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 “Bones in the Wash”

Cesar Chavez — Great Story, Pretty Good Film

(Guest Post by John Byrne Barry, author of Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher.)

The day before celebrating the holiday commemorating Cesar Chavez, my wife and I watched the recently released movie about his life. We were staying the weekend up in Guerneville, but the rain was relentless, so we drove to Santa Rosa to catch an afternoon showing. On the way, we passed rolling hills of vineyards, where another generation of farm workers toil for low wages and under wretched conditions. (Though we didn’t see any. It was Sunday and pouring.)

I enjoyed the film, but it could have been so much better. The acting was fine — Michael Pena plays Cesar Chavez, who was not a remarkable orator or a big, charismatic personality, in a resolute, understated way, and America Ferrara turns in a bravura performance as his wife Helen, who was more instrumental in the farm workers’ struggle than I realized.

My biggest problem was the film’s reliance on the “great man” theory of history, common to so many biopics. Yes, Cesar Chavez was extremely influential as a leader, but he didn’t do it himself. Many people whose names we don’t know played huge roles in that movement. Some, like Dolores Huerta and Fred Ross, Sr., had small roles. Huerta, played by the beautiful Rosario Dawson, is portrayed as little more than a secretary. Others, like UFW organizing director Marshall Ganz—now a Harvard professor, influential in the Obama campaign of 2008, among other things—were not even included.

John Malkovich is delicious as a vineyard owner who wants to crush the union. But he’s not the stereotypical villain, rubbing his hands together in glee. Because he’s also an immigrant, from Croatia, and he’s worked hard to get to where he is, he feels put upon by the boycott, which devastated his business.

Because I’ve worked as an organizer, I’ve heard one particular line attributed to Cesar Chavez hundreds of times. When asked his secret of organizing, he famously said, “First you talk to one person, then you talk to another, then you talk to another.” The film didn’t really show that. They showed him fasting, giving speeches, struggling with his teenage son Fernando. But they could have shown more of him persuading people one on one.

I would still heartily recommend the movie though. It’s an important story, and I learned a lot I didn’t know. (Plus, it motivated me to do some browsing on the web afterwards to fill in the gaps.)

The film did a good job of showing Chavez’ commitment to nonviolence, especially in the face of impatience from people within the movement, some of whom argued for fighting back, who said not doing so was cowardice. But Chavez, following in the militant nonviolent tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., successfully held his ground. Following the example of Gandhi, he also fasted — for 25 days — to make the case for nonviolence. And it worked.

Central to the farm workers struggle was the the strategy of persuading consumers to boycott table grapes in order to support the farm workers’ strike, arguably the most successful consumer boycott in U.S. history. A big part of why I enjoyed the movie is that I was unwittingly part of that boycott. My parents didn’t buy grapes. For what seemed like my whole childhood. I’m not sure how they found out about the boycott, though my guess is their church.

They showed some of the farm workers fanning out to supermarkets with flyers and telling people about the boycott, but there wasn’t much in the way of context. This was the late 1960s, a time of great change, with the civil rights movement and the women’s movement blooming, and, of course, the U.S. labor movement was stronger than it is today.

One element of the boycott story that was new to me was the role of President Richard Nixon, who vowed to break it by buying up half the unsold grapes to feed to U.S. soldiers, and helping growers export the other half to Europe. In response, Chavez and other UFW leaders, some of whom had never traveled before, went to Europe to meet with labor leaders, church groups, and gained enough international solidarity that the grape export plan was never fully realized. Dock workers in England refused to unload the grapes, dumping them off the ship like the early Americans did with tea in Boston Harbor.

In that respect, the movie’s core message was on target. It wasn’t just one man who made the difference, but a worldwide movement.

Voter ID Laws: A ‘Solution’ to the ‘Problem’ of Democracy

Voter ID Laws: A ‘Solution’ to the ‘Problem’ of Democracy.

Voter ID Laws: A ‘Solution’ to the ‘Problem’ of Democracy

(Guest post by John Byrne Barry)

Last week, a federal judge in Wichita gave the green light to laws in Kansas and Arizona that will require proof of citizenship to vote in state and local elections, a move likely to spread to other states controlled by Republicans.

This is another example of a “solution” to a non-existent problem—there is little evidence of in-person voter fraud or non-citizens voting.

The “problem” that the Republicans want to “solve” is democracy—the constitutional right of every citizen to vote. These voter ID rules will make it harder for the poor, minorities, and students—citizens more likely to vote for Democrats—to register and vote. That’s exactly their intention.

Defenders of these rules say it’s no big deal—“Americans uncomplainingly present identification for getting on airplanes and numerous other things,” (New York Times 3.20.14) What they don’t say is that the poorest of our citizens never fly. And many do not have picture IDs. Or access to their birth certificates.

I’m no expert on voter suppression, but I did a learn a great deal about it researching for my recent novel, Bones in the Wash: Politics is Tough. Family is Tougher, which is set during the 2008 presidential campaign in New Mexico. Here’s a passage from the book.

Image“You look at the news and what people talk about and you get the impression that the nitty-gritty of politics is the people running, their characters, their positions on the issues, and of course, that’s partly true. But underneath that is this whole business of setting rules, like who can vote and when, and the Republican are evil genius and meta on that front. I hate it that I actually admire what they did even as I despise it. If they can manipulate the rules so it’s harder for the poor and young and old and disabled to vote, then they have an advantage no matter how weak their candidate is.”

That’s a fictional person speaking, not a real one. Sierra León, one of the novel’s protagonists. Here’s more from her:

“When we call them on it, they say, oh, it’s partisan attacks. That’s what’s so infuriating about politics. There’s no impartial referee, like at debate club in high school, some thoughtful observer who says, well, you may have received more votes here, but you broke the rules, so we’re going to have to subtract points. The right does whatever it wants, rules be damned. Well, that isn’t quite true. They do try to change the rules, but when they can’t, they break them.”

I made the characters up, and the story, but not voter suppression. That is, unfortunately, real and growing. Here’s the Center for American Progress:

The right to vote is under attack all across our country. Conservative legislators are introducing and passing legislation that creates new barriers for those registering to vote, shortens the early voting period, imposes new requirements for already-registered voters, and rigs the Electoral College in select states. Conservatives fabricate reasons to enact these laws—voter fraud is exceedingly rare—in their efforts to disenfranchise as many potential voters among certain groups, such as college students, low-income voters, and minorities, as possible. Rather than modernizing our democracy to ensure that all citizens have access to the ballot box, these laws hinder voting rights in a manner not seen since the era of Jim Crow laws enacted in the South to disenfranchise blacks after Reconstruction in the late 1800s.

The rapid growth of these Voter ID laws and bills is no accident. The American Legislative Exchange Council, better known as ALEC, funded by the Koch brothers, WalMart, and their ilk, have written a model bill and have been shopping it around, especially to those Republican-controlled states.

The gist of the bills is simple enough—people need picture IDs in order to vote. Now for your average middle-class person who travels, who has a drivers license and credit cards, this may not seem like much of a hurdle. But according to the Brennan Center for Justice, upwards of 20 millions Americans have no picture ID. And it’s no surprise those people are disproportionately poor, old, young, and minority. Fortunately, most states do not require photo IDs.

It’s not that voter fraud has never happens, but it’s extremely rare. Most cases turn out to be clerical errors. The Bush administration searched high and low to find cases to prosecute and came up with fewer than 100 charged defendants in three years.

What the right has succeeded in doing, however, is repeating these voter fraud accusations enough, through Fox News and the like, that a large number of people think it’s real. Enough so that ACORN, an organization that advocated for poor people and registered voters, got run out of business in 2010. But, according to a PPP poll two years later, after the 2012 election, 49 percent of Republicans said ACORN stole the election for President Obama. (Forty-nine percent of Republicans think thing that doesn’t exist stole election for Obama)

Voter suppression takes a variety of forms:

  • Voter registration restrictions: In Florida, a new law added complicated filing mandates for groups like the League of Women Voters to operate voter registrations drives—they have to submit completed forms within 48 hours or face hefty fines.

  • Reduced early voting: Despite its infamous long lines on Election Day, Ohio cut its early voting from 35 days to 11, including banning voting on the Sunday preceding the election, when black churches have historically rallied their congregations to the voting booths.

  • Residency restrictions: In Maine, the Secretary of State challenged the registrations of college students from out of state.

These voter suppression attempts are happening in concert with the arguably more nefarious campaign to portray government as bad, explicitly implying that that it doesn’t matter what you do or who you vote for. Unfortunately, there is some truth to that, but it’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hey, the government is broken, it can’t do anything. Oh, and pay no attention to the men behind the curtain who are hacking at the government with picks and axes.

(My intention in Bones in the Wash was to highlight the increasingly common attempts by the Republicans to make it harder for people to vote, but it’s less a political tract than a family novel, full of crazy parents, insensitive boyfriends, demanding girlfriends. A murder investigation, too.)

Read more about voter suppression here. Read the first three chapters of Bones in the Wash here.

New Author On The Block

My friend, John Byrne Barry has a novel coming out. John is a political activist and has channeled this passion into fiction. We bonded through a shared aspiration to help inspire people to act through affiliation with characters who fight for social justice. 

Perhaps you can join me at John’s book launch on Sunday at the Mo’Joe cafe in Berkeley – I can attest to the good coffee and healthy Middle Eastern food.   

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, The First Decree, and Ashbar – Wycaan Master Book 3 – all released by Tourmaline Books. Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter). Hang out with Alon on Google+

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