Tookie is Dead, but not His Spirit

This past weekend, several of us drove by San Quentin Prison on the way to and from a Mosaic Multicultural Foundation meeting (which included plans for “Voices of Youth, Voices of Community” events in the Bay Area next year; I’ve done these events with some of the most troubled youth in LA, utilizing poetry, their voices, story, song, and community celebration).

Looking out the car window, I saw that people had not yet gathered for the daily vigil against the execution of Stanley Tookie Williams. Silently, I said a prayer as we climbed onto the San Raphael Bridge, overlooking a wondrous sight of Bay waters, hills, and the amazing skyline of San Francisco in the distance.

I’ve been to San Quentin Prison a couple of times to read poetry, along with Mosaic teachers Michael Meade, Orland Bishop, and Jack Kornfield. The prisoners say looking at this sight from their cells may be more torturous than if they only had to stare at deserts or flowing cornfields.

The scenic beauty surrounding San Quentin contrasts sharply with the darkness inside the state’s only death row. As many had predicted, Governor Schwarzenegger denied clemency for Tookie, the redeemed former gang leader’s one last shot at life pulled out from under him. Early on Tuesday morning, December 13, after struggling for 35 minutes to find a vein, Tookie’s died of lethal injection.

I’ve received a myriad of responses to what I’ve written on my weblog and to what I've said on the radio (I did a 5:30 AM interview for New York City’s WBAI radio shortly after Tookie’s death). Most support my position that Tookie should not have been killed. A few didn’t... although they not only supported his death, they gloated about it (“boo hoo hoo for Tookie Williams,” one emailer wrote sarcastically).

In death penalty cases you see this kind of reversal all the time—the so-called “good” people sometimes exhibit the most callous, cold-blooded justifications (Governor Schwarzenegger’s statement denying Williams clemency was a rehash of the state’s case against Tookie as well as a right-wing diatribe against his politics).

It’s all hypocritical and rotten to the core of our being.

That same morning, I read how President Bush, responding to a question, declared that 30,000 Iraqi civilians and 2,140 US troops have been killed since the invasion of Iraq. Yes, the Crips have done massive lethal damage to communities all over the country, but how can this government claim it can stand above the mentality that drives most of these killings? Iraq didn’t even have involvement in the 9/11 massacre of the World Trade Tower (and the Bush Administration’s dance around this won’t change that basic truth).

I even read about a new book on the Skull & Bones "gang" that President Bush, his father, and his father before him all belonged to. In fact, Prescott Bush--Dubya's grandfather--reportedly dug out the skull of Apache resistance leader Geronimo that apparently is still missing and presumably in the possession of Skull & Bones.

We do a terrible disservice when we only designate poor people's (black, brown, and white) street organizations as "gangs." As you can see, there are many other types of gangs doing crazy things in this country, although they will never pay a price for this.

The reality is we as a people and a state squandered an opportunity. Faced with the dilemma of grieving crime victims and Tookie’s vast community support we failed to rise to the challenge of becoming compassionate, humane, imaginative, and to lay the groundwork for real healing. Instead we chose death. And the cycle continues.

Tookie’s struggle is not over. They’ve killed the person, but not the spirit. We will have to carry on. For peace, for justice, for real redemption (ours, not just Tookie’s), and real social change.

Yes, I agree with Tookie—let’s stop gang warfare. Only not just in the barrios and ghettos of the country. Let’s stop it from the Bush Administration, to Governor Schwarzenegger, to the local police. Let’s work to stop it all.
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Death and Justice in California

“Should we kill this Crip?” This was the main headline in the December 4 Los Angeles Times’ Current magazine, one of several about Stanley “Tookie” Williams. The subtitle was “He’s a murderer. He should die.”

Umm. This sounds as if an enemy Blood member could have written that. I mean what’s the difference between what a lethal gang member might do on the streets of LA and what the state of California plans to do on December 13? Yes, I’m sure anyone can enumerate various “superficial” differences, but essentially it’s the same emotion, the same pain, the same wound that says “Tookie Williams should die.”

Haven’t we had enough?

Another article had the headline: “Our Real Heroes Don’t Kill Black Kids.” But arguing for Williams to “pay” for what Crips and their wannabes have done is lynch mob mentality (even if the article was written by a black man). Williams is not killing “black kids.” Hyperbole when a man’s life is at stake is not a proper humane response (and to say that Williams may not have had the same level of humanity when he supposedly killed his victims does not justify any inhumanity on our part). Besides, the killing of blacks in our streets can’t be resolved by killing another black man.

I see a certain madness enveloping us when it comes to the death penalty and race. We become caught in a web of hate, revenge, fear, victimization—and now we can’t see straight. Even if Williams actually did what he was convicted of (the murder of four innocent people in particularly brutal armed robberies), what closure can anyone really get from his death?--except the most dark/revengeful kind that ends in blood. Isn’t that what drives gang members to acts of vengeange? Again, how do we rise above this if we get the law and the state to do the same thing?

Here are some facts we shouldn’t overlook: Most gang members are lost youth needing mentorship, guidance, resources for work and life, and strong, cohesive community. Most do not murder (with 125,000 gang members in LA, according to some official numbers, we’re not seeing 125,000 murders). While a couple hundred gang murders a year in LA is bad enough, can we really stop the madness by killing Williams? The fact is so-called gangs form in the spaces where community, family, schools, and real mentoring have stepped out.

Tookie’s death is not going to be a “lesson” to any potentially murderous gang kid with these persistently empty spaces in their lives.

Let's not forget also the possibility, as Williams and his lawyers have consistently stated, that the murders may have been done by someone else. The system is not infallible--no one should die when too many cracks and improprieties continue to condemn innocent people (more than 100 men have been released from death rows around the country these past few years).

On the other hand, someone of Tookie’s stature—something most of us will never have—can do more good if he turns against the violent, destructive aspects of this life and helps young people, black young people in particular, have a vision, a hope, and an imagination for another way to go.

This has more currency in the street where most of us have none. I’ll work with Tookie. Others will help. He’s not going to do this alone (many of us, including former gang members, have been doing this already for years). I wouldn’t just leave this up to Tookie—everyone needs to be positively and actively involved in the lives of our youth.

It’s time for us to be the heroes—forget Tookie’s alleged heroism. Remember, Williams had a longer road to travel to get to where he is now. It may seem harder for us, but I’m sure with real leadership, real caring, real humanity, we can get there as well.
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Our Troubled Youth Need to be Heard

The young men at Green Hill’s maximum security juvenile detention center waited patiently for the other units to come in and sit down to hear me speak. Earlier I had addressed another group of incarcerated youth at the Maple Lane maximum security youth center. I usually try to visit a prison or a youth facility during the many talks and readings I do around the country.

This time, professors and students, including from Mecha, at Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA had invited me to speak to a class and at a public event; they also arranged for me to address the incarcerated youth through an important intervention program called Gateways.

These facilities were two of the three groups of juvenile detainees (the other was from the Rancho San Antonio juvenile facility in the San Fernando Valley) that I addressed in November.

As usual, the young men were attentive, respectful and full of questions. Many had already read my true-life account of gang life, Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA. Others knew about my poetry. The racial mix of the groups were almost evenly divided between Mexicans/Latinos, African Americans and whites. Regardless of this, they were all interested to hear my story—and to add their stories to the continuing one of this country’s poor youth: broken families, little or no economic life, bad schools, little or no recreation, and wholesale social neglect. All faced deep crisis in spirit and vision. Most did not know what they were going to do with their lives. Yet, as always, they were smart, incisive, and capable of great imagination.

One of the young men I met was the nephew of former Black Panther Geronimo Pratt, who was falsely incarcerated for 27 years in the California Penal System before he was exonerated and then released. Compare that to the Ku Klux Klan and other racists who killed civil rights workers and leaders in the South, mostly getting away with it (even after confessing, as the killers of Emmett Till did 40 years ago) or not facing their comeuppance until they were ripe old men.

These and other realities are not lost on these young men. They know because of race or their social class position they were going to be handed a raw deal. Opportunities were going to be few and highly competitive. They were not going to be adequately prepared for jobs or better schooling. If they couldn’t hold a decent job (in communities where unemployment can reach 50 to 70 percent), they would probably end up in prison.

After telling my story, I also conveyed to them the idea that they, too, have valuable lives. They, too, deserve chances to heal, to overcome their traumas and issues, and to contribute in a positive and meaningful manner to the world around them.

I told them how we don’t need anymore “raggedy” men in our communities—where there are too many men not fathering, not working, not learning, not going anywhere. We didn’t need anymore of their faces in our prisons. We needed them to stay strong, get skills, learn to be healthy and loving to their partners and children, and to give back from their own gifts and passions to enhance the streets they came from.

It’s a hard message to get, let alone agree to. But most of these visits usually end in some insightful communication and shared recognition of what needs to be done.

As a teenager stuck in the same kinds of facilities—I was in several East LA and West San Gabriel jails, Central Juvenile Hall, a continuation high school, and two adult jail facilities before I turned my life around in my late teens, I wish I had people talk to me. The few who did reach out meant so much. I was one of those who needed a lot of help, who had few people willing to help, but who finally made a decision to listen to them and make the most of their assistance.

We all need help. Particularly if you’re caught in the webs of gangs, drug addictions, violence, and the streets. But too many of us end up turning away from this help—we end up letting the few doors that open for us close shut (doors that usually take a long time to open again, if ever).

My talks have to be straight forward, clear-cut, and to the point. There can’t be any BS. Luckily most youth, particularly those behind bars, have a built-in BS meter. Being honest and open, knowledgeable and poetic, truly helps in reaching youngsters often designated as “unreachable.”

In November, I also got to speak in Chicago, including at an elementary school a junior college, and an international conference on “Gangs and Globalization” at downtown’s Northwestern University School of Law. Here we had researchers, former gang members, current gang members, youth organizers, and community advocates speak on how best to deal with the growth in gangs across the country. My friends, the long-time activists Tom Hayden and Bernardine Dorhn, invited me to be a keynote speaker.

Again, the issue is to be clear on the facts. To realize that more police, more prisons and more punishment only makes the situation on our streets more dangerous. We need real and comprehensive rehabilitation, real resources for work and schools, and real creative outlets for all our young people.

We need the social resources designated for the so-called gang problem to heal, help, and turn our youth around—not enshrine them in their pathologies and pains. Not warehouse them. And not forget they are human and capable of vital changes in their lives and the lives of their communities.

They'll be a price to pay no matter what we do. But the price we pay if we don’t change from punishment to redemption, from having youth face a vacant future to one filled with immense possibilities, will be worse than if we do.
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Don't Let Stanley "Tookie" Williams Die

To California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger:

In the state of California, there are many wonderful people and accomplishments to commemorate and honor. But we are also a state rife with conflict, pain, and trauma. We need to be about healing and reconciliation. We need leadership that can help this state get through some of the terrible violence and sorrow we've had to deal with over the past thirty years.

There is too much death, too much hate, too much fear, too much trivializing "justice" by using it for revenge. Stanley "Tookie" Williams has done more to save lives these past few years then most people who are not in jail. He made many mistakes (although he contends he's innocent of the murders he was convicted of--something I don't think should be taken lightly). But what he has done to redeem his life, to make some value of his mistakes, is noteworthy as an example for anyone who may also be faced with such choices: we need more people to stand up and do the right thing.

And former gang members can reach present gang youth better than anyone--if we have examples of any who do, we should not diminish the power of such examples.

I am a former gang member, author of the best-selling memoir, Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in LA (Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster). I know the importance of reflecting on and assessing one's life--and helping others do the same. I know the importance of rehabilitation and then allowing people to help others when they can.

Official revenge (which much of the death penalty is about) should not be sanctioned any longer. You cannot make right the murder of others by murdering the so-called culprits by so-called legal means. It only continues the cycle, the pain, the hate.

I ask of you to be as human as we want the most inhumane person to be. Our callousness as a community, a society, a state, contributes to the callousness in our streets. We need to feel. We need to care. We need to differentiate ourselves from the very real murders that destroys whole families and often communities. We need to be the more conflicted, complicated, and caring of all.

Please don't let Stanley "Tookie" Williams be killed on December 13, 2005. Please stand above the politics and pressures to not care, to not feel, to "be tough." We don't need no more tough guys (they're in our streets, in our culture, in our homes). We need the complicated but difficult humane response.

Tough enough to care, not to kill. Thank you for reading this.

Respectfully,

Luis J. Rodriguez
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Time for New & Decent Border Policy

I recently read how workers from Mexico and Central America were brought into the Gulf States region to help clean up the mess and rebuild much of the damage from Hurricane Katrina. They were going to get very little pay, but they came. I also read how many of these workers were being shafted—employers leaving town just before payday, that kind of thing.

This has happened for decades to Mexican and other workers from poor and war-torn countries—there is real despicable and thieving exploitation going on in this country. It’s about time it was seen for what it was and rooted out.

Mexicans and Central Americans face what I call a “maddening ambivalence.” Jobs on this side of the border, truly what no American worker would do (or any worker should do), have been enticing millions to risk their homes, their families, and their lives. Thousands have already lost their lives on the border over the past twenty years just trying to get here (one of the most dangerous border regions in the world).

The vast majority don’t want to leave their beautiful lands and pueblos. But there are no jobs or agriculture left. They have to. Here are a few facts to ponder: Los Angeles has a GNP greater than all of Mexico. And the ten million Mexican Nationals working in the United States (undocumented as well as those with papers) make more money than the close to 100 million people still in Mexico.

Here’s another fact: Besides keeping many US communities strong (by their labor, but also their high levels of participation in local economies), they send billions of dollars to Mexico to build roads, schools, hospitals, farms, and housing to improve things for the families left behind.

Yet, these people are constantly under attack—by racists, the migra/police, as well as street thugs. They are often put down, humiliated, and yelled at. They are often beaten, robbed, and killed.

A few years ago in the Northeast San Fernando Valley (where I now live), an American woman ran over a Mexican national several times, cursing him for being in the street, and then taking off (she was later arrested, declared mentally ill, and let go). I sat in on one court case where a US-born gang member shot two undocumented teenagers, killing a 15-year-old girl and crippling a 16-year-old boy. I befriended the boy who was paralyzed from the neck down. Officials tried to deport him even as he lay in a hospital bed, unable to move, drink, or eat on his own. If they’d taken him to the border he would have died (considering that Mexico does not have the level of care he needed). I wrote about this case and soon a Catholic relief group and others took it upon themselves to help the kid—including convincing authorities to keep him in this country, and to provide the extraordinary care he needed (he was going to have a terribly diminished life as it was).

I remember another case in Illinois, where an American man kicked the life out of a Mexican national teenager who had just crashed into his car. The man was uninjured, but the boy was on the ground bleeding. The boy died.

These are some dramatic examples of stories I’ve heard all over the country—Mexicans and Central Americans (and Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and other Latinos) are now everywhere; over the past 20 years, they have spread out across most states. They are not just relegated to the US Southwest or Northeast regions. I’ve been to places like Georgia, Idaho, and Nebraska with growing Latino populations. I spent ten weeks in North Carolina in early 2000 following a 600 percent rise in the Latino population there (working in highly toxic and difficult conditions in poultry farms, tobacco fields, sweat shops, and domestic labor).

I once talked to some 300 mostly Mayan Guatemalan migrants at a church in Delaware (I remember washing clothes at a nearby Laundromat and hearing the beautiful lilt of a Mayan tongue).

These people are at the bottom of the labor rungs. They are entering our schools and filling our jails. They are now under scrutiny by Minutemen-like groups on the border and by right-wing newscasters like Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly.

A maddening ambivalence—an economy that needs such workers for jobs that don’t pay enough to survive on, then treating them as if they were dirt once they get here.

It would be one thing if this was just a matter of white people. I was once on a TV talk show in LA. In the green room was a Chinese immigrant woman with a strong accent who had come to talk about why we need to get rid of the “Mexican illegals.” Another time, for a story I was researching, I interviewed a number of Chicano heavily tattooed and unemployed gang members in one of East LA’s large housing projects. Most of their families were on welfare and they were living among some of the poorest residents in LA County. However, when asked what the number one problem they faced, one of them said forcibly, “it’s the damn Mexicans—we need to get rid of them!”

A maddening ambivalence—we know that recently arrived Mexicans have the lowest crime rates (in places where the majority is recent arrivals), pay taxes (sales and even work taxes), and work long hours without complaint. In cities like LA, where there are too many sterile and uninviting neighborhoods, they still walk the streets, sell their food and fruit bars in carts, fix up homes, and clean up streets. An Anglo man who recently contacted me said he loved living in his East LA apartment (probably the only white person on the block) because of the life, laughter, and joy the Mexicans exude (again, unlike the self-contained suburban housing developments, gated communities, and gentrified homes that growing numbers of Americans are occupying).

Yet, Mexicans and other Latinos are now the target of some of the most hateful racist speech and actions I’ve ever seen. Officially, the government has terrorized immigrant communities in raids, including against so-called immigrant street gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha, Sur Trese, Latin Kings, and others (these, by the way, were created in the United States—they did not originate in Mexico or Central America).

A new electronically-enhanced fence is being proposed along the US-Mexico border. And more US vigilantes (even California Governor Swarzenegger has invited them) are making plans to continue their anti-immigrant vigils on the border.

This is wrong. It’s divisive. And it’s against the best of this country’s ideals and values.

Because of the border—a contrived and man-made construct with a history in conquest, slavery, and exploitation—people are losing the sense God gave them.

Since I moved back to LA five years ago, I’ve been told four times to “go back to where I came from” (I was born in the United States of Mexican parents). This was mostly from whites who as a people have only been on this continent 500 years. My brown skin and those of many Mexicans and Central Americans indicate our indigenous roots—we’ve been on these lands for tens of thousands of years. But look how the border has turned things on its head—the brown-red people are now the “foreigners, aliens, and illegals.”

I’ve even been to Native American conferences (my native roots are Mexika and Raramuri) where I looked more native than most of the people in attendance. Although Native Americans are generally inviting to me, I’ve also been told (mostly by blue-eyed Indians) that I didn’t belong there. The border comes along and now Mexicans are not native? We have the largest traditional and full-blooded native populations in all of the Americas (there are 240 native languages still in existence there). And most Mexicans who don’t know their tribal roots because of conquest and colonialism have more indigenous blood than most US natives (not to discount the large numbers of Africans or Asians that have also been brought to Mexico).

In the LA area, there are now an estimated two million Mayans (who don’t even speak good Spanish, let alone English) from Mexico and Guatemala. This is slightly less than the two-and-a-half million Native Americans that exist in the United States (most of them mixed blood). And this does not count the millions of Mixtecos, Zapotecas, Yaquis, Purepechas, Huicholes, Raramuris, Coras, Pipils, and other tribes who have made the long trek from their ancient traditional lands.

Don’t tell me they are “immigrants.” They don’t even fit in any census box (they’re not Hispanics—neither are most of us with roots in Mexico and Central America).

We need to imagine a better immigration and border policy, one that is humane, decent, and not detrimental to Americans or Mexicans. Somehow, politicians don’t seem able to reach such imaginative levels. It’s about the vast resources and abundance inherent in the land, the people, and in a highly technolized economy.

But too often all we see is scarcity, competition, and our own narrow interests. This is only inherent in capitalism. It’s time we imagined another way to go.

The present alternative—hate, cheap pay, corporations pitting one set of workers against another, lives hurt and lost—is totally unacceptable. It’s also costlier in lives, money, and our own human integrity. I know we can do better.
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More Annoyed Than Frightened

“I did not really know what would happen. I didn’t feel especially frightened. I felt more annoyed than frightened.”—Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks was given an honorable ceremony (including a viewing of her casket in Washington D.C., usually reserved for statesmen and military personnel) following her death on October 24, 2005. This is much deserved for her courageous stand against segregation and Jim Crow. The South and most of this country changed for the better following the valiant efforts of Rosa and the many other countless, and often unnamed, boycott leaders and participants during the 1950s and 1960s. We remember Rosa Park—and we should. But many fought this battle and won. It’s their blood, sweat, and tears we should also remember.

When I first heard news of Rosa’s death, I was waiting in the WOR-AM radio station late that Monday night in Manhattan for in-studio interview with Joey Reynolds. Later on the air, Joey, a long-time friend of justice and equality, mentioned Rosa’s name and his voice cracked. I, too, felt the emotion of knowing such a significant person of our time had passed on.

For many of us—African American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Native American, and poor white, progressive and revolutionary—for anyone who loved the dignity and vitality of this struggle, Rosa Parks will forever stand for the righteous acts of defiance that we must continue against class power, official racism, and economic & cultural depravity in our country.

Yes, much has changed; yes, we have a long way to go.

This past weekend, I took my 17-year-old son Ruben and his girlfriend Katrina to ride the subway from North Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley to LA’s Union Station downtown. I wanted them to see a part of Los Angeles that most people don’t see—or even know exists.

From the Union Station, we went through Chinatown with its many shops, restaurants, and people. From there we walked down to Broadway, past First Street and further south where we hanged out in the crowded sidewalks and side streets where Mexicans and Central Americans shop, talk, eat, hang out, and just enjoy their day.

We walked through part of the Garment District, reminder of any major city in Latin America where people sold their wares. Then we walked further east to the edges of Skid Row—the country’s largest enclave of homeless people (the LA area now has more homeless people than any other U.S. city).

I was homeless in downtown LA one summer in my teens—living on the street, using heroin, sleeping in alleys, alcoves, all-night movie theaters, and churches (in the days when they used to leave their doors opened). During the day the public library was my main sanctuary. Over the years, long after I had stabilized myself with jobs, writing, political work, and family, I revisited these streets in my work among the homeless here and in Chicago, doing poetry workshops and readings, in the 1980s and 1990s.

That Sunday when we walked through Skid Row there were still vestiges of tents and carton boxes on the sidewalks (many more pop up as you go deeper into the Row). From where we walked, Los Angeles and 5th streets, the world became darker and foreboding. I saw a lot more Mexicans and Central Americans on the sidewalks than I had seen before (although the majority of the homeless on Skid Row are still African Americans).

One row of tents and boxes was along a parking lot fence, shadowed by the skyscrapers with banks, offices, condominiums, and oil companies. Ruben and Katrina quickly grasped the dramatic contrast—which makes this US-bred poverty sometimes feel worse than in places like Calcutta.

I admired how these smart and beautiful young people also had the heart to understand that this reality should not exist in our city, our state, our country (or in the world, for that matter).

This image of extreme wealth and extreme poverty helped bring home the sobering lesson—a lesson Ruben and Katrina would probably not get in most schools—that we have to do more today to bring true justice, peace, and sanity to the world. This doesn’t mean that Rosa Parks lived and died in vain. Hardly. She was one of the shining beacons that carried many revolutionaries and activists through decades of struggle.

I told Ruben and Katrina not to be frightened of Skid Row. But, as Rosa said, they weren’t frightened as much as annoyed. It’s time more of us got annoyed enough to strategize, organize, create (sing, do poems, dance, make music, and more) to help remove the façade of freedom and equality that covers the face of this country.

Beneath the root is our real humanity, our real heart, our real consciousness to truly make right what Rosa Parks began to do when she refused to sit on the back of that bus fifty years ago.

Let’s keep the fight going—although we may as well be smarter, wiser, more imaginative, passion-filled, with vision and deeper language. That’s the best way to truly honor Rosa Parks.
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Taking a Bite of the Big Apple

I just returned from an extremely productive trip to New York City. Wet and cold, I still got around in my favorite subway system (I’m partial to subways—I’ve ridden them all over the United States, Mexico City, and Europe). I was also on the Larry Davidson Cable TV show “Writers on the Vine” in Long Island, and radios shows such as WPAT-FM with Gene Heinmeyer, WOR-AM with Joey Reynolds, and Sirius Satellite Radio with Dave Marsh. At the high rise offices of Sirius Satellite Radio, I got to see the construction of Howard Stern’s new studio for his move there in January.

Dave Marsh, an old friend and editor of Rock & Rap Confidential , one of the first publications that ever published my work, also played host to my visit, including moderating a rich dialogue on health care at the American Federation of Musicians Hall, Local 802, in Manhattan. A potent group of people showed up, including local labor leaders like Joe Delia of Local 802 and Susan Borenstein of the AFL-CIO; jazz trumpeter Jimmy Owens; actors Mark Weber, Tim Dowlin, and Rocco Rasanio; James Bernard, co-founder of The Source magazine and labor organizer; Susan Brennan, poet and organizer for Acts of Art; among others.

The lack of decent and affordable health care in this country is becoming the cutting edge issue of our day. Joann Lundy of the Physicians for a National Health Plan also attended with information on the importance of a single payer health plan for every person in the country. Why not? People are dying (and we’re spending more on taxes and out of our pockets) with the so-called system we have now.

The present health care system’s primary purpose is to keep a multi-billion dollar insurance and health industry profitable—while increasingly more Americans are being pushed out of paid health care plans.

We deserve the best health care possible—we’ve all worked hard for it and have fought for it with the lives of our sons and daughters. We can’t keep maintaining a society where health care, decent housing, good schools, and other basic needs are available only to those who can afford it. The rich and powerful must not dictate our policies and values.

I also did a wonderful workshop at the Bowery Poetry Club, run by my old friend Bob Holman, as part of their Study Abroad on the Bowery program. Another friend, and Chicago transplant, Tara Betts, an amazing poet in her own right, is now working there and she did an amazing job putting these workshops together.

With the help of some friends in the New York City public library system (and writer friends like Patricia Spears Jones), I also got to talk to a group of alternative school students in East Harlem’s Aguilar Branch on 110th Street. We had a wonderful time—their questions were thoughtful and engaging.

It reminded me of the trip I had to the Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court Detention Center in Cleveland earlier in October—where I spoke to about 300 young men and women awaiting trials for various crimes. They were also attentive, respectful, and full of questions. These have become some of my favorite audiences.

The rest of my time in New York City involved meetings with my agent and editors and good friends (although I did miss a couple of important meetings—just not enough subway trains or time to do it all). All in all, I value my time in the Big Apple whenever I can get there, a city I’ve been visiting for some 25 years now.

I was reminded how I took a leading role in the American Writers Congress in the fall of 1981, sponsored by The Nation magazine and others organizations, that helped create the National Writers Union (where I was an active member for many years). I had come as part of the LA Latino Writers Association, representing East LA and including writers like Helena Viramontes and Manual “Manazar” Gamboa. This gathering eventually helped us gain a national presence in the arts and the media after decades of working and writing in the LA area (and being largely ignored by most publishers and media).

Now Latinos have inroads that never existed before—including the success of one of my publishers, Rayo Books of HarperCollins, headed by my editor and friend, Rene Alegria (with whom I had a short but meaningful talk during my current visit).

As always, Latino writers have a long way to go—but our place in American letters is irreversible. Although some people may try to change this, we’re here to stay.
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New Books, New Cities

Last week, I spoke at two continuation high schools – the Cesar Chavez School in Santa Ana and the Mission School in San Fernando. Wonderful students – the kind some people may think are too much trouble, perhaps not worth dealing with. Yet, the students were respectful, attentive, and smart. It happens that their teachers and administrators are the ones who do give a damn.

One of those schools had close to 400 students; the other around 40. They were mostly Latino. When I was a teenager, and after getting kicked out of two regular schools, I tried to attend a continuation high school in the west San Gabriel Valley. I didn’t last one day – I got into a fight outside the school with a group of barrio rivals.

A few years after Always Running was published, Century Continuation High School in Alhambra invited me to speak. They treated me like an alumni – with a sign that said something like “Welcome Back.” I felt embarrassed since my time there was short.

Something similar happened in El Paso, Texas where I was born although I never lived there (my family lived across the border in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua). When I first got there in the early 1990s to speak and read, they treated me like a native son. Again, it was their big hearts and natural flow of abrazos that made me one of theirs despite my minimal ties (I now have many life-long friends there).

Just a couple of examples at how many wonderful people there are in this world.

Of course, now I go to regular schools, continuation and alternative schools, juvenile detention centers, and youth prison on a regular basis. I’m even on the board of the HeArt Project – which brings art and teachers of art to continuation schools in LA County.

I have a special place in my heart for these kind of institutions.

At the Chavez and Mission schools, I was given the best receptions. We also had the most amazing discussions.

Presently, I’m in Cleveland, Ohio – home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I spoke today at the central library – again, we had the bountiful and comprehensive talks. Tomorrow I visit a juvenile detention center. The topics include my writings, my activism, my talks – but also the most pressing issues of the day.

“Always Running” has now been re-issued by the paperback publishing house, Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster. A new life for a book that has already had more than 20 printings and around 250,000 copies sold. Because of the new edition (it has a new cover, new introduction, and a study guide) I’ve been coming to more schools and juvenile institutions. I’ve spoken on various radio and TV shows from around the country; and few print interviews have also been conducted. The book has had an amazing impact on young people – and with many communities. I’m honored that it continues to do well twelve years after it was first published (by Curbstone Press in 1993).

The timing coincides with the publication of my fourth poetry collection, again with Curbstone, called “My Nature is Hunger: New & Selected Poems, 1989-2004.” While I’m doing readings at various LA-area bookstores for “Always Running,” Tia Chucha’s Café Cultural , will sponsor a book release party for the new poetry book on November 5 at around 6 PM. Also on hand will be Mark Vallen, who created an oil painting specifically for the poetry book called “My Nature is Hunger.” Books, prints, and posters will be available for sale.

I’m glad I’ve been able to get a novel, a new poetry book, and the reissue of my memoir done this year (my poetry/music CD, “My Name’s Not Rodriguez,” has also been reissued this year). I have to keep writing – in spite of my intense travel schedule, my work for the bookstore/café/cultural center, time with my family, and my other political/social activities.

It’s young people like those at Chavez and Mission that makes this all worthwhile. The issues in my books, even if fiction, are more complicated and substantial than many books being published today. It may be not be an advantage to have such content, but it is vital. We need more important books, imaginative ideas, and an expanded conversation about where we’re going as a country – and where we need to be.
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Curbstone Press -- A Literary Press for our Times

Curbstone Press has been doing it for 30 years – creating this country’s most progressive, far-sighted, passionate, and vital literature. With the motto, “Poetry, like bread, is for everyone” (taken from one of Roque Dalton’s most well-known poems), Curbstone has published luminaries of the engaged word like Martin Espada, Marnie Mueller, Claribel Alegria, Nguyen Ba Chung, Roberto Sosa, Agness Bushell, Lorraine Lopez, and many others – including an impressive roster of Latino writers from the United States and Latin America.

Of my ten published works, five were done by Curbstone Press (including three poetry books, a children’s book, and a memoir). That’s why this weekend I was around the Willimantic, Connecticut area for the 30th Anniversary of the press, with events at Real Art Ways in Hartford, CT; Eastern Connecticut State University; the University of Connecticut at Storrs; and the Willimantic public schools, and other venues.

Highlighting the celebration was a fiesta at ECSU on Sunday that included a reading of some 25 Curbstone writers (who with great restraint, out of respect more than anything else, more or less stayed within the two-minute reading limit per poet – almost unheard of in poetry readings). Curbstone founders – and the heart and soul of the press – are Alexander “Sandy” Taylor and his long-time partner, Judith Doyle. Sandy told the group that Judy knows everything there is to know about publishing, and he knows the rest.

Together they’ve sustained a strikingly revolutionary press in a time when progressive institutions, bookstores, and organizations seem to be pushed to the wayside (in Los Angeles. we recently lost one of the most important socially-vital bookstores with the closing of the Midnight Special).

Special honors that day went to Breyten Breytenbach, one of South Africa’s most important authors; Sam Hamill, well-known poet, translator, and editor – and the spark behind the International Poets against the War movement; Lucy Anne Hurston, niece of Zora Neale Hurston, who recently published an impressive study of her aunt’s life and work; and Robert Meeropol, son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, and head of the Rosenberg Fund for Children.

I had the pleasure of having dinner with Sam Hamill Saturday evening. He is presently working on a November 5 global action of Poets against the War during President Bush’s visit to Argentina to meet with heads of state of most countries in the Americas. I told him Tia Chucha’s Café Cultural would love to do a reading that day as part of this international mobilization. Mr. Hamill is one of this county’s most important voices for poetry as a sane, peaceful and just response to the present world’s dangers and uncertainties. He is someone who has sacrificed much to keep poetry at the heart of what matters in this country.

The next three days, I’ll be doing talks, readings, and writing workshops at Windham High School – which I have done before, since at least 1991 when Curbstone Press published my poetry collection, The Concrete River.

This month, Curbstone, along with Rattle Magazine, produced my latest book, My Nature is Hunger: New & Selected Poems, 1989-2004. With meaning and purpose, big ideas and poetic vision, blood and song, Sandy and Judy have battled book by book, event by event, to bring great literature to the world.

I’m deeply honored to be part of Sandy’s and Judy’s great endeavor – to be a life-time Curbstonista.
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Responsibility and Accountability

President Bush on Tuesday, September 13, took responsibility for part of the second disaster – the lack of a timely and comprehensive federal response to the first disaster of Hurricane Katrina. I’m glad to see this. More politicians and bureaucrats should stand up and be held accountable.

Unfortunately, accountability may be the missing ingredient in this batch of cookies. If Bush is responsible, he should also take the consequences. People died that didn’t have to die as a direct result of the late and erratic rescue efforts. Not only was Bush on vacation as word of Katrina’s impending landfall was declared, so was Vice-President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfield, and Secretary of State Rice (how dumb is it to have the administration’s major decision makers out at the same time). And none apparently cut short their vacations – except after public and media pressure became too uncomfortable to ignore.

Proprietors of a residential nursing home for the elderly have been arrested for possible negligent homicide in the deaths of close to 40 people. Okay. But far greater negligence can be firmly placed at the feet of Bush and his cronies. This was nothing short of negligent homicide – considering they had full warning and enough images of dead, stranded, and desperate people to get them to move (which they did, although still in exasperating spurts, and after it was too late).

If we are to be truly free and truly honest, legal proceedings should begin at once in this matter. Why even President Clinton was raked through the coals, including in a costly impeachment trial, for a far lesser – even if stupid and incomprehensible – misuse of power.

Public interest lawyers – not just those out to get the ‘money” – should do their duty to file the proper papers and begin this process. The Congress should step up to the level of the ire of most Americans and carry out their own impeachment proceedings.

How many more lies and levels of incompetence can we tolerate?

Serious lessons cannot be learned without a serious demand. The government must never again drop the ball when it comes to taking care of the poor, the weakened, and the needy. This is not a call for a dependent social welfare society. This is the legitimate call for the government to work tirelessly for all of the people, not just the rich and powerful.

Any other administration – Republican or Democrat – should be put on notice: We will not tolerate lame excuses and tired platitudes when it comes to a viable plan to use all available resources to save everyone when disaster strikes (including a complete preparedness before they occur). Moreover, we may as well include the daily disasters due to economic shifts and social policies that have made more people poor, with fewer options and resources, and not much means to pull out of the mire.

Remember, this is the administration that flubbed the 9/11 attack – ignoring good intelligence and taking up the bad. This is the same gang that lied to justify a costly and deadly war against Iraq – which, it turns out, was never part of the terrorist attacks and had no weapons of mass destruction (the main reasons given for sacrificing many of our sons and daughters, and countless Iraqi citizens, to invade).

Remember, this is the same administration that has made poverty more prevalent than at any time since the 1950s. That has gutted our schools and destroyed teaching morale to the detriment of our children, especially those in the inner city and poor rural communities. And that has made a mockery of environmental protections.

This is the administration that for the first time in our history helped place the words “voter fraud,” “torture,” and “criminal negligence” next to news items about the United States of America (even if many of us have long known such things have long existed here).

We may not be prepared as a nation to carry out our full responsibilities during this crisis, but at least it must be brought to the table. Those in power – not just the inane bureaucrats like former FEMA director Michael Brown – should be held accountable and removed.

That’s what any decent society would do. Let’s see how decent and thorough we can become as we try to get to the business of good, honest, and fair governance.
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