Thursday, November 20, 2014

Students rebel against hostage-taking in California's higher ed war

I stopped by Wheeler Hall this evening, crossing from the NW corner of the Berkeley campus where I work to look in on the building occupation that began yesterday evening, following a UC Regents committee vote to hold students hostage in a war between California Governor Jerry Brown and UC President Janet Napolitano (who is also a former governor of Arizona, 2003-2009; and former head of the Department of Homeland Security, 2009-2013). It's a war of Titans (remember Cronus, the leader of the Titans? the one who ate his children?).

Here's how the L.A. Times told the story on Tuesday, in an editorial titled A battle for UC's soul:
At issue is whether the 10-campus system will continue to rank among the nation's premier research universities, drawing top students and the best professors from throughout the world, or whether it will slowly shrink its ambitions, becoming a more utilitarian institution that concentrates narrowly on moving students to their bachelor's degrees and into the workforce quickly and efficiently.

UC President Janet Napolitano says that she will ask the Board of Regents to approve the tuition increases Wednesday, although they would not have to go into effect if the the state provides better funding. Gov.  Jerry Brown, who opposes the tuition hikes, points out that he is already planning on increasing the state's contribution 4% a year over the next two years, though he wants to tie those increases to some major changes. Among his suggestions: more online courses, heavier teaching loads for professors, reductions in nonessential research, the admission of a smaller proportion of freshmen and more community college transfers, so that the state can educate college students more inexpensively for their first two years.
The editorial goes on to lay out:
It then concludes with support for UC President Napolitano's plan to hold students feet to the fire until the state coughs up funding to maintain its preeminent public university system.

Ouch.

Students bussed in from all ten UC campuses to protest adoption of this plan to hold them hostage, but the UC Regents committee charged with making the decision voted on Wednesday to make Napolitano's threat real (the full board ratified the committee's decision today). Last night, seeing the writing on the wall, Berkeley students began an ongoing occupation of Wheeler Hall in the heart of the campus; students at UC Santa Cruz are occupying the Humanities 2 building; CNN is also reporting protests at UC Davis and UCLA. Photos are being tweeted from around the state hashtagged #fightthehike.

My read: this is going to be a complicated conflict to narrate through the filter of mainstream media. There are no clear heroes or villains. Governor Brown wants to fight tuition hikes, but he wants to do it by turning California's higher ed treasure into a diploma mill. UC Pres. Napolitano wants to preserve the value of the university she heads, but she's prepared to throw students off the cliff to get her way (not to mention that her moral authority to lead UC is worse than questionable, as students across the state have been arguing since her appointment to the role).

In the wake of Germany's decision to offer free university education to all -- even international students -- I'd like to see UC students call for the same here in California. Do I think that's an achievable demand? Not in the near term. But it calls for a remaking of the world as we have come to know it, and that's what these times call for.

Longtime Daily Kossack Don Mikulecky quoted Peter Kropotkin in a thoughtfully angry (and underappreciated) diary yesterday:
Think about what kind of society you want to live in and then demand that your teachers teach you how to build that society.

Right on the mark...



Related posts on One Finger Typing:
UC Berkeley's anti-apartheid movement: setting the record straight
The Occupy Movement and UC Berkeley's Free Speech Monument
When authorities equate disobedience with violence
Chancellor Katehi, Athens Polytechnic, and ... Janet Jackson?
Paying what things cost



Thanks to Brittany M. (@belitebrite) for her image of the Wheeler Hall occupation at Berkeley on 20 Nov 2014. Thanks also to Falcorian for the image of Wheeler Hall: "Wheeler Hall--UC Berkeley--Panoramic". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wheeler_Hall--UC_Berkeley--Panoramic.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Wheeler_Hall--UC_Berkeley--Panoramic.jpg

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Never mind Election Day 2014, consider Fall in Northern California

It's election day, and I'm at a loss for words. Fortunately, Jon Carroll of the SF Chronicle is not. Check out As we face another election day for a little perspective, not that it'll cheer you up any. But instead of bemoaning the state of our corrupt and boughten democracy, I'm going to share pictures. In addition to election day, today is the end of my long mostly-stay-cation.

Just to be contrary, I started my stay-cation by taking a drive up the coast, from Berkeley to Pt Reyes to Pt Arena, then home.

First (out-of-car) glimpse of the Pacific, at McClure's Beach at the south end of Tomales Point:



By the Pierce Ranch, just a short way up the hill, this fence caught my eye:



On Tomales Point the elk were rutting. Here's a small herd near the trail:


The next day was all about the Sonoma Coast, from Goat Rock, to the seals at Gerstle Cove (Salt Point State Park) where I stopped for lunch.



Here's a little video from Gerstle Cove, for a sense of the surf's power and the seals' cute-factor (from a distance anyway):




I met an old friend who lives on the coast just north of Sea Ranch, and he showed me a beach I never would have found on my own: the easement that gives access to it is a narrow path along a fence between properties:


I stayed that night in Pt. Arena, at The Wharfmaster's Inn, where my room had a five-star ocean view from the balcony:



On my way through Fairfax and San Anselmo in Marin County, on the way to Pt Reyes, I passed through a thick, hard rainstorm -- a serious anomaly in the midst of California's drought. Then it rained again, not quite so hard, soon after I returned home. Here's what Berkeley's front yards had to say about this unusual water-from-the-sky phenomenon:




I closed out my stay-cation with another trip, this one to the South Fork of the American River with my friend Bill. I've written about Bill's cabin before, about three years ago. For the first time in over 20 years, I visited the cabin when it was snowing (it was the tail end of a light snow, but there you have it). Here's the view when we arrived in mid-afternoon:


An ice puddle on the road the next morning:


Bill contemplating a plunge in a very cold river:


He did. I didn't, avoidance of freezing to death being the better part of valor.

Here's something strange and pretty wonderful, which I'd never seen before: at several places some yards back from the river, ice had formed in tiny columns that lifted the sandy soil above them, like little ice-mushrooms sprouting after a storm. They kind of reminded me of Devil's Postpile National Monument on the other side of the Sierras, only smaller, colder, and more ephemeral. When we returned to someplace where I had intertube access I Wikipedia'd around to find that this phenomenon is called "needle ice."


By the time we left, yesterday morning, the snow was mostly melted away ... here's (roughly) the same view as the arrival picture above, taken two days earlier:


I'd already mailed in my ballot before Bill and I headed up into the mountains. And I'm not going to watch the returns tonight, I'm going to have dinner with a friend. For election results, I'll wait for all the news at once, in the morning. Then it's back to work I go....

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Mental Floss
Point Reyes National Seashore at the start of the year
Taking the coast road north from Santa Cruz
An Egon Schiele vision in Berkeley
Flowery front yards in Berkeley

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Data mining protest violence: activist boon or social control?

There's no getting around the record: protesters and police have a long and storied history of conflict in these United States.

A few U.S. highlights: the May 3rd workers' rally in Chicago in 1886 that preceded the next day's Haymarket massacre; the 1965 civil rights march out of Selma known as "Bloody Sunday"; the Democratic National Convention of 1968; Seattle's WTO protests in 1999; the Occupy melees of 2011, most notably in Oakland, California ... and then there's last month's militarized suppression of protest in response to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed teenager, by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.

Via a headline story in the SF Chronicle, recent events in Ferguson surfaced ongoing research at UC Berkeley -- the Deciding Force Project -- in which sociologists have begun to use cutting edge data mining techniques to analyze police-protester interactions, and identify circumstances and tactics that lead to violent conflict. According to the article, the objective of this research is to reduce such violence, to the degree conscious and well-informed decisions on the part of police and of protesters can defuse volatile situations.

Let's say that the Deciding Force Project is successful in identifying ways to keep protest from boiling over into violent conflict. And let's say the project's research and analyses is made available to everyone, giving all parties access to information that describes conditions that lead toward and away from protests turning into riots.

Would activists and police/government benefit equally from this research? And is rigorous avoidance of violent conflict a goal that advances progressive political goals?

It's easy for most people to accept that non-violent exercise of democratic rights is 'better than' violent conflict. In general, I believe that is true. It's also easy to assume that more information is 'better than' less. It's hard to make a reasonable case for ignorance.

On the other hand, when civil discourse, electoral engagement, and peaceful protest fail to resolve weighty injustices -- what is to be done? And when information and the insights it facilitates are coupled with state and/or corporate power, many (including this writer) believe that its collection, analysis, and use become a risk to broadly-participatory democracy and to progressive political goals.

It's complicated.

Work like the Deciding Force Project could be a boon to activists, who might use it to base strategic organizing on new and deeper insight into the way crowds of protesters and battalions of police interact. Or -- with apologies for the hyperbole -- research in this vein could be developing a kind of information-based soma (à la Aldous Huxley's Brave New World), which might be deployed by the surveillance state to neutralize dissent. There's also the possibility that research of this sort won't deliver on its promise: that it won't predict the relationship of specific behaviors to on-the-ground outcomes any better than seasoned police and activists have done since time immemorial, on the basis of experience, familiarity with their own communities, and intuition.

'Big Data' and its analytical findings are part of the modern mix, whatever effect it might have. That's a fact. To my way of thinking, its introduction into political space demands attention and debate on the spectrum of possible roles 'Big Data' might play in relation to grassroots activism.

This post is not aimed at providing definitive answers. I do hope to raise questions and ideas worth examining.

Sociologists at UC Berkeley research police-protest interactions

Background first. From the San Francisco Chronicle on 22 Aug 2014, Police tactics often provoke protesters [print-edition headline]:
The violence that turns a small-town protest into a fiery national spectacle like the one that has played out this month in Missouri is often unwittingly provoked by police, according to researchers at UC Berkeley.

The research team, which studied clashes between police and activists during the Occupy movement three years ago, found that protests tend to turn violent when officers use aggressive tactics, such as approaching demonstrators in riot gear or lining up in military-like formations.

Recent events in Ferguson, Mo., are a good example, the study's lead researcher said. For nearly two weeks, activists angered by a white police officer's fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager have ratcheted up their protests when confronted by heavily armed police forces.

"Everything starts to turn bad when you see a police officer come out of an SUV and he's carrying an AR-15," said Nick Adams, a sociologist and fellow at UC Berkeley's Institute for Data Science who leads the Deciding Force Project. "It just upsets the crowd."
On the day it appeared in the SF Chron, one activist friend responded to this article by posting it on Facebook, framed by the pithiest of snark:
Song in the key of duh...
Yup. If you've been around the activist block once or twice, you know this tune by heart. But there's more to the story than the article reported.

Applying 'Big Data' analytic techniques to police-protester interaction

What's new and perhaps significant about the Deciding Force Project is its focus on dressing up the obvious in scientific regalia, backed by the imprimatur of 'Big Data' analytic techniques of the kind employed of late by Facebook, Google, and the NSA.

Here from the SF Bay Guardian on 20 Aug 2014, Researcher explores police and protester violence in the Occupy movement:
Adams and the researchers trained computer programs to pick similar data from the over 8,000 news reports, automating the process. Articles from Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and more than 200 cities with Occupy movements are parsed for patterns. Did the police wear riot gear? What formations did they use? Were horses present? Assault vehicles? Was the crowd mostly Latino, black, white, Asian, or a mix? Were the Occupiers sitting or standing? These are [a] few of the hundreds of variables crunched by Adams' team.

After the variable compiling, the computer's usefulness ends and the human element picks up again, as Adams and his sociologists then sift through the patterns to see what elevates conflict between police and protesters. In the end, he hopes to be able to show police departments what specific actions can de-escalate violent situations.
Adams describes his methodology, currently a hybrid of algorithmic and human analysis, in Researchers to Crowds to Algorithms: Building Large, Complex, and Transparent Databases in the Age of Data Science. From the conclusion (excerpted for brevity):
We offer RCA and Text_Thresher as enabling technologies researchers may deploy to capture, analyze, and interpret our world in all of its complexity [...] And we look forward to the day when [...]algorithms can collect and refine data from text automatically [...].

[...] We imagine a society where outcomes understood to result from “individual choices” or “ineluctable forces” — once they may be quantified in broader multi-level and temporal contexts — can be shown to result from situational and interacting factors, allowing policymakers to more appropriately calibrate solutions to the level at which human challenges emerge. [...]
Data Science -- in a nutshell -- is about using technology and statistics to tame intractably large bodies of data, extracting information and drawing conclusions from aggregations of text and/or instrument readings that are too large for one person or a group of researchers to analyze manually.

Adams and his colleagues aim to use these methods to understand how and under what circumstances the interactions of protesters and police become violent. To the degree they are successful, they will add scientific authority to conclusions drawn by experienced police and politicos. They may also surface patterns of interaction that haven't been identified before.

Quelling conflict as a limit on activist effectiveness?

From an Associated Press article of 20 Aug, NYC took quick precautions after in-custody death, have a look at what NYC Police Commissioner William Bratton has to say following Eric Garner's death-by-chokehold, about containing protest by calibrating government's response to it (emphasis added):
The relative calm in New York followed a carefully calibrated response by city and police officials intended to neutralize possible unrest. The response drew on the lessons from other high-profile use-of-force cases involving black victims that roiled the city in the late 1990s.

"What you want in a democracy is the ability to express your concerns, but you don't want it to spill over into disorder," Police Commissioner William Bratton said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "I think we've had a very informed and reasonable response to the issues raised by everybody. There's been no violence."
I'm not sure whose democracy Bratton is referring to. In the democracy I live in, Eric Garner is dead. So is Michael Brown. And John Crawford. And Dante Parker. And Ezell Ford. And Trayvon Martin. And Oscar Grant. The list is all but endless. At what point is the informed and reasonable response praised by New York's Police Commissioner insufficient to address crises on scales like the plague of police killings his department and others are inflicting on our communities?

Here's the thing. Sometimes disorder is exactly what's needed to effectively push against the forces arrayed to maintain a status quo.

Consider the forces arrayed to ramp up the militarization of police and to maintain the criminalization of black skin  -- or of poverty, if you find a more thoughtful truth in positions about class warfare and disenfranchisement argued by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (in Time Magazine) and Jelani Cobb (in The New Yorker), among others. How broad, how deep, and how long would we have been talking about Michael Brown's death if the people of Ferguson hadn't resisted the militarized response to their legitimate grief and despair viscerally and -- yes -- violently?

It's a counterfactual: one could argue that there's no 'true' answer to that question. But the question isn't new.

One historical example is the role Alabama's "Bloody Sunday" played in sparking national outrage and leading to President Johnson's statement, in March 1965:
Americans everywhere join in deploring the brutality with which a number of Negro citizens of Alabama were treated when they sought to dramatize their deep and sincere interest in attaining the precious right to vote.
... and then to introduce the Voting Rights Act to Congress later the same month.

It wasn't the first time that Civil Rights Movement activists and their leaders had crossed a boundary set by police and government authorities to contain, neutralize, or negate their 'orderly' protest; drawn police violence in response; and, after disorder and suffering, advanced the CRM's goals. Here is the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on these dynamics, excerpted from his Letter from a Birmingham Jail (April 1963):
Before closing I feel impelled to mention one other point in your statement that has troubled me profoundly. You warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping "order" and "preventing violence." I doubt that you would have so warmly commended the police force if you had seen its dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes. I doubt that you would so quickly commend the policemen if you were to observe their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail; if you were to watch them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls; if you were to see them slap and kick old Negro men and young boys; if you were to observe them, as they did on two occasions, refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together. I cannot join you in your praise of the Birmingham police department.

It is true that the police have exercised a degree of discipline in hand[l]ing the demonstrators. In this sense they have conducted themselves rather "nonviolently" in public. But for what purpose? To preserve the evil system of segregation. Over the past few years I have consistently preached that nonviolence demands that the means we use must be as pure as the ends we seek. I have tried to make clear that it is wrong to use immoral means to attain moral ends. But now I must affirm that it is just as wrong, or perhaps even more so, to use moral means to preserve immoral ends. Perhaps Mr. Connor and his policemen have been rather nonviolent in public, as was Chief Pritchett in Albany, Georgia, but they have used the moral means of nonviolence to maintain the immoral end of racial injustice. As T. S. Eliot has said: "The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason."
"Power concedes nothing without a demand" is one of Frederick Douglass's well-known aphorisms, taken from an address on West India Emancipation given in August 1857. But that's not all he said on that occasion. Here's more (emphasis added):
The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. [...] If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.
Disorder is a core element of social and political evolution (and devolution too). Politics are messy.

Information and state control

Some years before Facebook started mining what more than a billion of us 'like', Yale anthropologist and political scientist James C. Scott, in Seeing Like a State (1998) traced the history of permanent / inherited surnames, standardized weights and measures, population censuses, city planning, and scientific agriculture among a host of measures that render people and activity legible to -- and therefore governable by -- the modern state. From Professor Scott's introduction:
... much of early modern European statecraft seemed similarly devoted to rationalizing and standardizing what was a social hieroglyph in to a legible and administratively more convenient format. The social simplifications thus induced not only permitted a more finely tuned system of taxation and conscription, but also greatly enhanced state capacity. They made possible quite discriminating interventions of every kind, such as public health measures, political surveillance, and relief for the poor.

These state simplifications, the basic givens of modern statecraft, were, I began to realize, much like abridged maps. They did not successfully represent the actual activity of the society they depicted, nor were they intended to; they represented only that slice of it that interested the official observer. They were, moreover, not just maps. Rather, they were maps that, when allied with state power, would enable much of the reality they depicted to be remade. Thus a state cadastral map created to designate taxable property-holders does not merely describe a system of land tenure; it creates such a system through its ability to give its categories the force of law.
That is to say, those who wield state power have long history and deep practice of using information about citizens as an instrument of social and political control.

Sure, if information -- from the Berkeley research, for example -- is available to all, anyone can use it to advance their agenda. But only the state is empowered to join state power to information, and bring it to bear with the force of law.

Police departments function as hierarchies. Command and control are built-in. Yes, there are rogue cops and the unpredictability of on-the-ground events. But overall, rank-and-file police follow their sergeants' orders, who respond to their lieutenants, etc., up the chain of command.

Activists? Unity and discipline occur among crowds of protesters, certainly, sometimes. But, overall, not so much as in police organizations.

So when I think about whose goals will be advanced through coordinated application of an understanding of behavioral tendencies brought to light by sociological analysis, my gut tells me that the Deciding Force Project's research will favor the state over grassroots opposition.

On the other hand, the DFP's Nick Adams advances a legitimate argument about enforcing police accountability. From the SF Bay Guardian article quoted above:
But Adams' research isn't just about aiding police forces, it's about holding them legally accountable for esca[la]ting violence, he said.

"You can start to, from a legal standpoint, establish liability with research like ours," he told us. "If we reach out to police departments later on attorneys can hold them accountable for their actions."
Fair enough. Yet it's still up to police and government leaders to decide whether and when to deploy all that Homeland Security weaponry. Are William Bratton's goals representative of what that leadership wants? Again:
"What you want in a democracy is the ability to express your concerns, but you don't want it to spill over into disorder."
If so, I'm not convinced that accountability for instigating police riots will advance -- or be sufficient to retard state obstacles set in the way of advancing -- progressive political goals.

And therefore....?

The die is cast. Data mining is not going away anytime soon, and if Berkeley sociologists weren't doing research in Nick Adams' vein, somebody at the Dept of Homeland Security would be doing it off the public radar. It's probably a safe bet that DHS is on the case independently of the Deciding Force Project. And if it were only up to the Feds, it's likely that police would be coached on the lessons gleaned from their research, while activists would be left in the dark.

So how should activists think about development of techniques that better enable police to maintain order when push comes to shove, in circumstances where disorder is what's needed to push against state power? How can progressive activists employ those techniques in the service of our political goals?

I don't know yet. But I don't think these are questions we ought to ignore.



Related posts on One Finger Typing:
UC Berkeley's anti-apartheid movement: setting the record straight
When authorities equate disobedience with violence
The Occupy Movement and UC Berkeley's Free Speech Monument


Thanks to Loavesofbread for two photos of the Ferguson, MO protests uploaded to Wikimedia Commons; and to Steve Kaiser via Wikimedia Commons for the image of a police officer "applying" pepper spray to sitting protesters at the WTO protests in Seattle, 1999.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs' journey from South African freedom fighter to Constitutional Court Justice

I arrived at Oakland's Grand Lake Theater on Sunday just in time to buy one of the few remaining tickets to East Bay filmmaker Abby Ginzberg's biographical documentary, Soft Vengeance: Albie Sachs and the New South Africa. The film is currently on the festival circuit (it premiered in South Africa earlier this year), and played in Oakland on the last day of the Jewish Film Festival. The documentary's theatrical release is set for 18 September. Don't miss it.


From the synopsis on the film's web site:
SOFT VENGEANCE is a film about Albie Sachs, a lawyer, writer, art lover and freedom fighter, set against the dramatic events leading to the overthrow of the apartheid regime in South Africa. [...] As a young man, Albie defended those committed to ending apartheid in South Africa. For his actions as a lawyer, he was imprisoned in solitary confinement in Cape Town, tortured through sleep deprivation and forced into exile. In 1988 he was blown up by a car bomb set by the South African security forces in Maputo, Mozambique, which cost him his right arm and the sight of one eye, but miraculously he survived and after a long year of rehabilitation in England, he recovered.  Returning to South Africa following the release of Nelson Mandela, Albie helped write the new Constitution and was then appointed as one of the first 11 judges to the new Constitutional Court, which for the past 20 years has been insuring that the rights of all South Africans are afforded protection.
There's a great deal that matters in this documentary, but nothing in its 84 minute span is more profound than Sachs meditating on the pursuit of revenge in the aftermath of that car bombing that nearly took his life in Mozambique. Transcribed from the film's trailer (on Vimeo):
Lying in bed, recovering, I receive a note: "Don't worry comrade Albie, we will avenge you." Avenge me? Are we going to chop off the arms, are we going to blind people? Where is that going to get us? But if we get democracy in South Africa, and freedom, that will be my soft vengeance.
Battered, blinded in one eye, his mangled right arm amputated above the elbow, peppered in shrapnel wounds, Sachs marshals heart, mind, and steely will from his hospital bed to set aside reflexive rage that, under the circumstances, might easily have derailed a lesser man. His life, work, and words -- before and after the attempt on his life -- give witness to the truth that humankind is capable of choosing moral principle and compassion over reaction and revenge. And Sachs' lifelong, unyielding opposition to South Africa's now-vanquished Nationalists makes clear that his is a hero's choice. He speaks humbly, with a soft lilt. Don't be fooled.

I happened to read a profoundly moving new novel last week, a book written by Irish theater director -- and now debut novelist -- Darragh McKeon. All That Is Solid Melts into Air was given a well-deserved, admiring appraisal in this week's NY Times Book Review. Its story orbits the Chernobyl nuclear reactor meltdown of 1986, treating the catastrophic event and its savage consequences -- aggravated by the fecklessness of a politically and morally moribund U.S.S.R. -- through the eyes of protagonists whose humanity and courage defy the crushing stupidity and venality that passed for leadership in the Soviet bureaucracy.

It is a novel of intense and unredeemable loss. The author's devastating essay, The Empty City, included at the end of the U.S. edition, describes a wasteland of burned-into-the-genome deformation and disease that is and surrounds Chernobyl today, and will remain Chernobyl for centuries to come. In the novel [spoiler alert here], the best, steadiest, and most selfless character, a surgeon who spends himself utterly to save and comfort a deluge of victims of radiation poisoning, finally falls prey to Chernobyl's fallout.

I have to confess, this sort of end to the life of a good and selfless character, one who struggles against all odds to heal the world, strikes a fictional note that rings true to me. I tend to look askance at happy outcomes in literature.

But Albie Sachs is not a fictional character.

And he did not die.

In fact, I had the great honor of meeting Justice Sachs in April here in Berkeley: he had come to participate in a UC Berkeley symposium honoring Nelson Mandela, The Hard Work of Reconciliation, organized by Professor of Anthropology and intrepid social justice activist Nancy Scheper-Hughes. (See selfie posted at left, taken by my friend and anti-apartheid movement comrade Jonathan Winters ... it's blurry, yes, but serves its evidentiary purpose nonetheless.) Sachs has retired from South Africa's Constitutional Court, but his work is not done.

The mission, message, and example Albie Sachs gives us is not fictional at all. It's not a metaphor. It's not an allegory. Sachs' honest, human-scaled, and all too rare victory in the endless struggle for justice makes his story an inspiration and a tonic for all those who quail -- and who would not quail? -- at the risks to life, limb, livelihood, and relationships that commitment to winning justice entails.

At the end of his preface to the latest edition of The Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter, Sachs wrote, in January of this year:
We have huge problems in South Africa, many inherited and many of our own making. The gap between rich and poor is completely untenable. Continuing struggles and new endeavors to create a better life for all take place. Yet they do so in a country where the principles of constitutional democracy have deep roots. This is the soft vengeance I dreamed of in my hospital bed after the bomb.

Seriously. You need to see this film.



Related posts on One Finger Typing:
UC Berkeley's anti-apartheid movement: setting the record straight
Nelson Mandela and the death of UC Berkeley's Eshleman Hall
Fukushima Daiichi: a nuclear power disaster that keeps on giving
Nuclear meltdown abroad and at home
The radiation cloud is blowing in the wind

Monday, June 30, 2014

An endurance milestone

Buildings are popping up all over downtown Berkeley. The scorekeepers over at Berkeleyside headlined it in January: 'Explosive' downtown Berkeley housing boom underway.
More than 1,400 housing units are currently in development in downtown Berkeley, with demolition on one of the first in the pipeline scheduled to begin this week.
Fourteen hundred new housing units in downtown Berkeley alone? No wonder the SF Chronicle wrote this weekend about Oakland's promise as solution to Bay Area's housing crunch. (Berkeley begins at Oakland's northern border; Oakland is the East Bay's biggest city.)

All well and good. I'm three-thumbs up on urban infill, on building places for people to live close to public transit, shops, schools, and whatnot. Not driving? That's a good thing. Sprawl? Not so much.

But that's not what I'm here to report.

See, it's not just that I failed to read the Berkeleyside article in January. It's not even that I passed the corner of Shattuck Avenue and Dwight Way pretty much every day for all the months since, and several years beforehand -- the corner is on my bike, bus, and/or pedestrian route to work and/or the gym -- and I never registered that 2107 Dwight Way was slated for demolition. Clearly I'm not paying attention.

If I had been paying attention I might not have been so shocked to see a grapple excavator -- a yellow hunk of diesel-powered machinery with a long hydraulic arm, and a dragon's head on the business end of the arm to bite big chunks out of buildings -- chomping down 2107 Dwight when I went back to work last week, after a week out of town. The photo at the top of this post is what the lot (and the two adjacent to it) looked like by Sunday. That's the grapple excavator behind the piles of debris.

So, okay, whatever. The wheel turns, right? Buildings are razed, new buildings are built. That's what's happening at the corner of Dwight and Shattuck. If you like you can check out what the new building's going to look like on the city's website (PDF, it's a big one).

Change isn't what shocked me.

What shocked me is that I've been skulking around Berkeley long enough to remember when the torn-down building went up. When it was built. Under construction. Brand spanking new.

Yup. It's a milestone, ready or not.

I'm older than architecture now.

Mid-'80s, maybe? No, that's not my age; it's when the building torn down at 2107 Dwight just this past week was constructed.

I remember hating it instantly, especially that ridiculous yellow flourish-and-flagpole protrusion (you can see it in the photo). I mean, it was so self-consciously useless and ... stupid. Although some will say, the new building's drawings look even worse. So it goes.

Anyway, here I am, compelled to mark the milestone, humiliating as it may be.

Oh, and speaking of humiliation, here's another downtown change that happened over the past couple of weeks, just the next block north:

Close readers of these posts may remember Sex shop yields to electric scooters, from about 15 months ago. Short story, a longtime massage parlor went out of business, an enterprise that was staffed by women whose massage techniques were said to stretch well past the accepted borders of clinically therapeutic. Shortly thereafter, it looked like a scooter rental place was going into the space.

Well, it turned out that the scooter shop never opened for business. The scooters just sat there in the window collecting dust. Then one day they were gone, and the place was empty.

Now? The windows are covered with butcher paper to a height of six or so feet above sidewalk level, and the place has a new sign.

"Love," it's (going to be) called. A hair and nail salon.

"Love"?

What's that about? A nod to the storefront's checkered past? Or a new cover for old business?

I guess we'll find out soon enough ... if the place starts accepting flower deliveries (see my post of last March) there'll probably be police raids in the shop's future.



Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Eshelman Hall demolition: all but history
Sex shop yields to electric scooters
The desire to destroy is also a creative desire


Monday, May 19, 2014

Berkeley blooming on graduation weekend


This weekend the campus was teeming with gowned, graduating students in their tasseled caps, and a seemingly endless procession of families taking full advantage of the photo ops by The Campanille, Sather Gate, and Sproul Hall.



Both the weather and Berkeley's front-yard gardeners cooperated ... the town was abloom on Commencement Day 2014:






Nice. And a great excuse to take my new point-and-shoot out for a test-drive.

Congratulations to the class of 2014....


Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Graduations at UC Berkeley, Class of 2012
Advice to a new student at Cal
Flowery front yards in Berkeley

Monday, April 14, 2014

Pushing the envelope: love story, with transman

Sunshine Mugrabi's memoir, When my Boyfriend was a Girl, is a love story. In many respects it's a conventional love story: two people meet, there's chemistry, each has reservations about wading in too deep or too fast. One gets over those reservations before the other, arguments ensue, tension escalates ... and maybe they make it, maybe they don't.

But this memoir has a twist. And that the title gives away the nature of that twist doesn't diminish the freshness, honesty, surprise, or emotional resonance of its story. Not a whit. Because the two things that matter most about When my Boyfriend was a Girl are:
  1. it's a conventional love story about people who most readers won't easily imagine in a conventional relationship: a bisexual woman, and an FTM transsexual; and,
  2. it richly illustrates why those categories -- bisexual woman, FTM transsexual -- are not the defining elements in a human love story.
The memoir, published just last month, is well written and tightly paced. As dramatic narrative, it zigged and zagged -- between obstacles Sunshine and Leor encountered and the ways they found to surmount them -- a little too predictably for my taste; but as I read I weighed the book's narrative structure against the truth that zigzag is how relationships unfold in the real world. More importantly, that very same dramatic 'ordinariness' goes to the heart of the book's core message: a relationship with a transsexual is, well, a relationship.

Consider how the author treats physical love. Here's a beautifully lyrical passage, one of my favorite in the memoir:
When I crawl back in beside him he is lying on his side, his breathing now heavier, coming out thick like a train engine. With my arm across his waist his warm hand takes hold of mine. I inch closer, pressing my body against his naked back. Dreams invade my brain, of dresses and high heels. I yawn and press myself closer to him. The curve of his waist is reassuring to me, a shape I've come to know and love. All we have is now, I tell myself. The darkness coils around us and I fall fast asleep.
Full disclosure: Sunshine is an old friend. We've known each other since the late 1980s, when we lived together for a couple of years in a communal house in Berkeley. More to the point of this post, Sunshine and I were both a part of the Oakland/Berkeley chapter of a 90s-era activist group called Queer Nation -- we called ourselves Queer Nation - East Bay. Queer Nation chapters sprang up all around the country around that time, modeled on the original founded in New York in response to violence -- physical and rhetorical -- against gay men and lesbians.

Queer Nation was all about pushing the envelope. Our core M.O. was to pick a public space that wasn't known for being friendly to displays of same-sex affection, show up without prior notice, and flamboyantly make out. Public transit stations, pubs, malls, bowling alleys... Sometimes we made a point of picking places where someone or a couple had been hassled or assaulted for Living While Queer.

Here's Sunshine -- neé Dewitt -- from a cover article about Queer Nation - East Bay published in the weekly East Bay Express on 15 Feb 1991. (The article, Loud and Queer by Linnea Due, is a great read, but too far back to be available in the paper's on-line archive.)
Sunshine Dewitt, her easy-to-read expressions radiating both her humor and her passionate commitment, describes the action at Raleigh's, a bar and café on Telegraph Avenue. "Raleigh's has these big picture windows facing the street, so that action was really successful just on the level of visibility. We were forcing people who claimed to be tolerant -- whatever that means -- to really see us. People are so clever at avoiding gay people in action, and this was one time we were in their faces, they had to see us, and it just upset people so much. It really did start a controversy. There was that article in the Daily Cal afterward, ranting that we were trying to imitate straight people by kissing in public. As we walked in there, I watched a straight couple kissing, and I thought, well, obviously kissing is allowed in here. It was just so powerful to see two men kissing after seeing the same boring image of a man and a woman, a man and a woman..."
The group of QNEB activists being interviewed (in my living room) goes on to explain how most of us took exception to UC Berkeley's student newspaper, the Daily Cal, characterizing our activity as imitating straight people. Then the article's author quoted yours truly:
Queer Nation goes out into places that are predominantly straight, where gay people don't normally congregate as queer people, but it's not so we can be like straight people. If we can pass as straight people, we can go anywhere. Everybody's known that as long as queer people have existed, you can go anywhere as long as you don't show who you are. The point of Queer Nation is to make it possible for us to go places and be ourselves ...
And a few paragraphs later, Sunshine again:
"We will never assimilate," Sunshine says. "That's the thing for me. We're not going to look the way straight people want us to look; we're not going to act they way they want us to act."
We were a couple of decades younger then, and more prone to making absolutist pronouncements than we might be today. And while it's true there are plenty of people and governments still arduously channeling the spirits of Anita Bryant and Jesse Helms, nowadays queer people and culture are a lot more visible in movies, television, music, and books ... and most of us feel safer -- if not necessarily safe -- when being ourselves in many major urban environments and in some smaller cities and towns in the U.S. In places where, in the 1990s, we couldn't comfortably or safely hold hands on the sidewalk or make out in a college bar, we can now choose to get married.

When my Boyfriend was a Girl acknowledges the conflicted feelings that many queer activists who came up and out in the '70s, '80s, and '90s hold about 'mainstream' goals like winning the right to marry or serve openly in the military. When Sunshine first broached the topic of marrying Leor (and Leor first shied away from marriage), that goal was still aspirational in the U.S for same-sex couples (which isn't a category Sunshine and Leor fit, by the way).

Here, from the memoir's seventh chapter:
In these dark days before gay marriage is legal in any state of the U.S., I know I have a bit of a tough case to make to Leor, who will no doubt play the solidarity with our gay and lesbian allies card. So I begin to amass a large and growing arsenal of good reasons why we should consider getting married. [...] Yet, I know in my heart that Leor and I would be breaking some major, unwritten rule if we were to take advantage of the fact that we could pass ourselves off as a straight couple in the eyes of the law.
Sunshine's focus on The Marriage Question was -- for me, during the hours I was immersed in reading When my Boyfriend was a Girl -- the least compelling aspect of her memoir. But unlike a large number of LBGTQ people, marriage was never important to me. My partner and I had been together for a month shy of fifteen years when the Supreme Court ruled last June for same-sex marriage in a pair of major victories for the gay-rights movement, as Adam Liptak of the NY Times put it. I'm not saying I was indifferent to the ruling -- far from it. I was and remain glad that same-sex couples who do wish to are now (and finally) able to marry. For myself, however, I never longed for a government-issued certificate to ratify my commitments.

For Sunshine and Leor, the question of marriage was a lot more complicated than it could ever be for two male or two female partners. Here, from near the end of the book:
"Leor, I don't know if I can go on," I say. "It's just too hard to be in this limbo. Everyone we know is tying the knot. Straight, gay, whatever else. If you don't want that..."

"We can't be what marriage is about," he says, cutting me off. "Can't you see that?"

A single tear slips down his cheek. The sight makes my heart lurch inside me [...]

Later, much later, I will recognize how difficult it was for him to say these words to me. To say out loud that he can't live up to the fantasy I have built of what and who I want him to be. That he fears the pressure on him to be the husband I expect. That as a differently gendered person, he would never be the man I thought I wanted.
If I were to wish for one thing more from this memoir, it would be just that: more. Especially, I'd wish for more of Leor's experience as his relationship with Sunshine evolves.

After finishing the the last page of her postscript, I gave a lot of thought to the author's decision to focus so tightly on the question whether she (bisexual woman) would marry her beloved (FTM transexual). Leaving my own ideas about marriage aside, I realized that this authorial decision makes shrewd emotional and rhetorical sense.

Here's the thing: for the overwhelming majority of people of all sexes and sexualities, marriage is a familiar and significant aspect of life and culture. Most people grow up expecting or hoping to marry, and (according to U.S. census data) most people do so. And, hey, I cry at weddings myself! Making a lifelong pledge is a big, deep deal ... even if married partners' promises don't always last as intended, when a couple makes them they are sincere and moving expressions of love, loyalty, and commitment to honor and care for another person.

Tying the freighted question of making and celebrating commitment to another human being to the trajectory of Sunshine and Leor's relationship makes their love accessible. That accessibility extends even to readers who have never knowingly met a transexual, and imagine that loving such a person is radically different from love as they conceive and experience it.

To paraphrase a famous literary lesbianWhen my Boyfriend was a Girl makes crystal clear that however unique the particulars of a relationship, a marriage is a marriage is a marriage.

And in making that case, Sunshine Mugrabi is still pushing the envelope.



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