Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the tag “activist”

The Non Kosher Passover Plate

I couldn’t resist this great article/initiative from Paul Greenberg in the New York Times today. He put an oyster on his Seder plate. Now Jewish social activists often add a symbol for their cause to the ceremonial plate. But oysters are considered trief (not kosher) and Jews who observe our dietary laws do not eat seafood.

This is what makes the notion so radical and outrageous, except the rage is directed at the oil spill in the Gulf Coast (exactly a year ago) and the astonishing news that BP are continuing to economically thrive, while leaving a community absolutely devastated.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/and on Twitter (#alonshalevsf).

Devorah Major – Defining an Activist

A post from Devorah Major, over at Red Room, caught my eye. I have written extensively about the place of literature and fiction for addressing social injustices. Ms. Major makes a great point by adding poetry to the list. She also challenges how we define an ‘activist’ and comes up with a far more inclusive definition than I had ever considered.

My ignorance with regard to poetry is pitiful. Ms. Major was the Poet Laureate of San Francisco between 2002-2006.  She is the author of Brown Glass Windows, which is the story of a multi-generational African-American family, living in San Francisco’s vibrant Fillmore District, and shares both the many layers of the family and of the city.

I don’t usually cut and paste someone’s article or post into my blog. I tend to summarize and add a quote or two. But I just cannot see how to do that here. Below is Ms. Majors post in full. There is nothing that I felt I could leave out.

“I have been chewing on what it means to be an activist about the many ways we can and do act in our lives about when and how those ways are political as well as purposeful if there is a difference between those two things or if, as is more likely,  one’s purposeful acts are defined by ones conscious or unconscious politic of life and politic of community.

Certainly one sows seeds and ties up young sprouts and further nourishes small saplings through teaching and though it may seems as only an evolutionary act there is a point when the act of helping young people to see that they can think and should reason and giving them tools to do so while helping them to not only look at but see their world, themselves in these times of “dumbing down” and blurring and testing but not evaluating, training but not educating, in these times as much if not more than, ever teaching can be a revolutionary act.

Letter writing, marching, witnessing, giving money to a cause are all kinds of activism- but front lines taking over buildings for the homeless, striking and shutting down industries, seem to me to be a deeper kind of activism.  But then again, when I look at Egypt I see that for them just showing up is a far more revolutionary act than it is for me. Poetry is very much a revolutionary act. http://revolutionaryfrontlines.wordpress.com/2011/02/03/egypts-revolutio…
There, as in much of the world, writing a poem, making a speech, releasing a blog entry can lead to beatings, prison, death.

I know some real revolutionaries.  People who don’t just bandy about the word but live their lives forwarding people’s struggle in word and deed.  Kiilu Nyasha kiilunyasha.blogspot.com/ was struck by a degenerative disease which has left her in a wheel chair for over two decades.  Despite the extreme weakness in her limbs she continues to teach, write, produce radio shows, connect people, make sure that struggles for people’s liberation are moved forward.

Yet what of those who spend most of their time holding family together, caring for elders, seeing that children are fed, guiding teens- is this not also a kind of activism?  In a country where we are constantly told to go for self, where radio and television ads actually applaud and celebrate selfishness is there a kind of activism that exists in just doing for others, caring for others, tending to the needs of others?

What of those elders who in the 70’s would not dream of becoming a member of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense but would, and sometimes did, hide a member in their home, protect a member, stand guard.  Were they not activists, maybe even revolutionaries?

In these times I think we all, and when I say we I am saying me and thee, need to become more active in the greater world.  But I also think that we need to be broad in what that definition of activism is.  Yet as a writer, as a poet who is a member of the Revolutionary Poets Brigade, I am sure that writing the poem, reading the poem, however clear the political thrust, however skillful the craft, however profound the vision is simply not enough.”

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/

Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, Yemen,

I have spent a while trying to decide what I want to write about these major upheavals. It would be easy to say that they are far away from our Left Coast by the Pacific and ignore what is happening. This never stopped me commenting on the Nobel Prize debacle and other political prisoners in December. But something is gnawing away inside and I am feeling threatened by what I see as a rise in extremist ideology.

Let me begin by stating that I value my freedom and my democracy very highly. I have never lived in a country where this has been seriously challenged (though I did campaign against the rise of the British National Party – a fascist movement – back in the 70’s), but I would like to think that I would be out there on the streets, shouting, demonstrating and, well, blogging.

I have campaigned to free Jews from the Soviet Union, to bring down apartheid in South Africa, and to free Tibet from Chinese oppression.

But I feel equally threatened by extremists, whether from the left, the right, or from religious fundamentalists. If I value my freedom of choice and expression, I should be trying to stop the advance of such political movements.

But what happens when a nation supports an extremist ideology? What right do I have to prop up an equally or more oppressive regime? Do I even have a right to try to impose my democratic doctrines on another country?

The problem is that no country is an island, no ideology limited to a single country. When the Internet defined itself as a world-wide web, they meant world-wide. It doesn’t take much for an ideology to spread across continents.

What is missing from public debate is what is the best environment to avoid extremism and violent change? When such symptoms as low education and poverty are prolific, there is an easy framework to influence or stir people to fight for vague hopes or instant solutions.

When revolution was spreading through Europe in the early 1800’s, journalist William Cobbett said: “I defy you to stir a man on a full stomach.”

I would add to that. Give a person an education, a meaningful job, and respect, and s/he will seek a middle path. We badly need more middle paths today and no one is discussing how to really create such an environment through education, health, professional skills, and sustainable infrastructures.

People shouldn’t need to take to the streets to seek their own dignity, and to provide for their families. And they shouldn’t need to break their country’s laws when expressing their desire for freedom.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com

 

Between the Wars

I often play this song when people ask me for a song that mattered to me growing up.  Billy Bragg accompanied me in love and life as I grew up. His songs helped fashion the political values that I hold dear today.

I recently played Between the Wars to a group of students and I was surprised when my young colleagues spoke about how relevant this song is today.

What they connected to was not just the continual need for wars, but the economic recession. They spoke about feeling the peace and security growing up in their parent’s house, and how that has been shattered as many of their parents are now without a job and even having to sell the house, the stable bastion of these student’s childhood.

To quote from Between the Wars:  And I’ll give my consent to any government who does not deny a man a living wage.

History has a nasty habit of repeating itself. Perhaps it is sending us a message to sit up, pay attention and learn from the lessons of the past. There is a problem – the education cuts are decimating the field of Humanities and the opportunity to learn from history.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

No Natural Disaster

If you enter the search words: Hurricane Katrina + a natural disaster, you will assume from the first few sites that New Orleans suffered from a terrible natural catastrophe in the last days of August and beginning of September 2005. A mighty hurricane, an act of God, man-made defenses could not stand up to the forces of nature… It is perhaps understandable that people thought that then.

Here’s a word of advice. Don’t say that near anyone from New Orleans. In fact, after hearing their stories, after seeing the levees and the surrounding area, I don’t believe it either.

The levees were designed to withstand a hurricane the strength of Katrina, but they were not built the way they were designed. The bottom line is that the negligence in the construction of the walls was the reason why the city was devastated.

It’s like referring to the oil spill as a natural disaster. Wait, they did. The one article that stands out in the first ten on my google search is John McQuaid, who actually focuses in this post on whether we allow those culpable to subtly hide their shortcomings by blaming nature or God.

“Today, though, there’s a big problem: we can’t tell any longer where nature leaves off. Start with global warming and work your way down. Mankind is now causing what used to be called “natural disasters.” The Gulf oil spill is not a natural disaster in the traditional sense: nature didn’t cause it. But it is a natural disaster in that it’s disastrous to nature.

Or take the oft-litigated (in the courts and the media) case of Hurricane Katrina and the New Orleans levee system. I’ll repeat this here, for clarity: most of the devastating flooding of New Orleans occurred because faultyflood walls collapsed because of errors in their designs approved by the Army Corps of Engineers – i.e., the U.S. government. Natural disaster? Not really, though obviously nature had a hand in it. John Goodman’s character Creighton Bernette articulates this eloquently in the first episode of Treme.”

If we are failing to make the distinction between natural and man-made disasters because we are becoming numb to the series of catastrophes that seem to hit us, then this will become an increasing problem. If those who are taking the unnecessary risks, cutting the safety protocol corners to save money, are able to yield the nature/God car without impunity, that is darn right dangerous.

And unforgivable. Strong words? Ask the residents of the Gulf Coast. They’ve been hit twice in five years and, as people with a strong connection with the land, and many being God-fearing folk, they are not fooled by such doublespeak. They are just astounded that the rest of us are.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

When Fiction and Reality Blur

I just finished John Grisham’s latest novel, The Confession – always a pleasure Mr. Grisham. The plot deals with a man wrongly accused as the police and courts conspire to put him away. As Grisham works his art, I find myself thinking about the characters even when I am not listening to the audio book.


So you can imagine my surprise to read this headline on the New York Times daily digest: “Framed for Murder?” What? Then the next line: Californians may be about to execute the wrong man.

No,no,you’re wrong. It’s Texas. John Grisham said so!

But it is not out in Texas. It is here in our backyard. This is a great account of the case by NICHOLAS D. KRISTOF and was published 12/08/2010.

Framed For Murder

That’s the view of five federal judges in a case involving Kevin Cooper, a black man in California who faces lethal injection next year for supposedly murdering a white family. The judges argue compellingly that he was framed by police.

Mr. Cooper’s impending execution is so outrageous that it has produced a mutiny among these federal circuit court judges, distinguished jurists just one notch below the United States Supreme Court. But the judicial process has run out for Mr. Cooper. Now it’s up to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to decide whether to commute Mr. Cooper’s sentence before leaving office.

Kevin Cooper

This case, an illuminating window into the pitfalls of capital punishment, dates to a horrific quadruple-murder in June 1983. Doug and Peggy Ryen were stabbed to death in their house, along with their 10-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old houseguest. The Ryens’ 8-year-old son, Josh, was left for dead but survived. They were all white.

Josh initially told investigators that the crime had been committed by three people, all white, although by the trial he suggested that he had seen just one person with an Afro. The first version made sense because the weapons included a hatchet, an ice pick and one or two knives. Could one intruder juggling several weapons overpower five victims, including a 200-pound former Marine like Doug Ryen, who also had a loaded rifle nearby?

But the police learned that Mr. Cooper had walked away from the minimum security prison where he was serving a burglary sentence and had hidden in an empty home 125 yards away from the crime scene. The police decided that he had committed the crime alone.

William A. Fletcher, a federal circuit judge, explained his view of what happens in such cases in a law school lecture at Gonzaga University, in which he added that Mr. Cooper is “probably” innocent: “The police are under heavy pressure to solve a high-profile crime. They know, or think they know, who did the crime. And they plant evidence to help their case along.”

Judge Fletcher wrote an extraordinary judicial opinion — more than 100 pages when it was released — dissenting from the refusal of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit to rehear the case. The opinion is a 21st-century version of Émile Zola’s famous “J’Accuse.”

Mr. Fletcher, a well-respected judge and former law professor, was joined in his “J’Accuse” by four other circuit judges. Six more wrote their own dissents calling for the full Ninth Circuit to rehear the case. But they fell just short of the votes needed for rehearing.

Judge Fletcher laid out countless anomalies in the case. Mr. Cooper’s blood showed up on a beige T-shirt apparently left by a murderer near the scene, but that blood turned out to have a preservative in it — the kind of preservative used by police when they keep blood in test tubes.

Then a forensic scientist found that a sample from the test tube of Mr. Cooper’s blood held by police actually contained blood from more than one person. That leads Mr. Cooper’s defense team and Judge Fletcher to believe that someone removed blood and then filled the tube back to the top with someone else’s blood.

The police also ignored other suspects. A woman and her sister told police that a housemate, a convicted murderer who had completed his sentence, had shown up with several other people late on the night of the murders, wearing blood-spattered overalls and driving a station wagon similar to the one stolen from the murdered family.

They said that the man was no longer wearing the beige T-shirt he had on earlier in the evening — the same kind as the one found near the scene. And his hatchet, which resembled the one found near the bodies, was missing from his tool area. The account was supported by a prison confession and by witnesses who said they saw a similar group in blood-spattered clothes in a nearby bar that night. The women gave the bloody overalls to the police for testing, but the police, by now focused on Mr. Cooper, threw the overalls in the trash.

This case is a travesty. It underscores the central pitfall of capital punishment: no system is fail-safe. How can we be about to execute a man when even some of America’s leading judges believe he has been framed?

Lanny Davis, who was the White House counsel for President Bill Clinton, is representing Mr. Cooper pro bono. He laments: “The media and the bar have gone deaf and silent on Kevin Cooper. My simple theory: heinous brutal murder of white family and black convict. Simple as that.”

That’s a disgrace that threatens not only the life of one man, but the honor of our judicial system.

Governor Schwarzenegger, are you listening?
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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

The Empty Chair

Yesterday, Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. But Chinese authorities refused to allow him or any of his family to travel to Oslo and accept the award on his behalf. This has not happened in 75 years. I have referred to his situation in a previous post.

Here is the best tribute that I can offer.

EXPERIENCING DEATH – Liu Xiaobo

I had imagined being there beneath sunlight
with the procession of martyrs
using just the one thin bone
to uphold a true conviction
And yet, the heavenly void
will not plate the sacrificed in gold
A pack of wolves well-fed full of corpses
celebrate in the warm noon air
aflood with joy

Faraway place
I’ve exiled my life to
this place without sun
to flee the era of Christ’s birth
I cannot face the blinding vision on the cross
From a wisp of smoke to a little heap of ash
I’ve drained the drink of the martyrs, sense spring’s
about to break into the brocade-brilliance of myriad flowers

Deep in the night, empty road
I’m biking home
I stop at a cigarette stand
A car follows me, crashes over my bicycle
some enormous brutes seize me
I’m handcuffed eyes covered mouth gagged
thrown into a prison van heading nowhere

A blink, a trembling instant passes
to a flash of awareness: I’m still alive
On Central Television News
my name’s changed to “arrested black hand”
though those nameless white bones of the dead
still stand in the forgetting
I lift up high up the self-invented lie
tell everyone how I’ve experienced death
so that “black hand” becomes a hero’s medal of honor

Even if I know
death’s a mysterious unknown
being alive, there’s no way to experience death
and once dead
cannot experience death again
yet I’m still
hovering within death
a hovering in drowning
Countless nights behind iron-barred windows
and the graves beneath starlight
have exposed my nightmares

Besides a lie
I own nothing

Liu Xiaobo, a poet and literary critic, is the recipient of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. This poem was translated by Jeffrey Yang from the Chinese.


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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

 

Week of Freedom – Abdallah Abu Rahmah

In January of this year, Abdallah Abu Rahnah was arrested, tried and convicted in an Israeli court to 12 months in jail. Abu Rahnah has been organizing demonstrations and other initiatives protesting the Security Wall that Israel erected to stop the waves of suicide bombers who were murdering random civilians throughout Israel’s major cities during the second intifada.

Though I was always very uncomfortable with the building of the wall (I demonstrated in Israel under the banner: build bridges not walls), I have to admit that it does its job of preventing suicide bombings. It has also severely restricted the flow of illegal, hard drugs into Israel. I do believe that there are many instances where the wall should have gone around a Palestinian orchards or neighborhoods, and that there was an element of vindictiveness in the implementation.

Abdallah Abu Rahnah has made the wall a focus of his protest. I would take issue with him on many issues that he supports. But he is in prison for expressing these opinions in a non-violent way. Israel is a democracy and we, as Israelis, take great pride in being one of a very few democracies in the Middle East and Africa. But democracy comes with a price. To be a democracy, you need to honor the views of those who don’t agree with you. When the line is crossed whereby someone is violent or intimidating, that is one thing. When Abu Rahnah was charged with violent acts such as stone throwing, the courts found him innocent.

In a letter to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Amnesty International referred to him (and two others) as… “Prisoners of conscience, held for legitimately voicing their opposition to the fence/wall,”

The Middle East is a tough place to live especially when you value such principles as freedom of speech and expression. Israel has the right to defend itself and this includes those who use or advocate for violence. But Abu Rahnah should not be incarcerated for non-violent advocacy. It is an injustice against him and against the democratic state of Israel.
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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

Freedom Festival: Amnesty International

I guess this is where we should start. Amnesty International is a huge well-organized protest group. There are nearly three million members, volunteers, activists spread through over 150 countries.

I worked with Amnesty International to help lobby for an incarcerated Nelson Mandela and to free Jews from the Soviet Union in the 7o’s and 80’s. Their tactics are different for each campaign and formulated by those who are on the ground in that country. I have always been impressed with the understanding that local campaigners know best how to work the system.

Amnesty International is a great organization to support. They need your money and your time. The latter can be given from your own room or at their local offices. The advantage of going to their offices is that you get to spend an afternoon with other cool and committed individuals.

Amnesty International is about to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Usually this should be a proud landmark, but perhaps we can all hope that Amnesty International will not be around to celebrate its centenary – the world will have learned to respect itself and others.
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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

Bumper Sticker – A Call to Activism

I love bumper stickers. This one was a no brainer to add to my collection. It is one thing to be apathetic or to bury your head in the sand. But the propensity of people to complain and criticize but refuse to try and do something is truly frustrating.

There is an election coming up. The untruths (I’m being nice here) being thrown out is startling. These candidates rely upon people not really listening to them and just grabbing onto cliches and soap opera-worthy ads.

Whatever your decision in November, be revolutionary and make an informed decision. Just understanding what is really happening is a first step to being an activist.
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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com

 

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