US Good Cop, Israel Bad Cop

US-supplied Israeli Cluster Munitions.  Photo by HRW.In its bombing of Lebanon last summer, the Israeli military liberally sprinkled the notoriously deadly cluster bombs throughout populated areas. The funny thing is, the United States is now saying that “Israel violated American prohibitions” on the use of the weapons “against populated areas.” Why is the Bush administration showing such concern over Israel’s use of US-supplied weapons, even suggesting sanctions?[1]

The bombs, each of which spreads 88 submunitions over a large area, are nearly always used to terrorize civilian populations, since their imprecision makes them hard to target. Furthermore, their up to 14% failure rate turns 12/88 of them into future landmines when fleeing civilians return to a war-strewn area. So the weapons are universally condemned by human rights groups.

I don’t believe the critique of Israel is serious. Washington itself uses cluster munitions all the time. In fact all its major recent military operations – the US/NATO attack on the former Yugoslavia, the US invasion of Afghanistan, and the Iraq war – featured civilian deaths due to cluster bombs. According to Human Rights Watch,

the use of cluster munitions in populated areas in Iraq caused more civilian casualties than any other factor in the U.S.-led coalition’s conduct of major military operations in March and April 2003, killing and wounding more than 1,000 Iraqi civilians. Roughly a quarter of the 500 civilian deaths caused by NATO bombing in the 1999 Yugoslavia war were also due to cluster munitions.[2]

It is likely there won’t be any real action against Israel other than the current “preliminary finding” that Israel “may have violated” US law. The New York Times says, “Any sanctions against Israel would be an extraordinary move by the Bush administration, a strong backer of Israel, and several officials said they expected little further action, if any, on the matter.”

Still, even a pretend-critique of Israel’s conduct of the war is more than usual, and I’m not exactly sure where this is coming from. It’s possible that there are a few elements of the Administration that don’t agree with what has been standard US policy for decades, namely using Israel as a tool of US foreign policy in the Middle East and backing Israel without question when it behaves brutally (like its mentor).

Or maybe this is just the standard “good cop/bad cop” routine, where the scary Israeli military (which would be nothing without Washington’s support) is counterbalanced by a more reasonable US State Department to try to coerce the Lebanese people into accepting US stewardship. Clearly, Washington sees the current turmoil in Lebanon between its friends in the government and the extremely popular Hizbollah and other Shiite movements as a test of its ability to trump Iran as the biggest influence in Lebanon. According to the Associated Press, “[Prime Minister Faoud] Saniora stands between the West and Iranian-backed Hezbollah militants trying to bring down his government.” The recent Western donor’s conference that pledged $7.6 Billion for Saniora’s government “had an urgent tone, with some diplomats and leaders hoping to give Saniora tangible bargaining power in his power struggle with Hezbollah.”[3]

So maybe this tepid and hypocritical “outcry” against Israeli brutalities is another attempt to persuade the Lebanese people that George W. Bush is On Their Side.

US Causes its own Problems in Afghanistan

Afghanistan is in a horrible state, by any measure. From the increasing power of fundamentalist extremist groups, to rising poverty, rising opium exports, a rising number of suicide and other attacks on foreign troops or Afghan government infrastructure, the people of Afghanistan will not see relief any time soon. More and more international criticism is rightly blaming the foreign troops supposedly there to help build a safer, secure country.

Billions of dollars are being spent on more foreign troops to do so-called peacekeeping under NATO or to hunt terrorists under the US’s Operation Enduring Freedom. This only worsens the situation. According to the Senlis Council, an Afghan/European think tank, “Operation Enduring Freedom and the related militaristic counter-narcotics policies are significant contributors to the current state of war in Kandahar and the other southern provinces” where the Taliban are the strongest. Really, the NATO “peacekeeping” mission that is painted as something different from the hunt for anti-US elements is really not that different, since there’s “no peace to keep,” according to Senlis.[1]

The Council points to three main issues contributing to the anti-US and anti-Karzai insurgency: poverty, drugs, and insecurity. All of these are being responded to by the US in such a way as to worsen the situation.

On poverty “little has been achieved” since the US toppled the Taliban in 2001. This is because little has been done, and an extremely tiny proportion of foreign money has been spent on programs for the poor of Afghanistan. Since “[t]he basic needs of the local population are not being met” the predictable consequence is that “the population is giving its support back to the Taliban and other local power-holders.”

On Drugs, the US tactic of choice has been forced eradication. Senlis states that, “this ineffective counter-narcotics policy…has intensified the local power games.” Since warlords and Taliban factions allow the cultivation of poppies by poor farmers, many Afghans are shifting their support back to such groups.

On Security, “the current state of war has been triggered by the very interventions which were intended to counteract the Taliban and Al Qaeda.” These interventions have featured an “aggressive international military presence” and “lack of respect and understanding for the local communities.” International military responses to insurgent attacks are “largely ineffective,” and appear to lack “any learning process.” These tactics “have in fact exacerbated the dynamics (in particular the support of the Taliban in [Kandahar] province) that initially brought the international community to Kandhahar.”

There is no sign that the US or its protege Hamid Karzai are changing their approach. The international troops are still conducting hunts for so-called terrorists, which the New York Times calls “a disastrous approach to counterinsurgency warfare.”[2] And Karzai continues to give carrots to extremists and warlords (appointing them to cabinet, to the justice ministry, the parliament, allowing the reinstatement of the Commission on the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue), but doing nothing to combat the very dire crisis of poverty, inadequate health care, insecurity, and poor access to education. It’s hard to blame him, since it’s only the Afghan people who want him to deal with these problems, and they have no money. The people with the real power in Washington, London, Ottawa, and at the UN, who can actually support the solutions financially, the ones who should put vast sums of money into programs for the people that go beyond helping run elections, instead tell Karzai the military campaign (of which there is “no end in sight”) is extending his authority.[3] If they had any brains they would realize that it is precisely this “support” that is causing his increasingly bad reputation with his people.[4]

Funds should be diverted away from the military buildup, and the US, UK, Canada, and their allies should stop using their troops against the Afghan people. It’s time to repay Afghans for all the suffering they’ve endured in the name of fighting the West’s battles against “communism” in the 1980s and “terrorism” in the 1990s and 2000s.

OK to offend Muslims, not USA

Luckovich Cartoon

Guess what? It’s okay for Danish Christians to print racist anti-Muslim cartoons, but cartoons critical of well-documented US torture are “a disgrace” and require an apology. Mike Luckovich’s 22 June political cartoon in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution (reprinted above) depicts an American torturer, giving lessons in “torture etiquette” to an Al Qaeda torturer. According to the newspaper’s public editor Angela Tuck, the cartoon resulted in a powerful “backlash,” with 90% of 18,000 readers disapproving of the piece in an online poll. Tuck all but apologized for the publication of the cartoon, saying it was “ill-timed,” since it was published alongside photos of the mangled remains of two US servicemembers who had been tortured and killed in Iraq. Luckovich himself apparently “believes now that allowing some distance between the murders of Tucker and Menchaca [the mutilated US soldiers] and the cartoon’s publication would have been better.” [1]

One reader wrote in to the Cumberland Times of Maryland/West Virginia, which also carried the Luckovich piece, saying the paper’s editorial staff has “reached a new low.”

I believe in freedom of the press, but I also believe that it comes with a responsibility to print the truth, and also to maintain some measure of character, class, and dignity…[W]e have more than our share of families who currently have loved ones “in harm’s way” still fighting, as all of those other veterans have done down through history, to protect the rights of you and your staff to be mouth breathing, drooling, idiots whenever you choose. What a disgrace! You should all be ashamed. When you guys awake from your collective moronic stupor, you owe all of us an apology. [2]

An advertiser to the Journal-Constitution, the Mercedes-Benz dealership RBM of Atlanta, printed a full page ad apologizing for Luckovich’s cartoon. The ad reads in part:

To Our Clients: We are sorry!

While we strongly affirm the right of free speech, the June 22, 2006 Mike Luckovich cartoon depicting the U.S. as torturers on par with Al-Qaida was very offensive to us. Moreover, to publish this cartoon directly above the pictures of the two brave men who gave their lives, willingly, and were tortured and mutilated in service to their country (and each of us) is unacceptable.[3]

The Hawaii Reporter published an op-ed by Jeff Emmanuel that finds “revolting” the “hinting at moral equivalence between the U.S. and bloodthirsty terrorists.” Emmanuel considers this “another shot in the mainstream media’s seemingly unending battle to blur the moral line between America and the brutal, barbaric enemy we are facing.” According to him, “America DOES NOT torture prisoners, and America DOES NOT target civilians; no nation in history has been more of a global force for good than America.” [4]

Remember the Western pontifications in favor of the free speech rights of newspapers that wanted to publish the Jyllands-Posten anti-Muslim cartoons, one of which shows the Prophet with a bomb for a turban? [5] Some considered those cartoons racist, since they painted all Muslims as terrorists [6]

Many commentators thought the cartoons deserved to be printed, and many publishers did so, simply to make a point about freedom of speech, or because the cartoons were “news.” The Hawaii Reporter published an op-ed by Onkar Ghate of the Ayn Rand Institute, that described a “fear of criticizing Islam,” and expressed contempt for governments that took offense at the cartoons. According to Ghate, governments should instead “defend our freedom of speech by force,” because “an individual’s freedom of speech is sacrosanct, no matter who screams offense at his ideas.”[7] Ghate rightly criticized the death threats that were issued by ultra-conservative clerics and others, but his disdain seemed to encompass all Muslims who demonstrated against the cartoons, as if nonviolent protest was not also covered by free speech rights.

The two cartoon controversies are not equivalent. Here are some significant differences:

  1. Some of the anti-Muslim cartoons are racist, painting an entire group of people with a negative stereotype; the Luckovich cartoon could only be said to generalize US military policy
  2. The anti-Muslim cartoons were drawn by non-Muslims, outside of the criticized community; Luckovich is a member of the society he is criticizing
  3. The anti-Muslim cartoons, being racist, are by definition false; the truth of the Luckovich cartoon is at least worth debating

I think point 3 is important. The Jyllands-Posten cartoons were not designed to inspire debate on the merits of violent resistance (for example), only to insult Muslims. Luckovich’s cartoon, on the other hand, should be debated. Does the US torture prisoners? Is it any better than Al Qaeda in that regard? Emmanuel’s claim that “no nation in history has been more of a global force for good” is an attempt to stifle the debate that the people of this country need to have about the role of the US in the world. His statement that “America does not torture prisoners” hurts his credibility and calls into question the rest of his argument against the printing of Luckovich’s cartoon.[8]

Proxy Soldiers of Soccer

Soccer Ball with Hammer and Sickle At the risk of alienating over half of the planet, I’d like to state my distaste for the wave of football fervor that has overtaken the small part of the world with which I am familiar, and most likely much of the rest of humanity as well.

Imagine my surprise to find that people with otherwise reasonable political analyses extolling the political significance of soccer. I want to emphasize that, despite my own personal dislike for sports, I do not believe there is anything wrong with people enjoying watching great athletes compete, or doing it themselves. But hearing that the political side to football extends beyond its corporate ownership is too much. (I urge readers to check out Daniel Gross’ “The Capitalism of Soccer” for an interesting analysis of how the business of European soccer is much more capitalist than US-style football.[1] )

Toronto-based Simon Black wrote “A Socialist’s Guide to the World Cup”[2] , in which he states that, “In many countries, soccer is a terrain of political and ideological struggle like the media or the education system.” He goes on to give examples of how current political issues in a given country or pair of countries make the soccer games more relevant. For example, Black mentions the powerful psychological boost a football victory against a colonizer can give the people of a colonized country:

[A]nytime a former colony goes up against its colonizer, far more than just a game is at stake.

Long independent, the nations of Togo, Trinidad and Angola will face their colonizers in the first round of World Cup 2006. Both soccer minnows, a victory for Togo or Trinidad will set off waves of celebration in the home country.

Yet the Angola versus Portugal match is arguably the most exciting and politically stimulating of the first round. Angola waged a brutal struggle for independence against Portuguese rule (and later against U.S. and South African influence) gaining independence in 1975. Angolans will be hoping their team rises above the favoured Portuguese in a game that will be charged with political symbolism.

Does this mean that, if the former colony loses the soccer game, the colonizer was somehow justified? Soccer players must be under a lot of pressure, having to live up to all the expectations of fans expecting them to fight for a socialist/fascist/anti-colonial cause. Why should a bunch of athletes playing a game be forced to represent anything but themselves and their teammates?

I guess I just don’t get it. There is always going to be something irrational and consciously inexplicable about enjoying games, or any form of “impractical” human activity like music, or surfing the web. There is no need to rationalize it politically. Not everything we do or enjoy has to be “politically positive,” does it? It seems like leftists who endorse the political interpretation of soccer are playing out their fantasies using other people as “cannon fodder” since they feel powerless against their political enemies under ordinary circumstances. The soccer team becomes a sort of proxy to fight one’s battles. Unfortunately the battle is not going to change anything. I hate to break it to football fans: after the soccer game, the world will still be the same as it was before the game.

Linknotes:

  1. Slate
  2. Rabble

RAWA: a Model for Activism and Social Transformation

Published on Znet on June 1, 2006
By Sonali Kolhatkar

The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) rose to international prominence after the attacks on the US on September 11th, 2001. Despite interviews with Larry King Live, and promotion by Oprah, few mainstream media outlets examined the radical nature of RAWAÂ’s political vision and strategy, or their organizational structure. Sadly, many on the left have also overlooked the lessons we can learn from this extraordinary womenÂ’s movement, choosing instead to relegate support of RAWA to mainstream feminist groups.

Within the context of on-going brutal war, that such a political organization of women exists and thrives, is reason enough to study RAWA. Additionally, their political vision is basic and non-sectarian, espousing universal human rights, women’s rights, economic democracy, and a progressive education policy. They create and distribute their own media and have successfully harnessed new technologies to further their goals. RAWA is an extraordinarily resilient organization that uses a horizontal structure with an emphasis on the collective over the individual, and employs practical and democratic decision-making and internal conflict-resolution. In fact, RAWA has been operating in a manner that progressive political organizations in the West could only dream of. What can Western social movements learn from RAWA?

To answer this question I draw heavily from my own personal experience of working in solidarity with RAWA for the past 6 years, supplemented with information from the book, “With All Our Strength” by Anne Brodsky, (New York: Routledge, 2003).

Historical context

Afghanistan’s brutal history of war naturally shapes RAWA dramatically. The 1970s were a time of intense student activism and protest. In 1977, a young Kabul University student named Meena founded RAWA to struggle for women’s rights. RAWA was born into a nation on the brink of imperial war, occupation, and reactionary forces from which it has yet to emerge. A year after RAWA’s formation, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and began a ten year long occupation. RAWA’s initial goal of women’s emancipation, was broadened to include national emancipation. They participated in the nation-wide non-violent resistance, or jihad, against the occupation. But RAWA was also seen as a threat by the fundamentalist, misogynist forces which the US chose to work with. In fact, RAWA’s work was increasingly threatening to both Soviet imperialists and Islamic fundamentalists. In 1987, Meena was assassinated by a collaboration of both forces – KHAD (Afghan secret police, controlled by the Soviet government), and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (the largest recipient of US financial aid).

Rather that destroying the organization, Meena’s assassination drove RAWA underground and actually provoked them to broaden their goals even more. Since then, they see imperialism and religious fundamentalism as twin injustices to be resisted and eradicated. Meena is seen as a martyr by RAWA members. Her photograph adorns the otherwise bare walls of RAWA houses, classrooms, orphanages, hospitals, and clinics. Because RAWA members operate incognito, Meena’s face has essentially become RAWA’s face.

Political Vision

RAWA’s underlying philosophy sees women’s rights as integral to the struggle for human rights, democracy, and national sovereignty. Because women are the main victims of war, religious fundamentalism, and economic globalization, women’s rights are crucial markers of injustice worldwide. As in the US, leftist Afghan women like Meena realized that the men in their movements paid lip service to women’s rights but did not see it as important as class, or other struggles. Women were told that their freedom would automatically follow from other social changes and that it was not necessary for women’s rights to be central to their struggles.

RAWA has not adopted any specific economic or social ideology. They do advocate “economic democracy,” and secularism. While most RAWA members are Muslim, as are the majority of Afghans, they have seen Islam being used as a political tool of oppression by fundamentalist warlords in government positions.

Excerpts from RAWA’s Charter (twice revised since its inception, to address socio-political changes), define their main aims [1] as:

(1) women’s emancipation, “which cannot be abstracted from the freedom and emancipation of the people as a whole,”

(2) separation of religion and politics, “so that no entity can misuse religion as a means for furthering their political objectives,”

(3) equal rights of all Afghan ethnic groups,

(4) “economic democracy and the disappearance of exploitation,”

(5) commitment to “struggle against illiteracy, ignorance, reactionary, and misogynistic culture,”

(6) “to draw women out of the incarceration of their homes into social and political activity, so that they can liberate themselves economically, politically, legally, and socially,”

(7) to serve and assist “affected and deserved women and children, in the fields of education, healthcare, and economy,”

(8) establish and strengthen relations with other pro-democracy and pro-women’s rights groups nationally and internationally, with such relations “based on the principle of equality and non-interference in each others affairs,”

(9) “support for other freedom and women’s movements worldwide.”

RAWA bases their struggle on universal principles of human rights and democracy, consistent with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They are not bound by the inevitable dogma that results from sectarianism and “the party line.”

Additionally, RAWA realizes the importance of connecting their struggle with those of other groups worldwide. They regularly express international solidarity in their statements, such as this one:

We declare our unequivocal and unreserved support and solidarity with the struggles of the people and the pro-democracy and progressive forces of Iran, Palestine, Kashmir, Kurdistan, Sudan and other fettered peoples of Asia, Africa and Latin America fighting for their rights against reactionary and anti-liberty states and powers.[2]

Strategy

For the formation of a free, independent and democratic Afghanistan the joint striving and struggle of pro-liberty and democratic forces is indispensable. This objective can only be achieved through relentless struggle, not through compromise and capitulation.

— RAWA statement on 50th anniversary of Universal Declaration of Human Rights, December 1998.

RAWA’s strategies, like their political aims, are broad. They are a balance of long-term and short-term strategies of political agitation and humanitarian aid.

Education

Education is seen as part of RAWA’s long-term struggle and is considered their most important strategy. Education of women in particular, is based on the understanding that when women are empowered through literacy and skills, they are more inclined and better equipped to fight for their rights. However, RAWA also educates boys, providing a practical alternative to the brain-washing of religious madrassas. They believe that male domination is a social phenomenon that can be eradicated through education for both boys and girls.

RAWA’s educational projects range from full-fledged schools for girls and boys, all the way down to home-based literacy courses and skills training for adult women. Many women and girls who discover RAWA through these institutions choose to become members. Education also includes skills training for adult women who are struggling to raise families. RAWA teaches women embroidery, sewing, handicrafts, etc. They also teach women farming skills like raising hens for eggs, fish farming, and goat farming. Such courses are labeled “income-generating projects.” The goal is to enable women to become financially self-sufficient.

RAWA’s educational policy (see Appendix A) evolved over the years through trial and error. It is based on principles of freedom, peace, non-violence, respect for the environment, as well as gender, ethnic, and religious tolerance. Anne Brodsky observes that “Paolo Freire’s groundbreaking work on emancipatory education … speaks to some of the very same approaches that RAWA espouses.” RAWA members are not familiar with the highly influential Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Freire and have developed their own methods based on an intimate understanding of their communities.

Health Care and Humanitarian Aid

Despite much-touted progress, Afghanistan still suffers from shockingly high rates of infant mortality and maternal mortality. In 2005, Afghanistan ranked 173 out of 178 in the UN’s Human Development Index. With so much suffering around them, it is impossible for RAWA to speak of human rights and women’s political rights, without also addressing the lack of access to food and health care, which are prerequisites to other rights.

RAWA runs clinics and mobile health teams both inside Afghanistan and in Pakistan’s refugee camps. In many cases, the people they serve have no other access to health care. When the need arises, RAWA conducts emergency relief operations alongside their political and educational work. They often assists refugees during harsh winter months with blankets, food, and medical aid.

Because of the large numbers of orphans in Afghanistan, RAWA runs several orphanages for boys and girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan. (They do not, however, offer Afghan children up for adoption in Western countries and urge instead urge Western supporters to sponsor orphans so that the children can remain in their own country while having access to education, shelter, etc.)

Media, Documentation, and Technology

From their inception RAWA realized that they needed a means of spreading news from independent sources throughout the country, as well as a way to convey news of their activities and achievements.

Payam-e-Zan (translated as ‘Woman’s Voice’) is RAWA’s main publication — a magazine that first published in 1981, only four years after they were founded. Payam-e-Zan started out being produced by hand, with several hundred mimeographed copies stealthily passed across the country. Some issues, produced during the most dangerous years, were published in miniature, to make them easier to hide. According to Brodsky, Payam-e-Zan “operates as an educational vehicle through which literacy skills as well as political consciousness are cultivated. The magazine is also a highly effective recruitment tool” for RAWA, “serv[ing] as a place to document RAWA’s concerns and standpoints, and as a vehicle to present these ideas to a wide audience.”

As the casualties of US-backed fundamentalists mounted in the early 1990s, RAWA, realizing that the world had moved on from Afghanistan, decided to document the rampant human rights abuses through still photography and video. Photographs documenting the victims of the fundamentalists, or in some cases, violence in action, are published on their website and magazine, along side reports by the RAWA members with details such as the date, time, names of victims, and perpetrators, etc. Digital cameras have made RAWA’s documentation much easier and also enabled RAWA to share the images of human rights violations more easily with an international audience via their website.

Videos of human rights abuses are circulated to news media and documentary film makers, and added to RAWA’s own archive. The most famous example of RAWA’s video documentation was the 1999 public execution of a woman named Zarmeena, by the Taliban in Kabul stadium. After 9/11, this video was viewed all over the world, despite the fact that it was more than 2 years old. When initially offered to news media in 1999, no one would touch the gruesome footage until it was politically convenient. The footage was also used in Saira Shah’s widely acclaimed documentary, Behind the Veil, which was re-aired repeatedly on CNN after 9/11.

The advent of the internet catapulted RAWA into the international like no other new technology. Wisely seeing the potential for international solidarity, and drawing world attention to a forgotten crisis, RAWA launched www.rawa.orgin late 1996. One member explained:

We never imagined the internet would bring such a positive result for us. It is very important and something that now we can’t imagine we could work without … At the time I remember it was kind of amazing. The first email from the US that we got, we all called each other to come see this and our eyes were so big… [3]

Most of the relations between RAWA and their international supporters have developed through their website and e-mail. I too first discovered RAWA through their website and wrote to them expressing my solidarity.

RAWA’s website is the perfect portal for them to express their political views and publish their documents while preserving the anonymity of their members. Additionally, large amounts of material can be published and archived with little additional cost.

While Payam-e-Zan is still RAWA’s primary outlet to reach the majority of Afghans – who live in a poor country with little internet access, RAWA’s website is the main method of communicating with the outside world.

Political Demonstrations

RAWA organizes public protests up to several times a year to mark various dates: March 8th, International Women’s Day; April 28th, the “black day” when the fundamentalists entered Kabul in 1992; and December 10th, International Human Rights Day. According to Brodsky, “demonstrations are one of the large-scale non-traditional ways that RAWA educates and enlightens people.” [4] They are usually held in Pakistan, as Afghanistan is still too dangerous. Thousands of women are bussed in from across the border to march with signs and banners. Sometimes the women carry sticks for self-defense, or are accompanied by male supporters who walk beside the march. The demonstrations often culminate in a rally in front of the United Nations Office in Islamabad and elsewhere.

One member of RAWA explains the importance of demonstrations:

When a demonstration happens, some in backward places can’t even think a woman can stage such a thing. Our mission is to change that mentality and let women know they are human beings and equal to men.[5]

RAWA’s demonstrations also highlight events in Afghan history that either are forgotten or have been re-written. For example, the bloody events of fundamentalist infighting and civil war that followed April 28th 1992 are resurrected each year on RAWA’s signs and placards.

The women in RAWA’s demonstrations march militantly with faces uncovered and fists in the air. Their signs are explicitly pro-democracy and anti-fundamentalist. As such, the public demonstrations also challenge pervading assumptions among Westerners who were obsessed by images of mute, burqa-clad, helpless looking Afghan women, after 9/11.

Organizational Structure and Decision making

While RAWA had adopted a committee structure from the beginning, their founder Meena operated as a de-facto President. Her tragic assassination in 1987 highlighted the organization’s vulnerability with having a high-profile “leader” who could be easily targeted. After Meena’s death, RAWA changed its structure so that no single member could assume a leadership role. Their goal was to “create a leadership structure that was democratic, collective, and as non-hierarchical as possible, thus promoting the equality and democracy that RAWA seeks for Afghanistan at large.” [6] This manifested itself in the form of a “leadership council” of 11 members. These members are elected every two years by the entire membership.

The election of the Leadership Council is to my knowledge, unique among “subversive movements.” Because of RAWA’s underground nature, its members are geographically dispersed and cannot communicate with one another frequently. Consequently there are no nominations or election campaigns. Members simply submit in writing 11 names of members that they think ought to comprise the Council. The top 11 vote-getters are then elected.

Leadership Council members simply continue in their daily functions as RAWA members, while taking on the responsibilities of that particular committee. They meet several times a year to oversee RAWA’s operations and author RAWA’s standpoints and statements in a way that reflects the membership’s sentiments by conferring with the spokespeople from all the underlying committees. Their names are never revealed outside the membership for security reasons. RAWA’s structure is consistent with their philosophy of the collective being more important than the individual.

The remaining RAWA members join any one of the following seven standing committees (see Appendix B). These are:

1. Education
2. Social (humanitarian)
3. Finance
4. Reports
5. Publications
6. Foreign Affairs
7. Cultural [7]

Each committee has a number of sub-committees focused on its various responsibilities. All committees, including the Leadership Council, are composed of an odd number of members to avoid deadlock in decision making.

Each committee has a “mas’ul” which is Persian for “responsible person.” The mas’ul functions like a spokesperson for the committee, to whom members can turn for mediation, or to make complaints. They are also responsible for communication between various committees. Brodsky elaborates: “Overall, RAWA’s committee structure can be thought of as having branches in which each mas’ul is the sole connection between the committees and members she is responsible for and the next level up in the committee structure.” This fosters the “relatively independent operation of each committee,” and ensures projects that are “locally responsive.” [8]

As any serious activist knows, committees cannot function without regular meetings, and RAWA members have their fair share of frequent meetings. One of RAWA’s most interesting type of meeting is a mechanism that enables them to deal with internal conflict: the “jelse entaqady” or “mistake meeting.” This is an “evaluation and correction mechanism that operates at all levels of the organization in order to facilitate RAWA’s distributed decision making style, and address mistakes, problems, and differences of opinion.” [9] Differences of opinion or disagreements are directly addressed with the people involved. The committee mas’ul is often a mediator in such meetings, and an odd number of attendees ensure that there can be no deadlock.

Secrecy is a huge factor in RAWA’s operations because of the dangerous nature of their work. As a result most members often know only a small number of other members personally at any given time. RAWA’s dispersed committee structure, and its members’ belief in the collective having more importance than the individual, ensures the organization’s continued functioning.

Only Afghan women based in Afghanistan or the refugee camps of Pakistan and Iran can be RAWA members. Men are not allowed to be members. However, many male relatives of RAWA members are dedicated to supporting the organization in any manner available to them. Male supporters often help with security at public events, escorting foreign supporters, passing out RAWA literature, etc.

What we can learn from RAWA

RAWA’s approach to activism is very practical and tailored to suit the needs of their situation. Their political vision is simple, yet adheres to some basic fundamental truths such as the universality of human rights and democracy. While this may make some Western leftist ideologues scoff, it is an approach that, at the very least, works in a country like Afghanistan which has lost so much and is struggling to preserve the most basic of rights.

However, RAWA’s simple political vision enables it to be flexible to situations as they arise. For example, RAWA does not denounce capitalism. Rather they call for “economic democracy.” This enables them to train women in marketable skills through their “income-generating projects.” The practical short-term goal of enabling economic independence for a poor struggling, often illiterate woman, is achieved in this manner. RAWA does not engage in micro-lending however, preferring to grant women the basic foundation they may need to start up an operation, free of charge.

RAWA’s organizational structure is also quite practical, having preserved the organization for nearly two decades after Meena’s death. Rather than strain to achieve some idealistic but impractical notion of absolute participatory democracy, they have instead conceived a structure that has limited hierarchy (the Leadership Council), which is outweighed by ample democracy through simple and functional elections and committee membership.

RAWA’s emphasis on the collective over the individual is also a philosophy worth aspiring to. Among Western activists we have seen an increasing tendency to valorize individual figures, at the expense of collective action.

Appendix A

RAWA’s Educational Policy, from www.rawa.org

We teach our students:

Recognition of these basic principles and values:

– Everyone must respect all human beings regardless of language, religion, race, color, etc.
– There is no difference between people; no human being is superior to any other because of class, color, language, race, or religion.
– All human beings do not have to think alike or live the same way.
– It’s to the benefit of society that all human beings live in peace, understanding, and harmony.

Religious Tolerance:

– Respect all religions and their followers.
– Understand that followers of all religions can live in harmony and peace.
– Do not discriminate against the followers of religious sects different from your own.
– Understand that religion is a private matter that cannot be forced on anyone else and nobody should be allowed to misuse it for any end, it must be kept separated from politics.
– Do not allow criminals in the future to dare to commit crimes in the name of religion, as did the Jahadis and Taliban.

Ethnic Tolerance:

– Respect all ethnic groups in Afghanistan.
– No ethnic group is superior to any other and no one should be allowed to look down on others.
– All members of all ethnic groups have the right to speak their own languages.
– Respect for each language means respect for the culture of those people who live in different regions and cities.
– Prevent ethnic divisions and the kind of conflicts that, unfortunately, today have reached their peak because it is practiced by the criminal fundamentalists.- To know the history of their own and other countries and about those who sacrificed their lives for freedom; set them as an example for themselves.

Gender Tolerance:
– No human being is better than any other because of gender; contrary to the belief of the fundamentalists who treat our women as cattle and represent them as mentally deficient.
– Avoid any kind of behavior that promotes gender apartheid.
– Invalidate antiquated myths stories or poetry wrapped with religious, traditional or cultural reasons that portray women as powerless and less equal than men.
Handicapped:
– Respect all people who have infirmity, whether physical, mental, or emotional.
– Promote a good relationship with the handicapped, and promote their involvement in society.
– Respect and promote the right of all children to live in harmony.

Environmental Sensitivity:
– Save mother earth with all its richness.
– Avoid using items that pollute the environment.
– Teach that animals have a right to live and avoid wanton killing; don’t kill them except for food purposes.
– Do not injure animals.
– Preserve animals that are endangered or threatened species.
– Preserve trees and jungles and don’t pollute the air and water.
– A culture of peace is not possible if it does not promote conservation of the environment.

Violence:
– Avoid harsh treatment of human beings and animals.
– Recognize the causes of anger and actively try to help diminish the causes.
– Never hurt any human being who is not going to hurt you.
– Recognize the execution and killing of human beings as unacceptable and cruel.
– Avoid words, programs, toys, entertainment, and movies that promote and glorify violence and anger.
– Promote an understanding that anger and the exercise of violence is not the first and only way of solving problems.

Core Values of Life:

– Encourage a respect for the value of life and implement them in their lives.
– Honesty, decency, simplicity, unity, love, patience, responsibility, happiness, respect, and help for others are the values of life that should be inculcated and practiced routinely by everyone.
– Encourage eagerness in understanding the ideas of others.

Family Values:
– Encourage respect for one’s own family and those of others.
– Promote the understanding that everyone, regardless of where they live (suburb, city, or our country), is part of the bigger family that we all belong to.
– Respect the wisdom and dignity of the elders in every family.

Partnership Values:
– Encourage listening to the ideas of others.
– Respect teamwork and focus on the success of common goals.
– Engage in the activities of others and involve others in one’s own activities.
– Avoid unilateral decision-making and imposing one’s will on the majority.
– Should not allow themselves to make decisions individually and impose them on others.

Freedom Values:

– Promote respect for the difference between human beings and an understanding that all human beings don’t have to think alike.
– Avoid pre judgment.
– Avoid anything that damages and debases the values of human beings.
– Respect freedom of thought and avoid imposing one’s ideas on others arbitrarily.
– Respect the freedom of all human beings.
– That freedom has real meaning only with justice and democracy.
– Teach the idea that freedom doesn’t exist without justice.

Individual rights:
– Encourage an understanding of one’s own rights.
– Understand human rights and respect them.

Peace Values:
– Encourage work for world peace and make peace a priority over conflict.
– Exercise love for human beings.
– Promote peace by learning other countries’ cultures, and learn that living in peace and harmony is the only right way for human beings.
– Understand that peace will come to our country only when there is no sign of Jahadi/Talibi fundamentalists as military, terrorist and troublemaker force.
– To never let Afghanistan, which today has become a field for dogfighting and bloodbaths, be a place for the monster like fundamentalists, Parchami and Khalqi traitors.

Appendix B

From Anne Brodsky’s “With All Our Strength” (p. 159)

[1] Anne Brodsky, With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan, (New York: Routledge, 2003), p169.

[2] RAWA statement, Overthrow of Jihadi and Taliban Criminals is the Only Guarantee of Human Rights in Afghanistan, December 10, 1998, http://www.rawa.org/dec10-98.htm.

[3] Brodsky, p160.

[4] Brodsky, p110.

[5] Brodsky, p110.

[6] Brodsky, p153.

[7] Brodsky, p156.

[8] Brodsky, p157.

[9] Brodsky, p170.

LA’s New Immigrant Movement: Observations and Questions

(Published on Dissident Voice and Znet)

Los Angeles is being seen as the epicenter of the new immigrant movement, mobilizing the largest numbers of people nationally at the recent protests. On May Day, there were two separate marches and I was fortunate enough to be at both, reporting for KPFK, Pacifica radio. While the mass-movement for immigrant rights is still relatively new, it’s time for some observations and questions.

Observations

LA immigrant marchesFirst, the movement is the most beautiful I have ever witnessed. At the downtown rally location on May Day, the marchers arrived and wave upon wave of people streamed into the streets. I ran out from behind the media enclosure to see them, take pictures, and gather sound. Women pushing their baby strollers and leading young kids by the hand, men carrying signs and waving flags, and older immigrants chanting militantly, marched toward the stage. They were wearing white and carrying hand made signs that reflected their indignation, and their dignity. I was moved to the point of tears. This is a movement of families who are sick and tired of being marginalized while their work literally makes the city run. Many bring with them a culture of dissent and political expression from their home countries, including traditional song and dance.

Second, the movement is galvanized by an existing network of leftist Chicano/Latino activists, immigrant advocacy groups, various influential political and religious leaders like Cardinal Roger Mahoney and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, and popular broadcast personalities who have access to powerful commercial Spanish language media outlets. LA’s huge Spanish speaking immigrant community has been mobilized by a confluence of all these factors. But because of these factors, the movement is overwhelmingly Latino. Los Angeles is home to dozens of immigrant communities and there are about 30 countries in the world that locate their largest populations outside their own borders in Los Angeles. Yet, these other communities are not as visible. African Americans are also not prominent in this movement.

Third, the backing of powerful political leaders like Mayor Villaraigosa, State Senators Gloria Romero, Liz Figueroa, and Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, has given the immigrant movement a sort of legitimacy. Perhaps because of this, the Los Angeles Police Department, well known for its ugly brutality against people of color, has been overwhelmingly subdued and well-behaved. At most of the recent public protests, LAPD presence has been minimal, and in some cases, actually cooperative and helpful. As a result, the protests have been perceived as very peaceful — another factor that lends it legitimacy in the US and the mainstream media. This is not the case in Orange County, a more conservative region, where political leaders have not been as vocal, and police have been more brutal to immigrant protestors.

Fourth, while the members of the movement seem fairly unified in their struggle, there is dissent among the organizers. LA’s two separate marches reflect two organizing approaches:

1 — A radical, militant approach, backed by an older, Chicano/Latino activist network who cut their teeth in the Chicano rights movements of the 1960s. This group advocated a full-blown national boycott and general strike on May Day: “A Day Without Immigrants.” They reject guest worker programs, and any compromise on full amnesty for all undocumented immigrants.

2 — A more cautious, reformist approach backed by the politicians, religious leaders, commercial DJs, and immigrant advocacy groups. This group, more influential than the first, felt that a boycott would alienate allies, create a backlash among mainstream America, and endanger workers’ jobs. They embrace a path to earned citizenship or residency, and are opposed primarily to the draconian Sensenbrenner bill passed by the House, which criminalizes undocumented immigrants.

Fifth, this is also a movement of youth. Paralleling the major mobilizations of families, middle and high school students who are immigrants or children of immigrants, have taken bold steps to express themselves politically. On March 27th, two days after the historic million strong march in LA, tens of thousands of students seemingly spontaneously walked out of their class rooms all across California and other cities. The walkouts were loosely organized, without visible leaders, by word-of-mouth and using new technologies (cell phone text messaging, Myspace.com bulletins, etc). Claiming to defend their immigrant parents, the students tended to carry more Mexican flags than US flags. However, the independence and initiative shown by the students has come under some criticism from their own community. Some adult organizers criticized the walkouts as being too radical, citing the struggles of immigrants to fight for their children’s education.

LA immigrant marchesSixth, regardless of the political background of the organizers, the movement is largely mainstream. From my observations, they embrace the ideal of the so-called American Dream, are eager and willing to learn English, assimilate, and wave a US flag (alongside a Mexican flag). There is a clear understanding that the attacks against them from the government and vigilante groups like the Minute Man Project, are racist. But there is no obvious connection being made to the US’s war on Iraq or Washington’s backing of neo-liberal trade policies. This is a movement of working people who want nothing more than to live and work hard in peace in the US, and without the fear of being imprisoned or deported.

Questions

First, what does it mean for this movement to claim patriotic props like the US flag, a symbol of colonialism, oppression, blind patriotism, and war fervor? On the one hand, it can silence the right wing criticism that immigrants are alien foreigners with greater allegiance to their home country than the US. On the other hand, it buys into the right wing idea that to be accepted in the US, one must be a “good,” flag-waving, patriotic American. The imminent release of Nuestro Himno, the Spanish language version of the Star Spangled Banner has sparked an instructive debate. On the one hand, most of the rally speeches in Los Angeles were in Spanish, particularly at the noon-time boycott march, and the DJs that helped mobilize marchers are on Spanish-language stations. But on the other hand, most immigrants seem to be distancing themselves from Nuestro Himno, fearing a backlash from English speaking US citizens. They want to sing the Star Spangled Banner in all its English-language war glory perhaps in an attempt to prove their worthiness to stay.

Second, is this movement a Latino movement, an immigrant movement, or a people-of-color movement? Judging by appearances, in LA it is currently a Latino movement. Latinos are the best mobilized (for reasons explained above), and most dominant and visible in the marches. But there are other immigrant communities particularly Asian, such as Koreans and South Asians present in small numbers. African Americans are largely absent. Some have claimed (Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Jasmyne Cannick) that immigrant leaders are not reaching out enough to Black Americans. But many Latinos are retorting that it’s high time they had the limelight. In proportion to their numbers in the US population, there is no question that Latinos are marginalized in politics, media, education, and other sectors. Is this a new civil rights movement for Latinos?

Third, will this movement be shaped by a handful of “leaders,” or develop autonomy by region, employment sector, etc? Currently it is too early to tell. On the one hand, the logistics of the major actions have been organized by relatively small groups of activists and organizers. But immigrant workers have also taken matters into their own hands by mobilizing their work places, organizing local rallies and boycotts, etc. The student walkouts were also unplanned and autonomous.

Fourth, how will progressive America deal with this new Immigrant movement? The links between unjust immigration policy and war, racism, and corporate globalization are clear. Will we make them? Will we find enough common political ground to express solidarity? Possible obstacles are:

1 — The patriotic symbols of the immigrant movement. Personally I am reluctant to buy into right-wing definitions of who is worthy of US citizenship. However, many in the anti-war movement have also embraced the flag under the rubric of “dissent is patriotic.”

2 — Contradictory political beliefs. Many in the largely Latino, largely Catholic immigrant movement are anti-abortion, and anti-GLBT (and increasingly Republican).

3 — Existing racism among progressives. On a national scale, most progressive activists have not considered immigration issues as worthy of activism. Alternative media outlets have not adequately covered immigration issues until recently. There is an underlying bias and racism among progressives toward immigrants, particularly the undocumented, that has to be admitted and overcome.

No one expected that in the post 9-11 era of xenophobia and fear, immigrants would organize so boldly and visibly. Despite the many questions on the future of the movement, one thing is certain — the new immigrant movement heralds the possibility of a major political change in the US.

Sonali Kolhatkar is the host and producer of Uprising, a drive time radio program at KPFK, Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles. She is originally from India, was born and raised in the United Arab Emirates, and has been a “resident alien” in the US for 15 years.

Central Asia Pipeline Cold War Heats Up

I really admire Stephen Colbert; he used his comic license to make a laughing-stock out of the Bush administration and the mostly compliant press, its stupidity, and its hypocrisy.[1] Unfortunately, we don’t need a Colbert to get comedy out of the US government.

Kazakhstan Map

For example, take Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent visit to the former Soviet Union. At one point in his trip, he lambasted Russia for using hydrocarbon resources as “tools of intimidation or blackmail.”[2] Cheney also said he had a problem with Russia “resist[ing] the development of strong democracies” and backsliding on its own democratic development.

The next day he visited Kazakhstan to promote an oil pipeline route to Western Europe that bypasses Russia, a scheme the Financial Times calls one of many “counters in a geopolitical chess game playing out between the US, Russia and China for control over one of the world’s last undeveloped oil and gas basins.”[3] Glen Howard of the Jamestown Foundation told the FT that Cheney’s visit amounted to “planting a big American flag in central Asia. We are flexing our muscles a little bit.” Russia intimidates and blackmails, America plants flags and flexes muscles.

In Kazakhstan, Cheney reiterated his critique of Russia’s oil policy and (lack of) commitment to democracy, standing next to President Nazarbayev, a man who won 90 per cent of the vote in December elections. According to the Organization for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), “the election did not meet a number of OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections.” The OSCE report on the elections cited a number of problems, including “undue involvement of the authorities in the election campaign, undue restrictions on campaigning, cases of harassment of campaign staff and an atmosphere of intimidation.”[4] Kazakhstan was described in the US State Department’s 2006 Human Rights Report as a country that places “severe limits on citizens’ rights to change their government,”[5]

But the country has strong US backing, and is therefore, by definition, a “democracy.” Cheney expressed his “admiration for what has transpired here in Kazakhstan over the last 15 years. Both in terms of economic development, as well as political development.”[6] Assistant Secretary of State Richard Boucher explained that Kazakhstan was important because it “is emerging as a world leader in oil and gas production.” It is a country in which “U.S. companies have invested heavily … and would like to do more.”[7]

The best the media could do in response was sadly regret the fact that Cheney’s human rights claims wouldn’t be taken seriously. The International Herald Tribune lamented:

There was a time when a strong statement from Washington in support of human rights and democratic behavior carried real authority. But of late the human-rights record of this U.S. administration has seriously eroded its moral authority, and Cheney is closely associated with some of its most offensive policies.[8]

The IHT agreed with everything Cheney said about Russia, but worried that “spearing Russia while flirting with its even more undemocratic neighbors does confuse the message, to put it mildly, especially when done by a vice president closely identified with oil interests.” In other words, it was OK to hypocritically criticize Russia, but not by Cheney while in Kazakhstan. I agree that the exact combination of overlapping hypocrisies was more farcical than anything Colbert could have written, but I despise this IHT sentiment.

Someone please remind me when Washington ever “carried real authority” when it came to human rights.

The United States of Failure

Failed States Global Index What is a “failed state”? I never liked the label, since it is usually used to ostracize poor defenseless countries and provide excuses to invade them. But a recent Fund for Peace/Foreign Policy study suggests that some people are beginning to apply the label a bit more universally.

According to the study,

a failing state is one in which the government does not have effective control of its territory, is not perceived as legitimate by a significant portion of its population, does not provide domestic security or basic public services to its citizens, and lacks a monopoly on the use of force. [1]

In the 2006 ranking, some might be surprised to find, the US was actually ranked 18th from the bottom (“bottom” meaning least-failing state, in this case Norway). That is, the country that supposedly “promotes democracy” in “failed states” was considered to be in worse shape than Chile, Singapore, or Ireland. According to the study, a lot of this had to do with the US government response to Hurricane Katrina.

…Hurricane Katrina exposed gaping holes in the country’s disaster preparedness. Viewers around the world watched in astonishment last August and September as the world’s superpower left thousands of its citizens stranded for days.[2]

But Katrina can’t be the whole story, since the report also cited “Uneven Economic Development along Group Lines,” i.e., the huge wealth gap, “Mounting Demographic Pressures,” perhaps due to the influx of labor from across the border, and “widespread” human rights violations.

The study of course doesn’t go far enough, failing to comment on the fact that the United States, in addition to failing its own people, has been spreading state failure around the world, or at least contributing decisively to it. In the top ten failing states are Iraq (4th), Haiti (8th), Pakistan (9th), and Afghanistan (10th).[3] Two of these countries were invaded and occupied by US forces after 9/11 and endured a US-sponsored “regime change,” one is an ongoing victim of US “democracy promotion,” and the other is a longtime US ally against “terrorism.”

Many of us recall that the “failed state” label was often invoked when US policymakers needed a justification for intervention in the 1990s and after 9/11. I noticed it a lot around the invasion of Afghanistan. While the current situation in Afghanistan is not completely a product of post-9/11 US policy, many of the armed warlords and drug lords – who control much of the land and fill the parliament, making it difficult for the pseudo-democratic government to have any control – are a product of CIA programs of the 1980s and early 1990s. These same programs contributed to the rise of fundamentalism in bordering Pakistan, the CIA’s primary ally in building the Afghan resistance. Some of today’s major “state failures,” if they can be called that, are Washington’s.

The May 1 Demonstrations

Los Angeles Immigrant Boycott Morning March, Photo by S. Kolhatkar

It had to be seen to be believed. There were at least half a million people on the streets in downtown Los Angeles on Monday. It was the biggest demonstration I’ve ever been to. The United States is certainly not used to such a degree of mobilization these days.

The first thing that strikes someone like me who may have missed the 60s and the 80s, (heck, I didn’t go to my first demonstration until the late 90s), is that the people marching are mostly families. These are people who realize that their lives and the lives of their loved ones depend on what they’re doing.

Los Angeles Immigrant Boycott Afternoon March, Photo by J. Ingalls

The second thing that struck me was the breadth of the politics of the people present. The majority of the people there were fighting for basic rights and dignity, an end to criminalization of the undocumented worker. To judge by their signs and proud US flag-waving, most didn’t go beyond the extremist Sensenbrenner bill (which would make undocumented workers felons) in their criticisms of the US government.[1]

At the same time, some did. And when you’re talking half a million people, “some” amounts to tens of thousands. This was especially true at the more radical morning march, organized as a boycott, or general strike (the evening march was intended to be less controversial, less threatening to those in power). There were people calling for general amnesty for all undocumented workers. There were Latinos who made the point that their ancestors on the continent (and in many cases in California) pre-dated most of the ancestors of current white US citizens. For someone used to seeing a few thousands of marginalized people at a demonstration, it was refreshing to see such a broad spectrum finding common cause.

The tenor of the movement is certainly “mainstream.” Its core demands have not yet seriously challenged US power, even though the simple act of getting people on the streets in such large numbers demonstrated that the movement is potentially a powerful force in national politics. In fact, the demands of some of the people there (such as the “guest worker” program promoted in the Kennedy/McCain bill[2] are favorable to US elites. Those calling for something more do not yet seem to represent the mainstream of the movement, although we certainly could see a radicalization in the future. My guess is right now, this movement is pretty representative of the spectrum of political views in the Latino immigrant community, like any real democratic movement should be.

My Grandmother

Me and Grandma Rose Sarkisian

I’ve been out of touch for over a month now, so I apologize to those who might have been interested in my thoughts on current events. My grandmother who I was very close to became very sick and then passed away on April 2. I was in Boston helping to take care of her and being with the family and helping with funeral arrangements for a little over two weeks at the end of March and beginning of April. After that, I just didn’t have the courage to write about anything in a public forum like this.

I was lucky enough to be allowed to say some words at her wake. Encapsulating her significance to me and saying it to the extended family really helped me begin to come to terms with her death, although the process is by no means over.

My grandmother was my mother’s mother, so her Italian heritage and Armenian last name (my mother’s father was Armenian) don’t show up in my Anglo-sounding last name. She had been through a lot in her life. She grew up in the Great Depression, worked in a factory in World War II, and raised four kids in the 1950s and 1960s after my grandfather died of cancer in 1957. Her second husband was by all accounts physically abusive to her and she left him in the early 1970s when I was a couple years old. She worked at a drycleaners up until 1983, when she retired at age 70. Despite her hardships, for the 37 years I’d known her (she was 92 when she died) she was the most generous and kind woman I had ever known. She was humble, in both her attitude and financially. Her real wealth was her family and friends, who loved her dearly. Even though she lived alone, she saw or spoke to her children or grandchildren every day, and spent hours a day in the TV room with her fellow tenants at her apartment.

My grandmother had two traits which I think may have had an influence on my own behavior. First, she demanded personal independence. After two heart attacks she insisted on living alone in her apartment. Even in the last year of her life, after she broke her hip and had it replaced last summer, she was adamant that she would walk again and move back into her apartment, which she finally did a couple of months ago, although the last months in and out of hospitals were not easy. Secondly, she couldn’t resist someone in need. Despite the fact that she was living off Social Security in government-subsidized housing, she donated to multiple charities when moved by their appeals, which happened often.

I didn’t mean to write so much about Grandma, since this is a “personal” subject and does not fall under “political analysis.” I was actually going to write about the May 1 immigrant boycott in Los Angeles. But then I started thinking of the families surrounding me and filling the streets yesterday, and it reminded me of my own immigrant roots, reminded me that both my grandmother and grandfather (on my mother’s side) were children of immigrant parents like these LA residents. My wife is an immigrant; so many of my friends are immigrants. Sometimes I have to think hard to understand why this issue is so controversial.