Thursday, March 29, 2012

Narayan Desai in Montgomery

An unusual lunch hour for customarily dormant Montgomerites…

Narayan Desai is the closest we can get to Gandhi today; this is how author and pacifist James W. Douglass introduced the 87-year old student of “The Mahatma.” Desai’s 2,300 page-long biography, My Life is My Message, comprehensively recounts the extraordinary and inspiring life of the Indian leader. Narayan surely had plenty of material to work with for his multi-volume book about Gandhi: Narayan grew up around him and surrounded by his followers. Narayan’s father, Mahadev Desai, was Gandhi’s personal secretary. As a teenager, Narayan was already trusted and well respected by Gandhi to the point that The Mahatma asked him to write a letter to Adolf Hitler. He was part of the Indian liberation movement.
After Mahadev’s death in a British prison and Gandhi’s assassination, Desai committed to spend the rest of his life to the practice and teaching of nonviolence. As one of the leaders of the land grant movement, he walked 12,000 kilometers and between 1952 and 1960 he helped liberate over 3,000 acres of land. He was national secretary of Shanti Sena (or “Peace Army”) and founding director of the World Peace Brigade.
It may sound cliché but Mahadev Desai is a man who emanates wisdom and inner peace.
Accompanied by his daughter, Desai speaks to an audience of mostly women, and, uncommonly enough for Alabama, women of different faith, age, background, and ethnicity. The event, organized by Leadership Montgomery, Open Hearts and Minds, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Montgomery, and Emmanuel Presbyterian Church, is hosted by the recently-opened Cloverdale Playhouse in one of city’s most beautiful neighborhoods. Attendees are seated and have been fed, and they are now ready to hear the guest speaker.

Desai’s presentation, “Living Non-Violently in a Violent World—Gandhi’s Wisdom” takes immediately an exciting turn as Narayan says he’s actually not going to give any speech. He wants, instead, to ask the audience a question. He has stood up by now, and somehow I’m surprised to see how tall he actually is in spite of his old age and the hardship he put his body through in his struggle for a peaceful world.
“Do we really want to live a nonviolent life?” If so, he continues serenely but firmly, one needs to be prepared to make sacrifices. One needs to be ready for a change. If my lifestyle is sustained by a violent system, we need to question that lifestyle and our own nonviolent intentions.

Nonviolence, Desai explains, was a negative term in India before Gandhi. Thanks to him, it became an active force of change in society.
There’s still a debate whether the nonviolent way has worked politically, he says; even if it hasn’t, “the people who lived a nonviolent life,” he asserts, “died with the satisfaction of having lived a honest life.” Then Desai delves into his notion of faith, which it’s twofold: faith “in the goodness of Man,” and faith in the ultimate realization of a peaceful society.

This all makes perfect sense to me, and it seems everyone should agree on something that simple. But then I think of how dissonant this might sound to many Christian ears. “Goodness of Man?” This is not the theology that many Christians, and many Christians in the South, have been taught. Conversely, most Christians have been inculcated this idea that they are inherently bad, actually, because humans are all marked by the original sin.
“Joy comes from goodness and from sharing with others,” Desai adds to my request to expand on his first notion of faith.
His daughter, who sits next to him, translates for him—Desai wears a hearing aid—and he always pauses before answering a question. Make time for reflection. “Reflect, don’t react” was one of Gandhi’s teachings. It was through reflection that he changed his own ideas about nonviolence. In 1982, “I withdrew a campaign because there was violence.” In hindsight, Desai admits he shouldn’t have. He now believes the nonviolent movement should have continued with its peaceful stand. “You see, this notion for me is constantly changing.” He says. “It’s never a static idea.”
“Is physical violence ever justifiable?” Rabbi Elliot Stevens asks from the audience.
No. The magnitude of violence may change (Desai here refers to another question about the situation when one nation is attacked by another), but not its wrongness. The nonviolent way is a total revolution. And so it’s called the center (Institute for Total Revolution) Desai set up in Vedchhi, in the Gujurat State of India, where he teaches nonviolence and the Gandhian way of life.
A woman asks Desai about the motivation for his visit to Montgomery. She mentions Martin Luther King Jr., and the fact that he himself had studied Gandhi. Desai kenw King and his wife Coretta; they were his guests in India. 
Desai pauses a little longer before answering. “It’s a pilgrimage for me,” he begins.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

14th Annual Vigil for Victims of Hate and Violence

On a cold and windy Sunday afternoon, after driving by the Montgomery Capitol and there being redirected to the Union Station Train Shed, I stand at one end of a semicircle of probably 60 people near an improvised stage.
It’s Feb. 19, and the LGBT community remembers Billy Jack Gaither and all the victims of hate crimes. Representative Patricia Todd, Alabama’s first openly gay elected state official, reminds the audience that Alabama still doesn’t recognized crimes committed against gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender individuals as hate crimes. In October 2009, President Obama signed the law that made a federal crime to assault individuals because of their sexual orientation. The Hate Crimes Prevention Act includes crimes committed because of sexual orientation or identity, but the Alabama code only addresses race, color, religion, national origin, ethnicity, and physical or mental disability.
A train rolls noisily by, as Todd, chair of Equality Alabama and associate director of AIDS Alabama, talks about the Hate Crime Bill she hopes to see pass this year; the bill, among its other aims, seeks to protect veterans too, in order to make it easier for conservative state representatives to swallow the pill. In Alabama, being gay is still considered by many a choice, if not something “unnatural,” or just plain wrong.
Sam Wolfe, a civil rights attorney with the Southern Poverty Center, is next to take the stage. He is visibly nervous, and struggles to keep his notes on the lectern in the cold wind. Wolfe describes in detail how Billy Jack Gaither was brutally murdered at age 39 on the night of Feb. 19, 1999. His killer, Steven Mullins, had met Gaither at a bar in Sylacauga, in Talladega County; it was “the queer stuff” Billy Jack began to talk about that triggered Mullins’ homicidal plan. Mullins lured him into taking a ride with his friend, Charles Monroe Butler.The three of them drove to a remote location in the woods, and there Mullins slit Gaither’s throat and then beat him to death. Mullins and Butler were sentenced to life in prison without parole; yet, Gaither’s murder has not yet been recognized as a hate crime.
Even after his death, Billy Jack’s father denied that his son was a gay man, Wolfe says. Billy Jack hadn’t come out. He was too afraid of disappointing his family. Billy himself had conflicting feelings about his sexual orientation due to his religious beliefs, according to his sister Kathy. He had been engaged more than once, in his attempt to be accepted by his family. Kathy, who is gay herself, had come to terms with her own sexual orientation, but she claims Billy never did.
Wolfe has been pivotal in launching SPLC’s LGTB Rights Project, which focuses primarily on ensuring safety for LGTB students in schools across the Southeast.
The freight trains continue passing by, inevitably loud, but not loud enough to drown out the shaky yet strong voice of 16 year-old Sarah Couvillon. Last year, Sarah wore a T-shirt that read: “Gay? Fine by Me.”  Hoover High School officials thought that was against the school rules and one of them, as Sarah recounts to the audience, equated that to wearing a pro-marijuana T-shirt. They claimed to be concerned “for her safety”; conversely, they chose not to grant Sarah her Constitutional right to free speech and, ultimately, to be who she is: a gay adolescent.
According to a recent study by the Gay,Lesbian & Straight Education Network, nine out of 10 LGBT students experience harassment in school. When positively supported by the staff, LGTB students contribute to “a range of positive indicators including fewer reports of missing school, fewer reports of feeling unsafe, greater academic achievement, higher educational aspirations, and a great sense of school belonging.”
As a straight individual, only occasionally I feel addressed by the speakers; yet, it’s enough for me to look around as the made-up of the audience speaks for itself.  Most attendees are longtime supporters of the cause, as this is their cause. However, next to me are Rev. Bob Graetz and his wife Jeannie, active participants in this 21st century battle for equal rights. The Graetzes were among the not so many Whites who actively participated in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and many other civil rights actions to follow. Their home in Montgomery was bombed once in the middle of the night when one of their children was only 9-month old: fortunately, it was just a big shock, but the message was clear. Some didn’t like what they were doing; they were considered “traitors to the white race.” Yet, their contribution to civil rights movement, as the one of other Whites, has been crucially important in the struggle of African Americans for justice and equality.
The Graetzes would be the first ones to tell you how essential it is to create alliances and work together towards the realization of Martin Luther King Jr’s “beloved community” beyond the strictures of identity politics. This is even more relevant in Alabama where social separation and inequality persist.

Friday, September 30, 2011

A lesson not quite learned

Montgomery, Ala.—It is sadly ironic that the same day a federal judge upholds major sections of the Alabama immigration law—the most restrictive in the nation—the state also receives an ‘A’ on its educational work in teaching civil rights history.

It’s ironic because this comes at a time when the most retrogressive forces in Alabama claim a victory, although it is unclear to me against whom.

U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn did block some provisions of HB 56, including, as the Montgomery Advertiser reports, “one that makes it a crime to willfully harbor or conceal aliens and another that makes it a crime for undocumented aliens to work in the state.” HB 56 goes now into effect and makes it legal, among other things, to detain somebody if there is “reasonable suspicion” that that person is in the country without proper documentation. It also requires schools to collect information on the immigration status of students.

Called by Gov. Robert Bentley "the strongest immigration law in our country," this piece of legislation has officially become Alabama’s badge of honor.

But the governor has something else to be proud of these days: the just released Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education 2011 reports that Alabama receives excellent grading when it comes to the instruction of civil rights history. Specifically, according to the Alabama Course of Study (2004) for social studies cited in the SPLC study, seventh graders studying civics are required to “describe examples of conflict, cooperation, and interdependence of groups, societies, and nations, using past and current events.” (30) This suggested activity, we read in the report, is intended to trace “the political and social impact of the modern civil rights movement from 1954 to the present, including Alabama’s role” (30).

So at age 13, students of the state should be able to make connections with other histories and movements, past and present, associated with the universal struggle for civil rights.

The lesson of the civil rights movement, or so I thought and learned during my schooling in Italy, was one of tolerance and solidarity. To me, it was about bringing about our humanity. Our best side. African Americans were the protagonists of that struggle, but its lessons could be extended to other fights for social justice in the United States as well as elsewhere. It was a message that resonated in South Africa were a few, enlightened individuals coalesced around the charismatic leader Nelson Mandela (in prison from 1963 until 1990) and built a movement that eventually led to the end of the apartheid; but it was a message also taken up by César Chávez in this country in the struggle to improve farm workers’ conditions. In the last few years of his suddenly interrupted existence, Martin Luther King Jr. himself expanded his message of racial justice to include the fight against social inequality and poverty in America.

So I thought, foolish me, that the most powerful, enduring message of the civil rights movement had to do with bringing our humanity into policymaking: fighting to eradicate poverty, not rewarding the wealthiest for ‘creating jobs’ or the financial gurus of the world ‘to save our economy from collapsing’.

America 2011: nearly one in six lives in poverty, according to the most recent US Census. And the Pew Hispanic Center reports that there are over six million Hispanic children living in poverty. The current economic recession seems to have hit the Latino community the hardest: their kids are now the largest group of children living below the poverty line in the US.

We can argue until the end of times what we mean by federal authority over immigration matters and the extent to which states should act upon the Immigration and Nationality Act. And it seems that, after all, the Supreme Court will have a final word on the constitutionality of anti-immigration state laws. All parties agree that the nation is in dire need of a comprehensive immigration reform; in the last few years, the federal government has been actually working through the Department of Homeland Security to combat illegal immigration at the local and state level. For instance, several states have by now implemented 287 (g) programs that authorize the federal government to enter into agreements with state authorities and allow local police to cross-designate officers to enforce immigration law. A similar agreement, launched in October 2008, is Secure Communities, which detects non citizens that are in custody of the law enforcement. Not only are their fingerprints run through federal criminal databases, but now they are also checked against DHS immigration databases. Immigration and Custom Enforcement can now deport a non citizen as a result of this operation. As of June 2011, Secure Communities was active in 1,400 jurisdictions, as the National Immigration Forum reports.

Both programs are intended to identify aliens who have committed crimes in this country. However, as a result, these initiatives, as well as the Arizona law and its copycats (including HB 56), have ended up criminalizing all immigrants who lack proper documentation. The immediate result of that is, for the fiscally conservatives, diverting resources: ICE shifted its target from actual criminals and terrorism suspects to “ordinary status violators” with the result of criminalizing the latter while reducing the pressure on drug and human smugglers. In Alabama, law enforcement has already complained about the implications of HB 56 for counties already in distress due to the devastation brought by the tornadoes in April.

In a state where the undocumented population is on the rise, yet it is still quite small—the Hispanic Pew Center estimates it to be around 2.5 percent (and 4.2 percent of the labor force)—I wonder whether policymaking efforts should be elsewhere directed. As the Anniston Star suggests, should the fact that more than a million adult Alabamians are functionally illiterate (25% of the state population) receive more attention from Alabama legislators?

What we shouldn’t argue about any longer, in light of the legacy of the civil rights movement, is whether legislators should pursue more humane policies.

In a state where communities are highly gentrified and social separation is palpable, it is easy to pontificate about the respect of the law when the law seems not to be about you, your family and your next-door neighbor.

“This law was never designed to hurt fellow human beings,” Bentley declared after the ruling. “As a physician, I would never ask a sick person if she was legal or illegal. But as governor of this state, it is my sworn duty to uphold this state's laws, and that is what I intend to do."

Apparently Bentley adjusts his ethical values depending on whether he complies with the Hippocrates Oath or the Alabama law. Fact is, this governor failed to set high expectations when it comes to bringing tolerance and solidarity into policymaking on day one. It was Martin Luther King’s Day and I was at the Dexter Church when Bentley, after he had just been sworn in, declared from the pulpit that he was ‘colorblind’ and only ‘brother’ to Christians.

Fifty-eight percent of the 11.2 millions of undocumented immigrants present in the US, as estimated by the Pew Hispanic Center, are Mexican.

Now “getting in line” is not really an option for immigrants coming from high immigration countries like Mexico. Moreover, only 5,000 green cards are available annually for less-skilled workers.

An option, however, is to jump on a train, then cross the Sonoran desert, risk your life and the ones of the children with you and hope that one day you won’t have to regret putting your own children through such a hazardous adventure.

An option is to believe that in America their children will have a better life, as they know that back home they wouldn’t.

As a teacher, I well know that giving a student a grade depends on how the rest of the class is doing. One student's grade is thus relative to the performances of the other classmates. In this regard, the results of the SPLC study are troublesome at best. According to the report, the majority of the states ‘fail’ when it comes to teaching about the civil rights movement. And the study states that a “GRADE A means Alabama includes at least 60% of the recommended content and sets higher expectations for its students than other states.” (30) But if Alabama, which just passed the most extreme anti-immigration bill in the country, gets an ‘A’ in civil rights education, then what exactly have we as a society learned about civil rights?

Perhaps we need to wait for a more enlightened generation of Alabamians to see a change in how we understand and act upon the lessons of the civil rights movement.

Friday, April 8, 2011

¡Viva México!

The Alabama House voted yes to the anti-immigration bill sponsored by Representative Micky Hammon, R-Decatur on Tuesday. The proposed legislation mimics Arizona’s SB 1070 and plays on xenophobic feelings recently further fostered by the economic downturn.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, the state counts only 3.2% persons of Hispanic or Latino origin (vs. 15.8% in the US). The presence of Latinos in Alabama has grown exponentially in the last few years, and the official data admittedly don’t reveal the actual numbers of Hispanics who lack proper documentation to live in the United States. However, the economic recession has affected the immigration flows as well since all potential workers have been having a hard time finding jobs.

Critics of the legislation question its economic rationale and some also point to the further governmental intrusion into people’s lives (what about small government?) As in Arizona, the main concern regards indeed racial profiling. SB 1070 is in court at the moment and its constitutionality has been questioned.

Likewise, the Alabama Senate will have to vote on the law; if approved, Governor Bentley will have to sign it; then, a similar procedure awaits the piece of legislation in court.

On Thursday, I volunteered at the Church of the Ascension in the Garden District of Montgomery. Hundreds of Mexican citizens have flooded the low corridors of the church this week.

The Mexican consulate of Atlanta set up a mobile outpost at the Church in order to provide consular registration and passports to Mexican nationals residing in Alabama. As Pamela Long, coordinator of the International Studies Program at AUM and Hispanic Minister at the Church of the Ascension reports: in the past two years, the Church of the Ascension has hosted this event three times—each time about 800 to 1000 documents were issued.

On my volunteer shift on Thursday, my task was handing “lapiceros” (Mexican Spanish for “pens”) to the ones who need it: a $1 donation was requested. Funny thing was that most of the people thought I was taking offerings for the church and kept throwing bills in my little wicker basket. I had to turn them down.

Best part about the whole experience was looking at the small children walking up and down the aisles: the most beautiful ninos in Alabama! They are, also, the future of this state and of the country—projections are saying that Latinos will be the new majority by 2040.

Representative Hammon wants “to discourage illegal immigrants from coming to Alabama and prevent those who are here from putting down roots.” Attempts to criminalize Mexicans and other foreigners are vicious and, in Alabama, even economically un-sound. Several advocate groups protested in front of the Alabama State House in early March. That didn’t prevent the bill to get passed in the House. If Alabama intends to get rid of the stigma that has stained its historical past in terms of civil and human rights, it cannot allow this bill to go any further.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Alabama 2011 – New Governor is Color Blind

Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I have come to think, re-centers me, especially since I moved to Montgomery, Ala. The holiday is a day dedicated to service to others but also is meant to recommit to what we do in our daily lives. What I do is teaching students about the media. Specifically, I like to think that I teach them how to read, criticize, use and often resist media manipulation. In a word, to become ‘medialiterate.’ I also teach public speaking and human communication to students who are not majoring in the field. The ability to appropriately and effectively communicate in public is considered a powerful tool and one that politicians should be able to use to better convey their messages.

So I thought about my students today while I was sitting in the Dexter Avenue Church. I attended the service that the Bobby Jackson and the World Heritage Organization have been sponsoring for 36 years. As I was handed the program, I was pleased to see that Governor Robert Bentley was to speak also, right after he was sworn in, perhaps four hundred feet away, in front of the State Capitol, surrounded by the local political intelligentsia. Sure, I wanted to hear what this retired dermatologist had to say to the people who had gathered to commemorate the life and legacy of Martin Luther King. After all, he had admirably promised during his gubernatorial campaign not to draw his $121,000 annual paycheck until he reached his goal of lowering the unemployment rate (currently at 9%) to 5.2%. Not an easy task, according to the forecasts for recovery of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama (“Bentley's salary hinges on him keeping jobs promise,” by Philip Rawls - January 17, 2011, Montgomery Advertiser).

“The teleprompter went off,” Gov. Bentley said, referring to the inaugural speech he just delivered. He had just begun with his remarks. People in the audience laughed. A nice attention grabber after all. But then, becoming aware of his audience, and of the occasion, Gov. Bentley right out of the gate announced himself to be color blind. To further prove his point, he produced an anecdote telling of a time when, asked how many African American patients he had had in the many years of his practice, he answered he wouldn’t know. Obviously he didn’t notice that he was in a church full of Black people. He didn’t even notice, when he told the audience that it’s not easy to trust a Republican governor. (Would he have said that in front of a bunch of wealthy White folks?) So Gov. Bentley may have done a bit of audience analysis there; yet the governor’s beliefs emerged strongly when he had to retrieve to a trope like the “I don’t see no color” in order to supposedly appeal to a “different” audience.

The reactions were timid and almost impromptu (or so it seemed) was Bentley’s attempt to further appeal to his audience, which, he assumed, was made up solely of Christians; in fact, he said that if they were Christian (“they have been saved,” “were filled with the Holy Spirit” as he put it, perhaps galvanized by his standing behind a pulpit), then they were his brothers and sisters, and prompted whomever wasn’t (Christian) to become one. Bentley-the deacon and Sunday school teacher for over thirty years in Tuscaloosa wanted them to be his brothers and sisters, he remarked, as to show the extent of his Christian love. This conditional love and equality (this blind, yet equalizing love, at one condition) he offered to the audience as well as his attempt to show he’s no racist, speaks volume of his reactionary beliefs and, I hope to be disproved, his future policies.

Gov. Bentley said he visited Martin Luther King’s office downstairs from the sanctuary; when asked if he wanted to sit in his chair, he refused. I’m glad he did. As I’m glad he said Dr. King was one of the greatest men has ever lived in the United States and in the world. What the governor didn’t say was that his message, regardless of the importance of his presence at Dexter today, is quite different from the one of Dr. King. And I’m afraid no improvement in communication skills or public speaking will make it better.

Unfortunately, Gov. Bentley’s strain of Christianity admits only the saved ones in the graces of the Lord—and for all that matters, in the land of Alabama. This was not the message of Dr. King who was accepting of people of all races and religions. Dr. King was fighting for economic equality before he got shot. He wanted to eliminate poverty in the United States. He dreamed a dream that resonated since then throughout the entire world, still speaks to peoples of different upbringings and walks of life because of its universal message of peace, tolerance and solidarity. Dr. King rejected violence; like the vicious ones of the many killings and lynching and assassinations (too many) that occurred all over the South up until the 1990s (too recent), most of which are still, to this day, unsolved. Those martyrs who are remembered at the Civil Rights Memorial on Washington.

I understand that a message of unity is important for Alabamians; as an outsider, I want to believe that many people of goodwill have tried to heal social scars, perhaps through reconciliatory politics. Bentley said he will be the governor of all Alabamians. I doubt you can do that in a state where social inequality is so tangible.

I hope Gov. Bentley won’t forget the children of his state, their health and education. I hope he will be reminded, instead, that counties are different in Alabama and that different communities have different needs. Some definitely more urgent than others. They are not all the same as the governor suggested today, and his attention to them shouldn’t be equal. Because, as Dr. King wrote from a jail in Birmingham in 1963, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” So it won’t be by protecting the privileges of the few (chosen Christians) that we’re making this state and the world a safer place.

As his first public appearance as Governor, Bentley did anything but impress me. The Black woman who was sitting next to me in church asked me if I could email her the pictures of the governor (she had forgotten her camera, she said), even offered me money for the photo. I hope Gov. Bentley won’t disappoint her too much after all.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

CIW’s Modern-day Slavery Museum visits Montgomery

"I THINK there's a typo here." The woman is pointing to the date in the caption: 1996. On display, there's a dirty, bloody shirt that visibly holds a poignant significance. The shirt belongs to a 17-year-old Guatemalan farmworker; he was beaten because he asked for water. Twice. The crew leader thought he deserved a lesson.

No, there's no typo. The incident occurred in Immokalee, and contrary to what the woman thinks, Immokalee is in the United States.

Fourteen years have passed since the incident, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has been able to significantly change the culture that dominated in the Florida fields up to the 1990s, where the growers and their supervisors acted with impunity.

The week before Thanksgiving, the CIW's traveling Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum visited Montgomery, Ala.--once capital of the Confederate States of America, later fulcrum of the civil rights movement.

After touring the state of Florida and the Northeast, the CIW's museum--whose exhibits are mostly hosted in a large cargo container, a replica of the one used to keep workers captive overnight in a recently uncovered slavery operation--embarked on a journey through the Deep South. The tour initially took off in October, but the truck's engine broke down in Tallahassee, and several dates had to be rescheduled.

The Florida Modern-Day Slavery Museum finally arrived at Auburn University in Montgomery (AUM) on November 17. AUM students, faculty and staff had the opportunity to talk to CIW and Student/Farmworker Alliance representatives. The day after, the truck was parked in downtown Montgomery, at the Court Square, which once served as a location for the slave trade.

The museum visitors were engaged in a type of conversation that Alabamians rarely have: about power structures, corporations' accountability and workers' rights. Even in academic settings, these issues are hardly ever discussed, and when they are, they often find either a hostile or a skeptical audience, imbued with beliefs and attitudes that have been articulated by religious discourses in such a way that these topics have been either cut off from the conversation or highly demonized and labeled as anti-American, communist and the like.

As a result, it was to the museum visitors' surprise to find that slavery still exists today in the fields of Florida and the Southeast. Now it's called "modern-day slavery," but the name alteration doesn't reflect a substantial change in the basic definition of what slavery is: the condition of not being free.

What has changed is the fact that the ones who practice slavery today need to hide it; they need to make it invisible. Only the state (with the aid of more and more private contractors...) is allowed to decide upon the deprivation of liberty of its residing members (citizens and, to a certain extent, noncitizens with detention centers) and the termination of one's life (with the death penalty) in a rather socially accepted and rarely questioned way.

After the Emancipation Proclamation, Southern farmers and forest industry firms had to find alternatives to the once large populations of available free labor. Then, the convict-lease system was created, and labor exploitation in the fields went on. It's worth noting that "Florida and Alabama were the last states to abolish their county lease systems in 1923," as we read in the CIW's companion to the exhibit.

Farmworkers--on the East Coast, poor whites and African Americans--began to follow the harvest to make a living. They were paid meager wages for their labor and lived a life of misery, with little hope that their children would be able to have a better future, as Ed Murrow documented in his 1960s Harvest of Shame, a CBS report on the plight of the migrant workers.

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WHAT THE CIW's exhibit does is inform its visitors about lesser-known histories; as Douglas A. Blackmon's book Slavery By Another Name (2008) shows, the exploitation of African Americans continued well beyond the legal abolishment of slavery.

In addition, as Blacks moved up north and relocated to urban areas, new subaltern groups (primarily from Mexico and the Caribbean in the Southeast) were exploited through the establishment of guest worker programs that were intended to supply a cheap and submissive workforce to the agricultural industry. The Bracero program between Mexico and the U.S. was finally terminated in 1964 due to the many abuses perpetrated against the participating workers.

For U.S. growers, the creation of Labor Importation Program and the successive guest worker programs was doubly profitable: domestic workers were no longer able to negotiate their wages up, and foreign workers could be easily repatriated and replaced. As a result, a more domesticated agricultural labor force was created, and the exploitation in the fields continued.

Guest worker programs are divided today into the H-2A agricultural program and H-2B non-agricultural program. As the Southern Poverty Law Center's report Close to Slavery (2007) illustrates, lack of employer's accountability, little enforcement of labor and human rights, and, ultimately, lack of awareness of the existing legal protections available to temporary unskilled workers make foreign labor force easily exploitable.

Migrant workers have no or little ability to enforce their rights, and abuses of power are the norm. As a result, slavery still occurs in agriculture as in other sectors of the national economy (forestry, landscaping, meatpacking, seafood processing and construction), and exploitative conditions are the norm. The situation is particularly harsh for women who need to deal with near constant sexual harassment in the workplace.

When undocumented, workers are even more vulnerable and apt to be exploited by cruel employers. Over the years, the twisted logic of maximizing profit at any cost has led all the major players in the food chain to cut labor costs to the point that in Florida, farmworkers still earn an average of 45 cents per bushel of tomatoes, a rate that has not risen much since the late 1970s.

However, things are about to change for the better. In the last 15 years, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has raised awareness around issues of labor exploitation and human rights in the fields, mobilized college students and religious communities across the country, and pressured other thousands of consumers to call fast-food chains and now supermarkets to task.

It's a winning strategy--on November 14, the Florida Tomato Growers Exchange (FTGE) signed a historic agreement with the CIW. The accord ends a 15-year old obstructionist stance of an organization that represents over 90 percent of the state's farmers. Perhaps it's a sign of the beginning of new times for U.S. agriculture.

As did several other high-ranked representatives of corporations, FTGE Vice President Reggie Brown went from saying that the CIW's methods are "un-American" to agreeing to implement the organization's proposed Code of Conduct.

So the FTGE eventually came around. In February, the organization lifted its sanctions against growers who decided to comply with the "penny-per-pound" tomato program. At the height of the Burger King campaign (in November 2007), the FTGE had threatened to fine up to $100,000 any member that agreed to pay the pickers one cent more per pound, and thus comply with agreements signed with Taco Bell and McDonald's.

The FTGE then launched a New Social Responsibility Program. But it didn't meet the Coalition's standards since it totally lacked worker participation.

According to the newly signed agreement, participating farms will implement the Fair Food Code of Conduct, which also enables the CIW to educate workers about their rights and tomato pickers to express concerns over safety and working conditions without fear of retaliation. FTGE member farms "will pass through the penny-per-pound from participating purchasers and cooperate with a financial audit of the penny-per-pound funds," according to a joint press release from the two organizations [2].

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SO, YES, slavery still exists in the United States. What doesn't is the awareness of it, especially in certain areas of the country. Here in the Deep South, people think of slavery, and the past yet vivid reality of the African American experience comes to mind. Most whites don't want to be reminded of that, and Blacks prefer not to talk about it in the company of whites. It's a taboo issue: religion and politics combined. Both groups, however, are largely unaware of its contemporary manifestations, victims and its very existence in this country.

Around here, conservatives (read the vast majority of the population regardless of their party affiliation) attribute to Latino immigrants a series of stereotypes based on little statistical or logical support (they don't pay taxes, they take American jobs,they don't want to learn English, etc., etc.)--without acknowledging (but I should say knowing) how U.S. policies expediently created a demand for foreign labor to meet the requests of big growers, and, more recently, contributed to the rise of immigration flows from Central America by signing the 1994's NAFTA agreements.

Most Latino farmworkers today are economic refugees; too many are here because the land they or their families once owned had been confiscated in their country of origins and made available to corporations for large-scale agriculture. Instead of committing suicide in mass numbers like in India, they decide to migrate to better provide for their families.

In fact, what's rarely discussed in the public discourses is that illegal labor serves the interests of corporations and big companies: it helps to hold down wages for the U.S. labor force in ways resembling how convict-leasing was once depressing wages for free workers. Right-wing talk about "illegal immigration" resorts to scapegoating practices intended to divert public attention to from real problems the country and the rest of the world are facing.

The Federation for American Immigration Reform--which pompously promoted itself as FAIR, deploying a strategy not so different from the "Fair and Balanced" slogan of Fox News--is now supporting a restrictionist approach to immigration known as "attrition through enforcement." Following the logic of Arizona's SB 1070, the approach is intended to make the lives of Latinos in the U.S. nearly impossible.

Such as a solution to the problem is based on a culture of suspicion that disregards people's humanity and accepts the bottom line as a guide for one's daily conduct. A recent National Public Radio report showed how a behind-the-scenes effort to help pass the law was pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a nonprofit member organization of state legislators and other private big companies.

According to the NPR report, one of ALEC's longtime members, the Corrections Corporation of America, practically lobbied to pass the legislation, which would clearly benefit the private prison industry by creating opportunities to build more correction facilities for "illegal aliens" in the state of Arizona and wherever else a similar legislation was passed--so far, similar bills have been introduced in five states.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers has done a remarkable job of fighting the logic of profit by promoting a culture of solidarity. Its recent victory and efforts to redress the public understanding and history of slavery and labor exploitation in the Southeast are inspiring and should remind us all that, yes, we might have a long way to go, but change is still possible.