actually innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. The court ordered him released, finding that his attorney’s inadequate defense constituted a violation of Caldwell’s constitutional rights. Still asserting Caldwell’s guilt, the San Francisco District Attorney entertained retrying the case and offered Caldwell a plea bargain: he could acknowledge guilt and would be released from prison on the basis of the time already served. When Caldwell refused the deal, the District Attorney dropped the charges. On 28 March 2011, Maurice Caldwell was released from prison. He had served over twenty years, just about one year longer than his father.
Caldwell’s release confronted him with new challenges—making a living and a building a life. The family members who stood by him through his ordeal had all died while he was incarcerated. The world had changed while his life was on hold. Caldwell had never owned a cellphone or an iPod, and he barely remembered how to buy a ticket for a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) train. The kitchen work he had done while in prison left him with a bad back but no marketable skills.
In some ways, Caldwell was worse off than an inmate who served out an entire sentence. While few would argue that post-release services in California are adequate, at a minimum the system provides the supervision of a parole officer and some limited resources to assist the former inmate’s reentry into society. Since the court found that Caldwell should never have been in the corrections system in the first place, he was not eligible for those services. A 2008 report on wrongful convictions by the California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice recommended that services to assist reintegration into society be offered to the wrongfully incarcerated. Shortly afterward, the legislature overwhelmingly voted to make this change, but the bill was vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger. It has never been revived.
Still, Caldwell persevered. He moved in with his sister and her partner, and found work as a laborer at a recycling plant until increasing back pain forced him to leave the job. He moved to Sacramento with his girlfriend and continued to work until disabled by carpal tunnel syndrome. Also, like many who have spent long years in California prisons, Caldwell has suffered (and suffers) from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which contributes to his current disability.
Paige Kaneb (NCIP), sister Debbie Caldwell, grandniece Tayonna, Maurice, Linda Starr (NCIP), fellow exoneree Rick Walker.
Today, Caldwell’s greatest satisfaction comes from working with the NCIP, speaking about his personal experiences. “I’m not one of those persons who get out of prison and stand in front of the camera and say ‘I’m not mad at the system.’ I am mad at the system. And for that, I am doing something about it.” Speaking is therapy for Caldwell. But even more, it is his way of setting up his three children for a better life than he had. “The character I’ve got right now, when my kids grow up, ain’t nobody going to be able to say, ‘your father was a bad person.’ They’ll be able to look and see me speaking, helping people…. I am not doing what my father did to his kids.” But his speaking engagements do little to pay the bills, and Caldwell has few opportunities to earn other income. Having lost literally the best years of his life, Caldwell needs compensation.
There are limited routes for an exonerated inmate like Caldwell to receive compensation. The best hope is a claim for violation of civil rights under federal law by showing that the conviction was secured through illegal actions by police or prosecutors. Though notoriously hard to win, such claims offer the prospect of punitive damages and are the basis for most of the multimillion-dollar verdicts and settlements, as in the infamous Central Park Jogger case. That $41 million settlement paid five individuals approximated $1 million per year served. Caldwell filed a civil rights case in federal court, but the lawsuit was dismissed without a trial (an appeal is currently pending). Claims can be made under state law as well, but these too are only rarely successful.
The other option is a claim under a statute providing compensation for wrongful incarceration. Until relatively recently, few such laws existed. Although California’s statute was enacted in 1941, most states’ laws came in more recently. As of 2000, only fourteen states (along with the District of Columbia and the federal government) had such statutes, and many of those provided negligible amounts. The California statute capped payments at a flat $5,000 until 1969, when the limit was raised to $10,000. A key reason for this was that until the widespread use of DNA evidence, wrongful convictions were deemed rare.
Since the early 1990s, studies (many supported by the New York-based Innocence Project and its affiliates around the country) have documented hundreds of erroneous convictions. In response, many states have made efforts to reduce errors, for example by establishing strict guidelines for obtaining and using eyewitness identifications like that of Mary Cobbs, which are known to be a prime source of wrongful convictions. Many have also passed laws providing compensation for those wrongfully convicted. Currently, thirty-two states have statutes providing compensation for wrongful incarceration. Ironically Texas, which executes far more individuals than any other state, also offers the most generous payments for wrongful incarceration.
Over the years, California’s legislature has modified procedures and increased the amount of compensation available. Payout is now set at $140 per day served (about $50,000 per year), with claims being reviewed by the California Victim Compensation Board and submitted to the legislature for final approval and award. As with statutes in other states, compensation is available only to individuals who are innocent, not to those released as a result of mistakes or governmental misconduct in the course of the prosecution.
The most recent changes in the California requirements for recovery came in 2013 in response to analysis showing that most claims were being denied. The changes in the law seem to have made a difference. Since 2014, seventeen out of twenty-seven claims have been granted. Still, meritorious claims are being denied; at least four of those denied since 2014 were contrary to the recommendation of the staff-hearing officer who heard them. One involved Luis Galicia, who was convicted in 2009 of lewd acts with a child under fourteen years of age.
In 2011, Galicia filed a petition for habeas corpus in state court. By then it had come to light that Dr. Mary Spencer, whose examination of the minor was critical to the prosecution’s case, had given false testimony in a 1991 case (as it turned out, she gave inaccurate information in at least ten other cases, too). Three other doctors reviewed the medical reports and found no basis to conclude any molestation had occurred. The District Attorney chose not to oppose Galicia’s petition and the court ordered his release, but did so without making a finding of innocence.
Galicia filed a claim with the Victim Compensation Board. The Attorney General’s office, who represents the state before the Board, opposed the claim asserting that Galicia was guilty of the crime. After a daylong hearing, the hearing officer concluded that Galicia had proved his claim of innocence and recommended it be paid.
The Board, reluctant to accept the recommendation, asked Galicia’s attorney and the Attorney General’s office to present their arguments to the full Board. No witnesses testified, but a representative of the Crime Victim Action Alliance was allowed to speak and urge the Board to deny Galicia’s claim. The Board rejected Galicia’s claim 3-0. The chair “found that the evidence presented was very complicated, and had difficulty drawing any conclusions.” She said she wanted to support the hearing officer’s recommendation, but “couldn’t find the evidence” that would allow her to accept that recommendation.
California State Capitol via Flickr user Ken Lund.
There are obvious institutional reasons that the Board may be hostile to claims of wrongful incarceration. The Board’s mission and primary business focus is on victims of violent crime, not victims of erroneous prosecution. The stated mission of the Board is straightforward: “The Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board provides financial assistance to victims of crime.” In that capacity, the Board processes tens of thousands of claims per year, and over the last few years has averaged payouts totaling over $50 million annually. In contrast, the program for compensating those wrongfully incarcerated, discussed in the Board’s Annual Report in the section, “Additional Board Functions,” paid out about $14.5 million total from 2001 through 2017.
The composition of the Board as set out in its enabling statute does little to adjust the balance. Two members are specified in the statute. One is the Secretary of the California Government Operations Agency, which is charged with improving government administration and fostering efficiency. The other is the State Controller, who is responsible for the state’s financial resources. As the Controller is required to sit on seventy boards and commissions, they typically designate a staff member for this role. In any case, given the nature of their jobs, neither of these delegated officials is likely to have any expertise in criminal law or procedure.
The third member is chosen by and serves at the pleasure of the Governor with no specified qualifications. Michael Ramos, the District Attorney for San Bernardino County, was appointed in 2004 by Governor Schwarzenegger and has served since. According to an ACLU study, San Bernardino County has the second highest rate of killings by police officers in California. Beyond how this context may inform Ramos’s approach, district attorneys are unlikely to provide sympathetic perspectives for a body reviewing claims against the state being made by those once convicted of a felony.
Ramos’s service on the Board reflects his perspective as a prosecutor. In voting to overturn the hearing officer’s recommendation to approve the claim of Timothy Atkins, he made what has become a typical comment: “I still feel the same way regarding the statements and then one thing that actually stood out for me and when I have these difficult—very difficult decisions—I always lean toward the victims. We have a victim that has been murdered.” It is difficult to see how the plight of victims factors into assessing the evidence of the claimant’s guilt. Indeed, a wrongfully convicted person is also a victim. But, as the longest serving member of the Board and the only one with criminal law experience, Ramos’s pronouncements carry a lot of weight. And the Board generally operates by consensus. Since 2010 there have only been three split votes, and in all three Ramos voted to deny the claim.
California State Senator Bill Monning has recognized the flaws in the system: “Unfortunately, the current compensation review process forces exonerees, who have very few resources, to defend their claim before the Victim’s Compensation Board, whose members are not experienced in the legal nuances of wrongful conviction cases.” In March 2017, Senator Monning introduced SB 321, which would require appointment of a special master, qualified by “education, training, and work experience,” to oversee all claims for wrongful incarceration. However, at least for this session, the bill will not be enacted.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle for a claimant is the burden of proof—under the California law, they have the burden to prove that they are innocent of the crime of which they were convicted. In addition, the Board has issued regulations to clarify how claims should be reviewed. Those regulations specify that the claimant must prove innocence “by a preponderance of the evidence,” which means the Board must find it is more likely than not that the claimant is innocent. This is the standard used throughout the United States for civil claims, and contrasts the heavier burden on the prosecution in a criminal case—proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
However, the Board added a hurdle for claims of wrongful incarceration. The claimant’s testimony can be considered, as well as the fact that they were released and not tried again, or were acquitted on retrial. However, none of that can be the basis of an award without “substantial independent corroborating evidence.” Even after their conviction has been reversed, the claimant’s own testimony cannot be sufficient to support a finding of innocence.
Though the claimant’s burden of proof is deemed met if a court has already made a finding of innocence, there may be no such finding even when the facts indicate it. Most individuals who are exonerated after serving time in jail are released through habeas corpus proceedings in state or federal court. The U.S. Supreme Court has made clear that in the federal courts, the subject of a habeas corpus review “is not the petitioners’ innocence or guilt but solely the question of whether their constitutional rights have been preserved.” Under California law, new evidence pointing to innocence can be ground for reversing a conviction, but it is only one of numerous bases that can be presented. Many state law proceedings, too, are based on claims that the defendant’s constitutional rights were violated. In those cases, discussion of innocence can be beside the point.
In Caldwell’s case, although the Innocence Project lawyers argued that he was innocent, the habeas court vacated the conviction based on lack of effective representation at trial as required by the Sixth Amendment. The court made no finding as to guilt or innocence in his decision, and when Caldwell went back to court to request a finding of innocence to bolster his claim, the court declined. The San Francisco District Attorney who never pursued charges against Marritte Funches, who confessed to shooting Judy Acosta, or against Henry Martin, who was identified by Funches as the shotgun shooter, continued to insist that Caldwell was guilty. Caldwell had no choice but to try to convince the Board of his innocence.
Requiring the claimant to prove innocence is inconsistent with a fundamental principle of our criminal justice system: a person charged with a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty. As the United States Supreme Court put it in 1895: “The principle that there is a presumption of innocence in favor of the accused is the undoubted law, axiomatic and elementary, and its enforcement lies at the foundation of the administration of our criminal law.”
The U.S. Supreme Court recently addressed this issue in a case stemming from Colorado’s Exoneration Act. In addition to providing compensation for wrongful incarceration, the Colorado statute governed recovery of court costs, fees, and restitution paid by those wrongfully convicted and placed the burden of proof on the claimants. Two individuals whose convictions had been overturned sued the state to recover amounts they had paid as a result of their convictions, claiming that the state requirements violated their constitutional right to due process by unduly burdening their ability to recover.
Applying a well-established test, the Court (in an opinion by Justice Ginsburg) weighed the interests of the claimants, the risk that the procedures applied will result in erroneous denial of their claims, and the countervailing interests of the state. The Court opened its analysis by noting that the claimants must be treated as innocent: “Once [their] convictions were erased, the presumption of their innocence was restored.” Since the payments at issue were based solely on the findings of guilt, the state no longer had a basis for retaining the funds.
Colorado argued that if it is proper to require exonerees to prove innocence in order to receive compensation for their time in prison, placing the same burden on recovery of fees and costs must be valid as well. The Court rejected this argument on the grounds that the claimants were not seeking compensation: “Just as the restoration of liberty on reversal of a conviction is not compensation, neither is the return of money taken by the State on account of the conviction.” But the Court offered no explanation why this distinction should matter. In a separate opinion, Justice Alito questioned the distinction by asking rhetorically, under Ginsburg’s logic, “why shouldn’t the defendant be compensated for all the adverse economic consequences of the wrongful conviction?”
Every Supreme Court justice takes as a given the validity of the Exoneration Act as to claims for compensation for time in prison. None of the thirty-two states allowing compensation for wrongful incarceration (nor the federal law) require the state to prove guilt to prevent an exoneree from being compensated. Indeed, most compensation statutes are much more restrictive than Colorado’s (or California’s), for example, limiting claims to cases involving a gubernatorial pardon or DNA evidence. Still, the Court’s decision raises the question whether these limits are truly defensible as a matter of either constitutional law or policy.
The first consideration in the Supreme Court’s analysis is the interest of the claimant. The claimant has been deprived of their freedom, their relations with family and friends and their livelihood for the duration of imprisonment. If the wrongful incarceration drags on for many years, as in Caldwell’s case, the effects are magnified. Over time, relationships fade away. Family and friends die or move away, skills atrophy and the very ability to be gainfully employed may be lost. Monetary compensation cannot restore the years or repair the damage, but it may be the only means for the exoneree to support himself or herself. The claimant’s interest in the outcome is very high—likely far greater than the Colorado claimants’ desire to recover the relatively small fees and costs at issue there.
It is no surprise that under California’s rules, many claims for compensation fail. In short, the risk of erroneous deprivation of the claimants’ interests is severe.
The second consideration the Court discussed is the risk that procedures used will result in erroneous deprivation of the interest at issue. The prevalence of exonerations across the country shows that even under criminal procedures that (theoretically, at least) provide all constitutional rights to the defendant, including the requirement that guilt be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, innocent people are still convicted. The risk of error is exponentially greater in claims for compensation under statutes like California’s.
Luis Galicia’s case illustrates the significance of which party bears the burden of proof. While the officer who heard the testimony found Galicia’s showing sufficient, the reviewing Board ”had difficulty drawing any conclusions” about the evidence.” It was easy and natural to conclude that Galicia failed to make his case. Shifting the burden to the state would require the Board to rule for the claimant where evidence is inconclusive.
The nature of wrongful incarceration claims exacerbates the impact of placing the burden of proof on the claimant. The state does not provide representation for exonerees in their claims before the Board. As Senator Monning observes, most exonerees have few resources at their disposal before their convictions and even fewer when they are finally released. Exonerees like Caldwell, who served many years, have claims large enough to support contingent fee arrangements. The rest have few options for obtaining counsel. And in any contested case—like Caldwell’s—claimants face the full resources of the state Attorney General’s office.
Claimants are by definition facing a trial transcript that was sufficient to convince a jury of their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In some cases before the Board, evidence relied on by the prosecution in the criminal case may be excluded or may have been repudiated. Witnesses may be unavailable—in Caldwell’s case, the key prosecution witness, Mary Cobbs, died while Caldwell was in prison—and memories also fade. All these circumstances will tend to weaken the prosecution’s case, but none will prove the claimant innocent. The same effects hinder the claimant’s efforts to prove innocence. It is no surprise that under California’s rules, many claims for compensation fail. In short, the risk of erroneous deprivation of the claimants’ interests is severe.
The final consideration under the Supreme Court’s analysis is the government’s interest. In entertaining claims for wrongful compensation, the state’s only interest is financial. Compare this to a typical criminal trial where if a finding of “not guilty” is erroneous, a criminal escapes punishment. Yet, by applying the rigorous requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, we signal that we are willing to accept this risk in order to minimize the risk of a greater harm: convicting an innocent person. If a claim for compensation for wrongful incarceration is granted in error, the calculus is different. The guilty party already either has or has not been punished, no matter the result of the proceeding. The only “harm” to be suffered by the state is payment of compensation to a guilty party.
Maurice and his grandniece Tayonna.
It could be argued that an erroneous payment is not even harmful. The claimant, by definition, served time in prison without a valid conviction being made. Though no U.S. jurisdiction has done so, a government could decide, as a matter of policy, to compensate all those wrongfully incarcerated whether guilty or not. Such a policy might even save money. Providing compensation to all who were wrongfully incarcerated, regardless of whether the evidence shows they were innocent, might reduce the likelihood that those released will commit additional crimes.
In any case, the amounts at issue are vanishingly small compared to the cost of the prison system. The current California budget includes $11.4 billion for the correction system. To call the expenditures on exonerees a drop in the bucket would exaggerate their importance. A 2015 study by Berkeley Law provides a more useful comparison. The study looked at the state’s expenditures on the 692 individuals who were exonerated from 1989 through 2012 and found that incarcerating the exonerees cost the state $148 million (and this figure did not even include the cost of prosecuting the cases). Paying claims made to the Victim Compensation Board cost just $5 million—less than 4% of the costs already incurred by the state for those individuals.
If the State of California can devote so many resources to the task of sending citizens to prison and keeping them there for years, surely it can afford to compensate more of those who should never have been there in the first place.
Still, the Supreme Court made clear in the Colorado case it is not ready to require states to accept the burden of proof. In fact, the Colorado statute requires claimants to prove their innocence by clear and convincing evidence, a much higher standard than California imposes. Yet the same analysis used by the Court in finding the Colorado law unconstitutional as it applied to recovering fees and costs could be applied to the burden California places on people like Caldwell that seek compensation for the years they lost to a mistake by the state.
Of course, the legislature does not need to be constrained by the Supreme Court’s rigorous application of balancing tests and its adherence to precedent. The legislature can review the system and conclude, as it did in 2013, that the procedures in place are simply not fair. The legislature can decree that the current law places too great a burden on those whom the criminal justice system already failed once. Shifting the burden of proof would make a tremendous difference.
In the meantime, the cases drag on. Maurice Caldwell filed his claim for compensation in March 2013. The matter was heard before an officer of the Board on 9 May and 31 May 2017. On 1 September, the hearing officer issued his Proposed Decision: a denial.
The Proposed Decision is baffling. The officer acknowledges that at least seven witnesses supported Caldwell’s version of the events, while “only one strong witness” implicates him—the deceased Mary Cobbs. He brushes aside testimony from the NCIP attorney that Cobbs could not have seen the shooters from her apartment, as well as all the evidence that the police improperly influenced Cobbs—not only moving her out of the projects but also by paying for a trip to Disneyland. As for Caldwell’s witnesses, Marritte Funches confessed to shooting Judy Acosta, a conclusion supported by every witness, and swore that Caldwell was not involved. The hearing officer blithely concludes that since the district attorney never pursued charges against Funches, those statements must not be credible.
What does the hearing officer believe occurred on that night in 1990? He accepts the testimony that Caldwell was in a bedroom with his girlfriend at the time of the shooting, but notes that Caldwell ran outside and “it is unknown what occurred.” To find Caldwell guilty of Acosta’s murder, one would have to believe that Caldwell heard shots, dressed, left the apartment, picked up a shotgun, and ran out to the street, arriving in time to shoot a man fleeing from someone else’s drug deal gone bad.
But in this proceeding, the hearing officer had no need to determine whether Caldwell was guilty. Caldwell was already denied the presumption of innocence, so the hearing officer can rest his decision solely on the burden of proof. He concludes that none of the witnesses on either side “can comfortably be found reliable which is detrimental to Caldwell’s case since he has the burden of proof.” In summary: “None of these pieces of evidence show guilt but they raise further hurdles for Caldwell to show his innocence…. Caldwell has failed to meet his burden of proof.”
So long as the State of California imposes the burden of proof on those seeking compensation, the Victim Compensation Board will repeat that refrain. Individuals who served time in prison for months or years for crimes they did not commit, whether due to police misconduct, abuse of prosecutorial discretion, or simply witnesses who hope to gain an advantage by providing false testimony, will continue to be relegated to the fringe of society.
As for Caldwell, he will pursue the fading glimmers of hope: contesting the Proposed Decision before the Board and litigating his appeals. Any changes in procedure will be too late to make a difference for his life or to help him set a better course for his three children.
Maurice and his family: Amaya Haynes, baby Iyanna Caldwell, Maurice, little Maurice Caldwell, and girlfriend Pamela Haynes.
 The corresponding federal law limited payouts to $5,000 until 2003, when the Innocence Protection Act raised the limits to $50,000 per year, and $100,000 per year on death row. California Commission, pp. 103-04.
 “California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice Final Report,” 24-32.
 In the Matter of the Claim of Timothy Atkins, Amended Proposed Decision, 16 January 2015, Exhibit B (transcript of the Board meeting), 14. Similarly, in a recent case where the underlying conviction was for arson, Ramos identified the fact that a mother and her two babies died in the fire as “the circumstances I took into consideration” in overruling the hearing officer’s recommendation that the claim be paid. In the Matter of the Application of: George Souliotes, Board Decision of 18 May 2017, 6.
 Cal. Admin. Code tit. 2, §§ 644(c) (burden of proof); 641(a) (requirement of corroborating evidence).
 Moore v. Dempsey, 261 U.S. 86, 87-88 (1923); Herrera v. Collins, 506 U.S. 390, 400 (1993). The federal statute governing habeas corpus, 28 U.S.C. § 2254(a), specifies that a federal court may consider a habeas petition “only on the ground that [the petitioner] is in custody in violation of the Constitution or laws or treaties of the United States.”
 In re Winchester, 53 Cal. 2d 528, 531 (1960): “Habeas corpus has become a proper remedy in this state to collaterally attack a judgment of conviction which has been obtained in violation of fundamental constitutional rights.”
 Coffin v. United States, 156 U.S. 432, 453 (1895). See In re Winship, 397 U.S. 358, 361 (1970).
 Nelson v. Colorado, 137 S. Ct. 1249, 1255 (2017), applying analysis from Mathews v. Eldridge, 424 U.S. 319 (1976).
 Maine requires a pardon by the governor, Maine Rev. Statutes § 8241; Missouri requires proof of innocence through DNA testing, Missouri Rev. Statutes § 650.058.
 In the Matter of the Application of: Luis Galicia, Board Decision of 18 February 2016, 3.
 A report by the Prison Policy Initiative found that the United States prison population had a pre-incarceration income 41% less than the average American. Bernadette Rabuy and Daniel Kopf, “Prisons of Poverty: Uncovering the Pre-Incarceration Incomes of the Imprisoned,” 5 July 2015, https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/income.html.
 The state could provide some or all of the compensation in the form of payments over time, which could be terminated if the claimant were to be convicted of a new crime. Texas has this provision. See Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, ch. 103.
 An argument to shift the burden of proof was made several years ago in a law review article. Daniel S. Kahn, “Presumed Guilty until Proven Innocent: The Burden of Proof in Wrongful Conviction Claims under State Compensation Statutes,” U. Mich. J. L. Reform 44 (2010): 123-68.
 In the Matter of the Claim of Maurice Caldwell, Proposed Decision, 14 August 2017, 24.
Peter Colby writes on social and political issues, drawing on his varied career experiences, and his work has been published in Anthropology Now. He has worked in land conservation for the last fifteen years and previously practiced litigation, real estate, and environmental law. Peter graduated from the University of Virginia and obtained his law degree from Berkeley Law, University of California.
It is a Saturday evening in April and Celerina Chavez is making albondigas—Mexican meatball soup. In a heavy pot, the soup simmers gently, sending the smell of carrot and cilantro throughout the house. With an oven mitt, Celerina lifts the hot lid. “The soup needs more water,” she says.
On the tiled bench beside the sink sits a large container of purified water, the five-gallon kind found in office buildings. Smaller bottles of water sit on the table, ready to drink with dinner. Celerina fills a pitcher from the five-gallon jug and pours a dash into the soup. She stirs it, then tastes it. Dinner will be ready soon.
Earlier that afternoon Celerina and her husband Bartolo made the trip from their home in Arvin to the Costco in Bakersfield. Every week they drive more than twenty miles to buy bottled water in four heavy pallets. Tomorrow, Bartolo will go to Arvin’s water district to use his two tokens, provided by the city, and refill that five-gallon jug at a purified water station.
They cannot drink the water that runs from the faucet.
Arvin is one of more than ninety public water systems across California having water contaminated with 123-Trichloropropane, or 123-TCP. The chemical originated as a by-product of two soil fumigants, D-D made by Shell Oil and Telone from Dow Chemical. These products were used heavily in agriculture from the 1940s until they were discontinued in their original formulation in the mid 1980s. During that time, however, they leached into the groundwater, contaminating the wells that most of the Central Valley relies upon.
Kern County is the most affected in the state. While Bartolo and Celerina have lived in Arvin, a town in Kern, for more than twenty years, they only discovered their water was contaminated three years ago. Before that, they and their three children unknowingly drank the contaminated tap water.
“We’re in the United States, it isn’t just any country, so why is the water bad, why is the water so contaminated?
“We’re in the United States, it isn’t just any country, so why is the water bad, why is the water so contaminated?” Celerina says in Spanish, her and Bartolo’s native tongue.
Bartolo Chavez leads the way through his three bedroom home to the bathroom. There, he turns on the shower and lets the water run. It is warm but not hot enough to be steamy. The overhead fan whirrs. They are cautious about bathing too—short and cold showers are routine in their household, although not in others.
“The warmer the water, the more dangerous,” he says. “In the community, the people do not know that.”
For more than twenty-five years the State of California has classified 123-TCP as a known carcinogen. Yet the chemical was only regulated earlier this year. July 2017, following a public and stakeholder comment period, the State Water Board set the maximum contaminant level for 123-TCP in drinking water at five parts per trillion. With the contaminant at this concentration, communities still have an increased risk of developing cancer compared to those with uncontaminated water, but that risk is less than one case per 100,000 people. It comes as good news for communities across the Central Valley, many of which have 123-TCP concentrations of more than seven parts per trillion, meaning higher cancer risks.
“This new health-protective regulation for 1,2,3-TCP is a victory for all the Californians… seeking to secure for themselves and their families what most of us have the luxury of taking for granted—the basic human right to safe drinking water,” said Jonathan Nelson, Policy Director for Community Water Center in a press release shortly after the announcement.
But treating water is also an expensive undertaking and the burden of cost may be placed upon consumers who live in smaller water markets and already pay higher rates. Because of this, many public water utilities, including Arvin’s, have filed lawsuits against Shell Oil and Dow Chemical for damages. Most complaints claim the products’ problems outweighed the benefits and that the companies failed to disclose 123-TCP as an ingredient.
“We have internal documents that show they [Shell and Dow] knew from a very early point in time that 1,2,3-TCP was in the products and not doing anything to help the farmers but yet, it remained,” said Jed Borghei, an attorney representing Arvin’s public water utility.
Some, such as Clovis, have already received some recompense, settling a lawsuit against Shell Oil in 2016 for $22 million.
Treating the water also takes time—anywhere from a few months to a few years. Meanwhile, residents of affected communities, like Bartolo and Celerina, still shoulder the burden of procuring clean water.
“It is something good they are going to do,” Bartolo said of the regulation prior to its adoption. “But they need to act fast because if they wait more time, that is more harm to humanity.”
 From video interview with Jed Borghei of Robins Borghei LLP, conducted by Alessandra Bergamin and Briana Flin, 26 April 2017.
Alessandra Bergamin is a freelance journalist who reports on agricultural communities, environmental justice and inequality. Her work has been published in Bay Nature, Misadventures and Flint Mag. She is a former Harper’s Magazine intern and current student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on twitter @AllyBergamin.
Briana Flin is a Bay Area-based multimedia journalist interested in culture, immigration and social justice. She’s produced stories for Rewire.org and Oakland North and her work has been shared by PBS. She’s currently a new media student at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Follow her on twitter @BrianaFlin.
Like many so-called “boomerang” millennials, I found myself returning to the Central Valley to set down roots after living away for a decade. Looking at my hometown with new eyes and a burgeoning career as an urban anthropologist, the subject of change in insular Fresno and its spatial politics can be hard to swallow. More so, crisis conditions from the statewide drought had been an alarming yet helpful framing mechanism in which to visualize the physical and communal stratification of Valley life.
Water, or more specifically its absence, has helped shape the built environment of urbanization in Fresno. Such deficit thinking has continued to be a driving force in setting policy and placemaking practices in the City of Fresno, even as the city currently pursues an effort to revitalize its aging infrastructure to meet twenty-first century economic demands. Most interestingly, the production of an imagined future by groups of non-state actors eager to stake their claim on the community is where memory and planning intersect, sometimes painfully.
As much as the Central Valley’s agricultural interests have long positioned themselves as the major economic base for the region, the drought has revealed the lingering dispossession caused by such uneven concentrations of wealth. Regional concerns echo those claims of dispossession, highlighted in the media coverage of dry, unincorporated areas feeling the worst effects of the drought. A 2015 example of this was in the especially hard hit region of rural East Tulare County, where a humanitarian crisis occurred due to major water shortages and a lack of stable infrastructure. Yet it is the City of Fresno and the process of urbanization where such discourses of cultural deficit meet an engaged social placemaking through practices of memory and a general rethinking of the politics of space.
My ethnographic scholarship uses the recent five year drought, and the inequality it has made visible across different cultural platforms of space and place, to understand the Central Valley as a culture of historic extraction, be it natural resources, labor or public space. This social memory of dispossession is exemplified in the ways that nonstate actors in the City of Fresno, and the greater Central Valley, seek to revise social-spatial projects. Specifically, the push to stake a grassroots claim in the revitalization of the inner urban core of downtown Fresno, as well as the reimagining of space in and around the city, is part of this new project of place that small-scale community organizations are using to highlight the sunshine and noir of urban change. My use of the term “urban,” in a region known for its rural life and agricultural economy, is deliberate; “The urban is not a unit, but a process of transformation unfolding in diverse sites, territories and landscapes.”
The subject of water is never far behind when discussing land use policy and the Central Valley’s built environment. Changes in the conceptualization of these two resources—water and space—are the mechanisms of new social projects happening in Fresno. Through the application of a theoretical framework borrowed from urban geography, Henri Lefebvre’s idea of the “right to the city,” the twin issues of water and space are helpful for their potential to assist in making these projects of social construction manifested.
The right to the city is, therefore, far more than a right of individual access to the resources that the city embodies: it is a right to change ourselves by changing the city more after our heart’s desire. It is, moreover, a collective rather than an individual right since changing the city inevitably depends upon the exercise of a collective power over the processes of urbanization.
Urban development and water resource management by competing interests seek different ends to their work, and yet together shape the social and physical landscape of the Central Valley. Two key case studies are the focus of my analysis that convene the spatial politics of place with the histories of dispossession that have become part of the collective social landscape.
Urban development and water resource management by competing interests seek different ends to their work, and yet together shape the social and physical landscape of the Central Valley.
Water and its infrastructure needs in the Central Valley were made material in the dry fountains along the Fulton Mall in downtown Fresno. From initial private investment to haphazard public enjoyment, the fountains once stood as beacons of modernity, offering shoppers a spot to linger as they returned to the revamped “cool” of 1960s urbanism chic. The fountains, all twenty-two of them, were in Fall 2015 mostly dried up and filled with trash or repurposed as planters. Refilled and drained at random, their visible deterioration echoed the nearly empty space of the Mall’s decaying Mid-Century Modern infrastructure. “Emptiness” remains a relative term. In the perception of the mainstream shopping public of Fresno, a lack of middle class shoppers present reads as evidence of emptiness, as ‘empty’ despite the “hundreds of people, mostly of color and of lower socioeconomic status, who walked the Mall each day.” Illegibility, of both a new kind of patron, who is not the white middle-class consumer benefiting and partaking in gentrification processes, and the natural resources like fountains and trees through which water flows on the Mall is inscribed in its initial problematization.
The Fulton Mall’s fountains, part of the initiative to find local artists who could help curate the space for a 1960s consumer base, and their removal as not representing the natural conditions of the Valley environment exemplify the different conceptualizations of public goods and a changing vision for the future. This decline, tracked for decades by The Fresno Bee daily newspaper and local business community newsletters, is part of the contestation of space and place that is underscored by the recent drought conditions that made water a necessary but insufficient condition for change in the Central Valley imaginary.
Blackstone Avenue is another dispirited infrastructural legacy, once the “center of town” where commercial interests were centered below Shaw Avenue away from the civic institutions of the city’s downtown. Similar to how rural space in the Valley has been divided up and intensified throughout the twentieth century, the commercial space on Blackstone has transitioned from retail to a concentration of auto and auto-service related enterprises, owned by non-residents who are seen by many within the transitioning neighborhoods around the central artery as the cause of urban blight that bleeds southward towards the neglected downtown. Both the Mall and Blackstone Avenue are the foci of revitalization efforts by government functionaries led by former Mayor Ashley Swearengin’s “I Believe in Downtown” campaign and community nonprofits who seek to tie physical revitalization with social transformation through engaged electoral participation and economic investment. The phantom force of water—its accessibility, disappearance, ties to nature as key to physical improvement and regulation as part of the broader technologies of power overlapping in downtown—is always present as part of a larger discussion of resources that have helped reproduce histories of dispossession and extraction that leave “ordinary cities” like Fresno a contested social terrain.
California, as a product and site of cultural production, is an outward-facing entity that valorizes a mythic, encrypted self-narrative of opportunity envisioned by generations of booster elites eager to develop the American West. California’s “sunniness” is coupled with its inherent noir, a hidden power phenomena that keeps its less desirable yet essential parts in shadow. The Central Valley is where those dual forces of noir and sunshine intersect, where the issues of urbanization and historical patterns of rural settlement coexist uncomfortably within the California project. An area east of the Coastal Range that includes the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys, from Bakersfield to Chico, the Valley has always been socially embattled when not ignored as a political backwater. “Not much about California, on its own preferred terms, has encouraged its children to see themselves as connected to one another. The separation, of north from south, and even more acutely of west from east, from urban coast from the agricultural valleys… was profound, fueled by the rancor of water wars and by less tangible but even more rancorous differences in attitude and culture.” As Gerry Haslam has argued, the Central Valley serves as a liminal cultural space, the “Other California,” left out of a Southern California-centered focus on economic opportunity and cultural production:
I began to look more closely at the physical environment and saw things I should have noticed before. Just north of where I had grown up, I realized, lay a maimed environment, the bed of the largest freshwater lake in the West, now dried, plowed and irrigated: What had happened?
This naturally-occurring ecological event has intensified to unheard-of costs to human development. The statewide drought was deemed a disaster in 2014 by Gov. Jerry Brown and subject to federal intervention by 2015. The drought’s slow burn into the collective consciousness of those not in the business of agriculture has helped unearth some of the more human disasters and longstanding internal contradictions that make explicit the social constructions of place that re-emphasize the Valley’s history as a land of physical and social dispossession and struggle for cultural significance. The research agenda that informs this work is part of a broader focus on the anthropology of Fresno’s downtown redevelopment that informs my preliminary dissertation research on the cultural construction of urban space. Over the course of the last two years, I attended public meetings at the state, city and regional levels (Fresno City Council Meeting, 4 and 27 February, 2014; State Workshop on Water, January 2015; Kings River Irrigation District Board Meeting, August 2015) on urban redevelopment and water policy, as well as conducted unstructured and semi-structured interviews with informants working on these two issues within the city. One key part of this preliminary ethnographic analysis has been the data collected through fieldnotes from participant-observation efforts. I worked on projects, went to meetings and attended special events with various community organizations working outside the confines of political campaigns or government office.
Central Valley farmers have long fought against the movement of water from Northern California to the southern part of the state, using “L.A.” as a euphemism for waste, entitlement and bad planning policies.
The theoretical framework of Lefebvre’s “right to the city” can be used to understand California’s historical spatialization and put the recent water crisis into socio-political context. Henri Lefebvre, the primary member of the Marxist revival in mid-twentieth century cultural geography scholarship, argued that the city’s inherent benefits—social, political, and economic—were made possible by the diversity of people, opportunity and intensification of space and development. These social and economic resources found in cities should not be hindered by privatization as a phenomenon in a city available for public benefit, including the surrounding areas. This call for keeping some things, like economic markets and open urban space, public and publicly-administered was positioned squarely against the creeping privatization and divestment of public resource management that cities sought to systemize in the latter half of the twentieth century. Public goods, Lefebvre argued, were the only things not made into commodities for exchange by the economically-privileged few who gained the most from capitalism’s structural inequities. This idea was part of his more general discussion of the social production of space as something categorized and made into physical and representation modes for the organization and stratification of human development. Thus the built environment, and policies of land use and production, are part of this codification and reinscription of capitalistic social organization, where space makes some welcome and bars others from its production.
City/farm, urban/rural—the dispossession of space and the extraction of resources for a global market is a process that the Central Valley has always taken part in despite competing concerns over growing urbanization and the political economy and industrial concerns of agriculture. A recent focus on water is one of many historical cycles of political attention and eventual obfuscation. Central Valley farmers have long fought against the movement of water from Northern California to the southern part of the state, using “L.A.” as a euphemism for waste, entitlement and bad planning policies. For the last decade, signs along Highway 99 shout slogans like “Food Grows Where Water Flows,” vilifying the names of those legislators who vote for more environmental protections that limit industrial water use. This geographic division of resources and power are part of the political project of the state’s dualism; a shiny attractive Coast and a shadowed hinterland in complete symbiosis, the city’s “contado” that Gary Brechin wrote, “feeds the people,” yet remains unknowable.
Decades of benign neglect of water in the form of a lack of regulatory processes across the Central Valley has led to the depletion of groundwater from local water tables. Water meters that measure and charge for home water use are recent additions to the utility bills of Central Valley residents, a factor that historically increased the illegibility of its importance in the daily lives of residents. This lack of attention, given that other urban areas have for decades worked on multiple levels of governance to limit and control water use, poses questions about water’s centrality and value in Valley life. Was there a simplistic feeling of material abundance in the landscape, or rather, did power elites controlling the development of the Valley landscape see little need to quantify the use of water even as urban areas like Fresno started to compete with industrial agricultural operations for finite material resources? These type of questions about the relationship between the material conditions of Valley life ask questions that efforts like urban revitalization and placemaking seem to want to answer, the social response to physical and natural droughts.
This water crisis, similar to the “urban crisis” of the 1960s in its self-creation mythology, has afforded the social space in which different alternative imaginings of place and the politics of belonging can be articulated. Several groups have taken up the charge of not letting a crisis go to waste, using different but significant points of entry to discuss dispossession in urban form. The role of activism around issues of equity and resource distribution, the special relationship between space and water, development and history, has been ripe for discussion. At a regional level, dry wells in East Tulare County, south of Fresno, have highlighted the lack of infrastructure and muted governmental response to the physical needs of a largely poor community of Latinos. This inattention has spurred efforts by local organizations and non-state actors like the Valley Water Center and California Rural Legal Assistance to organize a disadvantaged community and link their concerns for the continuation of life in a culturally cohesive yet politically unincorporated part of the county to larger variables about representation and engagement in the formal political process. “All local residents should participate for, although corporate boards elsewhere may control the deeds to much land here, they do not know the call of a dove or the chill of river water slicing from the Sierra Nevada or the dawn smell of a freshly mown alfalfa field.” Countering the power of a decentralized planning regime and decades of developmental policy that are exclusive by their very nature is used as the mechanism by which the historiography of the Central Valley organizes its major themes.
The contestation over the revitalization of the Fresno Fulton Mall is where urban space and its complicated place in the cultural imaginings of place are centered in this analysis. An aging twentieth century pedestrian center in the heart of downtown Fresno, the history and cultural narrative of the Fresno Fulton Mall is contentious. Recent efforts to revitalize the three-block area as part of a national post-recession movement to gentrify deindustrialized urban areas, as well as a nod to the market demands of cities’ endless search for tax revenue, have frayed the tempers of longtime denizens who seek to preserve the space according to its ethos of Mid-Century Modern aesthetics.
This project is personal to me, challenging the division between emic and etic approaches to anthropological study. As one born in Fresno and gone for over a decade, the place-memory of home still retains meaning for me, especially in the older areas like the Fulton Mall that are untouched by urban redevelopment. Marx Arax understands this as part of returning home: “The stakes always seemed higher [in Fresno] than when I was writing about L.A. The reasons were obvious in one respect—it was my home—and yet I sensed a deeper explanation that had to do with how we as a society related to place…. It has been a messy affair, but I am still here, trying to put my finger on this place.” As the world urbanizes and the process of urbanization takes varied forms that go beyond the simplistic dichotomies of rural vs. urban, suburban vs. urban, the Mall has become meaningful to me and a new generation of citizen artists, activists, and planners.
Built to much fanfare in the early 1960s, the Mall became one of the first open-air pedestrian malls at the beginning of the suburban mall era. Anchored by J.C. Penny and other major department stores, the mall was the first major site of concentrated consumerism in Fresno, and attracted shoppers with its park-like setting. The choice to redevelop an already urban space was deliberate—planners including the nationally-recognized planner Victor Gruen and landscape architect Garrett Eckbo wanted to bring the suburban shopping experience to downtown Fresno, already in decline as citizens moved northward. Its success at the time of its opening in 1964 was quickly overshadowed by the creation of newer enclosed malls like Manchester Center in 1969 and Fashion Fair Mall on Shaw Avenue in the 1970s. As fewer shoppers came downtown, the Fulton Mall became a place where community events were held in Mariposa Plaza, the largest of the open areas in the three block mall setting, and a free speech stage was created as a commemoration of the site of a labor protest in the 1920s.
The turn from the Mall’s original plan as a place middle-class residents shop into de facto parkland for the urban poor was due to unimpeded and steady decline, as the vast majority of the major department stores left in the 1980s. The Mall’s genesis speaks to a planning ideology of another era, and contemporary proposals that seek to either crystallize its history or revamp it altogether manifest the competing pressures of real estate and community memory that counter each other within the sphere of Fresno planning politics. As it stands today, the Mall is under construction to be transformed into Fulton Street, reopening late 2017. The approved proposal to open the pedestrian mall to vehicular traffic and add over a one hundred parking spaces was stymied by a lawsuit filed by supports of the Downtown Fresno Coalition (DFC), which sought to keep the Mall a pedestrian-friendly place and thus were behind the unsuccessful push to get the site registered as a California Historic Landmark. As such efforts indicate, the mall serves as a place of nostalgia and distinction for many Fresnans despite its diminished state. The DFC utilizes the ideas of walkability, the need for the preservation of democratic public space, as well as green space in an urbanizing world, as the emotional pleas of an underdog argument bent on mobilizing the affective nature of place attachment. The death of several trees by lack of water oft-rumored to be a coordinated effort by the city to encourage blight and make its case for redevelopment stronger, echoing a similar fight over changes in a historic Central American urban space discussed by anthropologist Setha Low:
The sense of loss in these stories is not with the place itself, but with the decoration and social participants, yet the stories communicate a sense of place attachment that has been disrupted physically, but not in memory, by ongoing social change.
The emotionality and use of memory in the argument for preservation touch on issues of aesthetics, in the access to public art and environmentalism, representing the interests of the denizen-activists of the DFC. Decidedly white, upper-middle class and college-educated, very few members live near Downtown and the Mall and most don’t visit its businesses and services. The Mall, to them, is understood as parkland and a place where public art can be enjoyed. The cost and prestige of the public art, led by some of the artists themselves, are often highlighted in the materials produced by the group. The transition from mainstream consumer sites like J.C. Penny to smaller, local retailers as well as the administrative offices of county agencies that cater to a largely Latino audience has been an uncomfortable one. The racial politics of space are deliberately softened by the social memory of postwar prosperity that centers on white consumers. As part of a series of events to mark its fiftieth anniversary of operations in 2014, a local filmmaker created a film that made the Mall its main subject. “We certainly don’t need more botanicas,” one woman commented during a Q&A session after viewing the documentary. Screenings and a series of walking tours were hosted in 2015 and 2016. This was also a response to the walking tours that are offered by a competing business association centering the Mall in a discussion of urban blight, focusing on future development plans in 2017 for the space that include private real estate.
Another significant project of place where space and water play a central developmental role is the A Better Blackstone neighborhood redevelopment project, northward in Fresno’s central core area. Blackstone Avenue serves as Fresno’s High Street, its central North-South conduit that shuttles people into and out of downtown, paralleling the main Highway 41 that intersects with Highway 99, the Valley’s main site of passage. Its demise has been well-documented, echoing concerns for a better investment of place:
No place with even a modicum of self-worth would allow such a disgrace, much less right down its spine. I venture it’s more complicated than that—and more simple. I doubt that anyone in City Hall actually planned on disfiguring Fresno this way. The Boulevard more or less developed, downtown to river, a century of progress, without any countervailing force ever saying “no.” In the process, its belief only got replicated.
A programmatic arm of a local nonprofit giant, A Better Blackstone is a multiyear project that is both ideational and outcome-specific. “We have come together to imagine what it would look like for Blackstone to thrive once again.” In its first months of work, the program sought to collect data on every business on the avenue itself as well as initiate direct contact with residents of the surrounding neighborhoods, no small feat.
At a community event called “Imagine Blackstone,” Summer 2015, local residents were asked to participate in this reimagining, both the possibilities of place in the central district and the realism of its current state of neglect. A photovoice project led by staff was displayed, and viewers were asked to stop and get their event pass stamped along a curated path of projects related to city services, civic education and spatial imagery. A fully stamped event pass meant free tacos and drinks on the hot August tarmac of Susan B. Anthony Elementary School. Pop-up parklets, like those trumpeted by urban civic leaders as solutions to the limited public space of gentrifying cities, were created using rolled up Astrotrurf and DIY park benches. Asked to take the lead on this exhibit display twenty minutes before the gate opened, I gamely tried my hand at curation and was assigned a twelve year old assistant who worked the scotch tape. There was a clear agenda of engagement that was being asked of participants by A Better Blackstone staffers: we as volunteers were tasked to stimulate conversation by asking how Blackstone is popularly and individually conceptualized (“bad” and “ugly” were common answers), and what, if any, factors could improve the thoroughfare (“Trees!”).
Methodologically and logistically, these conversations were happening on several fronts: Participants at the event wanted to know what photovoice as a method was, and second, why did all these photos matter to the redevelopment of their neighborhood? An ethnographic research methodology used by visual anthropologists, photovoice is both empirically sophisticated and immediately accessible. A photovoice project is typically a carefully administered elicitation of visual data collection through initial discussions of themes about a certain phenomenon, then cameras given to those involved as subjects. The ensuing photos and captions are pulled together to gain understanding of one’s emic view of the world-made material by the photographs, and narratives captured that expand discussion on the community-developed central theme in the user’s own voice. Here, local students and their parents were asked to take photos of their neighborhood around Blackstone Avenue that they deemed were either positive or negative depictions of local life, and then asked to write down why they chose those photos, describing them in their own words. Central Valley water, as ever, was omnipresent as a thematic core of the project yet hidden behind an understanding of issues that made it seem only tangential to the goals of placemaking and revitalization. Dead trees, stagnant canals and broken curbs were the problems of infrastructure cited by many participants in their commentary. A lack of water, and lack of nature, or rather, its re-envisionment as pop-up spaces of temporary comfort on the hot summer tarmac of Susan B. Anthony Elementary were evidence of the creativity that such spatial deficits could engender.
Water’s role as the unacknowledged shaper of events, even in its absence, is correlated with the reproduction of a deficit-centric cultural discourse found here in the tactics of Fresno interest groups.
The activism and organizational engagement of A Better Blackstone on issues of space are central to what Michel De Certeau understands as tactics used to make sense of urban planning regimes by residents looking to exert spatial agency in a complex spatial arrangement, and to a larger extent, is “tactical urbanism” in action. The bottom up, self-directed work of A Better Blackstone functions in a liminal space—quasi-governmental due to its close relationship with regional arms of government and public orientation as part of a forty year-old nonprofit, yet privately-funded by larger state and national foundation grants for goals that center on social justice and the promotion of public health.
Imagined landscapes were the goal of “walking audits” of the corridor during the hot summer months. Strollers were pushed by volunteers up and down the street in an effort to collect data and physically embody the imagination of what could be. Infrastructure needs were documented in great detail; wheels stuck in concrete cracks were photographed as evidence of infrastructural neglect. The search for shade in 100 degree temperatures was a constant reminder that nature had been categorically eliminated on Blackstone Avenue. A 10 a.m. walk in August 2015 found two groups of mothers directed in both Spanish and English by A Better Blackstone staffers, upon whom seeing the ten feet of shade found near a bus stop north of Olive Avenue broke out into happy exaltations. Apparently shade is a historic vestige in vehicle-centered planning. Open irrigation canals that crossed the city were noted for being concentrated in older, now poorer parts of town, brimming with dark fast-moving water that seemed to tempt in the summer heat.
The role volunteer groups, political organizations and nonprofit service agencies play in the discussion of urbanization has proved the singular counterweight in the face of the capitalist political economy of city leadership forced to play an unending game of growth liberalism. Whether the aims of the ten year A Better Blackstone project will be fulfilled is an ongoing question, but the actions taken by its leadership and that of the Downtown Fresno Coalition to fight perceived threats of spatial inequality are indicators of deep place attachment by historically overlooked groups. The attachment reproduced by socially-ascribed memory implicitly ties place as the physical bearer of culture within the production of space. Water’s role as the unacknowledged shaper of events, even in its absence, is correlated with the reproduction of a deficit-centric cultural discourse found here in the tactics of Fresno interest groups.
Water is the phantom subject of interest that spurs political movement on space and place in Fresno and throughout the broader Central Valley. The planning regime that produced the Fulton Mall, and the modern effort to revitalize it amidst calls to preserve its significance as a site of history and social memory for many city residents are cyclical development projects that further the production of space, as all states must be productive in the highly privatized spatial project that is the Central Valley. Yet it is this same planning regime that has created the blighted Blackstone Avenue, where water’s disappearance in the form of trees and urban nature are also felt. Understanding the social response to urban physical intervention is my ongoing effort to capture ethnographically the process of change and renewal that stem from these issues of place attachment, and from within a historical framework of deficit that has subsumed conceptions of the Valley for so long. Through the distribution and rethinking of water as a central resource, a human right rather than a commodity, a naturally-occurring resource to be redistributed by humans, its role in reshaping Fresno as a political project and cultural production makes visible the fault lines across which denizens and their institutions must negotiate. For me, it is the price of coming home.
All photos taken by Sydney Santana.
 James Holston, Insurgent Citizenship (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2009).
 Paul Connerton, How Societies Remember (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
 Neil Brenner and C. Schmid, “The ‘Urban Age’ in Question,” International Journal Urban and Regional Research 38 (2014): 731–55.
 David Harvey, Rebel Cities: From Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (London: Verso Press, 2012).
 Henry Delcore, “Pedestrian Survey,” Institute of Public Anthropology, California State University, Fresno (2010).
 Aline Gubrium and Krista Harper, Participatory Visual and Digital Research in Action (New York: Routledge, 2015).
 Michel De Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).
 Irwin Altman and Setha Low, Place Attachment: A Conceptual Inquiry (New York: Plenum Press, 1992), 23.
 Yi Fu Tuan, Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1974).
Dorie Dakin Perez is doctoral candidate in political anthropology and urban history at the University of California, Merced. Her research focuses on the cultural meaning-making of urban space and public policy as cultural change. Previously, she worked for the State Legislature and the Google X Self-Driving Car project. Her work can be found at www.dorieperez.org.
Highway Bridge, 2016, archival pigment print, 56 x 60 inches, Sayler/Morris. I-5 Bridge near the confluence of the American and Sacramento Rivers.*
What is a river? This is not a question we ask every day because it seems superfluous. Certainly, a river must be a flowing body of water of a certain size. Call it a river or a creek, but one way or another, flowing is the essential thing. Yet, what if a given river does not flow per se but is pushed and pulled mechanically? Or what if the flowing that defines a river is arrested and controlled through dams, canals and machine technology? What if the river no longer moves with inextricable desire towards a specific place like an ocean or a lake, but rather is widely dispersed into various uses? What if a river is wholly owned and apportioned the moment it comes out of the ground? Does all this change the essence of a river? Is it even still a river?
These speculative questions, for which the arts are particularly well suited, assume real significance in a state like present-day California that depends entirely on technological control of rivers for its prosperity and very survival. Seeing a river in California for what it is now—namely water-put-to-work—can abet a number of other vital inquiries, such as: if water in the state is essentially a resource or even a commodity, who owns it and how are these owners positioning themselves for the water shortages of the future due to climate change and population growth? How is the current regard for water connected to California’s murderous, colonial past, and what can we gain from such an understanding? And/or how can California avoid its seemingly inevitable fate of privatized water markets, unreliable access to clean water for the poor and profound income inequality? Such questioning “prepares a free relationship” towards the issue, to quote Martin Heidegger. It reveals and opens. It renders something that appears universal, absolute and given—in this case our extractive attitude toward water and farming—as contingent and therefore mutable through political activism and civic engagement.
We make this particular connection to Heidegger despite all his baggage because he provides a number of indispensable analytic tools for perceiving what is really at stake with environmental issues, not to mention his inventive and evocative vocabulary. Further, an encounter with Heidegger’s investigation into the nature of rivers proved transformative to our own art-activist project Water Gold Soil. As artists working with the medium of landscape photography, we first looked towards what is visible in the land in order to represent the drought issue in California. A reading of Heidegger and other research then provoked us to consider what lies behind what can be seen. A key thought sits in Heidegger’s before-and-after comparison of the Rhine River found in “The Question Concerning Technology”:
The hydroelectric plant is set into the current of the Rhine. It sets the Rhine to supplying its hydraulic pressure, which then sets the turbines turning. This turning sets those machines in motion whose thrust sets going the electric current for which the long-distance power station and its network of cables are set up to dispatch electricity. In the context of the interlocking processes pertaining to the orderly disposition of electrical energy, even the Rhine itself appears to be something at our command. The hydroelectric plant is not built into the Rhine River as was the old wooden bridge that joined bank with bank for hundreds of years. Rather the river is dammed up into the power plant…. What the river is now, namely, a water-power supplier, derives from the essence of the power station…. But, it will be replied, the Rhine is still a river in the landscape, is it not? Perhaps. But how? In no other way than as an object on call for inspection by a tour group ordered there by the vacation industry.
Seeing the way “a river in the landscape” can actually be more fundamentally defined by its economic uses (power supplier, tourism and recreation site, irrigator) became the presiding impulse of our own project. Accordingly, we photographed the transition from the wilderness incarnation of this water flow in the Sierra Nevada to its first damming, and then on to its increasing subjection to rationalization and canalization, and finally to its dispersal in various end-uses, primarily agricultural. The most basic goal of the photography and the video we took was simply to reveal the “river” as economic rather than scenic—and by “river” here, we mean both our particular water flow and by extension all such “rivers” in California.
Water Gold Soil: Report, Draft 2, Sayler/Morris, 2015, 2-channel video installation, 17 min, TULCA Art Festival, Galway, Ireland. Voiceover text: “From this point on the water does that flow. They pushed it along with pumps. They extracted it from the Delta, and moved it into two canals. One headed for the big cities and one headed to the desert farms. The water commodity.”
This may seem obvious, but the productiveness of this enterprise became evident when an environmental organization giving us an award requested that we put more images of “beauty” and “wildness” into an exhibition of our work. Indeed, the typical maneuver of photographers working on environmental issues is to show a particular landscape as pure and beautiful and therefore worthy of protecting, or else to show “damage” to the land caused by the impurities of pollution and industrialization. However, such obsession with purity, which has historically motivated the environmental movement in the United States, deadens an adequate response to issues like climate change or water rights in California. In both cases, sufficiently powerful animus and solidarity must derive from a heightened sense of both the dangers and opportunities. Urgency comes from care for and protection of life, social justice, empathy, economic opportunity and restoration of the sacred. Each of these themes came together in Standing Rock.
The purity paradigm continues to grip the environmental community, but so long as it does it will jeopardize its efficacy. For such an interest in conservation, preservation, and beauty, tremendously understates the danger of our current ecological crisis and renders the ecological crisis the sole province of a privileged class. Here too Heidegger can be of some assistance, albeit with significant caveats. Heidegger’s description of the hydro-electric plant in the Rhine comes amid a larger discussion of what he identified as “the supreme danger” to mankind. This supreme danger presents itself to Heidegger first in the guise of “modern technology.” Modern technology for Heidegger differs from what precedes it in that “it puts to nature the unreasonable demand that it supply energy which can be extracted and stored.” Heidegger terms this essential aspect of modern technology a “challenging forth,” which he contrasts with the gentler “bringing forth” (poiesis) of older technology. Poeisis, of course, is also the mode of the arts (i.e., poetry), the significance of which we explore below. In this connection, Heidegger contrasts the impact of a wooden bridge over the Rhine to that of the hydro-electric dam per the above quotation. The wooden bridge brings forth place, dwelling, cultivation of the land; whereas the dam challenges forth the river to yield energy that might in turn be used for industrial processes.
To understand how this is not merely a nostalgic, wistful call for a return to a past primitivism, we must understand exactly what is so unreasonable about the demand Heidegger identifies that modern technology puts to nature. The danger here is not the loss of an attribute of the river we might call beautiful or the imposition of a stain on its purity that can ultimately be restored through effective advocacy; rather, the danger lies in the complete transformation in the nature of the river within a means-ends order. It has become, in Heidegger’s terminology, a “standing reserve.” The river is not alone. In a world dominated by modern technology, Heidegger writes:
Everywhere everything is ordered to stand by, to be immediately on hand, indeed to stand there just so that it may be on call for a furthering ordering. Whatever is ordered about in this way has its own standing. We call it the standing reserve.
Another way of saying this is that within the challenging forth of modern technology everything becomes a resource, or as Heidegger writes elsewhere “something is only through what it performs.” Heidegger gives a couple of other examples besides the transformation of the river. He contrasts a windmill with coal power. Whereas with the windmill things “are left entirely to the wind’s blowing,” with coal “a tract of land is challenged in the hauling out” with the result that the “earth now reveals itself as a coal mining district, the soil as mineral deposit.” He also contrasts older farming techniques with industrial agriculture, emphasizing the lost values of care and maintenance, words which together we might call by a different name—sustainability.
Water Gold Soil: Report, Draft 2, Sayler/Morris, 2015, 2-channel video (still), 17 min. The pipes depicted here in the right channel of the video are part of infrastructure originally built to support gold mining by regulating flow in the South Fork of the American River. The same infrastructure was later re-purposed for irrigation agriculture and suburban development. Voiceover text: “Pipes followed as if demanded by logic itself…. But the pipes were kept hidden, tucked away. So that a faucet could appear like a stream.”
By this logic, in order to answer the question, “What is a river in California?,” we must first answer the question of specifically what that river is used for, what it performs. It is not enough simply to observe that it is technological in some generic sense. Of course, a given river in California might have various uses. (It is illuminating in this regard to examine Bureau of Reclamation spreadsheets showing just who owns each acre foot of water in each river.) Notice, however, how Heidegger articulates the usage of the river in terms of a system: the water moves the turbines, which moves machines that create the electrical current, which in turn moves along cables to be stored and distributed. The underlying logic of the challenging forth is that it is extracting and storing energy with the purpose to further something else, namely some industry.
We chose to follow a water flow toward its end use specifically in the industry of large-scale agriculture because this is the dominant industry governing much of California’s water infrastructure. Jay Lund, one of the leading experts on water in California and editor of the California Water Blog, describes the system of water management in California, as follows:
By 1980, a vast network of reservoirs, canals and exploited aquifers transformed California. This system was largely designed to support an agricultural economy envisioned in the latter 1800s, which greatly exceeded the gold mining economy it replaced.
In this single concise quotation, you have all the elements of our project: Water, Gold, Soil. The “agricultural economy” (i.e. soil) is the descendant of the gold mining economy, and both were entirely dependent on water—agriculture for obvious reasons, and gold because not only was gold first found in the rivers, but water in the form of sluices and later water cannons was essential to mining operations. As Norris Hundley writes of the gold mining industry in California: “they built hydraulic empires of dams, reservoirs, flumes, ditches, pipes and hoses. All this in turn required knowledge of advanced engineering principles, now introduced for the first time on a large scale in the West and later used to build other great public and private projects.” In addition to the technological confidence and infrastructure, perhaps a more important legacy of the gold mining industry on the agriculture industry that supplanted it was the legal framework for how to regard ownership of a river in the first place.  In particular, the notion that one could claim a right to some water simply being the first to put it to some vaguely defined “beneficial use” originated in California with the Gold Rush. The havoc wrecked by the mixing of this “prior appropriation” right with other sorts of rights (namely riparian) has been well documented.
Water Gold Soil: Report, Draft 2, Sayler/Morris, 2015, 2-channel video (still), 17 min. Voiceover text: “They first discovered Gold near this place on the American River, setting off a worldwide hysteria that has been treated comprehensively by Brandt and others.”
However, Lund leaves out half of the equation. The other major driver of water infrastructure development in California was, and continues to be, real estate development and speculation. This story has been comprehensively told in Norris Hundley’s The Great Thirst and elsewhere. In fact, a strong argument can be made that agriculture in California is itself simply real estate investment in disguise. With a Heideggerian flourish we might say (as we do in a video piece that is part of our project): “Water spread over land by wind and rain transforms ground to nutrient. Water spread over land by pipes transforms ground to real estate.” Many in addition to Hundley have recited this history, which in broad brush strokes looks like this: the government wrests away land populated by Native Americans and grants it outright to large corporations, including railroads and oil companies; the companies market the land to settlers who begin to farm it and increase its value under lease agreements; the same large landowners then successfully lobby the government for massive, multi-billion-dollar water infrastructure projects, cynically invoking the Jeffersonian image of the small farmer (this includes the San Luis reservoir, which is the hub of the water flow in our Water Gold Soil project); the construction of these projects is granted under the agreement that the large landowners will sell off their land into smaller parcels to support small business and families; this sell-off is never done and the military-scale federal investment in infrastructure is thereby translated into direct real estate gains by the large owners. Studies have shown the deleterious effects of corporate farming on communities, as the owners of these lands get rich while the people working on them are mired in some of the country’s most dire poverty. In the ultimate irony, many communities within these farming districts (known perversely as water districts) completely lack access to any water at all, or else are subjected to poisonous levels of pollution.
Water Gold Soil: Report, Draft 2, Sayler/Morris, 2015, 2-channel video (still), 17 min. Irrigation in Westlands Water District. Voiceover text: “Water spread over land by wind and clouds transforms ground to nutrient. Water spread over land by pipes transforms ground to real estate.”
Here we approach the crux of the argument and an identification both of what is valuable and vexing about Heidegger. For Heidegger, if the reduction of the natural world to a standing reserve is the danger, then the “supreme danger” is the reduction of humans themselves to the status of this standing reserve, as with the laborers of the Central Valley most obviously, but, in fact, as with all of us living within a world defined by modern technology. This reduction of nature, labor and all people to a standing reserve is a function not of technology itself but what Heidegger calls the essence of modern technology: enframing (Gestell). What sort of thing is enframing? One is tempted to call it a worldview, an orientation, a theory, a way of representing the world, or even an ideology, but Heidegger scrupulously avoids these sorts of epistemological terms—a fact that accounts for much of the difficulty of his text. For him, enframing is not simply a way of seeing things. It is itself generative as a mode of revealing the world, a mode of existence. Enframing reveals by ordering, framing, putting things into boxes. Enframing alters what is actual, not just how we see the actual. Under the sway of enframing, objects, and ultimately human beings themselves, turn into a mere function of their instrumentality.
However, while enframing is not itself a way of seeing, it is, paradoxically, both the by-product of and the necessary condition of a way of seeing, which Heidegger calls out as “modern mathematical science.” Perhaps a helpful way of understanding the enframing concept is to see it as that force within “modern mathematical science’s” way of seeing that is productive of being—the binding force between epistemology and ontology. “Modern science’s way of representing pursues and entraps nature as a calculable coherence of forces,” Heidegger writes, and this “theory of nature prepares the way not just for modern technology but for the essence of modern technology [i.e., enframing].” Heidegger emphasizes that this occurs at a particular time in history—that is to say, something else came before. With an ecological dynamic, culture, in all its myriad modes of representation (scientific, artistic, conversational, etc.) is produced by, and in turn, propagates this ontological enframing force. Heidegger lays down the marker between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages: “What actuality is in Durer’s picture ‘The Columbine’ is determined differently from what is actual in a medieval fresco.” Indeed, there is something crucial about this transition. The creeping ooze of enframing spread over the entire world as we moved through the epochs labeled the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Modernity and indeed Post-Modernity (which, we understand as neo-liberalism by another name). The story of enframing’s creep is the story of colonialism, and it is also the story of our project in which documentation of a given “river” is both real and allegorical. Our assembly of images and words is representational of an actual water flow at a given point in time, but also of the broader historical trajectory of the Age of Extraction. California is an interesting case study in the epistemo-ontological creep of enframing because it is so compressed and so stark.
Enframing II, Sayler/Morris, 2016, Archival pigment print with gold leaf, 20 x 24 inches. Appropriated image from United States Geological Society with permission.
Yet, in the final analysis we make quite different hay than Heidegger out of this recognition of enframing’s historicity. Heidegger’s primary concern throughout his work is Being, by which he means the essence of human existence. We will not follow him into these considerations, which are dense with thorns, except to say this overarching concern of Heidegger’s leads him to consider the “supreme danger” of enframing as bearing most importantly on man’s ability to continue to live as he essentially is—in all his aloneness and glory. This preoccupation of Heidegger’s, seeped in a brew of human exceptionalism and a pursuit of pure origins along with some other rather dubious notions, creates what seems to us like two blindingly obvious aporia in his questioning concerning technology, namely a consideration of agency in the development of enframing’s challenging forth, and relatedly a consideration of class and regional distinctions among the humans of this world. Who pushed forward the challenging forth of nature and labor that fell out of enframing like destiny? And who can stop it? In several places, Heidegger’s questioning brushes tantalizing close to Marx—for example in his observation that the challenging forth of technology is invested in “driving on to the maximum yield and the minimum expense”; or in his description of humans becoming a standing reserve, which seems to harken to Marx’s analysis of alienation. However, Heidegger does not pursue a material, economic understanding of what is threatening about the enframing phenomenon. This leads to a very nebulous conception of its origins and import, as well as to a misunderstanding of the ways in which we can engage in overcoming it.
Heidegger never forged an explicit political philosophy but expressed that a revolution in thinking was needed to avoid the tragic subjection of humans themselves to the status of a standing reserve. We do not normally think of Heidegger as an activist, but in the Introduction to Metaphysics he states: “we dare to take up the great and lengthy task of tearing down a world that has grown old and of building it truly anew.” He had an exalted view of both philosophy and art in this process. In fact, it was to these activities alone that he ascribed any real power. The world had to be re-created through a heroic exertion of complicated thought, embodied best in poetry. Heidegger was silent about how this deep thought might be conveyed to the citizenry and how in turn it might lead to concrete changes in policy or political systems. Not surprisingly, this giant lacuna in Heidegger’s thought resulted in personal exhaustion and disillusionment, such that he ultimately declared in an interview with Das Spiegel: “philosophy will be unable to effect any immediate change in the current state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all purely human reflection and endeavor” because “the greatness of what is to be thought is [all] too great.” Heidegger broodingly concluded that only “God can save us.”
Taken as disillusionment on Heidegger’s part, this spirit all too commonly results from detaching the abstract work of world creating (via worldview changing) from the concrete work of political activism aimed specifically at agents of the danger. For there are indeed agents. Could not the mysterious ecological relation that Heidegger describes between the scientific mode of representation, enframing, the challenging forth of nature (and labor), and finally the transformation of the world into a standing reserve be more reductively described as the application of modern science towards making money? Does he not overlook the crucial ingredient of greed as the dominant driver of certain (though not all) humans and the force that adds the unreasonable challenging forth of nature (and labor) to enframing? The development of exploitative economic systems arose out of an ability to systematically demarcate and make predictions (about how to build a ship and navigate, about how to build a dam, about how much water is needed to get a certain size crop, about where gold might be, about how to make an equivalent exchange, etc.). Heidegger shows how the self-perpetuating logic of this system alters our worldview, cuts off pathways to the sacred and defeats humility. Yet, by failing to ascribe agency in the process, he concludes that “Human activity can never directly counter the danger.” This flies in the face of actual gains that social movements can and do make all the time, even as this more fundamental work of culture changing happens in the background. Shout out to: Cesar Chavez, to 350.org, to anti-fracking movements in New York, to dam-removal movements and their successes on the Yakima and other rivers, etc.
To state it simply, there are two fronts to changing the world: changing ideology (i.e., ways of seeing and representing); and changing material conditions. As such, the work of poets, artists and thinkers is symbiotic with the work of activists, not isolated a la Heidegger; it is on this level that we think of our work as art-activist. A poetic way of seeing the world—defined here as an investment in non-rational consciousness and empathic understanding—is absolutely required for an effective activism, not only because it opens up a new relation to the world, but also because it restores enchantment and inherently combats the challenging forth of enframing with the alternative form of revealing articulated by Heidegger as the bringing forth of poiesis. However, poetry/art do not happen in a vacuum and no real change can be achieved there without changes in material conditions, which is what Heidegger fundamentally missed. Once again, the phenomenon is an ecological cycle, a dialectic.
We believe in the role of the artist as historian, specifically in this sense of the art-activist who contributes to a transformation of worldview. To represent a river in California, our job is to show not only what it is now, but to represent its now-ness as a form of (avoidable) destiny—here again Heidegger is instructive, for he speaks of enframing and also poiesis not just as modes of revealing, but as modes of destining. History arrives, and it is always arriving. It is not unearthed intact. The image is the tool by which we convey this. As Benjamin said, “It is not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation.” This is the mode of the artist as historian.
With respect to California, we have found it illuminating to stare at a blank outline of the now-iconic shape that forms the boundaries of the state. That shape, which owes its Eastern contour to the desire to capture as much gold-harboring land as possible, has become one of the primary images of our project. It reflects all the capriciousness and violence, even absurdity, of political borders. These lines were drawn in 1849, the year after gold was discovered in the state. How was this same land understood before the lines were drawn? What was a river then? Is there a clue there to what it could be now?
11 October 1849, Sayler/Morris, 2016, Archival pigment print, 18 x 22 inches. Title refers to the date that the state legislature formally adopted the boundary lines of the State of California.
The creation of that shape we now know as the borders of California was an arrival, not an inception. The destining started with the Spanish lust for gold, which animated their colonial adventures. Some believe the very word California was invented by a Spanish fiction writer named Montalvo in the early 16th Century. Montalvo gave the name “California” to a fantastic land of desire and gold in his novel Las Sergas de Esplandián (published in 1510). In this book, the inhabitants of California were all-powerful women who ate men after laying with them in order to bear children. There was gold everywhere. The women wore gold harnesses and hunted with gold weapons. Montalvo called it California because it was a caliphate, a land of infidels. Yet, he also placed the territory “very near to a side of Earthly paradise.”
This was fantasy, but fantasy transforms fact. Ten years after Montalvo’s book was published, the colonist Hernan Cortes wrote a letter to the King of Spain from present-day Baja California, in which he purported to confirm the nearby existence of just such a place as Montalvo described (earthly paradise, lots of gold, only women who ate men, etc.). Cortes was likely angling for continued investment in his colonizing enterprise, but it is telling that he thought his report would be both enticing and sufficiently credible to his benefactor. Not long after Cortes’ letter, maps begin appearing with Montalvo’s word “California” labeling some of the lands Cortes colonized and after a while this became the accepted name of the region. Montalvo’s fantasy reified.
However, when the first Spanish mission entered into the territory of California more than two hundred years later in 1769, it was not the word “oro” (gold) that appeared obsessively in the diaries of its leaders, but the word “aqua.” Nearly every day that was their primary concern. They hunted down rivers. They had to hold water before they could hold gold. On 24 January 1848, everything came together when some other colonists found gold laying around in the American River. The mass hysteria that followed produced the near extermination of the Native people and rapid industrialization.
Of course, this gold had been sitting in the rivers all along but the Native Americans did not value it. Seeing value in gold is a purely imaginative exercise and dependent on a given worldview (enframing). John Sutter, the owner of the land on which gold was found on California, remarked without apparent irony that:
It is very singular that the Indians never found a piece of gold and brought it to me, as they very often did other specimens found in the ravines. I requested them continually to bring me some curiosities from the mountains, for which I always recompensed them. I have received animals, birds, plants, young trees, wild fruits, pipe clay, stones, red ochre, etc., etc., but never a piece of gold.
One is reminded of Marx’s paradigmatic, if racially tinged, account of the commodity fetish and the absurdity of a materialist theory of value: “The savages of Cuba regarded gold as a fetish of the Spaniards. They celebrated a feast in its honour, sang in a circle around it, and then threw it into the sea.”
There is a paradox at the core of history: how do we see the present as a destining, as the seemingly inevitable outcome of past events with all the gravity that implies, and at the same time see that very destining as contingent and therefore as mutable? This sort of maneuver requires a negative capability that is not the province of science, including history performed as science, but is the province of art and myth. When we ask, “What is a river?,” we would do well to attend the poet, as Heidegger recommends. Paraphrasing Holderlein, Heidegger gave this answer to the question before us:
“As a vanishing, the river is underway into what has been. As full of intimation, it proceeds into what is coming.”
Maidu Headmen with Treaty Commissioners, unknown photographer, c. 1851. Image courtesy of George Eastman House.
The Nisenan Maidu name for the American River was Kum Sayo, meaning Roundhouse River, referring to a structure that the Nisenan Maidu used for dances and other ceremonies. This building was the center of a Maidu community. A particularly large and important roundhouse was located at the mouth of the American River near its confluence with the Sacramento River, in the vicinity of this highway bridge. Other roundhouses could be found all along the American River. The domesticity implied in the Maidu name for the river contrasts with later names applied by European colonists: The River of Sorrows; Wild River (so named because of the ostensibly “wild” nature of the Maidu living there); the River Ojotska (a phonetic rendering of the Russian word for hunter); Rio de los Americanos (named for the American trappers that had begun to use the river).
 See Benjamin Madley, American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe 1846-1873 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017) and Brendan C. Lindsay, Murder State: California’s Native American Genocide 1846-1873 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015).
 Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, trans. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper SanFrancisco, 1977), 297.
 These ideas are developed more fully in other Heidegger writing on rivers, most notably in Hölderlin’s Hymn ‘The Ister’, trans. William McNeil and Julia Davis (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996) and “Build Dwelling Thinking” in Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings, trans. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1977), esp. 330-339.
 Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 296.
 Heidegger, Hölderlin’s Hymn ‘The Ister’, 40 [emphasis in original].
 Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” 296.
 See Hundley, The Great Thirst, 86, but there is also an extensive literature on this crucial question. To cite just two important examples: Donald J. Pisani, Water, Land, and Law in the West: The Limits of Public Policy, 1850-1920 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1996), and more recently, Mark Kanazawa, Golden Rules: The Origins of California Water Law in the Gold Rush (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).
 General accounts can be found in Hundley; see also Stephanie S. Pincetl, Transforming California: A Political History of Land Use and Development (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003); Walter Goldschmidt, As You Sow: Three Studies in the Social Consequences of Agribusiness (Monclair: Allanheld, Osmun & Co., 1978); Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman, The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire (New York: PublicAffairs, 2005). In our project we focused particularly on Westlands, an understanding of which we owe to in part to: Lloyd G. Carter, “Reaping Riches in a Wretched Region: Subsidized Industrial Farming and Its Link to Perpetual Poverty,” Golden Gate University Environmental Law Journal 3 (2009): 5-42, http://digitalcommons.law.ggu.edu/gguelj/vol3/iss1/3; and Ed Simmons, Westlands Water District: The First 25 Years, published by Westland Water District itself in 1983.
 See Goldschmidt, As You Sow (referenced above) and see also the work of Dean McCannell, which updated the legendary Goldschimdt study, and also the work of Paul Taylor (Dorothea Lange’s collaborator). An unpublished but excellent dissertation by Daniel J. O’Connell brings much of this work together: In the Struggle: Pedagogies of Politically Engaged Scholarship in the San Joaquin Valley of California, unpublished doctoral dissertation (Cornell University, 2011).
 It is hard to overcome thinking about causality in linear terms (which is itself a by-product of enframing). However, as ecological thinking is a thinking of relationships, it is also a thinking that dissolves linear causality in favor of cycles and dialectical relationships. Heidegger was perhaps more ecological than even he realized as his style of writing is cyclical.
 Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. Gregory Fried and Richard Polt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 133.
 Martin Heidegger, “Nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten,” Der Spiegel 30 (Mai 1976): 193-219, trans. W. Richardson as “Only a God Can Save Us,” in Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker (n.p.: Precedent, 1981), ed. Thomas Sheehan, 45-67.
 Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 462.
 Kevin Starr, California: A History (New York: Modern Library, 2007), 5; and Charles E. Chapman, A History of California: The Spanish Period (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1921), 59-65.
 “Sabed que a la diestra mano de las Indias existe una isla llamada California muy cerca de un costado del Paraíso Terrenal” from García Ordóñez de Montalvo, Las Sergas de Esplandián, Seville, 1510, as found http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/california-its-naming-heritage, 7 July 2016. See also the argument for the Persian origin of the term from Kari-i-farn (“the mountain of Paradise”), suggested earlier by Carey McWilliams, in Josef Chytry, Mountain of Paradise: Reflections of the Emergence of Greater California as a World Civilization (New York: Peter Lang, 2013), 13-15.
Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris use photography, video, writing, and installation to investigate and to contribute to the development of ecological consciousness. Their work has been exhibited in diverse venues internationally. They are also co-founders of The Canary Project, a collective that produces art and media about climate change and other ecological issues. They teach in the Transmedia Department and are part of The Canary Lab at Syracuse University.
This essay is part of the artists’ larger Water Gold Soil project, which brought them to California late 2014 to document drought conditions as part of the ongoing A History of the Future project. Water Gold Soil: American Riverrepresents a river in present-day California. Yet, the river represented by Sayler/Morris hovers between the real and the allegorical and their time perspective shifts between the past, present and future. The project consists of an ongoing assembly of original photographic and video works, archival images, writing, maps and other media.
Gather with us Thursday 5 October in Tijuana at Cine Tonalá for an evening of friendship, readings, and music, entering the complex realities brought to us by the California/Mexico border. Co-sponsored together with the California Historical Society, we’ll reflect on California border ecology, highlighting our shared identity as Californians, bridge-builders, open to the world.
Come grab a drink, meet Boom writers like Ana Rosas, Tanya Golash-Boza, Zulema Valdez, Ronald Rael, Jemima Pierre, Laura Enriquez, Josh Kun, David Kipen, Daniel Hernandez, Boom editor Jason Sexton, members of Boom’s editorial team, and others to share new readings for this Fall’s Boom series on Undocumented California, making a statement together of our collective values as Californians. We’ll close the night with a special set by Tijuana-raised Ceci Bastida who will debut a new collaboration with Haitian refugees living in the city.
Undocumented California: An Evening of Readings and Music Thursday, October 5th 7:00 – 9:00 p.m. Cine Tonalá, Avenida Revolución 1317, Zona Centro, 22000 Tijuana, BC, Mexico
Sometime over the past decade or so, a new acronym began permeating public discourse, lumping together fields from marine biology to nuclear engineering to kinesiology to topology: “STEM,” shorthand for Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics. Appearing especially in federal reports and policy discussions of global economic competition, commentators argued that so-called STEM education and STEM fields held the key to future U.S. prosperity. These arguments sprang up everywhere from the business press to reports by the National Academies. California’s Department of Education frames STEM in similar terms, declaring that “Through STEM education, students learn to become problem solvers, innovators, creators, and collaborators and go on to fill the critical pipeline of engineers, scientists, and innovators so essential to the future of California and the nation.”
But as Rodger Bybee asks in his book, The Case for STEM Education, published by the National Science Teachers Association: “If STEM Education Seems to be the Answer, What Was the Question?”
For many industry stakeholders, the primary importance of STEM education is to ensure an adequate number of qualified workers in their particular economic sectors, to foster growth and global competitiveness. Absent such supply of human capital, the logic goes, these stakeholders see a U.S. “STEM crisis” of a particular kind, even while the existence and character of this purported STEM crisis is debated.
Yet these narratives of STEM education are inadequate to address growing crises of social equity, ecological sustainability, and democracy associated with current paradigms of U.S. economic growth. As an article in PLOS Biology recently put it, “Justifying STEM education through the economic imperative demands a consideration of what the limitations of this imperative might be. The purported relationship between STEM education and economic growth rests upon the questionable assumption that economic development has no ecological costs or that those costs can be eliminated through continued GDP growth….” Moreover, current paradigms of economic growth exacerbate social inequalities and environmental injustices, undermining possibilities for a truly flourishing society that supports everyone’s well-being. Merely increasing the number of students and workers prepared to fill “gaps in the STEM pipeline” will not address these more fundamental, structural issues.
Photograph provided by chuttersnap-233105 via unsplash.
These issues tend to be obscured by the supposed coherency of the STEM acronym, however. Contradictions often manifest across STEM fields—such as petroleum engineering, climate science, and public health—belying monolithic framings of STEM. Different STEM fields often involve disparate definitions and approaches to innovation as well, with new social justice challenges looming as automation and artificial intelligence gain ground, even as A.I. is viewed by some STEM advocates as a holy grail. Yet as President Obama reflected on the future, at the end of his term in office:
What I do concern myself with, and the Democratic Party is going to have to concern itself with, is the fact that the confluence of globalization and technology is making the gap between rich and poor, the mismatch in power between capital and labor, greater all the time. And that’s true globally. The prescription that some offer, which is stop trade, reduce global integration, I don’t think is going to work…. If that’s not going to work, then we’re going to have to redesign the social compact in some fairly fundamental ways over the next twenty years…. [A]t some point, when the problem is not just Uber but driverless Uber, when radiologists are losing their jobs to A.I., then we’re going to have to figure out how do we maintain a cohesive society and a cohesive democracy in which productivity and wealth generation are not automatically linked to how many hours you put in, where the links between production and distribution are broken, in some sense. Because I can sit in my office, do a bunch of stuff, send it out over the Internet, and suddenly I just made a couple of million bucks, and the person who’s looking after my kid while I’m doing that has no leverage to get paid more than ten bucks an hour.
In California, campaigns such as Silicon Valley Rising, affiliated with Working Partnerships USA, are already grappling with these social contradictions of innovation, as analyzed in their reports on contract workers, by “taking on occupational segregation and severe income inequality with a comprehensive campaign to raise wages, create affordable housing and build a tech economy that works for everyone.” STEM education oriented toward health equity could dialogue with such reports and organizing work, as well as with books like De-Bug: Voices from the Underside of Silicon Valley, authored by members of the San Jose-based social justice organization, Silicon Valley De-Bug.
STEM education could also engage with public health research shaped by problem-frames and evidence from both credentialed scientists as well as community-based “street science.” Silicon Valley De-Bug, for example, frames community organizing as a kind of science – a science for building community power, whether to mitigate power inequities in the criminal justice system or to fight displacement and gentrification. Through such STEM education, students would not only have opportunities to assess a wider array of evidence and evidentiary standards in the course of their inquiries; they could also pursue a broader range of questions about STEM fields and social values, the politics of research agenda-setting and policy-making, and the social relations and economic development paradigms toward which STEM fields are – and are not – directed. Many engaged with the April 2017 Marches for Science articulated inspiring visions along these lines.
Health Equity as Touchstone for Innovation and STEM Education
While Silicon Valley symbolizes the end of the metaphorical STEM pipeline for many, in California and beyond an array of organizations and a burgeoning body of research offer a touchstone for STEM education that is innovative on different terms: on behalf of health equity. Health equity emphasizes social justice and “attainment of the highest level of health for all people” as the foundation of a flourishing society, in which all people are valued equally. As the American Public Health Association elaborates, achieving health equity entails that, “We optimize the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work, learn and age. We work with other sectors to address the factors that influence health, including employment, housing, education, health care, public safety and food access. We name racism as a force in determining how these social determinants are distributed.” Health equity initiatives strive to end the unnecessary, unjust suffering of so many people—particularly people of color and of low-income—experiencing premature death and illness in a country and state with vast economic and scientific resources. Health equity initiatives do not subscribe to a false binary between values—such as equity and social justice—and science. Rather, they draw on an extensive body of STEM research—variously referred to as social epidemiology or social determinants of health research—that examines population health and health inequities, with wide-ranging ethical implications. While this research is well-known within the public health field, it is too often unfamiliar to those in other fields of STEM research and education, from biotechnology to computer science. At the same time, the insights and causal relations surfaced by this body of research are often highly familiar to environmental justice activists, who have long been attuned to the ways in which the places and circumstances in which people “live, work, learn, and play” underpin public health and health equity.
In brief, social determinants of health are the resources and opportunities available to people in their daily lives, which in turn affect their health and well-being. Good jobs that pay a living wage, affordable housing, clean air and water, freedom from racism and discrimination – these variables are most important to promoting health and health equity for all, as demonstrated by a plethora of social epidemiology and social determinants of health research. The Director-General of the World Health Organization’s Commission on Social Determinants of Health, Dr. Margaret Chan, noted at the release of the commission’s 2008 final report (“Closing the gap in a generation: Health equity through action on the social determinants of health”): “This ends the debate decisively. Health care is an important determinant of health. Lifestyles are important determinants of health. But… it is factors in the social environment that determine access to health services and influence lifestyle choices in the first place.” Recognizing these upstream, root causes of health inequities, the report called for “improv[ing] daily living conditions” and “tackl[ing] the inequitable distribution of power, money, and resources” as integral, necessary, and urgent to achieving greater health equity, in the U.S. and beyond. An array of multidisciplinary research syntheses complement and reinforce these conclusions.
Environmental justice and health equity organizations have deep expertise and familiarity with these issues, whether explicitly or implicitly engaged with social determinants of health research. California-based organizations and coalitions collectively offer a crucial touchstone to orient STEM fields toward the type of innovative economy that all Californians, and people everywhere, deserve.
Air Watch Bay Area screenshot, with refinery fenceline and community air monitors, Richmond.
These reference points are all the more valuable given the challenges of responding to climate change and the relevance of environmental justice organizations and social determinants of health research in doing so. Extreme heat, drought, declining air quality, more frequent wildfires, and other environmental and economic upheavals tied to climate change are all impacting and poised to further impact public health and health equity for Californians. As environmental justice advocates and social determinants of health research demonstrate, it is vital to not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions to prevent additional climate change, but also to contest and mitigate communities’ unequal access to resources and vulnerabilities in the face of climate change—to close the “climate gap” and work toward just transitions away from fossil fuel dependency and toward green job creation. Accordingly, California’s Climate Change and Health Equity Program observes:
Climate change and health inequities share similar root causes: the inequitable distribution of social, political, and economic power. These power imbalances result in systems (economic, transportation, land use, etc.) and conditions that drive both health inequities and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. As a result, we see communities with inequitable living conditions, such as low-income communities of color living in more polluted areas, facing climate change impacts that compound and exacerbate existing vulnerabilities. Fair and healthy climate action requires addressing the inequities that create and intensify community vulnerabilities, through strategically directing extra investments in improving living conditions for and with people facing disadvantage.”
However, even as many concerned with STEM fields decry U.S. students’ rankings on standardized math and science tests compared with students in Finland or Japan, and sound alarm bells about global economic competition, these STEM discussions tend not to simultaneously highlight the U.S.’s global outlier status as a wealthy country with high levels of poverty, preventable morbidity, infant mortality, and health inequities. This is an underappreciated STEM crisis—a failure of economic and political decision-makers to learn from and act on social determinants of health research. As elaborated in a 2013 report from the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, while the U.S. is among the wealthiest countries in the world, it is far from the healthiest. Indeed, the report—the first comprehensive comparison of the U.S. and 16 peer countries in terms of multiple diseases, injuries, and behaviors across the life span—found that the U.S. is “at or near the bottom in nine key areas of health: infant mortality and low birth weight; injuries and homicides; teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections; prevalence of HIV and AIDS; drug-related deaths; obesity and diabetes; heart disease; chronic lung disease; and disability.” The report ultimately argued that, “Without action to reverse current trends, the health of Americans will probably continue to fall behind that of people in other high-income countries. The tragedy is not that the United States is losing a contest with other countries but that Americans are dying and suffering from illness and injury at rates that are demonstrably unnecessary.” More specifically, other researchers have noted that, “[U.S.] public investments in broad, cross-sectoral efforts to minimize the potential effect of such foundational drivers of poor health as poverty and racial residential segregation are pitifully few in comparison with those of other countries.” Health equity is an innovative touchstone for STEM education in part because, despite pertaining population patterns of well-being, life, and death, social determinants of health research is not widely familiar in the U.S. or in California, nor have these been at the forefront of advocacy for STEM education and science literacy.
If STEM Education Seems to be the Answer, What Was the Question?
Attention to health equity and social determinants of health research suggests the need to reframe conventional STEM education narratives, with an eye to the kinds of economic growth that serve equitable prosperity, ecological sustainability, and democracy. Such a reframing, centered on social determinants of health and the crucial intersections of race, class, and place, is also needed to achieve existing STEM education goals, from closing achievement gaps to supporting underrepresented students in STEM fields. As one STEM education analyst commented on the “Sisyphean Task” of STEM equity and diversity, “While educators continue to do their part to improve the K-16 STEM learning and teaching environment, our efforts may be out-weighed by inaction or counter-productive conditions in other domains.” Yet another possibility is that these efforts may be aided by action in other domains, especially action by researchers, public health professionals, and activists working to promote health equity and environmental justice through multi-sectoral, system-oriented problem-solving.
In this era of proliferating assertions about STEM fields as sources of prosperity and problem solving, it is crucial to question what is meant by “STEM.” How does the public health field fit into the STEM landscape, particularly amid California’s combination of enormous wealth juxtaposed with deep health inequities? How might research on social determinants of health and health inequities reshape this landscape? How could all California STEM stakeholders contribute to the vision embodied in the California Office of Health Equity’s recent report to the California State Legislature? Conversely, how might some STEM discussions obscure rather than illuminate key puzzles of social prosperity and innovation—even or perhaps especially while flying the banners of curiosity, inquiry, innovation, disruption, and challenging the status quo? What is missed when challenges are framed as grand, global and national—rather than regional, or attuned to particular zip codes and neighborhoods? How do the questions asked, and not asked, shape the possible answers—the ways people puzzle through and piece together worlds? California’s vibrant environmental justice and health equity communities offer cogent and inspiring starting points for future STEM inquiries.
March to stop the incinerator, December 2013, United Workers via Flickr.
Thank you to the editors and anonymous peer reviewers at Boom for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this article.
 Raj Jayadev and Jean Melesaine, De-Bug: Voices from the Underside of Silicon Valley, (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2016).
 Jason Corburn, Street Science: Community Knowledge and Environmental Health Justice, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2005); Jason Corburn, Toward the Healthy City: People, Places, and the Politics of Urban Planning (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009).
 Brian Martin, “Strategies for Alternative Science,” in Scott Frickel and Kelly Moore, eds., The New Political Sociology of Science: Institutions, Networks, and Power (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006): 272-98, http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/06Frickel.html.
 Indigenous scientists, agency professionals, tribal professionals, educators, traditional practitioners, family, youth, elders and allies from Indigenous communities and homelands all over the living Earth, “Let Our Indigenous Voices Be Heard,” Indigenous Science March for Science Letter of Support, https://sites.google.com/view/indigenous-science-letter;
Cheryl Holzmeyer lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a postdoctoral fellow with the Fair Tech Collective at Drexel University. She conducts research and outreach for Air Watch Bay Area, a project focused on frontline community monitoring of air pollution from regional oil refineries. She completed her sociology Ph.D. at UC Berkeley and has taught courses on “Science, Technology, and Environmental Justice” at Stanford.