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Disaster Unpreparedness: Wildfire Tragedy Sheds Light on Dangerous Budget Gaps

4:05 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Michael Young / Flickr / Creative Commons)

They went in as a team and perished as heroes. From what ongoing investigations have been able to determine, the 19 elite firefighters of the Prescott Fire Department’s Granite Mountain Hotshots followed safety protocols amid the ferocious wildfire at Yarnell Hill in Arizona. But evidently the fast-changing wind conditions doomed them.

We may never know exactly what went wrong in the hotshots’ final moments. But we can know that underlying their misfortune were human-driven risks that have long shaped the Western landscape.

Beneath the immediate disaster—a lightning-sparked blaze that consumed several thousand acres—lurk factors that have for years exacerbated wildfire hazards: global warming and chronic drought, along with severe resource gaps for the public servants serving as the first line of defense.

Federal authorities report that wildfires consume twice as much land annually as they did forty years ago, as rising temperatures and parched vegetation transform Western landscapes into the perfect tinderbox. Risks have also multiplied as rural housing developments continue to sprawl and more people move into harm’s way. Meanwhile, changing climates tend to intensify the brutal heat conditions and lengthen the fire season, which raises direct risks for firefighters on the front lines.

At the same time, fire-management resources are drying up. This fiscal year’s cuts to the Forest Service’s Fire and Aviation Management budget shrank its forces from 10,500 to 10,000 firefighters.

These fiscal strains also impede efforts toward comprehensive, sustainable wildfire control. With tightly limited overall resources, the Forest Service strains to pay for frontline fire suppression, while longer-term wildfire programs are depleted. This makes it harder overall to invest in mitigating future hazards and prevent catastrophes.

Forest Service spokesperson Jennifer Jones tells In These Times: “Over the last few years, budgets for [reducing] hazardous fuels have been declining–and are expected to decline further.” Along with the budgets, the acreage treated for fuel reduction (mainly by thinning brush and setting contained fires) has also fallen in recent years. Meanwhile, says, Jones, “millions of acres are at risk of extreme wildfire due to climate change, drought, insect infestation, invasive species and other factors.” Yet coping with future disaster risks would involve sustained, proactive investments in measures such as restoring wild landscapes to strengthen natural fire resilience and helping communities build adaptive protective infrastructure—not just emergency responses.

Testifying before Congress in June, Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell described pressures on the agency to stretch limited funds to cover diverse complementary needs: “When you have a constrained budget situation the money has to come from some place, so that’s why it’s so hard.”

The funding crunch extends beyond top-of-the-line federal responders like the hotshots to state and local  firefighting budgets. Rick Swan, State Supervisor Director of CDF Firefighters of the International Association of Firefighters, tells In These Times that state and local fire stations, which often support federal firefighting, are not seen as major funding priorities, in part because extinguishing rural fires may seem “less glamorous” than, say, crime-fighting operations. Some politicians, he says, show more interest in lavishing high-tech equipment on municipal police, while community fire departments struggle to keep their stations fully staffed or to set up decent radio equipment. (The New York Times reported on signs of communication technology problems facing hotshots as well.)

But if firefighting infrastructure and personnel are allowed to erode, Swan says, “Good people [go] to other jobs.” Then, he says, private contractors move in to fill the gap.

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Rogue State: Jeff Biggers on the ‘Arizonification of America’

7:10 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Summit Photography

Originally posted at CultureStrike

For most of his life, Jeff Biggers has been on his way home. The author and activist has navigated multiple worlds to chronicle the forgotten Americas—the obscure, the misunderstood, or the proudly resistant communities in Appalachia and the southwestern border lands. As a politically inspired journalist in the tradition of folk historians like Studs Terkel, Biggers has unearthed nuggets of rebellion, even radicalism, in places that the media tend to write off as backwaters or mythologized clichés. In his new book, State Out of the Union, Biggers examines a region he’s been entangled in a “love-hate affair” with since boyhood.

In elucidating Arizona, Biggers sculpts a narrative of cultural and social conflict centered on a tumultuous struggle over immigration and racial politics. Looking beyond the headlines about the state’s various anti-immigrant policies, including the notorious “papers, please” SB 1070 law, Biggers finds strange continuity in Arizona’s evolution as an embodiment of the country’s contradictions. Though the face of Arizona is changing, alongside the nation’s diversifying demographics, the rifts of race, gender and age resonate with the state’s fraught history as the ultimate borderland—and as a muse for storytellers seeking crooked plot lines.

In this Q&A, Biggers, a longtime CultureStrike contributor, talks with editor Michelle Chen about the origins of the book and his meandering journeys in journalism and politics. (Note: Asian American Writers Workshop is hosting an event on Biggers’s new book on September 24 in New York City.)

 

Michelle Chen: What was the genesis of this book? What led you to Arizona?

Jeff Biggers: I’ve had a love-hate affair with Arizona since my family arrived in Tucson in 1970 in my Dad’s old ’60 Chevy, fleeing the demise of the Midwestern coal towns, intent on finding a new life in the “Sun Belt.” Within a short time, I found myself on a local TV program, discussing Arizona history as a school kid. I’ve never stopped investigating the state’s unique history. In 1991, after living out of the region for a decade, I did a “walkabout” and oral history project in the Sonoran Desert (borderlands), trying to understand our indigenous, Mexican, immigrant and pioneer cultures. I’ve also lived on the other side of the US-Mexico border, which I chronicled in my book, In the Sierra Madre. Nearly forty years after my family’s arrival—and all of my immediate family still lives in Arizona—I was outraged by the rise of political interlopers and an extremist state legislature that passed Arizona’s punitive immigration law (the infamous SB 1070 “papers, please” law) in 2010, and then crafted a bill to outlaw Mexican American Studies in Tucson. As a cultural historian, that was the last straw for me; this wasn’t “my Arizona,” and I felt I needed to go home, recover some of the lost voices in the state’s history, and chronicle a new chapter over the civil rights showdown taking place today.

I think a lot of writers like myself, raised in Arizona, felt the same in 2010: What’s the matter with Arizona? Read the rest of this entry →

Cultural Miseducation: Knowledge, Power and Ethnic Studies

8:36 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Julio Salgado

Originally posted at CultureStrike

This summer, Tucson students, educators, and activist did something rebellious: they celebrated books. These weren’t just any books, of course. They were the books that had been deemed contraband by school authorities, vilified as tools of a curriculum that promotes ethnic hatred. In other words, they were works like Rethinking Columbus: The Next 500 YearsMexican White Boy, the play Zoot Suit, and Like Water for Chocolate. Texts that aim to foster critical thinking, political curiosity, and other dangerous behaviors.

The idea that these books are “subversive” was a pretext for a crackdown on Mexican American studies in Tucson. And once the controversy was broadcast across the country, Americans of all backgrounds saw exactly what these programs threatened: an ossified conservative establishment that masks social control as education.

But the school authorities probably weren’t just annoyed that the books contained radical messages. It was who was reading them that was really troubling: it was Latino youth learning about the conflicts and cultural survival that have carried through history. This has triggered an official campaign of oppression, involving a state-led McCarthyesque investigation. This set off a wave of resistance through legal challenges and grassroots protests using creativity and humor, culminating in the youth-led Freedom Summer. Read the rest of this entry →

Cartoonist Sergio Hernández Depicts “Arizona’s Finest”

1:56 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Sergio Hernández

Cross-posted from CultureStrike.

Sergio Hernández is a California-based artist and cartoonist. This is his take on the latest goings-on in Arizona, where education and law enforcement authorities have formed an axis of xenophobia:

There has been a very aggressive move in Arizona by those in power to erase all Latino, Chicano, Mexican American culture from the state. This movement is cloaked under the guise of homeland security and border control. What is really happening is the destruction of fundamental rights of a population of people who are being demonized because of the color of their skin, culture and the language that they speak.

If Arpaio and Pedicone are successful, then where does it stop?

Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Superintendent of TUSD John Pedicone are the front men for a very unjust movement. This image depicts the real feelings of these evil men.

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Beyond May Day, Frustrated Immigrant Movement Forges Ahead

7:05 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

May Day rally in San Francisco (courtesy Patricia Jackson, via IndyBay)


The waves of protests and rallies on May Day 2012 had barely cleared out when police happened upon more than 100 undocumented immigrants locked in isolated houses near the Texas border. After being trapped for days deprived of food and water, they were turned over to the border patrol. May First is supposed to be a day to remember the struggles of labor and the poor, but these migrants were forgotten, like so many of the border’s economic refugees.

May Day has historically had a pro-migrant message, from its origins in 19th-century working-class Chicago, to its revival in 2006 as a day of protest for immigration reform. But this year, even with the added momentum of Occupy Wall Street, the pro-immigrant mobilizations were relatively modest, according to advocates, though the struggles facing immigrants are growing more dire.

While the Occupy banner blanketed much of May Day, demonstrations in several U.S. cities incorporated immigrant rights groups, including protests against Arizona’s draconian immigration law SB 1070, currently under review by the Supreme Court, and the Obama administration’s sweeping deportation policies. New York City’s May Day Solidarity Coalition brought together groups that link labor, immigration, and economic justice, like the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and Domestic Workers United.

But immigration issues weren’t highlighted as they were in May Day 2006–possibly a reflection of activist fatigue that’s sunk in after so many years of stonewalling by politicians. And tactically, it might be hard to wrap the purposefully amorphous Occupy ethos around the everyday struggles of immigrants who live in perpetual fear of being ripped apart from their families and deported. Occupy’s focus on direct action and building alternative political communities might not resonate with immigrants who are frightened to even venture outside their homes.

Catherine Tactaquin, executive director of National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights told In These Times that some of the challenges stemmed from legal obstacles that could impede many immigrant activists: Read the rest of this entry →

Struggle for Immigrants’ Rights Highlights Split Within Organized Labor

2:01 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

Cross-posted from In these Times.

Trying to please all at once and disappointing everyone, the White House has long played a game of good-cop-bad-cop on immigration, promising reforms while clinging to some of the cruelest deportation policies.

Meanwhile, President Obama’s delicate waltz around immigration highlights complex frictions within the labor movement on immigration policy—revealing contrasts between immigration enforcement employees and the AFL-CIO leadership.

Though the mainstream labor movement has not always placed itself at the forefront of immigrants’ struggles for equality, the AFL-CIO has recently spoken out in defense of undocumented workers and their communities. The AFl-CIO Executive Council has joined a chorus of groups opposing Secure Communities, a notorious Homeland Security program that promotes the sharing of information between local and federal law enforcement authorities about the legal status of immigrants arrested by local police.

The AFL-CIO stated that the program encourages racial profiling, and demanded that the White House “Immediately terminate the operation of Secure Communities” and bar it from jurisdictions known to practice “discriminatory policing.” The statement, signed by the AFL-CIO and National Immigration Forum, specifically cited Alabama’s brutal new anti-immigrant law, which is currently being challenged in court. Read the rest of this entry →

Ethnic Studies Ruling Escalates Arizona Schools Struggle

11:55 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Tucson students occupy a school board meeting (Image: thesoundstrike.info)

Cross-posted from CultureStrike, a new project that fuses art and activism in the struggle for immigrants’ rights.

While students were on their holiday break, Arizona issued a disturbing wake-up call to anyone who thought the education system had evolved to reflect America’s diversity. In a legal challenge to a controversial law passed in 2010, an administrative law judge pummeled a flagship educational initiative by supporting restrictions on programs based on Latino history and culture.

The judge decided that the curriculum used in Tucson’s Mexican American studies programs was biased against white people, apparently because it advocates critical historical perspectives and emphasizes struggles of indigenous and Latino communities, as well as the links between that legacy and contemporary politics. The ruling comes as no surprise, as the struggle between the school district and school superintendent John Huppenthal has been dragging on for months. The focus now is on a pending federal lawsuit aimed at halting the law.

CNN quotes from ruling:

In Tuesday’s ruling, administrative law judge Lewis Kowal said the auditors observed only a limited number of classes. He added, “Teaching oppression objectively is quite different than actively presenting material in a biased, political, and emotionally charged manner.”

“Teaching in such a manner promotes social or political activism against the white people, promotes racial resentment, and advocates ethnic solidarity, instead of treating pupils as individuals,” Kowal wrote. He cited a lesson that taught students that the historic treatment of Mexican-Americans was “marked by the use of force, fraud and exploitation,” and a parent’s complaint that one of her daughters, who was white, was shunned by Latino classmates after a government course was taught “in an extremely biased manner.”

So to sum up, it is “extremely biased” to teach critical viewpoints of the oppression, displacement and systematic discrimination that Mexicans and other groups have encountered throughout U.S. history. Read the rest of this entry →

Georgia’s Anti-Immigrant Politics Overshadow Women’s Struggles

6:09 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from In These Times 

(Photo from webelongtogether.org)

The words “undocumented worker” evoke images we’re all familiar with: poor day laborers huddled on a street corner, sun-battered tomato pickers hauling buckets through the fields. One image that people often overlook is a far more intimate presence: the nanny caring for our kids, the home aide comforting our ailing parents, the quiet mother waiting nervously outside the doctor’s office.

Immigrant women are present in every aspect of American life, in the workplace and in the home, yet they’re among the most invisible. They’re about to be shoved further into the shadows as states move to crack down on the undocumented and relegate them to the margins of society. So a coalition of activists came to Atlanta, Georgia this week to raise the visibility of immigrant women as workers and community members, as the state moves toward policies that could give the police unprecedented powers to profile, arrest and detain immigrants arbitrarily. Read the rest of this entry →