Thursday, April 29, 2010

To kill a bee

This afternoon I was standing by the sunny back door of Arise for Social Justice when a fat bumblebee hovered briefly by me and contemplated the door.

"Nothing you want in there," I said, but the bee proceeded  to enter and I followed behind, hoping to move it back toward the open door, but no-- the bee continued its journey into the main room.  I walked ahead, announcing, in a calm voice, that a bee had entered the room.

One guy immediately expressed great physical alarm, flinching, flailing his arms and jumping around.

"Oh, are you allergic?" I said.

"No, no, just don't want to get stung."

"It won't sting you," I said.

Another guy grabbed a newspaper, rolled it up and went bee stalking.  I continued to the front door, where the bee seemed to be headed, but before I got it open, my brave friend swatted the bee against a window and killed it dead.

"Why did you do that?" I said.  "We need bees, bees are good."

"Then why do they always try to sting you?" a woman asked.

"They don't try to sting you, if they sting you, they die, bees are in trouble right now, we need them to pollinate our food."  Now came the blank looks:  Pollinate?  Bees?  Food? As if none of these things have anything do to with each other.  And of course for many people, they don't.

Coriander and coconut, cocoa and pumpkin, avocado and apricot, almond and cherry: we'd have none of these without our poor, stressed bees.

It was the wrong moment for a nature lesson at Arise-- didn't want to make folks feel either cowardly or cruel-- but the huge gap between our sense of ourselves and our relation to the rest of the world has been much on my mind.  If we can't find a way to close this gap, we're not long for this world-- or is it that the world is not long for us?

Now, you might think this kind of conceptual gap is widest among  poor or uneducated city people, but that would be a mistake.   I know many people who care deeply about the environment but who treat it as a thing in itself,  without making deep connections to human life.  They may know enough about industrial agriculture to want to eat well, and enough about corporations to know how outgunned we are, but they see human beings  as observers of the equation, not as participants unless to do damage.  But as Merry said to Treebeard, "You're part of this world, aren't you?"

Layer this on top of the genuine class differences between the lovers of the environment and the dwellers of the inner city.  Sometimes I feel like I'm standing astride a chasm.

I'm generalizing madly, of course.  Many people do get it-- just not enough, nowhere near, not if we're to have a chance.  And that's why I'm a community organizer, not a policy person, though God knows we need them..  We're not going to be able to save this planet, and ourselves on it, until most of us understand that humans and the environment are not just connected, but  inseparable.  Only then will we be willing to fight for our lives.

 Photo from petrichor's photostream at Flickr.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

You underestimate the power

“You underestimate the power of the dark side,” 
Darth Vader says to Luke.
“I know, he’s always doing that,” I say to my cat.

Motels for homeless families: state trying to do better

I've said before that the only thing worse than housing a homeless family in a motel is leaving them on the street. Decently-run family shelters provide support in many ways. What homeless families learn from each other, however, can be very important. Every situation is different but the road each family travels to homelessness has recognizable forks in the road. Homeless families (like the rest of us) often either place the blame for their situation entirely on themselves and what they see as their mistakes, or take no responsibility at all for their situation. Understanding the combination of poverty, low self-esteem, lack of opportunity and the thin margin for error that combine to make a family homeless is not an experience you can have isolated in a motel.

Nancy Gonter of the Republican reported Monday on the state's efforts to reduce the numbers of families in motels, and there is some progress being made--a decline of about 20% since November, 2009's peak of 1078.  Read her story to get a picture of state strategy.  But a bad economy and continued budget cuts keep these strategies at risk.

Yesterday an old Arise member stopped into the office to check in and share news.  She was dressed to kill--looking for work, out of unemployment benefits and getting a little desperate though still picking up some part-time work through Stavros.  She's taken in two women who are basically homeless, one who's looking for a job and the other who has no income but, from what I heard, may be eligible for disability benefits.  All three of these women are over fifty years old.  And whether the three of them can manage to hang on to their apartment is an open question.

San Antonio, Texas is trying a new strategy-- a 37 acre campus for homeless families and single people which they think can become a model for the rest of the country.  Here's a link to a story about the campus and some CNN coverage.

Photo from Omsel's photostream at Flickr.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Chicken and Eggs: cruelty should never come first

A friend from Stop Toxic Incineration in Springfield brought me a dozen eggs from her own chickens a few weeks ago.  The shells of some of the eggs were the traditional light brown but others were a lovely pale green.  The yokes inside were huge and deeply yellow,  but of course the best part was the taste: fresh, delicate, rich.

Seems like some people in Holyoke would like to start keeping chickens-- obviously not only for the taste, but also to save money and become more self-sufficient.  City Councilor Tim Purington  agreed to submit an ordinance to make it possible.  What an uproar!  Mike Plaisance covered the story in Yesterday's Springfield Republican.

Readers' comments ran the gamut from the typically prejudiced:
If they want to raise chickens let them go back to the Island.
Let's legalize cockfighting so some people will feel at home.
Maybe the roosters will wake them up in time to go to work
To the pragmatic and political:
I'd rather hear chickens than gunfire.
Hey, I thought this was America, where we have some freedom.
Yes!  More of us should be doing urban farming.

One poster, however, thought it was unfair to raise chickens in the small space required in an urban setting.

For her, and for every person who goes to the grocery store and gives not a thought to the lives of the chickens whose eggs they buy, let me share this undercover video from a Wegman egg farm in Rochester, New York. I've seen far worse.

And to end on a lighter note...peacemaker chickens break up a rabbit fight...

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The octopus as artist

Well, this got me in a good mood-- an octopus steals a diver's camera and takes off.  Octopuses are the smartest of all invertebrates and I've heard they like to decorate their living quarters with various baubles...

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Afghanistan: winning hearts and minds by blowing them to smithereens

Kill civilians.  Apologize.  Kill civilians.  Apologize.  Kill civilians......

Did you know that  "civilian casualties in Afghanistan were posing a strategic challenge to U.S. battlefield success?"  That's what Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told reporters earlier this week, as reported by the Wall Street Journal.    In fact, he's worried that civilian deaths might make ordinary Afghans turn against the coalition and shift their support to the Taliban!

Seems to me many of us have been saying that for the last seven years, that the war would create more opposition to the U.S., more terrorists, homegrown and otherwise, although we've been fortunate not to have another Iraq/Afghan war-related attack on U.S. soil since the war began.  But do you notice that Gates is worried about the Taliban?  I thought it was Al Qaeda who was responsible for 9/11.

The latest apology (but not the latest civilian death) came earlier this month when NATO admitted that a night raid had led to the death of two men and three women.
NATO said its troops had entered the house on Feb. 12 in Gardez district of Paktia province, believing an insurgent was inside. They killed the two men because they carried weapons, although later learned they were not insurgents.

"We now understand that the men killed were only trying to protect their families," Brigadier General Eric Tremblay, spokesman for NATO-led forces, said in the statement. The three women were killed during the shooting, NATO said.

NATO had earlier said its troops had found the women already killed, bound and gagged, but later acknowledged that this was untrue. Troops who visited the scene had made the mistake after seeing the bodies bound in preparation for burial, it said  Reuters.
 Why are we still at war?   What the hell is the matter with the so-called Left?  Why does Obama get a pass when responsibility for every civilian death before the election was laid at the feet of George Bush?

Photo from Times Online.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Susan Mullally's "What I Keep"

From Susan Mullally:  This work explores ideas of class, race, ownership, value, cultural identification and faith. I collaborate with members of The Church Under the Bridge in Waco, Texas, a non-denominational, multi-cultural Christian church that has been meeting under Interstate 35 for sixteen years. Many of the people have had significant disruptions in their lives, experienced periods of homelessness or incarceration, addiction to drugs and alcohol, mental illness or profound poverty and hopelessness. Many are working toward a new measure of stability and accomplishment through the programs and opportunities offered through the church. Other members have more stable lives and are drawn to service at the Church Under the Bridge. I ask each person what he or she keeps and why it is valued.

This is a collaborative project that is in the third year (2007-2009) and has produced 60 images. The work is a series of life size portraits (24"x36") with brief statements about the person’s choice.  My portraits are made under Interstate 35 on Sunday mornings. 

Upper photo: 
Virgil Lee Bell, Jr., Apostle

I played this washboard for twenty years. I saw one young lady in church, she was a Spanish young lady, playing the washboard. And then I told her I could play that, I could play that, let me see that! As soon as she let me see it and play it God just blessed me to pick it up and start playing it instantly. I was in another church and I saw another young lady and she had something like a fish, it was a washboard but it looked like a fish, with scales, and it was a washboard. And she played it. And I played it, too.  I sing Gospel songs with this. 

Photo on right: 
Patricia Anne Ragsdill/Martin
Truck Driver, Musician, Beautician, Mother, Grandmother of six, Fork Lift Driver, Cashier for 30 years, Sign Language Teacher, State Champ in Tennis for two years, Former Felon and Addict

I'm here to show that God does work miracles; that ex-cons and pit bulls aren't dangerous. Her name is Indy and she represents the female dogs. This is my pride and joy. She comes from a big breed I started raising them in 1975. I went to prison in 2001. I cashed out 5-5-04. I was a drug addict and found God in prison. I was in three of them: Dallas, Gatesville and Marlin.

The beaded necklace represents the Oklahoma. My mother came from Hugo, Oklahoma and she's got Indian in her. My dad is from Bogotá, TX - makes me an OK Texan!

Thanks for the tip, Mental Floss!

Life of the People

Wonderful collection at Life of the People.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

No biomass! Another ally

Last night Stop Toxic Incineration in Springfield members were on the agenda of the Green City Initiatives Committee chaired by Councilor Ferrera, and the meeting was more productive than I expected-- after Mary Booth's presentation and after a number of questions and answers, a committee member made a motion to oppose Palmer Renewable Energy's proposed incinerator and it passed with one abstention and none opposed. 

One irony in the situation is that Councilor Ferrera had originally voted in favor of PRE's receiving their needed zone change permit back in September, 2008.  I wasn't inclined to bring that up last night as it  seemed ungracious given this new opportunity to win an ally, and I certainly am glad he's changed his mind.  A STIS member in the audience did bring it up, however, and Councilor Ferrera said pretty much what I'd expect him (and the other councilors who voted in favor of PRE ) to say: the application met all the requirements to receive a permit, so........the unspoken explanation being that he had no choice, his hands were tied, etc.  Somehow that didn't stop  former Councilors Pat Markey and Rosemary Mazza-Moriarty from voting against it, and Bruce Stebbins abstained.  (I don't understand abstentions.)

STIS recently paid for a tape of the city council meeting where PRE's zone change was approved, but only a couple of people have had a chance to watch it so far.  If I had to guess, I'd put the city council decision down to the simple fact that business people have more weight in the eyes of elected officials than regular people do.  I've come to know many of the regular people who spoke against the proposal  to city council back then, and they were already pretty knowledgeable about biomass-- more than they'd ever thought they'd be.  And since then we've learned a lot more.

Given the weight that relationships between people with power carry, the only antidote is for more and more of us to understand, to speak out, and to organize to make sure our voices are heard.

Billboard finger tickles and teases

 Artist Chris O'Shea's installation in Liverpool, England brings more pleasure than apprehension...

Hand from Above from Chris O'Shea on Vimeo.

Thanks, Gizmodo!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Biomass update: Ian Bowles must think we're idiots

Tonight members of Stop Toxic Incineration in Springfield (STIS) are giving a presentation to Councilor Jimmy Ferrera's Green Cities Initiative Committee.  It may seem like not much is happening on the "biomass" front, but we want to keep spreading the word and keep building opposition to this incinerator.  I think we're in the "calm  before the storm" period.

Last December, at the Department of Environmental Protection's air permit hearing for Palmer Renewable Energy's proposed incinerator,  Springfield residents packed Kennedy Middle School to say "NO!" to the proposal.  I actually thought PRE owners would get their permit, and then we'd have to battle this out in court, but instead, Secretary Ian Bowles of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs announced that permits for C&D burning incinerators-- the Springfield plant and one in Somerset-- would be suspended pending a study on the plants' impact on our communities' health.

I've kept in touch with the state to find out when this study would begin, and although we're getting closer, there's still no firm date.  What I do know is that when DEP and the Department of Public Health finish defining the "scope of work" of the study, they will hold a meeting in Springfield where we can have input into the scope of work plan-- at least we're told we can have input.  We'll have to see what happens, but once we know the date for this meeting, we'll make sure residents of Springfield know about it, also.

But just how legitimate is this study going to be?  I'm certainly hoping for the best, and we're going to do everything we can to make sure the study is thorough and fair, but apparently Secretary Bowles doesn't think our concerns about our community's health are real.  Yesterday he was quoted in a New York Times in "waste-to-energy" plants in Europe.

“Europe has gotten out ahead with this newest technology,” said Ian A. Bowles, a former Clinton administration official who is now the Massachusetts state secretary of energy.

Still, Mr. Bowles said that as America’s current landfills topped out and pressure to reduce heat-trapping gases grew, Massachusetts and some other states were “actively considering” new waste-to-energy proposals; several existing plants are being expanded. He said he expected resistance all the same in a place where even a wind turbine sets off protests. 
 Hey, I'll take a wind turbine anytime over the toxic incinerator that Bowles initially promoted and approved.  But we weren't given that option, were we?

Check out the article.  I don't know much about the technology Europe is using (guess I'll have to find out!) but here's what I do know:  the technology PRE is proposing is light years behind the European plants, and the countries profiled in this article recycle everything that can be recycled before incinerating anything-- very far very far from being the case in this country OR in this city.  Shouldn't we be doing that first before we even think about burning trash?

Photo from zaskem's photostream at Flickr.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Saturday, April 10, 2010

40 cents on every dollar for Haiti goes to the US military

Before I had a chance to share more of my friend Tory Field's  epistle from Haiti, I was forwarded an article that she and a co-worker from Other Worlds wrote for Truthout: The Business of Disaster: Where's The Haiti-Bound Money Going?  Very disturbing article-- check it out-- and then read more on the ground reporting from Haiti.

March 10th

Last night I had a dream that I am in a house with a few other people. There is someone trying to “get us”. It is broad day and I see him looking for us, and he has a gun. For some reason I don’t feel very scared. But he does have a gun and he has shot the one person in our group who has a gun. So it seems like there is not much more we can do when out of nowhere, through the back yard two older women with long grey hair come up behind him and tackle him so that he is no longer a threat. They are recognizable, in whatever community we are from, as old renowned prostitutes. They are the prostitute elders in the community. They tackle him and save the day. And then the police come rolling up. And they put him, and the two women in handcuffs. After a few minutes they put the women in the cop car to take them in and then turn and unlock the handcuffs of the man to let him walk free.
When I wake up and tell bev about it she says it is a “being in Haiti after Jan 12” dream, referring to the stories we have heard about the rape that is happening in the camps, and the women we know through KOFAVIV, who are themselves living in the camps and working to protect the rights of women with no help from the state or anyone else. And I tell her it is a mix, a being in Haiti dream, mixed together with a Springfield, MA dream, where things like that happen to women all the time.

The good news today is that I read that individuals in the U.S. have donated a total of $1 billion dollars with the average donation being $125 per person. I am amazed by this. This huge act of caring and generosity. And this doesn’t even take into account many more little ways that people have been being generous. Like, for example, my big heart friends who pledge $30 or $200, that I deliver to Jetro for his mom to buy medication, or Helia to buy a tent, or APROSIFA to pay a women to make food for the rest, or the farmers network to buy seeds.

$1 billion dollars! I’m not sure if I know a single person who hasn’t given money in some way. $1 billion dollars from the individual big hearted people of the world. That is more money than any organization or government. The largest donation. And many people here on the streets are very aware of that generosity, this compassion that transcends borders, and very grateful. And they distinguish between the intentions of so many kind individuals and what has been a largely disrespectful and disempowering presence of the U.S. military and the distribution by some NGOs.

Aid after the earthquake has continued to be given in large part with little input, participation, or consultation of Haitian civil society. An approach that is disempowering and destabilizing in the long-term. Haitians are put in the position of paying for the assistance they receive with their dignity, self-confidence, and long-term well-being. Those in the vulnerable position of needing to fill the bellies of their children have little room to complain.

The U.S. government gives its aid through contracts with U.S. corporations and international NGO’s, both of which continuously undermine local businesses and production, from farming to manufacturing to street vendors. Imported food (whether it be brought in to sell or brought in to give away) renders business for farmers, millers, and market women that much more impossible, and further enforces a cycle of dependence on foreign imports. Corporations import their own priorities and visions, offering cookie cutter solutions, and destroying a respect for local knowledge and confidence. Substantial portions of the disaster relief money will end up following these corporations home, bolstering their company profits without any long-term investment in the community where they are working.

It is a common recipe… guns, rice, corporations, trade agreements, humanitarian aid. And it is employed even more voraciously after disasters -and despite the very good intentions of a lot of people who are trying to help…with good hearts, but within a system that is not really designed to help in any long term, sustainable way.

I do not want to squash the celebration of what has been, on the part of the people, such a unified act of giving. And I hope that when people in the U.S. learn about the betrayals around humanitarian aid, that they are only more resolved to look deeper, and to find trusted, authentic ways to lend support or be in solidarity and that they don’t give up this time or the next time around, but are only more determined to make it right.

This is such a good moment for us to pay close attention. And it seems, at least to me that people are paying closer attention. Even Clinton got up the other day and publically apologized for promoting imported rice into Haiti and effectively destroying their rice market. "It may have been good for some of my farmers in Arkansas, but it has not worked. It was a mistake," Clinton told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 10. "I had to live everyday with the consequences of the loss of capacity to produce a rice crop in Haiti to feed those people because of what I did; nobody else."

It was also in the news recently that someone is donating several large circus tents previously used by Cirque du Soleil to become the temporary headquarters for the Haitian government. This is strange poetic justice. The government, which is widely agreed has been bizarrely absent since the earthquake and ineffective for much longer, will be housed under circus tents.

The other good news today is that the sun shone.
And the other good news is that I made a couple of new friends.

Photo from United Nations Development Programme's photostream at Flickr

Homeless in the big cities

I suppose some people would say that anything is better than being homeless, but fortunately the New York City City Council doesn't agree. The council announced it intends to bring an end to the practice of sending the city's homeless from shelters to illegal and unsafe boarding houses being run for a profit by unscrupulous owners. This follows two years of pressure from homeless advocacy groups, including Coalition for the Homeless.
Lindsey Davis, a director at the Coalition for the Homeless and the author of the 2008 report, described conditions that she said she had recently observed at overcrowded boarding houses.

In one building, Ms. Davis said, an external wall had collapsed while people were living inside. One room was filled with 12 bunk beds. “There was mold covering the walls, and the floors and ceilings were not structurally sound,” she said, adding that people were sleeping in beds placed within feet of stoves. New York Times.
Another bit of help for New York's homeless comes from singer/songwriter Cyndi Lauper, who is opening a homeless shelter for LGBT youth with funds from her True Colors Fund.  Of the 20,000 young people homeless in New York City, a quarter of them identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered.

In Tampa, FL, it's OK to solicit donations from passing traffic as long as they don't disrupt traffic AND, since a new ordinance was passed in January, they wear reflective vests or risk being cited and fined.  Not everyone who solicits donations is homeless; one mother of two who lost her job is trying to avoid homelessness by alternating her days job-hunting and soliciting donations. Tampa Bay Online.

Now that the risk of dying from hypothermia is diminishing, many homeless people in Washington, D.C. are leaving the shelters, many of which are due to close, and heading back to the streets.  12,000 people are estimated to be homeless in D.C., although that number is expected to climb when the results of the latest homeless census are released.  Washington Post.

Photo of homeless D.C. man from winged photography's photostream at Flickr.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Think you pay too much in taxes?

Maybe we only pay too much in comparison with those who pay too little.

Wealth for the Common Good has released a new report, “Shifting Responsibility: How 50 Years of Tax Cuts Have Benefited America’s Wealthiest Taxpayers.” It details how, over the last half-century, America’s highest earners have seen their tax outlays drop by as much as two-thirds while the tax outlay for middle-class Americans has slightly increased. The report also details an Economic Tax Recovery Plan that would raise $450 billion in revenue by ending unfair tax benefits for the wealthiest Americans. 
The Key Statistics
• Between 1960 to 2004, the top 0.1 percent of U.S. taxpayers — the wealthiest one in one thousand — have seen the share of their income paid in total federal taxes drop from 60 to 33.6 percent.
• America’s highest income-earners — the top 400 — have seen the share of their income they pay in federal income tax alone plummet from 51.2 percent in 1955 to 16.6 percent in 2007, the most recent year with top 400 statistics available.
• If the top 400 of 2007 paid as much of their incomes in personal income tax as the top 400 of 1955, the federal treasury would have collected $47.7 billion more in revenue from just these 400 taxpayers.
• In 2007, if the top 0.1 percent of taxpayers — Americans with incomes that averaged $7,126,395 — had paid total federal taxes at the same rate as the top 0.1 percent paid these taxes in 1960, the federal treasury would have collected an additional $281.2 billion in revenue.
• Tax cuts for the wealthy between 2001-2008 cost the U.S. Treasury $700 billion, with all of these billions added directly to the national debt. Retaining these tax cuts will cost $826 billion over the next decade.1
• In 1960, the middle 20 percent of U.S. taxpayers paid 15.9 percent of their incomes in total federal taxes. That total included not just income taxes, but payroll and other federal taxes as well. These same Americans, according to the most recent figures, are now paying 16.1 percent of their incomes in total federal taxes.
• Federal taxes, even after three decades of tax cuts for America’s most affluent, remain somewhat progressive. The higher the income, the higher the tax rate. But state and local taxes remain decidedly regressive. This offsets, to a significant extent, our residual federal tax progressivity. Taxpayers in America’s middle fifth paid 9.4 percent of their 2007 incomes in total state and local taxes. Top 1 percent taxpayers that year saw only 5.2 percent of their incomes go to state and local taxes.

Photo from alancleaver_2000's photostream at Flickr.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Don't forget Haiti

My friend Tory has just arrived back in Western Mass after a stay in Haiti.  She sent the Arise board an email containing some of her journaling.  It's long, so I'm going to divide it up, but so poignant and and evocative I want to share it with you.

“a stone in the water does not know the suffering of a stone in the sun” – a Haitian proverb that Bev tells me standing outside the supermarket

March 8th

We saw a woman selling dirt today. Dirt to eat. Walking downtown by the palace. Champs de Mars, which used to be a big open space but now is crammed tight with tents and tarps and cardboard and sheet-made homes pushed in to every scrap of bare ground. She was selling candy and crackers and dirt baked with salt and butter into small discs for eating. I remember seeing it on the news, a year or so ago, a headline during the “food crisis”. Each time I have tried to eat something today I envision those pale disks and feel sick to my stomach.

It is international women’s day today. We went to a gathering to honor 3 fallen women, 3 leaders in the struggle for women’s rights here in Haiti who died on Jan 12th. It was held on a shady street, under blue tarps strung from the trees. Under blue tarps, like everything else.

And then we walked downtown and met a teenage boy who said “fuck you CIA” when he saw I had a camera out to take a picture of the “Marron Inconnu” a beautiful bronze statue of a free slave the chain around his ankle broken, blowing the conch shell, symbol of independence. (Marron Inconnu  - The unknown slave it is translated, though I am told that a marron is a person who escaped from the plantation and formed communities from where they launched rebellions). It would be funny, being called CIA, except that I know he walked away thinking we were indeed CIA-minded elitist Americans coming to sightsee and snap pictures amidst the heartbreak. It would be funny, except he walks away feeling all the angry weight of history and just another slap in the face. The Marron Inconnu, this beautiful sculpture, sits in what was once open space, by Champs de Mars, near the palace. Now it is completely surrounded by tents.

We are trying to take some pictures for the blogs but each time I pull it out I feel shameful. Bev tells me when she was in Cite Soleil years ago she remembers graffiti that said “tourist, do not take a picture of my suffering.”

Sorry friends, I don’t mean to relay only sadness. There is so much beauty too. Like Yolette’s smile and Helia’s children and little kids with kites and genius toys they have made out of scraps of nothing, and sunshine to dry clothes in, and the hummingbird I saw feeding from bright red ginger flowers, and spicy peanut butter and crackers made in port-au-prince, and this little candle burning next to me on the table.

Like the gathering we went to at Aprosifa, a project coordinated by the vibrant Rosie that includes a women’s clinic, a childcare center/orphanage, an arts and crafts school for youth with workshops on painting, metal sculpture and zero-waste crafts (where kids make very cool purses and placemats out of old candy and spaghetti wrappers.) The buildings are even more full of kids now, giving them something interesting and creative to do, as all of the schools are still closed, until who knows when. Many, many of the schools collapsed.

Out in the courtyard of Aprosifa they just built a metal roof so they could have classes and clinic there, since many moms don’t want to go inside anymore. Under this roof there was a gathering in the triple honor of a staff birthday, a volunteer who had been there for two weeks, and a group of Cuban doctors who were on their way to towns in the county for 4-6 months.

These doctors are part of the Henry Reeve Cuban Medical Brigade, made up of doctors and med students from Cuba and 25 different countries who have been trained at Cuba’s medical school. The doctors now here in Haiti volunteered for this brigade and their expenses and a small stipend are paid by the Cuban government. There are approximately 1600 of them, spread out through Port-au-Prince and small towns throughout the country and they will maintain a presence here for a year, individual doctors having the opportunity to stay the whole time or rotate in and out for 4 or 6 month stints.

The healthcare they provide is completely free (one of the challenges is explaining to patients, and those who should be patients, that it is indeed completely free). They have set up 4 small community clinics on the streets of Port-au-Prince, are working in 3 public hospitals throughout the capitol and have created 2 nearby field hospitals (complete with surgery tents and also community teams that go out to camps and neighborhoods to provide mobile care). They are also scattered throughout hospitals around the country. This is the brigade that Cuba offered to send to the U.S. after Hurricane Katrina but the U.S. government turned away. Here in Port-au-Prince the doctors are also living in tents, in their own organized camp they have created in the center of downtown.

So, here at Aprosifa, in honor of the spirit of true generosity and solidarity, there was a small celebration with croissants from the bakery, rum cake, a round of happy birthday in English, Spanish and Creole, a Haitian band complete with the most home made drum kit you ever saw, and dancing. And laughing. There is beauty wherever there are people. Wherever there is anything growing out of the earth.

Before the party, while we were walking around seeing the different parts of Aposifa, we sat down to wait for a few minutes for Rosie who was, everywhere she went, taking time to stop and check in, to smile and say “how are you” and joke and laugh, and say to a kid “that is a super incredible painting, tell me what that one is about…”

So we sat and waited for a minute on a bench at a table with 5 little kids who were all sitting waiting for something else. We asked them what they were up to and one little girl, 6 years old, with a super soft voice, subtle gestures and staring eyes, said “I came here to do my work” She pointed to the very cool bag I had just proudly purchased made from spaghetti wrappers. We exclaimed at how beautiful her work was! And asked a few more questions about where she was sleeping and with whom. She is sleeping in the street, she said, with her aunt. She looked straight at us and in the quietest voice said “mama morir.” “Mama morir cherie?” “oui, mama morir.”  She said it so quietly and with wide open eyes. Like maybe if she searched our faces when she said it she could understand better what it meant.

I’ve been thinking about her nonstop.

There is one other person I will tell you about who I have been thinking about nonstop.

Yesterday we took a taxi to go visit Helia. Helia with the high-pitched voice who calls Bev every day. Helia, who when I first got here said to Bev “please put her on the phone” even though she knew I didn’t speak a word of Creole. She rattled away greetings in Creole and I rattled them back in English and we talked like this for a few minutes on the phone, back and forth, our introductions and warm greetings and laughing, even though we had no idea what the other was saying.

We got in the taxi on the way to visit her and a few minutes into the drive we were laughing with the driver about some little thing. With his warm face. And then bev asked him, as she does of most everyone she talks to, if he lost anyone in the earthquake.

He pulled out a tiny picture, the size you get for school pictures of his beautiful little 8 year old girl.

She was out playing in the yard near a wall when the earthquake happened and the wall fell on her. He dug her out himself and she had already passed. He wanted to take her to the countryside to bury her and was trying to gather the money to arrange getting there. He waited 3 days, but after 3 days he could not wait any longer.  So he had to wrap her carefully in a sheet and carry her into the street. Front end loaders were coming through the streets to scoop up the bodies left on the curbs. He could not stand to leave her in the street to be scooped up by a machine. The only thing he could do was wrap her in a sheet and place her gently in the bucket of the front end loader himself… to be driven away and buried in a mass grave. He says he thinks of her every minute. He says he sees her when he is eating. “I am resigned” he says.

I almost can’t stand to tell you that story. I wonder, in doubting moments, what greater purpose it serves, if it makes any difference, or if it numbs people to suffering to hear people’s hard stories. I went back and forth about whether to include it in this letter. Because more than anything, I want to honor this little girl’s spirit. To honor the love of her father.  I can’t stand the thought of anyone hearing about her and not taking a moment to honor her (so that is what I ask of you.) And my hope is that maybe, in some complex configuration that connects strangers across the world... Some steady simple equation of ripple effects… that a heart hurting for this little girl will connect to some resolve to love larger. The strength to protect some other little girl.

And maybe this little life could not have been spared by the slipping of the earth. Or maybe in fact, it could have been.  If the wall had been built stronger, or if her dad had had the money for a better house, in a better place, or maybe if they hadn’t been living in the city trying to make a living off of driving a cab, but instead had been somewhere else, anywhere else…

Helia gets in the cab with us with kisses for everyone including the driver. I imagine there is an undercurrent of understanding that they don’t even yet know about – but maybe they can assume– of suffering to suffering. A kiss for the cab driver she hasn’t yet met and whose story she hasn’t heard.

We drive only a couple of minutes, pull over to get out, he turns off the car and we all just sit for a few minutes.  They are talking about the kids they have lost. His 9 year old girl and her 20 year old son. She says “everyone tells me he is fine, that I’ll find him, but I know I won’t” and he says “don’t believe them, it’s false hope.” He says “ I see her all the time, especially when I am eating,” and she says “I cannot eat.”

We walk down the road to the house Helia has created out of sticks and a tarp for herself and 3 children.. She is lovely and dignified. I wont tell you her story right now. There is only so much heartbreak to fit in one letter.

Photo by Laura Wagner, from Other Worlds Are Possible.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Vigiling for police accountabilty; Media rationale

Yesterday Coalition for Community Justice members stood out in front of the Springfield Federal Building and vigiled for a more accountable police department.  We were joined by members of the Stovall family, whose son/brother had died last Saturday after an encounter with the Springfield police.  The family is having their own vigil tonight a 6 pm. at the corner of Grenada Terrace and Sorrento St., where Clyde Ratcliff spent his last moments.  I'm not going to write much about Mr. Ratcliff until more details are available, but I will say that I liked Mr. Ratcliff's family members very much-- a middle class Black family who had recently bought a house in the Forest Park area.

While Mr. Ratcliff's sister, Karen Stovall, and Arise President Don James went into the Federal Building to deliver a letter to the U.S. Justice Department, Mr. Ratcliff's father and I had a conversation.  We did wonder what it would take to get more community people standing out with us-- only about twenty of us turned out.

"To tell you the truth," he said, "if this hadn't just happened to us, if our family hadn't been affected, we probably wouldn't be here, either.  You just don't think this kind of thing is going to happen to your family."


On Wednesday, I asked why the media had been so silent about Mr. Ratcliff's death, not reporting until that very day when Mr. Ratcliff had died on Saturday.

A partial answer seems to be that the media was not notified by the police until Tuesday night/Wednesday morning.  (I say a partial answer, because aren't reporters supposed to look for stories, not wait for the stories to come to them?)

Mike Dobbs, editor of the Springfield Reminder, posted the following message:  (Mike works for a weekly, so he's not on the hook about this.)

This what I received on Wednesday from the Springfield Police Department:

"On Saturday March 27th 2010 at 8:50 P.M. Sgt. Richard Labelle of the uniformed Division was working and patrolling "High Crime Areas" in Springfield. The Sergeant was in the area of Hancock Street when he observed a 2003 Pontiac Bonneville pulled over to the curb. The vehicle was occupied by CLYDE RATCLIFF age 48 of Johnson Street in Springfield. Mr. Ratcliff was talking with a lone woman standing on the curb. Sgt. Labelle attempted to pull the car over after running the plates and Mr. Ratcliff took off at a high rate of speed. The vehicle attempted to elude the officer at a very high rate of speed driving through a serpentine course of the streets and disregarding all traffic signs and signals. The Officer stopped pursuing the vehicle because of the dangerous way Mr. Ratcliff was driving. The description of the Motor Vehicle was given out over the air to the other officers working in the city to be "on the lookout". Sgt. Labelle then drove to Johnson Street, the address where the plate came back to from the RMV.

"Two other officers spotted the car Mr. Ratcliff was driving in the Forest Park section of the city. They attempted to pull the vehicle over near Alderman and Dickinson Street. The Pontiac then attempted to elude the police by turning onto Grenada Terrace on the wrong side of the terrace and drove at a high rate of speed. The Pontiac then crashed as Mr. Ratcliff turned into the front lawn at 92 Grenada Terrace. The car struck a three foot cinder block wall causing heavy front end damage. The force of the accident caused both airbags to deploy. The officers on scene extricated Mr. Ratcliff from the car through the drivers side window. (The car doors were not working because of the crash. Mr. Ratcliff was placed into custody and brought to the nearby police car.  The officers called for an ambulance to check out Mr. Ratcliff because of the impact of the accident. Mr. Ratcliff spoke with the officers and the arriving E.M.T's. He complained of shortness of breath and told the EMT's that he had a heart condition and was taking heart medication. The EMT's decided to bring him to the Baystate ER. He walked to the stretcher from the police car, still talking to the EMT's . On the way to the hospital Mr. Ratcliff the patient stopped breathing. CPR was performed and Mr. Ratcliff died at the Baystate ER.

"Deputy Chief John Barbieri ( who was working the weekend) was at the scene of the accident. A thorough investigation was done of the accident and of the attempted arrest of Ratcliff. Reports were taken from the four EMT's at the scene along with all the officers who pursued the car. The District Attorneys Office has been notified and were called that night. The D.A. has all the reports. The Medical Examiner performed an autopsy today and the results are not yet available.

"Mr. Clyde Ratcliff has a history with the Springfield Police Department. Out of respect to the family I am not sending out any pictures of the deceased.Commissioner William Fitchet expressed condolences to the family of  Mr. Ratcliff during their time of mourning."

Greg Saulmon from the Republican shared this on Facebook:

"We (The Republican) originally reported on this on Tuesday afternoon (5:08 p.m.), and followed with a more in-depth story yesterday. We're continuing to follow the situation.

"The Springfield Police Department, which is pretty prolific in sending out press releases, sent the release about this incident Wednesday afternoon, at 4:36 p.m. Press ... See Morereleases are just one way we find out about what's happening at the PD -- we monitor the scanners and have reporters check in with the PD daily. But, when there's an incident that warrants an internal investigation, that tends to increase a) the length of time before the PD releases any information to the media and b) the depth of reporting / research we need to do before we can begin to publish what we've found.

"It may not suit everyone's timetable, but there are many steps we need to take to ensure the integrity of our reporting -- and that often mean that we don't rush a story to publish / print.