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VOCALizing in New York City—and beyond

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Last Thursday, July 28, members of the advocacy group VOCAL, Voices of Community Activists and Leaders, subwayed from across the city to Manhattan’s Upper East Side. They gathered on a shady stretch of 78th Street to ask one member of the Merck board of directors, Rochelle Lazarus, to reconsider the pharmaceutical company’s pricing of its Hepatitis C medication, Victrelis, which at $80,000 for a 48-week course, is beyond the means of most people who actually need it. The group, about two-dozen strong, was respectful, but loud—vocal, as the name implies.

VOCAL protests outside home of Merck board member, July 28, 2011

Members rang Lazarus’s doorbell. No one answered. Upstairs, a woman stood at the window, holding a telephone and looking down at the demonstration. Several VOCAL members chose to block the street and halt traffic. A police cruiser arrived, perhaps summoned by the board member herself or the polo-shirted private security guard who took a powerful interest in the demonstration. The police officer calmly asked the protesters to move, which they did. Eventually. After making their point: The price of this life-saving medicine is extortionate. It should be lowered. It reminded me of ACT UP demos I photographed in the early 1990s. (Full disclosure: I put my camera down, left my NYPD press pass at home, and participated in one such block-the-street action. This got me a one-way ride down a one-way street “at a high rate of speed,” as cops say, to a holding pen in a Lower East Side precinct.)

ACT UP’s mantra: Silence=Death.

Figures from the corporation’s 2010 IRS filings and annual report indicate that Merck and its execs are not hurting for cash. Merck’s 2010 worldwide sales: $46 billion. The corporation’s 2010 marketing and administrative expenses: $13.2 billion. President/Chairman/CEO Richard T. Clark’s salary in 2009: $16,838,367. Board member Lazarus’s total 2009 compensation: $191,080. Not too bad for a part-time job.

The VOCAL crew—black, white, Latino, young, and oldish—decamped to the offices of another board member, Leslie Brun (2009 Merck compensation for his part-time service: $178,200.) Mr. Brun was not available to meet with the group, according to a building security guard. When VOCAL members began chanting, security called the police. VOCAL took the street again, halting traffic on Park Avenue. Major police response this time, followed by much negotiation between the lead organizer and the officers—plus a fair amount of cursing from motorists blocked by VOCAL. Emotions rose with the temperature. Again, VOCAL stepped to the sidewalk after stating its case.

VOCAL blocks Park Avenue, July 28, 2011

As part of my documentary project on community organizing, I showed up to photograph VOCAL’s work—rather the culmination of one aspect of the group’s work. Direct action of the civilly disobedient type such as this is the product of a long and deliberative process that’s heavy on organizing, research, and planning. For some people, this sort of action smacks of class warfare, have-nots pressuring the haves to give up chunks of their hard-earned profits. For others, it is an object lesson in grassroots democracy. Merck, as a publicly held corporation, is accountable to the market and to citizens, the latter being the primary element of the former. Wall Street isn’t the market, nor is the amorphous “consumer.” The market is people, the public, in whose space the firm operates. VOCAL stood up in that space to remind Merck’s officers that they are accountable, not just to shareholders, but ordinary folks, too.

Earlier this week, members of VOCAL and another grassroots group, Community Voices Heard, launched an action in DC. They disrupted the debt bill debate in the House of Representatives to press legislators to stop pushing spending cuts, which will have a disproportionate impact on the working and middle-classes, and focus on revenue increases.

“John Boehner should stop worrying about keeping his job as Speaker of the House and start worrying about creating jobs for the millions of Americans who are unemployed,” VOCAL board member Bobby Tolbert said. Tolbert relies on Medicare and the Federal/state Housing Opportunities for People with AIDS program.

Twenty-two people from the groups were arrested. Half are living with HIV. They made themselves visible as citizens and spoke up, when and where it mattered. They disobeyed, civilly—again—because policymakers do not seem to pay any attention to the obedient.

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Written by bxpnyc

2011/08/04 at 14:36

Jingo(ism) Unchained: Thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty

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Zero Dark Thirty may turn out to be the feel-good movie of the year. For some.

The film, now in limited release (and opening for real January 11), delivers a bounty of bangs and booms, and swaggering American heroes torturing swarthy bad guys—with no consequences—packaged in a ripping yarn.

The yarn: A waifish and improbably fragile CIA operative, played by Jessica Chastain, spends 12 years doggedly tracking Osama bin Laden, countenancing and supervising torture of detainees—beatings, waterboarding—along the way. As ZDT has it, her work led us to bin Laden’s fortress hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where Navy SEALs dropped in and killed him and several members of his family. As she flies home alone in the belly of a military cargo plane after the deed is done, she sheds a tear. Roll credits.

Only the last part of the story line, the SEALs bit, resembles the most authoritative versions of what actually happened (much information about the operation and the intel that led to it is classified). The rest is a brutal Hollywood fantasy, a kind of jingo(ism) unchained, that stretches deep into the movie and corrupts it.

Several critics have taken a lighten up, it’s just a movie tack. Makers of fictional films have dramatic license to pump up a story, after all. Screenwriters and directors composite dreary real-life humans into a single, sexy dynamo, like Chastain’s Agent Maya, all the time. They add a boom here and a boom there, where no booms should be. No harm in that.

Problem one: The film itself asserts that ZDT is based on facts and firsthand testimony. But this is the least important flaw. The real concern for me is, there is a bar for fidelity to history— particularly such recent and raw history—that must be vaulted in a film that begins as Zero Dark Thirty does: with 911 audio from doomed callers trapped in the Towers on 9-11, which implicitly justifies what comes next. ZDT’s makers appear to have crawled under that bar without ever glancing up.

(Jane Mayer, who’s been writing about torture for the New Yorker for years, and Glenn Greenwald unravel the film’s fabric of distortion, seemingly stitch by stitch.)

Arabic-speaking FBI agent Ali Soufan, among other truly dogged investigators, blazed the path to bin Laden by extracting information from al Qaeda enablers and operatives like Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. He did it by talking to them.

“Along with another F.B.I. agent, and with several C.I.A. officers present,” Soufan wrote in a 2009 New York Times op-ed, “I questioned [Zubaydah] from March to June 2002, before the harsh techniques were introduced later in August. Under traditional interrogation methods, he provided us with important actionable intelligence.”

Soufan continues: “There was no actionable intelligence gained from using enhanced interrogation techniques on Abu Zubaydah that wasn’t, or couldn’t have been, gained from regular tactics.” Soufan also notes that many Americans assigned to investigations and detainee interrogation, including CIA agents, objected to the torture that was being carried out.

A long line of men and women who are in a position to know what happened have stepped up to challenge ZDT’s adaptation of real-life events, including some of our elected officials.

Senators Dianne Feinstein, Carl Levin, and raging liberal John McCain have taken on ZDT directly in a letter to the director: “Regardless of what message the filmmakers intended to convey, the movie clearly implies that the CIA’s coercive interrogation techniques were effective in eliciting important information related to a courier for Usama Bin Laden. We have reviewed CIA records and know that this is incorrect.

Zero Dark Thirty is factually inaccurate, and we believe that you have an obligation to state that the role of torture in the hunt for Usama Bin Laden is not based on the facts, but rather part of the film’s fictional narrative.” They’re not denying that torture took place. The senators are saying, unequivocally, that the true road to bin Laden did not begin, as it does in the film, with the violent extraction of vital information by a charming and strategically cruel CIA agent through beatings and waterboarding. “Everyone breaks in the end,” the interrogator tells his captive. “It’s biology.” This is, of course, untrue. Not everybody breaks. Most people lie. And some people die.

All three senators serve on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which recently completed a 6,000-page report, approved by a nine-to-six vote, that also states torture did not play a role in the mission to kill bin Laden.

Journalist Mark Bowden, however, writes in his recent book The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden that two detainees, Mohamedou Ould Slahi and Mohammed al-Qahtani, did in fact provide actionable intelligence when tortured that aided the bin Laden hunt. “It should […] be noted this effort did involve torture, or at the very least coercive interrogation methods.”

Assuming that Bowden is correct and that some information was beaten or boarded out of Qahtani and Slahi, others in the know like Soufan tell us that using brain, not brawn—or dogs or Metallica cranked to 11—elicits better information more reliably.

Ultimately, torture boomerangs on the nation that authorizes it—us—by inciting others to retributive violence and fouling bona fide efforts to root out terrorism, not just kill terrorists (or those suspected of being terrorists).

We tortured Qahtani,” Susan Crawford, the Bush administration official who oversaw military commissions for Guantanamo detainees, told the Washington Post. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case for prosecution.”

“War crimes charges against Mr. al Qahtani have been dismissed but may be refiled,” the NY Times reported recently.

“Of the cases I had seen, he was the one with the most blood on his hands,” Stuart Couch, the Marine lieutenant colonel assigned to prosecute Mohamedou Ould Slahi (also rendered Salahi), told the Wall Street Journal in 2007.

But: “Col. Couch would uncover evidence [that] the prisoner had been beaten and exposed to psychological torture, including death threats and intimations that his mother would be raped in custody unless he cooperated,” reporter Jesse Bravin wrote. Couch told his commander he was “morally opposed” to the methods used on Slahi, and declined to the take the case.

“I’m hoping there’s some non-tainted evidence out there that can put the guy in the hole,” Couch said. Both Qatani and Slahi have been held in limbo at Guantanamo for more than 10 years.

The Senate Select Committee’s report is classified, but may be released one day. That said, we will never know the whole story. The CIA’s former deputy director of operations, Jose Rodriguez, who has asserted for the record (and in his own book, Hard Measures) that torture works, destroyed videotapes documenting “coercive interrogation.” Ninety-two tapes, he told Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes.

Zero Dark Thirty does terrible violence to the story on which it is based, the real story of the hunt for bin Laden. It popularizes a narrative that justifies inhumane and self-defeating practices. Fundamentally, in my view, it does a disservice to those who died trying to track down bin Laden the right way, and it dishonors those who lost their lives to the terrorist himself.

ACT-UP’s 25th Anniversary in NYC

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The group may be a shadow of its 1980s, in-your-face self, but the march and demonstration marking the 25th anniversary of the first major action by the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power in Lower Manhattan today had some of the energy of the early days of the movement.

NYPD officers cut chains locking an activist from Housing Works to a chair during a direct action in front of NYC's City Hall, April 25, 2012

Hundreds of people gathered in front of City Hall to recognize one of the most powerful and effective activist/advocacy/education organizations of the late 20th century. Stalwarts from the early days like Jim Eigo, Bill Dobbs, and Larry Kramer were there, but younger folks from groups like VOCAL and Housing Works actually ran the show.

VOCAL’s Jaron Benjamin led the march downtown, negotiating all the way with a coolheaded African American NYPD Deputy Inspector and his boss, Assistant Chief Thomas Purtell. Housing Works spearheaded a direct action in front of City Hall Park. Members erected a mock apartment in the middle of Broadway to dramatize what Housing Works says are policies and practices of HASA, New York City’s HIV/AIDS Services Administration, that turn people living with AIDS into homeless people living with AIDS.

VOCAL NY organizer Miguel Adams chants at demonstration marking the 25th anniversary of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, April 25, 2012

There was solidarity and tumult—the usual push and pull between marchers who want to take the street and the cops who want to keep it clear—but there was something lacking that ACT-UP had in spades: focus.

Last month Democracy Now ran a long piece on the AIDS activism documentary How to Survive a Plague with clips of heavy-duty actions against the likes of the Federal Drug Administration and multinational pharma giant Merck (a target of VOCAL not too long ago). In it, ACTers UP like the late Bob Rafsky and Garance Franke-Ruta speak with passion, a sense of urgency, and an absolute command of the issues. They knew what they needed—speeded up trials for specific drugs and lower cost meds—and they communicated it clearly, succinctly, forcefully. They were eloquent. And they fought like their lives and those of their friends depended on their actions, because they did.

Larry Kramer, author/playwright/pioneering AIDS and LGBT activist, before the march and protest, April 25, 2012

Today’s demo reminded me first, how much the original ACT-UP accomplished—its work and that of other AIDS, queer, and lesbian groups made powerful people accountable and saved people’s lives—and second, that today’s activists, Occupiers, and citizens need to learn that history, in all brilliance and messiness.

99 Percent Spring in East Harlem

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VOCAL and Community Voices Heard held a training for the 99 Percent Spring at the Children’s Aid Society on 101st Street. By my count, 100+ people gathered in CAS’s auditorium. Many were members of established groups. Others found out through MoveOn.org.

A VOCAL member speaks at the 99 Percent Spring training at the Children's Aid Society, April 14, 2012

Spring kicked off with a letter released in February, signed by a who’s who of prominent progressives, union leaders, and community organizers. Its goals:

  1. Tell the story of our economy: how we got here, who’s responsible, what a different future could look like, and what we can do about it
  2. Learn the history of nonviolent direct action, and
  3. Get into action on our own campaigns to win change.

And that’s what I saw and heard: HIV/AIDS campaigners, advocates for domestic workers, immigrants, and low-income folks (many of whom ARE low-income folks), plus the unaffiliated of all races, ages, and orientations gathered to take the next Occupy Wall Street–inspired step.

Charles Young at Counterpunch, a left publication, calls 99 Percent Spring a “front group” for MoveOn and a Trojan horse for the Democratic Party. He claims that both aim to coopt and neuter the movement, suck all the radicalism of out it.

Young slams the effort based on an event he attended at the Goddard Riverside Community Center on the “Upper Left Side” of Manhattan.

“Inside the hall, it looked like an alumni reunion for the 1966 Fifth Avenue Vietnam Peace Parade. Almost all the 150 or so people were 55–80 years old. The ones I talked to expressed curiosity about Occupy Wall Street and enthusiasm about ‘nonviolent direct action’ but didn’t have the knees or the ears for full participation in OWS activities in the financial district,” he writes. Just a few weeks ago I attended a reading by author Fred Jerome at Goddard Riverside attended by several dozen people. At 47 years old, I was probably the youngest person in the room. Journalist Young might have considered that Goddard serves a heck of a lot of seniors, and they turn out, regardless of the event.

Will genuine direct action for social and economic justice grow out of the 99 Percent Spring? The proof will be on the streets. My bet is, after a year spent following VOCAL with camera and pen—witnessing arrests of its members at OWS demonstrations and its in-your-face protests against drug company execs—at least some of these Spring trainees will deliver.

Members of Adhikaar hold up a sketch of a model community @ 99 Percent Spring Training, April, 14, 2012

Civilly disobedient citizens, their friends, minders, and arresters, November 17, 2011

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Arrest of Felix Rivera-Pitre, VOCAL activist punched by senior NYPD officer on October 4

Occupy Wall Street’s near-eviction and the aftermath

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Like several hundred others, I spent the very early hours of Friday morning just a couple of blocks north of Wall Street at Zuccotti Park.

I’d visited the Occupy Wall Street protest twice before, once while photographing the activist group VOCAL, which joined the October 5 rally of support, and a few days later with Erin, my fiancée. On that particular sprint through the encampment, I saw clusters of grungy, crunchy kids lounging and talking, several long-haired and funky lefties closer to my age holding forth, giddy tourists angling for photos, plus thousands of uncategorizables. It was chaotic, body-to-body, animated, and relaxed.

We weren’t there long enough to hear any speeches or witness the formidable “people’s microphone” in which folks amplify a speaker’s voice by repeating what she says to those farther away. But we saw and felt something—optimism, goodwill, even curiosity—among many, occupiers as well as passers-through like us.

On Friday morning, in a soaking rain, the park was no less animated, but less crowded, and more purposeful. When I got there at 1:30, the park beautification process that OWSers hoped might prevent the scheduled 7AM eviction by the New York City Police Department at the behest of the park owner, Brookfield Properties, had been cranking for hours. Teams of occupiers carted trash to drop sites at the park’s corners. Others scrubbed sidewalks with stiff-bristled push brooms and detergent. One girl dashed to get a bucket of clear water to flush a puddle of soap residue pooling in the dirt around a spindly tree. Microwave and satellite trucks from the various media outlets ringed the park. (I didn’t see FOX, so I figured they were incognito and using the services of an independent transmission provider.) Most journalists seemed to be waiting for the minutes before zero-hour to pounce.

An NYPD “SkyWatch” mobile observation tower stood at one corner of the park, a very impressive piece of high-tech surveillance equipment. SkyWatch is made by a division of FLIR, a military contractor with $1.9 billion in revenue, known for its thermal imaging technology. I’ve seen their products at military “force protection” trade shows.

The people’s mic was in full effect in impromptu assemblies. Someone would shout “mic check” and those within earshot would repeat it. If the statements that followed struck listener-amplifiers as relevant, vital, interesting, uplifting, or anything else good, the chorus grew. Discussions occasionally got disputatious and went off track. Gassers-off would mic-check and divert the group from the issue at hand toward their own general fabulousness. But when those around the speaker caught on, that people’s mic would fade out, and another mic-check would get recognized. All of this is maddening for a linear guy like me, but quite beautiful once I felt the power of the process rippling through the kids around me. They might not be bathed in the spotlight themselves, but each could decide whether to cut off the verbal voltage she was providing to a speaker or to keep generating it.

I wandered, soaked to the niblets, through the tiny park and fell into conversations. The first was among a half-dozen people knotted around a collegiate 20ish young white man. The wealthy earn what they have, and they deserve to keep it, was his point. Those gathered around him disagreed in varying degrees. When the agitation level rose, a woman named Deborah, 50ish and white, gently intervened to remind folks it was just a conversation.

Deborah shared her story. “I was such a good legal secretary I was raking it in. I was making like 90 grand at the end—plus overtime.” Life, of course, is what happens to you while you’re making plans to spend all that cash. Breast cancer. Her treatment is covered by the COBRA program, she told us, but only for a few more months. (She now pays $706 a month.) Before COBRA runs out, she must buy an additional insurance policy so that she’ll be able to purchase coverage on top of that when her COBRA finally ends.

“If I’m a multimillionaire, that’s not going to present a problem, but if I’m a regular working stiff, and we don’t have a single-payer health care option, I am fucked.” Respectful silence from all, even the kid formerly at the center of the conversation. Deborah is virtually uninsurable under our present system. That’s why she supports OWS (she visits but doesn’t sleep in).

A kid, 20-something and white, swaddled in a trashbag shuffled over.

“This is a very, very serious—” he paused—“thing. I won’t ask a rhetorical question. In my opinion, nothing is going to change–”

“Uh huh,” Deborah interjected.

“Them—” the boy said.

“Right,” said Deborah, impatiently.

“—is gonna change them unless we change ourselves…. It’s all about us creating a new society where, where we love each other like we love ourselves.”

The boy spoke slowly, perhaps to keep from slurring his words. He was drunk or compromised by something other than booze. The diverse group—young and less-young, white, black, biracial, professional and student, agitator and agitated—listened. I stifled the “shut-the-fuck-up” I was gnawing on.

“I think we need to just focus on loving each other,” he added.

“Okay. That’s nice. I think love is a good idea,” Deborah replied. “My health insurance doesn’t get paid by love.”

Our conversation was over. I waded back into the park.

Sun guns atop TV cameras illuminated another kid belching power-to-the-people platitudes, giving him fleeting legitimacy. It took a few determined mic checks and several minutes of verbal dueling for the young men and women from the Direct Action group to get center stage, but they did. They called a special assembly and gave updates on the impending eviction and the plans in place to deal with it.

A faint “late last night” in a girl’s voice wafted over to me and then got trumpeted sometime after 6AM. “We received notice from the owners of Zuccotti Park.” This got repeated three times, of course.

I heard the distant voice say “postponing the cleaning,” and then whoops of joy from the thousands of folks around me. This was the people’s sound system on overload. (Audio to come in next post.)

I followed OWSers as they celebrated by marching through the Financial District.

I watched a horde of still photographers encircle a brown-haired white man, also a 20-something, cigarette dangling from his lips, glaring into the visor of an NYPD riot cop, one of a squad that had been deployed to City Hall’s front gate. The kid was no more than a foot from the cops. Macho, narcissistic, dangerous.

I had seen this before in the dozens of demos I’ve shot in past 20+ years. The violent scumbags were crawling from the cracks. They can’t emerge and don’t figure in the park’s wonderfully messy democratic process. But in the street, they can play their cowardly hit-and-run games—and tarnish the reputation of a movement. A young woman from Direct Action urged the photographers to keep moving with the crowd, otherwise, she pleaded with them, “the cops will beat our heads in.” I agreed with her, complied, and left the provocateur to his star turn. Then I broke off from the march and headed north to teach my undergraduate photo class at Baruch College.

Minutes after I left, a senior NYPD officer, a white shirt, grabbed marcher Felix Rivera-Pitre from behind and punched him in the face.

“I didn’t do anything to provoke him. I was just doing what everyone else was doing in the march,” he said. There’s video shot by Animal New York that’s shows a fragment of the interaction between Felix and the cop here.

I had photographed Felix, a slight man who is HIV-positive, earlier in the week in a series of group portraits of VOCAL. (He’s a member.) VOCAL issued a statement here. A VOCAL member tells me Felix is OK.

What Matters Now—Proposals for a New Front Page

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The Aperture Foundation hosted a symposium last week, What Matters Now—Proposals for a New Front Page, which I participated in. We explored possibilities for creating a website rooted in images that would be a source for news, information, narrative journalism, and other forms of nonfiction narrative work, AND—and this is the key— also foster civic engagement.  Below is a short item and a photo I submitted to the web page. I made the image while traveling from one demonstration to the next with members of VOCAL (see previous post). The point of the photo is: communication. A VOCAL member was discussing the purpose of their direction action against Merck with an interested commuter.

VOCAL member reaches out between actions, July 28, 2011

Any new web entity, however engaging and brilliant, will be lost unless it has an active constituency participating in and supporting it. There must be a community behind it, a movement in fact. For inspiration I look to community organizers such as Saul Alinsky, Mike Gecan, and the Industrial Areas Foundation—and the Tea Party. All stress the centrality of building communities and movements around both shared values and substantive person-to-person connections. These are the keys to our success with this project—and to the challenges we face.

“In organizing, we teach that great and thriving institutions do three things: they provide people with opportunities to relate publicly; they design ways for people to learn together, satisfying the enormous appetite for knowledge and improvement that seems wired into our DNA; and they engage in meaningful public action.

“Relating, learning, and caring—when a congregation, or association, or party, or community, or country hits an all three of these cylinders, it can really move forward. When it misses on one or more, it either lumbers or stalls or goes into reverse.”

— Mike Gecan. “The Tea Party Movement Isn’t Radical Enough.” February 2011

Dateline: Kolkata

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Sudder Street, Kolkata, India, 20 March 2010

Three more hours in Kolata before I leave for Singapore.

Roughly sixteen days ago, Erin and I crossed the border at Tamabil, Bangladesh, into Dawki, India, a hassle-free and beautiful journey through wonderfully green parts of both countries. Two-plus weeks isn’t a whole lot to reflect on, strictly speaking, but it has been a very significant chunk of time.

Tea stall, Lindsay Street, Kolkata, India, 20 March 2010

Working our way west from Shillong in Meghalaya State to Guwahati, Siliguri, Gangtok, Pelling, Darjeeling, and Kurseong—we’ve attended a puja ceremony at Sanga Cholling monastery; been politely denied photo-taking privileges by an army sergeant after stumbling onto a Gurkha Rifles shooting range; and helped move furniture at the Tibetan Refugee Self Help Centre (and also shopping for gifts in the showroom). And, after waiting less-than-patiently through several depressingly cloudy days, we got a peek at Mt. Kangchenjunga, third highest of the Himalayan peaks.

Puja Ceremony, Sanga Cholling Monastery, Pelling, India, 12 March 2010

Momentous things have happened beyond our own adventures. The Women’s Reservation Bill, which would set aside one-third of seats in Parliament and state legislatures for women, passed in the upper house. This only a day after (male) MPs opposed to the measure violently disrupted a debate on the bill. News stations ran video loops of these men scrambling over the Chairman’s desk and grabbing his microphone to stop the proceedings. A majority of MPs from a range of parties supported the bill, but a vocal—and physical—minority threw a wrench in the works. Their obstructionist tactics seem to have backfired, but the bill isn’t yet law.

We hit Darjeeling just as talks over the future of “Gorkhaland,” were taking place miles away in Delhi, and we just happened to wander into two days of enormous, spirited, and peaceful demonstrations. Darjeeling District is the heart of the notional state that Indians of Nepali heritage want to carve out of existing states. The government of West Bengal, which administers Darjeeling and other areas where agitation for Gorkhaland is strongest, is loath to let the territory go. Pro-Gorkhlanders point to the creation of three new Indian states in 2000. These were situations in which communities with a distinct language and culture won the right to separate from extant states.

Gorkhaland rally, Darjeeling, India, 16 March 2010

As we drove into Kurseong, serious tea country, we saw people streaming toward the center of town, many holding the green, white and yellow striped Gorkhaland flag. (This time, I headed toward the peace and quiet, toward the rolling hillside tea estates and not the clamor of the protest.)

Tea estate, Kurseong, India, 18 March 2010

Today, the Times of India and other papers report that Delhi has pulled 35,000 troops out of Jammu and Kashmir, the disputed territory over which India and Pakistan have gone to war. A genuine unilateral step toward deescalation or a strategic PR ploy? I’ll let the experts hash that out. But on its face, it looks like a small step away from war, if not toward peace.

And although this is outside the two-week window, it happened on the first leg of our trip, during the three days we spent in Kolkata before departing for Bangladesh: Jyoti Basu, former Chief Minister of West Bengal, and a stalwart of the Indian Communist Party (Marxist), who had died earlier in the week, got a hero’s send-off on our first full day in town. Sidewalks were jammed with people along the funeral procession route here in Kolkata who mourned the death of the nationwide power broker, regarded by many as the champion of working folks.

Two hours and counting. More from Singapore.

Written by bxpnyc

2010/03/20 at 15:07