"Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo has said he will not be slowed in his crusade against corruption, despite what critics may say ... " The BBC broadcast waves in and out on my shortwave radio. I boil water on my gas cooker (electricity's out again) for my morning cup of tea, and can't help but chuckle. For me, it's just another day in my life as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria.
Obasanjo's crusade feels as remote as it might were I hearing it on NPR in my hometown of San Francisco. Coming from the monotony of middle class urban-intellectual America, where the biggest drama in the day is the after-work race to the organic vegetable market to avoid the six o'clock line, Nigeria is a jungle. Everyday is different, but I can be sure that today I will witness, and perhaps participate in, some form of corruption.
It won't be embezzlement of billions of dollars in oil receipts, or the manufacturing of multi-million dollar contracts that never get completed -- it is for those reasons that Nigeria is a perennial contender for the number one ranking on Transparency International's list of Most Corrupt Countries. It will be corruption as most Nigerians experience it, from pacification money to low-level extortion, from inappropriate hustling to small-scale fraud. Of course, it might even include a little gun-slinging crude criminal activity.
Two months ago, as I bumbled into town I saw my first evidence of "jungle justice" as it is called. A pile of charred corpses, a leg sticking up like a submarine telescope, a face frozen in anguish, craning up to the sky. They were five thieves, convicted and burned on the spot for allegedly stealing 4.2 million naira [$30,600]. Even in the relatively protected University environment, corruption, with the invention of the Internet scams -- now one of Nigeria's staple commodities -- will certainly live another busy day.
As I walk out my gate in the morning, I greet the guards, and because it's been a few days since I last dashed them, I pull out a couple of twenty naira notes (about 30 cents), and push them into their palms. "Something small to chop," I say. They press the notes to their forehead, bow ceremoniously and shout, "God bless you, sir! Oga Dan!" They are twice my age, but as the only white student among 25,000, it's impossible to dodge "Oga" or "Big Man" status. Always better to leave the guards smiling at their dash than wondering where in my room I keep my camera.
I hop on one of the intercampus buses -- rusted, wobbly Nissans whose cushy seats have been exchanged for smaller benches so they can carry 18 passengers. As I squeeze out at my stop, the conductor refuses the bill I offer to pay with. "It's been taken care of," says a voice from behind belonging to a student who introduces himself as Bright, an appropriately smiling third-year economics student. "I am secretary of transportation. I will arrange free transport for you, no problem."
I refuse, knowing in Nigeria's "nothing for nothing" culture of mutual back-scratching it's best to decline anything for free unless the person is substantially more rich and powerful than you. Making friends is always a potentially dangerous commitment. Several of my friends on campus (I have dared) admit to me that they don't have any friends, just associates. "I say hello to everybody, but I don't really want to get too close to you, "says Jacob, a first-year theater arts student. "Friends betray you."
I stroll past a pair of classrooms -- open air, concrete structures overÃ¯Â¬â€šowing with students. Dressed smartly in dress shirts and slacks or loudly in billowy hip-hop garb, they stand outside the classroom and lean in the windows to hear the lecturer. The lecturer has to compete with the sermon of a student preacher next door, who is goose-stepping up and down in front of the chalkboard. About 50 students gibber in tongues and beat the floor with their hands. Prosperity churches are big business in Nigeria, and the University is a good place for up-and-coming preachers to refine their skills before they graduate, turn "pro" and have to deal with the fierce competition among soul-savers in Nigeria's intensely Christian Southeast.
In the humanities quad, I watch a professor bound out of his office, arm in arm with a buxom female student. Perhaps they have just discussed her grade. Paying professors for good grades is a common practice. A student hoping for an A might expect to pay 5,000 naira ($35), while one only able to pay 3,000 naira ($22) can at least get a C.
Female students, of course have options. "You can either pay in cash, or pay in kind," says Olatunji, a second-year business administration student at Rivers State University of Science and Technology (UST), Port Harcourt's other university. Olatunji estimates that 40 percent of professors accept cash payments for grades, while 20 percent sleep with their students. How does he know? "Everybody knows," Olatunji says with a laugh. "Maybe after his lecture, the lecturer will see a girl he likes and say, 'Please see me after class.'"
This isn't the only way professors supplement their income. Another common practice is making a certain textbook or packet of articles mandatory, and selling it at three times the normal price, while making sure the student bookshops do not supply any copies.
Not to be outdone, students find ways to make school pay. Two months ago, my friend Frank, a third-year political science student, woke up early and left the house without eating any breakfast. "Jam day! I'm gonna make some Benjies, man!" he squealed, rubbing his hands together in the age-old sign for money (Benjies is short for Benjamin Franklin's, or hundred dollar bills).
On that morning, the lawns on campus were swarming with clutters of anxious teenagers and smooth hustlers swirling between them. Thousands of young people across Nigeria were preparing to sit for the University entrance exam. But by the time they pick up their pencils, the real work will be largely finished. As students tell it, as soon as administrators from Abuja, Nigeria's capital, touch ground in Port Harcourt (and a dozen other cities around the country), they are met by two or three agents, to whom they sell one of the most coveted pieces of information in the country: the exam questions.
The agents pay a hefty sum, but the return is quick and lucrative. They give the questions to people they have sub-contracted to solve them, and then begin selling the answers to a selection of middlemen. These middlemen will take the answers to the testing sites, where groups of nervous students will chip in to buy their answer sheets. Of course, there are no guarantees, as for every bona fide supplier there are several bogus answer vendors. And their exam monitor may be strict, although they usually relax considerably when given a few hundred naira.
On this particular exam day though, Frank was sorely disappointed. "Three hundred card (naira), man!" he complained. "That's lousy money man, I needed Benjies!" Frank, like many other smart and savvy students, would soon have another money-making opportunity on campus. Endowed with considerable writing skills, Frank often offers his services as a "mercenary" exam writer for enrolled students. The common practice is for an understudied student to buy two exam sheets, walk out of the exam with their own and leave their "mercenary" to write up a winning essay and turn it in. This doesn't yield lousy money; students quoted a mercenary hire fee as between 10,000 and 15,000 naira ($70-$110).
Of course these "mercenaries" are unarmed. Cult groups -- mafia-like student associations comprised mostly of politically ambitious rich kids -- are not. Last week at UST, cultists from one of the most prominent groups, the Vikings, stormed into a classroom just as students had finished writing their exam. As one student recounted, the cultists collected the exam sheets, tore them up, and then began firing their weapons wildly in the air. Students dove headfirst out the windows. Apparently the Vikings, of which Rivers State Governor Peter Odili is a prominent member, were making a protest against alleged special treatment University officials were giving their arch-rivals "Black Ax."
Walking past the dorms, a man in black pants, black t-shirt and sunglasses waves me towards him. Although compliance and politeness is not always the best policy in an environment in which bluffing bluster and hiding one's fear of a situation is often the best escape route, he had the signs of one of the Man O'War, the student security servicemen.
Sure enough, after a brief, informal interrogation, which is as much a "feel-out" as anything else ("What's your name? Which course are you in? Are you moving with him?), he delivered me the standard free pass. "You are welcome," he said, leaning back in his chair and casting his gaze out towards the next possible trouble spot. The student security service, which at Uniport is headed by a former State Security officer, is the best defense against the cults.
Suddenly a scream goes up from the neighboring dorm room, and a Ã¯Â¬â€šock of students burst out, shouting and shaking their hands in the air. Student election results had just been released, and their candidate had won. Frank walked up slowly, his shoulders slumped. "Man, we lost by four votes, man! Four votes!" he said. Although student elections were said to be free and fair by all students I interviewed, the stakes are still high enough for a bitter campaign fight. A position in student government means power and influence for a student's home community.
As with national elections, it was hard to get any students to mention any ideological platform the candidates were espousing. The lines were drawn along ethnicity, then geography, then family. Out of three candidates from Frank's Local Government Area in neighboring Bayelsa State, only one had triumphed. His hopes for a lucrative election cycle had been dashed.
Despite a web of scams against which students must stay continuously vigilant and nimble to avoid falling prey to, some see improvements. Book price-hiking has been curtailed. At UST, a certain lecturer, Ogan, was recently sacked for overpricing books. Even paying for grades, the signature university fraud, is on the decrease, according to some. "Before it was in the open, but now it's somehow hidden," says Olatunji. "Before out of six courses, you could expect to pay for grades in four. Now maybe only two." Others are less optimistic. "You could write a book about corruption just here on campus," says Lovely, a second-year theater arts student. "Corruption is in Nigeria's blood."
I duck into the campus Internet cafÃƒÂ© to check my email. News websites discuss how the recent cancellation of $18 billion of Nigeria's debt will affect national development and poverty alleviation. Ultimately, that is what is at stake, although it is difficult for Nigerians to see how their small, everyday decisions are part of an all-pervasive nationwide attitude that is crippling the country.
In a society as steeped in corruption as Nigeria's, it is difficult to locate the wellspring of corruption. Many Nigerians insist it "comes from the top," and this is true to some extent. The constant police checkpoints, in which glassy-eyed paramilitary, police or army men wave around AK-47s, are ordered from on high. It is common to see the commander sitting in the front seat of the paddy wagon, his seat reclined, lazily counting the day's take, and calculating how much he will need to pass on to his boss.
But a strong case can be made that oil has made Nigerians money crazy. That the fast, easy money it brings discourages trying to advance slowly and steadily. Instead, morals are mortgaged in the chase to become a Big Man. Those who pursue a slow and honest path are almost always passed up by those who have a "Godfather" or "Oga" pushing them. Merit doesn't get you much in Nigeria.
My neighbor Frank comes panting into the Internet cafÃƒÂ© and hands me a piece of paper. "Now professor wants 8-10 pages, I don't get time, oh," he says with a well-rehearsed sense of desperation. "Maybe you can just help me write a draft? Just a draft."
I unfold the paper and look at the essay topic: "The role of corruption in Nigeria's national development." I crumple up the paper and shake my head. I explain that it wouldn't be right, that I might get kicked out of Uniport, that I would make a bad mercenary.
I also explain that I have my own article to write about corruption in the Nigerian University, and that I have to maintain some journalistic integrity. "Just a draft, just write a draft," he begs. I pause to decide how best to get out of this one. "Now what do you have for me?" I respond, holding out my hand and looking as sorrowful as possible in the great Nigerian tradition I've yet to master. He storms out of the Internet cafÃƒÂ©, and I return to typing my article. I've kept the wolves of corruption at the door for the day.
"He was a four letter athlete by the time he was a junior," brags Susan Defillipi of her son, Mike Defillipi. And that's not the half of it. His senior year, Mike Defillipi ran for city councilman in Agawam, Massachusetts. He lost by two votes after a recount. But he's committed to running again. His opponents better watch out, he's in college now. And if a high school diploma and a stellar varsity athletic career can almost win an election, imagine what a college degree in Poly Sci will do. But he's not your stereotypical bleeding-heart liberal teenager either. He's a Republican in a Democratic town. Is he the future of youth politics?
When an American teenager turns 18, the most immediately practiced new legal privilege is smoking. Everyone knows you can vote too, but less than a third do it. To combat this low level of electoral participation, youth-led organizations that assist young people's entrance into electoral politics are springing up across the country from Berkeley, CA to Baton Rouge, LA. But they don't just want to get young people to the polls, they want to help them get into office. By bringing youth perspectives into city council meetings and state legislative sessions, they hope to change youth's common perception of electoral politics as boring, "sold-out", and with limited potential for real change. They're also betting that the more youth gain office, the more young people will feel represented and invested in electoral politics, and start voting more. As the movement gains momentum, several questions arise. Is this a movement, and how serious is it? Is there a common "youth agenda?" Can youth political advocates be non-partisan?
Give the People What They Want...And That Would Be?
Sounding the battle cry, Thomas Breyer, executive director of Party Y, a Los Angeles based consultancy for young politicians, calls the increasing push for young people to run for office "a revolution". Rhett Morris, executive director of Youth Elect, balks at this suggestion. "It hits the media, and it's a good novelty story," say Morris. "Anecdotally, youth politicians are on the increase, but it's not to revolutionary proportions." Since there's been little long-term data kept on youth politicians, it's hard to place things in an historical context.
What constitutes a revolution anyway? How about a big march? David Smith, executive director of Mobilizing America's Youth, a youth politician's advocacy and consultancy birthed in Berkeley, but now based in Washington D.C, is on it. He organized a national march that culminated in Washington D.C. on July 1 of this year. Smith's previous ideas have also included an American Idol style search for promising candidates.
When trying to get young people excited about the squarest of political participation, electoral politics, a little spectacle can't hurt. But if the ideas about process are innovative, while the message stays the same, what's the point? In an era of Jesse "The Body" Ventura and the Arnold "The Governator" Schwarzenegger, are youth just another freak act in the ever-expanding political circus?
No, youth in office aren't clowning around. Peep Jesse Laslovich, 23 years old, serving his second term as a Montana state Congressman (D). He recently sponsored legislation that would restrict police officer's ability to give Minor in Possession citations to young people who are only in the company of those drinking at parties. Not that he drinks. 7up is his party beverage of choice. But he's a young teetotaler on an electoral rampage. He won reelection unopposed and is filing for State Senate this year. "It's kind of funny, but all of a sudden the party has high expectations of you," says Laslovich.
Sound insider? That's the point. "You can stand and yell outside, but if you want to make changes, you have to get inside," says Smith. Preaches Breyer,"If there's nobody out there that's running that you like, don't just sit there and protest on the street. Don't sit out, don't complain, run for office." Contrast that with the mantra of forefather Timothy Leary: "tune in, turn on, drop out", or that generation's caveat, "never trust anyone over 30".
Things done changed. For most youth politicians, they are the only ones younger than 30 in a legislative session. And they want nothing to do with the demonstrations and be-ins that epitomized the political experience for many Baby Boomers.
Consider Joyce Chen. While studying chemistry at Yale University, she also did community service projects in the nearby Dwight neighborhood in New Haven, Connecticut. Then she decided to run for Alderman of that neighborhood. In a contest with a Democratic incumbent in a Democratic town, she ran as a Green, and won. So now in addition to her 30-hour a week job, she serves her constituency 20 hours a week, going to meetings, hammering out legislation, and attending community events. "It's a lot of sacrifice, and it's not that glamorous," says Chen. She gets paid $2,000 a year.
Young and Unaligned
"Experience is not all it's cracked up to be," says Breyer. Certainly, youth have a lot to offer to the political process. Young people are generally more open-minded. "Older legislators are set in their ways," says Laslovich. "They don't have the courage to articulate views that aren't widely respected," confirms Chen.
Young people also have fewer responsibilities and more energy. Many candidates are fresh off a college career full of studying all-nighters. Even if they were in the club all night, they were there all night. With more energy, they can campaign harder. Who can walk up and down stairs and hang leaflets faster, you or your parents? Once in office, young people can spend more time serving their community, and for less money, as they don't have a family to support.
It's convincing. Almost makes you want to drop your picket sign and run to the polls and elect a whole bunch of young people. But just because you're both young doesn't mean you have a lot in common. In fact, many youth candidates have platforms that would be indecipherable from your average gray-haired governor. Their campaigns are not aimed at attracting youth votes. They don't pepper their websites with slang, and they're more likely to visit a senior citizen home than a hip-hop show or punk concert. They're serious politicians, and youth aren't serious voters.
Young candidates are all over the political spectrum, as well. "There's more shared sentiment, than shared ideology," says Rhett Morris. Young people's attitudes towards issues of sexual preference are more tolerant than previous generations. But it will be hard to pass legislation until this generation is of political maturity. Polls suggest that top issues for youth include education, juvenile justice and jobs. But solutions are all over the board. "We all agree that more money for education is a good thing, but are vouchers a good thing?" asks Smith. "The political alliances of our day are much more of a matrix than a one-dimensional line." Morris, who has interviewed dozens of young politicians, credits this to emergence of the first post-Cold War generation. True, the dominant ideological divides were tumbling just as today's twenty-somethings were learning to read the newspaper.
Trying to lump youth candidates together, although media compatible, and therefore tempting, is tricky. When Party Y sponsored a debate between some of the youth candidates in the California Gubernatorial race, they sought to hype their stars by having them ride to the debate in a bus together. "But I didn't want to ride in a bus with people who don't believe in public education," said Georgy Russell, a 26 year old software engineer who ran on a liberal platform and participated in the debate. Russell was debating against Brooke Adams, a conservative Republican, and Daniel Watts, who ran as a Green in order to take a stance on student fee increases.
Still, some young politicians are willing to engage in a little non-partisan youth networking. Jesse Laslovich, a Democrat, describes himself as a moderate-liberal, but he recently gave 100 bucks to his friend Joe Hunne, a conservative Republican running for Congress in Michigan. But would he support a young candidate over a Democratic in a close election? "It's a close call," he sighed, "but I'd say I'd go with my party."
As young candidates take aim at higher offices, an organized youth political power base may prove essential, especially when going up against older, richer opponents. Jeff Hoffman has twice run and lost for State Congress in North Dakota. He plans on running again, but vows to do more networking first. "It costs money to run, and you don't make money without networking," says Hoffman.
In November of 2003, Youth Elect hosted a young politicians' conference in Baton Rouge, LA. Young politicians shared their knowledge and experiences with fellow politically passionate youth. It was a major bash of non-partisan age solidarity. "It was amazing to look around the room, and realize that the oldest person in the room was 25 or 26," chuckles Morris. If the initial excitement of these conferences can become a vigorous network, the youth politician will no longer be a cute novelty story. It might be early to talk of a trend, but youth have always been the trendsetters.
"I've been working fourteen years to keep my sanity, now I'm on vacation," mused J.J. Tennison, speaking in a slow, metered voice. In 1990, Tennison, then 18, and Antoine "Soda Pop" Goff, then 21, were convicted of manslaughter and sent to separate state prisons in California to serve sentences of 25 years to life. Then, in September 2003, they were proven innocent on appeal and exonerated. But in a small press conference with about 20 journalists at San Francisco's Pacific News Service last December, Tennison and Goff showed little bitterness. Didn't they despair over losing the prime years of their youth, asked one journalist, himself just pushing 25? Tennison, now 31, leaned back in his chair and shook his head. "Most of my friends from that time are either locked up or six feet under, so it's hard to say what my life would have been like," said Tennison.
It was a startling admission, but surprisingly realistic. America has the highest incarceration rate in the world, far outstripping runners-up Russia and Belarus. The U.S. houses more prisoners than China and India combined, according to the King's College of London International Centre for Prison Studies. This has not always been the case. Prison populations have quadrupled in the past 20 years in the U.S. (to around 2.1 million people currently).
Of those incarcerated, 57% are under the age of 35. As welfare roles decline, prisons have become the primary institutional interface for more and more youth, informing everything from pop culture to worldview and life expectations. While commentators have sought to define today's young and restless as the Hip Hop Generation, a better moniker might soon be the Jail Generation.
"Going to prison has become normalized," says Billy Wimsatt, a journalist turned activist whose 1994 underground book Bomb the Suburbs was one of the first and most eloquent articulations of the politics and worldview of what would later be termed the Hip Hop Generation. "Prison used to be the monster way in the corner, now it's taking over half the room, and it's getting its slime all over," ventures Wimsatt. In his second book, No More Prisons, Wimsatt leveraged his grass-roots populist appeal to focus attention on the anti-prison movement. His path exemplifies the growing convergence between mainstream hip hop and an urban lifestyle that is deeply damaged by increased incarceration rates.
"Going to prison has a variety of negative effects," says Marc Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based prison analysis and advocacy group. "It hurts employment prospects, it breaks up families, and the high degree of mobility creates a population that has fewer legitimate connections to the community." Although juvenile poverty rates have steadily declined, the percentage of children raised in single parent homes has risen from 12% in 1970 to 28% in 1998. Although it is unclear how large a role increased prison populations play in this phenomenon, the increase has been most marked among those populations that have high incarceration rates. In 2000, only 38% of black children were being raised in two-parent homes. "Think of the number of kids who can only talk to their parents through collect phones or class trips upstate. Prison fosters a culture which people bring out into their world," Wimsatt laments.
If so many young people are growing up in prison, what exactly are they being taught?
"In prison, you learn to talk less, listen more, and observe -- and you learn patience," says Eddy Zheng from a pay phone in Solano State Prison in Vacaville, CA. In 1982, when he was 12 years old, Zheng came to America from Canton, China, with his family. His parents worked full time -- "my Dad worked at McDonalds; all he memorized was how to say 'mayonaise, lettuce, tomatoes.'" Zheng didn't adjust well. In 1986 he was convicted of kidnapping with intent to commit robbery, and was charged as an adult at the age of 16. "I grew up in prison," admits Zheng. Still learning English when he was admitted, Zheng took ESL classes and got his GED, and then went on to receive an Associate Degree of Arts through extension classes at San Quentin State Prison (he has since been relocated to Solano State). He plans on starting a youth guidance center for new immigrants when he is released. Zheng realizes his story is unusual and praises the "huge support from family and friends beyond the community of incarceration" that have helped him make the most of his time in prison.
For many, prison is nothing but lost time. "You don't learn nothing in prison," says Darrell Anthony, 24, over the phone from his house on Chicago's Southside. Anthony (name changed to protect anonymity) is on house arrest while he awaits a court date later this month. "You might learn how to break a new crime, or a card trick, but that's about it." Anthony was arrested in 2001 for drug possession, and served 19 months in Statesville Prison, IL. Released in May 2003, he was arrested for narcotics possession again in August 2003. With legitimate job prospects hampered by a felony record, many ex-convicts return to old hustles to survive. "If you ain't got no job, you ain't got no life," says Anthony. His story is not unusual: 66% of prisoners return to prison within three years of their release.
The dramatic increase in prisoners has deeply affected the poor, urban, and black and latino communities that have long been the life force of the Hip Hop Generation. One in three black men and one in six Latino men will go to prison at some point in their lives, compared to one in 23 white men, and 64% of prisoners are minorities. In his 2002 book The Hip Hop Generation, Bakari Kitwana reserved the term for African-Americans born between 1965 and 1984, dismissing Generation X as applicable only for whites.
But even though incarceration disproportionally affects poor, minority neighborhoods, with Hip Hop as its publicity machine, criminal justice issues could find an audience beyond the communities directly impacted. Russell Simmons, the music producer cum media mogul cum patriarch of establishment hip hop culture allows that since 80% of hip hop listeners are white, the Hip Hop Generation applies to all those who "sympathize with the plight of the poor."
Courting the Jail Vote
Although it flies in the face of two decades of political orthodoxy showing that "tough on crime" stances are ballot box winners, appeals to the Hip Hop Generation on criminal justice issues could provide an untapped vote block for politicians willing to make the effort. Reverend Al Sharpton has hailed the Hip Hop Generation's tremendous swing vote power, and the Democratic National Committee has begun to enlist popular hip hop artists as headliners at fundraising dinners. But organizers agree that unless pleas to the Hip Hop Generation are centered around specific issues, they will fail to attract a population that is suspicious of electoral politics.
Efforts to create a mobilized Jail Generation may find some unlikely allies. Soaring budget deficits are forcing states to reconsider their prison budgets and traditional "tough on crime" politics. Public opinion polls also show support for decreased spending on prisons. A 2003 comprehensive statewide poll by the California Public Policy Institute, a non-partisan research organization, found that prisons and corrections was the only area of government for which a majority of respondents (55%) supported a decrease in spending.
"In 1994, at the height of 'tough on crimeâ€š' you had Newt Gingrich, the Federal Crime Bill, and three strikes in California," says Franklyn Zimring, Berkeley Law Professor and criminal justice specialist, "there are few people who are nostalgic for that time."
In the past, anti-prison activists have had few allies in government, and so have fought hard to win small concessions. In 2002, The Prison Moratorium Project, a New York based outfit with chapters in Minneapolis and San Francisco, partnered with the Justice for Youth Coalition to block a proposed plan to build 200 new juvenile detention beds, and removed $53 million from the New York City Department of Juvenile Justice's budget. Groups of youth lobbied aggressively against the proposed expansion in Albany, the state capital, and at city council meetings. Prison activists welcome progressive prison policy reforms, regardless of the motivation. "We're against building more prisons because we think it's racist and targets the powerless," says Raybblin Vargas, campaign director for the Prison Moratorium Project, "they (politicians) are against it because of all the legal problems, and the costs and headaches -- but whatever it takes."
Many activists remain wary. "It's still not a question of how we care about people, its about state budgets," says Dorsie Nunn, director of All of Us or None, an Oakland, CA, based advocacy and support organization for former prisoners. For Nunn, waiting for a change in budget priorities is less important than building solidarity among the 1,600 prisoners who are released nationwide everyday. "One in three African-American men going to prison is serious," says Nunn, "but (the anti-prison movement) will be real effective when one in three African-American men start saying that shit."
It's probably too late for J.J. Tennison's childhood friends, but you can bet there's a new set of young men on the same street corners who might soon be telling their own prison stories. There may be many more jailed generations to come.
Mike Suza looks like any other white, middle-class professional. Barrel-chested and well dressed, he walks with the aggressive purpose of a monied stockbroker. But Suza is a convicted felon. Although raised in a middle-class home in Rhode Island, a cocaine habit finally got the best of him and in 1995, when he was 28, he robbed the coffee shop where he was working. Now 36 and sober, he works construction and attends AA meetings. But he has a greater desire he's unable to satisfy: voting.
"I'd like to believe I have half a brain and can make a difference," says Suza. "But in terms of the political process, I'm like the living dead."
Suza is part of a growing demographic, one of more than 4 million disenfranchised felons or ex-felons. Only 26 percent of those barred from voting because of a felony conviction are in jail. The rest have reentered society, and many are employed and raising families. Some are on parole or probation; some have completed all their obligations, but are banned from the polls for life. Thirteen states strip a convicted felon of his voting rights for life.
Omari Steuben, 25, tells a not-unfamiliar story. Growing up poor and black, he sold drugs to get by. He got caught, went to jail, and now he's piecing together a new life. He works at the neighborhood recreation center, and has resisted the temptation to supplement that income by selling drugs. Does it bother him that he can't vote? He shakes his head: "I'm just concerned about survival."
For an ex-felon living in a poor neighborhood, survival can be a full-time job. But across the country, grassroots organizations and prison-tested ex-convicts are trying to ease that burden by helping ex-felons reclaim their political voice through the vote. A Harris Interactive Survey found that more than 80 percent of Americans believe that ex-felons should have their voting rights reinstated, and 62 percent support voting rights for parolees -- but trying to translate a passive American opinion into concrete legislative reform is not easy.
Malik Aziz was just trying to survive as a young black man in Philadelphia in 1988. In high school he was president of the black student union, and a two-sport athlete. But by his 30s, selling drugs had become his livelihood, until he got busted in a raid. In prison, he saw a steady stream of men losing their youth, and their right to vote. With still two years left on his sentence, Aziz started the Ex-Offender's Association, and when he was released in 1997, it grew into a powerful movement for ex-convict rehabilitation. He volunteered for Philadelphia mayoral candidate John Street's campaign, and when Street won, Aziz was given a job in the administration running a program called Safer Streets, Safer Communities.
At the time, Aziz still couldn't vote, since Pennsylvania didn't reinstate an ex-felon's voting rights until five years after finishing parole. "People were working, paying taxes, but they couldn't vote," Aziz says. "It was taxation without representation." He and several other ex-felons sued the state and won, and the five-year ban was struck down.
In 2003, when Street ran for reelection, Aziz created a new target voter group: ex-cons. Their tactics were simple. They sought out ex-offenders where they were most likely to congregate -- in halfway houses and on street corners -- and convinced them to register to vote. By Election Day, Aziz and his corps of 30 field workers registered 20,000 ex-offenders, and Street was reelected mayor.
Expanding The Debate
Dorsie Nunn and his Oakland, Calif.-based ex-felon advocacy organization, All Of Us Or None, take an aggressive approach to expanding the debate on felon disenfranchisement. He aims to create situations where ex-felons can speak directly to politicians and policymakers, rather than through the proxy of an expert or a commission.
When his organization is invited to attend a discussion of ex-felon related issues in Sacramento, the state capital, he encourages ex-felons and their families to go instead. "A lot of times, the lawyers, researchers and policy wonks don't want to talk to ex-offenders, they'd rather talk to a commission," says Nunn. "But it's like talking about slavery without talking to the slaves!"
Other organizations, such as the Mississippi-based Citizens for Quality Education, have to make allowances for a more conservative political climate. "I see some of the types of political actions out there in California," says executive director Ellen Reddy, "but if we tried to do that here in Mississippi, we'd all be thrown in jail."
Reddy's organization provides counseling and legal support to young students who get in trouble in order to "prevent the march from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse," as Reddy puts it. For behaving badly in school, Mississippi youth can be sent to boot camp-style juvenile rehabilitation centers, where the kids mix with hardened criminals, creating new classes of potential convicts before they are even of voting age. Reddy feels a special urgency to achieve reforms in Mississippi, for its conservative bent lends it a bellwether credibility that more progressive states lack. Says Reddy, "We need reforms here, cause as Mississippi goes, so goes the nation."
Where Are The Reforms?
A common question is whether ex-felons would vote if they could. Many don't vote before they go to jail, so why would they when they get out? Robin Templeton, executive director of the New York-based Right to Vote Campaign, conducted dozens of focus group interviews with inmates, and found there's reason to believe they would. "Prison is a politicizing experience in and of itself," Templeton says. "Some people find God and religion, others find politics."
Given that the majority of ex-cons are blacks and Latinos, populations that vote overwhelmingly Democratic, why doesn't the Democratic Party push legislation that would reduce some of the harshest restrictions on ex-felons' voting rights? Fear of reaffirming the Democratic Party's reputation as being soft on crime certainly limits enthusiasm. But many activists aren't interested in cajoling the Democratic Party into a round of political opportunism either. "As an ex-prisoner, I can't say the Democratic Party's been good to me," declares Dorsie Nunn, referring to former California governor Gray Davis' close ties to the prison guards union.
Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, believes felon disenfranchisement is best framed as a bipartisan issue of democracy. "At a time when there is such low voter turnout, we should be expanding the electorate, not excluding people," Mauer says. Although opinion polls show that Americans support the lifting of bans and harsh restrictions on ex-felon voters, the issue lacks the political will to move reforms forward swiftly and decisively.
As long as middle-class white guys with felony convictions like Mike Suza are the random anecdote, and black men from poor neighborhoods like Omari Steuben are the common face of the disenfranchised, reforms will be slow moving. For underpinning their stories is the same racism that convicts blacks at a higher rate than whites.
Perhaps no one understands this better than Ellen Reddy, who, in confronting the conservatism of Mississippi, faces a decidedly uphill battle. For Reddy, attempts at legal reforms are pointless unless they are accompanied by a grassroots campaign to win over the hearts and minds of the Mississippi public. Says Reddy, "It's not about changing a situation in particular; it's about changing the culture."
Dan Hoyle, 23, is a freelance journalist and playwright based in San Francisco and Chicago.
Cross has been following politics since fellow Georgian Jimmy Carter dawdled his way into the Presidency in 1976. Now he's turning up the heat. On his tour CD "Shut Up, You F*cking Baby," he slams all things ignorant, from southern layabouts to aspiring LA actors. But much of his vitriol is reserved for overtly political characters. Washington it-men John Ashcroft and George W. Bush sustain several pointed tirades, as do anti-abortion activists, fear mongering pundits and religious fundamentalists. In short, he's political and funny, and he delivers it all as if you were chatting over a coffee -- or six shots of Jager at your local dive bar.
Lucky for young people and political participation, he's not a lazy drunk, but a driven political activist. This spring, he plans to launch a get out the vote comedy tour with politically like-minded comedians. He's not going to hound you, but he wants you to vote in 2004, because beneath the satire is real fear of another four years of Bush and the harm he could cause the Republic. He escaped shooting of the Fox sit-com Arrested Development, his latest project, to talk with WireTap.
WireTap: How much news do you intake daily?
WT: Do you vote?
WT: How many times have you voted?
DC: I've only voted in the midterms four or five times. I've voted in every presidential election.
WT: What was your most satisfying time to vote? Or what has been a good experience voting, where you've said, "Hey, you know that worked!"
DC: Well, you know when you vote for something that becomes successful. There were a number of referendums in '98 that most of the things I voted for passed. That's very satisfying when you feel that most of the country is in step with your views. That's always surprising and gratifying. I don't think I'll ever experience something as frustrating and demoralizing and deflating and bordering on tragic as what happened in 2000. Not just the event, but this whole kinda campaign that actually became successful, where everybody was like, "Ok it's over, we get it move on, yeah we get it, alright, your buddy lost, don't worry about it, move on." Like you're just supposed to go, "Yeah, you're right, alright, forget it. Yeah it's a bummer for a couple of days but I guess it doesn't reflect poorly on the rest of our lives." That was shocking, and remains so.
WT: What was your personal therapy?
WT: About a third of eligible youth voted in the 2000 election. Why do you think that is? People are lazy, ignorant, alienated from the process?
DC: Yes, I think it's all three of those things. You become ignorant because you're alienated and you don't think out the information and you allow yourself to purposefully get lazy so things don't bother you, so you use that as an excuse not to vote. It's pretty galling that I know people will wait in line for a weekend to see a f*ckin' movie that's gonna be there for three months, but won't wait in line for 12 minutes to vote. If not for yourself, then for everyone else, it's truly one of the most selfish things you can do. Just the fact that you won't educate yourself on the issues. It's truly one of the most selfish things you can do. Especially because so many people have suffered to obtain that right, or obtain the idea of that right.
WT: If you had to sum up in a bumper sticker why people should vote, what would it be?
DC: Bumper stickers are the f*ckin' bane of civilization or intellectualism, and it's added in a terrible way to the anti-intellectualism and lack of debate and discourse in this country. I hate bumper stickers, you can't sum anything up. All you do is paint yourself in some caricaturist corner. Then the person that has the opposite opinion of you can just go, "Out that f*ckin' hippie, oh that f*ckin' right wing Nazi."
WT: What would you do to try to get people to vote? Or what do you do?
DC: I'm going to be putting together a tour, where myself and some like-minded comics go out. It's not going to be this heavy-handed, rabble-rousing screaming rhetoric at people, which I can't stand. I went to a bunch of marches in New York and Washington, and you know I believe in the cause, but to march with those people takes a lot of compromise on my end. So many of them are fools and just as ignorant and are no better than Ann Coulter. We should just get somebody from the left and the right and they should all throw bumper stickers at each other and the first one to cover the other one wins. I'll take maybe 2% of my time on stage to talk about why I think it's important and I'll do it in an economic and humorous way that will get them and their friends to vote.
WT: Do people in the entertainment industry take politics seriously?
DC: I'd be curious to find out, but I don't think people in the entertainment industry are proportionally more or less serious politically than anyone in the landscaping industry.
WT: Have you ever thought of running for office?
DC: Yes. The best thing about me is there are no skeletons. I'm brutally honest about all aspects of my life, so it's not like you're going to shock me a week before the election and be like, "This guy totally dropped acid." And I'll be like, "Yeah, well I talked about that ten years ago." So that would be good. And then uh, the other good thing is that I would probably be very good at my job and make a lot of good changes for the peoples.
WT: Have you ever thought where? Are we talking governor, councilman, mayor?
DC: The mayor of the United States, it's a position I would invent and run for, and it would be honorary. And there would be a parade every three days and I would outlaw bananas and soy. No, I have no idea. My guess is it would be either something to do with the city of New York or a representative of a district in Manhattan.
WT: Your comedy is pretty savage and you seem to not worry about pissing people off. Is that because you think it's funnier that way, or you think it's the best way to convert your opponents?
DC: I don't think of my opponents in the sense that I don't think of them consciously, I don't steer it one way or the other. I've been doing it for almost 20 years now, and it's just natural. I don't ever actively go, "Hey, if I do it this way it will convert more people." I just do it.
WT: What kind of mail do you get?
DC: A lot of stuff from prisoners looking for dates. There's a rug cleaning place not far from my apartment so I get a lot of mail for rug cleaning.
WT: You've said, "You cannot win a war on terrorism, it's like having a war on jealousy... you ain't gonna win it." What political battles are important and winnable?
DC: The most important is too loosen the grasp of corporations and special interests from buying politicians and their votes. Under that huge umbrella you'd have campaign finance reform, the freedom of information act would be broadened. I guess in a nutshell truth and openness. The first one is to get rid of this administration and I think that's winnable and what needs to be done for the best of the Republic.
WT: How and when did you become politically active and aware? What was your evolution as an activist?
DC: I think very early, my Mom got me interested. I was reading at a really early age. The fact that I grew up in Georgia and Jimmy Carter ran for president and he was from Georgia probably had a lot to do with it.
WT: How old were you?
DC: I was 12. I remember being a kid and the Vietnam War was huge and looking at Watergate. And I didn't know what I was looking at, but I knew I would realize it was important later. As a kid you start to buck authority, you slowly realize what you suspected, which is, "Hey, wait a second, I might be a kid, but I think I'm actually smarter than these adults," and that also makes you kind of question things and seek out that information and start reading the newspaper.
WT: Who were your heroes growing up?
DC: I guess in part because my parents kind of had a liberal hippie vibe to them. My mom told me about Lenny Bruce, Abbie Hoffman, and the Chicago Seven, Martin Luther King. And I was a huge Hank Aaron fan, I love Hank Aaron.
WT: Any politicians you admire and would vote for in 2004?
DC: I will vote for -- it's really depressing to say it but it's just something I've resigned to and I'll have to swallow it -- whoever the Democratic nominee is. Nobody is going to be as bad for free thinking, right-minded individuals than George Bush. I don't want to see that motherf*cker in office when he doesn't have to do anything for political reasons. That's really scary. If this shit doesn't scare you now, when he's making concessions for political reasons, giving him another four years where he doesn't have to worry about being reelected, we are f*cked. We're hugely f*cked. And you better get yourself a Bible.
WT: Do you ever think the Bush hatred can backfire and allow people to label Bush-haters as misfits?
DC: That's always a danger. If all you do is spew this bumper sticker rhetoric and sputter these cute little catch phrases about how Bush is like Hitler, then you know you're a f*ckin' moron and yeah, that's distracting. But if you can articulate your reason and have a conversation and say, "Let me tell you why I hate Bush, and it's not because he's an evil guy," then hopefully, you won't be painted in a corner as a misfit. The individual has to have the information. You know, you might as well, f*ckin' take your top off and paint sunflowers on your face, you know, drop acid and do that dumb-ass Grateful Dead dance.
WT: If you could change the way the average American thinks about one issue, what would it be?
DC: It's not an issue per say, but I would urge people to help create an atmosphere where they don't see this complete ideological divide. Because I think whenever you sit down with another human being who would absolutely disagree with you on every issue, you learn about them as a person and you relate, in human terms, and it's much more difficult for either side to dismiss out of hand, like that person's a freak, that person's a Nazi. You really do see these people as people and understand where they're coming from. That would really do more to help all of this. I think people, for the most part, actually want what they think is best. People are condescending, they don't listen, and it's contributed to a really unfortunate anti-intellectualism in this country.
WT: What's your advice for the young people?
DC: Retain your idealism as long as you can. It'll be shut down soon enough, and whatever you can do to convince people to at least inform themselves is helpful.
Check out David Cross' website: BobandDavid.com
Dan Hoyle is a WireTap writer and editorial intern.
Only days before I had arrived in San Francisco from a weeklong trip through the American heartland. In a series of long conversations with small town white working class residents in Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado and Utah I sought to unravel the logic that propels this population to vote decidedly Republican. In the 2000 election, Al Gore won 60% of the urban vote, while president George Bush won 60% of rural voters.
Liberal city folk might point to this as evidence that the Republican Party feeds off small town ignorance while Democrats cater to a more discerning and better educated urban population. Of course this doesn't jive with years of Republican initiatives aimed at decreasing upper income taxes for their very wealthy and cosmopolitan constituency. The Republican Party is anything but homogenous, but somehow it all hangs together. We know that Republicans have a lock on Bible Belt social conservatives and Sun Belt business de-regulators, but why do they play so well among middle American rural voters?
"Bullshit," he says matter of factly and then hoots with laughter. The bartender and the patrons hunched over the bar chuckle along with him. But Mr. James won't get the last laugh tonight. He is the lone Democrat in the bar, and a minority in the rural flatlands of Eastern Colorado. The county, Yuma, was the nation's largest corn producer two years ago, so perhaps it is fitting that Mr. James, a political oddball of sorts, switched to millet farming five years back.
The bartender, Jade Simpson, is more representative of the politics of the region. Asked what makes him a Republican, he's quick to respond: welfare. Having lived for four years in China, he detests any scent of socialism, and the Democrats, with their more generous social spending, fairly reek to him. Leaning over the bar his eyes sparkle and his gaze is steady. "The biggest issue here is water; there's not enough water for the West. But the Democrats will get elected and make it one family, one child, just like they did in China. It's the same gang. It's socialism." He grins broadly to show that he's only partly serious but he looks into my eyes long enough to let me know he's not completely joking either.
In small towns like these, where the front pages of local newspapers tell of upcoming corn husking competitions and marriages of grandsons of deceased residents, a city boy can sometimes hardly believe his ears and eyes. Hours go by without seeing a foreign car. Buicks and Chevys abound. From the county highway, giant corn silos, cooperatives owned by the town, announce a coming cluster of residences. In Funk, Nebraska, we drive down the only street with a name: Easy Street, where, the sign reads, "the living is easy." There are no people out to tell us otherwise.
When I tell him of my search for the political pulse of the country, he directs me to a man sitting in a chair by the window. His shoes and socks off, he is fanning himself with a fly swatter and periodically padding an unlit cigar over an ashtray.
His name is Bol Wicker, and when he is not fanning himself with a fly swatter he is driving around Nebraska soliciting opinions and gathering demographic data. He is regional coordinator for the Republican Party, a volunteer position he began by sending George Bush Sr. informal letters of his opinions. "I'm a Republican because of economics," he says curtly. "If the Democrats get in there, they take all the money away from the guys at the top. That makes it real difficult for them to start businesses and give jobs to people."
Mr. Wicker is a firm believer in trickle down economics, and decries the Democratic preference for social programs to ease hard times and jumpstart economic activity. "You can't help a person that doesn't want to help himself," he says. But Mr. Wicker is not a diehard Republican, and is wary of the Bible Belt conservative influence on the party. "I vote for the person, not the party, I've always believed that. And I wish the Republicans would drop Pat Robertson and his gang and get back to the basics."
The basics of the Republican Party -- lower taxes, less spending -- have always appealed to America's romance with itself as a clan of "rugged individualists." Although the current administration has been relentless in its drive to cut taxes, spending has soared. Mostly the money has gone to fight terrorism. Still, as money flows abroad while communities wither at home in a jobless recovery, working-class Americans are skeptical.
"That we don't take care of people here, and we're sending billions overseas, that's a big concern," says Matthew Reedley when asked what his political issues are. Mr. Reedley is a house painter and refurbisher. Like many people we interviewed, his politics are less ideological than they are practical. "My father cussed both parties, and I don't vote," admits Mr. Reedley. "Both parties are just protecting the interests of big business. So I don't really see the point." Squinting underneath his K-Mart baseball cap he is refurbishing an old antiques store in Centennial, Colorado. It's a dry town in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains that has steadily become drier and less inhabited since highways replaced railroads as the primary method of freight transport.
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, 20% of Americans live in rural areas. Are Democrats writing off these small towns as unrecoverable Republican territory, where isolation seals their conservatism? In the information age, they do so at their peril. Mr. Reedley has watched BBC news for the past seven years since he bought a satellite dish. "I do have opinions, and I'm starting to get more as I get older." He says he might even start voting one day.
Ms. Sherman has two young children, and has worked as a maid, a janitor and at the town cemetery. She says she's a Democrat, but would vote for anyone who spoke to her needs. "You can't pay bills on 400 dollars a month, and take care of kids, you just can't do it," says Ms. Sherman. "And they [politicians] need to know that."
Ms. Sherman's perception of welfare recipients as being pill-popping couch potatoes may be exaggerated. But politics is as much the art of tweaking perception as it is of twisting policy. Bumper stickers and sound bytes win elections. In-depth analysis gets mowed down by the rat-tat-tat of one-liners. The Democratic Party is seen as soft and welfare friendly to small town scrappers who feel they've had to fight for all they had. Add in a surging immigrant population and the recipe for white working class disgruntlement is complete.
Marge Young is one of many who feels neglected by social programs, and thus favors a politician "who's not going to spend all our tax money." Speaking from her rusting Chevy in front of the Big K-Mart in Provo, Utah, the mother of three recounts a recent frustrating experience. "The other day I went into a clinic and they said they couldn't help me because I don't speak Spanish. So maybe they [Latino immigrants] are worse off than me. But sometimes I wonder 'cause they drive a whole lot better cars than I do. And I work 50-hour weeks and have for a long time." Although she laughs, her anger is apparent.
Is it an anger that Democrats could tap in the next presidential election? Ms. Young voted for Bush in 2000 and identified herself as a Republican. "The Democrats have to come up with something good," says Ms. Young, rolling her eyes. But perhaps she is not a lost cause for Democrats. "I didn't like some of the things that Clinton did, but he made the economy great, and you have to give hats off to that."
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan won over working class voters, whom analysts would later term "Reagan Democrats," despite cutting government spending on social programs tailored for them. Rousing speeches by Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson decrying Reaganomics and the assault on the working class they represented proved feeble at the polls. Perhaps Democrats underestimate the power of "poor man's pride." For when Democrats are perceived as being handout happy, they often alienate -- and even offend -- working people. Many of the Americans we interviewed were suspicious of federal "supports," preferring "stimulus" initiatives.
Decades after Johnson's War on Poverty, small town pundits such as Mr. Wicker in Holdredge, Nebraska still point to its failings as evidence that government is best when it stays out of the equation. "Johnson gave all that money to the Appalachians; it only made them four times as poor," growls Mr. Wicker. Of course, disability and unemployment are minor expenditures relatively.
In the Roadside Inn in Eckley, Colorado, Mr. James holds up a hand to stop a debate that is spinning out of control. He looks around the bar. "You know what the biggest welfare in this country is right now?" he asks. "Farm subsidies," he answers, nodding his head to quell objection.
California elected a Republican as governor after only nine weeks of campaigning and one rather scripted debate appearance. On the campaign trail, Mr. Schwarzenegger was a silent assassin, smiling more than speaking. It was the perfect plan; he let the Democrats lose the election for themselves. Are Democrats ready for a similar embarrassment nationally?
If not, they have to change their image as welfare wet blankets. They must reclaim the crusade for working people, not just poor people. If, as Mr. James muses, the Republican Party is held together by bullshit, it may be time for Democrats to take their cue and venture out into America's small towns to get their hands dirty. Republican populist rhetoric may seem full of it, but Democrats will be the ones in deep if they don't figure out something good for 2004.
Dan Hoyle is an editorial intern at WireTap.
McCormick justifies her participation in the first Gulf War as part political naiveté, part reverence for the idea of public service, and part need for a job -- a seemingly typical equation for a young American soldier. Twelve years later, the distinctions she saw between the two conflicts and an increasing alienation from mainstream politics fueled her radical decision to return to Iraq as a shield and not as a soldier. "I'm not a pacifist," says McCormick. "In 1991, Saddam was the aggressor, and obviously a brutal man. In this situation we were the aggressor. I'm a patriot, but I'm not a blind patriot."
As President George Bush began to gather his "coalition of the willing," countries supportive of military intervention in Iraq, McCormick grew increasingly alienated. "I really wanted to stop the war. Ok, when that's not possible, let's minimize the damage. The human shield movement was a way of putting out your body in a way that's much stronger than a single vote," says McCormick.
The idea to be a human shield, of traveling to Iraq to occupy power plants, food silos, schools and hospitals that were crucial to Iraqi civilian life and protecting them from U.S. bombs, appealed to McCormick's now broader definition of public service. "I think it's important to represent that Americans aren't all assholes," she said. She solicited funds from the Quakers in Yorkshire, England, where she was living at the time, and threw herself into the organizational center of the human shield movement. "We were all a bunch of amateurs, and that was part of its charm and success. We were called together by a visionary and the Internet."
"I really wanted to stop the war. Ok, when that's not possible, let's minimize the damage. The human shield movement was a way of putting out your body in a way that's much stronger than a single vote."
In the media circus that ensued, the human shields were America's favorite freak show. Fraught with organizational breakdown and a duplicitous Iraqi regime, they were branded as "peace tourists" by conservative media commentators back home. Donald Rumsfeld, U.S. Secretary of Defense, assailed them as treasoners who threatened the effectiveness and safety of his troops' operations. But in the polarized political climate of the war, when restaurants were selling "freedom fries" while pouring out bottles of French wine, this international brigade of non-violent activists felt compelled to fight back the overwhelming drumbeat for war with simple sit-ins for peace.
The use of human shields was not a new tactic. In 1991, the Iraqi regime used Western businessmen they had captured in Kuwait as human shields at various infrastructural sites. Although the shields this time around were volunteers organized by American groups, they did come into contact with the Iraqi regime.
Many of the voluntary human shields from TJP arrived in Baghdad with no money and were welcomed by Abdul Razzaq Al-Hashimi, a former Baath party official from the Ministry of Information. The regime had arranged Mr. Hashimi to be the head of the Organization of Friendship, Peace and Solidarity, and they paid for the food and lodging of many of the TJP shields. When Hashimi demanded control over the movement and selection of sites (food silos and power plants over schools and hospitals), "the velvet gloves came off," said McCormick.
McCormick admits that some of her companions were naïve. "There were some people that were completely seduced by the Iraqis," she said.
Stories of the shields accepting the aid of the Iraqi regime did not play well in Washington. According to a March 18 Washington Post article, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) sent a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft arguing that the human shields should be prosecuted as traitors if they impeded U.S. military efforts. Many of the shields that have returned to the States have received letters from the Treasury Department threatening a fine of $1,000,000 and 12 years of prison.
Some shields had a radical reversal of opinion based on their experiences in Iraq, and were especially disillusioned by the Iraqi regime's manipulative nature. First person accounts were published in major American, British and Australian newspapers in which wide-eyed shields recanted their convictions and expressed remorse for their complicity with the Iraq regime. In a March 27 article in the Chicago Sun-Times, a shield wrote: "I completely rethought my view of the Iraq situation. Anyone with half a brain must see that Saddam has to be taken out."
McCormick was among the majority in holding onto the rightness of their actions. "We made mistakes, but we were not fools," says McCormick, who is now back in the United States. "Our objective was to defend the Iraqi people. We were using this gambit that the media would pay attention and that it would be a diplomatic nightmare to bomb Baghdad." The media did pay attention, and although Baghdad was bombed, the sites occupied by the human shields were spared.
"Our objective was to defend the Iraqi people."
The bombs seemed a dull sideshow to the politics of organization, the battles for autonomy, and the constant fear of being deported. "The first night when I woke up with the bombs real close, I just pulled the sheets over my head and prayed. After that, I used to sleep right through the bombs." The organizational challenges were not as easy to ignore.
Before entering Iraq herself, McCormick worked from Amman, Jordan obtaining "human shield" and "tourist" visas for other activists to enter Iraq. They told every aspiring shield the same thing. "We said, 'If you want to go in, we'll support you, but we really have no exit plan,'" says McCormick. Halfway through her stay in Iraq, she was deported to Syria, and then paid a bribe to return. In all she was in Iraq for about 14 days, and spent three days occupying sites. While cautioning that such a young movement is bound to have technical difficulties, she expresses dismay at the lack of unity among the shields. "It's important to have a party line, or at least to agree on what to say to the press," says McCormick.
Recently, the Treasury department has sent new signals to human shields back in the U.S. that it is serious about collecting on their fines and following through with prosecutions. Although it seems some shields did collaborate with the Iraqi regime (accepting free food, housing, and phone use), it is questionable whether they affected the military campaign. "There was an understanding [with Iraqi officials] that you know that I know that you know," says McCormick, "but the important thing was not to get used." Unfortunately, not all the shields carried McCormick's skepticism of her Iraqi handlers. Although McCormick relates that some Iraqis thought the shields were hired by Saddam, she believes that the shields' display of solidarity, as well as all the anti-war protests around the world, "fought evil fundamentalism in those [Arab] countries."
For McCormick, the biggest victories were personal. Diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression, she was concerned about how the stress of political organizing and war would affect her. "My mental illness comes from despair and boredom and alienation," said McCormick. "So the stress of having to step forward and do something together with people was actually good." She says she no longer suffers from depression.
McCormick describes her experience as a shield as being "the birth of an activist," as she is now involving herself in the communal living movement. Activism has been her savior. "Activism is a tremendous healer for people that don't fit into society," says McCormick. "You don't fit into society? Good, society is sick. War is the biggest group insanity I can think of."
Dan Hoyle is a freelance journalist and playwright based in Chicago and San Francisco.
Is ticket scalping American? At a time when the country is keen to embrace its American identity, an excessive amount of clothing with American flags, or the continuing practice of singing God Bless America during the 7th inning stretch, it seemed an important question.
It was certainly on my mind as I roved around Gate 5 of Comiskey Park before the 74th All-Star game on the South Side of Chicago. The security was thicker than the waistlines of the fat cats who had bought their tickets online for upwards of $2,000 a piece. As with most illicit activity these days, it's okay if you do it online. But outside the stadium? Plainclothes officers were trying to infiltrate deals. Mounted officers were trying to direct their horses and traffic when they were successful in the first task. There were lots of men in black.
As in all things wholly American these days, terrorism was on the minds of the proud and the paranoid, so most people seemed to accept the tight security. Still, it was excessive. A man playing his horn hid behind a wall, and quickly snapped up the change I tossed in his case. "I can't let the cops see," he said, peering out from behind the wall as if he were on a sting operation. "They don't want anyone making any money on this game."
A ticket taker justified the crackdown, saying, "It's the All-Star game, it's a federal thing, it's an international thing, it's bigger than just a ballgame." In other words, it's a national and even international presentation of America to the world. Apparently tight security and strict law enforcement are part of the evolving American identity.
Nevertheless, you can't keep a good scammer down. By the night's end, the ticket takers at Gate 5, one of several gates, reported they had had to turn away a total of 12 fans with counterfeit tickets. The counterfeits were alleged to be some of the best ever, identifiable only by a slightly lighter shade of blue.
Plenty of nefarious entrepreneurs were afoot. One man approached me selling All-Star towels, and then whipped out a few baseball cards from the 1980s. Baffled, I declined, and then wondered if I shouldn't have tried to sell off some of my dusty childhood treasures. A veteran sports journalist later informed me that he was not just trying to leverage the over-hyped atmosphere to unload old baseball cards, but that each card invariably came with an All-Star ticket for free. A marvelous loophole.
Debbie, who had come up from St. Louis and had been milling the grounds with her husband since the morning, had momentarily passed through the gates to All-Star heaven. An usher had approached her and offered her a free pass through the turnstile for $100. In probably her only act of infiltration ever, she related how she waited by a tree for his signal, and then walked through. When she got to the other side, she was told to put $100 in a nearby trash can. She said she had planned on hightailing it to the cheap seats, but a police officer caught her arm. Told either she or her accomplice on the inside would go to jail, she finked.
As game time approached, the number of fans holding up hopeful fingers for the number of tickets they wanted had multiplied. The locals were unimpressed. Benji and Jason, brothers who grew up on the South Side going to Sox games and hating the Cubs (on Wrigley field: "It's a beergarden, and it smells like urine"), disparaged all the hopeful finger wavers. "This isn't a Dead Concert, it's pathetic, this is baseball." He did mention though that "if someone's gonna give me $1,000 for a ticket, I'll take it."
After getting quotes on tickets from between $200 and $2000, I changed my strategy from hopeful contender to hapless pity case, and accordingly modified my sign from "I NEED 1" to "I'D LIKE 1." Stakes were high, and with a lone $40 to spend, I was clearly out of the game.
The longer I watched the rich and shameless file in, bragging about the cost of their tickets, the angrier I got. Was this American? Where was the equal opportunity? If the players on the field were the best in baseball, elected by a democratic vote in accordance with our finest traditions, why weren't the fans similarly selected, based on displays of superior baseball knowledge and passion?
The truth of course, is that America doesn't work that way. It is as a celebration of status and hype (witness All-Star earrings), that the All-Star game is the best representation of the American experience. Many who had shelled out thousands for tickets seemed uninterested in the specifics of the game. A water resource manager from Hollywood, Florida said he had come up "on a last minute thing," and that it was his eighth All-Star game. His main comment was that he was disappointed to hear the stadium didn't serve Miller beer products.
I tried to draw a security guard into a debate about the fact that ticket scalping, at its core, was free enterprise, the ultimate expression of Americanism. He rolled his eyes. I pressed: as long as the tickets weren't counterfeit, a robust scalp market was a fantastic wealth creator. He wasn't listening. My sense of common man injustice was piqued. The thought of so much effort being made to clamp down on one of the few activities in which lower class guys were the middlemen reaping fat profits off the rich guys, instead of the other way around, was too depressing. Most of the scalpers probably didn't qualify for the Bush tax cut, but they could make their $500 in just one transaction!
From outside the stadium, I could hear the announcement of the lineups and then the singing of the national anthem. I was standing next to the turnstile by now, and in order to mollify the ticket takers, I had changed my sign to "FREEBIE?" I explained to one of my fellow ticket seekers that I was just hoping for one of the sponsoring corporations that had been given blocks of tickets to have an extra one for me. "Oh, yeah, corporate largesse," he scoffed sarcastically.
But just as I was ready to call it quits, in bounded an entourage of sports agents. "You want a ticket?" the leader asked. I beamed. "Here, take it. Enjoy the game." I looked around at the dozens of once fellow hopefuls. Jaws dropped. I had scored on a handout. I pushed through the turnstile. I wasn't going to stop to question if it was American or not.
Dan Hoyle vends malts and lives in Chicago.