Overpass Light Brigade invited artist and activist Brian Carlson to tell us about his project to repatriate the memory of Argentina’s “Los Desaparecidos” through his skillful portrait painting. What follows is his account of this stunning project that merges memory, archive and social justice…
Since the seventies, US administrations have supported the overthrow of democratically elected governments, have assisted, at times, with the installation of dictators, and have aided these repressive regimes as the dictators or juntas conducted institutionalized terrorism against their own citizens. The history is sordid and sustained to the present day. Support for repressors has been consistent on both sides of the short political fence, Republican and Democrat alike, and this history is well documented in declassified state department files that are readily available.
In 2007 I was invited to participate in a large international human rights art exhibition and convention held in Buenos Aires. The work selected was a large interactive installation called “Handwriting on the Wall” which was a fourteen foot long by ten foot tall free standing monolith, covered with blackboard paint, constructed in a sala of the Centro de Artes de Recoleta. On one side of the wall, statistics I had collected for years on world-wide violence against women were transcribed by the visitors. On the other side of the wall, women only were invited to write testimonies of violence they had suffered or violence against women they had witnessed. The wall filled quickly and was over written, layered in stories as women took the opportunity to speak about physical abuse.
In preparation for that trip to Argentina I researched violence against women in Argentina and was quickly buried in reports and articles about the years of state terrorism, often erroneously referred to as the “Dirty War.” A huge number of the 30,000 disappeared were females. I admit that prior to that time I had scant knowledge about the concerted ideological genocide during the seventies and eighties. News coverage in the States in all media was slight or slanted. Movies like “Missing,” created momentary stirs but in general, we in the USA had little idea what our government was doing.
While in Buenos Aires for the exhibition a group of artists and academics were invited to tour ESMA, an acronym that stands for the School of Naval Mechanics, the Armada, a college of war. During this time period, a large part of ESMA had been used as a detention and torture facility for “processing” victims. It is one of the 340 detention and torture facilities that were in operation across Argentina, infamous for its size, the scale of repression, and for the fact it is situated right in Buenos Aires in the middle of an otherwise normal looking area, nestled among high rises and businesses. Five thousand people had passed through this gate of hell and almost all had disappeared.After weeks or months of torture they were drugged, driven to transport planes, shackled together and dropped into the vast nearby Rio de Plata, which leads to the ocean. These were the “Vuelos de Muerte,” the Flights of Death.
Touring ESMA, which was not open to the public at that time, had a profound effect on me. The historian explained what had happened in each space we visited, we stood in rooms in which the tortures occurred, rooms in which the perpetually hooded victims lay side by side on concrete floors in chains and in silence, rooms in which pregnant women, who had been regularly tortured, delivered infants that were given away to the families of perpetrators to be raised with the correct political views. The pain, despair, and horror that permeated the walls was palpable.
It was in ESMA that I decided I would make a memorial to the desaparecidos and that, somehow, I would one day return to Argentina to exhibit the results. I promised the disappeared that I would do so and that, if possible, I would exhibit this memorial at ESMA itself. That promise would change my life.
A portrait of Ricardo Omar Sapag Romero
I did not begin the physical memorial for five years. I was teaching, raising kids, and working on other projects but I did begin research on the state terrorism. I learned about Operation Condor, the concerted six nation campaign of repression authored by Chile’s Pinochet, and I learned about CIA assistance to Condor. I learned about the infamous School of the Americas, a US institution that would educate tens of thousands of Latin Americans in subversion, coercion and torture, including many who populated the death squads, ran the torture programs or even led these regimes. Henry Kissinger was instrumental in retaining US support through three administrations while Nixon, Ford, and Reagan all actively supported these perpetrators. The story is far to long to tell. The support did not die in the eighties, it moved on to other fields, other continents. The crops of war and terrorism are freely rotated.
In January of 2012, many aspects of my life aligned in such a way that I decided to begin this work and take it as far as it could go. I had no funding, I had only part time jobs teaching at a university andworking as a cook. I knew no one in Argentina and I did not speak Spanish. But the commitment was real and I had an idea for a form. I decided I would hand paint portraits of every desaparecido I could access through photographs. These would be tiled together when installed so that the faces could be seen in public. The design would allow the memorial to be configured in many ways, be sized eventually to fill large or small venues, be exhibited indoors or outside, be set up relatively easily without extensive equipment or supplies, and be easily transportable. Rather than a site specific largelocation and large superstructure, “Aparecidos”, as I would come to call the memorial, is adaptable and mobile.
Online I found desaparecidos.org, an archive with hundreds of photos of desaparecidos, and I began to paint, starting with the first one, Juan Carlos Abachian. After I had painted about eighty portraits, I opened a Facebook page, summoned Google Translate and made an awkward but apparently intelligible explanation of what I was trying to do, inviting families or friends of the disappeared to send me photos of their lost ones, promising to return them images of the finished portraits they could print or use in anyway they liked. It took time to get an answer. Many would later tell me that they read my request and looked at the portraits and wondered what was a Yankee going to do with the images of their dear ones? Finally one woman sent me an image of her brother, Gustavo, who had been abducted and murdered. Her act of trust led to more and soon I regularly had images arriving in my email and on Facebook requesting inclusion in a growing memorial.
Five years after the first paintings on the floor of my studio that began with some Bristol board, acrylic paint, a laptop and a photo archive, there have been 21 exhibitions of “Aparecidos,” in Argentina, Uruguay, the USA and Spain. I have now painted more than 2000 portraits and continue. In 2013, I exhibited 450 portraits at ESMA, fulfilling my promise to the disappeared. Since that time, I have exhibited at many of the most notorious detention and torture centers, Olimpo, La Perla, El Infierno, D2, and as well at numerous museums, cultural centers, universities and even high schools. There has been media coverage in the Huffington Post, Al Jazeera, the Oslo Times and many major Latin American publications including Pagina 12, TeleSur and TELAM. I feel that this has brought visibility back to the families who lost so much. The public display of this deplorable history is significant for collective memory, for grappling with our insidious inhumanity and for the healing of those who survived the brutality of their own government.
I say all of this to make a simple point. Visual art has an enormous potential to convey critical messages to la gente. There are many kinds of art as we all know and many kinds of audiences. On one end of the spectrum, artists shoot for “contributing to the art conversation,” attempting to make some mark in a large national or international esthetic game. Success would be in the form of museum shows, exposure in the art press, placement in significant collections, gallery representation and monetary reward.But after a modicum of early success in that direction I couldn’t help but wonder, “Who is benefitting by what I am doing? Who sees this? What use is it? What is its function?” I saw my early paintings on the walls of corporations or hanging in some wealthy person’s home, where they had become a type of furniture…. the furniture of success, signifiers of good taste. This was a hollow success for me, with the world in flames of conflict, aggression and violence.
I had to do something different, to address issues that I felt mattered. I encourage all artists to get to the core of what you care about. Who are you? How can you use your amazing abilities to help take action? Speak with your gift, your skills, your passion! Do not quit speaking. You WILL make a difference.
A little girl views a portrait of a lost grandparent
Driving up highway 13 the other night, just north of Washburn, WI, you might have seen a strange sight if you looked through the willow and dogwood and cattails and reeds towards the beach. Weird lighted letters were dancing down the coast, lining up on the sand bar where the Sioux River cuts into the frigid waters of Lake Superior. Even in late March, a cold bitter wind was whipping from the north, past the Apostles, through the gap that makes Madeline Island an island, through the fine gaps in our clothes, cold and crazy to be out for the final shot in a video poem dedicated to water. Intrepid Northland College students, game for adventure and undaunted by the weather, had donned rubber and neoprene waders, and were standing off the shore holding the message; WE ARE WATER. Those of us on shore laughed as small ice chunks floated by, between the shore and the standing students, driven by the icy wind. Away from the camera lights the velvet night was so dark that the sword of Orion poked down from the sky, low over the northern hills, so bright you could feel its edge. It was a beautiful way to end the filming of this three day project. We thanked everyone and drove back to Ashland, to check on our all night camera gear set up way out on the crusty ice of Chequamegon Bay, picking up the green flows of northern lights as the stars traced their linear journeys through the camera and over time.
It was a good three days in the north country. We had been invited by faculty at Northland College to give some lectures and workshops about “art and social change,” which we were more than happy to do, though we also proposed to make a short movie with students and community members. It seemed much more exciting to generate new work with students than to talk at them about our previous projects. The college is small, with only about 600 students, but very centered on social justice and environmental science. There is a purposeful feel to it, and on our first day our noontime discussion of the project went really well. We talked about tactics and generated a messaging list for our night shots, and got some voice-over readings and recordings of the phrases in the nearby radio station sound booth. Our filmmaker friend from the Twin Cities had joined us, and he wanted to begin shooting out on the ice well before sundown for some drone shots and video portraits. The lovely 55 degree sunny day didn’t help firm up the footing on the crusty ice, though it still seemed safe to walk on, especially in the shallows of the massive bay. People, mostly older community members, began to arrive at 6:30 and we got video head shots in pink and orange light of the setting sun.
We then pulled out the message NO ENBRIDGE LINE 5 and took it out onto the ice. The drone buzzed like a giant robotic mosquito, getting some powerful aerial shots on the massive expanse of ice. As the sun rapidly set,the emerging darkness brought out the beauty and brightness of the light panels. We choreographed a lot of messages relevant to water, and were packing it up around 10:00 pm when another shift arrived, a group of students. They continued holding more messages and action words such as RESIST, MARCH, PICKET, BLOCKADE, and phrases like WE ARE ONE, and WATER PEOPEL RISE, well into the late night hours.
The next day broke much colder. Springtime winds swept down from the Canadian shield, but everyone was still game to continue the video shoot. The students we drank beer with the night before in a brew pub in Ashland came out to the ice flats, we built a big bonfire, and continued the fun, running around on the ice with the letters like a bunch of frigid fools, ice dancers, people who care about the world, water people. At one point, seventy or so letter panels lay on the ice, face up, illuminating the night, reflected as a blue glow on the ice, while the bonfire glowed orange in a puddle of its own making, and people ran around with illuminated words, following a dancing man with a camera shooting and shouting and everyone laughing… We saved the “wader shot standing in icy water” for last, since we weren’t sure we could pull it off in the harsh conditions. But we did. They did. The students. The community. All of us.
Sometimes words fail to adequately describe the beauty of a location, even when they are lit up on a frozen lake and held by a wonderful array of people. Compelling pictures and videos of trenchant messages in physical space will be generated by our days “up north,” but the real message is in the power of people coming together, to stand in solidarity – even on the ice – and be present in the poetry of the moment with such hopeful representations as WATER PEOPLE UNITE, and (with the earth, the night sky, the fish lazily swimming beneath the blue ice, the crows black in their skeletal trees, Orion’s belted sword pointing down to sacred hills, the people together in spite of the weather) WE ARE WATER… WE ARE ONE.
Republicans in Wisconsin reintroduced a law that was defeated last year by a popular uprising called the #DayWithoutLatinos. The legislation would deputize public employees, local police, and sheriffs to act as immigration agents:
This hateful legislation is a retread of what our community defeated last year. This bill aims to turn local government employees and law enforcement into an arm of Trump’s campaign of terror against immigrant families. Local police chiefs across the country are opposed to legislation like this because it will make community members afraid to report crimes, making all less safe. This legislation hurts the economy by targeting workers that key industries like dairy and manufacturing depend on. As we have shown repeatedly, immigrant workers and business owners are committed to striking and shutting down key industries that depend on their labor in defense of their families. On May 1st, Voces de la Frontera is calling for a national general strike to demand Republicans halt this wave of anti-immigrant discrimination and racism. Legislators should be focused on passing legislation to protect healthcare, fund schools, and create jobs, but instead they are scapegoating immigrant workers for the failures of their own pro-1% policies. We defeated this bill last year and we will fight all out to defeat it again.
– Christine Neumann-Ortiz – Voces de la Frontera
It is the job of local law enforcement to protect and serve people in their jurisdictions, not to betray them. The bill reintroduced by the Wisconsin GOP continues to criminalize the vulnerable through requiring local police to do the job of federal immigration enforcement. This is wrong on every level!
Migration is beautiful! We should be working to keep families together, not tearing them apart!
Scott Walker and the Wisconsin GOP have decided to reintroduce ant-immigrant legislation that was defeated last year by the #DiaSinLatinos (Day Without Latinxs) movement. The legislation makes public employees, local police, and sheriffs officers defacto Immigration (ICE) agents in the Trump deportation machine.
We will join Voces de la Frontera in bringing a lighted message to the Wisconsin State Capitol at 6:30 on Saturday, March 4. Meet at the Lady Forward statue on the State Street side of the Capitol. All are welcome to join!
Editor’s Note: OLB invited poet and activist Margaret Rozga to reflect on her experience in DC at the women’s march, which she attended with her daughter, Christine Groppi. The following is her account of the march, among other points of resistance and solidarity that fill her life.
As a small group assembled for a recent Overpass Light Brigade action, I took up two letters, P and O. Perfect! PO. POed, exactly what I’d been feeling since November. The anger fueled a desire for action, and gathering with others at the Ring Street pedestrian overpass provided the outlet I needed. It pulled me out of the sinking feeling, the isolating grief, I also felt.
Trump’s electoral college election threatened to bury all I had long worked for. Since 1965, when I volunteered to work on a Southern Christian Leadership voter registration project in Alabama, my commitment to social and racial justice has continually grown. On some level I must have thought that in my old age I’d be able to sit back and enjoy the more equitable, inclusive, fair-minded, and just world that civil rights volunteers of the 1960s had envisioned and advanced.
Yes, such was my dream. The November election was a rude awakening.
Outside in the cold January wind, the PO I held in my hands were central letters in that evening’s OLB message: TRUMPOCALYPSE. This president pushes toward a mindless apocalyptic finality. What does he think he’ll drink, what will he breathe, when his dismantling of government safeguards like Environmental Protection Agency means all our water is polluted, all the air toxic?
Soon that evening more people arrived. I handed the O to one of them. We talked. She said her first OLB experience was in support of the water protectors at Standing Rock, an issue particularly important to her as an indigenous person. When she arrived at that #NoDAPL event, she expected to find all native people and was surprised to find many other people as well. This time, she found out about the action at the last minute. Without stopping to eat her dinner or change her clothes or shoes, she put on her coat, got in the car with her friends, and came to participate.
I looked down at her feet. She was wearing sandals. Except for a few thin straps, her feet were bare. She never complained about cold feet, not once in the hour we spelled our message for the freeway traffic streaming below us.
Cold feet. Yes, I know about those, too, the cold feet that keep you from getting out and finding those who will buoy your spirit and give you courage.
When my daughter Christine asked me to go with her to the Women’s March in Washington DC, I hesitated. I remembered one Vietnam War protest in DC where the local host greeted the crowd, saying, “Welcome to Washington for the thousandth time.” I remembered some recent demonstrations in DC did not draw enough people to have an impact.
I remembered other mass demonstrations, the one in Miami at the 1972 Republican Convention, where police shot tear gas in massive amounts into the crowd of demonstrators causing utter confusion in the streets not only among those of us there to protest President Nixon’s war policies but among elderly Miami residents and even some tourists who were caught unprepared. The memory of that chaos gave me cold feet.
Then I also remembered a highlighted sidebar in a Miami newspaper article the morning after the arraignment of activists who were arrested. (I wasn’t one of the arrested). The judge said as one young woman appeared before him, “Melissa, it’s not up to you to save the world. Next case.”
I knew then and still believe that judge was wrong. Yes, it is up to Melissa, not Melissa alone, of course. It’s up to Melissa and me and her friends and mine. It’s up to each and all of us. Now it’s also up to people who weren’t even born in 1972. Fortunately, they seem not to be bothered with cold feet at all.
Yes, of course, Christine. I’ll go with you to the Women’s March. Her request proved a great gift.
On the Women’s March, even on the way, my yes was amply rewarded. Action is the answer to that sinking feeling of grief and despair. Social justice action connects you with others who share your commitment to the common good. That’s ever a source of strength.
At our first rest stop at a service plaza in Indiana, we overheard one worker in the food court say to another, “More people going to Washington for the march.” Her co-worker replied, “I wish we could go.”
By the time we stopped again in Ohio, the service plaza was lively with women, many wearing pink hats. I didn’t know why. My daughter took me aside to explain. “Pussy hats.” The women’s rest rooms from here on all were crowded. No one complained. We held doors for each other. We smiled. We knew where we all were going. We were in separate vehicles, but we now knew we had each other. If we had any doubt, all doubt was erased when we waited in long lines that Friday night to exit the Pennsylvania Turnpike and turn south toward DC.
As we headed downtown the next day, a major radio station announced over and over the list of Metro Stations where there was no more parking. Fortunately Christine knew of a public park about a mile from the Vienna station. We walked from there to the station. The train we caught could not stop at L’Enfant Plaza, our destination, because it was so packed with people there was no room to discharge more passengers.
At the next stop, we got off the train and walked toward the rally. We watched Angela Davis and the Indigo Girls within a tight press of people at one of the Jumbo-trons set up in the street. Sally saw a sign she liked, “Girls Just Wanna have FUNdamental Human Rights.” Christine asked if she could take a photo. The person holding the sign said, “If you like it, take it.” Sally was thrilled.
When the march started, it didn’t matter what group we followed. All the streets headed toward the White House were full of people on the march. We passed the Trump Hotel. About a half dozen guards stood in the doorway, fidgety, obviously nervous in view of a crowd that could easily have overpowered them, but no such thing was our intent.
Periodically a cheer would go up among a segment of marchers. I wondered what they were cheering. “We must not have the app,” Sally said. If there was some cell phone coordination, even having the app wouldn’t have helped. None of us were able to get a signal.
After the march, we found a place to sit down and have coffee while we waited for 7:00 p.m. and the Split This Rock Poetry Open Mic where I was scheduled to read. Crowds were dispersing. Already work crews had bagged up the mounds of garbage that overflowed trash containers. While I admired the efficiency, it also depressed me. It signaled a return to normal, a normal that would not be like anything I wanted to call normal. I didn’t want all these beautiful, kind, and concerned people to go their separate ways.
The Split This Rock event brought people together again. People and good words, words with power. After the reading, everyone helped put chairs away. Most lingered. It was as if all of us felt the same thing. With each other, we had strength.
That point was brought home again and again on the turnpike, as we now headed west. Though in our separate automobiles, each time we stopped, we were community again. At one service plaza with a Panera in its food court, the lines were so long that employees struggled to keep up. They couldn’t make bagels, or soup, or salad or sandwiches fast enough. The line moved slowly. Someone among all these participants in the march, maybe some brilliant organizer, maybe some ordinary person, had an idea: let’s keep it going. The crowd became a group. The line became a rally. The buzz of separate conversations became chant and song. The idea went live. The March continues.
Even through Indiana, when the traffic thinned and rest stops were fewer, we met two women going in the building as we were coming out. None of us were wearing pink hats. “Were you,” they began. “Yes,” we said.
Back at home, events and calls to action multiply. We are the majority. It was true when I cast my ballot. It remains true. I see its truth when a poetry reading becomes another rally, when a local pub is filled to overflowing at an ACLU fund-raiser, when my neighbor asks to see my DC photos, when someone in my t’ai chi class asks, “How was it?” I hear its truth as the cars streaming along I-43 honk in agreement with the OLB message, TRUMPOCALYPSE.
I still feel grief, and I don’t want to deny that feeling. I also hope. To hope is a verb of action. Hope for the days ahead comes from acting creatively. I put my senators’ phone numbers in my phone and call every day. I help plan events to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the fair housing marches in Milwaukee. We are going to need local actions and a surge of attention to the issues that a Secretary of Housing and Urban Development like Ben Carson promises to neglect. I continue to write. I’m backing Tony Evers for re-election as Wisconsin’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, particularly important these days when public schools are threatened. I also go to events where I’ll find a cure for cold feet: the heart-warming presence of people gathered to affirm the values of democracy and inclusivity I hold dear.
Editor’s Note: OLB invited writer, veteran and medic Jacob Thomas to document his work with veterans who have served in the U.S. military, but were subsequently deported to Mexico.
There are true American patriots in the world. There are people who believe in the principals set forth by the founding fathers, believe in the inalienable rights of humans, and believe in the Constitution. There are people who believe so strongly in the idea of America that they have willingly defended it in the U.S. military, and say they would do it again in a heartbeat. Some of these people are not United States citizens, but they should be.
As soon as my feet thawed from Standing Rock, a fellow veteran I met there invited me to tag along with him to Mexico, where he’d be interviewing deported U.S. veterans for the oral histories department of the Library of Congress. “What do you mean, deported U.S. veterans?” I asked Alex.
“It’s exactly what it sounds like. United States military veterans, many veterans of combat, are being deported.”
I like to say I’m resistant to impulsiveness, but my initial reaction was to develop an elaborate plan to get these folks back home involving a three meter section of rope, two mopeds, three costume mustaches, a pen knife, a forged document from the Department of Homeland Security and a large baby stroller. In my mind, the plan played out like The Great Escape, except with a happier ending.
Alex laughed and said that it was a little more complicated than that, but pretty close. I calmed myself out of my preliminary Aww Hell No! state of mind and decided it would be best to go down and talk to as many people as I could to see what exactly was going on.
Crossing the border into Mexico is painfully easy. Just hop in your rental car and drive south. Cruise down the 5 until you get to the border. A little robot takes your picture as you cross, and just like that you’re in Mexico. Crossing that imaginary line the other way? People die trying. Billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars ensure people die trying to cross that line.
I am picked up by Alex, the founder of the Veterans Action Coordinating Committee, at the San Diego airport. Within an hour of leaving the airport, we cross the border into Tijuana and drive around for awhile. I think Alex is playing tour guide, showing me the sights, but then I realize he’s just lost. My introduction to the city is garnished with intermittent Spanish cuss words muttered by Alex. He doesn’t speak Spanish, but he knows a few palabras. At some point, he shows me where a guy was ‘just domed in broad daylight.’ The departed had been messing with some bad guys, apparently, but we are fine, he assures me. Something inside me doubts that.
Alex and I get to the Deported Veterans Support House pretty late. Hector stumbles to the door to let us in. It feels like a homeless shelter run by its own guests. Hector started the support house after he was deported, and found he had nowhere to go in Tijuana. This is the way the deportation process commonly goes:
1) Get arrested for something.
2) Go to jail.
3) Complete your sentence.
4) Get picked up by Homeland Security.
5) Spend anywhere from 1 hour to 1 year in a holding facility
6) Get thrown in a van.
7) Get driven to the Mexican border in the middle of the night. A gate opens.
8) Get pushed through the gate.
9) The gate closes.
Many of these US veterans have no family in Mexico, no friends, no one to pick them up in Tijuana. This is because they’ve lived in the United States their entire lives. All of them were brought to the U.S. by someone in their family as infants or young children. They are literally tossed through the fence with nothing but the clothes on their backs and left to fend for themselves. Hector saw some injustice in this and set out to create a place for deportees to regroup in their new life.
Here at the support house, affectionately referred to as The Bunker, a 71 year old Vietnam veteran, Mario, quietly shuffles around all day. He is shy and reserved, but it looks like resignation. He is constantly moving from one menial task to another. He cleans the kitchen, makes coffee, sweeps the sidewalk. He sits in an unused wheelchair and looks out the front door.
The Deported Veterans Support House is the cleanest edificio in Tijuana, thanks to Mario and the others. Its sidewalks are the only ones without piles of basura, its gutters the only ones without standing puddles of caca. Inside, there are milk-crate lockers with names of each deported veteran, holding items like a towel, a bag of chips, and a pair of socks until the next time they stop by. A crate with sketchy penmanship indicates “Rodriguez, US NAVY,” and in it is a sole bottle of hot sauce. There are piles of military memorabilia all over: a tattered U.S. flag, a laundry bag of old uniforms, stacks of military books like The Art of War and We Were Soldiers Once. A pair of dress blues lies nearby, with shiny badges and neatly aligned ribbons. It is seldom worn, but still meticulously cared for each day. I feel like I’m in one of my Army buddy’s man caves back home, except here there’s a strange feeling of deployment and danger, hanging over everything.
Every morning Alex and I go get street tacos. The food carts are simply amazing. Hands down, they serve up some of the best food I’ve ever had in my life. Those pickled cebollas… not sure what they are, but I’m in love with them! Everywhere Alex and I go, we get these strong looks like, “What the heck is this gringo doing here?” I’m not sure if there is a nice part of Tijuana. There might be, but I know I am not in it. We go interview our first deported veteran who lives across town. As soon as we get there, about nine or ten in the morning, he pours himself a tall glass of gut-rot tequila. This makes Alex nervous, but I assure him it’s just liquid courage. The man almost immediately starts weeping uncontrollably. He says all he wants is to go home. He says he’s not sure where he belongs because the country he loves kicked him out, and the country he was born in doesn’t want him. His Mexican neighbors and friends make fun of him for being a deportee. They say he’s stupid for serving a country that threw him to the street like basura.
I get back to The Bunker and Mario greets me. We talk for a long time, and he tells me a story about when he was in the central highlands of Vietnam. He awoke one morning and his entire patrol was staring at him. Everyone in his platoon was going crazy, because Private Mario was in his sleeping bag and covered in blood. Private Mario was paralyzed with fear. He had no idea what he was bleeding from, but his face was drenched in his own blood. As he tells me the story, he rubs his face with his leathery hands and looks at them, he looks up at me and smiles, “Leeches,” he says. He laughs for a long time. Just like many veterans, his war stories don’t involve actual combat even though he has been in countless firefights, the stories revolve around little stories of camaraderie and dumb luck and daily life.
Mario was drafted into the U.S. Army where he served with the 4th ID. He did his tour in Vietnam, was honorably discharged and never talked to anyone from his unit again. He has never stepped foot in a V.A. Hospital. I got out of the army six years ago and I am still seeing a head shrinker at the V.A. I talk to guys I deployed with almost every day. It has been instrumental for my personal reintegration into society and deescalation of my personal violence. I believe Mario when he says that he slept next to his bed on the floor for 25 years, but is unsure why. He was homeless right after Vietnam, mostly because of the attitude Americans had of veterans at the time and his inability to find work. Mario was deported as a 61 year old, and has been homeless for the last ten years in Mexico. He works on construction sites, sweeping, cleaning up and doing little chores and sleeps at the site at night. Mario still refers to the U.S. as home, he lived here for 54 years, and says he would join the military again if he could do it all over.
The sentiments in all the interviews are similar. Every man calls the U.S. home. Every man feels like an American. Every man is unsure why he’s still getting punished for a crime for which he already paid his debt to society.
And that’s how it was. Their crimes varied, but they were uniformly a result of addiction or mental illness incurred or exacerbated by war. Two guys were deported because they lost their wallets. Alcohol and drug use were common. But those habits, coping mechanisms really, are all too common in the active duty military as well. As they are all talking, unpacking and unloading their deeply emotional histories in front of my recorder, all I can think is, “I have been arrested more times than most of these guys.” They each say something that hits such a deep personal chord inside me that I too, weep.
“I drink because I keep seeing the war in front of my open eyes.”
“You just start going and before you know it, your entire life has slipped out of your control.”
“When they say they support us, they put a sticker on their car, but they don’t listen to us.”
“I did bad things, but I’m not a bad person.”
“I was just a kid.”
While we are interviewing Mauricio, I can barely hold the camera anymore, because although we’re so incredibly different, I feel like he’s telling my personal story. I never ask him what crime he initially committed to get deported because I don’t care. We broke it, we buy it. He is an American, he is a soldier, and he deserves every right that all American soldiers deserve—like access to mental healthcare. While interviewing Augie, I’m asked who is more American, he who was born in Mexico and drafted and served, or the guy who was born in the U.S. and was drafted and then spent a few years in Canada or college, avoiding service. While interviewing Andy, I realize that these guys have been abandoned twice, twice left with nothing but the clothes on their backs and their own devices. Once after Vietnam—or Iraq—and once at the Mexican border. While interviewing Edwardo, I am told that he gets teary-eyed every time the national anthem is played. I personally have never gotten teary-eyed when the national anthem is played. I personally am very critical of my country of origin, sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly. These guys are not. They really are true American patriots, forced to live south of the border.
As Americans, we are living inside a political world that seems intent on perverting our national identity and corrupting it into xenophobic nationalism. There are a lot of lines being drawn between “real Americans” and people who aren’t American enough. The ridiculousness of this is too much to handle. The easy verbiage we all fall into using highlights this stupidity: America isn’t even a country, it’s a land mass composed of two whole continents.
Our last interview is with Jose. He wants to be with his family. That’s all he wants. He’s an old man. He’s about to die, he knows this, and all he wants is his family. He says his biggest fear is dying alone in his little apartment and no one knowing that he’s died. I can’t help but feel like a massive turd. I want more deshebrada-style tacos, another ice cold real-sugar Coke in a glass bottle, I want a good round of pinball, I want to go home and have a beer with my friends. I don’t deserve any of those things. I am an American by birthright and I take it for granted every day. I have my struggles with alcohol and violence. But since I just happened to be born in a tiny north-woods hospital in Wisconsin, I’m looked at as a troubled veteran. Mauricio has gotten in legal trouble less frequently than I have, but he’s looked at as a foreigner, a liability, a criminal… I’m telling you, he’s more of a patriot than I am. Our nativist policy is the criminal.
Look at it like this: I value choice over inheritance. If someone chooses a lifestyle or affiliation, I know they actually think about it, question their situation, seek out a better one, and work to achieve that new reality. There are some religions that value converts more than inborn members for this reason. They look at a convert’s faith as the strongest because they consciously choose their faith. I am surprised that in a country which values freedom of choice as much as The United States does, that this same view is not adopted regarding immigrants. I look at immigrants as the true patriots, true citizens, because they choose America over any other country in the world. I was just born here.
After another long, emotionally draining day of interviews, I get back to The Bunker and again I am greeted by Mario. He is slowly sweeping the sidewalk. He has to stoop because the broom is broken and the shaft is short. He leans the broom against the wall, stands upright and shakes my hand. He smiles as he says hello and asks me how my day was.
Editor’s Note: OLB invited writer, veteran and medic Jacob Thomas to reflect on his experience at Standing Rock in early December, 2016. He sent this manuscript en route from Tijuana, MX, where he is working to document deported veterans’ oral histories for the Library of Congress. For more information on this oral history project see the GoFundMe support page.
I was standing by the port-a-john, waiting, when a very young, hip-looking threesome approached me. They asked me where they should sleep. I looked around, not knowing what, if anything, I should say. I said something like, “Sleep where you can.”
“Yeah, but we don’t have sleeping bags.”
“Ground cover? Anything?”
“Where are you coming from?”
“Did you have any idea what North Dakota was like?” I asked, with that disappointed tone that I learned from my mother.
To be fair, I had been to North Dakota once, in the summertime, and I had no idea just how bad it was going to be in winter. In winter, during a blizzard. My research— a quick googling of temperatures— resulted in my learning that North Dakota is the coldest of the contiguous states. My climatological education would be furthered to learn that it is the wind that makes North Dakota so treacherous. It apparently starts in South Dakota, moves south, speeds up, and stops at nothing, picking up all the cold from both poles before it hits North Dakota. It will knock you over, that is no hyperbole.
These three kids had no idea.
It wasn’t five minutes after I told them to leave, that they would be a burden on the camp, and they shouldn’t have come if they weren’t self-sufficient, when Oceti Sakowin security came by and told them to shake tents until someone had room for one or all of them. He said, “We’re Sioux, we’ll put you up.”
That was my first night, December 2nd, at Oceti Sakowin, and only my first of many encounters with a relentlessly understanding and accepting culture. I’m not speaking of Native Americans, or even the Sioux Nation. I’m not speaking of environmentalists. I’m not even thinking about activists, or liberals, or any other subculture. I’m talking specifically about the people who were drawn to Standing Rock. They were all different types of people, yet similar in their motivation for change.
Over the last month, Oceti Sakowin and its people have been on my mind constantly. Standing Rock was a mind-blowing amalgam of all different types of people, from all cultures, economic statuses, religions, political ideologies, gender identities, and tribes. No two people there would have the same answer as to why they were there. Some folks I met lived there, born and raised on the Standing Rock Reservation. Some were there for Native American rights. I got to know AIM revivalists, Wounded Knee (’73) survivors, and their families. The environmental cohort was strong. But even then, there were factions of revolutionary environmentalists promoting property destruction and violent encounters with DAPL and police. There were also factions of peaceful green protestors, promoting things like divestment and commercial abstinence from non-green companies. I ran into folks who were against the government interfering with capitalism. There were anarchists. There were capitalists. There were people there who had no political or social ideologies at all, but were there to protect civilians peacefully protesting. That is only a start, because there is no possible way to describe it, but it speaks to the overwhelming nuance of the group at Oceti Sakowin. But it is important to acknowledge the nuance in order to weave a single narrative out of so many different voices.
My little thread of voice in this narrative rug began several months ago. I was considering driving out to Standing Rock as soon as I heard about it, in maybe September. I talked about going out there with my dreadlock-sporting musician friend. I was hesitant, for many reasons, but mostly because of an article I read which reported white people had moved into camp in throngs and turned it into another Burning Man-esque music festival. The last thing I wanted was to be another white guy who made something that wasn’t his, his. It wasn’t my fight. My own Native American blood is thin, my inner environmentalist is morally defeated, and my inner anarchist is too afraid of life without cable. I felt that if I went and started to protest on behalf of Native American rights, or anyone’s rights really, I would be commandeering a fight that wasn’t mine. My older sister sent me a link regarding Veterans Stand for Standing Rock and their crowd-sourced donation page. I found out that a local woman specifically asked for the help of veterans. I also learned Native Americans represent the largest percentage of any cultural group to serve in the military. I immediately started packing, all I needed was someone to ask me to come. I was activated by a mission, a call for help, and brothers and sisters in distress, as veterans are wont to be. I am aware my voice is stronger and louder than others’ because of my ethnicity, gender, and economic status, so I have been making a concerted effort to talk less. I talk less in hopes for someone else to start talking, but it took me awhile to get to this point where I can talk less but still act. A big part of that motivation to act without assuming the fight as my own was the rhetoric about protecting Native American’s right to peaceful protest, and protecting the Bill of Rights. Well, hell, I already took an oath to do that! That is my fight!
Although I didn’t truly align myself with any one group or cause represented at Standing Rock, I felt compelled to protect them and their right to be there. All these groups had their own motivations and they seemed to be just as compelled to be there to support their individual causes.
Despite, or maybe in spite, all these disparate ideologies, Standing Rock worked. There were reports of 12,000 people at camp on December 5th . I have no idea if that’s accurate, it would be near impossible determine how many people were there… it was a lot. Rumors said there were 600 indigenous tribes present, that it was the largest meeting of Native Americans ever. Rumors said every continent was represented. Rumors even said that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson was there, but I can’t personally verify that. There were two things that held that many different people together. The mission and the wind.
There was one clear mission, set forth by elders and reservation leaders: have the Army Corps of Engineers re-evaluate their decision regarding construction of the pipeline under Lake Oahe.
I was asked to march with the elders during their prayer ceremony on the bridge because I was a medic in the Army. As far as I could tell, there were no media or non-natives on the bridge during the prayer. It was a beautiful and incredibly impactful thing to witness. There were three of us medics on the bridge with the elders and medicine women and Akitchita, and several hundred Native Americans on the road behind them. In the middle of the elders was a Contrary. A Contrary is a type of inherited social position in the tribe, a teacher and warrior, who does everything backwards. They would ride into battle on their horses backwards. You greet them with your back to them. You kick dirt on them or throw cigarettes at them when you walk by them. Their role is to make people think about what has become status quo in society. The Contrary and I had a cup of tea after the prayer ceremony while we warmed ourselves. With his greyed cheeks from the cold and frost lining his lashes, he smiled and said, “In my other life, I sell furniture.” I’m proud to say he told me I’d make a good Contrary. The Akitchita were on horseback. The Akitchita are appointed protectors of the Sioux people for a specific duration of time. Based on ones’ abilities and the needs of the times, someone is nominated and appointed as Akitchita until they are no longer needed. The women smudged us and the elders prayed in celebration of their long awaited accomplishment. It was a moment I will never forget. And then my feet froze solid.
Once the blizzard started, and it came up quickly and without forgiveness, it became a struggle for survival. I’m not indulging in exaggeration. It was 20 below with 45 MPH winds. If you were standing outside, you were likely to get knocked down and dragged a bit across the frozen ground. There were throngs of people at Oceti Sakowin who were not prepared at all for the extreme weather, for one reason or another. The medics did all we could for as many as we could. Our duties as medics mostly came down to just calming people and keeping them warm. There was one hairy moment when a tent started on fire and we had to get everyone out, and then find the 30 or so new lodging before they got cold.
But again, it worked. No one died. Everyone came together and came out alive and most were feeling good after the blizzard was over. When survival is on line, and there is a true danger, people come together and get things done. They make it happen. And they will continue to make it happen. The blizzard was a physical threat, but I feel it is a great analogy to any other threat, be it social, like infringement on human rights, or economic, like the widening class gap.
Since I left Oceti Sakowin in mid December, I’ve been asked by many people, of all political leanings, about Standing Rock. I try not to bring it up or talk about it unless asked, and then all I do is address that specific question or comment as briefly as possible. Because I learned that no matter what I say, my point is lost.
With people who lean right, the conversation is about the supposed permanence of fossil fuel infrastructure and capitalist society. I try to bring up that there were a great many political ideologies represented at the protests, including Libertarian and New Republicanism. Many protestors were blue collar heroes, trying not to become forgotten in an ever-progressing technological world that seems to be leaving them behind. My part of the conversation always lands on deaf ears, because for conservatives who weren’t there, it looked like a bunch of wild idealists trying to dismantle capitalism portrayed in their little corner of the media.
With people who lean left, the conversation derails into conspiratorial terrain pretty quickly. I was at a party right after I came back home, and I was asked if I was at Standing Rock. I said, “Yes,” and then I listened to a ten minute tirade about chemical weapons being used on Native Americans and it being the onset of another genocide. I said that that was not true, and I was promptly corrected, being that this person happened to read something on social media about it. I was going to ask if she wanted to hear about it from someone who was actually there a week prior, but I didn’t. She didn’t want to know what it was like, she wanted to hear her conclusions re-enforced. This has happened several times, in several different conversations, so I stopped talking about it. Talking about my personal experiences won’t change anyone’s mind about their own individual conclusions.
While I’m wanting to shove my experience down peoples’ throats, cram all I learned into a box and force it on to people, I don’t. That is a lesson I learned from my military service. People truly want to believe whatever they already believe. If they want to believe that all soldiers are mindless child killers, they’re going to continue believing that. If they want to believe that all soldiers are heroes, they’re going to believe that. Whatever we were, and whatever we are now as veterans, whatever we do in our other lives, we can talk less, and act more. We can act by letting other people talk, and protecting their right to talk. When we act, we should chose our battles wisely. We should assess, determine the threat, and develop a clear mission. And we should come prepared.
This has been a year of intense activism focused upon water and indigenous rights in general, and we at the Overpass Light Brigade have tried to use our visibility to give focus to these issues. Last January hit hard and cold and the freezing weather was a match for the frozen hearts of our state legislators who tried to put forward rapid fire bills that would allow landowners and business to dig up ancient Indian burial mounds, as well as bills to allow the privatization of municipal water service and supply. What could possibly go wrong with such forward thinking policies?
Multiple tribal bands and regional Indian nations converged on the State Capitol in protest of the proposed burial mounds bill. On that same day, we worked with some indigenous friends to hold a message at an important, and generally overlooked, mound smack dab in a popular Milwaukee park. It was probably the coldest action we have ever done, and we still get shivers thinking about the windchill of -30 on that evening, as we brought out our message, SACRED SITE, with a flip side of that same notion in Ojibwe, MIKWENIM. Our impromptu round dance was as much to keep warm as it was to celebrate the location, though we were happy that a news channel picked up the story that evening. Though the main resistance was in Madison that day with the dramatic convergence of the tribes, we did help to get the word out in a peaceful and poetic way. The bill was soon dropped.
NO MORE FLINTS has been on our mind throughout the last few years. There was a bill creeping its way through the State House that seemed to suddenly erupt into public consciousness. It would ease regulations around public water supplies, and allow global corporations to swoop in and buy water rights in municipal district – sacrificing long term water access and health for short term profit. People were lulled by the holidays and no one was talking about this sneak-privatization plan. We began some actions at the state capitol and along our beautiful Lake Michigan water front that we hoped would at least get people informed. This coincided with an unprecedented amount of behind-the-scenes organizing on a local and national level in order to stop this bill. The Republican sponsors were secure in their accounting of the votes to pass it, and were smug in their corporatist goals. The outcry grew, from a small few to larger groups concerned about water issues. It began to get picked up by local news, and then by friends around the state. Resistance actions were springing up throughout the region, and the bill, once assured of passing, was tabled. It is never over, but for now, we pushed back and they backed down. “No more Flints,” we say. But we don’t forget that Flint is still there, still reeling from the dire consequences of the corrupt practices of privatization. The fight over water continues…
While we always get charged up by a cause, or a call to collaborate with a group we respect, or a campaign against injustice, we also at times like to explore the creative and expressive dimensions of this medium that we invented. In June, we made plans with our favorite filmmaker to do some water-based stop motion footage. “Wouldn’t it be cool,” we thought, “to visit various locations around Wisconsin with messages about water!” That was a pretty ambitious idea, but we were able to do three amazing photo and film shoots on Lake Monona in Madison, in Europe Bay, Door County, and along the Milwaukee River. All of these sequences involved kayaks, boats, the complexities of getting large groups of people together, the durational endurance of time-lapse filming and some amazingly talented and dedicated people. Here’s the first part out of the effort, with more to come in the future. We think of it as a “love song to water.” Little did we know that within a few months, water issues would take national prominence out in the Dakotas.
By September, the occupation at Standing Rock had grown to be a sizable presence, at least in our social media and political circles. Activists from the area began to ask us if we were going to make a trip out to North Dakota, to join in the struggle against DAPL. Leading up to the Labor Day weekend, we planned an action, got some impromptu approvals, packed some light panels in the van, and readied ourselves for the long trek. It was an intense weekend, not only to see so many indigenous activists, water warriors, and water protectors living, arriving, and thriving, but to be there when private security forces sicced attack dogs on peaceful people. We negotiated more concrete approvals with Sioux elders in order to enable a few actions with lights and our strange “pixel stick” that magically displays programmed imagery when the lighted wand is swept across the sky. Some of these images went viral, and our Facebook site was hitting a 1.6 million person reach for the weeks after. In this way, and on this blog, we felt that we were able to help highlight the courageous and important work being done by so many indigenous Water Protectors and non-indigenous allies. Getting the word has been an important aspect of this struggle, since until only recently mainstream media all but ignored this massive uprising.
We returned in December and were amazed by the growth of the camps, the momentum of the movement, the complexity of the daily negotiations, and the incoming presence of over 3,000 veterans. The provisional “win” came the day after we arrived, with the veterans in full force in support of the Sioux and this amazing indigenous movement. We marveled at the celebration, the discipline of the Water Protectors in their unflagging commitment to nonviolence, even in the face of such extreme and violent repression perpetrated by police and other militarized forces under command of corporate power brokers and their political appointees. Indeed, that was why the veterans showed up, and their presence seemed to shame the State into at least a temporary hiatus of overt desecration. Due to circumstances, we weren’t able to mount another Light Brigade Action, but did have the backing to receive a much coveted press pass, and were able to take some fantastic picture for posterity.
And then the blizzard swept down the plains. We knew it was coming, and hightailed it out of the camps, moving east as fast as the wind pushed from the west. A few hours later, all roads were shut, cars in ditches, smart people hunkered down with cords of firewood dried and ready for the warmth of wood stoves. We drove home, back to our own water wars, back to the reality of our lives in Wisconsin, which has been the petri dish of the new America. We know what it is to struggle, and we know what it is to keep struggling when we feel that all is lost. We know that even when we win, as we have in the actions cited on this page, our wins might only be temporary, that the fight will come around again as soon as a politician craven enough to put a bad bill forward feels that no one is watching or that no one cares. And here we are, at the end of a year, a rough year, a bad year for art and poetry and song and water and climate and education and immigrant rights and electoral politics and democracy in general. And here we are, ready to fight, to organize, to make calls and write posts and hit the street and make videos and do what we can to take care of our sad and beautiful world.
So to all of our friends, our followers, our Holders of the Lights… Solidarity in the New Year. Help us to LIGHT THE WAY!
Last night, Milo Yiannopoulos’s“Dangerous Faggot Tour” came to UW-Milwaukee, hosted by a student front group, also responsible for the somewhat lame exercise in neo-McCarthyism, the “Professor Watchlist.” For over a month, faculty, staff and students have been expressing concern about the known dynamics of Milo Y, a kind of sly and slick performance of white grievance against political correctness, immigrant and muslim communities, as well as LGBT+ campus presence and politics. The administration, quivering in fear of their rightwing legislative budget lords’ threats of defunding, generally evaded the issue of the impact of hate speech to vulnerable communities, though subsequently released tepid but earnest statements regarding freedom of speech and their inability to control the sponsorship of student groups, with the intent to disassociate the UWM brand with a known hate-monger, white supremacist, such as Mr. Y. Cautious hand-wringing has generally been the operative dynamic at play within the crumbling institution.
Concerned students and workers planned and mounted a solid counter protest: we marched, disrupted the jubilee of white resentment, conducted an alternative open mic event near the heavily policed second floor of the student union, and held light panels that proclaimed “DENY HATE.” Our struggling union, AFT3535 bought pizza for the counter protesters, and the energy was celebratory, aggressive, and peaceful.
There was a full house for Milo, and his one hour stand-up game of hate charades was live cast on Brietbart. At 49 minutes into his shtick, Milo projected a picture of a UWM trans student (wink, wink, nudge, nudge), who was undergoing conversion, and “outed” them for making an issue of bathroom access. Bathrooms, right? What an outrage! Milo went on to suggest his own interest in having sex with the student, all while assessing them critically in very specific and demeaning ways. The student’s name was prominently displayed, and everyone laughed.
For over a month, many of us have expressed our concern about the inevitability of this kind of violence towards our students. This is what Milo is known for, and this is where the framing of “free speech” and “academic diversity” has been, to some of us, quite hollow, or, to be more generous, extremely complex in its very concrete implications for the safety of our students.
Immediately following the event, Chancellor Mone released an email to the entire campus, where he expressed that “I will not stand silently by when a member of our campus community is personally and wrongly attacked.” He goes on to say that “I am disappointed that this speaker chose to attack a transgender student.” But this is what Milo does! This is how made a name for himself with the shitfest known as Gamergate. This is why he was kicked off of Twitter! This is what he does in his insidiously amoral stand-up comedically clever campus tour.
How does Chancellor Mone’s refusal to “stand silently” translate into anything other than a vague “disappointment” that Milo did such a heinous and harmful thing to a specific person, while broadcast live to a massive national audience known for a propensity towards vicious trolling and specific harassment?
The student in question sent out a blistering email to multiple faculty and staff after reading Chancellor Mone’s statement. It is long. It is scathing, It is angry and hurt and dismayed and weary and fed up. It is unedited except for the redacting of her name. It is worth reading.
Chancellor Mark Mone
GO FUCK YOURSELF.
I am the trans student that was attacked and your email is nothing short of insulting. I wasn’t going to write this email at first, even after Milo attacked me, but then I saw your email and I’m SO FUCKING SICK of your goddamn lip service. Seriously go fuck yourself.
Your email? I don’t even know where to begin. Also, I don’t care if you feel “offended” or “harassed”. Welcome to my life. Sue me. I’d be more than happy to defend my free speech in court (since this is what you call it apparently) to lambast your ass for being an ungodly, fucking pathetic “ally.” And quite frankly I don’t care who the fuck reads this email (as you can tell by the CC) or what people think of me. I’m aware of where this email can end up. So be it. My “give a fuck card” was thrown out the window a long time ago. I’m going to write about you and YOUR fucked-up bullshit.
Your words: “I also will not stand silently by when a member of our campus community is personally and wrongly attacked.” That is probably the biggest piece of goddamn fucking bullshit I’ve ever read. What exactly do you plan to do? OH YEAH, NOTHING, BECAUSE YOU’RE A COWARDLY PIECE OF SHIT. Your “not standing silently” apparently consists of a single email mass-sent to the university. That’s it. You don’t get a fucking cookie for that. What else were you going to go? NOTHING. You were planning on doing jack shit.
Did you even attempt to reach out to me? NOPE. Not even an email, nothing. Instead it was supposed to suffice to just send a nice little bit of polished hogwash to the general campus. Is that right? Were you trying to head off student protests calling for you to be sacked or something? You’d like nothing better than for this to just blow over. Seriously what the hell ARE you even doing right now? You say you’re not standing by silently? BULL-FUCKING-SHIT YOU POMPOUS ASSHOLE. YES YOU ARE.
Don’t act like you didn’t know this would happen. You knew goddamn well it would. I lost track of how many people pointed this out to you. And what the hell did you do when students tried to organize and deliver a petition to cancel Milo’s event? YOU FUCKING CALLED THE COPS ON THEM. LIKE WHAT IN THE LIVING FUCK. Your asshole level is off the charts, especially because you feign concern about this with one hand while backhanding all of us with the other. Because there’s nothing like the threat of state violence to keep people in line.
Seriously, you FUCKING CALLED THE GODDAMN POLICE on students at your office who were raising extremely valid concerns about Milo, you forcibly threw students out, and then you want to turn around and act like you didn’t see this coming? How fucking naïve do you think we are?
This also isn’t just a case of a speaker going off an a tangent like that, like some random occurrence. It was not a case where you had no way of knowing he would do this. Quite the contrary: Milo has a supremely extensive, highly-documented track record of doing precisely this. As I’ve already said, YOU KNEW THIS WOULD HAPPEN. WE TOLD YOU IT WOULD. AND WE TOLD YOU AGAIN. AND AGAIN. But you brushed this off under “muh free speech” bullshit.
Do tell me, if someone invited a fucking modern Hitler to campus, would you allow that? Because that’s what your bullshit argument says. How about David Duke of the KKK, can we invite him? Or how about Andrew Anglin, the self-proclaimed Nazi who runs the Daily Stormer website? (Yes, he is an actual Nazi. That is not hyperbole.) Can we invite him? Genuine question. You’ve already allowed a fascist on campus, so can we invite a full-fledged Nazi? Are there no bounds? Maybe we should invite a radical who advocates burning down Chapman Hall, because speakers like that can be found (and no, me typing that sentence is not a threat to destroy property. “Words don’t hurt anyone” as the fascist you defended last night would say.)
Free speech does not cover harassment, and that’s exactly what Milo did to me. But hey, do email about hashtagging #UWMstandstogether as if that fucking accomplishes anything. Damn, you fucking liberals really drive me up the wall. Now you can spend all of 10 seconds making some half-assed tweet, give it a cute hashtag, and go about your day feeling like you did something. NO. YOU DON’T GET CREDIT FOR THAT. YOU ACCOMPLISHED NOTHING. You’re as embarrassing as the people who wear a safety pin and think that counts as being an ally—patting yourself on the back for a job well done—all while you stand silent as fascists attack your students. Some ally. Or making a hashtag that virtually nobody in the city will see, and which will do abso-fucking-lutely nothing. Good grief…UWM “stands together”…as you fucking call the police on students who tried to petition you…as you divide and attack marginalized students while saying you want unity…as you allow a fascist to use “free speech” as an pretense to harass and attack. The amount of doublethink here is just incredible.
And we’re supposed to respond with positive messages, not anger? WHAT FUCKING WORLD DO YOU LIVE IN. Do you have any idea how much fucking privilege you have to even BEGIN saying something like that? WHAT. THE. FUCK. You do NOT get to dictate how we feel. You do NOT get to tell us what our emotions should be. Oh but okay, here’s a positive message: Nobody died! WOO-FUCKING-HOO! Positivity! Go Panthers!
Fuck no. I am done getting repeatedly abused and shit on, and expected to just take it and not be angry. But don’t worry, I’m not angry. I’m way, way beyond that. I am SO FUCKING DONE having to justify my humanity to shitheads like you all the fucking time. Angry bitches get shit done. You say to not respond with “anger”…goddamn you haven’t the slightest fucking clue what pervasive marginalization is like.
Do you even know what Milo said about me? Do you, asshole? Here, I’ll type a bit out for you, because I highly doubt you actually know what that fascist said about me from his podium in front of hundreds of people (and live-streamed on Breitbart in front of thousands):
>>> Context: Milo just finished mocking feminists who critique the very harmful phrase ‘man up’ <<<
Milo: “I’ll tell you one UW-Milwaukee student that does not need to man up, and that is (Student’s name).”
>>> Milo puts an image of me, taken from last spring when I was earlier in my transition and appeared significantly more masculine, on the main screen<<<
Milo: “Do you know about (Student’s Name)? Have any of you come into contact with this person? This quote unquote nonbinary trans—you’re not laughing now, are you, you know him—this quote unquote nonbinary trans woman forced his way into the women’s locker rooms this year. Who knows about this story, any of you?”
>>>Milo looks around, people laugh<<<
“I see you don’t even read your own student media. He got into the women’s room the way liberals always operate, using the government and the courts to weasel their way where they don’t belong. In this case he made a Title IX complaint. Title IX is a set of rules to protect women on campus effectively. It’s couched in the language of equality, but it’s really about women, which under normal circumstances would be fine except for how it’s implemented. Now it is used to put men in to women’s bathrooms. I have known some passing trannies in my life. Trannies—you’re not allowed to say that. I’ve known some passing trannies, which is to say transgender people who pass as the gender they would like to be considered.”
>>> Milo directs the audience’s attention to the image of me.<<<
>>>Audience laughs. <<<
Milo: “The way that you know he’s failing is I’d almost still bang him.”
>>> Audience begins laughing a lot, keeps laughing <<<
Milo: “It’s just…it’s just a man in a dress, isn’t it? I should reapply my lipstick…”
And all you can say is you’re “disappointed” he attacked me? Disappointed? Are you fucking kidding me? How about ENRAGED or INFURIATED. What the fuck is this use of disappointed? Tranny is the equivalent of faggot, and you’re disappointed? Really? REALLY? YOU FUCKING THINK???? Goddamn. Oh but you condemn it. Okay, that forgives everything. Not.
You: “I would not deprive students or our community of opportunities to hear diverse viewpoints.”
Translation: I would never deprive students of the ability to collectively harass and verbally assault another student, because it’s “free speech.”
I was at Milo’s event. You have NO FUCKING IDEA what that was like. NO. FUCKING. IDEA. I knew this event would bring out all the worst people on campus, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me. Standing in line was bad enough. Luckily at this point in my life, I look substantially more feminine than I did last spring (when almost everybody perceived me as a “boy in girls’ clothes”), and I’m correctly gendered as a woman probably 90%+ of the time now. Anyway I’m in line waiting, and in front of me two dudes are making hateful comments about trans folk. Yet 10 minutes after that, one of them was looking at my chest and checking me out. In my mind the only thing I’m thinking is, “If this person knew he was sexually attracted to a trans girl…holy shit…” because asshole boys like him tend to get extremely aggressive if they realize a girl they found attractive has a penis.
But that was still bearable and I was prepared in case they realized I’m trans (thankfully they didn’t). I also knew Milo was going to regurgitate a profound amount of racist and transphobic hate. What I did not anticipate was being specifically targeted and called out in the way he did. I hadn’t said anything or made even the slightest disruption: He had his harassment of me planned out well in advance. I’m sitting there and I hear him say “(my name” and I just froze up. I have never, ever, ever been more terrified in my life of being outed. Ever. He put my picture up, which as already stated, was taken from a prior period when my masculine features were significantly more sharp and extremely noticeable. And I am sitting there frozen in total terror that somebody around me would recognize me, point me out, and incite the mob of the room against me. Nobody did point me out, thank god. But do you have ANY idea how much power Milo had and how it feels to pray that your ability to “pass” doesn’t fail you now? That’s what it was like. Fuck, you can’t even appreciate what I’m writing. You say you do but you really don’t. You do NOT have this perspective. I was looking at the stage, consciously aware of trying to not look “suspicious” and reveal I was the person he was talking about (even as I could feel the color draining from my face), but also not looking at Milo directly ‘lest he recognize me and instantly set off dozens of people screaming at me.
I was trapped in fear and went numb. Completely numb. I felt nothing. I was having a severe, emotional, traumatic response to being fucking called out and directly targeted by this transphobic asshole in front of thousands of people, and my body’s main coping mechanism for severe stress is to shut down all emotions. I couldn’t even cry, and that’s probably a good thing because it would’ve outed me. Even after the event, I still felt nothing and was “fine.” It wasn’t until hours later, as my body began to process it, that I broke down sobbing uncontrollably. I can handle transphobia (you’re basically forced to as a trans girl) but Milo went way the fuck beyond that in what he did to me.
Do you have any fucking idea how hurtful this is? Do you know what it’s like to be in a room full of people who are laughing at you as if you’re some sort of perverted freak, and how many of them would have hollered at me (or worse) if I was outed? Do you know what this kind of terror is? No, you don’t, because as a cis person you do not understand. Sorry-not-sorry, but you don’t and you can’t. You don’t understand how misgendering is violence. Yes, VIOLENCE. And did you miss the part where Milo was talking about having sex with me? Aka shoving his dick up my ass, and joking about applying lipstick to seduce me. How the fuck is this acceptable? This is both gender and sexual harassment. What court upholds this as free speech? Answer: NOBODY. THIS WAS SPECIFICALLY TARGETED AT ME. WHAT FUCKING COURT HAS EVER UPHELD THIS SORT OF HARASSMENT DIRECTED SPECIFICALLY AGAINST A STUDENT AS “FREE SPEECH”? Just wait, now an apologist for fascists will find one lonely example, amidst a plethora that protect students from harassment.
If you actually cared about students, you would have blocked this student org from bringing Milo here, and had they fought it in court you would have battled back and prevailed. The difference here is Milo harasses specific people and incites violence against them. That is not protected, and other universities have successfully blocked him because of that. But you’re too busy kissing the ass of trans-hating republicans running the state and letting fascists attack whomever they want.
But whatever, let Milo joke about fucking me (up the ass). Who gives a fuck about sexual violence. It’s not like I’ve been raped or anything before (actually, I have). Universities regularly push that under the rug in order to protect their sorry-ass reputations. I sure as hell wouldn’t put that past UWM either. And Milo is the Dangerous Faggot after all. Let him repeatedly commit violence against me by erasing my identity and painting me as some sort of male sex predator preying on women in the bathroom. Because who cares if a student is slandered? WHO THE FUCK CARES ABOUT THOSE GODDAMN CODDLED STUDENTS? Who cares if they get harassed?
Perhaps this might be an explanation you can somewhat, partially understand on what it’s like to be misgendered and how this is violence, Mark Mone: Pretend you go to a restaurant to order a meal, and when you arrive, you’re given a gendered greeting of, “Hello woman, how may I take your order?” After placing your order, “Thank you ma’am, that will be such and such.” Then when you receive your order, “Oh hey, did you know you’re STILL not a man? Because you’re not. Oh and here’s your food, thank you!” And whenever anybody interacts with you, you’re called she all day, every fucking day. Imagine a similar scene again an hour later at the gas station. Now imagine it CONSTANTLY happening, on a DAILY basis, every week of the year, EVERY GODDAMN YEAR OF YOUR LIFE. You get to a point where it really, really severely fucks with you. The endless invalidation and relentless attack.
Oh who the fuck am I kidding. Why am I bothering even trying to explain what it’s like? It completely escapes your mind the very real violence Milo intentionally committed against me by calling me a man over and over in the name of “free speech” and slandering me as a sex predator.
You will also never know what it’s like wanting to die every day, you don’t know what it’s like attempting suicide multiple times, you don’t know what it’s like looking down 20 stories to a concrete ground and being an inch away from plummeting to death, you don’t know what it’s like putting your neck on a railroad track, only to chicken out right before the train got there and cursing yourself for not going through with it, (to your fucking bullshit police, no I am not suicidal right now but you fucks will try and twist past-tense into present. you pretentious assholes), you don’t know what it’s like to look in the mirror every goddamn morning and see a face you don’t recognize, YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT IT’S LIKE GOING THROUGH PUBERTY FOR THE WRONG FUCKING GENDER. THIS IS A HELL YOU CANNOT, AND WILL NOT, AND ARE UTTERLY FUCKING INCAPABLE OF UNDERSTANDING. And then being denied medical access for years and years and years. Do NOT have the audacity and gall to say you “understand” our concerns. NO YOU DO NOT. You don’t know what it’s like being in poverty and unable to pay for physical transitions, and locked in the wrong body. You have NO FUCKING CLUE what it’s like to be in our shoes and having to pretend everything is fine and dandy. And then to have the university defend a speaker that targets you by name and puts up a masculine-looking picture of you to laugh at…regardless if I had been there in person (sitting in terror) or hiding in my home, HOLY FUCKING SHIT. FUCK YOU. JUST FUCK YOU.
Honest to god, if any student said or did that to me, it would be a complete and total violation of university policy on harassment. NO student could say those things and get away with it. NOBODY. BECAUSE FOR THE 100TH FUCKING TIME, HARASSMENT AND VERBALLY ASSAULTING PEOPLE IS NOT FREE SPEECH. But if they bring in an outside speaker who does THE SAME EXACT FUCKING THING, then apparently it’s okay because “free speech.” Seriously, do you not comprehend how contradictory and fucked-up your logic is?
Can I bring in a speaker who goes on a tirade and personally insults, attacks, and makes crude sexual jokes about a student in the Turning Point USA org? And then do it again for the next student, until every student in that organization is thoroughly trashed? Is that free speech?
NO YOU ASSHOLE, IT IS NOT. HARASSMENT IS NOT FREE SPEECH. AND YOU FUCKING KNEW MILO WOULD DO THIS. WE TOLD YOU. YOU REFUSED TO LISTEN.
But you know what, I’m not done ranting against your transphobic ass yet. I’d like to tell anybody who is still reading this email the other bullshit going on in this hellhole. You have rung me around ever since last January with your locker room bullshit. You do realize there are trans and intersex people on campus who 100% avoid the locker room and Klotsche Center because YOU still insist on policing their body parts? And yes, I say YOU personally because YOU approve of the unpublished “interim policy” that does just this and still forbids any nonconforming body part from being exposed for so much as a second. This is where you’re truly a transphobic ass. You are no ally. If a transgender man changes clothing in the men’s locker room, and someone sees his breast, YOU would seek to punish the trans man for the so-called “crime” of changing his clothes. Nevermind how totally fucking inverted this reasoning is.
And you won’t commit to putting a locker room policy on paper either, so instead you have something that’s transphobic as fuck yet only verbal, making it harder to track and challenge. You’re taking ZERO leadership on this and are instead stalling for time, waiting for the issue to be forced and decided in the courts. Yet you’re “proud” of the work the LGBT resource center does? Goddamn if that’s the case (it’s not; you’re a transphobic asshole), then either be an actual trans-inclusive leader or get the fuck out of the way.
I knew when I went public last spring with all the transphobic bullshit YOU were putting me through that trolls would pick up on it. I was ready for that. But what I’m NOT going to gloss over is your contemptible pandering to trans and intersex folk, and your fucking self-righteous email and related bullshit you put forth claiming to stand with marginalized people like me. NO YOU DO NOT.
Your administration never wanted to allow me and other trans and intersex folk locker room access in the first place. You fucks originally tried to force me into the men’s locker room (which ironically, I couldn’t change clothing in there right now either because I have breasts…or are you so incredibly transphobic you don’t recognize that my breast development is indeed female breasts? I can’t change clothing anywhere under your goddamn policy unless I run off and lock myself in a stall), or to force me into a completely segregated, single-user space that lacked a sauna and pool access. It was only—and I repeat, only—because your attorneys advised you that you had to allow access that you ever let me back in to the locker room after originally banning me. And even then, you insisted I follow special restrictions (which by the way, I long, long, long ago disregarded. You’re in another fucking world if you think I’d submit to that bullshit.) And you continue to marginalize other trans and intersex individuals in locker rooms to this very day. If someone who appears trans wants to use the facility, you’ll have them yanked aside and given a body-shaming lecture where they are told they must always cover up in a locker room…a fucking locker room where undressing is expected…fuck you really are backwards. It’s apparent our bodies will never be acceptable to you.
Besides deliberately and purposely preventing a trans-inclusive locker room policy, your list of shit also includes throwing ALL of your trans and intersex employees under the bus by refusing to fight for their right to have medical procedures and treatment covered by insurance. You are PERFECTLY content with the status quo of denying medical service, as much as you may pretend otherwise. In fact, you recently had a prospective hire walk away from a job offer because they were transgender and you refused to provide medical benefits. But do continue blaming your bullshit on third party “outside of your control” crap and doing meaningless shit to change that.
I can keep listing more things but you know what, just go fuck yourself and in all honestly, drop your T from LGBT. Quit pretending. You do not stand for or represent trans folk and you ignore our needs. Asshole. You are LGB at best and a complete transphobic jerk. I’m done with you. Coming to this university was one of the single-most, worst mistakes I have ever made in my life. At the time you were supposedly ranked 5 stars for LGBTQ+ friendliness and sold me a colossal amount of bullshit to that effect. HA! WHAT A FUCKING JOKE. I really do genuinely regret ever coming here. It was a mistake.
Believe me when I say no matter how much you might dislike (or resent) this email, any pain you feel from what I wrote is but a tiny fraction of the pain I felt, and still feel in my chest and throughout my body, when Milo attacked me, and the pain trans folk feel just for existing in this society. You are so, so incredibly blinded by your privilege and place in society. Fuck you.
Former student at this godforsaken university
Pronouns: They or She, not that you actually give a shit in the greater scheme of things
P.S. To Mark Mone and your cronies: I’m not going to respond to any phone calls, emails, or attempts to have me speak with anyone. I am never returning to your goddamn campus again. Ever. GOODBYE BITCHES. And very specifically to you Mark Mone and other spineless liberal assholes that fully support bringing a fascist speaker to campus who is EXTRAORDINARILY well-known to harass and target specific students: From the bottom of my heart, truly, FUCK YOU.
Overpass Light Brigade invited Margaret Noodin, an Anishinaabe poet, to write a piece about the struggle at Standing Rock for this blog. This is what she has to say:
This poem was written in the midst of the historic show of support for land, water and indigenous life and culture. We all need to raise our voices and be heard. We need to integrate awareness of the rights of nature into our lives, now as we stand with Standing Rock and long after this crisis when the cycles of industrial capitalism continue to place profit before lives.
The poem is written in one of the languages of the Three Fires Confederacy in honor of the members of the Seven Fires Council. The Ojibwe, Dakota and Lakota people have been warriors together for many centuries and this time they are clearly greeting this new dawn together.
The image by the poet’s daughter reminds us there is strength and memory in the stones placed as grave markers beneath the stars and in all the lives who sustain the ecosystem of the prairie.
Aaniin Idamang? How do we speak of this?
Poem by Margaret Noodin
Illustration Shannon Noori