It is Thursday, November 9, 2017 in Janesville, WI, and it is very cold outside. Buses holding over one hundred students from the advocacy group, Youth Empowered in the Struggle (YES) arrive in quick succession at Jefferson Park, just a few short blocks away from Representative Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) home. The students gather, talk among themselves, move to keep warm, grab banners and signs. A group of twelve also hold OLB letters spelling out “DREAM ACT NOW!” The staging is done quickly in order to avoid notice from local law enforcement, since no permits have been pulled. The group masses, makes its way towards Ryan’s house, chanting “Here to Stay!” and “Ryan! Escuche! Estamos en la Luche!” The students are here to stay, and are engaged in the struggle to be treated fairly and humanely.
“Where’s our sanctuary, Rep. Ryan?” That is the question these young people, who have come from around the state to arrive unannounced on this cold night, are asking. They have exhausted every effort to meet with Rep. Ryan, and he has consistently dodged every attempt. They want him to cosponsor a Clean Dream Act that would provide protections for students, similar to many of them, who are registered under the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrival program, or “DACA.” President Trump has thrown the program’s future in limbo, and students are petitioning Ryan to use his influential position as Speaker of the House to pass new legislation that protects previous promises. Public opinion rests firmly with the students, as highlighted by a September Washington Post Poll that found 86 percent of respondents in favor of allowing Dreamers the focus of their dreams: to stay in the country which has been the only home they know. But why isn’t Paul Ryan listening? If he doesn’t respect their need for sanctuary, perhaps they should disrupt his, even for a short time!
Four Secret Service agents are parked outside the house. The light panels spelling “DREAM ACT NOW!” are planted in front, and the students gather to rally. A bullhorn is passed around, and several speakers begin to give testimony about the uncertainty, insecurity and brutality of the current situation, how losing DACA status would have such a detrimental effect on them and their families. A 15 year old Racine Park High School Student, Wendy Cruz, takes the bullhorn. She spoke of a meeting that she had with Representation Ryan five years ago in DC, after the trauma of watching her uncle get arrested and deported. She saw it firsthand. She was hiding with her brother in the closet. At the time of the DC meeting, Ryan seemed to be visibly moved by her personal story. According to Wendy, he made a promise to her and her family that he would “support the Dream Act.” That was five years ago. The promise has been broken, and Wendy and these young YES activists are bringing their struggle directly to Ryan’s doorstep.
Can you hear us now, Paul Ryan?
“Ryan! Escuche! Estamos in la Luche!” echoes through the Janesville streets, through the cold Wisconsin night, a darkness lit by DIY signs and the dreams of the Dreamers, hoping for the promise of a secure place in the heart of their only home.
Light Brigade actions take on their meaning from the context of people and places. The Overpass Light Brigade – San Diego continues to create vivid and powerful visual messages at the nation’s southern border, on local overpasses, and recently by adding to a famous Bruce Nauman piece of public art on the UCSD campus, which illuminates one of seven virtues or vices, alternating through words like “Justice” or “Anger” every few seconds. OLB-SD tried to capture one virtue or vice at a time, in order to project their own additional phrases by using a theatrical spotlight and “gobos,” which are stencils that fit on the light unit in order to form the image. Though more limited than a high-lumen digital projector, this piece of gear is affordable and powerful, albeit a bit unwieldy. It is a favorite tool of Seattle’s Backbone Campaign, and is often used in conjunction with other nighttime actions, such as light panels and other forms of projection. As a field unit, it requires a power inverter and a marine battery, but once set up it can throw a crisp stencil at an impressive scale.
We love to see creative protests taking messages into the streets. This one seems particularly striking in its parasitic relationship to a pre-existing piece. The Nauman neon temporarily takes on a specificity that was not originally intended. That specificity, in light of our current horror at the upsurge of neo-nazi sentiments and rightwing duplicity in the absolute corruption of our governing forces, is an important reminder of our resistance. After the action, the public art piece returns to its more ambient, humanist intention, though it is changed forever for those who saw it in place, or its resonant replication through photography and social media.
From San Diego to New York to Aukland, The Light Brigade Network continues to do great work in the world. Be creative, be bold, be smart but be safe as you continue to #FightWithLight!
We at OLB discussed the writing of a small reaction piece to the dreadful massacre in Las Vegas. We balked, feeling numb to the anger, fear and violence of our times in the USA. “What is there to say,” we asked, “that hasn’t been said over and over hundreds of times?” But it has been eating at us all week, this numbness that we feel about the frequency of such violent acts, their interconnection with access to military style weaponry, and the intractable nature of our legislature regarding even common sense gun control measures. Background checks? Be real! Semi-automatic retrofits readily available on the web so you can jack your lethal weapon with caffeinated trigger twitch? DIY culture, baby! Bans on assault-style weapons? Not in my America! Armor piercing bullets? Of course, what is a gun without unlimited ammunition! This fear and hysteria is fostered by the armament industry’s lobby megaphone, the NRA. They suggest that even a slight curb on unlimited weaponry is a slippery slope to a dystopic future where only some ill defined power will have the use of force, and our well-armed militias, living locally, will be powerless and impotent against such dark forces of chaos and tyranny.
But the fact is, there is a relationship between gun ownership and gun violence. This is well established. The NRA is a Death Cult, and we are all being held hostage. More guns in a community leads to more homicide. Period. In the USA, there are more than 11,200 gun homicides a year. Since Sandy Hook alone, there have been more than 1,300 mass shootings. Do we have the will to fight the NRA, and push against the duplicity of the totally purchased GOP, in order to demand responsible legislation regarding assault style weapons?
The NRA wants us to believe that somehow saturating the world with guns makes it a more peaceful and safe place. There is no data to suggest this, only the wild fantasies of a scared, angry and violent people. We at OLB aren’t against gun ownership. Hunting and marksmanship are honorable activities when done with care and respect. We are against the easily available antipersonnel weaponry that saturates America. Semi-automatic retrofits and “legal” hacks essentially give military capability to the kook next door. This isn’t sane!
So we cycle through yet another round of sanctimony, impotent prayers for the victims, vigils such as the many that we have conducted for Slaughters of the Innocents nearby and faraway. We are confronted by smug patriarchs who tell us that “now is not the time to talk about legislation,” and by deeply cynical politicians who somehow try to convince us that “it is inappropriate to politicize such tragedy.” We are corrected on our loose understanding of jargon (is that really a semi-automatic?) or our sloppy understanding of complex law (background checks in gun stores, but not gun shows? Would you like your open carry with or without license, sir?) and mostly we are told, directly or implicitly, to just shut up and move along. Nothing to see here folks, other than bullets raining down like Kansas hail on a peaceful and joyful crowd at a country music concert, while another “lone wolf” redefines animal behavior.
And that brings us back to silence. Another week, another mass shooting. 1,300 since murdered children at Sandy Hook. Death Cult NRA. Death Cult GOP. Death Cult America. Duck and cover. The next attack is coming soon to a neighborhood near you.
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.