Archive for the 'Technopolitics' Category

DREAMers: Undocumented Youth Turn Images into Political Acts

December 20, 2012


by Roberto Lovato

(A Creative Time Reports and Culture Strike collaboration)

On a recent Friday in the nation’s capital, visitors to the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and other white-walled centers of global power dotting the National Mall stood beneath sunny autumn skies papered with colorful dreams. Literally. Thanks to a collaboration between artists and DREAM Act activists (aka “DREAMers”), images of faces representing millions of undocumented youth gleamed on kites in the upper echelons of Washington. Their stories have come to the forefront of a national immigration debate that, until recently, excluded them.

Writing in the same unequivocal tone that forced President Obama to grant DREAMers a temporary, but historic, stay of deportation, the organizers of the Dream Kites project declared its simple objective: “to highlight a flawed system and request that we turn our attention onto the current state of inadequate immigration reform.” With the help of artist Miguel Luciano and Culture Strike, an organization bringing artists and activists together in the U.S. immigration debate, images of Dream Kites glided onto the front page of the Washington Post, along with the stories behind them.

The kite action reflects how the wings of artistic and political imagination are helping the immigrant rights movement grow beyond the multimillion-dollar policy designs of national immigrant rights groups. The latter have remained largely uncritical of President Obama, even as he has deported 1.4 million immigrants (including many DREAMers), a record for a single term in office. On the eve of another national debate about immigration reform, artist-enabled people power has found new ways to soar above the money-enabled Powers from Above.

My current understanding of the role of culture and cultural workers in immigrant rights and other social movements has its roots in Latin America, the source of most human and butterfly migration to the U.S. It was in El Salvador—the tropical, forested land of my parents—that, after graduating college, I first came to know the Tree of the (Cultural) Knowledge of Good and Evil. Slowly, my time in El Salvador withered away my former college radical’s cold aversion to protest songs, to poetry, to the delicate stencils of the talleres culturales (“cultural workshops”) there as no more than the work of revolucionarios de escritorio (“desktop revolutionaries”). I developed an altogether different sense of the political and the cultural—and the transformative, silken space between them. I learned how words could be liberating, but also dangerous. After government, media or right-wing civil society groups eviscerated the humanity of nuns, priests, peasants or students by labeling them comunistas or subversivos, they sometimes ended up being persecuted or killed.

Cultural struggles to preserve, protect and promote the humanity of all—like those of the butterfly-bearing activists—have been and remain paramount to disrupting the violence of state and non-state actors: psychological violence, physical violence and the violence of bad policy. In the face of such abuse, artists have often been the earliest adopters of the call by rights activists to see immigrants for what they are: human. It was novelist and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, a conservative, who gave the Central American refugee movement what became the international slogan of immigrant rights: “No Human Being Is Illegal.” Since he spoke these words, more left-leaning artists have reproduced “No Human Being Is Illegal” and other pro-migrant memes and messages in rap lyrics, digital images, t-shirts, posters, poems, films, chalk drawings and many other media.

Some 25 years and several local, national and global campaigns after I made the “hard” distinction between the “concrete” work of “real” political organizing and what I saw as the more ancillary work of artists, creative interventions like the kite action have turned me into a cultural believer. Of special note is the symbol of the butterfly, a new face for the immigrant rights movement. As a bearer of beauty symbolizing the life force (the Greek word for butterfly is “Psyche,” also meaning “soul”), the butterfly appeals to everyone’s humanity at a time when the dehumanization of immigrants fuels multimillion-dollar industries in lobbying, media, electoral politics, prison construction, border and other security industries.

I recently witnessed the symbolic flight of the political butterfly during a misty exam week at UC Berkeley. Students rushing in and out of the Life Sciences building were momentarily startled out of their concentration by an image of a blue and white butterfly with the word “MIGRANT,” and the phrases “All Humans Have a Right to Migrate” and “All Migrants Have Human Rights,” drawn in chalk. “Don’t step on it! It’s art,” said one student to her classmates. Another student, a 20-year-old political science major named Andrea Lahey, said: “You can’t really argue with the message because being human is not controversial—we’re all human.” Hours later, the DREAMer butterfly was washed away by evening rain. But, like the colored dust left by the pollen-covered wings of a butterfly, the DREAMers’ image had already made its mark, turning the prosaic activity of walking to and from science class into a poetico-political act.

Forcing the country to face social issues through cultural interventions is especially critical for a grassroots U.S. immigrant rights movement, given that none of the “leaders” of the Washington-based immigrant rights groups with national media clout is an immigrant. That’s right: none. This is one reason why it is so important to stage protests with powerful images of immigrants and symbols of migration: for example, displaying digitized DREAMer posters that depict butterflies yelling “Our Voices Will Not Go Unheard” into a megaphone, or more directly, getting undocumented writer José Antonio Vargas, undocumented artist Julio Salgado and other DREAMers on the cover of Time magazine under the heading “We Are Americans.”


Artists will need precisely this kind of political imagination to confront the extraordinary and unprecedented challenges facing immigrants. By working together, artists and activists have exposed Barack Obama as the worst U.S. president ever in terms of persecuting, jailing and deporting—and, I would argue, terrorizing—mostly innocent immigrants, including children. Washington-based artist César Maxit’s powerful image of a sinister-looking Obama accompanying the message “1,000,000 Deportations. Ya Basta! No More! Obama: Stop the Deportations” took big risks that paid off. The image became iconic, appearing in national newscasts, mass protests, online videos and other media as it went viral, despite disapproval from Obama’s powerful allies within the immigrant rights movement. In the process of putting potent and uncompromising images before the public, DREAMer and other immigrant activists and artists have redefined the relationship between Latinos and both major parties.

As we enter a super storm of intersecting and rapidly growing global crises—economic decline, food shortages, climate change, etc.—that are leading migrants to embark on their often-breathtaking journeys, the truth-telling work of artists and cultural activists has taken a definitive turn. Foregrounding immigrant beauty, immigrant freedom and immigrant solidarity in order to disarticulate the myths manufactured by the anti-immigrant industries, as the Dream Kites and butterflies do, is still vitally important. But, because of the astonishing confluence and complexity of these crises, engaged artists must not only fight dehumanization but also craft a constructive path towards the social equilibrium necessary to decimate anti-immigrant hatred everywhere. Through the storm, the perilous flight to freedom continues.

Move Your Money, Save the World

November 5, 2011

If you travel the world and spend even a little time among the world’s poor majority, and if you witness or, God forbid, if you are touched by the ravages-massified death, barbaric suffering, destruction of culture, fantastic levels of inequality and poverty-you cannot but reach the diamond hard conclusion that will save us from further devastation: that those responsible for this epic calamity-namely Big Global Finance as symbolized in “Wall Street” -are guilty of genocide and the greatest crimes against humanity. Viewed from this perspective, the rapid and, now, inevitable decline of the United States and the “American Dream” is a pulling away Oz-like of the curtain and smoke disguising this greatest evil of our time.

What more reason than this to take from the hyper-rich and give back to the poor? Here’s how.


The Greatest Threat to Liberty on Its 125th Anniversary: Corporate Tyranny

October 28, 2011

Liberty turned 125 years today. The Statue of Liberty, that is. As we watch the celebrations of the anniversary of  the iconic statue symbolizing  Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom, we should all take at least a moment to reflect on the state of citizenship and freedom -and unfreedom-in the United States.

In a word, freedom is in grave danger because of the most powerful Tyrant of our time: Corporations. There is no greater symbol of the destruction of freedom than Wall Street, which profits from all that has defined tyrants of previous eras: war, poverty, control of government, the lack of free speech, surveillance,  the denial of basic human and civil rights and even the the possible destruction of the planet itself.

The good news is that we are also witnessing an unprecedented global movement that’s trying to define freedom in the age of corporate tyranny. Movements like Occupy Wall Street, Spain’s “Indignados”, the Arab Spring and other movements are directly confronting the corporate control of everything from the culture, land, sea, air we inhabit to  our genetic code and the food we eat. Occupy Wall Street is nothing if not a reflection of the threat to freedom posed by the ways in which corporations dominate the Congress, the electoral system, the economy and the Presidency itself.

The duplicity and threat of corporate-controlled freedom can be found on the Statue of Liberty itself. Much is being made in the media about the “live web cams” that are part of the high-tech makeover of the Statue. Less (or not) reported are the dozens of infrared surveillance cameras, vibration sensors, experimental facial recognition monitors, and other now ubiquitous electronic surveillance devices that capture the image of visitors and send them to databases of national security agencies. The profits from this kind of multi-million dollar makeover of Liberty go to corporations invested in redefining freedom.

The same will to profit from the decimation of Liberty can be found in today’s naturalization ceremony being presided over by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. While Salazar is leading the naturalization ceremony of a small group of citizens at the foot of the statue, the Obama Administration is feeding the multi-billion dollar industry that persecutes and jails, surveills and deports more than a million immigrants since Salazar and the Obama Administration took the reigns of executive power. Such a situation has in essence has rendered meaningless the “New Colossus,” the poem by Emma Lazarus engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the monument in 1903. The anniversary of “Lady Liberty” should give us pause to reflect on these words in the Obama era:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The golden door has become an iron cage; the masses are being huddled into private prisons whose stocks and profits now light the lamp of Liberty brighter with each new immigrant prisoner; The language of the “wretched refuse” on the “teeming shore has morphed an “anchor baby” that corporate-sponsored Republicans and even Democrats decry.

Such a situation points to how non-citizens, especially undocumented immigrants, are being used to divert from and disguise and the sad fact about citizenship in our age: corporate citizenship has humiliated and practically destroyed human citizenship. The buying of politicians by corporations has become synonymous with “democracy” in this New Gilded Age. But, instead of putting responsibility for the death of citizenship on the Corporate Colossus, there is a huge industry invested in blaming the “huddled masses” described in the New Colossus poem.

In the New Gilded Age, freedom and citizenship have become commodities that can be bought and sold.Freedom has become synonymous with “Free Trade”; “Freedom of the press”, to quote the great journalist AJ Liebling, “is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Religious freedom is centered at the altar of quick profits in a society forced to worship Wall Street.

If we are to alter this humiliation of Liberty, we have no choice to look not at the technofied torch and eyes of Liberty, which are monitoring us even as the torch shines forth the false image of “freedom”, but at the invisible chains that shackle the feet of Liberty. At the moment,  bottom-up, street level movements like the Occupy Wall Street movement stand at the feet of Liberty, trying to unshackle us from the chains of corporate tyranny.

May we still yearn to be free.

RED ALERT: Schumer, Dems and their Allies Ready to Support National ID Cards

June 25, 2009


RED ALERT: Influential Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer (NY), some Dems, some DC groups (I’ve interviewed a couple) and even the SEIU’s Mike Garcia appear ready and willing to support a NATIONAL ID CARD. According to the L.A.Times,

“As the immigration reform debate begins to heat up again, some observers expect that one of the biggest and most controversial new elements will be a proposed national worker identification card for all Americans.

A “forgery-proof” worker ID card, secured with biometric data such as fingerprints, is an idea favored by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y), the new chairman of the immigration subcommittee. Schumer, who will lead the effort to craft the Senate’s comprehensive immigration overhaul legislation, called the card the best way to ensure that all workers were authorized.”

ACLU and others I’ve spoken with are already gearing up to condemn and fight this (if you want to understand why national ID’s are a big problem, see the ACLU’s “5 reasons” tip sheet). When I interviewed some, including national immigrant rights organizations in DC about this yesterday, their first tact was to prevaricate and confuse by saying something to the effect of “It’s not a national ID. it’s different.” Having covered the electronic surveillance beat when I first started doing journalism, I recognize when somebody’s BS’ing about these crucial, but complicated issues. Letting the DC operatives know that I know electronic surveillance caused a shift in the rhetorical strategy of folks like the person who told me, “Well, the bill is not out yet. So we can’t really argue about this now.” I truly hope that the “tradeoff” desperation of those who spent millions of dollars to get legalization for some undocumented is not so great that they are willing to lend themselves to support reactionary policies like the national ID proposals that’ve been rejected by people of many different political creeds time and time again. I really do.

This national ID move is either a labrynthine charade designed to give Obama and the Democrats a way out of their commitment to immigration reform-even the conservative, punitive “get tough approach of CIR”- or a very dangerous move to continue the Bush surveillance project under the guise “immigration reform.” Either way, this National ID proposal -and its supporters- must be roundly and rapidly condemned before they get Obama to back it with his wealth of political capital. And watch out for the MULTIBILLION dollar interests of Lockheed, Larry Ellison and Oracle, who have lobbied unsuccessfully for national ID cards for many years. It appears that the those eating and profiting at the anti-immigrant trough are now trying to turn a profit by denying fundamental rights to the non-migrant among us. Even many right wingers oppose national ID proposals as when Ellison shamelessly tried to promote his national ID project right after September 11th. He appeared to be “offering free of charge” the software to build such a national ID. But what he nor other backers of national ID didn’t and won’t tell you is that, like other open source software, Ellison and Oracle stand to make billions from upgrades to the national ID software. go figure.

In any case, some in DC will try to hide behind the “but there’s not even a proposal yet” logic that masks nefarious dealings in much the same way that that logic hid the disgusting parts of McCain-Kennedy. This stuff moves us beyond the neglect of detainee and deportee issues and into issues of state control of the entire populace. This needs a powerful push back , regardless of whether it’s backers speak Spanish or can say “Si Se Puede” to further eroding the fundamental rights of people in this country.

Mo(u)rning in El Salvador

March 26, 2009

The Nation.

A young supporter of FMLN presidential candidate, now president-elect, Mauricio Funes. RODRIGO ABD/AP

Roberto Lovato

March 26, 2009

In Izalco, El Salvador, an idyllic but very poor village nestled under the gaze of the great volcano of the same name, I asked Juliana Ama to help me understand how the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the guerrillas-turned-political-party, had managed to triumph over the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) in the presidential election on March 15, ending the right-wing party’s twenty-year reign. Ama guided me to a dusty, football field-size dirt lot adjacent to a church. The 61-year-old schoolteacher said nothing at first, staring meditatively at a round spot blackened by a campfire or some burnt offering. Then she said simply, “It’s our dead.”

Her explanation lacked the revolutionary bravado and the análisis político heard from chain-smoking former guerrilla commanders and Facebook-using radical students in San Salvador, the capital. Instead, she threw open her arms and said, “Most of the people killed in the Matanza [the Great Killing] are buried here.” Before us lay the remains of many of the 20,000 to 30,000 mostly indigenous Pipil-Nahuat killed in January 1932 on the orders of military dictator Maximiliano Hernández.

In slow, measured speech, Ama, one of a tiny fraction of Salvadorans who identify themselves as indigenous, explained how indigenous peasants like her great-great-granduncle, the peasant leader Feliciano Ama of Izalco, and others from the western coffee-growing part of El Salvador rose up against deadly poverty, stolen land and other abuses in Depression-era El Salvador, only to be brutally slaughtered.

“We’ve organized commemoration ceremonies on this spot since 2001,” said Ama, as she pointed at the darkened patch on the lot. “People who can’t remember and are silent are people who are submitted (sumisos). Those ceremonies made it normal and acceptable to be open about the loss of long ago, the loss that still lives with us. Nothing like this was ever possible before, and I think that the ceremony made it possible for people to start being more open about political feelings too.”

My initial reason for visiting Izalco during the country’s presidential election season was that I’d learned of ARENA’s defeat in the Izalco mayoral race in January–the party’s first defeat since it was founded in 1981 by Roberto D’Aubuisson, who also founded El Salvador’s notorious death squads. The death squads, backed by the right-wing military government, were responsible for killing many of the 80,000 people who died during the bloody civil war of 1980-92.

The FMLN’s recent victory in small, neglected Izalco–after campaigning on a message of change backed by a coalition of Catholics, students and evangelicals–had political analysts buzzing about how it might herald a national trend in the lead-up to the historic presidential election. Even some ARENA loyalists I interviewed quoted D’Aubuisson’s prophetic maxim: “The day we lose Izalco, that day will be the end of the party.”

In Izalco it became clear how Ama’s explanation of the FMLN’s victory aligned perfectly with the central lesson of revolutionary political warfare that some former Salvadoran guerrilla commanders told me they’d learned in Russia, Vietnam and other Communist-bloc countries in the 1960s and ’70s: the spirit of the people matters most. The power that broke the chain of oligarchies and military dictatorships that shackled El Salvador for 130 years was the will of the people to break their silence.

Few embody this will to break the silence like Mauricio Funes, the FMLN candidate and the first leftist elected president in the history of El Salvador.

Funes, a 49-year-old former journalist, rose to prominence in no small part thanks to the democratic space created by the signing of the peace accords ending the war in 1992. Until then, the seventy-year rule of oligarchs and dictators made freedom of expression a rarity. My first memories of Funes are as the talk-show host and commentator my family in San Salvador would listen to in the late ’80s as they huddled around a small, battered black-and-white television set during their lunch breaks.

As the grip of state military-run television loosened in the postwar period, Funes became the country’s most popular TV personality in his role as host of Entrevista al Dia (Interview of the Day), El Salvador’s equivalent of Meet the Press.

Hosting al Dia, on which he grilled and debated left- and right-leaning guests with his famously mercurial intelligence, helped to make Funes a symbol of the openness ushered in by the signing of the peace accords. After losing every presidential race since laying down its arms to become a political party in 1992, the FMLN embraced change. With the help of people like Funes’s mentor Hato Hasbun–a sociology professor who worked closely with the six Jesuit priests killed by the military during the FMLN offensive in 1989–the party finally recognized that putting up presidential candidates who were former guerrilla commanders or wartime opposition leaders might not be the best strategy for winning over an electorate trying to overcome the war’s painful legacy. The party chose Funes, who was neither a combatant nor a member of the FMLN during the war.

In doing so, the former guerrillas gave their party a much-needed upgrade that allowed them to use the FMLN’s legendary organizational capacity (during the war, the US State Department called the FMLN one of the “best organized” and “most effective” people’s movements in Latin America in the last fifty years) to meet the political requirements of the media age. And as a Jesuit-influenced intellectual, Funes also gave the FMLN–an organization with many leaders who were themselves profoundly influenced by liberation theology and first organized in Christian base communities–some ideological comfort.

When I interviewed Funes on the night of his victory, in the restaurant of a San Salvador hotel, the first thing he did was echo the thinking of one of those who courageously broke El Salvador’s silence. “Now we need a government like the one envisioned by [Archbishop of El Salvador] Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who, in his prophetic message, said that the church should have a preferential option for the poor. Paraphrasing Monseñor Romero, I would say that this government should have a preferential option for the poor, for those who need a robust government to get ahead and to be able to compete in this world of disequilibrium under fair conditions.”

Like almost every Salvadoran I spoke with after Funes’s victory, the candidate said he wished a deceased family member, in his case his brother killed during the war, was with him to share the moment.

And like Juliana Ama, he too rooted his victory in the legacy of silence and struggle from Izalco: “Our history–what happened in 1932, the poverty of the ’70s that caused the armed conflict in the ’80s and the state in which many in the countryside like Izalco still find themselves today–these can be explained fundamentally by the unjust distribution of wealth, the use of the government to support the process of concentrating wealth.”

After talking with Funes at the hotel, I went to the Escalon neighborhood, where those who have benefited from the concentration of the country’s wealth live and do business behind the big, heavily guarded walls of gated buildings and fortressed mansions. For reasons I don’t know, but imagine have something to do with poetic justice, the FMLN decided to hold its massive victory celebration that Sunday night on Escalon Boulevard.

The neighborhood was also where the FMLN launched its offensive on San Salvador in 1989. After the demise of Communism put in doubt the survival of Latin American revolutionary movements, including El Salvador’s, the FMLN made a strategic decision to bring its guerrilla army of young men and women and older adults, some of whom had little to no combat experience, into the capital, leading to some of the bloodiest battles of the war.

I walked along the crowded blocks of the Escalon with my good friend Joaquin Chávez, a fellow in the NYU history department, who founded the first Central American studies program in the United States with three other colleagues and me. Passing by Citibank and Scotiabank, OfficeMax, McDonald’s and other corporate buildings on the Escalon never felt so exhilarating. The major difference was the hundreds of thousands of boisterously happy, red-shirted, mostly poor children, youth and families waving homemade red-and-white FMLN flags.

For his part, my bookish, bespectacled historian friend Joaquin, who had lost many friends and family members during the war, was initially pretty academic about what the electoral victory meant.

“The origins of the war were not ideological. What brought on the armed struggle,” began Joaquin, whose current research looks at the role of intellectuals in the origins of the war, “was the reaction of various groups to the repression of the state. If the government had allowed fair elections in 1972 and 1977, there would have been no war.” His voice started to crack slightly with emotion. “And that’s what makes tonight so hope-inspiring: it makes possible a political transition through legal and electoral means.”

Watching the wave of thousands of mostly young FMLN supporters walk, sing and dance as they held handpainted signs with messages like Misión Cumplida: Compañeros Caídos en La Lucha (Mission Accomplished: Compañeros Who Fell in the Struggle), Joaquin reminisced, not as the accomplished historian but as the former guerrilla leader: “I remember being here on Seventy-fifth Street (during the 1989 offensive) to pick up the bodies of dead and injured young combatants. They were the ages of these kids walking here now.”

He continued: “Tonight I feel like they didn’t die for nothing. Spiritually, it feels like a weight has been taken off of you, where you feel the absence of those who initiated these processes. This is an explosion of happiness and a celebration of rebellion, a triumph of the 1932 rebellion of Feliciano Ama and the indigenous people.”

Back at the empty lot, near the blackened patch of dirt that is ground zero of revolutionary El Salvador, Juliana Ama pondered the escape from silence her country had begun. Despite the threats the commemoration ceremonies provoked, she said, “our ceremony is not intended as a political act. It is first and foremost a spiritual act. We have no choice; we can’t remain and suffer in silence.” Her eighth-grader son, Alex Oswaldo Calzadia Chille, stood solemnly nearby.

Asked what he thought the political turns in his country portended, the rather reticent, dark-skinned 14-year-old star student, soccer forward and drummer at the Mario Calvo school responded with an unexpected forcefulness. “I’m Pipil (Indian). Feliciano Ama, he’s my family and was killed defending the land against the government, like many people do today.” As if he’d been waiting for the opportunity to speak even more, he declared, “My family voted for the FMLN because they wanted change.” His intense brown eyes alive with the energy one imagines his rebellious ancestor had, Alex added, “When I’m old enough, so will I.”

War by Other Means: Media and the Elections in El Salvador

March 14, 2009


In pre-electoral El Salvador, media is merely the continuation of war by other means.

No one in this tiny country of 6 million understands this better than Mauricio Funes. As the first candidate of the opposition Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) with a real possibility of winning the presidency (most recent polls show him with a 5-11 point lead), Funes, a former journalist, knows well the new ways of waging political war in the media age.

As a result of their success, Funes and the FMLN also find themselves at the center of what many local and international media analysts concur is the fiercest, most expensive and dirtiest media campaign in Salvadoran history, a media campaign run not by the right wing ARENA party and its candidate, Rodrigo Avila, but by the news media itself.

Surrounded at a recent press conference held in a posh hotel and organized by the small army of black-suited young (male and female) media professionals that’s replaced many of the older, former guerrillero cadre that managed previous FMLN presidential campaigns, Funes defended against attacks by one of his primary adversaries-El Salvador’s largest and oldest media outlets.

“Their dirty campaign will backfire,” said Funes, whose media operatives then backed up his statements using various weapons in their media arsenal: a slide show detailing what they call the “Government-Party in government-News Media” continuum that opposes the FMLN and a booklet titled “Record of a Dirty Campaign.” FMLN operatives also distributed a video containing more than a dozen examples of news reports they believe reflect the “bias and extremism” of the mainstream Salvadoran media: television and print media news reports of “possible” FMLN involvement in the distribution of M-16’s to the Mara 18 gang in prison; reports in major newspapers of Funes and the FMLN dissolving the armed forces in the event of a victory in Sunday’s elections; news reports that the Obama Administration “may deny legal status” to Salvadorans living in the United States if the FMLN wins.

(newspaper headline claiming Salvadorans will lose legal status with FMLN victory)


Once engaged in politico-military combat against the big agrarian interests defended by the Salvadoran military, the FMLN of the digital age now finds itself fighting the big financial interests at the heart of ARENA, interests that domestic and foreign observers say are defended by the country’s most powerful media outlets.

A report released last January by the more than 30 members of the Election Observer Mission of the European Union (EU) appeared to confirm the very political role of El Salvador’s news media. The report found “disproportionate disequilibrium in the amount of time or space assigned to the parties” in 11 of the 15 news media in monitored. Without naming the ARENA party by name, the Spaniard in charge of the EU mission, Luis Yáñez-Barnuevo said, “We are concerned that there exists in the campaign a very notorious disequilibrium in the support of the news media and the State towards one of the two candidates.”

For her part, Alexandra Bonilla, a reporter with La Prensa Grafica, one of El Salvador’s oldest newspapers, defends against reports critical of outlets like hers. “These reports are unfair” says Bonilla, who reports on the media. “The larger media here are owned by conservative interests, but we do try to uphold professional standards in our election coverage. We give equal time and coverage to both parties.”


While the concentration of big media power does present a major obstacle to Funes and the FMLN, the new age of Salvadoran media has also provided the left with the means to take power. Both the FMLN and ARENA have made extensive and effective use of the confluence of new media known as Web 2.0: Facebook, Youtube, blogs and other media. And the deployment of new media outside the formal and often rigid structures of political parties has also making a major debut.

This year’s elections also mark the first time internet-based independent media have played a serious role in the elections as well. Political blogging on all sides of the political spectrum has started taking hold in El Salvador. Internet news sites like El Faro, ContraPunto and Raices are among the most popular sites of their kind in the country and have seen exponential increases in traffic because of the intense interest in this year’s elections.

“Internet news sites are still an incipient political medium” said Juan Jose Dalton, founder and editor of ContraPunto. “But they are already a major force because of the demand for fast news, professional reporting and alternatives to the very compromised officialist media” declared Dalton, who is the son of Roque Dalton, El Salvador’s revered revolutionary poet and writer. “We bring a vision, a political space that has not existed for most of our history.”

(journalist Juan Jose Dalton listening to Mauricio Funes at press conference)


One anonymous blogger interviewed for this story said that he thought that the ability of alternative media to compete with his country’s big media is, in no small part, rooted in the culture of political anonymity created by the successive strings of oligarchs and military dictatorships that dominated the country for more than 150 years. “Blogs and other alternative media give us a way to participate anonymously; they allow us to say what we can’t say publicly. We’re watching an explosion of new voices and new ways to express ourselves” said the bespectacled young blogger.

While attending the Funes news conference, the blogger had his hands full with the camera he uses for blogging and the tape recorder he uses in his day job: journalist at a magazine. “In a country where saying publicly that you supported the FMLN could get you killed, alternative media offers the best alternative to the multi-million dollar campaigns of the right. The media itself has become a field of battle-and we’re going to win!”

Upload Real Change: What Activists Must Learn From the Obama Campaign

November 19, 2008

A cover story I wrote for this month’s issue of Colorlines Magazine highlights what the Obama campaign can teach us the urgent necessity of combining offline (actual streets, communities) with online organizing. While we may or may not want to support Obama’s policies, we should study closely the epoch-making deployment of technology to advance political ends. Hope you like it. R

Issue #47, Nov/Dec 2008

Upload Real Change

By Roberto Lovato

WHILE CRISSCROSSING CRACKED STREETS to knock on the rickety doors of rundown row houses in Philadelphia’s 14th Ward, Liza Sabater also found herself crossing the overlapping lines of political and technological history late last spring as she canvassed for Barack Obama’s campaign.

“I got to spend some time with these Puerto Rican mechanics—guys most people wouldn’t expect to have Internet access,” said Sabater, an Afro-Puerto Rican technologist who blogs at culturekitchen and The Daily Gotham. “But there—among the wrenches and jacks—were their cell phones and handheld devices they use to surf the Web.”

Sabater, who helps nonprofits use technology to further their missions, canvassed in Philadelphia with her two sons and coordinated work in the 14th Ward with three Latino volunteers from the Obama campaign. She saw in the mechanics’ mobile devices proof of her belief that “the ‘digital divide’ is a crock when we realize that laptops and desktops aren’t the only ways to access the Web.” But was the Obama campaign reaching these mechanics on their cells?
As they write future narratives of Obama’s astounding rise, historians will likely foreground how skillfully the “change” candidate maneuvered around the racial, geopolitical and economic terrain of our crises-ridden time. Lost in the background of most of these narratives will be how Obama, the former community organizer, took what he learned about mobilizing working- and middle-class residents on Chicago’s South Side and combined it with the stuff that actually wins elections: money, organizing and technology.

Obama’s campaign for the White House deployed in unparalleled ways Web. 2.0 tools—the set of technological developments that turned the World Wide Web into the ubiquitous, mobile, wireless and interactive Web we use today. As this issue of ColorLines went to production in late August, Obama’s Web site,, was as interactive as any online social networking site. More than 10 million people had signed up at the site, and the campaign had raised millions of dollars. The Web site was the centerpiece of an online and offline political strategy that defeated the Clintons—one of the most powerful Democratic political dynasties—and, in the process, Obama took community organizing to new territory as he redefined the practice of electoral politics in the United States. Whatever the election results, Obama’s campaign demonstrated that it’s possible—and necessary—to go online and move people to action offline.

Sabater, who was born in New York’s El Barrio
neighborhood and raised in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, was one of the many who responded to the campaign’s appeal. She is still fascinated by how Obama’s team fused state-of-the-art media and technology with the community organizing that the candidate learned in poor communities. Yet while she thinks community-based organizations can learn from the online organizing methods innovated by the Obama campaign, she also sees reason for concern in the cracked streets of Philadelphia.
Sabater noted, for example, that although her fellow Obama campaign volunteers were by definition “Latinos,” it was a poor decision on the part of the campaign to send three middle-class Chicanos from the west coast to a predominantly working-class, Spanish-speaking, Puerto Rican neighborhood.

“When my colleagues told me ‘we don’t speak Spanish’ and couldn’t interact with the people, I saw the interface problem,” said Sabater, adding, “I saw the disconnect between the online and offline strategies, both of which are focused on middle-class people. Nobody’s reaching out and targeting these working-class communities of color with technology. They don’t think that the mechanics and maids use technology or vote.” The Obama campaign fell through the cultural cracks in the street, while members in the community fell through the technological cracks of the campaign’s Web strategy.

“The (Obama) campaign created a fantastic interface for people to join the campaign,” Sabater said. “But it didn’t do as well in reaching people who don’t have laptops and whose technology is primarily their cell phones. There’s an age and class and race gap.”

Sabater saw these gaps while trolling the same streets canvassed in a previous era by W.E.B. Du Bois, who went door-to-door documenting how railroad tracks in Jim Crow Philadelphia served as a wood-and-steel color line dividing poor, politically disenfranchised Black neighborhoods from wealthier white neighborhoods where electoral participation was encouraged and expected.

Today, Sabater and others concerned with poor communities must prepare for similar but perhaps more nuanced racial, political and economic divisions in the city of brotherly love and other urban areas. If left to the folks who ran the Obama campaign, equity and freedom may well depend on which side of the silicon and fiber optic tracks a person lives on. If activists take to heart the lessons of this last presidential campaign, though, we might just see what political changes can happen among poor people when we combine media and technology with street-level political organizing beyond elections.
Anyone dealing with what are traditionally defined as “racial” or “social justice” issues (housing, labor, criminal justice, immigration, LGBT, women’s issues, etc.) will have to figure out the “interface” problems identified by Sabater and others like U.C. Berkeley’s danah boyd. A digital anthropologist, boyd caused considerable controversy when she wrote a paper in 2007 positing that MySpace was more working-class than Facebook, which she says tends to cater to older, more elite social networkers.

Whether we deploy MySpace or Facebook, those
of us committed to pursuing the possibility of bottom-up democracy in the digital age will also have to confront
the same kinds of issues Benjamin Franklin identified in Philadelphia. Back when newspapers began their long reign as the defining medium of politics, Franklin wrote: “Those who govern, having much business on their hands, do not generally like to take the trouble of considering and carrying into execution new projects. The best public measures are therefore seldom adopted from previous wisdom, but forced by the occasion.” But one definitive difference between Franklin’s age and ours is the degree to which our economy, our government and politics, and even our culture are for better and for worse being fundamentally reconfigured by media and digital technology.

The need to deploy media and technology as a force on those who govern is a daily concern for Chris Rabb, a Philadelphia resident, entrepreneur and founder of the popular political blog Afro-Netizen. Of particular concern to Rabb is the urgent need for Black, Latino and other communities to use media to flatten the deeply entrenched political pyramids built by the large national Black and Latino nonprofits born in the waning decades of the industrial age in the United States. Many of these nonprofits, he says, center power in Washington, D.C., at the expense of the majority of Blacks and Latinos who are far from the Beltway.

“Hierarchies in Black and brown communities are as bad as in any other community,” said Rabb, who also consults with nonprofit organizations about how to make media and technology a component of their core strategy. “There’s so little power that people hold on to power as long as they can. Blacks are the most urban, overwhelmingly Democrat-leaning community in the country, but we have the least democracy. Black politicians last forever, and lots of our [nonprofit] organizations tend to be run by people who stay there for life.”

Rabb thinks the stunning accomplishments of the Obama campaign mirror the ways in which technology gives communities the capacity to self-organize on a scale never before seen.

“We need to study the Obama movement,” he asserted. “They weren’t the first to use the media in this way, but he came along at that precise moment when the technology had matured, when the audience of media users had reached critical mass.”

To illustrate his point, Rabb mentions the Jena 6 movement, which, he said, used media and technology to alter the game of “ethnic” politics. Initially ignored by the mainstream media and major civil rights organizations, as well as by traditional leaders, bloggers concerned about the Jena 6 case, like Color of Change’s James Rucker and Rabb, took their case directly to the community by using the Web.

By combining Web 2.0 tools—blogs, MySpace, and other social networking sites and interactive websites— with traditional media like radio and newspapers, the more youthful organizers of the Jena 6 movement made it politically impossible for mainstream Black leaders like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and NAACP leaders to ignore the cause. The tech-savvy organizers gathered hundreds of thousands of signatures, raised hundreds of thousands of dollars on the Web, and in the process, they informed, engaged and activated constituents. Similar media and generational dynamics can be found in the immigrant rights movement.

Policy people at the National Council of La Raza, the National Immigration Forum and the majority of large Latino and immigrant rights organizations were in the throes of defensiveness before the onslaught of the Sensenbrenner immigration bill, which sought to criminalize the undocumented. One jaded policy analyst told me at that time that the Republicans “are going to push Sensenbrenner through—and there’s nothing we can do.” Apparently, someone forgot to communicate the analyst’s resignation to the local and regional grassroots groups who used media and technology to organize the largest simultaneous mass mobilizations in U.S. history in 2006.

Like those organizing the movement in support of the Jena 6, the local and regional networks at the core of the immigrant rights movement also deployed a number of media tools to bypass the lethargic hierarchies of the larger Washington-based groups. Many in the media focused their coverage on better-funded and (mainstream) media-savvy groups in the Beltway who rallied behind different versions of the McCain-Kennedy immigration bill, which, in its “bipartisan tradeoff” combined legalization with some of the most punitive immigration proposals in U.S. history. Left out of this coverage was the galaxy of organizations opposed to McCain-Kennedy.

In the face of such a limiting of the political debate around immigration, local and regional activists combined old-school media with a big “M” (television, radio, bullhorns and butcher paper) with new-school media with a small “m” (MySpace, text messaging, cell phones, radio, video and YouTube). Suddenly, mainstream media outlets were forced to cover the political messages that Latino teens were sending with their cell phones in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and in rural Oregon.

While the mainstream media’s immigration coverage remains in its default position of focusing on the larger, better-funded national immigrant groups in Washington, activists like Sabater are combining online and offline organizing to influence the political process around and coverage of immigration and other issues that strongly impact Latinos. Sabater joined other bloggers to form the Sanctuary, a bloggers’ hub that combines information-sharing with offline activism. Members of the Sanctuary developed a survey of the presidential candidates and received coverage by CNN and other media outlets who usually interview only the National Council of La Raza and other large Latino organizations when it comes to “Latino issues.” At a time when political theorists like Manuel Castells tell us that “media is the space of politics,” the old rules just don’t apply, and that can be good news for poor communities of all colors.
Regardless of the election outcome, Rabb, Sabater and others see valuable lessons in how the Obama campaign positioned itself to benefit from the epic self-organizing movement enabled by Web 2.0. It’s especially critical for activists (and everyone else, for that matter) to learn how the Obama campaign used its Web site, More than 10 million people signed up at the site, and 1.5 million of those donated money. At the site, the campaign provided volunteers and organizers with campaign literature, virtual meeting spaces and other resources. Even viewers who might have been skeptical of Obama as a candidate or those not interested in electoral politics couldn’t help but be a bit curious. At every turn, the site insisted on interactivity. In August, a huge banner on the site stated: “Who will be Barack’s VP? Be the First to Know. Sign Up Now.” Below it was the “make a difference” banner with ways to volunteer and find local events, and then, of course, there was the “Obama Map”—where a few clicks and the inputting of zip codes got Americans tuned in to groups supporting Obama in their neighborhoods. Indeed, by the time Obama’s party gave him the official nomination in August, journalists and historians were already pointing out how the multimedia-genic Obama fit well with the media of his time as did Kennedy at the dawn of the age of television.

“The next step of activism is for grassroots groups to connect online and offline organizing like Obama did, but targeting working-class people,” said Sabater. “And the first step is for us to learn how our communities use their media and to engage them on their own terms.”

Rabb agreed. “The big question is whether activists for social justice can make the leap from what an organizer candidate did in the presidential cycle to the kind of organizing needed at a time when media and technology are so central to the work of government and power,” he said.

Rabb believes that groups who are organizing communities need to prioritize breaking down the barriers that separate media from their programmatic work. “It’s the very nature of organizing to want to reach audiences on race, class, immigration and other issues” he said, adding, “People have to get with the fact that media’s not replacing but complementing and enhancing their ability to do more with less, to achieve better and greater outcomes.”

Roberto Lovato is a writer with New America Media based in New York City.

Infomercials, Hatemercials and the Multi-mediagenic Presidency: GRITtv Panel Analyzes Elections & Media

October 31, 2008

This was a fun and informative panel. Always-thoghtful host Laura Flanders gets her guests -the New Yorker’s Hendrik Hertzberg, Chris Rabb of Afronetizen and mois- to spill the media beans on this breathtaking political moment. Don’t miss a minute!


Speaker Pelosi Quotes Of América in Bailout Speech

September 30, 2008

Stocks plummeted on Wall Street after Nancy Pelosi delivered the historic US failed bailout plan.

Another in the growing number of examples proving a simple fact: blogging matters. During her soon-to-be-infamous bailout speech yesterday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi deployed this variation on the “Main Street” metaphor to describe the communities being impacted by the economic crisis:

“And we must insulate Main Street from Wall Street. And as Congresswoman Waters said, Martin Luther King Drive, in my district, Martin Luther King Drive and Cesar Chavez Road and all of the manifestations of community and small businesses in our community.”

She attributes these statements to Congresswoman Waters, but seems to forget that this metaphor was used during recent episode of the Brave New Film’s Meet the Bloggers show on which she and yours truly were guests. You can see for your self by watching that episode either in its entirety of by clicking to minute 22 of the 1/2 hour show and then going to the 11:30 point in the Pelosi speech. Seems she and Waters are also playing the game of many a blogger who don’t attribute either.

Besides the dull but perpetual need to massage our Latin male ego, this example points to two, more interesting observations. The first is , as mentioned above, the way it illustrates how the web and the blogosphere, in particular, manage to bypass the traditional and institutional gatekeepers by helping we marginal voices insert our memes and other matters into the political discourse. Secondly and more importantly, I think this example should also serve to remind us how important it is to push on an issue Pelosi, her Democrats and even Barack Obama have studiously avoided (Republican exclusion goes without saying): including those of of us who don’t live on “Main Street” in the world historic discussion of the economic debacle; The “Main Street metaphor leaves out the people who live along “Martin Luther King Drive” and “Cesar Chavez road”: renters, the poor, homeless people and lots of other whites and non-whites.

So, there you have it. Though the writer in me still has some reservations about the literary and journalistic value of blogs and other new media, their utility and effectiveness can hardly be questioned. The secret, it seems, is to mix the power of the medium with the Spirit of the Word.

Race, Politics & the Deadly Rise of (Corporate) Media Sovereignty

July 27, 2008

Democracy Now!

For the more than 10,000 attending the 4-day Unity Journalists of Color conference-the largest single gathering of journalists in the United States- one theme overwhelmingly dominated all others: how the thousands of under and unemployed journalists attending the conference signal a colossal crisis of U.S. journalism-and U.S. democracy. Whether it was the many traumatized and fear-filled workers we encountered , or the obvious humiliation of Truth in Journalism we heard on panels or the unprecedented lack of government transparency we discussed, the hallways of Unity were buzzing with devastatingly bad news.

The primary source of the bad news?: the sinister and extremely anti-democratic concentration of media ownership and power in fewer and fewer hands. Many of us are returning home clear of how one of the great threats to any democratic functioning is the deadly rise of Corporate Media Sovereignty. Nowhere was the threat more palpable than around that most critical of media issues of our time, Net Neutrality, the struggle to keep the internet open and free from the clutches of the exploiters of journalists, the purveyors of candy-coated UnTruth and enablers of government secrecy: Big Media.

I for one return from Chicago more convinced of the need to support the Death Penalty, the Corporate Death Penalty as applied to those companies that devastate the public good. We need to get back to those days when bad corporations lost their legal right to exist for violating the Public Good. This was the case from the foundation of the country until the late 19th century and we need to bring back the power of the people to apply the Death Penalty to corporations by denying them what in legal terms is known as “corporate personhood.”

This interview on Democracy Now explores these issues in the context of the interplay between race, media and politics. We discuss how, for example, Janet Murguia and the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) -the same folks who supported the nomination of war criminal Alberto Gonzalez, are silent on Iraq and accept money from and promote the Pentagon- have been silenced and neutralized around Net Neutrality by the money they get from telecommunications companies eager to control the Internet. So check out how DN co-host (and now NAHJ Hall of Famer) Juan Gonzalez and author Amy Alexander and I explore these and other issues. Enjoy!

Issues You Won’t Hear about During the Campaign: The Pentagon’s Lust for Young Latino Bodies

June 12, 2008

Here’s an issue we can safely assume the candidates will conveniently ignore: the massive recruitment efforts of the U.S. Pentagon. This video doc by Jorge Mariscal and my friends at Project Yano details the machinations of the U.S. war machine in its efforts to not just survive to fight another day, but to simply survive.

As I’ve said previously, given the vastness of the U.S. military presence abroad, we can expect the Pentagon’s multi-billion (yes BILLION) dollar effort to recruit young bodies to intensify at home. Because of the rapid decline in the number of young blacks and women opting out of military service, the Pentagon has taken an unprecedented and very expensive interest in young Latinos.

So, if you want to destroy the Empire, you can do so non-violently by supporting anti-military recruitment efforts like those of Project Yano, the AFSC and a growing galaxy of organizations doing their part to bring down Sauron’s tower by bringing down the number of our kids doing Sauron’s bidding.

Check out this video by project Yano. Those of you who are teachers or those who work in community organizations can use it with young people to counteract the effects of the seamless system of war consciousness created by private-public partnerships like those documented in James Derderian’s book about what he calls the “military-industrial-media-entertainment network”.

So, Project Yano’s kind of media work previews what must be the future tactics of any effort to destroy the workings of militarism in the minds of our young. Check it out.

Carne Asada is Not a Crime: Support Taco Trucks!

April 24, 2008

This just in from my former hometown, L.A., city of our future: campaign to defend the right of taco trucksters to sell tacos. Taco truck owners and their supporters in L.A. ( a massive army that includes pretty much anybody in that browning land where people eat tacos as often as they drink L.A.’s mineral-rich water) are facing off against the County of Angels’ titanically powerful Board of Supervisors (BOS). According to the L.A. Times, the BOS wants to

place new restrictions on the mobile grills that patrons praise as icons of East L.A. life but competitors disparage as a nuisance

The taco truck campaign provides still another striking example of the fusion of old and new school organizing as flyer and bull horn-bearing tacoistas are joined by bloggers, techies and other Web 2.0istas in the campaign, which includes a petition, lobbying, eating tacos and other tactics. There’s even a Facebook page for the campaign. Lest we forget, this same political mix brought us the largest simultaneous political mobilizations in U.S. history in 2006 (don’t forget to march this Mayday, May 1!).

(note the stuffed shirt waiting for his manna as he stands humbly before the wheeled white altar)

This story is interesting not only because it’s another example of the increased attacks on low wage immigrant workers eking out an existence by providing a cheap service; It’s also noteworthy because you can’t just pin the tail on the racist gringo donkey in this case. Among those supporting and backing the new taco truck restrictions are Latinos, specifically Latino business owners who say the taco trucks compete unfarily against their restaurants and other establishments. And these more established Eastsiders are using their citizenship and voting clout to get Supervisor Gloria Molina, one of the country’s most powerful Latinas, to sponsor the taco truck legislation.

Though primarily an L.A. issue, this is one of those developments that, like jacuzzis and pro-migrant marches, will move from West to East in this country that still doesn’t feel how the winds of change no longer blow solely (nor, perhaps, primarily) from East to West. So, next time you’re slamming down that deadly third taco al pastor with pineapple, remember that, even though you don’t live in L.A. (yet), L.A.’s underground (aka Los de Bien Abajo) will be exporting a militant taco truck packed with pyrotechnic cuisine your way soon (resistance is futile).

Whatever the outcome of this political tale of two tacos, this struggle provides a preview of the more nuanced and complex politics that we’ll see throughout these United States

Of América.

Y que viva el Tacoismo!

Electronic Dragnet for Undocumented Nets Citizens

April 8, 2008

New America Media, News Report, Roberto Lovato, Posted: Apr 08, 2008

Editor’s Note: Electronic programs to verify employment eligibility are meant to detect those working in the United States illegally. But an unlikely coalition of unions, business organizations and conservatives fear that error-filled databases might end up impacting citizens as well. NAM editor Roberto Lovato is a writer based in New York.

Two hours after starting his new job at a food processing plant in 2006, Fernando Tinoco got fired. “I went to work, felt really good to have a new job and started going to it,” says Tinoco, a 53-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen who lives in Chicago. “And then they called me into the office and told me that my Social Security number was fake,” he adds, “And then they fired me.” Apparently, Tyson Foods Inc., Tinoco’s former employer, was one of the more than 52,000 companies voluntarily participating in “E-Verify”, a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) program designed to identify undocumented workers by electronically verifying their employment eligibility.

After the Kafkaesque experience of being hired, fired and trying to maneuver through the famously overstretched bureaucracy of the Social Security Administration to re-confirm status, Citizen Tinoco has become an outspoken critic of U.S. immigration laws’ impact on citizens. “I think that citizens need to be as careful of these new immigration laws,” says Tinoco, who now works at a school, adding, “they can ruin our lives too.” Tinoco found his concerns echoed by Jim Harper of the conservative Cato Institute, who recently wrote that “If E-Verify goes national, get used to hearing that Orwellian term: ‘non-confirmation.’”

That is why E-Verify is opposed by an unlikely alliance that includes the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, major unions, Republican legislators and others. But it is only one of a growing number of legislative and administrative immigration control initiatives that Tinoco and many critics believe will negatively impact not just non-citizens, but citizens as well. This week, for example, Congress is considering the Secure America through Verification and Enforcement (SAVE) Act, which includes provisions that mandate a national verification system like that of the more voluntary state programs like E-Verify. Also causing intense fear is last week’s announcement by the Bush administration of revisions to its “No Match letter” plan, which requires the Social Security Administration (SSA) to send out 140,000 letters demanding that employers fire workers whose Social Security numbers did not match those in their records. Advocates are concerned that, like the E-Verify program and SAVE Act, the new No Match regulations will affect other U.S. citizens and authorized workers thanks to the same kind of faulty record keeping that led to Tinoco’s firing.

“By viewing these initiatives through the narrow lens of ‘immigration policy’ sold to us by politicians many fail to see that many of these programs will have direct impacts on many citizens,” says Michele Waslin, senior research analyst with the Immigration Policy Center. To support their claims, Waslin and other critics point to several reports like one by the SSA’s Office of Inspector General that found that there are 17.8 million discrepancies in the SSA’s records relating to lawful American workers. The report also found that 70 percent or 12.7 million of those inconsistencies belong to native-born (as opposed to naturalized) U.S. citizens.

Some advocates like Harper of the Cato Institute are fighting the proposals because they believe that there are no checks against government error or abuse against citizens in the programs ostensibly targeting those here illegally. “Once built,” wrote Harper, “this government monitoring system would soon be extended to housing, financial services, and other essentials to try to get at illegal immigrants. It would also be converted to policy goals well beyond immigration control.” Waslin agrees. “These programs will do nothing to deal with undocumented immigrants because people will simply go further underground,” says Waslin. “But they will eventually lead to a situation that will force every single person to ask the government for permission to work. We have to ask ourselves, ‘Is it really worth it?’”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the world’s largest business federation, answers Waslin’s question with a resounding ‘no’, a ‘no’ accompanied by lawsuits, letter-writing and lobbying.

For their part, DHS representatives say that concerns about the effects on citizens are misplaced. The number of citizens mistakenly impacted by programs like No Match and E-Verify programs, says DHS spokesperson Amy Kudwa, “are a small portion of the population. Ninety-two percent of all E-verify queries are returned without incident in less than eight seconds and only 1 percent of them are contested. These are important tools in fighting illegal immigration.”

But advocates point out that, despite being run on trial basis, E-Verify and other programs have already demonstrated disconcerting flaws that are rooted in the unreliability of the technology and the databases like that of SSA.

In the face of so many legislative proposals and administrative initiatives, Tinoco says his obligation to speak only grows because of his concern for his fellow immigrants – and fellow citizens. “I still don’t understand: how can this happen here? It’s like a movie, a very bad movie.” Asked what message he has for his fellow citizens, Tinoco answers, “This can happen to you too.”

Interview: Decoding Liberation – The Promise of Free & Open Software

April 3, 2008

In the first of many interviews to come to you from Of América, we bring you an interview with Samir Chopra and Scott Dexter, authors of Decoding Liberation (DL) – The Promise of Free and Open Software.

I decided to bring this interview to you not only because of our wish to do more interviews about stimulating subjects with cool and smart people (We do); I also think that, in a “civilization” in which most of our infrastructure, most of our productive lives and our very DNA are mediated or manipulated by software, many of the classical questions and issues covered by one of my favorite pursuits, politics – freedom, power, citizenship, labor, production – must include a discussion of the liberatory potential in and of software.

Though interested in these critical, but heady topics, I am not the best person to either introduce or elucidate on such topics. Fortunately, my friend, Samir, and his colleague, Scott, are. So, without further adieu, here’s the interview, which covers lots of good and interesting ground.


Of América: What is open source? Free software?

SC, SD: Over the past few decades, it has become common for software companies to provide their software only as executable programs: all we users have to do — all we can do — is install the software and start using it. But what if we users have an urge to modify the way these programs work? Maybe we wish some annoying behavior would go away, or we fantasize about some really useful feature that’s just not there. Most of the time, this sort of wishful thinking can’t go beyond fantasy: we’re at the mercy of the software company, who decides when and whether they’re going to distribute an update or new version. And any eventual update may not, of course, tend to our needs.

The obstacle here is that the executable form of the programs we’re given doesn’t give us access to the information — the progam’s “source code” — that a programmer would need to change the program’s behavior. Most of us aren’t programmers ourselves, but we could certainly hire one to do some customization for us, if we had the source code. But source code is guarded by proprietary software vendors as a trade secret, because they believe that much of the value of the company resides there.

But there is an obvious alternative: to distribute software with its source code. This is the guiding principle of free and open source software (FOSS). This distribution creates all kinds of possibilities: for users to inspect the code of the software they use, modify it if they have the need, and even, perhaps, to send these modifications back to the originator to be folded into future versions of the software. So, the core distinction between FOSS and proprietary software is that FOSS makes available to its users the knowledge and innovation contributed by the creator(s) of the software, in the form of the software’s source code. So what makes the software “free” is not that it’s free of charge (though it generally is), but that we’re free to do all these things with it.

The terms free software and open source software are nearly synonymous terms for this particular approach to developing and distributing software. The difference lies in how this software is described and what kind of advocacy is carried out: “open source software” advocacy mostly relies on arguments about this kind of software’s technical superiority and efficiency of production; “free software” advocacy certainly acknowledges these factors but also uses ethical arguments about users’ freedoms and the impact of software on the life of a community or society.

Why did you write this?

We began to wonder whether the freedoms of software bled over into spheres of activity that are affected by software, so our guiding question became, “What is the emancipatory potential of free software, and how is it manifested?” Freedom is a multifaceted concept subject to diverse interpretations across many contexts; our book is an attempt to bring out what specific moral goods free software might provide in several important areas. We wanted to understand what free software’s liberatory potential is and how we might go about realizing it: we thought we saw, behind the software freedoms, glimmers of some important messages about how we could work as a community, how knowledge could be shared, and what a highly technologized world could look like. This book is partly an expression of a utopian hope that these can be realized.

What does this stuff have to do with politics?

Technology has always had everything to do with politics! Technological artifacts of the past consisted only of hardware: engines, motors, pumps, levers, switches, gears. To control the hardware was to control the technology. Hardware is expensive to acquire and maintain, so technology was invariably controlled by large economic entities—states, then corporations. Concerns about social control invariably addressed control of technology; Marx’s concerns about the control of the means of production were focused on the hardware that both crystallized and generated capitalist power. The 20th century brought a new form of technology, the computer, in which hardware and control are explicitly separated. With the advent of the computer, the means of production no longer inhere solely in hardware; control is transferable, distributable, plastic, and reproducible, all with minimal cost. Control of technology may be democratized, its advantages spread more broadly than ever before. The reactionary response to this promise is an attempt to embrace and coopt this control to advance entrenched social, economic, and political power. It is this reaction that free software resists. Most fundamentally, free software is a vehicle for moral discourse and political change in the still-new realm of digital technology.

Why talk about liberation? What does software have to do with freedom? What does freedom have to do with software?

The ‘free’ in free software has been famously explained by Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation as, “Think free speech, not free beer.” That is, software is a mode of expression; the protection of that freedom of expression is even more valuable than getting software “for free.” More specifically, the seminal Free Software Definition explicitly identifies four freedoms that are fundamental to users and developers alike: the freedom to run software for any purpose, the freedom to study and adapt a program to your needs, the freedom to redistribute copies of software, and the freedom to share your improvements to the software with the public.

In our work, we take free software to be a liberatory enterprise in several dimensions; we’re interested in the impact of the software freedoms, which seem quite technical on a first reading, on political, artistic, and scientific freedoms. The title of our book is suggestive of this impact: in a world that is increasingly encoded, our free software carries much potential for liberation. Granted, claims about technology and freedom are nothing new; much of the early hype about the Internet was rhetoric of this kind. But what is important about the recurrence of such hyperbolic enthusiasm is that it is clearly articulated evidence of a broad social desire for technology to live up to its potential as a liberatory force.

How deeply is software embedded into our lives? Does software control us or do we control software?

In a heavily technologized, computerized world—which we are slowly moving toward–the personal and social freedoms we will enjoy will be exactly those granted or restricted by software. Eben Moglen, Professor of Law at Columbia Law School perhaps puts it best:

“In the twenty-first century, power is the ability to change the behavior of computers. If you can’t change the behavior of computers, you live within a Skinner box created by the people who can change the behavior of computers. Every artifact around you responds by either handing you a banana pellet or a shock, depending upon which button you push and whether you are “right,” from the designer’s point of view.”

The question then becomes, “How closely does the designer’s point of view match mine?” And what recourse do we have if it’s not a good match? Free software offers us a qualitatively different measure of control over our machines.

Is this another book about how evil the King of Proprietary Software, Bill Gates, is?

No, it’s not. It is hard, though, to write a book about modern software without discussing the impact of the 800-pound gorilla that is Microsoft. The free software community is directly impacted by some of Microsoft’s action, like it’s omnipresent threat to launch patent infringements suits against free software projects. On the other hand, Microsoft has clearly acknowledged the impact of free software, as they have an active development lab dedicated to improving interoperability between free software and Microsoft’s products.

And, in fact, when we want to make a point about the value of the collaboration that free software allows programmers, we quote Bill Gates, from a 1989 interview: “[T]he best way to prepare [to be a programmer] is to write programs, and to study great programs that other people have written. . . . You’ve got to be willing to read other people’s code, then write your own, then have other people review your code. You’ve got to want to be in this incredible feedback loop where you get the worldclass people to tell you what you are doing wrong . . .”

How do I impact any of this if I’m not a programmer?

Even non-programmer users, just by using free software, can make a real difference by asking for new features, pointing out problems, and making copies of the software to share with their friends. The free software community is incredibly good at taking advantage of these seemingly small contributions; developers are very eager to hear from people who are using their work and want to see it thrive. Even a small handful of demanding users can dramatically improve the quality of the free software they use. On a political and social scale, citizens can demand that governmental entities or their employers make the technology they use transparent by using free software (for instance, voters could demand, as, indeed, they already have, that voting machines only run free software).

How can community organizations, political groups take advantage of this?

Free software is intricately involved with a number of social goods that are increasingly under attack, ranging from consumer choice and the struggle against monopolies, to the distribution of creative and intellectual works, to the preservation of the creative and liberatory potential of the Internet, and the human right to communication. We hope our book will make these connections clear, and inspire thought about what sorts of political strategies will work best to preserve these goods. Another of our goals is to make the case to activists from a variety of struggles that tech activism, whether around free software, or privacy, or net neutrality, is an important factor in any fight — effecting change in the technological sphere has more and more to do with change in the “real world.”

Thanks, Samir & Scott.

One Raid at a Time: How Immigrant Crackdowns Build the National Security State

March 25, 2008

(NOTE: This piece, which originally appeared in Public Eye, is, in my opinion, one of the 2 most important things I’ll write this year. Though written for a think tank (Political Research Associates) and though not as literary as I’d like, it does represent my best effort to date to conceptualize something we all know: that the immigrant crackdown is neither solely nor primarily about immigrants, that efforts to end the raids and other repression against immigrants requires more than simply denouncing the racism and raids of the crackdown. At the same time, I try to contribute something that complements and challenges the political thinking in the immigrant rights movement, which, like you, I feel great urgency about. Should you read it, please do drop a note ( as it is a work in progress, one I will weave into a larger project. Gracias, R)

One Raid at a Time: How Immigrant Crackdowns Build the National Security State

By Roberto Lovato

“He [King George] has erected a multitude of new offices and set hither swarms of officers to harass out people and eat out their subsistence.” The Declaration of Independence, 1776

I. Building Up the Domestic Security Apparatus

Most explanations of the relentless pursuit of undocumented immigrants since 9/11 view it as a response to the continuing pressures of angry, mostly white, citizens. The “anti-immigrant climate” created by civic groups like the Minutemen, politicos like (name the Republican candidate of your choice) and media personalities like CNN’s Lou Dobbs, we are told, has led directly to the massive – and growing – government bureaucracy for policing immigrants.

The Washington Post, for example, told us in 2006 that “The Minutemen rose to prominence last year when they began organizing armed citizen patrols along the U.S.-Mexico border, a move credited with helping to ignite the debate that has dominated Washington in recent months.”

Along the way to allegedly responding to “grassroots” calls about “real immigration reform” and “doing something about illegals,” the Bush Administration dismantled the former Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and created the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, whose more than 15,000 employees and $5.6 billion budget make it the largest investigative component of the Department of Homeland Security and the second largest investigative agency in the federal government after the FBI.2 In the process of restructuring, national security concerns regarding threats from external terrorist enemies got mixed in with domestic concerns about immigrant “invaders” denounced by a growing galaxy of anti-immigrant interests.

Implicit in daily media reports about “immigration reform” is the idea that bottom-up pressure led to the decision to dismantle the former INS and then place the immigration bureaucracy under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Citizen activism contributed significantly to the most massive, most important government restructuring since the end of World War II. Nor do press accounts mention Boeing and other aerospace and surveillance companies, which, for example, will benefit as government contractors to the federal Secure Border Initiative (SBI) that is scheduled to receive more than $2 billion in funding for fencing, electronic surveillance and other equipment required for the new physical and virtual fence being built at the border.3

Nowhere in the more popular explanations of this historic and massive government restructuring of immigration and other government functions do the raisons d’etat – the reasons of the state, the logic of government – enter the picture. When talking about immigration reform, what little, if any, agency ascribed to the Bush Administration usually includes such mantra-like phrases like “protecting the homeland,” “securing the border,” and others. And even in the immigrant rights community few, for example, are asking why the Bush Administration decided to move the citizenship processing and immigration enforcement functions of government from the more domestic, policing-oriented Department of Justice (DOJ) to the more militarized, anti-terrorist bureaucracy of the Department of Homeland Security.

Little, if any, consideration is given to the possibility that immigrants and immigration policy serve other interests that have nothing to do with chasing down maids, poultry workers, and landscapers.

Failure to consider the reasons of state behind the buildup leading to the birth of the ICE, the most militarized branch of the federal government after the Pentagon, leaves the analysis of, and political action around, immigration reform partial at best. While important, focusing on the electoral workings of the white voter excludes a fundamental part of the immigration bureaucracy equation: how immigrants provide the rationale for the expansion of government policing bureaucracy in times of political crisis, economic distress, and major geopolitical shifts. Shortly after the attacks and the creation of DHS, the Bush Administration used immigrants and fear of outsiders to tighten border restrictions, pass repressive laws and increase budgets to put more drones, weapons and troops inside the country.

Government actions since 9/11 point clearly to how the U.S. government has set up a new Pentagon-like bureaucracy to fight a new kind of protracted domestic war against a new kind of domestic enemy – undocumented immigrants. While willing to believe that there were ulterior motives behind the Iraq war and the pursuit of al Qaeda, few consider that there are non-immigration-related motives behind ICE’s al Qaeda-ization of immigrants and immigration policy: multi-billion dollar contracts to military-industrial companies like Boeing, General Electric and Halliburton for “virtual” border walls, migrant detention centers, drones, ground-based sensors, and other surveillance technology for use in the Arizona desert that were originally designed for war zones like the deserts of Iraq; the de-facto militarization of immigration policy through the deployment of 6,000 additional National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border4; hundreds of raids in neighborhoods and workplaces across the country; the passage of hundreds of punitive, anti-migrant state and federal laws like the Military Commissions Act5, which denies the habeas corpus rights of even legal residents who are suspected of providing “material support” to terrorist groups.

In the same way that private companies like the Pinkerton Detective Agency provided highly profitable policing, surveillance, and other government services targeting immigrants and citizens in the 20th century, companies like Halliburton, Blackwater, the Corrections Corporation of America, Boeing, and others are reaping profits by helping build the government’s immigrant policing bureaucracy today.

Contrary to the electoral logic prevailing in “pro-immigrant” and mainstream media explanations of the current buildup of the (anti)immigrant government bureaucracy, ICE’s war on immigrants is not solely, nor even primarily about shoring up support for the Republicans and other prowar political and economic interests as most analysts and activists would have us believe. A look at precedents for this kind of government anti-immigrant action yields the conclusion that using immigrants to build up government policing and military capabilities is, in fact, a standard practice of the art of statecraft. The historical record provides ample evidence of how national security experts, politicians, elected officials, bureaucrats and other managers of the state have used immigrants and anti-immigrant sentiments and policies as a way of normalizing and advancing militarization within the borders of the United States (the “homeland”).

At a time when the mortgage and banking crises make obvious that the American Dream is dying for most, a time in which even its illusion is hardly tenable as revealed in polls that found that less than 18 percent of the U.S. population believes it is living the “American Dream,”6 the state needs many reasons to reassert control over an increasingly unruly populace by putting more ICE agents and other gun-wielding government agents among the citizenry.

Focusing on non-citizens makes it easier for citizens to swallow the increased domestic militarism inherent in increasing numbers of uniformed men and women with guns in their midst. Constant reports of raids on the homes of the undocumented immigrants normalize the idea of government intrusion into the homes of legal residents. Political scientists, investigative journalists, and activists have long reminded us of how elites are constantly concerned with creating the structures that may be needed to control a potentially unruly population, especially one protesting for its rights like the millions of immigrants who marched in 2006.

History and present experience remind us that, in times of heightened (and often exaggerated) fears about national security, immigration and immigrants are no longer just wedge issues in electoral politics; they magically morph into “dangerous” others who fill the need for new, domestic enemies required by an economy, a political system, a citizenry, a country created, nurtured and dependent on civilizational warfare and expansionism. Historians write about the geopolitical contours of the U.S. empire that began with the stealing of Mexican land. But little to no attention is paid to how, today, the domestic contours of empire – and the infrastructure that supports it – are also being reinforced by targeting Mexicans and other immigrants actually living inside this now very troubled land.

The ICE’s media and policy framing of the issue of immigration as a kind of “war” complete with “most wanted” lists7 of terrorists, drug traffickers, and immigrants like Elvira Arellano8, the undocumented immigrant leader deported after seeking and gaining sanctuary in a Chicago church, follows clearly the directives outlined in a couple of critical documents developed just after 9/11.

II A Key Moment After 9/11

In order to understand how and why ICE now constitutes an important part of the ascendant national security bureaucracy, we must first look at the intimate relationship between National Security policy and “Homeland Security” policy. One of the defining aspects of immigration policy and the current attacks on immigrants is the fact that they are being shaped by elite priorities of the post-9/11 climate.

Shortly after 9/11, the Bush Administration had, in July 2002, introduced its “National Strategy for Homeland Security,” a document that outlines how to “mobilize and organize our Nation to secure the U.S. homeland from terrorist attacks.”9 Two months later, the Bush Administration released the more geopolitically focused “National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” whose purpose is to “help make the world not just safer but better.”10 9/11 provided the impetus to create a bureaucratic and policy environment dominated by security imperatives laid out in two of the most definitive documents of our time, documents which outline strategies that, we are told, “together take precedence over all other national strategies, programs, and plans,”11 including immigration policy. Immigration policy nonetheless receives considerable attention, especially in the Homeland Security Strategy. The role of the private sector is also made explicit on the DHS website, which says, “The Department of Homeland Security is responsible for assessing the nation’s vulnerabilities” and that “the private sector is central to this task.”12

//” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

By placing other government functions under the purview of the national security imperatives laid out in the two documents, the Bush Administration enabled and deepened the militarization of government bureaucracies like the ICE. At the same time, immigrants provided the Bush Administration a way to facilitate the transference of public wealth to military industrial interests like those of Halliburton, Boeing and others through government contracts in a kind of Homeland Security Keynesianism.

For example the two documents called for DHS to “Establish a national laboratory for homeland security” that solicits “independent and private analysis for science.”13 This materialized through the budget of ICE, which has resources for research and development of technologies for surveilling, capturing, detaining, and generally combating what politicos and Minutemen alike paint as the Malthusian monster of immigration. Again, immigrants help the state justify massive expenditures like those for the creation and maintenance of ICE, which, in turn, have led to a major reconfiguration and expansion of the state itself.

Perennial complaints of the former INS’s infamous inefficiency in both its border enforcement and citizenship processing functions, and the 9/11 catastrophe, combined to create the perfect political storm that swept in another historic bureaucratic shift. Hidden behind what some call the “anti-immigrant hysteria” characterizing periods like ours are the political crises, economic earthquakes and geopolitical crises that drive history.

III The Lessons of History

History provides several precedents that illustrate how immigrants have consistently provided elite political and corporate interests the rationale for major government restructuring that often has little to do with migration and much to do with other things, things like: bureaucratic patronage (think big government contracts for military industrial firms); deploying and displaying power; controlling the populace and rallying different sectors of society round the idea of the nation (nationalism).

Long before the Patriot Act, DHS and ICE, policies linking immigrants to the security of the country have formed an important part of U.S. statecraft. The period before and after the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 179814, which gave then-president John Adams the authority to remove any immigrant he deemed a threat to national security, is one example. During this time, the Bush-like enumeration of “Seditious Acts” was linked to the elite need to control the populace, and militarize the society in times of profound instability. Another example is the period of the Red Scare of 1919, when millions of mostly-immigrant-led strikers provided the political impetus leading to the creation of the domestic policing bureaucracy known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).15

History has shown that, in times of extraordinary instability, governments go to extraordinary lengths and spend extraordinary amounts of money to create and reinforce the ramparts of their policing apparatus and of nationhood itself. Current efforts by the U.S. government to instrumentalize immigrants as a means of buttressing itself in times of domestic and geopolitical crisis follows a logic tried and true since the establishment of the country amidst the global and internal turbulence around the turn of the 18th century.

IV Immigrants and the Establishment of the National Security State

Like many of the newly established countries suffering some of the political and economic shocks of economic and political modernization in the late eighteenth century, the fledgling United States and its leaders needed to simultaneously consolidate the nation state established constitutionally in 1787 while also maneuvering for a position on a global map dominated by the warring powers of France and England. Central to accomplishing this were immigrants who provided both a means of rallying and aligning segments of the populace while also legitimating massive expenditures towards the construction of the militarized bureaucracies meant to defend against domestic threats to “national” security which linked external enemies real and perceived.

At the turn of the 18th century, the United States was much weaker than and still very vulnerable to the power of Britain and France, which were engaged in a war that defined political positions inside and outside the new country. Like many of their elite and more imperially inclined Federalist peers, Alexander Hamilton and President John Adams were fearful of the French revolution. Developments in the revolutionary republic pushed people and states around the Atlantic world to take positions for and against the revolution at that time. In addition, some Federalists like Hamilton also wanted to push out the French and conquer Florida, Louisiana, and South America.16

Immigrants and immigration policy of the post-revolutionary period became ensnared in the battle for power between Federalists, who advocated a more urban and mercantile route to nationhood, and the anti-Federalist Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson, whose romantic proto-capitalist path to consolidation of the nation was paved by agrarian expansion. The battles between the Federalists and anti-Federalists played themselves out in relation to France and the ideals of the French revolution, as elites tried to cope with the instability wrought by capitalist expansion on the rural majority.

The political, economic and geopolitical crises inherent in the modernization process had a profound impact on how elites and the state viewed the large immigrant population in the United States. In response to the devastating effects of economic transformation, thousands of French, German, Irish and other immigrants led uprisings like the Whiskey Rebellion and Shay’s Rebellion, which were viewed as threats by elites, especially the Federalists.
In the face of both popular unrest and Republican competition for political power, and in their efforts to consolidate the state and the globally oriented mercantile and pre-industrial capitalist economy, Hamilton and then-President Adams did what has, since their time, become a standard operating procedure in the art of U.S. statecraft: build the state and insert its control apparatus in the larger populace by scapegoating immigrants as threats to national security.

//” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.

In the words of historian John Morton Smith, “The internal security program adopted by the Federalists during the Administration of John Adams was designed not only to deal with potential dangers from foreign invasion growing out of the “Half War” with France, but also to repress domestic political opposition.”17 In this context, immigrants became the domestic expression of the threat represented by the French Jacobins, the proto-communist and al Qaeda-like subversive threat of the early nineteenth century. Commenting on this threat, Samuel Sitgreaves, a Federalist Congressman from Pennsylvania, made the connection between internal immigrant threats and external big power threats when he said in May 1798 “….the business of defence would be very imperfectly done, if Congress confined their operations of defence to land and naval forces, and neglected to destroy the cankerworm which is corroding the heart of the country…there are a great number of aliens in this country from that nation [France] with whom we have at present alarming differences….there are emissaries amongst us, who have not only fomented our differences with that country, but who have also endeavored to create divisions amongst our own citizens.”18

Also considered a threat were the free and unfree blacks who elites feared might form a “domestic army of ten thousand blacks.” Other fears of subversion by domestic interests linked to external enemies were stoked by rampant rumors of a French-influenced “Illuminati” conspiracy, an “internal invasion” to create a godless, global “new world order” allegedly led by emigrants from France and St. Domingue. The modern use of the word “terror” first enters the language when Sir Edmund Burke gazed across the English Channel and applied it to the actions of the Jacobin state in France. Burke’s conservative American cousins then adopted the term and applied it to French-influenced immigrants and others considered subversive.19

Such a climate aided Federalists in their efforts to centralize and consolidate both power and nationhood. Hamilton and then-President John Adams undertook several legal and other institutional initiatives designed to enhance their and the state’s power while also putting their Republican critics and other opposition in check. Laws facilitating press censorship were coupled with calls to unify the nation in preparation for war with France.After Hamilton and the Federalists raised taxes to pay for their expansionist expenditures to consolidate their version of the new country, a group of people who refused to pay taxes unleashed Fries’ Rebellion. In response, Adams, Hamilton and the Federalists seized on the unrest to unleash heretofore unrealized state powers and nation-reinforcing state bureaucracy.20 At the core of the moves was the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts proposed by Adams and passed in 1798. The law targeted the immigrant threat by making it easier to put them in jail for subverting the government.

At the same time that they passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, Adams, Hamilton and the Federalists also implemented the first major reorganization of government bureaucracy. Central to this reorganization was the establishment of the Department of the Navy, a revived U.S. Marine Corps and a “New Army” in the 1798. In the same session in which it passed the Alien and Sedition acts, the Federalist-dominated fifth congress passed in its first session a bill authorizing $454,000 on defense, which, at that time represented a large expenditure. During its second session it authorized $3,887,971.81, an amount equal to “more than the entire 1rst congress had appropriated for all government expenditures”. During its third session it authorized $6 million for a total of over $10 million.21

The end result of the anti-immigrant expenditures Federalists created what some call the first national security state.

V Immigrants, the Red Scare, and the Birth of the FBI Bureaucracy

A similar situation in which a crisis sparking immigrant activism led to a major build-up of the government policing apparatus took place during the Red Scare of 1919. The U.S. government faced several economic and political pressures including the end of World War I, the demobilization of the Army, returning troops, joblessness, depression, unemployment and growing inflation.

The precarious situation gave rise to increased elite fear of Jewish, Italian and other immigrant workers in the era of the Bolshevik revolution and an increasingly powerful –and militant – labor movement. Socialists, Wobblies, and other activists like Emma Goldman, who were against the war and demonstrated high levels of labor militancy, staged historic labor actions in 1919. That year saw 3,600 labor strikes involving four million workers, many of whom were led by and were immigrants. Government and big business had to watch as a full one-fifth of the manufacturing workforce staged actions.22 Massive organizing by Jamaican immigrant Marcus Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association and race riots in northern cities further stoked elite fears and gave birth to the institutional response to what became known as the Red Scare.

Like other national governments of the period, the United States had begun intensifying the centralization of functions formerly carried out by the private sector, including keeping labor and other dissidents in check. In the words of Regin Schmidt, author of The FBI and the Origins of Anti-Communism in the United States, “In response to social problems caused by industrialization, urbanization and immigration and the potential political threats to the existing order posed by the Socialist Party, the IWW and, in 1919, the Communist parties, industrial and political leaders began to look to the federal government, with its growing and powerful bureaucratic organizations to monitor and control political opposition.”23

Major expansion of the state via the building of new bureaucracies (Bureau of Corporations, Department of Labor, Federal Trade Commission, etc.) and bureaucratic infighting for government resources and legal jurisdiction between the Bureau of Investigation, the precursor of the FBI, the Department of Labor and other agencies turned the largely immigrant-led unrest into an unprecedented opportunity for A. Mitchell Palmer and his lieutenant, J. Edgar Hoover. Both men saw in the domestic crisis an opportunity to build and expand personal fortunes and what would eventually become the Federal Bureau of Investigation. FBI historian John A. Noakes concluded that “The domestic unrest during this period presented the Bureau of Investigation the opportunity to expand its domain and increase its power.”24

Illustrating the budgetary effects of the Bureau’s power grab, he continues, “Following the armistice, but before the Bureau’s decision to join the Red Scare hysteria, the Bureau had requested an appropriation of $1,500,000. When the Department of Justice declared the nation in imminent danger of a radical uprising, however, Congress immediately increased the appropriation by $500,000; by the end of the fiscal year the Bureau had a budget of $2,750,000.”25

Thousands of immigrants were surveilled, rounded up, and deported during the Red Scare. Just five years after the Scare, Hoover went on to found the FBI and became the most powerful non-elected official in U.S. history. In what sounds like a precursor to the current ICE raids, local police and federal agents collaborated around immigration. FBI historian Kenneth D. Ackerman states, “Backed by local police and volunteer vigilantes, federal agents hit in dozens of cities and arrested more than 10,000 suspected communists and fellow travelers. They burst into homes, classrooms and meeting halls, seizing everyone in sight, breaking doors and heads with abandon. The agents ignored legal niceties such as search warrants or arrest warrants. They questioned suspects in secret, imposed prohibitive bail and kept them locked up for months in foul, overcrowded, makeshift prisons.” Close to none of these immigrant prisoners had anything to do with radical violence. And, according to Ackerman, “Palmer’s grand crackdown was one big exercise in guilt by association, based primarily on bogus fears of immigrants being connected to vilified radical groups such as the recently formed American Communist Party.” Drawing parallels between the Red Scare and the current “War on Terror,” Ackerman concludes, “Almost 90 years later, today’s war on terror exists in an echo chamber of the 1919 Red scare.”26

VI Conclusion

As shown in the examples from U.S. history, immigrants provide the state with ample excuse to expand, especially in times of geopolitical and domestic crisis. During the post-revolutionary period, the pursuit of alleged immigrant subversives led to the massive funding of the Department of the Navy and to the expansion of state power through laws like the Alien and Seditions Acts. Similarly, the crisis following then end of World War I led to the creation of the FBI and to unprecedented government repression and expansion embodied by the Palmer Raids. “In eliminating the Wobblies, government officials passed legislation, evolved techniques, and learned lessons that shaped later course of conduct.”27 Viewed from a historical perspective, it is no surprise that the government should respond to the geopolitical and domestic crisis in the United States with expanded government power and bureaucracy. Rather than view the placement of ICE under DHS as solely about controlling immigrant labor or about political (and electoral) opportunism disguised as government policy (both are, in fact, part of the equation), it is important to connect the creation of ICE and its placement under DHS to the perpetual drive of government to expand its powers, especially its repressive apparatus and other mechanisms of social control.

From this perspective, the current framing of the issue of immigration as a “national security” concern – one requiring the bureaucratic shift towards “Homeland Security” – fits well within historical practices that extend government power to control not just immigrants, but those born here, most of whom don’t see immigration policy affecting them.

One of the things that makes the current politico-bureaucratic moment different, however, is the fluidity and increasing precariousness of the state itself. Like other nation states, the United States suffers from strains wrought by the free hand of global corporations that have abandoned large segments of its workforce. Such a situation necessitates the institutionalization of the war on immigrants in order to get as many armed government agents into a society that may be teetering on even more serious collapse as seen in the recession and economic crisis devastating core components of the American Dream such as education, healthcare and home ownership. Unlike the previous periods, the creation of massive bureaucracies superseded the need to surveil, arrest and deport migrants. Today, there appears to be a move to make permanent the capacity of the state to pursue, jail and deport migrants in order to sustain what some call a kind of migration-military-industrial complex.28

Several indicators make clear that we are well on our way to making the war on immigrants a permanent feature of a government in crisis. In addition to being the largest, most-militarized component of DHS, ICE, spends more than one fifth of the multibillion dollar DHS budget and is also its largest investigative arm. As mentioned previously, multibillion dollar contracts for border security from DHS have become an important new market to aerospace companies like General Electric, Lockheed and Boeing, which secured a $2.5 billion contract for the Secure Borders Initiative, a DHS program to build surveillance and other technological capabilities.29 That some saw in 9/11 an opportunity to expand and grow government technological capabilities – and private sector patronage – through such contracts, can bee seen in the fact that DHS was created with what the national security documents say is a priority to “Establish a national laboratory for homeland security” that would “solicit independent and private analysis for science and technology research.”30

Like its predecessor, the “military-industrial complex”, the migrant-military industrial complex tries to integrate federal and state economic interests through a kind of Homeland Security Keynesianism in which increasing numbers of companies are bidding for, and dependent on, big contracts like the Boeing contract or the $385 million DHS contract for the construction of immigrant prisons.31 Also like its military-industrial cousin, the migrant military industrial complex has its own web of relationships between corporations, government contracts and elected officials. Nowhere is this connection clearer than in the case of James Sensenbrenner, the anti-immigrant godfather who sponsored HR 4437 which criminalized immigrants and those who would help them.32 According to his 2005 financial disclosure statement, Sensenbrenner held $86,500 in Halliburton stocks, $563,536 in General Electric and Boeing is among the top contributors to the Congressman’s PAC (Sensenbrenner also owns stocks in companies like Olive Garden restaurants, which hire undocumented workers.)33

In conclusion, the current war on immigrants is grounded in the history of statecraft and big government bureaucracy. While critical, the almost exclusive focus of the immigrant rights movement on the laws and employment of workers fails to take into consideration the need for a war on immigrants to build and maintain massive policing bureaucracies like ICE and DHS. In their search for solutions to the continuing crisis of immigration policy, activists might consider focusing at least some energy on the reasons of the federal state rather than solely on state legislatures, white voters, elections and the immigrants.

  1. Alec MacGillis, “Minutemen Assail Amnesty Idea,” Washington Post, May 13, 2006
  2. “SPECIAL REPORT: Homeland Security Appropriations for FY 2005 (House & Senate) and California Implications,” The California Institute for Federal Policy Research, September 16, 2004
  3. “DHS Announces $12.14 Billion for Border Security & Immigration Enforcement Efforts,” Department for Homeland Security, January 31, 2008
  4. “Militarizing the Border: Bush Calls for 6,000 National Guard Troops to Deploy to U.S. – Mexican Border,” Democracy Now, May 16, 2006
  5. Wikipedia profile of Military Commissions Act of 2006
  6. “The American Dream Survey 2006,” Lake Partners Research, August 28, 2006
  7. “ICE Most Wanted Fugitives,” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Accessed March 19, 2008
  8. N.C. Aizenman and Spencer S. Hsu, “Activist’s Arrest Highlights Key Immigrant Issue,” Washington Post, August 21, 2007
  9. “National Strategy for Homeland Security,” Office of Homeland Security, July, 2002
  10. “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” The White House, September, 2002
  11. “National Strategy for Homeland Security”
  12. “Information Sharing and Analysis” The Department of Homeland Security, Accessed March 19, 2008
  13. “National Strategy for Homeland Security”
  14. Wikipedia profile of Alien and Sedition Acts
  15. Regin Schmidt, Red Scare: FBI and the Origins of Anticommunism in the United States, (Copenhagen, Denmark: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2000).
  16. Walter R. Borneman, 1812: The War That Forged a Nation, (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2004), 13.
  17. John Morton Smith, “President John Adams, Thomas Cooper, and Sedition: A Case Study in Suppression”, The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 42.3 (December, 1955): 438-465
  18. Samuel Sitgreaves, Speech Can be found in Abridgement of the Debates of Congress From 1789 to 1856, (New York, NY: D. Appleton and Company), 253-260
  19. Edmund Burke,Thoughts On The Prospect Of A Regicide Peace: In A Series Of Letters, (Whitefish, MT: Kessinger Publishing, LLC, October 2, 2007,)
  20. Stephen Hartnett, Jennifer Rose Mercieca, “Has Your Courage Rusted? National Security and the Contested Rhetorical Norms of Republicanism in Post-Revolutionary America, 1798-1801,” Rhetoric & Public Affairs 9.1, (Spring 2006), 79-112.
  21. Paul Douglas Newman, Fries’ Rebellion: The Enduring Struggle For The American Revolution, (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).
  22. Todd J. Pfannestiel, Rethinking the Red Scare: The Lusk Committee and New York’s Crusade against Radicalism, 1919–1923, (New York: Routledge, 2003).
  23. Schmidt, Red Scare: FBI and the Origins of Anticommunism in the United States.
  24. John A. Noakes, “Enforcing Domestic Tranquility: State Building and the Origin of the FBI”, Qualitative Sociology, 18.2, (June, 1995), 271-86.
  25. Noakes, “Enforcing Domestic Tranquility: State Building and the Origin of the FBI”
  26. Kenneth D. Ackerman,Young J. Edgar: Hoover, the Red Scare, and the Assault on Civil Liberties, (New York, NY: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2007).
  27. William Preston Jr. Aliens and Dissenters: Federal Suppression of Radicals, 1903-1933, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).
  28. Deepa Fernandes, Targeted, National Security and the Business of Immigration, (New York, NY: Seven Stories Press, 2007).
  29. Martie Cenkci, “At Technology’s Front Line,” Airforce Outreach Program Office Outreach Prospective, 5.4, (Fall-Winter 2006), 10-11
  30. “National Strategy for Homeland Security”
  31. Alexandra Walker, “Sensenbrenner: Immigration Profiteer,” The Real Costs of Prison Weblog, October 5, 2006
  32. Text of H.R. 4437 at The Library of Congress
  33. Roberto Lovato, “Sensenbrenner Under Fire – Does Congressman Profit From Undocumented Labor?,” New America Media, October 6, 2006

New York Event: Left Out in the Open — The Netroots & Progressive Politics

March 4, 2008

This coming Wednesday, March 5th, yours truly will be joining a stellar panel of thinkers- and doers- in the netroots. Sponsored by the Nation Magazine and Moveon, “Left out in the Open” will explore how the netroots is transforming -for good and for bad- the left. I will try to hold my own in such smart, capable company. You are cordially invited to come to:

City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate Center, Proshansky Auditorium, 365 Fifth Avenue (near 34th Street). The event starts at 6:30 and sounds like it’s going to fill up. Some come early, come all as many different colored beans we can cram in there.

See you there!

Left Out in the Open — The Netroots & Progressive Politics

This Nation event will convene progressive leaders and writers for a lively discussion of how the netroots are changing progressive politics. Participants will include Katrina vanden Heuvel, publisher and editor of The Nation; Zephyr Teachout, assistant professor of law, Duke University, and an architect of Howard Dean’s Internet strategy; Matt Stoller, a founding blogger of OpenLeft and President of BlogPAC; Roberto Lovato, a writer at New America Media and blogger for Of América; and Ari Melber, a correspondent for The Nation and a contributing editor at Personal Democracy Forum. The event is free of charge. Please arrive early. Takes place at CUNY Graduate Center, Proshansky Auditorium, 365 Fifth Avenue. The event starts at 6:30.

For more information, call (212) 209-5400 or click here or here.