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Checkpoint: Waiting and Death at the Border

3:46 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Landing at Lampedusa (National Institute for Health, Migration and Poverty of Italy)

This post was originally published at CultureStrike:

Migration is about movement across borders. But it’s also about waiting at them: waiting for your hearing in court, waiting for a phone call home at the detention center, waiting for a visa to reunite you with loved ones you’ve been separated from for decades. And there’s the agonizing wait in Washington for politicians to reform the dysfunctional legal system that has trapped millions in legal limbo.

This week, the political stagnation thickened as various parts of the federal government remained shuttered. While Border Patrol was allowed to continue as one of the “essential” services untouched by the congressional impasse, other aspects of the immigration system ground to a halt. The immigration courts—which handle both civil immigration prosecutions as well as asylum hearings—are largely paralyzed. Immigrants seeking to resettle in the U.S. after fleeing conflict or persecution have seen their legal limbo indefinitely suspended.

Although the U.S. touts itself as a major host country for refugees—the government received about 83,400 asylum claims last year—the government has been sharply criticized for inhumane practices, such as arbitrary detention, unnecessary separations of families, and an opaque, Kafkaesque legal gauntlet that that is notoriously difficult to navigate, regardless of the credibility of a petitioner’s claims. Even before the shutdown, the immigration court system overall was saddled with a swelling backlog approaching roughly 350,000 cases.

The shutdown has further destabilized the lives of asylum seekers. On Monday, Washington D.C.-based immigration lawyer Andres Benach described on NPR his numerous cases that are on hold until the shutdown ends. One client in particular is waiting for a court to prove her claim of fleeing sexual violence so she can start rebuilding her life. Though she is technically authorized to work in the U.S. “just having simple work authorization is not really the same as knowing that your status has been resolved finally,” he said, “that you can live permanently in the United States, that you can go back to your life and grow and develop in the way that most of us take for granted.”

The shutdown has further derailed the near-moribund immigration reform debate, which had already started slipping off the congressional calendar amid budget and military standoffs. Now activists are looking beyond 2013 for future legislative action in a battle that has dragged on since 2006. Read the rest of this entry →

Who Started the Fires in Sweden?

12:07 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally published at Truthout

(Photo: Telefonkiosk / Wikimedia)

One evening in May, a modest Scandinavian suburb caught on fire. Images streaming out of Husby, just outside Stockholm, overlaid the Nordic socialist wonderland with a scene straight out of Watts circa 1965 – sidewalks strewn with charred cars, shattered glass and angry kids. For days, the riots bled across the region and jarred international observers who tend to associate Sweden with modular furniture rather than youth mobs. But the most shocked might have been Husby’s own neighbors, who had been resolutely ignoring the social fissures roiling next door before they exploded in the headlines.

The “disturbance” was sparked by a police confrontation on May 14 that led to the shooting death of a 69-year old immigrant man, reportedly armed with a knife.

A local youth activist group, Megafonen, staged a peaceful rally demanding an independent investigation. Soon, the police cracked down, and according to activists, hurled racial slurs and brutalized local youth. The clash spiraled into riots that lasted six days, streaking flames across Husby and soon spreading to several other Stockholm suburbs. The sensational media images of youth roaming the streets ruptured cultural, racial and generational fault lines of the increasingly polarized city.

Megafonen posted a statement on the riots that read like both a lament and a manifesto:

It is tragic that public transportation, emergency services and police are attacked. Sad that cars burn, that homes and commercial buildings are damaged. We share the despair with everyone else witnessing the devastation in our own neighborhoods. It is this desperation that forces us to look for structural explanations that attack the causes of this devastation.

So far, Parliament has discussed launching an independent inquiry into the uprising. Yet activists remain wary that politicians have continually failed to address, or simply ignored, the social ills simmering below the surface.

“This is the other side of prosperous Stockholm,” writes University of Gothenburg researcher Catharina Thörn in the New Left Project, “beyond the seductive theater of consumption that characterizes the central city, people fight for a decent life, or just to get by, while common resources are continually being snatched away and privatized.”

Tinderbox of Alienation

The fires in Husby were kindled well before the first car was set alight. Sweden’s rough working-class enclaves are a world apart from the bourgeois tranquility often associated with Scandinavia’s pristine cities and extensive welfare state. Places like Husby are home to immigrant families with roots in Africa, the Middle East or Asia. Many of them came as refugees from war-torn regions like Somalia; they entered under the country’s relatively liberal immigration and asylum policies, and sometimes still carry with them the scars of past traumas.

In these neighborhoods, activists say, chronic joblessness and limited educational opportunities intertwine with racial and ethnic divides. Many immigrants, and even “second generation” children of immigrants, face discrimination from white “native-born” Swedes, and their isolated neighborhoods keep many locked into a cycle of chronic economic and social segregation.

Read the rest of this entry →

Depression Symptoms: What’s Behind Europe’s Spike in Suicides

1:51 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Suicide rates in US (CDC, via

Cross-posted from In These Times.

The metaphor of suicide has been used to depict the downward spiral surrounding countries bludgeoned by the economic crisis—particularly U.S. and Eurozone communities plagued by epidemic joblessness and a rash of budget cuts. Now the term literally describes the psychological dimension of the crisis, according to studies on suicide rates.

Some symptoms of the social despair have been grimly spectacular. Greece was jolted one recent morning after aging pensioner Dimitris Christoulas put a pistol to his head in Athens’s main square. In 2010 Americans were shaken by the suicide-by-plane of Andrew Stack, whose anger at the political establishment propelled him into an Austin office complex. Poorer regions have flared with public self-immolations, particularly in the communities of the “Arab Spring” where many youth come to see life as a dead-end street. Underlying these more dramatic examples are statistical patterns that reflect society’s unraveling.

A recently published Lancet study showed spikes in suicide across Europe during the recession. While many factors could contribute to this pattern, researchers found a significant correlation between unemployment and suicide trends. Read the rest of this entry →

While Wall Street Quakes, Greece’s Fire Still Burns Bright

8:06 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Police detain demonstrators and attack press photographers in Athens, Greece during a protest rally marking the 24-hour general strike on October 5, 2011. (Photo: LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP/Getty Images)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

While we may be inspired to see a leaderless mass movement finally crystallizing in U.S. cities, the American occupations still can’t hold a candle to the fire raging across Greece.

This past week, demonstrators again unleashed their rage across the tiny Mediterranean republic, blocking government agencies and clashing with government thugs amid plumes of tear gas, with assorted spectacles like trying to burn a European Union flag in effigy. Wilder than the spontaneous encampments in New York, Boston and other cities, the Greek tempests of the past several months have been persistent and rancorous enough to actually shake up the trading floor and the halls of Eurozone-IMF officialdom, as the troika hover, anxious and vulture-like, over a smoldering pyre of sovereign debt.

The explosion in Greece (along with Spain) illustrate how common assumptions about the neoliberal consensus of the industrialized world can be overturned if people become desperate enough. Despite the draconian austerity policies, writes Times columnist Floyd Norris, virtually nothing could persuade the Greeks at this point to swallow more misery:

The tax collectors, of all people, have staged job actions because they fear being laid off. To say the least, there is no sign of a national spirit of sacrifice to save the country.

The message from Greece now may be summarized as, “I’m small. I’ve suffered. You can afford to rescue me. If you don’t, I can create chaos for all of you.”

They may be right.

Are there lessons for the Liberty Plaza protesters to learn from the Athenian class warriors? The Greece context is politically and culturally unique, but it does embody the principle of fierce solidarity. The Greek left is working to harness widespread bitterness into a united front against austerity, linking unions, the jobless young, professionals and laborers. Read the rest of this entry →

After the Riots, “Broken” Britain Grows Still More Fractured

10:22 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen


Cross-posted from

In the aftermath of the riots, politicians have promised to rebuild Britain’s “broken society.” But their eagerness to restore order threatens to tear apart an already fractured urban landscape.

Speaking at a youth club in Witney, Oxfordshire, Prime Minister David Cameron played on public panic to declare war on the unruly elements that flared up in the riots. Dismissing the notion that race or class issues factored into the unrest, he instead blamed a “moral breakdown” of family structure and social values, and “people without proper boundaries.” But the audience (some of whom heckled the Prime Minister) didn’t need to be schooled about boundaries, as they’ve seen the limits of their future prospects grow narrower by the day.

A local teen quoted by Reuters didn’t see Cameron’s Britain in his community: “He wants people to get in touch with families, but for some, their families aren’t there, and the youth centre is the only place where they can talk to people…. But he’s shutting all the youth centres.”

The scene encapsulated the government’s myopic reaction to the disturbances. Cameron has declared a full-scale “fightback.” This includes plans to “hand police, local authorities and the courts sweeping powers to mete out severe punishments to those involved in the unrest,” and perhaps even crowd-control tactics like water cannons, according to the AP. There is talk of imposing curfews or controlling communications technology to prevent rioters from coordinating actions (an eerie echo of crackdowns on social media and youth gatherings in San Francisco and Philadelphia).

Stung by criticism about an inadequate police response, Cameron also called for a “concerted, all-out war on gangs and gang culture.” And he’s getting coached by American “supercop” William Bratton, an advocate of the much-maligned “broken windows” strategy that deploys zero tolerance on everything from graffiti to squeegee men.

English courts are working overtime to churn out swift retribution for hundreds charged with riot-related offenses. Extreme jail sentences have been imposed for infractions like stealing bottled water and sending an incendiary Facebook message—in sharp contrast to the relative impunity that scandalized officials and disgraced corporate giants have enjoyed in recent months.

Meanwhile, lost amid all the racialized, anti-youth invective is the story of youth on the margins of that tattered society, whose voices go ignored until they explode in collective rebellion.

Waiting to Happen

The tragedy of the riots was in part their predictability: the spark that ignited the chaos was a clash between police and youth in Tottenham, a racially mixed London enclave where another historic anti-police uprising took place in the 1980s. Following a peaceful protest demanding justice for Mark Duggan, a young black man who died in a police shooting, officers reportedly assaulted a young girl. Instantly a generation of simmering resentment boiled over, clearly fueled by the patterns of racial bias in aggressive police stops and searches.

Zita Holbourne of BARAC UK, a national racial-justice coalition that campaigns against budget cuts, told Colorlines that while communities like Tottenham are saturated with an overbearing police presence, other public institutions, like support programs for youth who need education or jobs, are vanishing:

Essentially, there is almost nothing for young people. Where are they going to go? What are they going to do? So you end up with them building up anger and frustration, hopelessness … and you can see that Tottenham was waiting to happen. Whether it was Tottenham or somewhere else, it was waiting to happen.”

Garrisoned Communities

The government has beefed up its crackdown by encouraging communities to police themselves. The BBC reported that in police in Manchester had tried to shame families into submission with “shop a looter” advertisements by encouraging parents to turn in children suspected of wrongdoing.

And if police can’t force parents to snitch on their kids, then they can always resort to collective punishment. A convenient statute allows for the eviction of public housing residents who break the law, according to the AP:

Currently, authorities can boot out residents who commit offenses in their own neighborhood only—and evict about 3,000 of Britain’s 8 million public housing tenants each year. If the new plans are approved, it won’t matter where a person has committed their crime. Eric Pickles, Britain’s Communities Secretary, acknowledged the policy could leave some people homeless. “That may sound a little harsh, but I just don’t think it’s time to pussyfoot around,” Pickles told BBC television. “They’ve done their best to destroy neighborhoods. Frankly, I don’t feel sympathetic towards them.”

So vulnerable kids, along with their struggling families, may soon be forced out onto the same streets that got them in trouble in the first place. Whatever moral lesson the authorities are trying to teach, it’s not the one they should have learned from Tottenham.

The Post-Race Riot

Cameron and other politicians have stressed the participants included people of many racial backgrounds and that “these riots were not about poverty: that insults the millions of people who, whatever the hardship, would never dream of making others suffer like this.”

It’s true that the destruction cut across racial or socioeconomic lines. Many “normal” middle-class folks joined in the rioting, and some of the heaviest damage was suffered by working-class communities of color. One of the most poignant examples is the three young Pakistanis killed by a hit-and-run while guarding their Birmingham neighborhood. Yet erasing race and class elements from the public conversation only deepens the political establishment’s willful blindness.

The law enforcement crackdowns, combined with stringent budget cuts, will have a disproportionate impact on the poor and people of color (people who are more likely to depend on public services, live in public housing, or get entangled in the criminal justice system). As they try to recover, the gulf between the day-to-day injustices surrounding them, and victor’s justice being touted by officials, will continue to widen.

Tottenham youth worker Symeon Brown commented on CNN, “A moral judgment is easy: ‘They are wrong, people are suffering, they are selfish, they are thugs,’ but we are using a system that these boys do not comply with.”

You won’t find the most troubling “moral breakdown” in London among its youth. It reveals itself in every humiliating police search, every shuttered youth club, every corruption scandal ingrained in a political structure that walls off ordinary people.

Repairing the Cracks

On England’s scorched streets, communities seeking to rebuild face a crossroads.

In many cases, the riots catalyzed grassroots solidarity. Communities immediately mobilized “across ethnic and racial lines” in self-defense,
reported Judy Beishon of the UK Socialist Party:

Sikh men in Southall organised to defend mosques and Hindu temples as well as Sikh temples. Turkish, Kurdish and Bangladeshi shopkeepers mobilised in Hackney to defend major streets and premises. It was also the case that after the riots, in many areas a mass of people turned out onto the streets to help clear up the mess and restore things to normal and donations poured in to help those who had lost homes and small businesses.

At the same time, activists fear that the far-right will capitalize on public fears by using neighborhood recovery efforts as a political platform.

Referring to reports of the white-supremacist English Defence League partaking in “vigilante” patrols and local clean-up initiatives, Holbourne said, “They’re talking about, ‘They’re cleaning up the street’ as in ‘cleaning up Britain.’ And when they’re saying ‘cleaning up Britain,’ they [mean] cleaning up Britain from black people. They’re using it as an opportunity to spread racial hatred.”

If the fear sparked by the riots leads to even more criminalization of youth and people of color, then Britain may end up broken beyond repair. But the embattled streets could also clear the way for a paradigm shift. Communities might start to question the state and think past some of those those “proper boundaries” that hemmed them in before. And then a broken society might really figure out how to put itself back together again.