Binding Leaders to the Community: The Ethics of Bolivia’s Organic Grassroots

Just published in Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology. Bjork-James, Carwil. 2018. Binding Leaders to the Community: The Ethics of Boliva’s Organic Grassroots (full text). Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology 23, no. 2 (July): 363–82. Abstract: Bolivia’s largest social movement organizations—including its labor unions, rural communities, and neighborhood organizations—are bound together by a hierarchical […]

Blockade: The Power of Interruption

Think of this as the trailer for my ethnography, photography, and the book I’m revising for publication…

On June 23, 2008, three of us ascend an eerily empty highway from the tropical town of Coroico to Bolivia’s capital, La Paz. Foreigners, we stare at the majestic valley below as we pass above the line where the tropical tree cover of the Yungas gives way to pure rock. The so-called Death Highway has been rebuilt on a more secure footing, but it is still marked by hairpin turns, intruded upon by fallen boulders of a terrifying scale, and undermined by landslides. Its predecessor, once calculated as the world’s deadliest roadway, has been preserved as a downhill biking path for tourists seeking “100 percent adrenaline.” Where the road has fallen or washed out, drivers let their wheels dig tracks into the mud and gravel tracks, and peer over the edges of their vehicles to avoid falling off the side.

Today, however, both roads are nearly silent. None of the half dozen minibus unions are operating their vehicles, bike tours are cancelled, and the taxi we found cruises over empty roads and easily steers clear of both the rock faces and the treacherous edges. Once finally inside La Paz however, it comes to a stop at the cause of all the earlier silence: an urban road blockade. Residents of the northeastern District 13, organized through 46 neighborhood councils, have plugged the main arteries through their neighborhood with stones and their collective presence. They are calling on the municipality to meet an eight-point platform of demands concerning crime, public works, and water provision. Taxis like ours can approach the protest zone but only to discharge their passengers. Dozens of men and women walk—their goods stacked on their heads, bundled in fabric on their backs, or dragged along in suitcases—across the vehicle-free stretch of urban pavement, littered with stones and occupied by protesters who gather in the middle.

Every point along the road we have travelled is a potential chokepoint. Since the main road from La Paz to the Yungas passes through this district, a single blockade is enough to cut off all traffic to Coroico, the Yungas, Caranavi, and the northern Bolivian Amazon. Whether accomplished by simply sitting down in the street, dragging in boulders and tree limbs, or coordinating crowds of thousands to take over key thoroughfares, road blockades bring a sudden urgency to political protest. By blocking the circulation of people and goods, they ensure that the impacts of protest ripple across an entire region.

Read more at Limn Magazine…

CBP suspends “zero tolerance,” Sessions defends it, Military builds prisons for families

In the wake of Donal Trump’s executive order (text) that promised to replace family separation with joint detention of undocumented migrant families, the US government’s actions have been fractured. Over two thousand children remain separated from their parents. As I noted on the day it was issued, the Executive Order codifies the “zero tolerance” policy of prosecuting all arriving adults as criminals for crossing the border.

However, unexpectedly, Customs and Border Protection (part of the Department of Homeland Security) has retreated from zero tolerance and stopped prosecuting arriving families through criminal courts, for now. CBP’s new approach was announced informally on June 21 and formally on June 25. In both announcements, the agency said its reasons are logistical, though the mass public pressure and media embarrassment associated with separating families are obvious major factors. CBP’s head reaffirmed yesterday that he would like to imprison families if he only had the room:

Kevin K. McAleenan, the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said his agency and the Justice Department should agree on a policy “where adults who bring their kids across the border — who violate our laws and risk their lives at the border — can be prosecuted without an extended separation from their children.”

Because Immigration and Customs Enforcement does not have enough detention space for the surge of families crossing the border, many families will be quickly released, with a promise to return for a court hearing. Mr. McAleenan said that the agency would continue to refer single adults for prosecution for illegally crossing the border, and that border agents would also separate children from adults if the child is in danger or if the adult has a criminal record.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Jeff Sessions claims that the Department of Justice is holding fast to its zero-tolerance policy, under which it instructed prosecutors on April 6, 2018 (memo|2017 memo authorizing aggressive prosecution), to prosecute all adults referred to them for the crime of unlawful entry. Dogged by protests in Reno, Nevada, Sessions insisted that

The president has made this clear. We are going to continue to prosecute those adults who enter here illegally. We are going to do everything in our power, however, to avoid separating families. All federal agencies are working hard to accomplish this goal.

Squaring this circle requires more jails for families. On Monday, June 25, Defense Secretary Mattis announced that Fort Bliss (near El Paso, Texas) and Goodfellow Air Force Base have been selected as the first detention facilities on military bases.

Migrant families who were taken into custody will be housed at Fort Bliss, an Army base outside El Paso, according to Bowman. Unaccompanied migrant children will be housed at Goodfellow Air Force Base, near San Angelo in central Texas.

As the Department of Defense constructs family detention facilities, they will be solving CBP’s “logistical problem.” Accepting the agencies at their word, we should expect families housed at Fort Bliss to be put through zero-tolerance prosecutions.

Why Trump’s Executive Order doesn’t solve the family separation crisis

Yesterday afternoon, June 20, President Trump publicly retreated from the family separation policy (Wikipedia article) that has torn at least 2,342 children from their families. A close reading of the Executive Order he signed, however, reveals that instead of retreating, Trump codified Jeff Sessions’ zero-tolerance policy and proposed an expanding system of indefinite family detention. Further reporting revealed that the Administration is not yet prepared to re-unite divide families. Practical and legal constraints may render the promises of the Executive Order worthless, or (and this is the only speculative part of this post) prompt renewed family separations within days or weeks.

A close read of the Executive Order

This is a slightly amplified version of a post that went viral on Facebook yesterday. While I am not an immigration lawyer, I am a trained policy analyst (M.P.P., University of Chicago, 1998) familiar with Executive Orders and recent immigration policy. My read here is a direct analysis of what the White House proposed, rather than an assessment of what it can legally or practically implement.

I’ve just read the Trump Executive Order. It’s not a solution, and it makes some things worse.

Here’s what the Executive Order actually does (numbered by section) …

1. Codifies Jeff Sessions’ “zero tolerance” directive until new immigration legislation is passed. Prior to the Trump/Sessions crackdown, the US government only criminally prosecuted about 21% of unlawful entrants, concentrating on return offenders and smugglers and exempting families with children. “This Administration will initiate proceedings to enforce this and other criminal provisions of the INA until and unless Congress directs otherwise.”

2. Limits the definition of family to parent-child pairs. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, etc. are excluded. “Alien family” means…

3a. Puts families under Homeland Security custody during criminal, immigration cases. Previously, children and detained families had to be held in facilities contracted by the Department of Health and Human Services. [Correction 6/27: Detained families are held by DHS in three facilities: the privately operated Karnes County Residential Center and South Texas Family Residential Center in Texas, and the Berks County Residential Center in Pennsylvania. These facilities must be state-licensed as child-care facilities under rulings pursuant to the Reno v. Flores litigation.] The Secretary of Homeland Security (Secretary), shall, to the extent permitted by law and subject to the availability of appropriations, maintain custody of alien families 

3b.Authorizes immigration authorities to separate parents from children if joint detention “would pose a risk to the child’s welfare.” This phrase seems intended to separate abusers from their kids, but no procedure is elaborated.

3c. Authorizes the military to build new prisons for migrant families. The wording actually gives the Homeland Security Secretary, currently Kirstjen Nielsen, to choose any military facility she wishes.  The Secretary of Defense shall take all legally available measures to provide to the Secretary [of Homeland Security], upon request, any existing facilities available for the housing and care of alien families, and shall construct such facilities if necessary and consistent with law. 

3d. Allows all Federal departments to offer their buildings as prisons. Heads of executive departments and agencies shall, to the extent consistent with law, make available to the Secretary, for the housing and care of alien families pending court proceedings for improper entry, any facilities that are appropriate for such purposes. 

3e. Authorizes the DOJ to try to wriggle out of the Flores Agreement. This phrasing is the most foreboding since it would seek legal authorization for DHS (not Health and Human Services) to detain families throughout their often-lengthy criminal, deportation, and asylum proceedings. The Attorney General shall promptly file a request with the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California to modify the Settlement Agreement in Flores v. Sessions… to detain alien families together throughout the pendency of criminal proceedings for improper entry or any removal or other immigration proceedings.

4. Orders parents to be prosecuted first in immigration courts, presumably to deport them fastest. This phrase, intended to expedite prosecution and removal, puts families to the head of a line that also includes people being deported for dangerous criminal offenses, the exact opposite of the policy pursued by the Obama administration.

Early signs the crisis isn’t over

  • Wednesday afternoon, Kenneth Wolfe, a spokeman for  the Administration for Children and Families told the press, “There will not be a grandfathering of existing cases.” And also “For the minors currently in the unaccompanied alien children program, the sponsorship process will proceed as usual.”
  • Seemingly embarrassed by these admissions, the Department of Health and Human Services walked them back later on Wednesday, saying instead: “It is still very early and we are awaiting further guidance on the matter. … Reunification is always the ultimate goal of those entrusted with the care of UACs, and the administration is working towards that for those UACs currently in HHS custody.”
  • Once guidance comes, there is the problem of a system not built to keep families connected at all. Politico reports that “The biggest problem, as far as I can tell, is where the kids’ records don’t have information on the parents,” said one Homeland Security Department official. “I don’t know how they’re going to go about fixing that.”
  • Should families be reunited, they might not have a place to go. The Executive Order instructs the Department of Homeland Security (ICE and CBP) to incarcerate families together. At the moment, ICE has very limited detention space for families. As the Washington Post reports, “ICE operates two large family detention centers in Texas and a smaller facility in Pennsylvania, with a combined capacity for about 3,000 beds. As of June 9, the three facilities had nearly 2,600 of those beds occupied.” Reuniting families immediately would require some five thousand separated family members into 400 beds.

Looming obstacles mean family separation will likely resume, and soon

Again, this is the only speculative part of this post.

  • Reports indicate that ICE has been separating 65 children per day. As noted above, ICE family detention capacity is low (perhaps as few as 400 empty beds), even if already separated families remain separate. Incarcerating families will require putting around 130 people into these facilities every day, or rapidly building more. Either the government will rapidly stop detaining families together, or they will start putting them into makeshift facilities recently built for immigrant children, like the tent camp in Tornillo.
  • Legal constraints, primarily the Flores Settlement, limit DHS custody of children to 72 hours and HHS custody to 20 days. If enforced, these would require either separating or releasing families at the end of these windows.
  • There will be lawsuits over the new family detention policy, and some of it seems manifestly against existing law or legal orders. Politico reports: “The president doesn’t get any brownie points for moving from a policy of locking up families and kids separately to locking them up together,” said Karen Tumlin of the National Immigrant Law Center. “I will not hesitate to use every legal tool available to challenge these policies in court….May a thousand litigation flowers bloom.”

On the other hand…

We did get some genuinely good news today (Thursday) with this announcement from Customs and Border Patrol, reported by the Washington Post:

The U.S. Border Patrol will no longer refer migrant parents who cross into the United States illegally with children to federal courthouses to face criminal charges, a senior U.S. Customs and Border Protection official told The Washington Post on Thursday.

A Justice Department spokesperson denied changes to the zero tolerance policy and said prosecutions would continue.

Because ICE lacks the detention capacity to increase the number of families it holds in detention, the official acknowledged that many migrant parents and children will likely be released from custody while they await court hearings.

Top CBP officials did not know what the executive order would ask them to do until its release Wednesday, the official said. The decision to cease prosecutions of parents with children was made by the Department of Homeland Security for logistical purposes because the official said it would not be “feasible” to bring children to federal courtrooms while their parents go before a judge.

This is a logistical decision; there really is nowhere to put families with children. So, it may be reversed. But it is the first sign that CBP might not implement the mass detention of families, for now.

Mass prosecutions of adults without children continue. So the zero tolerance policy has not be reversed.

Further reading

I’m not just a voice in the wilderness saying these things. You can read reporting and commentary here…

The Palestinian protest camps in Gaza are world’s most daring protest

Today is the long-planned climactic day of the Great March of Return, a Palestinian protest on the fenceline of the Gaza Strip. On March 30, Palestinians set up five protest camps a half-kilometer from the Israeli military. These camps are themselves a form of mass protest, reminding the world that two-thirds of Gazans are refugees from towns, villages, and farms within Israeli territory. The protest’s chief demand is the Right of Return, their ability to freely return to their homes and/or to re-establish the communities they have maintained in exile for the past 70 years. Protesters are also demanding an end to the eleven-year blockade of Gaza, imposed in 2007, which has crippled the territory economically. The camps have been the staging grounds for weekly demonstrations, in which ten to thirty thousand protesters rally while at first hundreds, and more recently thousands of protesters have advanced into the unilaterally declared buffer zone along the fence. During these protests, unarmed Palestinians have thrown stones and flaming bottles towards the fence, and used a variety of tools to dismantle part of the wall that keeps them caged and isolated from the rest of the world.

Marchers, journalists, protesters engaged in confrontation and those who have peacefully approached the fence have all been subjected to an unprecedent barrage of violent force on the part of the Israeli military, who are positioned in towers and earthen embankments on their side of the fence. Israeli snipers have shot over 2,500 people and as of today, killed over fifty Palestinians. Yet week after week they keep coming.

The Great Return March in Gaza continues to be the most daring tactical encounter between protesters and security forces on the planet.

If you’ve seen the film Gandhi, you know the scene where people line up and risk beatings to defend their strike. Journalistic coverage of this march on the Dharasana Salt Works was a devastating proof the moral bankruptcy of British Rule in India. I’ve long said this could not be repeated when the opponent has deadly weapons. The Gaza protests have proven me wrong.

The Gaza protesters are unarmed militants, not satyagrahis. They are not arriving empty-handed but with stones in their hands. But they have injured no one on the Israeli side. They are deploying unequal means: inflicting symbolic damage while suffering brutal and deadly violence. And their response to that violence is not to switch to the deadlier means at their disposal (guns and rockets), but to keep coming back.

This is the dynamic of the Soweto Uprising, a turning point in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. Unequal violence proved morally unsustainable for the regime, ultimately isolating it from its support system in the United States and Europe. The dynamic on the side of Israel and its backers remains unknown; will shooting thousands of essentially defenseless civilians provoke a moral reckoning? That choice is up to us.

You probably haven’t seen this protest from the inside. To do so, see the last footage captured by Yaser Murtaja, who was killed by Israeli gunfire in April. It offers a flash of insight into what the ongoing Gaza protests entail. Watch it.

After the break, four things you need to know about the protests…

Read More »

Bolivia’s limited de-criminalization of abortion has been reversed

After a year of drafting and debate, the significant but limited liberalization of Bolivia’s abortion laws lasted just six weeks. It was signed into law on December 15, 2017, as part of an omnibus reform of the country’s Criminal Code, but that law was repealed in its entirety on January 27, 2018. Between these two dates, the major challenge to the law was not about abortion but rather an extended strike by medical workers who opposed provisions in the law that criminalize malpractice. Transport workers also objected to new ways of being held liable for traffic accidents.

Reportedly, the abortion provisions—which would have exempted more women from the general criminalization of abortion in Bolivia, and allowed qualifying women to fill out a form rather than seek authorization from a judge—were a matter of internal tension within the ruling Movement Towards Socialism party.

The medical strike unexpectedly became a convergence point for various critics of the government, who formed the Coordinadora de Defensa de la Democracia (Coordination in Defense of Democracy) and demanded the government respect the February 2016 referendum vote that rejected President Morales running for a fourth term.

President Evo Morales signed the full repeal of the Criminal Code amendments in an unusual ceremony in which he did not speak a word.

Culverting of the Choqueyapu River, under construction in 2008

La Paz’s water pollution crisis, as retold by comic book artists

The metropolis of La Paz and El Alto, Bolivia, is living on the edge of multiple water crises. Water suppliers struggle to keep pace with its rapid population growth. Its overall supply is dependent on glacial melt water, which may not survive the 21st century (as covered previously on this blog: “Bolivia’s current water crisis is the tip of a melting iceberg”). And the cities’ principal river, the Choqueyapu, is a site of dramatic pollution.

This last issue is the subject of Choqueyapu: Un río enfermo que nos alimenta (Choqueyapu: A sick river that feeds us). Bolivian newspaper Página Siete has re-released one of its most important investigative pieces of 2017 in an online comic-book format.  The narrative follows a drop of glacial meltwater as it travels past industrial sites, through the city center, and out to the vegetable and fruit-growing fields that lie downstream of the city. There, farmer Eugenia Mamani explains how her downstream community has adapted: “In the early morning the clean water comes” (because polluting industries and the slaughterhouse aren’t operating). “We irrigate from 3am onwards; during the day it comes in dirty and we no longer use it. We have to make sacrifices [to make] our products.”

La Paz’s water pollution has many causes, from industrial waste to the riverside slaughterhouse to urban runoff to mining waste to inadequate water treatment. It all ends up flowing downstream. As the comic and other reporting shows, solutions like pollution inspectors, slaughterhouse modernization, and a new water treatment plant are all behind schedule. One of the few public works that affects the river, the culverting of its downtown segment in 2008 (see above photo), has only added to its problems by creating de-oxygenated segment right in the middle of its flow.

Like many environmental matters, this is a slow-motion crisis with no end in sight.