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By Alejandro Reyes
There is a daily reality for millions of people who now live under constant terror. And there are also many stories of the hundreds of people who die each year trying to cross an increasingly militarized border.
The United States is experiencing a very particular historical moment. On the one hand, the war in Iraq has turned into a genocidal chaos with no end in sight. Corruption scandals cracked trust in the government and the system. The housing market suffered a precipitous crash that forced many people to lose their homes and led many more to bankruptcy, heralding the onset of the worst financial crisis since the 1920s and a breakdown of the global capitalist system. At the same time, almost seven years of a "national security" policy led to an alarming loss of individual guarantees and the institutionalization of torture. The crisis and fear led to an increasingly virulent anti-immigrant stance and an unprecedented militarization of the border. In this context, the election of Barak Obama as the new Democratic president of the United States was received with skepticism by many people whose reality remains practically invisible, despite the fact that they have undoubtedly been the most affected: the poor and the "people of color ", racial minorities that, in many cases, are not a minority.
Life in America's poorest neighborhoods is extremely difficult and tends to get worse. This is the case of the South Central neighborhood of Los Angeles, with a population today predominantly Latino. It was there that, in 1992, one of the most important rebellions in the United States arose, when the policemen who beat the black taxi driver Rodney King were acquitted by a white jury almost entirely. The rebellion was the desperate population's response to police violence, but also to a situation that at the time seemed unsustainable and has only worsened today: high levels of unemployment, a pattern of increasingly low wages, overcrowding, shortage of very expensive housing and rents, racial segregation, gang membership, drug addiction, a disastrous educational system, terrible health services, high rates of obesity and malnutrition due to the lack of healthy food.
But it was precisely in this neighborhood that, for more than 14 years, the most important urban farm in the United States flourished: almost six hectares cultivated by more than 300 poor families, mostly of Latino origin. The South Central Farm constituted not only an alternative of economic independence, but a source of high quality food at low prices. In addition, the peasants preserved ancient farming traditions, knowledge of natural medicine and ancestral seeds. The farm was a place of coexistence far from violence, drugs, gangs and racism, a haven where children could play without fear, where traditional parties and ceremonies were held. Many of the peasants were adherents of the Other Campaign.
But a complex web of political and economic interests resulted in the destruction of the farm, in June 2006, by the government of the Latino and Democratic mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, despite the formation of a broad social movement to defend it. The organic solutions to the problems of health, food, education, drug addiction and crime did not interest politicians and businessmen eager to profit from that land when a new rail corridor raised property prices. Today a small group of peasants continues to organize and preserve the dream of the farm on land outside the city.
The farm was destroyed with the intention of building a warehouse for the Forever 21 textile company. This is one of the companies fought by the Centro de Trabajadores y Trabajadoras de la Costura, who accuse it of violating the labor rights of its employees, in its mostly immigrants. An independent, horizontal, community-based organization, this Center operates in downtown Los Angeles, in the heart of the burgeoning textile industry. Although the global maquiladora industry is well known, moving from country to country in search of lower labor prices, little is discussed about the internal maquiladora industry, which takes advantage of the precariousness of immigrant labor (fear, ignorance of laws, difficulty with the language, persecution for not having papers, threats and constant abuse) to reduce costs without having to move production to other countries. The Center for Sewing Workers is organized to combat these practices, in the context of growing criminalization and hostility towards immigration.
In recent years there has been a severe recrudescence of anti-immigrant legislation. This has resulted in the expulsion of more than a million immigrants in the last three years - with an average of deportations three times higher than a decade ago. At the same time, it has caused a precariousness of the living conditions of migrants, facilitating exploitation. But the numbers fail to account for the daily reality of millions of people who now live under constant terror. Stories abound of children left behind when their parents are taken away by the migra (immigration authorities). The stories of families terrified when officers enter their homes kicking in doors, threatening with guns, and handcuffing people whose only crime is work. The horror stories of losing all your assets and finding yourself deported in some city on the border penniless. The stories of the months or years of detention, the forced injections of dangerous antipsychotic drugs, in violation of international human rights laws, the manipulated legal processes, the mistreatment and humiliation by the immigration authorities. And there are also many stories of the hundreds of people who die each year trying to cross an increasingly militarized border.
In this context, organizations like the very Zapatista Tierra y Libertad, in Tucson, Arizona, organize from below to resist. It is about combating specific circumstances, such as immigration raids that keep communities in a state of terror, but above all about creating a collective conscience through education and organizational participation. For this reason, community self-sustainability, rebel art (RebelArte) and collective education projects are added to the information campaign on rights. These are autonomous alternatives, from below, by communities that no longer believe in solutions from the government or political parties and that decide to take the reins of their lives into their own hands.
Another interesting organization in that regard is the Intergalactic Kilombo, in Durham, North Carolina. El Kilombo is a social center in which "communities of color", migrants, workers and students seek solutions to the problems of their daily lives and at the same time are linked to anti-capitalist movements around the world. The Kilombo is inspired by the Zapatista struggle but also by the Argentine piqueteros, the Black Panthers and the American Young Lords and the palenques or quilombos of colonial America (communities in resistance of maroon, indigenous and mestizo slaves). In the Zapatista style, its axes of organization and of struggle are the assembly, the meeting, the autonomy, the territory, the knowledge and the word. The Center has educational programs (English, Spanish, literacy, computer, reading workshops) and sports programs, a library, workshops on rights, a radio project, a community garden, a health clinic, a low-cost housing project, and a independent publisher.
One of the most serious problems affecting poor and "colored" communities is what is called gentrification: the elitization of neighborhoods for the sake of "progress," real estate speculation and commercial interests. It is a process in which private investors, multinational companies and local, state and federal politicians participate, and that results in the systematic displacement of poor populations, away from their sources of income and destroying the community fabric. It is the case, among many, of the Segundo Barrio in El Paso, Texas, that the Paso del Norte Plan intends to destroy in order to build a large commercial center. As the organizers of the resistance (members of the Other Campaign) explain, the Segundo Barrio is not only the oldest neighborhood in El Paso, but a living community, mostly of Mexican origin - a true system of survival that allows that population excluded to resist with their culture, their language and their economic condition.
In New York, El Barrio, in East Harlem, suffers from the same problem. One of the main attackers today is the London-based Dawnay, Day Group, which in 2007 bought 47 buildings and is attempting to evict its tenants for luxury developments. But the problem started much earlier, and in December 2004 residents of five threatened buildings organized and formed the Movement for Justice in El Barrio, which, through media campaigns, lawsuits, demonstrations and direct actions, fight against displacement. With the publication of the Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, the Movement for Justice in El Barrio decided to join the Other Campaign and adopt Zapatista forms of struggle. In 2006, she carried out La Consulta del Barrio, a long process in which community members decided their priorities and strategies to fight. In October 2007, they held the first New York Gathering for Humanity and Against Neoliberal Eviction, in which organizations from across the city fighting gentrification participated. In March 2008, the Movement launched an International Campaign in Defense of El Barrio, with the intention not only to strengthen the resistance but also to motivate the linking of efforts in other parts of the world.
Another constant in communities of color is police abuse and violence. This past January 1, the young black Oscar Grant was arrested by a group of (white) policemen in Oakland, California, in a subway station (Bart). While his friends and a number of people protested desperately, the policemen knocked him to the ground face down. One of them pinned him with his knee to his neck while another drew his pistol and shot him in the back, killing him. The incident became public when witnessed by many witnesses and recorded on two cell phones, resulting in violent demonstrations. But brutality and racism by police forces against communities of color across the country are the norm. In response, organizations called CopWatch (police watchers) have sprung up in many cities. Its members patrol the streets with video cameras, alert residents of checkpoints and raids, and organize forms of community defense. In Los Angeles, CopWatch L.A., inspired by Zapatista and other autonomist movements, is part of a broader project of community autonomy called Revolutionary Autonomous Communities, which includes community farms, nurseries and other projects.
Police violence is accompanied by legal forms of criminalization of youth. For example, anti-gang laws prohibit members of certain gangs from gathering in certain geographic areas. But the determination of who is part of a gang is done in a very arbitrary way, so that young people, belonging or not, become criminals for the simple act of talking with friends in public, riding a bicycle, wearing clothes of certain colors or talking on the cell phone. Stories of arbitrariness against young people of color abound. In New York, a 16-year-old has already been in prison for several stays: for going from one car to another on the subway, for not registering when entering a housing complex.
These are the young people who supposedly have rights. But undocumented migrants don't even aspire to that much. "Illegal" immigration has been criminalized in recent years, so that today the "crime" results not only in deportation, but in detention for periods that can last for years. In September 2008, the largest raid in American history was carried out in Postville, Iowa. Three hundred people were arrested, charged not only with illegal immigration, but with identity theft, a charge with very severe penalties. The prosecution would not have withstood scrutiny in court, but pressure and threats, fear, ignorance of the laws, and the absence of lawyers led most of the detainees to plead guilty in exchange for supposedly shorter sentences of up to two years in prison.
But why this criminalization? Part of the answer lies in the "national security" policies put in place after September 11, 2001. The former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), which belonged to the Department of Justice, was dismantled in March 2003, with the Most of its functions transferred to the Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), now under the Department of Homeland Security. With an annual budget of nearly $ 6 billion, ICE's functions have expanded to include "fighting terrorism" and "threats to national security," functions highly promoted in official rhetoric. However, the minuscule number of terrorists and "national security threats" arrested (114 out of 814,073 from 2004 to 2007) is obviously insufficient to justify the budget or the heavy-handed rhetoric. The answer, therefore, is to portray immigrant workers as criminals capable of threatening national security.
But perhaps a more important factor is the privatization of prisons, in what has come to be called the "prison industrial complex," a billion-dollar industry that obviously needs "customers." The United States has the highest per capita percentage of prisoners in the world. Prison privatization does not only result in direct profits through state funds. Much more lucrative is the slave labor of prisoners, allowed in the 13th Constitutional Amendment. Prisoners, who for US capitalism are "social surpluses," represent a formidable source of labor. Today, numerous companies use the labor of prisoners who receive approximately 25 cents an hour.
What is perceived in all this is a complex mechanism for taking advantage of millions of people who no longer fit into the system. In this context, autonomist struggles play a fundamental role. For many, the system is so complex and perverse that there is no way to change it from above. The reforms of the administration of Barak Obama neither have the intention nor would they be able, if they had, to restructure the system in its bases. For the communities of mere down, the only viable alternative is the autonomous community organization and the link with other struggles in the country and in the world.
Alejandro Reyes - Radio Zapatista, KPFA, Berkeley, California April-2009 - The author is a writer and alternative journalist, a member of the Radio Zapatista collective and a doctoral student in Latin American literature. Published in Chiapas al Dia, from the Centro de Investigaciones Economicas y Politicas de Accion Comunitaria, A.C. - C I E P A C - http://www.ciepac.org