Thursday, September 11, 2014

America's Politico-Culture: Coddle Bad Cops, Vilify Good Teachers

We coddle bad cops, vilify good teachers

We defer to cops even when they kill, and scapegoat schools for the ills America has given up on. This must change

We coddle bad cops, vilify good teachers Matt Damon as Colin Sullivan in "The Departed" (Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

The killing of Michael Brown brought a great many things into focus — so many that it can be hard to keep track of them all. One important point was the dramatic contrast between elite treatment of police — routinely deferred to, even when they kill — and the routine scapegoating of teachers, who are demonized for all the ills that America’s elites have given up on.  Of course, this has nothing to do with police officers and teachers themselves. It has everything to do with the roles they play — or can play — in either strengthening and defending the status quo, or in empowering possibilities of change.

Darren Wilson not only typifies how dangerous bad police can be in America, but also how heavily protected they are.  Shortly after he was publicly identified, the Washington Post revealed that his first police job had been in Jennings, Missouri, a rare example of a police department shut down because it was so broken (primarily with regards to race relations) that the city council thought it was impossible to fix.  But Wilson carried no stain of that with him.
Teachers, in contrast, have grown all too familiar with mass firings in recent years, as schools are routinely closed with little or no relationship to actual teacher competency or conduct.

Indeed, President Obama and his secretary of education, Arne Duncan, have been enthusiastic supporters of this trend. In Chicago, where Duncan ran the school system before his Cabinet appointment, successive rounds of “school reform” firings have reduced the percentage of black teachers from about 40 percent to just under 30 percent, according to a civil rights lawsuit filed in late 2012.

In New Orleans, more than 7,000 teachers were fired without due process after Hurricane Katrina, and won a civil lawsuit providing back pay earlier this year. Yet, in 2010, Duncan said, “The best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina.” Both Duncan and President Obama strongly supported the Central Falls, Rhode Island, school board when it fired all its high school teachers without due process in February 2010.

These are but the most high-profile examples of how mass-firing purportedly “bad teachers” without cause has become a routine part of “school reform.”  In light of such examples, Chicago educator Paul Horton has argued that “The Attack on Teacher Tenure Is an Attack on the Black Middle Class,” despite the fact that the corporate-driven “education reform” movement has branded itself as “the civil rights struggle of our time.”

Further revealing the pattern of police abuse surrounding Wilson’s killing of Michael Brown, it was later reported that Ferguson police have been involved in four federal lawsuits and more than a half-dozen investigations over the past decade, for a reported 13 percent rate of misconduct. What’s more, in a New York Times Op-Ed, University of California Irvine Law School dean Erwin Chemerinsky warned that even an announced Justice Department investigation would have limited impact. “ [I]f the conclusion is that the officer, Darren Wilson, acted improperly, the ability to hold him or Ferguson, Mo., accountable will be severely restricted by none other than the United States Supreme Court,” Chemerinsky wrote. “In recent years, the court has made it very difficult, and often impossible, to hold police officers and the governments that employ them accountable for civil rights violations.” The title of Chemerinsky’s Op-Ed? “How the Supreme Court Protects Bad Cops.”

Chemerinsky focused on a set of recent decisions — 2011 and later. But even before those decisions took effect, police accountability was almost nonexistent, according to an New York University law review article, “Police Indemnification,” by UCLA law professor Joanna C. Schwartz. When plaintiffs do recover money for police misconduct, it’s taxpayers, not the police, who foot the bill. In her conclusion, Schwartz wrote:
Law enforcement officers employed by the forty-four largest jurisdictions in my study were personally responsible for just .02% of the over $730 million paid to plaintiffs in police misconduct suits between 2006 and 2011. Law enforcement officers employed by the thirty-seven small and mid-sized departments in my study paid nothing towards settlements and judgments entered against them during this period. Officers did not contribute to settlements and judgments even when they were disciplined, terminated, or criminally prosecuted for their misconduct. [Emphasis added.]
This nationwide coddling of police misconduct — one might almost call it “encouragement” — stands in stark contrast to the above-indicated nonstop vilification of “bad teachers,” who never seem to kill anyone, and yet have been the subject of a sustained multi-decade bipartisan attack.
Brown himself was an educational success story, despite the odds, a high school graduate just days away from his first day in college, even though Ferguson’s school system is arguably as troubled as its police department.  As Rebecca Klein noted at Huffington Post, Brown’s high school, Normandy High, “is emblematic of a system that’s failing low-income kids.” It combines low graduation rates, high rates of violence, and soaring suspension rates; the state has labeled Normandy a “failed district” based on standardized test scores, and it’s located in a state where poor schools tend to get the least funding — one of two worst states (along with North Carolina) in terms of low scores on all four equity measures.

“Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate?” his mother told news station KMOV. “You know how many black men graduate? Not many.”

Yet, graduate he did.

Michael Brown’s success seemed due to his efforts, his family’s support, and the attitudes of those who taught him. At least that’s the strong impression you get from Brown’s kindergarten teacher, Deidre Sealey, who posted a moving commentary about him on Facebook, which has been tweeted as well. “Michael was one of the kindest kids that I have taught,” she wrote. “Michael was quiet, yet funny. He had an infectious smile. Some things I remember most was how Michael’s grandfather or dad picked him up from school every day. His mom, dad, and extended family were fiercely protective of Michael and at that time, his only sister, Deja. They were active in every aspect of his education, conferences, school performance, et al….  Each of my colleagues, who had the opportunity to teach Michael, have echoed my sentiments.” 

The picture Sealey paints is not just of a young man who did everything right, educationally, but of a whole extended family that did — and, implicitly, educators who valued their years of dedication.

So where is the Deidre Sealey of the Ferguson police force? If there were one, odds are very good that Michael Brown would still be alive. Yet, the officer who killed Brown had a spotless record, according to the department, while the school district was overrun with “bad teachers,” according to the logic of the system that labeled it as “failed.”
There is something very wrong with the diagnostic systems that send us such signals, and it’s not that hard to decode what they actually mean: The police are supposed to maintain social order, and they are judged accordingly by those who call the shots; they can do no wrong. Teachers, on the other hand, are an unreliable lot. They can fill kids’ heads up with all sorts of crazy ideas. Liberty, equality, democracy. Maybe even a hint of what a real civil rights movement looks like. So they’ve got to be policed, themselves!

This isn’t to imply that Ferguson’s schools are actually much better than they seem—they’re not.  But it’s not the fault of “bad teachers.” It’s the fault of multiple factors, most of the largest ones traceable back to race and class. A recently published working paper, based on nationwide data, found that a 20 percent increase in school funding, due to changes that began in the 1970s, produced dramatic results in the academic success of low-income students:
[A] 20 percent increase in per-pupil spending each year for all 12 years of public school for children from poor families leads to about 0.9 more completed years of education, 25 percent higher earnings, and a 20 percentage-point reduction in the annual incidence of adult poverty; we find no effects for children from non-poor families. The magnitudes of these effects are sufficiently large to eliminate between two-thirds and all of the gaps in these adult outcomes between those raised in poor families and those raised in non-poor families.
The problem, quite simply, is that those school funding changes have not gone far enough, and have even been reversed in some cases.  In Missouri, specifically, as noted above, the state actually increases disparities between affluent and poor districts. Add to that the nationwide reversal of desegregation gains, as documented by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, and you’ve explained the vast majority of what ails Ferguson’s school system.

As education policy expert David Berliner (co-author of “The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools” and “50 Myths and Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools: The Real Crisis in Education“) wrote in an email published at top education advocate Diane Ravitch’s blog: “[O]utside-of-school variables count for about 3 times the effect of the inside-of-school variables, and they count for about six times the effect of teachers on the aggregate scores of classes and schools.”

As Berliner notes, these figures hold both nationally and internationally. Similarly, the American Statistical Association, in a cautionary statement about the use of “Value Added Measurement” to evaluate teachers, added: “Most VAM studies find that teachers account for about 1% to 14% of the variability in test scores, and that the majority of opportunities for quality improvement are found in the system-level conditions. Ranking teachers by their VAM scores can have unintended consequences that reduce quality.” [Emphasis added.]

The strongest contrast with how well-protected even lethally bad policing is compared to teachers came three weeks after Brown was killed, when the final review was issued in Vergara vs. California, striking down California’s teacher tenure laws.  The ruling — which has already been appealed — actually strikes down five California education laws, including teacher tenure, which for K-12 teachers merely means due process protection against arbitrary firing. Bad teachers deprived them of their civil rights, the plaintiffs argued, and the judge agreed — even though there was no solid evidence that any of them actually had a “bad teacher” as Diane Ravitch explained in June. One plaintiff said she had a bad teacher, and pointed to Christine McLaughlin, a Pasadena “teacher of the year.” Other plaintiffs were in charter schools or a pilot program where the tenure protections for teachers didn’t even apply!

With “standards” like that for who qualifies as a “bad teacher,” it’s impossible to say if Michael Brown ever had one. We only know one thing for sure: He wasn’t killed by one.

What should be obvious from all the above is that cops are unfairly protected when they do something grievously wrong, and the teachers are unfairly blamed when they simply show up for work in a difficult educational environment.  But my purpose here is not a simple role switch, arguing that individual police should be presumed guilty and individual teachers presumed innocent.

Instead, I’m saying three things:
1)  The most important factors for both law enforcement and education are not individual performance, but the conditions in which people work, the larger systems in which their work is embedded.
2)  We need to understand those systems as systems in order to avoid pursuing counterproductive strategies, no matter how right or “common sense” they may seem.
3)  Both law enforcement and education are ultimately embedded in the same larger social system, and a significant portion of the problems they face must be tackled on a broader scale.

Bad Individuals Are a Relatively Small Problem
Let’s turn to each of these points in turn. I’ve already alluded to data showing that individual teacher performance has a relatively small impact compared to other factors.  I’d like to provide some more detail before considering how similar arguments apply to law enforcement.
First, regarding teachers, I’d like to quote further from David Berliner’s email mentioned above.  It was written specifically about results from the 2012 international educational assessment known as the Programme for International Student Assessment, or PISA. At one point, Berliner refers to an analysis of earlier data by Doug Willms, published in 2006. He writes:
His analysis suggests that if children of average SES attended one of their own nations high performing schools, or instead attended one of their own nations’ low performing schools, the difference at age 15, the age of PISA testing, would be equivalent to about 4 grade levels. Thus a 10th grader of average SES who can attend a high performing school is likely to score at about the 12th grade level (a grade level approximation from PISA data). And if that same child were to attend a low performing school, he or she would score at about the 8th grade level. It’s the same hypothetical child we are talking about, but with two very different lives to be lead as a function of the makeup of the schools attended. It is not the quality of the teachers, the curriculum, the computers available, or any number of other variables that are often discussed when issues of school quality come up. Instead, the composition of the school seems to be the most powerful factor in changing the life course for this hypothetical, average child.
Note that this analysis applies internationally; it is not limited to the U.S.  The problem that the U.S. has, which other nations do not, is that we have such a large proportion of low-performing schools, and that they tend to be racially segregated to a high degree. This analysis does not say that you can simply pluck a child out of one environment, place them in another, and then miracles will happen. It is about the entire life course of their education.  The effects involved clearly dwarf what even the most talented teacher could hope to accomplish in a single year. Obviously, it is better to have a good teacher than a bad one, but it’s much more important to go to a high-quality school, which is why schools figure so prominently in housing decisions of parents who can afford to consider and act on them.

Turning our attention to police, we can find support for a similar conclusion — that individual performance is a relatively minor factor in overall effectiveness — by looking at a very different sort of data, which came to wide public attention in the wake of Ferguson: data about the use of body cams to record police/civilian interactions.  Most commonly cited was the example of Rialto, California, where the use of body cams reduced citizen complaints by 88 percent and use-of-force incidents by 60 percent.  This was just one of five studies examined in a report for the Department of Justice, “Police Officer Body-Worn Cameras Assessing the Evidence,” by Arizona State University criminologist Michael White. White’s report is filled with caution and nuance, particularly given how new the technology is, and how few studies have yet been done (some still ongoing), but the general pattern seems to be borne out. White noted: “Several of the empirical studies have documented substantial decreases in citizen complaints (Rialto, Mesa, Plymouth, and Renfrewshire/Aberdeen studies) as well as in use of force by police (Rialto) and assaults on officers (Aberdeen).”

This is not to claim that body cams are a magic bullet.  

As Carlos Miller highlighted at Photography Is Not a Crime, results were quite different in Albuquerque.  This does not negate the point I’m making here, however. Rather, it serves to underscore another, closely related point in my argument: that systemic causes and forces predominate. When the system aligns itself with the goals of reducing use of force and citizen complaints, body cams have proven effective in helping to bring that about, without the need to replace “bad cops.” Most bad policing is a situational product, not a product of individual bad character.

Second, as I reported here in February, there is significant evidence that professional training eliminates a crucial aspect of shooter bias — the tendency to shoot unarmed black suspects more readily than white ones: “A test of trained police officers – one group from the Denver Police Department, the second a national sample – found that although the reaction-time bias remained, the far more critical error-rate bias was eliminated among trained police.”

These were results using a simulation game, but they’re the best evidence we have, and they clearly indicate that one of the most troubling — and subconscious — sources of perceived police misconduct can be virtually eliminated with no change at all in personnel.

Despite what I’ve just said, both police and teachers can perform poorly, of course, and this is an important concern, even if it’s not the most important factor.  However, the most effective way to deal with poor performance, in general, is first through supportive corrective measures, which means making changes to the systems that cops and teachers are a part of. An excessive reliance on punitive measures, including termination, reflect a failure of the systems as much or more than a failure of the individuals involved. Very few people go to work in any field wanting to do a bad job.  Even fewer do so when offered the means to do better. By all means, we should get rid of the ones who do, but we need to credibly assure the vast majority of good employees that they will not be unfairly targeted.

Undertanding Police and Education Problems As Systemic Problems
Shifting focus from individual teachers and cops to the systems they work in can sometimes lead to surprising results. Other times, it simply reaffirms common sense. The value and effectiveness of community-based policing in improving police-community relations is an example of the latter. On the other hand, an example of a surprising result comes in the area of arguments about “bad teachers” and teacher tenure.  That result, quite simply,  is that focusing intently on trying to get rid of bad teachers misses much more important factors, and may only make the problem worse.

It’s one of the best-known facts in the education community that teacher turnover is a major problem. The “bad teacher”/“bad teacher tenure” narrative tries to heap enormous blame onto a small minority of bad teachers — which, when you think about it, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.  How can a tiny minority of teachers — 1-3 percent was the figure cited in the Vergara case — bring an entire system to its knees, without being so outrageously bad that it’s easy to fire them for cause?  It makes sense as a fairy tale, of course. There has to be a super-evil villain, but of course nobody’s anti-teacher!  So it’s only a very, very small number of them, right?  But we have to take all their rights away, just to be on the safe side!

Meanwhile, in the real world, virtually everyone in the education field knows that the real problem is the difficulty of hanging on to promising new teachers.  Richard Ingersoll is perhaps the nation’s leading expert on the subject of why schoolteachers leave.  He is also an example.

He taught high-school social studies and algebra for six years, before quitting and getting his Ph.D. in sociology. In 2012, Ingersoll wrote:
Teacher attrition—teachers leaving teaching—is especially high in the first years on the job. Several studies, including our own analyses (Ingersoll, 2003; Ingersoll & Perda, in press), have estimated that between 40% and 50% of new teachers leave within the first five years of entry into teaching. Moreover, we have found that the attrition rates of first-year teachers have increased by about one-third in the past two decades. So, not only are there far more beginners in the teaching force, but these beginners are less likely to stay in teaching.
So, contrary to the notion that America’s big education problem is a tiny minority of bad teachers who hang around forever and just won’t quit, the real problem is almost the exact opposite: a near majority of new teachers who won’t stay. The subject of Ingersoll’s article was  “employee entry, orientation, and support programs—widely known as induction,” which the data suggest can be highly effective in reducing turnover rates, if they are sufficiently robust. Ingersoll found that “The factors with the strongest effect were having a mentor teacher from one’s subject area and having common planning or collaboration time with other teachers in one’s subject area.” There’s a good prima facie reason to think that such support programs are also an effective way to deal with the “bad teacher” problem before it ever comes to that.
One study, “The Cost of Teacher Turnover in Five School Districts,” found that “turnover costs, although difficult to quantify, are significant at both the district and the school level. We also find that teachers left high-minority and low-performing schools at significantly higher rates,” thus confirming the point that this is the actual teacher problem specifically impacting students in low-quality schools, even more so than the nation as a whole.
One of the key recommendations of the study was:
2. Target comprehensive retention strategies to at-risk schools
•  Teachers leave at-risk (low-income, high-minority, low-performing) schools at high rates.
•  Retention initiatives in these schools have the greatest potential for a high return on investment, both in terms of resources and school performance.
But that’s just one piece of the puzzle.  The second piece is how the obsessive focus on firing “bad teachers” actually makes the existing real challenges even worse, as indicated by the following from a story about the state-level trend to repeal teacher tenure:
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers union, said taking away due process rights ultimately hurts low-income schools because teachers won’t want to take a risk to teach in such schools without strong labor protections.
Due process allows good teachers to “take risks on behalf of their kids,” Weingarten said.
As just noted, these are already the most difficult schools to retain new teachers in. The more rapid turnover is, the less experienced teachers these schools will have. Given that these schools have lower test scores for reasons having nothing to do with teacher quality, why would any new teacher with long-term aspirations want to teach in such schools, if they could be fired for no other reason than that they failed to produce a sufficient number of miracles?

The Larger System Where Police and Education Problems Come From
Finally, if we want to understand how both systems — education and criminal justice — fit together into a larger whole, we need to look at society as a whole. To make things more manageable, taking Ferguson as an example, we need to consider the history and political geography of the St. Louis region over a period of decades, and how this impacts people’s everyday lives. This story has been masterfully woven together by Radley Balko (“Rise of the Warrior Cop“) in the Washington Post, “How municipalities in St. Louis County, Mo., profit from poverty.”

Balko combines street-level reporting and interviews with key local actors in a cultural/historical/geographic framework derived from the work of Colin Gordon, author of “Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City,” which is supplemented by a website of historically progressive maps and related documents. Balko also interviews Gordon, and the local actors he interviews include members of Arch City Defenders, whose recently released white paper on St. Louis County municipal courts provides a detailed account of how the deeply dysfunctional system operates today.

Gordon’s publisher, University of Pennsylvania Press, describes his book as follows:
“Mapping Decline” examines the causes and consequences of St. Louis’s urban crisis. It traces the complicity of private real estate restrictions, local planning and zoning, and federal housing policies in the “white flight” of people and wealth from the central city. And it traces the inadequacy—and often sheer folly—of a generation of urban renewal, in which even programs and resources aimed at eradicating blight in the city ended up encouraging flight to the suburbs. The urban crisis, as this study of St. Louis makes clear, is not just a consequence of economic and demographic change; it is also the most profound political failure of our recent history.
As Balko describes the accompanying online maps: “Gordon illustrates how white people didn’t just flee St. Louis, they used whatever tools were at their disposal to prevent black people from joining them, including race-restrictive deeds and covenants until they were struck down in 1947, segregation until it was struck down in 1954, real estate pacts, and finally zoning laws.”

As the most blatant forms of discrimination were struck down, blacks first began settling in St. Louis County in significant numbers, and a new dynamic emerged, Balko explained:
[W]hites engaged in what you might call a pattern of zone and retreat. It’s during these two waves of black immigration that you really begin to see the proliferation of municipalities in St. Louis County.
“Until only relatively recently, the state of Missouri had almost no rules for municipal incorporation,” Gordon says. “In just about every other state, when a new subdivision would spring up in an unincorporated area, the state would say, ‘If you want public services, you need to be annexed by the nearest town.’ In Missouri, you didn’t have that.”
Instead, developers would create new subdivisions outside a city. White people would move in. As black families moved north and west of the city, these subdivisions would try to keep them out by zoning themselves as single-family housing only. That barred the construction of public and low-income housing…
As black families moved out from the city and slowly infiltrated white towns, new white developments would spring up further out still, incorporate, and zone to keep the black population at bay. Blacks would move in to those towns too, and the process would repeat itself.
This is the historical origins of the pattern of exploitative policing that Arch City Defenders uncovered in their report.  Driven by racism, the development pattern for the entire suburban county was even more lacking in organic, socioeconomic cohesiveness than suburbs typically are. The lack of an economic resource base has both undermined the quality of schools, and turned local law enforcement agencies and court systems into revenue-generating bounty-style operations, particularly in the poorer, blacker communities.  This is the specific, concrete manner in which underlying housing discrimination, spanning generations, has created a broader framework of racial and class inequities, in which both police systems and educational systems exist.

Rather than focusing on Ferguson, let’s consider an example on the other extreme, which Balko writes about. For reasons Balko explains, the town of Berkeley has high black political participation, a black mayor, black city manager, an all-black city council and a majority-black police department.  But it’s still constrained by its history and limited economic options. Balko explains:
If any town could overcome the legacy of structural racism that drew the map of St. Louis County, then, it would be Berkeley. And yet this town of 9,000 people still issued 10,452 traffic citations last year, and another 1,271 non-traffic ordinance violations. The town’s municipal court raised over $1 million in fines and fees, or about $111 per resident. The town issued 5,504 arrest warrants last year, and has another 13,436 arrest warrants outstanding. Those are modest numbers for St. Louis County, but they’re high for just about anywhere else.
“We’ve tried to rely on revenue from our municipal court as little as possible,” says Berkeley Mayor Theodore Hoskins. “We emphasize that traffic laws and ordinances are about public safety, not about revenue.” But there’s a cost to that. The town ran a $1.3 million deficit last year, and recently considered dissolving its police department to save money.   
One can only conclude that if one could solve all the problems Ferguson faces that have garnered the most attention in the last month, then Ferguson would look a lot like Berkeley — and it would still be a community living on the edge of disaster.  Getting rid of bad cops or defending them would make little or no difference at all, in the larger scheme of things. As for bad teachers?  You’ve got to be kidding!
The underlying problem is a fundamental lack of resources, which turns poor communities into self-cannibalizing entities. Both national and international statistics are clear: The two most important factors in predicting academic success are the wealth of one’s parents and the wealth of one’s community. The demonization of teachers does nothing to address this. It merely develops a preferred cuisine for the self-cannibalization menu.

Even focusing too much on a single incident of the police killing an innocent black teen risks missing the forest for the trees. Which is why it’s so important to heed the examples of groups like the Dream Defenders, who approach individual outrages like the killing of Michael Brown in terms of a whole array of interlocking issues, as when they speak out against the school-to-prison pipeline. Or the rapidly-spreading Moral Mondays movement, which approaches a whole broad multi-issue spectrum of concerns from a unifying moral perspective. These — not Wall Street-funded charter school operators — are the true living inheritors of the mantle of the civil rights movement. And if the past is any guide for us, they have only just begun.
Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

Friday, September 05, 2014

A Self-Respecting Jew Says Palestine Will Win!

Solidarity From a Self-Respecting Jew

Palestine Will Win!


In the midst of an Israeli military slaughter of civilians in Gaza and now, its announcement it will commandeer 1,000 acres of land in the West Bank—the largest Israeli confiscation of Palestinian land in 30 years–to build homes for Jewish settlers the title “The Palestinian people will win” may seem delusional and hyperbolic. But it is not a rhetorical device; it is a moral argument rooted in a reading of anti-colonial history. Israel has browbeaten the world, manipulated anti-Arab sentiment, and attacked its critics to justify its escalating occupation.

It is possible that this recent escalation of barbarism may become a tipping point in world public opinion to oppose Israel ethnocide and support the right of self-determination of the Palestinian people.

Discrediting and dismantling the Israeli ideological arsenal and getting our government to withdraw all military aid from Israel is a key battleground for the human rights movement in the United States.

When I first joined the civil rights movement in 1964 as a field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality and first heard the militants from the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee chant “Hell no, we won’t go” to fight in the war in Vietnam I understood that the Black and Vietnamese national liberation struggles were an ideological, strategic, and emotional common reality. From the beginning I believed the civil rights/Black liberation revolution would win “Freedom Now” and we would see that “Jim Crow Must Go.”  But my first years of anti-Vietnam war work were marked by an excruciating sense of outrage and despair. I watched in horror as my own government—that Dr. King would later call “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world” —dropped napalm, cluster bombs, fragmentation bombs, and Agent Orange on a civilian population—eventually killing 4 million people.

I felt the people of Vietnam were heroic; but I had little hope that we could truly end the war with Vietnam intact and independent. Then someone gave me a copy of Vietnam Will Win by Wilfred Burchett, an Australian supporter of the National Liberation Front of Vietnam. He explained in great detail the long-term military capacity of the Vietnamese people to withstand U.S. barbarism, but—as was later expressed to us directly by Vietnamese representatives to the U.S. peace movement—also explained that key to that victory was a powerful anti-war movement in the United States that could weaken, undermine, and eventually destroy public support for the war and force the U.S. government to withdraw all troops from Vietnam.

Applying these lessons today, we have to turn our focus to the United States government, which is Israel’s largest military and ideological ally. We should demand a complete cutting off of all U.S. aid to Israel, our government’s disassociation from Israel’s policies, and aggressive support for Palestinian self-determination and national liberation.
This tactical plan involves three components.
1)    Support for the Palestinian political project. This will support and end to Israeli interference in the internal affairs of the Palestinian people, an end to the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank and conditions under which Palestinian people have the right to travel and meet and receive humanitarian aid from all over the world.
2)    An international ideological counteroffensive against the Israeli government’s colonial master narrative. As one element of a far broader campaign I will address the Israeli government’s charges that Jews in Israel and throughout the world who oppose its occupation, partition, and oppression of the Palestinian people are “self-hating Jews.”
3)    Strengthening a broad, multi-racial united front in the United States rooted in Black and Latino communities with strong support from people of all races and classes, including Jews, to demand the complete and immediate cutting off of all U.S. military aid to Israel.
The Story of a Self-Respecting Jew

Eric Mann
The Israeli thought police have tried to silence or intimidate Jewish critics and opponents in Israel, in the U.S., and throughout the world by labeling them “self-hating Jews.”  Israel’s argument is that these Jews have responded to anti-Semitism by trying to disassociate themselves from their Jewish identity and history—and thus side with Israel’s “enemies.”  Israeli ideologues argue that since Israel is “the Jewish state” and thus speaks for all the Jews in the world those who disagree are by definition “anti-Semitic” and “self-hating Jews.”

But in fact, there are many Jews in the U.S.– especially those who have been part of the civil rights, anti-war, anti-apartheid, environmental justice, and international human rights movements–who have contempt for the Israeli ideologues who would rather foster anti-Semitism against their Jewish critics than engage in an honest debate—let alone look in the mirror.  I think we consider ourselves “self-respecting Jews” or some concept similar to that and out of that self-respect and an independent political perspective based on the principles of human rights and self-determination for oppressed peoples comes respect for the people of Palestine.

This self-respect includes an ongoing and militant opposition to anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish remarks, slurs, and actions—including statements by some who oppose Israeli policy by using anti-Semitic arguments. This is complicated by the fact that Israel itself tries to make a complete identity of itself and “worldwide Jewry” and attacks Jew who oppose both anti-Semitism and Israeli policy as “anti-Semites.” While this makes the job more difficult, those Jews who are militant opponents of anti-Semitism and Israeli policy can help provide some leadership in fighting on both fronts.

From this perspective, as my relatives often said, before telling a long narrative, “To make a long story short….” let me tell you about my own journey of consciousness and commitment.
My life has been shaped from birth by the Jewish, anti-fascist, working class, pro-union, pro “Negro” internationalist, and socialist traditions.  While I joined the civil rights, Black liberation, anti-Vietnam war movement in 1964 (when I was 21), my involvement in the struggle against anti-Semitism and fascism and “for the Negro” began in my family and my life experience prior to my next 50 years of a lifetime of organized resistance to the system.

I have always been a member of an organization.  As I say in my book, Playbook for Progressives:  16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer, in order to be effective you must “join an organization based on political agreement with its strategy and tactics and build a base and never walk alone.”  For me that meant the Congress of Racial Equality, Newark Community Union Project, Students for a Democratic Society, organizing prisoners as I spent 18 months in prison for militant anti-war demonstrations, Soledad Brothers and Attica Defense Committees, United Auto Workers New Directions Movement, Jesse Jackson Rainbow Coalition, Labor Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles, Bus Riders Union, Community Rights Campaign, and our Fight for the Soul of the Cities.

In my case, it is not possible to separate my Jewish identity, history, and experience from the life choices I have—shaped by the revolutionary Two Decades of the Sixties in which hundreds of millions of people turned the world on its head.  So, when the apologists for Israel’s militarism accuse people like me of being “self-hating Jews” I see it as despicable and desperate. But I also know that those arguments are used to intimidate and silence many Jews of conscience including those in Israel who are standing up to these atrocities.  I also know that many non-Jews who are appalled by Israel’s policies fear accusations of anti-Semitism.

As such, I want to explain the deeply personal/political experiences that lead me to support the Palestinian people’s right to a homeland and self-determination and opposition to Israeli policy, politics, and persecution very early in my life.  I present my journey as a “self-respecting Jew” as one tactic in the larger ideological war.

I was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1942. My father was in Europe as a member of the infantry during the Second World War against the German, Japanese, and Italian fascists.  My mother Libby and Aunt Marcia raised me.  I have a picture of me holding a picture of my father in an army uniform when I was 2—before I had ever met him.

Both sides of my family came from Jews who fled Russia and Poland during the anti-Semitic pogroms of the early 1900s.  Some became impoverished small shop owners—like my mother’s father whose “candy stores” always went out of business despite her efforts to help him–as he labored 16 hours a day only to work himself to death at an early age.  Others, like my grandmother Sarah Mandell, were teenage, immigrant, Jewish garment workers.  My grandmother worked in a sweatshop close to the Triangle Shirt Waist Factory in Manhattan—whose workers were among the most militant and politically conscious, leading strikes of the International Ladies Garment Workers of which she was a proud member. Management kept the factory doors locked so the workers could not escape. On March 25, 1911 the factory caught on fire killing 146 women.

I learned of that story from my grandmother long before I read it in labor history books.  She worked in the industry as a pattern cutter until she was 50. She was among the last Jewish workers as the workforce became Black, Puerto Rican and Dominican. I was honored to speak for my family at her 100th birthday party and thanked her for being one of my role models.  She said, “The best thing about this party is that I know who all of you are and still have all my marbles.”  She read the Jewish Daily Forward (Fovitz), a secular, socialist, Yiddish newspaper all her life.

My parents were militantly anti-Nazi.  My father, Howard, spent his teenage years as an organizer for the Textile Workers Union—having gone to the South to organize Black and white workers in the 1930s.  He was also a member of the Young People’s Socialist League.

My mother hated the fascists more than anyone I knew.  “The fascist bastards” was one of the first expressions I learned.  I understood the Germans had done something terrible to us but was surprised, at 5 years old in 1947, to experience anti-Semitism by some of the kids on Argyle Road across from Prospect Park in Brooklyn where I lived.  They called me “a Jew bastard” and said, “You killed Christ”—who I did not know at the time.  My mom got very angry and said, Scratch a goy and you’ll find an anti-Semite.”  She went storming out to confront the mothers whose sons had said it, telling them “they learned that hatred from you.”

When I was six, I came up into our apartment repeating a rhyme I had heard the older kids say:  “Eenie Meenie Miney Moe, Catch a N—-r By the Toe.”  My mother was livid, “What did you say?  Don’t you ever use that word!  Do you know how cruel that word is?  The word is ‘Negro.’ 

 It describes people who are Black-skinned.  After what Hitler did to our people, how could you talk badly about the Negroes?  The Jews and the Negroes are in the same boat.”  I felt terrible.  I had grown up with such adoration from my mom that I was shocked at her anger at me and felt truly terrible about what I had done.  I was proud of my mother and wanted to apologize to the Negroes I had not yet met.  I went back down to my friends in Prospect Park—Jews, Italians, and Irish—and told them the terrible mistake we had made and how we hadn’t known what the word meant.  They smiled at me as if I was really stupid; they had known exactly what they were saying.

So at an early age my worldview was set.  We were Jews who were for socialism and the labor movement and we fought for the Negro and against the fascist bastards inside and outside the United States.  That worldview continues to shape my life today.

In 1950, we moved to Valley Stream, Long Island, a working class, white suburb just outside of Queens.  I loved going to Saturday morning services at Temple Gates of Zion—for the camaraderie, the mystery of a Torah I would touch with the tallis as the Rabbi brought it through the aisle for all of us to embrace.  I loved the Hebrew and Yiddish languages I did not speak—the songs, Adon Alum, Ein Keloheinu, that I knew by heart, the Kaddish, the mourners prayer with its alliterative and evoking Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash sh’mei raba to which we responded Amein–and the chalah and pickled herring.

Each week we would be asked to donate so that the Jewish people in Israel could plant trees in a desert.  Our Rabbi explained the miracle that Palestine was “a land without a people” and we Jews were “a people without a land.”  Then the Rabbi continued, “We have to plant the trees because they had it for 1,000 years and did nothing with it.”  I asked, “Who were they?”  He simply said, “The Arabs”—with the clear implication it was “us” against “them.”  He continued, “After the Holocaust, we desperately needed a land.  So we got Israel, and the Arabs have so many countries why can’t they take “them.”  (I later understood he was talking about the nakba in which 700,000 or more Palestinians were forcibly driven out of Palestine and have still demanded “the right of return.”)  

I still remember the contempt in his voice.  One of the ways a movement loses support is when it can’t make sense to its own members and its “logic” is morally questionable.  If there was one thing I came away from that conversation with, at 13, was that in fact Palestine was not “a land without a people.”

In high school I played JV basketball and was in the theater group and student government.  Traveling in those circles I knew about the high school fraternities and assumed me and my friends would all be “fraternity brothers” in one of the two fraternities—Black and Gold or Green and Red.  I was not asked to join either one.  My liberal Christian friends explained that Red and Green did not accept Jews—but assured me that when they got in they would change all that.  My friends who got into Black and Gold told me more firmly that it was a Christian fraternity and I was not welcome.

I was then approached by two very impressive guys, Howie Sandler and Bob Pelcyger. They were members of a Jewish fraternity, Mu Sigma. When I asked them why I had never seen anyone with their sweaters they explained that it was sort of underground.  “Since our sweaters are all gold with black trim and their sweaters are all black with gold trim, Black and Gold says they do not want to be confused with Jews—so anyone caught wearing the Mu Sigma sweater will be beat up.”

Besides how intellectually ludicrous the racist argument was, this was my first “identity crisis.”  I was an internationalist; I did not believe in racial segregation.  I did not want to be in a Jewish only fraternity.  But the choice was not of my making—I would join an all Jewish fraternity or no fraternity at all.  This whole rejection by my former friends was unsettling. What about us was less than them?  Were we outcasts?  What about us didn’t they like?  If I joined Mu Sigma, would I once again be stigmatized as “the Jew” which I hadn’t experienced since I left Brooklyn? But for reasons I can only trace to my parents and, by then, my own character, personality, and politics I responded to the high-school anti-Semitism with anger, contempt, and resistance. 

 While it had not been my first choice to be in an all Jewish fraternity, if that was going to be forced on me, then I would embrace it and make it into a cause.

Again, years later, when I read the world-shaping Wretched of the Earth by Franz Fanon I understood my own situation in a far broader historical and racial context.  I was deeply moved by his discussion of the terrible self-image many Algerians had to confront because of it was imposed on them by the brutal French occupiers–who enthusiastically murdered unarmed and poorly armed Algerians but folded in front of Hitler’s army like a house of cards and turned over French Jews and resistance fighters to the Nazi occupiers. Fanon argued that no amount of individual psychotherapy could undo the degradation of a people who were systematically vilified by an oppressor.

Only rebellion, armed force, aggression towards the oppressor, and an ideological understanding that your movement reflected civilization in the face of the barbarism of the oppressor could offer any chance of personal and collective liberation.  Only national liberation could heal the wounds of national oppression.

I read W.E.B. DuBois and listened to Malcolm X.  They were “race men” and Pan Africanists who understood that the healing of the profound wounds inflicted upon Black people by a white supremacist system based on slavery required a war to the death with “the white man”—not every white person–but as the personification of racist, white supremacist, capitalist system that had to be overthrown.

In thinking back on this, I am again thankful beyond words for my mother Libby.  When she witnessed anti-Semitism she never tried to give me “arguments” about how to pacify the savages, like “Well actually, we didn’t kill Christ” or “not all of us have big noses or are dishonest businesspeople.”  She understood that whoever won the battle of ideas would win the war.  As such, she went on the warpath against “the dirty anti-Semites” and “the fascist bastards.”  I saw her tell an anti-Semitic man on a bus he was an “ignoramus,” which I thought was one of the greatest curse words I had ever heard.  Like Fanon, my mom taught me that the only way to address racial degradation is to stand up and fight back.

I also came to understand that agreeing to join Mu Sigma was not just an act of defiance.  As I got to meet many of its members, I really liked them a lot.  They were smart, intellectual, had a great sense of humor—Jewish humor—ironic, sarcastic, philosophical, with long stories that people had to perform not just tell.  They were also cool guys.  In realizing I liked those “Jews,” I realized I also liked myself.

After my 3 month “pledging period,” I was finally “initiated” and got my Mu Sigma sweater.  I told my fraternity brothers that we should all wear our sweaters to high school and stand up to those Black and Gold idiots.  They all refused.  Some accused me of “picking a fight” to which I replied, “Of course, that’s exactly what I want to do and what we need to do.”  I also thought they must be exaggerating the consequences.

Again, to my shock, many of my former buddies from the baseball league where I had been an “all-star” physically attacked me, beat me up, spat on me, called me a fucking Jew bastard, and once again a Christ killer.  These were guys who I had grown up with since 7th grade, had gone to their homes, and yes, who came to my fucking bar mitzvah before they learned from their fraternities and families that they hated me. The idea of being attacked by people who knew you personally showed me the depth of racial hatred—once the ideology took root you became the “other” and your former friends could beat you with not an ounce of moral ambivalence.

My attackers called our fraternity “Jew Sigma.”  Groups of 3 and 4 guys threw me up against the lockers, and punched me until they knocked the wind out of me.  As the week went on, every day my sweater was covered with more and more dried spit.  I would not wash it off.  I treated it like a badge of honor.  But I was also very frightened.  I realized I was physically afraid, not physically tough enough to stand up to my attackers.  I was practicing passive resistance out of necessity not philosophy.

The next Sunday I went back to my fraternity and, in retrospect, organized my first civil rights action.  I challenged my fraternity brothers, “Look, either we all wear these sweaters or I quit.  We should not let those anti-Semites push us around.  But if we are afraid of being beat up then let’s disband the fraternity.”  In the movie, all of the guys would have charged out of the meeting and taken on the bullies.  But in the real world the campaign turned on the decision of one person to stand with me the next morning. Marvin Weinstein was a wrestler and a body builder. 

 When he put on his Mu Sigma t-shirt his muscles rippled out of the sleeves.  He was the perfect person for the job.

I went to school the next Monday.  The Black and Gold guys came towards me again, but then they saw Marvin right next to me as my bodyguard.  Marvin confronted Pat Zarcone, one of the leaders of the pack, in front of 100 people in the hall:  “Hey Pat, do you have any problems with us wearing these sweaters?”  Pat, also a jock and as big as Marvin, assessed the situation and said, “Not at all Marvin, I don’t know where you got that idea.”  

The war was over; the other side had backed down.  I had not been the strongest.  But I was the best tactician, I had a strong class stand, and was able to rally forces to my side—and win the battle.  The next day more fraternity brothers, hearing of the truce, came to school with their sweaters on.  Many of the girls said, “Oh, there is a new fraternity at school.”  It was a rite of passage for me—the first time I had fought for a principle involving a lot of personal risk.  I was really surprised that I was willing to fight so hard—and of course it was great to win.

Throughout this time, I did not think the oppression of Jews was the central problem in the world or even my life—but it informed my emotional make-up and worldview.  By 13 I was reading Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and learned of the death of Emmett Till—tortured and murdered by white racists for looking at a white woman in Mississippi.  I understood the experiences of the anti-Semitism I experienced with some sense of proportion and priority.  Out of the interaction of personal experience and political perspective I understood that we all had to make choices and mine would be to consciously disassociate myself with the oppression of the dominant culture and to side with the oppressed.

By the time I got to Cornell University in 1960, I worked with the 10 Black students in the entire university—including Angel Flemings and Sam Carradine—to challenge Cornell’s racist admission policies.  Every summer I worked in the South Bronx as a social worker with Black and Puerto Rican kids.  When I graduated I joined the civil rights movement as a field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in Harlem and the Northeast.
My experience reflects the choices of many other Jews as well. I just came back from the 50th Anniversary of Mississippi Freedom Summer, hosted by Tougaloo College in Jackson, Mississippi. It was a transformative experience to see Robert Moses, Dave Dennis, Hollis Watkins, Courtland Cox, Dottie Zellner, Frankye Adams Johnson, Charlie Cobb, the SNCC Freedom Singers, and many hundreds more who made history 50 years ago still working full time for social justice and social revolution.  It was heartwarming that several Black speakers at the event, thanked the organizers of Jewish origins for the historic role they playednot in comparison to others but in terms of their overwhelming over-representation.

To make this concrete, it was estimated that about 1,000 volunteers went to Mississippi and the South in the summer of 1964.  Of the white kids who went, more than 50 percent were Jewish, while Jews in 1964 were 2% of the U.S. population and 3% of the whites.  What is the mathematical probability of that happening as a random act?  Virtually none.  But as a political probability it is very high and even predictable because of the long history of Jewish suffering, discrimination, and the trauma of the Holocaust–but also because of the long social justice traditions and proven leadership in social revolutions all over the world.  As Nelson Mandela observed, “I have found Jews to be more broad-minded than most whites on issues of race and politics, perhaps because they themselves have historically been victims of prejudice.”

And yet in Mississippi in 2014 there was not one supporter of the Israeli occupation of Palestine.  How was that possible?  Because the civil rights, anti-Vietnam war, anti-apartheid, and Palestinian liberation movements have been allies since at least the 1960s.Today, the vast majority of liberal, radical, progressive, revolutionary Jews work in inner city, urban communities as teachers, social workers, and live and work in a multi-racial reality in which their identity as Jews is an important but not primary point of reference.  The Israeli state and its ideological warriors have no buttons to push with them.  They have no ambivalences about Israeli brutality and nothing to prove to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee or the Israeli government.

These Jews, as part of a far larger social justice movement can play a critical role in opposing U.S. military aid to Israel and opposing Israel’s attacks on Gaza and the Palestinians.

Exposing Israeli Human Rights Abuses and Demanding the End of all U.S. military aid to Israel
There are moments in history that are tipping points—often not fully understood at the time but in retrospect—when the tide turns and seemingly impossible revolutionary objectives become shockingly possible.  Often, they are when a system exposes itself in ways that even its closest supporters find disgraceful and are unable to defend to themselves let alone others.

The occupation of Gaza has gone on seemingly forever, but today the United Nations Human Rights Council is investigating war crimes charges against the state of Israel because “more than 1,900 Palestinians were killed in the recent fighting, a majority of them believed to be civilians while on the Israeli side 64 soldiers and 3 civilians were killed.”  Human rights lawyers are documenting that the Israeli army attacked homes, schools, hospitals, Gaza’s only power plant, and U.N. premises in apparent violation of the Geneva Conventions.

In response, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu replied, “Hamas has carried out ‘a double war crime’ for targeting civilians with its rockets and ‘using civilians as human shield for its activities.’”  Elie Wiesel, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, in a full-page ad, called on President Obama to condemn Hamas for “using children as human shields:” Wiesel argues, “I have seen Jewish children thrown into the fire.  And now I have seen Muslim children used as human shields, in both cases, by worshippers of death cults…

What we are suffering through today is not a battle of Jew versus Arab or Israeli versus Palestinian.

Rather, it is a battle between those who celebrate life and those who champion death. It is a battle of civilization versus barbarism.” By posing the battle of a barely armed, occupied, blockaded, starving people with rockets trying to stop ethnocide by a nuclear power with one of the best financed armies in the world as one of barbarism versus civilization, Wiesel is correct but needs to look in the mirror—for in his aggressive defense of the murder of children it is he who has become the barbarian.  In my many conversations and readings over the past weeks I have found that many of those who have strained to find some rationale for Israel brutality have reached the breaking point—and agree that this is a shanda, a great sin that must be stopped.

For those of us in the United States, the focus of our work should be in demanding the end of U.S. military aid to Israel. The numbers are staggering. Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of US foreign aid since World War II, $121 billion to date. The 2014 federal budget includes $3.1 billion in direct military aid and an additional $504 million for research, development and production of anti-rocket and missile defense systems, most of which are US-Israeli joint projects. Annual Foreign Military Assistance grants to Israel represent 23 to 25% of the overall Israeli defense budget. Defense Department contracts since 1999 show that at least 50 companies have profited from contracts totaling more than $6.5 billion benefiting Israel, either for the Israeli military or for work performed in Israel.[1]

In the present attacks on Gaza, Israel has hit houses, offices and farmland with airstrikes by F-16s (manufactured by Lockheed Martin), missiles fired from Apache helicopters (manufactured by Boeing) and shelling from naval gunboats. The US government has continued to fuel for fighter jets and military vehicles, to Israel’s armed forces despite a soaring civilian death toll from aerial and other military attacks. On July 14, the same day President Obama vowed that “We’re going to continue to do everything we can to facilitate a return to the 2012 ceasefire,” the State Department approved a $544 million sale of AIM-9x sidewinder missiles and associated support services to Israel. These missiles can be used by F-16s to hit ground targets.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, said “[The US] has not only provided the heavy weaponry, which is now being used by Israel in Gaza, but they’ve also provided almost $1 billion in providing the Iron Domes to protect Israelis from the rocket attacks, but no such protection has been provided to Gazans against the shelling.” Glen Greenwald’s recent release of new Snowden documents indicates that “Israeli aggression would be impossible without the consent, lavish support, and protection of the U.S. government…the relationship between the NSA…and the Israeli spying agency…is at the center of that enabling.”

To continue this lethal partnership, many U.S. police are being trained by Israeli defense forces in suppression of Black and Latino colonial subjects in the U.S.  As one example, in the recent armed police suppression of demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri, both the St. Louis County Police and St. Louis police department have received training by Israeli security forces.

As such, it is President Obama even more than Prime Minister Netanyahu who should be the primary focus of our demands and our organizing.  In that context, Jews in the U.S., just as they were in Freedom Summer 50 years ago, can be a critical component of a multi-racial united front for social justice and human rights.

Eric Mann, a veteran of Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, and the United Auto Workers is the author of Playbook for Progressives: 16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer.  He is the host of KPFK Pacifica’s Voices from the Frontlines:  Your National Movement-Building Show  He can be reached at

Friday, August 29, 2014

Abolish Poor Doors Everywhere!


PoorDoor Apartheid…
An entrance to racism Now!
One door or… no home!

s. e. anderson
Fancy New York Condo Will Have "Rich Door" And "Poor Door"

poor door
This is discrimination at it’s finest.

New York City officials have approved a controversial plan that involves two separate entrances at 40 Riverside Boulevard. One entrance will be for condo owners, the other will be for people living in the affordable housing units in the building. Also, residents living in those units will not be able to access any of the buildings amenities. That means no gym, no pool, no fun!!

Poor Doors Are Necessary to Placate the Nice Rich Developers

by Christopher Robbins

Extell's project at One Riverside Park, looking at the entrance for market-rate tenants. Low-income tenants will be forced to enter on 62nd Street. (Extell)
New Yorkers rely on rich people. When we need a nice public park, rich people build it. When we need an affordable place to live, rich people build it. Shouldn't these rich people get something in return for their generosity? (If we tax them more they'll run away, and we won't have any more nice parks or cheap apartments.) Don't rich people deserve a public park penthouse or a separate entrance to their apartment for all their trouble? A report on Poor Doors in today's Times reveals just how resigned advocates and average New Yorkers are to this reasoning. "There are trade-offs," a rep from the National Housing Conference tells the paper. "It's really important that there's no discrimination, but there's a balance between what we can do and should do."
We also hear from a low-income resident of the Edge in Williamsburg: "Living here is a privilege. Over there you have powerful people. Over here you have low-income people. I'm fine with that."
But the developers who build these apartment complexes are getting a privilege too: tax breaks. Mayor Bloomberg awarded roughly $3 billion a year in tax breaks to developers, and his projects are now coming to fruition.
As a City Council member in 2009, Mayor de Blasio voted in favor of legislation that allows developers to build affordable housing units away from market-rate units and still receive the valuable 421a tax credits from the city. His explanation for his vote is "it was not evident at the time the nuances of where the doors would be."
De Blasio now opposes Poor Doors as part of his affordable housing plan, and two City Council members have drafted legislation to ban them and curb other forms of discrimination that prevent rent-controlled tenants from using amenities paid for in part by their tax dollars.
Developers despise affordable-housing tenants (one broker put it this way: "The sponsor doesn't want the tenant to have access to additional luxury services. His goal is to get him out of the apartment"). They eat into their profit. If there's no profit, what's the point?
"We wouldn't be able to do affordable," Gary Barnett, the founder and president of Extell Development Company, one of the largest development firms in New York, tells the Times about mixing units. "It wouldn't make any sense."
It goes unmentioned in the story, but Extell and Barnett somehow found a way to afford at least $400,000 in campaign donations to Governor Cuomo and state Democrats since 2012. Last summer, after shell companies for Extell donated $100,000, the developer received $35 million in tax breaks to build ONE57, the luxury high rise that will literally blot out the sun over Central Park. When Cuomo signed the tax breaks into law, Barnett chipped in another $100,000.
Emails from Extell describing how to legally skirt campaign finance law and heap donations on Cuomo for his birthday were uncovered by the governor's special commission to root out corruption. An investigation by the Times revealed that all references to Cuomo and Extell were erased from the commission's report at the governor's behest.
Extell also donated $18,000 to Mayor de Blasio's campaign, part of the nearly $800,000 he received from real estate interests.
"It will please big developers while offering a sprinkling of housing," Tom Angotti, a professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, said of de Blasio's affordable housing plan in a story Gothamist ran last month. "It's no different than Bloomberg's plan to upzone wide areas for high-rise development and then get a little bit of affordable housing to win over the community."

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Brazil's Quilombo, Reparations & YOU

Brazil's 'Quilombo' Movement May Be The World's Largest Slavery Reparations Program


Luiz Pinto, who has been fighting eviction for decades, at home with his dog. (Carolina Ramirez/The Huffington Post)
When Luiz Pinto was growing up, his parents wouldn't let the family talk about slavery. The issue raised ugly memories.
Pinto’s grandmother was born into slavery. She threw herself into a river before Pinto was born, taking her own life after the son of a wealthy, white landowner raped her. The subjects of slavery and racism became taboo in the Pinto household, a sprawling set of orange brick homes perched on a hilltop where Rio de Janeiro’s famed statue of Christ the Redeemer is visible in the distance through the trees.
“I only knew her from photographs,” says Pinto, a 72-year-old samba musician.
These days, Brazil’s legacy of slavery takes up much of Pinto’s time. He travels across the state of Rio de Janeiro and back and forth to the capital in Brasília, more than 700 miles away, to lobby for the land rights of people who live in communities said to be founded by runaway slaves. Such communities are known in Portuguese as “quilombos.” According to Brazilian law, residents of quilombos have a constitutional right to land settled by their ancestors -- and that right, though rarely fulfilled, is quietly revolutionizing the country’s race relations.
In the past year, as all eyes turned toward Brazil in anticipation of the World Cup, international media offered ample coverage of the country’s staggering inequality. Reports have highlighted the stark contrast between Brazil’s hardscrabble slums and its glittering soccer stadiums. What has received less attention is the civil rights movement gradually gaining momentum throughout the country.
Brazil imported more slaves from Africa between the 16th and 19th centuries than any other country in the Americas. In 1889, it became the last nation in the Western Hemisphere to outlaw the institution. Today, more people of African descent live in Brazil than in any country in the world besides Nigeria. People of color make up 51 percent of Brazil’s population, according to the most recent census.
By and large, black Brazilians live in the worst housing and attend the poorest schools. They work the lowest-paid jobs, and they disproportionately fill the jail cells of the world’s fourth largest prison system. This lopsided state of affairs, Afro-Brazilian intellectuals and the country’s social scientists largely agree, is a result of racial discrimination with roots in the country’s history of slavery.
Brazil has never experienced anything akin to the U.S. civil rights movement or South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle. But the quilombo movement, while still in its infancy, is challenging Brazil’s deeply ingrained racial inequality. Ratified in 1988 after a two-decade-long military dictatorship, Brazil’s constitution states that residents of quilombos are entitled to a permanent, non-transferable title to the land they occupy -- something analogous to the United States’ Native American reservations, minus the self-government.
Now, more than 1 million black Brazilians are calling upon the government to honor their constitutional right to land. Among them are Luiz Pinto and his family, who have fended off decades of eviction attempts and managed to remain ensconced in their quilombo, known as Sacopã, in a neighborhood gentrified long ago by wealthier, whiter Brazilians.
The situation in Brazil stands in stark contrast to that of the United States, where, as the author Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out in a widely read cover story for The Atlantic this May, Congress has repeatedly refused to pass a bill calling for a simple public study on the impact reparations would have on the descendants of slaves. The idea that the U.S. government would even consider handing thousands of tracts of land to black communities is unthinkable.
Few Brazilian conservatives find the idea appealing, either. Many of them have scorned the quilombo movement as an affront to property rights and have tried to overturn the law in court. And despite drafting the quilombo law in the first place, the Brazilian government has been so slow to hand over land titles to the communities in question that many applicants wonder if they’ll ever receive them.
Though they face an uncertain future, Brazil’s quilombos nevertheless contain the seeds of what may well become the most ambitious slavery reparations program ever attempted.
Luiz Pinto at home in quilombo Sacopã. (Carolina Ramirez/The Huffington Post)
Palm trees and towering condominiums flank the cobblestone road that leads to quilombo Sacopã. New Kias and Volkswagens line the street, while gated parking lots protect more valuable SUVs. Virtually none of the residents of this section of Rio de Janeiro’s Lagoa neighborhood, with the exception of the Pinto family, are black.
There was a time when only black people lived on the forested hillsides of Sacopã, huddled together in makeshift houses of mud and bamboo. Pinto’s grandparents traveled to the city by river with roughly 150 other ex-slaves in the late 19th century, he says, and settled among the local indigenous people, far away from the bustling city center to the north or the middle-class residential areas that would later envelop them.
“The quilombos became favelas,” Pinto says, referring to the slums that surround Rio and many other major Brazilian cities.
Developers razed much of Sacopã in the 1970s, when Rio’s growing middle and upper classes pushed into the neighborhood and sent land values skyrocketing. Local authorities expelled or relocated virtually all the black residents, most of whom were considered squatters, from Sacopã’s hillsides, clearing the way for high-rise condominiums populated by wealthier, paler-skinned Brazilians.
Pinto’s nephew, José Claudio, now 50, was 12 years old the first time the authorities visited quilombo Sacopã and threatened to kick the family out because they couldn’t prove ownership of the land. Two military police trucks rolled into the driveway. The cops said the family’s houses would be demolished.
A lucky connection allowed the Pinto family to escape eviction. It happened that the family’s lawyer was married to a high-ranking military officer. In the days of Brazil’s military dictatorship, which lasted from 1964 to 1985, the order of a general carried far more weight than a stack of legal documents.
“I’ll never forget it,” José Claudio told The Huffington Post. “The subtenente, or whoever was in charge of the troops, saluted him and he said: ‘No one’s getting kicked out of here.’ That was our first victory.”
The security afforded by the family’s loose connection to the general lasted only as long as the military dictatorship itself. In 1986, a year after Brazil’s return to democracy, the cops came back to Sacopã, and this time they stayed. For one year, local authorities stationed two round-the-clock policemen outside Sacopã and locked the kitchen shut to keep the Pinto family from hosting parties or playing live music.
“They chained us up here,” José Claudio said, rattling a rusted lock that still dangles from the kitchen window. “We couldn’t do anything.”
Today, visitors to the neighborhood might not even notice the Pinto family’s cluster of houses, hidden behind a towering condo, if not for the sign in the driveway declaring the community’s constitutionally protected status as a quilombo.
The property received quilombo certification in 2004 after undergoing a lengthy application process with the federal government. Instead of trying to kick them out, the authorities now guarantee the group’s right to stay while the government carries out the work of demarcating the land. Still, as is the case with the vast majority of Brazil’s quilombos, a complicated bureaucratic system has prevented the Pintos from receiving the title to their land.
“Nothing happens,” Pinto says. “The headway we’ve made for quilombo land rights in this country is practically nil.”
Without a land title, the Pintos live in a state of limbo, the threat of eviction looming constantly.
José Claudio Pinto holds the lock that was once used to keep the windows of quilombo Sacopã's kitchen shut. (Carolina Ramirez/The Huffington Post)
Most Brazilians familiar with the term “quilombo” associate it with the country's past rather than its present. The word has been in use for hundreds of years, dating back to the colonial period -- roughly the sixteenth century through 1825 -- when runaway slave settlements dotted the Brazilian countryside. The most famous of those settlements, Palmares, grew to more than 15,000 inhabitants and lasted nearly a century before the Portuguese destroyed it in 1694.
Though the term faded from use during the early 20th century, by the 1950s, advocates trying to lend momentum to a nascent black Brazilian civil rights effort began to resurrect it.
The symbolic power of the quilombo appealed to former Congresswoman Benedita da Silva. In 1986, after Brazil’s military dictatorship ended, da Silva was one of 11 Afro-Brazilians among the 594 members of Congress elected to draw up the country’s new founding document. She managed to convince a body of lawmakers composed largely of light-skinned men to lay the framework for a modern-day, Brazilian version of “40 acres and a mule.”
Under da Silva’s law, quilombo members own their land outright. They pay no rent and no one, no matter how rich, can legally kick them out (with the exception of the federal government, which is currently fighting eminent domain battles in the courts with at least two certified quilombos, whose respective claims overlap a Navy base and a space station).
The key to da Silva’s success was the law’s innocuous phrasing. It specifies that descendants of residents of the quilombos have a right to a permanent title to the land they occupy. But the term “quilombo” was left legally undefined for years, implying that it would be necessary for any such community to be able to trace its direct lineage to a runaway slave settlement. Most of the assembly members who voted for da Silva’s article likely viewed it as a symbolic gesture that would affect only a handful of communities.
It didn’t work out that way. In 2003, the left-wing government of President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva expanded the legal definition of the term “quilombo,” issuing a presidential decree that categorized quilombo descendants as an ethnicity. Under Brazilian law, people have the right to define their own ethnicity for the purposes of social policy. With Lula’s new rule, virtually any black community could become certified as a quilombo if a majority of its residents decided to.
When Lula’s decree was issued in 2003, there were 29 recognized quilombos in Brazil. As of 2013, that number had swelled to more than 2,400, comprising more than 1 million people, with hundreds more communities applying that have yet to be recognized.
The government has certified quilombos in all but two of Brazil’s 26 states, from the tropical north to the industrialized south. There are quilombos that encompass thousands of people and quilombos that consist of just a few extended families. There are quilombos in the cities, quilombos along the countryside, quilombos on islands and quilombos in the rainforest. The land claimed by these communities totals about 4.4 million acres, according to the Brazilian federal government -- an area roughly the size of New Jersey.
Asked if she knew her proposal would be applied so extensively, da Silva said that was always her intention.
“Of course -- that’s what we were working for,” da Silva told HuffPost. “[The article] wasn’t born just because I was at the Constitutional Assembly. It was born because there existed and continues to exist a black movement that includes academics, includes quilombolas, the universities -- all dedicated to validating black people’s land rights.”
Yet the Brazilian government has shown little sign that it will deliver the land titles promised by the constitution any time soon. Itamar Rangel of the National Institute for Colonization and Land Reform, the federal agency that carries out quilombo land titling, says the constant delays owe to the necessity of negotiating a settlement and indemnification with property holders. “Brazilian law defends the property rights of any citizen,” Rangel told HuffPost. “Carrying out this policy won’t be cheap.”
As of this year, only 217 quilombos have received land titles. The Brazilian government issued only three land titles in 2013, and another three the year before that -- the lowest annual number since 2004.
“The quilombo movement is poorly prepared,” José Arruti, an anthropologist at the State University of Campinas who studies quilombos, told HuffPost. “Their communities began to organize and to understand the political game a very short time ago.”
A sign in at the entrance to Sacopã announces the community's quilombo status. (Carolina Ramirez/The Huffington Post)
A guitarist and singer with several records under his belt and a following in Rio, Pinto inherited his vocation from his parents. His father played the cavaquinho, a ukulele variation often used in samba, Brazil’s national music, which evolved out of rhythms brought to the country by African slaves. The songs his mother sang as she hung the laundry to dry remain etched in Pinto’s head.
“She was a domestic artist,” Pinto said, smiling as he recalled a tune his mother wrote about the U.S. moon landing in 1969. “I’ve got a lot of her songs in my repertoire that I play at my shows. She didn’t have the courage to record."
Music has helped Pinto’s land fight in more ways than one. To receive certification as a quilombo, every community must pass through a multi-step process involving three state agencies and a government-commissioned study conducted by social scientists, who document the cultural and historical characteristics that make for a quilombo-specific ethnicity. For the researchers who filed Sacopã’s anthropological report in 2007, one of those characteristics was its music.
“It’s given me a lot of strength in this struggle,” said Pinto. “Being onstage, you’re being heard by thousands of people, so you can explain your situation.”

Hear Pinto sing his mother's song above.
The heart of the Pintos’ quilombo is a covered space between the families’ houses, nestled among papaya and palm trees. Here adults gather, children play and food is served on red picnic tables bearing the logo for Itapaiva, a local beer. Some of the most legendary names in Brazilian music -- Zeca Pagodinho and Beth Carvalho among them -- have performed at the monthly parties Sacopã once hosted.
In recent years, though, the local government has squelched those parties. Neighbors in the towering buildings that flank the quilombo have complained about the noise, and said the parking lot the family sets up to earn extra cash is a violation of zoning laws that restrict businesses in the neighborhood.
The open space that once hosted famous names in Rio’s samba scene now sits idle, animated only on Sundays when the family’s 28 members sit down at the red plastic tables to an afternoon meal of feijoada, Brazil’s national dish, a stew of black beans and pork.
Pinto said it’s unfair that the neighborhood is zoned in favor of his whiter, wealthier neighbors. “The argument they always use against us is that this is a strictly residential area,” he said. “So we can’t do these things. But out there they’ve got bakeries, they’ve got bars. It’s a cowardly way for them to destabilize us so they can kick us out of here.”
Luiz Pinto and his grandson in the area of their quilombo that once hosted lively parties. Neighbors' complaints have since shut down the events. (Carolina Ramirez/The Huffington Post)
Former Brazilian Senator Demóstenes Torres of the Demócraticos 25 party, or DEM, ignited a controversy in 2010 when he called Brazil’s history of racial mixing “beautiful” and expressly denied that black women were raped during slavery, even though rape and other forms of abuse during that era are a matter of historical record. (Torres himself has both African and European ancestors.)
Torres’ comments, however inaccurate, gestured toward some widespread beliefs about race in Brazil. Like the United States, Brazil built its early wealth on the backs of African slaves. But historically, interracial relationships have always occurred far more frequently in Brazil than in the U.S., and modern-day Brazil is a largely mixed-race society where the terms “black” and “white” don’t mean quite what they do in the United States.
Similarly to Latinos in the U.S., many Afro-Brazilians view race on a spectrum where skin color is measured by gradation. In 1976, when Brazil’s census first allowed survey respondents to write in their race rather than picking among the four options of white, black, “yellow” (Asian) and “pardo” (mixed race/mulatto), respondents submitted 135 different terms to describe their skin color. The dozens of self-selected shades included “chestnut,” “dark white” and “regular,” as well as descriptions like “black Indian,” “cinnamonish,” “navy blue” and “toasted.”
The Pinto family itself encompasses a panorama of blackness, with both dark-skinned members like Luiz and lighter-skinned members like José Claudio, who nevertheless identifies as black.
“My mother married a white man,” José Claudio said. “So I hear things. Sometimes white people will say, ‘Oh, that black guy,’ I don’t know what. They don’t know that I’m black too.”
Brazil’s widespread mixing of the races underpins the idea, popular in many quarters, that the country is a “racial democracy” in which members of all ethnicities live in harmony.
Social scientists and Afro-Brazilian intellectuals, on the other hand, have long viewed this idea as wishful thinking, pointing to a growing body of socioeconomic studies and statistics to bolster their case.
According to 2011 census figures, the most recent available, some 51 percent of Brazilians identify as either black or mixed-race -- terms that Brazilian statistics agencies often group together as simply “black.” Among the poorest 10 percent of the population, 72 percent are black, according to a 2012 study by the Institute of Applied Economic Research. A 2013 study by the same organization found that 70 percent of homicide victims are black, while another study from 2010 found that 60 percent of the prison population is black.
And reality may in fact be even grimmer than those numbers suggest. A revealing 2011 survey of 2,500 Brazilians led by sociologist Edward Telles asked each participant to identify his or her race and state his or her household income and level of education. At the same time, unbeknownst to the person taking the survey, the researcher would use a palette with 11 shades running from off-white to nearly black to identify the respondent’s skin tone.
Ordering the data by self-reported race yielded mixed results. White Brazilians fared better, but there was significant variation in education and income levels for Brazilians of color. Ordering the data by observed skin color, however, showed a sharp, repetitive pattern of inequality in which education and income plummet as the respondent’s skin gets darker.
“Discrimination is pretty clear,” Telles said, explaining that while Brazil never experienced explicit segregation akin to the United States, the country’s history of slavery has molded a society where racism reveals itself socioeconomically. “You wouldn’t think this is a largely black country if you just looked at advertisements and who’s on the TV screen, unless you were watching soccer. If you look at people in the stands at the World Cup, they’re almost all white. How does that compare to the people playing on the field?”
All of this is obvious to José Claudio. “When someone sees a black guy in an imported car, they say ‘Damn, he must be a soccer player or a singer!’” he said. “What was left over for black people was sports and music. No one thinks, ‘Damn, that guy must be a doctor. Maybe he’s a lawyer or a pilot.’”
Such research, however, has yet to convince many on the Brazilian right that reparations are the way to address racism. In 2004, conservative politicians who would later go on to form the DEM sued the Lula da Silva administration to overturn the presidential decree designating quilombos as an ethnicity, accusing the president of illegally bypassing Congress. (A representative DEM representative declined to comment for this article, adding that the party no longer considers the lawsuit a priority.)
By summer 2010, the lawsuit had made its way up to the country’s Supreme Justice Tribunal, where it has sat waiting for a decision ever since. The suspense weighs like an anvil on people like the Pinto family.
Meanwhile, quilombo certification and land titling continue to inch forward. But overturning Lula’s decree would likely annul them, destroying the movement overnight.
A view of Rio de Janeiro from the city's famous Christ the Redeemer statue. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
The view of Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue off in the distance is much clearer from Ana Simas’ fourth-floor apartment at the bottom of the hill. A psychiatrist with pale skin and shoulder-length brown hair, Simas has called the neighborhood of Lagoa home since her birth in 1952.
She seems an unlikely adversary for the Pinto family as they pursue their quilombo land claim. Simas takes pride in her progressive politics. She believes racism permeates Brazilian society. And she’s known the Pintos for decades. When she married her former husband in 1989, a samba musician named Jorge Simas, they held the wedding celebration at the Pinto family home in Sacopã.
But the friendship began to fray in 1999, the year Simas was elected head of the neighborhood homeowners association. Shortly after she took her new position, Pinto walked down to her apartment and asked her to make a statement before the court in support of his family’s land claim under Brazil’s squatter right law, which they were using at the time as a defense against authorities who were trying to evict them.
Simas refused. “It was the first time over the years that I’d known him that I sensed something odd in the way he was behaving,” she said. “It’s not up to me to decide if the land is his. It’s up to him to prove if the land is his and it’s the judge’s job to decide.”
As she took greater interest in the case, she found more reasons to oppose it. The Pinto family’s claim extends across an area designated as a nature reserve, which Simas refers to as “the lung of the Zona Sul,” Rio’s ritzy southern section. In 2005, the homeowners association joined a lawsuit filed by the Public Environmental Ministry against the Pinto family and other alleged squatters, accusing them of damaging the environment.
Simas began to doubt whether Sacopã was a quilombo at all. “I’ve never seen a quilombo that was just one family,” she said. “All the other real quilombos, like the quilombo of Jongo de Serrinha, are many families, not just one.”
Curious for information about Sacopã’s origins, she pulled the wedding certificate for Pinto’s parents from the local archives. “Neither one of them was born there,” she said, producing a photocopy of the document, which identifies the birthplace of both of Pinto’s parents as a Rio suburb called Novo Friburgo. “What were they doing being a quilombo here, if they’re from Novo Friburgo?”
Ana Simas, head of the Lagoa neighborhood homeowners association, opposes Sacopã's quilombo certification. (Carolina Ramirez/The Huffington Post)
Simas is not the only one with questions about what does and doesn’t constitute a quilombo. While Brazilian law tends to assign more importance to a group’s culture than to its history, that idea has yet to trickle down to much of the public.
Claudio Girafa, a white, 57-year-old civil engineer who comes to Pinto’s neighborhood on weekends to watch the soccer games at his brother’s apartment, says it’s important to him that quilombos prove their historical roots. “There’s a lot of questioning in the area about whether [Sacopã] was really a quilombo community,” he said. “I’m not against the idea of preserving quilombos in principle, but I think it has to be very well proven because it affects properties that were acquired later.”
The researchers who filed Sacopã’s anthropological report confirming its quilombo status in 2007 were aware that Pinto’s parents had been born in Novo Friburgo. Pinto’s parents lived an itinerant life, traveling from town to town and farm to farm in search of work before settling in the late 1920s on the hill in Lagoa where the family lives today. Pinto’s father was one of the workers who helped construct Rua Sacopã, the road that snakes up the hill.
But Pinto maintains that his grandparents had already arrived in the approximate area by the late 19th century, taking shelter in a cave lying within territory claimed by the quilombo. And while the researchers couldn’t document the presence of Pinto’s family prior to the 1920s, they wrote that the family’s stories “seem to us very likely from the point of view of historical science.”
What mattered for the anthropologists was that the Pinto family’s collective memory pointed to the existence of a group identity informed by a history of escaping slavery -- a quilombo ethnicity.
Still, the importance of this kind of group identity can elude some Brazilians who have no personal stake in the quilombo issue. Like many citizens, when asked if Brazil is a racist country, Girafa is quick to say it’s not. But he believes that programs like the quilombo movement and other forms of affirmative action only exacerbate existing racial tensions by committing injustices against whites. “There’s still discrimination, yes,” he said. “But what’s been done has only made things worse.”
Pinto feels differently. For him, racism isn’t just about being eyed suspiciously in rich parts of town, or being told to enter through the back when he knocks on a door because people assume he’s a servant -- indignities that many black Brazilians describe experiencing.
Racism for Pinto means that his ancestors were enslaved, and that once they were freed, his grandmother was raped and his parents pushed into a slum. Racism means that after his parents turned that slum into a home, the authorities tried to make him leave, because now white people wanted to live there.
“Racism in Brazil is institutional,” Pinto said. “It’s everywhere. It’s very difficult to confront.”
For his part, Pinto hopes to use the quilombo movement to shed light on the country’s racial inequities. He said he was disappointed by the lack of Afro-Brazilian participation in the protests against government spending on the World Cup over the last year, which were largely led by light-skinned, middle-class residents.
“The quilombo movement is still very timid,” Pinto said. “We’re practically invisible to society. So if we don’t go out now and show our faces in the street, go out and protest, we’re going to be forgotten. We’re already forgotten.”
Instead, the Pinto family protests by continuing to balk in the face of eviction threats and turning down offers of millions of reais, the local currency, to abandon the place they’ve always called home.
But Pinto often feels invisible in his own neighborhood. On a recent walk with his grandson, he said, the two stopped at a plaza for a break. Looking around, Pinto noticed they were the only two black people there.
“I feel racism much more strongly because I’m in a place where only people with money live, and people with money are white,” he said. “What I understand very well is that we’re black people in a place reserved for white people.”
staten islandStudents hold signs during a protest demanding better public services and criticizing massive government spending on the World Cup. Pinto said he was disappointed by the lack of Afro-Brazilian participation in the World Cup protests, which were largely led by light-skinned, middle-class residents. (Evaristo Sa/Getty Images)

Afro-Brazilians Demand Slavery Reparations Because 'Poverty Has A Color'



Almir Viera Pereira holds a handful of dry soil on a patch of disputed land his group has claimed under Brazil's constitutional right to reparations for descendants of runaway slaves. (Carolina Ramirez/The Huffington Post)
The dry grass crackled under Almir Vieira Pereira's shoes as he walked along the edges of the roça, a small patch of land he's been fighting to plant on for years. He grabbed a handful of soil and watched it puff into a smoky cloud as it settled back to the ground.
Brazil's northeastern backlands are known for their dryness. Perennial droughts have sent generations of northeasterners fleeing from impoverished farming towns like this one for the industrial cities of the South -- São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte. Barra do Parateca's soil had yet to recover from last year's lack of rain.
But dry or not, the ability to walk freely across this field marked a major victory for Pereira. He and a group of slave descendants from the roughly 1,500-person hamlet of Barra do Parateca have spent the last five years invading chunks of land across the area that they say are rightfully theirs under a well-known but haphazardly enforced article of the Brazilian Constitution. That law guarantees permanent, non-transferable land titles to Brazilians descended from the members of runaway slave settlements. Such communities of descendants are known in Brazil as "quilombos."
Brazil is the world's fifth-largest country and relatively underpopulated, but land ownership remains out of reach most of the nation's poor farmers, many of whose ancestors worked the fields for European overlords. The ability to plant one's own food marks the first step for people like Pereira in a long march out of poverty and toward independence.
"Our fight for land is all about producing food," Pereira, 39, said. "The great thinkers of the world, they're thinking about creating things, inventing things. We're still thinking about eating. If the government really wants racial reparations, they have to at least give us the possibility to think like equals."
Four years ago, anyone who looked across this 15-acre plot would have seen razed earth littered with broken ceramic tiles that had once served as the roof of a camp shelter. The cops had wiped out that settlement after the neighbors who owned the land, the Pereira Pinto family, failed to persuade Pereira and his fellow quilombo residents to vacate the premises.
Pereira and his group had had several run-ins with authorities before, but this time was different. Normally, they would be allowed to finish the harvest if they agreed to abandon the plot when they were done. This time, police destroyed the crops in front of a crowd of Barra residents.
"Everyone was crying and we couldn't do anything," Pereira's friend, Ducilene Magalhães, recalled. "We just watched."
These days, Pereira and Magalhães have arrived at an uneasy truce with the landowners. Though the owners are in the midst of pursuing legal action and have removed an irrigation system that once watered the field, they're also reluctantly allowing the quilombo members to harvest crops on a small patch of the property until the courts settle the dispute.
Although quilombos dotted the Brazilian landscape throughout the era of slavery, which lasted from the 1500s until 1889, they faded into history during the 20th century. Most of the legislators who approved the quilombo law, ratified in 1988 as part of the new Brazilian Constitution, viewed it as a symbolic gesture that would affect only a handful of families.
But in 2003, a decree by left-wing President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva made it possible for virtually any black community to apply for quilombo status, if a majority of its residents so decided.
Since Lula's order, the number of certified quilombos has skyrocketed from fewer than three dozen to more than 2,400, with hundreds more in the process of applying for recognition. In total, more than 1 million Brazilians are demanding their constitutional right to land in what may become the largest slavery reparations program ever attempted.
In practice, however, the program remains a dead letter for many. Despite a constitutional guarantee and the lip service of almost 12 years of continuous Worker Party-led government, only 217 quilombos have received official land titles as of this year.
Impatient with the slow hand of Brazilian bureacracy, quilombos across the country like Barra do Parateca are invading the promised parcels of land, sometimes igniting violent conflicts with their wealthier neighbors in the process.
This photo, taken July 5, 2010, shows the ruins of the quilombo association's makeshift shelter, which the police destroyed weeks before. (Roque Planas/The Huffington Post)
Few who walk the lone paved street of the town of Barra do Parateca would imagine that Brazil boasts the world's seventh-largest economy.
Lying off the banks of the São Francisco river, about 400 miles into the rain-starved interior of the state of Bahia, Barra do Parateca is reachable only by boat or by a bumpy ride along a dirt road. Braying donkeys wander freely, feeding on discarded cartons, plastic soda bottles and spoiled food that lies in piles on the ground because the town lacks regular trash collection.
The garbage embarrasses Pereira. An evangelical pastor, he's thrown himself into building Barra do Parateca's quilombo with the civic-minded, can-do attitude of a budding politician. (He did, in fact, run for local office recently and lost to a white man, which he said was a bitter experience for an Afro-Brazilian running in a majority-black district.) He wears pressed pants and button-down shirts, drinks soda instead of beer and wants future generations of Barra do Parateca's students to speak grammatically correct Portuguese, rather than the local dialects that often disregard subject-verb agreement.
But building a better Barra is a job that would try the patience of even the most progressive-minded idealist. While the boost in social spending during Brazil's past decade has helped alleviate the worst of the poverty, few people in town own land or any other productive enterprise that could lift Barra do Parateca into prosperity. Those who do have no intention of handing it over to people like Pereira.
Facing a life of toiling in someone else's field for a pittance or waiting to cash government social assistance checks, many residents instead choose to leave. In search of work, they head to cities like São Paulo, a metropolis of 20 million located 850 miles to the south.
Most of them wind up in "favelas," the violence-plagued slums that ring Brazil's cities. Others migrate to the interior of São Paulo state to pick oranges or cut sugar cane. In a town of roughly 1,500 residents, some 30 of Barra do Parateca's men left to work in São Paulo last year, all of them fathers, Pereira says. Another 15 told him of plans to leave this year.
Despite the hardship, Pereira doesn't want to leave the place where he was born. He wants Barra do Parateca to break out of its rut. And he sees land ownership, and the independence that comes with it, as the key.
By "land," he's quick to clarify, he means real land -- not the tiny patch that his neighbors begrudgingly let his quilombo use now. With land, Pereira says, he and his fellow quilombolas could produce their own food, with a little left over for sale in local markets.
"We don't want to keep depending on the government," Pereira said. "In Brazil, without land, you're no one."
A donkey feeds on garbage tossed along the roads of Barra do Parateca, which lacks regular trash collection. (Carolina Ramirez/The Huffington Post)
Brazil is among the world's most violent countries, with a homicide rate of 25 per 100,000 residents as of 2012.
A government report released last year suggested the persistent killings stem from a "culture of violence" fed by murderous conflicts between the drug cartels and other criminal gangs that have thrived in the cities' favelas. In the northern city of Maceió, the homicide rate in 2011 stood at a whopping 111 per 100,000, according to the report.
But Brazil's overflowing favelas are a symptom of larger problems that originate in places like Barra do Parateca, where waves of impoverished farmers, many if not most of them descended from slaves, have fled the countryside over the past half century. In 1950, the Brazilian census placed the urban population at 31 percent. As of 2013, that figure has climbed to 85 percent.
Land is the one major factor that pushes Brazilians to leave the countryside and crowd into the packed cities. Like in Barra do Parateca, land is all but unobtainable with the wages most Brazilian farm workers make.
"The highly unequal distribution of land in Brazil is clearly an important reason that Brazil's cities have grown in such a rapid, unequal and violent way," Sean Mitchell, an anthropology professor at Rutgers University who studies quilombos, wrote in an email to HuffPost. While Mitchell thinks it would be "impossible to roll back the haphazard and violent growth of Brazil's cities through reforms in the countryside," he added that "land reform would significantly alleviate violence in the countryside."
Land seemed an impossible dream for Pereira until 2005, when he helped found a local organization dedicated to addressing racial inequality. While working with the group, he learned about the Brazilian Constitution's quilombo clause: that communities descended from runaway slaves were entitled to own the land they lived on. All he had to do to gain access to the land was form an official association, collect signatures from a majority of the town's residents and take them to the country's capital, Brasília, to apply.
Pereira searched Barra do Parateca's history for evidence of its origins as a quilombo. Very little has been written about the tiny town, but he managed to find an account by a priest, published in 1991, that described the area's origins as a "fazenda," or ranch, owned by a Portuguese family during the colonial period. According to the document, the family raised sugar cane and herded cattle using slave labor.
"Those were my ancestors," Pereira said. "It was from that moment that we began to identify, we began to understand our origins."
He gathered signatures from more than half the town's residents and took the day-long bus ride to Brasilia to drop off the paperwork. The town became a certified quilombo in January 2006, and along with its status came a new school and health clinic.
But quilombo certification only extends to the town itself. The coveted farmlands that surround Barra do Parateca remain the private property of assorted ranchers and farmers.
And eight years after certification, the government has yet to publish the legally required technical study documenting Barra do Parateca's land claim, let alone negotiate indemnization with all the current landowners or transfer a title to Pereira and his community.
Representatives from the Institute of Colonization and Land Reform, or INCRA, which carries out the titling process, say they're overburdened by the massive number of claims, which as of this year have reached 569 in the state of Bahia alone, according to federal government figures.
Although the constitution guarantees quilombos' property rights, INCRA can't simply take chunks of land and hand them to new owners. Instead, it must compensate the titleholders, who generally resist the agency's attempts to take over their property, leading to lengthy legal disputes.
"We can't expropriate land -- we also have to indemnify," Itamar Rangel at the INCRA's office in Salvador da Bahia told HuffPost. "Brazilian law defends the property rights of any citizen."
That lack of efficiency isn't unique to the state of Bahia. INCRA estimates the total amount of land currently claimed by quilombos in Brazil to be around 4.4 million acres -- an area roughly the size of New Jersey.

But the government has issued just 217 land titles as of this year, having granted only three last year and three in 2012. At this rate, the growing backlog that now stands at roughly 2,200 quilombos won't be getting cleared any time soon.
In 2007, frustrated with the pace of Brazilian bureaucracy, Barra do Parateca's quilombo association stopped waiting and started planting. They planted along the river banks. They planted on land just outside the town. They rode boats up the river and walked into the forest to plant in isolated fields, setting up campsites along the way. Today, when the quilombo residents are able to harvest those crops, it helps supplement their modestly stocked pantries and refrigerators.
The landowners usually fight back. As often as not, landowners find the clandestine fields and let cattle loose to feed on the crops before they're harvested.
About a dozen landowners from Barra do Parateca are battling the quilombo association's claims. Of all those fights, none is more tense than the one involving the Pinto family.
Hélio Pereira Pinto, seated on a sofa at his home in Barra do Parateca, is one of several people with whom the quilombo association has a land dispute. (Carolina Ramirez/The Huffington Post)
Hélio Pereira Pinto, 71, isn't the kind of person you'd imagine as one of the quilombo's biggest enemies. An aging man whose thick, sun-battered skin folds neatly along his cheeks, Pinto walks with a limp, the result of his father's inability to pay for a doctor when Pinto developed a benign tumor in his left knee at age 10.
Although the tumor splintered his tibia, forcing shards of bone through his skin, he spent his life working as a field hand, one of the most backbreaking and poorly paid jobs Brazil has to offer. He still has scars under his arm from the years he worked in the fields while supporting himself with a crutch. He remembers listening to radio broadcasts from Cuba's Communist government in the 1960s, hoping that a similar revolution would make its way to Brazil. But his experiences in recent years have tempered his revolutionary enthusiasm.

Pinto owns the piece of land where Pereira and his fellow quilombolas have arrived at their uneasy truce. His son João Batista Pinto -- a judge in the neighboring city of Guanambi who is entangled in a separate land dispute with the quilombo -- has repeatedly called the cops to kick them out.
After the police destroyed the quilombo association's illicit crops in 2010, someone set a bus belonging to Hélio Pinto on fire. The Pinto family suspects retribution, but no one has owned up to the deed. Four years later, the bus's charred remains still sit on the town's main road, now engulfed by a tree that has grown around it.
Land holds much the same meaning for Hélio Pinto, who is white, as it does for Pereira. The oldest of 18 children, Pinto was born less than two miles from Barra do Parateca, where his landless family lived on the property of a wealthier man named Antonio Bastos. Pinto's family worked as "agregados," meaning they were allowed to live on the land and use a chunk of it to grow their own food, in exchange for their labor. Some experts have described the relationship, common in the Brazilian countryside, as something better than slavery, but not quite freedom.
One day, for reasons unclear to Pinto, Bastos kicked the family out, along with his other agregados. Pinto's father found new work as an agregado on a ranch in what would become Barra do Parateca. This was in the early 1950s, and Barra wasn't yet a town -- just another tract of land owned by a wealthy ranching family. After decades of working the fields, Pinto scraped together enough money to buy the small patch of land that the quilombo association now disputes.
The fighting has grown so frustrating for João Batista Pinto, Hélio's son, that he doesn't even want his parcel of land anymore. As a lawyer in the neighboring city of Guanambi, he now has little use for it, and the bad blood created by the land conflicts makes him feel uncomfortable visiting the town of his birth. He would gladly give it up, he says, if only someone would pay him for it.
It's not the first time someone has tried to take over João Batista Pinto's small patch of land. In the 1970s, when Brazil was under military rule, the Bahian government unsuccessfully tried to relocate the town to accommodate a dam project. The INCRA expropriated a series of tracts in the area, including João Batista's. So the land, in theory, belongs to the government -- except that, as often happens with Brazil's slow-moving bureaucracy, INCRA never paid him for it.
"This case has been pending ever since then, until the present day," João Batista said. "Without payment, without indemnization. This happens all over the place in Brazil."
Still, Hélio Pinto has trouble understanding how Barra do Parateca could possibly be a quilombo. As one of the few residents who's lived in the town since its establishment, he knows that the original inhabitants were, like him, virtually all white. Now, he says, the peaceful community he once knew has been torn apart, and the land he labored for has been made worthless by the political aspirations of black people from neighboring towns.
"There was never any quilombo here. There were never any slaves," Pinto said. "Today most people here are black, there's no white people anymore. But the blacks are all migrants. None of them are really from here."
The main street of the town of Barra do Parateca, Brazil. (Carolina Ramirez/The Huffington Post)
Many in the Brazilian media share the Pintos' suspicions about the authenticity of today's quilombos. Television coverage often tilts more toward his point of view than Pereira's.
One of the most famous cases occurred in 2007, when Brazil's largest television news broadcaster, O Globo, visited the quilombo of São Francisco do Paraguaçú in the northern part of the country. O Globo's reporters asked residents if they considered themselves quilombolas. Several people said no. One man said he'd never heard of the term until recent years. Another said he'd never heard the term at all.
In the final version of the story, the producers did not air the comments of the quilombo association's leaders or the interviewees who affirmed the existence of their quilombo. The story erroneously claimed that the area was not a historical site of slavery and that sugar had not been planted in the region when, in fact, the ruins of a colonial-era sugar mill lay just a short distance upriver.
The report sparked protests in the community and deepened a rift that pitted neighbor against neighbor, with some residents posting signs in front of their doors reading "I'm not a quilombola, no." The federal government re-evaluated the community's anthropological report, but it eventually chose to uphold the group's quilombo certification.
Despite the support of the government, episodes like this have undermined the public image of the fledgling social movement. Politicians who would go on to form Democráticos 25, a conservative, pro-market political party, hoped to take advantage of public doubts about quilombos' credibility. They filed a legal challenge in 2004, arguing that Lula da Silva's decree allowing virtually any group of black people to declare themselves a quilombo illegally skirted Congress' authority.
By 2010, the case had made its way to Brazil's highest court, which has yet to rule on it. A decision in Democráticos 25's favor could annul all the land titles issued under the law and strip thousands of communities of their quilombo status overnight.

Pereira doesn't dispute that Barra do Parateca was once a largely white community. He acknowledges that most of the town's black residents first arrived about four decades ago -- including his mother, who was born in a town on the other side of the river.
But he also takes a wider view of his community's history. According to the priest's 1991 account, before the town existed, the area of Barra do Parateca belonged to one large Portuguese landowner whose massive holdings stretched across the hinterland. That man's claim encompassed a number of neighboring majority-black towns, including the first certified quilombo in the state of Bahia, Rio das Rãs.
"Before the community, before the town, it was a fazenda," Pereira said. "So all of this black population here in the Parateca region -- Pau D'Arco, Barra do Parateca -- in reality, we're all the same people."
And anyway, all of this is beside the point, as far as Pereira is concerned. Fighting over these chunks of land for the last few years has made him rethink not just poverty, but race as well.
"Slavery was abolished," Pereira said. "But the black people around here -- my ancestors -- never had a single title. Abolition happened, but we're practically continuing as if we were slaves today. How come we don't get the right to reparations?"
The charred remains of a bus set ablaze in 2010 remain standing on the main street of Barra do Parateca, Brazil. (Carolina Ramirez/The Huffington Post)
Brazilians' disagreement over how to define a quilombo stems in part from the country's historic reluctance to define who is black. People either partially or wholly of African descent make up a majority of the population, but unlike in the United States, Brazil never saw widespread legal segregation, and racial mixing has been common since the colonial period.
That legacy has made it difficult for Brazilians to build political movements devoted to confronting racism. Many Brazilians view their country as a "racial democracy," where the lack of strict distinctions between "black" and "white" has fostered an ethnically harmonious society.
Yet Afro-Brazilian intellectuals and the country's social scientists have long dismissed that interpretation, pointing to research and statistics that they say reveal broad patterns of discrimination.
As of 2011, Brazilian black and mixed-race workers on average earned only 60 percent of the salaries of white workers, according to the country's national statistics agency. Some 70 percent of homicide victims are black, according to a 2013 study by the Institute of Applied Economic Research. Researchers at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro calculated last year that if the Brazilian population were divided along racial lines, whites would occupy the 65th position on the U.N. Human Development Index, while Afro-Brazilians would only reach 102nd place.
Given the expansiveness of Brazil's legal definition of "quilombos," it's hard to mount an argument that Barra do Parateca does not qualify. More than half of the Barra do Parateca community signed the petition to declare its ethnic quilombo identity, as required. A social scientist visited the town and verified the claim.
The lawsuits filed against the quilombo's land invasions would, theoretically, be trumped by a decision by INCRA to compensate the current landowners accordingly and seize the property on behalf of the quilombo.
But INCRA's officials, 500 miles away in a building with a leaky ceiling, have yet to finalize the paperwork, let alone issue a land title. They're responsible for the nearly 600 quilombo claims across Bahia, some of which face crises more serious than Barra do Parateca's.
Nevertheless, the lack of progress infuriates the already frustrated quilombo association. When asked who the quilombo movement's greatest enemy is, Pereira didn't mention the landowners. Instead, he began talking about the government, which catapulted the movement into existence in 1988, then let it founder, leaving quilombo residents to wonder whether the constitutional article will wither into a broken promise.
"The greatest enemy of the quilombo movement is the Brazilian state itself," Pereira said. "The slowness."
Almir Viera Pereira seated in his mother's kitchen in the town of Barra do Parateca, Brazil. (Carolina Ramirez/The Huffington Post)
João Batista Pinto's anger at the quilombo association is no longer what it was four years ago, when he sent the cops to break up its occupation of his land. He's now resigned to put up with the irritation of the land dispute while the courts and INCRA slowly sort the mess out.
But like his father, he harbors resentment, and finds it laughable to think Barra do Parateca could be classified as a quilombo.
"It's an old concept," João Batista said. "To apply it to the contemporary world is difficult. They're trying to apply that article in order to gain social benefits, but they're doing it fraudulently."
Recalling the old problem of how to define who is black in Brazil, João Batista pointed out that his sister Heldina looks white, and then asked rhetorically if he himself looks black. With his dark bronze skin and coarse straight hair, he could belong to any number of Brazil's intermingling ethnic combinations. In the United States, no one would call him white. João Batista added that he and his family come from Barra do Parateca. Does that make them quilombolas?
"It's not enough just to demonstrate the presence of a black population, because if that were all you needed, Salvador da Bahia would be a quilombo," he said. "Bom Jesús da Lapa, Rio de Janeiro, all the other states. Brazil would be one giant quilombo."
In the meantime, Barra do Parateca waits, and Pereira enjoys his early morning walk around the roça while a friend hacks at weeds with a machete. The soil might be more moist if Hélio Pinto hadn't taken down the irrigation system he installed years ago. On the other hand, the cops haven't come this year to kick the quilombo out and destroy the small patch of plantings on the Pinto family's 15-acre plot.
In his mother's kitchen, Pereira sits down to eat a cut of gristly beef with a side of rice, black beans and farofa, a yucca flour that Brazilians sprinkle on their food to add flavor and make it more filling. For Pereira, few things reveal more about Brazil's race relations than his meals.
"This is the way I see it, the world is what you're thinking about," said Pereira. "If you're hungry, what are you going to think about? About food. So most of the world's poor only think about food. They go to school and they're thinking about snack time, about lunch, because those who are hungry only think about eating."
Pereira said he envies the United States, a country viewed by many Brazilians as more racist than their own, for electing a black president. Why, he asks, in his country, where people of color make up a majority of the population, does the idea of a black president seem beyond the realm of possibility? Like most quilombolas, Pereira isn't convinced that he lives in a racial democracy.
"They say it's not, but Brazil is a racist country -- in all the ways that you could imagine," Pereira said, pointing to the skin on his forearm. "In Brazil, poverty has a color."