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Peace Meal Supper Club #20: Maroon

Peace Meal Supper Club #20: Maroon visits communities that most of us never knew existed. For over 200 years, men, women, and children escaped American slavery and established alternative societies in the Southern wilderness. Known as maroons, these resilient and creative individuals were feared and celebrated from the early 17th century to well after the Civil War—even if public acknowledgement of their existence was withheld. Together, they redefined their lives, defied the system which brought them to America, and built a culture of freedom and self-determination along the borders of American plantation society.

David Edward Cronin, Great Dismal Swamp Fugitive Slaves, 1888
David Edward Cronin, Great Dismal Swamp Fugitive Slaves, 1888

Their commitment to personal freedom—to not be subject to white control—required fearlessness, resourcefulness, and the ability to navigate unknown geographies and languages. After being abducted in their homeland, held in barracoons for weeks or months, stacked in ships to make the Middle Passage, all the while subject to whipping, branding, shackling, starvation, brutality and humiliation, their resolve to control their own persons overshadowed any fear.

Some escaped on the day they were unloaded at the dock. Others fled after laboring for years. Leaving a plantation was no light undertaking, and was often prompted by the sale of a family member, a severe punishment, having reached one’s limit, or having completed years of preparation. The inhumanity of slavery was so intense that it was better, in the opinion of the maroons, to take one’s chances in the wilderness with its unknown terrain, flora, and fauna.

Porte Crayon, “Osman,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, September 1856
Porte Crayon, “Osman,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, September 1856

Their existence is a powerful rebuke of forced labor and the American slavery system. Or as anthropologist Dan Sayers says, “These people performed a critique of a brutal capitalistic enslavement system, and they rejected it completely. They risked everything to live in a more just and equitable way, and they were successful for ten generations.”[1]

A few key characteristics set maroons apart from “runaways.”[2] “Runaways” often had one of two goals in mind: temporary relief from harsh treatment, after which they would return to the plantation; or finding their way to a non-slave territory in the North. In either case, “runaway” usually indicates a temporary condition.

A maroon, on the other hand, was pursuing permanent freedom from a slaveholder while remaining in slave territory. It’s a startling pursuit—to be free but live among the enemy. Successful maroon colonies existed in Suriname, Brazil, and other regions of the Americas. Some were strong enough to go to war with their oppressors and win. But in the American south, they were a scattered population with a tenuous grip on freedom.

Graduate student Karl Austin and archaeologist Dan Sayers carefully remove soil in tiny increments to reveal traces of a cabin used by escaped slaves in the Great Dismal Swamp. (Marion Blackburn)
Graduate student Karl Austin and archaeologist Dan Sayers carefully remove soil in tiny increments to reveal traces of a cabin used by escaped slaves in the Great Dismal Swamp.
(Marion Blackburn)

There are no exact figures on American marronage, just as there are none for “runaways,” successful Underground Railroad passengers, or the enslaved population as a whole. A chief characteristic of a maroon was his or her ability to stay undetected, so an accurate figure is unlikely. Sayers, who conducts archaeological excavations within the Great Dismal Swamp estimates the population there to have fluctuated between 30 to 40 individuals at a time, over a span of 250 years. There were significant settlements in the Carolinas and in Louisiana, while thousands of individuals were going it alone throughout the South.

Slavery's Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons, Sylviane A. Diouf
Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of the American Maroons, Sylviane A. Diouf

As for why a person chose marronage over the Underground Railroad or flight into Spanish Florida, the primary reason, according to historian Sylvanie A. Diouf, appears to be family.[3] They desired close, if intermittent and risky, contact with a spouse or child or parent. For displaced Africans, “to have been uprooted and separated from family was an immense, unfathomable loss; it tore apart the very core of their self-identification as human beings, because to be human was first and foremost to be part of the social fabric.”[4]

The maroon’s life was one of shadows. They hid in plain sight, often just outside the plantation’s border. Some built platforms in dense trees, others found shelter in caverns, and many dug habitations underground—an enterprise that often took days, and had to be done without anyone noticing that the ground had been disturbed. They screened their shelters—be they cave, cavern, or tree—so skillfully that most went undetected for years, even those within plantation boundaries.

Maroons often settled in regions which were unsuitable for agriculture, such as the Great Dismal Swamp. (Photo by Allison Shelley for Smithsonian Magazine)
Maroons often settled in regions which were unsuitable for agriculture, such as the Great Dismal Swamp. (Photo by Allison Shelley for Smithsonian Magazine)

Living on or near the plantation grounds offered more frequent interaction with family, but came with enormous risk. For greater security and increased freedom, some maroons ventured into the hinterlands. They built homes in the wilderness between plantations, in thickets, swamps, or mountainous regions that didn’t yield easily to agriculture. A few remote settlements held a dozen to fifty inhabitants, their populations fluctuating as hunts, abductions, and accidental discovery happened all around them.

Interviews of over 2000 formerly enslaved men and women conducted by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s provide windows into their lives: Maroons stayed underground during the daytime; visited family members at night; obtained sustenance from forest gardens, enslaved friends, the plantation kitchen or smokehouse; and established friendly relationships with the dogs who would be used to hunt them.

To maintain their freedom among incessant risk, maroons developed warning systems, obtained arms from complicit freedmen and whites, and formed communication networks which included enslaved blacks, supportive whites, sympathetic Native Americans, and marginalized laborers of every ethnicity. They were a society whose existence was founded on trust and loyalty—and there were many weak spots in this bulwark.

Along with communication networks, maroons established an extensive alternate economy. Goods flowed between plantations, woodlands, and city businesses, with maroons trading by night and even in open daylight. Diouf writes, “Instead of bartering in the woods or on plantation grounds furtively at night, some maroons traded openly in the cities. Seven men, four women, and five children, who escaped from Charleston and lived in the woods near The Oaks plantation—their former homeplace—were probably some of the most adept at doing business in an overt manner. ‘They are not only supported by the people of the adjoining plantations,’ complained their owners, who received reports of numerous sightings, ‘but pick black moss, make baskets, and take them to the City in boats through Wappoo Cut.’”[5] Making several trips into the city per day, they sold their goods to shopkeepers. This income allowed them to purchase food and other supplies to support their independence.

The possibilities of licit income were few, but maroons exploited the channels that were open to them. Some gathered wood in the forests around New Orleans, then sold it to steamships as firewood. Others traded with poor whites, bringing them foraged berries or plantation corn in exchange for fabric or clothing.[6] Still others hired themselves out to dig canals or to fell forests.

“Maroons were a cheap source of labor,” writes Diouf, “and their illegal status made them vulnerable and thus unlikely to complain; but by engaging in illicit dealings the employers also exposed themselves to opprobrium and reprisals if discovered. The deal between both parties rested on the most improbable trust…The arrangement, mutually beneficial, is an apt illustration of the maroons’ pragmatism, entrepreneurship, and self-confidence as they diversified their activities and widened their networks—in a potentially perilous manner—in order to preserve their independence.”[7]

In an ironic twist, some maroons hired themselves out to plantation owners, supplying cheap labor for lumber milling, shingle production, and dam building.[8] Plantation owners and urban businessmen alike bought fish and oysters from the best fishermen in South Carolina—the maroons.[9]

Poster advertising a sale of human beings, Hempstead County, Arkansas, 1850s.
Poster advertising a sale of human beings, Hempstead County, Arkansas, 1850s.

Some maroons thrived in this underground lifestyle and shadow economy. Others, however, suffered their way through it, never able to get enough food or goods to make their lives sustainable. Subject to exposure, hunger, malnutrition, lack of sunlight, and injury without medical attention, many returned to plantation life. But there were also many who chose slow death over resubmitting to white control.

For the maroons who returned to plantation life, the punishments could be severe. Accounts tell of people receiving hundreds of lashes, leaving some on the brink of death. Branding on the face, cutting of the ears, castration, and severing the Achilles tendon were, at one time or another, legal punishments. Severe whippings were the most common, designed for not only pain but humiliation, breaking of one’s spirit, and terrorizing other would-be maroons. “Pickled whippings” were frequently administered: a woman or man would be whipped until their backs were stripped of skin, then doused in brine, red pepper, vinegar, or turpentine. At times, punishments were even more extreme.[10]

Thomas Jefferson's advertisement, seeking Sandy, a runaway. The Virginia Gazette, Williamsburg, September 14, 1769.
Thomas Jefferson’s advertisement, seeking Sandy, a runaway. The Virginia Gazette, Williamsburg, September 14, 1769.

As maroons, people often found themselves hunted by planters, police, and hired professionals. Almost all hunts involved dogs. Advertisements, posted in papers and on city boards, gave detailed descriptions of a man or woman, requesting that any sighting be reported. Catawba trackers were often employed, as were citizen vigilantes. In a foreshadowing of the Labor Wars of the 1800s, state militia were often called out to help a plantation owner recover, dead or alive, his lost “property.”

Richard Ansdell, The Hunted Slave, 1861
Richard Ansdell, The Hunted Slave, 1861

While a majority of maroons were captured or returned voluntarily, the armed hunts were not always successful. Maroons’ very existence shamed planters, but their ability to evade capture made planters furious: it attacked the myth of white superiority. Diouf states, “They were a daily reminder that slavers could not exercise absolute control on either the people in the woods or those in bondage who aided and abetted them. Cunning and smart, one step ahead of the men and women who set the dogs after them, the maroons were Br’er Rabbit who outsmarted the strong and the powerful. Their feats ridiculed slaveholders…who had proved incapable of finding a man, a mother with children, or a family of ten living two miles from their own bedrooms. Even more, they fed them their hogs, their chickens, and their corn. And because it was largely based on the active help and silent support of the enslaved community, the maroons’ success, even when limited, was everyone’s accomplishment.”[11]

Propaganda such as this was circulated to foment panic in the population. “Murder of Mr. Grimshaw, Mr. Town, and An Overseer by the Fugitive Negro ‘Tom,’ in Big Cypress Swamp, Plaquimine Parish, Louisiana. Desperate Conduct and Escape of the Murderer,” New York Illustrated News, July 15, 1861: 172. Courtesy of American Antiquarian Society, Worcester.
Propaganda such as this was circulated to foment panic in the population. “Murder of Mr. Grimshaw, Mr. Town, and An Overseer by the Fugitive Negro ‘Tom,’ in Big Cypress Swamp, Plaquimine Parish, Louisiana. Desperate Conduct and Escape of the Murderer,” New York Illustrated News, July 15, 1861: 172. Courtesy of American Antiquarian Society, Worcester.

To stifle this empowering message, planters, magistrates, governors, and other influential whites relied on public propaganda designed to generate mass panic. Maroons were routinely characterized as violent insurrectionists who invaded farms and small towns, raped women, burned houses, killed indiscriminately, and plotted overthrow of the government. Perhaps their greatest crime, however, was that they no longer showed the submissiveness required of them. This act alone made them criminals as a class of people.

Frontispiece, David Walker, Walker’s Appeal, with a Brief Sketch of His Life (New York: J. H. Tobitt, 1848). Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-105530.
Frontispiece to Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles; Together with a Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World, but in Particular, and Very Expressly, to Those of the United States of America, Written in Boston, State of Massachusetts, September 28, 1829

Along with the propaganda campaigns, Southern authorities banned radical literature from the North—such as David Walker’s 1829 Walker’s Appeal, in Four Articles, a landmark abolitionist document. Spies infiltrated the maroons’ communication networks, and all freed blacks were required to carry, at all times, documents attesting to their freedom. In the late 1840s, both enslaved and free laborers in the Dismal Swamp were registered in official logs, with their physical characteristics—age, complexion, height, unique features—described in detail. If found without their ID card, they were subject to fines, imprisonment, and whippings.[12]

It is not difficult to see the similarities to our own times, not only regarding public paranoia about immigrants and people of color. The United States has a centuries-long tradition of abusing its workers: Native American and African slaves, Chinese coolies,[13] miners and factory workers, braceros, the prison population, present-day H-2A card holders, and countless undocumented workers across the country. Industry and government have colluded against the workers through strike-breaking, union-busting, passing legislation with generous loopholes, and persistent refusal to raise the minimum wage. All the while, the workers are vilified as lazy, rebellious, ungrateful, rapists, murderers, gang leaders, insurrectionists, drug-dealers, and un-American.

The maroons—even the recaptured and surrendered—subverted the American model. Their existence not only condemned the institution of slavery, but questioned the morality of the political economy. A system that requires the sacrifice of workers—especially those who have been abducted—is a system that must be dismantled.

Romanticized propaganda from the North: Twelve illustrated cards present the journey of a slave from plantation life to the struggle for liberty, for which he gives his life, as a Union soldier during the Civil War. The messaging is overt, particularly in the last card, wherein the freed slave has died for white liberty. (Artists: James Fuller Queen and Henry Louis Stephens; 1860s)
Romanticized propaganda from the North: Twelve illustrated cards present the journey of a slave from plantation life to the struggle for liberty, for which he gives his life, as a Union soldier during the Civil War. The messaging is overt, particularly in the last card, wherein the freed slave has died for white liberty. (Artists: James Fuller Queen and Henry Louis Stephens; 1860s)

“Within the larger narrative of slave resistance, maroons offered a unique experiment. They created and exposed to whites and blacks an alternative to life in bondage, an alternative to free life in a slave society, and an alternative to free life in a free state. Whatever the immediate cause of their marronage, they opted to exile themselves from a despotic, discriminatory society. Their removal to the wilds was not only a denunciation of the social and political order of the land but more profoundly a radical ideological and very concrete rupture that left no place for compromise,” offers Sylvanie Diouf.[14]

Some maroons retained their freedom right until the end of the Civil War. They left their caves, trees, caverns, and other makeshift dwellings to walk freely in the countryside and towns. A few, such as those who lived in the Great Dismal Swamp, remained safely isolated, by choice, from white society. In their day the maroons inspired others, as plantation-bound slaves lived vicariously through them or followed them into the forests. Today, they still serve as inspiration. So what will we do?

There is much we can do, in solidarity with those who struggle in the American model. The most impactful economic action is to withdraw our support from oppressive systems. To do this, we must learn to grow, to sew, to cook, to simplify, to restore, to reuse, and to resist. Alternative economies will thrive with our participation, and for our involvement we will get a new window into the world.

As we are marooning the American system, we must fight for the rights of others. Immigrants, refugees, agricultural workers, indigenous peoples, and native cultures worldwide need champions—like you and me.


The menu for Peace Meal Supper Club #20: Maroon is drawn from their experiences, common foods, and interactions between them and civil society.

Course 1—Corn & Potato Chowder, Black Pepper Biscuit—uses common maroon foods to highlight the skill and resourcefulness marronage required. Diouf tells of how the maroons sustained themselves through acquiring goods from nearby plantations. Solo or in small bands, maroons would enter the plantation grounds, approach the various storehouses or even the kitchen, and take the things they needed. Through extreme risk, they were able to sustain themselves until they were able to grow their own foods and make their own clothes. Among the more common food items they procured from the plantations were corn and potatoes.

One significant haul related by Sylviane Diouf: “In Louisiana, three men got away with three shirts, two pairs of pants, one jacket, some money, a petticoat and a woman’s chemise, a sheet, a woolen blanket, three sacks, a bucket, a sifter, half a barrel of rice, a third of a barrel of salt, two pound of meat, some fresh cheese, and five barrels of corn.”

The Black Pepper Biscuits are also significant. To elude hunters with dogs—hunting for men—maroons would put black pepper in their socks. The pungency of the pepper caused the dogs to lose the trail. Bay leaves were also used for this purpose.

Course 2—Field Pea Fritters with Root Relish—is based directly on a preparation enjoyed by maroons. They would mash fresh field peas, form them into rounds, roll them in cornmeal, and fry them. By serving these with Root Relish, I’m including their practice of pickling and fermenting to preserve foods for the winter.

Course 3—Carolina Gold Rice Cakes en Feuille, Smoked Mushrooms, Sauce Filé—is inspired by the underground lives of the maroons. I mean this in a literal sense, as in the caves they built for themselves just outside plantation boundaries. Some dugouts were, in fact, on plantation grounds, yet men, women, and sometimes entire families lived in them without being detected. One key factor was to make the caves invisible, hiding the entrance so thoroughly and deftly that the ground did not appear to be disturbed in any way.

The caves were reinforced for durability, furnished at times, and filled with foods the inhabitants had acquired through their garden, plantation acquisitions, trade, or hunting. Rice was one of the staples of the underground pantry. Maroons were known to take it from plantations, grow it themselves when they had the opportunity, and purchase it with money they had earned. It was ubiquitous. Carolina Gold Rice is an heirloom variety, one of the first plantation rices to be grown in the American southeast—and therefore inextricably linked to slave history. It flourished under African care and skill, which led to expansion in plantation holdings and therefore the need for more manpower. It was a vicious cycle, but their fondness for this rice prompted many maroons to take it with them when they could.

I’ve wrapped the rice in cabbage leaves, which is a technique utilized by the maroons themselves. It’s an old tradition, much like wrapping tamales in corn husks or banana leaves. It’s a direct connection to Western African tradition, although in their homeland they used other leaves besides the Asian/European cabbage.

Finally, this course offers smoked mushrooms, as a nod to another maroon cooking and preservation method; and a sauce based on filé, or sassafras, which once flourished in the swamplands inhabited by maroons.

Course 4—Sweet Potato Quick Bread, Blackberry Jam, and Whisky Molasses Glaze—offers a decadent, grounded, and meaningful exchange. Flour, molasses, and whiskey were often traded or purchased by maroons through their alternative economies. Sweet potatoes were grown as sustenance foods for the winter. The blackberry jam I received from friends, which adds its own elegant relevance.


[1] Richard Grant, “Deep in the Swamps, Archaeologists Are Finding How Fugitive Slaves Kept Their Freedom,” Smithsonian Magazine, September 2016, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/deep-swamps-archaeologists-fugitive-slaves-kept-freedom-180960122/

[2] I use the term “runaway” in quotes to denote its inappropriateness despite its common use. Africans were kidnapped, held through violence, cut off from their native customs and language, taken to a foreign land with an incomprehensible tongue, and forced to submit to others. Leaving this situation hardly makes them runaways. The term has negative connotations, and their actions were anything but negative.

[3] Sylviane A. Diouf, Slavery’s Exiles: The Story of American Maroons, (New York University Press, 2014), 42.

[4] Diouf, 53.

[5] Diouf, 121.

[6] Diouf, 122.

[7] Diouf, 123.

[8] Diouf, 159, 214.

[9] Diouf, 150.

[10] Diouf, 298.

[11] Diouf, 303.

[12] Diouf, 214.

[13] I use this term in its original sense, that is, “laborer.” Like many legitimate terms, it fell into use as an insult, a pejorative which questioned someone’s moral and monetary worth. I use it as an acknowledgement of the strength and courage it takes to be a worker.

[14] Diouf, 309.

Peace Meal Supper Club #19: Camellia

Tea plant (Camellia sinensis) from Köhler's Medicinal Plants, 1897.
Tea plant (Camellia sinensis) from Köhler’s Medicinal Plants, 1897.

Next to water, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world. It did not flow around the world naturally or easily, even though it is an icon of peaceful mindfulness.

Tea’s character is one of communion, meditation, hospitality, and universality. From the bustling cosmopolitan US south, where it is served over ice with cane sugar and a hint of lemon, to Kyoto where it is whipped into a heady froth in an austere, neo-religious ceremony; from treat-laden afternoon tea at Harrod’s in London, to a never-will-I-find-this-again chai bodega on a jungle road outside of Hyderabad, we are all drinking of the same tree. Japanese cultural historian and preservationist Okakura Kakuzo spoke of tea as the “cup of humanity.”

Sage, king, farmer, health advocate, acupuncturist, and tea drinker, Shennong.
Sage, king, farmer, health advocate, acupuncturist, and tea drinker, Shennong.

Camellia sinensis originated in southwestern China, in a region now divided among the provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan, and the country of Burma. Legend has it that Shennong—sage, farmer, inventor, king, health advocate—was meditating as his attendant boiled water for him to drink. Leaves from a nearby tree drifted into the pot, and Shennong loved the color the leaves imparted. He chose to leave them in. The resulting beverage delighted him to no end, and he urged everyone to try it. “Tea gives vigor to the body, contentment to the mind, and determination of purpose,” he later wrote. This was around 2500 BCE.

Men laden with tea, Sichuan Sheng, China, 1908. Photo by Ernest H. Wilson.
Men laden with tea, Sichuan Sheng, China, 1908. Photo by Ernest H. Wilson.

His idea caught on, and tea culture began growing throughout China. During the Song Dynasty, 960 CE to 1279 CE, tea crossed into Tibet, a region too cold for tea cultivation. The Chinese transported tea by foot, hundreds of pounds per man, along a network of roads stretching through Yunnan, Sichuan, Burma, Tibet, and Central China. This collection of roads became known as the Tea Horse Road, one of the earliest international trading networks, similar in scope and importance to the Silk Road, the Grand Trunk Road, and the Inca Road System.

The Tea Horse Road.
The Tea Horse Road.

The two main commodities exchanged over the Tea Horse Road were Chinese tea—the earthy and durable pu’ehr—and Tibetan horses—war horses to be exact. This goods-for-arms exchange allowed the Song emperors to combat nomads as their empire spread northward. This was not the first time commerce was used to finance war—nor will it be the last.

Tea Master Lu Yu.
Tea Master Lu Yu.

Tea’s growth from local health beverage to international commodity was paralleled by its codification as a ritual drink. Lu Yu, revered in tea culture as the first Tea Master, produced the landmark Classic of Tea in the 8th century CE. In it, he gave obsessive directions for water temperature, steeping methods, equipage, along with concise bits of philosophy. He wrote disdainfully about people who “boil tea with green onions, ginger, dates, orange peels, dogwood, and mint. Then, they either keep scooping and pouring the tea back into the pot to mix it as it boils, so that it tastes smoother and does not foam, or they simply scrape off the dregs and foam. This kind of tea is not unlike the swill of drains and ditches, and yet, alas, many people are accustomed to drinking it!” He did, however, approve of adding salt.

Picky but poetic: A snip of Lu Yu's instructions for preparing water for tea.
Picky but poetic: A snip of Lu Yu’s instructions for preparing water for tea.

Our First Course—Pu’ehr and Shiitake Waffle, Adzuki Ragout, Ginger Plum Sauce—honors him obliquely and ironically.

This irony is not without purpose. When speaking of imperialists and indigenous nomads, we must always consider who are the invaders. We must do the same when examining orthodoxy versus free thought. Which will carry us forward into a brighter, more peaceful and progressive future? The state, with its mandates of compliance, canonists who condemn experimentation, or the bands of rebels who value liberty and new ideas?

Standing Rock Water Protectors, 2017.
Standing Rock Water Protectors, 2017.

Our second course provides insight to an answer, by echoing the spirit and esthetic of another important Chinese teacher, the possibly mythical Laotse. The attributed author of the Tao Te Ching, he presented the universe as flowing around obstacles, seeking the lowliest of places, pliable and adept at change. Everything changes, constantly, repetitiously, and the art of life is to adapt. Laotse’s teachings seemed at odds with his contemporaries, the Confucians, who venerated elders, adhered to customary rites, and supported established social orders. Their values, superficially at least, seem absolute. But with the Tao—and with tea—the absolute is relative. Everything changes, everything passes, everything is in a state of becoming—including us.

Many imperfections, yet still beautiful.
Many imperfections, yet still beautiful.

As Chinese emperors struggled to defend and extend their domains, the Tao—disguised as Zen—made its way into Japan. There, in the 9th century CE, it rendezvoused with its old familiar, tea. They formed an infinite mirror of clarity and simplicity, culminating in the ceremonial preparation and presentation of tea known as the Japanese tea ceremony. As with corresponding ceremonies in China, Vietnam, Korea, and other regions, the Japanese tea ceremony is about more than tea, encompassing floral arts, poetry, hospitality, and graceful austerity. It fills empty spaces with humbling simplicity, elevating the performance of service. It is an esthetic unto its own, promoting the concept of wabi sabi, or the acceptance of transience and imperfection. Wabi sabi, like the Tao, is a sense rather than a structure.

The matcha tea used in the Japanese Tea Ceremony.
The matcha tea used in the Japanese Tea Ceremony.

The tea consumed at the climax of the ceremony is matcha, a powdered green tea which is whisked vigorously until it begins to foam. Drinking this strong tea on an empty stomach can cause digestive discomfort, so the ceremony begins with a multi-course meal. The meal, called kaiseki, is a show of hospitality, skill, and good taste, each course illuminating the host’s character. Traditionally, the third course of this meal is a clear soup called wanmori. Often, this soup portrays a landscape or scene from nature, to encourage an appreciation of asymmetry and the beauty of imperfection.

Our Second Course—Sencha Broth with Steamed Sweet Potato, Carrot Flowers, and Nori Confetti—reaches from soil to stars, offering a portrait of the Tao in tea. As we all drink from the same tree, sharing in the cup of humanity, how do we balance progress with imperfection?

Especially when the imperfection weighs so heavily upon humanity. After engaging in vigorous commerce with China during the 17th and 18th centuries, Britain had accumulated substantial trade imbalance. They desired tea, silk, and porcelain wares from the Chinese, who in turn wanted nothing but silver. To get this silver, the British had to deal with the Spanish, who plundered silver from Andean mines. The global economy of the time—as in our time—was multi-national, extractive, and heavily integrated. Inequities were natural and expected. The British economy felt the pinch.

An opium den in Singapore, early 1900s.
An opium den in Singapore, early 1900s.

To resolve their trade imbalance, the British began growing opium in their recently-acquired Indian territories. This opium was then imported clandestinely into China, undermining not only Chinese prohibitions on opium but also the government’s sovereignty. The Chinese found themselves facing widespread addiction and bankruptcy, as silver clinked back into British coffers. Two trade wars followed—known as the Opium Wars (1840s and 1850s)—resulting in unequal treaties, in which China was forced to open its ports, territories, and population to British commerce and influence. As for the British, they ceded nothing. They gained Hong Kong, legalization of the opium trade, and Chinese sanction for human trafficking.

As these wars were raging in the foreground, the British were also working undercover. The Chinese government forbade the export of tea plants, and substantial penalties were exacted against anyone who aided a foreign party in obtaining tea plants or information regarding their propagation. Tea trees, their seeds, and the technology for their propagation were the property of the Chinese government.

Robert Fortune, whose smuggling forays into China devastated the Chinese tea industry--and a good portion of its economy.
Robert Fortune, whose smuggling forays into China devastated the Chinese tea industry–and a good portion of its economy.

The British East India Company, however, were not easily dissuaded. In a daring and damaging multi-year mission, Scottish botanist and plant hunter Robert Fortune travelled illegally throughout China on the Company’s behalf. By posing as a Chinese merchant—his Scottish accent notwithstanding—he procured plants and seeds, shipping them out through various covert means. By the end of his travels in 1851 he had stolen 20,00 tea plants, and was able to persuade a contingent of Chinese tea experts to immigrate to India, which was also forbidden by the Chinese government.

These efforts, coupled with the discovery of wild tea plants in northern India, led to the establishment of the tea industry in Assam, Darjeeling, and other British-controlled regions. In the years since, Assam tea has become a global standard, while Darjeeling tea, with its delicate bouquet and amber elegance has become regarded as the ‘champagne of teas,’ an elite and rare brew.

Darjeeling Tea Estate
Darjeeling Tea Estate

Tea is very sensitive to climate, and these two Indian teas have distinctly different characteristics. Assam is robust, malty, and resilient, while Darjeeling, grown in a wonderfully dense microclimate, is delicate to the point of vulnerability. Darjeeling tea, in fact, might not exist in another 50 years, a casualty of post-modern climate change. What will take its place? What was there before we introduced it?

Course Three—Five Spice Tofu, Forbidden Rice, Darjeeling Gravy, Orange Poppy Stir Fry—attempts to portray a sense of culture clash and turmoil, albeit on the delicious side. With its syncretic profile—Chinese seasonings, Indian tea, and global addictions—it portrays the current global landscape: unequal commerce; subversion of sovereignty; trafficking in drugs, humans, and agricultural products; war for the sake of economy; industrial monoculture; corporate imperialism; climate change; and fleeting elegance.

Is our life itself, much like Darjeeling tea, merely an effervescence?

The Indian state of Assam is the world’s largest tea-growing region, flourishing on the merits of its own varietal, camellia sinensis var. assamica. Woody, brisk, and full-bodied, this tea is one of the most widely-used teas globally. In 1824, this varietal was introduced into Sri Lanka, where it took over plantations which had formerly been dedicated to the likewise-introduced coffee (and cinnamon before that). The Assam varietal also spread through Indonesia, and has spawned a sub-varietal known as camellia sinensis var. cambodiensis, which occupies massive plantations throughout southeastern Asia. Many African and several Middle Eastern countries also produce tea from this stock.

Hand-harvesting in Assam.
Hand-harvesting in Assam.

The cultivation and production of tea is labor intensive, relying on human hands for harvesting and intricate processing. As is the case with other major world commodities—coffee and cacao, to name two—those hands are often underpaid and at times belong to children. We, as beneficiaries of their labor, must consider their welfare in our consumption, just as we must reflect upon the impact we are having on their landscape, waterways, and social conditions. We are in direct communion with them, in every luxurious cup of chai, every refreshing glass of iced tea, and in the decadent final course for this meal.

Equal Exchange's open letter to Twinings Tea, 2014, soliciting their help in keeping standards robust and tea workers safe.
Equal Exchange’s open letter to Twinings Tea, 2014, soliciting their help in keeping standards robust and tea workers safe.

Course Four presents another stylized portrait, one which is much darker thanks to two black teas, Assam and Earl Grey. In this intense dessert—Thai Tea Ice Cream Sandwich with Lemon Ginger Pastry Cream—we sense a sobering and far-reaching elaboration of the Tea Horse Road trade system. We are still exchanging goods, armaments, contraband, humans, and technology in a global network that is mystifyingly complex, unsustainable, and seemingly unchangeable. Our landscape and our humanity readily display the effects.

Course Four also posits a question: Amidst all the excess, have we lost our esthetic? If the object of our desire—in this case, tea—is so thoroughly obscured by accumulated addictions—sugar, wheat, milk (even the non-dairy varieties), and, frankly, luxury—then have we lost our litheness, our elegant ability to flow around obstacles rather than to be trapped by them? Has our clarity surrendered to the clouds?

Or from another angle, perhaps more apropos, we should ask: Has our sense of progress been dulled by our encountering too many obstacles? The institutions we face are monolithic, but even stone can be worn away by a persistent and purposeful stream of intention.

Japanese cultural historian, preservationist, educator, and museum director Okakura Kakuzo. Circa 1906.
Japanese cultural historian, preservationist, educator, and museum director Okakura Kakuzo. Circa 1906.

Peace Meal Supper Club #19: Camellia offers a reminder, an encouragement to refocus, a reification, if you will, of the spirit of tea as proposed by Okakura Kakuzo in The Book of Tea. That is, an “adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence…a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.”

Let’s refresh our cup of humanity and regain our clarity. We are making progress, but there’s still a lot of work to do.

 


Read More, Learn More

The East India Company: The original corporate raidersA fascinating and maddening long read (courtesy of The Guardian) relating the corporate takeover of India by a single British company.

A timeline of tea history, presented by one of the busiest tea auction houses in the world, the Guwahati Tea Auction Centre (GTAC). There’s lots of other good info for those who are addicted to link-clicking!

A few books:

Darjeeling: The Colorful History and Precarious Fate of the World’s Greatest Tea, by Jeff Koehler

The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide, by Mary Lou Heiss and Robert J. Heiss

Tea: A Global History, by Helen Saberi

The Harney & Sons Guide to Tea

And really, read this book: The Book of Tea, by Okakura Kakuzo

Peace Meal Supper Club 17.5: Sanctuary

Landing of John Alden and Mary Chilton, Plymouth Rock, 1620
Landing of John Alden and Mary Chilton, Plymouth Rock, 1620

Peace Meal Supper Club #17.5: Sanctuary is an exploration of identity and definition. From our privileged vantage point, how does the present-day struggle of Syrian refugees look? Do we see a reflection of Central American refugees, who fled civil war in the 1980s? When we remember the Underground Railroad of the 1800s, which carried over 100,000 US slaves to freedom, can we project its success forward, envisioning sanctuary for all? And most importantly, how do we see ourselves in the midst of such unrest?

Nov. 16, 2015. Migrants arrive by a Turkish boat near the village of Skala, on the Greek island of Lesbos. The Turkish boat owner delivered about 150 people to the Greek coast and tried to escape back to Turkey; he was arrested in Turkish waters. Photo by Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
Nov. 16, 2015. Migrants arrive by a Turkish boat near the village of Skala, on the Greek island of Lesbos. Photo by Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Do we see ourselves as human, beyond all limited identifiers? Or do national, religious, social, political, philosophical, and racial definitions fragment our humanity?

In a recently discovered recording from December 7, 1964, Martin Luther King, Jr., declares: “The basic thing about a man is not his specificity, but his fundamentum, not the texture of his hair or the color of his skin, but his eternal dignity and worth…Fleecy locks, and black complexion cannot forfeit nature’s claim; Skin may differ, but affection dwells in black and white the same…were I so tall as to reach the pole, or to grasp the ocean at a span, I must be measured by my soul; the mind is the standard of the man.”

This transcendence of externalities is the living heart of human progress. It’s a golden cord which not only binds us spiritually, but leads us along the arc of the moral universe. It is firmly knotted in Utopia.

Our sublimely human identity has given us Eden’s Garden, Paradise, the Peach Blossom Spring, Shambhala, Avalon, and dreams of the Peaceable Kingdom. This unified pursuit of utopia persistently offers us the most beautiful position: peace, freedom of expression and person, and expansion of humaneness to always include others. But fragmented identities, by nature, are insecure. They fight aggressively for dominance under the banners of superiority, manifest destiny, and imperialism.

Thankfully, humanity’s indomitable spirit urges us to find the means—however subversive, ingenious, and resourceful—to extend hands of compassion. We have set our milestones in global forums, and offered our assent to a canon of international expressions.

For example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the United Nations adopted in 1948. A response to the horrific experiences of World War II, the declaration established specific rights due to all individuals. It strengthened the goal upon which the UN was founded, that of “universal respect for, and observance of, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language, or religion.”

This Visual Guide to 75 Years of Major Refugee Crises might alter your perspective. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/world/historical-migrant-crisis/
This Visual Guide to 75 Years of Major Refugee Crises might alter your perspective. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/world/historical-migrant-crisis/

As refugees of World War II sought safe haven, the UN shepherded the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which declared the rights of people who have been forced out of their homes and homelands by war or other threats. It upheld the duty of all nations to assist. This multilateral document was followed in 1967 by the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which further elaborated the aid due anyone fleeing strife in their homelands. Signatories, which included the United States, bound themselves by international law to provide refuge to anyone fleeing violence at home.

These modern statements connected us with practices in our shared past. Greece, Egypt, medieval England, and the Jews of the Old Testament all took care to take care of the troubled stranger. Their compassion reached over all conflicts to help the innocent victims, declaring that the powerful do indeed have an obligation to the powerless. As we enter 2017, that obligation is larger than it has ever been, for “an unprecedented 65.3 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 21.3 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.”

Who exactly is a refugee? According to the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol, a refugee is a person who “owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”[1]

Many nations are offering safe haven to the world’s displaced, such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Together, they have taken in 4.8 million Syrian refugees. The United States admitted 10,000 Syrian refugees in 2016, increasing its offers of residency only after being pressured by other nations. But refugees are fleeing wars in other countries, as well: Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen, Colombia, and many more. US involvement in global warfare—currently the US is involved in five acknowledged wars and 134 covert ones—greatly overshadows its limited humanitarian aid. It’s enough to make any US citizen wonder about their national, if not personal, identity.

Nationally, it’s complicated terrain, having been an ideological battlefield for generations. But visiting a crisis in our not-so-distant past can help us find a starting place. Its point of origin was Central America’s Northern Triangle—comprising El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala—where the US military first became involved in 1901. What began as militarily-aided corporate takeover of Honduras by American fruit companies evolved into a series of overthrows backed by Eisenhower and led by the CIA. The conflicts escalated in the late 1970s, and by the 1980s the US was arming and financing civil war in El Salvador. This civil war displaced over a million civilians, many of whom fled to the southern US border seeking asylum.

The US Congress, during the final months of the Carter Administration, passed the Refugee Act of 1980, intending to “provide for the effective resettlement of refugees and to assist them to achieve economic self-sufficiency as quickly as possible after arrival in the United States.” The incoming Reagan Administration viewed things differently, however, and labeled the asylum-seekers as economic opportunists and criminals.[2]

Slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero is pictured in an undated file photo. Oscar Arnulfo Romero was born in Ciudad Barrios, El Salvador, in 1917. He was assassinated March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass in the chapel of San Salvador's Hospital of Divine Providence. He was a vigorous defender of the powerless and the poor and a critic of unjust military and government actions during a time of civil unrest in his country. (CNS file photo) (March 7, 2003)
Slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero is pictured in an undated file photo. Oscar Arnulfo Romero was born in Ciudad Barrios, El Salvador, in 1917. He was assassinated March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass in the chapel of San Salvador’s Hospital of Divine Providence. He was a vigorous defender of the powerless and the poor and a critic of unjust military and government actions during a time of civil unrest in his country. (CNS file photo) (March 7, 2003)

In humanitarian response, private citizens opened their doors, and the Sanctuary Movement was born. The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) summarizes its development: “The network of religious congregations that became known as the Sanctuary Movement started with a Presbyterian church and a Quaker meeting in Tucson, Arizona. These two congregations began legal and humanitarian assistance to Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees in 1980…When, after two years, none of the refugees they assisted had been granted political asylum, Rev. John Fife of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson announced—on the anniversary of the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero—that his church would openly defy INS and become a ‘sanctuary’ for Central Americans. The Arizona congregations were soon joined by networks of religious congregations and activists in Northern California, South Texas, and Chicago.”

While in sanctuary, Salvadoran refugees hoped for freedom from harassment due to ethnicity, faith, and gender. They often needed access to medical facilities and legal channels. Mostly, they needed a safe place to wait out the strife at home—which is where they intended to return. They brought with them their stories, of course. As their stories became public, the US Department of Justice responded by initiating criminal prosecutions against two activists in Texas in 1984. This was followed by a 71-count criminal conspiracy indictment against 16 U.S. and Mexican religious activists announced in Arizona in January 1985.

Jim Corbett, who quietly began the Sanctuary Movement in Tucson, AZ.
Jim Corbett, who quietly began the Sanctuary Movement in Tucson, AZ.

“Salvadorans and Guatemalans arrested near the Mexico-U.S. border were herded into crowded detention centers and pressured to agree to ‘voluntarily return’ to their countries of origin. Thousands were deported without ever having the opportunity to receive legal advice or be informed of the possibility of applying for refugee status,” relates MPI. These deportations were a clear violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention.

The reasons for the expulsions soon became apparent. During the Texas trials, US District Judge Earl Carroll barred the defense from mentioning the violent conditions in El Salvador. He knew that to allow such testimony would not only validate the refugees’ status according to international law, it would also expose the violent role the US played in creating the refugees in the first place.

The Sanctuary Movement, in granting venue to the refugees’ stories, fundamentally challenged our view of ourselves. Refugee activists aligned the Sanctuary Movement with other civil rights movements, thereby challenging “not just one immigration law, but a whole pattern of exploitation,” writes Robin Lorentzen in Women in the Sanctuary Movement.[3]

Today, in delivering their news of war, refugees once again cause us to question who we are. For some of us, it is confirming: we are compassionate people, seeking to help those in need. For others, it can be unsettling, and lead to questions of personal and national identity. Some resist the questions altogether, and suppress the impulse to answer them.

Individuals and institutions might struggle with fragmented identities, but transcendent humanity finds its expression. When we, the people, lead with our humanity, we are very good at providing sanctuary—just as we did in the 1940s when 40 million Europeans were displaced. We also performed admirably as our own civil war was raging: the Underground Railroad carried over 100,000 people to safety in the northern US and Canada, in defiance of federal law.

But at times we, as a nation, lead with our politics. Consider, for example, these words from US Senator Pat McCarran of Nevada: “I believe that this nation is the last hope of Western civilization and if this oasis of the world shall be overrun, perverted, contaminated or destroyed, then the last flickering light of humanity will be extinguished. I take no issue with those who would praise the contributions which have been made to our society by people of many races, of varied creeds and colors. However, we have in the United States today hard-core, indigestible blocs which have not become integrated into the American way of life, but which, on the contrary are its deadly enemies. Today, as never before, untold millions are storming our gates for admission and those gates are cracking under the strain. The solution of the problems of Europe and Asia will not come through a transplanting of those problems en masse to the United States.”

McCarran spoke these words in 1953, in defense of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, of which he was co-sponsor. His rhetoric sounds shockingly contemporary.

McCarren’s act aligned with other expressions of broken identity, such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and President Obama’s massive deportation exercises in 2015 and 2016, in which 2.5 million people were deported. In fact, no President in US history deported more people than Obama.

As a contrast, refugee activists of the 1980s embraced our rich, multicultural heritage of providing haven. During the trials in Texas and Arizona, they cited “the Nuremberg principles of personal accountability developed in the post-World War II Nazi tribunals, [and] claimed a legal precedent to justify their violation of U.S. laws against alien smuggling. Other activists claimed that their actions were justified by the religious and moral principles of the 19th-century U.S. abolitionist movement, referring to their activities as a new Underground Railroad. Many U.S. religious leaders involved in the Sanctuary Movement had prior experience in the 1960s civil disobedience campaigns against racial segregation in the American South.”

While McCarran, Obama, and Trump speak of refugees in disparaging terms—rapists, welfare-seekers, gang members, terrorists—others of us see people like ourselves who are fleeing wars funded, armed, and executed by our government. We cannot conscientiously turn them away.

The act of turning away an asylum-seeker is also addressed in our canon of rights documents. As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees states: “The most essential component of refugee status and of asylum is protection against return to a country where a person has reason to fear persecution.”

Escaped African American slaves, when they reached the free northern states or Canada via the Underground Railroad, hoped to stay in those free lands until the conflict was resolved. European refugees during the 1940s—of which there were 40 million—hoped for the same. And the 65 million displaced people in 2017 also carry this hope of finding a safe place to wait out the wars and oppression in their homelands.

The language has been clear since 1951: “No Contracting State shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

This principle, known as non-refoulement has become so widely accepted that even non-member states—those not part of the United Nations, Organization of American States, Organization of African Unity, or other global organizations—readily honor it.

There is one—and only one—exception to non-refoulement. It’s this, found in Article 33(2) of the 1951 Convention: “The benefit of the present provision may not however be claimed by a refugee whom there are reasonable grounds for regarding as a danger to the security of the country in which he is, or who, having been convicted by a final judgment of a particularly serious crime, constitutes a danger to the community of that country.”

This exception, while carrying in its wording a rational approach, is too easily distorted by fear. It allows suspicion, based on a few rather than the whole, to override our humanity. And it establishes an erroneous assumption that refugees are here illegally and seek to do us harm. Perhaps the harm they do is contained in the truths they bring?

With the state of wars in the Middle East, Africa, and yes, still in Central America, refoulement is as unconscionable as sending Jews back into Hitler’s Germany. It’s as horrific as sending escaped African slaves back into Dixie. Now, as in those past ordeals, the US acts behind a curtain of national security. Today’s massive refugee detention centers summon images of the not-so-distant past, as the US relocated  Japanese, German, and Italian Americans into internment camps.

Since I quoted Senator McCarran above, I should give equal time to his opponent on the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act. President Harry S. Truman sought to veto the Act, saying, “Today, we are ‘protecting’ ourselves as we were in 1924, against being flooded by immigrants from Eastern Europe. This is fantastic…We do not need to be protected against immigrants from these countries–on the contrary we want to stretch out a helping hand, to save those who have managed to flee into Western Europe, to succor those who are brave enough to escape from barbarism, to welcome and restore them against the day when their countries will, as we hope, be free again.”

Truman was hardly a hippie peacenik, but he understood our moral responsibility. Quakers, liberation theologians, radical left Catholics, Nobel laureates, and plenty of us rational atheists have pursued paths of compassionate dissent, transforming civil disobedience into civil initiative.[4]

Rabbi Linda Holtzman works for social justice through http://www.tikkunolamchavurah.org/
Rabbi Linda Holtzman works for social justice through http://www.tikkunolamchavurah.org/

The more beautiful option, interestingly enough, is also the most rational: as we cease hostilities—and therefore the production of refugees—we can better assist the diminishing number who would require sanctuary. It’s a lighter burden for everyone. The ultimate solution will indeed be complicated, but we mustn’t delay pursuing peace because it’s hard.

Thankfully, in every conflict there are individuals who are inspired by our greater humanity, even when institutions falter, interfere, and forbid. They work in the spirit of Thoreau, who succinctly and eloquently proposed that “they are lovers of law and order who uphold the law when the government breaks it.”[5]

Or, as present-day immigrant activist Rabbi Linda Holtzman declares, “It is very clear in my community that when we see an unjust law it needs to be disobeyed.”

It’s a tug of war, to put it in combative terms. The progressive end of the rope is firmly anchored in the best of all possible identities. Even if we can’t see the end of it, we can work our way there.

American abolitionist Theodore Parker inspired more than one activist when he said, in 1852: “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.”

 

What can we do?

Work for the Right to Refuse to Kill

Support modern invocations of the Sanctuary Movement:
Every Campus a Refuge
Tikkun Olam Chavurah
Not One More Deportation

Learn more about human rights, personal experiences, and the imperatives of survival:

International Rescue Committee
Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Rights Program
Center for Immigration Studies’ Sanctuary City Maps
American Friends Service Committee “Sanctuary Everywhere” program
Five Facts about Migration from the Northern Triangle
NY Times: Refugee Crisis is Not an Immigration Crisis
“The Imperatives of Survival” 1974 Nobel Lecture by Sean MacBride

Or even consult Shakespeare

And this half-hour PBS segment from Peter Krogh is very enlightening if you have the time.

 

[1] http://www.unhcr.org/protect/PROTECTION/3b66c2aa10.pdf (will launch a PDF)

[2] Miriam Davidson, Convictions of the Heart: Jim Corbett and the Sanctuary Movement, (University of Arizona Press, 1988), 99.

[3] Robin Lorentzen, Women in the Sanctuary Movement, (Temple University Press, 1991), 24.

[4] Davidson, 80.

[5] Davidson, 80.

Peace Meal Supper Club #18: Aperture

”That stranger, as the ghost that shadows every discourse, is the disturbing interrogation, the estrangement, that potentially exists within us all. It is a presence that persists, that cannot be effaced, that draws me out of myself towards another. It is the insistence of the other face that charges my obligation to that ‘strangeness that cannot be suppressed, which means that it is my obligation that cannot be effaced’.”—From Migrancy, Culture, Identity, by Iain Chambers.

A displaced family during the collapse of the 1930s.
A displaced family during the collapse of the 1930s.

What if that ghost, that stranger, looks back at us from a photograph? Does their insistence lose its urgency? Are we still drawn towards them, or do we turn away from the interrogation their presence demands?

With a passion for reform, a corps of American photographers set out in 1935 to frame the insistent faces of America’s rural poor. Their photographs have come to encapsulate the Depression for many of us, as well as the accompanying ecological collapse and the subsequent displacement of thousands of families. Through skillful composition and informed selection, they documented rapidly vanishing lives and devastated landscapes.

Farm Security Administration photographer Arthur Rothstein.
Farm Security Administration photographer Arthur Rothstein.

Working in support of Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda, the photographers of the Farm Security Administration—including Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Arthur Rothstein—hoped to improve conditions for poor farmers and sharecroppers who were further impoverished by the economic depression. Their cameras served as tools to “visualize social facts, to show the truth of what was happening,” unobscured by politics or fantasy.[1]

Their photos of tenant farmers, migrant agricultural workers, families, and children were printed in popular magazines, artistic journals, and news periodicals, as well as displayed in NY galleries. Public response ranged from criticism of the photos’ subjects—dirty children, salacious women, people responsible for their own poverty—to technical assessment of the photographers’ skill sets and aperture choices. The actual people, still struggling to cope with devastation, ceased to exist, having become only objects in the public’s eyes. Their very real and immediate plight had been obscured by spectacle and taste.[2]

Myrna Loy in a bath of flowers, equally as urgent as the devastation of tenant families during the Great Depression. (Photo from the set of the 1933 film, The Barbarian.)
Myrna Loy in a bath of flowers, equally as urgent as the devastation of tenant families during the Great Depression. (Photo from the set of the 1933 film, The Barbarian.)

Nascent mass culture magazines such as LOOK fostered a “stance of surveillance” on the part of the viewer, sandwiching the displaced sharecropper between a Zulu wedding pictorial and a spread of Myrna Loy in a flower-filled bathtub. “Within LOOK’s editorial vision, however, there is no cognitive dissonance here. The ‘savage,’ the sharecropper, and the sexy starlet all merit equal representation and treatment.”[3]

As Cara A. Finnegan notes in her book, Picturing Poverty, the FSA photographers faced a challenge in presenting the poor to the unpoor. “It is important to note the paradox of documentary: It purports to offer ‘real’ and ‘natural’ views of the world but is able to do so only through the framing and construction of those views.”[4] Even the most carefully constructed view can succumb to objectification.

Far from being the ‘other,’ the ‘stranger,’ or an unfortunate alternate ‘us,’ the poor had to live through the economic and environmental collapse in the most resourceful and resilient way they could manage. Programs created under the FDR administration helped considerably, but not entirely. Those programs, established to manage a temporary situation—such as the somewhat handily defined Great Depression—did not provide a permanent solution to poverty.

The poor remained well after the economic recovery brought by World War II, so President Lyndon Johnson envisioned another war. In his State of the Union Address of January 8, 1964, he pronounced:

“This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America.”[5]

“Our aim is not only to relieve the symptom of poverty, but to cure it and, above all, to prevent it,” he continued. His far-reaching program focused on “a fast-growing, full employment economy; an all-out ‘assault’ on discrimination; investments in education, job training, and health care; and locally organized programs of community action, planned with what would only later be added as a legislative mandate for ‘maximum feasible participation’ of the poor.”[6]

One chart from the Mother Jones article accessible via the link given in the text.
One chart from the Mother Jones article accessible via the link given in the text.

How did Johnson’s program perform? As it neared its 50th anniversary, analysts across the political spectrum weighed in. (This report in Mother Jones is particularly informative.)

Regardless of how the program performed in relieving poverty, it did not at all cure or prevent it. Neither did it cure nor prevent the objectification of the poor themselves. Through the aperture of institutional analysis, the poor have become data objects, their faces exchanged for acronyms and categories, devoid of environmental context.

As University of California, Santa Barbara, Professor Alice O’Connor explains in Poverty Knowledge, “the technical jargon of recent decades has taken poverty knowledge to a level of abstraction and exclusivity that it had not known before. It is a language laced with acronyms that themselves speak of particular data sets, policies, and analytic techniques…in which individuals are the units of analysis and markets the principal arbiters of human exchange.”[7]

O’Connor writes about the enduring tension of federal policy, in which some view poverty as a cultural pathology, while others view it as the product of social and political barriers.[8] Welfare reform under President Bill Clinton in 1996 treated the presumed pathology, seeking to change the behavior of the impoverished, rather than addressing systemic problems of low-wage work, rising income inequality, or political disenfranchisement.[9]

O’Connor presents poverty research as “an inescapably political act: It is an exercise of power, in this instance of an educated elite to categorize, stigmatize, but above all to neutralize the poor and disadvantaged through analysis that obscures the political nature of social and economic inequality.”[10]

Whether a voyeuristic act or a political one, viewing poverty holds the poor up for our evaluation. They become the ‘others’ in the FSA photographs, whose hygiene and morals were freely questioned. In reality, however, they are the ‘strangers’ who cannot be effaced.

Dust Storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, by Arthur Rothstein
Dust Storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, by Arthur Rothstein

The photos of the FSA were clearly composed to create drama and remind us of our social responsibility.[11] But something is lost in the careful framing and cropping. We don’t see the full-color gone-with-the-wind landscape. Neither do we see the churning, whirling, overwhelming political economy that created the collapse. It’s ambient and unquestioned, and somewhat impossible to picture.

It’s also the substrate upon which social experimentation, including industrial agriculture and poverty analysis, occurs. It comes with a heavy social cost: dispossession.

“The growth of capitalism necessarily entails the destruction of modes of production based on the personal labor of independent producers.”[12] The effects are far-reaching, disrupting social stability at all levels.

Our political economic system runs on accumulation by dispossession[13], and it plows like a tsunami into all sectors of life: “These include the exacerbation of regional inequalities, generation of income inequalities at the farm level, increased scales of operation, specialization of production, displacement of labor, accelerating mechanization, depressed product prices, changing tenure patterns, rising land prices, expanding markets for commercial inputs, agrichemical dependence, genetic erosion, pest-vulnerable monocultures, and environmental deterioration.”[14]

The quote above, from Jack Ralph Kloppenburg’s excellent book, First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, deals directly with the commodification of plant material, but it rings true across all landscapes, rural, urban, and suburban. Our economic model is as pervasive and manipulative as Muzak at the mall.

This manipulative relationship does not show in the photos, nor in the poverty data analysis of the LBJ administration. But it does show in the widescreen version, where we see systemic problems that silence any arguments towards pathology of the poor.

Consider the viscerally vanishing landscape of the 1920s. It didn’t descend out of the blue onto flawed families of the plains. It was a devastated outcome just as they were.

Let’s widen our focus for a moment, and take a panoramic shot.

Industrial agriculture hit the plains in about 1873, in the wake of the economic panic that hit the US and Europe. Railroad companies, which had benefited from extensive speculative investments, suddenly ceased expansion projects. Among those companies was Northern Pacific, who found themselves at the end of the line in the Red River Valley, along the border Minnesota shares with North Dakota. There, they waited out the financial crisis by experimenting with large-scale agriculture, primarily in wheat.[15] They hoped their experiment would prove attractive to Germans and Swedes—in whose countries the company had established recruiting offices.

Bat guano was the first 'chemical' fertilizer to hit the farm. What this advertisement doesn't mention is the international warfare surrounding the procurement of guano, and the accompanying indentured Chinese labor. Read more here: http://bit.ly/2eb5wwZ
Bat guano was the first ‘chemical’ fertilizer to hit the farm. What this advertisement doesn’t mention is the international warfare surrounding the procurement of guano, and the accompanying indentured Chinese labor. Read more here: http://bit.ly/2eb5wwZ

Their experiment worked, and the era of corporate farms was born. Great Northern Railroad soon followed suit, as did others.

These farms required seasonal labor as opposed to year-round work. They also required significant irrigation and soil enrichment with minerals collected off the farm. Smaller farms were crowded out, with the effects being felt even in New England.[16] In short, these corporate experiments supplanted the older model of self-sufficient family enterprises (i.e., not much money to be made) with an industrial operation full of dependencies (i.e., lots of money to be made).

Projected into the 20th century, the social effects have been considerable. In 1977, University of California-Berkeley plant physiologist Boysie E. Day addressed the American Society of Agronomy, and accepted the role of industrial agriculture in the social re-designing of America: “The agronomist has brought about the conversion of a rural agricultural society to an urban one. Each advance has sent a wave of displaced farm workers to seek a new life in the city and a flood of change throughout society.”[17]

"The Dark Side of Corporate Research," an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.
“The Dark Side of Corporate Research,” an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib.

This development was accompanied by a tightening bond between land-grant universities, government agencies, and private corporations, which Kloppenburg relates in great detail in First the Seed. This collusion was largely invisible to the public and remains so, but it drives most of the current agenda at revered agricultural institutions such as Cornell University.

The corporate farming model did not invent soil depletion. It did, however, greatly accelerate it.

Yale professor Steven Stoll, in his book Larding the Lean Earth, recounts the crisis that hit the United States within decades of the Revolution: its soils were completely exhausted by 1820. This depletion of farmlands among the original thirteen colonies was a major impetus for western expansion. Rather than improve the lands they already owned, many farmers hungered for the fertile fields of the Midwest, the west, and beyond. Some farmers and agriculturists fought this trend, pushing instead for responsible rejuvenation of the soil. The expansionist urge of the country favored westward movement.

Those who traveled westward took with them their unsustainable practices, as Stoll recounts. Their arrival in the Midwest and Great Plains coincided with another, and older, environmental shift: In 1725, French planters along the Mississippi River installed the first levee system. Doing so initiated a “complex geoclimactic relationship with about 41 percent of the United States,” states Alexis C. Madrigal, a contributing editor for The Atlantic.[18] Thirty-five thousand square miles of wetlands began drying out. By the time the directors of the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived, the land was dry enough for wheat—and for persistent cycles of droughts and floods.[19]

Lying within that progressively-drying Mississippi rivershed were Kansas and Oklahoma. Decades before the Farm Security Administration photographers documented the 1935 Dust Bowl, the first one—and many more–had already occurred.

Page 30 from McDonald's study of erosion in Oklahoma, 1938.
Page 30 from McDonald’s study of erosion in Oklahoma, 1938.

Clarence Petrowsky, in his frequently cited Ph.D. Dissertation, “Kansas Agriculture Before 1900,” details the turbulence of the latter 1800s in the region. A land boom, lasting from 1875 to 1887, brought thousands of settlers into Kansas. They brought with them the same methods they had used in the Eastern US—those methods that had already worn out the soils in the Original 13. Kansas had far less rain, averaging 24” annually versus 32” in Pennsylvania. An unusual wet period, from 1882 to 1886, skewed peoples’ perception of the region, and they planted accordingly.

Drought arrived in 1893, and lasted for five years. It coincided with a world-wide depression (called The Great Depression, interestingly enough, until 1929). Those years saw multiple population upheavals, as farms could no longer support the families who worked them, which left a surplus of abandoned but cultivated land.[20] Over the state, farm production was down, as were farm receipts. Relief was being paid to farmers throughout the state, with counties also buying seed for the farmers. [21] Meanwhile, bad advice flowed like sand in an hourglass: “break up the prairie, plow the soil deep to make a reservoir” advised Kansas’ Agricultural Secretary Martin Mohler, in order to reverse the drought.

A fascinating photo from April 22, 1889, when the Oklahoma Land Rush began.
A fascinating photo from April 22, 1889, when the Oklahoma Land Rush began.

Not everyone could stay to witness the fantastic filling of those reservoirs. Many fled to Oklahoma, when the “unassigned lands” opened up for Anglo settlement in 1889. They brought their tried-and-true methods with them. Writing in 1938, USDA Assistant Soil Conservationist Angus McDonald tells a familiar story. Some highlights include:

“To the farmers of the Plains, wind erosion has been a serious problem for 50 years.”[22]

“Here also, erosion was experienced as soon as cultivation was introduced. Within 40 years of its settlement, the Territory had become one of the most critically eroded sections in the country. Probably nowhere in the world has so much destruction occurred in so short a period of time.”[23]

“The advice of farsighted individuals that much of the land was unsuited to cultivation was ignored… the inertia of tradition militated against such a revolution.”[24]

“In 1894 the sandstorms began again and recurred during several successive years. Reports for the years 1893, 1894, and 1895 are numerous. The sandstorms usually began in March or April and lasted for several days. Often they continued intermittently during the summer and into the fall. An April dust storm of 1895, accompanied by a 40- to 50-mile wind, evidently covered several counties. Clouds of dust obscured the sun and it was impossible to see halfway across the street.”[25]

“By the beginning of the century it was felt by some farmers that breaking the sod was a mistake.”[26]

Frances Owens Thompson, by Dorothea Lange.
Frances Owens Thompson, by Dorothea Lange. Mrs. Thompson was a migrant laborer long before the Dust Bowl.

The trend toward migrant and tenant labor also continued. McDonald reports that, “The whole area, however, is characterized by a progressive increase in tenancy.” The drastic shift in just two counties—Kingfisher and Logan—is alarming. In 1890, almost 100% of farms were cultivated by the owners. In 1900, only 67% and 59% respectively. By 1910, only 61% and 55% of owners were the cultivators of their own farms.[27] This means that 40 to 45 percent of those working the land had no ties and no security.

Blowing in the wind across those distressed farms is our political economy: “The agricultural system of the time in actuality placed a premium on soil destruction and a penalty on soil conservation. A program of soil conservation was not compatible with the greatest profits that could be derived from the land in a short period.  The renter had, in many instances, mortgaged his crop and was forced to plant those cash crops that would pay the mortgage,” writes McDonald.[28]

Edward H. Faulkner's "Plowman's Folly" challenged the established practice of laying the soil open and leaving it bare. His 1943 book is a cornerstone of the modern no-till approach.
Edward H. Faulkner’s “Plowman’s Folly” challenged the established practice of laying the soil open and leaving it bare. His 1943 book is a cornerstone of the modern no-till approach.

The tenants, the migrants, who were created by the capitalistic urges of an industrializing agricultural system—these are the faces that we see in those FSA photos. Creative cropping, artistically, socially, and philosophically, eliminates capitalism from our view. We see only the folly of the plowman and the dirty, torn clothing of his dispossessed workers.

So where is the pathological problem, if indeed it exists?

The Dust Bowl, Depression, and mass displacement of the 1930s were not sudden aberrations. There were plenty of precedents, along with ample warning. Yet the poor—whether they be tenant farmers, migrant agricultural workers, miners, railroad laborers, or textile workers—continually take the brunt. Could it be that the system in which they live and labor is the pathological one?

As Alice O’Connor states in a recent column, “The problem of poverty cannot be resolved without addressing the deeper inequities of race, class, gender, geography, and power—a lesson overshadowed by the myth of a ‘culture of poverty’ that gripped policy elites in the 1960s and continues to thread through popular and academic discourse to this day.”[29]

This graphic is from the critical new report from Human Rights Watch, "Disastrous Toll of Criminalizing Drug Use." Read it here: http://bit.ly/2e4A7zS
This graphic is from the critical new report from Human Rights Watch, “Disastrous Toll of Criminalizing Drug Use.” Read it here: http://bit.ly/2e4A7zS

Unfortunately, however, “contemporary poverty knowledge does not define itself as an inquiry into the political economy and culture of late twentieth-century capitalism.”[30]  Don’t implicate the system, just analyze the data. Objectification of the poor happens in safe and sterile isolation. To do anything else would be un-American.

However, images continue to fly across our screens at blinding speed, reminding us that we must act. We are in the midst of the largest refugee crisis the world has ever seen. Poverty is being criminalized. African American men are being incarcerated at an alarming rate. The people of Flint, MI, have become irreparably ill by drinking water from their home taps. We have sufficient reason to question our economic and political philosophies. It seems as simple as asking, “Should we be plowing up all this dry land?”

Referencing Susan Sontag, Cara A. Finnegan says in her introduction to Picturing Poverty: “The FSA photographs functioned to ‘help people take possession of space in which they are insecure.’ And the images served as a tool for power.”

"We can do it!" by J. Howard Miller, 1943.
“We can do it!” by J. Howard Miller, 1943.

Images of dispossessed workers, urban poor, and displaced refugees help us to fight that tendency spoken of by Alice O’Connor, to push against the stigmatization and neutralization of the poor. They help us to see the true political nature of social and economic inequality.

In looking past the composition and cropping of the images, we might see despair, but we can also see hope. In a recent Democracy Now! interview with Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez, educational pioneer and critical theorist Henry Giroux expressed a spirited anticipation:

“We see young people all over the country mobilizing around different issues, in which they’re doing something that I haven’t seen for a long time. And that is, they’re linking these issues together. You can’t talk about police violence without talking about the militarization of society in general. You can’t talk about the assault on public education unless you talk about the way in which capitalism defunds all public goods. You can’t talk about the prison system without talking about widespread racism. You can’t do that. They’re making those connections.

“But they’re doing something more: They’re linking up with other groups. If you’re going to talk about Flint, if you’re going to talk about, it seems to me, Ferguson, you have to talk about Palestine. If you’re going to talk about repression in the United States, you’ve got to figure out how these modes of repression have become global.”[31]

Giroux’s words, prompting us to widen our frame of vision so that we see beyond the cropped image, provide an energetic response to the call of Iain Chambers, which is worthy of repeating.

Allie Mae Burroughs, by Walker Evans
Allie Mae Burroughs, by Walker Evans

”That stranger, as the ghost that shadows every discourse, is the disturbing interrogation, the estrangement, that potentially exists within us all. It is a presence that persists, that cannot be effaced, that draws me out of myself towards another. It is the insistence of the other face that charges my obligation to that ‘strangeness that cannot be suppressed, which means that it is my obligation that cannot be effaced’.”[32]

So we have a lot of work to do.

(This essay accompanies Peace Meal Supper Club #18: Aperture. To read more about this event, please click here. Also, read about the album that inspired this event by clicking here.)

____________________________

[1]  Cara A. Finnegan, Picturing Poverty: Print Culture and FSA Photographs (Smithsonian Books, 2003), xiv.

[2] I’m summarizing a lot of the information presented in Finnegan’s absorbing work. Consider giving it a read.

[3] Finnegan, 198.

[4] Finnegan, xv.

[5] Lyndon B. Johnson: “Annual Message to the Congress on the State of the Union.,” January 8, 1964. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, accessed October 16, 2016,  http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=26787.

[6] Alice O’Connor, “The War on Poverty at Fifty,” Institute for Public Accuracy, January 7, 2014, accessed October 16, 2016, http://www.accuracy.org/the-war-on-poverty-at-fifty/

[7] Alice O’Connor, Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy and the Poor in Twentieth Century U.S. History (Princeton University Press, 2001), 15.

[8] O’Connor, 16.

[9] O’Connor, 4.

[10] O’Connor, 12.

[11] Finnegan, xv.

[12] Jack Ralph Kloppenburg, Jr., First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, 2nd Edition (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004), 38.

[13] Summarized in modern Cliff Notes form at the friendly neighborhood Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Primitive_accumulation_of_capital#David_Harvey.27s_theory_of_accumulation_by_dispossession

[14] Kloppenburg, 7.

[15] Cindy Hahamovitch, The Fruits of Their Labor: Atlantic Coast Farmworkers and the Making of Migrant Poverty, 1870-1945 (University of North Carolina Press, 1997), 15.

[16] Hahamovitch, 19.

[17] Kloppenburg, 6.

[18] Alexis C. Madrigal, “What We’ve Done to the Mississippi River: An Explainer,” The Atlantic, May 19, 2011, accessed July 22, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2011/05/what-weve-done-to-the-mississippi-river-an-explainer/239058/

[19] Christopher Morris, Big Muddy: An Environmental History of the Mississippi and Its Peoples from Hernando de Soto to Hurricane Katrina(Oxford University Press, 2012), 169-170.

[20] Clarence Leo Petrowsky, “Kansas Agriculture Before 1900” (Ph.D. diss., University of Oklahoma, 1968), 202.

[21] Petrowsky, 203.

[22] Angus McDonald, Erosion and its Control in Oklahoma Territory (Miscellaneous Publication No.301, U.S. Department Of Agriculture, 1938), 1.

[23] McDonald, 2.

[24] McDonald, 5.

[25] McDonald, 8.

[26] McDonald, 12.

[27] McDonald, 7.

[28] McDonald, 8.

[29] Alice O’Connor, “The War on Poverty at Fifty,” Institute for Public Accuracy, January 7, 2014, accessed October 16, 2016, http://www.accuracy.org/the-war-on-poverty-at-fifty/

[30] O’Connor, Poverty Knowledge, 4.

[31] http://www.democracynow.org/2016/10/14/is_trumps_rise_a_result_of

[32] Iain Chambers, Migrancy, Culture, Identity (Routledge, 1994), 6.

Peace Meal Supper Club #17: Sanctuary Backgrounder

The global refugee problem defies succinct summary. The topic is fraught with myths, competing agendas, inflated numbers, political abdication, and more than its share of propaganda. Syrian refugees have taken the center spotlight today, but they are not at all the only ones who need a safe place to wait out violence at home.

Globally, we established a new high water mark in 2015—and it is nothing to celebrate: “an unprecedented 59.5 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 20 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.”[1] Never before has the world held so many displaced persons.

PMSC #17 Menu
The PMSC#17 menu is a culinary journey through the world of refugees.

And yet, U.S. immigration officials planned a month-long series of raids for May and June 2016, “to deport hundreds of Central American mothers and children found to have entered the country illegally,” reported  Reuters.[2] These raids are the most recent extension of hostility towards refugees which the US has exhibited for decades. But are refugees really here illegally?[3]

Peace Meal Supper Club #17: Sanctuary is an attempt to penetrate the official slide show, to see beyond destructive nationalistic rhetoric, to reclaim identity and definition. The menu spans the globe, reaches across centuries, and ventures over borders between nations and species. It offers hope that we will reconcile competing inertia, that our natural urge towards compassion overtakes the myopic momentum of established force.

It’s a struggle of the most beautiful position against the most likely one.

As to the most beautiful position, humanity has compiled an admirable catalog of documentation regarding the treatment of refugees. Take, for example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. It was borne of the horrific experiences leading to and during World War II, as hate and racism drew the developed nations into global war and sent millions fleeing for their lives.

As that conflict’s refugees sought safe haven, the United Nations shepherded the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which declared the rights of people who have been forced out of their homes and homelands by war or other threats. It upheld the duty of all nations to assist. This multilateral document was followed in 1967 by the Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, which further elaborated on the aid due anyone fleeing strife in their homelands. Signatories, which included the United States, bound themselves by international law to provide refuge to anyone fleeing violence at home.

These three modern statements reconnected us with practices in our shared past. Greece, Egypt, medieval England, [4] and the Jews of the Old Testament[5] all took care to take care of the troubled stranger. Their compassion reached over all conflicts to help the innocent victims, declaring that the powerful do indeed have an obligation to the powerless. It’s a tradition that needs our attention and refocus.

Because purposeful practice of the most beautiful position has not been immune to xenophobic criticism.

Consider these words from Senator Pat McCarran: “I believe that this nation is the last hope of Western civilization and if this oasis of the world shall be overrun, perverted, contaminated or destroyed, then the last flickering light of humanity will be extinguished. I take no issue with those who would praise the contributions which have been made to our society by people of many races, of varied creeds and colors. However, we have in the United States today hard-core, indigestible blocs which have not become integrated into the American way of life, but which, on the contrary are its deadly enemies. Today, as never before, untold millions are storming our gates for admission and those gates are cracking under the strain. The solution of the problems of Europe and Asia will not come through a transplanting of those problems en masse to the United States.”[6]

McCarran spoke these words in 1953, in defense of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, of which he was co-sponsor. His rhetoric sounds shockingly contemporary.

President Truman attempted to veto this Act, saying, “Today, we are ‘protecting’ ourselves as we were in 1924, against being flooded by immigrants from Eastern Europe. This is fantastic…We do not need to be protected against immigrants from these countries–on the contrary we want to stretch out a helping hand, to save those who have managed to flee into Western Europe, to succor those who are brave enough to escape from barbarism, to welcome and restore them against the day when their countries will, as we hope, be free again.”

In the decades since Truman, our imperial projects have spawned conflicts across the globe. As the conflicts deepen, so does the magnitude of our moral conflict. Headline events such as World Wars I & II, the various wars in Iraq, our fight against the phantoms of Al Qaeda, and the never-ending aggression against Palestinians are not the only venues for our moral dilemma. These have actually distracted us from the direly pressing matters on our doorstep.

Neruda La United Fruit Co
“La United Fruit Co.” – Pablo Neruda from Canto General, 1950

US involvement in Central America’s Northern Triangle began in 1901, with the pseudo-military operations of United Fruit Company. Since then, the relationship has only become more violent and complex. CIA-led and Eisenhower-backed political coups in the 1950s were harbingers of our present-day interference. In the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s the problems metastasized. The US played a heavy role in arming and financing civil war in El Salvador, which saw the creation of over a million displaced people. Many of them fled to the southern US border seeking asylum. Initially, to our great credit, we responded compassionately. The US Congress, during the final months of the Carter Administration, passed the Refugee Act of 1980.

This act “created The Federal Refugee Resettlement Program to provide for the effective resettlement of refugees and to assist them to achieve economic self-sufficiency as quickly as possible after arrival in the United States.”[7] It incorporated concepts from the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Our intentions were good, although our actions should be examined.

First, however, let’s determine who is a refugee. According to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and the subsequent Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is a person who:

“owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”[8]

"Who is a refugee?" from the UNHCR Guide to International Refugee Law
“Who is a refugee?” from the UNHCR Guide to International Refugee Law

This definition holds no trace of immigrant opportunism. The current conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Burma, Yemen, Colombia, and other war-torn regions have produced 60 million refugees who fear for their lives.[9] They are identifiable by any number of the above criteria. They are not “just peasants coming to the US for a welfare card and a Cadillac,” as Salvadorans were portrayed by officials during the Reagan Administration.[10] However, if we blur the distinction between economic immigrants and political refugees, then we can dismiss our obligation to them. If we confuse other definitions—such as internal civil war vs. outside aggression or multi-national conflict—we can dismiss their problems as well: “Not my problem.”

This potential dismissal also has been addressed by another document in the canon. The Cartagena Declaration, issued by the Organization of American States in 1984, enlarges the concept of refugee to include “persons who have fled their country because their lives, safety or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order.” With great sagacity they illuminated our tendency towards slippery ethics.

In the best of cases, a nation will freely open its doors to refugees, like Germany, Sweden, Lebanon, and Turkey are doing for Syrians.[11] But should a nation fail to be a good neighbor, private citizens and institutions defy their governments in deference to their own humanity.[12]

Jim Corbett, who quietly began the Sanctuary Movement in Tucson, AZ.
Jim Corbett, who quietly began the Sanctuary Movement in Tucson, AZ.

Humanitarian action undertaken by individuals and churches was the wellspring of the Sanctuary Movement in the 1980s. US-backed civil war in El Salvador displaced over a million Salvadorans; 30,000 of them actually fled the country seeking asylum. Refugee camps were set up to receive them in Tapachula, on Mexico’s southern border, but the war’s violence still found them. Therefore, many Salvadorans sought asylum in the US. Our government was not interested, however—in clear violation of the Declarations and Protocols the US had signed and ratified.

The Salvadorans did find sanctuary, though, through the work of private citizens.

“The network of religious congregations that became known as the Sanctuary Movement started with a Presbyterian church and a Quaker meeting in Tucson, Arizona. These two congregations began legal and humanitarian assistance to Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees in 1980…When, after two years, none of the refugees they assisted had been granted political asylum, Rev. John Fife of Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson announced—on the anniversary of the assassination of Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero—that his church would openly defy INS and become a ‘sanctuary’ for Central Americans. The Arizona congregations were soon joined by networks of religious congregations and activists in Northern California, South Texas, and Chicago.”[13]

(This half-hour PBS segment from Peter Krogh is very enlightening if you have the time.)

While in sanctuary, the Salvadoran refugees hoped for freedom from harassment due to ethnicity, faith, and gender. They hoped for—and often needed—access to medical facilities and legal channels. Mostly, they need a safe place to wait out the strife until they could return home. Today’s 60-million refugees need the same.

This Visual Guide to 75 Years of Major Refugee Crises might alter your perspective. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/world/historical-migrant-crisis/
This Visual Guide to 75 Years of Major Refugee Crises might alter your perspective. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/world/historical-migrant-crisis/

When we, the people, lead with our humanity, we are indeed good at providing sanctuary—just as we did in the 1940s when 40 million Europeans were displaced.[14] We have performed admirably upon occasion in spite of our own internal wars: the Underground Railroad carried over 100,000 people to safety in the northern US and Canada, in defiance of federal law.

We, the nation, sometimes lead with our politics, however, and muddle our way into moral failure. We have established concentration camps for Japanese, German, and Italian Americans; refused docking for ships carrying Third Reich refugees; and granted asylum as part of Cold War strategy while withholding it from people whose houses are afire.

The Mariel Boatlift, which brought about 125,00 Cuban refugees into the US in 1980, makes an interesting contrast with the contemporaneous movement to grant sanctuary to Salvadorans. The Cuban refugees—fleeing economic collapse in Cuba, and arguably economic rather than political refugees–were welcomed with cash, social and medical services, programs to help them transition into American life, and educational accommodations.

Salvadoran refugees, however, were met with hostility. Utilizing the rhetoric of fear and hatred, US officials regarded the “brown hordes” as rapists, killers, drug dealers, terrorists, and of course, economic opportunists here to take Americans’ jobs.[15] Some were stopped well before they got to the US, with complicit Mexican officials declaring that “the majority of illegals have a criminal record and only come to commit crimes.”[16]

This prejudice, a variant of the strong anti-Latino bias which the US has held since the mid-1800s,[17] resulted in disproportionate denial of safe haven to Salvadorans, as compared to other nationalities.[18]  The US was willing to save people from Castro’s communism, but not from high-quality American guns.

But with all the accusations levied against asylum-seekers and their sanctuary hosts, “no evidence connecting sanctuary with violent activities ever surfaced. Evidence that did come out pointed to just the opposite: that the US government was intimately connected with Salvadoran death squads.”[19]

The US government was—and still is—involved at very intimate levels in the Northern Triangle. From war to death squads to maintaining kill lists and photo albums,[20] the US was the prime driver for the growth of the refugee population and the reactionary movement to provide sanctuary. By 1983, civil war in El Salvador had killed 30,000 civilians and displaced one million. The US was pumping in a half billion dollars annually in military assistance. Civilians areas were frequently bombed, not only in El Salvador but in Guatemala, where tens of thousands had also been killed. Border camps in Mexico were routinely attacked by US-backed Guatemalan and Salvadoran troops, ostensibly to root out guerillas.[21]

Course 2: Salvadoran Safe House - Yuca Ceviche, Curtido. In honor of the millions of Central American refugees from 1901 until the present day.
Course 2: Salvadoran Safe House – Yuca Ceviche, Curtido. In honor of the millions of Central American refugees from 1901 until the present day.

It’s a startling contrast: Refugees from Cuba were feted, fed, housed, and educated through rapidly formed government programs. Refugees from Central America were hunted, imprisoned, deported, and frequently assassinated. Why the different treatment?

The answer, as given by Robin Lorentzen in her book “Women in the Sanctuary Movement,” is simple: Acknowledging Central Americans as political refugees would expose the US’ role in creating them.[22]

That role is indeed a deep one. “The administration of President Ronald Reagan, who came to power in January 1981, saw these civil wars as theaters in the Cold War. In both El Salvador and Guatemala, the United States intervened on the side of those governments, which were fighting Marxist-led popular movements. In Nicaragua, however, the United States supported the contra rebels against the socialist Sandinista government.”[23]

Congress had previously imposed a ban on foreign assistance to governments that committed gross violations of human rights. Therefore the Reagan Administration publically denied all rights abuses—even though multiple human rights groups had already cataloged the violence. Efforts to silence the asylum-seekers focused on characterizing them as economic refugees, then rejecting their requests for asylum. “As a result, approval rates for Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum cases were under three percent in 1984. In the same year, the approval rate for Iranians was 60 percent, 40 percent for Afghans fleeing the Soviet invasion, and 32 percent for Poles.”[24]

Mira Loma Detention Center, Lancaster, CA
Mira Loma Detention Center, Lancaster, CA

“The Justice Department and INS actively discouraged Salvadorans and Guatemalans from applying for political asylum. Salvadorans and Guatemalans arrested near the Mexico-U.S. border were herded into crowded detention centers and pressured to agree to ‘voluntarily return’ to their countries of origin. Thousands were deported without ever having the opportunity to receive legal advice or be informed of the possibility of applying for refugee status. Considering the widely reported human rights violations in El Salvador and Guatemala, the treatment of these migrants constituted a violation of U.S. obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention.”[25]

It is not surprising, then, that concerned citizens along the border took the matter into their own hands. Quietly ignoring US immigration law and foreign policy, they took in refugees and at times aided their border-crossing, in the spirit of Thoreau: “They are lovers of law and order who uphold the law when the government breaks it.”[26]

Rabbi Linda Holtzman works for social justice through http://www.tikkunolamchavurah.org/
Rabbi Linda Holtzman works for social justice through http://www.tikkunolamchavurah.org/

“At the Sanctuary Movement’s height in the mid 1980s, over 150 congregations openly defied the government, publicly sponsoring and supporting undocumented Salvadoran or Guatemalan refugee families. Another 1,000 local Christian and Jewish congregations, several major Protestant denominations, the Conservative and Reform Jewish associations, and several Catholic orders all endorsed the concept and practice of sanctuary. Sanctuary workers coordinated with activists in Mexico to smuggle Salvadorans and Guatemalans over the border and across the country. Assistance provided to refugees included bail and legal representation, as well as food, medical care, and employment.”[27]

The early core of religiously-minded workers was soon joined by political activists in Chicago and other urban centers. They brought a political edge to the humanitarian efforts. It was no longer just a campaign to help a few families outlast the violence. It became a political storm within the US.

Course 3: Undeground Dining Car - Journeycake, Foraged Mushrooms and Roots, Succotash, Wild Herb Aioli. In honor of refugees along the Underground Railroad.
Course 3: Undeground Dining Car – Journeycake, Foraged Mushrooms and Roots, Succotash, Wild Herb Aioli. In honor of refugees along the Underground Railroad.

By granting venue to the refugees’ stories, the Sanctuary Movement fundamentally challenged our vision of ourselves—much like the American Civil War, our duplicitous dealings with First Nations, and our repeated failures with voting rights. They brought alignment between the Sanctuary Movement and larger civil rights movements. They challenged “not just one immigration law, but a whole pattern of exploitation.”[28]

Those involved in the movement saw it as a fundamental question of human rights, as stated clearly in the UN’s declaration of 1948, the Convention of 1951, the 1967 Protocol, and other acclaimed elaborations.

“The defense of the Salvadorans and Guatemalans marked a new use of international human rights norms by U.S. activists. Citing the Nuremberg principles of personal accountability developed in the post-World War II Nazi tribunals, religious activists claimed a legal precedent to justify their violation of U.S. laws against alien smuggling. Other activists claimed that their actions were justified by the religious and moral principles of the 19th-century U.S. abolitionist movement, referring to their activities as a new Underground Railroad. Many U.S. religious leaders involved in the Sanctuary Movement had prior experience in the 1960s civil disobedience campaigns against racial segregation in the American South.”[29]

Their very public platform made the movement appear “dangerous to the government”[30]—a government which didn’t appreciate having its foreign policy questioned or its covert operations exposed. But the activists continued to press the questions: Since the US had ratified the Protocol of 1967, and given the progressive nature of the Refugee Act of 1980, shouldn’t we be providing safe haven for the Salvadorans and Guatemalans? Especially since we are funding and arming the combatants? And that of course should cause us to ask the ultimate question: Why are we at war in Central America?

These questions certainly had their consequences: “The Department of Justice responded by initiating criminal prosecutions against two activists in Texas in 1984, followed by a 71-count criminal conspiracy indictment against 16 U.S. and Mexican religious activists announced in Arizona in January 1985.”[31]

Dragging key Sanctuary Movement participants into federal court was an act of silencing on the part of the US government. In that vein, US District Judge Earl Carroll barred the defense from mentioning the violent conditions in El Salvador. He knew that to allow such testimony would not only validate the refugees’ status according to international law, it would also expose the violent role the US played in creating the refugees in the first place. In spite of Carroll’s restrictions, activists were able to capitalize on the trial’s publicity, using it to indict the Reagan Administration for its wars in Central America and its treatment of the wars’ victims.[32]

Middle-class American activists weren’t the only ones who had issued public indictments. In 1980,  Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero publicly requested that the US cease military aid. A month later, he gave a sermon in which he called upon Salvadoran soldiers to stop killing civilians. He was murdered shortly thereafter, at the altar, by government-supported assassins.[33]

It’s a practice that continues to this day. Vocal opponents of invasive US policies—such as Berta Cáceres—are silenced through assassination.[34] We continue to engage in war openly and clandestinely while the media ignores our involvement and the victims.[35] We persist in creating refugees in greater numbers than we will ever offer homes. In fact, we produced a 712% increase in refugees during the tenure of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.[36] We reinforce all this silencing by creating a culture of information suppression: ag-gag legislation, whistleblower laws, censoring of the words “climate change.” We justify all the silencing by labeling activists as terrorists and refugees as rapists.

We are even willing to pay for the silence in advance. We pay Mexico to intercept and incarcerate asylum-seekers so that we never have to hear their stories or see their faces.[37] The ones who actually make it across our border are detained without legal hearing. Then we deport them in record numbers.[38]

Are we in the right when we send them back to their home countries? We have agreed, on paper, to the following: “The most essential component of refugee status and of asylum is protection against return to a country where a person has reason to fear persecution.”[39]

Refoulement—sending a person back to a country where they face a threat to their life or freedom—is overwhelmingly condemned on a global scale, and has been since 1951.

"The principle of non-refoulement" from the UNHCR Guide to International Refugee Law
“The principle of non-refoulement” from the UNHCR Guide to International Refugee Law

“No Contracting State shall expel or return a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”—from the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, Article 33(1).

“No person referred to in Article 1, paragraph 1, shall be subjected to measures such as rejection at the frontier or, if he has already entered the territory in which he seeks asylum, expulsion or compulsory return to any State where he may be subjected to persecution.” — from the United Nations Declaration on Territorial Asylum, Article 3(1), unanimously adopted by the General Assembly in 1967.

“No person may be subjected by a member State to measures such as rejection at the frontier, return or expulsion, which should compel him to return to or remain in a territory where his life, physical integrity or liberty would be threatened for the reasons set out in Article 1, paragraphs 1 and 2.” — from the Organisation of African Unity’s 1969 Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa, Article III(3).

“In no case may an alien be deported or returned to a country regardless of whether or not it is his country of origin, if in that country his right to life or personal freedom is in danger of being violated because of his race, nationality, religion, social status or political opinions.” — Article 22(8) of the American Human Rights Convention adopted by the Organization of American States in November 1969.

Non-refoulement has become such a widely accepted principle that even non-member states—those not part of the UN, OAS, OAU, or other global organizations—readily honor it. “Because of its wide acceptance at universal level, it is being increasingly considered in jurisprudence and in the work of jurists as a generally recognized principle of international law,” states the UN.[40]

There is only one exception to the principle of non-refoulement. Article 33(2) of the 1951 Refugee Convention states: “The benefit of the present provision may not however be claimed by a refugee whom there are reasonable grounds for regarding as a danger to the security of the country in which he is, or who, having been convicted by a final judgment of a particularly serious crime, constitutes a danger to the community of that country.”

It’s a loophole through which can slip the entire caboodle of US foreign policy. Our present behavior is an elaboration of the unspoken policy of the 1980s, when refugees were denied and deported on the basis of fabricated fear. If we are afraid of the refugees on our doorstep, we won’t let them in. If we don’t let them in, we can’t hear their stories. Their stories, of course, incriminate the US and its violent foreign affairs.

True to form, the present US Administration has relentlessly demonstrated its unwillingness to grant asylum. As for refugees that have made it across the border, we criminalize their presence.

Slave Kidnap Poster 1851 BostonIt’s as unconscionable as sending Jews back into Hitler’s Germany. It’s as horrific as sending escaped African slaves back into Dixie. But the US does it behind the curtain of the machine, projecting an illusion of humanity over the top of its aggression. It’s hard to sort one image from the other.

We choose what we see, of course. And while we creatively interpret the image, others face the machine itself. For them, the struggle is not one of vision. It’s one of survival.

Sanctuary activists in the 1980s knew the fate of refugees subjected to refoulement. Those sent back to El Salvador faced even greater violence than that which they fled, as they were now considered traitors by both civil war factions. Former FBI informant Frank Varelli testified that he regularly provided Salvadoran national guardsmen the names of people sent back by the US. He also provided the names of American citizens who were travelling in El Salvador, maintained assassination lists, and even a photo album.[41] Anyone denied sanctuary by the US, and subsequently returned to El Salvador, was forcibly trading potential peace for guaranteed violence.

The story is the same today. When the US deports Central Americans refugees, it sends them to their deaths. As one refugee succinctly states, “The evil there is tremendous.” And of course, evil isn’t restricted by borders, no matter how we might pretend.

Still, the question remains: “Why are we at war in Central America? Or in Syria? Or anywhere?”

President Theodore Roosevelt wields his Big Stick in the Caribbean and Central America.
President Theodore Roosevelt wields his Big Stick in the Caribbean and Central America.

Contrary to optimistic popular opinion, we are not at war for democracy, or out of generosity. Perhaps the wars help to feed our insatiable appetite for drugs. Maybe we just wish to promote US commercial interests. Possibly we are only acting upon the Monroe Doctrine and the Roosevelt Corollary. Maybe we need to keep our armed forces busy. Maybe war is good for business. (Pardon the interruption, but detention of refugees is good business, too.)

War Is A Racket Book JacketMaybe, just maybe, War is a Racket, as opined by Major General Smedley Butler, one of the most decorated servicemen in US history. His opening lines are unadorned and inarguable: “War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives. A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small ‘inside’ group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.”

“The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag.”[42]

Butler was a leader of American forces in Central America in the early 1900s. He knew firsthand what he was talking about. He also traversed the path that lies before us now, leaving the most likely position—perpetual war and its ignored casualties—to arrive at the most beautiful position—complete cessation of aggression accompanied by greater expressions of our humanity.

Course 4: Animal Farm - Almond Fig Cake, Pistachio Ice Cream, Pomegranate Molasses. In honor of the uncountable animals in need of sanctuary.
Course 4: Animal Farm – Almond Fig Cake, Pistachio Ice Cream, Pomegranate Molasses. In honor of the uncountable animals in need of sanctuary.

The more beautiful option, interestingly enough, is also the most rational: as we cease hostilities—and therefore the production of refugees—we can better assist the diminishing number who require sanctuary. It’s a lighter burden for everyone. Or we can go the most likely route: create more refugees and reject their requests for asylum. The ultimate solution will indeed be complicated, but as we argue our philosophy, casualties pile up. Will we find that our moral consciences have settled to the bottom of the heap?

Truman was hardly a hippie peacenik, but he understood our moral responsibility. Quakers, liberation theologians, radical left Catholics, Nobel laureates, and plenty of us rational atheists have pursued paths of compassionate dissent, transforming civil disobedience into civil initiative.[43]

To many of us, human safety lies in the glorification of peace, not in the sanguine pageantry of war.

Please Read More:

Stories from the Current Wave of the Refugee Crisis, related to the Obama Administration
The US provides aid to Mexico for detaining and torturing refugees
US mainstream media portrays it as an immigration crisis
We view the costs only from our side
We ignore our role in creating more violence in their home countries
Obama’s policies are violently regressive not progressive
Refugees are gamepieces for posturing politicians
Children are denied legal process in spite of international law
Once again, we pay Mexico to intercept and detain those fleeing violence in their home countries
Once again, they are not illegal according to agreed international conventions

Work for the Right to Refuse to Kill: http://www.wri-irg.org/co/rrk-en.htm

Support modern invocations of the Sanctuary Movement:
Every Campus a Refuge
Groundswell Movement
Southside Presbyterian Church (the original home of the 1980s Sanctuary Movement)
New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia
Tikkun Olam Chavurah
Not One More Deportation

Learn more about human rights, personal experiences, and the imperatives of survival:
Human Rights Watch’s Refugee Rights Program
IFRC (Red Cross/Red Crescent) Protect Humanity Program
American Friends Service Committee Immigrant Rights campaigns
Five Facts about Migration from the Northern Triangle
NY Times: Refugee Crisis is Not an Immigration Crisis
“The Imperatives of Survival” 1974 Nobel Lecture by Sean MacBride

———————-
[1] http://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html
[2] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-immigration-deportation-exclusive-idUSKCN0Y32J1
[3] https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/01/27/us-missteps-refugees-define-year
[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanctuary
[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cities_of_Refuge#Origin_and_development
[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Immigration_and_Nationality_Act_of_1952#cite_note-4
[7] http://www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/orr/resource/the-refugee-act
[8] http://www.unhcr.org/protect/PROTECTION/3b66c2aa10.pdf (will launch a PDF)
[9] https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/world/historical-migrant-crisis/
[10] Miriam Davidson, Convictions of the Heart: Jim Corbett and the Sanctuary Movement, (University of Arizona Press, 1988), 76-77; http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era
[11] http://www.immigration.ca/en/quebecimmigration-topmenu/187-canada-immigration-news-articles/2015/september/1992-countries-for-syrian-refugees.html
[12] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanctuary_movement
[13] http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era
[14] https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/world/historical-migrant-crisis/
[15] Davidson, Convictions of the Heart, 99.
[16] Davidson, Convictions of the Heart, 62.
[17] Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005), 149-169.
[18] Davidson, Convictions of the Heart, 44-45
[19] Davidson, Convictions of the Heart, 141
[20] Davidson, Convictions of the Heart, 142
[21] Davidson, Convictions of the Heart,76
[22] Robin Lorentzen, Women in the Sanctuary Movement, (Temple University Press, 1991), 12.
[23] http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era
[24] http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era
[25] http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era
[26] Davidson, Convictions of the Heart, 80.
[27] http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era
[28] Lorentzen, Women in the Sanctuary Movement, 24
[29] http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era
[30] Lorentzen, Women in the Sanctuary Movement, 24
[31] http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era
[32] http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era
[33] Lorentzen, Women in the Sanctuary Movement, 10; http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/central-americans-and-asylum-policy-reagan-era
[34] http://www.democracynow.org/2016/3/11/before_her_assassination_berta_caceres_singled
[35] http://fair.org/home/suyapa-portillo-on-central-american-refugees-michael-ratner-on-alberto-gonzalez/
[36] http://www.wola.org/commentary/3_myths_about_central_american_migration_to_the_us; http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/gonzalez-clinton-policy-latin-american-crime-story-article-1.2598456
http://www.democracynow.org/2016/3/11/before_her_assassination_berta_caceres_singled
[37] https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/04/20/we-pay-mexico-catch-refugees-kids-suffer
[38] https://www.ice.gov/doclib/about/offices/ero/pdf/2013-ice-immigration-removals.pdf (will launch a PDF)
[39] UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Note on Non-Refoulement (Submitted by the High Commissioner), 23 August 1977, EC/SCP/2, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae68ccd10.html [accessed 18 June 2016]
[40] UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Note on Non-Refoulement (Submitted by the High Commissioner), 23 August 1977, EC/SCP/2, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae68ccd10.html [accessed 18 June 2016]
[41] Davidson, Convictions of the Heart,142
[42] http://fas.org/man/smedley.htm
[43] Davidson, Convictions of the Heart, 80

American Harvest Revisited

Special Contribution by Abbie Rogers

When most of us bite into a chocolate bar, an ear of corn, or even a sun-warmed tomato fresh from our gardens, we appreciate the flavor of the food but rarely consider the millennia-old history that brought the taste and nourishment to our mouths. It would seem odd to us to consider Italian cuisine devoid of tomatoes or polenta, Irish stews without potatoes, Thai curry lacking peanuts or chiles, or French pastries sans chocolate or vanilla. Yet an astounding array of foods that we consider staples of worldwide cuisines originated in Central and South America, and were unknown to the rest of the world until European Conquistadors returned from the New World, bringing American species with them. This cross-continental exchange was coined the Columbian Exchange by history and geography professor Alfred W. Crosby Jr. in his 1972 book of the same name.

The Columbian Exchange, from http://thecolumbianexchange.weebly.com/
The Columbian Exchange, from http://thecolumbianexchange.weebly.com/

In October 2014, when we first debuted the Peace Meal Supper Club: American Harvest menu, our goal was to honor some of our beloved food plants that originated in the Americas and explore the process that brought them to tables worldwide. Revisiting this menu for an upcoming event reminded us just how big this topic is!

Striking portrayal of globalization. Photo by Sandry Anggada, National Geographic. http://bit.ly/1nsFffJ
Striking portrayal of globalization. Photo by Sandry Anggada, National Geographic. http://bit.ly/1nsFffJ

During our 2014 research, we realized that the seemingly modern phenomenon of globalization, which mixes economic and cultural benefits with extreme inequality and the exploitation of communities and ecosystems alike, extends back centuries. The global trade set in motion by Columbus’ contact with the Americas has been characterized by unequal exchange from the beginning. The extraction model through which European explorers and traders acquired and commodified a wide range of American species has expanded and become entrenched. Today, multinational corporations and powerful nations are the conquistadors wielding trade treaties to force less powerful communities to produce commodities for the world market. Those in power benefit from these arrangements, while those producing the crops for export often live in extreme poverty.

American Harvest was the fourth Peace Meal Supper Club theme, and it has been astounding to see how many other PMSC themes it intersects, ranging from Seed to Labor. The extraction model that the Europeans used in the New World appears in many of the topics we cover. For example, as we discussed with the Pollination menu, the European honeybee (an introduced species which displaces native pollinators) is trucked by the millions across the US to pollinate monocultures that bloom for only a few weeks a year.

We apply the same model to our treatment of the intricate ecosystem found in Dirt, sterilizing the soil and depleting it of nutrients through unsustainable farming practices, and then applying chemical fertilizers to grow crops artificially.

Our attitude towards Seed has especially strong connections to American Harvest; powerful governments and corporations have a strong habit, dating back the Columbian Exchange, of taking seeds and other genetic material from developing countries, commodifying and patenting them, and then selling them back to the communities that originally developed the seeds. The final price is steep, not only in terms of money.

Global Imbalance of the Availability of Nutritious Food, from Food: An Atlas, by Guerrilla Cartography, available here: http://www.guerrillacartography.org/atlases/
Global Imbalance of the Availability of Nutritious Food, from Food: An Atlas, by Guerrilla Cartography, available here: http://www.guerrillacartography.org/atlases/

The Fair Trade, Cacao, and Labor menus illustrated the impact of globalization and international trade agreements on the global south, the countries producing much of the food consumed by the global north. This marketplace dynamic is, according to farmer and author Will Bonsall, a form of erosion in which soil nutrients, water, and even the energy of labor leave the producing communities never to return home again.[1] This breaks what was once a sustainable cycle. In general, much of the world’s food is produced by countries which also suffer from some of the highest levels of poverty, malnutrition, and ecosystem depletion.[2] And to add insult to injury, the people who grow cacao beans in Ghana or Brazil have never tasted chocolate.

Peace Meal Supper Club: Mississippi demonstrated how far we will push the extraction model without concern for the environment or disempowered people. Whether in the form of higher levees or more complex trade agreements, consumerism and imperialism disregard the needs of the producers, inhabitants, and natural world in deference to the all-mighty dollar.

The interconnecting topics highlighted in Peace Meal Supper Club can be admittedly dark and overwhelming. And though many of the issues are more immediate, how can we possibly address the complex chain of events that began with the Columbian Exchange over 500 years ago?

We may not be able to change history, but there are steps we can take to change the future. The issues of social justice, environmental stewardship, food sovereignty, and others are deeply intertwined, but that means that many of the actions we take to change one aspect will ultimately affect other aspects as well. A common refrain of the Labor Movement stated “An injury to one is an injury to all.”[3] The upside is that healing for one can be healing for all.

What can we do today? Plenty! Consider these ideas:

  • Tomatoes, originally descended from Mesoamerican plants with berry-sized fruits, are now grown on a massive scale in Florida’s sandy soil. The soil is sterilized and pumped full of fertilizing chemicals before each season, creating an entirely artificial growing environment. The farmworkers who tend and harvest the tomatoes—many of them undocumented immigrants from the same regions as the original tomato—are subject to a litany of mistreatment ranging from toxic pesticide exposure to physical and sexual abuse. Agricultural work is specifically exempt from many labor laws, and the few laws that are on the books do little to help systematically disempowered migrant workers.
Immokalee Tomato Pickers, photo by Bill Serne, Tampa Bay Times, 2006. Article here: http://bit.ly/24NfrwJ
Immokalee Tomato Pickers, photo by Bill Serne, Tampa Bay Times, 2006. Article here: http://bit.ly/24NfrwJ

Immokalee, Florida, is known as “America’s Tomato Capital,” but Chief Assistant US Attorney Douglas Molloy calls it “ground zero for modern-day slavery.” Molloy, who works on up to a dozen slavery cases at a time, further explains that “any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave.”[4] The combination of an artificial and chemical-laden environment and worker exploitation yields rock-hard, green tomatoes that are shipped to supermarkets across the country year-round after ripening through exposure to ethylene gas. These tomatoes fill our desire to have a red slice on our burgers or salads, but are notoriously tasteless.

So buy tomatoes grown locally and in season—or even better, grow your own! Avoid buying fresh tomatoes in the winter if at all possible. Can, dry, or freeze tomatoes in the summer that you can use throughout the year.

Fair Food Program Label. Please look for this label to support workers' rights in the field! Learn more: www.fairfoodprogram.org
Fair Food Program Label. Please look for this label to support workers’ rights in the field! Learn more: www.fairfoodprogram.org

If you must buy fresh tomatoes out-of-season, choose organic brands certified by the Fair Food Program (FFP). This project of the hugely effective and internationally recognized Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a farmworker-run human rights organization based out of the Florida tomato fields, is a “unique partnership among farmers, farmworkers, and retail food companies that ensures humane wages and working conditions.[5] The only third-party organization monitoring agricultural workers in the US, the FFP requires its participating farms to adhere to a higher standard of worker treatment, while participating buyers (ranging from Whole Foods to McDonalds) pay an additional penny per pound of tomatoes. These pennies add up and significantly supplement worker incomes.

You can find a list of participating growers and buyers at the Fair Food Program website. Do be aware that most of these certified tomatoes are not organic, so workers—and the environment—are still exposed to chemicals in spite of protective measures. Lady Moon and Lipman Produce are certified as organic and FFP growers. Pacific Tomato Growers and Ag-Mart, while not fully organic, do sell some organic tomatoes.

  • Potatoes are a ubiquitous yet underappreciated vegetable native to the Andes. Today, we tend to think of potatoes as deep-fried junk food, and historically, Europeans long viewed them as only suitable for livestock and the poor.[6]
The nutritious potato! From the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
The nutritious potato! From the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Yet potatoes are high in vitamin C and multiple B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, fiber, and are a source of low-fat energy.[7]  The South American peoples who first domesticated the plant–and developed some 5,000 varieties[8]–appreciated the potato as a nutritious and long-lasting staple. They have been essential to the diets of low-income people worldwide for centuries. According to NeBambi Lutaladio of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the potato is usually traded more locally than cereal crops and other global commodities, and for this reason it “helps vulnerable consumers ride out turmoil in world food markets.”[9]

Pamela Anderson of Peru’s International Potato Center calls potatoes the “third most important food security crop in the world.”[10] We should embrace potatoes as a healthy, cheap, and versatile food that can be grown locally in many regions and preserved easily through the winter months. Roasted, mashed, or used in diverse dishes from around the world, the humble American potato is an excellent way to eat sustainably.

  • Grow a milpa! Ancient Mayans developed a holistic and interconnected polyculture farming system called a milpa, in which they planted diverse crops, including corn, beans, and squashes, together for mutual benefit. According to Tio Joel, a Mixtec farmer who still plants in the way of his ancestors, “In our milpa, plants carefully chosen over millennia complement and mutually assist one another to produce high yields of all the food and medicinal plants our communities need for our health and that of the soil and the Mother Earth…. The milpa is an agro-ecological wonder of biodiversity and plant ‘communal’ life. It is the product of communal societies of complementarity, mutual aid, and respect that are the social genius of our indigenous communities.”[11]
Milpa, photo by Leah Penniman, 2015. See her excellent article here: http://bit.ly/1R1Yi8h
Milpa, photo by Leah Penniman, 2015. See her excellent article here: http://bit.ly/1R1Yi8h

Monocultures that require ever-increasing chemical inputs to grow much of the world’s food deplete the soil, starve wildlife, and poison the air and water. On the other hand, the complementary plants grown in a milpa regenerate the ecosystem and allow farming to continue on the same plot for thousands of years.

We can benefit from the wisdom of the milpa even in our own backyard gardens. Companion planting, crop rotation, and saving regionally-adapted seeds are just some of the sustainable gardening techniques that are healthy for us and for the ecosystem.

  • Buy Fair Trade goods and support food sovereignty. A disproportionate amount of the world’s food is grown in equatorial regions, often by farmers who are so deep in debt to the agricultural corporations that supply their seeds and fertilizers that they struggle to feed their own families. Most of these farmers do not own the land they farm, and have no power to choose what they farm or how much money they make. Forced labor, including child labor, is prevalent in industries such as cacao, the indigenous American plant that once served as a ritual beverage among the ancient Olmec, Mayan, and Aztec royalty–and is now eaten worldwide in the form of adulterated candy. Due to global politics and trade agreements set in motion by the Columbian Exchange, Central and South American communities where many of the world’s food plants originated have very little food security. They cannot control their own food supply.
One of the earliest Fair Trade cooperatives, Equal Exchange. www.equalexchange.coop
One of the earliest Fair Trade cooperatives, Equal Exchange. www.equalexchange.coop

We may be consumers of privilege, but we are also global citizens. It behooves us to treat the people who produce our food as we would treat our neighbors. We support positive systems of exchange when we buy certified fair trade products. The Food Empowerment Project, which “seeks to create a more just and sustainable world by recognizing the power of one’s food choices,” maintains a rigorously researched list of fairly produced chocolate.

We should also support projects that champion food sovereignty, defined as “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts the aspirations and needs of those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations.”[12]

La Via Campesina is an international grassroots movement that represents 200 million small farmers worldwide. Together, they launched food sovereignty into the global eye. Other impactful organizations working in this arena include GRAIN, Food First, the previously mentioned Food Empowerment Project, and the US Food Sovereignty Alliance.

And, finally, if you are fortunate enough to experience Peace Meal Supper Club: American Harvest, we encourage you to dig deeply into the menu.

 

[1] Will Bonsall, Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening (Vermont: Chelsea Green, 2015), 56.

[2] Explore these conditions interactively at the Global Food Insecurity website.

[3] This slogan has appeared in various forms. “An injury to one is the concern of all” was perhaps the first version, but the version quoted above was officially adopted by the United Workers of the World in 1905. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_labor_slogans)

[4] Barry Estabrook, Tomatoland (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC, 2011), 75.

[5] http://www.fairfoodprogram.org/

[6] http://www.history-magazine.com/potato.html

[7] http://www.fao.org/potato-2008/en/potato/factsheets.html

[8] http://www.fao.org/potato-2008/en/potato/origins.html

[9] http://www.fao.org/potato-2008/en/perspectives/lutaladio.html

[10] http://www.fao.org/potato-2008/en/perspectives/anderson.html

[11] Phil Dahl-Bredine et al. Milpa: From Seed to Salsa (2015), 3. See also http://sustainablemilpa.blogspot.com/.

[12] Declaration of Nyéléni, the first global forum on food sovereignty, Mali, 2007

Peace Meal Supper Club #16: Unbound

Peace Meal Supper Club #16: Unbound celebrates the efforts of women worldwide who are working for the benefit of animals. Scientists, psychologists, educators, demonstrators, organizers–these dedicated individuals are helping erase the distinctions between us-and-them, between human and non-human, between kindness-for-one versus kindness-for-all. It is a big order to fill.

The title “Unbound” is in reference to the Unbound Project, a multimedia and book project by acclaimed photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur (We Animals, The Ghosts in Our Machine) and Dr. Keri Cronin (Department of Visual Arts, Brock University). It is a worthy project for PMSC to support, so this edition of PMSC will be on-the-road, in St. Catherines, ON. As usual, diners will pay as they wish on a sliding scale, and those funds will be used to give the Unbound Project an early lift.

The menu will focus on four women in particular:

Patty Mark is an Australian activist and the founder of Animal Liberation Victoria. She is also credited with being the originator of “open rescues,” a form of direct action in which animals are removed from harmful and exploitative situations by activists who do not conceal either their actions or identities.

Lek Chailert is the founder of the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for elephants in Thailand. She is also the founder of Save Elephant Foundation, an organization dedicated to ”providing care and assistance to Thailand’s captive elephant population through a multifaceted approach involving local community outreach, rescue and rehabilitation programs, and educational ecotourism operations.” There have been numerous documentary films made about Chailert’s work. In 2005, Time magazine named her “Asian Hero of the Year.”

Dr. Aysha Akhtar is a neurologist and public health specialist whose work explores and explains the connections that exist between human health and the wellbeing of animals. Her book, Animals and Public Health, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2012.

Anita Krajnc is the co-founder of Toronto Pig Save. She has recently made international headlines for giving water to thirsty pigs on a slaughter truck during a Toronto Pig Save protest in the summer of 2015. She is facing criminal charges. Her trial date is set for August 2016.

Course 1:
Pikelet ~ Ginger Pumpkin Dumpling ~ Macadamia Cream Sauce

Course 2:
Tom Kha ~ Lemongrass-Smoked Tofu

Course 3:
Cape Cod Croquette ~ Lemon Basmati Rice ~ Winter Ratatouille ~ Sauce Verte

Course 4:
Lemon Cheesecake ~ Raspberry Coulis ~ Brownie Crumble

To learn more about the project, and the four women being featured on this PMSC menu, please visit the Unbound Project. It is only fitting that Jo and Keri speak to you without my being an intermediary.

Update, 1/26/16: Jo and Keri have included Peace Meal Supper Club #16: Unbound in the Field Notes for their project. It’s a lovely review with photos of the food, the people, the fun:
http://www.unboundproject.org/field-notes/peace-meal-supper-club-unbound

Here are a few photos, most courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur herself.

Peace Meal Supper Club: The Art of Edible Dissent

Third Course Diners. Photo courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur.
Peace Meal Supper Club #16: Unbound. Photo courtesy of Jo-Anne McArthur.

“Peace Meal Supper Club is a unique evening of fine food and progressive discussion, focused on strengthening ourselves as agents for positive change. I create a 4-course menu focused on a theme, such as Pollination, Fair Trade, Cacao, or even humble-but-life-giving Dirt. I share my research into the topic via in-depth essays on my website, which will hopefully inspire the conversation during the meal. It’s like a concept album which you can eat.”


Art is an expression of dissatisfaction with the state of one’s world. Or stated another way, an artist struggles within their dissatisfaction with the world around them. Like many other art forms, mine is meant to illuminate, challenge, and suggest.

I explore the  dissatisfaction side of the equation through a multi-media inter-disciplinary examination of intersectionality: “the study of intersections between forms or systems of oppression, domination or discrimination,” applying it beyond studies of gender and race, to include undocumented agricultural workers, dirt, seeds, and the Mississippi River.

My diners and I have explored social movements, such as Labor, along with the subversive empowerment of Border Radio, and the celebration of freedom and self-improvement embodied in the African-American celebration of Juneteenth. Peace Meal Supper Club has provided a lens to explore post-Columbian-Exchange globalization, the status of Fair Trade cacao, and the humanitarian tragedy of successive and worsening refugee crises.

All of this with food as the primary medium. The taken-for-granted is often the most impactful.

Beauty and Sadness Salad (Last Harvest 2014)
Beauty and Sadness Salad (Last Harvest 2014)

On the other side of the artistic equation is the hoped-for outcome. The goal is to re-imagine our world, to once again envision Utopia, and to offer Gratitude for all who helped us find it.

Oscar Wilde once wrote, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of Utopias.”

We iteratively establish Utopias as stepping stones, mile markers to which we can refer when our course needs correction. With each new stone, we are more resilient and capable, winnowing ourselves into the core of what matters. As the powers-that-be successively nudge us closer to calamity, we revert to the soil and the sun and the simple. In this sense of recursion, Utopia–and Peace Meal Supper Club–is Tao: returning to the simple sustaining forces that cannot be named, neither can they be dormant for long.

Recurring themes, regardless of any supper’s stated topic, have been several:

  • Our significantly artificial food system
  • Diminishing habitat and diversity, among animals, plants, and culture
  • Reduction of keystone species and other signs of systemic collapse
  • The overwhelm of industrial agriculture
  • The overall struggle for fairness, reaching through civil rights, gender equality, and the rising awareness of animal rights
  • Identity, dominion, imperialism, exploitation, extraction, displacement, and the silencing of dissent

The overlay is complex and intricate. Peace Meal Supper Club, with its multi-sensory qualities, offers everyone an access point and therefore hope.

So how does one represent issues or concepts with food?

Sometimes it’s imitative: painting sound with sound, which so vexed Beethoven–or so I read a long time ago and possibly have inaccurately remembered. But it is simple. If you want your fourth movement to sound like a thunderstorm, then bring on the big sound. If you want your first course to resemble a big blossom, bring on the big filo.

Pumpkin Pot de Creme with Chocolate Balsamic Reduction, from PMSC #3: Pollination
Pumpkin Pot de Creme with Chocolate Balsamic Reduction, from PMSC #3: Pollination

With this plate from the Pollination menu, Pumpkin Pot de Crème with Chocolate Balsamic Reduction, I am representing a native American squash blossom.

There is a tight specialized link between plants and their pollinators. This flower is far too big for a honeybee to efficiently pollinate. The squash bee, a much larger species, is perfectly proportioned. But as non-native plants arrived and replaced the native crops, so too did non-native pollinators—such as the European honeybee—replace native pollinators. Over time, the Europeans have come to dominate. The indigenous are losing habitat.

Kasha Pilaf, Grilled Vegetables, and Lemon Rosehip Cream, from PMSC #3: Pollination
Kasha Pilaf, Grilled Vegetables, and Lemon Rosehip Cream, from PMSC #3: Pollination

Sometimes the meal’s theme requires a more complex composition. The second course for the Pollination menu–Buckwheat Pilaf, Grilled Vegetables, and Lemon Rosehip Cream–portrayed the varied and seasonal work of pollinators, as well as the beauty at risk.

Buckwheat is one of the few grains that is pollinated by animals. Crops such as broccoli and carrots utilize pollinators to produce seeds. Squash need them in order to produce fruit. Roses to produce beauty. As people engage with this plate–its aromas, colors, textures, and bright flavors–they remember that they are part of the environment.

This plate is subtle but clear in its message: Pollinators need an annual progression of diverse crops in order to survive. In providing them with this—or not depriving them of it—we will be rewarded with a resilient food supply and a lush ecosystem. This is a vibrantly positive message. Though it seems to be a rational approach to agriculture, it stands in conflict with agribusiness-as-usual.

The false messages of industry are subtle as well. The commercial tomato—which has become so artificial as to no longer need soil, pollinators, or even human hands—convinces us that our abundance is secure, that we can sustain and indulge ourselves through the cleverness of our technology. We are expected to ignore the flavorlessness of the commercial tomato, as well as the social erosion that accompanies it.

The key ingredient in its production is fragmentation. Every component is disconnected from its native character and/or environment—not only the tomato, but the exploited worker, the soil’s nutrients, and the consumer. Considering the associated issues of human trafficking, border politics, and farmworker safety, it’s a perfect picture of intersectionality.

Double Tomato Tart, from PMSC #4: American Harvest
Double Tomato Tart, from PMSC #4: American Harvest

The dissenting view, however, arrives in this vibrant Double Tomato Tart, the second course for Peace Meal Supper Club #4: American Harvest. It brings a stimulating story of connection. The tomatoes on top were picked the day before I made the tart. They are resting on a sauce which I had prepared and preserved a month earlier, when my CSA presented me with a bonanza of heirloom tomatoes. Grown with regenerative practices—careful selection of seeds, stewardship of the soil, honoring of labor, and farmers who are in possession of their land—the tomatoes tell us how good things can be when everything is reconnected.

Disconnection among workers, soils, trade agreements, seeds, waterways—domestic and foreign—introduces instability into our food system. Our sovereignty becomes at risk, leaving us dependent and vulnerable, subject to exploitation.

It seems accepted that developing countries would experience food insecurity. However, this is not something we should ever consider normal. We should also not consider food insecurity to be a far-away problem.

Pomme de Terre Noire, from PMSC #18: Aperture
Pomme de Terre Noire, from PMSC #18: Aperture

With Peace Meal Supper Club #18: Aperture, I explored the environmental collapse of the 1930s, including the degrading decades that led to the Depression and the Dust Bowl. The devastation of the American plains was not unlike the famine that struck Ireland in the mid-1800s, or the environmental tragedy unfolding in modern-day California. Food security is threatened on a global scale, driven by the political economic system utilized by the US and other developed nations. Our goods come through a massively unfair exchange with people and landscapes.

Waterways also need our attention, so with Peace Meal Supper Club #13: Mississippi I focused my lens on our uneasy relationship with the Mississippi River.

Tempeh a la Memphis, Grilled Romaine, Charred Apple, Hickory BBQ Sauce, from PMSC #13: Mississippi
Tempeh a la Memphis, Grilled Romaine, Charred Apple, Hickory BBQ Sauce, from PMSC #13: Mississippi

Though it once comprised one of the world’s largest wetlands, over the past three centuries the Mississippi watershed has been systematically dried, resulting in a prodigiously unstable river system and a rapidly eroding coastline. The first levees were installed in 1725, driven by French economic goals—a trend which we continue to the present day. Today, the system of levees and dams rivals in length the Great Wall of China. In forcing the river to flow according to our wishes, we invite each hurricane to be the worst yet.

As with the production of the commercial tomato, there are numerous political and social overlays: environmental degradation, racial marginalization, dispossession, and invasive economy.

While political economy fashions our dysfunctional relationship with the Big Muddy, our relationship to its dirt can be influenced by our own actions.

With the Dirt menu, each plate proclaimed the power of the soil and how we can contribute to its regeneration. Rather than consume foods produced in an extractive model—such as industrial wheat, sugar, soy, and corn—we can support farmers who are working in concert with their soil, choosing plants and methods which keep the underground thriving.

Beet Salad, Cover Crop Cocktail, Sesame Miso Dressing, from PMSC #7: Dirt
Beet Salad, Cover Crop Cocktail, Sesame Miso Dressing, from PMSC #7: Dirt

For example, in the second course for Dirt, I served a Roasted Beet Salad with Cover Crop Cocktail and Sesame Miso Dressing. The beets represented the goodness that the soil gives us, and also pointed to the underground nutrient exchange between microbes and plants. The cover crop cocktail–sprouted lentils, clover, and alfalfa–was comprised of plants that help pull nitrogen from the atmosphere into the soil. The dressing, with its fermented miso base, conjured the deep and mysterious alchemy of the underground. My message to the diner was simple: We can make regenerative agriculture profitable for farmers by supporting their growing of these crops. Doing so also bolsters our own food security and promotes greater social equality.

Dirt is linked to Seed is linked to Globalization is linked to Mississippi is linked to the Farmworker is linked to Social Justice. We do not live in a disconnected world, even though we see the symptoms in isolation.

The unspoken but very pronounced theme of Peace Meal Supper Club is this: We must not operate in single-issue mode. We cannot let ourselves be disconnected and dispossessed.

Professor Chien-hui Li, a fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, provides the wisdom borne of a broader view: “While there may be every need for the animal movement to focus on sharply-defined targets in order to achieve short-term goals, there is an equally urgent need to engage with wider literary, religious, scientific, political and other traditions, and to cultivate the state of mind of belonging to much broader social forces striving in the same directions of charity, equality, and justice. This could not only strengthen activists’ faith in something of a deeper nature and broaden their outlook, but also affect the spirit in which their work is undertaken and make it all the more powerful and appealing to others.”

This unified view of rights, fairness, compassion, and progress moves us one step closer to Utopia.

Green Tea Poached Pear, Ginger Peach Pastry Cream, from PMSC #6: Utopia
Green Tea Poached Pear, Ginger Peach Pastry Cream, from PMSC #6: Utopia

Peace Meal Supper Club, like many artistic projects, posits an alternative worldview. It attempts to reset our mindfulness, in a comprehensive scope, towards our eating and therefore our existence. It asserts that Food Is Everything.

My hope is that my creative use of food will stimulate creative discussion regarding our rendezvous with progress. It is our responsibility and privilege–I should say it is the responsibility of our privilege–to make great changes in the way the world operates.

Reciprocity is never-ending. What we give to others, we receive for ourselves.

Peace Meal Supper Club #15: Border Radio

Dr. John R. Brinkley
Dr. John R. Brinkley, quack, politician, radio pioneer, impossible human being.

A rooster crows to mark out his territory and establish dominion. If Dr. John Romulus Brinkley had been a rooster, his flock would have included every North American from the Rio Grand River to the North Pole, and even a few Soviets. Fueled by Depression-era medical quackery and inspired engineering, his XER AM radio signal roared out of Ciudad Acuña, a Mexican town just across the border from Del Rio, Texas. Locals said that its signal rattled their bedsprings, turned on car headlights, and bled into telephone conversations. Non-locals, like radio station operators in Atlanta and Montreal, condemned it for interfering with their own signals.[1]

Along with his own questionable cures–such as xenotransplantation of goat testicular cells into the genitals of presumed impotent men–Dr. Brinkley promoted his own political aspirations, fostered QVC-style infomercials, and helped propel the careers of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family, and other revered pioneers of American roots music. Brinkley’s story defies condensation, touching as it does upon medical charlatanry, male insecurity, cutting edge electronic engineering, innovative advertising, landmark Supreme Court decisions, federal communications legislation, popular culture, international treaties, the birth of mass-media evangelism, and the KGB, who listened in to his signal to brush up on their English.

The Carter Family at XERA
The Carter Family at XERA

His story is far too wow-inducing to leave at that. I encourage you to read this highly-entertaining account here. (Another informative article is here. A film is in the works here.)

XER (and its successor XERA) operated from 1932 to 1939, existing in the shadow zone of the US-Mexico border. Dr. Brinkley, having pioneered AM radio in 1920s Kansas, built XER’s transmitter with the expressed purpose of circumventing US broadcast regulations. Mexico was eager to help him, for they also wished to get around gringo airwave limitations. They had sought a cooperative division of the airwaves across North America, hoping to broadcast to refugees of the Mexican Revolution and other immigrants scattered throughout the US. The US, however, made such peaceful coexistence difficult. In came Brinkley with a team of distinguished engineers ready to outdo themselves, and together they built the most powerful radio transmitter ever to exist upon the planet. This rooster crowed with half a million watts. Some say a full million.

The massive signal lobbed across the continent not only underground hillbilly and blues recordings but the call of mystics, faith-healers, and purveyors of autographed photos of Jesus Christ. It was full-service garage-sale America, and it made the good doctor a millionaire several times over. On the less surreal plane of terra firma, it was a grand exercise in dominion. There was a lot at stake along the border.

Behind the inventive ego of Dr. Brinkley lies the long and complicated history of Mexican-US relations, still working its way into an infinitely tangled knot. The questionable breakaway of Texas from Mexico in 1936 left an unofficially delineated border and an unsanctioned treaty. The annexation of Texas by the United States in 1845 was followed by US military trespass into Mexico. At the end of the resulting war, Mexico ceded over half of its territory to the United States, currently known as California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming. By 1848, the dream of American Manifest Destiny was realized: the United States had extended its dominion to the Pacific Ocean.

USA Territorial Growth, 1850.
USA Territorial Growth, 1850.

The decades between the cession of Mexican lands and the advent of Dr. Brinkley were not peaceful ones. Mexico and other Latin American countries were in frequent political turmoil, some of it due to internal forces, some to external forces. The US intervened heavily, sometimes under the guise of the Monroe Doctrine or under cover of the (Theodore) Roosevelt Corollary. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt instituted his Good Neighbor foreign policy in an attempt to improve pan-American relations. His goal wasn’t entirely altruistic: he believed that adopting a more friendly demeanor towards Latin America would result in more economic opportunity, which is, after all, the impetus behind all American activity. After decades of US aggression, it is hard to imagine anyone taking his crow seriously.

Actress, singer, dancer, and pan-American sensation Carmen Miranda was a product of the Roosevelt Good Neighbor policy.
Actress, singer, dancer, and pan-American sensation Carmen Miranda was a product of the Roosevelt Good Neighbor policy.

Superficialities, however, came out of the woodwork. Radio was alive with the sounds of happy neighbors, as hosts played records from Latin American artists, linguists explained Spanish to English-only listeners, and dignitaries presented travel adventures. Concerts, films, and other cultural exchanges illustrated that to be pan-American-minded was to be a good American.[2]

However, Mexicans living in the US were not included in the neighborly programs. In fact, public opinion was further turned against them. Dolores Inés Casillas, Associate Professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, writes, “American-sponsored [radio] programming peddled themes of hemispheric unity, despite the prevailing nativist attitudes, separating domestic and international agendas. American listeners developed imaginary friendships with Mexicans over there, whereas Mexican communities living here were depicted as unruly neighbors.”[3] Anti-Mexican sentiment was nothing new, having been fomented as propaganda before the Mexican-American War. Heavily racialized speeches filled Congress and the newspapers, with calls for “white destiny” to be fulfilled.[4]

Braceros with El Cortito, the short hoe which forced them to crouch as they worked. The UFW succeeded in getting 'el cortito' banned.
Braceros with El Cortito, the short hoe which forced them to crouch as they worked. The UFW succeeded in getting ‘el cortito’ banned. (Photo from Bracero History Archive)

Behind the glittery veneer of Rooseveltian neighborliness, the US issued constant requests to Mexico for laborers. Those who came were outfitted with short hoes and short paychecks. The Mexican “immigration problem” received frequent play in the press.[5] We might have changed our lyrics, but our song remained the same.

One song captures the moment well: “South of the border/Down Mexico way/That’s where I fell in love/When stars above/Came out to play,” begins a popular song from 1939, sung first by XERA veteran Gene Autry. The song’s superficial story is a romantic one: an American cowboy ventures into Mexico and has a one-night stand with a Mexican woman: “it was Fiesta, and love had its day,” he explains somewhat cavalierly. She asks about meeting again mañana, and he agrees. But alas, he has lied, knowing that he will return to the States instead. Some time later, he drifts south to find her praying at an altar, mission bells resounding overhead. There is sufficient ambiguity to wonder if she is in a convent or at her own wedding. Either way, he leaves again without saying “buenos dias.” The tale is one-sided, of course. She isn’t given a voice.

U.S. troops occupy Veracruz, Mexico in April 1914. (Flickr Commons Project, 2010/Courtesy Library of Congress)
The song was also a backward spin on the 1914 US invasion of Veracruz.

Though long-canonized as an American Standard, it isn’t really a romantic ballad at all. It is a glamorized account of American conquest in Mexico. It is the sound of the filibuster: in the 1800s, several American adventurers obligated themselves to overthrowing Latin American governments and establishing themselves as dictators. The term has since been used to describe a parliamentary procedure wherein a speaker will not yield the floor to a dissenting opinion. The song South of the Border, like the Congressional filibuster, is the sound of Anglo-American dominance.

Sound-as-dominion is an obsession of the online publication Sounding Out!, a highly academic and dynamic venue for scholars, artists, and readers “interested in the cultural politics of sound and listening.” In a currently ongoing series, they are reviewing a project from the 1960s and 70s, wherein a team of recordists set out to capture what Canada sounded like.

Writer Mitchell Akiyama explains that “a ‘soundmark’ is roughly analogous to a landmark: it’s a sound that is supposedly instantly recognizable to members of a community, an irreplaceable acoustic feature of a particular place.” He quotes a member of the original project’s team: “It takes time for a sound to take on rich, symbolic character—a lifetime perhaps, or even centuries. This is why soundmarks should not be tampered with carelessly. Change the soundmarks of a culture and you erase its history and mythology. Myths take many forms. Sounds have a mythology, too. Without a mythology, a culture dies.”

Tampering happens at all levels of our society, from government chambers to the most common workplaces–such as restaurant kitchens. Routinely staffed by Mexican immigrants, they are filled with the sound of Spanish. It is the soundmark of a kitchen.

Restaurant worker in Glenwood Springs, CO, attentively listening to Spanish-language radio.
Restaurant worker in Glenwood Springs, CO, attentively listening to Spanish-language radio. Photo by Andrew Cullen. Please see the full article: http://bit.ly/1LMV1r4

When I was employed at a prominent raw food cafe and school in Ft. Bragg, CA, management sent down the decree: no more Spanish was to be spoken in the kitchen. My Mexican colleagues and I noted that the decree did not prohibit singing in Spanish. A request for the peeler or the blender or even a toothpick instantly became a song. We soon tired of our own mischief, but the point was made: the soundmark will remain, regardless of biased mandates.

Sounds of Belonging, by Dolores Inés Casillas
Sounds of Belonging, by Dolores Inés Casillas

Subversive behavior aside, a soundmark has a purpose. It is the sound of “home,” and is invaluable to a culture that has become scattered across the continent. Casillas states, “Spanish-language broadcasts along the West Coast have long provided nationalist sustenance for a Mexican-dominant listenership that is yearning for an audible, familiar semblance of ‘home.'” Experiencing physical and emotional displacement is common among immigrants. To hear one’s language is to find a stabilizing touchstone. Home is not just a fixed, physical place, but “a mobile symbolic habitat, a performative way of life and of doing things in which one makes one’s home while in movement.”[6]

In every kitchen I’ve entered, I have listened for the sounds of Spanish-language radio. Its existence is an indicator of the health of the kitchen. It speaks of community, strength, family, solidarity, and progress. It also speaks volumes about management.

But not all see it as a positive. To some, all that Spanish-speaking provokes suspicion and fear, and fuels a rising tide of anti-immigrant sentiment and violence.

Writes Jennifer Stoever, Editor-in-Chief of Sounding Out!, regarding Arizona’s anti-immigration SB-1070: “Because unspoken, racialized norms about sound exist and circulate through American culture via the listening ear, members of dominant groups may use sound with impunity to forge ‘reasonable suspicion’ about the citizenship status of anyone who sounds different from them (and who creates, consumes, and appreciates sounds differently from them). Certainly the sound of Spanish is at the top of this list.”[7]

Because "American" is a language.
Because “American” is a language.

In other words, “You don’t sound American. You got any papers?”

Silencing non-English language has been an American pastime over the past 100 years or so. German-language materials were forbidden during the World War I; bilingual education has been banned in various states; Native American children have been enrolled in English-only boarding schools to remove them from their language; and the radio waves have been routinely and bureaucratically cleared of all polyglot tendencies.[8]

Los Lobos: A good idea of what America sound like. Seriously.
Los Lobos: A good idea of what America sounds like. Seriously.

But what does America actually sound like? White residents of Arizona? Polyrhythmic multilingual Manhattan? Kentucky bluegrass played on an African instrument? The United States is the second-largest Spanish speaking country in the world.[9] Whatever America actually sounds like, it is not monolingual by any means.

Our fixation on English-only society is sometimes passive and selective, rather than violent or legislative. Once again Mitchell Akiyama, regarding the recording of the “what Canada sounds like” project: “It should also go without saying that the soundmarks they so prized were deeply entangled with a silencing of Canada’s indigenous population; of a protracted, often violent and brutal, campaign of assimilation that replaced one set of sonic practices with another.”[10]

Lydia Mendoza was a star on both sides of he border, among all language speakers. This photo is from a 1936 recording session in San Antonio.
Lydia Mendoza was a star on both sides of he border, among all language speakers. This photo is from a 1936 recording session in San Antonio.

There is a response to all this suppression: the suppressed step over the line and build the most powerful radio in the world. Dr. John R. Brinkley was on the outs with US authorities when he built the first border blaster. By agreement with the Mexican government, one quarter of his programming was in Spanish. Mexico found a way to reach its dispersed people.

Today, Spanish-language radio continues its public mission in spite of the changes in dominant listening methods. Writes Casillas in a Sounding Out! essay: “The very public nature of Spanish-language radio listening represents a communal, classed, and brown form of listening that differs markedly from ‘white collar’ modes of listening, which offers more solitary practices, promoted by commuting in private cars and listening to personal satellite radios, iPods, or Internet broadcasts.

“For instance, one can routinely overhear loud Spanish-language broadcasts from the back kitchens of restaurants (regardless of the ethnic cuisine); outside bustling construction sites and Home Depot storefronts as day laborers await work; or from small radio sets balanced heroically on hotel housekeeping carts. On-air salutations heard throughout the day on Spanish-language radio are vocal nods to worksites as radio hosts greet washeros (car wash personnel), mecánicos (mechanics), fruteros and tamaleras (fruit and tamale street vendors), and those, presumably farmworkers, toiling under the sun.”

“Listening loudly in the face of anti-immigrant public sentiment,” she continues, “becomes a form of radical self-love, a sonic eff-you, and a means of taking up uninvited (white) space.”[11]

Pedro J. Gonzalez, Spanish-language radio pioneer.
Pedro J. Gonzalez, Spanish-language radio pioneer.

Spanish-language programming did exist in the US prior to XERA’s reign of power. In the 1920s, English-language stations sold their most undesirable timeslots to Spanish producers such as Pedro J. Gonzalez, whose early-morning shows greeted campesinos as they prepared to go to the fields. When local and national regulations threatened to silence them, they partook of Dr. Brinkley’s miracle cure for FCC interference and moved across the border.[12] As Brinkley and Roosevelt were furthering their empires, Mexicans–here and in Mexico–were trying to learn how to live in them.

But they were not seeking economic or political advantage, as were the good doctor and the president’s foreign policy mavens. The operators of Spanish-language radio were doing then what they are still doing now: broadcasting “home” to their wandering compadres, working to unify, educate, and inform them. Helping them learn to live as immigrants in a country that is far too hostile towards its neighbors, yet mysteriously filled with sonorous Spanish place-names: California, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado; San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Fe, San Antonio.

The 1848 Mexican Cession (red line) shown along with the 2010 US Latino population.
The 1848 Mexican Cession (red line) shown along with the 2010 US Latino population.

Just as Spanish-language border radio shot over US resistance, community radio lay below the mainstream. The first bilingual non-commercial radio station in the US, KBBF-FM (Santa Rose, CA), went on the air in 1973. Its mission was clear: “To create a strong multilingual voice that empowers and engages the community to achieve social justice through education, celebration of culture and local and international news coverage.” Born amidst the Chicano Movement, its purpose is relevant to all, regardless of origin, language, or heritage. It is a very American mission.

As Casillas relates, KBBF and its fellow bilingual stations have resumed the practice of those 1920s Spanish-language radio pioneers, providing much needed information and influence, promoting literacy, sobriety, and good citizenship. And as commercial Spanish-language radio has grown–by 1995, it dominated Los Angeles, San Antonio, Miami, and New York–it too has continued the tradition. National call-in shows help listeners navigate the complicated US citizenship process, give advice regarding medical and legal rights, offer ESL assistance, help with H-2A compliance, and provide drivers’ education. The focus is on improvement and the preservation of cultural identity–far more beneficial than the consumption-driven message of Dr. Brinkley.[13]

Brinkley Medical License Trial
The mighty do fall, now and then.

Immigrants are indeed navigating a tsunami of US consumer-based identity. They are not alone in this, for our northern neighbor struggles with the pervasive US personality. “The history of the Canadian airwaves is profoundly mired in struggles to promote, produce, and foster content that might keep the national identity from being completely subsumed under the sprawl and heft of the American culture industry.”[14]

The American culture industry is not, however, in danger of being subsumed under anyone. Its only risk is self-induced: it might one day be eliminated by its own noise, much like Londoners. De nobis fabula narrabitur.

Speaking of noise, I need to clarify my statements about roosters. It is true that they mark their domain by crowing. But they also crow to communicate with other roosters, to check in and see that all is well. Roosters are perfectly capable of sharing space, as they do at VINE Sanctuary in Vermont. Even those trained to fight to the death can learn to live in peace.

Our Menu

The cuisine of the US-Mexico borderlands is a bold, multi-lingual synthesis of methods, foods, and attitudes from native North America, old Spain, and the westward push of the US. The border is not its boundary; rather, the border is its central, invisible highway. This menu reflects shared heritage, coexistence, and the beauty of intercultural understanding: a peaceful contrast to all the aggressive crowing. The dessert highlights our northern border: the longest undefended border in the world.

Course 1: Tortilla Soup
Course 2: Mini Chile Rellenos ~ Bed of Caesar
Course 3: Enchiladas ~ Red Sauce ~ Rajas con Crema ~ Frijoles Refritos
Course 4: Canadian Butter Tart

What We Can Do:
Learn
Listen
Read
Progress

Get your news from a non-commercial source:
http://democracynow.org/
http://www.pacifica.org/

Home

Support community radio, or consider starting a station: http://prometheusradio.org/stationprofiles

Listen to XERF, the offspring of Dr. Brinkley’s original border station. It continues its high-wattage broadcasts of Mexican immigrant identity.

And the gratuitous yet thoroughly justified inclusion:

Notes:

[1] Pope Brock, Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam (Crown, 2008), 35.

[2] Dolores Inés Casillas, Sounds of Belonging: U.S. Spanish-Language Radio and Public Advocacy (New York University Press, 2014), 14.

[3] Casillas, 23.

[4] Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2005), 149-169.

[5] Casillas,22.

[6] Casillas, 5.

[7] Jennifer Lynn Stoever, “The Noise of SB 1070: or Do I Sound Illegal to You?,” Sounding Out!, August 19, 2010, accessed September 22, 2015, http://soundstudiesblog.com/2010/08/19/the-noise-of-sb-1070/.

[8] Phillip M. Carter, “Why this bilingual education ban should have repealed long ago,” CNN, March 4, 2014, accessed September 22, 2015, http://www.cnn.com/2014/03/04/opinion/carter-bilingual-education/; see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English-only_movement

[9] Stephen Burgen, “US now has more Spanish speakers than Spain – only Mexico has more,” The Guardian, June 29, 2015, accessed September 22, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/29/us-second-biggest-spanish-speaking-country?CMP=share_btn_tw

[10] Mitchell Akiyama, “Unsettling the World Soundscape Project: Soundscapes of Canada and the Politics of Self-Recognition,” Sounding Out!, August 20, 2015, accessed September 22, 2015, http://soundstudiesblog.com/2015/08/20/unsettling-the-world-soundscape-project-soundscapes-of-canada-and-the-politics-of-self-recognition/.

[11] Dolores Inés Casillas, “Listening (Loudly) to Spanish-Language Radio,” Sounding Out!, July 20, 2015, accessed September 22, 2015, http://soundstudiesblog.com/2015/07/20/listening-loudly-to-spanish-language-radio/.

[12] Casillas, 40.

[13] Casillas, 23, 76, 86.

[14] Akiyama, “Unsettling the World Soundscape Project: Soundscapes of Canada and the Politics of Self-Recognition,”

Peace Meal Supper Club #14: Labor

Peace Meal Supper Club #14 is offered as a woefully small but deeply respectful expression of gratitude to the unconquerable Worker.

IWW Work Hours CampaignWe speak often of the American Labor Movement as that which brought us the weekend and the eight-hour workday. This attribution is correct, although these benefits were not granted all in one sweep of corporate largesse. These present-day taken-for-granteds in no way represent the magnitude of what Workers have gifted us. Nor do they indicate the fierceness of the fight.

Reading about Labor’s struggle from the late 1800s and up to 1937 is like reading propaganda–even the non-biased accounts read as sensational. Charges of conspiracy and insurrection were leveled against Workers as they sought fair wages and safe conditions. Federal militia and citizen’s armies were sent in to quell alleged anarchist rebellions, atheists were thrown out of court, and our nation was on the brink of destruction due to socialist machinations, it would seem.

Colorado in AmericaIronically, it has been The Establishment–that amorphous mix of corporation, judiciary, law enforcement, press, and legislators–that has invoked the voice of propaganda. From the earliest struggles, Workers have been classified as insurrectionists, anarchists, socialists, communists, atheists, and terrorists. While some indeed have been–just as among any group of the citizenry we can find a spectrum of “-ists”–these labels have been used to justify violent suppression of even the most basic demands.

Hysteria aside, Labor has been a powerful progressive force, a cornerstone of social justice, the factory floor whereupon the betterment of society was wrought. Labor has never been one to move backwards. It has been pushing society forward since the 1600s.

The first known legal case in the United States (Commonwealth v. Pullis) involving a strike to raise wages occurred in Philadelphia in1806. The court’s decision was that striking workers were conspiring illegally, a conclusion significantly colored by English common law. A few decades later, in the 1842 case Commonwealth v. Hunt, the Massachusetts Supreme Court determined that labor combinations–unions–were not inherently illegal, provided their activities were legal. The significant ‘gray area’ in this decision led to inconsistent application through the following decades, and provided ample reason for employers to press the state of intervention in employee disputes. “Interfering with private enterprise” became synonymous with “threatening to overthrow the government of the United States.” Workers were not seeking livable wages; they were anarchists determined to destroy the established order. It doesn’t take much effort, then, to bring in the military. Which is what happened repeatedly during the 60-year period from 1870 to 1940.

John Siney, who attempted to organize coal miners in Pennsylvania in the 1870s, was arrested under charges of conspiracy. During his trial, he challenged the court: “We have been called agitators, we have been called demagogues, because we have counseled our members to try and secure better wages and harmonious settlements. Is it wrong to teach men to seek a higher moral standard? Is it wrong to advance our financial interests? If so, let those who operate our mines and mills abandon the various enterprises to with they are engaged in the pursuit of wealth.”[1]

One version of the world, courtesy of the IWW.
One version of the world, courtesy of the IWW.

Those who operated the mines, mills, railroads, and factories were formidable foes: Carnegie, Gould, Pullman, Vanderbilt, Ford, Morgan. Driven by a fierce creed of capitalism, they amassed unprecedented fortunes as they built massive industrial empires. They were not ones to make humanitarian concessions to the workforce. In fact, they were quite contrary to the idea. They frequently made unannounced, drastic cuts in wages without regard to the livability of those wages. In some of the industries, mining for example, risk of injury or death was present daily. Worker safety was not among employers’ considerations across most industries, as is vividly portrayed in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, 1911.

Sidney Lens, The Labor WarsLabor historian Sidney Lens writes in The Labor Wars, “‘Under the natural order of things,’ said Herbert Spencer, ‘society is constantly excreting its unhealthy, imbecile, slow, vacillating, faithless members’ in order to leave room for the competent ones entitled to reward. Gould and Vanderbilt…operated on the simple thesis that the capitalists, by their proven superiority, were entitled to rule; the workers, by their proven ineptness, obligated to accept their judgments.”[2]

US eugenics advocacy poster, circa 1926.
US eugenics advocacy poster, circa 1926.

Such strong class-based bias, projecting an unflinching assumption of Worker subservience, supposes that the Worker is less worthy due to inherent personal, possibly genetic, qualities. This thoroughly reprehensible idea has been the impetus behind uncountable institutional crimes, from American slavery to British and American eugenics and rampant worldwide genocide in this century. America has focused such prejudice upon wave after wave of immigrants, from Jews to Irish to Italians to Mexicans, not to mention women of all origin, all of whom have successively comprised major portions of our workforce. It seems that once we concede constitutional rights to Workers, we chip away at them via other biases.

The rights we’re according Workers are the rights to which any human is worthy. Freedom of speech, the right to assemble, the right to peaceably demonstrate, the right to fair wages and equal treatment in the eyes of the law, the abolishment of child labor–these form the very core of the Labor Movement’s values, and therefore place it in the domain of basic social justice. Workers have shed blood for more than just pay and weekends.

IWW ButtonFor example, one of the most colorfully radical unions, the Industrial Workers of the World, waged a highly successful series of free speech campaigns between 1909 and 1917. The Spokane campaign in 1909–which you can read about here–exemplifies peaceful civil disobedience, the ability of a dedicated few to secure rights for all, and the tendency of the establishment to suppress speech deemed anti-religious or unpatriotic. As one demonstrator was arrested and pulled off the soapbox, another one would take his or her place–and they did this relentlessly. The jails were filled many times over, hundreds of speakers were beaten by police, fines were levied, unconstitutional and biased ordinances were passed, and still the Wobblies–as IWW members were called–continued their campaign. Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, an indefatigable feminist and future co-founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, even chained herself to a lamppost

Elizabeth Gurley Flynn
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

so she could prolong her speech. One demonstrator, when accosted by police, stated that he was merely “reading the Declaration of Independence.” The two-year campaign was successful, with the city restoring civil liberties and investigating the employers that were the subjects of the Wobblies’ speeches.

The violation of speech rights was joined by the curtailing of the right to assemble, notably during the steel strikes in Pennsylvania that began in 1919. Permits to assemble were required, the requests for which were subsequently ignored for months. Meetings that were held in spite of permits were disrupted by the use of police force. Private meetings were also invaded by the authorities, with new laws requiring that meetings be conducted only in English.[3] In another strike, one among textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, Workers avoided arrest by choreographing their movements on the sidewalks and in retail shops, making their presence known but not being indictable for assembling ‘unlawfully.’ The IWW, ever creative in its circumvention of unconstitutional mandates, devised a “thousand mile picket line” by boarding trains and moving among the railcars to prevent transport of strikebreakers.[4]

Peaceful assembly at the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike.
Peaceful assembly at the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike.

The right to picket is considered a natural part of the right of assembly, yet picketers have long been subject to violent attack and shutdown by the authorities, extending to today’s demonstrations on behalf of other causes. One of the most horrific cases of violence against picketers was the Memorial Day Massacre of 1937, in which Chicago policemen fired into a line of picketers as they made their way to the gates of Republic Steel. A Paramount News photographer caught the incident on film. Paramount refused to show the film publicly, for fear of inciting a riot.[5] Watching it today, the scene seems all too familiar: peaceful citizens hoping to have their voices heard are brutalized by an over-eager paramilitary police force, which in this case was armed by the corporation.

Through over 200 years of labor strife in the US, the Establishment has routinely engaged in surveillance, infiltration, provocation, collusion, unconstitutional legislation, jaundiced judiciary, and racial fear-mongering. Federal troops and National Guardsmen have been utilized to ‘resolve’ problems between Workers and employers. Industrialists have been allowed to establish their own private militias. States have willingly performed executions. Rather than mediate settlements, state and federal governments have chosen to defend corporate interests. Corporate personhood was born in 1819, and came of age in 1888. Its position of primacy in our culture today is almost unassailable.

Pinkerton Detectives were routinely hired by corporations to serve as private police-cum-militia forces.
Pinkerton Detectives were routinely hired by corporations to serve as private police-cum-militia forces.

Workers, meanwhile, though far from faultless, have fought on behalf of constitutional rights for the less privileged. Among Labor’s champions we find leaders of other socially progressive efforts, ranging from women’s suffrage to racial equality. Workers have pooled their funds to provide for other Workers on strike; paid bail and legal funds; and financed burial and memorials for the casualties. During the particularly intense 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike, the IWW arranged foster homes for the children of strikers. This was considered an outlandish, media-grabbing gesture, but the children had been undernourished from birth, with a 50% mortality rate common among in the town. By providing better temporary conditions for the children, the union enabled the striking families to focus on the strike at hand and provided much needed medical care for the children. The Workers won a resounding victory in the form of increased wages, shorter hours, overtime pay, and other benefits.

Men of the Flint Sit-Down Strike in 1937.
Men of the Flint Sit-Down Strike in 1937.

The ability of Workers to conduct themselves peacefully during strikes–admittedly a long time coming–was exemplified during the Lawrence Textile demonstrations. Peaceful striking scaled another peak during the Sitdown Strike at a General Motors plant in Flint, Michigan, in 1936. The strikers did not leave the plant to picket outside. Instead, they remained peacefully inside for forty-four days. This kept the plant occupied and unable to take on strikebreakers. It also shielded the strikers from aggression. They established their own civil structure, had stringent regulations against substances and violent behavior, took care not to damage GM property or equipment, and kept the plant clean and sanitary. Food was allowed in by the authorities, and the heat was kept on. One attempt to take the plant by force was rebuffed, and ultimately the strikers were rewarded for their efforts. The strike has since served as a model of non-destructive civil disobedience and was a forerunner of ‘sit-in’ and ‘occupy’ techniques used decades later. It also presents an unusual restraint of force: Michigan Governor Frank Murphy had National Guardsmen at his disposal. He chose to use them to protect the strikers.

Murphy understood the very core of the Labor Movement, expressed very well by Washington Post editorialist E. J. Dionne: “The union movement has always been attached to a set of values — solidarity being the most important, the sense that each should look out for the interests of all. This promoted other commitments: to mutual assistance, to a rough-and-ready sense of equality, to a disdain for elitism, to a belief that democracy and individual rights did not stop at the plant gate or the office reception room.”

The relationship between government and Workers reached a more peaceful stasis when the National Labor Relations Act was signed in to law in 1935 by President Franklin Roosevelt. It marked a major victory for Labor, as it legitimized unions, Workers’ rights to bargain collectively for better conditions, and to strike when necessary. While far from complete–it excepted agricultural laborers, for example–it was a major milestone in moderating the relationship between employee and employer.

Not surprisingly it was hotly contested as unconstitutional, and numerous bills were introduced to limit its reach during the first 10 years of its existence. The now-standard cries of “socialism” and “threat to freedom” were levied against it, but it has stood. It was a sign of progressive change.

Robert La Follette, one of the great progressive leaders of the early 1900s, introduced Issue #1 of his periodical The Progressive thusly:

“In the course of every attempt to establish or develop free government, a struggle between Special Privilege and Equal Rights is inevitable. Our great industrial organizations [are] in control of politics, government, and natural resources. They manage conventions, make platforms, dictate legislation. They rule through the very men elected to represent them. The battle is just on. It is young yet. It will be the longest and hardest ever fought for Democracy. In other lands, the people have lost. Here we shall win. It is a glorious privilege to live in this time, and have a free hand in this fight for government by the people.”

That was in 1909, and by 1938 and the enactment of the Fair Labor Standards Act, democracy had indeed made progress. So where are we today? Have we truly garnered the victory he sought?

Among the larger industries, unionization has resolved the primary issues. Unions have perhaps become a bit complacent, charges which were leveled at the AFL in the early 1900s. Other unions have fallen due to factionalism or have simply become obsolete. Some, like the United Farm Workers, survive only to celebrate their own history.

Screen_Shot_2014-12-04_at_1.45.41_PM_850_524So it is no surprise that more work is to be done. Recent exposés regarding Amazon’s corporate work culture indicate that the Gilded Age industrialist model is still alive and well. A review of the Fair Labor Standards Act shows that agricultural workers are exempted, and further research indicates that child labor is still allowed in farm fields. Minimum wage campaigns among food-workers serve to highlight the plight of others in service industries, and indeed all along the food supply chain. The H-2A guest worker program is rife with abuses.

Beyond our borders, we see more that needs our attention. In 2012, Bangladeshi garment workers suffered a brutal re-enactment of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which American business–that is, Walmart–played a significant role. Cacao is over-run by child labor, though American corporations have vowed to fight this practice.

Coca-Cola, one of the most recognizable American brands, has been implicated in using paramilitary force in the deaths of union organizers in Colombia. Though a Miami district court dismissed the original case, ongoing inquiry reveals corporate actions similar to those among 19th Century American industrialists.

Along our border with Mexico, factories known as maquiladoras provide cheap labor for American goods. Working conditions are poor, living conditions substandard, and wages extremely low.

Poster - Frank Hoffstot
“We buy labor in the cheapest market,” stated Frank Hoffstot in 1909. American business still follows his lead.

The American capitalist model has been exported worldwide. Wherever it goes, it takes with it a very old mindset. A major stockholder of American Woolen, around the time of the 1912 strike mentioned above, told prominent liberal minister Harry Emerson Fosdick: “Any man who pays more for labor than the lowest sum he can get men for is robbing the stockholders. If he can secure men for $6 and pays more, he is stealing from the company.”[6]

Over at the Pressed Steel Car Plant in 1909, company president Frank Hoffstot’s opinion was that “when all’s said and done” wages are fixed by “supply and demand. The same as everything else. We buy labor in the cheapest market.”[7]

And when things get tense, and workers rebel against low wages and substandard conditions, there is one sure-fire remedy. US Attorney General Richard Olney‘s prescription for curing the Pullman Strike in 1894 was to apply “force which is overwhelming and prevents any attempt at resistance.” It should be no surprise that Olney was a major railroad stockholder.[8] Have a Coke and a smile.

Pullman strikers being confronted by National Guardsmen.
Pullman strikers being confronted by National Guardsmen.

It is hard to study the Labor Movement and not view Capitalism as the fortress of cowards, who call upon the government to save them from the clutches of their underlings. Capitalism has continuously fought to curtail the constitutional rights of citizens, has infiltrated and provoked violence rather than deal fairly with those upon whose labor their empires rest, and has shown not one degree of conscience.

There is a ray of hope, however. In the words of Ayn Rand: “The moral justification of capitalism does not lie in the altruist claim that it represents the best way to achieve ‘the common good.’ It is true that capitalism does—if that catch-phrase has any meaning—but this is merely a secondary consequence. The moral justification of capitalism lies in the fact that it is the only system consonant with man’s rational nature, that it protects man’s survival qua man, and that its ruling principle is: justice.” So this will all be cleaned up in short order.

——————–

I am guilty of criminal neglect for not mentioning Bill Haywood, Eugene Debs, Walter Reuther, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, and other stalwarts of Labor. The history I have given is unforgivably brief, and does not do justice to the innumerable deaths and injuries brought upon Workers by the forces of industry and government.

Please consider reading about the following events, or watching the brief videos.

The Haymarket Affair, 1886

The Homestead Strike, 1892

The General Motors Sit-Down Strike, 1936 [9-minute video with historic footage]

The Memorial Day Massacre at Republic Steel, 1937 [article]

The Memorial Day Massacre at Republic Steel, 1937 [16-minute documentary; original newsreel footage; in 2 parts]

The Pullman Railroad Car Strike, 1894

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, 1911

Railroad Strike of 1877

Sidney Lens. The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sit-Downs. Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008.

[1] Sidney Lens, The Labor Wars: From the Molly Maguires to the Sit-Downs (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008), 26.

[2] Lens, 5.

[3] Lens, 202-210.

[4] Lens, 167.

[5] Lens, 320.

[6] Lens, 170.

[7] Lens, 160.

[8] Lens, 98.