This is the story of a girl who found herself stranded on a curb in Rio and encountered the most incredible kindness of strangers.
Journalists keep strange hours and travel long ways to get their stories. Having just arrived after 7am on an overnight bus from Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro, I was looking forward to meeting up with two colleagues in their apartment near the beach and to crash on the couch for a few hours before going out in the afternoon to cover yet another anti FIFA World Cup protest, possibly a violent one.
However, once arrived at the proper address, my friends didn’t answer the door. I rang, I called, I knocked on the door, I sent SMS, and even Facebook messages, but there was no answer. After about half an hour even after the janitor got in on the act and almost broke down their door by knocking so hard, but not before bringing me a chair to sit on while I was waiting for my friends to let me in. After about a further hour an upstairs neighbour became curious as to what the ruckus was all about and started making inquiries. The janitor kindly explained to her what was going on, so she offered me to sit on her couch until we could reach my friends. She fed me breakfast, let me use her internet and even showed me her family albums once she learned I was a photographer.
After a couple of hours of still no answer from my friends, my kind hostess had to leave, so I went down to my friends apartment again to wait outside their door. After a while, the neighbours across the hall, an elderly retired couple, started to take an interest in the situation. Once they understood what was going on, they, too, invited me into their home, sat me on the couch, fed me again, offered me to use their shower, and when I told them I would be working in the afternoon, even suggested I sleep in their bed if I needed a few extra winks. While we waited on my friends, we watched a soccer game together and discussed Brazil and its situation, and even though their English was about as good as my Portuguese, we did have a very good conversation. All through this, my hosts were the most warm and welcoming, never ever giving me the sense I was intruding on their lives or daily routine. They welcomed me with open arms like a long lost friend and did everything they could to make me feel welcome. I did my best to thank them profusely for every kindness they extended to me, but I’m still not sure I did their friendliness and generosity justice.
After a while even they had to leave, but, and here comes the most incredible part, they insisted I stay in their apartment, take a shower, take a nap and just make myself at home. Until a couple of hours before that they had never even met me, yet they offered me the run of their house while they were out meeting friends to watch the Brazilian soccer team play in the World Cup.
Fortunately, around 3pm, a short while after my hosts had left me behind in their apartment, one of my friends contacted me, having just awoken from his sleep. All this time they had been inside the apartment fast asleep after a late night’s work. But while part of me was angry at the whole situation, I also think that without my friends’ dopiness I would have never met all these extraordinarily kind people and had such a deep insight into Brazilian hospitality.
The protest in the afternoon was mostly a non-event after police raided a bus with protesters before the march could even start. Part of me was thankful for that, as I realised that I really wasn’t in the mood for getting teargased on three hours of sleep.
Back at the apartment I finally fell asleep halfway through filing my report for the day …
Riding busses through the countryside of Brazil between Rio, Brasilia, and Sao Paolo, I had the opportunity to observe some of the rural lifestyle of Brazilians. While busses pass by mostly just the outskirts of cities and not the wealthier city centers, life alongside the road seems poor for the most part. Here, as a photo story, are some of my impressions along the route.
Sugar cane field near Sao Paolo burning in the night
Farm workers in a sugar cane field near Sao Paolo. Crops are harvested 7 days a week to keep up with demand
Machinery used for the harvesting of sugar cane alongside the highway between Brasilia and Sao Paolo
Favela boy standing in a street along the highway between Brasilia and Sao Paolo
Highway between Brasilia and Sao Paolo covered in smoke from burning sugar cane. Sugar cane, used to produce cachaca rum and ethanol fuel, Brazil is the world wide leading producer of ethanol fuel, is a dominant crop on the fields of Sao Paolo state. Given that many poor residents still go hungry, criticism has arisen that fields are used to produce crops for things other than feeding the Brazilian population.
Love in a harsh place - favela kid playing on the street along the highway between Brasilia and Sao Paolo
A cross by the wayside of a highway between Brasilia and Sao Paolo marking the spot where a pedestrian was killed by a passing car
Alternate transportation in rural Brazil. Many can be seen walking or biking along the highways in rural Brazil even at night, exposing them to risk of being struck by passing drivers who can't see them walking in the dark along unlit roads
Corn field along the highway between Brasilia and Sao Paolo. Brazil's fertile soil makes it prime agrarian country
Favela in rural Brazil along the highway from Brasilia to Sao Paolo. While city favelas are best known to outside observers, these unstructured communities built up by home- and landless Brazilians without any state furnished infrastructure pop up all over the country wherever there is an opportunity for gainful employment
Rural worker riding his bike on the way home from the store. Public transportation throughout Brazil is under developed, especially in rural areas, forcing those who cannot afford cars to find alternate modes of transportation
Rural workers waiting for the bus outside Brasilia
One man's junk is another man's treasure. Car graveyard in rural Brazil, serving as spare parts source for old vehicles still on the road
Rural Brazil is farm country, with some farmers owning enormous swats of land, but not using it to its full potential, leading to landless people occupying underused farms with the tacit approval of the government
The Wave Pool in Brasilia’s Sara Kubitschek Park has been closed for renovation since 1997
A pattern of decaying public infrastructure assets, many of them shut down for years with the promise of prompt renovation that never seems to materialize, frustrates many residents of Brasilia in light of massive public investments in the World Cup.
To develop a better understanding as to just why Brazilians around the country are so deeply frustrated with the government’s handling of public investment into infrastructure needed to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup, I visited a number of public facilities around the nation’s 54 year old capital Brasilia. I found many of them shut down, with promises of renovations and upgrades that have yet to materialise, and some of them, situated in Sara Kubitschek Park near the brand new National Stadium, one of the 12 sites of the 2014 World Cup, in horrible state of disrepair:
Brasilia’s Wave Pool has been abandoned since 1997, after 15 years of public use
The Wave Pool, built in the 1980s as a free public facility and a major attraction to Brasilians to use in the public park, was closed down in 1997 for repairs to the wave machinery. Closed ever since, it has become a popular hang out for crack addicts. A revitalisation plan issued by the Secretariat of Urban Planning in 2011 called for a study of bids to revitalise the sports facilities in the park, which at this point call for a complete reconstruction of the public pool, as the old wave machinery is beyond repair after such an extended period of disuse. In his 2011 statement, Brasilia’s Administrator Messias de Souza answered his citizens frequent calls for revitalisation of the pool with the following statement: “We heard the demands of users and we are trying to solve them. Now just wait for the deadlines.” Three years later on the eve of a major event in the city, the citizens of Brasilia are still waiting …
Sign outside the Maria da Conceição Moreira Salles Public Library in Brasilia reading “No bread and games, we want education!!”
The public library Maria da Conceição Moreira Salles in Brasilia’s Asa Sul was shut down on May 6 2014 by the Federal District’s Civil Defence Authority and condemned against further use, citing an immediate risk of collapse, water leaks, and electrical wiring problems in the facility that had been badly maintained since it was constructed 50 years ago. Housing a collection of over 120,000 works, the library used to receive over 1000 visits daily before its sudden shutdown. Problems had been mounting over the past few years: In 2012, pieces of plaster fell from the facade of the building in the gardens and on the balcony. A few months ago, over 2000 works received water damage after a leak from the air-conditioning system. The National Library Foundation issued a statement regarding the potential reopening of the library, saying “we are studying the immediate shoring and recovery project of the reading room” as well as “sanitary analysis of water consumed by users.” The Foundation reports that works on electrical installations are under way, and plans for replacing the water tank are being drawn up. No time line was given for plans to shore up the structural deficiencies of the building, or the replacement of the air-conditioning unit. Signs posted on the front door of the library show the deep concern of its users and staff, demanding immediate renovations “meeting FIFA standards” as one sign declared. A passerby I meet while outside the building tells me however “I’m not holding my breath.”
Brasilia’s Renato Russo Cultural Center closed suddenly in 2013 due to structural issues
The Renato Russo Cultural Space, Brasilia’s leading alternative cultural space and a source of free arts education classes to local public school students since it opened in 1993, suddenly shut down in 2013 with few reasons given. Several months later, the center’s doors are still shuttered, with rumours of faulty wiring and cracked ceilings floating around in the local press. In a safety audit report, Federal Authorities cite the following issues for which the space has been repeatedly fined: Lack of wheelchair accessibility, lack of preferred seating for the elderly and infirm, no handicap parking, and other missing adaptations to make the space usable and accessible to visitors with special needs. The space’s manager, Marconi Valaderes, admits to a local radio reporter, that the center closed in part to avoid further accumulation of fines and violations. No plans for the timeline for reopening of the cultural center are currently known.
Construction workers outside Brasilia’s US$650 million National Stadium one week before the opening of the 2014 FIFA World Cup
Meanwhile, local authorities have spent R$1.5 billion (ca US$ 650 million) on building the new National Stadium, one of 12 sites used to host the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Once the tournament is over, it is assumed that the stadium will be used to host rock concerts and other arena style shows, as Brasilia currently has no other such venue. The city has no local football team playing in the major leagues.
The lack and delay of investment in public recreational and cultural facilities is not directly a cause of the public investment of FIFA’s 2014 tournament, However, the pattern of decay of such facilities that were originally built for public use, showcase the priority setting of local authorities in where they invest public funds available to them and illustrate one of the driving forces of frustration of Brazilian’s all around the country that has led to recent protests. People I meet and talk to are tired of politicians that make lofty promises ahead of every election, and when they take on public office, that wind up rarely being kept. Walking past the twin towers of the Congresso, which houses Senators and members of the Lower House, I hear a passerby murmur “I wish these twin towers had been hit by a plane.” Asking for clarification what he meant by that, the man, who wouldn’t give his name, said “[politicians] take office, make big promises and then go home to screw their wives. However, we who pay their salaries get little benefit from them being here.”
Protest outside Brasilia’s Congresso, commemorating the death of each worker who died during construction of the stadiums used in the 2014 FIFA World Cup
With the advent of the opening game of FIFA’s 2014 World Cup in Brazil looming on the horizon, I find Brazilians in a pensive mood, or according to some estimations, downright depressed with itself.
I have spent the past few days meeting intellectuals and protesters in Rio to learn more about their thoughts and feelings about the upcoming World Cup, the protests, and their thoughts on why the situation is as it currently is. In those discussions I’ve encountered a litany of complaints about the country’s infrastructure, lack of historical perspective, and much debate as to why the image Brazil projects of itself in the world is so important. It struck me that many of the people I spoke to seem to think that Brazil is in a rut because it doesn’t deserve any better, yet privately they’re upset about that because they really want a better life for the lower classes.
Allan Melo, a tech journalist who just left his job at O Globo, has an interesting explanation for his compatriot’s quandary:
“The public discussion in Brazil mostly focusses on everything that’s wrong with Brazil, the corruption, the World Cup overspending, the bad schools, the botched favela pacifications. Meanwhile, we don’t hear any good news about what’s happening around us. For example, there’s a spectacular exhibit on the works of Salvador Dalí that just opened here in Rio at the National Art Museum. The fact that a Brazilian Museum could attract such an important exhibit is an important news story, but there are no news crews out there reporting on the opening, interviewing people on how they felt about seeing this beautiful art. We hear about Da Vinci exhibits opening in New York, but nobody tells you about that happening here. This gives people the impression that this country can’t get anything right in comparison with other countries”, he says.
“I know from friends in Buenos Aires that they have protests happening there every single day about a broad variety of issues, yet we only hear about protests in Argentina if they concern a very important topic. We may hear about high unemployment in Spain, but we don’t hear at all about economic difficulties in Greece, Italy or elsewhere in Europe. People here think it’s all working perfectly well. In part that is due to the language barrier, as people can’t read or listen to news in other languages and get a different view that way, but we don’t hear much from Portugal either,” he continues.
So, then why not use the World Cup as a distraction from all that? After all, Brazil is very good at football and widely expected to win even this tournament. “Because,” Allan says in a surprising answer, “football isn’t everybody’s lives. Football is used by the politicians to project an image abroad, but Brazilians aren’t as patriotic as it may seem. We suck at celebrating ourselves.”
Most people I’ve spoken to seem to agree that hosting a World Cup could be a good thing for Brazil, once it is actually ready for it. In their eyes that means that the country’s infrastructure is working, poverty has been successfully combatted, and schools give every Brazilian a chance at a productive and constructive life with an education that allows them to compete on an international playing field. “The cup and the Olympics came at least 20 years too soon”, Victor Galdino, a member of Rio’s Pirate Party chapter, explains. “People here think our country is not good enough as it is, and that’s why the foreign perception of what’s happening with the protests is so sensitive. By having the World Cup now, we’re just building castles in the sand.”
Infrastructure building in Rio are underway, as for example the government is building a whole new Metro line, which connects the tourist areas of Leblon and Ipanema to the city’s centre which currently can only be traveled to by bus or taxi, but the project is severely behind schedule, with people questioning whether the construction will be ready even for the 2016 Olympics. Tourist attractions, such as the cable car to the top of the Sugar Loaf are being upgraded, but again, won’t be ready for tourists visiting the World Cup.
Meanwhile, stories making headlines abroad right now circle around a horrific photo posted on the Facebook page of the Police unit entrusted with “pacifying” Brazil’s favela areas, showing a slew of dead children lying in the street in their own blood (this was posted in February 2014, btw, so this didn’t happen recently), as well as this video by Danish journalist Mikkel Keldorf, alleging that death squads march around the favelas, murdering unwanted street children, even if they were not known criminals.
I don’t have any first hand evidence to prove or disprove Keldorf’s claims, but since the police themselves posted the photo, with a caption that indicates they were proud of their achievement, its veracity is hard to dispute. In talking to several members of Rio’s Pirate Party however, I have gained some insight into the situation inside the “pacified” favelas, that make Keldorf’s claims seem credible.
As a brief background, on what the “pacification” of a favela entails: In 2008, the Brazilian government started the creation of the UPP, Unit of Pacifying Police, with the goal of reducing crime in the country’s poorest neighbourhoods. Usually, the army would first go into a neighbourhood, drive out the criminals (often drug traffickers), and then install a UPP in the favela which patrols the streets and maintains safety for its residents. Some successes have been reported, such as a reduction in murder rates, but other problems appeared, such as an increase in kidnappings and rising crime in other parts of the country. “The criminals leave when the army comes,” Victor Galdino explains. “They go elsewhere and continue their business from outside the favela, but the business model is still in place. They just push around the problem.”
However the presence of the UPP is making life difficult for those still in the favelas. “The UPP is micromanaging people’s lives,” Galdino says. ” The UPP is searching people’s bags as they come and go from their homes, searching the homes while people aren’t home and treating everyone like a potential criminal. Sometimes situations escalate, and that’s when both officers and favela residents get killed.” The killing of a UPP police man by an enraged crowd seems to be what sparked the shootings of the children in the photo linked to above.
I have not yet had the opportunity to visit a favela myself and get a first hand impression of the situation, but am working on investigating this further.
Joana Havelange, granddaughter to the former FIFA president João Havelange, daughter to Ricardo Teixeira, former head of the Brazilian Football Association, and herself head of the local organising committee for this year’s FIFA World Cup COL is in hot water right now for something she posted on her Instagram account.
Quoting Brazilian communications expert and journalist Thiago Falcão Guimarães, she posted a critique he wrote on his Instagram account about the “Não Vai Ter Copa” (There will be no Cup) protests on May 19th, albeit without accrediting him for the text. Below is her instagram post where she reposts Falcão’s text, adding “Yes there will be a World Cup and it will be beautiful! Brazil knows how and can do this, will read, is already doing it.”
Of course, as the leader of the local organising committee she should be exalted about the upcoming event and spread confidence in her team in delivering a great sporting event. So far, little surprise, so what’s the problem? Let’s start with a translation of the original quote:
Thiago Falcão writes (emphasis mine):
“No support from me [for the Não Vai Ter Copa protests], I will not wear black and not partake of any of the World Cup games. I want for the World Cup to happen in the best possible way. You won’t find me root against the tournament, because the money that was there to spend and steal, already has been. For protests to be effective, they should have been done sooner. Mostly, I want those arriving from outside to see a Brazil that knows how to be welcoming, and to be kind. I want that those who come choose to return. I want to see a beautiful Brazil. My protest against the World Cup will be in the next elections. Otherwise, we’re destroying what we have today, and not change what can be changed tomorrow.”
Most Brazilians I have meet since arriving in Rio and those I’ve spoken to beforehand are very much upset about the waste of public money on a private enterprise such as the FIFA World Cup, rather than upgrading the country’s seriously decaying infrastructure. Still, Falcão’s sentiment as a whole seems reasonable enough for someone who is looking for constructive ways to channel his anger. His post would have never caused such a ruckus were it not for that little interjection that implies that there’s no use in complaining now, since all the money that can be stolen already has. So, on the one hand he advocates to trust into Brazil’s political system and to address the corruption issues that besatt the organisation of this world cup at the ballot box. At the same time he says there’s no point in complaining because corruption is so rampant that there is nothing left to save.
Joana Havelange, given her own position and familial heritage, then stepped on a social media land mine by reposting this text without attribution onto her own Instagram account and reinforcing its message with a cheerleading note for her organising committee in response to persistent protests against the event she is in charge of organising. The post went viral, enraging many Brazilians. Thanks in part to the Coletivo Projetação, a protest group that projects messages onto house walls and then photographs the projections for distribution on social media, similar to the Illuminator group during the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York, the words “what could be stolen already has” are now seen as hers. The quote, with her face posted next to it, is making the rounds as a Facebook meme, standing as a monument to the indifference of Brazil’s upper classes to the needs of their middle and lower class compatriots. The public’s indignation further increased when other public figures shared Havelange’s original post to show their frustration with the ongoing complaints from the protesters.
In an interview with AdNews Falcão shows himself to be surprised about how his words went viral and maintains he just wanted to express his frustration about the current situation and the government policies in handling the run up to the World Cup: “I believe all of us are unhappy with the current situation of the country. Know that much has been invested in stadiums and we could have investments in many other sectors. However, to attack the Cup is not the way. We should not further tarnish the country’s image abroad. We need to show that, above all, we are not ignorant, quite the contrary, and we’re mature enough to understand that now is the time to do well.”
Falcão also says that no other media outlet has sought him out to verify the origin of his quote. “What could be, already has been stolen, including my text”, he said. “And I think it’s absurd to see the media’s interest in this story without checking who was in fact the author of these words.”
Falcão told O Globo more about why he wrote the original post: “I lived in the U.S. a few months last year, and there the Americans saw those demonstrations [during the Confederations Cup], with horror, as well as some friends from Turkey, Spain and Italy, who told me not to come Brazil during the World Cup. Moreover, many protesters were there like lunatics, with beer in hand.”
Joana Havelange meanwhile has deleted her Instagram post, partly because sharing it was a gross violation of her own committee’s social media ban for all its members, who are not allowed to comment on the World Cup. Havelange’s post reached 671 shares before she deleted it in response to the social media outcry. Still, her problems are not over as Rio State’s Deputy Governor Marcelo announced that tomorrow he will enter an investigation request into the matter with the Public Ministry.
The protests meanwhile are set to continue, despite, or probably just because of the exasperation expressed by Brazil’s social and economic elite. A major event in Rio is planned for Friday, the teachers have been on strike all week, and in some states police has been on strike to protest for higher pay. Whether Havelange and her committee might like it or not, Brazil and the world will hear of its people during the prime event of the country’s favourite national pastime.
That press freedom and civil liberties in the United States have been significantly and systematically eroded since the dawn of the post-9/11 mindset, isn’t exactly breaking news. Over the years examples have mounted at ever accelerating pace of systematic encroachment on freedom of the press, curtailing of whistleblowers and the erosion of any concept of individual privacy. Today’s news of the U.S. Department’s unprecedented breach of journalistic privilege protected under the First Amendment by secretly collecting phone records of AP journalists and editors merely is the frightening culmination of an ongoing effort by the US government to control the message by curtailing the movement of the messengers and undermining access to their confidential sources.
That is not to belittle the seriousness of the transgressions committed by the Department of Justice against one of the countries leading news organizations (and who knows whether the transgressions were limited exclusively to the AP), but they are a logical continuation of a series of incidents that saw journalists under pressure for not conforming with the intended message sent by the White House for at least a decade.
The incarceration of then New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time’s Matt Cooper over their refusal to reveal confidential sources in connection with the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame was the first, and very poignant, confrontation between the Department of Justice and the media since the Patriot Act has given the government unprecedented surveillance capabilities. Poignant in particular, as the confidential sources turned out to be members of the same administration that was pressuring the journalist to reveal them.
By then the government’s urge to control the media had already brought us the “embedded reporter”, limiting journalists looking to gain direct access to US troops on the ground in Iraq to only move in conjunction with military units, and restricting their ability to report on information they might find on the ground that might impact military operation. While the concern over revealing the position and tactics of particular units was understandable, the restrictions placed on embedded journalists also turned out to cover information critical of the army’s operations, significantly delaying, but thankfully not preventing, the breaking of stories such as the torture tactics used in Abu Ghraib, and the use of depleted uranium shells and their impact on the health of civilians in Fallujah. The wikipedia entry on “embedded journalism” quotes Lt. Col. Rick Long of the U.S. Marine Corps as explaining the origin of the embedding tactic with, “Frankly, our job is to win the war. Part of that is information warfare. So we are going to attempt to dominate the information environment.”
In some cases, the government’s war on terror has also kept international journalists from traveling to the US, such as Colombian reporter Hollman Morris, widely known for his thorough coverage of the conflict between the government and armed guerillas inside his country. When, in 2010, he was awarded a Nieman Fellowship to study conflict negotiation strategies at Harvard University, he was denied a student visa under the “terror activities” section of the Patriot Act over alleged links to terrorism. As Morris’ coverage was often critical of the Colombian President Uribe’s handling of the internal conflict, human rights activists have voiced suspicions that the government had pressured the Obama administration into denying him the visa. Only a public outcry and pressure from press organization finally allowed Morris to obtain a visa and travel to Boston for his studies.
But the government, especially under President Obama, is not only pursuing the messenger. Its attempt to dominate the information environment at home persecutes also those that leak information it does not want publicly known:
Danielle Brian, of the Project on Government Oversight, said the US department of justice in the Obama administration “sent a clear of message of fear and intimidation” to whistleblowers in the national security field” by not only threatening whistleblowers inside government agencies, but actually prosecuting them under the Espionage Act of 1917.
Most notably, US Army Private Bradley Manning has spent three years in isolation detention over his role in leaking highly embarrassing confidential information to WikiLeaks, whose founder Julian Assange is now hiding inside the Equadorian Embassy in London for fear of being extradited to the US for publishing that information. On February 28, 2013, Manning pleaded guilty to 10 of the 22 charges brought against him at the pre-trial hearings in the military court at Fort Meade. The trial is set to begin in June.
Former CIA employee John Kiriakou was prosecuted, and sentenced to 30 months in jail, by the Obama administration for revealing water boarding and torture as an outspoken policy of the Bush and Obama administrations, and not the deprived actions of a few rogue agents inside the armed forces.
A total of six government whistleblowers have so far been prosecuted by Obama’s Department of Justice for revealing that some at the FBI worried that Israel might attack Iran, wrongdoings at the NSA, or concerns at the State Department over then North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-il’s nuclear program.
The US government’s march against press freedom is not limited to stories of international scope, but regularly involves a claimed national security angle and increasingly entangles local law enforcement agencies in the ongoing confrontation with the media.
In 2002, Toni Locy wrote a series of articles about an army scientist suspected of involvement in the mailing of anthrax filled letters to elected officials after the 9/11 attacks. For refusing to reveal her sources the reporter was held in contempt of court and ordered to pay a fine of $5,000.
In 2006 Blogger Joshua Wolf was jailed for 30 days before being released on bail for refusing to release a video of clashes between police and protesters outside a G-8 summit in San Francisco. Having lost his trial, he was sent back to jail for a total of 226 days, the longest any journalist has gone to jail to protect a confidential source.
In 2007, two journalists were subpoenad by the military courts requesting they turn over interviews they had conducted with First Lieutenant Ehren Watada, the first US officer to refuse service in the Iraq war. Only after significant public pressure and a plea bargain involving Watada, did the Army drop the subpoenas against the reporters.
In 2011, journalists in Puerto Rico covering protests of students against increases in university taxes have been detained and harassed by local police.
Confrontations between press and local police forces came to a head at the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the fall of 2011, as over 80 journalists were arrested in a variety of protest actions and raids by the police on encampments in New York City and elsewhere around the country. The International Press Institute reported at the time that journalists had found themselves charged with trespassing, disorderly conduct, and the intentional causing of public alarm amongst other offenses for covering the protests even while wearing press credentials. As a consequence of the journalist arrests at Occupy, Reporters without Borders lowered the ranking of the United States in their annual World Press Freedom Index by 20 slots down to 47th out of 179 ranked countries, right behind the Comoros, Botswana and just ahead of Trinidad and Tobago.
The American press’ standing in the public eye was not helped by a 2009 report published by the Pew Research Center, which concluded that “only 20 percent of Americans say they believe the media is independent from the pressures of powerful people and organizations”, while “less than one-third of Americans believe their press “generally gets the facts straight”, accusing it of political bias and lacking objectivity. Some have since tried to shift the blame for the heightened polarization in the US media on bloggers and freelance journalists, but increasing bias can be found both in mainstream and independent news outlets.
Local journalists working in New York have long complained about increasingly repressive tactics used by NYPD against free access by members of the press to internal sources and the coverage of police activity not only in incidents connected to the Occupy movement. Ever since Mayor Bloomberg looked to limit media access to police stations and other parts of the local government, journalists and photographers (including yours truly) have been arrested for documenting arrests and conducting interviews with passersby on public sidewalks, systematically blocked from taking pictures of protester and other arrests and threatened with removal of press credentials and arrest when protesting the blocking of access. At an event held by the New York Press Club on suppression of the media in New York in March 2012, New York Post reporter Murray Weiss, who had worked the NYPD beat since the 1980s commented that the New York Police Department was “so successful in doing what they wanted the way they wanted it to do and get away with it, that they were now afraid of the press.”
A similar reaction appears to be that of the Obama administration’s secret monitoring of AP’s reporting activities over the period of 2 months as part of their investigation over the leaks of the CIA’s involvement in the thwarting of a terror plot in Yemen. First reported by AP, the story was widely criticized for revealing sensitive information about active operations on the ground, even though the newswire had held the story for two weeks after a request by the government. In its effort to prosecute those that have leaked the information from Yemen to the AP and other news outlets, the US Department of Justice had obtained a so-called “secret subpoena” to collect phone records of over 20 lines assigned to journalists and editors at the New York based newswire.
This incident also adds an exclamation point to the debate over who is a journalist and who is not. Individual reporters might not be as well connected inside the government as a global news organization, but they’re harder to control and keep on message.
Of crucial importance here are the questions this incident raises:
– How widespread is secret government surveillance of the media, individual journalists, and their news sources, what other data has the government collected, who has access to it and how will the increased culture of fear affect individual’s ability and willingness to come forward with information of government wrongdoing?
– What recourse do journalists have against the systematic infringement of their constitutional rights to gather and report the news?
– And most importantly: When will the media start pushing back against their harassment and suppression at the hand of the government?
Enough is enough, and hopefully the blatant intrusion on AP’s news gathering operation by the Department of Justice will finally raise up the gander in the country’s media outlets to start protesting in earnest and consistently the erosion of the protection awarded to the fourth estate under the country’s constitution. While all the past incidents listed above have raised complaints about press freedom concerns, they have mostly ended by the media giving in to the government’s stance under the guise of serving national security. However, at this point the media risks being a detriment to the safety of the homeland not by asking critical questions of an ever increasingly overbearing security apparatus, but rather by not asking them. The Internet and social media have given an outlet to critical voices that are currently being drowned out in mainstream media outlets. Yet it is imperative that news outlets of all stripes keep asking the tough questions for soon we might no longer be able to do so, and then, as a profession, we have truly failed the people of this country.
The laws of diminishing returns applies to matters of national security as much as they apply elsewhere. Right after the 9/11 attacks it absolutely made sense to tighten up cooperation between different federal agencies to make sure we won’t miss another red flag like the group of flight school students who showed no discernible interest in how to land a plane safely. It made sense to take a closer look at what people bring with them onto airplanes once we understood that people were looking to blow them up. We even wrapped our heads around putting our flip-flops through an x-ray machine at the airport to avoid further shoe bombing attempts. But where is the line where the increase in safety that is obtained by a new security measure costs too much freedom? Is it worth to give up free speech and a free press to pursue the utopia of a terror-free world? We all want to sleep safely at night, without fear of terror and intimidation. But, me thinks, that requires more than anything that we do all we can to ensure we hang on to our personal freedoms and a press that dares to ask the important questions.
Pressing issues ahead, indeed!
The guys over at Brave New Foundation have interviewed some of the countries leading investigative journalists on what yesterday’s revelations about the government spying on AP means for democracy in this country. Great work!
… or how to get your case dismissed in NYC Criminal Court in three easy lessons …
So the day had come for me to return to New York County Criminal Court to finally get my charges dismissed for the arrest I suffered while photographing Occupy Wall Street’s anniversary protests on September 17, 2012. How I ended up in this situation you can read here and here.
My lawyer, lead counsel for the National Press Photographers’ Association Mickey Oesterreicher had, as he put it, “found a live one” at the District Attorney’s office, meaning a member of District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s staff who agreed that there was no point in pursuing my case further given the underlying set of circumstances, and to allow dismissal of my case at my next court date, slated for February 14, the day now best known for celebrating those we love.
I didn’t feel the love much, however, as I arrived in court still reeling from having a gun pulled on me in broad daylight the day before by three men engaged in a nasty fist fight on a Brooklyn bus. Things didn’t much improve when I was called up to the bench, fully expecting to have my case dismissed, yet heard the Assistant District Attorney present say instead “the people are offering an ACD in this case.” ACD stands for Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal, usually coming with conditions of 6 to 12 months during which one cannot get rearrested or face the original charges. While technically not placing a defendant on probation, this legal proceeding does serve as a chilling effect on those issued such orders, as during a second arrest the original charges could be combined with whatever the second arrest brought about into a more severe judgement.
First thinking I didn’t hear correctly, I looked over and saw that my attorney, Jonathan Wallace from the National Lawyers Guild, who had agreed to stand up with me for the dismissal, looked equally perplexed and started to argue with the judge that this was not what we were lead to expect as the outcome of this proceeding. The ADA denied any knowledge that this case was to be dismissed, stating that she didn’t have a note to that effect in her file. My attorney requested a second call, which clearly annoyed the judge who accused him of being ill prepared, but she granted it. I think it seemed obvious that we had been surprised.
We quickly left the court room and both hit the phones, Jonathan communicating with NLG headquarters, and I contacting Mickey Oesterreicher to understand what had happened. I had just learned that a note had been sent but may have gotten lost when we were called back on a rush into the courtroom for our second call. The ADA again insisted that all that she had to offer was the ACD, that she had spoken to the attorney in the trial bureau who was assigned my case, and said that he was absolutely not going to dismiss the case. So, we pleaded no disposition and left the court expecting to file a motion to dismiss to maybe get this resolved at the following court date, now set for April 1st, the irony of the date not entirely lost on me; nor the fact that on this date Occupiers are preparing some protest marches and other actions. Keeping witnesses and key organizers away from Occupy events by tying them up in court on those dates is a tried and true tactic employed by the New York County courts.
Walking out of the court room I couldn’t help wondering if the ADA might have pulled a fast one on me and his boss, the head of the trial bureau in the District Attorney’s office, who had agreed to dismiss the case. In relations to Occupy-related court proceedings, keeping a bullshit arrest alive in court with a jackass move would have only been par for the course. Still that thought doubly disappointed me, because obviously now my court follies would drag on, and I would loose even more work days over an arrest that in my opinion had no justification in the law, but also because I frankly do have higher expectations in an public servant charged with upholding law and public interest in the place I call home, no matter what the circumstances may be that bring me to stand on opposite sides of the bench with him. Now, to the ADA’s defense, it may have really just been a case of a notice of dismissal getting lost on the way from the trial bureau to the court room, but it seemed a little odd how quickly we were called back for our second call. Usually one goes to the bottom of the pile in such instances and often spends hours waiting for the return call. The way the presiding ADA insisted in offering me that ACD, it struck me that they really, really wanted me to take it.
Once outside the courtroom, I called back Mickey Oesterreicher to break the unhappy news to him, but he refused to let go. He pleaded with me not to leave and he’d be back with me. So I waited a short while, in which my attorney had wandered off to tend to another case he was handling in the court house that day. When Mickey called me back, I learned that a copy of the notice for my dismissal was now being walked over to the court house on behest of the head of the trial bureau, and I should give his name and phone number to the ADA if she had any issues with that. So, I had to reconnect with my attorney, get him to convince the ADA to call us back for a third time, and hope the note would arrive before that happened. Jonathan was shaking his head, saying that a third call and such a chaos over a dismissal of a disorderly conduct charge was something he had never experienced in his twenty years of legal practice in New York.
As we stood up for our third call, the judge, now fuming, was regaled with the fact that while the ADA still believed my arrest was justified, she had “received information that I was working as a member of the press that day and therefore she would move to dismiss the case.” The judge immediately granted the request, if for no other reason than to finally have us go away and not come back before her. She didn’t seem at all happy about how this entire morning went down, and I can’t say I blame her.
Even though I ultimately got what I had come for, the process as it presented itself to me deeply concerns me. I was fortunate enough to have two committed lawyers working my case, one on the ground with me pushing through call backs until we got it right, and the other working the back room getting the paperwork sorted. Only thanks to that did I get this matter resolved the same day and in my favor. If we do believe that justice is blind to special circumstance, it cannot be a function of whom my lawyer knows and has a phone number for to get the proper procedural treatment in court. Irrespective of the question whether my arrest was justified or not, once in the trenches of the court system, it shouldn’t be about whom you know, but about why you are here and what you have to say in your defense.
Maybe I’m naive to expect I might find actual justice inside a court house, but I grew up with the image of America as the beacon of justice and liberty, for all the world to see and follow. For me to finally catch a glimpse of that making a fleeting appearance along the corridors of 100 Centre Street, it required the dedicated wrangling of two highly experienced and well connected attorneys. Land of the free, is that what you’ve come to?
Here we go again … another mass shooting by a “crazed young kid”, spreading senseless death in a previously quiet community. This time it struck a nerve, however, that previous mass shootings haven’t been able to reach, irrespective of their horrendous impact on the lives of the affected, witnesses, survivors, and bereaved families. But seriously, who shoots sweet little six year olds? Why would or could anyone be able to do such a thing? Watching Robbie Parker, the bereaved father of one of the victims, six year old Emily Parker, remember the life of his daughter was one of the most heart wrenching yet beautiful things I’ve ever seen. I sincerely hope he finds a way to preserve the love he’s demonstrated in his speech. He and his appear to be a beautiful family.
Finally, there is a drive for action in response to the events in Newtown. The NRA kept smartly quiet, until they came out today and announced a press conference … for Friday Dec 21st, three days before Christmas, and the day the world, if the hype about the Mayan calendar is to be believed, will supposedly come to an end. The powerful gun lobby is on the back foot, however. Even Rupert Murdoch, the epicenter of the right-wing echo chamber, has been tweeting about needing more gun control, and his New York tabloid, the Daily News, ran a picture of Congress covered in blood on its front page today, loudly demanding action. Legislation to ban assault weapons is bound to be introduced in both houses of Congress shortly, which is a good thing, as I don’t believe that guns designed for battle fields have a place in civil society. Still, I’m not certain that that will suffice in preventing a repeat of the killings in Newton, Aurora, and other places.
I grew up surrounded by guns. My father was an arms dealer, owning a small gun shop in Zurich, Switzerland. We had them at home, often out in the open: revolvers, rifles, shotguns, machine guns, and even a fully functioning decommissioned Swiss Army anti-aircraft canon out front greeting our visitors, it’s 500 caliber barrel reaching for the sky from between the bushes my mother had planted to hide its presence even a little. We went to arms fairs twice a year, when my father went there to sell some of his wares to the visiting public. My first job was acting as a translator between English, French, and German to a British arms dealer who needed help interacting with the local townsfolk, often not fluent in English, which got particularly interesting since at the beginning I couldn’t tell the difference between a Colt and a Winchester, let alone did I know all the technical terminology in any of the three languages … I remember watching countless arguments, often spanning the entire night over a bottle or more of brandy, about the merits of a .45 caliber over a .22 caliber, different firing pins or even whether the color of the blueing impacted a gun’s performance. One of my father’s closest friends rented a hangar at a nearby airport to store his collection of army tanks. He was also the head of Zurich’s state police … Other characters I encountered in those years ranged from the droll to the bizzarre, but none of them ever seemed inclined to commit mass homicide. Neither did I ever feel it incited me to any violence. To this day I’ve never shot a gun in my life, and I’ll quite happily keep it that way. I’ve never felt any desire to possess my own gun.
One big factor in that last part is probably due to the fact that I was exposed to the devastating effect a gun in the wrong hands can have upon a life and a family at a very young age. When I was eight, my father was shot in his store by a young kid, all of 18 years old and never in trouble with the law before, who wanted to know what it felt like to murder somebody. That kid didn’t own a gun, but he brought some ammunition to my father’s store, asked to see a gun that matched it and while my father was distracted on the phone, loaded the gun and aimed at my father’s head. My father, hearing the tell-tale sound of a clip being slapped into place, turned around and threw himself behind the counter. Yet, the kid fired two rounds, one hitting the wall behind my dad, the other entering his body about one inch below his heart.
We weren’t at the store when the shooting happened, but when we arrived my father had just been taken out in an ambulance. When we entered the store’s showing room, a big pool of blood and a hole in the wall were still visible. I knew that blood belonged to my father. I’ll never forget starring at it.
My father survived the shooting, by the skin of his teeth, but never recovered from it. The bullet had gotten lodged in the spine between several nerves running from the legs up his back. At first, the doctors tried to leave the bullet in, fearful they might paralyze my father by removing it. But then the tissue surrounding the bullet got infected, and it had to come out, lest my father would die from the infection. The doctors were confronted with a very difficult choice: Either to paralyze my father and confine him to a wheelchair for the rest of his life, or let him die from the infection. We, the family, were grateful they chose the former. I know my father sometimes wished they had done the latter.
The shooter was apprehended and brought to trial, but him being only 18, a minor according to Swiss law at the time, the maximum sentence he could receive was nine years of imprisonment, which he also received. However, that meant that with good behavior the Swiss prison system would start resocializing him after half the time served, letting him out on occasional furloughs. One one such furlough the kid, now a grown man, got hold of another gun and shot a young postman, father to a two and a four year old, carrying out letters in his parents’ neighborhood. This time he accomplished his mission. The poor postman died, and two children were orphaned, before the shooter got reapprehended and this time locked up in a mental institution for life, without the possibility of parole. My father had warned the police about the crazed look he saw on the kid’s face when he was shot, pleading with them to give this kid some mental care. However, in custody the shooter was a perfectly behaved young kid, so he didn’t get the treatment that may have saved the postman’s life.
Gun laws in Switzerland at that time were fairly restrictive. While every adult male who served in the army had a machine gun at home along with a sealed pack of 200 rounds of live ammunition, the purchase of hand guns and semi-automatic rifles required obtaining a licence, which was only issued to citizens who were at least 20 years old, without a criminal record, and passed a thorough background check. Each new purchase required a new license, and a new background check, and the police was allowed to come visit gun-owners’ homes to ensure proper storage and handling of licensed weapons.
I’m telling this story, because I believe it shows that gun laws alone will not prevent gun violence, let alone mass shootings. A determined mind, such as my father’s shooter who was unable to legally purchase a handgun due to his age, will find a way to get his hands on a weapon. What will be required is diligent enforcement of gun regulations, which begins with those who sell the weapons to the public. I’ve witnessed several occasions where my father refused the sale of a weapon, because he felt uncomfortable with the person wanting to buy, even if the paperwork was in order, and the proper licenses were presented. Assault weapons and semi-automatics should not be for sale at the supermarket, or at all in my opinion. Any weapons should be sold by highly trained personnel, who can, in addition to conducting thorough background checks, screen for troubled personalities. Yet, even that wouldn’t have stopped Adam Lanza, since his mother was the one purchasing the guns.
More importantly, however, I think we need to rethink how we as a society handle conflict with each other, and how we administer mental care to the most vulnerable amongst us. I don’t believe that having Aspergers’ Syndrom alone triggered the violence in Newtown and I find any reporting insinuating that highly irresponsible. I know several Autistic children, and have run arts education programs servicing that population for several years. Yet, I have never experienced outright violence in any of these children. If anything, any violent behavior I saw seemed inward-oriented, as two of the Autistic children I knew have committed suicide in their teens, once they began to realize how different they were from their peers.
What troubles me about the shooter of Newtown is how he disappeared from the community in the few years before his actions. What led to that we may never know, but I believe that with better integration, maybe some clues could have been picked up, or such actions been prevented. We can’t segregate those we find troublesome from our communities, simply because they are demanding or difficult. Any community is only as strong as its weakest link. It takes a village to raise a child, and I think it’ll also take each and every village to prevent such violence from ever happening again.
One good thing I found on twitter after the Newtown shooting was the #20acts campaign, calling upon people to do one good deed for every child murdered last Friday. If we instilled this in our society, I think we’d come a long way in preventing further violence. Go talk to your neighbor, hug a friend, help an old lady cross the street or carry home her groceries. Robbie Parker preached love in response to the violent death of his beloved daughter. I think he is right.
“Once upon a pretty time there was a girl. She stood outside a big, big house, waiting to get in. She had to wait in a line of huddled creatures, watching those before her file through a golden, glimmering portal, slowly, one by one with heavy paces. When it was her turn to enter, the girl noticed two grimm looking faces with grey eyes, staring coldly at her from both sides of the portal. One grim face pointed to the right, lowly grunting. Following the end of the pointy finger, the girl spied a shining arch, beeping every time someone walked through it. Haltingly, she handed her coat to another grim face and followed the people through the arch, entering a world as she had never seen before…”
Something like that went through my head as I was lining up outside New York City’s Criminal Court early this morning in order to stand up for arraignment on my arrest for photographing Occupy protests on September 17th, the movement’s anniversary celebration. I contribute to a British newswire called Demotix and was looking forward to capturing some attractive photos. I’ve been to court houses a few times before, but always a plaintiff, never a defendant. If you want to know how I landed in this predicament, you can read that story here.
Once inside, I followed the noise from the back of the building, and soon found a group of the occupiers and another photojournalist I had been arrested with, sitting on benches, chatting, laughing, and talking to their lawyers. For many this wasn’t their first trip to the rodeo, and they eagerly shared their war stories from earlier trials and arrests. A novice to such proceedings, I mostly watched and listened, until I noticed Karen, one of the occupy knitters, who came to court for my support. She cheered me up with stories she observed while sitting in court observing other occupy related trials. She should write a book.
The lawyer from the National Lawyers Guild who was standing up in court with me seemed nice and well briefed. My regular lawyer, head counsel for the National Press Photographers’ Association, was unable to make it to New York for the day but they had coordinated. Time flew by remarkably quick as we waited our turn. Some entertainment was brought by the formal charges brought against the other photographer I met in court. He found himself accused of sitting in an intersection blocking traffic, when photos and videos clearly show him standing on the sidewalk taking pictures as he was arrested. But then, the place he was arrested at, the corner of Wall St and Broadway saw many, many arrests that morning, and who can keep the stories straight after the first busload of hippies is shipped off? First contemplating to take the ACD the court was offering, once he heard the charges he decided to fight. (ACD is short for Adjournment in Contemplation of Dismissal, essentially a cooling off period after which, if the defendant behaves in the interim, a case is dismissed. A handy tool for courts to clear through a large case load, such as a mass arrest situation as September 17th, 2012.)
I was looking forward, with some trepidation to be sure, to hearing my own charges, my lawyer’s phrase of calling the official charge documents “wonderful works of fiction at times” ringing in my ear. While I still believe that the New York City police had arrested me for no reason, at least the wait would be over and we could start acting on the case the People of New York had decided to bring against me. Waiting for a blow to hit when you know it’s coming is hard; fending it of and making a counter move so much easier. Action a state I much prefer to inaction, especially if I know there is work to be done.
Yet … the People of New York weren’t ready for me. Three months had passed since my arrest, yet there was no formal set of charges ready to be brought forward. I was handed a document which attempts to explain why no arraignment would be made today. In a nutshell, there is no case at this point to be brought against me, yet the District Attorney’s office is refusing to let go. Why? One wonders …
Where things get complicated is, that now, every time I am out photographing and doing my job, I have to contend with the possibility of another arrest, and I’m sure the Sept. 17th arrest will find its way into that narrative, even though at this point I’m still not formally charged with committing anything wrong. Just last week a colleague of mine was arrested in a subway station for, get this, NOT photographing an arrest, because he knew the arresting cop was an undercover and he didn’t want to blow his cover and photograph his face. He had his camera hanging down along his side and wore his press badge visibly, as he was standing there observing the scene. And that got him arrested. My arrest happened two days after a cop threatened me with arrest for photographing the rather brutal detention of two other photographers. Bob Stolarik from the New York Times not only got arrested while photographing an arrest in a public space, he was also physically assaulted and got his equipment damaged. I watched an AP photographer be manhandled by the head of the NYPD Legal Department (!) as she was trying to photograph an arrest on an Occupy march. She had been arrested herself, along with several other journalists during the Fall of 2011 for covering Occupy. On September 17th, the Occupy anniversary, five other journalists were, at times brutally, arrested. Neither of those had an NYPD issued press credential, but this was a public space, so that should not have mattered. It is not the purvey of the police to determine who is a journalist and who is not.
The NYPD has developed a camera allergy, and while I sympathize with that to some extent, I rarely like a picture of myself, it is still a gross violation of First Amendment rights, and the concept of freedom of the press to just harass and arrest anyone with a camera for the simple fact of being there. The police serves the public, and as such is accountable to it for their actions. Having journalists observe and document their interactions with the public is part of this accountability process. Obviously, a differentiated and fair approach from the press is also needed in covering police work, but in any of the aforementioned arrests that was hardly the issue.
I’m hearing stories from other photographers who had to go back to court several times before charges finally were dismissed, the arrest narratives as made up as the one I had heard today. Some protesters tell me they’re back for the fifth or sixth time for a disorderly conduct charge levied against them in Fall of 2011 because they have refused to accept ACD’s. So, time after time, rather than allowing the dismissal of charges, the District Attorney’s Office keeps calling them back, causing people to loose work, wages, and jobs. How this serves justice or the people of New York, particularly given what this city has just been through, I honestly don’t know. I’ve lost close to two days work over this affair so far. And while I will always stand up for my rights, I don’t appreciate my livelihood being interfered with in such manner; particularly in the absence of a compelling reason.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, power demonstration, intimidation, and what not. I hear you. But still …, justice delayed is ultimately justice denied.
Following the afore-mentioned court follies, I received a rather unpleasant Christmas present from the People of New York just in time for Christmas Eve: A letter from the District Attorney’s office fluttered into my mail box, reportedly mailed on December 12th, 8 days after my non-arraignment arraignment on December 4th, calling me back to court on December 19th since the DA’s office had now decided to file a criminal complaint against me. Why the sudden change of heart, one is left to wonder. While I was grateful to finally know what I’m being accused of after my September 17th arrest, more relevant to me seems to be the question as to why such notice could not have been delivered with sufficient advance warning, let alone on time …
Be that as it may, it meant that I spent Jule tide with a bench warrant hanging over my head. While I was assured by my lawyers that no arrest team would come knocking at my door over this, it left me grateful I had followed my immigration lawyer’s advice not to leave the country until this matter was entirely settled. For the past twelve years I’ve lived in the United States, I’ve usually left the country around the 18th of December to travel to Europe to spend the holiday break with my family back home. Had I done so this year, I would most likely have been arrested upon my return as I attempted to cross immigration at JFK airport … A consequence quite slightly out of proportion given the underlying set of circumstances.
Courts are open on Boxing Day in New York I found out, so one of my lawyers and I returned to court on the warrant to get it cleared. The judge wasn’t terribly motivated to be working that morning, reading his newspaper whenever there was a pause in the steady stream of defendants appearing before him. Still, as my case was finally called, I found my bench warrant vacated and charges finally brought: One count of disorderly conduct since I allegedly had “intent to cause public inconvenience, annoyance and alarm and recklessly creating a risk thereof, congregated in a public place with other persons and refused to comply with a lawful order of the police to disperse.”
Mind you, what I was actually doing was standing on a sidewalk, not blocking anyone’s way, observing a protest for the purpose of documenting what I saw and reporting on it. To that end I was wearing my press card clearly visible around my neck, and even showed it to the NYPD Captain who arrested me while he was in the process of slapping on the hand cuffs. Such is the state of freedom of the press in New York City, that the mere act of engaging in journalism bears the risk of bringing upon you criminal charges of intentionally causing public alarm … Re-read that last sentence slowly, word for word, to develop a full appreciation of its true implications …
My next court date will be February 14th, Valentine’s Day in this country. I sincerely hope, the representative from the District Attorney’s office arguing this case for the prosecution will bring some chocolates and roses for me. The way this case has been going this is the least he can do …
As New York City prepares for the arrival of Hurricane Sandy, stocks up on essentials, shuts down its public transport system and evacuates 375,000 residents living in low lying areas, there is one part of the city’s population of 8.5 million people that is still roaming the streets: the homeless.
46,631 of them seek refuge every night in the city’s often criticized shelter system, and those are the ones that manage to get in. Many more stay out in the streets. Some, because there simply aren’t enough beds, others because the system – to address the chronic shortage of space – has become a byzantine labyrinth of rules and procedures for them to deal with, and finally many of the LGBT community who feel their sexual orientation exposes them to significant risks from other shelter inhabitants.
James, 43, from Harlem is one such homeless I encounter sitting outside an upscale grocery store on Sunday night, as Hurricane Sandy approaches the city, in the gentrified section of Harlem called Morningside. He is panhandling from the last few passersby hurring past in the rising winds of the approaching storm. As he sees my camera he wants to talk and so I ask him why he hasn’t sought refuge from the storm yet.
“I can’t go back to the shelter system for another two months,” he explains.
“Why?” I ask and point out that the city has just opened 76 emergency shelters around the five boroughs as part of their hurricane preparedness plan.
“Once you’ve been in the system for 18 months you can’t go back there for at least one year,” James responds. “Only once you’ve been out for a year, can you be classified as longterm homeless, and therefore get access to additional assistance.”
“But what about the emergency shelters? You cannot go to those either?” I ask again.
“No, they don’t want us there. These shelters are for the good folks, the families that get evacuated. There is no room in there for me.”
“Have you tried?” I ask, pointing out that there are 73,000 beds available, and last I heard only about 1,000 had been taken.
“I couldn’t get help during Irene,” James responds. “So, I’m not gonna bother this time. I can’t get into the trains and seek shelter there, because the subways are shut down.”
“So what are you gonna do?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” James responds. “I’ll have to stay in place here so that the homeless outreach can see me. Once I’ve been spotted in this place for 10 days in a row, I can get access to some drop-in centers. They’re all full, so it’s hard to get in, but once an outreach service sees you for an extended period in the same place, there is help to be had.”
“But the winds are going to be very dangerous. You need to crawl under somewhere,” I insist. James just shrugs his shoulders in response.
“I used to go down to Trinity Church, where Occupy Wall Street was handing out food and supplies,” he continues. “But they stopped that, so I came up here. Harlem is hard. Every time you lie down on a bench you get arrested, then they put you through the system for fifteen hours, which is equivalent to time served for stretching out in public, then they let you go again. Maybe I’ll do that tomorrow.”
James tells me that he became homeless seven years ago, after loosing his job in a restaurant. For four of these seven years, he’s been living on the street. The other three he spent bouncing around the city’s shelter system.
“Once you get in, they try to keep you there for nine months to make sure they earn good money on you. They don’t help you really, they put you through tests and classes, to this assessment and that specialist, but essentially they just string you along until finally after nine months they tell you you have to leave again.” New York City’s homeless shelter system is privately run, but funded by the city as each shelter is reimbursed for each homeless person they house. For each service they provide a shelter charges extra. Fathema Shad’idi, a Red Cross worker who has lived in the group of Occupy Wall Street protesters camping outside Trinity Church on Wall Street for the past four months in order to do homeless outreach agrees with James’ assessment: “New York City’s shelter system is human warehousing at its worst,” she says. “They put these poor people on a hamster wheel, chasing them from here to there with complicated rules and regulations without helping them succeed in finding a job and setting them up for returning to steady housing. There is so much money to be made in this city by keeping a person homeless that there is no incentive to get people off the streets and into affordable housing and work.”
The group of Occupiers who had been protesting outside Trinity Church against the worldly business practices of its Rector James Cooper, whom they accuse of running a multi-billion real estate company hiding behind the guide of being a tax-exempt religious institution, incidentally has found shelter for the duration of the storm. Earlier on Sunday the group dislocated from their campsite of 142 days at the onset of Wall Street and entered a Hurricane shelter in lower Manhattan, just as Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, another frequent target of their scorn, were holding a press conference in the next room.
James meanwhile is hopeful that eventually he’ll get back on his feet, and he has a few tricks left to get help until he gets there. “Sometimes, when I need help I go to a hospital, saying I need a detox,” he explains. “Then they keep me for about 5 days and let me back out. If I want to stay longer, I say that I want to go to rehab, and so they send me to rehab for another 20 days. Then I’m back in the street, but I did get a break for a while.”
As for the future, finding a home is his first priority. “That’s why I want to stay here, so the homeless outreach can see me. When I get taken in, I can find a job and I’ll be ok.” James tells me he is a trained small-machine mechanic “but that’s not a job I can find in the city. I’ve mostly worked in restaurants, and when the economy picks back up, I’ll be able to find work as a busboy in a restaurant.”
In the meantime, I hope that he will remain safe through the impending storm. On my way home I notice that the wind has increased significantly. Some wind gusts catch me off guard and push me off balance, and I have to hold onto a lamp post to regain my posture. I walk past other homeless people shuffling along 125th Street, Harlem’s main artery. They’re not in a mood to talk and seem preoccupied in getting somewhere without knowing exactly where as their usual hideout spots are either dangerously exposed or shut down by the storm. Others sit on benches talking to each other, seemingly impervious to the impending peril crawling up the Eastern seaboard.
In his many press conferences New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg urged people, in his often patronizing tone, to stay home during the storm, insisting that this would be the safest place to be. But what happens to those with nowhere to go?