Tag: Social Movements

Articles

Relocating Romare Bearden’s Berkeley: Capturing Berkeley’s Colorful Diversity

Lauren Kroiz

boom-2016-6-3-50-f01

Berkeley—The City and its People by Romare Bearden. © Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

In 1972, the black artist and writer Romare Bearden traveled from his home in New York to spend ten days in the capital of counterculture—Berkeley, California. He visited on an official commission from the city of Berkeley to create a new artwork for its City Council Chambers. The result was the monumental work Berkeley—The City and its People, which hung for decades until the extensive seismic trouble that plagues City Hall forced its removal to a storage facility. Painted in bright colors, featuring a rainbow and a series of Berkeley’s best-known sites, the complete mural is often read as a celebration of urban harmony. A detail of Bearden’s composition remains visible in Berkeley through the city’s logo, promoting Berkeley’s civic commitment to multiculturalism and diversity on municipal property from trashcans to buildings.1

Composed of photographs montaged together and with colored papers across seven panels, it is Bearden’s largest known work on paper.It is also the first civic commission undertaken by the artist and one of the rare works Bearden created of a place with which he had no biographical connection. Nevertheless, Berkeley—The City and Its People envisions the city’s tumultuous diversity in an irreducibly complex collage that was a product of its time, rather than the symbolic logo of harmony that is more familiar to city residents today.3

Berkeley has changed dramatically since Bearden’s visit. The percentage of Berkeley’s population identifying as black has dropped from almost 25 percent in 1970 to less than 10 percent in 2010. Perhaps this demographic shift, coupled with the full mural’s removal from public view, has made it difficult to remember that Bearden’s Berkeley originated in a moment of racially charged civic conflict.

The 1971 local elections in Berkeley that lead to Bearden’s commission followed more than two years of local battles, riots, and widespread conflict on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley (UCB) and across the city over Free Speech, the Vietnam War, Women’s Rights, and Third World Liberation, the latter championed especially by the Black Panther Party, headquartered in nearby Oakland. Earlier that year a group known as the April Coalition united a mostly white constituency of antiwar radicals with the Berkeley Black Caucus through a single central issue: community control of the police. This demand linked minority communities whose members felt targeted by and underrepresented in the police force with students and other citizens involved in the counterculture and draft-resistance movements who had experienced bloody confrontations with the police and National Guard, particularly during protests over People’s Park that began in 1969.

Two new black city council members D’Army Bailey and Ira Simmons—both civil rights lawyers from the South—took a radical stance for black self-determination. After taking his place on the City Council, Simmons joined the City’s Civic Arts Commission, whose members called for redecorating the City Council Chambers. They wanted to replace a wide-angle photograph of the city from the Berkeley Hills and reproductions of portraits of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln with “décor more relevant to all the citizens of present day Berkeley,” including a portrait of Frederick Douglass.4

At just the moment in the fall of 1971 when Berkeley’s art commission was searching for an artist to capture the city’s diversity, UCB’s art museum was hosting an exhibition of Bearden’s work. Organized by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual focused on Bearden’s early paintings (1940–1942) and his later collages (1964–1971), deliberately leaving aside the abstract paintings he made in the intervening years. The exhibition’s curator, Caroll Greene, praised the ways Bearden represented rituals of life in black America to convey a shared human emotion, especially his use of collage “to express his particular cultural heritage in a universal art.”The centerpiece of the exhibition was the mural-like painting The Block, a four-by-eighteen-foot collage of photographic enlargements with bright over-painting. The work was accompanied by a tape recording of actual Harlem street noises. The dense composition based on the street outside Bearden’s studio window in New York includes varied encounters of pedestrians on the sidewalk, created from collaged pieces of black-and-white photographs that run the horizontal length of the composition (children play, a person sleeps near a stoop, a funeral procession) and colored-paper storefronts (liquor store, funeral parlor, church, barbershop, grocery) stacked with apartments and interior domestic scenes that nearly fill the vertical expanse. A small crack of bright blue tops the composition, interrupted only by an otherworldly scene of spiritual Ascension on the left, rendered on a red ground. In The Block and in his collages more generally, Bearden collapsed the public and private spaces of African American life along with spiritual practices and encounters, suggesting the multiplicity of black experiences. Art historian Kobena Mercer argues Bearden’s shift to the medium of collage allowed the artist to “disclose an understanding of African American identity as something that has itself been ‘collaged’ by the vicissitudes of modern history.” Mercer’s thoughts echo author Ralph Ellison, who suggested in 1968 that Bearden’s method used “sharp breaks, leaps in consciousness, distortions, paradoxes, reversals” that could also characterize African American history.6

It was Berkeley Art Museum director Peter Selz who recommended Bearden to the city’s Civic Arts Commission. In the early 1970s, Selz had briefly formed a “Committee for Afro-American Art” composed of black artists living in Berkeley to advise the museum on acquisitions and exhibitions. The group consisted of three artists in their thirties: Raymond Saunders, then professor of art at California State University, Hayward; Russell T. Gordon, who taught in the UCB art department; and UCB master’s student David Bradford. Selz also arranged a matching grant with the National Endowment for the Arts, which provided half of Bearden’s $16,000 City Hall commission fee. Along with Selz’s committee, Bailey and Simmons backed the idea of commissioning a black artist to represent Berkeley. Promising a gallery in City Hall to show diverse local artists, the City Council voted unanimously to hire Bearden to represent Berkeley and its citizens.

However, even before Bearden’s mural was installed the progressive coalition had fallen apart, largely along racial lines. Bailey and Simmons clashed repeatedly with others on the council, particularly over the rights of women and students, and Bailey became the subject of an unprecedented and ultimately successful recall election. It was during this “stormy” time that Bearden visited Berkeley, at the invitation of Bailey and Simmons.

boom-2016-6-3-50-f02

The Block by Romare Bearden. © Romare Bearden Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Correspondence and local coverage of Bearden’s mural during the months between his visit in spring 1972 and the final work’s installation suggest divergent understandings of the artist’s intentions. In a letter to Bearden, councilmember Ira Simmons identified himself as both council delegate to the Civic Art Commission and a member of the Black Arts Committee. He praised the plan Bearden had sent, explaining “we as representatives of the Black community are thoroughly satisfied with your proposed sketch for the mural to be completed in the chambers of the Berkeley City Hall. We feel that you have adequately expressed Black people’s status and involvement in the Berkeley community.” However, Simmons warned, “Unfortunately, there is an element within the [Berkeley] community that would see fit to abridge this essential artist’s right, i.e. the right of freedom of expression. Many of these persons are motivated by racist and selfish interests.” He enclosed an article from the Berkeley Citizens United (BCU) Bulletin, a conservative monthly newsletter, to support his point.

Berkeley Citizens United expressed concerns about Bearden’s mural that suggest just how radical Berkeley’s choice of the black artist seemed in 1972. The periodical covered Bearden twice in that year, once in June soon after the artist’s visit and again in September. Both articles noted that the communist newspaper People’s Weekly World had celebrated the commission, praising the social concern demonstrated in Bearden’s art. The first conservative account noted Bearden’s visits to minority communities during his tour, omitting his wide-ranging travels across the University and in the affluent white neighborhoods of the Berkeley Hills, before announcing, “We shudder! Imagine the filth, the degradation of Telegraph Ave., immortalized in a mural that every person attending the City Council meetings would have to look at!”The second article, the one Simmons likely sent to Bearden, speculated “We can’t condemn the mural until it is finished, but from the descriptions of Bearden’s ‘specially relevant’ works, we fear that we may get a collage of Black Panthers waving clenched fists, filthy tent hovels at People’s Park, street revolutionaries tearing down the fence [at People’s Park], drug addicts lying stoned on Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley Communists waving the Viet Cong flag, Berkeley barbarians rampaging through the streets, looting, smashing, burning.”The newsletter argued artwork should instead express a pleasant and timeless image of the city. Berkeley Citizens United praised the large photograph of Berkeley in the city council meeting room, calling implicitly for a view that distanced those attending council meetings from the disparate lived realities of the urban sphere.

When Bearden’s mural was finally unveiled, BCU never published a reaction to it, suggesting they found the final mural less distasteful than they had expected. Turning to examine Berkeley–The City and Its People, we can see that, rather than foreground the contemporary sites and symbols of dissent registered in Black Power, counterculture, and Third World liberation as BCU worried, Bearden represented Berkeley to its citizens by layering representations of people and landmarks, past and present, in photography, paint and colored papers. Bearden’s sprawling composition was intended to be viewed from a distance. Hanging on the chamber wall above and behind the city councilmembers, it presented a chaotic vision of the city’s diversity with the disjunctive medium of collage. With crisply cut, flatly layered photographs and colored fields (rather than items torn or folded, for example), the black-and-white ground of the photograph creates equivalences between persons and groups. For example, Ohlone Native Americans and early white settlers on bottom right suggest an early moment of intercultural contact, while just above them across center from right to left we find university graduates and football players whose identity is obscured by their turned backs. These groups are followed by a study circle of five collaged students, including the features of a white woman and man, a black man, and another two men of indeterminate ethnicity, and a white man. Next to this group, the heads of a racially diverse group of mostly female activists with open shouting mouths are interspersed with arms and hands raised in the various versions of a peace sign. Finally, masked and costumed participants in a Lunar New Year parade, give way to local religious leaders (including Buddhist and Catholic) and everyday citizens. As these examples demonstrate, Bearden’s composition alternates between constructing scenes that highlight the cooperation of individuals of various ethnic groups and denying easy or fixed identification in racial terms. Bursts of local color, such as red in the rose on far left, across faces in the center, and in flat shapes of graduation caps and stoles on the right, lead the eye back through the mural linking disparate places and individuals.

Like the indexical aerial photograph of Berkeley it replaced, Bearden’s mural depicts the city from the hills out toward the bay evading the visual mastery of a bird’s eye view and taking a more abstract relationship to geography and history. For example, the bay in the upper third includes a freighter, a sixteenth-century galleon flying a Spanish flag with a pasted white paper wake, a nineteenth-century brig topped by an American flag, and a cluster of recreational sailboats on the far right. These historical moments are punctuated by boldly colored designs: abstracted doves, a rainbow with a setting sun, and esoteric symbols including the half eye and circular design in center. Would viewers have understood or recognized all of Bearden’s references? The lower two-thirds of the composition have a density that transforms the university town of Berkeley into a densely packed locale like Bearden’s native Harlem, pictured in The Block. Identifying places and faces in the tumult might make those attending council meetings feel like experts on their community, while not recognizing others or seeing architecture and individuals newly constellated could encourage citizens to consider their involvement in the wider reaches of Berkeley. In the ruptures and odd collisions, they might see difference and varied viewpoints as constitutive of their community rather than threatening its harmony.

Berkeley residents remarked on the play between the “symbolic” and the “particular” facilitated by Bearden’s use of photography and collage. As one period newspaper reported “Photographs of real people are used to typify students, workers, teachers, and citizens. But the blown-up photographs of these real people have features from other faces collaged to them, so that individual noses and eyes find themselves on other faces.”10 Presenting a layered composition with specific geographic anchors, Bearden’s collage nonetheless performed the destabilizing work of collage on both individual and group identity.

Bearden’s mural for the city could be read—or misread—in varied ways. One newspaper noted the figure at the bottom center of the composition, a black woman holding a young boy, “probably alludes to the black poor in Berkeley, but her image is one of strength and determination, not sullenness or hopelessness.”11 Nothing about the woman’s image indicates class. She is collaged behind a photograph of the Niehaus Villa, an opulent Victorian landmark in southwestern Berkeley built in 1889 by a wealthy Prussian immigrant mill owner and located in the 1970s in a portion of the city predominately housing African American residents. The roofline of the home obstructs part of the woman’s cheek, but frames the direct stare of her eyes, a geographic and formal link suggestive of a layered, nuanced, and potentially ruptured relationships of past and present, race and place, class and power. Rather than the raised black fist, Vietcong flag, or any of the other symbols conservatives including Berkeley Citizens United had feared, Bearden’s mural remained open to varied understandings of the community’s “strength.”

This complex layering of potential meanings extends to the portion of the mural that became Berkeley’s logo, a section that Bearden described as the “four races of mankind and blueprint for a better world.”12 The city’s logo was created in the 1980s in order to “reflect the sexual and racial diversity” of the city in an easily reproducible image.13 Simplifying the design by eliminating the blueprint, the logo creates a static image that recalls early “science” that divided humanity into four essential races, usually hierarchized from white to black.14 However, the logo also has formal links with Soviet propaganda for international workers and 1960s decolonialization movements, for example the poster of Viktor Koretsky, which Bearden may or may not have seen directly. 15 These images circulated in Eastern Europe, Cuba, and Africa, as well as in the United States among the communist, socialist, and Third World movements that were present in New York (where Bearden likely encountered them) and in the Bay Area during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The layered profiles in Bearden’s mural offer multiple readings of race relations, but his inclusion of the blueprint suggest an ongoing process. This vision of the hard work of achieving equitable diversity has been effaced in the city’s static logo.

boom-2016-6-3-50-f03

This illustration is based on the ideas of French doctor François Bernier (1625–1688), suggesting that human beings can be separated into four major groups.

A 1972 letter from the Arts Commission to Bearden celebrated his sketch for its “apparent contradiction.” The work, they remarked, achieved “a very happy feeling…in spite of the strife which it indicates and which is so much a part of Berkeley.” This optimistic tone in the face of conflict could have a “unifying influence” by helping all who attend city meetings “feel that it is worthwhile being a Berkeley citizen in spite of or because of this strife.”16 This letter makes clear that, despite the rainbow-colored harmony of Bearden’s mural visible at first glance, Berkeley was historically marked by dissention and civic chaos. By the time the work was installed in Berkeley’s City Hall, Bailey, who had been instrumental in bringing Bearden to Berkeley, had been recalled from office. Although the National Bar Association among others opposed the special recall election in August 1973, the vote forced Bailey (and two years later Simmons) out of Berkeley politics.17 In retrospect, the aesthetics of Bearden’s collage were uniquely suited to represent the breaks, ruptures, and hopeful strife of the profoundly contested landscape of the city.

Bearden ignored the one suggestion offered by the Arts Commission. They urged the artist to reduce the number of local sites in the mural to achieve the “simple forcefulness” that characterized his images of Harlem. They suggested that he might have misunderstood his commission to require that “so many of Berkeley’s features need to be incorporated.” Bearden persisted with including sites and many types of people from across the city, rather than reducing his image to focus on the city’s black neighborhood, on a single street as in The Block, or one unified scene. Rather than see the chaotic composition as a series of clichés about a California city inventoried by a New York artist to satisfy locals, Bearden’s disregard of the suggestion to simplify underscores the intriguing, productive ways Berkeley differs from his prior work. Bearden’s characteristic depictions of African American experience that stirred universal emotion gives way in Berkeley to an even messier picture of an entire diverse city, rendered with the ruptures and breaks of collage. The complicated history of Bearden’s commission and the complexity of the monumental image itself points to the ways the collage refuses to be a symbol of unity. Berkeley–The City and Its People creates a moving portrayal of urban diversity precisely by accommodating breaks, ruptures, difference, and disagreement, layering references to the ongoing (and sometimes dissonant) efforts of many individuals and groups across the city’s space and history to live with each other.

In 2016, with longtime residents having been pushed out by rising rents and housing prices, is the multilayered Berkeley (and Bay Area) that Bearden represented gone? Locked away today in climate-controlled art storage, Bearden’s 1973 mural may indeed be a time capsule of a long-gone historic moment. If so, the artwork serves as a tool, something of a blueprint, for a better future in California. As we struggle with complex issues of gentrification and urban displacement across the Bay Area, Bearden’s vision belongs in City Hall as a backdrop for government action. Bearden created Berkeley not in a perfect period of unity and equality between blacks and whites in the city, but in a fractious and fleeting moment. In addition to the dramatic decline in the percentage of black Berkeleyans between 1970 and 2010, statistics show the percentage of city’s population identifying as white also dropped since 1970, with the increasing presence of census categories of Asian, Hispanic, Latino, and those belonging to two or more races—a trend mirrored across California.18 Bearden’s mural may not represent this shift or our present moment, but it refracts them to suggest how we might live together now.

Bearden’s Berkeley envisions how the California city is built from and on shifting histories of encounter and settlement by many groups with different backgrounds, interests, and beliefs. The nonnarrative mural implies history is not always a story of progress, but its contours may help us to see possibilities for the present and suggest a path to more equity and inclusion in the future. The ability of our eyes to make meaning from the collage’s cuts and juxtapositions point to ways we might also make meaning from the irreducible differences among us, as individuals and as groups. Looking closely at Berkeley–The City and Its People, through the rainbow and doves, Bearden forces us to recognize that the promise of equity and diversity comes with friction and difficulty as it forces us to make sense of the world anew. Ultimately, Bearden’s mural resonates in the present by suggest that it is only through this ongoing work of assembling the incongruent that we will devise a blueprint to a better urban future together.

boom-2016-6-3-50-f04

City of Berkeley logo.

Notes

1
When Berkeley briefly introduced a new logo in the early 1990s, the city employee newsletter reported that the Bearden-inspired one remained in circulation because it was “distinctly Berkeley with all its diversity.” Michael Caplan and Norma Hennessey, Berkeley Matters, 9 July 1993, Berkeley History Room clipping files, Berkeley Public Library.

2
Correspondence and primary source materials indicate this visit occurred in 1972, a year earlier than the date given in Rocío Aranda-Alvarado and Sarah Kennel with Carmenita Higginbotham, “Romare Bearden: A Chronology,” in Ruth Fine, The Art of Romare Bearden (Washington: National Gallery of Art in association with Harry H. Abrams, New York, 2003), 231.

3
“D’Army Bailey: ‘If You’re in a Minority, You Have to Be Rough,’” The Daily Californian, 23 July 1973.

4
Charles Shere, “Berkeley Unveils Portrait of a City and Its People,” Oakland Tribune, 13 Jan 1974, 26EN. Others coverage of the mural includes Thomas Albright, “Berkeley’s Life Style: Impressive New Mural,” San Francisco Chronicle, 3 January 1974, 40; and Mary Ellen Perry, “On the Art Scene,” San Francisco Post, 4 May 1972, 4. For suggestion of Douglas, see Berkeley City Council Meeting Minutes, 13 January 1972, 3. All minutes available at http://www.cityofberkeley.info/recordsonline.

5
“Advance Fact Sheet: Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual,” The Museum of Modern Art, Press Release, 10 February 1971. Available at: http://www.moma.org/learn/resources/press_archives/1970s/1971.

6
Kobena Mercer, “Romare Bearden, 1964: Collage as Kunstwollen,” Cosmopolitan Modernisms, Kobena Mercer, ed. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005), 125.

7
Ira T. Simmons [on behalf of the Black Arts Committee] to Romare Bearden, 3 October 1972, Romare Bearden papers, 1937–1982, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

8
“An Unorthodox Mural for Berkeley Council Chambers,” Berkeley Citizen United Bulletin 8, no. 6, June 1972, 6.

9
“Berkeley Mural,” Berkeley Citizen United Bulletin 8, no. 8, September 1972, 1–2.

10
Shere, “Berkeley Unveils…,” 26EN.

11
Shere, “Berkeley Unveils…,” 26EN.

12
Bearden’s description of the mural is available at http://berkeleyplaques.org/e-plaque/city-logo/.

13
Berkeley City Council Meeting Minutes, 14 October 1980, 7.

14
This illustration is based on the ideas of French doctor François Bernier (1625–1688), who argued that human beings could be separated into four major groups, becoming one of the first to argue for making racial distinctions on physical characteristics. Augustine Fouillée, Le Tour De La France Par Deux Enfants (Paris, 1900 [first edition 1877]), 188.

15
Thanks to Anneka Lennsen for this suggestion.

16
William Clifford, President, Civic Art Commission, and Ira Simmons to Bearden, 17 October 1972, Romare Bearden papers, 1937–1982, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

17
Bailey left the city for his hometown of Memphis where he eventually founded the National Civil Rights Museum.

18
Census data available at http://www.bayareacensus.ca.gov/.

Lauren Kroiz is assistant professor of twentieth century American art at University of California, Berkeley. She is particularly interested in race and ethnic studies, and the relationships between regionalism, nationalism, and globalism.

Articles

The 43: Remembering Ayotzinapa

Maricela Becerra
Lucy Seena K. Lin
Gus Wendel

boom-2016-6-3-32-f01

Consuelo Flores’s altar created for Self Help Graphics’ exhibition ‘‘The 43: From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson.’’

Tragedy does strange things to our conception of proximity. Sometimes we can connect more easily to another’s suffering in a different country than we can to a tragedy a few miles away. In the expanse of Southern California, where the experience of urban space is fragmented into disconnected islands of community, what does a mass shooting in San Bernardino, at the urban periphery, mean to someone living in the city of Los Angeles proper? How do Angelenos process an act of violence toward a queer, primarily Puerto Rican, community at an Orlando nightclub? Post-feminist cultural theorist Judith Butler, when writing about the conditions for a “grievable life” makes an “appeal to a ‘we,’ for all of us have some notion of what it is to have lost somebody.”What can we hope to recover by offering our grief across territories in search of a collective memory in this current era of cultural plurality and technological interconnectedness? Los Angeles, as one of the world’s centers of artistic and cultural production, is a laboratory for interrogating the role of art, informality, and grieving in the global twenty-first century. The case of the forty-three disappearedstudents from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Mexico—a tragedy that reverberated throughout the world—has illuminated Los Angeles’ particular role in the production of collective memory.

On 26 September 2014, forty-three students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College disappeared from Iguala, a city in the state of Guerrero, Mexico. Guerrero is a largely rural state with a majority indigenous population, many of whom leave their home region as economic migrants in search of jobs in other Mexican cities and in the United States. With the bodies of two students recovered to date, forty-one students remain missing. Gema Santamaría, Professor of International Studies at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, claims that the Mexican government’s lack of transparency and efficacy in the investigation process reflected its lack of accountability in the aftermath. Indeed, public perception increasingly viewed local law enforcement and the federal government as complicit in the disappearances. “Ayotzinapa ‘fue el Estado’ inasmuch as it was and continues to be the result of impunity and systematic practices of abuse within different levels of government.”3

In Los Angeles, mourning for the students has taken the form of what we call “anti-memorialization,” whereby traditional forms of memorialization are upended through informality, ephemerality, art, and the digital realm, in order to politicize and bring attention to an injustice. While informal memorials have existed as long or longer than their formal counterparts, anti-memorialization moves these informal memorials into the contemporary reality of a digitally networked world and pushes them from private mourning to public activism.There was also an outpouring of protests, demonstrations, and informal memorials throughout Mexico in response to the disappearances, with the largest demonstrations numbering in the tens of thousands on the streets of Mexico City. The global response was no less overwhelming: groups of students, local organizations, artists, activists, and other mourners posted their rituals and protests online to signal their solidarity with the friends and families of the disappeared students, and with the Mexican nationals demanding accountability from their government. The reactions and the incident itself went largely unreported by formal local and global news outlets and instead leapfrogged into the digital realm, where a keyword search of “Ayotzinapa” produced numerous links to a variety of alternative online-style reportage, including blogs, political media sites, YouTube pages, and Twitter feeds and hashtags. The Global Anti-Memorial Map for Ayotzinapa’s 43 locates and catalogs the cities where the anti-memorialization activities were presented first in physical form and then posted and shared online. The public anti-memorials ranged from mass protests, demonstrations of candlelit ceremonies, public performances to the recurring motif of empty school-style chairs that symbolized the missing bodies. Documented and archived on the Internet, these acts represent the beginning of a globally oriented collective memory of mourning and protest.

boom-2016-6-3-32-f02

Consuelo Flores’s altar created for Self Help Graphics’ exhibition ‘‘The 43: From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson.’’

Seven months after the disappearance of the forty-three students, families and other activists installed a metal sculpture reading “+43” on Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma. Along the sidewalk, the phrase “Porque vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos!” (“Because they were taken alive, we want them back alive”) was painted. The installation of “+43” was accompanied by no formal ceremony; there were no government officials present. Rather, the installation of what the activists called an “anti-monument” was a public challenge to the Mexican government that had failed to provide any answers. The anti-monument expresses the public’s refusal to accept death as the final condition. Moreover, the anti-monument’s appropriation of public space, just blocks away from formal memorials to Mexican history Ángel de la Independencia and the Monumento de la Revolución, contests the national discourse of what is worth remembering. With the large metal sculpture by an anonymous artist came a warning: if the Mexico City government removed the anti-monument, they would be seen as accomplices of the crime.Several people volunteered as guards of the anti-monument in order to keep it safe.

In Los Angeles, as in Mexico City, the proliferation of anonymous street art, in the form of stenciled and spray-painted icons of the number “43,” political text, and unplanned sidewalk altars nearly two years after the reported disappearance, reflect ongoing informal calls for justice. In an art installation by Consuelo Flores, images of each of the forty-three students are interspersed with floating cutouts of flora and fauna, all suspended above a shrine of red handprints on paper sheets and stones placed in a formation that surrounds a single, black fabric-covered desk to symbolize the student status of the disappeared. The piece was part of an exhibit sponsored by Boyle Heights–based arts organization Self Help Graphics and Art entitled 43: From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson. The exhibition anti-memorializes not just the forty-three students from Ayotzinapa, but victims of police brutality in the United States as well, linking the two social movements across national borders. This anti-memorial was part of a larger, three-part exhibition, Ayotzinapa: A Roar of Silence, which took place over sixteen weeks and involved three other local arts organizations dedicated to social justice: Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC), Center for the Study of Political Graphics, and Art Division.

Embedded in 43: From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson is a cosmopolitan orientation, initiated by the international call for poster art by the Oaxacan-Mexican artist and activist Francisco Toledo to universities, museums, and art communities. The request was Toledo’s way of grieving with mourners around the world, and his action prompted local and global linkages that amplified the otherwise isolated anti-memorialization acts through the organization of political arts spaces in Los Angeles. The coalition among the four arts organizations, prompted by the Center for the Study of Political Graphics in Culver City, is movement-building akin to the sort of organizing in which political activist groups engage. As a group, these organizations assumed the mantle of public accountability even as they contended with their own missions, communities, political and aesthetic principles, and precarity as small, struggling organizations.Shown sequentially, the exhibitions amounted to what the LA Times called an “arts festival of protest” by providing a platform for artists to memorialize the victims, for the immediate public to participate in the related programming, and as a cry for Angelenos to resist structural injustice.

The local and global proliferation of anti-memorials undoubtedly places pressure on those responsible—in particular the complicit Mexican government—to provide answers, to hold someone accountable, and in short, to act. Yet the extent to which the Mexican government cannot ignore its citizens’ demands would seem to depend on the intensity and duration of those demands. In other words, it depends on the degree to which the mourning of the event translates into permanent, collective memory.

According to French philosopher and sociologist Maurice Halbwachs, the theory of collective memory alludes to the idea that “knowledge about the past is shared, mutually acknowledged, and reinforced by collectivities such as small informal groups, formal organizations, or nation states and global communities.”In light of the 2014 event, collective memory has been shaped and defined by cultural or “collective trauma.” The collective memory of trauma is the “memory of an event or situation that is laden with negative affect, represented as indelible, and seen as threatening to a society’s existence or violating its cultural presuppositions.”8

The instances of ongoing violence in Mexico, government culpability, and state-sanctioned violence are not new to Mexico’s history. In 2013, according to the country’s national statistics institute, 93 percent of crimes in Mexico go unreported.During the Ayotzinapa investigation in Iguala, approximately 129 unidentified bodies of disappeared individuals turned up in mass graves unrelated to the Ayotzinapa students.10 Journalist Cesar Martinez wrote that the 1968 student massacre at Tlatelolco, and the forty-three Ayotzinapa students represent the two cultural traumas that have most permeated “Mexican society, political discourse, and civilian dialogues,” in the sense that these events have “usurped a society’s fears and memorialized them as an indicator to prevent a similar case from occurring.”11 To what extent has the collective memory in the aftermath of Mexico’s two “biggest” traumas led to collective action and social change, so that such traumas may never again take place?

Martinez argues that the “collective memories” of 1968 and 2014 have produced art, formal and informal monuments, and film, but no concrete legal accountability for the perpetrators.12 Knowing this, we must ask, is legal accountability the only type of accountability that is valuable to track in these events? In the case of the exhibition at Self Help Graphics, art is the mechanism through which awareness is raised by creating a participatory public, one that invests itself in social change over the long run. While high art is often complicit with the negative externalities of globally networked capital, this kind of participatory, socially engaged, and bottom-up art can be a powerful force for good. In other words, it takes time—and art can be a vehicle through which memory is sustained through time. This is especially important when accounts of “what happened” become increasingly contested.13 It might be better to say, then, that it is the quality and diffusion of the memory of the forty-three students that will ultimately determine the degree to which justice is served. Contemporary memory production, or anti-memorialization, sustains the memory of structural violence to drive the search for justice using tools of the digital age.

Los Angeles has become a key hub in the mourning for Ayotzinapa through its three-part exhibition which extended and amplified its place as a global tragedy. The exhibitions moved the anti-memorials into the gallery, effectively transforming the products of grief and outrage into objects of cultural and aesthetic import. These actions are not to monetize or to fetishize grief. On the contrary, their place in a respected art institution in Los Angeles, a city widely recognized as a cultural capital, state that the issue is important, and that the community of those affected extends from a handful of families in Guerrero to you, a visitor to this gallery.14 Self Help Graphics further localizes a globally diffused mourning by inviting forty-three Southern California–based artists to take part in 43: From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson. The artwork they produced grieves for not only Ayotzinapa victims, but also Los Angeles and the United States, with their histories of institutional violence against people of color. Given the large population of people of color—both immigrants and native-born—Los Angeles as a place embodies this in a heightened sense. In addition, Los Angeles is home to a substantial Mexican population, and specifically communities of indigenous Mexicans from the rural states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, and Guerrero.15 For these communities residing in the United States, they receive news of kin and kith in Mexico digitally, primarily from their online social networks. This is also how information of their transnational communities disperses, creating pathways moving between the local and global. The timeliness of the exhibition speaks to Los Angeles’ unique capacity as a migrant-concentrated, metropolitan node and a center for cultural and artistic production to respond with anti-memorialization, and an exhibition designed to travel beyond its geographic boundaries.

boom-2016-6-3-32-f03

Ayotzinapa anniversary march in Mexico City, September 2015. Photograph by the Organization of American States Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, via Flickr.

The deluge of submissions to Francisco Toledo, totaling 700 pieces of poster art from locales like Iran, Denmark, Poland, Lebanon, Cuba, and Argentina, and the global manifestation of anti-memorial events, collectively represent the emergence of an extensive interconnected transnational network. This network understands the need for acts of solidarity and the knowledge that the aggregation of voices affects how movements, and, therefore, social change takes place. At a fundamental level, the need for global mourning, for a collective memory, and for what theorist Paul Gilroy calls a “cosmopolitan hope”16 to pursue a globalized humanistic existence is made abundantly clear. This is the learned need for solidarity of a cosmopolitan global community interconnected by digital culture that expresses their agency from below rather than waiting for or expecting that their governments and legal systems will enact the necessary justice. The 43: From Ayotzinapa to Ferguson exhibit is a reminder that when communities here and abroad come together to mourn and demand justice via art, the work produced not only serves as a reminder to reflect on these tragedies, it is a deliberate call to action for us all.

boom-2016-6-3-32-f04

A Day of the Dead offering to the disappeared Ayotzinapa students in Las Vegas. Photograph by Marco Mora-Huizar, via Flickr.

Notes

1 Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (London: Verso, 2004), 2.

2 Desaparecido (the Spanish word for “disappeared”) has a different connotation in Mexico than its English translation. In Mexico, “disappeared” is an active verb rather than a passive adjective. To call the forty-three students “disappeared” is to suggest that someone actively made them disappear.

3 Gema Santamaría, “Ayotzinapa: An Unheard Cry for Justice,” OpenDemocracy, 25 June 2016, https://www.opendemocracy.net/democraciaabierta/gema-santamar%C3%ADa/ayotzinapa-unheard-cry-for-justice.

4 For more on the new relationship between digital networks and political activism, see Manuel Castells, Networks of Outrage and Hope (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2015).

5 David Vicenteño, “Colocan ‘Antimonumento’ 43 en reforma por normalistas de Ayotzinapa.”

6 “We’re building threads of unity in order to survive,” Bernstorff says, “because we’re all small organizations, with similar struggles. We don’t survive alone; we survive as a unit.” Deborah Vankin, “A poster exhibit stopping in LA gives voice to Mexico’s missing 43 students,” LA Times, 16 February 2016, http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-ca-cm-43-students-missing-sparc-20160221-story.html.

7 M. Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1992), 42.

8 Neil J. Smelser, “Psychological Trauma and Cultural Trauma,” in Jeffrey C. Alexander, Ron Eyerman, Bernard Giesen, et al., Cultural Trauma and Collective Identity (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2004), 31–59.

https://news.vice.com/article/suspected-student-massacre-illustrates-depth-of-lawlessness-in-mexico.

10 https://news.vice.com/article/ayotzinapa-a-timeline-of-the-mass-disappearance-that-has-shaken-mexico.

11 César Martínez, “68, 43: Analyzing the Collective Memories and Cultural Traumas of Mexico’s Most Infamous Atrocities,” 68 43, 4 May 2015, https://mexico6843.wordpress.com/68-43-analyzing-the-collective-memories-and-cultural-traumas-of-mexicos-most-infamous-atroicities/.

12 Ibid.

13 Andreas Huyssen, Present Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 28, 4.

14 See again Castells’ Networks for more on the roles that community and what he calls “togetherness” play to spark political change.

15 Lisa Kresge, Indigenous Oaxacan Communities in California: An Overview (Davis: California Institute for Rural Studies, 2007).

16 “The challenge of being in the same present, of synchronizing difference and articulating cosmopolitan hope upward from below rather than imposing it downward from on high[…].” Paul Gilroy, Postcolonial Melancholia (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 67.

boom-2016-6-3-32-f05

Before a Justice for All march in Washington DC, December 2014. Photograph by Elvert Barnes, via Flickr.

Maricela Becerra is a Ph.D. student in the department of Spanish and Portuguese at University of California, Los Angeles. Her research focuses on the post-memories of the Tlatelolco massacre in contemporary Mexican authors, and the exchanges between the Chicano student movement in Los Angeles and the Mexican student activists in 1968.

Lucy Seena K. Lin is a master’s student in Urban and Regional Planning at University of California, Los Angeles. Her research examines cultural production in everyday practice and in building resilience and vitality of communities.

Gus Wendel is pursuing a master’s degree in urban and regional planning at University of California, Los Angeles. He is interested in the ways that visual culture informs planning and design, the politics of place and space, and urban planning history.

Interviews

Pepper Spray and Politics

by Ami Sommariva and Louis Warren

From Boom Fall 2012, Vol. 2, No. 3

An interview with radical student activist Ian Lee

While protecting a tent encampment of student protesters on 18 November 2011, UC Davis freshman Ian Lee was pepper-sprayed by campus police. Boom assistant editor Ami Sommariva and Boom executive editor Louis Warren sat down with Lee to talk about his experience with the Occupy movement, his radicalization, and the relationship between activism and education.

Ami Sommariva: Could you tell us a little bit about where you grew up?

Ian Lee: I’m from Temple City, which is a suburb of LA, a really small suburb east of LA. I was born and raised there, went through the whole school system. A quiet Asian kid growing up in a suburb … that was me. When applying for colleges, I really wanted to do environmental work. I don’t know if I still want to do that, but that’s why I chose UCD. Both of my parents are from Hong Kong. They came to the US near the end of the Vietnam War. My dad was part of seventies community organizing after the war. He entertained ideas of becoming an artist.

Sommariva: How did you get involved with the Occupy movement? Where did it all begin for you, and how did you end up on the Quad that day?

Lee: At that time, I saw myself as a standard Democrat, a regular little sort of person. Then this Occupy movement started happening and I started to hear about it from classes, from certain professors and friends, and so I decided I should probably check this out. I was involved with the original campus marches; not as an organizer or anything, but participating in part of it. I was involved because it’s something that interested me and that’s not because I understood anything. I didn’t live at the camp in the beginning.

Louis Warren: Did you help set up the Occupation on the Quad?

Lee: Yes, but I didn’t sleep there because I wasn’t serious about anything at the time. Then, on November 18th, I heard through Facebook that cops had shown up on the campus. That was really disconcerting to me, and so I just rushed over from the dorms. And that’s when I started to really get into it and really understand. People were getting arrested. I linked arms with the people forming a protective block around the tents. Eventually, I found myself in the front row.

Sommariva: You said that before all this happened you started hearing about the Occupy movement from professors and friends, and it interested you. What interested you about it?

Lee: Well, you should understand that at the time, a guy who’s just been in college a couple of days … he doesn’t really understand what’s happening. I was just this sort-of-Democrat, and apparently there’s this liberal—or what’s perceived to be liberal—huge movement going on. I think: Oh, I should probably get involved with this and try to find out what’s going on. And that was my perspective. At the time—and I have different views now—but at the time, it seemed to me to be a sort of symbolic protesting as to what happened at Berkeley when the students were trying to defend their encampment there. And also sort of symbolic protests against tuition increases.

Sommariva: Those were the factors that motivated you to rush right out from the dorms?

Lee: Well, yeah. But also, I didn’t and still don’t understand about why riot cops should be called down to a tent encampment. It didn’t make sense to me, and so I wanted to protect that camp.

Warren: So, you guys linked arms to protect the tents. What did you see then?

Lee: Students were screaming. People were being thrown around. Just a lot of chaos caused by, of course, the presence of riot cops.

Sommariva: They were being thrown?

Lee: Or pushed aside.

Warren: And the cops were in full riot gear?

Lee: Right. They had different sorts of guns, batons, those plastic handcuff things, fully dressed in black and helmets.

I couldn’t really see from my perspective, but what I assume happened was that the cops went through the protestors and took down certain tents. There was a lot of screaming and hectic chaos. The circle of students kept on tripping and tripping and tripping, so we think it’s a good idea to sit down. That’s a common way to de-escalate a potentially violent situation, so we sit down.

And Lieutenant Pike [the officer in charge] says we should know we shouldn’t move. He stepped over us and pepper-sprayed us. I’m really angry about that. I mean, I was furious. I just got assaulted by riot cops for no reason. Before the pepper-spray incident happened, it was my understanding that we would maybe be shot with rubber bullets and that was really scary to me. My heart was just shaking like crazy.

Warren: Why was that your understanding? Did somebody threaten to shoot you?


PHOTOGRAPH BY BRIAN NGUYEN

Lee: Lieutenant Pike came over to the person sitting next to me and said, we are going to shoot you—or something to the effect of that—if you don’t leave. And so that’s why I thought that we were going to be shot with rubber bullets. You can’t really think when you’re that afraid.

Warren: So then they pepper-sprayed you. What happened?

Lee: There were shouts from the crowd that we should close our eyes, so I closed my eyes and there was this intense burning and it’s like fire on my face and in my eyes. Then I was actually pulled out of the chain and …

Warren: Who pulled you out?

Lee: Well, I didn’t know at the time, but in looking at videos, it was Lieutenant Pike. He pulled me out first and he pinned me to the ground for a while. But I didn’t resist.

Warren: Face-down?

Lee: Face-down. Like, while I was totally incapacitated, which doesn’t make sense to me.

Warren: The degree of violence in the story you’re telling, it’s just so astonishing.

Lee: Yeah. The entire last couple of months are totally absurd on so many levels. So, since I’m pinned on the ground, I don’t resist. He decides after a while, hey, I’m not gonna pin this kid down; I’m gonna pin that guy down, and that guy ended up actually being arrested. And he was pepper-sprayed. Like, why are you trying to arrest this kid who is not really resisting and is totally incapacitated? And to my understanding he apparently wasn’t even treated in the police car.

Warren: In the video of the events on YouTube, one of the most astonishing things is that you guys don’t appear to move after being coated with pepper spray. You do not budge. I noticed some of you begin to slump, but you didn’t move until people come over and start pulling you apart. Why didn’t you move?

Lee: I might not call it meditation, but I was concentrating really hard to try to slow my heartbeat. Also, we were committed to maintaining our ground. Someone who eventually would become a good friend led me to a firefighter who cleaned out my eyes. I went back to the dorm. I took a shower and my face got on fire again. I went to the Student Health and Wellness Center, and got treated, and that was the extent of my day.


PHOTOGRAPH BY SPRING WARREN

Sommariva: Then the huge rally on Monday [21 November] happened. How did that come about? I mean, it was a huge event that seemed very well organized. There must have been work involved in putting that together.

Lee: Well, at the time, I didn’t know anybody, but incidentally I sort of suspected that a huge rally would happen and so I prepared a speech. What happened on Monday with the rally was that the people who were pepper-sprayed gave presentations and speeches. I actually made the first speech. It’s a speech I somewhat regret now… . But then we reestablished the tent encampment.


PHOTOGRAPH BY SPRING WARREN

Warren: Why do you regret the speech now?

Lee: The way I framed the speech was that the incident was some sort of horrific and totally unexpected breach of our First Amendment rights. But now I realize that this is common. This is part of a chain of events of UC brutality that stems from privatization and all that other jazz.

Warren: All that other jazz?

Lee: Privatization and militarization are inherently linked. Whenever oppressive economic forces are created, a military force is needed in order to maintain that.

Warren: Do you see this as part of a broader trend?

Lee: There have been attacks at UCLA, UC Irvine … There’s this pervading theme among the Occupy movement: “Make no demands.” I think the reason for this is that there is nothing the systems that we are living in can do for us. It is the existence of those systems, in the first place, that is our contention.

Sommariva: What does it feel like, at this point, to be on campus after the pepper-spraying and after all of the direct action that you’ve been involved in? Has that changed your experience of being on campus?

Lee: It’s gotten me to think more about my function as a student on a UC campus. I perceive my position differently and that has caused me to be involved with discussions and organizing. It’s become a core part of being a student for me. Without watching and participating in direct action, I would never have started the thinking process—I would have never experienced a truly painful existential crisis, I would have never realized all the contradictions that exist in our systems, I would have never started reading and thinking and reading and talking with others and reading and thinking and reading—that led to my radicalization.


PHOTOGRAPH BY SPRING WARREN

Warren: And before you got to UC, you’d never thought of these things in this way? You had actually not thought of being a student in those terms before you came here?

Lee: Right. So if we’re framing this as a before and after … before, I was a student who performed in the narrative of being a student, and now, I realize that there’s something wrong with that narrative and that I need to highlight the contradictions within it. I think confrontation is a really good thing in terms of getting radical ideas out there. An example: UC Davis had a contract with US Bank that gave them a monopoly on banking services on our campus. Our student IDs, which can be used as debit cards, have the US Bank logo on them, and the bank has a lot of other advertising on campus. There was only one bank on UC Davis property, and it was a US Bank at the Memorial Union, which is the central meeting place of our campus. What some involved in Occupy UC Davis have done is to protest the bank-university partnership in front of the US Bank on campus. This protest, which became well known and led to the arrest of several protesters, spurred a lot of debate about the contradictions between the missions of public universities and private corporations. So radical tactics and direct action are useful.


PHOTOGRAPH BY SPRING WARREN

Sommariva: Do you think that kind of confrontation and debate can be brought into the university classroom as a pedagogical tool?

Lee: Well, here’s the thing about direct action: when protesting the US Bank, we’re directly fighting the forces of privatization within the university. The classroom isn’t built for that.

Sommariva: What would the ideal university look like to you?

Lee: It’s a question I think about quite a lot. I’m still in my first year of college, and I’ve got a lot of research and learning ahead of me. So I can’t really answer the question of what the ideal university looks like. I can say some broad things, such as I would like to see, at the very least, radically less privatization of the university. I would like to see the university return to being a public good. Ideally, at least from my perspective right now, I would like to see all capital off campus. I don’t know what this means in terms of how universities would function in that sort of world.

Warren: What do your parents think of your work here at UC Davis, what you’ve been through, and the work you’re doing with Occupy?

Lee: Like I said, my dad was involved with seventies community organizing as a teenager. I think I’ve suddenly exceeded radicalism in terms of what my dad thought. My definition of the word “radical” is vastly different from my dad’s definition of it. I think my mom’s really uncomfortable with a lot of the things I’m doing.

I want to emphasize the complete absurdity of my narrative. This quiet Asian kid grows up in the suburbs and then goes to college for a couple of weeks and becomes part of an international news story and he’s making passionate political speeches in front of thousands of people. I mean, everything does seem absurd. I think it was in my junior year in high school that I was the treasurer for a school club called the Future Business Leaders of America. And now, I would look at this high school kid who is the treasurer of a business club and say, that guy is evil.

Warren: Is he really evil, or is he just young? It sounds like you’re saying your perspective shifted pretty remarkably after the incident on the Quad.

Lee: I am sort of skeptical of narratives where a person’s one way before some profound event, then the profound event happens and then after that he’s totally different. I’m really skeptical.

Warren: The speed and degree of change that you experienced in yourself makes you skeptical of the whole thing?

Lee: It’s something that I think about quite a lot. Sometimes you read particular stories and you’re like, this is bullshit. That’s become my life.

Sommariva: You feel as if you are a story that has already been told? A cliché?

Lee: A story that doesn’t make sense. Sometimes it feels like I’m a character in a melodramatic novel: beforehand, being this quiet Asian kid and afterwards, being someone who is really sympathetic towards anarchists and radical socialist ideas after becoming an international news story. Like, that doesn’t really happen. It’s just absurd, and that’s who I am.

Photography/Art

Images from the Central Valley

by Tracy Perkins, Julie Sze
From Boom Spring 2011, Vol. 1, No. 1

Above photo: Earlimart, CA, March 7, 2008: Teresa DeAnda stands on the narrow strip of dirt and road that divides her home from the fields next door. Pesticides regularly drift into her yard. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

When Californians think of the Central Valley, they often think of its problems: poverty, pesticides, disputes over the allocation of irrigation water, farmworker deaths, and, most recently, a cluster of babies born with birth defects in the small town of Kettleman City. These are some of the ways this region makes the statewide news. But the Central Valley also has a rich history of community organizing and its own stark beauty. These photographs by Tracy Perkins and the oral histories she collected to accompany them document an important aspect of life there: environmental-health problems and the diverse network of advocates who are fighting to solve them.

Practically speaking, the Central Valley is all but invisible to those who live outside it. Over the course of the twentieth century, legislators and growers turned this 500-mile-long stretch of land into one of the most intensively farmed regions in the world, watered by one of the world’s most ambitious irrigation systems. Although California leads the nation in agricultural production, many Californians have little sense of what goes on in the agricultural regions of their state. This invisibility helps to explain why California has located two of the state’s three hazardous-waste landfills and many of its prisons there, while also continuing to allow high levels of toxicity in the air and water.

Nonetheless, the politics of the Central Valley have implications outside the region’s boundaries—as its history shows. From farm families migrating there in search of a haven from the Dust Bowl of the 1930s to César Chávez and the farmworkers’ movement in the 1960s and 1970s, the Central Valley has played an important role in shaping California and the nation. More recently, Central Valley advocates have entered the debate about global warming as part of a statewide coalition that has sued the state on the grounds that its landmark new law, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, would, ironically, increase air pollution where they live. Under the law’s current implementation plan, new energy plants would likely be built in the Central Valley to phase out older, less efficient, and more polluting energy plants in other parts of the state. New incinerators that burn imported wood debris would also be built to create “renewable energy.” Both types of plants would add to the toxic burden residents already bear from pesticide drift, diesel exhaust, toxic waste, drinking-water pollution, and high air pollution levels. You may be surprised to learn that in 2007 the Environmental Protection Agency listed the small Central Valley town of Arvin, population 16,200, as having the worst smog levels in the US. Arvin continues to be smoggier than Los Angeles. Residents already suffering from asthma and other health problems linked to air pollution are unlikely to welcome new pollution sources. This struggle is surely being watched by other states as they consider their own responses to global warming.

boom-2011-1-1-71-ufigure-3
Tulare County, March 8, 2008: Anhydrous ammonia flows into an unlined irrigation canal. Later it will find its way through a sprinkler system onto the fields. It provides nitrogen to the crops, but also seeps into the groundwater that Central Valley townspeople drink. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

Nor is this the only national issue in which the Central Valley plays an important role. In the 1990s, advocates pioneered the use of civil-rights law to reduce pollution in communities of color. This strategy was first used as part of a campaign to stop the building of a toxic-waste incinerator in the largely Latino town of Kettleman City, which was already neighbor to the largest hazardous-waste landfill west of the Mississippi River. Civil-rights litigation has since been incorporated into environmental struggles in communities of color across the country. Similarly, between 2008 and 2010 pesticide buffer zones were created in Tulare, Madera, Stanislaus, and Kern Counties. All of these counties banned the aerial spraying of restricted pesticides within a quarter-mile of schools, and three counties protected farm-labor camps and residential areas as well. Environmental and farmworker groups have petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to create similar buffer zones across the nation, and have recorded 42,000 statements of support for the cause.

boom-2011-1-1-71-ufigure-4
Visalia, November 17, 2007: Tap water samples from small towns in the vicinity of Visalia. Their contents include nitrates from fertilizers and cow manure from the area’s mega-dairies, as well as dibromochloropropane, a pesticide banned in 1977 but still present in groundwater, and arsenic. Some of the water smells like sewage. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

The region also represents demographic shifts that are important beyond its borders. White people became a minority in the Central Valley long before they did so in the state as a whole. However, the racial makeup of Valley politicians has yet to follow suit. According to Jonathan Fox, a scholar at the University of California, Santa Cruz, many Latino citizens in the Central Valley are not yet voting regularly and large numbers of those eligible to become citizens have not yet done so. If both groups became active voters, they could replace many of the area’s traditionally conservative elected officials with more progressive representatives of their interests and have a hefty impact on state politics.

boom-2011-1-1-71-ufigure-5
Earlimart, March 7, 2008: Josefina Miranda shows her daughter how she protects herself when she works in the fields. When Miranda was four months pregnant with an earlier child, she and her coworkers were sent to work in a field still wet with pesticides. By the time they left, her clothes were so soaked that she could wring the pesticides out of them. She miscarried the next day. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

boom-2011-1-1-71-ufigure-6
Kettleman City, July 18, 2009 (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

The growing advocacy networks in the Central Valley are key to helping people link their everyday problems to the political process. The pages that follow offer a window into their lives and labor, from an activist for prison reform to a woman whose town was poisoned by pesticide drift to a community leader who helped defeat a proposal to build a toxic-waste incinerator just outside her town. These photographs and stories are taken from “25 Stories from the Central Valley,” a multimedia project that documents the women leaders of the Central Valley environmental justice movement. Visit http://twentyfive.ucdavis.edu for additional photographs, stories, and teaching tools to use in college classrooms.

Debbie Reyes, Fresno Central Valley Coordinator
California Prison Moratorium Project

There were folks that came from all over the state to the Central Valley to discuss the issues. It was pretty empowering for our Valley to have something like that in Fresno, the place that I left many years ago because I thought there was nothing for me— “That place will never change,” you know? I’ve seen a tremendous change from the first year I got back, thirteen years ago to now. Then, the Ku Klux Klan was standing on the corner of a gay pride parade; now, in 2007, we have Rally in the Valley, which is like a peace march. We had the Environmental Justice Network Conference. We’re having the Uncaging the Valley Prisons conference, Black and Brown Unity marchers. And now, here I’m sitting at a table with folks that are working to create change in the state to regulate pesticide spraying in communities. So inside I was going, “Yeah, finally!” It’s taken twenty-five years but here we are.

Teresa DeAnda, Earlimart
Central Valley Coordinator
Californians for Pesticide Reform

Our street was the first street to get evacuated [after the pesticide drifted off the fields and into our neighborhood]. I’d driven to Delano, and when I came back there was a sheriff standing at our gate. It had just gotten dark, and my husband said, “We need to get out, because there’s something happening.” I smelled it a little bit, but I didn’t smell it that strong. But I was still very disturbed. It’s a horrible feeling, getting told you’ve got to get out, that there’s something that you shouldn’t be smelling. I got the kids, and we left in the van. My husband got my blind uncle and my 87-year-old compadre, and then we drove. But I was just so fearful for the people that were staying.

boom-2011-1-1-71-ufigure-7
Wasco, CA. January 30, 2009 (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

Days later, we found out what happened to everybody. I had read the newspaper, but it didn’t mention what happened to the people that Saturday night, November 13, 1999. On Wednesday the UFW [United Farm Workers] had a meeting and they had all the agencies there: the county air commissioner, the fire department, an expert on pesticides, Pesticide Watch. It was just packed with mad, angry people. That night, I found out what had happened when we left.

[When the pesticide drifted over the town] the people who were the sickest, they were told to go to the middle school. And at the middle school they told the men, women, and children to take off their clothes and go down the decontamination line. Keep in mind: these people were vomiting and had burning eyes, just coughing and coughing, and so they were scared to death. They were given no privacy, just two tarps on either side, and they were told to take off their clothes. And the people didn’t want to.

One lady said, “Where’s my rights? Where’s my rights?” They told her, “Listen, you have no rights tonight; you’ve lost your rights.” And so she took off her clothes, and she said that that was the worst feeling in the world, because her kids had never seen her without her clothes, and they could see her. This is indicative of how they did the decon [decontamination]. She took off everything, absolutely everything, but she wouldn’t take off her underwear, so they yanked it off. They yanked off her Nikes, and so there she goes through the decontamination line, which was a fire-department water hose, on a cold November night. A fire-department water hose with a guy standing there holding it. She went through one line and then the other, but they didn’t wet her hair. At the end of the decon line they were supposed to have ambulances waiting, but the ambulances weren’t there yet, so they just gave them little covers and told them to sit on the ground.

boom-2011-1-1-71-ufigure-8
Buttonwillow Park, Jan. 30, 2009 (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

So I’m finding all this stuff out at the meeting. All these mad people are just yelling at the agencies, telling them, “How could you do this to us?” And then they told us what had happened at the hospital. The people did get transported to the hospital. Some went to Tulare Hospital, some went to Porterville Hospital, some went to Delano Hospital. Well, the lady with a lot of kids, she was baby-sitting kids too, they couldn’t take all of her kids to the same place, so they wrote their phone numbers on their stomachs, like they were animals. At the hospitals, they took their information, their names, their number, their address, but they didn’t even triage them. The doctor called poison control, and poison control said, “There’s nothing happening to them, just tell them to go back home but to try not to get re-exposed.” That’s all poison control told them. So they were sent on their way and they were given the clothes that they had been in before they got decontaminated. They just gave them back to them. Didn’t have them cleaned.

boom-2011-1-1-71-ufigure-9
Earlimart, May 7, 2008: Orchards in bloom present a beautiful vision of agriculture in the Valley. At certain times of the year, pesticide applicators are required to notify beekeepers within a one-mile radius of their targeted spraying areas so that hives can be moved away. In most cases, however, human residents receive no such notification. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

So I started learning more and getting more and more angry. I couldn’t sleep at night, ’cause I was so upset at how it had changed my kids’ health and my health. When I was growing up, my dad had always said, “Trust the government. The government’s never going to lie; the government’s good,” and all that. And I thought, “No, they’re not,” because they really let us down that night, they really, really let us down. So much for trusting the government. I couldn’t sleep at night because it bothered me so much that it happened and that still nothing was being done about the people who had gotten sick. I learned a lot about pesticides. And then at press conferences they would always ask me to speak. Even though I wasn’t one of the victims that got deconned, I was one of the ones speaking all the time. They were calling me for meetings and conferences and stuff to talk about what had happened.

boom-2011-1-1-71-ufigure-10
Kettleman City, July 18, 2009: Alejandro Alvarez touches the image of his daughter, Ashley, one of a cluster of children born with a cleft palette and other birth defects in Kettleman City and neighboring Avenal. Residents fear that the hazardous-waste landfill located between their towns may be causing the birth defects. Alvarez got the tattoo shortly after his daughter died in January 2009, age 10 months. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

What happened in Earlimart was in November, so by September UFW and us, we had formed El Comité Para el Bienestar de Earlimart [Committee for the Well-Being of Earlimart]. All of the people were victims of the accident. They were all mostly farm workers. Just a couple weren’t. We started having meetings, our own meetings without UFW, still supporting UFW in any press conference they wanted us to, but then we started having our own meetings.

And then in September of 2000 we asked the farmer and the chemical applicator to pay the medical payments for the people that had asthma. It was coming out that people had gotten asthma—didn’t have it before that night in 1999—just like that, from that night, that exposure. And it had gotten in their mucus membrane and then in their lungs. And so they needed long-term treatment. We got Wilbur-Ellis [the company hired by the farm to apply the pesticide] to pay for that.

We had a big press conference, right here at the house. And that was a big victory. The State of California Department of Pesticide Regulation gave Wilbur-Ellis the biggest fine that had ever happened. It’s still peanuts compared to other fines for toxic spills and stuff, but it was the biggest for pesticides. [Note: Pesticide specialists later told the activists from Earlimart that the particular chemical they had been exposed to is activated by water and that they should not have been hosed down as part of the decontamination process.]

Mary Lou Mares, Kettleman City
Organizer, El Pueblo para el Aire y Agua Limpio
(People for Clean Air and Water)

I remember people that lived in town, [where a toxic-waste incinerator was planned], they would say, “Well, Mary Lou, if you don’t like it, why don’t you move out?” Because I like it here; this is my town, this is where I bought my house, and I want to be here. You can’t always just move and go away from the problem and just leave it there; it’s going to follow you. No matter where you go, this kind of stuff is going to follow you, so you might as well stay and fight. Can’t do anything else. You have to. B

Interviews

Talking with Tenants Together

by Sasha Abramsky
From Boom Spring 2011, Vol. 1, No. 1

The journalist Sasha Abramsky talks to Gabe Treves, one of the organizers of Tenants Together, the San Francisco-based advocacy group, about the impact of the foreclosure crisis on rental tenants.

California has always been defined by its bubbles—and almost as much by its busts.

The state was birthed in the Gold Rush as tens of thousands of Americans stampeded west in search of a quick fortune. In the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, dreamers seeking to reinvent themselves and carve out new destinies have flocked into the state by the millions and California has floated on Hollywood money, defense contracts, technology booms, and real-estate speculation.

The corollary of the outlandish boom is the crippling bust. In the 1870s, following a devastating financial crisis, unemployment soared, political discontent escalated, and eventually a constitutional convention was called to rewrite the state’s fundamental operating procedures. California’s “peace dividend” at the end of the Cold War was a mixture of unemployment, social-service cutbacks, and rage, resulting in a populace increasingly hostile to government and unwilling to part with tax dollars to fund social infrastructure. When tech stocks crashed a few years later, the effects ricocheted through Silicon Valley—some of the wealthiest counties in all America. Today, in the wake of the housing collapse that began in 2006 and the financial meltdown that followed in 2008, one in eight Californian workers is unemployed; a similar number are underemployed (working part-time, despite wanting and needing full employment); and property owners by the thousands have gone into foreclosure or simply walked away from underwater mortgages, sometimes devastating whole communities.

Long defined by an anything-is-possible mindset, Californians are having to adjust to the realities of hard times. For generations, real estate in California has offered a route to prosperity; now, for millions of Californians it is an albatross. Five of the ten cities with the highest foreclosure rates in the country are in California: Modesto, Merced, Stockton, Riverside/San Bernardino, and Bakersfield.

And the damage is not limited to homeowners. Increasingly, California’s renters are being hammered. Landlords default on their mortgages and disappear with their tenants’ security deposits; banks reclaim delinquent homes and become absentee landlords; investors buy these properties at auction; and all illegally evict the old tenants. Tenants who have spent years carefully building up good credit find that they have an eviction on their credit report and their ability to borrow money—for example, to buy a home for themselves—disappears.

boom-2011-1-1-6-ufigure-1
Gabe Treves at work (photograph © Sasha Abramsky)

At Tenants Together in San Francisco, fielding calls from desperate renters being evicted as a consequence of a landlord going into foreclosure has become a full-time occupation for the staff.

Sasha Abramsky: Can you tell readers who you are?

Gabe Treves: I’m the program coordinator at Tenants Together. Among the many things I do is manage the foreclosure hotline, which we launched early in 2009. While a lot of attention is given to the plight of homeowners facing foreclosure, for the most part tenants are forgotten victims. However, it turns out that one out of every three foreclosed properties in California is a rental. In 2008, over 200,000 tenants were in foreclosed properties and were facing displacement. We haven’t yet run the numbers for 2009. But we assume it’s right around the same level.

Unfortunately, the reality for most tenants is that once the house they’re living in is foreclosed and the property is acquired by a bank or private investors, they want the tenants out as soon as possible—really by any means necessary. They contact real-estate agents whose job is to get rid of these tenants. They knock on their doors, misinform them, harass them, and bully them into leaving as soon as possible. They succeed in many cases. But the tenants are actually entitled to certain protections under federal law, state law, or in some cases city-level ordinances. Our counselors explain to them what their rights are and how to go about asserting them. The idea is that if tenants know their rights they will be able to stay in their homes for as long as possible and can use that time to find another suitable living situation—or in some cases actually stay in their houses.

SA: How many tenants do you work with?

GT: Since we launched in March 2009 we have counseled over 3,000 tenants.

SA: Where are most of them from?

GT: Well, you know, we get a lot of our calls from San Diego, a lot from Los Angeles—just because it’s such a big county—from parts of the Central Valley being very hard hit by the foreclosure crisis, from the San Jose area. Really from all over the state.

SA: Didn’t Tenants Together work with many people in the desert town of Ridgecrest? What happened in that community?

GT: It’s a great example of how our hotline can help tenants in foreclosure situations. In 2009 we started getting a lot of calls from tenants in Ridgecrest, most living in a handful of apartment complexes in the same couple of streets, all telling the same story. Suddenly, despite paying their rent on time, they learned their home was being foreclosed and they were facing eviction. Ridgecrest is a small city in Kern County, one of the most conservative counties in California. We decided to go down there, talk to the tenants, and find out what was going on. Onsite we were able to identify a few great tenant leaders and help them pressure their city government, the board of supervisors, to pass an ordinance protecting renters. With a lot of hard work and organizing they succeeded; the Ridgecrest City Council passed the Central Valley’s first Just Cause for Eviction ordinance in September 2009. It lists all of the reasons for which tenants can be evicted: if they don’t pay their rent, if they are disruptive, if they do anything illegal on or with the premises. Of course, it does not list foreclosure. This meant that when those properties were acquired by a new owner, the new owner could not evict the tenants. As a result, a huge number of tenants in Ridgecrest are now able to stay in their homes—the new owner has to serve as their landlord.

SA: But many cities in California don’t have these protections.

GT: Unfortunately, only sixteen cities in California have Just-Cause ordinances. That means in most of the state tenants have limited protections. Most are protected by the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act, a federal law passed in May 2009. It was a major victory, but it’s still not as good as the city-level ordinances. It just extends the amount of time tenants can stay in their home after it is foreclosed. In some cases, if the tenants have a long-term lease, then it gives them the right to stay in their homes through the term of the lease.

SA: How has the foreclosure crisis changed California?

GT: What it changes is the way people perceive their sense of stability. A lot of tenants thought they had earned the right to claim that stability, that because they always paid their rent on time and did everything by the book they effectively had the right to their home. The foreclosure crisis has been a really harsh lesson about the illusory nature of that sense of stability. It’s been very demoralizing for a lot of people.

SA: How has it changed people’s behavior?

GT: People are more cautious, less trusting. It’s changed the relationship of many people with their landlords. The crisis, which has displaced so many people, makes a lot of people reflect on their communities. When they get suddenly displaced and are forced to move away, they have to reassess all the things they used to take for granted—the value of living near their jobs, near their schools, things like that. I’ve noticed that poor, working-class tenants have dealt with the situation differently from well-to-do tenants. A lot of poor tenants are resigned to this kind of thing; the foreclosure crisis just reinforces that they don’t have a lot of control and even when they pay their rent on time that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to secure the stability that their families need. A lot of them tell me, “Oh, that’s just the way it is.” They understand that security, stability, well-being are not in their domain, because they’re the working poor.

But a lot of well-to-do tenants, who felt they had earned that right and were entitled to some protections, are learning that they’re not. And that’s been very hard for a lot of people. It creates a lot of anxiety, a lot of mental stress. When that sense of security is violated and the sense of home is damaged or destroyed, it’s going to be very difficult for them to ever really reclaim it.

SA: Are you seeing towns where people are just leaving?

GT: There are whole towns, whole neighborhoods that have been blighted. They’re vacant. When people think about the foreclosure crisis they think about the individual occupant, but it can affect entire communities, businesses. If all the tenants in a community leave, it affects the businesses in that community, the schools, the social services. I’ve gotten calls from tenants: “The house to the left and the house to the right of me have been vacant for months.” They’re getting pushed out too, and they know their home will just join all the other vacant houses sitting on the block.

SA: If you compare what’s happening in California to what’s happening nationally, it looks like California’s bubble was bigger and now the bust is bigger. How is this changing the psyche of California?

GT: It comes back to Californian exceptionalism. I think Californians have always held a belief that if they work hard, do things by the book, they can claim that sense of stability, security, well-being. And now that sense is being deflated for a lot of people. They start feeling like the rest of the country—that they’re not exceptional, that they can just as easily fall victim to these massive national trends and institutions. I hope it helps people realize that their best chance to achieve real security is to pressure their city governments and the state and federal governments to pass more sensible legislation to protect tenants. And I hope that tenants will start holding the banks accountable for what they do and will pressure them to adopt more sensible policies and more humane policies. Because otherwise everyone loses. B