Your Vote Matters: A Call to Arms in South Carolina

INTERESNI KAZKI, posted by @recountmag on

 

 

 

In the loosely packed auditorium at the University of South Carolina, the crowd murmured anxiously as they waited for a glimpse of the headliner:  Dr. Cornel West, radical black activist, a demi-god to some. He, with other local prominent leaders hosted a town hall in support of Bernie Sanders’ higher education and labor reforms. Although Sen. Sanders himself was not present, the crowd littered with educators, young professionals, pastors, bartenders, and all else in between displayed a fervor usually reserved for the man himself. The town hall was co-organized by the South Carolina Labor for Bernie Committee and Higher Ed for Bernie, and was sponsored by the University of South Carolina Student Government.

Dr. West stressed the importance of dignity within Sanders’ campaign, mentioning at one point that, not party alliances, but honesty, dignity and integrity were the most important factors in measuring a candidate. He even went so far as to refer to Sanders as a “moral and spiritual laxative” for America. In these vivid descriptions, Dr. West exhibits his true belief in what Sen. Bernie Sanders has to offer, especially to communities of color and young people. Much of the rhetoric surrounding Bernie Sanders’ campaign for presidency dictates that he will not succeed, unless youth who support him and his commitment to higher education and labor reform, turn out to vote.

When the speech ended, the floor opened for questions from the audience when a man asked why it felt as though the fate of civilization rested on these elections. After taking a moment to let those words sink in for both the speakers and the audience, Dr. West answered in such a way that you or I would: he commiserated, then went on to point out that, for most people of color and those living under oppressive systems, it feels that way every election, rather, everyday.

As primary results from Iowa, New Hampshire, and soon Nevada roll in the youth vote is particularly crucial now. In Iowa, Sanders received 84% of the youth (17-29) vote, while Clinton left with only 14%, yet Clinton won by 0.3% of the overall vote, appealing to the middle age and older demographics. Although 0.3% is not wide of a margin, every vote makes a difference. As we saw in New Hampshire, Sanders won by percentage (59.9%) through more demographics than Clinton, save for the senior vote and those voters whose families make more than $200K/year. While the Sanders’ campaign still views Iowa and New Hampshire as victories, they are even more significant as representations of what can be accomplished by mobilization of the people and ideas for an America based on our dignity.

As I write on the cusp of primaries in my home state of South Carolina, I urge you, whoever you may be, whomever you may vote for, make sure you are registered, turnout, and make sure your vote is not wasted. Engage others through action; find a local campaign office and volunteer. Although civilization may not rest on this year’s elections, smaller fates do, and if you’re anything like me, you’re aware that yours is one of those smaller fates. I hope to one day join and flourish in this shrinking middle class. If I want that to happen, I must galvanize young voters like you, and myself.

Register to vote.

And for those who ask the question, “What’s the point of voting?” your frustration is beyond understood, but not tolerated- apathy never sparked a revolution. If you’re still not convinced, John Oliver recently did a segment on Voter ID laws that threaten our voting rights. Check it out below:

“Only we can tell our stories”: a review of “The Square” and “Winter on Fire”

When the Egyptian revolution occurred in 2011 and the 2013-2014 Euromaidan protests followed in Ukraine, unless you were on the ground experiencing the catastrophic political turmoil, it was difficult to begin to comprehend the true sequence of events or how the people were responding to them.

Luckily, there is film, and people use film to make documentaries, to tell these stories. Sometimes, they are brave and take their cameras into war zones because they actually care about showing other people what is happening in their country. The filmmakers of  both“The Square” and “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom,” assumed that bravery to chronicle the events surrounding both revolutions.

The cultural differences between the two countries are stark, it’s true, but the common element within both of these films is that they show people of all ages taking refuge in a central gathering place, a square that already holds cultural and historic significance. They claim it as their own, camping there for months in spite of the barrage of militancy exercised against their calls for accountability and independence from the government.

In 2011, around the time that the Arab Spring was taking place, I was in Berlin conducting interviews with different people there and in Egypt for an anthropological research paper about Egypt opening its border with Gaza. One of them, Mohamed Shoukry, a real estate agent living in Alexandria at that time, offered incredible insight into the situation depicted in “The Square.”

“A lot of people are in the political sphere who never appeared before the revolution. Their intention is to root out the corruption in Egypt, but this will take some time,” Shoukry said. “Even though now we may have been able to cut off its head, it has strong roots.”

“The Square” starts off with a bang, a gripping sense of immediacy that spares nothing on the imagination of the violence waged against the protesters who called for President Hosni Mubarak and the military to be deposed. We are introduced one by one to the activists playing a central part in speaking out against the oppressive Mubarak regime, a spectrum including reserved British-Egyptian actor and activist Khalid Abdalla and a bright, young idealist named Ahmed Hassan.

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Ahmed Hassan in “The Square.” Photo credit: Netflix/Noujaim Films

 

The footage of Egyptian-American director Jehane Noujaim being chased by the military for documenting the event will render the audience shaken, and as the announcement of Mubarak’s concession is proclaimed, the fear and anxiety felt for the activists melts into joy. But wait…it’s not that far into the film now, right? Exactly. This is what makes “The Square” unpredictable and the emotional energy of its characters captivating.

The motif throughout the film is a vibrant mural depicting the success of the revolution in colors representative of the people’s joy toward Mubarak’s ousting. However, this is when the Shoukry’s insight helped place the revolution in greater perspective. The protesters optimistically  retreated from the square, in pursuit of something resembling a democracy and someone resembling a responsible leader. That optimism is challenged, however, when the military seizes control shortly after the resignation of Mubarak. He was going to stand trial for the murder of peaceful protestors in this time, and was sentenced to life imprisonment. However, his acquittal for this crime caused the protesters to return to “The Square”, and a new chapter in the film chronicles their growing despair.

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Protesters, including a man holding tear gas cannisters, chant slogans and wave national flags during a rally in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, Nov. 25, 2011.

 

Magdy, another activist and member of the Muslim Brotherhood, brings an interesting dynamic to “The Square”, particularly when the Islamic group expands political leverage and influence after Mubarak abdicates office. The other activists, who are not particularly religious, are shown in the film as being on fair terms with Magdy. As The Brotherhood assumes growing power, however, and becomes increasingly brutal and militant toward the secular protesters, the relationship between Magdy and the other activists complicates.

The Armed Forces offer to supply The Brotherhood with weapons and political power within the government if they betrayed the revolutionaries. There are other sources, however, specifically one in the Washington Post, that claim The Brotherhood was portrayed inaccurately in the film and their image distorted falsely by the cosmopolitan activists in Tahrir Square.

“Politics is not the same as revolution. If you want to play politics, you have to compromise,” Abdalla says.

At the same time, he points out how The Brotherhood was the only strongly organized group amongst the crowd, and as the enthusiasm died down,  it became evident who the players were: The Brotherhood or the old regime, now fronted by the military.

“It was a war in the square, not a revolution,” declares one of the other activists.

In 2012, when Morsi is “democratically” elected president, the growing agony is chronicled in the mural with a big, blood red line painted over his face. People take to Tahrir Square once again, and the protest exhibits an alarming new energy in communicating their rejection of another violent and oppressive leader.

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Work by graffiti artist Abo Bakr on a street near Tahrir Square in Cairo as seen in Jehane Noujaim’s documentary, “The Square.” Credit: Courtesy of Noujaim Films

At one point in the documentary, he states, “Enough of this. All the politicians are failures.” Walking in the middle of a (surprisingly) empty street in Cairo, he makes a metaphor of himself, declaring “I’ve decided to walk in the middle of the street. The cars can do what they want.” He asserts, “I will stand my ground, enough walking cautiously on the side.”

In contrast to the optimism at the start of the film, it is this point when the growing tide of pessimism returns, with Abdalla stating that the rebels’ mistake was “in leaving the square before the power was in their hands.” The Brotherhood had been working alongside the military regime and took power, which enhanced Magdy’s visible anxiety about which side to invest allegiance in.

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Protests against American support towards the Egyptian military were not included in the scant media coverage  of the Tahrir Square uprisings. Credit: presstv.ir

When Morsi is ousted and sentenced to death, a sense of joy waves over the activists. Hassan, our charismatic guide, is revived from his dip into disillusionment at the news of the Muslim Brotherhood’s power play.

Hassan even calls up Magdy and speaks to him in a kind, jocular tone, showing that he did not want their relationship to be punctuated with the tension that had imploded between them when The Brotherhood had seized power.

The tone of the documentary, however, portends the uncertainty and volatile spirit of the events that have continuously been influencing the energy of the people. At the end, the film returns to Abdalla, whose serious, pensive demeanor stands out against Hassan’s fierce optimism.

“When you don’t have your rights, when you’re taken to the front, when you’ve been lied to, when you’re killed, things become pretty clear,” Abdalla conveys in a direct, sober manner.

Although, in the light of the context of Morsi’s ousting, this statement can be viewed as a victory, there is something about Abdalla that indicates he is not certain that Egypt will not continue to be politically volatile.

Red paint is shown dripping on the Converse of an artist working on the mural, a metaphor for how the young revolutionaries are influenced by secular culture and want to change the social and political mores of the country to align with ideals rejected as Western.

However, as returning to the mural throughout the film reminds us, there will be constant changes in the story of one of the greatest revolutions in the history of the world. With the Egyptian military in power, the story of whether or not the people remain as optimistic as they are portrayed at the end of the film remains fairly obscured at the moment.

 

Anti-government protests in Kiev
Anti-government protests in Kiev January 25, 2014. After two months of primarily peaceful anti-government protests in the city center, new laws meant to end the protest movement sparked violent clashes. Deadly violence erupted on both sides. © Maxim Dondyuk

 

“Winter on Fire” chronicled the November 2013-March 2014 protest that occurred in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev after then-President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign an association agreement deal with the European Union, ultimately moving the country further into Russia’s circle of influence.

The documentary, directed by Russian filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky, also places one in the middle of the action right away, showing how thousands of people who believed in Ukraine as a European nation took to Maidan (Independence) Square, a beautiful nexus in a capital symbolic of the ancient world (aligned by a medieval gate and an opulent cathedral) clashing with the modern, as fast food restaurants and hotels have popped up nearby.

It is once again the perfect place, as Tahrir was to Cairo, to symbolize the change that the people were waiting and looking for. After centuries of being tied to Russia under the Kievan Rus empire and beyond, they were hoping to become a modern, politically stable country.

The documentary is ultimately, I think, a bit more detached from the participants than “The Square” is. It feels more restrained and not so involved in their lives from the start, as you are not invited to know an integral set of activists. Here, the stories are magnified in-depth little-by-little as the film goes on.

That being said, the film, recorded by Ukrainian protesters, is a powerful testament to the joy and movement that was summoned forth when these events occurred and the people came together. Having travelled in Ukraine and other former Soviet countries, one of the most distinct characteristics of the people was their melancholy demeanour. Years of starvation, suppression, economic peril and corrupt governments leave the region besieged by continually grey skies and an underlying lack of hope. That suffering is and will continue to be prevalent radiates and looms outward amongst the thin, cobbled corridors of their broken cities.

The wonderful part of this film is that as the momentum gains, the people realize that this could be the opportunity they have waited and secretly hoped so long for and the hope begins to appear in their eyes. People of all ages gathered at Independence Square, a majority of them dressed mostly in black parkas but with a few colourful grandmas, speaking different languages. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, the non-religious: they were all there.

There was another group the film did not cover: those people who internalized nationalism the most. After speaking to a friend of mine who had insider knowledge of the Maidan protests, I learned that nearly all the fighters on the “front line” were members of Ukraine’s neo-Nazi and right-wing parties. The movie, he said, left this fact out: that while the crowd was mainly a composition of people fighting for universal equality, there were also seedier elements that existed. These groups are, in a way, to the Maidan what the Brotherhood was to Tahrir.

It was, at its core, a peaceful protest, a loud call of disagreement with the government for giving up their chance to break away from the fringe status they maintained between Europe and Russia. There is a saying in Europe that I heard frequently: Poland is 10 years (development-wise) behind Germany, and Ukraine is 10 years behind Poland. This agreement would finally have kick-started Ukraine’s course into the European trajectory.

With snow falling on Independence Square, the atmosphere grows explosive as some protesters begin behaving violently. One of the peaceful activists opines that the Ukrainian riot police force (known as the Berkut) has planted people within the crowd in order to bring forth a reason for them to attack.

The cellos and violins that frame the events appropriately capture the restless melancholy throughout the film. The snow falls harder on the ancient square. The sparrows linger on the bare tree branches. An impending sense of doom lurks throughout the crowd, and an ancient church bell that had not been rung since the Mongol Tartar invasion in the 1240s grips everyone in its timbre.

Sure enough, the Berkut storms onto the square, descending like a swarm of locusts. Armed with iron rods, they attack, beating people viciously on the ground. A woman is shown leaning back against the tree. The blood stains on her face against the white wool hat she is wearing stand out as a pronounced metaphor, a taint against the purity of her idealistic behavior.

“Who gave birth to you, a mother or a wolf?,” one of the protesters asks, referring to the relentless brutality displayed by the Berkut.

There is, however, a discrepancy between how much blame the film levies on Yanukovych as the sole perpetrator and other factions of persecution taking place that were not mentioned.

“They paint Yanukovych as this blood-sucking demon of pure evil, but they miss the people who actually orchestrated a lot of the violence, like the people directly in charge of the Berkut police,” says Anton Guz, a graduate student pursuing a degree in peacebuilding and conflict transformation at SIT Graduate Institute in Vermont.

As the film goes on and the winter moves further along, the steam continues rising up from the make-shift kitchens and fires that the protesters have started in order to keep what has now become somewhat of an island alive. The supplies that became the fuel for the Maidan island were not revealed in the film. Specifically, volunteer drivers were bringing in medical supplies to the fighters and taking people to the hospital, as the roads to Kiev were blocked. There was a mass outcry of support for the protesters in Maidan, one of which, called AutoMaidan, was based in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, a hub for nationalistic Ukrainian support.

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Morning on Hrushevskoho street after the night of flaming tires and Molotov cocktails. Protesters again constructed barricades and prepared Molotov cocktails before a night battle between protesters and police, which already had become a usual thing. Kiev, January 25, 2014 © Maxim Dondyuk

The support and supplies brought in from various parts of the country fueled the ongoing struggle against the winter and the cold history that Ukraine did not want to continue to freeze itself into.

My favourite moments in the film, showing the peoples’ sense of humour and heart in the midst of a dim situation, were their responses to various bans placed on them by Yanukovych, one of which was ‘no helmets.’  They answered by putting on pots, pans, flippers, masks of all shapes and colours. It was quite unusual to see little babushkas roaming around this dystopian war zone with pots on their head, and the film juxtaposes this all-too-real-its-surreal element quite strongly throughout.

Guz was born in Ukraine and is quick to point out some aspects of the film that he found problematic, specifically Ukraine’s all-too-relevant relationship with Russia.

“I think that’s a nuance that’s dangerous to forget, since the master manipulators in this situation live in Moscow, not Kiev. But also, surely it’s important to actually name the culprits behind the violence, right?,” Guz said. “Where are they in the movie?”

The film shows the people walking over snow-covered pictures of Yanukovych as they enter a cathedral, where bodies of the dead are being carried. A slow, solemn heavy chant rises from the crowd paying final respects to friends and family members who have died.

In order to understand this scene and the context of the movie, it is important to keep in mind that Yanukovych was a tyrannical, greedy ruler, and one that was under orders from Russian president Vladimir Putin to not allow Ukraine to strengthen relations with Europe. However, he used his relationship with Putin as leverage, deceiving Putin into thinking that he had control of Ukraine and its affairs while subsequently working behind the scenes to strengthen relations with the EU.

The Yanukovych-Putin relationship is 150% a crucial element of the politics framing the backstory behind the revolts, as is the massive history of oppression and tyranny that Ukraine has endured at the feet of Russia. It is no question that anyone who is interested in global affairs and who wants to learn about the Maidan events in 2014 will walk away from the film with a greater understanding of what it means to be a country caught between two significant powers, but nevertheless, they would have benefited even further had more context been provided.

“The movie could have empowered people who saw it to go out and convince everyone that Ukrainians beat incredible odds, showed amazing bravery and resilience, and transformed their own society in the space of a few months,” Guz said. “The movie could have showed that while people are arguing whether the EU is worthwhile because of minor economic quibbles, people in Ukraine laid down their lives for the mere chance to join it. It could have enlightened people in western and central Europe to the crazy shit that threatens them and people like them only a few hours away from where they live.”

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Markiyan Matsekh plays the piano for riot police in Kiev, 7 December 2013. (c) Andrew Meakovsky, Oleg Matsekh and Marikiyan Matsekh

 

As a girl in the middle of the square plays a piano painted the colours of Ukrainian flag and snow continues to fall on the ashes of the Euromaidan, the documentary resides to ending the story on a tidy note. The ending summary does mention Yanukovych’s flight to Russia, the subsequent annexation of the Crimea by Putin and the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine, but it doesn’t touch over the chaos and bickering that is continues to take place within the new Ukrainian government.

Both documentaries are raw and incredibly well-filmed. While “Winter on Fire” ultimately opts for a slightly cinematic feel with the way it is tidied up at the end, “The Square” leaves things just as raw and un-ended as at the beginning of the film. Both, however, serve as hallmarks of courage and bravery to share with the world how hard people around the world are fighting for their freedom.

 

Check out LensCulture for more photos of the Ukrainian revolution and Egyptian revolt.

New year, same Ms. Lauryn Hill

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Hannah Sommer Photography

COLUMBIA, SC It’s an hour til the new year.  The clock is ticking on an empty stage directly in front of the South Carolina State House, where the notorious confederate flag had waved for fifty four years… until 2015 took it down.  A congested and anxious crowd stretches all the way down Main Street as they patiently and confusedly wait for the infamously late Lauryn Hill. An equally confused DJ sporadically appears on stage, giving his all to hype up the crowd with old school hip hop and classic Fugees tracks. Ready or not here she comes.  Lauryn strides across the stage in a layered cape-like black dress and rimmed hat. She sits quietly on the couch in the middle of the stage next to a table of burning white candles. She picks up a guitar, a surprising sight for most fans who know her as a rapper and poppy R&B singer, and lets her voice flow over the relieved crowd, offering a sense of peace to the close of an intense year for the city.

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Hannah Sommer Photography

Since the release of her solo – and only – original album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in 1998, Hill has fallen from the public eye to become somewhat of a musical mystery. Ms. Hill, famed for being the first female musician to win five Grammy Awards, is now renowned for her outlandish behaviour and critical comments toward the music industry and press. In 2013, Ms. Hill served three months in prison for tax evasion. Ten years prior, in 2003, Ms. Hill made controversial statements attacking the Catholic church about child molestation, while playing a Christmas concert at the Vatican. She often appears hours late for her shows and will sometime not appear at all.

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Hannah Sommer Photography

Despite media criticism, Ms. Hill has kept herself busy with various personal projects. Her dedication to social justice and activism is little-publicized. She founded The Refugee Camp Youth Project in 1996 to help inner city kids and children living in harsh conditions in countries such as Zaire and Haiti. In fact, her performance at Columbia’s “Famously Hot New Year” was a benefit for local victims of the flood that occurred this past fall.

She recently resurfaced, contributing to “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” the critically acclaimed Netflix documentary. “Feeling Good,” is jaw dropping and sincerely showcases Ms. Hill’s connection to the late Nina Simone. The cover expands Simone’s work with a more upbeat rhythm and familiar sentimental undertones.

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Hannah Sommer Photography

In the wake of her performance, Ms. Hill’s reputation inconsistency in the public arena is easy to dismiss. This just might be one of the last true artists, not owned by the industry, but by her artistry. She renounces her celebrity status and creates work on her own terms and time, producing for herself and not because it is expected or owed to anyone. Ms. Hill, mother of six and longtime partner of Rohan Marley (yes, Bob Marley’s son), has kept her values close to home. She abandoned the spotlight for the sake of her family and self, an act that we can assume is difficult for one of R&Bs superstars to undertake.

Ms. Lauryn Hill has been an inspiration and influence to many. In 2014, fellow rapper and activist Talib Kweli penned “In Defense of Ms. Hill” on Medium and produced a song titled “Ms. Hill,” spelling out her legacy and struggles with fame in 2005.

She has been referred to as one the greatest R&B singers of all time; and who could doubt it when her seventeen-year-old Miseducation still resonates with crowds and sells records. (Disclosure: Hill’s producer, Phil Nicolo, just made a statement that a new original album is on the horizon.)

As Ms. Hill ends her set with her greatest hit “Doo Wop (That Thing),” the once-restless crowd experiences a tone that cleanses, the capitol of South Carolina bids goodbye and good riddance to the bullet wounds and torrential rains of 2015, and her deep, melodic voice welcomes the birth of a new year.

Photographs by Hannah Sommer. Check her siteInstagram, or Facebook for more.

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Hannah Sommer Photography

 

 

 

Photographs by Hannah Sommer. Check her siteInstagram, or Facebook for more.

The revolution will not be televised, will not be tweeted

My coworker turned to me today and said, “Oh, no. The New York Times. Tamir Rice.”

I wish I could say I was surprised at the results: no indictment in the case of a police officer who shot and killed unarmed/toy gun-armed/two-armed 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio about two seconds – no exaggeration, watch the video – after arriving to the playground.

A few days ago, Sandra Bland’s murder in police custody was dismissed without indictment as well.

 

Still, processing that this case would end so abruptly after a year had me at a loss for words, awkwardly chuckling, smiling, making ambiguous and disjointed comments about the future and the irrelevant fact that a new year is beginning…

I knew it was coming, yet the most disappointing about living in the United States since Trayvon Martin’s murder is the numbness. I vividly remember tearing up on my brother’s 12th birthday this year – he’s just gotten taller than us, too, and as the baby of the family, won’t let us forget it – when Tamir crossed my mind. So I know that there is emotion in here somewhere; begrudgingly, maybe, but it is there.

This resonating numbness makes me wonder if I’m growing less and less human, or into a stronger version of myself. Have I become like the disinterested public or the resilient few? Is my mind institutionalized or free? Thankfully, it’s impossible to know for sure, so I usually cope through thought experiments, bringing my bachelors-level political and social psychology theories to the forefront instead of my own experience.

Speaking in hypotheticals momentarily makes all of this just as surreal as it feels to refer to someone’s beloved with simultaneous distance and familiarity through something as intangible as a hashtag. Again and again.

 

Anyway.

 

Our conversation led me to say, “the revolution will not be televised” inspired by Gil Scott Heron. I first heard the song in The Black Power Mixtape, a documentary by a Swedish filmmaker (available on Netflix) covering the civil rights movement years 1967-1975. It remains relevant today as calls for justice grow, so I revisited the song for another thought experiment, in the age of twitter and television, will the revolution be “live”?

 

“You will not be able to plug in, turn on, and cop out.”

The good will not be televised and while the vigilant watch of social media is supportive, sometimes this constant stream of black deaths and their subsequent disregard through official statements of disinterest seem like a mechanism in itself, rather than a consequence of an unjust system. Author and activist Angela Davis describes the foundational role of violence in revolution and the inescapable presence of state-sanctioned race-based violence in a 1972 interview.

 

The effects of that theoretical onslaught are real in the black American experience, and manifests in as many ways as there are black Americans. For me, it’s been foggy, depressive periods, aggressive social media, and most recently channeling the anxiety into productivity – creative expression and a commitment to social justice through engaging others.

 

“The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal.”

Here’s a thought experiment:

If a citizen dies in police custody and everyone is there to tweet it, does it make a difference?

 

We need to go beyond mainstream media narratives and phone screens, especially if we are ready to do better – and people of all races know that we must. This is a statistically reinforced race issue, which makes it a human rights issue. 

The revolutionary good that this country needs – and I believe wants – will not be televised. It is a blessing and a curse, as people are able to seek tangible improvements away from speculation that corrupts this message. However, they are largely unseen – community activists, attorneys, nonprofit organizations.

 

Conversations, then, are essential. People need to hear other people, see other people taking action, talk through this stuff; they need the opportunity to be wrong and be informed again from a face, not an avatar. They need to see that there is good being done, constantly. So, if you care, you’re gonna have to reach out to somebody. You’re going to have to stumble through awkward, meaningful conversations; it’s the only way to then stumble forward to action.

 

We have to become comfortable speaking for ourselves in an age of retweets, likes, and the multitudes of murmurs of the blogosphere. It starts among friends, then communities, then demanding to be heard at local levels. We have to call people out, call ourselves out, and call out the principles that matter to us.

 

“There will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers on the instant replay.”

On the contrary, there is constantly new footage of unnecessary lethal force. If video evidence is no match for the legendary “infallible, superhuman-yet-chronically-fearful, good guy” police officer, as we saw in the cases of Sandra Bland and Eric Garner, amongst others, then calls for dashboard and body cameras are meaningless. Surveillance has been vehemently opposed by officers, who claim they cannot do their jobs correctly if observed. Public officials are intended to be accountable to the public. To protect and serve citizens.

Yet, in this day and age, legal provisions still allow for the seizure of civilian property on arbitrary grounds, as John Oliver explores on Last Week Tonight: Civil Forfeiture.

(He also covers Ferguson and the history of police militarization, an important caveat.)

 

We have to demand better. Accountability is not too much to ask, and in a time where deadly force has replaced first response protocol, we would do well to demand de-escalation training. The case law term for Tamir Rice’s murder is “officer-created jeopardy”. That it’s justifiable in hindsight and through loopholes isn’t good enough, and police need to be held to a higher standard in their profession, to enter situations strategically to minimize, rather than create confrontations. Read more on the question of policing standards coming out of this grand jury decision from Jamelle Bouie at Slate.

 

The reality is that we don’t need thought experiments to get to revolutionary action, with scientists at Harvard categorizing police brutality in the US as an epidemic. We do have to take a revolutionary approach by demanding reform on the issue of police accountability. It’s an issue of human rights, an issue of public health – and in that sense, the bystander effect is our biggest challenge to overcome.

 

At this point, seeking out real policy reforms to support, speaking out through protests and/or conversations, and simply demanding better are revolutionary. Do it because it’s about what is right. Do it for the sake of a better place. Do it in a way that feels right to you, because it is up to you to do something.

The revolution will not be televised, will not be tweeted. The revolution will be live.

 

Metaphors, money in politics, and COP21: A global call to local action

Rondonia, Brazil.

Global leaders collected in Paris for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UN FCCC) Conference of Parties (COP21) in early December to resolve collective action on the issue. The Earth’s changing landscapes and the telling experiences of climate refugees are the tangible evidence of three decades of research. The Earth’s conditions are inching closer to a tipping point, and with building momentum. The Paris Agreement has so much potential, but it’s been met with a mix of optimism and cynicism given the history of these sorts of talks. Paris is talked about as our last hope, but has enough changed since the Kyoto Protocol of 1997 or Copenhagen in 2009?

187 countries’ Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDCs) have been laid on the table, as they collaborate to avoid the 2 degrees Celsius limit. That goal can guide collective action in theory, but every country is inherently different – there are developed nations and developing nations, capitalist states and socialist states, indigenous leaders and Western bureaucrats. Greenhouse gas emissions are tied directly to industry and in essence, the ways that individuals, communities, companies, and global markets use energy. Have those changed enough in the past twenty years?

Deforestation

Brazil and the United States are influential in energy and industry, with a complex relationship.

(75%) of the Amazon rainforest is located within their borders and in the industrial boom that has positioned the country as a lead developing nation, (50%) of this vital ecosystem has been culled. The rainforest acts as the air conditioning unit for our planet, generating an atmospheric river of water vapor that helps to regulate the Earth’s temperature and purify the atmosphere of greenhouse gases. Deforestation weakens this regulatory cycle and the carbon sink that it functions as, therefore facilitating the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and Earth’s resultant warming. Thus far, Brazil has been forthcoming with their verbal commitment, and has actually reduced the rate of deforestation in recent years.

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Deforestation in Brazil: Rondônia is part of the Brazilian Amazon, on the border with Bolivia. It is one of the peripheral areas undergoing expansion within Amazonia, growing from about half a million inhabitants in 1980 to more than 1.5 million in 2009. Within the Brazilian Amazon, Rondônia has the highest deforestation rate. It reached more than 34 percent in 2008, a drastic increase from 1978 when less than 2 percent had been cut. The principal causes of deforestation in the Amazon as a whole — and especially in Rondônia — are population growth due to government-promoted immigration, the growth of the wood-products industry in conjunction with the expansion of the road network, and burning for management of pastureland and agricultural fields. Source: United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). From Latin America and the Caribbean Atlas of our Changing Environment (2010).

 

Consumption of the Amazon rainforest is very much culturally ingrained, so the components of this issue are many-fold and interconnected: industrial agriculture and logging, illegal deforestation, job security, political expedience, lack of economic support for the existent environmental police. More than that, the United States has a stake in deforestation as well, as the primary importer of Amazonian wood, in addition to importing meat and soy. Local and global economies then merge, as coverage of deforestation in Brazil by NPR explored.

I reached out to my friend Jean, from Rondonia, to learn about things from his perspective.

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Jean looking out at Rondonia across the Brazil-Bolivia border from the mountains of Bolivia.

Rondonia is a young state, formed when people migrated West in the 1980s to support their families through cattle ranching, logging, or agriculture. Ultimately, it has supported the development of the entire country into global trade’s current agricultural powerhouse.

Now, Brazil proposes to convert from deforestation to land preservation, reforestation, and a commitment to renewable energy. Garcia-Navarro’s coverage closes with a beckoning: “Brazil’s congress matters to us, all around the world.”, and it is true we need their commitment and follow through.

A rural area like Rondonia prospers, though unequally, thanks to the logging and cattle ranching industries on a global scale. Their ties are traditional and universal at the same time, affecting the livelihoods of vigilante rubber tappers and the international housing industry. It follows that the rest of the world’s actions matter to Brazil, given that their meat, soy, and timber exports go primarily to the United States. Intrigued by the dynamics at play, I asked a good friend from Rondonia to share his perspective.

Jean grew up on a cattle farm in Rondonia and has witnessed the depletion of the Amazon alongside the growing prosperity of his state. Jean says that the COP21 climate talks are too bureaucratic –  too far removed from the economic, political, and cultural realities of the rainforest – to have any real meaning for the fate of the Amazon.

Citing the 1988 decree that incentivized the migration and cattle ranching that led his father to Rondonia, Jean states, “It’s not to blame the farmers and people making money from it —  it isn’t their fault. The government allows it to be this way.”. Deforestation, largely by fire, was the foundation for Rondonia’s economic growth. The reality is as Jean explains, “The Amazon is impregnable, so that’s why any cities and communities can be there now: deforestation.” Actually, the narrative should be familiar: Western migration, subsistence cattle farming turned booming industrial growth at the expense of the environment. See the effects of industry on deforestation in the United States:

Source of 1620, 1850, and 1920 maps: William B. Greeley, The Relation of Geography to Timber Supply, Economic Geography, 1925, vol. 1, p. 1-11. Source of TODAY map: compiled by George Draffan, based on a map of the remaining roadless areas in The Big Outside: A Descriptive Inventory of the Big Wilderness Areas of the United States, by Dave Foreman and Howie Wolke (Harmony Books, 1992).

Industry money in politics

Ivo Cassol is a senator from Rondonia, wealthy cattle rancher, and member of the Brazilian Senate environmental committee. His position on the committee affords him a say in the climate talks and partial responsibility to implement Brazil’s commitment per the terms of the agreement.  He questions, “Is it fair to ask Brazil to do all the conservation when the United States made the mess to begin with? That’s very hypocritical of the Americans. … Are we to be the slave of other countries? The lungs of the United States?” He goes on indignantly, “Even though they send us only a pittance to pay for it? I won’t accept it. No.”

He may have a point, but his criticisms have personal and shallow political notes that seem to limit their applicability to the realm of the elite. He was found guilty of fraud by Brazil’s Supreme Court and Prosecutor General, so he is currently appealing his criminal charges on technical grounds. Previously mayor of Rondonia and governor, Cassol assumed his Senate office in 2011; the accusations: giving government contracts to associates, friends, and family members when he was mayor.

Herminio Coelho, one of the few opposition candidates and a member of the leftist party, calls their Senate assembly a “whorehouse” and “criminal enterprise” of leaders who would sooner see Rondonia without trees than help the environment, as landowners and profiteers of deforestation themselves. It resonates, then, when Jean states, “The bureaucracy is the problem,” and continues on about Brazil’s politics, clouded with corruption, bribery, and blackmail at local, state, and national levels.

In Jean’s personal experience and in his political participation (voting is mandatory in Brazil), citizens tend to favor the familiar. “People will see a name they know and choose it because they recognize it. It doesn’t matter what they would do or their politics; it’s a family name so they think they can trust it.” At the same time, those families have vested interests and long-standing relationships that lead to circles of corruption that rise louder than the voices of the people.

We saw it in the United States earlier in 2015, when money in politics as speech led to the funneling of $136 million into Republican candidates Ted Cruz, Jeb Bush, and (at the time) Rick Perry from Southern oil corporations with a mix of financial and social ties. So when Cruz hosted a forum in the US Congress during the Paris climate talks to state that he doesn’t believe climate change exists, we have to ask: is there truth in what he’s saying and who is he saying it for?

Money’s influence in politics is at the root of COP21 criticisms as well. Kumi Naidoo, head of Greenpeace, addressed the coinciding People’s Climate Summit in Montreuil, stating “isn’t it strange that the people that are sponsoring the COP are including oil, coal, gas, and nuclear companies?”. The metaphor he uses is an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting sponsored by alcohol companies. On the other hand, Greenpeace is the foremost environmental global NGO, with 30 million supporters worldwide – and they accept zero donations from corporations. Naidoo goes on to explain that the people most affected by climate change currently are underrepresented being from smaller nations, tend to be low-income, and are predominantly brown and black people.

 

 

Pew Research Center recently published a study of global concern about climate change. Latin America – specifically Brazil – reports the highest percentage of concern towards climate change and understanding that climate change is taking effect now.

Trends show that high CO2 emitters are less intensely concerned about climate change. Ivo Cassol’s accusations towards the United States may come to mind again when we consider that in US politics, we debate its legitimacy rather than legislation and policy to move towards sustainable processes. Meanwhile, this year Brazil has seen Sao Paolo, its largest city, deep in drought and 150 homes destroyed after two dams holding toxic waste from an iron ore mine burst in Minas Gerais.

Agriculture is largely rooted in tradition, so Jean helped me to understand by relaying his own experience in the geophysics field. When farmers are hesitant to accept soil analyses and chemical supplements he uses metaphors, most often likening it to medicine. He explains the combination of physics, math, and impressive technological equipment to eradicate contaminated liquid as identifying, locating, and treating cancer.

Jean points out, “People fear what they don’t know about”. Who will tell people on the ground to translate the global impact of their actions or to liken the principles of sustainability to everyday decision-making? Who will translate the climate agreement created by bureaucrats into practical terms for the people whose economic livelihoods and cultural traditions will be affected?

Bureaucrats used many metaphors used at the talks as well, although those can be reduced to strategically passionate political rhetoric. I prefer satirical coverage – its closer to the people’s commentary: telling, critical, and funny (see The Daily Show’s piece on Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz and the oil industry).

 

Is tradition the enemy of innovation, then? Are metaphors the only way to discuss these issues? Not necessarily.

It’s unreasonable and unfeasible to turn away from our traditions immediately – they have valid social and economic significance. We’re looking at changes in infrastructure, lifestyles, and legislation. We have to be selective about what we bring into this new era and comprehensive of human experience.

A human rights issue

“It’s easy to write a bill, but to enforce it outside of industrialized cities is different,” Jean finds. He recalls that when Lula, Brazil’s first working class president (2002-2010) set out to address poverty in Brazil, it was through cost-effective, well-targeted programs. Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva was the child of migrants and later a metalworker and trade-union leader. His two-term presidency cannot be confirmed corruption-free, but he left office with 90% approval ratings. His legacy is lifting 29 million Brazilians out of poverty and into the middle class through economic supports for the impoverished.

Jean adds, “I am a big fan of taxing people; it’s necessary to maintain the republic. It makes us closer to each other when the richer are closer to the poorer.” Poverty and climate change are both quality of life issues, with direct influence on immediate and sustained access to resources. Undoubtedly, either the costs or the responsibility to action fall on all of us. With the amount of money exchanging hands between the contributing industries and decision-makers in environmental policy, climate change and reforms like the Clean Power Plan could be the equalizer we need to bring local, community voices to the table.

 

If followed through, Paris is the beginning of the end of the fossil fuel and greenhouse gas emissions era, a change that will fundamentally alter the way we live – if it is to have any effect. The treaty does take the aforementioned lifestyle changes into account, providing supports for communities dependent on the fossil fuel industry, in anticipation of the impact of altering their economies.

Pew Climate-Change-Report-18We have reached the point (it could be argued that we reached it long ago) where life as we know it must change, due either to climate change or our response to it. 414 US cities and towns are guaranteed to be underwater as sea levels continue to rise. To respond proactively is no small undertaking; in reality nothing significant is.

During our Skype date, Jean expressed his cynicism through another metaphor, “When I see rich countries talking about deforestation, it’s like a mask for them, I know it.” There is hope in the spirit of this agreement, however: consensus was gathered through indabas: a South African method of mask-less, transparent group deliberation. Instead of repeating stated positions, each party is encouraged to speak personally and state their “red lines,” which are thresholds that they don’t want to cross. But while telling others what they cannot compromise, they must contribute to the collective goal.

 

A distinction must be made between the terms of the Paris climate deal as they are agreed upon and the terms as each country can actualize them. Being from the United States, I share in Jean’s cynicism towards results; we rarely agree to a course of action within the government, let alone in the global sphere. US Republicans have already threatened the work of the climate deal. So when it comes time to ratify and implement the terms of the Paris agreement in the United States, what can we expect? I am still hopeful in spite of that cynicism, largely because it is too soon to tell. If we do come up against more of the same corruption instead of capitalizing on this call for collaboration, the implications are huge.

As Elon Musk stated at Sorbonne during the Paris climate talks, what we incentivize is what happens. As we look to next steps in ratification and implementation, the people will need to have a seat at the table and hold decision-makers accountable for results, nuanced policies to provide everyone with the means to contribute solutions that combine industry, innovation, and tradition.

The talks in Paris are over; these leaders will return from the hill to the people, the other politicians, farmers and pundits, conversations and media narratives. What then? We’ll have to see – and act. The 192 world leaders who convened in Paris this year will revisit this project again in 2018, and in 5-year increments starting in 2020.

I’ve found the hope surrounding these climate talks, the textured history that led us here, even the crippling effects of greed on reaching agreement to be unabashedly human. We’re capable of great things through sustainable and innovative technologies, but without communication and collective action at various levels to back it up – I’m not sure what to expect.

Climate change and money in politics are both local and universal, social and industrial. Use whatever metaphor you will; in the end, we’re all in this together.

The Frigid, Sonic Landscape of Chief Keef

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Slurred, disjointed braggadocio drenched in bouncy, delayed autotune. Punchy ad-libs peppered sporadically like trumpeted staccatos. Synth heavy beats sliding around, as amorphous as a gust of propane that has escaped from a steel tank.

All of these and more are characteristic of your average banger issued by Chief Keef, christened Keith Cozart on the 15th of August, 20 years ago. The Chicago native broke into the consciousness and headphones of rap fans everywhere upon the release of his 2012 mixtape Back From the Dead. “I Don’t Like,” a track from the aforementioned mixtape, quickly went viral, attracting the attention of industry mainstay and hit-maker Kanye West; the rest has been history.


Much of the discussion surrounding Keef’s work has just addressed its “weird” nature. Noisey, Fact Magazine, Entertainment Weekly and more have all touched on the experimental territory the rapper has treaded since his increasing departure from the drill-rap conventions he himself was largely responsible for establishing, along with his early producer Yung Chop. What all of these talking heads seem to miss is that Keef seems to have direction with his experimentalism, despite the haphazard quality of many of his releases.

Not unlike the place “demo tape” releases have held in DIY, guitar-centric music scenes, mixtapes in the modern rap-sphere serve as a testing tool for an artist to shop an artistic direction without potentially sacrificing major marketing and recording budgets. Additionally, they’re useful for keeping core fanbases happy and having sufficient material for live shows. Keef’s most far-out projects have been released through the mixtape format, including the unique 2014 sequel to Keef’s breakthrough, Back From the Dead 2.

This one’s a monster:

 

 

Back From the Dead 2 showcases Keef’s most drawn out yet consistent flows. He allows lines room to breathe, beautiful musical flourishes to shine, and quickly followed by sometimes hilarious ad-libs that are always intensely effective.

Young Thug, a contemporary of Keef’s, has been getting press for what many perceive to be a “gibberish”-based rapping style. His, and Keef’s in a similar fashion, have been perceived to actually be captivating takes on regional vernacular filtered through very expressionistic flow-forms, with Thug even having been known to walk into the recording booth with doodles of shapes and concepts rather than lyric books.

This vocal approach has been termed “warble-rap”, which places more emphasis on feeling than New York-based rap conventions of technical ability. Warble rap follows in the storied tradition of long time trap-rapper Gucci Mane, who has worked as a collaborator and mentor to both artists.

Of course, beats play a role in a song’s feeling. Keef is at the helm of 16 of the 20 tracks, all heavily indebted to a sound quality not commonly attributed to rap, not to mention  hardcore rap – psychedelic. Chief Keef’s psychedelia is less about kaleidoscopes and Flower Power and more about the disorienting perspective acquired as a product of war-torn streets. Rugged individualism by way of survival rather than personal philosophy. Sound collages of machine gun shots litter many of the tracks.

Upon listening to the long awaited, retail mixtape Bang 3, one can observe the scaled down the eccentricities from much of his 2013-early 2015 output. Despite that, his adventurous spirit can still be seen in the three random songs he posted on October 19th:

 



 

Much has been said about Keef’s place in the industry. From fellow Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco’s criticism of his hyper-violent lyrical content to persistent concerns that his short-lived dalliance with Interscope Records was manipulative, Keef’s name has constantly been pulled since his entrance into the high stakes arena of the rap business.

And the concerns have all had some level of validity. As Keef was achieving stardom, Chicago was constantly in the news due to its status as what Kanye West referred to as being the “Murder Capital”. Much of the publicity focused on post-2010 figures, although Chicago has had an endemic problem with fatal violence since the late 1960’s. Since 2000 the average annual murder rates are lower than those as recent as the 1990’s.

That being said, out-of-touch community leaders and politicians from Chicago seem to lack empathy for someone who is a result of the issue. Mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel and another local mayor shut down a benefit concert in Chicago that was to feature a hologram of Keef citing concerns over violence. It was more of a political move to seem “tough on crime” than anything else. It turned out to be a moot point, as the benefit, and the holographic performance, was in condemnation of  gun violence and sought  to assist recent victims of the phenomenon. So who is in the wrong, the guy who came from a hyper-violent world talking about it frankly and artistically, or the label bosses and politicians who use the guy to benefit themselves?

King Sosa is constantly seeking the Sound in an age where artistic exploration is often synonymous with the sacrifice of fan loyalty. For that, all fans of forward-thinking rap should be thanking him.