Friday, February 19, 2016


Photoessay by David Bacon
New America Media, 2/15/16

Mohamed Hussain

At the St. Louis airport, the Back 40 isn't part of a ranch.  It's the nickname taxi drivers give to a big parking lot just up the road.  There they wait for the call to go pick up a fare at the terminal.  Spotless white vans sit bumper to bumper in long rows, while the cabbies mill around and talk, or play chess in a small shelter.  Waiting can get a little boring.  It wasn't hard to get four of them to talk about the ups and downs of making a living in a cab.

"Most of us are immigrants from Africa - Ethiopia, Nigeria and Somalia," says Joshua Osho.  "Some Russians too." 

"A lot of Ethiopians drive taxis, because that's our first chance to work when we get here," adds Malaku Tamir.  "You can't go to school when you're as old as many of us are when we come.  And you must earn something right away for your kids and family.  The easy way is to drive a taxi."

Joshua Osho

When Tamir began at the airport 19 years ago, everyone worked for six companies.  "Then the county opened the business and we organized the service and got permits.  The old owners couldn't get any drivers and they left," he recalls.  "Now more than 80% of the cabs are owned by drivers like me." 

It was hard at the beginning, and the drivers had to get bank loans to buy their vans, or tap the resources of their families.  Almost all say they're driving for their kids.  Tamir has four, one in college and three more getting ready, so he has to come up with the money soon. 

Mohammed Hussein has eight children, the largest family on the lot, and his hopes for them are high.  "I want them to go to school.  I don't want them to drive a taxi," he declares.  "I want them to be in perfect shape, with a better life and a better education."  He laughs. "But kids are very expensive to have in this country." 

To support them, he drives 15-16 hours a day sometimes, more than most.  Tamir drives 10 hours, five and a half days a week.  He says that's about average.

Rufus Jewel

All the drivers have a story about why they came to the U.S.  Rufus Jewel left Nigeria at 37.  "I dropped out of college because there we have no student loans," he remembers.  "If you don't have any family to come up with your college fees there's no way you can keep going."  He hopes his children will do what he couldn't, and go to college - even if the family has to get loans to help them.

Tamir came because of the civil war in Ethiopia.  "Most educated Ethiopians are now living outside the country," he says.  "There are a lot everywhere.  If you go to DC, you see highly educated people driving taxis."

Hussein's experience leaving Mogadishu, Somalia, was the worst.  "When the civil war started some of my family were massacred," he recounts in a somber voice.  "I survived and left. This turned out to be my American Dream - driving a taxi."

Having worked so hard to get to St. Louis, most don't plan to go back.  Hussein is different, though.  His ambition is to be president of the country he left behind.  It's not actually such a far-fetched notion.  Several of Somalia's highest government officials in recent years, including a prime minister, spent many years living in the U.S. before returning.

Malaku Tamir

"I want to take my kids back and show them the beautiful country I came from," he says wistfully.  "I hope my kids will be engineers or ministers back home.  I will take them educated kids and they will fix my country.  They are Americans, and they aren't going to live there forever.  They will come back here.  I hope they'll have a double home - here and there.  But the connection to Somalia will always exist for my family.  Forever.  We aren't going to abandon Africa."

Joshua Osho has fewer dreams about Africa.  He's more concerned with finding a way to get a better life for drivers here.  He already put his kids through college working in a cab, and now he and others have organized the Taxi Council at the airport.  In the council cabbies advocate for each other, and make sure everyone does their job well.  "The council makes sure we are operating within the requirements of the MTC and the airport," he explains.  "We have an excellent relationship with the regulatory authorities."

He calls Americans "very loving and accommodating.  They accept us for who we are."  This is perhaps a surprising attitude in the era of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, but perceptions of racism and discrimination by Black immigrants from Africa can be different from those of African Americans.  

Hussein also talks about his customers warmly, and recalls an incident in which he stopped a passenger from overpaying him, and then got a $250 check in the mail from him a few days later.  "We are humble servants of the public," he emphasizes.  "We are loyal to our customers. We will deliver them safely to their homes."

Joshua Osho and Mohamed Hussain

Jewel, however, worries that this job is becoming less sustainable for families.  "It has been decent way to make a living for those of us who come from a Third World country," he observes.  "When I started sixteen years ago the number of on-call cabs was limited at the airport. But now, with all this competition from limos and shuttles, it's very challenging.  Now we've started feeling the effect of Uber.  We're beginning to notice that we're getting fewer fares every day."  Like taxi drivers in many airports, he says it's not a level playing field - that he and his friends have to pay fees to the airport, and obey regulations, that his competition doesn't.

Jewel wonders whether the public really understands his situation. "As a foreigner, I am now a good American," he argues.  "We're doing the little we can do to help the economy. We go to the market and buy food with the income we make from fares.  So they shouldn't make our American dream more difficult to achieve." 

Hussein feels the same insecurity.  "We are all struggling, but sometimes it feels threatening, like it's not going to be a permanent job," he worries.  But looking beyond the situation of the drivers themselves, he also thinks about the images he sees in the newspaper, of people fleeing Africa, and now Syria.

Hussein hopes that cities like St. Louis will continue to welcome strangers, as it welcomed him and his family.  "I hope people realize that refugees, when they come to this country, start at zero, scratch, from the bottom.  I hope our voice will reach whoever can help us." 


A chess game two drivers play while waiting is interrupted by a dispatch to go pick up a passenger.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


By David Bacon
East Bay Express, 2/10/16

The camp outside the Berkeley Post Office, originally established to protest the sale of the Main Post Office building.

Michael Lee started living on the streets of San Francisco last May. He had traveled to the city from Las Vegas to seek medical treatment. When he arrived, he searched for cheap, temporary housing in some of San Francisco's most affordable neighborhoods, but he had seriously underestimated the cost of living in the nation's most expensive city.

"I was under the impression the rent was $300 a month, and I brought the resources for sixty days," he said in an interview. "I was going to go back to Las Vegas afterwards and go back to work. But the first place I walked into, they told me it was $300 a week. The next was $400 a week, and then $500. People were laughing at me - $300 a week is actually cheap on Skid Row. So I wound up living on the streets."

Lee soon heard of a large encampment in Berkeley that homeless activists had set up to protest the US Postal Service's plan to sell Berkeley's historic downtown post office building. So he moved across the bay and quickly became a leader of the Berkeley camp. He advocated for a plan to transform the old post office building into a community resource: "A homeless contact center run by homeless people," he said.

"Why [were] homeless people the main defenders?" Lee asked rhetorically, referring to the post office.  "Without community resources we can't get a hand up. There's just no place to go. This is where we live, unfortunately - on the sidewalks. We don't want to live in a community where private developers, the One Percenters, have everything.

Michael Lee is an activist among homeless people in Berkeley, and a leader of the camp outside the Berkeley Post Office. 

"We're not going to be homeless forever," Lee continued. "Eventually, we will recover from homelessness because we're pretty determined individuals. That's something that people with houses truly need to understand. We are going to be rejoining the community."

After a federal judge granted the City of Berkeley a temporary restraining order against the US Postal Service's planned sale of the downtown post office, the USPS announced that it was shelving its plans to sell the building. Several months later, some of the people in the post office camp set up a larger homeless encampment, which became known as "Liberty City" or "Liberty Village." They set this camp up a block away, on the lawn in front of Old City Hall, to protest a new city council plan to establish stricter rules targeting homeless people. During the holidays, Berkeley cleared out Liberty City, and the homeless people who had been part of it scattered to other spots in the city and to locations throughout the Bay Area.  The post office camp, now more than four hundred days old, still remains.

Over the years, Berkeley, like most liberal communities, has been comfortable with the idea of the homeless being victims. But many Berkeley residents and business owners grow uneasy when homeless people organize and use the creative tactics of the labor and civil rights movements.

Last year, Berkeley's homeless people did just that. They created what they called, "intentional communities," or "occupations," like Liberty City and the post office camp, not just as a protest tactic, but also as places where they could gain more control over their lives and implement their own ideas for dealing with homelessness.

Dmitri is a homeless man, living in the Berkeley Post Office Camp. 

Many drew on previous experience in other movements.  " A lot of us are older activists," Lee explained.  "Our ideas come out of the 1960s and even before, from the 1930s.  Homeless people have always formed communities, whether we were considered hoboes or homeless people or just bums. Hobo jungles were intentional communities too, based on an unconscious understanding of the need for mutual aid and voluntary cooperation.

"People police themselves," he added, in an interview while Liberty City was still operating. "I see people out there in the middle of the night with flashlights picking up trash. I see them chase off anti-social elements. If you want to talk about the solution to homelessness, all you have to do is walk down to Berkeley City Hall, and the post office. Is it a perfect solution? No. Housing is the permanent solution to homelessness. But this is a helluva good start."

City Councilmember Jesse Arreguin, who is running for mayor this year, said that he thinks the residents of Liberty City did a good job of keeping it safe and well-run. "Liberty City shows that homeless people can create a community," he said. But he cautioned that such communities can't "be completely removed from the city. There should be an ongoing city presence, that might include homeless outreach staff, mental health workers, or others."

Nearly everyone agrees that the answer to homelessness is permanent housing. But the state and federal governments do not provide the funding needed to build permanent housing for homeless people. In fact, over the decades, national policies have eliminated housing for poor people and cost hundreds of thousands of jobs (see sidebar, "Where Is Homelessness Coming From?," page XX).

Michelle Lot is a homeless woman, living in the Berkeley Post Office Camp.

Local governments provide homeless shelters and services, but they are unable to meet the needs of the huge number of people living on the streets because of a lack of money. Berkeley alone has 1,200 homeless residents, according to city officials. Further, many homeless people don't like shelters because they can't bring their pets, or because most shelters require you to be inside by a certain hour in the evening and to leave during the day.

As a result, some cities, including Portland and Seattle, have approved the creation of tent cities as an alternative form of temporary housing for homeless people. And Berkeley's experience with Liberty City revealed that a tent city has the potential to work in the East Bay as well.

But while Berkeley views itself as progressive community, it remains to be seen whether the city would ever approve a tent city plan. After all, the council voted on December 1 to greenlight the city's crackdown on the homeless.   


Liberty City, the camp outside the old Berkeley City Hall, called by the residents an occupation.  It was a protest against the Berkeley City Council passing an anti-homeless ordinance.

Mike Zint has been homeless since 2000. For many years, he lived out of his car, moving from town to town. He said that during the Occupy movement several years ago, he was in San Francisco when "police sent me to Occupy, thinking that I must be a drug addict. But they made a big mistake, because I began organizing."

Zint said that after San Francisco police "crushed" the Occupy encampment, he and other homeless activists staged a series of protests, including one during the America's Cup yacht race. Then they set up an "Occupy Staples" protest in San Francisco to demonstrate against Staples' decision to open postal kiosks, which activists viewed as a further "privatization of the post office," he said.

Zint said that, over the years, San Francisco has hardened its stance against marginalized people, like the homeless. Politicians "pass laws to get the homeless out of sight of the businesses, so shoppers don't see them," he said. "San Francisco has an image as a world class city, but there are no bathrooms. There are no shower facilities. They say there are only a few thousand homeless when there are twice as many. With the shuffle going on they just move them. One day this street looks good because they've cleared people out, and then they get rid of them somewhere else."

Mike Zint is a leader of the homeless protestors in the Berkeley Post Office Camp and at Liberty City, and a veteran of Occupy San Francisco.

Eventually, Zint and other demonstrators moved the San Francisco demonstration in front of Staples to the store in Berkeley.  Then, "last year, we learned the post office was going to sell the main building downtown. So we removed everything from Staples, and took the corner of the post office instead," he said. "We put the occupation right there.

"Over the last year, we've been organizing the homeless into an actual movement," he continued. Our intention has always been to occupy a much larger piece of property, and get one of the Bay Area cities to allow homeless people to take care of themselves. Berkeley, because of its reputation, is a good place to do this. People here are genuine and care. The university and high school students are incredible. The teachers are very good. It's night and day, compared to San Francisco."

At first, fighting the Postal Service brought homeless people together with city authorities in a loose-knit coalition in Berkeley that included Mayor Tom Bates, Councilmember Linda Maio, and local legal and political activists. While rallies and court actions sought to block the sale of the post office building, the encampment on the post office steps became a constant presence and visible evidence of resistance. 

A young woman in the Liberty City Camp outside the old Berkeley City Hall.

Within the encampment, homeless people developed their own community. They organized themselves and worked together. They made decisions collectively. And they developed their own ideas about what causes homelessness, and devised short-term and long-term solutions to it.

Last fall, while Liberty City was still operating, Michael Lee said, "People in the community came out and looked at us, and maybe at first they thought, 'Look at the poor homeless people.' But now we're creating the new world in the shell of the old. What we're doing in terms of mutual aid and cooperation can be applied anywhere. They're going to have to finally see that organizing is the solution to homelessness."

Paul Kealoha Blake, who is director of the East Bay Media Center on Addison Street and a business owner sympathetic to the homeless, said residents of Liberty City maintained order in their camp. "I think that Liberty Village and its organizers did an excellent job of setting standards of no drugs and alcohol," he said.

Muzik and Kevin set up a new tent in the Liberty City Camp.

But the coalition of homeless activists and city politicians didn't last beyond the post office battle. Several months after the Postal Service announced that it no longer planned to sell the building, Bates and Maio brought the homeless-crackdown ordinance, sought by the Downtown Business Association, before the council. The new ordinance prohibits people from lying in planter beds, tying possessions to poles or trees or keeping them within two feet of a tree well or planter, taking up more than two square feet of space with belongings, and keeping a shopping cart in one place for more than an hour during the day. It also further penalizes urinating and defecating in public, which are already against the law.

Both Blake and Arreguin, who voted against the new ordinance, believe that homelessness has become an overly polarized issue in Berkeley, rather than one in which different parts of the community find common ground. "The business community would like to see people not camping out in doorways," Arreguin noted. "Business people want a long-term solution. Homeless people did a good job on changing perceptions of homelessness at Liberty City. They set ground rules and enforced them. They had a process for that, where everybody participated in the meetings."

Before Berkeley cleared out Liberty City, Zint said that that he and other homeless activists were attempting to develop "an actual city through a bunch of homeless people coming together. We have a community here. And if we can pull it off properly here, we can use this as a model to be done all over. They'll begin listening to our message, and that is that we should be able to take care of ourselves."


Dallas lived in the Liberty City Camp.

Berkeley is not the only community where homeless people have proposed running their own encampments. A homeless protest and occupation in Portland last year evolved into Dignity Village, which now exists with the city's approval. Portland, in fact, is debating the creation of new, similar encampments.

The Seattle City Council has already approved three new tent cities, each housing one hundred residents, although they will be run by service providers, rather than the homeless themselves.  They're estimated to cost $200,000 per year in trash collection and portable toilets, but that cost is less than a traditional shelter. In Honolulu, which has also passed multiple ordinances cracking down on sitting and sleeping in public, Mayor Kirk Caldwell has set up a new homeless camp that is made up of shipping containers.

Berkeley also had an earlier experience with a homeless camp, called Rainbow Village, in what is now Cesar Chavez Park at the marina. Mostly, it consisted of an area where people could park and live in their cars. After an incident in which someone was killed, however, the city closed it down.

"Reptile" lived in the Liberty City Camp and fixed bicycles and scooters.

"But I do not believe that the Rainbow Village should be evaluated solely on that tragedy," Blake cautioned. "A close and collaborative relationship between homeless leadership and the City of Berkeley can work and was in fact working at Liberty City."

One big question is where such a camp could be located in Berkeley. Rainbow Village was far from transit and services needed by homeless people. Arreguin said, however, that when Liberty City was operating in downtown, his office got complaints from neighbors living near the old City Hall. "The camp had a spillover of people who were attracted to it and who engaged in inappropriate behavior," he said. "Not everyone respects our laws, and the perception of homeless people is often based on those examples. But we need to be sensitive to the concerns of neighbors."

For their part, however, most homeless people in Berkeley complain that they are demonized, and they established Liberty City partly in response. Many homeless people are also veterans, and have to reconcile the irony of having fought in the country's military, only to later find themselves social outcasts in a nation they had defended.

James Kelly lived with his wife in the Liberty City Camp.

"I spent ten years in the Navy upholding the Constitution, from 1979 to 1989," said James Kelly, a former resident of Liberty City. "I believe a person should not have to worry day-to-day where they're going to lay their head or get their next meal. That should just be a given."

Andre Cameron, another Liberty City resident, said his experience in Berkeley at the encampment was dramatically different from the time he spent in Los Angeles, the last city he lived in. "In LA, they don't have anything like this. They have Skid Row," he said. "A huge amount of people live on the street in downtown LA. There's no help for them. Here, there's a community. I feel the love here. I feel that here in Berkeley there's at least some hope. There are people here that care. If I had to choose to be homeless anyplace in the world, it would be here in Berkeley.

"It's embarrassing, if you've never been homeless," he continued. "People in LA look at homeless people like a plague. Here, there's more of an acceptance of this subculture of homeless people. I think it's a tribute in some small cultural way to the community as a whole.  I've never gotten that sense anywhere else."

Andre Cameron lived in the Liberty City Camp, and slept in front of the doors.  The Old Berkeley City Hall is named after the late Maudelle Shirek, the most progressive council member in the city's history, who would have taken the side of the homeless people.

Ultimately, Arreguin said, the city needs to hear from the homeless themselves and treat them as normal members of the body politic. "When the city passed a law last year that criminalizes homelessness, there was no conversation about what the homeless need, and the city didn't have any input from them. But it can be done," he said. "We do have a crisis, and all options should be on the table. Berkeley should consider a temporary encampment until we have more permanent housing. People need a place to go."

Cameron added, "They should have a place, a park, some sort of a space where people can set up tents, and live peacefully, with porta potties and showers and trash pickup, and that's organized.  We need a place for people to be human - eat, sleep, utilize restrooms. That need doesn't stop because of a law."

And, warns Lee, "Homeless people can vote."

After Liberty City was dismantled, Dallas lived in a camp set up under tarps at the other end of the steps in front of the Post Office.  On Sunday the police came and took down those tarps and told the people there they'd have to move once again.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


By David Bacon
Equal Times, 2/8/16

In December the Obama administration announced it was going to begin deporting Central American families who'd arrived in the U.S. in the U.S. as refugees over the past two years.  Immigrant rights and labor groups, prominent among them the AFL-CIO, immediately condemned the announcement.
Federation president Richard Trumka noted that unions had, from the beginning, urged that these families be given refugee status and allowed to remain in the country.  "Instead, the shameful response of our government has been to erode due process protections by expediting legal proceedings and to lock families in remote detention facilities with little access to counsel," he said.  "Now, in an inexcusable escalation and without any transparency, the Department of Homeland Security has begun conducting armed home raids in order to deport vulnerable women and children back to some of the most dangerous countries in the world."
By the detention program's first weekend in December, 121 people had been held for deportation.  Defending the action, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson claimed, "This should come as no surprise.  I have said publicly for months that individuals who constitute enforcement priorities, including families and unaccompanied children, will be removed."
Trumka's criticism of an administration that unions helped to elect in 2008, and again in 2012, doesn't just voice disappointment in this particular action.  It reflects a broader disagreement with the administration's policy on both immigration and trade, and a growing acknowledgement in labor that migration to the U.S. is linked to the displacement of people in their countries of origin.  That displacement, in turn, is in large part a product of U.S. economic, political and military policies.
The deportation decision came at a moment when the administration is mounting its final push to get the U.S. Congress to ratify the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).  This treaty is the latest in a long string of free trade agreements pushed through by both political parties, starting with the North American Free Trade Agreement, ratified in 1993 under Democratic President Bill Clinton, and the U.S./Canada Free Trade Agreement, ratified under Republican President George Bush a few years earlier.
President Obama, in his 2016 State of the Union address, claimed the TPP, which includes 12 countries around the Pacific Rim, would "open markets, protect workers and the environment, and advance American leadership in Asia," and that it "cuts 18,000 taxes on products made in America, and supports more good jobs ... You want to show our strength in this century? Approve this agreement."
U.S. unions, however, are opposing the TPP more strongly than any trade agreement negotiated over the last two decades.  In part, this is because they argue that the agreements displace communities abroad, and once people arrive in the U.S. as migrants, they are then treated like criminals or exploited as a source of low-wage labor with reduced rights.
That argument was made at length in a report by a delegation of union leaders, headed by AFL-CIO Vice President Tefere Gebre, which went to Honduras seeking the sources of the wave of migrants that began crossing the U.S. border with Mexico two years ago.  The report, "Trade, Violence and Migration: The Broken Promises to Honduran Workers," was unusually critical of U.S. foreign and immigration policies.  It noted the many military interventions in Honduras and Central America to prop up wealthy elites and their U.S. corporate partners.  After the most recent coup against elected President Manual Zelaya, "numerous trade unionists and community activists who participated in resistance were killed, beaten, threatened and jailed," it declared. 
The report made the case that poverty in Honduras was deepened by the impact of the Central American Free Trade Agreement: "Today, Honduras is the most unequal country in Latin America," it noted.  Poverty rose from 60 to 64.5% from 2006 to 2013. 
More than 18,000 unaccompanied Honduran children arrived in the United States in 2014 alone, while the number of Hondurans outside the country reached 523,000. "Today, migration is seen by many families as a means to escape violence or seek employment opportunity or reunite with family, while the government has embraced the remittances from migrants as a major economic resource."
Ultimately, it concluded, the U.S. government must move away from policies that "criminalize migrant children and their families, while pursuing trade deals that simultaneously displace subsistence farmers and lower wages and standards across other sectors, and eliminate good jobs, intensifying the economic conditions that drive migration."
Instead of moving in this direction, however, the administration went forward with building of two detention centers in Texas, designed to hold 1500 women and children from Central America, at the same time it was negotiating the TPP.
In July Judge Dollie Gee, U.S. District Court Judge for the Central District of California, condemned the treatment of the detainees as "deplorable."  She ruled that detention violated a previous decision, the 1997 Flores Settlement, which held that authorities should avoid detaining migrant children and release them whenever possible.  She ordered the women and children held in the centers freed. 
Defending their decision to continue detaining them, however, administration lawyers claimed imprisonment prevented "another surge in illegal migration across our Southwest border by Central American families," and accused mothers of bringing children with them "as a means to avoid detention and gain access to the interior of the United States."  Judge Gee rejected the argument as "fear-mongering." 
Her sympathy with the migrants has roots in her own family - her mother worked as an immigrant seamstress in the sweatshops of Los Angeles.  Later Gee was a lawyer and coordinator for the Teamsters Union during labor organizing drives.  She is the first Chinese-American to serve as a Federal Court judge.
Administration that detention and deportation would stop migration proved hollow this fall, as the number of families from Central America arriving at the U.S./Mexico border began rising again.  The Border Patrol announced it had captured 12,500 "family units" in October and November, a big rise from the 4,600 families caught during the same months of the previous year.  The number of minors traveling without their parents also rose, from 5,100 in October and November of 2014 to 10,600 in the same months of 2015.

Deporting them, however, was too much even for the Democratic Presidential candidates fighting for nomination, all three of whom (Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley) condemned them.  "What the hell have we come to as a country that you talk about rounding up women and children fleeing death gangs at Christmas time?" fumed Maryland Governor O'Malley.