Thursday, December 29, 2016


Photographs by David Bacon

When I was a kid in high school, I'd play hooky sometimes and wander the streets in San Francisco.  There was more life on the streets then than there is now.  Today a lot of San Francisco's street life is made up of people living on the streets.  They're the ones business owners want the police to push out, so that customers can rush into the stores without having to look at poverty. 

I like street life, though, and the bigger the mix of people the better.  Whenever I go anywhere, I look for it, trying to recreate that old feeling of freedom I used to get from cutting school.  Berlin has a lot of it, and it often seems very familiar.  Buskers play and perform in the S-Bahn and U-Bahn stations - one man playing a cello while his neighbor on the bench mimes an operatic accompaniment.  Is he part of the act, or just inspired? 

For all its German cleanliness and order, in Berlin people still beg on the streets and sleep in the parks.  Turning a corner in the S-Bahn station tunnel, there's someone sleeping tucked up against a wall.  In the park above, florescent graffiti spread across another wall, while someone has spread their blanket and mattress below it.  A woman with a paper cup begs for change on a busy corner; well-dressed men and women look away as though she's not there.

The streetlife in Kreuzberg includes the elaborate Prinzessinnengarten community garden.  On the weekend, people trying on used clothes at the booths set up along its pathways create a massive pedestrian traffic jam.  Inside the garden they lounge at a cafe, check out the books at its library and celebrate feminist culture at the wall of women sheroes - artists Vaginal Davis and Christa Adamiec, poet Rery Maldonado, Mijal Bloch - a world traveler, and more.  Berliners clearly can't help being organized - the garden's plants grow in rows of elevated bins, while water and nutrients flow down hoses from a wall of black plastic tanks.

It's not hard to find Berlin's street life.  While in the old East Berlin the streets are pretty quiet, streets like Oranienstrasse are lined with outdoor tables.  The people eating and drinking look like they come from all over the world.  They shout.  They laugh.  They hug each other.  It's what I was looking for when I cut high school, and took the bus to Grant Avenue in San Francisco to find the beatniks.

Monday, December 19, 2016


Photoessay by David Bacon

The International Book Fair is a big deal in Guadalajara - hundreds of publishers and millions of books.  So many students come that it seems like the city must have closed all the schools and commanded their attendance.  At least they read books, you think - then you see that kids looking at the screens on their cellphones are as common as the ones studying the printed page.

The fair is Guadalajara's official culture.  Behind and around it is the culture of its streets.  A mile away downtown the world's biggest covered market provides shelter for small vegetable and fruit sellers or clothes merchants, still trying to compete with Guadalajara shopping malls - the biggest in Mexico.  In the municipal market ranks of lucha libre superhero masks crowd a display next to bird cages.  Around the corner butcher counters and stands selling aguas, tortas and pozole are the magnet for the country people coming into the big city.

Near the market in the downtown zocalo, in sight of the cathedral, fired teachers set up a protest camp last April and are still living in their tents there today.  Mexico's street culture of social protest erupts even outside the book fair.  One teacher, fired in last year's wave of strikes against corporate education reform, hails passersby with his mic and small loudspeaker for hours on end, handing leaflets to the students who stop to listen.

And behind the cathedral stand the people with no money at all - hands stretched out, extending bowls and hats to gather change and small bills.  It's not the waves of tourists who give, though.  Those same young students with their backpacks full of books put their hands into their pockets to see what they can spare.

This is the 30th annual book fair, and it draws publishers and writers from all over the world..  Students look around for classmates before heading inside to see if they can meet a favorite author, or at least someone famous.

The authors and publishers' reps can hardly make it through the crowds of young people to the entrance.

A workers pushing boxes of electronic equipment tries to navigate the narrow hallways of the Mercado de San Juan de Dios.

The market has multiple levels, with big open areas surrounded by balconies with restaurants.  At the bottom the stalls with their metal roofs crowd together, lining the passageways from each other.

This is the attraction for hundreds of kids coming to the market - the masks of their lucha libre wrestling heroes.  You have to buy at least one.

White pigs feet with their pink toes and hooves line the butcher's counter, while he sharpens his long knife to cut up the next order.

The stalls selling aguas, the drinks made with fruit and sugar water, have entered the digital age.  A digital readout gives the prices for glasses and liters for juice.  Inflation and devaluation are eating up the peso, so the price changes every so often and the peso sinks.

A violinist in his wheelchair checks his watch after getting a bite to eat.  Maybe he has a spot in the market to play for only a certain time, and can't be late.

A campesino from the countryside sits at a booth where the woman behind the counter makes him a juice drink from beets and oranges.

In sight of the cathedral, in the middle of the downtown zocalo, fired teachers have spread out their protest banners and set up the tents of their planton.  They've been there since April, when they lost their jobs in the strikes protesting corporate education reform.

Eva Lozano is a retired teacher, supporting the teachers who have been fired for opposing the Mexican government's education reform.  105 teachers were fired from the Colegio de Bachilleres del Estado de Jalisco, and 88 teachers were fired from Jalisco public schools.  All belong to the Coordinadora Nacional de Trabajadores de Educacion. 

An old man on crutches checks his hat to count the money he begs.  A student with his backpack passes by, deciding whether his has enough change in his pocket to give him some.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016


By David Bacon
The American Prospect, November 22, 2016

Immigrants and others protest in front of Oakland City Hall the evening after Election Day.

Donald Trump promised to deport two million "criminal illegal immigrants" in his first 100 days in office. Immigrants and their allies are already organizing, protesting, and defending "sanctuary cities."

The state of Nebraska went red on Election Day, voting for Donald Trump and the Republican ticket, but working-class Omaha, Nebraska's largest city, went blue, voting for Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. Clinton won urban Omaha-Douglas County-by 3,000 votes, but lost the city's electoral vote. In 2010, redistricting had joined Omaha to the wealthier suburbs of Sarpy County, delivering Trump a 12,000-vote advantage this year. Incumbent Democratic House member Brad Ashford lost his seat to Republican Don Bacon on November 8 for the same reason.

Nevertheless, all 18 precincts of Ward 4 voted against Trump by a two-to-one margin, thanks to years of patient organizing by the immigrant Mexican community of South Omaha. African American North Omaha voted solidly against Trump as well. The Omaha results highlight both the achievements of years of organizing in U.S. immigrant communities, as well as the vulnerability of those same communities under a Trump administration.

"We have built institutions in which immigrants are winning power in the middle of a corporate culture," says Sergio Sosa, director of Nebraska's Heartland Workers Center. He describes a 20-year history of community and workplace organizing. "We resisted immigration raids in meatpacking plants under the Clinton and Bush administrations, and mounted marches and demonstrations for immigration reform. For eight years, we've fought deportations under President Obama, while building a precinct-by-precinct power base."

Reaching beyond Omaha, the center helped Latinos organize in Schuyler, one of many small Midwestern towns where immigrants now make up the bulk of the workforce in local meatpacking plants. In many of these towns, Latinos are a majority of the population. In this recent election, Schuyler voted its first Latino, Mynor Hernandez, onto the school board. There he will help implement the town's new policy of multilingual education for its racially diverse children.

"The reality, though, is that people in Schuyler are very scared of what a Trump victory will mean for them, as are people in South Omaha," Sosa warns. "This is one of the big contradictions here-that we've achieved some degree of power on a local level while the danger from the national election results has increased dramatically."

ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL, Trump gained notoriety for referring to Mexican immigrants as "criminals" and "rapists." He also won infamy for promising to build an "impenetrable, physical, tall, powerful, beautiful, southern border wall" across the 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexico border.

His policy proposals, however, are far more dangerous than his insults. During the election he pledged in his "100-day action plan to Make America Great Again" to "begin removing the more than two million criminal illegal immigrants from the country" on his first day in office.

While Trump says this action would be limited to "criminals," the promise raises the specter of a massive wave of deportations. In a society with one of the world's highest rates of incarceration, crimes are often defined very broadly. In the past, federal prosecutors have charged workers with felonies for giving a false Social Security number to an employer when being hired. People arrested for drunk driving have been deported, even years after conviction. Police accusations of gang membership have been grounds for arrest and deportation as well.

Some of the most extreme of the anti-immigrant politicians now advising President-elect Trump have claimed that being undocumented is itself a crime. In 2006, Republican Representative James Sensenbrenner even convinced the House of Representatives to pass a bill, H.R. 4437, that would have made it a federal felony simply to be in the United States without legal immigration documents. That bill inspired huge national demonstrations of millions of people, which prevented its enactment into law. Tens of thousands filled the streets in Omaha, while 3,000 even marched in Schuyler-about half its entire population.

Further, Trump's immigration policy will be implemented by Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, recently named attorney general in the incoming administration. Last year, Sessions proposed a five-year prison sentence for any undocumented immigrant caught in the country after having been previously deported.

Trump has proposed an End Illegal Immigration Act that would impose a two-year prison sentence on anyone who re-enters the U.S. after having been deported, and imprison for five years anyone deported more than once, in line with Sessions's earlier proposal. Under President Obama, the United States has deported more than two million people. Hundreds of thousands of these deportees have children and families in the United States and have sought to return to them. Under this proposed law, they would fill the prisons.

Another of Trump's "first day" commitments is to "cancel every unconstitutional executive action, memorandum and order issued by President Obama." This promise refers to the attacks by Trump, and especially the right-wing media ideologues now advising his transition team, on Obama's executive order giving limited, temporary legal status to undocumented youth brought to the United States by their parents (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA).

Young people who gained status under DACA-the "Dreamers"-have been one of the most active sections of the U.S. immigrant-rights movement. Obama's order itself was a product of their street demonstrations, their defense of young people detained for deportation, and even their occupation of his Chicago office during his 2012 re-election campaign.

In Omaha, many of the young organizers who have gone door to door registering voters in Ward 4 are DACA recipients from local colleges. Canceling "every unconstitutional executive action" would not just remove their legal status. Because they've had to give their addresses and personal information to the government to get a deferment of deportation, these young people could become easy targets of a Trump enforcement effort.

ON HIS FIRST DAY in office, Trump further announced, he will "cancel all federal funding to Sanctuary Cities." More than 300 cities in the U.S. have adopted policies saying that they will not arrest and prosecute people solely for being undocumented. Their actions respond to a two-decade federal policy by immigration authorities to place local police in charge of arresting and detaining people because of their immigration status.

Many cities, and even some states, have withdrawn from these federal schemes, notably the infamous "287(g) program." Trump's proposed order would cancel the extensive federal funding for housing, medical care, and other social services in cities that won't cooperate in detention and deportation sweeps. As attorney general, Sessions, who has criticized Obama for not deporting enough people, can be expected to demand that local police cooperate with federal authorities in enforcing immigration laws, including arresting and holding people for deportation.

After the election, city governments were quick to announce that they would not be intimidated by the threats. In San Francisco, which gets $1.4 billion yearly in federal funds, Mayor Ed Lee said, "We'll always be a sanctuary city," while Supervisor John Avalos called for "a clear, single standard for our sanctuary city, even while under attack from trumped up anti-immigrant sentiment." California Senate President pro tempore Kevin de Leon and California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon joined in a statement that promised, "We are not going to allow one election to reverse generations of progress at the height of our historic diversity, scientific advancement, economic output, and sense of global responsibility." The Los Angeles Board of Education reaffirmed its policy of not allowing federal immigration authorities onto school campuses without a legal order.

California, however, is a state where the Republican Party holds no statewide office, and has lost almost all power in its major cities. In Republican Nebraska, Sosa says, Trump's victory has made Democratic politicians fearful. "The same groups that turned out the vote in South Omaha are now going to have to reconstruct the coalition that fought for measures like drivers' licenses for undocumented people," he says. They plan to meet with legislators to demand that they actively defend immigrant communities against seemingly imminent federal attacks.

"People here have to remember the power they've built on a local level and use it," Sosa says, "even in the face of a national defeat."

Other groups, especially the Dreamers, see direct action in the streets as an important part of defending communities. In the push for DACA, youth demonstrations around the country sought to stop deportations by sitting in front of buses carrying prisoners to detention centers. Even in detention centers themselves, detainees organized hunger strikes with the support of activists camping in front of the gates.

In Arizona, Sheriff Joe Arpaio-who became notorious for ordering deputies to arrest people for being undocumented, and parading prisoners through the streets of Phoenix to a detention camp-was finally defeated in his re-election bid this November. Carlos Garcia, executive director of Puente, a Phoenix immigrant-rights organization, told Alternet reporter Sarah Lazare, "The people Arpaio targeted decided to target him. He lost his power when undocumented people lost their fear."

Arpaio, who spoke in support of Trump at the Republican National Convention, tried to ride that allegiance into re-election victory, but was defeated by a grassroots movement built on years of local organizing. One activist, Parris Wallace, told Lazare, "We reached out to Latina/o neighborhoods all over the county. We talked to working-class white folks, college kids and people who are unlikely to turn out to vote. We reached out to the people who politicians don't think it's worth their time to engage."

AFTER THE ELECTION, marches and demonstrations protesting Trump's victory have taken place in cities across the country, and students have walked out of high schools and colleges. In Omaha on the Thursday after Election Day, students walked out of Central High School carrying signs saying "We are Stronger Together" and "Black Votes Matter!" Five thousand more left classrooms in 20 Seattle schools the following Monday. Community support for people threatened with deportation has been a visible part of those actions, along with protests by undocumented immigrants themselves.

In Philadelphia, less than a week after the election, Javier Flores Garcia was given sanctuary by the congregation of the Arch Street United Methodist Church after being threatened by federal immigration agents. "Solidarity is our protection," urged the Reverend Deborah Lee, of the Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity in California. "Our best defense is an organized community committed to each other and bound together with all those at risk. ... We ask faith communities to consider declaring themselves 'sanctuary congregations' or 'immigrant welcoming congregations.'"

Maru Mora Villapando, one of the organizers of the hunger strikes and protests that have taken place over the last four years at the detention center in Tacoma, Washington, says organizers are not waiting for Trump to begin his attacks, but have to start building up defense efforts immediately. She advocates pressuring the Obama administration to undo as much of the detention and deportation machinery as possible before leaving office. "We don't want him just to hand over the keys to this machine as it is right now," she warns.

The United States still detains 380,000 to 442,000 people per year in immigrant detention centers. Prior to the 1980s, there were only 30 people, on average, in immigration detention per day. The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), passed under President Bill Clinton in 1998, boosted that number to 16,000. In 2009, under Obama, the DHS [Department of Homeland Security] Appropriations Act was passed and signed into law, requiring that 33,400 detention beds be filled every day. Many of those detention beds are in immigrant prisons run by two private corporations, GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America.

While Obama this year ordered the Department of Justice to end the use of private corporations to run federal prisons, that order didn't extend to immigrant detention centers. By broadening the order, the president could remove the private corporations who have lobbied for the bed quota, and who push for more detentions generally.

Activists have called on Obama to pardon DACA recipients, and even undocumented people in general. After the election, House Democrats Zoe Lofgren and Lucille Roybal-Allard, of California, and Luis Gutiérrez, of Illinois, sent Obama a letter asking for this action, which would cover an estimated 750,000 people.

"These are kids," said Roybal-Allard at a November 17 news conference. "We feel a sense of responsibility."

The White House, however, has so far refused. House Democrat Judy Chu, also of California, has additionally asked that the Obama administration block Sessions and the incoming Trump administration from gaining access to the records with the personal information of DACA recipients.

"We believe that all politics are local," says Omaha's Sosa. "That's where we have our biggest impact. But we also need to be part of a national agenda, that goes beyond the kinds of compromises proposed in the last few years, and fight for what we really want." Some compromises in Congress's immigration reform bills, he charges, like increased immigration enforcement in the workplace or the buildup on the border, opened the door to Trump's more extreme proposals: "Instead, we have to go back to the social teachings our movement is based on, to the idea of justice."

Sosa recalls the huge marches of 2006, and the "Day Without a Mexican"-the idea that immigrants would stop working on one day to show their importance to the economy and the way society functions. "The other side isn't afraid of a fight," Sosa warns. "And we have to be ready to fight back just as hard." 

Monday, November 7, 2016

YAKIMA - Photographs

Photographs by David Bacon
Social Documentary Network, Featured Photographer, 11/7/16

"Yakima" is a multi-level portrait of a working class community in central Washington State.. The photographs reveal its human face of work and poverty. They explore the geography of its barrios and workplaces, both the closed factory of Yakima's past and the agricultural fields of its present.  "Yakima" is a small part of a larger photography and narrative project developed over twenty years, documenting working class life, especially in rural communities of the west coast, called Living Under the Trees. 

I went to Yakima originally to photograph farm workers, and then took photographs showing other dimensions of the Latino community here, including homes, a closed plywood mill, a homeless encampment, and a guest worker camp, in addition to images of farm workers themselves thinning apples and cleaning a field of hops.

Early one morning an older man collecting cans for recycling told me about his life coming to the U.S. as a bracero in the late 1950s, and then working as a farm worker for many years.  He was collecting cans because he wouldn't have enough money to eat if he didn't, yet he wasn't bitter.  I looked at his hands, and it seemed that his worklife was reflected in all the lines there.  I photographed his hands as a tribute to all that work.

I've visited Yakima several times, and the towns around it, including Ellensburg and Royal City. I'm interested in seeing Yakima as the farm workers, the barrio residents and the homeless and unemployed workers see it.  At the edge of town is a closed plywood plant where people worked for over a hundred years.  The little houses there were originally built by mill workers, and are now the homes of farm workers. 

Yakima always was and still is a farm worker town, where most people make a living in the fields.  But the closure of the plant is just one reason why those homes have seen better days, as have some of the people who now are living in the homeless encampment downtown.  The work people do in the fields is hard physical labor, which I try to communicate by creating as close and intimate an image as I can, while still giving the work and worker the context of the surroundings - often beautiful trees and tall vines. 

The homes of farm workers now include trailer parks, like the Shady Grove Trailer Park in nearby Ellensburg.  In front of the barracks for modern braceros, or guest workers, on a ranch outside Royal City, I took images of two workers cooking their carne asada dinner over a fire outside. 

We can look back now at the images of the FSA photographers, and admire them as beautiful images while at the same time appreciate the hard lives of the people they photographed.  I hope these images combine that same aesthetic quality, and lead us to ask the same questions.

When I began to work as a photographer, documenting the lives of migrants and farmworkers, I took with me the perspective of my previous work as a union organizer. Carrying a camera became for me a means to advocate for social and racial justice, the same goals I had as an organizer. The late Bob Fitch, who spent years as a photographer in the U.S. South and later with the farm workers union, recalled, "I perceived myself as an organizer who uses a camera to tell the story of my work, which is true today." 

The Mexican photographer Nacho Lopez famously remarked that, "Photography was not meant as art to adorn walls, but rather to make obvious the ancestral cruelty of man against man." Of course, I do hang photographs on walls, and recently did that on the Mexican side of the shameful wall we've built to separate us from Mexico. And I see photographs as a means to do more than expose cruelty. But I am a participant in the world, as Lopez suggests we should be, and my practice arises from that participation.

The old Boise Cascade plywood mill, closed in 2006.  The original mill complex on the Yakima River was started in 1903.

The old Boise Cascade plywood mill, closed in 2006. 

Manuel Ortiz came to the U.S. from Mexico as a bracero in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and spent decades working as a farm worker in California and Washington.  He is 85 years old and can no longer work in the fields. His hands show a life of work.

Manuel Ortiz has lived in Yakima for 30 years.  Because his income is so low, he survives by collecting cans and bottles from the trashcans in the barrio to recycle to get money to buy food. 

A home in a poor neighborhood in Yakima.

A home in a poor neighborhood of Yakima.

Mario Magaña chops weeds growing in the rows between hops vines, before the hops are harvested for making beer.

Juan Infante thins fruit on red delicious apple trees, so that the remaining apples will grow to a large size.

Celina Arcos thins fruit on apple trees.

Sara N. Sanchez de Lustre thins fruit on apple trees.

Jose Manuel and Alberto are H2A guest workers, and live in a camp on a ranch in central Washington. They cook meat for carne asada on a grill outside their barracks.

The Shady Grove Trailer Park in Ellensburg, where many Mexican farm workers live.  County authorities want to close the park and evict the tenants in order to use the space for performers at the annual county fair, and residents accuse the county of using this as a pretext to get rid of poor Latino residents.

The Shady Grove Trailer Park.

Francisco grew up in the trailer behind him, where he lives with his parents.  He cleans his tennis shoes on the steps, and says his father hates his earring.

Rick lives in a tent camp set up by homeless people on the street in downtown Yakima.

A tent camp set up by homeless people on the street in downtown Yakima.

A rail line leaves Yakima through the gate of the old Boise Cascade plywood mill, closed in 2006.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016


Photographs by David Bacon

Walking the streets, Berlin feels like a very humane place - a good place to be a kid.  Adults on the street are very protective of the children.  That's as true for parents who look like they've been German for generations, as it is for those who seem to be immigrants. 

Taking photographs in the park or on the street, parents come up to me and want to know who I am.  What are the photographs for?  Not speaking German, I mix my English and Spanish with lots of hand gestures and eye contact.  Thank god for digital cameras, where we can look at the image together - a chance often to learn something about their lives.

Not long ago I found a copy of Elliot t Erwitt's book of photographs of children, "Kids".  Most people know him because of his dog photos, which certainly show his great sense of humor.  But this book of images of children, taken over 50 years, doesn't depend on visual jokes.  Instead, his marvelous photographs show the same things about kids that I always seem to be watching.

Whenever I go anywhere I look at the kids on the street more than at anything else.  I want to see how free they feel, at least what I can tell in a brief encounter.  Sometimes I'm just reading faces or watching them with their parents, especially when I don't speak the language.  Timing is everything, something Erwitt was a master at seeing.

When I look at the images afterwards, the photographs tell me a lot. In Berlin kids have that same mix of kid aspect and adult aspect you see with children everywhere.  They're trying to be the adults they can't wait to become, but they also often look a little worried - unsure about that world they're trying so hard to get into.

In cities like Berlin, with a mix of cultures, you also see that kids are very aware of the way the other kids around them are dressed.  On the one hand they want the same tennis shoes or jackets.  But those get mixed with the cultures of their Turkish, Syrian or Iraqi parents, who are often dressed in the traditional way you might see in their countries of origin.

These images have their own language beyond words.  Elliott Erwitt shows that the way a child walks or stands says a lot about how they feel about themselves.  These photographs are a tribute to Berlin's kids and their parents, and also to a tradition created by this fine photographer.